an early 20th Century West Pende mask, from the DR Congo, my favourite ethnographic piece of the BRAFA in 2023

Through our membership of the Vereniging Vrienden Etnografica, a Dutch group linked by their interest in ethnographic art, we are every year invited to the BRAFA, the Brussels Art Fair, usually held at the beginning of the year.  This year’s version had its opening on January 29th, 2023. Officially, our main interest are the four or five stands that exhibit the most fabulous ethnographic works, mostly from West Africa, and way beyong the means of the average collector. But obviously, the much of the rest of the BRAFA, especially its modern and contemporary art, is also of interest to us – and equally unaffordable, of course. What I like is that, yes, a few of the great and famous are represented, but there is also a lot of work of lesser known artists. Which is surprisingly attractive, too.

Just a few pictures, to highlight the wide variety of works of interest to me. Obviously, this is a pretty subjective selection, there is much more to admire.

Nicolas de Stael: ‘Marine’, oil on canvas from 1954, available for a shocking 3 million Euros

another Bela Kadar, a watercolour aptly named ‘Constructivist Cityscape with Green Horse’ (ca 1920s)

‘Village Horse and Rider’ (ca 1920s), gouache on paper from Bela Kadar

an oil on canvas from Geer van Velde, like many of his paintings simply called ‘Composition’ (ca. 1954)

‘Vlaamse Hoeve’ (1928) van Gust de Smet

Jef Verheyen, ‘Compositie’, an oil on canvas from 1955

a fabulous sculpture of a guy named Panamerenko, called ‘Brazil’ (2004)

and a detail of the same

I liked this ‘Figure with Strawberries’ from Tony Matelli, a concrete-painted bronze (!!) from 2019

Marcel-Louis Baugniet: ‘Marin Americain’ (1925, oil on canvas), how simple can painting be?

‘Gertrude’ (1992) from Phillippe Hiquily, bronze patine

and ‘Grand Mimi Patte en l’Air’ (1987), same thing, same artist

a huge oil on wood, ‘Women in Beach Chairs’ (1939), from Floris Jespers

Lynn Chadwick sculpture ‘Two Watchers IV’ from 1959, made of iron and composite

a zoomorphic statue, from the Sakalava people, Madagascar

and ‘Potatopoultry’ (2008), a painted steel work by John Chamberlain

Hmmm, ‘hitch-free’ not exactly (remember, OIS states on their website that they strive ‘to expedite hitch-free travel from the Netherlands to Nigeria’, see 21 Jan.). When we came to pay for the visas, we were told by OIS staff that, for the time being, the Nigerian Embassy in The Hague has decided not to issues tourist visas. This is the same embassy that, last week, provided me with the link to start the application process. On their website is nothing about this sudden change of mind, and other travellers in our group have obtained their visas – in other countries – without any problems. How to proceed further? ‘Call the embassy’, is the advice.

This is easier said than done, because the embassy doesn’t answer the phone, and leaving a message is impossible, the tape is full. There is a mobile number, for WhatsApp messages. From where I do get a response, confirming ‘no tourist visas’ and on the question how long this is going to last, ‘can’t say’. Not very communicative, either. When I finally manage to talk to somebody in the embassy, they still cannot say how long this rule will be in force, ‘you know, it is the Ministry that decides’. He helpfully suggest that I could consider other visas, but when I ask about a business visa for instance, he tells me off: ‘you can only get a visa for what you are coming to do in our country’. And then he refers to the website, where all possible visas are listed. Indeed, there is a 64 page document, with requirements for religious visa, sports visa, study visa, even a wide variety of work visa, and then visa for spouses that accompany people with religious visa, sports visa etc. Nothing that I could possibly contemplate, also because all of this needs an invitation letter from inside Nigeria. Even a transit visa is not an option, because with an expedition like ours we don’t know the exact date we will be entering the country. Oh, and trying the Nigerian Embassy in Brussels yields an angry employee yelling to apply in our own country. Stupid!

Not to waste a full day in The Hague, we go to the Embassy of Cote d’Ivoire, where we spent five minutes filling in a form and two hours waiting, only to be told that we don’t have all the required documents, like fake hotel bookings and the lot, and to come back in two days’ time. At least here the people are exceedingly friendly, just not well coordinated. And when we do come back two days later, they speed-process our application, with multiple entry as a bonus. Done!

