The sun was brilliant, the people were a glowing mahogany and the terrain was so verdant that it looked unreal. It was my first glimpse of a foreign land, and the continent was Africa. In the more than 20 years since, I've traveled to nearly every other continent, but Africa still holds a special place in my heart. As a black American, I see it as the Motherland, the place of my roots, and I have returned again and again.
Yet I am constantly dismayed by the thick layers of misconception and ignorance that shroud this continent. Grossly misinformed, many Americans still have a "Tarzan mentality" -- a vision of Africa as a mostly primitive continent. This distorted image can mislead prospective travelers.
Compounding the confusion, not only are good guidebooks about Africa hard to find, but relatively little African tourism exists, and travel costs often are prohibitive. As a result, the average American traveler rarely considers Africa. And those who do often don't know what to expect or what to do once they arrive.
But as a veritable treasure trove for the adventurous, Africa should be high on the list of possible destinations for people who are interested in a continent that offers a unique blend of the old and the new. Africa is the cradle of humanity, where anthropologist Louis Leakey discovered the fossil remains of earliest humanoids; it is the site of one of the finest achievements of the pre-Christian era -- the splendid civilization of ancient Egypt. And it is a land of sophisticated restaurants and discos as well as modern museums -- such as the Muse'e National du Mali, which details the ancient civilization of Timbuktu -- that unfold history lessons that American schoolchildren don't learn in their books.
Because the continent is little known to the average traveler, diligence in self-education is useful before visiting.
Here is my list of the 10 most useful things you should know about traveling in Africa:
*Before you go, learn about the continent. Comprising 51 independent countries, Africa ranges from the Arab nations of Egypt and Morocco in the north, to the black nations of Kenya in the east and Nigeria and Ghana in the west, to the white-ruled nation of South Africa in the south. Moreover, each country has its own diverse culture and government.
Thus, while some people might be afraid to travel to Africa because of images of unstable governments or tribal wars, such fear is usually unfounded. What is happening in one country may be a continent away from another. The violence in Angola and South Africa, for example, has little effect on the Ivory Coast, where the citizens go peacefully about occupations that range from farming and manufacturing to the professions.
*Explore the diversity of the cultures. In just one country, Nigeria, there are three major ethnic groups, and more than 200 native languages are spoken.
In the past 100 years, much about the African people and culture has changed; yet in some ways, very little is different. On one hand, large urban areas have sprouted; many countries have strong centralized governments, some civilian regimes and others backed up by well-disciplined military forces; and communication and travel by plane, train and car has brought many of the peoples of Africa together.
Yet, the important structure of family, ethnic groups and traditional values that includes respect for the wisdom of old people remains intact. Moreover, 75 percent of the African peoples are still engaged in agriculture.
*Try to be aware of cultural nuances. For example, a Senegalese woman might take off a gold bracelet and give it to a newly met friend if the visitor simply mentions that she likes the jewelry. Butthe visitor should be aware that if the Senegalese resident turns around and compliments her diamond ring, she may be expected to reciprocate!
Meet the people. There is a saying that Africa is poor in materials but rich in spirit -- a reference to Africa's people, the continent's greatest treasure. But to meet them, often the visitor must go to the rural areas. On a recent trip to Kenya, I went on a fabulous overnight safari to Treetops, the game-viewing lodge built 30 feet up in trees in the heart of the Aberdare National Park, 50 miles from Nairobi. But I did not meet a single resident of Nyeri, the nearby town.
Determined to make some cultural contact beyond the guides who conducted the safari, however, I made a point of talking to the people who sold us art and jewelry in the shops and markets. Safaris are fine for photographing animals, I decided, but they don't often help in meeting the country's citizens.
*Be adventurous. Remember that a four-star hotel is fine, but it may deprive you of meeting the people. Moreover, don't go to Africa expecting all the comforts of America. One ex-teacher who went to Ghana thought the entire country was terrible because it did not have the same toilet paper she used at home.
On my first trip to Africa in the '60s, I was part of a program called "Operation Crossroads Africa," composed of American college students who lived and worked with African students (the Peace Corps was modeled after this still-thriving program). We found it a wonderful way to get to know the people, and because our group lived in tents for three months while we built a road for a rural children's hospital, we also learned to leave American expectations behind.
But while such basic accommodations and rigorous activity are not required to get to know the people, getting out of the metropolitan areas is. Extend your adventurism to eating the native foods, but in the countryside, make sure the water you drink has been boiled.
*Expect some cultural shock, but avoid stereotypes. While some people are offended by Africa's system of polygamy, others who go in search of their roots are often disappointed if the country doesn't fit the details of their private dreams.
My most recent trip to Africa was to attend the United Nation's Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi. More than a thousand black American women -- fully one-third of the U.S. women -- were among the 14,000 women from 170 nations who attended. Sadly, some of the black women making their first visit to the continent experienced a culture shock that certainly must have surprised them. One night at dinner, several were openly and loudly critical of the African people. It seems they had forgotten that Africans come from different backgrounds and expected the Africans to be like them because they looked like them.
*Listen, don't preach; be prepared to defend or discuss as is your wont, but ask questions and learn. At the Nairobi women's conference, some black women trying to communicate with their African sisters found both sides spoke from their own interests and world views. "You only think of your issues," an African woman told an American black woman at a Third World caucus. "You can't speak for us African women." The black women were more cautious in future sessions, trying to prevent their aggressiveness from bubbling over into cultural insensitivity.
*Use a travel agent. Because of Africa's diversity and dynamism, it is a good idea to use a reputable, knowledgeable agent with both the contacts as well as the political sensitivity to advise you on the myriad small details that can make or break a journey.
Moreover, use of a tour operator can substantially reduce the cost of the journey. For example, the full cost of a one-week stay in Dakar, including air fare, hotel, transfers and sightseeing, can be as low as $900.
One of the first travel agencies to promote African tourism was the Atlanta-based Henderson Travel Service, which recently opened an office in Washington at 1522 U St. NW. Two-time winner of the Africa Trophy awarded at the annual congress of the American Society of Travel Agents for effectiveness in promoting African tourism, Henderson recently celebrated its 29th year of conducting African tours.
*Remember that it is a great place to buy art, jewelry and clothing. From tribal masks in Nigeria to abstract ebony Macondi carvings in Tanzania and brass objects in northern Africa, the continent is loaded with art investments for those who venture outside large metropolitan areas.
Moreover, Africa is literally a discount jewelry store, with each country offering a particular specialty. Kenya contains an abundance of malachite, while the Ivory Coast has the widest selection of ivory jewelry; 18-to-24-karat-gold filigree is plentiful in Senegal and Liberia.
In clothing, vivid colors, textures and styles predominate, and African print cloths can be tailored into vests, jackets, dresses or skirts in the design of your choice in a matter of hours. There are also fantastic buys in the popular "Kenya baskets" that American women now carry in every season.
*Don't forget visas and immunizations. Washington residents have the advantage of easy access to embassies to obtain visas within a few days.
But don't make the mistake of failing to get the necessary inoculations, for even Africans themselves are not immune from certain diseases that are indigenous to the continent. A Nigerian friend who lives in the United States neglected to have the necessary immunizations on a visit home and contracted malaria.
And while the difficulties of traveling in Africa are often exaggerated (it is probably no more harrowing to arrive in Lagos than at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City), baggage does occasionally get lost. To lessen the anxiety, simply take a carry-on bag with food, toiletries and medicines, and a change of clothing.