Perhaps the most remarkable part about this was that Benjamin Michaelis and I were together virtually the entire time (~2600 hours): driving, sleeping, and adventuring together. Sure, we had disagreements and frustrations, but they were relatively rare and always short-lived. We had an amazing trip, but spending time together was the best part. I love you, Benjamin. Thanks for being such an awesome companion and son!
It was a total coincidence, but we parked in line for the ferry next to another red Toyota Land Cruiser 80 series. Just to be clear, this is the only one we have seen this entire trip through the length of Africa. It is a French father and son team who have been overlanding in Morocco for the past 3 weeks. We swap stories and experiences with the Land Cruiser. Remarkable!
Imagine you are sitting in class and one of your classmates throws something at the teacher while her back is turned. As a result, the entire class is punished for the crimes of one. This is called collective punishment.
“Collective punishment is a punishment imposed on a group for acts allegedly perpetrated by a member of that group.” The group may be an ethnic or political group or just the family, friends, and neighbors of the perpetrator.” Collective punishment, the targeting individuals who are not responsible for the wrong acts, is unjust. In fact, collective punishment is a war crime prohibited by treaty in both international and non-international armed conflicts. The law on this seems very clear.
Why then, is it okay for Israel to drop more than 1,000 bombs per day on the Gaza Strip? In case that isn’t bad enough, Israel then proceeds to turn off access to food, water, and electricity. When you consider that the Gaza Strip is an open-air prison where 2 million Palestinians have been captured for more than 15 years without a trial, they are fish in a barrel. To pour salt on the atrocities, why does the USA not only condone such behavior but also send additional arms to support it?
What is even more baffling is that I would think that the Israelis would identify with injustice at this level and do all they could to prevent it from happening ever again. What makes it okay for them to proceed with such violence, and how does it achieve justice?
Obviously, I’m not condoning the actions of Hamas in any way. Nor am I minimizing the horrific history of the Second World War. But as horrific as they are, how does it justify bombing and then starving a majority of prisoners that can’t defend themselves? The injustice here seems extreme. What am I missing?
Leaving Guinea was easy. Crossing into Guinea-Bissau, however, was a little more interesting. Firstly, the official wanted 55 CFA/visa (~90 USD). This was expected. Secondly, he then charged us an additional “police fee” of 10 CFA. However, he didn’t provide any information about what this was for but did say we would get a receipt. (Guinea-Bissau is Portuguese, and I spoke my pathetic Portuguese, thinking this would help with rapport during the immigration process.)
Unfortunately for him, and no disrespect or humor intended, his job presented two challenges. Firstly, math. On a slip of paper, he wrote down the summary problem:
Well, since I wasn’t sure about the legitimacy of the 10 CFA fee anyway, his total of 110 CFA was fine with me. We barely had the cash anyway, and we wanted some change for unexpected costs (say, a toll or something).
Secondly, his eyesight was failing him (perhaps he is over 50 like me), so he couldn’t easily read or write without glasses, of which he had none. He asked his deputy to read our passport numbers while he entered them into the computer. Then, after stamping the passports, he asked each of us to write in the date. The compensation techniques were clever but surely made his job difficult for him.
With those details complete, he put our papers and the money, minus the 10CFA, into a sealed envelope and told us we were required to have an immigration official accompany us to Gabu, which was 3 hours away on bad roads. In Gabu, the official would hand over the envelope and complete the visa process. Unfortunately, the combination of luggage and our uncomfortableness carrying an official who might give us arbitrary regulation problems of their own choosing, we decided our car only seated two people. Sure, we knew we could put bags on the roof if we were willing, but we weren’t willing since we weren’t sure about the legitimacy of this. (We found no prior trip reports documenting it.) Unfortunately, if we didn’t provide transport, they required us to pay for transportation for the official via scooter. We pushed the bags aside and agreed to allow him to sit in the back. But no, he informed us that the official policy was that he needed to sit in the front. What?? I’m all for being a servant and giving up privilege, but this was getting ridiculous. I refused and told him to sit in the back or arrange his own ride, which I would not pay for. He sat in the back and mostly talked on the phone for the 3-hour journey.
