Wednesday 19 December 2007

Rainforest ransack

The world's rainforests – including the little patches left in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria, and the much larger area on the fringe of the Congo basin in Cameroon – are under attack. Around the world every second, an area equivalent to a football pitch (half a hectare, 50m x 100m) is cut down, or burned.

A football pitch every second.

This animation gets the point across pretty well. Stop the loggers by paying local people to hold onto their trees. Visit CoolEarth.

Friday 10 August 2007

Great new West Africa maps

While editing the new edition of the Rough Guide to West Africa, I've been using an excellent new map of the region published by Reise Know-How, the lively German travel publisher, in their World Mapping Project Series. In fact there are two maps of West Africa, one covering the southern countries, from about 18°N southwards and one I haven't seen yet covering the northern part of the bulge. They're both double-sided, at 1:2.2m, in other words 1cm = 22km, which is almost twice the scale of the Michelin map of the region, the classic "Michelin 153", now the Michelin 741 which is 1cm = 40km. Curiously, the West Africa Michelin map has been out of print for several months and a new edition, due in May 2007, is still awaited. As Reise Know-How prints their maps on plastic paper called Polyart, they will actually survive a pounding for several months while you carry them around. They're certainly more detailed than the Michelin (compare these clips from the Bamako region), and indications are they're more accurate too. You can get them from good map stockists, like Stanfords in London, or direct from Reise Know-How. Highly recommended (and Michelin has had a long innings. . .).

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Gambia President in attention-seeking video

Well he has my attention. You have to see this. You'll need a supermarket trolley for your jaw.

Thursday 5 July 2007

Designer hotels in Mali

There are several interesting new hotel ventures in Mali that visitors with a bit more disposable CFA will want to know about. One of the nicest, with great touches like homemade bread, real coffee and chilled millet beer, is the Djenné-Djenno, just outside Djenné (left), whose anglo-Swedish owner blogs about life in Djenné – and Mali in djeneral. Highly reocommended. In Mopti you've got La Maison Rouge and and in Timbuktu, or Tombouctou to use the local spelling, there's La Maison - both the work of a Parisian architect. Actually, I say these are likely to appeal to better-off travellers, but in fact the rooms at the Djenné-Djenno, for example,are incredibly good value in European/North American terms – as in £18 ($36) for a twin room [corrected by owner's comment as now £25 or $50 as they're all air-conditioned].
The "Maison" hotels are £35 for a double or twin ($70) which, considering they're good Hip Hotel candidates, is remarkably inexpensive. They make some of the other places that have been around for years look pretty poor value. And yet these new establishments are walking a tightrope with local authorities and vested interests. It's a wonderful sign of Mali's growing confidence and success that people want to put their money there – so long as that vote of trust is matched by sensitivity to the plight of local people at the bottom of the heap – for whom a £20 hotel room would represent a month's work, at least, if they had a job – and all the guides and wannabe guides who compete for enough cash to get by on. So far, however, it looks like the new hotels are having a very positive impact. Do leave feedback if you try them.

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Meanwhile, in Mali. . .

. . .they've just blown their wonderful press freedom position by prosecuting five journalists and a teacher for "insulting Mali's president" over a school creative writing assignment in which students were asked to write a humorous essay about the (fictional) mistress of a (fictional) president. Malian defence lawyers, quite rightly, boycotted the sentencing.

At least you don't get much of the sub-sub-News of the World/National Enquirer level of reportage that is so common in Nigeria.

But what a way to spoil an increasingly good record on press freedom. And now I've got to re-write the "Media" paragraph in the Mali chapter. . .

Missing Penis in Uncensored News Shock

Thanks to Jeremy Weate's consistently entertaining and informative Naijablog for alerting me to this journalistic gem:

"Rivers: Police arrest woman over missing organ

CHINEDU WOSU, Port Harcourt

Tragedy struck in Port Harcourt, the Rivers state capital when a middle age young man male’s organ disappeared in a fast food restaurant located along the Trans- Amadi industrial area.

