All of these pictures are property of Eric Thibodeau and may
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Page 1- African Roadsigns Page 2- African Bumpers
Life in Africa? It's
Not Easy. But if you combine quirky West
African culture and
a warped sense of humor like mine, the 'Dark Continent' suddenly becomes the
the 'Dark Humor Continent'. Here are pictures of some of the funny, strange,
and downright disturbing things that I have seen throughout my travels here.
Public Transportation- Also
known as 'whatever gets you there'. Pickup trucks fill the bed with bodies,
while one guy sits and
collects money. American school buses have the seats ripped out and become 'standing room only', and trailer trucks fill up their
back with passengers. The truck at right had so many people crammed into it, they were literally hanging out of the back. When
the truck lurched forward to begin it's journey, half a dozen people started to fall out, and were quickly grabbed by the others in
the truck. And that's how they traveled, bumping along the road, being held in by the other passengers so they wouldn't fall out.
You can always squeeze another dozen or so onto the roof, too. Riding on a flatbed 60 mph down the highway? No problem here.
Riding The Bumper- When everywhere else is full, just step on the bumper and grab hold. The taxi at right was going 70 mph!
You Might Be In West Africa If...There's A Goat In The Taxi-
At least he's not in the front seat. And if no taxi is available...
However, If There's a Coffin In The Taxi- You are most definitely in West Africa. I followed this taxi bus for ten minutes
trying to get a good picture, but never did find out out if the coffin was 'full'. If it was, at least he wasn't riding in the front seat.
Let's Stop For Gas-
'Fuelgas' can be purchased from either electric pump or, more commonly, by
the gallon/liter in places like
'In God We Trust' Filling Station. Buy it in larger quantities and the attendants will fill your tank using 5 gallon buckets. Buy by the
gallon, and you can expect mayonnaise jars (which allow you to see if there's any water added) to be used. Below you see a filling
attendant getting a good flow started. He probably makes about $3/day, hardly enough to cover treatment for inevitable Benzene
poisoning. Africans purchase fuel as needed, usually a gallon or two at a time. When a gallon costs an average daily wage, you'll
have thieves sucking it right out of your tank. The relief workers solve this by buying gas caps that lock. Africans just buy less gas.
It Ain't Pep Boys- Still, you do what you have to. Here's a garage built out of automobile hoods & doors pounded flat
and welded together. As almost everything in West Africa is imported, high costs prohibit using anything other than wood
or cement when building. Metal is especially expensive and used only as tin roofs. Luckily for this garage owner, there's no
shortage of vehicles around that have been run to death, then stripped and abandoned. With a little ingenuity and patience
you can have yourself a building. All you really need is a competent welder, though an incompetent one will do in a pinch.
If you're short on materials, head down the street, where all the parts you need are on display and available for purchase.
On The Job- You're never short of manpower in Africa, and never short of the need for it, either. The truck at left employed
a guy whose sole job was to sit on top of the trailer with stick and lift up the powerlines as they approached them. I shouldn't
need to point out how ridiculously dangerous this is, but the alternatives are having your truck knock down all the powerlines
as you drive or just not to drive at all. I'd be curious to see what would happen should the truck pass by the building at right.
And Off It- Devoid of the
fancy 'sleeper cabs' you'll find in the West, complete with A/C, TV,
and GPS Tracking, African long-haul drivers make an art out of sleeping arrangements. Cots
are set up under trailers, mosquito nets hung, or sometimes a blanket is tied up for a make-
shift hammock. This also allows them to keep a closer eye (and ear) on their trailer and cargo.
On The Road Again- With gas
prices what they are, you have to make your money when you drive. Cars and
have every square inch taken up with some sort of cargo. Any room left over is available for sitting, even if it's on top of
a poorly loaded stack of charcoal, held in place by old string. When you combine bad roads, worse vehicles, and unsteady
roads, the potential for disaster is high. It takes just one well-placed pothole to spill your load all over the road. You'll find
yourself stacking it all over again. However, if all you have to transport is a washing machine, a motorcycle should suffice.
