African border crossings

Corruption, bribes, hassle… hitch-hiking, bus, walking. There are many ways to cross a border in Africa, here is a small guide from my own experiences.

Morocco – Mauritania
You have to organize a visa at the embassy in Rabat, it takes 24 hours and cost 350 dirham, cash only. It is not allowed to walk across this border due to it being an old mine field, if you don’t have a car you need to organise a ride in Dakhla (about 400 dirham) or hitch-hike.

After two days of driving through the Western Sahara my mind was as relaxed as it could be, but still a small sting of nervousness hit me as we stopped by the ghost town (built by the Moroccan government for the Western Saharians who doesn’t want it) closest to the border. I was hitch-hiking with Viktor from Holland and he had done the crossing many times before. But still, my visa wasn’t valid yet.

To get the good bye stamp in Morocco was easy and without any hassle, then we had to drive across no mans land on a non marked out road, avoiding the soft sand which would get us stuck and causing a storm of people rushing to help us in exchange for money. What all those people were doing there between the borders? Viktor said they are luck-seekers and thieves, too lazy to work. One man waived at a car, pointed on some tracks asking the car to choose that way. The driver did. Two minutes later he was stuck in deep sand reaching the doors, and seven people ran up to help them dig after some hard negotiations on the price.

We drove through with no problems. Once on the Mauritanian side of the border the difficulties started. If Viktor wasn’t there with me I would have no clue where to go. He gave a man a bottle of perfume, another one some chocolate and water. He took me with him into a room with two officers, talked and smiled a lot, pointed out that they had nice computers while the Moroccan officers had only pens and paper. The men smiled back, stamped our passports and we were in.
If I had done that crossing myself, I imagine it would have been the worst experience ever. Be prepared if you go there with a car, have all your papers ready and be prepared to go through many doors, talking to lots of people and getting very confused before you can take your car with you. And practice both your French and your Arabic.

Mauritania – Senegal
Europeans don’t need to get a visa before hand and it’s free at the border.
I came with a taxi from Nouakchott, had no idea where to go but a guy from the Gambia took me under his wings and showed the way. It’s pretty close to where the taxis stop, and the exit is clearly marked. Once in the border-area walk to your right and a small office will be discretely marked out on your right hand side. Getting the stamp is without hassle and then all you have to do is wait for the free boat across the channel to pull in. Or pay a small fortune for one of the banana boats to take you across.

Once on the Senegalese side it’s easy to get through, though I had to wait a long time for the immigration officer to get to the office and a lot of people tried to push themselves in front of me in the line. By then my elbows had become pretty sharp though and I’ve learned how to keep my spot in line. Don’t be afraid to push, everyone else does it and so can you.
Just outside the border area some guys are selling sim cards and there is an office where you can buy air time. People with horses and carriages, taxis and bikers are all willing to get you a ride to the bus- and taxi station for a small amount of money.

Europeans don’t have to organize a visa before getting there, but it cost 50 US dollars and is only payable in cash.
Organization is not my strong side. I came by airplane and I did look it up, read that “Swedish citizens do not need a visa” but totally missed the paragraph saying you still had to pay for it before entering. I only had Senegalese CFA and my bank card, they accepted none of it. “You can come back tomorrow.” the one officer told me. “Tomorrow? I should sleep here tonight?” I said, pointed at the floor. The two officers looked at each other, shook their heads. “No, it’s not good.” the other one said. They would actually let me get into the country and come back the next day to pay, but I didn’t want to. I know myself, I wouldn’t come back and pay and I would have problems when getting out of the country.
Solution? My friend waiting outside came in and paid the fine.

Tanzania – Malawi
Free for Europeans, no need to get a visa in advance.
My favorite border crossing. From the taxi I paid a guy with a bike to take me to the border, we went fast down the hill and he pointed at the office where I would get my good bye-stamp. I walked inside the gates, got the stamp, went to the exchange bureau to exchange my money and then walked across the bridge. It was a nice walk, about 100 meters, under the bridge a wide brown river flowed and I felt a strong sense of freedom.
At the Malawian side it was just as easy to get my passport stamped. The only difficulty was to find a ride to Karonga, there was a bus leaving for Lilongwe and thinking about it now the bus probably made a stop in Karonga. Anyway, I paid for hitch-hiking and fell in love with the country and its rice plantations, green hills, bikes, bikes, bikes and lovely people.

