What comes to mind when you think of Sierra Leone? How about Liberia, Guinea, or Ivory Coast?
If you’ve heard anything at all about these countries, I’d bet my last Guinean Franc it involves civil war, child soldiers, blood diamonds, or Ebola.
It’s no surprise then that my decision to travel this region for three months, in all my blatant femaleness, whiteness, and soloness, was questioned deeply by those who care about me. But I’ve traveled enough to understand that things are not always as they seem in the media. Those of us in the West, especially in the USA, know embarrassingly little about what’s really going on in sub-Saharan Africa. Our impressions of war and turmoil are often a decade or two out of date.
I did a LOT of research. I scoured forums, read advice from expats, and contacted friends of friends of friends who had lived and worked in the region. The results confirmed a conclusion I was scared to admit to myself because it meant I had no good reason to back down: it seemed safe enough.
The Ebola virus was eradicated, for the time being, the civil wars were over, and several countries had recently celebrated free and fair elections. Progress and peace were gradually edging their way into the challenged region. Despite the tinge of violence and squalor that comes to mind, it turns out West Africa is just another place in the world full of normal people going about their daily business: working for a living, taking care of their kids, chatting in the shade of the mango tree in the front yard.
Let me be honest: West Africa is not for everyone. It demands a certain amount of travel experience, situational awareness, and a strong sense of humor.
Solo female or not, many travelers will hate it. They’ll hate the sticky hot weather, the dust that never fully washes off, the cold bucket showers and sporadic electricity, and the unappetizing food. They’ll find only frustration in the unpredictability of “African time,” the way nothing ever seems to work, the physical discomfort of getting anywhere, the confusing interactions and cultural dissonance.
That’s all fine with me, because one of the great draws of the region is the almost complete lack of other travelers.
“Peace Corps?” people would usually ask. “No? Which NGO are you with?”
The answer “I’m on vacation” was usually met with a bewildered “…Why here?”
True, the tourist infrastructure is nearly nonexistent, but the potential is staggering for travelers who can fend for themselves. Empty palm-lined beaches, warm ocean swims, jungle treks, wildlife sightings, mountain hikes with views into three countries at once… And on top of all that, the most friendly, interested, welcoming culture I have ever encountered.
The people of West Africa welcomed me, a strange visitor with more money and freedom than most of them could ever imagine, as if they had no reason in the world to resent me. They took care of me, helped me navigate their confusing world, took me under their wing and watched my back.
I would ask for directions to a guesthouse and someone would lead me there and negotiate a good price on my behalf. I bought a coffee and ended up with two gifted mangoes and an hour-long conversation. I tried to take my assigned seat in the cramped taxi (in order of arrival) and was given the moderately more comfortable front seat instead. People who could afford it insisted on buying me a meal or a beer and sitting down for a chat.
The primary reaction to a white lady wandering alone in sub-Saharan Africa? Curiosity.
I was an alien from another planet, a rich planet, one that no one had visited but many idolized as a bizarre paradise thanks to the global reach of television. It seemed all of West Africa was filled with curious, open, friendly people bursting with questions. Is everyone in America rich? Is there any farming in America? Is America just big cities like New York everywhere? What do you think about America’s president? How much does it cost to get to America? Can you take me back to America with you?
Just beyond my American-ness, in terms of interest, was my personal life. Was I really traveling alone!? Was I married? Did I have kids? Why not?
In West Africa, as in many parts of the world, the idea of a woman traveling alone is baffling.
First of all, since women are supposed to be weak and dependent, how I was I even capable of such a feat? And more importantly why on earth had my husband, who was apparently suffering back at home with no one to cook him food and do his laundry like a good wife should, allowed me to do so? Most concerning to everyone, women and men alike in this region of plentiful offspring and huge families, was that a thirty-two year old woman would be out gallivanting around the globe instead of doing my part to raise a couple or ten of the next generation.
The funny thing was, I answered all these questions honestly, and people seemed to like my answers.
Why was I traveling? To see and learn about places different from my home, beautiful places like (insert current country name here). Why was I away from my husband? He didn’t want to come, he’s busy. Why did I not have kids? If I did, I couldn’t be here in beautiful (insert country name here). Maybe I’ll have kids when I get home.
