The Time I Traveled Through West Africa & Didn’t Get Killed by Terrorists
In Memory to Those Who’ve Given Their Lives Saving Adventurous Tourists
This is a simple story about how being a stranger in strange places isn’t as dangerous as we tend to project. How we interpret stories in the media, I believe, must always be measured.
And if you’re in trouble, it’s amazing to think heroes like these two guys to the left will give their lives to save your adventurous butt.
I’m just now reading Friday, May 10, on NBC News and BBC about two French commandos killed in Burkina Faso in a rescue mission to save tourists captured by kidnappers. You hear these stories every few months, it seems, as the Sahara and sub-Sahara regions of Africa increasingly are faced with the violence that comes from terrorism. When I hear of a hotel attack in Bamako, Mali, a violent beheading of two Swedish women in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, or this incident that started in Benin and ended in bloodshed in Burkina Faso, they’re not random West African locations. A decade ago, I was there for six months and was in each of these places. I felt safe. I loved the people and the landscape. And I would return again.
This is despite writing stories about a Nigerian bus ride from hell where the universal feeling among fellow passengers on our 27-hour epic journey was we were destined to be robbed or worse. Or being witness to “jungle justice,” as my Cameroonian co-worker called the vigilante mob killing outside our three-month compound, which left a dead corpse for nearly three days on the street (my blog post title: “CAMEROON, Bamenda: There’s (still) a Body In Front of Our House”). Despite those experiences, I wasn’t stressed. I felt these events were anomalies.
Plus, it’s debatable who’s more vulnerable in certain areas: The locals or the travelers. We all remember the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls after the abduction by Boko Haram of 276 female students, which even Michelle Obama endorsed. The New York Times reported that 4,770 people were killed in the sub-Saharan region of northern Africa between November and late March. Almost all killed are African.
Additionally, crazy transportation stories can happen anywhere.
Take for example a traveler I engaged with in Chicago last night. A Nigerian man got on the bus I was on and didn’t pay for his fare. Things quickly descended from there. A woman said words to him. He argued back. The bus stopped moving. Soon he was threatened physically by another younger black man on the bus who called him a “fucking bum.” His words came out as a nonstop stream of insults — some actually funny. The bus driver said he was calling the police, and stepped outside to do so. After it became apparent we may not move as this cowed man was NOT leaving, I tried to intervene. I offered to get this man with a foreign accent (and his bags) off the bus and help him, as he claimed he was “lost” and didn’t know where he was. This was just about his only statement as he just sat there silently fiddling with his phone taking the verbal “roasting” (what the young man called his act of public shaming) and calls for a fight. After 10 minutes and no Chicago law enforcement in sight, the bus eventually continued its route towards the Lakeview area of Chicago. It was apparent this man wasn’t sane. At all. He showed me a bracelet from just being released from the hospital. After asking where he was from, I told him I once traveled through Nigeria. Then I tried to provide some common sense advice, “You’re risking a lot not paying. I had to pay when I traveled in Nigeria. The police could be coming any minute.” When he realize he had a sympathetic ear in me, he went off on a bizarre tangent. “I was a police officer in England,” he said, offering to show me a photo of himself in uniform (he never did). “The reason I am here is to protest the Chicago police killing the black people. In England, if the police kill someone they go to prison for the rest of their life.” OK. Sure. This is my area of expertise and I told him this fact: There’s been only one fatal police-involved killing in Chicago so far this year. There’s also been well over 150 other ones by citizens. (On average in the U.S. annually that ratio is 15:1 not 150:1). I said people kill each other all the time in gun-toting America — in fact, we have 77 times more gun homicides per capita than the United Kingdom. I didn’t get a chance to share more facts about how Chicago citizens are, for the most part, treated fairly across races by police with lower levels of use of force than nationally, despite the media reports. I also should have pointed out, ironically, it was another black dude who looked like him in complexion who just threatened to kick his ass. I wish I could have conveyed that 12% of white homicides are by police compared to 4% of black homicides.
But facts like that don’t register. And no one knows them.
Point is: Shit goes down everywhere. But it’s isolated. People tend to fixate on sensational stories. The media happily assists us in exaggerating threats — whether it’s coming to the big city, travelling in Africa, or being confronted by authorities. We see on TV “yet another killing of a black man by police,” just as we see an act of terrorism abroad or in our home country, and think that’s the norm. It’s not.
Burkina Faso is a place few have heard of, and when it’s mentioned it usually is tied to the phrase “one of the world’s poorest countries.” I’d call it one of the most beautiful. It’s somewhere I never dreamed of going, but actually spent a few days there on an epic journey in 2008 from Morocco through most of West Africa to eventually work for Kiva.org. In my apartment in Chicago, for a decade I’ve hung a giant blue tie-dye blanket on my bedroom wall that I bought in the country’s second largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso. I purchased it on the same day I saw a screening of the dance flick from 2007 Stomp the Yard, which due to technical difficulties the projectionist couldn’t make it past the first 15 minutes repeatedly. I carried that blanket, among a handful of other trinkets and art pieces, thousands of kilometers to Cameroon by backpack, our final destination. Burkina Faso was one of the more beautiful places in the world; and like I said, among the poorest. Mangoes were a ridiculous $.05–10 each. The waterfalls were straight out of paradise. It’s where I first tasted palm wine, as well as a moonshine that could strip paint from Senegal’s colorful car rapides. It’s where a man with elephantiasis sat next to me in a taxi, holding his scrotum and testicles the size of a grapefruit. That’s an image that doesn’t disappear quickly.
At the time, I said it was one of my favorite places I visited in the 11-country trek using dozens of buses, trains, and mostly over-stuffed 5-seat taxis (fitting 7 passengers).
Anyway, there’s some connective tissue to this terrorism story I read today. The planned 10,000-kilometer voyage over land through West Africa — from Casablanca to Bamenda, Cameroon (see map at bottom) — began by hearing about a similar terrorism event that occurred in Mauritania the day before we flew over the Atlantic. Yes, me and my travel partner girlfriend eventually went through the exact same area where four French tourists were killed by self-proclaimed “soldiers of Al-Qaeda” just 45 days before. For some reason, it wasn’t personally stressful hearing reading about it, and I kept saying, “Well, lighting doesn’t strike twice in the same place.”
Perhaps I was naive. Though, I admit my girlfriend’s parents worried enough to offer to fly us straight into Senegal where we planned to take French lessons. We said no. Skipping over extremist areas are boring, and besides, we wouldn’t have been able to visit the Qur’anic Library in Chinguetti at the edge of the Sahara at one of the holiest sites of all of Islam. Frankly, we wanted to do this on our own — and young enough to throw caution to the wind.
Friends and family worried throughout that trip. I still say: Traveling almost anywhere is still fairly safe compared to, say, going north of the Wall in Game of Thrones where the White Walkers live. That’s a fictional place, of course. If there’s a lesson, it’s that you shouldn’t let fear keep you from going anywhere your heart desires.
Maybe I’m just a tad starry-eyed. As the BBC said:
“A total of 24 French soldiers have died in the region since 2013, when France intervened to drive back jihadist groups who had taken control of northern Mali.”
Then again, they’re soldiers. Like police, they take on that risk.