Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lake Chad

Lake Chad

23-26 May 2011


Less than 24 hours after arriving in Chad we were heading north in a military escorted convoy heading to the Lake Chad region with an organization looking to build schools in the small neglected villages in the desert.  My new friends organization had started to build some schools in 2007 before the civil war but everything had to be abandoned as rebels swept across the country from the East.  During this trip we were checking on the school construction projects that had been started and assess the need for determine locations for the construction of a couple new schools. 

About 100km outside of N’Djamena the newly paved smooth road comes to an end and the bouncing begins.  The first day we drive to Elephant Rock and camped for the night in the shadow of massive stone hills, one of course, shaped like an elephant.  While one truck of Soldiers drove to a nearby village to buy a sheep for dinner other Soldiers grabbed their AK-47s to go hunting Guinea Fowl seen on the nearby hillside.  At least 20 shots later they killed one bird and started roasting it over a campfire.  Meanwhile the other Soldiers returned with their sheep, butchered it, and threw it in a large pot over the cooking fire.  Both tasted great and in the morning we had ribs and salt for breakfast.

The next day we tried to stay close to the lake as we drove north but kept running into thick acacia groves that scratched and tore at the Chadian Soldiers sitting in the back of their open trucks.  We visited three villages on the second day and found that only one of the projects had been completed and now was a simple three-room concrete building with a metal roof.  A simple blackboard had been painted on the wall and students sat on logs or bricks on the sand floors.  Other villages, if they had a school, usually consisted of an open-sided straw roofed hut.  Most of the teachers in Chad are community teachers that are hired by the local school village.  Many of these community teachers have no formal training and often are just the smartest guy in the village.

The further north we traveled the worse the roads got and we and our escorts had to dig out of the deep sand at least a half dozen times.  The Chadians would grab branches and small bushes and jam them under the wheels to try to get tractions, but in the end we had to use metal sand ladders.  We were reduced to driving 30km per hour over a tore up dirt road before dusk and eventually we called it a night after driving in the dark for two hours.  The Chadians pulled over on the side of the road started a fire, butchered another goat, and soon we were snoozing under the stars.

Day three we had more roasted goat ribs for breakfast then checked out another village for a potential school before driving into Bol on the north shore of Lake Chad.  Bol is a district capital and has a small port, which is more of a sandy beach where pirogues from Nigeria dock with goods for sale.  I saw reed mats, large sacks of corn, and mango come off the small paddle-powered boats which were met by the local customs inspectors.  It was easy to see how high the lake used to be and many of the fingers of the lake are now dry.  12 hours of driving later we arrived back at the end of the paved road outside of N’Djamena where the Chadian Soldiers slaughtered another goat for dinner and we were mobbed by little kids looking for food.  On the way back into town we ran out of gas but fortunately we had fuel cans in the back of the truck and were able to get on the road again, arriving after 10pm.


Welcome to Chad

N’Djamena, Chad
22 May 2011

We arrived in N’Djamena mid-day Sunday to discover that my friend had his luggage lost for the 5th time with South African Airways (it finally arrived 6 days later).  The town doesn’t feel too big and most of the buildings are owned by the government and many have multi-colored uniformed Soldiers carrying guns outside.  It doesn’t seem like there is a set uniform for the military or police as everyone looks different, with random colors and patterns (even US military patterns).

Most of the roads are paved in the city and the most popular mode of transportation are the mototaxis and scooters.  I haven’t seen any Dala-Dalas or Car Rapides (mini-buses) and the only form of mass transportation I have seen are the old Toyota FJ-40 trucks from Cameroon marked “Goods Only” that are usually packed to the roof with baggage with another 20-30 people on top.  Traffic circles are a little unusual here with people in the circle required to yield to others entering which often jams up the intersection.  Solar-powered traffic lights are popping up in town and surprisingly the masses on the road obey the red lights.

I have been warned about taking pictures in Chad.  It used to be illegal and now a special photography permit is required.  I am not sure where to get it and am sure I would still get hassled even if I had one.  Sometimes its just better to not attract any attention.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Axum, Ethiopia
20 May 2011

A quick 30 minute early morning flight took us over the mountains from Lalibela to Axum still in Northern Ethiopia. Our guide met us t the airport and took us to our hotel on a hilltop overlooking the church to drop our bags before starting our tour. Only a dozen or so people got off the plane in Axum and it seemed like we were the only tourists at the hotel or in town.

