Image: one of the oldest photographs I could find of Benin. Obviously, it's not a representative snapshot of West Africa today, but any exploration of the future should start with a look at the past. Edmond Fortier, "An Indigenous Market in French West Africa." Circa 1900 photograph of a market scene in what was then the kingdom of Dahomey, situated in what is now the Republic of Benin.
I'm headed to West Africa for a few weeks on a reporting project. Ghana, Benin, and Togo. I'll be blogging notes from the road here as circumstances and connectivity permit. As always, and for all of us: suggestions for BoingBoing are gratefully accepted through this web submission form — not via personal email, where they'll grow dust or be smothered by spam. Thank you, and see you back here soon.
Reader comments: Matt says,
I spent this past summer near the town of Hohoe in Ghana's Upper Volta region. It's a beautiful country with some of the most genuinely friendly people on the face of the Earth. Not sure where you'll be, but here are a few things worth doing/seeing:
Take the canopy walk @ Kakum National Park. Tour the slave castles at Cape Coast & Elmina. Browse through Kumasi's giant outdoor market. Take a safari and see the elephants and thieving baboons at Mole National Park. See Wli falls. Climb Mt. Afadjato. Eat grasscutter.
Eat some rat on a stick in Benin. Agouti, or sugar cane rat, is a delicacy — like the lobster of the bush.
Pierre Verger was an ethnographer who studied the African diaspora and the slave trade between Benin (and other places) and Brazil. Those studies show clearly a peculiar transcultural swap. Please, take notice of that. It is a very interesting topic. Godspeed!
Xeni, not a thing or place to go see in West Africa, but I've been impressed with this project: Link.
The multimachine is a milling machine, drill press, and lathe all in one machine that is made from old truck engines and other scrap parts. The very making of it imparts the skills needed to use it. It's of the "teach a man to fish" school rather than the "here, have a fish" school.
Some hand tools are required to build it. I'd love to see a group handing out the tools needed to build one and the manual all over Africa.
Right now if a NGO gives a well pump to a village in Africa, what does the village do when it breaks? With a multimachine, or tools like it, they can fix it themselves.
Here's the manual, if you don't want to join the yahoo group to take a look at it: PDF Link.
Jason Pitzl-Waters says,
Since Benin is the birthplace of Vodun (or "Voodoo"), I'd love to see some reporting on the current state of things religiously. Also, back in 2006 there was a massive bird flu scare (Link), and it was thought that traditional Vodun practitioners could spark a pandemic (due to contact with chicken blood). Any follow-ups would be great.
Matthew Chatfield says,
re the Multimachine — Great idea – see also Tools for Self Reliance, a UK-based charity quietly doing this sort of thing with (mostly) hand-tools for years. They are using the generosity and skills of people in the developed world to recycle old tools into a sustainable empowering resource for the third world. Simple.
A suggestion if you're going to be near the village of Sangbaralla in Guinea. The Benkadi project would be very great to hear a report on. Famoudou Konate, arguably the best Djembe (W. African hand drum) player in the world and former head of the African Ballet has been on tours for the past few years and proceeds go towards this project.
I attended one of his classes last year in Boise, it was excellent and definitely a lifetime highlight for me.
With the help of Helen Bond (www.medusadrums.com) they've been able to build a school over there for only a few thousand $US. They do it themselves rather than going through the red tape of a large charity institution or government, and the villagers buy the school supplies and construction materials direct at the local markets, or sometimes on the black market, and help to build the schools themselves. This saves
a lot of money (a Westerner trying to buy building supplies at a market is going to get bent over as they know you have the money) and also puts that money directly back into the economy. I think what they're doing is a really great thing!
Ted Bell says,
While rat on a stick might be a novelty, it's not that great. There are a lot of wonderful things to eat, however. I can definitely recommend 'ablo' with 'friture' (imagine delicate steamed cornbread with a hint of sweetness and a yummy sauce to dip it in), 'beignets' (not sweet, but made with bean flour and served with spicey sauce, 'pate rouge' with chicken, 'igname pile' (like mashed potatoes only smoother and sticky, be sure to try it with gumbo), fried breadfruit, i could go on about the food for a while i think (mangos, and papaya with lime are good there too.) If you have a taste for hard alcohol, try some Sodabe (local gin), but be sure to get the good stuff, so ask someone who really knows.
Other things to do are: visit the royal museums where you can (Abomey, Porto Novo,), learn of the history of the slave trade in the town of Ouidah, listen to people's stories, and finally, be sure to go to a party or a feast with real music and dancing.
Benin might not have as many fantastic landscapes as some places to travel, but it has people who love life and that means good food, good music and dancing, and good stories.
Alex Antener says,
I wish you have a nice trip through Africa. What a wonderful continent!
What a richness & wonderful nature! The genuine african is a real hacker
in the creative understanding of the term: Link 1 & Link 2.
If you allow I would like to recommend the following book of Sven
Lindquist (Svedish writer) for your trip through the heart of darkness: Link.
Take care and enjoy the great time.
Bill Bliss says,
While you're in Accra, I encourage you to check out Ashesi University in the Labone neighborhood of Accra. (I'm on the Board of Trustees.)
Ashesi is the only private secular university in Ghana, and one of only a few in West Africa. It offers two majors, Computer Science and Business, anchored by a core liberal arts curriculum emphasizing critical thinking, writing, African Studies, and independent thought. So far they have had two graduating classes and 90%+ of the 2006 class found employment within 3 months of graduation. Although it's still very early days at Ashesi, by all accounts it's really changing the higher education landscape in Ghana.
In fact, I just recently returned from Ghana about a month ago. It was an amazing experience visiting Ghana in general and the university in particular — it really is a special place.
Ashesi was founded by Patrick Awuah, who grew up in Ghana, went to college in the US, and then went to Microsoft. He left Microsoft to found Ashesi, after first getting a good grounding in business skills at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, where Ashesi was his class project.
While you're in Ghana… Try the "red-red" which is red beans cooked in palm kernel oil and fried plaintains, it's a staple. And be sure to try out something with "banku" as an accompaniment — banku is a big blob of sticky ground white corn that you eat with your fingers along with the soup or meat or whatever. If you order beer, remember that a 12-oz beer is a "mini beer" – if you order a beer and don't say "mini" you're apt to get the 22 oz size!
Last but not least, talk to some of the younger generation (college age) about what they know of racism and civil rights in the US. Not that you'd expect them to be experts or anything, but I got the impression that for the younger generation, the African American experience was book-ended by slavery on one end and hip-hop and professional athletes on the other, with very little awareness of what happened in the interim. I get the impression that this is fairly typical in Africa, but I wasn't able to test the hypothesis outside of Ghana.
William Richards says,
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana from 2004-2006; it's a great country and I'm sure you'll love it. If you'd like to try some genuine Ghanaian food without running the risk of abdominal diseases, the Army Officers Mess by 37 Station in Accra (pronounced as if you were saying, "a crawfish" without the "fish") has excellent food. Be sure to try fufu (pounded cassava & plantains) & groundnut soup, red red (fried plantains with a bean and oil stew) and banku (fermented corn stuff…hard to explain). There's a woman next to Koala Mart in Osu (a part of Accra) that sells excellent, safe kelewele (spiced fried plantains). Also, Asanka Locals in Osu (almost everyone knows were it is) has terrific (and safe!) food and good live music. All of the food can and really should be eaten by hand…the right hand always, left hand never. Enjoy yourself. The people are awesome, the land is beautiful, the beer is terrible and the akpeteshie (distilled palm wine) is to be downed in copious