Upon arriving in Gabu, we completed the immigration process, and everything seemed legit, including the 10CFA fee. As we came to find out, but it wasn’t clear at the border, the fee was to pay the official to accompany us. That said, before leaving, the official asked us for money to buy food. What? I refused, and we parted ways.
By this time, it was dark, and finding a campsite was challenging. The one we had marked seemed too close to a village and on a used side road. We decided to cut off into the dense bush and push far enough through the brush that, with lights off, a casual passerby wouldn’t see us, certainly not from a scooter—at least we hoped that was true. We also set pre-sunrise alarms so we could be on the road before folks were up.
We slept undisturbed and continued on our journey before dawn.
We actually did know there was an election, and we did make an attempt to leave before the borders closed. More on that shortly. First, regarding the elections. We saw tons of political activity throughout Monrovia in the days prior to the elections. Unlike in Gabon (where we got stuck last time), there was significant involvement from all parties.
More importantly, all the hotels are full of election observers from the African Union, the Ecowas Election Observation Mission, the European Union, and more. We have a strong sense that they are not holding back on trying to make this a fair election. Furthermore, the city is buzzing with election activities. As reported afterwards, 78.86% of around 2.4 million registered voters participated.
In the end, and announced a week later, Liberia’s electoral commission scheduled a presidential election run-off for November 14, after results showed that the two frontrunners, who had failed to secure majority votes, tied instead with percentages of 43.83% for the incumbent and 43.44% for the opposition. In the end, in spite of getting trapped for four days in Gabon following elections there, we decided to risk staying through the elections here in Liberia based on a number of factors. Firstly, we have a great garage that can work on our car, and it’s able to get parts. This is likely the last high-quality garage before Dakar, Sénégal, more than 2,000 km away, or Northern Morocco, more than 4,000 km away. We would even be tempted to stay for 2-3 days and get everything on our list addressed except the garage suggested we leave out safety concerns based on previous elections. Staying a day or two, however, was probably fine since election results aren’t expected for a few days. Also, by staying, we will hopefully have time to check in with Global Fingerprints, whom we were unable to visit in Gemena, DRC, as we ran out of time. In summary, we are staying through the elections.
At 2 a.m. this morning, Benjamin and I bolted awake at the sound of men approaching. I jumped out of the tent (we hadn’t put up the ladder) just in time to greet them when they arrived. There were about 15 men, ages 18–30, each with machetes and one with a rifle. I greeted them in English and reached out to shake the hands of those nearest me. There was lots of animated conversation in what I’m guessing was mostly Dioula with smatterings of French for my benefit. I didn’t understand a word, and they didn’t understand me. More speaking and gesturing continued, devoid of understanding. They circled the car, tried opening the doors, and tried looking inside the windows. They kicked the wheels and the bumper and tried to look up into the tent where Benjamin was lying as flat as possible. All guesses I have for them being there result in nefarious judgments. However, after we de-escalated the situation, they resigned to just requesting they take me to their chief. I denied comprehension. After a while, they handed me a phone and had me talk with someone who spoke broken English. He explained that they wanted me to choose between leaving now or going to see the chief and leaving in the morning. I responded with perplexity. The phone was handed back and forth a couple of times. They asked for money. I waited patiently. At last, after about 30 minutes, one man gestured that all was okay. I shook his hand. Everyone started heading back down the trail, packed in a couple of cars, or returned to where they had come from. Benjamin and I waited until they had gone before closing up the rooftop tent. We would sleep the rest of the night in the front seat of the car. By 6 a.m., we left. Upon reflection, we never felt truly threatened. However, it was certainly disconcerting to be woken up at 2 a.m. by so many people brandishing machetes. What the hey! It is hard to come up with any explanation that justifies the number of people and the weapons they carried besides something unsavory. Also, we were very amazed that they saw us. We arrived in a torrential storm when no one was around. Before stopping for the night, we checked satellite maps and saw no villages nearby. And we were quite a ways off the road and difficult to see at night, or so we thought.
Elmina Fishing Village surrounds the castle there. Aside from the important role of education about the horrific history of the slave trade there, the fishing industry there is significantly more fascinating to me. We took a tour of the harbor, and it was the highlight of our visit to the Cape Coast area.
