A Travellerspoint blog

Travelling in the Rainy Season

Roads that are impossible to drive on due to mud and stretches that had turned into small lakes; showers that can keep even the most determined inside for entire days; and shoes that never dry. The challenges in West Africa’s rainy season are many.

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Bissau's main street

Bissau's main street

The room is damp. So are the mattress and the sheets. We’ve been woken up twice when heavy showers started drumming on the tin roof like was it playing at a heavy metal concert. Just to add to a night that was already misery, the hotel’s guard also woke us up in the middle of the night. Okay, “hotel” might be stretching it a bit. We were spending the night in the rooms behind a bar in a suburb to Bissau – the capital of Guinea-Bissau – we the rooms were usually just rented out for an hour or two to couples who wanted to have a good time. The guard who woke us up at 3 am. simply had to check whether we had paid to stay the entire night… Accommodation Bissau is poor value and we had spent too much money living the first few days in Guinea-Bissau nicely – and we were only staying one night anyway. We probably won’t do that again, however.

Taking cover

Taking cover

Miserable nights aside, the rains have arrived in full force. Both Astrid and I have travelled in rainy seasons before, but never in West Africa. Astrid has been to Nepal and Southeast Asia, and I have been to Central America and Madagascar. For all those places, the rainy season is usually limited to something like an hour’s torrential rains during the early evening and then nightly showers. Not here in West Africa. Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are the wettest countries in the region. On average, GB gets 850 mm rain in July alone (900 in August) – Guinea receives 4300 mm (that’s more than four meters) in both those months. To comparison does plenty of European countries not get more than 700 mm – during a whole year!

Rain

Rain

Torrential rains here don’t just last for ten minutes, as they do back home. They last for hours. Just crossing the street will soak you through to the bone. Other days they rain simply does not stop or even pause at all. Thus, Astrid and I have lost days on this trip because we have not been able – or willing – to go outside. Writing this, it does strike me that it sounds ridiculous. We have waterproof clothing with us, so missing buses, wasting half and whole days inside shouldn’t really happen. Right? Right…

Less than 10 min. outside

Less than 10 min. outside

It’s not like we haven’t been out into to rain. In the regional town of Batafá, we went out to check the abandoned market. When the rain intensified, it turned the streets around the market into small rivers and trapped us there for the better par of an hour. At Bolama we went for a full-day hike despite the rain. After 10 minutes, we had to return to our guesthouse with Astrid’s iPhone. Without having taken it out of her raincoat pocket, it had gotten water damaged. It didn’t survive. I’ll repeat that. The rains destroyed Astrid’s phone, even though it was closed off in the pocket of her waterproof coat. When we eventually got back from the walk were every inch of us dripping wet – down to our underwear – despite being dressed for the weather. Well, my hat had actually managed to keep my head somewhat dry…

Flooded Street

Flooded Street

This might not sound too bad. The problem is that it’s impossible to dry wet shoes and clothing. The humidity is rarely below 80 percent, so we need to put it out in the direct sun for it to dry. However, days can quickly pass without the sun being able to shine through the thick clouds. So stuff simply doesn't dry. Astrid had wet shoes for eight consecutive days because fresh rains keep soaking them. An old travellers' advice is to wear any clothes that haven’t dried completely after a wash. It’s icky to wear until the sun dries it (or new rains get it properly wet again), but it’s better than having wet and damp clothing packed into our bags were it would start to smell and make everything else damp. The problem is that the rainy season makes most clothing wet pretty quick if you choose to go out. I do not want to complain, and that’s why I don’t want to go out into the rains too often.

One of the better roads

One of the better roads

As a last side effect, rains ruins the roads down here. Only the biggest roads have tarmac, and the grave roads are transformed into continuous stretches of potholes full of reddish mud and water, making transportation even slower. Upcountry Astrid and I only managed 75 km in 13 hours of travel. That’s less than 6 km/h. Other roads are just washed away or permanently flooded by the extra metres the rivers rises during the rainy season. When I’m heading out of Guinea-Bissau into Guinea, I have to travel in a completely different direction, crossing most of the Guinea-Bissau before I can turn into Guinea. It’s and extra 230 km (hopefully not at a speed of less than 10 km/h) because the direct road is gone…

All this is of cause part of the struggle that is African travel. It’s a greater challenge and therefore also a greater reward every time a new obstacle have been passed. Moreover, if you have ever been to a multi-day music festival where you and your friends had to camp out, you know how much inclement weather brings people together. It’s the same here in Africa. That feeling of comradery because everyone is struggling through the same rains.

