I know West Africa well… or maybe it is more true to say that, I knew it well. I spent seven years as a university lecturer in Sierra Leone in the 1970s, and during that time visited most of the countries in the region. I have not returned to West Africa, other than a very brief holiday trip to The Gambia and Senegal 15 years ago.
Much changes in 40 years. I am now keen to revisit the region, and in particular Sierra Leone, to see whether the area is recovering from the terrible ravages that have blighted it over the last 30 years.
Hence, when I heard about a book describing a recent journey through several countries in West Africa, I was eager to read it. I hoped it would answer my question as to whether in my more senior years, I should consider travelling to the region.
The book by Tom Coote is entitled: Voodoo, Slaves and White Man’s Graves – West Africa and the End of Days. This might be enough to immediately dissuade some people, particularly of an older generation, from travelling there.
But I’m made of sterner stuff. After all I lived for seven years in Sierra Leone, the original White Man’s Grave, without suffering anything worse than a kidney stone. (Curiously, that was the one ailment that afflicted Tom during his journey.)
The book describes a journey from Cotonou in Benin, through Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso to Bamako in Mali.
The author travels on a restricted budget (he’s not sure he even has a job to return to in England), staying at low cost hotels and travelling in local transport, much of which is hardly roadworthy. This very much colours his views of West Africa, with many of the local people he meets being bar-flies, taxi drivers, “guides” and sellers of tourist trivia.
The author is initially disappointed with much he sees. With respect to the town of Tamale in Ghana, he says: “I found little of interest other than a few ugly concrete mosques and a typically chaotic market full of bored looking headscarf wearing women, flogging the usual Chinese manufactured tat.”
It is only towards the end of his trip that he finds the places he visits to be more attractive and interesting.
He comments about the Great Mosque in Djenné in Mali that: “The large abode building is generally considered to be the finest example of Sudanese-style architecture in what is unquestionably the most beautiful town in the Sahel.”
He also seems to find West Africans to be more affable during the later parts of his journey, particularly when compared with the French tourists that he meets.
As he relaxes more into the West African way of life, he also notices the elegance of many of the local ladies as they pass by, balancing bowls of produce on their heads.
This book is a lot more than a travelogue. As the title suggest, the author looks at some of the darker sides of West Africa. Its information on voodoo and slavery is well-researched (there is a short bibliography), as is its background information about recent conflicts in the area. I had not realised quite how much Gaddafi had been involved in the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The West’s lack of interest in the area once the Cold War finished was well explained, but I think the UK’s key role in ending the war in Sierra Leone deserved a mention. After all, Tony Blair is still considered a saint in that country!
It would have been good to have some pictures in the book and maybe also a route map, but I appreciate that very much increases production costs, and anyway photos from the trip can be found on the author’s travel website. I would also have liked a final chapter in the book summing up the author’s thoughts at the end of journey. But these are just minor points.
Overall I very much enjoyed reading this book and learnt a lot from it. I strongly recommend it to anyone who intends to travel to West Africa, or has ever spent any time there, or simply has an interest in this fascinating part of the dark continent.
Has it helped me decide on whether to visit West Africa? Well, having read this book, I think as a Senior I am now more wary about travelling around the region. I think I would opt for more upmarket hotels than the author used and would possibly stay near the better developed coastal areas.
I do have the advantage of knowing many West Africans from my university days, including some of the most obliging and erudite people I’ve ever met, who could assist me with accommodation and travel. So I’m going to go for it. Watch out for my report in the not too distant future.
It is published in paperback by Createspace, 2013 (ISBN 9781493669127), and can be obtained from the Book Depository with free world-wide delivery.