Surviving a Visit to French-Speaking West Africa

Kobli, Atakora, Benin
Image via Wikipedia

Senior Project for Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska by John Farho

French-Speaking West African countries include:

Africa Map
  • Benin
  • Burkina Faso
  • Côte d'Ivoire
  • Guinea
  • Mali
  • Senegal
  • Togo

Table of Contents

Entrance to Countries

Benin | Burkina Faso | Côte d'Ivoire |
Guinea | Mali | Senegal | Togo


Culture Shock | People | Greetings |
Begging | Sales Pressure | Tipping | Responsible Tourism | Clothing | Self-expression


Malaria | Anti-malarial Drugs | Diarrhea | Vaccinations


Useful French Phrases

Other Useful Information

Useful Resources

Entrance to Countries

Hand with passport

Requirements for entrance to countries provided by You should always reconfirm requirements for entry with the embassies of the countries you will visit before your trip.

Different countries have different requirements for foreigners to enter their country. Often a passport and a visa are required. To get a passport one has to go to the main post office in their vicinity, where they will most likely be able to speak with a passport official and fill out an application. This needs to be done at least six weeks before your trip overseas to allow for the passports to be made and sent to the owner. A visa is acquired by way of your travel agent or the embassy. Most West Africa countries also require a certificate from a physician verifying immunizations.


Passport and visa required. Visa for stay of up to 36 months, requires $40 fee (certified check or money orders only), 2 application forms, 2 photos, proof of yellow fever vaccination, proof of return/onward transportation (guarantee from employer, travel agency, or photocopy of round-trip ticket) and letter of guarantee from bank. Send prepaid envelope for return of passport by certified or express mail. Apply at Embassy of the Republic of Benin, 2737 Cathedral Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008 (202/232-6656/7/8).


Passport and visa required. Single-entry or multiple-entry visa, valid 3 months for visits up to 3 months, extendible once in Burkina Faso, requires $50 fee, 2 application forms, and 2 photos. Send passport by registered mail and include postage or prepaid envelope for return by mail. Payment accepted in certified check, company check, or money order only. For further information call Embassy of Burkina Faso, 2340 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008 (202/332-5577) or Honorary Consulate in Los Angeles, CA (310/575-5555) or New Orleans, LA (504/945-3152).

Côte d'IVOIRE (Ivory Coast)

Bai Des Sirens Coast Resort, Cote D'Ivoire Framed Art Poster Print by Bob Burch, 31x25

Passport and visa required. For specific requirements, consult the Embassy of the Republic of Côte D'Ivoire, 2424 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008 (202/797-0300) or Honorary Consulate: CA (415/391-0176).


Letters on West Africa and the Slave Trade. Paul Erdmann Isert's Journey to Guinea and the Carribean Islands in Columbia (1788)

Passport and visa required. Tourist/business visa for a stay of up to 6 months requires 3 applications forms, 3 photos, onward/return ticket, letter-of-purpose, yellow fever immunization and $45 fee (cash or money order only). Provide SASE for return of passport by mail. For more information, contact the Embassy of the Republic of Guinea, 2112 Leroy Pl., NW, Washington, DC 20008 (202/483-9420).


Rough Guide to the Music of Mali

Passport and visa required. Obtain visa in advance. Tourist/business single-entry visa for stay of up to 3 months, may be extended after arrival, requires $80 fee (cash or money order), 2 application forms, 2 photos, and proof of onward/return transportation. For business travel, must have company letter stating purpose of trip.

Send a self addressed stamped envelope for return of passport if applying by mail and/or appropriate express mail fees. Apply at the Embassy of the Republic of Mali, 2130 R St., NW, Washington, DC 20008, Telephone (202) 332-2249 Fax (202) 332-6603, USA Web site

Much valuable information including guided tours, airlines, maps, climate, money, excellent travel tips, even a suggested packing list can be found at the Saga Tours Web site in Bamako, Mali.


Portrait of Young Girl, Langue De Barbarie National Park, St. Louis, Senegal Lonely Planet Collection Framed Art Poster Print by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, 25x31

Passport and onward/return ticket required. Visa not needed for stay of up to 90 days.

