I've just finished a three week trip to a handful of countries in Central Africa. It was the last region of the world that I hadn't explored and so the trip was full of endless learning. The countries there are not oft-visited, we sometimes (but still seldom) hear about Cameroon for soccer or the war in Central African Republic, but how often do stories of Chad, Gabon or Sao Tome grace our screens? When we think of "Congo" we almost always mean the larger DRC, and not the small, well-developed Republic of the Congo. Maybe you didn't even know there were two? There was definitely a lot that I learned while in Central Africa. Here are some of the highlights:
Wealth and Development
Africa is an oil rich continent, especially the Gulf of Guinea to the East of Central Africa. Although often spread unequally and prone to graft, the revenues from oil exports have led to significant levels of development in many of these countries. Equatorial Guinea was famously the only high-income country in sub-Saharan Africa for many years before it was joined by the Seychelles and then fell to upper-middle status following oil price decreases in 2014. Joining it in upper middle-income territory are Angola and Gabon, and in lower middle-income are Cameroon, Sao Tome, and Congo. Walking around the capital cities in these countries you can see the monumental effects of this wealth in government buildings and infrastructure. Although I was aware of this prior to my trip, the extent of it really impressed me. These countries definitely do not match our stereotypical views of African poverty.
Portuguese and Spanish Colonialism in Africa
European Powers divided up African territory at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, drawing largely arbitrary lines that generally ignored pre-existing kingdoms, allegiances, and cultural similarities in lieu of resources centers and access to them. Though we are more aware of French and British colonial rule, the conference also gave land to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. Of the countries I just visited, three were former Portuguese Colonies (Angola, Sao Tome, and Cape Verde) and provided an interesting history that I'd known little of before. Especially interesting was how Sao Tome was uninhabited before the Portuguese claim and that everyone in the current population is thus the descendants of those brought to the island during the slave trade, when Sao Tome was used as a slave depot of sorts. Even more fascinating to me was the Spanish legacy in Equatorial Guinea, the only sovereign nation in Africa where Spanish is spoken! Cameroon is also intriguing because it was originally "given" to Germany, but then had British and French periods / areas of control, leading to a split lingua franca currently in the country.
The three longest serving non-royal rulers in the world are ALL in Central Africa! Cameroon's Paul Biya (42yrs), Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Mbasogo (38yrs), and Angola's Jose Santos (38yrs). Surprisingly, President Santos has announced that he is stepping down at elections later this year. These strict regimes result often in a society of fear and oppression, but in some ways lead to development and stability as the Presidents are able to work on long-term projects with less fear of losing power. Other countries in the region have skirted around democracy, and many, particularly Central African Republic, have fallen into chaos resulting from power struggles.
Central Africa (including DRC which I did not visit) is the size of Australia! Even though it appears tiny and shrunk on our maps, the distances are quite extended. Because of a hostile tropical environment, poor transportation infrastructure, and shaky political agreements, most land borders in this region are closed or too tightly-controlled. Therefore, I flew into each country, which for me is quite out of the ordinary as I've entered over 100 countries by land.
Strange small airlines
Some major airlines connect the region to Europe and the Middle East, but generally for travel within the countries you must take one of the local carriers. This trip thus gave me my first time flying many small (and not particularly well regarded) airlines like Nigeria's Asky, Cameroon's Camair-Co, Equatorial Guinea's Ceiba Intercontinental, and Angola's TAAG. I also flew an Air Burkina flight when another flight got canceled. At one airport I saw a plane with the name: "Canadian Congo Airlines". I would love to know the story behind that unlikely pairing! These routes are also not commonly flown, and so it takes some clever planning to make an itinerary between them. The flights also change often and I ended up getting an extra day in Chad because a flight got cancelled. Nobody told me until I happened to google my flight number and see it no longer existed!
Libreville, Gabon by Sal Lavallo
Another false stereotype about Africa is of a war-ravaged continent, and though true at times in some parts, most of Central Africa is quite peaceful. In fact, according to the Global Peace Index 2016, the majority of countries I visited are more peaceful than the United States. The USA is ranked 103, whereas we have Equatorial Guinea at 62, Gabon at 79, Angola with 98, and Republic of the Congo slightly below at 114. Sao Tome is not ranked, but to me felt like the most peaceful of the lot! I was impressed in each country about how easy it was to walk around the cities and feel calm and free of worry.
Difficulty to enter
I guess that I technically learned this before I arrived, but Central Africa has some of the strictest visa policies and lengthiest processes. I had to get three visas (for Chad, Cameroon, and Congo) before I even got on the continent. I had the folks at TravelVisaPro.com help me out for this and so that was less hassle but it still took over a month! I also got Angola beforehand, and though this is known to be one of the world's most difficult to obtain, I got it quite easily. Gabon advertises a quick and easy online process, but I found it utterly confusing. My application got cancelled twice because I didn't submit a hotel reservation, but there was nowhere on the website to do so and all my emails bounced! I ended up getting it quickly and easily at the embassy in Sao Tome (which is visa free). Two other countries that are known to rarely give out visas, Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic, actually have visa-free policies for Americans, so that was quick and painless!
The CFA Franc is the name of two equivalent currencies used together in a total of 14 countries. There is the West African CFA which is used in 8 countries and the Central African CFA which is used in 6. This makes it easy to travel between the countries and not have to worry about exchange. The two currencies are pegged at a 1-to-1 ratio and guaranteed by the French Treasury. Combined it is the currency used in the second most countries after the Euro that is used in 19. Another currency used officially in multiple countries is the United States Dollar, used in 8 countries, and the East Caribbean Dollar, shared between 6 nations.
Apart from learning things about the countries I am in, I learn a lot about myself when I travel. Here are three more things that I learned about how I like to travel:
I like purpose
This trip in Central Africa was one of the trips where I did the "fastest" traveling, doing multiple countries in only a few weeks. I so often am traveling for work, to see friends, or to do or see something specific. I felt guilty at first, to travel to these places just to see them, but once there I realized how much I can learn and I ended up enjoying the way I had set the trip.
I love friends and local connections
In a few of the countries I had local connections which really added to my experience and this is something that I've always loved. In Angola I got to visit with two friends from my boarding school, The United World College, and I also got to meet a friend from Instagram in person for the first time. In Congo I was guided around by a friend-of-a-friend also from the United World College. Those experiences of connecting with someone and having a shared foundation but also being able to ask all the questions, is the quickest way to learn. In a couple other countries I made friends while I was there, with my hosts or with others I met along the way. This helped me to get to do things in the countries that I normally would not have-like to horseback ride in Chad.
Though I prefer longer trips and longer stays in each country, it was interesting to think about the learning curve when in a new place. How quickly you learn and how much additional knowledge you get with additional days. For example, the two countries I spent the longest in on this trip, Sao Tome for a week and Chad for 5 days, are not the ones I think I learned the most about. Those would be Angola and Congo where I went around with my local friends. There is something about the first couple days in a place, the hyper-awareness of looking around that really is the bulk of the learning and insights.
Overall, I loved my three weeks in Central Africa and am happy at all that I saw and everything that I learned. Some of the lessons are impossible to explain here but will stick with me forever. I'm so happy at all the friendships I made, reunions I had, and the beauty I saw.