I have been in West Africa for only a week, but it feels like a month has already passed. I can’t even remember the sensation of sleeping under a blanket, and it seems my throat is having an allergic reaction after sleeping in an air-conditioned room last night. The AC only brings the temperature down to about 25 degrees, and you don’t really notice or appreciate the difference until you step back outside into the humid, sticky, reality of the outside temperature. The make-it or break-it of the 35 degree days isn’t necessarily the temperature, but the humidity level, whether or not there’s a breeze, and if the sun rays bare down on you directly or not. Shade is a luxurious commodity, and the coming of nightfall is always a welcomed relief.
When it rains it pours, and makes things slightly cooler, since a breeze usually accompanies the rain. The rain washes away the stagnant smell of old water pools, but brings more humidity and new mosquito-breeding puddles. Showering is a fun surprise from day to day and place to place. Most “showers” are big buckets filled with water, and a little bucket you’re meant to throw water over your body with. It’s the same bucket you might use to flush the toilet, if there’s a toilet, since it’s almost never connected to running water, but only a hole in the ground. Toilet paper is a rare discovery, and I still haven’t figured out what women do when they have their period.
In Bissau, electricity is also hard to find, and the city turns into a loud grumble around 6 or 7 pm when all the generators start up. It cuts out regularly, and most of the mid-town area stands in dark silence. On the way here, our bus took nearly 8 hours to drive the 110km between Ziguinchor, Senegal, and Bissau, the whole time with the gas light warning lit up. I think he only bought 7L, so I’m still not sure how we got here. The duck and chicken crossings may have slowed us down a bit (chickens are faster to cross the road FYI), but more so the livestock crossings (cows and goats are a little more chillaxed), and a crocodile even crossed the road twice without getting run over (I didn’t know they could move that fast).
Mostly it’s the check points and all sorts of customs officers that slow us down. I counted more than 10 check points, half of which required us all to get out of the car, walk an arbitrary 50m, then pile back into the sweaty, stuffed seats like sardines again. Despite all these delays, the local villages still think it’s a good idea to put huge logs in the middle of the road to deter our speed… As if we really needed speed bumps.
Traveling by land has been really interesting, as we reach these places I’ve heard of or seen marked on maps, but they’re more like non-places, rusted signs on the side of the street marking a place where some people may live discreetly. It’s hard to come to a place you’ve never hear of before, imagining it a certain way based on the last place you where at, but it never quite reaches your expectations for a cleaner, more organized, or civilized city. The concept of city is just something I’ve thrown away, since African cities are never everything you hoped for, and today we were lucky to find a bank in Bissau that we could actually withdraw money.
We’ve been traversing not only borders, but colonial histories and different languages. Though many people in Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau speak some common local languages, they’re educated as children in some “official” language – so far, it’s been either English, French, or Portugese. It’s very strange to hear the Brazilian flare in people’s greetings, but the official language thing isn’t really holding up. Many children don’t go to school, and those who do never use the “official” language at home or with friends, so these European languages are just insignificant rules for those who want to get a job in government or tourism. Otherwise, they see no use with them, but it’s definitely a relief for me.
The one thing that’s kind of remained consistent is the blend of religion. It’s been majority Muslim so far, with the 5 daily calls to prayers and Arabic schools and writing splattered around from here to there. But all of West Africa has seemed a little bit like West Indies déjà vu. The dreadlocked Rastas and reggae music is one and the same, while the curvaceous and well-endowed women know how to shake what they’re mama gave them. The palm tree beaches could easily be a Caribbean island, with the smoke of Mary Janes a common scent every evening. They suck their teeth to express discontent, and do that super irritating “psssssst” to get your attention. The Caribbean islands should really be called the West Africa’s, the faces of both places resembling eachother perfectly, but the biggest thing that separates them is religion. And the Christian West Indies also drink more beer.