Driving back from Lomé, I had time to consider some observations about Africa after 10 weeks or so. First general, then specifics.
Africa is beautiful. Africa is a dump. Often at the same time, in the same place. Look one way, and you have a view of waving palms over a virgin beach with a teal ocean, breakers pounding the shore. Look a little bit one way or the other, and there’s a pile of trash, a half finished building abandoned years ago and left to rot, and the rusted remains of something no longer recognizable. It’s a real shame. Some of it is the fault of African government, some the fault of colonialism and neo-colonialism, some just the laziness of some people.
I say some people, because many of the Africans I have met are very industrious, even entrepreneurial. The roads are lined with small shops that can be everything from a real shop in a real building, to a lean-to with corrugated metal roof and palm frond walls. For sale? Gasoil mixture for motorcycles in a bottle (pick your size). Kids’ backpacks with well known US cartoon characters, tires (new and used), small laundries and clothing shops and snack bars. Driving back from Lomé (I should explain I didn’t do the driving, an Embassy driver did) we cut through some local neighborhoods to avoid traffic and passed mile after miles of these shops in areas of town no Westerner visits. Roads can be dirt hardback, loose sand, paving stones or any combination of those and blacktop. The road we took paralleled a set or train tracks on which I have never seen a train! I have been told it does exist, but doesn’t go anywhere anyone wants to go! A train along the coast from Nigeria to the Ivory Coast would help develop the corridor as much if not more than the road they built, but nobody seems to be interested in that.
A little bit about the border crossing from Benin to Togo. You know you’re getting close, because both sides of the road are lined with parked trucks, narrowing what would be two or three lanes to one, sometimes less. As you get to the border, a market has sprung up on each side. Typical for Embassy folks is to stop at the Benin side, have the driver go get your passport stamped. Drive to the Togo side. Get your passport stamped. Meet a driver from the Togo US embassy who drives you the rest of the way. Reverse to go in the other direction. Dodge motos, bicycles, trucks, cars loaded 15 feet high on the roof with goods and pedestrians which drive randomly and park randomly.
Since I mentioned the Togo US Embassy, I should mention that unlike our…veteran…complex of buildings in Benin, Togo has a large new embassy complex that opened in 2006. From everything I saw, it’s a great place to work and the consular section has (almost) all the things I could want in Cotonou but will never have, but architecturally, the exterior of the building is butt ugly. Sorry whoever designed it, but…we can do better.
A couple of final observations on the trip. Nobody told me Togo is in a different time zone! I found out when I went down to breakfast an hour before it opened. I saw one Togoese in a Larry Bird jersey, which seemed completely normal after I saw the guy in the NY Rangers hockey jersey! The only ice in Togo (or Benin) is in drinks. TV in the hotel was in French (mostly), Arabic (one station from Morocco…I think), German (Deutche Welle) and English (Euronews, and occasionally DW.) No World Series for me! The Yankee fan missed the clinching sixth game. It was all over by the time I got back to Cotonou and my AFRTS.
Next adventure — Frankfurt in December! Time to pull out the winter clothes I packed…oh wait…I didn’t…
Tune in to see how I figure this one out.