A Travellerspoint blog

A Royal Audience

Or rather two audiences and a big ceremony

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Ouahigouya

Ouahigouya

Early evening, on the same day I finished my Dogon Country trek, I left Mali to the relative safety of northern Burkina Faso. More precisely a town called Ouahigouya. Entering a new country means finding a new way to quell my Internet addiction, i.e. buy a new local sim-card and load it with data. Sure, travelling through West Africa would be a good way to get “off the grid”, but I’m not leaving the Internet behind for a whole year. Besides, the mobile 3G is the only internet down here fast enough for me to actually update this blog. Wi-Fi and internet cafés are painfully slow.

Royal Yatenga Grave

Royal Yatenga Grave

Walking into the nearest mobile company office, little did I know that I wasn’t just shopping a sim-card. I was making a friend. The guy selling me the sim-card, Sissoko, decided to help me out once we’d finished the formal business. He offered to take me to the guesthouse I wanted to stay in, so we jumped on the back of his scooter to find me a place to sleep. Things were pretty full, so we had to shop around. Having finally found a place, he not only paid for the first two night (so smoothly that I didn’t realise it and thus couldn’t complain/stop him), he also bought me dinner and paid my beer.
We met up the next day so that he could show me the town. As you might have guessed, he insisted on driving me around seeing stuff. Passing by the traditional king’s palace, I casually mentioned that we should go and visit the King. You know, as a sign of respect from a traveller passing through his lands. Sissoko wasn’t as keen as I was. Bursting in on the King unannounced apparently isn’t something you do here. He’s quite the powerful guy. Let me explain.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

In Burkina, the old pre-colonial kingdoms still exist. The most powerful are in Ouagadougou – the capital. The second-most powerful is in Ouahigouya, and a third is in the eastern part of the country. These kings sort of have the role of civil society leaders. While they are all decedents of the original, pre-colonial kings, the modern state’s president and other political leaders wield the official political power. The Kings, wield unofficial power. They hold sway over dozens – if not hundreds – of village chiefs, who then have the respect of their villages. So the government have to consider their opinions during policy making.

The King and His Spokesperson

The King and His Spokesperson

Despite the unannounced nature of our visit, the King was happy to see us. Once he’d woke up from his nap, that is. So we had to wait a few hours. We used them pro-actively and did another tour of the town. When it was time to see the king, he was sitting in his courtyard on a white plastic garden chair. A few other guests were sitting on mats on the floor. This humble throne was the only thing physically distinguishing the king from his guests. As a foreign visitor, the king ordered for another throne to be fetched, and I was honoured with a white plastic chair opposite the King’s. Between Sissoko’s decent English and my basic knowledge of French, we did manage to tell the king that my visit was a show of respect. However, we didn’t get much further in the conversation. Asking questions about a Burkina king’s skillset, the secession order and the size of the realm were a wee bit too complicated with the languish barrier. Instead, the King asked us to come back the following morning with prepared questions and told his grandson to accompany us back to town so that he could answer some of my questions. Hashtag: Hanging out with a prince.

Sissoko (middle) and Tiraogo (right)

Sissoko (middle) and Tiraogo (right)

The king’s grandson, Tiraogo, had a bit better command of English, than Sissoko, and with a bit of help from Google Translate, I got explained, among other things, how succession works here. Not surprisingly, it’s agnatic primogeniture, meaning that the oldest legitimate son will take over the throne once a king dies. Interestingly though, an interim mourning period lasting between six weeks and six months have to be upheld before the new king can take to the throne. In this time the senior woman of the royal family will take over leadership of the kingdom. The senior woman being either the deceased king’s oldest living sister or his oldest daughter.

Extended Royal Family

Extended Royal Family

Returning to the palace the next morning, the King had changed his attire to a more royal rope. Formal audiences are held in a small building in front of the courtyard. Here the king was launching on a mat on a raised plateau, while his guests were sitting on mats on the floor. Again, I got a plastic chair. We exchanged some diplomatic pleasantries, like me thanking the king for his time and willingness to answer my questions, while the King expressed gratitude of my interest in learning more about the kingdom. Then, through Sissoko and Tiraogo, I had a chance to ask questions about the role and skillset of the king, the importance of the institution, and how it co-exists with the more formal political hierarchy. I’ve already summed up the answers in the beginning. The king also invited me to attend the “year’s first” ceremony that afternoon. My plan was to leave town after my meeting with the king, but I don’t know when I’ll be invited to a royal ceremony again and decided to stay for another day.

