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Planning a trip to western equatorial Africa
May 14, 2014 7:00 AM   Subscribe

My niece is planning a trip to western equatorial Africa. We have several questions as she gets ready to go.

I'm asking this question for my niece who is planning a trip for later this spring. She writes the following:

In my perfect world, I'd fly into Ghana and travel by land through Togo, then through Benin, Nigeria, down through Cameroon, and finally Gabon. Questions:

- I've heard that it is possible to get land visas upon arrival at some of the borders in western Africa, is this true?

My other option is to just go to Gabon or Cameroon and acclimate there. As Gabon/Cameroon is the real goal of this trip, I want first hand knowledge of being a young, white, single, and female US traveler in these countries.

- Is one safer than the other? I'm not concerned with getting scammed, mugged, or pick-pocketed - I'm curious about more serious safety issues like rape and kidnapping.
- I know yellow fever vaccine is a requirement for this area -- but do I need to know about any other medical precautions?

Are there any other things experienced travelers to these places would like to point out to me?

Thanks.
posted by crapples to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I have been to Ghana once and to Cameroon twice (Yaounde). I am a mid-thirties white female. There are more female travelers in Ghana than in Cameroon and more things to do though this varies by city and what you like to do. Most of the other travelers I encountered in Cameroon were French, heading to the beach. Fewer spend time in the cities. She needs to be aware that even if you can get visas, border crossings from Cameroon are limited and/or extremely dangerous, even for locals, due to violence, protests, and blockades. Often due to Boko Haram towards the Nigerian border.

I did feel that I could get around easier in Ghana on my own (shopping, eating etc taxis were ok but drivers didn't hesitate to yell or demand more money if you suggest a wrong turn or don't pay for air conditioning) than in Cameroon, but not at night in either case. I did, unfortunately, have a close friend who lived in Ghana for a year report that she was assaulted in a nightclub. It is a very real risk.

Some of the hotels are also notorious for prostitution and have very lax security - the number of times I'd go to my room at the end of a dark hallway, with a dodgy lock and flimsy door, walking past a sleeping night guard! I also had to fend off a very insistent racist at another hotel, and everyone will want to buy you drinks if you are at the bar. University campus accommodation can be a good option instead of a basic hotel.

I got tetanus boosters, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, and took malaria tablets. Yellow Fever is the only one that you must have a certificate for.

It can be an incredible part of the world to travel in, if she is already well experienced in traveling in other parts of Africa or other parts of the world. But you do have to be cautious unfortunately.
posted by wingless_angel at 7:47 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]


Lots of this information she can look up herself. The Center for Disease Control's Traveler's Health section will give all the information she needs about recommended vaccines and good health practices for the region.

Each country's consulate will give instructions on what visas are necessary and how to apply for them. Don't rely on "what you've heard."

You didn't ask, but what are her plans for basic health, accidental, and catastrophic emergency insurance? She should have that.
posted by Liesl at 8:17 AM on May 14


Gabon's Embassy, Gabon's Consulate in New York (slightly more informative), Cameroon's Embassy
posted by Liesl at 8:30 AM on May 14


From my niece:

--

I don't drink and will be traveling for ethnobotany research, so I won't be out at night. Aside from Africa, I've spent the last 10 years traveling and living around the entire world, that being said, I don't speak French.

I've never taken out any sort of insurance to travel before, although people tell me I should. I've heard good things about World Nomads and will probably sign up with them.

Does anyone have experience traveling through Nigeria?
posted by crapples at 9:14 AM on May 14


You will stick out, and people will stare at you, ask for money, hit on you (potentially aggressively), etc. Be mentally prepared for that, because it took a lot out of me.

I assume that you speak French! Ack, on preview, I would *really* reconsider traveling solo in francophone WA without speaking French! Based on my experience in Cote d'Ivoire, I would particularly reconsider traveling in Benin and Togo without French. Cote d'Ivoire has a much more developed tourism industry than either Benin or Togo, and I met about three people (English teachers) outside of government or universities who spoke enough English for me to carry on a conversation.

