The UN in West Africa

It´s a common sight to see white UN jeeps driving around Africa, but I´ve never seen so many as I saw in Abdjan and Monrovia. Im not sure which UN mission is bigger, but they both claim to be the biggest in West Africa, and there are more UN jeeps driving around than unmarked jeeps. They don´t all say “UN” with the big, black, block letters, but some cars are UNICEF, some are with FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization), the World Health Organization, or IMF and the World Bank. All of their offices are in big, guarded buildings, many of them old hotels turned into base camps, and the security for each building would rival that of the US Embassy. In Abidjan, it was normal to see UN trucks driving around with the ´blue helmets,´ armed military personnel who cruise around town enforcing the peace.

Me and my UN FAO couch surf host

Me and my UN FAO couch surf host

There are hundreds of expats working for these organizations, plus alot of other NGO´s and international development projects, so all the white people around town are usually not tourists but living and working or volunteering there. The UN even have their own flights and helicopters to transport them around, so taking public transport or landing with a commercial plane as a white person is a strange sight. When I flew into Monrovia airport, the immigration got really confused that my passport wasn´t a diplomatic one. Its a bright blue colour, so they couldnt figure out how it was a ´normal´ passport and felt very sheepish to ask “excuse me ma’am, is this a regular passport?”

I couchsurfed with a Colombian FAO worker in Monrovia, and a Spanish UN architect in Abidjan, who first applied for his job dreaming to help rebuild a destroyed city after their recent civil war. His colleagues and employers just months before him lived through the unrest and violent attacks, so its still fresh in their minds the risk they take trying to stay and help. I can imagine getting a job with the UN is a major accomplishment, and a scary commitment in many places, but the faces behind these jobs feel less and less noble as time goes on.

Outisde the American embassy

Outisde the American embassy

The Spanish architect realized that he was hired to build temporary homes for the blue helmet base camps, Jordanian and Togolese soldiers living in a large trailer parks he puzzles together. The Colombian started to realize how much money gets wasted in administration and over-paid salaries, and the incompetencies of  the local people hired to work for their people but eventually give into selfish greed, losing touch of any compassion. The UN expats enjoy a Western salary, paying for western-luxury apartments, grocery stores, bars and restuarants built just to exploit them (thanks to the very innovative Lebanese running all of ex-pat West Africa), and spend a lot of time talking and planning for projects that take more resources to execute them than they produce. They drive around the all-expense paid jeeps, drunk or sober, party alot, and become a major contributor to the prostitution industry. I realized that all those agencies and organizations are trying their best to do some good, but if only more people saw the reality of everyday life for ex-pat workers who eventually stop feeling any heroic, good samaritan pride in their jobs. I think it would work so much better if they stopped caging themselves behind gates, security and air-conditioned jeeps, burst out of their expat bubbles, and made some attempt to give up their western comforts to really live and sympathize with Africa. I almost started to worry we do more harm than good, coming in to a country without paying taxes or adhering to their laws, ordering their government around, and dividing the population’s wealth between the have’s and have not’s… besides, ‘enforcing the peace’ doesnt make any sense – isn’t that an oxymoron?

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Between Conakry and Freetown

Sierra Leone is one of those West African countries that I expected very little from. I had no expectations of the place, no images in my mind, and the name implies it would be Portugese speaking. Instead, its one of the few English speaking countries, one of the most densely populated, and exports, like Liberia, include diamonds and rubber plantations. I didn’t sit still for very long in Freetown, but just the place names taught me a lot of about its history; Freetown was named such because, like Liberia, it was the settlement of North American freed slaves. Sierra Leone was the name given to the country because when the first Portugese settlers approached Freetown from the sea, it’s a harbor backed by huge mountains, which look like a crouched pride of lions protecting the steep slopes and valleys between them.

a Guinean road

a Guinean road

I ended up crossing the whole country of Sierra Leone, taking the road north from Freetown to Conakry too.  The road to Guinea was worlds away from the journey I had made just days before, since it’s a fully sealed, 2 lane, painted, EU-funded highway with kilometer markers every 2 km. Its only 311km between Freetown and Conakry, which should only take 4 or 5 hours, but somehow it didn’t phase me when it actually took 10-14 hours. First it takes over an hour to get out of Freetown, but you have to account for unforeseen delays, like when my taxi ran out of gas in the middle of traffic. Then, it only takes a couple hours of traffic-free highway driving to the border, past rubber tree plantations and the rolling countryside spotted with little villages. The border alone takes a couple hours, and then the last 130km from the border to Conakry is the slowest, longest 130km I traveled in all my west Africa adventures.

somehwere in Guinea

somehwere in Guinea

It took me 2 hours to find a seat in a car leaving from the border to Conakry, since the conditions of the road and new import/export regulations have made land-border traffic and trading much less popular between Sierra Leone and Guinea. The car I finally got into is supposed to hold 7 passengers, but we were 1 child, 2 chickens and 11 adults, including the driver. The sun set shortly after we left, and only the brakes and bumps along the way proved to me how bad the road really was. We swerved around potholes and side roads that I couldn’t see in the dark or through the dust, and finally reached the outskirts of Conakry by 9 pm. Little did I know that these last 30km would go even slower (2 hours!), since it’s the only road into the city on the end of a narrow peninsula, where all the traffic bottlenecks and creeps around the new highway being built. They’ve torn down all the houses on the side of the road works, just for cars to be able to pass while the foundation is laid, but every rainy season sets back their work and the tarmac will probably never get laid.