Some Random Misery- African ingenuity is fascinating. Devoid of the fancy tools and labor-saving gadgets (such as tire jacks) we take
for granted, they always make do, usually with just a few sticks and a handful of rocks. When their cars break down (quite often, as you
can imagine), they eschew store bought traffic cones by simply grabbing clumps of the three-foot high grasses that grow along the side
of the road and plopping them down a distance away to forewarn oncoming cars of their predicament. That's assuming they actually pull
over to the side of the road. All too often, they either start fixing their car where it's at ( taxi passengers get conscripted into waving the
oncoming cars around), or just start pushing down the road, oblivious to the growing traffic jam behind them. It's a tribute to the strong
community ties in Africa that if (or rather, when...) a car stalls, anyone in the immediate area will begin pushing to give it a jump-start,
and the picture at bottom left is one of the most common you'll see. Of course, kids always have their pick of abandoned cars to play in.
Wooden Truck- Is your truck so old it's rusting apart? No
worries-get some wood and build yourself a new one. This one is a marvel
of engineering, with drawer handles filling in as door handles, a sun visor, sliding doors on the sides, and even a door built in the back
of the cab (in case he locks himself out, I guess). I'm curious to see what will happen when the hood & front of the cab need replacing.
Crime and Punishment- Plenty
of the first, not as much of the second. Less amusing than macabre, criminals that are caught are
often beat to death by an angry mob right there on the street. The dead man at left was caught stealing a cellphone in a busy market
in Monrovia the day after Christmas. In a 'village-based' culture, thieves (or 'rogues') are considered one of the lowest forms of life,
and Africans have little patience for such people. It's not uncommon for the body to lay there a while to serve as a warning to others,
and this one lay by the side of a busy road for three days. With a corrupt judicial system and criminals allowed to buy their way out
of prison, I can sympathize with the population and their turning to such drastic measure to combat thievery. Still, mob violence isn't
the answer. Police forces are often not much more honest than the criminals they arrest, though things are improving. Liberia's police
force is beginning to receive more funding. If it continues, hopefully soon they won't have to ride around in the back of pickup trucks.
United Nations Mission In Liberia-
Liberia has over 17,000 troops in it, making it the largest deployment by
the UN in
it's history. You see their tanks, APC's and response vehicles all over the country, though less so now that things there have
settled down. Still, here's a few photos of UNMIL troops and vehicles in and around Monrovia. Driving a car or even a Land
Rover through a market in Africa is difficult enough- picture doing in in a tank! The picture at top right shows what happens
when one of the UN's 5-ton Armored Personnel Carriers meets Liberia's rainy season, and Liberia's bridges start washing out.
Along The Road- Here's a few things you'll see along the way. Ramshackle structures, the 'Ronald Reagan Institute', and plenty of
garbage. During the rainy season, you'll see no shortage of vehicles stuck in mud. This guy below center was buried up to the axles.
Even 'small small' rain turns Africa's red clay roads into a morass of car-eating quicksand. At right, with scrap steel always worth a
few bucks, and there being no shortage of it in West Africa, salvage is a lucrative business, as this cart with a old car half points out.
Goats in the road- All over
West Africa, there's goats in the road. Most of the time, they'll get out of the
way. Most of the time.
Traffic Jam, West African Style- When it's time for them to move the cows, just put it in park and wait for the traffic to cross.
Deaths in Ghana aren't announced in the
obituary section of the local paper, they're printed on posters and plastered
around the area the
deceased lived and worked. 'Small small' villages usually only had one or two hanging, while bigger cities such as Tema (where these are
from) would announce dozens at a time. The most curious thing about these death notices, which are invariably titled Home Call, Called
Home, or Transition, tell almost nothing about the deceased, save name and age. Left out is where they lived, what they did for a living,
organizations they belonged to, and even the manner of passing. Rather the entire poster is given over to naming 'who is going to be at
the funeral', including family & 'chief mourners'. I've posted an extra-large one at far right that you'll be able to read easily upon opening.