The sad incident took place Thursday evening at about 4.30pm as the victim was waiting for a taxi before a lady approached him and had a touch on his body before his male organ got missing. . ."

It goes on: read the whole crazy nonsense here

Wednesday 20 June 2007

Que la terre lui soit légère…

[photo © Point-Afrique unless I'm advised otherwise]
A very nicely written little obituary here, from the Point-Afrique newsletter, of one of Africa's pioneer film-makers, the Senegalese director, Sembène Ousmane. I'm not going to try to translate this; some expressions just sound so much better in French.

c’est celui que nous voudrions adresser à Sembène Ousmane. Le doyen, l’aîné des pionniers comme on avait coutume de l’appeler, est décédé dans la nuit du 9 juin dernier. Né à Ziguinchor en 1923, il fut enrôlé dans l’armée coloniale en 1942, puis travailla après la guerre comme docker sur le port de Marseille, jusqu’en 1960. Il rentra alors au Sénégal pour se consacrer d’abord à l’écriture, puis au cinéma, dans une volonté de toucher le plus grand nombre de ses compatriotes. Pionnier parmi les pionniers du cinéma africain, il étudia le 7e art à Moscou et signa son premier court métrage, Borom Sarret en 1963. Avec La Noire de… son premier long métrage - le premier également à avoir été produit et réalisé en Afrique - il inaugura une longue série de pamphlets contre les exactions coloniales (Emitaï, Camp de Thiaroye), la bourgeoisie et les classes dirigeantes sénégalaises (Le Mandat, Xala), les religions (Ceddo) mais aussi en faveur des femmes (Guelwaar, Faat Kiné, Mooladé). Célèbre pour ses prises de positions tranchées et sans concession, il a toute sa vie milité pour des valeurs humanistes et pour la dignité de «l’homme noir». Sembène Ousmane, l’homme à la pipe va manquer au cinéma, au continent, à nous tous. Que la terre lui soit légère…

Filmographie :
1963 : Borom Saret (court-métrage)
1963 : L’empire Songhay (court-métrage documentaire)
1964 : Niaye
1966 : La Noire de...
1968 : Le Mandat
1970 : Taaw
1971 : Emitaï, Dieu du Tonnerre
1974 : Xala
1976 : Ceddo
1987 : Camp de Thiaroye
1992 : Guelwaar
2000 : Faat Kiné
2004 : Mooladé

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

If you don't know Point-Afrique, they're one of the best and cheapest ways of getting from Europe (France only) to West Africa: Djanet, Tamanrasset, Cotonou, Ouagadougou, Bamako, Gao, Mopti, Atar, Agadez (normally), Niamey and Dakar, with all their net profits being reinvested in the local economies of host countries. I'd urge you to check them out.

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Attack on Agadez airport, Niger

This is not good. The random attack on the international airport at Agadez on Sunday 17th June (no casualties or damage, they say) by a bunch of Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) fighters, apparently firing from a 4x4, means it looks like the whole northern region of Niger may be off-limits to travellers for some time to come. Already travel between towns in the north is restricted to vehicles with military escorts. Using the trans-Saharan routes out of and into northern Niger is strongly advised against, though, as usual, at the time of posting, there was no up-to-date advice from the British FCO based on this news. It's probably hard for them to know what to say, as the UK has no embassy in Niger, the ambassador responsible for Niger being the British High Commissioner in Accra, Ghana, 2000 miles away.

Saturday 16 June 2007

The Gold Coast Slave Trade

The first four editions of the Rough Guide to West Africa don't have a lot to say about slavery. I'm not sure why. Maybe when we first wrote the book it seemed too obvious or well known a subject to be able – or to need – to add any more. But there's a great deal of documented history, showing how the slave trade had a momentum of its own that swept up the slave-acquirers, the slave-sellers, and the slave-buyers. It's a fascinating and of course disturbing, complex, contradictory story. Anyway, when editing the recently updated Ghana chapter, I decided to add a separate account of slavery in Ghana. Here's the draft of what will apppear in the next edition.

