For three months, a few colleagues and I travelled across West Africa discovering the many things that bind us together... alongside Jollof Rice.
Since before we can remember, people have travelled across West Africa looking for grain, glory, god, and gold. Last year, I joined them, travelling with a small group of colleagues - two women, three men, and a ubiquitous black bus as the sixth - for adventure and stories. Who were we to ignore the call of the road? One question drove us to this journey: Jollof Rice travelled across West Africa from Senegal, but what else travelled? Culture, politics? How have people navigated the region over the decades? We called our trip the Jollof Road, because as silk travelled down the Silk Road, so did other things.
And so, this trip took us from Lagos, along the West African coastline, to its westernmost city Dakar. The journey back home saw us return via the landlocked countries, re-entering Nigeria through its ancient Sokoto in the North, bringing the entire stretch of road covered to over 10,000km.
"Bring your passport or National ID"
The first thing you realise travelling across West Africa is that it's a country of sorts.
Beyond being an economic community by way of the regional bloc ECOWAS, it's a cultural conglomerate that ridicules the colonial borders that divide it. Every city reminds you of another you've just been to in the region. There are Fula in Guinea, just as there are in Nigeria. People speak Ewe in Francophone Togo and Anglophone Ghana. Most of the food is the same. Banga in Nigeria is Palm Butter in Liberia. Cassava Bread in Waterloo, Sierra Leone, tastes like any Nigerian Garri. Mud Cloth in the markets of Mali reminds you of Adire in Aso Oke, Southwest Nigeria. And then, there's Jollof Rice, the spicy dish for friendly banter and communion across the region and wherever there are West Africans across the world. You enter a new country, you see a new version.
But there are borders, anyway. From border to border, in varying accents of English and French, and once in Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau, someone is going to ask you about your passport.
Entering the Gambia via its border with Guinea-Bissau, your bag will be checked for everything from guns to drugs and endangered animals. It's kind of expected when you realise that Guinea-Bissau is an actual narco-state. In Togo, a white man is directed straight into the immigration office, while you wait in line with over a dozen black people. Nobody reacts. In Sierra Leone, someone shyly asks for a bribe. At Côte d'Ivoire's side of its border with Ghana, they ask for your yellow paper, a small document with a record of vaccinations. They ask for your mission in their country and where you'll be staying, as officers at any border would.
But I had my own question. There were less than a dozen trucks in a place that looks like it was designed to hold dozens more.
"Is the border always this scanty?" I asked an officer, a slight dig at the sparsely filled border post.
"It's your Seme Border that caused it," he said.
In 2019, the region's biggest economy, Nigeria, partially closed its border to trade at only a few months' notice. For a country with more companies grossing over $500 million per annum than the rest of West Africa combined, closing this border arbitrarily hurt many. With little time to prepare, one government's directive created a logistical nightmare that rippled across the region. West Africa remains one of the world's least industrialised regions. That means people travel for small trade and, in some sense, small opportunities wherever they find them. It's not leisure, it's survival.
On the Jollof Road, there's love and God
Alongside searching for better economic fortunes, people search for God.
For instance, people across West Africa and beyond travel to Kaolack, Senegal, for a religious pilgrimage every year. This pilgrimage is mostly made by members of the Tijanniyyah Tariqa, the largest Sufi Order in the world.
"I've been coming here for the past 10 years," Abdul, a man I met at Kaolack told me.
Every year since 2010, Abdul has made the five-day journey by road from Lagos to Kaolack. The bus convoy he travelled in when I'd met him had ferried over a thousand people. My paternal cousin made the trip to Kaolack from London less than a decade ago. There's also the possibility that my maternal grandfather did too, my only evidence for this being a photo his children keep close where he's shaking hands and smiling with a man about his age. That man is Ibrahim Niass, a revered figure of the Tijanniyyah Tariqa. You'll find his white-beard face on Danfo buses in Lagos and motorcycles across Bamako, northern Nigeria and Senegal where he was born and lived for most of his life until his death in the 1970s. Niass himself travelled along the Jollof Road and married Sayyida Bilqis, an Ebira woman from Kogi State in Nigeria. This type of inter-marriage wasn't a rarity.
Some people travelled the Jollof road for love.
