West Africa: An amazing trip of a lifetime

I took my very first steps on African soil during my three-months sabbatical in West Africa. Senegal, Ghana, Mali & Burkina Faso were the focus of this trip. My passion for West Africa Dance and Drumming brought me back to West Africa several times; today I’d like to share some of my most memorable places in West Africa with you…

Mali – Cliff of Bandiagara and Land of the Dogons

Stilted Mask Dance in Dogon Country, Mali

Never have I felt so far from any western civilization and so close to nature as in Dogon Country. The Land of the Dogons is characterized by the huge escarpment ‘Falaise de Bandiagara’ with villages dotted along the bottom of the hill; some even clinging to the bluff. The scenery is stunning. Little rivers flowing through green and rocky landscapes that are sprinkled with farmers, kids herding goats and women in colorful clothing carrying home buckets of water. It is by far one of the most breath-taking regions in Africa I have come across so far. It is a timeless sort of place with ancient traditions and cultural ceremonies – the most famous are the masked stilt dances, which I have witnessed in Tirelli. As soon as you hear the beat of the drum, the dancers appear with beautifully carved wooden masks, extraordinary colorful dresses and some of them walk in on over three meters long stilts! My heart skipped a beat while I watched this highly skilled exuberant dance; I felt exhausted just by watching it…

Tip: Buy a hand-carved slingshot from the local boys – it’s a fabulous souvenir!

Tirelli in Mali, Dogon Country, West Africa

Mali – Timbuktu

Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa

Who has not heard of Timbuktu? That place of legend and myth – some most likely still believe it is a made-up town in the middle of nowhere. Well, let me tell you – it does exist although I have to agree it is in the middle of nowhere perched on the edge of the mighty Sahara desert. Timbuktu – the home of the Tuareg Nomads, legendary for its camel caravans and once a thriving centre of scholarship instrumental to the spread of Islam in Africa. Timbuktu has three noble mosques and one of the world’s great collections of ancient manuscripts. Wandering around town, you can imagine its former glory – beautifully decorated and crafted wooden doors, fascinating mosques build of mud and timber that have survived since the 14th and 15th century. But also a place of dust, drought and 50 degree Celsius heat in the shade (!!!) – what would I have given for an ice-cold soda or a chilled water melon… Having traveled to Timbuktu and witnessed this magical place myself, I feel heavyhearted how this picturesque city was destroyed during the Islamic extremist occupation in 2012.

Tip: If your room gets too hot, carry your mattress up the rooftop and enjoy a star-lit night sky and some sort of a breeze…

Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa

Mali – Old Towns of Djenné

Monday Market in Djenne West Africa

Djenné is famous for the largest mud-brick structure in the world – the century-old Great Mosque housing a network of arched corridors and prayer rooms. Standing in front of it, I was in awe of its simplicity and beautifully smooth sun-dried walls. I was also impressed how a structure – simply made of mud and patched up with more mud on a yearly basis – can survive for centuries. Of course, being a girl, I was not able to resist strolling around the lively and colorful Monday market just outside the mosque. Rummaging through hundreds of stalls, offering everything from cloth to calabashes, spices to spaghetti and local foods and live stock, makes you wonder how life was in the days when the Sahara camel caravans brought salt and other treasures to the thousands of traders and customers from miles around. The adventures of a 1.001 Nights doesn’t seem to far off all of a sudden…

Tip: Sit, listen and observe – the apparent worries of your daily life will dissolve into nothingness…

Senegal – Island of Gorée

Goree Island in Senegal, West Africa

Île de Gorée is easily reached by ferry and just lies 3km opposite Dakar of the coast of Senegal in West Africa. I can strongly recommend it if you need a breather from the hustle and bustle of urban Dakar but also if you want to learn more about the ancient slave trade. The most famous building is ‘La Maison des Esclaves’, featuring the ‘door with no return’ – literally a hole in the wall opening to the ocean. I felt very emotional standing at this powerful symbolic image of the horrors of slavery. Despite being the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast between the 15th and 19th century and its horrific past, I experienced the island of Gorée as a beautifully romantic place with old colorful colonial-style buildings, bougainvillea-lined alleys, tiny craft-shops selling paintings and sculptures by local artists.

Tip: Don’t miss the amazing views from the top of the Castel.

Ghana – St. George Castle and Cape Coast Castle


Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, West Africa

Daily life in West AfricaI can’t comprehend how mankind was able to degrade other human beings to another commodity – trading them like gold, ivory and other wares. That it happened is shockingly visible when visiting St. George Castle in Elmina and the Cape Coast Castle overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Both places were originally built by the Portuguese as trading posts between 1482 and 1786 and are remnants of the slave trade that was finally banned in the early 18th century. Walking through the poorly lit and hardly ventilated dungeons made me very emotional. It is unimaginable how hundreds of male and female slaves were crammed together in the tiniest place, with no space to lie down and with no water or sanitation; being held prisoners under dreadful conditions until finally being shipped of. And above ground, you find spacious and airy rooms for officers and their families overlooking the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The tour was very moving but it is a very educational experience to learn about the history of these slave castles, bringing alive the heartbreaking stories of the slaves.

Tip: Have lunch at the seafront in Elmina – you will feel like having front-row theatre seats enjoying the vibrant street life…

Elmina Castle in Ghana, West Africa

Did you know that all of the places above are UNESCO World Heritages sites in West Africa? If you’d like to find out about other World Heritage sites, then read my blog about the 5 most fascinating World Heritage sites in East Africa.

Have you been to West Africa? What’s your most memorable place?