There are different types of boats for different types of fish. The smaller vessels just go out for the day, and the boats cost around 10,000 USD and can hold a crew of up to 10. The larger boats, those catching tuna, for example, will go for a week or two and have a crew of 25. These boats cost around 100,000 USD. The profit generated per month is about 10% of the boat cost. A tuna vessel, therefore, brings in around 10,000 USD per month.
However, at least in Ghana, no additional licenses are being issued because the fish population is already in massive decline due to overfishing. That means only replacement boats can be built, not additional boats.
In some ways, this village seems like a historic look back at what an earlier version of the Makoko community in Nigeria might have been like. At a minimum, the stark nature of children swimming in the same water that people are defecating in makes it hard not to associate the two fishing villages, even though they are almost 1,000 km apart.
One woman, Teni, comes to the school at 4:00 a.m. She cooks for the younger children and cleans the kindergarten area. Most days, she doesn’t leave till after 4:00 p.m. Except for Sunday, when she left early to go to a wedding, she worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week. I don’t recall, but I believe she has worked there for the last 25 years. The first day, I happened to be up and sitting outside when she arrived. Shortly after, she came to tell me she had filled a bucket for me and left it in the bathroom for me to take a “shower.” I comply and take a bucket shower. The next morning at 4 a.m., I’m still in the tent, and she calls up. “Good morning Mark,” to which I reply in kind. After which she says, “It’s time to take a shower in a little bit.” She is calling up to me at 4 a.m. to let me know that in ~30 minutes, it will be time to take a shower. What? The next day we don’t even camp in the kindergarten area, but again she comes over and calls up to let me know that at 4;30 it’s time to take my shower. And, just so I don’t feel too special, after I’ve completed my ablutions, she calls up to Benjamin to do the same. On our last night, we camp behind a hedge grove, well away from the kindergarten area. I was hoping we wouldn’t be visible while it was still dark when Yeni arrived. But alas, at 4:15 a.m., she is there to let me know it is time. While we laugh about the shower emphasis, Teni was a wonderful host. She was welcoming, knew everyone and everything about the school, and was ready to help with anything we needed.
I first heard about the Future of Africa (FoA) organization from a friend who was working to fight slavery on Lake Volta in Ghana. When he heard that I was going to be in Accra, Ghana, he recommended I get in touch with TK, the director of FoA. TK was driving home in Accra when he encountered a boy lying on the ground. After driving past, he realized that this was a moment when someone needed help; he could possibly provide help, and to walk away was not only callous but also wrong. (How many of us have seen the same and kept on driving?) The rest is history; he just kept on learning, helping, and learning more so he could help more. Eventually, Future of Africa was born with the mission to “mentor youth to cultivate the hope, character, and skills to break the cycle of extreme poverty in Africa.”
TK picked us up and drove us to a safe house for teenage girls, enabling them to transition from living on the street to their new journey of transformation. Here, in this home, there were 12 young women and two children living in a single room but with additional rooms for cooking, congregating, and the offices of FoA. It is interesting that youth frequently don’t stay the first time you take them off the street. It takes multiple times before they realize that the structure and safety really are better than living in the street. (I can confirm this is true from my time working with street children in Maputo, Mozambique.)
In the evening, we went to the Kantamanto Market, near the Ashiedu Keteke Metro Station. There, we walked deep into the market, found the youth that FoA is familiar with, and invited them to come out for food and conversation. FoA comes every Sunday night to the market to meet with the homeless youth there and establish connections, trust, and relationships. In addition, they invite the youth out to the FoA center on Wednesdays. It is based on this mutual trust that FoA will, in time, invite the youth to come live in the refuge of an FoA home.
During the outreach, I spent most of my time talking with this woman, Faith, and playing with her daughter, Precious. Faith is in her early 20s and lives at the market, selling cooked plantains. You wonder what she ran away from such that she still chooses to live here with her daughter. Having walked through the alleys to find the youth, this is not a safe place to spend a night. There are drugs, pimps, and a social hierarchy that makes the weak submissive to the strong. I’m still disturbed by the story of how a guy might force himself on a sleeping girl there. Argh!
This is a very brief summary of our visit with FoA. I was so grateful for our delay in Accra because it afforded us the opportunity to participate in the market outreach. Even with that, we only scratched the surface of all that they were doing. Regardless, I was impressed and will discuss with Elisabeth adding FoA to our philanthropic portfolio this year.
