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Archive for November, 2010

States of Independence – Chad

On August 11, 1960, Chad gained independence from France. In half a century of independence Chad has known decades of on-off war, poverty crisis, and trouble with its neighbours like Sudan. Then oil was discovered and this year the country signed a treaty with Sudan putting an end to the fighting. So are things finally coming together for Chad, or will its newly found resource become a curse as it has in many African nations?

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Africa … States of Independence – Chad
(Video hosted on Youtube.)

ong seen by travellers as a place to get through rather than visit, few visitors in Chad do more than spend a couple of days in N’Djaména, the busy, broken-down capital, on their way between Niger and Cameroon. And as the government increasingly loses its grip on the nation, travellers are getting fewer and further between. Even many NGO workers dread drawing this assignment. Travelling here certainly poses many problems: few roads are paved, it gets hot as hell in summer, the costs are among the continent’s highest, and the police and soldiers are quite nervous these days. But, of course, there are rewards in this struggling but interesting country for those who take the Chadian challenge and you will soon discover a wealth of warmth and culture beneath the rough exterior.

Known for its endless Sahelien expanses, Chad has a few surprises up its sleeve, too, like boat rides on Lake Chad or strolling the shady streets of southern towns where the dusty landscape, fed by small rivers, is interspersed with incongruously green scenes providing a quasi-tropical break from the rigours of the road. The best destinations – the otherworldly desert landscapes of Ennedi and the teeming wildlife of Zakouma National Park just South of N’Djaména – lie way beyond backpacker budgets but are both world class.

States of Independence – Senegal

Senegal, a country on Western-most edge of the African continent with a predominantly Muslim nation of 12 million, has a fully functioning democracy, and has largely escaped incidents of separatist violence that have hampered the progress of several of its neighbours. But Senegal is not without its problems. Its economy has recently faltered, due in part to the relative scarcity of natural resources, and there are suggestions that its cherished tradition of democracy is under threat, with the president allegedly grooming his son to succeed him.

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Africa … States of Independence – Senegal
(Video hosted on Youtube.)

ouched between the arid desert lands in Northern Senegal and lush tropical forests in the south, this country boasts a stunning array of sights, sounds and flavours. The capital Dakar alone hands you the country in a capsule. Perched on the tip of a beach-lined peninsula, this dizzying city is composed elegance and street hustle all rolled into one. The busy streets, vibrant markets and glittering nightlife will easily draw you into their relentless rhythm, but the escape route is always open – be it to the meditative calm of the historical Île de Gorée or the golden sands of Yoff and N’Gor. And if Dakar’s sensory overload really gets too much, architecturally beautiful Saint-Louis, the first French settlement in West Africa, boasts a vibrant urban culture without the inner-city bustle. Most visitors head to Senegal for its beaches, and for good reason. North and south of Dakar, wide strips of white sand invite swimming and sunbathing, whether in the built-up resort zones, where a lazy day at the beach can be followed by a cocktail trail at night, or in one of the coast’s charming fishing villages, the beaches of which are dotted with hundreds of colourful wooden pirogues. At the deltas of the Casamance and Saloum Rivers, the coastline is broken up into a maze of thick mangroves, tiny creeks, wide lagoons and shimmering plains. A pirogue trip through these striking zones reveals hundreds of bird species, from the gleaming wings of tiny kingfishers to the proud poise of pink flamingos. Whether you want to mingle with the trendsetters of urban Africa, or be alone with your thoughts and the sounds of nature – Senegal is the place to be.

States of Independence – Ivory Coast

Cote d’Ivoire was once a bastion of peace in a turbulent region, but political instability now prevails.

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Africa… States of Independence – Ivory Coast
(Video hosted on Youtube.)

vory Coast was once the economic miracle of Africa and a role model for stability on the continent. Never completely breaking from their colonial masters, the post-independence leaders wooed French capital to build a modern infrastructure and considerable prosperity. The long-serving and charismatic first president, Houphouët-Boigny, promoted the notion of a happy amalgam of pragmatic Western capitalism with benign African values. The society he presided over, however, was far from liberal and the dream ended with his death. A consequent string of coups and popular insurgencies shook the country, and northern-led rebellion in 2002 violently split it in half. Most of the huge French-expat community jumped ship, and the economy has since crumbled. However, the country abounds in some of the best natural attractions in West Africa, such as Parc National de Taï’s vast patch of rainforest and the string of beaches along the Atlantic coast. It’s also a land rich in tradition due to a diverse tribal mix that includes Dan, Lobi, Baoulé and Senoufo peoples.

But it’s really the modernity that sets Côte d’Ivoire apart from other West African nations. Abidjan is decidedly dog-eared these days, but its shimmering skyscrapers will still astound. Yamoussoukro in the Centre is famous for its basilica, an astonishing replica of Rome’s St Peter’s, which epitomises the Houphouët-Boigny era and, in a way, Africa’s current place in today’s world, since the Big Man philosophy shows few signs of fading.

States of Independence – Congo

A look at the current state of the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa: its broken infrastructure and institutions, its terrifying development indicators, its rampant poverty. Is the “great new country” Lumumba envisioned about to awaken, or is the sleeping giant malevolent?

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Africa … States of Independence – DR Congo
(Video hosted on Youtube.)

ore a geographical concept than a fully fledged nation, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaïre) is a bubbling cauldron of untamed wilderness carpeted by swathes of rainforest and punctuated by gushing rivers and smoking volcanoes. Rendered almost ungovernable by the central administration in Kinshasa, the country remains closed to all but the most brave-hearted travellers. The nation’s history reads like something out of Dante’s Inferno – from the brazen political folly of King Leopold of Belgium to the hideously corrupt ‘kleptocracy’ of maverick megalomaniac Mobutu Sese Seko, and the blood-stained battlegrounds of Africa’s first ‘world war’. The DRC isn’t all failed politics and wasted natural resources, however. Somewhere in the midst of this proverbial heart of darkness lies a lumbering African giant. With ground-b­reaking national elections in July 2006 giving voice to 60 million shell-shocked inhabitants, a corner may have been turned. Despite early post-election violence in Kinshasa, incumbent president Joseph Kabila took office in October 2006 under the watchful eye of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force. In some senses, the future can only get better. With five Unesco biospheres, whole ecosystems of teeming wildlife and an estimated US$24 trillion of untapped mineral capacity lying underneath the ground, it goes without saying that the country’s potential is breathtaking.

States of Independence – Nigeria

Nigeria has suffered from ethnic tension and corruption but can Africa’s most populous nation become the continent’s biggest success story?

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Africa … States of Independence – Nigeria
On the picture: Young women from Kano gather for the Durbar Festival.
(Video hosted on Youtube.)

e shouldn’t beat about the bush: Nigeria has an image problem. It dominates West Africa economically and politically, and has produced music and literature whose influence spreads far beyond the continent. But for all this clout, mention the country’s name to the person on the street and they’re more likely to come up with a litany of woe: corruption, ethnic violence and email scams. As a travel destination, Nigeria seems more a place to avoid than to book a flight to. And yet, Nigeria is a country we’re coming to love. Getting around can sometimes be a little tough, and it’s certainly a challenging destination for first-timers to Africa, but you shouldn’t believe all the scare stories. Lagos is one of the most exuberant cities in Africa, while port city Calabar makes for an enjoyable stopover for travellers on their way to Cameroon. Across Southern Nigeria, old kingdoms carry on their customs, from creating elaborate brass sculptures to venerating the ancient gods. More modern traditions include one of the world’s pioneering primate conservation organisations. In the north, where the land dries out as it stretches towards the desert, Muslim Nigeria thrives in dusty trade cities where memories of the Saharan trade routes still linger. Don’t miss West Africa’s oldest city Kano, and Yankari National Park, the best in the country. Nigeria is a country of extremes. Great wealth and great poverty sit cheek by jowl, and tensions between different communities can boil over into civil strife. While a few parts of the country remain problematic, the vast majority is as warm and welcoming to visitors as anywhere in Africa. Challenging yet exuberant, this is Africa in the raw – there’s nowhere quite like it on the continent.

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