In the evening I start the online visa application for Ghana, which helpfully tells me that I can interrupt the process at any time, because the information entered so far can be retrieved later. Which turns out not to be the case: when I get stuck on the last page, because something is missing, I’ll have to start all over again. Great! But, we manage to complete the process, and send off the passports and all the supporting documentation the next day. Fingers crossed.

We got nr. 2 – Liberia. Sofia went to Brussels, by train, to collect the visas. A good exercise in developing patience, which we no doubt will need during our expedition. Did I tell you already that we now refer not to our trip, anymore, but ‘the expedition’? Seems more appropriate. And so was Sofia’s train journey to Brussels, marred by a train strike locally, early morning, subsequent traffic jam, when we hurried by car to the next big town to catch a train a train, and multiple delays of trains that did, ultimately, go. She got back almost 12 hours later.

We then spent the Saturday afternoon preparing for our Nigerian visas, which is a process in the hands of a commercial company, OIS. This is no sinecure. After having filled in the rather long form, including military service data, countries previously lived in for more than a year, and visited in the last year, I failed to pay, or at least my credit card was not accepted. Or perhaps my credit card doesn’t accept payments to Nigerian bank accounts, I don’t know. So now we have to go and pay at a service point in The Hague, prior to our appointment in the Embassy. Oh, and we pay about 2.5x the amount stated on the Embassy website, but that would have been the same with online payment.

Let’s see how successful we will be, next Monday. We need to get to the Embassy in person, to provide ‘biometric data’, but OIS, which also manages the appointment schedule at the Embassy, advises not to come more  than 30 days before your travel dates. Which, for us, is not going to work, we need more visa still, and in any case we do not travel directly to Nigeria. But there is no reason to worry, OIS states on their website that they strive ‘to expedite hitch-free travel from the Netherlands to Nigeria’.

well-worn vaccination booklet from the Dutch government

We have made an appointment at the Travel Clinic, to get up to date on health issues in West Africa. We know about compulsory Yellow Fever vaccinations, we already needed to proof this for our visas, but how about malaria and other tropical diseases? Not to mention Ebola, a potentially deadly virus endemic to West Africa, and competing with kidnapping as the main risk during our trip. And monkeypox, another one originating from the same place?

and evidence from my first yellow fever vaccination, from 1987!!

Two charming young ladies check if we have all the relevant vaccinations – we do, just one needs to be updated. ‘Relevant’ is Yellow Fever, Rabies, Hepatitis A & B, DTP, you name it and it is relevant. Well, not exactly, in fact, we even have a few vaccinations, still valid, that we do NOT need for West Africa. Malaria is indeed a problem, and the option to just bring some medicine to use if we get it, is clearly not an option anymore, or at least not in West Africa. We are offered the choice between daily pills and weekly ones, all with a different range of side effects; we choose the daily ones, which we have had before. They didn’t bother us then, shouldn’t bother us now. Well, except that they cost us an arm and a leg. Oh, and insect repellent, and mosquito nets, but we have all that.

ebola occurences in the past 50 years, or so

Ebola? There is really no information on this in the Travel Clinic, it is so rare that travellers aren’t usually exposed to it. Does that reassure me? A bit, I suppose: if these people – professionals – aren’t worried, why should I? I do look up some internet sources, and find that it is thought to come from infected animals, probably fruit bats, who spread the virus through their excrement, which chimpanzees, gorillas and antelopes and the like, who, slaughtered and eaten, then infect humans. The Ebola Viral Disease (EVD), as it is officially called, was first identified in what is now the DR of Congo, near the Ebola River. With disastrous results, because its contagious nature was woefully underestimated at the time, nurses still using a perhaps five syringes on 300-600 patients a day. Other areas where it occurred were South Sudan, and indeed West Africa. By the time Ebola arrived in Cote d’ Ivoire, in 1994, it was well understood that protective equipment and disposable needles were key in containing the outbreak. Most occurrence in the 21st Century is still in DR of Congo, the last major outbreak in West Africa dating from 2014-2015, spreading in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Transmission was then mostly between close relatives of the virus victims, through direct contact with the victim’s body during mourning and burial ceremonies, and controlling the epidemic hinged on achieving behavioural changes in the affected villages, ultimately a successful approach. Let’s hope that people still remember. And let’s avoid chimps and other bush meat, especially if it is raw.

the countries where monkey pox is endemic, and in red the casualties from 2022.