Our first stop was the obselix park and museum that featured the biggest one piece granite obselix in Africa and according to our guide the largest in the world. A largest one had tumbled and broken into pieces centuries ago and two slightly shorter ones remain standing, surrounded by 60 or so smaller obselixes. A few had carved designs and windows but mostly they were smooth granite stones that served as grave markers. Underground several tombs had been excavated and the adjacent museum featured artifacts that had been recovered.

After lunch we visited the Queen of Sheeba's pool (looks like a small reservoir but now used for religious ceremonies), the partially excavated palace and tombs of the Axumite Empire, an ancient road marker carved in three languages on the outskirts of Axum (declaring the victories of the ruler as a warning to visitors), the large church and monastery where the guardian monks claim to protect the true Ark of the Covenant, and the remnants of the Queen of Sheeba's palace. Our guide worked on several archeological digs in Axum, most recently in January with a German team that uncovered the true tomb of an Emperor of Axum. He showed us around the dig site and shared some of his research in trying to discover who was buried there. The stonework of the granite tombs was amazing with large interlocking blocks that fit together smoothly without any gaps (it's hard to find anything so well done nowadays). According to our guide the German researchers used carbon dating on the site to place it's construction to approximately 3000 years ago.


Lalibela, Ethiopia
19 May 2011

An early morning flight wisked me from Addis thru Gondor to Lalibela up in the mountainous north of Ethiopia. During the overcast days and through light rain showers we toured 12 ancient churches hewn out of the red rock hillsides. Centuries ago devout Christians led by Emperor Lalibela dug down into the rock to carve out multistory churches (40,000+ workers over 23 years according to our guide). Now the area is a holy land where thousands make annual pilgrimages to pray and kiss the rock walls. Tunnels and narrow pathways worn into the rock link the churches and many priests and nuns live in holes in the rock surrounding the churches. Originally the churches had intricate paintings and carvings but now they are mostly worn away. Many of the lower rock walls and pillars are a shiny black from the faithful who kiss the rub their foreheads against the rock. In January tens of thousands swarm the churches sleeping anywhere they can find space.

Several religious schools surround the churches full of young boys sent from near and far villages to study the holy scriptures under the careful tutelage of their new masters. They memorize the scriptures by group repetition and the chants of the young students fill the air. Often they are sent out to beg for their support and for their instructors. They sleep huddled in groups on the floor of their master's round huts. Although many may learn to read or recite the scriptures in a couple languages, few can write after the typical four year stay in Lalibela. Afterwards some earn advanced positions in their local churches and others continue to another religious school outside of Lalibela for another seven years of study before becoming a priest.

Our guide also took us through the village and we saw the usual village family life. The women prepared the millet, the kids played in the crooked muddy lanes between the stone huts, and the few men seen around were at work as tailors, hawking trinkets, or passing by on the cobblestone road with heavy burdens on their backs. The fields outside the village were being worked by most of the men and were freshly plowed. It was hard to look around and not see a policeman or woman in uniform in the streets and overall the town seemed very peaceful and quiet.

Traveling to Addis

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
17-18 May 2011

I am running out of travel money so I am economizing by taking the cheapest flights possible but this also involves some long out of the way routes and layovers. For example, I left Dakar on Tuesday afternoon and got to Dubai on Wednesday morning for a 10 hour layover. It wasn't too bad as I ended up hanging out in the massive airport gorging myself on Cinnabons, Burger King, and Coldstone Creamery Ice Cream. I savored every bite of my whopper (my last was in December), but a couple hours later my stomach started to complain about all the fat and other crap found in American food. Another great thing about the Dubai Airport is the free wifi throughout the kilometers of inside walkways. I was able to Skype, email, and play around online to help pass the time. The stores were great too with many great deals on quality merchandise- better than anything I have seen in Africa. Finally in the evening I caught my flight to Addis arriving just after dark to the sweet cool mountain air.

Friday, May 13, 2011

HIV Prevention training

Banjul, Gambia

One of my friends that came down on this trip to the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau works in HIV Education and Prevention so as part of this trip we got to watch some of the training she sponsored and coordinated in the Gambia. The instructors were doctors who gave a good presentation on how HIV is transmitted, showed graphic pictures, gave a demonstration on how to use male and female condoms, talked about stigma, and answered questions from the group. Most of the speakers were male, but the female speaker they affectionally called "Aunty" stole the show. There were only three females in the crowd of about 65 people who attended the class and Aunty directed some of her comments to the women, like don't fall for sexual harassment for a promotion because most likely they don't have the power to promote you if you have sex with them. However, Aunty's greatest role was to give a wife's perspective on HIV and AIDS and she spoke to them in the local language so I didn't understand much but the crowd continuously roared with laughter. I thought her perspective was interesting as many men in the Gambia have more than one wife.