The Gold Coast Slave Trade
The earliest Portuguese traders on the coast were seeking to outflank Europe’s traditional suppliers of gold from the region, the trans-Saharan caravans. There was also a ready supply of human captives available for trade. Although by the middle of the sixteenth century, the market for slaves was waning in Europe, it was booming in Portugal’s new island colonies off the African Coast – the Cape Verdes and São Tomé – and in Brazil, which by 1600 was a major slave importer. The pace of colonization in the Caribbean and the Americas soon became so fast, and the demand for slaves to work the plantations so great, that Dutch and English, together with a few French, Danish, Swedish and even Prussian traders, soon came to fulfill a trans-Atlantic demand that the Portuguese alone were unable to meet. The Gold Coast slave trade was one segment, perhaps a tenth, of an African trade that also featured Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the “Windward Coast” (present-day Liberia), the “Slave Coast” (present day Porto Novo to Lagos), the Niger Delta and Cameroons, the Congo and Angola.

In 1700, the population of what is now Ghana is estimated to have been about one million. During the course of the eighteenth century, the numbers of slaves from the Gold Coast forts sold into the Middle Passage (the central leg of the Europe–Africa–Americas–Europe trading triangle), rose from around 2,000 a year to perhaps 10,000, with up to two out of three being men and boys aged between 8 and 20. The majority of Gold Coast slaves were deported to the Caribbean, where they worked for the rest of their lives on British, Dutch, French or Spanish sugar plantations. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, there were relatively few slaves in the North American colonies. But by 1750, Charleston and other ports were starting to buy African slaves from Caribbean traders. By the end of the eighteenth century, the USA was importing slaves directly, to work the cotton and tobacco fields supplying European factories.

It is estimated that for every 100 slaves who survived the crossing, 50 to 100 died, perishing during capture, while on the overland trek to the coast, while awaiting shipment in the dungeons, or at sea. The impact of removing so many of the fittest and most able young people – perhaps averaging ten percent each year from affected communities – was devastating, akin to a pandemic: every family suffered direct consequences as husbands, brothers and sons, as well as wives, sisters and daughters, were captured or disappeared. The population in the Gold Coast, which had been increasing by forty percent each century, hardly changed for more than 100 years. The best available estimate is that around a million slaves were transported from the Gold Coast to the Americas between 1600 and the mid-nineteenth century, when the (by then illegal) trade finally dried up.

Some slaves were convicts, others were kidnapped deliberately, but the majority of slaves were taken from communities destroyed in wars or ruined in the aftermath of conflict – for example during famines when families often pawned children who they were unable to care for to richer communities. The period of the Asante empire’s greatest military expansion, 1699–1800, coincided with a period of rapid growth in the American colonies and the start of the industrial revolution in around 1770 (and the same period saw the deportation of an estimated 700,000 slaves). During this time, the Asante enslaved hundreds of thousands of enemy combatants, refugees and civilians – especially from truculent vassal states in the Northern, Upper West and Upper East Regions of present-day Ghana, as well as from further afield in present-day Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina and Togo – and sold them to Fante middlemen who passed them on to the fort-based traders, receiving payment largely in firearms, in a spiraling cycle of aggressive expansionism. The few dozen Fante-speaking Europeans based on the coast virtually never engaged directly in slave capture, only rarely venturing inland and remaining in the forts to manage their import-export businesses.

How much the slave trade drove the Asante military machine, and how much it was driven by it, is hard to say, but the trade itself was certainly driven as much by the African demand for European goods – cloth, liquor, metal tools, straight cash and especially firearms and gunpowder – as by the insatiable demand from the Americas for slaves and by the unquenchable appetite of the European cash economies for sugar and cotton.

