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Travel in West Africa

For Cultural Immersion, Take the Bus

I go to the bus station in the afternoon before I plan to travel when it has started to cool down. The bus station sprawls over a block of low concrete buildings, with merchants selling food, soap, clothing, music cassettes, hardware, toys, flashlights, batteries, bottled water, and livestock. Many Africans do all their shopping at the bus station.

I shove my way through young men with boxes of plastic toys on their heads, women in brightly colored clothing waving fried fish in my face, and crowds of beggars chanting for coins.

I stumble through mounds of avocadoes and sweet potatoes to get to the ticket booth, a tiny room in a one-story cement building. The ticket vendor sits behind iron bars. Ticket books and a haphazard pile of money are fanned out in front of him.

“Hello,” I say. “How are you?” It is unthinkable not to greet someone in West Africa, even if all you want to do is buy a bus ticket. “I am going to Bamako tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.” The ticket agent writes my name down in a notebook and hands me a ticket.

Although buses leave throughout the day and night, the first morning bus is the fastest and safest way to travel. Muslims are required to pray five times a day, and many African buses take prayer breaks. All 80 passengers get off the bus and pray for 15 minutes. If you hit all the prayer calls, it adds at least three hours to your trip. If you can get most of your trip done by 2 p.m., when prayers start, you cut hours off your travel time.

The second reason to travel during the day is to avoid taking unnecessary risks. At night, bus drivers are tired, visibility decreases, and bus stations fill with pickpockets and other shifty types. Women traveling alone at night automatically become targets for all sorts of hassles.

Buying my ticket a day in advance means I do not have to arrive before 7:45 the next morning. Tickets usually sell out about two hours in advance of each bus trip.

At the bus station the noise is deafening. Goats and sheep make baaa! sounds as their feet are tied together and they are thrown onto the top of buses along with sacks of rice and sweet potatoes. Merchants yell out the name of their wares. “Water! Cool water!” shouts one woman. “Tea and sugar!” calls someone else. “Watches!” “Batteries!” “Boiled manioc!”

The conductor shoves through the crowd, blowing on a whistle like a policeman after a bank robber. He perches on the steps to the bus and hands a clipboard to his assistant. Each passenger’s name is belted out at the top of the assistant’s lungs.

When my name is called, people look at me in amazement. With my white skin and strange Western clothing, I stand out like a sore thumb. But I had given the ticket agent my adopted Malian name and my African name wins me instant friends.

In the bus, I step over rolled-up prayer mats, plastic pails, and cloth-wrapped bundles. I accidentally kick a trussed-up chicken someone put in the aisle. Its squawks add to the din.

My seat-mate greets me in a language I don’t understand. I just smile, shake her hand, and greet her in English. She bursts out laughing at my funny-sounding words and offers me part of the orange she is eating.

Windows on buses are shopping outlets. Whenever the bus makes a stop, women and children run up and sell food to passengers through the window. Passengers with window seats must share their personal space with every hungry passenger in the near vicinity.

I snack on oranges, bread, bananas, peanuts, kabobs of grilled beef, and fried balls of flour and onions. The equivalent of a dollar in change keeps me fed for the day.

In my carry-on backpack, I have a bottle of water, two novels, and a magazine. Only Allah really knows how long this trip will take. We may get a flat tire or be held up for prayer.

At each stop, the bus driver sends his assistant into the station with the notebook listing names of the passengers. Anyone traveling without an ID is subject to a fine.

Westerners are either treated politely by the police or hit for a fine. The police may assume you are a rich foreigner who would rather hand over a couple of dollars than argue. As long as you travel with your passport and visa, there is no reason to be fined. Anyway, it is unlikely that you will be noticed while traveling in an African bus, especially if you give the ticket agent an African name.

We make a total of 20 stops along the way before reaching the capital city of Bamako around 2:30 p.m. I am hot and my legs ache from the cramped conditions, but we arrive safely and we have missed all the prayer calls. I collect my backpack from underneath the bus and find a taxi into town.

West African Cultural Do’s and Don’ts

Do:

1) Greet everyone with a smile and firm handshake with the right hand. It is considered the height of rudeness to speak to someone without greeting them first. If your right hand is dirty or wet, offer your wrist.

2) Bargain for everything you buy. No one will get offended if you suggest the price they are asking is too high. Bargaining is part of commerce. Exceptions: food items and goods in stores that cater to Westerners.

3) Offer small gifts to friends, such as a bag of tea and sugar (for a man), a bar of soap (for women), or 10 kola nuts (for older men). These are traditional gifts of respect and thanks. To show enormous gratitude to someone, buy them a sheep.

4) Wear loose, non-form-fitting clothes that cover your entire leg. West Africans wear shorts as underwear. A woman’s thighs are never displayed in public.

5) Offer part of the food you are eating to whomever is near you, even strangers. It is considered very rude to eat in front of people. Even if you barely have enough for yourself, you should nonetheless offer out of politeness. Most people will refuse by saying they are full or take only a small amount to be polite.

6) Adopt an African name. Western names are hard to pronounce and have no meaning in West Africa. African last names identity a person as a member of a clan, tribe, or other societal group, even if only as a temporary adopted member. When someone asks you what your name is, say you don’t have one and request that they give you a name. Most often they will give you their own last name and treat you like they would a cousin.

7) Treat anyone older than you with respect, and treat the elderly as if they are God’s prophets. Anything they say is true and cannot be denied. Give them everything they want, and go out of your way to show them respect. No one will side with you against an old person, and saying, “I am older than you,” if it’s true, will always get you your way.

Don’t:

1) Touch money, food, merchandise, or another person’s skin with your left hand. The left hand is used for dirty tasks, such as nose blowing and cleaning oneself.

2) Walk on someone’s mat with your shoes. West Africans carry plastic or woven mats with them everywhere they go. Mats are their magic carpets of cleanliness.

3) Sniff food that someone has given you or merchandise that you are interested in buying. The action of sniffing in West Africa is always taken as a gesture of disgust.

4) Whistle, especially at night. Whistling is considered strange, lewd, and unpleasant.

5) Stare people in the eyes. West Africans interpret this as a sexual come-on or belligerence. Make brief eye contact while speaking to someone then glance away.

6) Say no. Africans use the word “no” almost exclusively to negate a factually untrue statement, never to deny a request.

N.B. See articles written for Transitions Abroad called the "West African Travel Planner" and "Traveling Responsibly in West Africa" for more first-hand information.