Near Bamako. Delta Air Lines from Accra to Atlanta, January 2012.
A frank confession for an Expat Blogger: I haven't really travelled very much in Africa. Although I have lived on the continent for hundreds of days, I have only been to a handful of the landmass's more than 50 countries. I've yet to canvas the continent Cape-to-Cairo--and haven't even been to either city. Nearly all my movement has been dictated by the demands of work--tight travel schedules, repeat journeys to the same cities, little time for exploration.
While I haven't yet walked the streets of Timbuktu or climbed Kilimanjaro, and I haven't set foot in Morocco or Mauritania, I've been close-- and not just in a sense that I live several countries away.
Before ever traveling to Africa it was a shape on a map--more exactly, an interlocking puzzle of scores of shapes--even the large ones tiny on a single page of the atlas. The angular borders of the former colonies made them into figures, dashing and regal: outlines of origami cranes, with beaked faces like Cameroon, and cromb-crowned heads like Mali or Chad, others small, narrow tongues touching the outside, like Togo or the Gambia.
I used to daydream of finally one day traveling to Africa: looking down on that landmass from the window of a plane, years before I had ever been on a flight. I imagined in dark green, smoky with rising heat. The illustration of the map would become real.
One day, several autumns ago, that dream came true, although not over a dense tropical jungle ending at sandy coast, but over the California-like seafront mountains of Algeria.
The first glimpse of the African continent: Over the coast of Algeria,
KLM from Amsterdam to Accra, October 2008
Since then, I have flow south over the Sahara nine times in five years, usually landing at Accra or Monrovia but also Dakar, Conakry, and Abidjan. I've also flown another dozen times between various countries: Monrovia-Accra frequently, but I've been as far as Nairobi and back.
Kenya Airways, Monrovia-Accra, November 2011.
While my travels have been limited to a short list of countries, and even then not very far beyond the principal cities, I've crossed over tens of thousands of miles of African territory from up in an airplane--much of it great zones which I would never traverse overland.
I've flown over the desert at the top of Mali, and the lower-right of Mauritania's trapezoid, squinting down at the mysterious emptiness, bright golden mountains of sand. I've crossed over the forested stretches of West Africa in the night, only the occasional cluster of small lights interrupting the darkness.
As I drift off to sleep, the seatback screen glows green and yellow with the geography below, as the plane hums past cities that still exist merely on the pages of books: Bouaké, Bissau, and Bangui; Nouakchott, Niamey and N'Zérékoré. Zooming over the vast corners of these huge shapes, no longer just outlines on an atlas page under my nose, but the closest fixed earth to my body- in that basic sense, they become visited.
Although just as brief, it is only more vivid a visit on a cloudless day. I haven't walked the streets of Casablanca, but for a moment I saw their arrangement with my own eyes. The Niger, the Congo, the Ubangi-- although I lack passport stamps from any country in which they flow, I've seen their warm, brown meander.
The Ubangi River. Nairobi-Accra, November 2008.
I have seen these places, fleetingly, from thousands of feet up with my own eyes. I have floated above them from that distance, passing at that speed, without touching that ground. I cannot determine whether to say that I have really been there.