Posted by askgudmundsen 03:43 Archived in Guinea Bissau Tagged rain travel travelling problem guinea rains downpour bissau guinea-bissau challenges rainy_season Comments (0)

Animist Africa

Traditional kings, sacred forests and festive circumcisions are best enjoyed with some new quality company.

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Boys walking to their Ceremony

Boys walking to their Ceremony

We arrived at the village without much idea of what to expect. Our guide from the day before had simply told us that there would be a festival taking place. From the back seat of the motorbikes that took us there, the very first thing we spotted was a tent selling beers and soft drinks. Very much like a festival back home. The next thing, however, not so much. Around fifteen boys, the youngest under ten and the oldest in their early twenties, was led into the village by a village elder. The elder was dressed all in red, while the boys – walking, very ceremonial in single file – were dressed in nothing but skirts of dried leaves.

Astrid also like beer

Astrid also like beer

But first thing first. I’m writing “we” because I’ve picked up some semi-perminant company. I’m lucky enough to have some adventurous friends, who don’t mind flying down to Africa to visit me (and don’t mind roughing it either), so I’ve picked up Astrid in Banjul’s airport about a week ago. I know Astrid from university, where we both worked for the student union. Besides that she has a big travel heart – particular for Nepal. As she has already visited the mountainousness country once this year, I have managed to talk her into joining me in Africa. Thus I have company for the next month. After a few days of resting, we headed out of the Gambia, into southern Senegal and the Casamance region.

Ceremonial Dancing

Ceremonial Dancing

Like the far southeast, southern Senegal is far from the glitter and glamour of Dakar’s fancy nightlife (and equally far from the misery of Dakar’s shanty towns). Here are as many – if not more – animist believers than Christians or Muslims. The traditions here are thus far from what I have experienced anywhere else I’ve travelled. Or back home for that matter. Here is a culture traditional to Africa. Maybe even to West Africa. Without any influence from it’s northern neighbours – both Arab and European. Astrid and I thus had some difficulties deciphering what is going on around us, but have managed to get a somewhat comprehensive idea pieced together by asking locals on site.

Boys of the Festival

Boys of the Festival

What we were attending was a circumcision ceremony for the village boys. It’s a huge, two day festival drawing crowds from many of the neighbouring villages. It’s especially celebrated because it’s a rare occasion. Our guide said that this particular village had not held such a festival for the past 20-30 years. However, based on the age-span between the youngest and oldest boys it’s is more likely to be 10-15 years since this village last circumcised its boys. Neither Astrid nor I are supportive of the idea of circumcision for any other than medical reasons, but we are also not gonna walk into an African village and disapprove of their customs or traditions. These traditions are part of why we went to Africa in the first place, part of the experience whether we like them or not.

Large festival crowds

Large festival crowds

The circumcision is also celebrated because it’s a coming of age ritual. These boys and young men aren’t allowed to marry before they have gone through the ritual, so some of these guys must have been looking forward to this day for years. The ritual is not just two days of festival. The festival is just their sending away party. The festival finished with the boys leaving the village, together with the elders, to go live in the bush for an entire month. This, I should add, with bleeding penises as the circumcisions are performed in the beginning of the month. What they are going through exactly is still clouded in mystery, as we wasn’t able to find any answer to this. Most of the people we talked with simply lived in other villages, were the rituals are slightly different, and none was willing to disclose their own rituals as they are traditionally hidden from strangers and outsiders

Traditional dancer

Traditional dancer

The festival itself consisted of a lot of drumming, dancing, and drinking. More than once we found people who’d just fallen over from where they stood due to the drinking. Most people, though, were on their feet. The boys in particular were leading the dancing. With the drums in the middle they danced their tribal dance around the drummers, with plenty of villagers and guest joining them, with an even larger crowd of spectators standing in an even larger circle around them.