Signs advertising undertakers dot the landscape in Ghana. They usually have a picture of a corpse on them, and many of the undertakers
will double as wedding dressers, as you can see from the sign. On the left, 'Lover Boys' undertakers raise the funeral stakes by claiming
to 'Handle All Corpses, Including Chiefs & Queenmothers'. Their motto? Romans 10:13, which says "Whosoever shall call upon
the name of the Lord shall be saved." I don't know what's more bizarre, that this verse would be a "motto of choice" for an undertaker
or that undertakers actually feel the need to have a motto for their business. Funerals in Ghana last three days, from Friday to Sunday.
Fantasy Coffins- Originating
with the coastal Ga tribe, these carved coffins have become known throughout the
world thanks to features
on BBC, NPR, and a September 1994 article in National Geographic. I remember reading the article years ago, never imagined I see them
myself one day. The Ga believe that your afterlife 'home' should detail how you lived your earthly life, and the coffins reflect that. Coffins
will often reflect the deceased's' occupation (fish for fishermen, vegetables for farmers), or particular vice. Soda and beer bottles are fairly
common (and brand specific!). There's a lobster at left, along with a gun (for ex-soldiers), a couple of lions, a turkey, and a bag of flour.
Below you see a few specialty coffins. The crab is for a crab fisherman and the 'Air Canada' jet is most likely for an employee of that airline.
Tribal chiefs have traditionally gotten lions, though they've been switching to Mercedes Benz's in recent years. Mercedes Benz's are not only
a modern favorite, they are considered the most 'prestigious' of coffins. The license plate on the coffin must match the chiefs real Mercedes,
as well. Pastors will traditionally order carved eagles like the one below on the right. Eagles, they say, allow them to 'soar into Heaven'.
The coffins sell for about $500 locally, or $1500 for ones going overseas. Below you can see a cobra, a chicken, a duiker and a cell phone, the
newest style, carved for businessmen. We also saw Nikes, a Bic pen, ships, fish..and whatever the heck that is on the right. I've decided this is
how I'd like to be buried, and as soon as I figure out how to combine cajun food, a pint of Guinness, and Fenway Park, I'm ordering a coffin!
The miniature models you see below are urns used to store the ashes of cremations, and include a snail, a couple of
fish, a Coke, and a cigarette. I was told the cigarettes are made for employees of the local cigarette company and it
made me think. Imagine working for a tobacco company your whole life, smoking their brand of cigarettes, and dying
of lung cancer. Then, after you've been cremated, your ashes are stored forever in an little urn shaped just like a fake
cigarette marked like the brand you used to smoke. I don't know if that's poetic justice or just an overdose of irony....
Sports in Africa- Also known
as 'football'. Outside of an basketball court, sports here seems to consist of
football, or 'soccer',
as the yanks say. In West Africa, Matches are usually watched at neighborhood 'video clubs' that charge around 20-40 cents for
admission. The interior is a half-dozen benches lined up in front of a 19" TV showing the game via satellite, with the upcoming
matches advertised outside. Sort of a West African sports bar, when you think about it,...with potato leaves and rice instead of
buffalo wings, and one TV instead of twenty. When there's no match on , video clubs double as a local movie theater, showing
Nigerian soap operas and American films..usually cheesy straight-to-video action fare like 'Rogue Squad' or 'Sniper-Part Five'.
At right, you see a bunch of kids using an 'African Video Arcade'...basically, a handful of Nintendo's hooked up on the street.
Businesses, shops and taxis will be named after a favorite team or player. Here you see a 'Barbering Saloon' named for the Arsenal
Gunners, a small small shop painted to show support for FC Barcelona, and a cab for Chelsea, with Midfielder Frank Lampard being
the player of choice. Outside of occasional knock-off Yankees merchandise, American Teams aren't very prevalent in West Africa.
And of course, playing football is as popular as watching it. The quickest way to gather a crowd is to start a match. Below you see a
crowd following the match from atop an old shipping container, the Sierra Leonean Amputee football team, and a small field boldly
named after Manchester United historic stadium 'Old Trafford', which would be akin to naming your little league field 'Fenway Park'...