As usual, I had no problems at the border. Three super friendly border police greeted me with the typical cool “everything easy” laugh. Of course, they also wanted to go to Germany.
I was given 90 days for Ghana, despite having been told something completely different at the embassy in Monrovia, but all the better. I could take my time and did not have to rush to the next country.
Ghana is called the “beginner’s country” for traveling West Africa. With its better infrastructure, more choices of food, a higher level of education, and English as the trade language. I had a certain level of anticipation.
Before I left for Africa, I had planned to spend at least one month in each country, hoping to get a slightly better picture of each of them.
So far, with the exception of Guinea-Bissau, I had managed to do that.
I found my travel pace pleasant but frequently wondered if speeding up a bit might bring more variety my way. There was a lot of the same, and this sameness often became uncomfortably boring.
For me, motivation killers are either big countries, where it often takes forever to cross them, or countries that are lacking in diversity. West Africa, unfortunately, had too many of the latter.
Staying in a guest house in Bole, the first town my route had taken me to, I was more than surprised when I set my full wastebasket (yes, there was an actual wastebasket) outside my door in the hallway, and it was emptied within minutes. Was I still in Africa?
That question was answered with an invasion of grasshoppers, who, despite their considerable size, were able to find their way into my room using any available crack. Out on the street, they hitched rides on me wherever I went. They joined me for dinner, landing in the food on my plate and taking dips in my tea.
Yes, I was still in Africa.
After spending a few days in Bole, I headed off but soon noticed my rear brake was no longer working. Breakdowns were becoming standard procedure by now, and with more frequency.
I checked back into the guesthouse and spent pretty much the whole day trying to fix my BB7 brakes. With the help of an American mate who was cycling in Australia, via WhatsApp, we tried every possibility, sometimes more than once, all to no avail.
I would have to rely on just my front brakes, so, to be on the safe side, I changed the pads and hoped I could get by this way, as the chances were slim to nonexistent of finding replacement parts at any time soon.
Back on the bike, I entered an area where the grass was incredibly tall, and the particular trail I chose was so overgrown it was like riding through a tunnel, and perhaps this was the reason I had the trail all to myself.
It was wonderful. Peace, no villages, no people – a sweet respite. Sadly, the trail was not long enough to have a rejuvenating effect, and I soon found myself standing in a village again.
Looking for a spot to camp in the evening, I waited as usual until it was almost dark, before pushing the bike through a deep ditch and out of sight from the road, hoping at the same time that the locals were already at home and no one would stumble into my site.
I had neither seen nor heard anyone when I chose my spot and pitched camp, but soon what would barely pass for music filled my ears to overflowing. No matter where you go, you can’t avoid people in West Africa and I’ll be honest, in the long run, it gets on your nerves. Yes, it sucks.
The “Mole National Park” was in a completely different league. It became “My feel-good oasis.” Apart from the great dromedaries in Morocco and Mauritania, I had my first really interesting animal encounters here within a whole year in Africa.
On the first evening in the park, I camped in the campground with a couple of Iranians. There was nothing fancy about the campground but it was fine for me. Most of the park visitors chose the hotel next door with it’s AC and TV.
The park was the first tourist destination on my route since Atar in Mauritania. More than nine months back. The hotel had a pool, a real restaurant, and lots of visitors.
Ornithologists from Finland and England, backpackers from all over the world, young volunteers who came to Ghana after graduating from high school to work in several charity organizations and NGOs who came from Accra for the weekend. All short-term travelers. And then there was me, once again I was the exotic type.
I had great conversations – with almost everybody. I’m never too shy to just talk to people.
The two Iranians were, like most Iranians, super friendly and immediately invited me to dinner, and we spent the whole evening at the fire talking about everything. Iranians are often very philosophical and poetic in their thoughts and ways of speaking. I find this very stimulating.
With two young Swiss and one German, we tried to solve the environmental problems of the world. The ornithologists taught me about the birds endemic to the park.
A doctor – as well as a couple of tax consultants, asked me a lot of questions about my trip and through a ski instructor from Austria, I learned how much the behavior of parents and children has changed in the last 20 years in his home country.
I also talked to an Englishman who is married to a Chinese woman and explained his view of China to me. And there were many others.
These are the great moments of a journey. I loved the park just for the fact that it allowed me to meet other tourists and not just those who fiddled around on their mobile phones, but also those who were interested in their environment.
I booked a safari trip for the morning – supposedly the cheapest safari in Africa. And I had fun. It was a pleasure to sit there on the jeep and see the world from high above.
The landscape was as usual: Nothing I hadn’t seen before. But of course, the animals we saw were a real treat.