Down on the coast, captives were canoed through the surf, then herded onto slave ships anchored offshore, where they sometimes waited months for them to fill. Or they spent long periods in overcrowded dungeons and holding pens in the forts – or “factories” as the early English traders called them – run mostly by British or Dutch chartered trading companies, with a mixture of paid and enslaved local labour. Once embarked on the Middle Passage, a voyage of five to seven weeks, conditions for slave deportees were grim and terrifying. On their backs, bent forwards, or paired together to save space, they were shackled in irons, in claustrophobic confinement, for hours on end. Captains concerned for their cargo’s health – or for reduced losses – brought the slaves onto the main deck during the day, but in rough weather they were confined between decks for days at a time. In Britain, the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788 stipulated a space allowance of 6ft by 1ft 4in (1.8m by 0.4m) for each adult man. But such legal niceties carried little weight and paled in relation to the reality: washing was rarely possible; excrement accumulated in the waste tubs; disease spread rapidly; bodies were disposed of overboard; and punishment beatings and forced feeding were not uncommon.

Although there was undoubtedly public consternation about the slave trade, the business peaked at a time when the legal rights of Europeans themselves were embryonic in comparison with today: in Britain, transportation to Australia (effectively as slave labour) was a routine punishment and burning at the stake still practised. From the 1760s, reformists lobbied for a ban, but it was the slave revolt on Haiti (1792–1804) that triggered moves toward an end to the trade. The trading nations, partly sensitized by French revolution and the newly independent United States of America, partly terrified of what the future might bring if more slave revolts should occur, steadily turned against the trade. The first Europeans to outlaw the slave trade were the Danish, in 1804, followed by the British in 1807. Other trading nations followed suit, but it wasn’t until the British abolition of the institution of slavery itself, in 1833, that the trade began to decline rapidly, to be replaced by a burgeoning trade in ivory, hides and, later in the nineteenth century, palm oil for the soap and chemical industries. In the Gold Coast, palm oil was produced mostly on Asante and Fante palm plantations – worked partly with slave labour.

Friday 15 June 2007

US Troops in Mali

We've heard before about US military personnel in West Africa – the story goes back several years and isn't denied. It just doesn't get much of airing. What are they actually doing? To get anecdotal chat about their presence in northern Mali, from this Kidal community website, is interesting. I think it probably tells you more about how resentment grows from idle chat – or is the opening remark below deliberately provocative? – to extremism and violence than any complex bird's eye analysis. For those who don't speak French, I'll try to summarise the conversation:

scipion (15 June 2007, 1.12pm) asks:
Sound of American boots in Kidal
What can we say about what the troops and the American tanks are doing in Kidal? Invasion? Colonisation? Training? Manouevres?

al-ansary (15 June 2007, 2.44pm) says:
they treat everybody who is against them or who asks questions about the purpose of these troops, that person is considered a terrorist or somebody giving support to terrorism. so, brothers on the ground, look out, and be aware that every word, each movement is noticed by uncle sam. He is always looking for excuses to plant himself on the ground. He even tries to provoke quarrels. The history of the usa abroad is full of that sort of thing.

diallo (15 June 2007, 4.46pm) doesn't agree:
Mali has agreements with the USA and they are here to train elite Malian troops. What's more, they don't have tanks or armoured vehicles. Let's not exaggerate.

scipion (15 June 2007, 7.03pm comes back:
Sorry Mr Diallo, but they certainly have come with armoured vehicles. I didn't say anything about tanks. And I'm not exaggerating.


Meanwhile, in a town not far away (Gao, down on the River Niger) a largely benign arm of American foreign policy, the Peace Corps, in the shape of one volunteer, is assisting in running the best travel website in Mali, and one of the country's poorest regions. Brilliant stuff from M. Kata Data Alhousseini Maïga and his team – more power to their keyboards!

Monday 11 June 2007

A Ghana blogroll – kind of

2 comments (Trials/Tribulations of a Freshly-Arrived Denizen…of Ghana) (Photo Blog of Accra by Day and Night) (Global Voices, which seeks to amplify, among other things, non-Western blogs—supported by Reuters) (Critical/Progressive Look at Regional Integration) (recently-graduated Journalist from the UK writing about Africa, and the Media, with occasional focus on West Africa/Ghana)

Many thanks to Emmanuel Bensah for kindly sending me this list. "I'd like to recommend a few site on Ghana, including mine" he wrote. And indeed his (the first in the list), and the are both full of today's/this week's/this month's news and flavours, especially on Accra. The other three sites aren't particularly Ghanaian, though Global Voices Online and Regions Watch are both very worthwhile. Adam Westbrook's excellent journalist's blog has some very useful West Africa links, particularly Sociolingo.