For further information, contact the Embassy of the Republic of Senegal, 2112 Wyoming Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008 (202/234-0540).


Passport and visa required. All types of visas (except diplomatic) require 3 application forms, 3 photos, proof of sufficient funds, and $45 fee. For information on additional visa related requirements, contact the Embassy of the Republic of Togo, 2208 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008 (202/234-4212/3).


Source is copyright by Saga Tours of Mali, used with permission.

Culture Shock

Culture Shock is a term used to describe the anxiety that may occur in an entirely new environment. People mainly get culture shock when traveling alone or staying in a foreign country for an extended period of time. Being in a new culture may start out new and exciting. It can become irritating and unacceptable. When one feels that way, culture shock is setting in. Culture shock can be avoided. One simply needs to be open minded and not allow those simple irritations to build up inside. It also helps if one does not try to understand things, rather, try to "go with the flow." It also helps to have a sense of humor that can salvage a difficult situation. Probably one of the best ways to make your visit successful is to have realistic expectations of the living standards and practices. Travel in West Africa is not luxurious.


The people of West Africa are very courteous and open to foreigners. Many West Africans speak French along with a tribal language. Everyone that a tourist would converse with will be French speaking. West Africans have begun to adopt a western way of dress. Probably one of the most important things to know about the people in West Africa is that they are generally happy to see an American.


Greetings are the foundation of West African society. Even when asking for directions, one must greet someone first and inquire about their health. In some countries it is also customary to ask about one's family. If one does not greet someone before talking to them, it is considered quite rude.


Those in West Africa that are known as the "have-nots" are the beggars. In their culture it is normal for those people to be begging. If one of them notices a well-to-do foreign visitor, they will be especially aggressive. They will not be offended by a polite refusal to give them something. They will then just move on to see if they can get something from the next person. It is possible to avoid a throng of beggars by not showing your things. One solid rule is that one should not count or look at their money in the view of others.

Man wrapping a carving for John
John, watching the salesman wrap some items.

Sales Pressure

Coulibaly is a salesman from Mali.

Local artisans barely get by, selling things on the sides of the streets so generally speaking a simple no will not suffice. If you are not interested in purchasing something try not to look at the items, because it will show them that they may be able to sell you something. They will try harder to get you to buy from them. If an artisan simply asks you to see an item for viewing pleasure, then you may go and see it. After seeing the item, a simple thank you for letting you view the item should allow you to move on.


As in most of the world tipping is a tradition in West Africa. When a small tip is given it is thought of as a way to express one's appreciation. It will be highly esteemed by the recipient. A larger tip given by a foreigner is taken as a gesture of respect, for the recipient and the local culture.

Responsible Tourism

A tourist can have a large effect on the local environment that they are visiting. There are many ways for one to be a responsible tourist. One of the foremost things a tourist can do is not to buy genuine antiquities. They are extremely rare, but if one is to come across something of this magnitude it is best to purchase good copies of the item or another item handcrafted by an artisan.


Another important thing is to dress appropriately for the conservative culture, because the nationals place a lot of importance on dress. One should also ask permission before taking most photos. If someone does say no to a photograph, it can often be turned into a yes if they are offered something in return.


During your visit it is very probable that you will hear a national make a shout or a noise in an attempt to get your attention. One of the more common noises that one might hear is a loud kissing noise, or a perversion of it, that the nationals use to get each others attention. Foreigners are not exempt from receiving this gesture. Another aspect of their culture, that modern culture is not aware of, is that they will often avoid eye contact out of courtesy and respect for superiors. In some countries, such as Senegal, eye contact with the opposite sex can mean one is attracted to another. If you find your waiter not focusing on you while he is taking your order, he is not being rude. It is just a way of being polite and showing respect in West Africa.



  • Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes. When a human is bit by a mosquito that has the parasite, the parasite goes into the human's blood. After one has been infected, they may come down with the disease within six days to years later.
  • Travelers are not immune to malaria. People have even been known to get "airport malaria", (being infected while waiting for a plane to be refueled or while in transit.
  • It is the most common and deadly parasitic disease in the world, killing 3 million yearly and causing acute clinical cases in 500 million yearly. That is almost as many deaths per year as the AIDS death total in the last 15 years.
  • Those planning a trip to West Africa need to be prepared for malaria, because Africa accounts for more than 90% of reported cases of malaria.
  • The symptoms of malaria include: headache, feeling out of sorts, weakness, fever, chills, muscle ache, vomiting, diarrhea, and sweats
  • Malaria can be prevented and treated effectively if done the right way.
  • It can be prevented by avoiding mosquito bites, wearing plenty of clothing and using insect repellant containing N-diethyl-metatoluamide (also known as DEET);Pill bottle and hand one can also use anti-malarial drugs.
  • If treated in the early stages of the disease, permanent damage to ones health and even death can be avoided.

Anti-malarial Drugs

When choosing an anti-malarial drug, one should consider which drug works best for the area one will be visiting. Different types of drugs work better for different parts of the world. One should also take into consideration age, whether one is pregnant, and availability.


  • should not take when pregnant, breast-feeding, or less than 8 years old
  • take with a full glass of water, stay upright for 30 minutes, don't take with calcium, or Pepto Bismol
  • side effects include hole in the esophagus (if how to take instructions are not followed), rash on skin exposed to sun, vaginal yeast infection
  • start taking 1-2 days before entering malaria area
  • take daily
  • stop taking 4 weeks after leaving malaria area

Mefloquine (Lariam®)

  • one should not take if one has psychiatric problems, heart problems, seizure disorder, involved in activities that require fine coordination and spatial discrimination
  • take on an empty stomach
  • side effects include vivid dreams, dizziness, serious psychiatric problems
  • start 1-2 weeks before entering malaria area
  • take weekly
  • stop taking 4 weeks after leaving malaria area


  • should not be taken if one has eye problems
  • take with meals or milk
  • may cause upset stomach, if not taken with food or milk
  • side effects include blurred vision, seizures, sore throat or fever, and unusual muscle weakness
  • start 1-2 weeks before entering malaria area
  • take weekly
  • stop taking 4 weeks after leaving malaria area


intestinesOther than getting nutrition from food and water, a traveler is also susceptible to getting diarrhea from drinking contaminated food or water. Experts say that people come down with travelers' diarrhea 20-50% of the time. The cause of travelers' diarrhea are infections, that are caused by tiny bacteria or viruses. There are a few simple things one must remember to steer clear of diarrhea. Avoid eating raw vegetables, raw meat, and raw sea food. Do not eat unpeeled fruits and, if possible, peel them yourself. Be certain that hot foods are hot and cold foods are cold. One of the most important things is to stay away from tap water, including ice that may not have been filtered. Even while brushing teeth, one should not use tap water.

For drinking water, a traveler should only drink bottled mineral water. It is readily available all over West Africa. To purify water for yourself, boiling it is the most reliable method. Bring it to a brisk boil and let it cool, do not add ice. Another method of purifying water is with 2% tincture of iodine (tetraglycine hydroperiodide). One must add five drops per quart and allow water to sit for a minimum of 30 minutes. Filters often are also a good way of purifying water, but the use of a filter is not suggested by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Drugs to Prevent Travelers' Diarrhea

For most, the side effects of the drugs outweigh the worth of possibly preventing a case of diarrhea. But if one has AIDS, requires insulin for diabetes, regularly use omeprazole or lansoprazole, have active inflammatory disease, or have heart disease, it may be profitable to take the risks of the side effects. If you do decide to take a preventative drug during your trip, contact your doctor and he will help you find out which drug is best for you.

If You Come Down With Diarrhea....

If you get a case of diarrhea the most important thing to remember is to drink a lot of liquids, so as not to get dehydrated.

The Travel Clinic in Omaha, NE, suggests this method to remain hydrated:

Liquid medicine pouring into a spoon

Glass #1:

Orange, apple, or other fruit juice

(8 ounces)

Honey or corn syrup (½ teaspoon)

Table salt (1 pinch)

Glass #2:

Carbonated or boiled water (8 ounces)

Baking soda (1/4 teaspoon)

Drink alternately from each glass until your thirst is quenched. Take other fluid, too.

Popular drugs to relieve cramps and nausea that come along with diarrhea include: Imodium® A-D, Pepto Diarrhea Control®, and Maalox Anti-Diarrheal®.

