Many people come to West Africa on a tour. Nothing wrong with that. Some tours are well run and offer something authentic and memorable. Whether you’re on a tour or not, you can find ways to figure how a place works in an unscripted setting. In other words, you can find ways to avoid being a tourist.
It can be easy to fall into that tourist orbit in West Africa. There is a lack of reliable and up-to-date information, and guidebooks never seem to have an exhaustive list of things to see or do.
There is also a certain halo of fear that a lot of travelers seem to carry with them. That might have something to do with the fact that West Africa is very much a developing area, but it most likely has its roots in the modern history of the region and the mostly grim and one-sided stories churned out by western media.
Our advice is to discard any anxiety you have as quickly as possible. For the most part, this is a remarkably safe region of the world. Don’t be careless, but don’t be scared either.
Here are a few tips for traveling a bit deeper in West Africa:
1. Wander with no plan
This is something we mentioned in the article on Newtown, Accra. Take an afternoon and just walk somewhere. Stop off at a restaurant, chop house, cafe or even a random boutique. Talk to people. If you don’t speak the local language, ask questions as best you can and mime your way through communication. You will get through to people and you will start learning a new language at the same time. Don’t consider your day a failure if you didn’t check off some tourist sight.
2. Go to bars, clubs and community centers
It’s hard to overstate the importance of music and dance in West Africa. The region is responsible for groundbreaking approaches to rhythm and melody, and popular dances — coupe-decale and azonto being two recent examples — are regularly exported. Going to a bar or a club is a great way to get a feel for what’s popular on the airwaves and on the dance floor. Don’t sit in a corner, and don’t be shy.
3. Take a class or a lesson
Learn how to batik, how to make poulet yassa and other delicious plates, how to speak a new language, how to dance, how to drum, or how to play guitar with the cross fingering style of picking that is popular in palm wine music from Liberia and Ghana. You will learn something that will be valuable later but also in the moment while you are traveling in that particular place.
Whether it’s through the official couchsurfing.org site or through some other home-stay program, this is one of the best ways to discover a place. Forget about the fact that it provides you with free accommodation — a nice bonus — and realize that by staying with an individual or a family, you will discover local foods and music, cool spots to hang out, and you will likely come out of the experience with some new friends.
5. Eat like the locals
Eating is a communal activity and food is a bedrock of any culture. Get your fill at the expat and tourist oriented restaurants, ok, but don’t be shy when it comes to street food and local eateries. Ask locals for their favorite spots and try to scope out where the long lines are (this is usually a good indication that the food is both delicious and safe to eat).
These 5 tips scratch the surface when it comes to traveling deeper. We’d love to hear some of your own advice in the comments below.