Good places to be in French-speaking Africa?
June 29, 2006 11:14 AM   Subscribe

Where can I safely and productively visit in French-speaking Africa for a few weeks (other French-speaking areas considered)?

I've been refreshing and augmenting the French I started learning in high school, and in the next year or so may be ready to try it out. I want to travel, I think to Africa, which has intrigued me for a while. However, it seems like every African country I hear about is in the middle of some kind of terrible political situation and wouldn't be at all safe. I hope this is just because the happy, peaceful African countries get no press.

France is an option, but I was wondering if it would be much more expensive to stay there than Africa. Also, yes, I know they speak French in parts of Canada, but I was hoping for a more different culture (I'm from the US).

I'm very caucasian, short, female, if that makes a difference.

Can anyone recommend somewhere interesting to visit for a few weeks, or maybe a little longer? Any ideas for interesting French-language travel would be welcome. I won't have much of a budget, and would be interested in the possibility of working or even volunteering while there.

Not sure if teaching English would be my best choice, though, since I'll be trying to learn another language (seems like focusing on English could make it difficult to immerse myself in French).

I sometimes wish I'd joined the Peace Corps 10 years ago when I graduated college...
posted by amtho to Travel & Transportation around (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Morocco might be a good choice. You could also look into French Polynesia, too.
posted by necessitas at 11:29 AM on June 29, 2006

I would investigate senegal. I am not too familiar with the current political situation, but I don't think it's too bad.

Several years ago I had friends from there that were always trying to convince me to go. Wish I had gone with them sometimes. They were some of the nicest people I've ever met.
posted by milarepa at 11:32 AM on June 29, 2006

If you want to perfect your French, I don't necessarily recommend Africa - the French can get a bit muddled with local dialects.

And the cost of getting to Francophone Africa can be something serious. You might be able to do the whole thing for cheaper somewhere in France.

I doubt you'd be able to earn much money teaching English in West Africa, but who knows.

That said.... Senegal would be a good option. The French spoken there is good, and the country is very stabile, and it's a fascinating culture. Lots of fun. The dancing and drumming gives me chills. I'd probably stay in Dakar, but I don't know Senegal all that well, so there might be other good options. Thies is decent. I believe the Gambia is similarly safe and has more elevated French.

Don't go to Guinea - gorgeous, but could blow at any moment considering the current political situation. Don't go to Ivory Coast either.

Mali could be good. Bamako is lots of fun. Good French. Dogon Country is a fascinating place to visit - pygmies built homes into very high cliffs, and then were chased out by the Dogon who until recently still lived in (lower) cliffs. Gorgeous views. Not a ton of French spoken in the area, though.

Burkina Faso seems fairly safe too. Ouagadougou has a great film festival coming up in February 2007 - FESPACO. I've never been there, but I've heard good things. If you're in the vincinity then, you should definitely try to go.


Safety shouldn't be too much of an issue in those countries. I'd beware of bush taxies and buses in all of them, but that doesn't have anything to do with who you are, just the danger inherent in that kind of travel. Otherwise, be aware, try to stay in at night or go out with company, etc. etc. etc.
posted by Amizu at 11:37 AM on June 29, 2006

How about the French-speaking Caribbean islands (eg., Haïti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique)? There are probably some more obscure (cheaper) islands you can find as well.
posted by mikepop at 11:55 AM on June 29, 2006

posted by blue_beetle at 11:56 AM on June 29, 2006

Milarepa'swistful tone has made Senegal very attractive. All the suggestions are very much appreciated.
posted by amtho at 12:38 PM on June 29, 2006

What do you want to do with the French language? French-french people can be very snobbish about accents, and to a Parisian only a Paris accent would do.

If you are living cheaply and talking to your neighbours, you may be hearing the less correct versions. France puts quite a lot of money into encouraging French-speaking, so amongst the better-educated you may fare better -- but in some of these countries people will prefer to talk English with you.

Be aware that Morocco is a Muslim country, with quite restrictive standards for women outside the main tourist areas -- Marrakech can give a false impression of other towns.

For Haiti the good news is that "The threat from external terrorism is low." The bad news is that that comes from a UK Foreign Office webpage saying "We advise against all but essential travel to Haiti, because of the threat to personal security."
posted by Idcoytco at 12:42 PM on June 29, 2006

Tunisia could be the place to go. I was there a few weeks ago (from Canada) and loved it. Although Arab is the everyday language, French is widely spoken (especially among the college educated, and there are many of them). Although the government has definitely an authoritarian bend, Tunisia is a fairly liberal society with a thriving economy and is very safe and "woman-friendly" (at least compared to some of its neighbours). It has great public transportation and prices are very reasonable (Staying at family pensions and eating at the restaurant the locals use (great food), you can budget under 30$US a day). The "Guide du Routard" for Tunisia (French travel guide) was a great resource to plan our trip.

It's crossroad of history and culture, well worth the visit (Carthage is just the tip of the iceberg..). To be avoided at all cost: all inclusive tourist resorts. And beware of the friendly Medina (Old city) swindlers, out to milk tourists for all they are worth. Whether there are possiblities for you to teach English, I guess you could consult the nearest Tunisian consulate.

