One Year in West Africa

This week marks one year in West Africa. Always being on the go, I know a small amount about a large number of places. And while I no longer see rural areas as much as I’d like, the cities I’ve visited offer much insight to a region whose urbanization has more than quadrupled in the past few decades. Here are some superficial observations captured in brief:

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Beautiful Abidjan (Photo: UN/Basile Zoma)Abidjan is an illustration of contradictions. Despite its vastness, copious volumes of traffic and the post-conflict atmosphere, there’s something special about this city. With its tree-lined curvy roads, a lagoon bordered by forest and skyscrapers and an evident affluence mixed into the local African flavor, it’s no surprise that Abidjan used to be called, “The Paris of Africa.” During my most recent one-week trip there, the electricity went out only once whereas in other West African countries it goes out everyday, several times a day. One expat I met didn't even have a generator at home, something that is an absolute necessity in Côte d'Ivoire's neighboring countries.

Signs abound however of recent conflict: Bullet holes in walls, sandbags and cement blockades left behind by foreign armed forces and the ever-continuing presence of UN Peacekeepers, milling about town in their blue caps. Many international and local actors continue to address residual tensions through peacebuilding activities and awareness campaigns. The passing traveler might not see all this when interacting with Abidjaners. The level of politesse and kindness from Abidjan’s people is a formidable display of the capacity for resilience. One can only imagine how the city might have been if the conflicts had never occurred.

Accra, Ghana

One-third of Accra's population lives in slums (Photo: is a moving, shaking city, where one can zip from one end of town to the next at all hours of the day. It’s also one of the most developed cities in Africa. One can pamper themself here: spa treatments, swim in pools at five-star hotels, browse contemporary and traditional art galleries, dance salsa, listen to live jazz and dine at sushi restaurants. Accra is enjoying the economic boom of a country headed towards BRIC status. Every couple months I visit, a handful of new restaurants and businesses has cropped up. In fact, many expats and middle class Ghanaians live this incubated life, never seeing how one third of Accra residents live. 

Lomé, Togo

In my limited time spent in Lomé, I noted three things. First, there are many English speakers. Lomé’s 20-minute proximity to the Ghanaian border has resulted in a large volume of business activity between the two countries. Many educated Togolese have studied and/or lived in English-speaking Ghana at some point. Second, there appeared to be a general fear and frustration with a government perceived to be difficult and oppressive. Third, I found people to be very kind and warm. Even the busiest “grand chef” of an office would speak with me until I cut off the conversation, then walk me out to my car and wave as I drove away. Conversation would wrap up with a sweetly delivered, “Au plaisir!” (It was a pleasure.) Yes, I’m a sucker for politesse.

Cotonou, Bénin

Cotonou is basically a beach village with city aspects. The soil is sandy and the air filled with ocean. Motorcycles and big shipping trucks congest busy intersections, while fishing communities mobilize to pull in 50-meter-long nets from the ocean. Benin is also the shipping importation hub for used vehicles that are, in turn, transported throughout West Africa. Both African and non-African expats alike find the Beninois to be very difficult. Benin is consistently ranked one of the least happy countries in the world, an odd phenomenon considering its relative economic prosperity and political stability compared to other least happy countries.

Abuja, Nigeria

For the first time visitor, Nigeria is a bewildering place, where the volumes of everything are set to maximum. Abuja is a little like Las Vegas with African complexities. Twenty-five years ago, Abuja the capital did not exist. It was a small semi-arid town, consisting of Gwari villages. In the 1970s the oil industry boomed and the country decided to move its capital from Lagos to Abuja. Today it is a sprawling, multi-ethnic metropolis, with neatly planned converging and diverging highways and a display of new wealth like none other in Africa. I touched upon this in a long ago written post. Despite my initial bewilderment, I’ve grown to appreciate Nigeria for it’s richness in history, it’s complexity and the direct, what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature of people who just come right out and say if there's a problem and then forget about it the next day.


Nigeria: A Newcomer’s First Impressions

After several years of living in Africa, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m having a bit of culture shock.

