Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Getting the African experience

Two sisters who embarked on an eye opening journey by road across West Africa tell their wonderful story.

Chioma (left) and Oluchi on a ferry ride in Senegal during their West African tour.

The lure of the open road consumes the weary traveler a philosopher once wrote. But these two are different. They didn’t look like weary travelers when we met for a drink and an interview at high brow Rhapsody’s, a joint in the Accra Mall, Accra, recently. But the truth of the matter was that the two young ladies had been doing what many people fear to do in this part of the world; they had been traveling across West Africa by road in the first phase of a proposed trip across the entire African continent. And what a marked difference that long journey has made upon the lives of these two young Nigerians. Chioma Ogwuegbu, 29, resigned her job as a programme officer at Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, KIND, Lagos, in June and set out on a 12-country trip across the sub-region.

“I’ve always wanted to travel” she says “and I told myself I want to see the world before I turn 40. So this is the first leg of my trip”. Chioma set off for Accra, Ghana in July after a send forth party from her family and friends. If you think they were not apprehensive about letting her go on a journey into the unknown, you should think again. “Everybody said I was crazy or something” she says laughing and this writer once made a joke about her having probably suffered a recent relationship failure to have caused her to want to leave behind a good job for an uncertain future. She would hear none of that.

On that trip to Accra in July with Chioma was her sister Oluchi, who only wanted to see her off to the beginning of the journey. Even though they had planned it together, Oluchi developed cold feet midway and bade Chioma bye at Cape Coast. From there it was a long journey for the petite, twist-braids wearing Chioma who traveled to Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal alone writing several stories and blog entries on her website www.celebrateafrica.net with photographs of the enchanting places she was seeing and the beautiful people she met.

“Africa is a very beautiful continent”, she says. Unfortunately, many Africans are too prejudiced about one another to think of traveling their own continent. When they are not prejudiced, the fear of the unknown conspires to discourage them from traveling. “We were told that we would be robbed in Mali but nothing like that ever happened” says Oluchi who later joined up with her sister by flight in Dakar, Senegal when she couldn’t hold down the excitement any longer. She resigned her job at a shipping company in Apapa and set out on the remainder of the journey with her sister. “The misconception about Africa is so much among Africans that we were told not to go to Timbuktu because of armed rebels in the desert but we later met a European woman who had driven herself through Timbuktu and told us it was safe. It was sad that we couldn’t see one of Africa’s most prestigious cities” she laments. “Africans don’t trust themselves but its all lies. We need to experience each other better”.

As the ladies traveled and wrote their stories on their website, so did goodwill messages come their way. “Many people who had said it was crazy now started praising us” Chioma says. The fun they had and the knowledge they have gained was not without perils. They had to sleep on the roadside in the middle of the Sahel in Guinea Bissau when the bus they were traveling in decided it was too long a journey and that the vehicle needed rest. Was there fear in them then? “There wasn’t any fear as everybody else did the same” they reply. Their journey has gotten them some measure of fame and new friends. Wherever they go they do get some recognition. Nii Obodai, a photo artist in Accra recently introduced them to the audience at the Base Lounge’s Bless The Mic, an artist’s underground rendezvous. This got the attention of a few media personalities who quickly sent in offers of interviews.

And they never shy away from telling their story. It was one of the reasons they decided to embark on the trip in the first place. They could have gone to backpack in Europe but Chioma says they decided to begin from Africa. “We don’t have to always go out to Europe for vacation. Africa is beautiful and open to exploration because its people are its biggest assets”, she says. “Strangers just come up to assist you from nowhere”, she recalls about the wonderful people she met across the land. In Tambacunda, Senegal, Chioma met a pleasant family called the Diallos who took her in as their own. She was well treated that at night the family’s matriarch turned over her bed to Chioma and slept on the floor instead, a sign of respect for guests. She remembers vividly the Diallo family’s communal dinner where the huge 15 person household was always divided along sex lines; the women ate alone as did the men, all in a big bowl after washing their hands. “It showed me the essence of family as everyone had to be accounted for at dinner” says Chioma. And there was no shortage of culture shocks. From the youngest child to the oldest adult, everybody was addressed by their first names, she says, and young children could request for handshakes from adults without any rudeness been attached to it.

“Mali is the most beautiful place for me in West Africa” Chioma says “because it is picturesque”. Oluchi chooses Senegal. “Dakar is surrounded by beaches and the women are very elegant” she confesses. But by far the biggest challenge has been the crossing at the different border posts. Much of the hassle is due to corruption among border officials who demand for bribes even though the ECOWAS Protocol states that there should be free entry and exit for all ECOWAS citizens. Much of this is due to lack of control. But that will not dissuade the sisters as they have decided to continue their trip to conquer Africa by land. After traveling 12 countries in West Africa namely Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Senegal, Liberia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Togo and Benin, their next focus is on 30 countries in central, eastern and southern Africa. This they know will be much tougher because of visa requirements but they have made up their minds. The second phase of their journey begins in February 2009 when they must have made a restock. They also hope to get more people to join them and have already advertised openings on their website. For them, money is not the major issue but they hope to secure sponsors for the next trip in 2009. Nothing can stop them now, as they say, the lure of the open road consumes the regular traveler. But most importantly, their journey is to draw the attention of young Africans to the beauty that Africa holds.

1 comment:

  1. I once interviewed Chioma on my blog. I trully love what they are doing.

    I heard Nissan will be given them a car to make thier journey easier. I love that

    She said they will later expand their network by inviting more people later. How I will love to be part of that trip