Thursday 7 June 2007

More news from Casamance

Rough Guide's Senegal updater, Roger Norum, was in Casamance recently. Here's his report on security in the area.

Security in Basse Casamance

"The bulk of the civil unrest in the Basse Casamance between the Senegalese government and various, disunified and dissident factions of the MFDC separatist movement had largely died down in 2004 once the peace treaty was signed with the rebels. At the time of writing, however, sporadic conflict had escalated in the region following the 2007 Senegalese elections, and there have since been occasional reports of highway banditry along the region’s borders.

Much of Casamance’s dangerous reputation has come from these intermittent road ambushes by rebels turned bandits: a Red Cross worker was killed in late 2006 when her vehicle struck a newly-placed land mine on an unpaved road in Tandine, northeast of Ziguinchor; four people were killed in early 2007 when their bus was attacked after being stopped at a roadblock; and in May, 2007 there were reports of shootings along the Gambian border. Such incidents have rarely involved tourists, but the British Foreign Office and the US State Department still advise visitors against travel to the region.

In practice, while some parts of Casamance were still no-go zones because of rebel activity and/or land mines – notably the forests south of the Kolda-Ziguinchor-Cap Skiring road, including the Basse Casamance National Park, and a couple of stretches along the Gambian border – other areas haven’t seen any armed conflict in years, if ever. During my visit in April, the main regional roads were on the whole considered to be quite safe during the day, thanks to army roadblocks and police checkpoints. And once inside Ziguinchor, Cap Skiring and other villages traditionally popular with tourists, the security risks were virtually non-existent – certainly smaller than being mugged in Dakar, for example.

The dilemma, then, seems not to be whether to go Casamance – since once you're there it feels quite safe, so long as you don’t venture far off the touristed routes – but how to get there in the first place. As the roads seem to be where the trouble lies, the best options for arrival are the daily flights or twice-weekly ferries from Dakar. Of course, things could deteriorate at short notice, so you should check the latest security situation before you go. Most people in other parts of Senegal will be full of dire warnings about Casamance, but unless you meet someone who has been there recently, it may be hard to discern some objective truth out of what you hear. You can get a more reliable account of the situation from the bush-taxi drivers who travel to Ziguinchor every day, or just by calling one of the Ziguinchor hotels, especially Le Flamboyant or Le Kadiandoumagne.

Friday 20 April 2007

Casamance is safe!

News from our updater Roger Norum, in Senegal, who had been advised in Dakar to give Casamance a miss, or, if he went, to be extremely careful. People made it sound like a war zone.

Roger writes:

"– Flew to Casamance, it was superb
– The friendliest people of my entire trip
– Great response from ppl, really excited to get tourism up and running again
– A few new projects going on, lots of campements restored over past few years
– Am amazed how much bum advice I was given in Dakar about going
– Completely safe in southern Basse Casamance and on new tarmac road from Zig–Cap Skirring
– A bit less safe (and certainly a lot more military presence) in the North and along the Gambian border"

Thursday 5 April 2007

President running out of diseases to cure

President Doctor Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia has been much in demand in the country's handful of hospitals since the beginning of the year, when he discovered he could cure AIDS with special potions and a personal visit. Most officials are maintaining a dignified silence on the spectacle, though the health minister has endorsed the cure, but as the treatment requires a high level of commitment from the patients, including giving up their expensive anti-retroviral drugs, it can only be a matter of time before nature takes its course and somebody's relative feels they have to speak out. Meanwhile, Jammeh's talents are broadening to include diabetes and asthma.

Friday 30 March 2007

Better news from Guinea

President Lansana Conté is still hanging on, but his new prime minister, Lansana Kouyaté, has been given a good slab of credit by most Guineans and it looks like a new government is about to be formed.