The Gambian doctors boiled HIV prevention down to the A, B, Cs:
A- Abstain. This caused a lot of chatter in the local language, but some devout Muslims were being cheerfully poked by their friends for abstaining by reason of their religion and they had never touched a woman. They were a very small part of the group.
B- Be Faithful. Don't cheat and if you have more than 1 wife, don't stray outside of your family.
C- Condoms. Less than 10 Dalasis per condom (approx $0.36 USD) and many free condoms were available at the meeting and other hospitals and offices around the city.

After the meeting the participants walked to the nearby clinic where they got a free lunch and a t-shirt for participating. Then the participants went through pre-testing counseling, drew blood for testing, and then went through post-testing counseling where a doctor or nurse privately discussed the results. Estimates of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS vary but the CIA Factbook says it's 2% in the Gambia.

I met another guy who was conducting HIV research in the Gambia with the British Medical Research Council (MRC) looking for a link between HIV-II and HIV-I. According to my new friend HIV-II patients survive much longer than those with HIV-I although it is possible to have both at the same time. The hope is to find a way to help HIV-I patients live longer by learning from HIV-II. The MRC is conducting a longitudinal study with local infected patients and is hopeful although concerned that funding is decreasing.

Gambia River

Banjul, Gambia
10 May 2011

Today we hired a boat to show us the most dominant feature in the country- the Gambia River. First we rocketed out into the open sea to troll for barracuda in the dual engined speed boat, bouncing over waves so high that the propellers were out of the water. Then we motored up the river for 45 mins to Juffare, a village on the river where Alex Haley traced his Roots. There isn't much to the village, besides a small museum that talks about slavery and the ruins of a couple old buildings (chapel and storehouse). There is also the Kinte family house with some relatives but they weren't around the day we visited.

After the village we followed the route of the captured slaves to James Island, a former British fort where slaves were held for transport to Goree Island in Dakar, and then on to the new world. The island is slowly eroding into the river and all that remains are a few crumbling walls and large baobab trees.

On our way back to Banjul we stopped and tried our luck fishing first off Dog Island, then a couple other places but only caught 1 small (10 inch) silvery fish. At the end our boat captain took us on a shortcut slaloming through the mangroves to another spot where we caught a red snapper and a trout.

Gambia's other tourism

Banjul, Gambia
9 May 2011

Gambia is a major European tourist destination and has incredible hotels and restaurants besides the usual tourist markets. Banjul distinguishes itself, however, by specializing in the sex tourism trade for older European women. Older white women are frequently seen in the company of young local Gambian men who ensure that their needs are taken care of and serve as their guides. Now is the low tourist season so there aren't that many people around, but during the high season bus loads of tourist who fly direct from Europe are deposited on the tourist strip by the Senegambia hotel. This is also where most of the pickpockets work, but fortunately violent crime is extremely rare here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Driving to the Gambia

Banjul, Gambia
8 May 2011

This morning a couple friends and I piled into my Landcruiser and headed south to the Gambia. Sunday morning is the best time to leave Dakar as there was no traffic and we made it to Mbour within an hour. As we got further away from Dakar the roads steadily got worse, and after Kaolack we were swerving all over the road to avoid the road craters that could swallow whole one of the decrepit yellow taxis we passed on the road. After a while we gave up on the semi-paved road and traveled on the dirt track beside the road with everyone else.

The border crossing was nothing spectacular- we stopped at the police station where they wrote our info into an old ledger, stamped our passports, then we drove around the barrier in the Gambia. In Gambia the immigration officials seemed surprised to see us and used their cell phone to call for advice from their boss. 30 minutes later we were on our way again.

At least the Gambians didn't pretend to pave their roads and their wide dirt highway was much easier on the bones. Within 20 mins we were at the river ferry crossing (after being held up by an armed Gambian Soldier asking for money to buy a cold soda). The booth to buy tickets to cross the river on the boat was at the edge of town, which we had missed and discovered once we were in line. Thankfully, as the boat was about to load, they sold us a $4 ticket and we drove right onto the ferry. We were joined by a number of car rapides, taxis, sept-places, and pedestrians for the quick 15 min ride across the river. As usual in Africa anywhere there are people and cars we were swarmed by vendors selling cold drinks, cookies, underwear, and anything else you could think of.

