Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. When Covid hit, my university almost immediately shifted all courses online. A light turned on in my head: I did not have to be in town. When the world shut down, I bought a one-way ticket to Algiers, Algeria. Panache!
As successive waves of infections swept through continents, my audacious original plan of crisscrossing Africa, clockwise, from Algeria to Mauritania for two years became increasingly untenable. Border closures, cancelled flights, constantly changing pandemic measures, and arbitrary airline and immigration officers’ rules make movement a quasi-nightmare. For months, Algeria remained closed, and Air France cancelled my Paris-Algiers ticket, the first of many unexpected changes, mishaps, and misadventures for the year to come. I began my grand voyage in Tunisia instead, with a broken knee (an accident in Paris, ouch!), getting lost in the medinas and hitchhiking out of the Sahara.
Libya was off limit due to ongoing insurgencies, and the Sudanese Embassy in Tunis did not issue visas to non-residents. Ethiopia it would be then, but two weeks before my arrival, civil war broke out up North in the Tigray region, threatening once again to jeopardize my trip. Doggedly, I stuck to my plan, celebrating Ethiopian Christmas in Lalibela and Epiphany in Gondar. What an experience!
Rwanda was in total lockdown, but the last gorillas beckoned me. There was no public transport and an online clearance was mandatory for all cross-district movements. A Covid test was required every five days and before entrance to any national park, an expensive logistical nightmare that I survived…
All land borders were closed, so the grand scheme of overlanding to Burundi, then onwards to Zambia via Gombe National Park in Tanzania, strolling across to Malawi, and making it eventually to Mozambique was a total non-option. In Kibuye, Southern Rwanda, 40km from Burundi, I turned around and headed back to Kigali. Just when I was ready to book a direct flight to Lusaka, Zambia, Rwanda Air cancelled all flights to Southern Africa due to the new variant. Burundi, Zambia? next time!
After the rigorous and burdensome Covid regime of Rwanda, Malawi felt like total vacation. No arrival test, no quarantine, no curfew, no lockdown, zero travel restrictions, no more expensive private transport and haggling drivers, or cumbersome online road clearance. How sweet life once was pre-Covid!
After weeks of travel detective work about border closure, visa, and Covid requirements, I decided to cross into Mozambique through the Mulanje border in Southern Malawi instead of retracing my steps to unexciting Lilongwe, overnighting in Addis 1600km away, and then flying down south again to Maputo when Mozambique was merely 6km away, if it let me in…
Then, alarming news of beheading by terrorists in Northern Mozambique…!
To go or not to go, that’s the question! I took my nth PCR test and my first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine, courtesy of Covax, before heading to the border town. On April’s Fools day, I walked towards the Malawi Moçambique fronteira like a total fool, without a visa on hand. After exchanging my first meticals at some ridiculous rate in no man’s land, a customs officer on the Malawian side that I had just officially left shouted at me. “Open your bags!” she demanded, and proceeded to ask for “cassava money” after finding nothing irregular. I played dumb, not yielding, before she let me go. What a relief to cross, reaching Mozambique Island 800km away on board successive “My Love” pick-up trucks.
By then, the South African variant was raging and Madagascar was closed. I studied the map and saw two possible routes: inching up West Africa from Angola, or fly out to North-West Africa and come down South. Uum, are you still following me? The multi-step visa process for Angola sounded daunting and uncertain, so I chose the latter, ending up in West Africa a full year ahead of schedule. Oh well, in the scale of African time, what did that matter? Then, three days before my scheduled flight from Maputo to Dakar, a Senegalese-French friend texted me, “Are you sure you can enter Senegal? Flights are for Senegalese nationals only or those with special authorizations for work or family reasons.”
No, I had not read that anywhere! Panic set in, with a sense of deja vu, the same having already happened to me in Malta, being denied boarding for Tunis because Malta was put on the red list during my stay. There was no Senegalese representation in Maputo; the nearest embassy was in Johannesburg. I ran to the Canadian High Commission and Ethiopian Airlines like a headless chicken for more information in vain.
Time for deep breathing and slow thinking…
I prepared an impromptu research project, entitled Children’s Rights and Public Health in Senegal, and sent it to my friend in Dakar who promptly signed it off with a three-month research collaboration invitation. It was a gamble; I figured I had a 50% chance of getting the special authorization for work reason, and emailed it to the Senegalese Embassy in Paris. Lo and behold, the approval came in the morning, within less than 12 hours. A truly impressive turn-around time!