Malawi – Zambia
Cost 50 US dollars, only payable in cash. No need to organize the visa in advance.
I was on a bus this time, and although I KNEW that I would need 50 US dollars to cross, did I have them? Of course not. I exchanged my Malawian money at the black market, borrowed some dollars from the friends I traveled with at the moment and eventually I had scraped the 50 dollars together. Yet another example of how I never learn.
This crossing is very easy, the bus stopped just by the offices on both sides of the border, there were people selling fruits and vegetables and drinks. In total it was a very peaceful and pleasant crossing.

Zambia – Zimbabwe
The visa is supposed to be free, but you still have to pay 50 dollars to get through. Only payable in cash.
This one is the easiest. I was with Alex by the Victoria falls and after the sunset we simply walked up to the office, got our stamps out of Zambia and walked towards Zimbabwe. It was about a kilometer to walk I believe, maybe longer, and we were told later on that one should never walk there at night since the monkeys can be pretty aggressive. We had no problems with animals though.
By the immigration office in Zimbabwe we had to pay for our visas, the officers were nice and happy (probably because we were too, although I nearly let a comment about African corruption slip through my mouth as we had to pay). We got our stamps with no fuss and caught a taxi to the hostel in the town of Victoria Falls.

Zimbabwe – South Africa
Free and easy.
In Zimbabwe our CS-host told us this is a Real African border crossing. He had never been to West Africa, obviously. Sure the ques were really long and it did take a very long time to get through, but it was very easy. All we had to do was to stand in line (except for Alex who had to prove that he’s from South Korea and not north) and get our passports stamped.

Conclusion: if you want an exciting border crossing, go to north west Africa. If you prefer it easy and smooth, go to southern Africa.


Like a celebrity

As we I stepped off the bus the taxi drivers, guides, sellers and other people all surrounded me, screaming, pushing, pulling, shouting… “where are you going? I take you anywhere!” “Come with me!” “Let me show you Lusaka!” “Taxi!?” “Come here ma’am!” and I got the feeling of being a celebrity, though the cameras had changed into taxis and whatever they have to offer.

It takes a while to get used to, and I totally lost my temper as a man in Lusaka told my friend that I was his wife. It was after that sixteen hour bus ride, low blood sugar, low energy level and all that suppressed annoyance suddenly escaped over my inner wall of patience and calmness. The men around us got the seriousness and urged him away. The next morning as we came back to catch the bus to Livingstone, I went to look for breakfast at the market while my friends got the bus tickets when I heard a voice in front of me. “You came back!” I ran. Or walked very hurriedly, sneaking in between some tables and behind a wall, shaking him off me. Why? I asked myself. Why does he have to be so … like that? I am not interested in talking to him.

Be prepared if you plan on traveling Africa and you are a foreigner to this continent. There will be a lot of hassle and people will be stubborn and uncaring about you. But, there will be even more people showing you love and true friendship. And saying no firmly will often get you more respect

Buying a Sim in Zim

Getting the simcard is very easy, putting it in the phone as well. But then, there is a small process of getting it registered taking place. Now this is not as easy.

First, there is this big room with ten different long lines of waiting. A man in a uniform points to different people with different enquiries to what line they should stand in. Once in a while there was a new line forming and an old one disappearing. He pointed me to the left.

As I get to the counter the man asks where my form is. I had to walk out, around the corner, down the stairs into a darker basement. Inside is a long line of tables, all with small lamps on them and pens. A stern looking man gave me two pieces of paper and asked me to “sit down here” pointing towards a chair. I didn’t feel like it, I would rather turn around and run away. But I did sit down and I did fill out the form.

Then, there was that long line again. The uniform-man recognized me and I was directed to the front. The man was happy as I handed him the forms, but there was one problem. As adress I had written my Swedish adress. “You need to be Zimbabwean recident.” he said with a dark voice. “Or at least have a Zimbabwean adress.” he said. I couldn’t tell him I was couch surfing, so I pointed up the road and said “well the taxi I came with came from there, I don’t think there are so many hostels around. It’s a back packers. Do you know it sir?” I asked. He shrugged, looked at his partner and back at me, then down at the paper again. Then I remembered I had writted down the name of a hostel in my notebook, I took it out and pointed at the words, “here, that’s the one. I don’t know which street, but it’s only one with the name sir.”

It was actually that easy. A lot of more smiling and a lot of more time, but eventually he changed my Swedish adress to the hostel and I got my simcard registered with the government. Just because someone came up with some law that all simcards have to be registered.

African Corruption

Chinese people can’t get convicted, because they pay the right people. If you have a successful company, the government takes it. It’s not all fair to say it’s African corruption, but it is Zimbabwean corruption.