Baboons, different kinds of antelopes, lots of birds and – you wouldn’t believe it – we even saw elephants.
We went on foot through the undergrowth in search of elephants, suddenly the ranger turned motioned us back and told us to keep our distance.
And there before us were two elephants, not 10 meters away. Great!
Altogether I took part in an ornithological guided tour, two safari rides, and a night drive and I must say the park was one of the highlights of my time in West Africa.
The rangers were very well trained and interested in showing us the wildlife. A completely different world than for example, in the “Outamba Kilimi National Park” in Sierra Leone.
When I came back from one safari, the baboons had thrown my tent around and tore a hole in the groundsheet. Well, the tent was totally destroyed anyway, I patched it up with tape, so no big deal.
I was annoyed with the Iranians because they were feeding the baboons and this always seems to result in aggressiveness.
Never feed wildlife – I thought everyone should know this by now!
Tsetse flies were widespread in the park. I was bitten all the time, as usual. There wasn’t a single day on this trip through West Africa, that I didn’t have some itchy bites.
Being bitten by the tsetse fly is not without danger as they transmit sleeping sickness, certainly no fun to have, and the bites hurt for days.
I noticed more and more how tired I was, tired of West Africa. Nothing drew me to the streets any longer.
I had already passed through too many villages that all looked the same. Although the food was much better here in Ghana, and it was easier to communicate with people than in the previous countries, it was still often very dull.
I realized that I had already come to terms with West Africa. I began to avoid people; it had become too exhausting for me. I’m human, and surely I short-changed or misjudged some of the people, but my interest had simply vanished.
I was no longer burning to find out how or why they do things the way they do. I had seen the simple life – there was not much new to come – I was sure of that now.
But giving up? The thought still hurt.
In Damango I learned by chance that missionaries lived in the village and so I hoped to have some contact with Westerners.
The missionary family gave me a warm welcome. I had the impression that they were looking forward to a change as much as I was. We went to a festival, ate delicious food, watched movies and talked about all kinds of things. No one wanted to convert me, which I always appreciate.
The rain was over, and the oppressive heat was back. The baobabs lost their leaves again and the muddy tracks turned to dust.
It’s crazy how fast the change from rainy to the dry season takes place. Apparently, there is no normal weather, or let’s say pleasant weather here. Soon the “Harmattan” will whip through the country and wind and sand will fly around my ears again. And this thought didn’t sit well with me.
Fires and smoke-filled air was again a daily occurrence as farmers burned off grass and shrubs, to clear the way for cultivation.
What an ordeal to spend one’s life here under these climatic conditions – and how will it be for these people when the climate crisis soon shows its full effects? Hard to imagine! At some point, they will all have to set off – to a world that is new to them – they will have no other choice.
Hopefully, one day, or preferably soon, we rich nations will understand that the victims of our immense prosperity are the very poor of this world. The people who are the least responsible will be punished the most.
At a gas station, I asked if there was a possibility to camp there or nearby. The young man spoke up and said: “Why don’t you sleep in my bed? I’m on night duty at the gas station. I’m not going to sleep tonight anyway.”
“Great, thank you very much,” and he showed me his room, and I slept super well that night. Hardly any noise, no music, no goats or any kind of continuous sound. Pleasant. And perfect hospitality!
In such a situation, I always think of home. How many Africans would be allowed to spend a night in any German bedroom? Would I let a stranger sleep in my bed, whom I just picked up off the street?
Why do we find it so difficult to give hospitality and why do other cultures have such extraordinary warmth for someone foreign?
Through the missionaries in Damango I came into contact with other missionaries in Tamale. Tamale is a bigger city – loud, hectic, dirty, and unattractive.
Christy, Daniel, Nathaniel, Anna, and Ruth welcomed me like a member of the family. A wonderful missionary family from the US.
Everyone who regularly reads my blog (and I hope there are a few of you 😊 ) knows by now that I am not a believer and also very critical of missionary work.
Yet, I have to say that it always impresses me when people are so much at peace with their God and themselves that they are simply happy and above all satisfied every day out of deepest gratitude.
There are – as with everything – always two sides. And I always try to see them both.
To be grateful is something very important in life, and many of us have long forgotten to be grateful for everything we have. We take things far too much for granted.
As I said, I am not a believer, and I do not intend to become one. But I am nevertheless impressed when I am among people who do not worship a God out of “power” and abuse this “power,” but when people honestly believe in God with deep conviction.
Especially when they are also open-minded and really respect, welcome, and honor every person, no matter what color of skin, religion or nation he or she is from.
The warmth of these people was just great. The respectful tone among themselves, their friendliness, and their solidarity was striking.
