BY KILEY SHIELDS
At the beginning of this year I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. Now, I’m back home after embarking on an 8,000 mile Africa adventure that had me and a friend traveling by motorcycle from northern Ghana to northern Europe—Bristol, to be precise.
In addition to a steep learning curve, the trip began with a heavy dose of skepticism and concerns from family and friends. I had lived in northern Ghana as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years so I was not new to Africa. But, spending four months riding a motorcycle from Ghana to the UK? That caused widespread anxiety about my safety as a woman, safety about African roads, the fear I’d break down and be stranded someplace remote, without any ability to communicate, fears I’d get sick and have no access to medical care.
You get it.
Well, we’ve now successfully (and safely) completed the journey. We travelled just about 7,750 miles from northern Ghana, east into Togo, then west again though Ghana, Ivory Coast, across Liberia and Sierra Leone into Guinea, then Guinea-Bissau, into Senegal, across the Gambia, back into Senegal, through the deserts in Mauritania and Morocco, into Spain and, after an overnight ferry, to our destination in Bristol.
Now that I have some mileage and time under my belt, I’d like to address a few of those assumptions about traveling on a motorcycle, as a woman, across West Africa.
– That traveling across West Africa on a motorcycle isn’t safe.
What with the somewhat recent Ebola crisis, the shaky transition of power in Gambia and attempted coups in Ivory Coast during the end of 2016 as well as the not so distant civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, people back home reasonably worried for my safety.
When I travelled in the region, I felt no direct impacts of any political instability. When the locals and I spoke a shared language, they were more than happy to dive into long and lively discussions of their local politics and their hopes for the future. More often than not, the conversation ended with a local’s wry comment on America’s current President, Donald Trump, as if they asking, “Are you guys any more stable now?”
Beyond just the politics, on a personal level, I felt safe throughout the journey, which can solely be attributed to the welcoming and protective hospitality offered throughout West Africa. When we broke down in front of a man’s house in the middle of Guinea and had to pitch a tent on the field behind his house for a night, he offered us a jug full of water for bathing and a dinner of freshly slaughtered and stewed chicken. Open arms and kindness is something we relied on on this trip and it never failed us.
– That traveling across West Africa as a woman isn’t safe.
Over the course of the trip, being a woman, if anything, seemed to make our lives a little bit easier. My male traveling partner, Rory, told me on multiple occasions that the police were aggressive and unfriendly towards him until I, riding at a slower pace a bit behind him, pulled up. When they saw that he was accompanied by a woman, no-less a woman on her own motorcycle, the police immediately opened up, joked with us and quickly let us pass.
And I noticed that when Rory would get off his bike for a water break in a village, people opened their eyes a little wide because he was clearly a foreigner far off of the beaten path. But when I took off my helmet and riding-jacket and they saw a woman, eyes opened even wider. I secretly hoped that among some of the little girls who crowded around my bike are some who will follow their own ambitions and maybe even break through cultural ceilings imposed on women. But sometimes it’s fun to just impress men—while riding through Accra, the capital of Ghana, we heard a group of men exclaiming to each other gleefully, “That’s a woman riding! A woman!”
– That there would be nothing to see or do on this trip–West Africa lacks tourist destinations.
Sure, there may more tourist sights in other parts of the world. But the ones in West Africa, typically devoid of other tourists, continually wowed us. Some of the insane things we saw on this trip included the largest basilica in the world, deserted beaches with crystal blue water framed by mountains, monkeys cavorting in the wild (not in a nature reserve), skeletons of past world-class hotels that are now riddled with bullet holes telling the tale of the rebels that camped out during civil wars as well as more than our fill of careening waterfalls in verdant valleys. Besides, if you’re not in West Africa for the tourist destinations, you’re there for the lively high-life music, the spicy food and the captivating characters.
– That my motorcycle would break down and leave me in dangerous situations.
Motorcycle breakdowns are definitely a risk that one has to accept when embarking on a transcontinental journey. But if there’s one thing that can be relied on in West Africa, it’s a plethora of motorcycle mechanics, sometimes boys as young as 14, no matter how remote the location. And the fixes there are often ingenuous, using local materials and creativity to solve problems that stumped us. Our own bikes were held together by duct tape and string at points, but we saw other impressive fixes: plastic coke bottles for fuel tanks and engines held together with dried grass. And if there wasn’t a mechanic nearby (an unlikely possibility) then locals could be relied upon to jump head-on into our misfortune, calling upon brothers, moms, uncles and friends until we were back on our way. And is there any better way see West Africa than on a motorcycle? With a motorcycle, no road is too bad. Motorcycles were nimble around obstacles and could easily be hoisted into wooden canoes to be transported across rivers. Besides, as the late Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wrote, “You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment… On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all.” (pg 4 )
– That I could choose an “easier,” “safer,” and more “accessible” place to do a trip like this.
I can’t think of anywhere I would rather go on this type of trip. Many of the parts of West Africa we went through were largely untouched by tourists and westernizing influences–there are no McDonalds or malls. Besides, who wants “easy” if you’re embarking on a cross-continental voyage? Part of the fun is looking back at the terribly muddy and rocky roads that have been transversed, the quickly flowing rivers crossed in dug-out wooden canoes, the aggressive police pacified.
When I left the States to serve in the Peace Corps in Ghana, I left with a host of assumptions–that people wouldn’t be as friendly as Americans, that there’s nothing good to eat and no electricity–about West Africa that were continually proven entirely wrong.
And this motorcycle journey was a continuation of that same mission: proving those negative assumptions wrong.
*Photo credits to Kiley Shields and her travel companion Rory Gibson, who traveled “from Ghana to London on two shitty Honda CB Ace 125s”.
Interested in more stories of women’s rides across Africa? Check out It’s Only Sex and Dollar Bills, Ya’ll and Across Africa: When There is a Christina, There is a Way.