Africa … paradise or powder keg?


As you read this, we are in Valencia, Spain, after almost six weeks traveling through 12 countries from South Africa to Senegal. We didn’t have time to visit north of the Sahara. Instead, we took side trips to the island nations of Sao Tome and Principe and Cape Verde.

The republics of Sao Tome and Principe and Cape Verde are beautiful and feel safe, much like Hawaii. Each of the places we visited on the continent had its unique geographical and cultural identity. The common factor was the extreme gap between the wealthy and the poor.

South Africa, on the Atlantic side, is reminiscent of Southern California both in scenery and climate. Cape Town in particular is an enjoyable mix of southern Europe, spicy African and Indo-Asian culture set in one of the most picturesque locations in the world. Well-landscaped streets, parks and gardens give Cape Town the air of tranquility and stability.

Just off the coast is the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for years. One cannot visit this country without being aware of the tremendous influence this man had on the cultures, ethics and politics of Africa and for that matter, the whole world. If he had not been in the right place at the right time with his way of dealing with the pain and suffering of people under the rule of apartheid, there would have been a bloody civil war 20 years ago. With elections coming soon, it is hard to predict what the future might bring. Away from the major cities exist large communities lacking the basic needs of shelter, food, health and jobs. However, it is amazing to experience the strength and courage of a nation trying to make democracy work for all.

In each country we visited, we were impressed with the vibrant energy and tenacity of the people. With unstable governments unable to give folks sufficient opportunities for work, health and education, we saw people surviving through unbridled entrepreneurship. It was capitalism on steroids with everything and sometimes everyone for sale. Slavery continues today through forced labor and the sex trade.

The potential for political and ethnic conflict made travel uncomfortable, but the beauty, color and cultures of Africa were captivating. People were friendly wherever we went. Namibia is mostly desert and savanna. The population is sparse with small towns such as Luderitz and Walvis Bay quiet and friendly. As we traveled northward, we found Luanda, Angola, a booming city. Big money is flowing into the region with oil and other resources feeding growth. The landscaping and construction along the coast was impressive, but not far from downtown we again saw folks living under very difficult conditions.

Traveling northward, we left the drier regions to find the tropical forests of Cameroon. Very little tourism exists there, but the scenery and people are fascinating. Cameroon is famous for its tea, cocoa and other agricultural products. From the coastal town of Limbe you see towering volcanic mountains covered with mist and luxuriant vegetation. At this point and on north through Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast, the heat and humidity were oppressive, but again lush jungles made me feel right at home. Gardens are lush with many plants we find in Hawaii. The forests abound with species with which I was unfamiliar. Unfortunately, forest resources are being destroyed throughout equatorial Africa much like that occurring in the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

The side trip to Sao Tome and Principe was awe-inspiring. These islands reminded me of home with volcanic peaks festooned in rain forest. There is a hotel on Principe’s Bom Bom Island that is a perfect spot for a honeymoon or a relaxed vacation. The local population is African, but without the hustle of Africa’s continental big cities.

Cape Verde islands to the north are much like the Kona side of the Big Island. The islands have a small town atmosphere that make you want to come back and stay.

It is impossible to describe or even comprehend the complexity of the many cultures across the vast expanse of West Africa, but with hundreds of people groups and dialects, a person could never be bored. North of the Ivory Coast we by-passed Liberia and Sierra Leone to again find ourselves in the parched countries of Gambia and Senegal. Gambians are more rural and friendly whereas Dakar, Senegal, was again a giant city with too much traffic and confusion. A visit to historic Goree Island was more peaceful, but as the major slave transfer port until the mid-19th century, it was very sobering. We did see a number of slave export locations all along the coast, but this and the one near Takoradi, Ghana, were the most oppressive to even visit.

West Africa as a whole is really not a place to vacation. It is a place to learn and embrace as part of the greater experience of being human. In Hawaii, we are insulated from the pain and suffering much of the world’s people face every day. I would encourage folks to travel there not for fun and relaxation but to connect with the rest of the human race in all its craziness, joy and pain.

Then, for vacation, visit the beautiful and peaceful islands of Sao Tome and Principe, Cape Verde and the Canaries. There you find Africa at its best with folks from all cultures, backgrounds and religions mixing together in relative peace and harmony, much like Hawaii!