I realized I should start my journey back a little earlier, get a head start on the day and avoid some traffic, give myself some more time. I went at the first call of prayer, shortly after 5 am, to a sleepy carpark. Deserted cars stood crowding the lot, but I was one of the first customers to arrive. I first watched the sunrise. Then sleepy drivers started crawling out of their cars where they had been asleep. Then the market sellers started setting up, and the ladies with breakfast and men with coffee for sale. By 9 am it was a bustling medina, but only 4 out of the 9 car seats had been paid for in my shared taxi. At 10:30 it started to get hot and I was tired of waiting, so I paid for 3 seats for the taxi to leave for the border.

Lac Koba in Guinea

Lac Koba in Guinea

As they tied down all the baggage on the roof of the car, the taxi destined for Freetown direct also filled up and left. I thought “damn, should have taken that one.” But then, a few hours later, we passed that same taxi on the side of the road, smashed into a truck, and I felt instant gratification for taking the car I was in. We passed a semi-truck flipped on its side, its 50kg rice bags scattered all over the steep corner it hadn’t made. I saw 2 motorcycle accidents, and then we got a flat tire. At least our problem was fixable, and I reached the border in time to find an onward taxi to Freetown. The car and driver both seemed promising, but then I realized the driver was a devout Muslim and we made 2 stops along the way for prayer time. That added an hour to our journey, and his coal-collecting and dropping off was another hour, so in the end it took me just as long to make my return journey.

my Freetown goodbye party was thrown by these kids

my Freetown goodbye party was thrown by these kids

For anyone who’s googling how to make the journey from Freetown to Conakry, just make sure you give yourself an entire day, and delays and waits are just part of it, so don’t believe any guidebook or local that tells you it only takes 5 hours.

The long way through Sierra Leone

There was a lot of unclear and contradicting information about how to get from Monrovia to Freetown, the capital Sierra Leone. Some guidebooks said 5 hours, others said 2 days; the dry season had to be accounted for since the rainy season closed down the shortest route, and the bad roads and choice of motorbike vs. car also made a big difference.

the hand-drawn ferry and my motor taxi driver

the hand-drawn ferry and my motor taxi driver

I couldn’t set off until 1pm, since I was still waiting at the Sierra Leonean embassy in Monrovia for my $150US visa. The visas seem to get more expensive as I move west, but Im not sure why.  By 1:30, I was in a shared taxi , squashed into the front seat with a customs officer on his way to work, and luckily his presence sped up all the checkpoints and eliminated all bribe demands. I crossed the border quickly and without hassle, a marvelous surprise, but then got accused of smoking marijuana on the bridge I crossed by foot to get over the river separating Liberia and Sierra Leone.

At 4pm, I was negotiating the next leg of my journey, a 250km 4×4 dirt track through the forest on a dusty, sometimes soggy road barely passable by car. So I did it on the back of a motorcycle, and 5 hours later, I couldn’t feel either one of my ass cheeks and my face and backpack had become the same colour of reddish brown. Luckily it was already night time so no one could see quite how outlandish I looked, and I checked into a hotel for the most welcomed cold-water bucket shower I had had yet.

Our private beach on the outskirts of Freetown

Our private beach on the outskirts of Freetown

I still had 3 hours left of my journey to Freetown, which I continued the following morning. I reached the capital around noon, and took another series of mototaxis through some side-street hilly roads to reach my next couchsurfer host by 3pm.  He fed me and took me straight to the beach after my 24 hour trip, were the next few hours of deserved clean and calm fed my soul more than my senses.

The Ivory Coast

The west coast of Africa was a notorious trading ground for European colonizers – once they arrived, they started to claim and divide the land according to what resources interested them. They drew borders around their claims and called them accordingly, ie. Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and Grain Coast (Liberia). Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t have many elephants left, and that’s probably because their tusks had all tuned into the fittings of European piano keys, but it’s the only country still referred to by it’s colonized name. Apparently the French used the coast of Côte d’Ivoire to access the sub-Saharan interior, gaining favour and support of local chiefs on the way, and for this reason were able to colonize so much of West Africa.

my couch surfing hosts in Abidjan

my couch surfing hosts in Abidjan

The French here is easy to understand, because they speak it slowly and tend to use vocabulary I understand. I speak just bad enough French that people think that if they talk quickly I won’t understand, but I can always understand when they’re talking about me right in front of me, since what I can say in French isn’t the same as what I understand in French (a blessing and a curse of speaking languages you don’t practice enough). I don’t try to convince them I’m fluent, since I’ve always said I cant carry on a discussion on politics, but then I spent an afternoon discussing why Burkinabé people are more peaceful due to a stable government.

