How To Travel Africa As An African

Consider this a starter pack to help those in Africa who have been thinking about traveling more here but have no clue where to start.

Camel caravan in The Danakil in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Nanjala Nyabola.

“I’ve never seen anyone from Kenya before!”

The Burkinabe woman sitting next to me on the overcrowded bus between Accra and Ouagadougou was so enthralled with my presence that she barely gave me a minute to myself throughout the 26-hour bus ride. She asked after my family, my work, and what I was doing so far away from home. What was I doing so far away from home? I had started the summer in Togo, and now after six weeks in Ghana, I was on an overnight journey to a country that I could barely find on a map.

It’s been almost ten years since my first solo trip abroad. Today, with close to 60 countries under my belt, most of which I’ve travelled to on an absurdly tight budget, it makes me a little sad that when I’m traveling in Africa I’m often still the only African I encounter on my travels. Travel is the steepest and most meaningful learning experience a person can ask for, and it’s important to get more Africans crossing borders and expanding their imaginations, so that our ideas about this idea of Africa are informed more by primary experience than secondary knowledge, usually filtered through Europe.

For the African who decides to take up this challenge, I wanted to take a minute to share three pretty simple tips that have helped make travel in Africa second nature to me.

Money matters, but not as much as you think

FESPACO Roundabout, Burkina Faso. Photo courtesy of Nanjala Nyabola.

The common argument given for not traveling in Africa is that it’s prohibitively expensive, and there is plenty of truth to this. The absurd taxes that African countries levy against each other means for instance that flights on the continent are absurdly expensive. It is cheaper to fly from Nairobi to Amsterdam (7 hours) for instance, than to fly from Nairobi to Antananarivo (3 hours). This may be part of the reason that lines of people waiting for visas at European embassies can wind around the block but flights to Lusaka often leave half empty.

Even so, there are ways around this. Primarily, don’t focus so much on the cost of the flight that you lose sight of the total cost of trip. Yes, a flight to Amsterdam may cost $700 versus $1000 to Antananarivo, but once you factor in hotels, local transport, food and other costs, the overall cost of being in Europe for a week will always be higher than the overall cost of being in Madagascar for the same. $300 is more than enough to have a solid budget travel experience in Madagascar. Even if you got your visa for free (who are you?!), $300 will only get you a few nights in a hotel in Amsterdam — without meals. When running the numbers, budget for the whole trip, not just the flights.

Secondly, find creative ways to save money. Accommodation is one major way to tack savings on a trip. Adjust your standards from “Where’s the pool?” to clean and safe. When I went to Ouagadougou, I stayed in a convent in the capital that charged me $8 a night for a clean, safe room and breakfast. At breakfast, I always made a sandwich so that the only meal I was spending extra money on was dinner. Whether you have bacon and eggs for breakfast, or bread and margarine, the Fespaco tower will still look the same, right?

Travel feels different when you are an African

View from Elmina Castle, Ghana. Photo courtesy of Nanjala Nyabola.

It never ceases to amaze me how easily we absorb other people’s prejudices about each other, without reflecting on who disseminates these stereotypes and why. I’m ashamed to admit that for most of my life, I had been afraid of Africa because most of the information I received about other countries has been filtered through the West. Only when I started encountering other Africans in their own homes and seeing what they thought about Kenya – a scary place full of mean greedy people – did I realize that inasmuch as they were operating with stereotypes about me, I was operating with stereotypes about them.

Africa is not a scary place (most of the time). I’ve found that if I remain quiet so that my accent doesn’t give me away, most of the time I blend in with the locals. And that means that I get to see people in their natural element and not that version we all put on display for visitors. When this happens, you quickly experience the true diversity and variety of African communities, and how flawed the idea of a unitary Africa really is.

Africans travel—a lot

Point of No Return, Benin. Photo courtesy of Nanjala Nyabola.

What does it mean to travel? For many travel means buying a plane ticket, crossing a timezone or two, staying in a hotel etc. and so we say “Africans don’t like to travel.” But actually, African communities are probably the most itinerant communities in the world. As you read this, there are buses and minivans crossing the Kalahari between Gaborone and Windhoek, camel caravans crossing from Nouakchottt to Gao, a train lumbering from Mombasa to Kampala, and hundreds of dhows floating between the Comoros and Zanzibar. Africans travel — a lot.

In 2009, I spent a month crossing solo from Cape Town to Nairobi using only public transport, with no plan except that I had to catch a flight in Nairobi on a certain date. This was the trip that really drove home the fact that if you want to get from point A to point B in most African countries, there will be someone going the same way and some way of getting there. Whenever I arrived in a new town, one or two inquiries would always yield a transnational bus route serving traders or migrant workers, often at less than 2 percent of the cost of a flight.

The point is, if you have time and you want to go somewhere on this vast continent, there are probably people heading that way. Another way of phrasing this piece advice is this – get over yourself. If other people can sit on the back of a truck full of goats and chickens for 3 hours, or on a bus for 26 hours, why can’t you? Approach it that way, and the world is your oyster.

Consider this a starter pack to help those in Africa who have been thinking about traveling more here but have no clue where to start. It’s so much easier than you think and so much more rewarding than you can hope. Traveling in Africa can be challenging, exciting and invigorating, but is never anything but worth it.

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow her on Twitter @nanjala1.

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