On the practical side, the British FCO advisory has been downgraded to "Advise against all but essential travel" which is staying on the safe side during an uncertain period, but which, from insurance purposes, seems to mean that essential travel will be covered. You'll need to contact your insurer directly about this, tell them the travel is essential, and that should clear it. On the ground, I've heard no reports of further confrontations between army and demonstrators and most people seem to be prepared to be patient again. But you need to keep a close eye on the news. Students at Labé University, in the Fouta Djalon (a region traditionally at odds with the Susu ruling elite in Conakry) have been out on strike for the last few days, protesting against a completely neglected education system. Protest is habit-forming, especially when fully justified.

Thursday 15 February 2007

Guinea update from Ross Velton, Bissau


“I have got to know the guy in charge at the Guinean Embassy here in Bissau quite well over the past few days. I went to see him this morning for an update on the situation in Guinea-Conakry. His assertion that it was “very good” is obviously diplomatic rhetoric, and it must be said that his take on what is going on in his own country has often contradicted what I have heard from NGO workers in Guinea-Bissau and, indeed, the BBC World Service reports. This is not necessarily his fault, since I imagine that the government in Conakry has bigger priorities at the moment than keeping embassy officials updated. Today he was reporting that the Guinea-Bissau/Guinea-Conakry borders were open from midday to 6pm. However, travellers staying at my hotel were turned away from the border yesterday, so I am sceptical that the borders are open today. On my last visit to the Guinean Embassy, I was told that the borders would be closed until at least tomorrow. Even if you can enter Guinea-Conakry, the curfew (from 6pm to midday) - which the army are enforcing, sometimes quite violently - will restrict travel, and a general strike means that nothing is open.”
Ross Velton, by email, 15th February 2007

Tuesday 13 February 2007

Guinea – too dangerous to visit

Guinea, one of West Africa's most stimulating and normally enjoyable countries to travel in, has now become more stimulating than most travellers would want, with the resumption of a general strike aiming to force the country's president to stand down, and his statement that the country was now at siege and that the army should restore order at all costs. Lansana Conté who has ruled since the country's first president, the dictator Sékou Touré died in 1984, has increasingly lost his grip on power. The final straw was the January general strike, when the country's powerful unions forced him to appoint an independent prime minister, and then rejected his choice as being too close to the presidency. The gloves now seem to be off on both sides, but it's not yet clear how much of the army Conté can count on to support him. Meanwhile, the streets of the capital, Conakry, and many other towns, are scenes of chaos and confusion, with official and unofficial roadblocks and incidents of banditry and looting on the increase as the long-suffering people of this rich and beautiful country – admittedly mostly the wilder young men of this rich and beautiful country – seize their opportunity to hit back and grab what they can. Our researcher on the ground in the region has just emailed from Guinea-Bissau to say that he managed to get a visa, but we've agreed he's going to stay clear of Guinea-Conakry for now and move on to his next assignment, Burkina Faso. Most expatriates living in Guinea have now evacuated to Dakar or Freetown and Air France has cancelled its Conakry flights.

The BBC, as usual, is updating regularly. You should also have a look at the following blogs, though they aren't all being updated frequently, and some owners are no longer in Guinea.

News from Guinea and Friends of Guinea
Bonnie's Peace Corps Experience in Guinea
Letters from Guinea

Friday 9 February 2007

Attacks in Niger

Look out for yourselves if travelling in northern and eastern Niger. An army base near Iférouane was attacked, allegedly by Touareg gunmen, yesterday. There was also at least one attack on some tourist vehicles in late December between Arlit and Agadez, reported by the 153 Club. They robbed everyone and took the vehicles. This was pure banditry, and nobody was reported injured, but being stranded out there with little food and water, before being rescued by Nigerien police, is no joke. As usual, travelling low-key is safer – though there's little public transport in the remotest areas so you'd probably end up in a big 4x4 anyway – but these parts of Niger remain lawless and not for the fainthearted.