My Togolese friend warned me strenuously against traveling on my own to Togo. As the State Department says, Lome is dangerous. You will need to speak French. I don't know much about Benin, but the State Department isn't super excited about it, either. And French, once again, is going to be a necessity.

I have not been to Ghana, but all the Ghanaians I met in Cote d'Ivoire (and in the US) tell me it is wonderful. Ghana is very stable and supposed to be pretty safe!

At this point in time, I would be really really hesistant to be a solo female traveler in Nigeria. Where are you planning on going? My impression of ethnobotany involves traveling to rural areas ... and you likely want to be very careful about which rural areas you are in, especially if you go towards the north of the country.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:29 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]


World Nomads is fine. Note that their policy excludes injuries resulting from "war or act of war, whether declared or not, civil disorder, riot, or insurrection," and adjust your behavior (or itinerary) accordingly.

You really REALLY need to have insurance. If you're doing research for a university, quite likely your institution requires you to have it. Check with the study abroad office--they will know how to direct you.
posted by Liesl at 9:38 AM on May 14


This question makes me nervous. I did the Peace Corps in a different part of West Africa a decade ago and so I spoke French and local languages and I would not do this trip you're talking about solo. I've been to Ghana a few times and found it lovely, and the easiest place to travel in West Africa, but anecdotally found a really high level of petty crime, which we all know can turn more dangerous quickly. Cote d'Ivoire I found more challenging.

As for next steps, I'd ask the same questions on Lonely Planet Thorntree (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/africa), go to a travel clinic and give them your full itinerary, take malarone as your anti-malarial meds unless you get a convincing explanation for why you would take doxy (don't take larium/mephloquine), make sure you have a phone that you can use in country, read up on all the DOS advisory opinions, bring your various clever devices for hiding valuables on your person, try to avoid being out after dark without a clear way to get home, look into whether it's safe to travel by car/bus at night in all of these countries before doing so (actually, just travel by day whenever possible), be extraordinarily cautious about food and bottled water and handwashing, get your travel insurance, keep a copy of your passport photo in your secret stash, that sort of thing. In other words - do your research on the specific parts of each of these countries first, then apply all your normal third-world travel precautious diligently.

Good luck, be prepared, have fun. It's a magnificent part of the world, you just need to be careful and on your guard and savvy.
posted by semacd at 9:50 AM on May 14


My previous question may be of help here. FWIW, I ended up getting talked out of the trip by Ghananian co-workers. And I'm a mid-30's white male.

I would *really* reconsider traveling solo in francophone WA without speaking French!

This, so very much this. Again, I'm a mid-30's white male, and I've worked in Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Chad, Niger...I went with my organization, always had that support structure, and still at times felt very unsure given my lack of French language skills. You are already a target, but once it's clear you lack the basic communication skills needed, you become an easy target. For whatever.

For your shots, you just need to go to the CDC page for each country you're going to go to, as referred above, and make a comprehensive list.

For your visas, just google the US (assuming she's a US citizen) embassy in each country and then find the visa requirements for US citizens from that page - I recommend this route rather than trying to find it from the country's embassy to the US, FWIW.

With the caveat of not having been to either Cameroon or Gabon, my general impression is that Gabon is more safe and stable given its relative economic status when compared with Cameroon. Nigeria is definitely a bit dicey right now. Ghana is the most stable and safe place on your list, but even there don't forget that you stick out. Border crossings between any two countries in sub-Saharan Africa will be INFINITELY more safer and secure when they take place in an airport. Wherever this is at all possible, fly rather than drive. Road travel is an extremely dangerous endeavor in Africa and not to be taken lightly.

And, I've had great travel insurance experiences with CSA Travel Protection.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:42 AM on May 14


From my niece -

Togo is on the list because I have friends there and a farm I'm connected with that I would like to spend time at. 