In Lome, Togo, we found a fascinating woman named Femi. "I have no idea [what it means]," she told me about her name. "My dad named me Femi because he likes Femi Kuti so much." Femi Kuti is the son of the Nigerian Afrobeat legend, but this Femi I'd just met has a Malian father and a Togolese mother.
In a market in Dakar, we found a woman who'd previously married a Nigerian man. In Monrovia, we found Christiana, a woman who left Liberia as a refugee in 1990 and returned with the love of her life, a Ghanaian man named Kodjo.
Like Christiana, many people travel because they're fleeing for their lives.
In the last 30 years, West Africa has seen over a dozen conflicts. The region, accounting for the largest bloc of the 25 poorest countries in the world, is both a cause and effect of this instability. Conflict, without doubt, has played a major role in how people have traversed the region. According to the UNHCR, over 2.5 million people are internally displaced here.
One of them is Ibrahim. In 2012, Tuareg rebels declared independence in northern Mali, leading to full-blown conflict. "I be Tuareg," Ibrahim told me in Lagos, where he's lived for over six years working security jobs or selling water in jerrycans, or both. "But my people no follow them. Our own Tuareg na black. Them no black, so them go suffer us."
It was my first lesson in the politics of skin colour in West Africa, had over spiced tea in a street corner. The conflict drove his family to Niger for fear of their lives; then him to Lagos, for fear of poverty.
Fifty years ago, a Nigerian was making his own trip for his life - Odumegwu Ojukwu, the leader of short-lived Biafra following over two years of conflict and 2.5 million deaths. Instead of on the back of a lorry like Ibrahim, he left in a plane and arrived in Abidjan. Till this day, there's a place in Abidjan called Biafran Quarters.
The kindness of and disappointment in strangers
In the 80 days we spent on the road travelling across the region, we touched down in every ECOWAS country except for Cabo Verde, which can only be reached by ship or air. In that time, we crossed borders almost weekly, never staying long enough to absorb the zeitgeist, but the time though short was filled with food, warmth and the kindness of strangers.
In Koumbia, a remote town in Guinea, Ahmed kept his shop open for two extra hours just so we could charge our phones - we couldn't find a hotel, so we slept in the bus. In Ghana, it was Moshood inviting us to an Independence Day party organised by a Ghanaian for Nigerians; because "one love". In Abidjan, it was our friends at Comptoire De Artisans with stories and hot Ivoirian chocolate. In Bamako, another stranger opened his home to us so we didn't have to spend on hotels. For an entire week. Monrovia will always be memorable because Dournard cancelled his entire schedule for a few days to give us a taste of the spice and soul of the city.
Not to say the entire trip was rosy.
In just about every country, my female colleagues faced harassment and misogyny. It was the policeman at the checkpoint in Côte d'Ivoire asking to speak to the man, despite Tosin, a woman, being in charge of logistics. It was the policeman in Ghana with his lewd joke and the border officials who always felt the need to touch. It was us standing under the Renaissance monument in Dakar saying, "this city is so beautiful and peaceful", while Toke, who was in a cab on her way back to the hotel was getting sexually harassed. It was the teenage boys making lewd jokes at that waterfall in Mann.
It felt like Lagos. It felt like many places - the misogyny was the same.
Something else remained consistent: Jollof Rice and the constant argument over who had the best.
Jollof Rice across West Africa felt to me like two giant magnetic fields, with Thieboudienne - the original Jollof - being more popular in Francophone countries, and Jollof Rice more popular in the Anglophone countries.
Thieboudienne is generally about more - potatoes, fish, carrots, and vegetables. We found the best one in Saint Louis, the town in Senegal where the creative Penda Mbaye first created this recipe that has now become one of West Africa's biggest cultural exports.
Jollof Rice, especially Nigerian Jollof, is about less. Every time we made a strong point about the quality of Nigerian Jollof, someone reminded us that we didn't have enough electricity in our country.
Perhaps, it's the one thing we'll never be able to resolve. But if you ask me which country in West Africa has the best Jollof Rice, I'll take a deep breath and look at my Nigerian passport.
Fu'ad Lawal has a lot of enthusiasm for a lot of things, but most especially for stories and the people that carry them. He's currently stuck in Lagos where he's Editor-in-chief at Zikoko.