Mortar flower box

Mortar flower box

Common for everyone – to our surprise – was the weapons. Most people were carrying large sticks and clubs, plenty had machetes and some were yielding large knifes. Two guys even carried around mortar launchers (though we didn’t see any grenades). When we asked about all the weaponry, the only answer we got was that it was “for protection.” We hope it was against evil spirits, but with all that drinking going on and a rather rowdy atmosphere, we couldn’t rule out that they were simply carrying weapons for personal protection. Sincerely hoping that it wasn’t for the latter reason, we thankfully never saw anyone acting aggressively.

Village Elders leading the boys

Village Elders leading the boys

It was all rather chaotic, and Astrid and I managed to get lost from each other on multiple occasions. Once when the entire festival suddenly began moving towards the bush in one big wave of people. Women and outsiders are generally not allowed to be part of the ceremony’s ‘bush-parts,’ so separately we both got into trouble for walking too far out towards the bush. Astrid got yelled at before an old woman kindly brought her back to ‘safer’ grounds, while my turning back was a bit nicer. A few guys came up to me, indicated that I wasn’t allowed any further and then, as a way to lure me away from the ceremony, offered me tea in their house on the opposite side of the village. I declined and instead went looking for Astrid, who I manage to find close by before having a last beer and leaving the festival behind.

Animist King (of 17 villages)

Animist King (of 17 villages)

As if this circumcision ceremony wasn’t enough animist experience for one day, we manage to secure a visit with the local animist king once we’d returned to the larder village we stay in. It’s not especially easy to arrange such a visit, as there is proper procedures and traditional rituals that must be followed when requesting an audience. But somehow, with the help of a couple of locals, we were brought to the sacred forest in which the King lives. The king is chosen by the village elders, for life, on a rotatory system between the areas’ three eldest families. It’s not necessarily a desired role, as the king has to give up his planned carrier and is not allowed to travel (ever) beyond those seventeen villages that this traditional kingdom consists of. His role is to act as advisor, broker, conflict manager, social security (if villagers go hungry, they can ask for rice from the king’s field) for the villagers, who seek audience. He is also somewhat of a representative for the area to the regional and national elected politicians and governments. We didn’t ask for any rice, but simply tried to learn more about the traditional role of the king – and then we shared a few trivia about the Danish king, who to everybody’s big surprise is a woman.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 04:21 Archived in Senegal Tagged traditional travel king africa ceremony festival ritual celebration west_africa animist senegal circumcision africa_village elders Comments (0)

Sex Tourism and The Gambia

Sex tourism is an unavoidable fact on the Gambian coast. While it might be more comfortable to ignore it, the conscientious traveller should try to understand it.

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This blog contains no pictures as I'm not really willing to photographer people participating in sex tourism.

When most people think of sex tourism, they think of elderly white men (typically Germans, for some reason) who go to Southeast Asia to spend their time with younger women or even children. This is however not the typical picture on the West African coast. The Senegambia Coast – and in particularly the Gambia’s Coast – is home to middle-aged and older Western women, who are out looking for beach boys or bumsters, as they are known down here.

The sight is not particularly pleasant, but along the resort strip, it’s impossible not to notice the dozens of couples lounging on the beach chairs. And mind you, I’m here in the off-season when business is slow. Rasta-looking and very fit local men in their twenties lying underneath a notably less fit European woman 30 to 40 years his senior. While I might find it troubling to look at (at the same time the socio-economic experiment this is, is highly fascinating), the fact that I find this icky, shouldn’t, in itself, be enough for me to condemn this. To be honest, I don’t really know how I feel about.

Sure, media back home would see this in black and white. Rich Europeans are exploiting poor Africans for sex. Horrendous! However, there are counter notions to this view. This should not be seen as a full-out defence of sex tourism, but I’m not expecting to make any new friends based on this blog either. It’s easy to take a position against sex tourism, but I would like to offer some nuances to the debate.

Firstly, this is not solely a matter of wealthy Europeans exploiting poor Africans. The bumsters are exploiting the European women immensely. They are the ones initiating the contact, often sweet-talking the women into the relationships. Most of these women are middle-aged, middle-class, and have a past of troubled relationships back home. Not being able to find healthy relationships in Europe, they are swept away by handsome Africans. Many of these women do not recognise the trade aspect but see the encounters as romances. Thus, the bumsters live off these women. Not only during their visits, which are often repeated once or twice every year, but stories about bumsters who receive money due to made up stories about medical costs, family financial troubles, etc. are not unheard off.