The King and Village Chiefs

The King and Village Chiefs

That afternoon me, Sissoko and his English teacher, which he had brought along to explain to me what was going on, once again returned to the royal palace. Traditionally the year in Burkina starts at the end of the rainy season. It is the king’s duty to scarifies and talk to the ancestors, in order to secure a good harvest during the rains. Thus, at the first part of the ceremony the king’s village chiefs thanked the king for the good harvest and donated some of it’s result to him. Either in the form of millet, firewood or cash. The king was back on this white plastic throne, wearing a white dress of peace (there’s also a red dress of war) and a red hat. Surrounded by his ministers, close family members and bodyguards, he took centre stage while a hundred or so village chiefs were sitting on mats and roughs to his sides. Like in a proper court. A few hundred spectators, mostly kids and women, had gathered to witness the ceremony and were standing on the edges of it all.

Royal Ceremony

Royal Ceremony

During the second part of the ceremony, the chiefs (on behalf of their villages) and individuals who wished to, could ask the king for good luck and safety for the coming year – at the token of a small donation. This pretty much worked out like this: gifts of money were handed to the king’s spokesman who would then announce the person’s or village’s name as well as the size of the donation to the crowd. Some social competition is a huge part of this. Figuring out that it would give the crowds a thrill I donated the equivalent of 3€ (about the median of the donations given) to the king and asked for protection, hospitality and good luck for any travellers, who is going to pass through the kingdom the rest of the year. Loud cheers and laughs from the crowd insinuated that I hadn’t been wrong about my participation being well recessive.

Fire!

Fire!

In general, this was a ceremony clouded in smoke from some heavy guns his bodyguards were carrying. Otherwise, everything was done in a quite formal and professional way. Every person taking part in the ceremony having specific and designated roles. Ceremonies here in Ouahigouya is apparently rare. But the king in the capital Ouagadougou hold a short ceremony every Friday morning should some feel like visiting.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 21:17 Archived in Burkina Faso Tagged traditional travel king ceremony meeting travelling west_africa burkina ceremonies naaba audieance Comments (0)

Animal Sacrifices, Millet Beer and the Dogons

Five days trekking through Dogon Country

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Dogon Country

Dogon Country

First, a concession: the Dogons are a very complicated group of people. They have unique social and political structures, their own religion and mythology, and even their own astronomy. It will be impossible to give a complete, or even fair, depiction of them in this blog entry. So instead of trying my best at an ethnological description that is bound to fall short, I’ll simply share with you, my experiences from trekking through the Dogon Country.

The Dogon Country is vast. The fact that circa 400,000 Dogons live here, in spread out villages, should give you an idea. The most famous part of the area is a 150 km long sandstone wall that carves its way through the landscape. There’s nothing less of a 300-500 metre high stone wall, with a rocky plateau on top and sandy plains below. Long before coming to Mali I had decided that I would walk, maybe not the full length of the cliff, but at least a lot of it.

Animist Temple

Animist Temple

This being Mali, I’d arranged for a guide to take me through the trek. Not only because of the risky security situation but because there are so many unfamiliarities, taboos and social norms in Dogon culture that I would be bound to offend, hurt and otherwise insult scores of locals by trekking there on my own. These otherwise isolated villages have seen a lot of tourism in the past, and I was determined to travel responsibly. Just to give you an idea, certain trees, ceremonies and small altars cannot be photographed, others can. Some overgrown tracks are not to be used, though they seemed like exciting paths to explore with my traveller's eyes.

Dogon Hunter

Dogon Hunter

But before getting this far, readers of my last blog post might remember that a local police officer gave me a good scare on my way to Dogon Country be telling me that the area wasn’t safe. “Trekking around Dogon Country is perfectly safe” Mamadou, my guide, ensured me. To prove his point he told me that four Germans had just set off for three days in a 4x4. This calm me down. Others are actually willing to go here. Plus, four Germans in a big car would be a much greater price for any kidnappers than I would be. They would also be a lot easier to find. I did take one precaution, though. I told everybody that I was from England. It’s well-known down here which countries do not pay ransom and which do. Telling people I’m English would make me a less attractive target because the UK never pays ransom. Just to make it clear, though, none of the 90+ Westerners kidnapped in the Sahel since 2003 have been abducted from or near the Dogon Country, though I was told that the insurgents used to trade in certain Dogon towns a few years back.