Here are some of the qualities that impressed me about FoA:
After the market outreach, they debriefed with the staff and volunteers, both on personal impact and reviewing the impact on the situations of the youth we were reaching. This was a training opportunity for the staff and volunteers, a review of the youth and where they are at in their journey, and an opportunity to raise any urgent issues the youth may be experiencing. The sincerity and consistency of FoA are key factors in building trust with the youth. A retrospective like this indicates value is placed on improving.
TK is making significant sacrifices both for himself and his family. He could return to Canada or the US and build his career. Instead, he is taking a minimal income and sacrificing an established career to fight extreme poverty in Accra.
The organization is frugal.
There are very few organizations working with the Accra inner-city youth. FoA is, therefore, clearly filling a huge need here.
I really like the stage approach to helping the youth. You can read more about it here. I think they are on the right track with this.
They were aware that success for them is still undefined. This work is hard. Youth will go back to the street. There will be heart wrenching events in the lives of these youth. Some youth will go on to find jobs. Some will experience extreme abuse. Defining success across the various stages is difficult.
Seemingly, the wealthy in Ghana just don’t care about those in poverty. Not only that, but churches aren’t stepping up either.1 To change the culture, FoA is going to the university to provide training and then volunteer opportunities for students. In so doing, they are growing the hearts of the next generation of adults to love the poor. Students have an opportunity to interact with those experiencing extreme poverty and empathize with impoverished lives firsthand. This raises a generation of Ghanaian leaders who care.
Not everything is perfect, but they are doing something, and it is making a positive impact on many youth.
In summary, I was impressed with the organization and will look to support them this year.
Check out the Future of Africa website and consider supporting them. They are making an impact in a place where few other organizations are at work. Donating or volunteering to this organization will change people’s lives for the better.
1. I was disappointed to learn that TK couldn’t get the church to step up and help. There is lots of church-service advertising along the roads. Unfortunately, it is advertising that seems to focus more on establishing a name for the preacher and increasing income for the church. Please forgive my synoecism, but what I could observe from the outside was not a Ghanaian church focused on the downtrodden, but rather the church of the preacher focused on wealth accumulation.
Today we had to stop by the Ghana immigration office to pick up new Ghana visas for our return from Sao Tome & Principe (a country off the coast of Gabon) before meeting with International Justice Mission (IJM) later in the morning. We arrived at immigration slightly after they opened and met with an immigration officer who was pleasantly helpful.
He took our passports and asked us to wait. We waited. Next, he returned to tell us we needed an invitation and that there was a business outside that could provide the letter. We paid for the letter, only to discover that, in fact, it was just a letter of application, of which we were the authors. Oh well!
After submitting the letter, we again we waited.
Next, they wanted money—cash in USD. $300 for the two visas, to be exact (a ridiculous price but the only option since we were denied visas five times when we visited Ghana embassies on our drive up to West Africa).
Again, we waited. By this time, we had totally missed our appointment with IJM and requested a reschedule. The immigration officer dismissed us, but not before we confirmed we needed the visa (and passports) by 2 PM, since we had a 4 PM flight.
We drove out to a mechanic and left the car for repairs. Leaving it at a mechanic was a great way to ensure it was secure while we traveled out of the country for the weekend. Our time at the mechanic was rushed but we were able to communicate what we needed and rushed back to pick up our visas.
Back at Ghana Immigration, we waited. And waited. And sent messages. And waited. And muttered, fretted, and waited some more. We arranged for a cab to be on standby to take us to the airport. The cab left. We switched to hailing a scooter to be on standby since scooters can lane-split, so they are less affected by traffic. We waited some more.
At 3:45 PM, the immigration official arrived with our passports and visa. We had presumably missed our flight. We went to the airport anyway. Some friendly military guards at immigration took pity on our plight and gave us rides on their motorbikes. One commented,
“While I can tell you how fast a bullet travels across the street, I have no idea what happens inside that immigration office.”