To clarify: I'm planning on spending real time in Gabon and/or Cameroon. This is the entire point of the trip. Because of my connections in Togo, I considered flying into Ghana and making my way down to Cameroon and Gabon by land. This was actually suggested to me by a friend who lives in Togo, who is an American female. Because of the media, Nigeria is clearly my biggest concern -- but to the poster who asked, Nigeria would be a transit point (so the safest route from Benin to Cameroon).

Alternatively, I could more efficiently head straight to either Gabon or Cameroon, or possibly fly between Togo/Ghana and these countries. 

Thanks for the malaria info, semacd
posted by crapples at 11:56 AM on May 14


She should pick up a guidebook to the region like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc. Those books will be able to answer all her visa and health questions.

Re safety, I have not traveled to West Africa, but I feel relatively confident that rape, murder, and violent crime is highly unlikely.

Nigeria sounds like a hot mess right now, and I would give real thought to traveling there. Though it probably depends on what her route will be, her style of travel, and what she intends to do. I wouldn't want to be a woman alone off the beaten path there, though. You mention it as a "transit point". If that's, like, a layover in Lagos, sure, yeah, she'll be fine. If she intends to spend weeks traveling overland through remote areas, I don't know.

One thing that was helpful for me when I was traveling in some potentially dicey parts of Asia and South America was checking out travel forums online to sort of see how most people typically do things and what areas travelers tend to avoid. This isn't to say she should strictly head for whatever passes for the "gringo trail", but if there's something most people specifically don't do, it's probably for a reason. Lonely Planet has a good online forum, and she could also check out Matador and Boots N All. There are independent forums for travelers in specific world regions, too, that she might be able to find by googling.
posted by Sara C. at 12:22 PM on May 14


Re French, assuming your niece has ever studied another romance language (Spanish, for example?), it's not really that hard to pick up a little via Pimsleur or a few podcasts. It's not like she's trying to learn Arabic.
posted by Sara C. at 12:33 PM on May 14


I am in your demographic and spent some months in the region, mostly in Ghana. Ghana is a nice introduction if you are just arriving. Relatively safe and with relatively good infrastructure, you can get your feet wet. Accra is messy but not intimidating. Other travel within the country is "relatively" easy. This is probably the most visited of the countries, but you will still get called out on the street and numerous marriage proposals. Generally, no harm is meant but it still feels uncomfortable.

Togo is much much poorer and much less comfortable. You can feel the tension in Lome and recent bad past there. Even today the situation is not so good. That is not to say I was not meeting good people, quite the contrary. But the atmosphere is not good, and there is some reason behind it. I did get a visa at the border, but it was expensive and the immigration guy tried to get a bribe. I was fortunately with a Togolese host who confronted him. The inland areas get no foreigners and people are shocked and curious to see you. They were the nicest.

No comments on Benin, I did not get there.

Nigeria, man, I see you labeled it as a transit point but unless that means transit by airport I would not do it. The city and the country are unfortunately wracked with problems. Ghana, smaller and more organized, already has an incredibly messy and not always safe land transit system with the public buses and trotros. Lagos is that but on pro expert advanced level. Safety would be a serious concern there, not like in Ghana or even Togo.
posted by whatzit at 1:49 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


Sara C, I have traveled extensively around the world and West Africa is very very different to any experience a traveler is likely to have in Asia or Latin America. Violence is sadly common and foreigners are often targeted. There have been kidnappings in the region.

If she doesn't speak French, to be honest French as it is spoken in France materials are not that helpful. I have some French and can understand colleagues in Cameroon, but I can't get the accent when I've met people from other Francophone countries at all.

Generally, no harm is meant but it still feels uncomfortable.

Agree with this. Being grabbed happens often too, especially at markets, it takes time to get used to.

If your niece wants to fly into Cameroon, the airports are reasonable for the region and the entry and departure procedures are not that complex. Local airlines vary in reliability. The road trip to the airports however, is awful. I took a 4 hour trip on the trunk road at night that I would not recommend to get back to Douala airport.

Her university should be providing her with a lot more support including insurance, local contacts and so on.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:32 PM on May 14 [2 favorites]


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