Sanga and Its Onion Fields

Sanga and Its Onion Fields

The walk itself started in Sanga, one of the larger towns on the plateau. It’s made up of fourteen smaller hamlets, all with their own families and onion fields (onion in the cash crop for the Dogons). Each hamlet, and each village I would visit later on, have certain important buildings. Most notable are the granaries with their pointy straw roof and cylinder shape. They primarily store millet, but also valuables like clothes, jewellery and money. Then there are the meeting places. Low, low, structure with roofs of eight layers of millet-straw – one layer for each of the founding ancestors accordingly to Dogon mythology. The low ceiling is an effective way of keeping tempered discussions calm. Should someone rise in anger he will instantly know his head on the low ceiling and turn quite very, very fast.

Elders' Meeting Place

Elders' Meeting Place

There’s also at least one animist temple, where animals are sacrificed. It’s a holy procedure, and while I was allowed to witness it through the open door, I was neither allowed to enter the temple nor to take photos. The latter due to a general prohibition of depicting holy sacrifices. There are also houses for women who are menstruating, as this is a time when they can’t live with their families, and certain houses for the village kings. These grand old men are elected by the village elders and are considered sort of divine. As a consequence are they not allow to leave the small compound their house is places in and no-one, not even their wife, are ever again allowed to touch them. Maybe we in the West should make the same rules for positions of power in our societies – that would probably limit the amounts of arses seeking political power...

During the five days of walking, we passed countless of village people in these villages. Tourism had become overwhelming back before northern Mali descended into conflict. To the frustration of many locals. Each village thus asks for a tourist tax for every traveller passing through, eating a meal there or spending the night. Mamadou took care of this. He also made sure to hand out plenty of kola nuts, which, traditionally, are gifts of respect. This was especially important in my meeting with the older generation, who had been most sceptical about the tourist visiting their villages.

Dogon Village

Dogon Village

However, as the old saying goes: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Everywhere I went, no matter their age, people thanked me for visiting. Some, almost, ecstatically, took my passing through as a sign that things were getting better. It was somewhat heartbreaking to ask them to keep their hopes down. Tourism had been a significant income for these otherwise poor farming communities. A lot of the money had been invested in small guesthouses, so as visitors stopped coming in 2012 many villages lost an important communal source of income that had greatly attributed to their development. One guesthouse manager I spoke to told me it had been a month and five days since he last had visitors – and they were only there for lunch before they drove off again. It was more than three months since anyone had last spent a night as I did. A sharp reminder that while war has not reached the Dogon Country it has ruined the local economy.

Women pounding millet

Women pounding millet

Talking about lunch, a quick word on the food. Visitors will see an endless amount of onion fields, but onions are mainly sold in markets (as far away as in Bamako and Côte d’Ivoire). Instead, the Dogons eat millet. A lot of millet. Having lived here for more than 600 years, they have pretty much found every possible way of forming millet into food. A few things stand out. Pô is a dough-like substance, much like dry and sticky mashed potatoes, but with less taste. It’s dipped in a cold sauce made from the leaves of Baobab trees. It’s not bad; it’s just pretty tasteless. Better is the flour and bread made from millet, though also pretty dry.

Trying millet beer

Trying millet beer

But no matter. My complaints about the food would disappear quickly as soon as I was told millet could also be used to produce beer. Millet beer is sweet and very potent. And should it be a week brew, it can always be spiced with coconut rum imported from neighbouring Burkina Faso – the result is the already sweet beer gets turned into a tropical drink that would knock out a horse.

All in all, the Dogon country is a fantastic place. Naturally, culturally and the people living there. The about 80 km we walked took me up and down the cliff a couple of time. In 40 degrees Centigrade. Lucky, it always seemed that a village inhabited by friendly Dogons was nearby, and people was more than willing to share their water and – more often – millet beer with me.

My last experience in Mali might well have been the greatest one. As of now, I have moved to the relative safety of Burkina Faso. So for this time around, I’ve once again survived one of my semi-suicidal destinations. Until next time Mali!

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:27 Archived in Mali Tagged travel trek trekking guide responsible war tourism travelling mali dangerous dogon safe west_africa kidnapping dogon_country Comments (0)

Dangerous Mali… Or is It...

Touring Mali as a tourist. But is it really as suicidal as many think it is?

