The African continent is one of the largest in the World, something most people do not always grasp. Many years ago before I joined the Foreign Service, I worked for the Togo Government as a consultant then under the rule of General Étienne Eyadéma Gnassingbé.
I travelled then on Air Afrique which was a fine airline with financial difficulties. This article in the New York Times by Dionne Searcey reminded me of old souvenirs of Africa, which is a fascinating place to visit.
DAKAR, Senegal — Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times. In this piece, Times West Africa Bureau Chief Dionne Searcey writes another piece in her series of Dispatches from Dakar.
The variety that comes with an international beat can be a dream for any journalist hoping to tackle important and fascinating issues from terrorism, suffering and corruption to art, sports and love. But writing these kinds of stories requires traveling to the scene. And here in West Africa, getting there is way more than half the battle.
I recently had to find my way to Cameroon’s Far North region, a skinny strip of land near the Nigerian border so remote the French call it the Extreme North. The name suggests the severity of the area, a palomino-colored moonscape where even in good times people have problems finding jobs and food. Now Boko Haram, the militant Islamic group, has arrived and is sending teenage girls to blow up as many people as they can find.
I’d read timelines that outlined the daily horror. Here’s one entry from an American state department compilation of local media reports:
“February 10, a twin suicide attack in Nguetchewe killed eight civilians and wounded 45, nine of whom are in critical condition. Two women suicide attackers reportedly coming from Nigeria sought to join a group of people gathered for a wake. One attacker detonated soon after, at around 6:20 a.m., but the second attacker died before she could detonate.”
Analysts and academics from afar were floating theories about the motivations and characteristics of these female bombers, most of whom in Cameroon, were no older than 15.
I knew the best way to learn more was to go there.
Country-hopping across this continent can be tricky, even for trips that appear, on a map anyway, to be just a few hours’ drive from my base in Dakar.
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I can’t imagine there are many road trips anywhere on earth that are more interesting than a long drive through West and Central Africa. But in a lot of areas, the roads are a potholed mess, or just pure sand. A hearty four-wheel drive could take them on, but the threat of kidnapping-prone terrorist groups has made some road travel extremely dangerous.
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Flights are complicated, too. Some of the major airlines that operate out of Dakar involve layovers in faraway cities like Paris or Lisbon — lovely places, but a long detour to get to another country on the same continent.
Also, flight schedules sometimes seem more like suggestions. Last fall, I was texting with a friend as I boarded a flight out of Conakry, Guinea, a nonstop to Dakar.
“Make sure you know where the flight is really going,” he wrote, cryptically.
Flights here on regional airlines operate like buses, stopping at major capitals across the region all day. They get you where you’re going but with considerably more stops than anyone bothers to mention. These stops, during which passengers wait in their seats for others to board, usually aren’t listed on ticketing information.
The same friend who offered the cryptic warning was scheduled to arrive in Dakar close to midnight one evening last fall after a quick flight from Liberia. He staggered in the door at 3 a.m. having unexpectedly visited the runways of five nations. It’s an experience that puts the silly debate over reclining seats into perspective.
African air travel has come a long way in terms of safety in the past 20 years. I’ve flown Air Burkina and Air Cote D’Ivoire, no problem. There’s no fee for checked bags and, unlike American carriers, these airlines still serve meals and hand out pillows, even on short flights.
My biggest in-flight complaint so far: flight attendants who can’t imagine that anyone could possibly want to snooze through an airplane meal or drink so they jolt me awake with an aggressive shoulder poke.
In some parts of Africa, airport security can be confusing. Tampons, which aren’t widely available in some areas, are pawed and prodded and waved around in the kind of loud confusion one might imagine in a scene of a Seth Rogen movie. Another friend told me a security officer once confiscated the mangos he was taking as a gift — but only the soft, ripe, delicious, juicy ones, which the officer said were classified as a liquid and therefore banned.
In Douala, Cameroon, it was my small container of mini Altoids, swiped from my daughter’s Christmas stocking, that set off figurative alarm bells.
“What is that?” the security officer asked.
“Just candy,” I told her.
No, no, she told me firmly, candy is not allowed on this flight. No cakes, no gum, no candy. Maybe the rules are in place to counter drug smuggling?
I’m certain there are reasons behind these seemingly arbitrary rituals of flying, but they aren’t always obvious.
Nicholas Ori, a teenage neighbor of mine, recently described a flight he took a couple of years ago to compete in a swim tournament among several international schools of West Africa. He and his teammates flew one of the regional airlines from Dakar to Lagos, Nigeria. On the return trip the pilot announced the plane needed to make an unplanned stop — to refuel.
The plane descended onto the runway in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the passengers shuffled into the airport. The crew proceeded to take up a collection. That’s right: They hit up the Dakar Jaguars middle school swim team for gas money. Nicholas wasn’t sure who finally ponied up, but the flight eventually returned safely to Dakar.
“It was all a bit crazy,” said Nicholas, who at age 14 is an experienced flyer, having formerly lived in Jordan, Tunisia and Ivory Coast, as well as frequently flying to see relatives across Europe. “It was so unprofessional of the airline.”
In the case of my trip to the Far North, I arrived in Cameroon by way of Casablanca, Morocco. To get to the region from Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital city, I had to make arrangements for security escorts on the ground. I also needed to penetrate yet another layer of African air travel, domestic airlines.
Camair-Co, the nation’s flagship airline, flew north only a couple of times a week. I had to buy my ticket at the airline’s small office inside the Yaoundé airport where a dozen unhappy people crammed into a stuffy waiting room. Days before, the local paper had published a story about Camair-Co’s new fleet under the headline “Flying Coffins.” The government assured the public that the planes were safe.
Just outside the airline’s office on the runway was a plane that looked like it hadn’t moved for a long time. Its entire fuselage was blackened, from some kind of long-ago fire, I presumed. I later learned it wasn’t flames that caused those markings. It was mold. The jet belonged to a cargo airline that had stopped operating, and the muggy air had worked its mildewy magic while the company waited, in vain, for its corporate fortune to turn around.
I bought my ticket and boarded the Camair-Co flight under lighted signs that warned of bans against flying with opium or uppers or “palm oil, honey, etc.” I’m not a savvy enough traveler here yet to know what the “etc.” meant. But minus a surprise stopover in the city of Douala, the flight was just fine.