Cultural places in Africa
The five ancient ksars (fortified villages) Ghardaia, El Atteuf, Bounoura, Melika, and Beni Isguen in the M'zab Valley are listed as one UNESCO World Heritage site. Today the five villages have sprawled into each other, but the original ksars still exists with city gates and narrow lanes. Life here is still very traditional and many married women cover themselves entirely in a white cloth with only a tiny hole to peek through. In an understandable effort to preserve their ancient culture, you need to have a guide to walk around inside the actually ksars, where photographing also is restricted. However, the modern part outside the ksars can be explored on your own. The biggest and most famous of the villages is Ghardaia, but try to see as many of the others as possible, as they all have their own characteristics. Ghardaia for its old mosque, Beni Isguen for the auction market, and El Atteuf for the original marketplace, mausoleum and cemetery. If time, take a look at the palm groves and ancient irrigation tunnels.
Ghardaia and the surrounding villages are known for their "one-eyed" woman. Instead of a normal burqa, married women wrap a white cloth around their body and head in such a way, that there is only a tiny hole to peek through.
The old system of local kings is still in place in Burkina where it forms the backbone of civil society. The kings (or Nabas) are still responsible for the communication with the ancestor spirits and of solving family disputes. The Nabas also yield political power as politicians use the kings to seek advice and council on behalf of the wider community. The most powerful Naba is the one based in Ouagadougou. He is, in general, inaccessible, but for a weekly ceremony on Friday mornings around 6:30, where he rides his war horse, threatening the Naba of Ouahigouya with war before his advisers talk him out of it. The cause of dispute dates all the way back to 1540 when the royal amulets that symbolise the Naba's power were stolen during a succession dispute. Ceremonies in Ouahigouya are rarer but usually include a showing of all the village chiefs arriving to pay their respect at the palace. To make up for the lack of regularity of ceremonies, there is a relatively good chance to be granted an audience with the Naba, who is a treasure trove of local history.
A tradition still practised in much of West Africa; mask dancing is probably easiest experience in Côte d’Ivoire. Each region has its traditions, symbolisms and taboos surrounding the practice, which the dancers are happy to explain to visitors. Unless you happen to run across a ceremony by accident, dance performances will likely have to be arranged through the local department of the Ministry of Tourism. Certain dance troupés have performed their art in Europe, however, there are distinct differences between these shows and the sacred dances carried out at ceremonies. If arranging a dance performance, it's worth checking which of the two kinds of dance the masks will perform. Also worth inquiring about is the traditionally held taboo against women attending some dances, as there are masks designated men and women specifically.
Eritrea is hardly teeming with major attractions and sites to distract the checklist ticking tourist. But what it lacks in architectural grandeur, it more than make up for in the authentic culture department. Several hours north of the capital, in the regional town of Keren, something magical happens every Monday. In a dry riverbed, a market springs forth from the dust. And from the surrounding countryside come a seemingly endless stream of villagers, with camels in tow, attempting to sell their wares. The sights, sounds and smells are exactly what a village market should be. There is no Disney-fying for the tourist masses, there simply aren't any. Just you, some camels and a lot of staring locals.
Guinea's capital is, by most accounts, horrible. It's chaotic, dirty and poor. It's also uncomfortably humid and overpriced. Photographers will instantly be targeted by corrupt officers in the downtown area should they flaunt their cameras. The city's saving grace, however, is its nightlife. Easily on par with Dakar's, Conakry's nightlife distinguishes itself from typical West African partying by being dominated by local music. Nightclubs, live music venues, bars and dives rarely play the typical American pop and RnB that is otherwise rotated through sound systems across the region. Instead, local and regional music are favoured by the city's DJ’s. And it's not only Guinea's starts who get the parties started. Tunes from across the region, as far afield as Capo Verde and Nigeria, will turn dusk into dawn throughout the city.
Loita Hills is a little visited part of Maasailand. It is far less touristy than its cousin, Loita Plains, which borders the Masai Mara National Reserve. It is also impossible to access during heavy rains, since the roads, such as they are, virtually disintegrate into black mud. But if you manage to get there it is vastly rewarding. Not only are you likely to be the only tourist in the area, but you will have a chance to experience Maasai life as it once was. Agriculture is a very recent introduction here, and many of the people you will meet still live and dress very traditionally. It is a beautiful region, with forests, hills (bordering on mountains), rivers and villages. Supplies are few and far between, as the nearest town of any size is Narok - which is not near at all, really. Buffaloes, elephants, antelope and zebra are relatively common, and there are areas where it is possible to find black-and-white Colobus monkeys, lions, leopards and wild dogs. Sleeping out under the stars in the 'Forest of the Lost Child' with a group of Maasai elders is a pretty priceless experience.
The villages of Dogon Country are a unique feature of the Dogons. Whether build by stone, on top of the escarpment, or by clay on the plains, all Dogon villages have certain, significant, buildings. Arranged into quarters inhabited by particular families the villages are structured around a number of togu na - covered meeting place for elders. They are built low, so when tempers run high anyone who was to stand up in anger will knock his head on the ceiling and immediately turn quite. Most notably for the visitor, however, are the many granaries, with their straw roofs, used to store not only millet and other foods, but also valuables such as clothes and jewellery. Placed high above the village is the house of the hogen (village king) with a sacred throne that is also used as an altar. Animals are also sacrificed in the binou shrine – an animist temple often found in the village centre. Lastly, each quarter also has a maison des femmes or menstruation house, where women have to live for five days during their menstruation period.
A hidden and long-forgotten gem, Ibo Island was an important Muslim trading post 500 years ago, and one of Portugalâ€™s most important slave posts 100 years later. Part of the stunning Quirimbas Archipelago, Ibo itself is primarily of interest because of its many historical buildings, including the Fort of Sao Joao. Although it cannot compare to Lamu in Kenya, Ibo's stone town is generally better maintained and livelier than its cousin on Mozambique Island. The island is also famous for its incredibly delicate and intricate silverwork, created using ancient Arab tools and techniques. Ibo is also a great place to organise trips farther into the rest of the Quirimbas Archipelago, much of which is only frequented by local fishermen. Ibo Island is becoming increasingly well-known, but it is still far enough off the beaten track to have that distinct feeling of an unexplored destination.
Here at GlobeSpots, we don't usually promote specific museums. However, when the museum in question is the very best in West Africa – with some distance – we're happy to make an exception. Built back in 1959, the Musée National du Niger occupies a large ground in central Niamey. It's so big and spread out over so many pavilions that it's shockingly easy to miss large parts of the exhibitions, simply by overlooking certain buildings. The museum includes everything from traditional dresses and music instruments, over archaeological finds to pavilions focused on the country's natural resources - the newest addition is a 2016-pavilion on the country's biggest export: uranium. Another highlight is three dinosaur skeletons found in the Sahara Desert. The grounds also include a zoo with some relative healthy looking animals (elsewhere in Africa zoo animals have starved to death), but some animals are kept in fairly small cages, and animal lovers might want to skip the zoo and spent their time at the exhibitions.