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November 24, 2010 1:29 PM   Subscribe

One week in Africa: Benin, Ghana, or Burkina Faso?

So, I really wanted to travel around Nigeria for a week in 2011, but the widespread political instability has made me highly circumspect about this idea. So I'm looking at its neighbors instead - particularly Benin, Ghana, and Burkina Faso.

I like friendly places steeped in history. I'm not interested in cities. I prefer remote "off the grid" regions, ideally with an active folklore, music and/or dance heritage. I will be traveling with a pocket-sized field recording setup for this possibility. I also love Islamic art and culture and would love to spend some time in predominantly Muslim areas.

I will be spending long stretches of time (5-8 hours) each night in solitude with a shortwave radio from dusk until early morning. (This is the main reason for my trip.) Night-time safety in rural areas is therefore a priority as well.

I will have a guide/translator for the duration of the trip. I'd like to get as much of a sense of the place as possible within a week, so I'd likely go to a new town or region every 2-3 days.

Which of the three countries do you love the most, and why? (Or should I consider somewhere else in central-western Africa instead?)
posted by mykescipark to Travel & Transportation around (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Since you put out the option for West Africa, I'll add what I know.
Senegal is your answer.
Friendly places, very safe, seeped in Islamic tradition? Senegal all over. Music and Dance? Senegal. The only sticking point would be needing a guide/translator to be accessible to these stories, but you've already said you would hire one so there's your answer. One thing to consider is that depending on the country- travel isn't as reliable or quick as you may like it. Changing places, every 2-3 days means 1. you won't to get to know your story tellers as well. 2. you're going to be spending a lot of time on shitty roads. Doesn't matter if it's public transport of hired car (ok, maybe a very good guide with a very good jeep could fix this) but it seems like a lot of the trip woudl be wasted this way.
While Dakar is a large city and St. Louis is pretty large as well, both have rural areas within an hour outside of them.
As far as I know the rural areas are fairly safe as well and again, with a guide even more so. Senegalese look out for each other and would hate for you to leave with a poor impression of the country- so should a problem arise a shout of "Aidez-moi" would have people running.

The only downside I can really think of is language. Not knowing french would kind of suck, but in rural areas in any country I think you would need a translator anyway form local languages.

(and i have no knowledge- absolutely none on short wave radios, so i have no ideas if there are additional requirements with that- potentially rural areas and needing electricity.)
posted by raccoon409 at 2:26 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I know French, so no biggie there; it's more the regional languages and dialects I'd need help with. Thanks for the tip on Senegal.

As far as shortwave goes, it's best to be AS FAR AWAY from electricity as humanly possible. Especially given some of the dirty, noisy, crazy-ass homebrew electrical situations I've seen in underdeveloped places. Talk about interference! The more rural, the better, believe me.
posted by mykescipark at 2:52 PM on November 24, 2010

Ghana - but i'm biased. I'm from Ghana. You'll want to go outside Accra, the capital city. Places that come to mind are Boti Falls (Ghana's idea of a waterfall, more like a water trickle but hey...), Aburi (there's a nice arboretum), etc. Memail me if you want more detailed information/contacts. The food is really good too!
posted by ramix at 3:34 PM on November 24, 2010

Mali. Amazing music and lots of opportunity for off-the-grid type experiences. Of course, this would mean you'll be in the Sahara.
posted by clockzero at 4:27 PM on November 24, 2010

Response by poster: I just got back from the Rub al Khali, so I'd actually love to do the Sahara too. :-)
posted by mykescipark at 5:05 PM on November 24, 2010

Seconding raccoon409, I spent 3 months in Senegal and loved it! The Gambia is also a good place to check out, they speak English there and it's surrounded on all sides by Senegal so it would make a good couple-day trip. Memail me if you decide to go and want suggestions!
posted by girlalex at 5:33 PM on November 24, 2010

Seconding Mali as one you should consider. Great music, and the Dogon area is fascinating. When I went (a long time ago) safety really wasn't an issue, but I have no idea how things may have changed. Point-to-point travel within the country was a little difficult, but that too may have changed.
posted by hawkeye at 5:48 PM on November 24, 2010

Best answer: I wouldI don't know if you're an extended traveler in Africa, but if you decide to go to Ghana, Burkina Faso or the Benin, you are going to have major issues given your time frame. Senegal would meet your requirements for Islamic art, but also enable you to do a bit of traveling for the week. I've worked in Senegal, and spent most of my time in the northeast, in Matam. At the same time, I also had friends who were farther south, in Tamba and Kolda. None of us had issue major issues with safety, but I will say that Tamba and Kolda tend to have water shortages. There are really reliable roads from Dakar to Matam, and from Dakar to St. Louis, but getting from Dakar to Tamba or Kolda can be quite tricky.
In terms of language, you'll be fine with just French in major cities like Dakar and St. Louis. If you go to the "interior" (away from the coast) and stay south, you'll need someone who speaks Wolof. If you go to the interior and go north, you'll need someone who speaks Pulaar.
posted by msk1985 at 8:14 PM on November 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is wonderful advice from all concerned, thank you. It sounds like Senegal is unexpectedly pulling into the lead. Unfortunately, I want to go to all of them!

