Why I’m Going to West Africa

Whenever I tell people I’m taking a trip to West Africa, their response generally falls into a few distinct but related categories:

  • Support: “Oh that’s really cool.”
  • Confusion: “Why on earth are you going there?
  • A well-meaning but misguided warning: “Be careful, don’t get shot or contract HIV.”
  • An attempt to relate: “Oh my cousin’s friend just got back from Zambia.”

Up until now, I haven’t really given anyone a straight answer. I’ve decided to compile a short list of reasons I specifically chose this region, both to abate future conversations and to condense my own thoughts in a formal way.

Why I’m Going:

  • The Music: I have nursed a closeted obsession with much of West Africa’s musical heritage for a good while now. This trip feels like a pilgrimage about 5 years in the making. Though I intend to make music an essential part of my voyage everywhere I go, this experience will probably serve as its musical centerpiece.
  • The People: Some of my most enriching and insightful travel experiences have come from interactions with people. In general, I’d much rather be invited into a stranger’s home than visit a museum. I see this axiom as a fundamental step towards appreciating a culture. I often find that these types of experiences are enhanced by third-world travel. That’s a huge generalization, and far from universally true. However, few would argue against the fact that barriers of personal space and privacy are often less pronounced in the third world. Meeting strangers becomes an inevitability, rather than a pursuit. Thus, coupled with its solid reputation for having some of the most hospitable people on earth, West Africa seems like an ideal location for me. It’s important to keep in mind however, that as much as I value cultural immersion, I’m still an interloper at heart. Any cultural insight I gain will come from my own unique experience, which I recognize doesn’t wholly reflect a culture’s people or values.  I hope this philosophy informs most of what I write on this blog.
  • To Challenge Myself: My West African wanderlust was in its embryonic stage when I first started planning a trip here a few years ago. I was living in Europe at the time, and the region’s proximity seemed like a good enough reason to take a jaunt south. I had only a very rough idea of where I wanted to go, yet the romantic notion of such an adventure got the best of me. I bought a one-way flight. Soon after, I developed a severe case of unrelated anxiety. It shook me to my core, and made me seriously reevaluate what I was capable of. Partially as a result, that trip got canceled and I shelved my plans. In some ways, this current trip is an affirmation of how adaptable I am and what I’m capable of.
  • Natural Beauty: Duh
  • It’s Off the Beaten Path: I can’t lie, the fact that it’s a unique place to explore influenced my decision to travel here. Of course, evading hoards of tourists is a major asset. But this is a hard one for me to cop to. Let’s be honest, the ability to smugly point out in hindsight that I’ve traveled somewhere impressive is in no way a valid reason to travel anywhere (except for maybe Antarctica or Oakland).
  • I Speak French: Well, sorta.
  • A Fervent Desire to Try Camel Cheese: Just kidding (or am I? More on this later.)

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Why I’m Not Going:

  • To Volunteer: Many well-meaning friends and relatives stare inquisitively when I tell them I’m not going to Africa to volunteer. Of course, I do plan on doing some volunteering. I also plan on profiling aid organizations on this website. Yet these are not my primary motives, nor will they take up most of my time. There are some exceptional aid organizations doing great work in West Africa, yet the notion that Africa only merits exploration within the context of volunteerism is misguided at best. The continent suffers from a systemic image problem that I don’t intend to perpetuate.  Though I have no intentions to bury the truth, Africa has so much to offer beyond poverty, famine, corruption, warfare, and cultural oddity.
  • To “Conquer” Africa: I’m not visiting as many places as I can in a short amount of time, nor do I plan on highlighting a series of tourist sites. I don’t plan on getting my kicks by placing myself in as many dangerous situations as possible (though I’m pretty sure my mother thinks I do), and I very well may not see a single lion during the entire length of this trip. My experience will be enriched by the people I meet and the opportunities I have, not by how exciting or absurd my (mis)adventures are. I’m also not charging headfirst into anything close to uncharted territory. For the record, I think Henry Morton Stanley was kind of an asshole. I will not meet anyone that has never seen a white person before (unless I do a complete 180 and start delivering babies for an OBG-YN). Instead, I’m visiting a modernizing West Africa deeply entrenched in a rapidly globalizing economy.

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In short, I am about to embark on the greatest and therefore most ill-advised adventure of my life. Will I survive? You be the judge.

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