West Africa -- in (slightly) better times

Peggy Farren 2014-10-06

Before the Ebola outbreak, photographing Sierra Leone & beyond

Tom Tracy

It might not be exaggeration to imagine that no one you or I know will ever again breezily visit one of the most vibrant and photogenic swaths of the African continent.

Think about that: an entire chunk of Africa that until recently was a significant host to all sorts of tourism, cultural and musical-roots immersions and safari/photo adventurers is now, and could well remain, an off-limits catastrophe zone for years to come.

Before this historic Ebola outbreak caused such a dire situation in West Africa, a particularly mean civil war in Sierra Leone and its neighboring states had run its course. It was the setting for 2006 film “Blood Diamond” with Leonardo DiCaprio.

After the Sierra Leone civil war was brought to a close through peace agreements, I had a chance to document a small humanitarian delegation and two-week educational tour through that country as well as Guinea, Senegal, Gambia and again later on with separate tour in Ghana and Burkina Faso -- all now in and around the West African hot zone of the 2014 Ebola crisis.

All of these countries are in one way or another richly visual, and representative of the best of African landscape, wildlife, culture, tribal life and traditions, as well as home to a universe of great music and African drumming. (Drum circle enthusiasts in Florida have traveled there just to shop for and study the West African drum.)Africa guitar
drum circle

I have always thought it was a real treat to have visited this region as opposed to the more widely-known and photographed East Africa of Kenya (think Meryl Streep & Robert Redford). Probably that’s because it’s less developed in West Africa but still English-speaking in many places.

It was around the time of my Africa travel that I started getting some real benefit from what has since expanded into an open membership at CANON PRO SERVICES (CPS), the fee-based program that enables members to request a loaner camera or lens for special projects for a period of a week or two.Canon EF 50mm F1.0

For better or for worse, the hefty, now discontinued Canon EF 50mm f/1.0L USMwas my CPS companion in Africa. Imagine, an F.1 lens, and shot with Kodachrome slides and other films scanned to digital after being run through multiple airport X-ray machines in Europe on the way back!

Ironically the first place I got my hands on a digital camera was in Sierra Leone: one of the aid agency’s staffers there lent me a bulky Kodak digital camera that allowed us to send photos of war amputees back to Florida via dial-up internet connection. However cool that was at the time, I didn’t personally revisit digital photography for another six or seven years.

West Africa, usually arrived at through hubs like Paris or Brussels, is generally associated with the old European slave trade, and therefore the ancestral home of most African-Americans in North and South America. Our tour of the region included a brief stop at the Goree Island slave house/museum off the coast of Senegal (the film reference in all of this would be Steven Spielberg's 1997 “Amistad”).

The people there are nowadays Christian, Muslim and African animist, or some blend of at least two of those religions. They were thoroughly welcoming and dressed in saturated, colorful fabrics; they were not particularly camera shy.Africa8

It is also true that the region is very poor and undeveloped -- it struck me that roads were often nothing more than a well-trod path “through the bush,” connecting village to village and requiring a sturdy vehicle like a Toyota Land Cruiser. Not an ideal situation for managing a humanitarian crisis.

The former French colony of Senegal presented some breathtaking landscape and a Mars-red soil that soon coated our clothing. We were supposed to fly from the Senegal capital Dakar down to the region’s secondary capital, Ziguinchor, located in an off-the-grid region called the Casamance. Africa3

But the flight was canceled, so instead we took a slow, seven-hour ferry cruise down the Casamance River: a supremely peaceful, swampy river estuary lined with tropical birdlife, fisherman in traditional dugout boats and great kapok trees. Sometimes a transportation setback is a good thing. I hope Ebola doesn’t create a permanent setback for exploring West Africa.


~Tom Tracy is a writer, photojournalist and event photographer based in West Palm Beach. He has traveled extensively as a travel & religion writer. www.TomTracy.com

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