I loved being in Abidjan. I spent nearly a week living with an Ivorian family just outside the city in a small, pedestrian village. It was called Trois Rouges, in the “police city”, and I became a local celebrity on my first morning there after giving out 20 toothbrushes and 20 pens to the neighbours kids. The next few days were spent shaking the hands of all the parents and grandparents who wanted to thank me. I wondered why it’s not this easy to make 100 new friends elsewhere with a few pens and toothbrushes, and became even happier to be where I was. I started getting used to the idea that family life is social and your private life is public. They wanted to know my love life history and entire family tree, and since food is such an important part of the day, they needed to know when I had eaten, what it was, and also when it was ready to come out so I could have the toilet and shower shared by 9 ready for me. They catered to my western needs by always following me to the toilet with toilet paper (I still haven’t figured out the plastic kettle system ) and buying singular Nescafé instant coffee packets every morning so I could have my caffeine fix.

the hammock in our front yard

the hammock in our front yard

My daily routine was not busy or stressful; I laid around in a hammock reading books on tourism and war in Côte d’Ivoire, and anytime I wanted to take a walk through the villages, I was followed by an entourage of 5-8 young men. They respected me as a sister, but begged me to ring them some big and sexy white women back for them later. Or atleast change the visa system in Europe and North America so they could go and find one themselves.

Tourism in the skies

I’ve spent the last month going from Africa to Europe to Asia, and back full circle to Africa through Europe. I’ve flown airlines from countries I didn’t visit, so I feel like I’ve been on tour of the sky, a sampler of cultures from far away places through the airplanes I’ve sat on for hours on end. Its fun to compare the services, food and drinks each plane gives you, and what kind of flight attendant gives it to you. The uniforms they wear and the safety briefing announcements change, and trying to read the safety card in the seat in front of you is always a challenge, especially if the alphabet isnt Roman or they go right-to-left or up-down instead of left-to-right. You start to memorize the announcements they make, and sometime recognize numbers and words like “kilometres,” so you fill in the blanks and realize they’re discussing the hours of travel and time of arrival. Then they go into the oxygen masks and how to fasten and unfasten your seat belt, and you start to believe you’re understanding Korean just because you know the monologue by heart.

flying over the Sahara with Turkish Airlines

flying over the Sahara with Turkish Airlines

I was stressed to fly with Aeroflot, an airline notoriously infamous for plane crashes. I was surprisingly reassured by the friendliness and beauty of the Russian flight attendants, Im not sure why, but I figured such a happy plane could never crash. Turkish Airlines had great complimentary meals and Turkish wine, but EgyptAir only offered over-sweetened fruit juices and Norwegian Air Shuttle didnt even offer water to drink. I love it when you get 3 or 4 seats to yourself and get to lie down and sleep (thank you Air Garuda), but sometimes private-entertainment system distracts with a great choice of movies to stay awake and watch. The women of Sri Lankan airlines had the best uniforms, with the women adorned in turquoise, peacock-pattern saris, their brown bellies exposed around the midriff.

photo-4

Paris Paris

I flew with Sri Lankan from Jakarta to Colombo, and arrived in Sri Lanka with a day-long layover. I was given a hotel room because they had delayed the flight an extra day, and I met an English Pakistani woman who wanted to share a rickshaw and explore the beach town of Ngombo with someone. She was a tough lady, but slowly started to open up about how she had been cursed with black magic by her sisters and brothers. She explained that she had come to Singapore and Sri Lanka to speak with black magic doctors, to try and break the curse on her which had now extended to her missing son. I was feeling confused but sorry for her, until her parting words were “be careful around me, my black magic might spread.” My flight from Colombo to Paris was 11 hours straight, which was alot more than the 6 hours I incorrectly calculated with our time-zone change.

My 3 day stopover in Paris was a wonderful city get-away, but somehow so disruptive in my transition from Asia to Africa. I had an 8kg backpack full of only tropical-weather clothing, and had forgotten how expensive normal life can cost in Europe. But I warmly welcomed the organization and cleanliness of Paris, walking around in adoration of each and every apartment building that looked like it qualified for UNESCO world heritage site status. I woke up each morning a few blocks away from the Eiffel tower in a cold, clean room, and in my half-awake-state, would only remember I was in France after first realizing I couldn’t be in south-east Asia or west Africa.

Colombo at night

Colombo at night

I hate it when flights are delayed, unless they’re delayed more than 4 hours and you get some sweet compensation. My flight out of Colombo and into Abidjan were reported as late, but then changed back to being on schedule, which is somehow more stressful than just accepting the delay and enjoying the place you’re in for a bit longer. I got 6 emails in a 6 hour period from Egyptair quoting delays and then no delays, but then the flight boarded 45 mins early. I’ve still never missed a flight, but its bound to happen sooner or later, especially with technology like SMS notifications that tell you 4 new, different departure times when you’ve already arrived at your boarding gate and decide to wander off, only to hear your name being called over the PA system. I couldnt understand the final boarding call because it was only made in Indonesian, but after enough airports and airplanes you’ve also learned to understand what it means when your name is called over the loudspeakers, and even in the strangest accents. And that’s because its every traveler’s worst nightmare to miss a flight, especially one which you bought a non-refundable, one way ticket for.