Friday, February 10, 2017

West African Memories

Well, it's certainly wintry here in London. Yesterday the gray sky was spitting hard pellets of snow/ice, and today we'll have a high of 38º F with rain and snow tonight. Time to stay indoors! (I realize 38º is downright balmy to some of my Canadian readers, but here it's cold!)

In my mind, though, I am in the tropics. I've been having the best time transcribing my journals from my trip through West Africa in 1994. I traveled through Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire with some friends from the Peace Corps, and we had some amazing adventures.

Like the time we went to church in Kumasi, Ghana: "We sought out an English church, and landed at Grace Outreach Church. Oh my – it was a sizzler – a hotbed of loud music and evangelism! It was a big building with pink interior walls, and banners reading 'Jesus is Lord' and 'This is the time of our destiny,' and purple and white streamers overhead. At first we all felt pretty silly, but the music was so raucous that eventually we just got carried away. It was crazy. All those incredibly well-dressed people were literally dancing in the aisles – and not in place, either – they were ALL OVER. There was maximum emphasis on the music and minimum on the preaching, which was fine – I felt like I was at a gospel concert. It wasn’t cheesy like gospel in the states, either – it was fun, and the people just glowed as they sang. Then, in the middle of all this, Victor and Olivia got married – these two complete strangers (to us) whose wedding we stumbled into. There was a procession, an exchange of vows, rings, all the trappings of a slightly scaled-back American wedding. Someone was wandering around with a video camera – Victor and Olivia will spend the next 60 years wondering who the four white people in the audience are!"

Or the time I went to a Ghanaian barber: "Got my hair cut last night in Accra at Kennedy’s Hair Salon – a roadside shed where I bargained the price of my cut down to 1,000 cedis, then walked in and saw '500 FLAT' painted on the wall. I told Kennedy he should paint over that, and paid 1,000 anyway."

Or a memorable meal in Ghana: "We went out to dinner last night at a place called the Pearl of the East, reputed to be one of the best Chinese restaurants in Ghana. For $5 or so I had corn chicken broth soup, vegetable mix with rice and red wine and coffee. This place was fancy, too – we had impeccable service and hot napkins, heated plates, all the little touches. We also got the benefit of a hilarious menu, with items such as 'shredded sea blubber,' 'shark lips in cream sauce,' 'three kinds meat in clear soup' and 'fry duck balls.' We were in hysterics! I couldn’t speak, I was laughing so hard."

Or our long bus ride from Bamako to Mopti, Mali: "The landscape was green and lush all the way here, though once we got up to Mopti I could tell that in dry season there’s probably nothing around but red earth. Near Bamako it was dense and shrubby, but as we traveled the shrubs thinned out to green grass. There were occasional cabbage palms, huge baobabs (how exciting!) bearing pendulous green fruit, and villages filled with conical mud buildings. Women pounding millet – and every once in a while the bus would stop and people (mostly kids) would swarm around with unidentifiable food. There were oranges (green and tart), soft peanuts, little sweet cakes, and all kinds of fibrous, root-like things – I have no idea what they were. We finally got to Mopti about 10 p.m. or so, and a local guy showed us the Peace Corps house. You can tell this is a tourist town – we were swarmed by guides! We were also swarmed by thick clouds of insects – when we ate dinner last night, little flies kept landing in my beer and locusts 1 ½ inches long were crawling up and across the tablecloth."

Throughout the trip I collected beer labels. Each country had its "local" brews, and fortunately, when condensation gathered on the bottles, it was usually pretty easy to slip off the labels. Here's my favorite, from Cote d'Ivoire:

I remember that one was really hard to peel off. I've never understood why Mamba beer had an alligator on the label -- isn't a mamba a snake?

Anyway, it was truly an amazing trip, though I got ill several times -- once pretty dramatically, with a fever that made me hallucinate. I'm still working my way up to that point in the journal. Crazy times!

(Photo: A schoolyard near our lodge in Kumasi, Ghana, October 1994.)


  1. stories I've never heard before, how wonderful. Best to Dave!

  2. What a wonderful and rich memory store Steve. Thanks for sharing some glimpses of this travel adventure. Marvellous.

  3. And in a parallel universe, you are a travel writer.
    These are beautiful little windows into your life.

  4. Everybody knows that a mamba is a 6th grade Social Studies teacher.

  5. This is so fun Steve! And you still have your photos and beer labels from then!

  6. how fun is this. I never had the courage to strike off and travel when young like so many others did. plus I was pretty much under the thumb of my upper middle class parents who would never have allowed it. or join the Peace Corps which I have another good friend (I do count you as a friend) who also joined the Peace Corps though he went to Indonesia. He went back on a visit about 20 later to visit the village where he taught and they remembered him.

  7. That sounds like the adventure of a life time. What an experience. The huge insects would have done me in.

  8. A true adventure and so interesting to read about. More, please?

    I thought a mamba was a dance. Seriously. Hey, I live in Canada. All we have here are little garter snakes. As far as I know, anyway.

  9. You have had such an adventurous life. And you're still so young! Much more to do.

  10. Crazy times yes! But what a lifetime experience. Yes write many more posts. Each incident is an adventure. Each meal is a new experience.

  11. That bus ride reminded me of my travels in Zambia. I didn't ride a bus (I had a truck), but the kids swarming & the scenery sounds spot on. I wish I could go back there again...