Travelling West Africa in a pandemic

Hannah left the UK to travel around West-Africa at the end of 2019, unbeknownst to her and the rest of the world, a global pandemic was brewing that would add an unexpected twist to her journey. Here she recalls her adventures and lessons learned on the way.
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Travelling West Africa in a pandemic

From what I can remember, it's something I had been planning for a short few months. But according to my friend, who I travelled to South Africa with exactly a year prior to my decision, I had been speaking about the idea since 2018. There have been so many contributing factors which lead to my decision to move to and travel around West Africa.
The most obvious factor is my job. I'm a journalist, and for the past couple of years, I have solely been working on African news.  I've reported on Nigeria's shockingly last minute postponed general elections earlier in 2019, covered the Sudan protests that made thousands of social media users turn their display photos blue, and closely followed the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

A lot of people, both western and non-western, naturally associate several parts of the African continent (not a specific country, but the entire continent) with destruction, famine, war, violence, and pretty much everything wrong with the world. On the one hand, I can see why - it's a vast continent. A lot of bad things do happen, as it does everywhere else in the world. On the other hand, I couldn't help but wonder if it was really ALL that bad. 

As a journalist, I'm well placed to know that the headlines do not accurately represent this continent as a whole. In fact, some of my colleagues have made me fall in love, with the sound of Somaliland, the beauty of the nature surrounding Liberia, the vibrancy of the locals in Cape Verde, and the lively nightlife in Ivory Coast. 

There's so much diversity and so much to experience on this enormous continent, that I've spent the past 8 months of my life fully emerging myself into it and barely covered a sliver of it. This life-changing experience took me where Afrobeat music was born, where jollof rice wars are ever-growing, and where I fell in love with the locals and the culture over and over again - West Africa. I began my Pan African adventure in the land that marked the Year Of Return - Ghana. 

Ghana has always had a special place in my heart. Since my first visit over six years ago, it's been so exciting to witness the growth and the initiatives put in place to welcome the diaspora and tourists from all over.

It was an active start to my adventure, waiting for up to two hours to receive meals at restaurants, the heavy traffic, and most places in the capital Accra overwhelmingly busy with returnees. The city didn't sleep, and neither did I. 

Despite it all, I managed to sneak out of the capital to the buzzing city of Kumasi, with clear starlit skies and it's calmer more relaxed vibes. A place where I got to emerge myself into the history and rich culture of the Ashanti Kings & Queens. 

I thank Ghana deeply for the wealth of experiences it provided me with at the start of my journey. But after almost a month spent there, it was time to move on. 

A short two-hour flight westward, I found myself at my next stop, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Sweet Salone, as it's dearly referred to by the locals, is an absolute hidden gem on the West-African coast. The country has gone through its fair share of misfortunes, recently dealing with devastating mudslides and the Ebola virus outbreak, yet the population are ever joyous and welcoming. 

I felt a warm hug from Freetown as soon as I landed. It's such an easy place to understand. What you see is what you get. People are genuine, friendly, hard-working, and hustlers! 

And nowhere is this more apparent than at Sani Abacha Street market in Freetown, where sellers hoping to make money will find any corner and spot possible to sell the most delicate lace, shoes, toiletries, accessories; anything you can imagine! It reminded me of the vibrancy and craziness of Balogun market in Lagos and Makola market in Accra.

Unlike Accra, however, traffic was more laidback in Freetown. This made exploring the city's glorious untouched beaches an absolute breeze. I got to experience some of the most life-changing food I'd ever tasted.

I say life-changing because it reminded me once more of the passion from this part of the continent that is often ((translated)) through the cooking and sharing of delicious meals. 

Rice is a large staple meal that can be made in several ways, often accompanied by the richest and most scrumptious stews. 

I was blessed to be fed by my host family, who's live-in cooks would make the most glorious meals daily. We would always have a giggle and laugh whilst we ate together on the compound under the shade. I could only ever experience this in Africa.

Next on my itinerary was the Gambia, a place that further confirmed my thoughts and feelings about this journey... it was a blessing. 

While there, I connected with so many people virtually, developing bonds that then blossomed into the best friendships. I explored so much and felt like an actual local at times! I blended in well and always felt so safe and in good hands. I fell absolutely head over heels in love with the Gambia. 

A month spent there ended with my first ever 9-hour West African road trip to Senegal. So much happened in Senegal within a shorter space of time.

I had no choice but to actively practice my French and execute more of the Wolof I picked up in the Gambia. I also experienced some of the more uncomfortable sides of being a solo traveller, from strange AirBnB's to creepy taxi drivers. 

But the biggest turn of events to happen during my time in Senegal, was when The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

While I could see the world panic across my social media feeds, my physical surroundings remained calm. No panic buying, no sudden spikes and surges of infection numbers; and to this date, the continent of Africa remains the least affected by the pandemic. 

I believe that African countries' experience at dealing with past outbreaks certainly played a role in their response to this pandemic. Airports were shut down in good time, and measures were put in place far quicker than in most Western countries when the threat of a viral spread became evident. Though my heart sympathised with the world, I in no way considered that particular time to be the end of my journey.

Throughout this entire trip, I somehow managed to always be in the right place at the right time. Literally, 20 hours after leaving Senegal for  Lagos Nigeria, Dakar's international airport would close and remain closed until further notice due to the pandemic. 

Nigeria was my fifth and final destination on this adventure. I had only planned the trip up until this point, where I would use the time to relax and work out the last leg of my journey.  So here I was, locked down in Lagos, with no solid plans in place. I was lucky to be able to weather the lockdown with a family member, where I was well looked after, well-fed and well-hydrated. 

I used this time to continue doing my remote work, engage my communities online, lower my social media intake, and just let myself be! 

As soon as lockdown restrictions began to ease and inter-state travel in Nigeria was allowed, I wasted no time in jumping for the chance to further explore, and boy did I! 

From a week in the beautiful city of Ibadan where my parents were born and raised, to a bumpy bus ride and time spent in the buzzing town of Abeokuta, to staycations in luxurious pool houses, and a stay at one of the most beautiful beach resorts I'd ever been to. Finishing the final chapter in my motherland honestly made me thankful beyond measure. 

My heart was filled, as, despite the lockdown, I still got to do so much and surprised myself at how well I had adjusted to this life. 

Preparing to leave this new reality and return to the UK triggered so many emotions. I cried a lot leading up to my departure – not because it was over – but because it actually happened. 

So many unbelievable experiences, conversations, sights, and opportunities have occurred throughout. I can only give myself the biggest pat on the back for taking the plunge. I don't like to romanticise things, especially when deciding to move and live somewhere entirely different to the United Kingdom I grew up in. 

I had to mentally prepare myself and realise that I'm travelling to places where it's normal for women to be seen as inferior, where mosquitoes will bite you in every possible exposed piece of flesh, where power cuts will keep you up at night sweating profusely in bed, and where traffic will frustrate you beyond imagination. 

And I did prepare myself for this, through the many mini-trips I took over the years, mostly to Ghana and Nigeria. And now I can say that I have lived in Africa, and I embraced it. I loved admiring the hustle and bustle of the locals, from as little as the age of five, helping their mama sell mangoes at the weekend market. I  loved how fresh and nutritious everything I ate and drank was. I loved not spending a lot of money in comparison to how I would notoriously spend in the UK. I've learned so much about myself during this process. A lot of it has had to do with personal development and growth. I'm proud of myself for my resilience, for always looking on the bright side and truly embracing every part of the experience. Talking and spending time with locals is such a refreshing experience that I'll truly miss. I'm glad to have just soaked it all up, lived in every moment, and to have fallen deeper in love with my continent.

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