Monkeypox? Same story really. It was first identified in 1958 in macaques, a monkey type which gave it its name, although in the meantime it has been generally accepted that especially rodents are virus carriers. The first documented human case was, like Ebola, also in DR of Congo, in 1970. It has since occurred in quite a few other African countries, many of which we are going to. It is spread through eating contaminated meat, and subsequently through close contact between people. The good news is that transmission is often limited, resulting in mostly isolated, individual cases – and unlike Ebola, where fatality rates are around 50%, fewer people actually die from Monkeypox (typically 3-6% of the infected; and none of those affected by recent outbreaks that spread to Europe and the US died). So, don’t eat rats, and don’t come too close to people.

All in all, the health risks seem manageable, then. That leaves kidnapping, but there is little you can take against that.

Next: 21 Jan.

 

Visa nr 1 – Chad – in the pocket, or rather, in the passport, visa nr 2 – Liberia – in progress. Despite each and every embassy website stating that visas cannot be paid for in cash, the lady at the Liberian embassy had no problem accepting our money in bank notes, except that she didn’t have the means to give me a receipt. Hmmm. Another tricky point with the Liberian visa is, that it is valid for three months, from the day of issuing in the embassy, not from the day you enter the country, or any other pre-determined date, like most other visas. All these things you have to take into account, you don’t want a visa that, by the time you get to the country, has expired again! In this case it will just work, for us, otherwise we would have to have asked for a multiple entry visa for six months, at significant extra costs. Or we would have to start the process later, which is no option, because we have so many other visas to go!

Next: 16 Jan.

We have done some visa research. First the good news: our self-inflicted extension of the trip, through The Gambia and Senegal, does not require visas for EU citizens. Generous, or would this be a recognition that most Senegalese who travel to the EU do that without a visa, too? Bad joke, sorry. For the ‘transit trip’ countries we have to arrange five out of nine visa beforehand. Chad and Liberia have embassies and consulates in Brussels, the visas for Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast can be had in The Hague.

Finding out what is required isn’t straightforward: the Nigerian Embassy website explains the application procedure, which needs to start online, but there is no link to any online process. The Ivory Coast Embassy sends me to a site where I can apply for a barcode, with which I can retrieve my visa at Abidjan airport – but we are travelling overland, don’t arrive at the airport. In any case, the link they provide to the website of a commercial company which has developed the e-Visa brings me to a site which explains by video what to do, namely click on the ‘visa’ button, but then doesn’t have a visa button on the site, and if I get there via a roundabout way, tells me that this functionality is temporary being worked on. Right. Ghana looks straightforward, so that worries me the most.

For Chad and Liberia we can just download application forms, which we need to send with lots of supporting documentation – return flight in and out of the country, but we travel overland?; hotel reservations, but we have no idea where we are going to stay? – to the consulate. We chose for a mixture of courier services and personal visa runs.

Did I mention costs? For each visa we pay between 60 and 100 Euros. Excluding courier services or personal visa runs, of course. And excluding passport photos. Did you know that some need to be 3.5×4.5 cm, others need to be square, 2×2 inches. And that the background may vary, the way you look into the camera may vary, even the size of your face inside the picture may vary? Each country has its specific requirements. Oh, and the countries we go to are not standard included in the passport photo software of the shops that provide passport photos. So you need to find a ‘similar’ country – India, for instance, is like Liberia, as far as passport photo is concerned. Why on earth can the world not agree on standard size passport photos?

The other visas, for Cameroun, Togo, Benin and Sierra Leone, we will acquire on the way. Easy, apparently, same day Cameroun visa in Chad, visa at the border for Togo and Sierra Leone, online for Benin. Why are some so easy, and some so difficult?

Next: 12 Jan.

Let’s first sort out the tickets. Not a big deal really, the ticket sites that normally work to find the cheapest tickets for your city break, they also work for tickets further afield. Just funny that a ticket Paris – N’Djamena (Chad’s capital, which I could not have named, either, before we started to think about this trip) is actually about 100 Euros more expensive than if we fly from Amsterdam, via Paris, same plane. I had wanted to take a train to Paris – less flying, you know -, but a same day train will actually arrive too late to catch the N’Djamena flight. Departure date 5th of March, that’s just two months away!

