My West Africa eye-openers: 4 weeks of adventure travel in the region – 2 weeks of backpacking along the Ivory Coast, through Ghana, Togo and Benin. Then 2 weeks of relief work. 900 kilometers from Abidjan / Ivory Coast to the destination in Abomey-Calavi. An impressive journey that not only leaves a lasting impression in the photo album, but also plays a major role in personal development.
I am writing these lines from the perspective of a middle class Western European.
Here you can read what I learned in West Africa. I would like to take these experiences with me into my everyday life and remind myself as often as possible.
My BIG5 West Africa eye openers for everyday life
… and make yourself aware of how well we are doing!
Nevertheless, we are often in a bad mood in everyday life: The search for a parking space took a little longer, the favorite pizza was sold out (insolence!) And the Starbucks share fell 3.7% today! Yes, if that’s not a reason to complain and be dissatisfied!
And you know what? I could be that person. Loudly whining about the classic “First World Problems“, exactly what we consider “problems” in our rich world.
But stop! We are doing extremely well: we have everything you need to live – and mostly an infinite amount more.
We have electricity – always! There are no interruptions to be prepared for. Power outages are extremely rare. There is wifi in many places, often even free of charge. Everyone has running water – always. Toilet and shower comfortably in the house. You have your own place on public transport. A good infrastructure for roads and buildings. Health insurance. A social system that catches you.
Wait, water, shower? Everything is standard! Not at all! Especially when you are couchsurfing in West Africa, you come into contact with many locals, some of whom live in the simplest of conditions. You drive through villages without electricity and running water – sometimes also in my accommodation options. Experience a lot that is so fundamentally different. My host in Lomé was a street vendor of clothing with a few square meters of main street as a sales area. He couldn’t work with a knee injury for weeks. “Continued payment of wages”? Insurance? Nada
We live in luxury, don’t forget that – and stop whining about “important things” that suddenly become small things in a large context!
West Africa Eye Openers: Exercise patience and be flexible
We also know long and dense traffic jams. Clogged streets, nothing works anymore. This is also standard in many West African metropolises, especially at rush hour. It is a bad sign if passengers of buses or taxis suddenly get off miles and go on foot because it may help them get there faster.
You should also have a lot of patience with many forms of public transport, even BEFORE departure: It only starts when the vehicle is occupied to the last seat (and not infrequently beyond). This is extremely annoying when you’re in a hurry anyway and don’t want to waste time. A classic in West Africa, but also known to me from Nairobi and other cities in the east. That may not be a problem in the rush hour: Many passengers have quickly gathered on the bus for all conceivable destinations and off they go. However, outside of rush hours, this can take any length of time.
I had such an experience in Elubo / Ghana. Immediately after crossing the border from the Ivory Coast I wanted to continue, I had a lot of plans for that day and wanted to reach the Cape Coast about 4 hours away as quickly as possible – a long list of points to look at. But after noon the rush hour with cross-border commuters was over – and 12 seats had to be filled on the bus. I watched every person entering the bus station so hopefully – an hour, two hours, three hours. After dark and waiting around 4 hours, there were still no 12 passengers on the bus, but at least enough to leave. Arrival in Cape Coast: around 11:30 p.m. Sightseeing? Canceled for today …
Deutsche Bahn is not exactly famous for its punctuality. For most means of transport in Africa, however, there is no such thing as a timetable. It may take longer. Much longer. Be prepared for something like this, even at home in everyday life. Use the time wisely: a good book, a conversation with the other waiting people – or just close your eyes and relax. Not everything can be planned and sometimes it works very differently than expected. No matter how angry or upset you are, there is often nothing you can do but wait patiently. And the Africans can definitely do that better than we can – even without smartphone games and the TikTok app.
So, be patient and don’t plan too much, everything will be different if in doubt.
