Trying to Put My Time in West Africa Into Words

Niger sunset

Every piece of clothing in my backpack seems to be covered in a layer of red, sandy dust – just like my shoes and sandals and backpack and camera and pretty much everything else I brought with me for my two week journey through Mali and Burkina Faso in West Africa.

The last two weeks have been like nothing I could have expected and I think it will take me a while to fully process everything – I’m not sure how to put it all into words. Incredible, amazing, outstanding – none of those really capture the experience.

Random signs of the Ebola threat in Mali, from hand washing stations outside public buildings to billboards on the side of the road to locals not shaking hands with each other, smiling and saying “Ebola, Ebola” instead.

Getting waves from kids everywhere I went, but never feeling hassled. Watching kids run around freely, rolling tires and chasing chickens, and seeing mothers carry their infants with scarves on their backs. Marveling at the women carrying buckets of bananas, piles of wood and everything else imaginable on their heads with ease and grace.

Folona women

Passing by miles and miles of sugar cane, wheat, rice and corn fields and trees bearing every type of fruit imaginable. Enjoying fresh papaya and bananas and apples.

Nervously taking my first motorbike ride as my guide Ibrahim assured me, “no worries, no worries.” Then wishing I could have ridden longer.

Floating in a wobbly wooden canoe, looking for hippos, while fearing that one wrong move would send me flying into Lake Tengrela.

Driving for hours on bumpy dirt roads with potholes that would put Chicago to shame – all in a car that seemed as though it might fall apart at any minute.

Watching the sunset over the River Niger in Bamako and again in Segou. And then watching it rise over Tengrela Lake in Burkina Faso and then from the Domes of Fabedougou.

Tengrela sunrise

Sitting in the aisle on the bus from Segou to Bobo Dioulasso, with a plastic water jug for a chair, until a seat eventually opened up for me.

Watching villagers who lack electricity, running water or indoor plumbing chat away on cell phones and take pictures with digital cameras.

Chatting with Alhouss about Mali and Burkina politics and with Ibrahim about Islam.

Listening to the appreciation from the village chiefs in Menie and Folona (home to the two Passports with Purpose/buildOn schools that I went to visit) at the opportunity for their children to get an education.


And finally, the village chief in Folona telling me, “Americans, Europeans, African people, we are all the same – when we are happy, we smile; when we are sad, we cry.” Poignant words that I won’t soon forget.

Much more coming soon…

17 thoughts on “Trying to Put My Time in West Africa Into Words”

  1. Wow! Your pictures are gorgeous. I have always wanted to visit Africa, but that continent seems further away than others for some reason, but your blog post certainly confirms that it would be worth it to make it happen.

  2. This is so lovely and a great reminder of why travel is such a beautiful thing to experience. I love the quote at the end about all people smiling when happy and crying when sad. Travel makes this a reality and really opens peoples eyes to humanity. Looking forward to reading more posts about your time in West Africa.

  3. It seems you experienced the real thing during your trip…i always suggest to travelers to get the authentic experience, which you did based on your comments.
    There is a lot of dust in the atmosphere because of the harmattan all throughout Senegal Mali and nearby countries. The infrastructure and the majority of cars are in very poor conditions, but the people are what makes up for what lacks in material comfort.

    People have a contagious exhuberance and joy of life despite harsh living conditions.

    I often say what’s missing in Africa can be found in Western countries and what’s missing in Western nations can be found in Africa.

  4. Love love love this post!

    I always try to write one on the way home (or right after getting home) when the emotions and exhaustion from the trip are so unrefined and raw. I look back on them often to try and remember how I felt at that point in time. It’s so easy, once rested and back in your normal routine, to recreate that feeling.

    Thanks for letting me follow along on your trip!

    1. Thanks! And yeah, I felt like I needed to at least get something out in the moment before I returned and things started fading away. Although I did keep a pretty detailed journal so hopefully that will bring things back to life as I write more.

  5. Love the picture of the kids – such beautiful faces. So glad your experience was positive. Your words paint such a visual, it’s easy to at least imagine what you are describing. What a great trip!

  6. Great pictures. Can’t wait to here all about your trip and see all the pictures. Looking forward to seeing you at Christmas.

  7. Katie, from this little glimpse it is clear to see what an amazing experience you had. I can’t wait to read all about it.

  8. I remember amazing mangos and beautiful people. I am so glad your trip went well. Looking forward to hearing more.

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