While Southern Africa is usually a more popular tourist destination, Tess recently explored and completely fell in love with West Africa.

Here are some highlights from her adventure:

Dozens of people surrounded the airport terminal exit, chatting, laughing loudly, pulsing with the rhythm of the night: this was my entrance late one evening into Accra, Ghana, and my first foray into West Africa.

I’d long dreamed of visiting the region. History, culture, and nature combine to influence the way of life there, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to see the colors, so bright and in dizzying patterns; I wanted to taste the coconut fresh off the tree; I wanted to feel the heat, nearly oppressive and yet giving life to the people that live there.

So rather than be stunned by the hubbub outside the airport, I embraced it with a huge grin and met my guide and driver. They whisked me away for an overnight stay in Accra before embarking on a 10-day road trip through Ghana, Togo and Benin.

Ghana as a whole struck a deep nerve in me. We first visited the Cape Coast and Elmina Castle, where the slave trade began. The incongruence is remarkable: you first see a beautiful white-washed castle on the edge of an immensely blue ocean, bathed in sunshine, but then realize the horrors that went on there during the slave trade. This part of the culture, however, cannot be ignored or overlooked; indeed it is partly what makes present-day Ghana such a symbol of peace.

My favorite cultural event in Ghana was the Akwasidae Festival, a celebration of the Ashanti people and chiefs. Akwasidae (ah-kwa-see-day) is a day-long procession of each Ashanti tribe, all trying to out do the others with grand fabric umbrellas, gold jewelry, and intricate embroidered garments. The Ashanti King is the last to enter with a symbolic golden stool. It’s hard to describe the exciting mix of mayhem and grandeur, but it ended up being one of the coolest cultural events I’ve attended.

In Togo, I was fortunate to attend a Fire Dance in the middle of the night in a remote village. The village elders drag gleaming hot coals along their arms, legs, chests, and even mouths! While the feats I saw were astounding, it was the local children that grabbed my heart. Their eyes lit with wonder as they watched the elders in their community perform, and their little feet could not stay still once the drum started beating. After the presentation, I took to dancing in the streets and the elders literally had to pull the kids off me. I have never seen such unrestricted joy, and it makes me smile to think of it even now.

As we bounced along the dirty, dusty, uneven roads, we often saw people walking along with bowls and baskets balanced on their heads. My guide introduced me to the Fulani people, a nomadic group who travels throughout the region. The Fulani people have a unique heritage from countries throughout West and North Africa. I was lucky to interact with a small homestead and taste their homemade cheese – delicious (though probably not pasteurized)! The Fulani have cattle that travel with them and they sell their cheese in local markets for income. The children again stole my heart and I have some absolutely wonderful “selfies” with them.

Continuing east, Benin brought its own flavor to my trip, mainly through the local religion: Voodoo. This religion is not how we think of it in America – no voodoo dolls or evil undertones. There is a lot of magic and wonder, but it is all about being an accountable and contributing community member. There were huge intricate costumes, representing the Voodoo spirits, that interacted with the community members. The energy during the ceremonies was electric, and none of it was put on for show – these are religious practices that communities partake in regularly.

By the time my trip was over, I was sweaty, dirty, tired… and yet totally invigorated by what I had seen and experienced.

My eyes have been forever opened by the history, the culture, and all the delightful people I met along the way. West Africa: not for the faint of heart, but an adventure like no other.

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