The family works hard, the children are productive, and you hear no complaints, no dissatisfaction. The whole ten days I spent with them they were in a good mood.
The mother had a special charisma due to her calm nature and an authority towards the children without saying a bad word once.
One thing is for sure: believers draw enormous strength from their faith.
Over the years I have been able to see this again and again, and I now lean quite far out of the window and claim that believers, that is to say not those who take advantage of faith, but those who are really convinced that God is looking after them, are the happier people.
Whatever the name of the God they worship, he or she gives them hope, warmth, takes away their fear, and protects them every day.
Christy was a great cook, and she also taught her children at home. I was served something delicious three times a day and each time it was explained exactly how it was prepared.
And yes, I was really thankful.
With new strength, I went on. The family stood outside together, waved at me for a long time and called out to me: “Heike, we love you,” and I had tears in my eyes, a very touching moment.
I had my blood tested at a private clinic. I wanted to know if I was coming down with something. Fortunately, everything was fine.
The dusty track along the third largest artificial lake in the world – Lake Volta – was nothing special. Just dust, bushes, and villages.
With the new power the family gave me, I cycled almost 100 kilometers on the first day. Then I hid in the bushes, pitched my tent, and listened to the sounds of the African night.
Motorcyclists, rattling music and voices until late into the night.
In my naivety, all these sounds I had imagined totally differently. Before I came to Africa, I had envisoned lonely nights: animal encounters, people drumming, dancing late into the night. But there was no trace of that here.
Nowhere in West Africa so far.
The next morning, many cars drove past me on the road, and I was constantly covered in dust, nothing new, but it triggered something inside me. Somehow it brought the things brewing in me to a head.
I thought of John, a touring cyclist from Australia. He posted on his Facebook page a couple of years ago: “I have enough of this shit, I am going home.”
Or Forest Gump, who stopped his years of running around the US in front of Monument Valley and said, “I’m tired, I’m going home.”
West Africa was exhausting, poor, shocking. Despite the many very friendly people, who were colorful and cleanly dressed, I was isolated. I was always the white, the rich, the special.
On the other hand, I was always welcome, I could certainly have stayed anywhere if I had wanted to.
But: It made me lonely.
Moreover, I could not avoid the people – I did not have my much-loved freedom and open spaces, the high density of people was just too much. The low level of education did not bring me any intellectual stimulation, and interesting conversations were far too rare. It was simply not enough.
I had the feeling I was becoming depressed – I felt lonely among so many loving and warm people.
I sat down at the side of the road and thought about it and decided to look for a place to stay to make a decision.
Although I had been only a few kilometers away from Togo – a new country within reach – I had lost interest. I could not imagine that there was anything new there.
My front derailleur stopped working. I discovered that the sleeve for the shift cable was not only totally rusty but also tattered.
I tried to expose the sleeve and replaced the shift cable. But the gearshift just wouldn’t shift anymore. To prevent the chain from jumping automatically from the big to the middle chain ring,
I started to remove the front derailleur, but it was only held together with rivets, and so I couldn’t just remove it. The idea was to at least be able to shift by hand.
So, I had to open the chain with my chain breaker and – who would have thought? My chain breaker broke, and the rivet was stuck in the chain link. Jackpot!
In 40-degree heat and without shade, I tried with all my strength to loosen the stupid pin; I finally got it out. I had been carrying a spare chain since Monrovia, and with a lot more fussing, I was able to go on.
Luckily, I didn’t have to shift gears by hand very often in this flat area.
“What do I do now”? Was on my to-do list with huge letters?
My equipment is totally screwed up, and I am in West Africa – no matter where I fly from here, it will be expensive.
I called Frank – a buddy from home – and asked him for advice. We talked back and forth, and he said to me: “Why don’t you come home first. Your mother will be happy, you can get your equipment back in shape, you can breathe a bit and then you can go on. Everyone needs a break sometimes.”
“Home? At Christmas? Into the cold? Christmas madness? What a great idea!” (although of course, this thought had been running through my head for a while now). But I tried desperately to find another solution, and I also wanted to avoid the flight for environmental reasons. But to find ships and sailing boats from Ghana was hopeless.
“I’m going to South America, that’s much better. Then I’ll finally have nature and space again and can pitch my tent wherever I want.”
After which, Frank said: “I know you, if I advise you to do something, you’ll do exactly the opposite anyway.” Which he was right about, this was not the first-time friends had told me this😉
The conversation went on for 2 hours, and I already wanted to book the flight to Brazil, but I was not quite sure yet.