Everyone strives for improvement, no matter what level
When mentioning West Africa, thoughts wander to poor countries and starving people. But that’s not a general rule, there are big differences. Here too the gap between rich and poor is wide open. The dark Benz drives past the beggar in the streets of Accra.
It is interesting to observe that people all over the world are striving for improvement. Want to gradually ease everyday life, change for the better. For many, this starts with organizing the next meal, not for themselves, but for the children.
Some are easy to help, others more difficult. We also strive for improvement in some form – every day, at our high level.
Do your part to actively support this improvement
This is how you can help developing countries sustainably
On site in West Africa and employees at a non-profit organization, the question naturally arises of how one can really help poor regions sustainably. I took the following two points with me as essential:
Improvement of educational offers & infrastructure
It is crucial to improve education and the associated infrastructure. For many years, especially among the white colonialists, people were deliberately kept “stupid” – not only in West Africa. One was not interested in an educated population, true to the motto “knowledge is power“. Today, many problems can be sustainably improved through higher education: unemployment or the containment of infectious and sexually transmitted diseases.
The many children in particular are becoming more and more of a challenge: in contrast to western societies, they are getting younger and younger in Africa. The large number of children is the consequence of a lack of education about contraception and / or old ways of thinking about how many children ensure lifelong care. This is precisely why the construction of schools and the expansion of educational offers is so important, but in some cases cannot be traded with this number.
During my time in Benin, I myself accompanied and supported representatives of the “Bildungswerks Westafrika”, who are doing immensely important and successful work by building schools in all parts of the country. You can find more information about the Bildungswerk on the official website.
Purchase of local products – also in development aid
A second essential point is the purchase of local products. Even aid organizations often make things less than optimal by buying a lot of relief goods such as food or material in Europe or other western countries. The primary goal is clearly to care for people in need. But on the way there, other people could benefit massively.
I have seen huge fertile strips of land in both West and East Africa. If there is a famine in West Africa, goods from East Africa should be bought if possible, the proceeds of which will benefit the people there. Aid should, if possible, be bought by local companies instead of being flown in from Europe.
In this way, a donation can help twice: the local producer and the recipient.
Improve educational offers & the corresponding infrastructure and pay attention to the purchase of local products for development aid
West Africa Eye Openers: Be thankful for your health and maintain it
I visited villages in West Africa without electricity and running water, the people there were satisfied with what they had and very motivated to help build a new school building. You obviously don’t need much to be satisfied – as long as you are healthy.
Because there is one thing you won’t find in such remote villages: A good medical infrastructure. No one has health insurance there. And when something is needed, money quickly runs out. I myself had an infection in Africa. Immediately you are restricted, the daily journey to the hospital is long and difficult. Treatment and medication are only available for cash. And even the better hospitals are far from our standard.
If someone gets seriously ill here, it can quickly become critical and so everyone does what they can to avoid it. There are always latent questions in the back of my mind like “Have I applied enough bug spray?” in the back of my mind. Every small buzzing on the ear represents a potential danger, malaria and dengue fever greet you.
In western countries, we operate at a higher level of the health system, are insured and have access to medicines and doctors. But still:
Be thankful for your health and try to keep it as good as possible. Every day.
To summarize my BIG5 West Africa eye openers for everyday use:
- We live in luxury, don’t forget that
- Exercise patience and do not plan too much, everything will be different if in doubt
- Do your part to actively support the improvement of others
- Improve educational offers & the corresponding infrastructure and pay attention to the purchase of local products for development aid
- Be thankful for your health and try to keep it as good as possible
Sure, you learn these points not only in West Africa, but in many different places around the world. It is important that you have this experience and take the “West Africa Eye Openers” home with you as a permanent souvenir.
Would you like to read more about my backpacking trip in West Africa? Have a look here:
- Backpacking in West Africa – Unexpected natural beauty
- Adventure and aid mission in Benin / West Africa
Have you had any such or similar experiences while traveling? I’m looking forward to your comment!