We were dropped off at the airport, but it was the wrong terminal. By this time, our flight had departed so, with stress gone, we walked to the correct terminal and looked for Air Portugal. Their office was closed. We went upstairs to the food court and connected to the Internet to attempt to make an appeal. All requests for understanding were denied. Once the desk opened, we went downstairs and made our appeal at the Air Portugal desk to reschedule our flights. They sent the request to management and asked us to wait. Eventually, they got back to us and denied the request. They said that since the flight had now left, our tickets were cancelled under the no-show rule, and we would be out of luck. There was nothing else to be done. I tried sending some emails, but they fell on deaf ears as well.
Ghana immigration held onto our passports until after our flights left.
We completely missed our meeting with IJM and had to reschedule for the following week.
We had to delay leaving Accra in order to wait for our meeting with IJM.
Our car (and home) was now at the mechanic, so we would need to find a hotel.
By the time our visa came through, we couldn’t use it, so we waisted $300 USD.
Were the immigration officers corrupt? I expect that they were pocketing the $300 somewhere. Although I requested them, we never did get receipts. However, not issuing us a visa in time makes no sense, even if they were. They simply didn’t make it a priority.
I chatted with the immigration official over WhatsApp afterward. Although it didn’t help, he was very apologetic. He even tried connecting us with an immigration official at the airport. However, that also wasn’t going to help us with the airline. In the end, we should have just left and traveled on our backup US passports and then applied for an emergency visa upon arrival back in Ghana. Presumably, this would have been successful. Unfortunately, hindsight has no effect on history.
After the frustrating day yesterday, and because we don’t have Codiwompler to stay in, w rented an apartment for the night. It wasn’t actually that expensive, but it sure was nice. Pool, Internet, bed, toilet, shower, kettle, TV,… what more could you want. And, on top of that, Terry and Graydon were coincidentally staying in the building across the street. They brought over some pancake ingredients to express condolences on our misfortune yesterday, and say goodbyes. (They successfully have a Ghana reentry visa and won’t be back from Soa Tome & Principe before we leave Accra.)
The school yard we are camping at borders the Madina market, where I have been on the hunt for various car parts: container for Starlink Satellite, 12-48V DC converter, an auto-battery charger, a power strip, dinner, etc. So far, all I can find is good food, but that makes everything better anyway, so… Plus, I find walking around open-air markets fascinating, so I don’t mind.
Okay, yes, it is true; we ran a red light. But it was virtually impossible to see until we were through the intersection. Of course, what are the chances that anyone noticed? This is virtually standard practice in Africa. In fact, there was a policeman at the corner who raised his hand. Not knowing there was a problem, I gave him a thumbs up! (Yes really!)
A minute or two later, he is passing us on his motorcycle and flagging us down. What? The police virtually never have access to a vehicle, never mind a snazzy motorcycle.
The conversation commences, and he informs us of our infraction. Bummer! Only now do we realize what happened. Stink! Benjamin and I discuss in a manner he can’t interpret. He tells us to follow him to the police station. We comply. On the way, we quickly but nonchalantly check the dashcam. Halfway there, he pulls over again and informs us he is calling his superior officer. We wait. The superior arrives—it is his brother. Things are starting to get really suspicious. However, we have broken the first guideline of Africa, checkpoint/stop negotiation:
To avoid corrupt police or paying a bribe, don’t be in a rush or care about where you are going or when.
Unfortunately, we have a 4 p.m. flight to catch and several errands before then. We ran a red light, and any excuse about its visibility is not going to stand up to scrutiny while we are negotiating with the officer on the street.
We chit-chat and learn about how he finally was accepted into the police force, but that, in fact, the job isn’t that great. However, once you are on the force, it is extremely difficult to leave. Also, friends still believe it is the ideal job, so leaving would be viewed as ungrateful. He requests contact information because he has participated in the USA immigration lottery for a few years now and is looking for help. I comply to his request but assure him that immigration was not something I could help with. (Kinda like he can’t help me with Ghana immigration which has been a nightmare for us and going to get worse – although we didn’t know this yet.)
We aren’t getting anywhere, and the day isn’t getting shorter. I pay him $40 cash (I expect I could have gotten away with less, but hindsight doesn’t change history), and we are dismissed. In fact, I suspect we could have talked our way out of this, but our time pressure took priority. This is the second time we have paid a bribe, both times because we were likely in the wrong (although both times it was unknowingly), so we didn’t have much ground to negotiate with.