“You know what, I’m just gonna take another walk and call you back.” And I walked through the dark night, looked at the stars as well as I could see them in the urban environment and had a cup of tea; thought about the missionary family and how nice it was there in this family environment and talked with my buddy Anette on WhatsApp.
“If I advise you to do something, you do exactly the opposite anyway,” I also heard from her. “But if you ask me, come home, I will be very happy to see you, and I’m sure your mother will be too. You won’t stay long anyway, just take a break.”
Not having a credit card myself, Frank would have to book the flight for me. So, I called him again and he said, “So, what are we booking now?”
“Frankfurt, I’m coming home,” and I heard someone on the other side laughing out loud. Then we both laughed and I felt relieved. Yes – I wanted to go home!
On the way to the airport, I suddenly developed new energy, the energy that I had lost before. I was unexpectedly moving forward again, and the goal “home” gave me strength.
But I was still torn, I met so many friendly people, so many people who welcomed me warmly and were happy to see me, that I almost regretted what I had done.
Riding on toward Accra, I saw children walking to school with their own chairs and school lessons that took place outside.
It was obvious I had ridden out of the predominantly Muslim areas as alcohol abuse showed its ugly head, back with the so-called Christians. The traffic increased, and even if a few hills appeared, the scenery continued to be dull.
People became more aggressive, and I automatically cycled faster. Especially as I hardly had any time left, my flight was approaching rapidly.
But I didn’t want to take the bus, because I hadn’t traveled a single meter by any other means of transport except the unavoidable train journey in Mauritania, so I didn’t want to mess up my statistics in the end.
In Accra, I went to one of the many car mechanics at the roadside to borrow a 15mm wrench to unscrew my pedals for the flight.
Of course, we did not find the right wrench in the chaos. First, we tried it with a pair of pliers and one of the guys almost ruined the thread.
Then another guy had the glorious idea to hammer a 17mm wrench to the size of a 15mm wrench with pliers. As you can certainly imagine, this failed miserably.
Another fellow cycled off and brought a 15mm wrench from somewhere, but then broke it, ruining it completely.
Yelling and hectic discussions and again one of them went and got another wrench from somewhere, which was then wedged with an 18mm wrench to get better leverage, and in the end, both pedals were loose.
“What, you cycled all the way from Germany, and now you’re going home? Will you take me with you?” asked one of them and I could only shake my head and thought that nothing has changed since Morocco, always the same questions.
I pushed my bike through dirt and garbage for the last time, crossed the stinking and chaotic traffic of the capital, and said goodbye to a journey that was a rollercoaster of emotions.
Africa deeply impressed, shocked, and touched me. I will certainly not forget my experiences any time soon – I think they will accompany me for the rest of my life.
It was hard work, but it was a very educational year.
What I definitely learned is that West Africans master their sometimes-devastating living conditions much more positively and happily than we master our infinite wealth.
I will miss the many happy people, the shining eyes of the children when they clapped their hands and started to dance when they called “White man, white man.”
I have become more grateful, calmer, more balanced, more patient, and I have learned that almost nothing is a problem as long as it is not a matter of life and death. Africans are masters at seeing the positive sides of life, no matter how negative it may seem.
We can all learn from each other, and although I have often had difficulties in communicating with people, I have certainly learned one thing: to be grateful.
Thank you, Africa, I will come back one day, maybe even very soon but certainly not again to West Africa. But who knows, I often change my mind very quickly.
The airport terminal was paradise on earth: no dust, no dirt, no heat. AC and the cleanest it’s been since Spain. I surely had wet eyes from all the joy.
That I, Heike, would ever mention that I found an airport terminal pleasant, clean, and paradisiacal is frightening because I actually love nature and dirt. But dirt and filth are also different, which does not mean that people here are dirty, no, certainly not.
I was often extremely impressed with how people could wear such clean and beautiful clothes under these conditions. Africans attach great importance to appearance.
When I compare the journey home from this trip with the last one, I know that coming home for the second time is no problem anymore. This time I was looking forward to “home”. Above all, I knew that I would soon be leaving again.
I spent three months at my mom’s place before I left again at the beginning of March 2020.
South America is next. The starting point is Colombia and this time the journey will continue differently, well, if it can go on under the current COVID-19 circumstances.
I have been in lockdown here in Colombia for the last five weeks, and it has now been extended until May 11th. Maybe longer.
I hope that the world is also looking to Africa in this crisis – a continent where not just medical facilities are missing but where most certainly many people will die of hunger!
To my dear supporters:
Are you eagerly waiting for a promised postcard? I am very sorry that I haven’t been able to send one since December! As soon as shops and post offices are open again, I will send one right away!
Thanks very much again for your support and patience!
Why not sharing the article among your friends 🙂 Thank you!