Let’s have a look at some of the history.

With all the mundane preparations behind us – well, we still have to pack our bags, but that comes later -, it is time to focus on the contents, so to speak. I usually start by digging into the history of the country in some detail, but in this case that is not going to work. We’ll be visiting ten countries – excluding Nigeria – in eight weeks! Perhaps a regional approach works better, not in the least because all these countries’ histories are intimately linked.

There is no lack of books about African history in my library, admittedly most a bit dated, but good enough for the purpose of refreshing my knowledge. One of those, called A Short History of Africa, ‘short’ in this case meaning slightly over 300 densely written pages, was given to me in 1991, by my then girlfriend, now wife Sofia, who wrote in it that, maybe, one day we could explore this continent together. Well, it has taken over 30 years, but there we go!

trade across the Sahara, depicted in rock paintings in Mauretania (source: https://africanrockart.org/mauritania/)

Obviously, the history of Africa, even with a focus on West Africa alone, is far too complex to summarise in a few blog entries. For starters, this is where history began: one of our closest ancestors – so-called Australopithecus afarensis, better known by the poetic name of Lucy – originated from the continent. Later, even closer related species like homo habilis and homo erectus also developed firstly in Africa. Jump a couple of million years further, to the last few thousand years or so, and West Africa was a region where herders, farmers and traders lived in a symbiotic relationship. The herders needed the farmers to stall their cattle in the dry season, the farmers enjoyed the milk and the meat, and the traders connected the savannahs of the Sahel and the agricultural areas further south, at the edge of the rain forest, across the Sahara desert to the Mediterranean. Not only surplus produce was traded, the more profitable merchandise was gold, found in what is now Ghana, and slaves – raided further south and from communities that were non-Muslim, so fair game for the converted Islamists, a religion that expanded ever further south.

Note that in these days, the main trade routes were north-south, and the main population centres were inland – this would change with the arrival of Europeans in the 15th and 16th Century, which promoted not only population concentration along the coast, but also the emergence of east-west trading. Indeed, initially mostly slaves.

ivory trade (picture from https://african.business/2021/10/trade-investment/a-short-history-of-african-trade/)

the slave trade, from a 1859 wood engraving with modern colouring (source: https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/history-of-slavery/africa-before-transatlantic-enslavement/)

When the first European appeared along the West African coast, in the form of the Portuguese halfway the 15th C, they knew better than to venture inland. They set up several trade stations and forts, from where they traded gold, ivory, pepper and slaves. The first documented slave shipment (by the Spanish, in fact) was from 1502, from Cameroon to the Caribbean – which is quite amazing, given that Columbus only discovered America ten years earlier. These early traders may not have been aware that West Africa, at the time, was home to several large empires, further inland.

important African empires at the time of European maritime contact

Europeans referred to the coastal area as Guinea, and made a distinction between Upper Guinea, the stretch from present day Mauretania to Sierra Leone, essentially the north-south coast line, and Lower Guinea, from Sierra Leone to Cameroon, ie mostly the west-east coast line. Inland from Upper Guinea was what is confusingly called Sudan, located much further west than present-day country Sudan. At the time, this was the area of the Songhai Empire, one of the largest and most powerful in West Africa during the 16th century. It was located in what is now Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, and it controlled trade routes along the Niger River.

The Lower Guinea area was home to the impressive 16th and 17th C kingdoms of Dahomey and Benin, but also the Ashanti, the Oyo empire of the Nigerian Yoruba, and several more. Dahomey, for instance, was a highly centralized and militaristic kingdom located in present-day Benin and was known for its powerful army, which included a regiment of female warriors known as the Dahomey Amazons. Confusingly, the Benin empire was a well-developed and sophisticated kingdom located in present-day Nigeria, and known for its art, including bronze sculptures and intricate ivory carvings.

Not only the Spanish followed the Portuguese to West Africa, also the Brits, the French and the Dutch – and there were even Danish and Swedish establishments. Yet, for hundreds of years, these contacts were purely trade related, along the coast, whilst the Africans ensured that they maintained control over the interior trading routes. There was no political interest, there were no colonies, on the contrary, the European powers were reluctant to accept responsibility for governance. Something that acutely changed at the end of the 19th Century. (see 19 Feb.)

Our alternative plan, flying into Benin, means that we have to arrange a visa for Benin in advance. With the group, we would have obtained our visa on the way, maybe at the border, or in some other way, not yet specified, but now we are on our own.