These answers usually triggered smiles and thoughtful nods. Even in such a culturally distant place, a place where most people will never be able to afford a trip outside their own country, many people still seemed to understand the urge to explore the world.
There was, of course, a female-specific challenge to all this conversation. In such a male-dominated culture, a traveler mostly interacts with males. Men are socialized to be curious, outgoing, interactive. Women are socialized to be quiet, submissive, domestic.
As a foreign woman and bizarre alien from another land, I was granted “honorary man” status and therefore was a fair target for conversations about politics, international affairs, and things most local women do not discuss.
The result: 80% of my conversations in West Africa were with men. I’m happy to say that many of these conversations were friendly, safe and respectful. But many also walked a strangely fine line.
I was never once sexually harassed in West Africa.
My definition of harassment – and I have experienced plenty of it in other places – comes with the intent to dehumanize. It’s objectification shouted from across the street with no expectation of a reply. It’s an unwanted “compliment” that’s actually an expression of social power. It’s an aggressively lewd statement designed to spark fear. No, I was not harassed in West Africa.
In West Africa I was proposed marriage to, asked for sex, and offered sex, on average about once a day.
One earnest off-duty police officer, in complete seriousness, offered to be “a guest in my room” and seemed confused when I declined. An outgoing young man with a wide smile informed me matter-of-factly that he was going to marry me and come back to America with me. My hiking guide sat across the table from me after our trek and nervously confessed he had never “known a white woman” before. Would I be interested?
These men, I came to realize, were simply trying their luck. Nothing to lose by asking, and much to gain: a fun night, perhaps a financial gift, elevated social status, and maybe even a free ticket to America and a better life. Combine this with the common view that all western women are wanton nymphomaniacs who can’t get enough – thank you Hollywood – and the fact that I was geographically very far from my husband, and you get a question that just begs to be asked. So, they asked it.
And when I said no? With one or two more persistent exceptions, they simply accepted my answer and moved on to other topics of conversation.
I rarely felt threatened or even nervous.
We usually laughed it off together after I politely rejected their proposition. In three months no one ever violated my physical boundaries. An otherwise professional hiking guide, somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Senegal and Guinea, did give me an unnecessary hug. Not ideal, but not dangerous.
I did, it must be said, stay very alert.
In a crowded market street, a man who appeared mentally ill followed me for quite some time. I feared nothing more than a pickpocket attempt but still approached a market stall and waited there until he left (in the meantime, the young male stall owner attempted to gain my friendship).
Walking the streets of Abidjan at dusk a man entered my space quickly for no obvious reason; I put my hand out in the universal “stop” gesture while verbally hedging with “désolé” (French for “sorry”) and kept walking.
I was invited into an abandoned building by a charming Ivorian artist who wanted to show me his paintings; I declined.
Whether any of these would have gone badly, who knows, but I strongly believe in following common sense and instinct for travelers of any gender.
The biggest risks of travel in West Africa don’t discriminate based on gender, and I cannot honestly say this was a low-risk trip.
I got malaria despite taking prophylactic medication, and a nasty bug that was probably giardia. I was mugged (wrong place wrong time). After a minibus wheel broke off, the driver shoddily repaired it and then drove down the wrong side of a poorly lit highway as darkness fell (I ended my ride early at the very next town). A motorbike taxi almost laid down in the mud with me on the back. In a truly bizarre incident, a jealous female acquaintance of a man who simply wanted to talk tried to punch me in the face. Never a dull moment in West Africa.
Despite all of this and because of it, the months I spent in West Africa were among the most memorable and impactful of my life.
That trip opened my eyes to a world beyond my comfortable developed home, opened my heart to spontaneous connections with strangers, and opened my mind to the possibility that I am strong and capable enough do whatever the heck I want.
I wouldn’t trade any of that for protection from the challenges I encountered there.
So women (and everyone else): travel where you want.
The best solo female travel destination is the destination where you, as a female, want to travel solo.
Each destination comes with its own risks, for you and for everyone. Most of them, you might be surprised to learn, have little to do with being female or being alone. Do your research, make rational decisions, and go find your place in the world. If that place happens to be West Africa, good luck and have fun.