The stories has been many the few days we’ve been here. If you have a successful company he government will, with support from the law, take 51% of it. If you get stopped for speeding you pay 10 dollars, to the police man. It goes on and on, the people get nothing and he government gets all it can take. The roads hasn’t got new asphalt for 20 years, now a Southafrican company has permission to renew some of the roads by telling the company that the government doesn’t have to pay anything, it’s all paid by tolls.
But even when someone wants to do something the ministers say, “what’s in it for me?” and if you say it’s for the peoples good, the minister will say “no, denied.”

Fucked up government? It surely is an interesting country.

the Country of three currencies

I paid with an American dollar, got two Southafrican rand and a Botswana pula in change. I walked out the shop and looked at the coins in my hand. The day after I was supposed to pay six rand for some fruit, I gave the woman a dollar and got two rand in return. “How does that work out?” I asked. “One dollar is eight rand,” I was told. Gosh, people here has a brain for maths. Using three currencies at once, luckily they are all some what stabile.

Gone are the days when you needed a suitcase of money to buy a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe, now the whole country legally uses American dollars. A currency that close-by Malawi are lacking and in a really big need of to get fuel into the country.

I’m amazed every day in this country, how we pay with one currency and get another one back. “It’s normal to us now, a lot more normal than the old local currency,” our host told us yesterday. Alex bought some 500 000 000 dollar notes in the Vic Falls, and I believe the highest note is fifteen trillion.

Hitch-hiking Zimbabwe

The sun became stronger and the heat more and more unbearable as we sat in the back of the buckie, with the roof surrounding us. Alex opened the back door and some fresh air hit us in the face. “I realize it’s a bit dangerous, but we need air.” he said as he held the door open. The buckie rushed along the bumpy road and we passed a series of trucks, cars and other buckies on our way to Bulawayo. The second largest city ion Zimbabwe.

We started the hitch-hike in the town Victoria Falls, and got a ride to the professional hitch-hiking spot by the turnoff to the hospital. There were tons of people there, we looked at each other and said “man, we are never getting a ride out of here!” So we started walking. At least five different people asked where we going, “Bulawayo” we said. They pointed to the bus behind us and shouted “that’s the one, you must get on that one!” “No, we’re hitch-hiking, thank you!” we shouted back. Five minutes later we were on the buckie to Bulawayo.

The car made lots of stops along the way, and we all got food and drinks from the small shop. Though I had to do with some bread and the dried fruit I had got in Victoria Falls because there was not really any vegetarian options. And I am so sick of chips. On our last stop before the city the driver came to the back of the car and said “ok guys the next stop is Bulawayo so you must pay now.” I stared at the man, was he serious? “But we’re hitch-hiking, why must we pay?” I asked. “Come on, just give as much as you want to.” the man said. The guy next to me got on after us, he paid ten dollars. So did we. It’s still almost half the price of the bus, but still. Hitch-hiking is supposed to be free now when the economy is ok, but that’s just my opinion.

Bulawayo is the complete opposite of what I thought it would be. It’s not dirty and sure it’s old, but it’s beautifully old. Colonial buildings undesstroyed and both paved roads and street signs. I could stay here forever.

A hitch-hike for money

He was going so fast down the hill I had to close my eyes and lean closer to him not to feel dizzy. “It’s Malawi!” he said. I opened my eyes, “what?” He pointed to the lush green hills in front of us, “it’s Malawi.”

I was awestruck. Somehow I had imagined Malawi as a brown country, not a country of green hills and forests but savannah and sparse vegetation. I was sitting behind him on his bike, my backpack on and my one hand holding the other small bag. He dropped me by the border post and it was the smoothest border crossing this far on my trip. After getting my exit stamp in Tanzania I walked across the bridge over the big brown river, and ten minutes later I had a 20 days visa for Malawi.

As I got my entry stamp a young man approached me. “You need taxi madame? I have shared taxi to Karonga, 500.” I was skeptical. “Where is your car?” He pointed towards the road. Another tourist asked the same question, and a white car came from Tanzania. The guy said “wait, wait” and ran up to the car. A moment later he came back, “that’s my car.” I stared at him, “is That your car?” “Yes madame, yes. Karonga? 500 kwacha.”

As I sat in the car I asked the driver, “are you his taxi? His driver?” The man turned around and looked at me, “No, I am my own.” he answered. “So I guess he lied to me then,” I turned towards the taxi-guy. “Yes he did.” the driver said while the guy frenetically talked to him in another language.
After picking up some more passengers we all headed off to Karonga. The driver worked for the UN in Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan and next he is going to the Ivory Coast.
It was awesome, I payed three euros for hitch-hiking, but at least I got a ride all the way to the hostel I was staying at.

On the way be passed one military checkpoint though. They did not want to see our passports or ID-cards, and our driver discretely payed one bribe to let us drive pass the other vehicles that were waiting.