Saturday, June 13, 2009

Trip Awesome

So it turns out that traveling from Cinkassé (on the border of Togo and Burkina) to Niamey (the capital of Niger) is not really possible in one day - at least not if you take a bush taxi, which we thought would be a good idea.

Amanda and I took a bus to Koupela, which is half way between Cinkassé and Ouagaudougou. We got out here to take a bush taxi to Niamey. Had the taxi gone straight there, we could have arrived around 8 p.m. Instead, the first car dropped us off aboout two hours later in a place called Fada N'Guorma (maybe). Then we had to wait about two hours for the next car to leave. This car's driver was a wonderful man, who thought nothing of cramming about 25 people in his 15-seat car. Amanda and I were on the bench closest to the front, and I was pushed against the door. I spent a good part of the ride hanging out the window, because that was comfortable. Then, at one of our unexplained stops (where the driver picked up MORE people to shove in), the door fell off.

Because we stopped about three times along the way, we didn't even make it to the last town before the Niger border. There, the driver left us to sit while he unloaded all the yams we'd had underfoot before picking us up to take us to the station. I was hoping we could just spend the night in a cheap hostel or something, which another passenger assured me was possible. We got to the station, where someone told us we were going to continue (we had all already paid the full fare to Niamey). We got in another car - also overcrowded - and chugged along in the dark, all the way to the border. The guards collected our passports and identity cards, we pooled money so that they would let us go through with all the baggage on top of the car... and then the border closed. And Amanda and I spent the night at the border. In the parking lot. On a mat that someone lent us. I slept well until 2 or 3 a.m. when a semi pulled through and I decided it must be time to wake up. But no... it was not close to dawn and there were still several hours of tossing and turning and hugging my camera bag to my body left.

So! Lessons learned: if you don't want to go to Ouaga from Cinkassé to travel to Niamey, the Koupela bus leaves on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 a.m. To get this bus, you'd have to spend the night in Koupela, because I don't think the Burkina border opens before six. Bush taxis are a really rotten idea and bush taxi drivers are the same, it seems, in all francophone West African countries (in Ghana, everyone gets their own seat in the bush taxis). Finally, there is no where to sleep at the border of Burkina and Niger except the ground.

But when we finally arrived, we had showers, some beers, lunch, naps and then more beers at a bar overlooking the Niger River. Today we paid about $80 to drive out to see the last herd of giraffes in West Africa - very touristy, but very cool AND there was a baby AND two of them were fighting. Then we went to a mosque whose building was funded by the Libyan government and next we're going on canoe rides on the river.

We leave for Ouaga tomorrow morning on a bus. No more bush taxis for this trip.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Candles and Trees

Last weekend, I attended two large events, one for PSI and one for Peace Corps.

On Friday, PSI held its annual Candlelight Memorial ceremony, honoring those who have died of HIV/AIDS. Candlelight is an international event that has apparently been happening since 1983, on the third Sunday of May (visit the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial page for more information). We were a little late, with ours happening the last Friday of May at the Congressional Palace. PSI invited the organizations we work with to invite people to the event, which started with a march that I missed, because my duty was handing out condoms inside the venue.

As we've learned from previous events, freebies draw crowds (all invited participants received tshirts) and mobs. Condom distribution went fine until everyone arrived at once, pushed through the two entrances and decided they really wanted to get to their seats but also really wanted condoms. Security decided they should help me distribute from the middle of the stairs rather than at the bottom of the stairs, where I was getting smushed. Then a PSI employee started yelling at them, which started a shouting match with me still trying to hand out condoms between the two shouting parties. I hope this is the last time I ever get mobbed for free stuff in Togo.

I'd never been to an event like this in Togo (except for maybe that cryfest at camp last year), but as an American, "Candlelight Mermorial for Victims of HIV/AIDS" led me to expect a somber evening, despite the two musical guests. But people talked and cheered throughout the speeches and the moment of silence, and I felt it was all kind of a joke. Co-workers said it was an improvement from last year and generally thought it went well, though, so I guess I can only blame my Western expectations.

On Saturday, I went to Notsé, a town in the Plateaux region, to attend Moringa Fest. Two volunteers from my training group, Ashley and Danielle (remember Danielle from the last post, when she got married?) have worked with the moringa tree for most of their service. Moringa Fest was the culminating event of two years' of moringa-educating and promoting. Volunteers and Togolese counterparts ran stations that explained different benefits of the moringa tree: nutritional information, how to plant and care for the tree, how to dry the leaves and make powder, how to cook with the leaves, and how to use the seeds to purify water and make oil. There was a rowdy kids' section where volunteers (including roommate JT) tried to corral 50 children and keep them out of the adults' way. Throughout the day, on the main stage, volunteers presented their stations' lessons, and during breaks, people could visit the stations and get more information. There were also games like musical chairs and a moringa-themed song and poem competition to keep the mood festive. The moringa tree is called the "miracle tree" for all its uses and its leaves' high nutritional value. If Ashley and Danielle could just reproduce their event all over Togo, malnutrition might drop immensely.

Next Wednesday, I start my West Africa tour: Niger, Burkina Faso (we're really just crossing it) and Ghana. It's impossible to just get the Niger visa in Togo and you can't buy it at the Burkina-Niger border, so I bought the Visa Entente. This gets you a one-time entry visa for Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo and Côte d'Ivoire, which is valid for two months. Obviously, I don't need Togo, I already have a five-year Burkina visa, I don't really plan on going to Benin and U.S. citizens don't need a visa for Côte d'Ivoire. So I spent $50 for Niger, mainly because I want to see giraffes. But if anyone ever plans to travel to those countries, keep the Visa Entente in mind.