If diarrhea persists for more than 3 unformed stools, one might try a prescription drug such as levofloxacin (Levaquin™). It is largely suggested that one buy these medicines in the United States, because the medicine bought abroad may not be of the same quality.


Most people are given four series of doses as young children that protect them from polio for the rest of their lives. These doses are either given by way of mouth (OPV) or a shot (IPV). If you did not have a vaccine as a child, doctors recommend that one gets the vaccine before traveling overseas.

Hepatitis A is another virus that one needs to worry about. If you have already had hepatitis A and recovered you are immune to the virus. A blood test can determine whether one is immune or not. For those traveling to developing countries, such as West Africa, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine. If one needs to get the vaccine they should contact their doctor to find out which vaccine is best for them and their travels. There are two types of vaccinations. They include Immun globulin and inactive hepatitis A vaccine.

Hyperdermic NeedleThough the typhoid vaccine is not legally required for overseas travel, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that an individual traveling to West Africa get the vaccine. If you plan on getting the typhoid shot it can be acquired from your doctor. There are three types of vaccines that include heat-phenol-inactivated (killed) Typhoid Vaccine, Oral Ty21a (live), and Typhoid Vi capsular polysaccharide.

The only vaccine that is generally required for West Africa is the yellow fever vaccine. A booster dose of yellow fever is required every 10 years. When entering the country, have a certificate of verification that you had a yellow fever shot to show with your passport.


For a permanent resident of a modern country, transportation in West Africa can be the main cause of culture shock. It seems that every minute a traffic accident is narrowly escaped. Taxis crowd the streets as the main form of transportation.

Streets of Abidjan full of people and cars
Mid-day traffic in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

A foreigner not used to driving in West Africa should use taxis as their main source of transportation. Walking can be used to get from one place to another, as long as it does not entail crossing a busy road or traversing a long distance in the often harsh weather. Though it may seem frightening in a taxi, one must trust that the driver knows what they are doing. Most large cities also have bus lines. These bus lines are often not reliable and are frequently unclean and over-crowded to the point that most foreigners would dare not ride in them.

Useful French Phrases

-Do you speak English?

Parlez-vous anglais ?



-How are you?

Comment allez-vous ?

-Thank you


-Where is the bathroom?

Où est-elle la salle de bains ?

-How much does this cost?

Combien ce coût ?

-No, thank you.

Non, merci.

-A bottle of coke, please.

Une bouteille de Coke, si vous plait.

-A bottle of water, please.

Une bouteille de l'eau, si vous plait.

-Please bring me my bill.

Apportez moi ma facture, si vous plait.

-I am American.

Je suis Americain(e).

-Where's the bank?

Où est-elle la banque ?

-Where's the hand crafted products market?

Où est le marché des artisans?

-Where can I find a telephone?

Où peux-je trouver un téléphone?

-Where is a restaurant?

Où est-il un restaurant ?

* It would be wise to carry a French-English dictionary.

Other Useful Information

A cyber-cafe somewhere in Mali
A cyber-cafe somewhere in Mali

  • While overseas if you want to do your e-mail you can go to a cyber café. You pay about US$1.00 per hour to surf the Internet.
  • The West African currency is cfa and the exchange rate fluctuates around 500 cfa per dollar.
  • Make sure that you are covered by your health insurance while abroad.
  • Taxis can be more expensive for trips to or from the airport.

Useful Resources

Globe connected to a mouse

Center for Disease Control

(888)232-3228 or

Travel Clinic

Douglas County Health Department
Omaha, NE (402)444-7207

American Government Resources

This booklet can also be found on the Web

African News Pages gives you links to Weather for major African cites at BBC, Voice of America Africa News,, Inside Africa, The New York Times, BBC Africa News and many other English and French Africa News Sites.

Saga Tours

Bamako, MALI, West Africa
Tel/Fax [223] 220-2708
mail (at)
Tell them that you found them at

Travel Insurance

Adams & Associates International or e-mail to aai (at)

Country Information

CountryWatch is a world leader in providing country specific geopolitical intelligence on each of the 192 countries of the world. You can go directly to their Africa Section and click on the country you plan to visit.

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