Once on the southern bank of the river we got back on a dirt road and raced west across the countryside to Banjul. It seemed that every 15 mins or so we encountered a police or military checkpoint where would be questioned about who we were, where we were from, where we were going, and why. Eventually a supervisor would wave us through and we would be off again. About 50km east of Banjul the road evolved into pavement- the dirt road was covered with more dirt a couple inches thick, then rolled over with a steam roller to smooth it out, then oiled, and eventually a couple inches of asphalt would cap the surface. The resulting road was smooth and shiny, but I wonder how long it will last.

In Banjul we were stopped by a very rare and surprising sight in Africa: a working stoplight that was respected by traffic! I sat in shock behind other cars halted by a red light with no crossing traffic and no police in sight. It was a nice welcome to Banjul and soon we arrived at our fancy hotel on the beach. The entire trip took 9 hours from Dakar to Banjul including the ferry ride, border crossing, and multiple checkpoints in the Gambia.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dunes at Lompoul

Senegal lies on the edge of the Sahel desert and in Lompoul one can have the true desert experience by trekking through the dunes on camels, getting your Landcruiser stuck in the deep sand, and sleeping in tents. 

We met our guide at Lompoul village who directed me along sandy paths out into the open desert.  3km from the village the sand gets deep and you are surrounded by dunes and i had to shift into 4-Low, but eventually we were almost hub deep in the sand.  Luckily the guide figured out what i did wrong and after letting almost all the air out of the tires I was able to float/crawl the rest of the way to the camp.

There are a couple companies offering the camping in the dunes experience and we stayed with Lodge Senegal upon the recommendation of friends and it was an enjoyable experience (besides no bed nets to keep the mosquitoes away).  We lounged in the central tent before taking a couple camels across the dunes at sunset.

At dinner we found ourselves surrounded by Italians, French, and Spaniards and enjoyed a local meal of Senegalese couscous, a red stew with vegetables, and fried chicken.  This place was totally off the grid and the only light was by lantern.  However each tent had a private bathroom with a shower, flushing toilet, and sink with running water.  We got the resident rate at 35,000 CFA each and the camel rides were only 3,500 CFA each!

The next morning we headed to Saint Louis and I got the thrill of bombing down the dunes and through the deep sand back to the village and road.  At the "service station" next to the mosque in town a local refilled my tires and blew out my air filter for a moderate charge and we were back on the road.  If you follow the road to the ocean you can visit Lompoul by the Sea, which is a small fishing village with a large fish drying area on the beach.

Réserve de Bandia

The Réserve de Bandia is only 18km north of Saly so the next morning we headed north in my LandCruiser for a mini-Safari.  At the park we paid 10,000 CFA each, 10,000 CFA for my truck, and 4,000 CFA for a guide to show us around the park.  Surprisingly this was my first “Safari” in Africa even though I have visited 17 African countries and traveled thousands of miles back and forth across the continent.  This was a low budget and quick Safari, but not bad.

The only carnivores in the Park are a couple hyenas kept in a zoo-like enclosure and the well-fed crocs in the pond next to the Reception area and restaurant.  Driving around for our two hour safari we saw about a dozen giraffes of all sizes, scores of monkeys, at least a hundred antelope-cheval, 15-20 warthogs, 10 or so zebras, herds of water buffalos, flocks of ostriches, and two white rhinos.  We stayed in the car for the most part except when the guide told us to get out 20ft from the female rhino to take a picture.  She told us to be very quiet and not make any sudden movements, but remained in the car to take the picture.

The other place where we dismounted the trusty Landcruiser was at a giant Baobab tree in the middle of the park.  Legend has it that the bodies of deceased Griots were interred in the openings of the giant Baobab trees until forbidden by President Senghor in the 1960s.  The ban on the traditional practice that had taken place for as long as the people could remember caused a great drought that lasted six years and was only appeased when the massive tree was fed again.  The Baobab tree in the park still has human skulls and bones visible in its dark hollows.   

We ate lunch on an old McDonalds picnic table and watched the monkeys steal bread from children.  Sneaky crocodiles would try to get close to the monkeys as they pretended to bask in the sun and giant iguanas or komodo dragons roamed the pathways near the bathrooms.  

For the price and proximity to Dakar I would recommend the Bandia for those on a quick visit to Senegal.  Niokolo Koba National Park, located another five hours east of Bandia, offers a much larger park and features a couple lions.  However there isn’t much in the way of large animals left in Senegal or West Africa as the locals ate them.  Most of the animals at Bandia and Niokolo Koba are imports from other parks on the continent.