I’ve been in Nigeria for a little over a week. And it would appear that this country is rather like sub-Saharan Africa on steroids. The volume of voices a little louder, the tolerance for n’importe quoi greater and the prevalence of enterprising crime more frequent. Nigerians like to think that they are “the Americans of Africa,” – Noisy. Impolite. Industrious. Resilient.

However, such generalizations are never fair or accurate. As I'm quickly learning, this is a vast, multi-dimensional country encompassing a wide spectrum of cultures, socio-economic levels, belief systems, languages and climates. Based on my very limited experience in country, here are some observations.

Nigeria (red) is 1.3 times the size of Texas (blue, left) and 1.5 times the size of France (blue, right).

First of all, Nigeria is gigantic. This past week, I flew from Abuja in the center of the country, to Owerri in Imo State. While it might seem like a small distance on the map, the flight was one hour. Here are a couple size comparators to put things in perspective.

Naturally the sheer geographical size of Nigeria translates to climate variations. A scorching sun, dry heat and savannah grasslands embrace the nation’s capital, Abuja. Meanwhile, the southeast is graced with slightly cooler temperature, greater humidity and lush tropical vegetation. This week, the average temperature in Abuja is 35C/95F, in Owerri 30C/86F.

Nigeria hosts vast array of ethnic diversity. Between 250 and 500 ethnic groups lie within the country’s borders, including the Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5% and Tiv 2.5%. Of the main languages illustrated in this map, there are an estimated 500 dialects.

Main languages of Nigeria (Photo: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection)

English is also widely spoken throughout the country. But those with an American accent be warned! You’ll be more easily understood if you imitate a British accent. "I’d like a bottle of wha-tuh." "I read the news pay-puh."

The range of economic levels in Nigeria is as vast as its cultures. On the African continent, Nigeria’s GDP is second only to South Africa’s and is expected surpass its southern rival within the next decade. Nigeria boasts a 6% growth rate compared to South Africa’s 2%.

Despite the perception of its market being risk prone, Nigeria is ripe for investment. Forbes magazine recently compared the country’s economy to Brazil’s, "rich in petroleum but blessed with an abundance of other resources and a population that is only now starting to live up to their potential as consumers."

Signs of affluence are clearly visible in Abuja. Million-dollar cars pepper the streets and designer bags the likes of New York’s Fifth Avenue grace women’s shoulders. Last month, Lagos hosted its third annual Fashion and Design Week, an event sponsored by several multi-national companies that showcased the work of Nigerian designers to the new, wealthy elite with Naira (Nigerian currency) burning in their pockets.

Abuja's ridiculous highways (Photo: beyond the petrol-financed, intertwining highways of Abuja and the glitz of Lagos lie a host of slums and people living in poverty. Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics determined that in 2010 61% of the country was living in poverty. That rate is increasing annually.

Lack of affordable housing in Abuja and other major cities has pushed much of the working class into overcrowded settlements, lacking latrines and running water. The UN Agency for Human Settlement estimates that half the country (71 million people) live in slums.

Indeed such rifts have caused great factions in Nigerian society. This, however, is a topic best saved for next time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I’m off to have my di-nuh (dinner).


Brief Thoughts on Typhoon Haiyan

While I've never been to the Visays Region where Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, it behooves me to say a few things about this catastrophic storm and its aftermath.

The Washington Post, which seems to like maps as much as I, published a collection of 8 maps, visualizing why the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan was so insurmountable. One image was particularly profound in demonstrating Typhoon Haiyan's monstrosity:

Philippines (in red) and the storm, shown to scale with the U.S. (Image: The New Republic)The largess of the storm covered an area nearly equivalent to the entirety of U.S. states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Typhoon Haiyan was felt throughout the archipelago's 3,000-plus islands. And as it hit the Philippines, the storm had escalated to category 5.

Perhaps this will be a wake up call for the Philippine government to take a more active role in ensuring that its people are better prepared for storms to come.

There's a Filipino proverb that says: As long as there is life, there is still hope.