Meanwhile, Sean Connolly, author of Bradt Guide, Senegal, suggested that the rule might apply only to European nationals, so after 35 hours of flight, overnighting in Addis, I showed up at Blaise Diagne International Airport in Dakar with my Canadian passport. No visa required, no question asked. Three months of chilling and recovering from months of head-spinning East African travels and Covid logistics. Just sun, sea, plenty of good food, and portraiture. Sounded like heaven, or so I thought…
Then, I fell sick.
After the quiet capital cities of East Africa – Kigali, Lilongwe, Maputo – Dakar was an assault to the senses. It was harmattan AND Ramadan: hot dust in the air, sand on your feet, calls to prayer punctuated with neighbors’ chickens crowing and goats bleating, and music everywhere…
By the time I arrived in St. Louis, my cold had become a full-blown chest infection (not Covid!). On the day of Korité/Eid, instead of night-clubbing with a local family, I headed to the Regional Hospital Emergency, being treated by a young, kind-hearted Malian, Dr. Camara, speaking BBC English. Helas, my hacking cough was so bad that I could barely crawl out of bed to get breakfast. All-night dancing was out of the question. What a missed opportunity; I was hoping to try a few great shots! The last time I felt unwell was in Addis on Christmas day – always such bad timing – after a feast of goat stew at a great restaurant, but food contamination was a given in long-distance travels…
It was hard to stay put in a photogenic city, but illness proved to be a great teacher. Patience – if not acceptance – is one thing I have learned in this epic journey. In this old continent, rarely does one see any faintest sign of impatience, in long bank queues, bus stops, water and electricity cuts, and life’s endless inevitable inconveniences and even tragedies…
From Casamance, one could take an overnight ferry to Dakar or drive through the Gambia. I knew nothing about this tiny country smacked right in the middle of Senegal. No visa required, only a costly Covid test, so why not? “Are you married?” “For how long?” “Do you have children?” etc. etc. the Gambian border agent asked me. By now, I was so used to arbitrary border questions that they did not even shock me anymore. Then, this: “Normally Canadians have to pay for a visa,” the agent’s chef said. This was definitely not true, and I knew where he was going, expecting a little ‘tea money.” I just sat there, totally silent, not budging, before he stamped my passport for a five-day stay…
From Senegal, there is Cape Verde out West, Mauritania up North, Mali in the East, Guinea-Bissau down South, and the rest of vast West Africa! In pre-Covid times, it would have been “easy” to overland from Rosso, Senegal, into Mauritania. After so many border scare stories, I no longer wanted to take any unnecessary risks. So it was an algorithm of flight connections, visa requirements, and pandemic restrictions that determined my next destination: Mauritania!
With a negative PCR Covid test and an air ticket in hand, I felt confident about the trip, until a young woman airport agent at the Blaise Diagne International Airport in Dakar blocked me from boarding.
“Can I see your return ticket?” she asked.
I had none, as I did not know how long I would stay in Mauritania.
“We cannot let you board without proof of a return/onward travel ticket,” she was adamant. “C’est la reglementation/It’s the rule!”
After close to half an hour of arguing back and forth, asking and being denied to talk to the supervisor, trying to entice the help of other agents in vain, I was finally allowed to proceed to immigration, because the must-show-return-ticket rule was apparently “by discretion, depending on whether an agent could trust the passenger”! Truly, each departure and arrival felt like a mini-miracle. Everything else was bonus!
All land borders with Mauritania were closed, which simplified the picture a tad bit. Even if they were open, who would dare to overland in the middle of the Sahel amidst jihadist insurgency these days?
Then, Coup d’etat in Mali! My next destination was in headline news again.
No one, except me, seemed to be heading to Mali. The Malian Embassy in Nouakchott was empty and the visa process was one of the fastest on record: one hour, and zero bribe necessary. The plane and the airport were eerily vacant. I was only asked for my PCR test and yellow fever certificate. A surprisingly smooth landing.
My Malian friend lives in the suburb of Kati, five minutes away from the largest military camp in Mali where the new president lives. “Wherever there’s a coup d’état, the road is blocked,” she warned me on the first day. Luckily, there was only a foiled assassination attempt on the day of Eid and a downed Mirage jet up North, nothing more dramatic… I was counting my days out, in expectation of the next coup. But where to next…?