I buy some extra flexibility on the Freetown – Banjul flight (Freetown is the end station of our organised trip, in Sierra Leone, Banjul is the capital of The Gambia), one doesn’t know exactly when we will arrive in Freetown. And I book the return flight from Dakar, on the 2nd of May, almost two months after we leave, having covered eleven countries in the process. Sounds a bit like Americans doing Europe, the sort of thing we always laugh about here – “it is Wednesday, so this must be France, right?”. Aren’t we going to do exactly the same, in West Africa?

Next: 10 Jan.

And what you all have to do before leaving!

our individual extension to the trip

After having secured our place on the trip by paying a significant amount of money as a deposit, we took off to Argentina for visiting family and friends, and didn’t think much about the African adventure anymore. But now we are back, and we have to start working; there is a lot to do, in terms of visas, vaccinations and flights.

And we need to arrange our self-inflicted extension, too. Once at the end of the transit trip, the organised part, we are actually quite close to The Gambia, where we could recover from the hardship in one of the pleasant lodges the country is known for. And once in The Gambia, it is a relatively short haul to Dakar in Senegal, which I reckon is one of the most fascinating capitals of West Africa. And on the way to Dakar, we might as well spend a few days in a game reserve and get a short safari in.

Next: 2 Jan.

We talked a bit more about the trip, and about the issues, especially the security points. We agreed we could look at this in two ways: if we join the trip, we assume that we have a responsible group leader, Alonso himself, who knows the area, but being a group makes us quite visible, and thus a potential target for kidnapping. If we travel alone, we are more nimble, move quicker, less obvious a target. On the other hand, if we don’t join the trip, we will never make this journey; others, yes, but across West Africa? Highly unlikely. Because we don’t have the local knowledge that you need for such a trip.

a bit of an old map, really, but you get the idea – I don’t think much has changed

A look at the map with terrorist activities shows that the route through Niger is actually not such a bad idea, it does avoid the hottest areas. And in any case, we have lived through curfews in Haiti, and through a civil war in SE Turkey, and survived all this. We went to Erta Ale in Ethiopia, three months after the kidnapping of tourists, and experienced no trouble, either. What could possibly happen to us?

You know, let’s call Alonso, and talk to him. Alonso was possibly even more enthusiastic than Sofia was. And my concerns about Plan B? “Don’t worry, in Niger we will have a military escort”. Whether that takes my worries away is debatable. But he explains further, he is now a father of a young child, would he take unnecessary risks? Of course not. We talk a bit more, in a mix of English and Spanish, and tell Alonso that we’ll think it over a little longer. But I know already, there is not much more thinking to be done. We will go.

Next: 29 Dec.

“I am in!”

So I did get a response, after all. Not exactly what I had expected, though! After all, Sofia is usually the brake on my wildest and most extreme travel ideas.

I brought up that the area where we are going is not the most stable in the world, lots of terrorist organisations, and so on. Also, travelling for 40 days through 9 countries means that we don’t have a lot of time in any of those countries, and by being in a group we don’t have the flexibility to stay a bit longer if we like it somewhere. Sofia had indeed checked the Foreign Office travel advise, and found that quite a lot of the area was coloured red or orange. “But there’s also a lot of yellow”. And about the fleeting nature of visiting so many countries: “We can always go back if we like it somewhere”. Hmmm.

I sent another email to Alonso, asking if there were still places available on the trip. Kind of hoping that the trip would already be fully booked. Which wasn’t the case. Of course not, who in his right mind would want something like this? Well, there were already six participants, out of a maximum of ten.

Alonso also indicated in his return mail that there may be a problem with visas for Cameroun and, especially, Nigeria, so he had a plan B. Instead of going south from N’Djamena, the capital of Chad and the departure point of the trip, further into Chad before crossing into Cameroon and Nigeria to Benin – so avoiding the main operating area of Boko Haram – if the Nigerian visa would be a problem, we could always go north, through Niger to Benin. Avoiding Boko Haram on the other side, and skirting the area of operations of Jihadist groups in Niger and Mali and Burkina Faso. Hmmm.

next: 18 Nov