Thursday, July 11, 2013

Want to tour West Africa?

Want to tour West Africa?

You might need to go for weight-lifting lesson, learn some French and always pack enough coins to avoid starving


Melange: A popular dish at one of a dozen of restaurants in the neighbourhood of Chambre du Commerce, Cotonou, Benin Republic. Interestingly, at 1,500fCFA, this serving costs barely $3.
On the surface, it would seem that with some money, you should easily get served in any eatery; but, for an Anglophone sojourner in French-speaking West Africa things could assume peculiar twists of their own.

You do need money to buy food, but; in some parts of West Africa, having money is simply not enough. Yes, having money in your pocket is no guarantee you’ll always get food for the tummy in some parts of this world.

Shockingly, too; in the countries in question, the more money you have, the less likely you would be to find anyone to sell food to you! Welcome to Francophone West Africa, where change (monnaie) is a biting challenge.

And, it has been for decades. Former colonial rulers, France, bequeathed the name of the French currency, Francs, to Benin Republic, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger Republic, Senegal and Togo.

However, to distinguish the African equivalent from the French Francs, the common currency across Francophone West Africa is Francs CFA. Issued by Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (Central Bank of West Africa), this currency is usually denoted by FCFA or just F, and simply pronounced as say-fah.

Small, but powerful: 50, 100, 200 & 500 fCFA coins.
In any case, CFA Francs comes in notes and coins. The notes feature 500, 1,000; 2,000; 5,000 and 10,000 units; while the coins are of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 250 and 500 denominations. Whereas the 500 coin as well as the 2,000; 5,000 and 10,000 FCFA notes are never in short supply; all the other denominations are perpetually scarce.

As a result, the more money you have, the less likely your chances of being able to buy anything at all! At the current exchange rate, where 10,000F commands barely US$20 (N3,200) this means that 100F amounts to roughly 20 US-cents or a paltry N32.

Evidently, whereas say-fah coins are not really worth much in dollar or euro terms; the coins are nonetheless so powerful as to make the difference between going hungry and being able to buy something to eat. Now, dearth of coins or change is not the only thing to consider for the tourist hoping to buy something to eat in Frech-speaking West African nations.

Even when you have monnaie in abundance, there’s another matter to contend with. You sometimes wonder, if it might not be a good idea to advise any tourist coming this way to engage in weight-lifting exercises before setting out here.

The reason: There are hidden charges for anything you buy. Apart from cash exchanging hands, your payment (or punishment?) includes helping the hawker to drop her mobile shop from her head. And, the transaction does not end, until you’ve helped to lift the warehouse back on the woman’s head again. Exactement!

Moreover, for those that do not speak French, language can also be a problem. There is no doubt that Francophone travellers without comprehension of the Queen’s tongue also run into similar challenges, when they visit Anglophone countries in the sub-region.

Coming from Anglophone Nigeria, the tourist is familiar with Coke. Yes, Coca-cola is a universal brand. But, to French-speakers, Coke sounds Latin; somewhat strange. If you want a Coke, say Coca. And, Viola! You get served.

With the oatmeal called Quaker, the English speaker is worse off. Mention Quaker and the attendant is confused and could open the refrigerator and pull out a bottle of Coke for you.

Yes, this was my experience! So, if you want Quaker; you learn to say Kwark-eh! You’re order is understood. D’accord! If you want custard, this comes across as Koo-star! In Francophone West Africa, Lipton (pronounced Lip-TONN) seems the generic name for tea (the in French), while coffee is Kafe (like Car-fay).

However, some form of bread eaten in these parts is most likely to leave that classic lasting impression. For Ghanaians, Nigerians, Gambians, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans; Le Pain, the popular loaf across French-speaking West Africa couldn’t have been more aptly named. Pronounced Pain, for the uninitiated; Le pain is the classic pain in the mouth.

Fresh out of the oven, le pain is a bundle of crumbs. Painfully, Le pain litters one’s dress, the floor, table and everywhere as you attempt to eat. After barely 24 hours out of the boulangerie (bakery), le pain becomes tough, rubber-like; and you begin to wonder, if you were eating bread or attempting to chew-away at some pneumatic tyre.

But, one must give it to bakery operators across Francophone West Africa because their environment and surroundings trump most of what you’re likely to see in the English-speaking parts.

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