So it’s a matter of mutual exploitation. Rich European, unable to secure successful relationships at home, seek comfort with poor Africans, who will put in sexual labour for improving their livelihoods as an alternative to backbreaking work in the fields or pulling carts by hand in the markets. This is a basic trade. Even though it’s sexual. And I’ve never been one to tell people that something isn’t good for them. The guiding principle here has to be consent. If there is consent, who am I to say these people differently? Some of the bumsters even claim that their jobs (as they call it) reaffirm their masculinity.

Second, the notion that romance and love should be the guiding principles behind relationships (and sex) is more or less absent in large parts of the developing world. Marriage is still a matter of securing the family’s survival. Both in the long and the short term. In the long run as a means of the family name's survival and the short run because children are often necessary for the elderlies’ survival. Simply because there are few social services. Marriage is thus still a traditional matter outside the major cities. Many are arranged by the families, though things are changing for the better. Many I’ve spoken with in the villages say that marriages are now a negotiation between the couple on the one side and their families on the other. That is, if the family accept the couple, they can get married. If not, they have to find someone else. However, even within this arrangement, marriage is still more of a practical matter than a romantic one. Just as the bumsters, who survive on the money of wealthy Westerners, see the sex trade as a practice of survival.

It’s not only the bumsters, who are looking for Westerners to “escape Africa” for the promised land of Europe and North America. I’ve met a Moroccan barber in Mauritania who – despite being happily married with children – was roaming dating sites, looking for lonely women in the US and Canada, who could be his ticket out of Africa. Likewise, I have lost count of how many people (many that I’ve had less than half a conversation with), who asks me if I can take them with me back to Denmark. While most bumsters in the sex industry only find additional income through the trade, a lucky few find a ticket to the north. For many, that lottery ticket is worth everything.

As mentioned, if this trade is at all defensible, consent is everything. The age of consent in Europe is between 14 and 16 years old. In the Gambia, it’s 18 and in Senegal 16. Where ever there is a “legal” – if undesirable trade – the illegal trade follows. This is probably the biggest argument against the sex industry here – and a better argument than that I find it icky. A recent UNICEF reports show huge a number of cases with under-age children participating, or are being forced to participate, in the sex industry. If this forced industry can be quelled by shutting down the legal one, it should, of course, be done.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:27 Archived in Gambia Tagged travel africa travelling sex west_africa gambia sex_tourism sex_industry Comments (0)

Mishaps on the Gambian River

As a local warned me before I took off, “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” That turned out to be very, very true.

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The Gambian River

The Gambian River

Ever since I began contemplating travelling in Africa, I’ve been dreaming of taking on the continent’s major rivers. Drifting downriver, passing crocodiles and hippos, like a late nineteenth-century explorer. The ultimate price would be the Congo River, but being far from the Congo and having just arrived in The Gambia, the Gambian River would certainly do.

Finding myself in the eastern-most part of The Gambia, what in my mind seemed an easy, leisurely five-day float between the towns of Basse Santa Su and Janjanbureh quickly turned out to cause me plenty of troubles.

River crossing

River crossing

I knew there weren’t any public transportation on the river itself. Except a handful of ferry crossings, which really isn’t much of river exploration. Instead, I hoped that there would be some commercial movements on the river. There were, but the only ships trawling the waters from Basse were the ships transporting groundnuts (peanuts) to the coast. Symptomatically for my luck on the Gambia the ships had just departed. The day before I arrived in town.

The boats I wanted

The boats I wanted

So I began looking for alternatives. The bulky metal cans that were ferrying people across the river alongside the ferries would not do. They were too heavy. There were, however, a few smaller wooden boats tied down alongside the riverbank. So, as the hopeless optimist, I am, I started to inquire the boatmen on the riverside about those. Between the few friendly guys on the shore, one quickly mentioned that his “fat uncle had a canoe that he is too fat to sail.” That sounded promising, simply because the uncle apparently was so big that he wouldn’t be using the boat anytime soon. Before he had lost a couple of kilos, that is. I just had to come back the next day.

