In the fall of 1985, my friend Dan and I started a trip across West Africa. We had no particular plan in mind, not all that much money, and at that point we had never heard of mobile phones, HIV or the internet. We sort of hitchhiked, sort of wandered around, and mostly woke up each day and figured out what we were doing for the next 24 hours. Without really planning it out, our goal, in retrospect, was to be sure to be some place each evening where we could find cold beer and women who spoke English, French or Pulaar. This plan worked pretty well in Dakar, Bamako, Ouagadougou, Abidjan, Lome and Cotonou. It did not get us into Nigeria or Cameroon, a destination we picked for no other reason than we had heard about tropical rain forests and pygmies.
Another time, I will write about my time in Ouaga. Thomas Sankara was President, and he was radical, amazing and crazy in equal measure. I met the sister of the director of the Fulaani radio station in a bar, she took me home, and I then spent a few days at her compound drinking beer, smoking African Marlboros, and swapping stories with her brother, the radio station director.
But we kept on going south, looking for beaches and palm trees. When we got to Cotonou -- by far the cleanest, neatest African city we had seen, with a giant Lenin statue in the middle -- we could not cross the border into Nigeria to get to Cameroon. The dictator at the time, a guy named Muhammadu Buhari, had closed the borders for some reason -- we didn't really know why. Something to do with falling oil prices, depreciation of the naira, threats of a coup (all too real, as events later proved). So instead of going south, we went north, traveling by train through Benin until we hit Niger, then hitch-hiking for a few days to get to Agadez, and then, well, it sounds nuts but it's true. We then crossed the Saraha in a truck transporting camels, with a French motorcycle racer moaning in the back, a victim of a crash in the Paris-Dakar race, broken collerbone. How he wound up in our truck I don't know, I never could understand anything he said. We left him in southern Algeria and I hope he eventually made it home.
A few dozen years went by, I got married and had kids and went to work, and last year I was once again in Cotonou, somewhat dingier and a bit more developed, both me and the city. It is, however, still in Benin, one of my favorite countries, and Lenin Park remains a gathering spot, although the statue of Lenin himself has been pulled down. His Russian boots, welded to the base of his statue, remain in place, a minor obstacle to the skateboarders and joggers.
Nice beaches, if you get away from the city pollution, same cold beer and stewed fish, really lovely people -- and the border with Nigeria? It's still there, and on the other side is a president named Muhammadu Buhari, the same uptight military dude, this time elected by popular mandate. The gas smugglers bring their wares to the border, which they sell to the clever Beninoise who have welded giant fuel tanks onto motorbikes or show up with five-gallon glass bottles. Every now and then there is a traffic accident, with corresponding spectacular gas explosion and fire. Major bummer of course, but better to be born in Benin than across the border in basket-case Togo or a few miles west in uptight Ghana, where both wine and Galloise cigarettes are frowned upon -- an unfortunate legacy of English colonialism, uptight Ashanti rulers, and the more recent invasion of evangelical Christians.
Nigeria is by far the richest country in West Africa, and I have never in all my travels met a people more dynamic, entrepreneurial and engaging than the Nigerians. I cheered when Buhari replaced the hapless Goodluck Jonathan. Great name, terrible leader. A chance for redemption, and to put Nigeria on the map as the great African success story. But just as in 1985, Buhari is faced with falling oil prices, a naira under severe threat of depreciation, a faltering economy and a restless population. Has nothing changed in 30 years? Nigeria is fabulously wealthy in energy -- human and hydrocarbon -- well-situated geographically, blessed with a large and young population, and home to flamboyant entrepreneurial verve. Let's hope that Buhari has learned something over the past three decades, and can help his country navigate its current difficulties.