So I brace myself again, for the next ordeal. I check the website of the consulate in The Hague, and the process actually seems quite straightforward. Just to make sure, I call the consulate in advance, to clarify a few issues, to check I have everything right. The Honorary Consul himself answers the telephone, an amiable Dutchman, who tells me first that I can actually arrange the entire process online. So I don’t need to hand over my passport? No, no, everything is handled by email. He warns me for the pitfalls in the online application process, which are minor issues, really, and then goes on lyrically about Benin, nice country, very safe, oh, and you shouldn’t miss this, and you really have to see that, and a nice hotel is Hotel du Lac. Woh. What a difference!

After another 15 minutes relaxed chat with the consul, about more of Benin, about our trip, and about his view on some of the neighbouring countries, I set myself to the online visa process. I get to a really attractive website – illustrated with lots of fabulous photographs -, very user-friendly, which asks me for some basic data about my passport, my person and my plans for visiting Benin. I can apply for both my visa and Sofia’s at the same time, no need to upload all kinds of documents and fake hotel reservations, just pay by credit card, and 29 minutes later I have both visas in my email. Twenty-nine minutes!! Woh. What a difference.

And to top it off, today we also got our Ghanese visa back, with our passports. Took 12 days – working days! But then, the people were actually very nice, here, and that, too, counts, no? With two-and-a-half weeks to go, the necessary advanced paperwork is complete; the rest we’ll do along the way. Time to focus on the trip itself, now. (see 18 Feb.)

Without a Nigerian visa, we will have to find an alternative way to get from Cameroon to Benin. Perhaps we can, whilst the rest of our group continues into Nigeria, stay behind in Cameroon, spend a few days there visiting whatever is worthwhile, and then fly to Benin?

There are flights from Douala, Cameroon’s commercial capital, to Cotonou, in Benin. Some take 4 hrs, others 14, with lots of stops in between, but on some days there appears to be a direct flight, 1.5 hrs only. The problem is, of course, that we cannot book this yet. We don’t know exactly when we will be arriving in Cameroon, and even less so, when the group has passed through Nigeria – without us – and will arrive in Benin. But to be honest, the idea of not having to go through Nigeria, with its many corrupt officials manning the many extortionist road blocks, where, as our travel leader Alonso puts it, we may frequently have to pay for certain ‘formalities’, that idea is not altogether unappealing.

Actually, we already have a preliminary plan. With the group we pass through Ngaoundere, roughly in the middle of Cameroon, from where we can pick up a night train to the capital, Yaounde. We can then make our way, in a week, or so, through some attractive towns in the western hills to Limbe on the coast, and then to Douala. Cannot be that difficult, I think, with taxis and other forms of public transport.

Of course, this plan means we do incur extra costs, especially the extra flight. But on the other hand, we save our Nigerian visa costs, which would have amounted to some 196 US$ each for the visa alone, plus another 50 to 100 US$ handling costs. No small matter either!

next, the last about the visas (really!): 14 Feb.

The visa saga continues. A week after our joint application submission to the Ghanese embassy, part online and part a whole stack of documents in support of our visas, Sofia gets a message that her application had been unlocked again. Would this be suggesting that she should edit one or more fields online, perhaps? And if so, which one(s)? The email didn’t specify. A telephone call the next day cleared that up: no need, and no worry, this is just an automatic message generated when the application process is being initiated at the embassy! Uhmmm, should I, myself, then worry that I haven’t received a message, yet? Has my application not yet been taken into account? Afterall, the embassy claims to turn around visas in five working days.

Four days later I call again, ‘what is happening with our visas?’ A friendly lady explains that, well, consular section is very busy, and that she will call me back. Right! But credit where credit is due, she did call back, a day later, and yes, my visa was OK, approved and all. But from Sofia’s application her work address was missing. It would have been helpful to point that out in the earlier mail, of course, or when we called first, but never mind; missing info could be added over the telephone, and next week we can pick up the passports. Let’s see.

In the meantime Nigeria reconfirms that they still don’t issue tourist visas. We have tried other embassies and consulate, in Brussels and in Frankfurt, but they aren’t going to do that for us, either; they refer us back to the embassy in The Hague. Anyhow, it is now three weeks to our date of departure, I wouldn’t dare submitting my passport to a Nigerian embassy anymore, for fear of not getting it back in time.

But that leaves us with a problem. If we cannot cross Nigeria overland, we still need to get from Cameroon to Benin. Perhaps there is an alternative. I’ll tell you tomorrow.

11 Feb.

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.

the result? 10 Feb.

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 non-striking 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’.

Right, let’s see! 26 Nov

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 infects 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 perhaps no more than 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.