It is rainy season in West Africa. Half of the region is submerged in water and 98% of the roads are broken. Every evening, anopheles mosquitoes await patiently for a feast of my thin thighs. It would not be ideal to end such a grand trip fallen by malaria! Maybe it’s time to head back to Europe. But the delta variant is wreaking havoc and infections are rising once again…
Is country X open or closed? It was open till now… Quarantine? I don’t know! Or, you have a villa somewhere with a nice desk? Let me know!
After a year of adrenaline-filled pandemic travels, it’s time to leave Africa! Covid has finally caught up with the continent, bringing its fragile health system to its knees, triggering angry protests, toppling governments. Where are the vaccines? Yet another global health inequity story, deja vu?
I had my fair share of rainy seasons in Vancouver, so the choice between sunny, gorgeous islands and wet West Africa was not hard! On the anniversary of my departure from Canada, I booked a one way ticket from Bamako, Mali to Praia, Cape Verde via Dakar, Senegal. Easy exit, or so I thought!
Mali being an insecure country, only connecting flights were allowed, with minimum transit time to reduce risk. I spent the night at the airport, waiting for my flight that finally showed up nine hours later, shortly before six in the morning. Lucky still, just in time to catch my onward flight to Praia at 9am, I consoled myself.
In the Dakar airport, two crowds were gathering in the same departure gate for Praia, one for the cancelled flight the day before and the other for my connection. It was total chaos as to who would board which flight. Lo and behold, at 11am, the first group took off, and our long wait began. At 5pm, Air Senegal agents finally showed up to inform us we would be spending the night at a hotel. For 24h, there was zero information from the airline, until all of a sudden everyone was herded into a coach heading to the airport for a flight leaving at 7pm. Half of the passengers’ Covid PCR tests had expired by then, and Praia airport authority was adamant in NOT letting them in. Tears, stress, drama…
It took three days to reach Praia! It was not easy to enter Africa; harder still it was to leave. What a luxury to travel these days! Every arrival is a mini-miracle! But Cape Verde is a gem, well worth all the trouble. I immediately eased into the naturally slow island rhythm to recuperate from the ordeal until I met Adrian, a medic and traveler from Berlin who spent seventeen days on the island of Santiago because all the ferries were full…
I hadn’t had to book anything in advance for almost the entire year, thanks to Covid. But this was August and Cape Verdeans – including the vast diaspora packed with dollars and euros – flocked to their beloved islands. The idea of spending a month in Praia alone was un-appealing, so I ran off to the ferry office and, using an improvised mixture of English, French, Spanish, and baby Portuguese, booked all my tickets to seven islands. My bouquet finale to a year of absolutely crazy travels across Africa: idyllic island hopping!
#365d on the road, teaching, traveling, photographing, and blogging full time. 50,000km, 18 flights, 16 nose swabs, 10 countries, 9 currencies and a tower of babel, 2 vaccine jabs, a broken knee and a broken lens, 10,000 photos, lifelong memories, boundless gratitude, ∞ happiness…
Thank you for accompanying me along this incredible journey, far and near…!
#ontheroad #minimalistliving #capsulewardrobe #solowomentraveller #documentaryphotography #weliveonlyonce #heartfilledwithgratitude
AND a year of summer, or what the Ethiopians say, 13 months of sunshine!!! If only you know what that means for a Canadian!
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Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic
To traverse Africa in times of a pandemic – with a camera – is to bear witness to multiple temporalities, beginning by leaving one’s own time zone, timescales, and timespans. If the Western self is obsessed with marking time, one can hardly find a better place to rescale and retime than in Africa. After all, the continent is marked by deep time, shaped not only by cycles of geological sedimentation and erosion, but also through processes of ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and, inevitably, transnational time.
Africa is old, Africa is young. She inhabits faith, she lives doubt. She is memory and amnesia, identity and invisibility, modernity and convention. The pandemic only adds an additional temporal frame to accentuate existing socio-political and economic fault lines. A continent in flux.
Time, however slow it is, is rather tiresome. Time means growth, evolution, to become, to achieve, to learn, to change… You sat there watching for what seemed many days, many years, many centuries… But that which has no time cannot be measured by words… To end attachment without time and motive, that is dying while living.
Through ten photo essays, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic brings to readers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.
5. On Board My Love: Mozambique
7. The Old Towns of The Gambia
8. The Last Great Oases in Mauritania
9. The Dying Art of Puppetry in Mali
10. Cape Verde: Islands of Temptations
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan