Wednesday 14 August 2013

Jali : French in West Africa

Dear Jali,

Thanks for your letter.  You asked two questions: did you go through any really complete searches at borders?  And, how it would be without French through West Africa?

For the first question, I'll talk about our crossings by vehicle, the last of which was from Liberia to the Ivory Coast, when our original route had to change.

Full-on border inspections were rare.  At about half of all crossings, both on exit and entry, the Douane or Customs official merely peeked in, and maybe had me open the back door.  Luckily, our back door was constantly jammed, so usually they just looked inside through the other doors, saw our mountain of stuff piled on top of the bed, gave up and let us go.

Only two borders were at all thorough.  One was entering the Gambia, where a health inspector asked if we had any medical supplies.  When we said yes, she asked to see, and we pulled out out waterproof bag of bandages, painkillers, hydration tablets, antimalarials, etc.  She went through virtually every item in the bag, and wouldn’t tell us what she was looking for.  We weren’t carrying anything illegal, I suppose, so she let us go with a ‘huff’ of disappointment.

The most thorough search of all was entering Senegal from Mauritania.  This may have just been our bad day, but the Douane official looked at everything, shifting through the items inside the truck, and getting on top to see what was in our roofbag.  He asked us what everything was, and our answers were satisfactory: the books were for work, the Scuba kit for work, the camping supplies for living, the food for eating, etc.  He didn’t actually pull everything out, but it would certainly have been a risk to get by his watch with stuff we didn’t want to have seen.

That being said, I doubt even he wouldn’t have cared if he found something illicit or necessary to declare at Customs.  He might have asked for a bribe if he didn’t like our story.  If you encounter such a rare thorough inspection, I suggest you tell a good tale, and if they don’t like it, be prepared to pay a little.  Whatever you are asked to pay, though, ask for a receipt with name, date and signature, and there’s a good chance they’ll just back off.

Now, to your second question.  Though I suppose it isn’t impossible, getting through West Africa without any French would be extremely difficult.  The vast majority of people, and a slightly smaller but still huge majority of officials, do not speak or understand English, let alone other non-African languages.  If you were traveling overland by buses and/or trains, this might be a little easier.  But with your own wheels, I quite frankly don’t know how it could be done.

There are two big problems in having no French.  First of all, the ‘French’ in French West Africa doesn’t just indicate language, but bureaucracy as well.  The one uniting feature of our drive from Morocco to the Ivory Coast was being stopped by the police and gendarmes.  In Morocco they occasionally wave you down to inspect your papers; in Mauritania you start to see roadblocks, and by the time you get to Guinea, they’re pulling you over at every intersection – for money, of course, once they see the foreign licence plate.  It helps to feign not understanding French, because the corrupt officials will get frustrated and let you go.  But most of the time, they have questions, and not having any answers (or, not having any answers they can understand) means being pulled over for interrogation, searches, dirty looks, you name it.  This applies even to application forms, some of which (like Guinea) seem deliberately cryptic in order to piss non-francophones off. 

This first problem is exacerbated at embassies, government offices and borders, which you’ll need to visit for a variety of reasons.  It’s one thing to feign ignorance to language to get out of a scam-art pull-over; but it’s another thing altogether when you need to form a cohesive argument to save money, or even be let into a country.  I can’t tell you how many times we needed to spend 15 minutes explaining in broken French why the carnet was indeed valid, or why our passport stamps were actually for this or that country, why we shouldn’t have to pay ten times the stated amount for a visa – or a dozen other things.  If we had no case (or no words to make the case), we would have been stuck with some damn frustrating results.

The second problem with having no French involves everyone who is not an official.  We did not use GPS, and because there are practically no road signs across all of West Africa (even in Morocco they’re sparse), we had to ask constantly for directions.  And these directions were rarely straightforward, and never in English.  Also, if you need to see a mechanic or order parts, there is only so much which can be communicated through body language and a few token words.  This is particularly important if you’re ordering parts or need to arrange something specific.  An oil change might be easy (the word is vidange), but a steering fluid leak and worn-out shocks?  That was tough for us; I can’t imagine what it would be like without some French.

The smaller things – booking a campsite, ordering food, shopping in the market, or just meeting new people besides fellow travelers – might add up to some frustration and never getting what you actually want, but these obstacles are much more surmountable.

So, driving overland without knowing any French?  Not impossible – but by the end of it you’ll come out with a very sore head, some good stories, a lighter wallet, and most definitely, a better understanding of French than when you started.  Please take all this with a grain of salt, however.  By no means do you need to be fluent, or even that comfortable.  I’m not suggesting you spend months in French courses or conversation groups, or that you buy a copy of Rosetta Stone.  I’d say that just a few weeks memorising and practicing the basics (greetings and formalities, sure, but don’t forget numbers, motor vehicle parts, technical terms, etc.) could transform a procedural gauntlet into the voyage you would prefer it to be.

Hope this helps,