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Bamako's Train Station

Bamako's Train Station

I’m not trying to talk down the risks of visiting Mali. Then again, I kind of am. Sure, a few things are different from your usual vacation spot. During one weekend in Bamako, a security warning about a possible upcoming attack kept everybody indoors. A few weeks earlier there was an attack on an army barrack 60 km outside Bamako a few weeks, and I would lie if I didn’t feel a little uneasy when we went to a bar were a terrorist attack had killed five people back in March. Then again, the warned attack never came; the attack outside Bamako was directed, not at tourists, but at the military; and I’d happily use Bruxelles Airport again, so why not a Bamako bar?

Booze cruising

Booze cruising

The fact is that I felt pretty safe – especially in Bamako. Even with the security warning. The place I stayed is the best place I’ve been for the past eight months, and I ended hanging out there for more than two weeks. About ten days longer than planned. The owners and staff took me in and made me part of their extended family of regulars and long-term occupants. That meant plenty of partying, karaoke and booze cruising on the Niger River. All perfectly doable in the shade of the more troubled stories typically associated with Mali. The country does deserve some positive PR at the moment. Before 2012 it was probably the most visited West African country. And rightfully so. Mali has a, for the region, unique mix of ethnicities, historical and natural attractions, and a lively and colourful economy making the country a gem – though it is little rough around the edges at the moment.

Clay burning

Clay burning

When I finally moved on from Bamako, Mali didn’t disappoint. A few hours northeast – still in what is considered the “safe south” – Ségou is the hometown of Mali's pottery production. An overnight river cruise took me and a Belgium/Senegalese couple through the surrounding villages to see the traditional burning of clay pottery before it’s sailed to the big market in Ségou . We spend the night on the Niger River, camping on a small sandy bank that had appeared as the high waters of the rainy season retracted. Again, perfectly safe.

From here I moved into more risky territory. Or rather, to where the US, UK and other governments advise against all travel. In the south, they just advise against “all but essential travel.” As I think I’ve already mentioned, governments tend to be very conservative in their security statements, mostly because they are the ones who will have to come and get you if something goes wrong. As a precaution, I arranged for a guide to pick me up as I arrived at my next destination, Djenné.

Moonlit river crossing

Moonlit river crossing

The reason to hire a local guide is simply. He knows the place and its people. If someone is trying to kidnap me, my best chance of hearing of it is by having local eyes and ears whose economy is based on tourists and their continuing visits. It also saved me a 5 km walk into town on my arrival. I’d gotten a late start to the day, so my shared taxi arrived at the final river crossing after the ferry had stopped sailing for the day. We could still cross the river by dugout canoe, but Djenné was still be a good hour’s walk further on. A phone call later Mohammad arrived on his scooter and ferried me to a hotel where he trusted the staff.

Djenné's Great Mosque

Djenné's Great Mosque

Helpful guides aside, the real reason to come to Djenné is the fact that the entire town, build on a small island, is made of mud. Wet dirt mixed with a few straws have created an ancient town, which still stands today because the local population viciously re-plaster their houses with fresh mud after each rainy season. Djenné’s centrepiece is its Grand Mosque. More than 18m high, it’s the largest mud/earth building in the world. Few terrorists would be able to talk me out of visiting this place.
Mohammad did mention that an attack on UN peacekeepers had taken place around 40 km outside Djenné a few weeks prior. But he also ensures me that everything was okay within the town. As with most of these attacks, it happened on the northwestern side of the Niger River. It’s a rather vital piece of information for my travels here, since the main highway – and all the sites I’m visiting – is to the south-east of the river, the more tightly controlled part of the country.

Mopti

Mopti

Moving further north, to the most important harbour on the Niger River, Mopti, Mohammad and I decided that it would be safer to take a small shared taxi, rather than a large bus. On the one hand, shared taxis are more intimate, and the fewer passengers mean that the already very small risk of someone calling the wrong guys to rat me out is even lower. On the other hand, it’s harder to keep a low profile in a shared taxi and passengers are hassled more at police checkpoints. A couple of times local law enforcement viewed my visit with great scepticism. At the very least I had to promise that I wouldn’t to go further north than Mopti to be let through the checkpoints. Not that I planned to anyway.

UN Peacekeepers

UN Peacekeepers

Arriving in Mopti I would soon understand why. The city not only has the most important port on the Niger, but it also has a large UN base. The first thing we came across – even before I had exited the taxi – was a large convoy of UN trucks and technicals (pickup trucks with big machine guns mounted on the back) full of ‘blue helmets’. Walking around Mopti the next day I came across a single UN jeep protected by no less than two technicals. A lot of firepower to protect a single civilian vehicle. The UN means business up here.

Mopti Kids

Mopti Kids

I had no guide on my walk around Mopti. So I had to explore the bustling harbour of Mopti on my on. The river is the most important way of transporting goods in Mali. With Mopti’s strategic location as a staging post between the north and the south, the town has grown rich. A few happy locals did come up to me ensuring me that “there are no ‘problems’ in Mopti.” ‘Problems’ being the favourite word to describe everything bad. It’s like “Voldemort.” If they actually say the words “war,” “attack,” “terrorism,” etc. it seems bound to happen. Unlike Bamako and Djenné though, I didn’t hear about any reason attacks here. Instead of a guide, I’d taken a hotel recommendation from Mohammad who knew the guys there and had called ahead to tell them to take care of me. This worked great, and I was treated like a king.

Riverside Mosque

Riverside Mosque

My last Mali-stop this time around will be a five-day trek through the so-called Dogon country. The areal is isolated by both savanna and mountains, and unlike any of the other places I’ve been isn’t it a well-protected urban centre. This does play a little with my nerves as the shared taxi left Mopti. It doesn’t help that the soldiers at the last checkpoint keep saying, “Pays Dogon, c’est par bon!” Basically, “Dogon Country, it’s no good.” My paranoia is beginning to creep up on me. The more optimistic voices in my head argue that it is simply a matter of the government not having a secure hold of the area because of it's isolation. The fact that the government doesn’t control it is not the same as the bad guys do. Isolation from one part can also mean isolation from the other.

Once again I have arranged to meet with my guide for the trek when I arrive. I'll have to discuss the situation with him and then figure out what to do...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:04 Archived in Mali Tagged travel terrorism terrorist war tourism travelling mali dangerous danger djenné dogon mopti safe west_africa kidnapping bamako Comments (2)

Travelling to a Warzone

Mali might not be your standard holiday destination, but damn it if I'm going to let the terrorist win!

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Enter: Mali

Enter: Mali

A few months before this blog post, the Danish government passed a law making it illegal to enter a country were an [Islamic] insurgency is taking place. The legislation is aimed at radicalised youth travelling to Syria to join Islamic State, and the Danish Foreign Ministry will determine which countries should be added to that list on a case-to-case basis. Potentially, Mali, where I'm heading next, is on that list. We’ll see what happens. As of now, I don’t plan to join the al-Qaeda, but you just never know.

Travelling Afghanistan

Travelling Afghanistan

I’ve done a fair amount of visiting countries in internal turmoil, so I’m not too nervous. In 2007 I visited Sudan, in 2013 Afghanistan and a year later Iraq. Mali might just be the calmest country on that list. This has, not surprisingly, lead to both worry comments from friends and some sharp ridicule of my intelligence. To the extent that I have friends who refuse to follow my blogs because I post entries like this one. “Stupid, but Lucky” has long been my travel motto. So much that I’ve looked up the Latin translation, but “Steltus, sed Felix” doesn’t ring well as the English version.

UN Soldiers, Mali

UN Soldiers, Mali

It should be said, though, that I rarely go to active war zones. During the mentioned visits, I have never experienced a gun fight, a bombing or any other form of attack. These are large countries and staying away from the “hot” zones is usually possible. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is something impossible is this world – even during the Boston Maraton or Bastille celebrations – though I do admit that my risks of ending there is bigger than those of your average New Englishman or Frenchman. The highest risk I’m taking of a different kind, but also one that I wouldn’t realise before it’s too late. Kidnapping for ransom or, less likely, beheading could be planned two blogs away while I feel perfectly safe in my hotel. There are some ways to counter this risk, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Somehow it seems travellers have to take a lot of heat from friends when making risky choices. More than people having other life-threatening hobbies. Sure, I don’t how much families complain before someone attend to climb Mount Everest – but at least a couple of individuals die every year attempting to reach the top. I tend to consider my travelling at par with mountaineering. Both in risk and reward.

UK Travel Advise for Mali

UK Travel Advise for Mali

But back to Mali. First of all, the south is considered safe. Mainly the area around Bamako. Safe is, of course, relative, and there was an attack about 40 km outside the city a few weeks ago. Just like security warnings that confining everybody behind their hotels’ tall walls for days are common. The trouble really begins as one is moving north. The mythical Sahara towns of Timbuktu and Gao (both World Heritage Sites) is most definitely off limit. Mostly, because the area around the towns is largely controlled by the insurgents. I could probably catch a UN flight from Bamako to Timbuktu and avoid the roads and checkpoints, but the price tag (200US$) almost scares me more than the kidnappers. A risk that would probably be worse in Timbuktu than in Northern Afghanistan because the town is so small. I wouldn’t be able to hide. Then there’s the border area between then north and the south. Also, mythical Djenné, the Dogon Country (both Heritage Sites) and the important port of Mopti are bordering the troubled spots. The UK Foreign Service advice to “avoid all travel” in the region – contrary to the south which is only categorised as “avoid all essential travel.” Raids, attacks and insurgency activities are more widespread here than in the south, but far from the situation in the north.

Bamako Traffic

Bamako Traffic

In Bamako, people recognise this. Civilian staffers at NGO’s and the embassies tend to think I’m crazy, while military personnel tend to compliment the size of my balls for planning going up there. There’s also a distinct difference in their advice. Civilian staffers think that going up there should be avoided, while military personnel believe that it’s doable if I’m careful. I guess this divide comes down to the level of risk the two groups are used to take. Going up there do require me to take more care than usually. I need to attach myself to local people that can be trusted and who know and follow the local situations. This includes spending time in Bamako making friends, maybe even hiring guides and if necessary pay someone to drive me between the towns if it’s deemed too dangerous to use local transport. Either because the roads pass through unfriendly territory or because the level of insurgency is unusually high and it would be easy for opportunists on the buses of bus stations to sell me out to potential kidnappers.

Whatever the risks, I’ve done this before and is getting better at judging whether something is doable or not. So far have I come out alive every time, and I don’t tend to take any risks that could diminish the chances of this happening again. Other than actually entering Mali that is. And I’ll be sure to let you know if I get arrested on my return to Denmark too.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 01:41 Archived in Mali Tagged travel terrorism terrorist war travelling mali dangerous danger djenné dogon mopti safe west_africa kidnapping war_zone Comments (0)

Lies, Forgery and Other Ways to Apply for Visas

Talking point number one among African travellers...

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Visas. Those stickers that allow travellers to cross borders. The regions describe as the “hardest to travel” usually have the strictest visa regimes. I would argue that that’s often why they are so hard to travel. Central Asia and West Africa stands out (as Central Africa still isn’t considered travelable). Countries in these regions insist visitors carry a prearranged visa, don’t issue them on their borders, and requires that visitors apply for visas in their country of origin. For overland travellers, this leads to problems. Visas tend only to be valid for three months, and many have specific dates printed on them. It might seem like a particular “travellers problem,” but it’s an existential one; without access, we can’t travel at all.

To combat all this, I’ve developed a broad range of skills, tricks and mischiefs to get my visas while on the road. To this date, the only country that has ever denied me is Saudi Arabia – a country notoriously difficult for travellers to get into as there are no tourist visas and strict, strict rules for transit visas. Sure, one embassy might have turned me down, but another have then always been willing in its stead. Sometimes, it requires a bit of persistence and once in a while I’ve been in for a proper fight.

For this purpose I now share my guide:

Step 1: Do the research.
Embassy staffers are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats hate sloppy and unprepared clients. Anyone stand a much better chance of getting a visa if they come prepared. Guidebooks, web forums and fellow travellers are usually able to point out which embassies are willing to give you are visa and which are not. If you can’t find the information, begin to visit embassies en-route and do the inquiries yourself. Take Ghana. Ministerial rules strictly insist that all visitors must apply in the nearest embassy to their home country. I already knew that embassies in Senegal, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire strictly follow this and will usually deny travellers a visa. The embassy in Burkina Fase is apparently a 50/50 chance, but too close to Ghana for my comfort. So I visited three of the more out-of-the-way embassies and found staffers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all willing to make an exception from the rule. The reason? Everybody travels through the former countries, while very few travellers make it to the latter. Therefore staffers haven’t grown tired of people dropping in to ask to be exempt from the rules. As a rule of thumb, the best places to try your luck are little visited, out-of-the-way embassies. Or even better, a small consulate instead of the capital embassy.