Glass-bottled Guinness

Glass-bottled Guinness

While I waited for the day to pass, I spend the day constructively drinking Guinness at a riverside bar. Glass-bottled Guinness, in what is the coolest colonial left-over ever. Here, the locals were very interested in my plan, though not very optimistic on my behalf. They warned me that there would be both hippos and crocodiles in the river. One old guy even told me – in a drunken whisper as legendary as the words themselves – “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” Not as a treat, through his rusty voice made it sound like that, but as a concerned warning. I was, however, much determined to take on the river, while the promise of both hippos and crocs did give me butterflies.

When I returned to the riverside the following morning, I didn’t find exactly what I’d expected. Instead of one of the small boats, the boatman had gotten me a narrow, tradition canoe. I quickly found out just how difficult these things are to balance. The very first thing I did, getting into the canoe, was to capsize it, soaking myself from the waist down. These things sit just five centimetres above the water’s edge, and I barely had to shift my body weight at all to make it wobbles dangerously.

My canoe on the river

My canoe on the river

I should probably have given up there and then. Instead, I stubbornly decided to spend an hour paddling around in circles on the river to get familiar with the canoe. To great amusement to the local spectators. Managing this without getting myself wet again, I could happily proceed back into town to buy food for the five days. Water, bread, cheese, canned tuna and sardines, crackers, bananas and mango juice. Not very exciting, but it would get me through.

With the canoe loaded with the provision and my baggage, I happily sat out, down the Gambian River.

I managed about four hours on that first half day. The river was calm and conditions were more or less perfect. My shoulders were sore from the paddling and my bump numb from sitting on the hard would. But that wasn’t too bad. However, the amount of energy I had to use to keep the canoe steady in the water was incredible. My entire body, and especially my legs ached from tightening throughout the journey. There would simply be no way I could complete this trip in five days. I’ve just been going half a day, and I was completely used out because of this balancing issue. So I decided to paddle back to Basse the next morning.

Croc in the river

Croc in the river

It wasn’t without a certain notion of failure that I put up my tent. But bedding down on the shore of the Gambian river, with monkey hauls, lizards’ sprinting through the grass and a hundred birds being the only noises around me made it hard to stay blue. Everything was less bliss the following morning. The weather had decided to take a turn for the worse. Rain clouds threatened above and winds created waves on the river.

These waves gave me more troubles that anything else. Keeping my balance in the canoe was just impossible. I managed less than 50 metres back up the river before I had to give up and come ashore again. I was simply not going to loose all my belongs to the river due to another capsizing. To make matters worse a quick shower, lasting just ten minutes, soaked me to the bone. I tied up the canoe, got my backpack and prepared myself for spending the rest of the morning walking back to Basse. Adding insult to injury, my camera slipped out of my pocket as I tied the canoe down. Disappearing into the muddy water, I simply had to abandon it.

Beyond saving

Beyond saving

A good four hours later, back in Basse, I found the boatman and set out to retrieve the lost canoe in hit boat. It still took three hours to reach the canoe (and three hours to get it back to Basse). The only positive thing was that the low tide had arrived and relieved the location of my camera. I spend most of the next day trying to fix it. In vain. I’ll just have to get a new one once I reach the capital of Banjul...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:25 Archived in Gambia Tagged traditional travel river sailing africa travelling crocodiles canoe west_africa hippos gambia gambia_river Comments (0)

Is Traditional Africa Real?

The traditional Africa is real... but so is the rest of Africa!

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Is this the real Africa?

Is this the real Africa?

A cluster of small round huts, build by clay and with roofs made of straw., and usually hidden behind a wooden palisade. It almost seems like this is the standard idea of what an African village ought to look like. Throw in a couple of local women, wearing nothing by skirts, cooking over the open fire and its pure National Geographic. This is Africa. The ‘traditional Africa’ or – as I’ve seen it referred to, with no lack of slightly racist overtones – the ‘real’ Africa. Racist because it assumes that development and improvements of livelihood are not African – not ‘really’ African, anyway.