Also: I was too quick to say that I'd be changing spots every few days. I had a momentary leave of senses when I typed that, sorry. I've been spoiled by good roads in most of my travels thus far, but I will bear in mind the potentially significant infrastructure issues.
posted by mykescipark at 9:35 PM on November 24, 2010

Best answer: I have lived in Burkina for over two years and currently live in Ouaga.

Is there a reason you wouldn't consider Togo? The impression people gave me when I visited the Togo and Benin coasts was that coupeurs de route are much more common in Benin. Though Lome is definitely not safe at night, at least along the beach. But the mountain region is just stunning, and if you go early in the year it will still be star fruit season. And if voodoo is your thing, you can find nearly as much of it there as in Benin.

Since Mali has come up (and it really is the best choice for music, but see below), I'll point out that the advantage Togo and Ghana (and maybe Benin, but I don't know, I was only there 2 days) have over the Sahelian countries, particularly Mali and Niger, is that even if you stray off the beaten path in the smaller coastal countries you're likely to find people who speak a European language. I mean, having a translator is great, but it's nice to be able to speak directly to people.

Unfortunately, now is not the best time to visit Dogon in Mali. I love the Sahel deeply, but it's not a great place for a Westerner to be right now. So if you choose Burkina, I'd say focus on Ouaga, Bobo/Banfora, Po/Leo, and Fada. I've heard nothing but good things about Tiebele, but I've never been. Diebougou has a small but interesting dance festival in April or May. Dedougou has a giant mask and dance festival every two years, but sorry, I'm pretty sure it's on even years.

If instead you decide on Ghana, I strongly recommend the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, though not for the music. Bring fruit, because they don't sell it in the village so the monkeys get really excited about it. Whereas they'll eventually come if you offer them bread, but not nearly so excitedly. And there's a guy who does really amazing wood carving.

If your radio takes AAs, stock up in the bigger cities, it's hit or miss if you'll find any in villages (and what you find will be poor quality, but that's not a big issue for one week). If it takes D cells, no worries, they're everywhere.

Oh, something else to consider: FESPACO is coming up. Though of course that's in the city.
posted by solotoro at 2:50 AM on November 25, 2010

Ghana is awesome! But maybe I am biased too, I used to live there.
Things I can recommend about Ghana include
- diverse ecology (hills, plains, sand, forest)
- amazing manmade things (hydroelectrics, rope bridges in the forest)
- diversity in population: Ghana is mixed Christian/Muslim country, with some animst stuff still going on. The two groups live largely in harmony, with churches and mosques often right next to each other. This of course means that there is a wide range of food available.
- decent roads, compared to its neighbors. This includes between city roads and within towns. On the subject of roads - I have only met one set of coupeurs while living in Ghana. We floored it through the deep deep puddle and kept driving at them. (I was driving, but with locals).
- not overrun with tourists (I get the impression many places in Senegal are)
- small enough you CAN change places every few days, and get a different ecology, language, ...!.

As far as the Francophone countries... I cannot speak for Senegal, but French is not spoken everywhere even in "Francophone" countries. For example in Togo, in Lome a lot of people can speak but get 20, 30 minutes outside the capital and you are dealing with a variety of local languages and no one who speaks French.
posted by whatzit at 9:22 AM on November 25, 2010

ideally with an active folklore, music and/or dance heritage.

I had a colleague who attended this [ ghana drum school ] about 5 years ago and loved it.

We did fieldwork in Senegal about three years ago, it fits your bill in many respects including Islamic heritage, music and once outside Dakar, truly off the grid.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:26 PM on November 25, 2010

I spent 6 months in Nigeria back in 1980/81, and though it was far more stable then than it is now (politically) it was still a really intense place. I can only imagine that it is more so now, so I think your decision to travel elsewhere is a wise one.

And though I've never been, so I can't speak from personal experience, I would also suggest Mali as a destination. The music is indeed magnificent, and I've heard it's a pretty mellow place.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:37 AM on November 28, 2010

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