A filmmaker’s journey through the misconceptions of Western Africa and how he found himself

A donkey ride in West Africa

With non-refundable plane tickets, I was heading into the heart of West Africa during the winter of 2015 and the depths of the outbreak of the Ebola virus.  The looks on the faces of those I shared my plans with was an exasperated blend of shock, worry, and confusion.  The concern could not have been more misplaced as the trip I took was not only life changing but set my life on a new trajectory, a path to follow my passions.

I was a California transplant having moved from Germany to attend the University of Southern California for my MFA in Film Production.  Born in Heidelberg, I had family that spanned the globe. However, all along I assumed I had experienced all ends of the lifestyle spectrum and cultural diversity.  There was a small village not far from Heidelberg called Rainbach with a population of two hundred and a single traffic light for the entire village; to me, this was as rural as a population could get while cities like Berlin were the epitome of cosmopolitan.

I chose the United States for my education to become a part of the Hollywood movie scene; to live amongst the glamour and stars.  However Los Angeles is its own bubble and living in the concrete jungle proved to be other than what I had anticipated.  The bustle of life where career is most important left little to be desired in terms of social connections and community.  Having traveled as a child I could not fathom how I encountered people that had never even left the state of California.  My goal entering film school was to create a film of the reality of Africa.  After spending time in Los Angeles were capitalism and champagne are king it was time to put my feet to the ground and move forward with creating my film.

With the gears in motion, I visited travel doctors to begin the extensive process of immunization: medicines and vaccines against Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Rabies, Meningitis, a cocktail of Hepatitis shots, Polio, and anti-Malarial medicine.  With the number of aid workers and doctors returning to Europe and America showing symptoms of the Ebola virus there was a debriefing on quarantine procedures and how to track and record daily body temperature.

While still feeling the excitement of my pending trip, there was a shadow of doubt creeping in the corners of my mind from the over hype of health concerns.  But the day came for the flight to leave from Los Angeles, and after a short layover in Paris, a five hour flight brought us to Dakar, Senegal.  Applause erupted as we landed, the mood relaxed, the passengers eager to return home.  As we exited the plane we were directed to an X-Ray machine where our personal belongings were scanned before walking down a hallway to leave the airport.  As I left the airport I was swarmed by locals offering their services for a ride amongst the family members looking for their loved ones.  Driving through Dakar during the middle of the night was an invigorating introduction to the country and people, vendors were out selling their goods and food, casual conversations along the road enjoyed between friends.

Upon arrival at my friend’s home, I was greeted with a wonderful meal before getting ready to settle down after a long day’s travel.  After struggling fifteen minutes to properly hang the mosquito net around my bed, I dozed until five am the next day.  When I woke up I walked to the faucet to brush my teeth to find there was no running water. I later found out there was a water shortage in the town and residents needed to ration their needs with buckets of water.  While always a known fact, this was the first time I experienced the tangible reality of lack of an endless water supply.

As the trip began there was a list of places I wanted to see and experience. The first stop on the list I created was a trip to Île de Gorée, a major post for the West African slave trade. Along the Atlantic coast, a large mansion housed the wealthy traders while chaining those captured for slavery in overly crowded rooms as if they were wild animals.  To step inside a piece of solemn history, to be in the shoes of a slave staring out at the mass ocean knowing any day you would be taken away, is a life changing experience.  In the afternoon I had the honor of playing drums with local artists in a ritual creating spiritual music in remembrance of those who came before.

Another trip I needed to take during my time here was a visit to the country of Gambia.  The journey into Gambia turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.  Even tour guides from Senegal were reluctant to travel across the border lines due to political unrest.  I wanted to see the capitol Banju and through persistence I found a tour guide willing to take me through Gambia.  So at four a.m. the tour guide picked me up and we began the drive to the city of Thies where we would board the Barra ferry to take us to the Toubakouta.  The ferry ride down the river was one of the most beautiful scenic routes I have ever encountered, five hours witnessing the beauty that is the landscape of Senegal. After the ferry and travel we arrived at the border town of Karang.  We walked into a small hut where a single military officer stood behind an antiquated register.