African fishing village

African fishing village

Not surprisingly, things here on the ground are a lot more complicated. Let’s just get that ‘real Africa’ nonsense out of the way. The ‘realness’ of Africa is whatever Africans choose it to be. Whatever they want it to be and whatever they can afford it to be (the African continent is, after all, still a poor continent). The glitter of Dakar’s high-class bars, the Mauritanian nomads in their tents, the Nairobi slums and the fishing villages all over the African coast. This is all the real Africa – a hugely diverse continent. Maybe the most diverse in the world with more than fifty countries and thousands of languishes and ethnic groups.

Typical village market

Typical village market

Travelling along Senegal’s coast, or in Morocco and Mauritania, I didn’t see one village that would fit the National Geographic description above. Everywhere, houses were built of concrete bricks, they were square and had tin or brick roofs. Many had multiple floors and was painted in all the colours of the rainbow. Modern commodities, satellite television, mobile phones, etc., etc. was available in abundance. To such a degree that I was beginning to wonder whether the continent had moved completely beyond the straw-roofed huts. After all, Africa is also a continent progressing rapidly. What seems more likely, is that the further I get into Sub-Saharan Africa and the further I get away from the coast, where much of the region's economic is centred, the closer I get to the ‘traditional Africa’. All in all, it primarily seems to be an economic question.

View from my hut

View from my hut

Beelining 600 km inland from the Sale-Saloum National Park towards the Bassari Country in the southeastern Senegalese highlands, the roadside villages began to change character. Smaller huts began to emerge amongst the concrete houses. More and more, until most villages only had a handful of these houses amongst the huts. ‘Traditional Africa’ seems to be alive and well the further I get away from the economic centres. However, this is also a truth with modifications. While many of these towns and villages do not have electricity 24/7, they do have it at certain times of the day. One village I stayed in had power between 8 am and noon, and again from 5 pm to 2 am.

'Traditional' Bedik woman

'Traditional' Bedik woman

I’d been lucky enough to be invited the house of former campartment owner and guide. His campartment had been temporarily closed down, due to a lack of visitors, so he figured he could make a little extra by setting me up in his hut for the night. The hut was one of those clay and straw things, placed inside an area fenced off by that wooden palisade. Inside the palisade, most buildings were round huts, meals were prepared on the open fire, but at the same time, the television showed Egyptian sit-coms and mobile phones were used to light the huts that were unlit as often as flashlights were used.
To my innate interest, the small fenced-off cluster of huts and houses were inhabited solely by brothers and half-brothers of the same father (who had a number of wives). They were living here with their wives and children, while their sisters (and half-sisters) had moved to their husband’s family's compartments. Thus, the village was ordered into family homes that formed smaller communities within the main village.

Bassari Country

Bassari Country

However, finding those entirely traditional villages, without modern commodities, is a matter of exactly that: finding them. For there are not all that many left. Though it is possible, you need to know where to look. One of the most accessible regions for these traditional villages is the Bassari Country. Named after the largest of the tribes inhabiting the region there is actually three tribes living in a few dozen of villages, the Bedik, the Fula and the Bassari. These tribes are fiercely independent. They have fought off influence from Islam, colonialism and globalisation in turn and still keep a largely animalist belief system (though elements of Catholicism have made headway). The tribes don’t intermingle or intermarry, and each village consists of just a few extended family with the same roots. I visited a Bedik village of 650 people. All being members of one of four extended families. Only eight other Bedik villages exist, and it’s between these nine villages – thirty-six families – that the tribe have survived for generations.

The Nat Geo village is real

The Nat Geo village is real

Here were no mobile phones, no televisions and no electricity. For visitors to be granted access to the village, it is still necessary to bring tribute to the village chiefs. I and my guide and translator brought groundnuts, soaps and candy. Larger groups sometimes bring whisky. Currently reading about Livingstone’s explorations in Africa, it was hard not to make the comparison in my head (though it’s a very silly comparison). The guides are typically part of the communities or neighbouring communities and are thus an excellent introduction to the cultural aspects of these villages. Whether they are able to point out the holy Baobab trees or talking the villagers into sharing their corn stew with me. I particularly enjoyed how my guide was able to get us some large tasting sessions of the village’s mullet beer and palm wine.

And for those wondering. Yes, upper body clothing were optional for women - primarily because it makes breastfeeding of the young a lot easier.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 07:15 Archived in Senegal Tagged travel village travelling west_africa senegal traditional_village pays_bassari bassari fula bedik iwol bassari_country traditional_africa Comments (0)

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