Finally, as a native French-speaker, a little comment on the issue of accent:s no matter where you go (even Paris) you'll have to deal with some slang and accents. Very few people actually talk like those heard in French language training video and audio (just like not all Londoners talk like a BBC news presenter). The real danger is to be drawn into a form of spoken French that is so "local" that other French-speakers might have problems understanding it (Like somebody who can only talk cockney, for example). Simple things, like watching French movies might help avoid that trap. And as a rule of thumb, I'd say that the more educated the person, the more likely it is that their spoken French will be "universal" (although there are exceptions). This is not an injunction to avoid less-educated people (far from it, plenty of friendly people around), but to maybe resist the temptation to emulate their way of speaking.
posted by bluefrog at 12:50 PM on June 29, 2006

Fabulous answers! Thank you so much.

One other consideration - it would be wonderful there was a lot of vegetarian food around.
posted by amtho at 1:20 PM on June 29, 2006

My friend from college is in Ghana right now and she reports no problems. The US Dept. of State has no travel warning for Ghana (check out the list of countries that do here). The specific Consular Information Sheet for Ghana mentions staying away from political rallys and warns against petty crime and fraud, but I think that it is common sense.
posted by thewittyname at 1:21 PM on June 29, 2006

On the vegetarian side: Fish or no?In Tunisia, it's a staple (diverse and very fresh), available everywhere on the coast, along with great vegetable/legume side dishes .... Vegetable couscous is also a standard. We visited great market, with lots of variety in terms of fruits and vegetables.... My guess is that someone could be culinary happy sticking to non-meat dishes.
posted by bluefrog at 3:34 PM on June 29, 2006

"...quite restrictive standards?" Having lived in Morocco for the better part of four years, and off the tourist track, I can say that statement is a huge exaggeration. As for Marrakech, it's the reverse - the city gives a false impression in that some tourists are hassled more there than in outlying villages, making some visitors think that there's a carpet seller around every corner.

Anyway, Amtho, Morocco may be a good choice. You'd have to be creative with vegetarian dishes, though. For example, even if you ask for a plain couscous with vegetables, it will probably be cooked with some kind of meat broth (usually chicken). If you buy fresh produce (which is fabulous, and cheap), breads, cheeses, etc... you'll be fine.

Working is difficult, unemployment is sky-high, and most Westerners either teach English or are there with embassies/UN etc... However, it would be almost impossible to find somewhere to teach for "just a few weeks," and they prefer that you have the CELTA/TEFL, anyway.

On the plus side, you can't throw a rock without hitting a Moroccan who speaks French reasonably well. Transportation is cheap, lodging is reasonable, and most people are friendly - and happy if you speak even a smidgen of French. Of course, the country is absolutely gorgeous and has all kinds of scenery/history/cultural stuff, too. Imagine being in Casablanca, then 3 hours later, Marrakech, and then at the Atlantic Ocean in another 2.5 hours.
posted by Liosliath at 8:05 PM on June 29, 2006

French-french people can be very snobbish about accents, and to a Parisian only a Paris accent would do.

So many people repeat that cliché, but in my experience, it is simply not true. I'm American and I've visited Paris a dozen times and I've never experienced anything but graciousness and encouragement for my attempts at (bad) French.

Sure, there are assholes everywhere, but the typical Parisian and/or Frenchman is no more concerned about your accent than a New Yorker would be.
posted by letitrain at 9:45 PM on June 29, 2006

I spoke French in Senegal and had a great time - the accents people used with me, were, as far as I could tell, clearer than they used with each other - not so many Wolof words thrown in. Wanted to go to Mali, but didn't have time.

Seconding liosliath - no one's going to hire an English teacher for a few weeks.
posted by mdonley at 4:04 AM on June 30, 2006

liosliath, you really find that the King's reforms about the status of women in Morocco are working? That is great. It is a pity that the Moroccan Association of Human Rights still think 'the stereotypes keeping women in "a permanent subservient position" prevent them from enjoying their rights and preserving their dignity'

letitrain, yes, of course sensible people do not care about what type of accent someone has. However, not everybody is sensible. Whatever the theory, in practice people from the DOM-TOM meet with prejudice in France.
posted by Idcoytco at 4:11 PM on July 2, 2006

I didn't claim that, idcoytco, but I think that's a separate issue - the OP is only asking about a temporary stay. Her situation, as an expat, would be different from a Moroccan citizen.

As for your link, it's true that Morocco has a lot of work to do where human rights is concerned, for both men and women.

However, it's quite a modern country, in many respects - your statement is a generalization (and frankly, an exaggeration) for both Moroccans and Westerners visiting/living there. You're going to make the OP think that she has to wear the hijab or something, which is simply not the case at all.

As for your opinions on Morocco, what are they based on? Were you there when the new Moudawana was passed? Do you have Moroccan female friends/relatives that you discussed it with? Have you questioned local judges about how they're implementing the new laws? Have you communicated with Global Rights Morocco about how womens' rights have/have not progressed during the past 5 years? Do you have relatives who've been affected by the new laws, both positively and negatively? I can claim all of the above - what about you?

If you'd like to have an informed discussion about the actual problems facing Morocco, we could do that in another thread.
posted by Liosliath at 11:44 PM on July 2, 2006

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