All entry documents were logged by hand, stapled, and filed for records.  In the middle of the hut stood a lone cell for those who broke the law.  The languages spoken were English (the official language of Gambia), French, and Wolof, a beautiful native language.  After explaining my reasons as a filmmaker and interest in history, we got out written approvals for entry and passports back and proceeded down the road.  Facing several military checkpoints, each time we were stopped and questioned and each time I was asked what military faction I belonged in.

It took until the last checkpoint where the officer explained it was my dress; while in the United States and Europe camouflage is a fashion statement, in Gambia I would need to find something less attention grabbing to wear. Arriving in Essau, I found a pair of blue jeans to wear and we bought out tickets to the ferry and squirmed our way through to find a place to stand.  The ferry was filled to the brim with cars, customers, vendors, and livestock, anything that needed to be brought to the capitol.  Men stood below the deck with buckets scooping out water seeping in.  Despite being the obvious outsider, I never felt out of place or without welcome amongst the Gambian people.

Our next passport check came upon exiting the ferry where we were pulled aside and had our personal belongings checked.  After being asked if I was a spy I explained I was a filmmaker and here to study the history of the subjects I wanted to make a film on.  Their interest peaked and we talked about action films, Hollywood, and acting while waiting for our passports to clear.  Soon we were ready to explore the capitol for the day and at its end began the trek back to Senegal.  Upon reaching the first military checkpoint the officer immediately recognized us, smiling at the sight of my blue jeans and allowed us quick passing. Back in Dakar, my friend and their family welcomed us with a large meal when finished I fell asleep quickly. When I awoke the next morning, I recapped our travels and stories and was touched to hear the family ask why I had not said goodbye before leaving.  It is a Senegalese custom to say goodbye each time you leave the home and I truly felt a part of their family and culture more in that moment than the rest of the trip.

A donkey ride in West Africa

The list of places to visit was dwindling down as the trip approached the end of its time.  I took a trip to Lake Retba, the pink lake of Senegal known for its pink color and high enough salt content that swimmers cannot sink.  Walking around town I found one last gift; a young boy taught me how to ride a donkey and then let me borrow his as I took a short ride to say my final goodbyes to a place I had begun to fall in love with.  After arriving back in Los Angeles I was quickly whisked away by customs officials, proudly displaying my gazelle statue, to not only see what items I had declared but to see if I had been recording changes in body temperature and if I had exhibited any symptoms of Ebola.  I was cleared of any suspicions and was able to gather my belongings and leave.  It was the end of my first African adventure and the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

The richness of people and culture, the remarkable history and tradition, the untouched and beautiful landscape; they are all what makes the diversity of Africa incredible.  The sense of community I felt when learning new cultures was palpable and provided me the essence of a new understanding of the world. You can’t take the material with you but what remains till the very end is you knowledge, your memories, and your experiences you have gained throughout your life.  There are so many things I took for granted before this trip: free flowing water, unlimited electricity and heat, and access to adequate health care.  And this inspires my continued travel.

I have planned my next extended trip to Africa to visit Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. In Ethiopia I hope to visit Lalibela and travel the Omo Valley to meet local tribes such as the Hamar; to experience living within the valley without the luxury of modern conveniences. While in Kenya, I will explore the beautiful parks and experience the rich beauty of the natural landscape and hopefully visit Maasai tribes.  Heading south to Tanzania, I will climb the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro and take the view from the top.

The opportunities Los Angeles has afforded me in terms of a base for a career are wonderful but the life lessons I learned on my first trip are the lessons I wish to build a life on.  The passion and strength of the people share the message of community now more than ever. Set down the gadgets, take your weekends and vacations, and spend time conversing with you community.  Spend time with loved ones, find yourself in nature, and plan the trip to change your life.