Thursday, 15 August 2013

Bad Lands Come Good in West Africa

Words and images by Roderick Eime
(Full version of story submitted to News Limited)




A ready exchange of smiles from a people eager for peace is how Roderick Eime will remember his time in the once strife-torn West Africa.

“What was that?” gasped Beatrix, grabbing my forearm tightly. We all heard it. Was it the sound of waves from the Atlantic Ocean crashing on the rocks outside or, as many of us thought, the ghostly whispers of long departed slaves who once huddled in these squalid, pitch black dungeons awaiting an uncertain fate.

Here in the underground holding cells at the now UNESCO World Heritage listed Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, we stand transfixed, listening to a kind of supernatural white noise that waxes and wanes in our subconscious. Our heartbeats quicken and our skin tingles at the realisation that over the centuries, thousands of miserable souls shuffled through these rank corridors through the infamous ‘door of no return’ on an endless journey of unspeakable horror.

Africa has long been seen as a land of mystery and suspicion by Westerners. An unknown territory full of mind-boggling rites and rituals, but at the same time holding a perverse attraction for all who visit. Even a short stopover on the so-called ‘dark continent’ is sure to leave anyone changed forever.

Native Africans, both black and white, from the relatively familiar-feeling cities of the south, find these wild shores of West Africa a whole new world. There’s black magic (juju) and witchcraft, customs and practices totally at odds with the relaxed European lifestyle, yet here we are totally spellbound.

Sure, adventurous travel operators have offered overland trips for hardy, intrepid souls for some years, but regular commercial passenger cruises are a relatively new experience. Today the world’s growing fleet of cruise ships, large and small, are gradually unlocking these mysterious ports-of-call, picking their way from Namibia to Congo and on to Sierra Leone and Senegal. The biggest, like QM2, might make just two or three stops, while the small and intensely inquisitive vessels like ours, more than a dozen. Next year, G Adventures will increase its calls to 19 and terminate in Marrakech, Morocco.

Aboard G Adventures’ sturdy MS Expedition are 100 curious passengers from the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, Europe and even Asia, all with a common fascination for the last unknown destinations left on our planet. We are one of just a handful of vessels now intimately exploring the once forbidden, war-ravaged countries slotted, Tetris-style, along the Atlantic coast between Congo and Mauritania. Over the course of three weeks, we will make landfall in a dozen countries, explore bewildering markets and towns, while singing, dancing and eating with people many of us have only seen on the pages of National Geographic or Discovery Channel. It’s a proper adventure and a true expedition.

What’s more, a hand-picked platoon of impressively credentialed lecturers, adventure guides and avid naturalists escorts us at every turn, helping us unravel the flora, fauna and ethnic complexity we encounter every day. I’m one among the small band who continually hovers around David Conrad, a kind of post-Woodstock Indiana Jones with a Ph.D in African history and an eagle-eyed art hunter who’s forgotten more than most us will ever know about this crazy land. Others flock around Dr Steve Boyes, the ornithologist, while Wolfgang Kaehler plays Pied Piper to his wide-aperture gang of camera-toting travellers. Peter Baxter, historian, author and inveterate African field guide, draws a loyal following too, reminding us that Africa is not just for the curious, rubber-necked voyeur. It is a land facing a multitude of environmental and humanitarian challenges from messy and destructive resource exploitation, to grass roots medical facilities.

While it might seem that a motley troupe of floppy-hatted tourists in long socks and sandals buying trinkets would do little to alleviate the plight of the common people, think again. On this G Adventures expedition, there are numerous examples of how our visits directly benefit local communities and how the development of responsible and sustainable tourism practices can go a long way to alleviate the sense of loss and isolation traditional social systems may feel in a rapidly globalising world.

“Apart from the obvious revenue benefits, well managed tourism maintains the viability of local culture, providing an incentive for both its remaining alive and vibrant, but also a framework for it to continue evolving, bearing in mind that culture is fundamentally organic,” Baxter tells me, “A lack of formats such as ours for local cultural display will obviously result in many stagnating and ultimately disappearing under the weight of modern influences.”

Today’s Nigeria is a case in point. Unmonitored oil exploitation and serious environmental degradation in the River Niger’s delta has displaced and disenfranchised many local communities, causing some to resort to radical means of survival, including piracy. While the seaborn bandits are currently targeting oil and fishing vessels, these tactics could change at any time and MS Expedition is prepared. Aboard for that part of the journey are three burly ex-Royal Marines who, by the very look of them, would send any boatload of would-be buccaneers scurrying.

Our passage through the Gulf of Guinea is thankfully uneventful - except for the odd cranky port official and flat tyre – and what surprises many of us is the ready smiles and reflex waves we receive as our tour buses bounce along potholed highways and backroads. It seems the general populous is happy to see us (and our cameras) and the overwhelming feeling is one of welcome – mostly.

While the great continent of Africa may be prone to outbreaks of civil strife, less than benevolent dictatorships and greedy multinationals, it’s the ordinary people who form the fundamental character of each destination we visit. When it came time to go our separate ways in the bustling former French colony of Senegal, it was with a suitcase full of scary carvings and a clinging sense of optimism. An optimism that, if the unifying force of well-managed tourism was allowed to pervade these once sullen lands, Africa would be a better place. Right now, it’s at a crossroad and the once desperate march of manacled slaves is being replaced with lines of khaki-clad travellers hoping to make a difference.