Benin vs. Burundi: A Comparative Case Study of Two Tiny Countries

Total airtime from Burundi to Benin: 12 hours.It appears that I'm destined for tiny countries that start with "B".

I've moved from Burundi in East Africa to Benin in West Africa. It's easy to forget how big the African Continent is. Though the distance on the map might not seem far, my total air time (not including stopovers) from Burundi to Benin was 12 hours. 

Many have asked about the differences between the two countries. Given my limited knowledge and time spent in Burundi and Benin (I've in Benin less than one week), here is a synthesis of what I've been told by Burundian and Beninois people and what I've seen firsthand.

The largest city in Benin is Cotonou. Compared to Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, Cotonou is a bustling, expansive city with people out at all hours of the night. Street vendors selling corn, electronics, tupperware, watches, posters and just about anything else you can imagine weave in and out, between the vehicles stopped in traffic.

 Compared to Bujumbura, Cotonou is much older. It's beginnings date back to 1830, when the King of Dahomey (now Benin) established the fishing village of Cotonou as a slave trading post. While the slave trade only lasted two decades, Cotonou quickly grew into a major trading hub for palm oil and cotton. Cotonou boomed into a major city after the port was established in 1908. Today Cotonou hosts some of the greatest trading activity in the West African region.

Paris-based Beninois photographer, Mayeul Akpovi, captures the hustle and bustle of Cotonou in this time-lapse video.

Bujumbura on the other hand, was largely uninhabited until the 1870s, when invaders from Zanzibar settled in the area and engaged in slave trade and commerce. In 1897, German settlers moved to the area and established a port along Lake Tanganyika, as well as adminstrative offices, residences and a prison. It quickly became an important post for traders from present-day Congo and other areas bordering the lake. Nonetheless until the 1950s, the town consisted primarily of a handful of dirt roads, administrative buildings and houses. In fact, it wasn't until 2009 that most of Bujumbura's roads were paved.

Left: Bujumbura in the 1950s (Photo: Unknown). Right: Bujumbura on newly paved roads in 2011 (Photo: Yogesh Masuria).

In part because Burundi's past has been riddled with conflict, Bujumbura remains a sleepy, little town. It's streets are empty and quiet after 9pm - a throwback to the days of the most recent emergency. I suspect that Bujumbura will look like Cotonou in a couple decades, if it succeeds in staying away from armed violence and can move past its crippling corruption towards a greater level of formalized trade.

More differences will undoubtedly appear in time. I've been in Benin less than one week and have only begun to scratch the surface.


The Batwa

Batwa children. (Photo:“Before, we had no dignity. Now we can afford proper clothing, make a decent living, and hold our heads high,” said the leader of a Batwa community outside of Bujumbura.

A couple weeks ago, I visited a village that is home to the Batwa, a traditional, hunter-gatherer community of pygmy origins, which comprises 1% of Burundi’s population. The Batwa are spread across Central Africa, from Uganda in the east to Angola in the west. They were the first to inhabit the land that today comprises Burundi. They are also the most marginalized, vulnerable community in the country.

Burundi’s heavy dependence on land has resulted in massive deforestation and reduced availability of land. Such conditions have made it difficult for the Batwa to continue their traditional hunter-gatherer life. The typical Batwa today struggles to put food on the table by either tilling land that belongs to others (read: indentured servitude) or selling clay pots used for cooking at a rate far cheaper than the amount of labor that goes into making them.

However all is not lost for the Batwa. Several have “made it,” achieving a university education and holding steady, well-paid jobs in Bujumbura and the larger towns. A handful even hold high-level posts in the government.

The reception my team received when visiting the Batwa community was exhilarating and humbling. The women of the village sang and danced their hearts out. It was a moving expression of gratitude for how far they had come. Here is a video of the reception they gave us:

This community has ameliorated their living conditions and has been relatively successful in earning a living through agriculture and small-animal husbandry. Unlike many other Batwa, this community was not trapped in feudal farming, nor struggling to eat. But they reminded us that there remained dozens of other communities scattered across Burundi that still lived in destitution and should not be forgotten.