Step 2: Please the diplomats.
The reality is that ministries are far from embassies. And the consulates can pretty much do as they please; many do. Acknowledging the diplomats’ power over you (i.e., they determine whether you get the visa you want) helps tremendously. But don’t appear desperate. And never be in a rush! Rushed travellers give the diplomats an excuse to exercise their power. So does desperate travellers. Even if you are in a hurry, don’t show it. Rushed and stressed travellers are the diplomat’s equivalent to a bull’s red cloth. Even if you know all the requirements, take the time to show up a day before you apply to “ask about the visa requirements.” Even if it’s simply a matter of asking about photocopies or the number of passport photos required. Everybody likes humility and preparedness, diplomats more so. This will, by the way, be a theme through the rest of the steps. Also, on this initial visit, make sure to talk about how friends have told you all about the beautiful nature and the friendly people of country X. Be sure to name some of the highlights and how you always have wished to visit. That will melt the iciest of diplomat hearts. Even better, come up with a personal connection to the country – for Ghana, I used the Danish slave forts on the coast, something we aren’t thought in school. So my only chance to learn about the gruesome past of Danish history was to go and see for myself.

Step 3: Exceptions from the rules
If there is a requirement you don’t live up to, say, being a residence in the country you’re in, explain your situation and ask if it’s possible to make an exception. Other embassies need proof of flight tickets or expensive hotel bookings. Preferably, you would like to talk about this directly with the consul, not the paper-pusher out front – though you possibly still have to flatter them before being allowed to see the consul. When explaining yourself, never come off as a rich, spoiled, Westerner who feels entitled to be let into their country. This might be common sense here on paper, but it’s surprising how many who let their frustrations of these visa schemes get to them. Visible anger, frustration or arrogance equals no visa. Alway. (Admittedly I haven’t tried crying.) Again, please the diplomats.

Step 3 ½: Make a solid cover story
In other words: Be prepared to lie! On many embassies being a mere tourist, who well fully knew it’s required to apply from home, but ignored this because it didn’t fit with the spend-a-year-in-West-Africa plan aren’t necessarily given an exemption. Being an unprepared tourist who “didn’t know” doesn’t seem to do the trick either. My favourite cover story on this trip has been to claim that I’m in West Africa to do PhD research. This required me to stay longer than the three months most visas are valid for. Usually, I “study” the social and economic innovation of small scale business in Africa. This is a particularly useful topic as small businesses here are ahead of Europe. Thus I can claim to research how Europe can learn from Africa – something most diplomats like to hear. Again, please the diplomats. They never look closely at my passport anyway, so usually, I just pick a few countries and claim to have spent the majority of the time there. This worked at a number of embassies in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Step 4: Fake the right documents
In HR it might be called resourcefulness. In Law, it’s probably forgery. Demands like hotel booking, flight tickets, letter of invitations, and likewise are pretty standard. Usually, it’s possible to be exempt just one demand. Say, of residence status. It’s less likely to get out of all these minor requirements. Of course, it’s possible to make bookings on sites like hotels.com, bookings.com, etc. and get a full refund when you cancel the booking a few days later. Fully refundable plane tickets are also an option, but those are expensive. Embassies don’t call to confirm hotel and airline reservations, but departing with significant amounts of money isn’t my favourite thing to do. So I just make my own confirmations. I’ve made a couple of templates from older bookings, so when required I can simply update the details based on real flights and put in some of the nicer hotels in the country capitals.

Step 5: Pick up your visa. Smile (and try not to look too smug until you’ve left the embassy grounds).

While this all sounds well complicated, most visas are easy – as long as you know which embassies are willing to provide you with what you need. My visa for Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau both took just 20 minutes from I handed in the form to the sticker was in my passport. Mali took a couple of days in waiting time but at the cost of less than 8€ (most expensive was Mauritania, Liberia and my second visa for Guinea at circa 120€). Most challenging West African visas tend to be Côte d’Ivore, Ghana and Nigeria – I still haven’t secured the latter. While the embassy in Bamako, was happy to ignore my lack of residence status, their visa was only valid for three months – it’s still four months until I get there… But there're six countries with Nigerian embassies to go, so I haven’t given up yet.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 14:20 Archived in Guinea Tagged travel visa travelling liberia guinea mail west_africa visas nigeria sierra_leone ghane ivory_coast embassies Comments (0)

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