Things I wish I’d known – or known to ask about – before working around Africa, in random collection. All visa figures are for US citizens. If you have tips/updates to share, send an email and I’ll add them to the list; the continent’s visitors will be grateful!
- If you are in Ghana more than 24 hours to transit, you need the visa ($85, 12/09). If you are staying less than 24 hours and not leaving the airport, you don't need a visa. Just be sure to have a copy of your itinerary and ask the transit desk to help you move through the visa line.
- If you do need to stay, the hotel help desk at the Accra airport in Ghana is fantastic (say hi to Nicholas). For a transit night, Monarch Hotel that desk recommended is simple and perfect – and, if you’re coming from the West African bush, impeccably shiny. $70, December (albeit Christmas eve) 2009.
- Also, in case you're cheap like me and would consider it, you are not, I was told, allowed to sleep in the Accra airport.
- Dollars are good as daily currency in Liberia. Bring small bills.
- If you stay more than 30 days in Liberia, you need to get your visa validated by immigration in Monrovia. Costs about $20. Even if the visa you got says it’s good for a year; even if it’s multi-entry. If you neglect to get a validation, you will pay a “fee” of $50-ish at the airport. (Dollar values as of 10/09)
- Central African Republic (CAR) charges a tax to exit the country at the Bangui airport. As of June 2010, it’s 10,000 CFA ($20). You’ll get a receipt, in the form of a stamp on the back of your boarding card. It’s legit, if ridiculous.
- Bring that yellow fever vaccination card to Bangui. Everyone’s health certificate is checked. It’s the only place I’ve been yet that’s asked for it.
- If you leave Bangui, CAR, by road for any of the provincial towns and you're not with an NGO, you need to create your own ‘mission order.’ NGO procedures rule the day here, and they travel with fancy letterhead that explains where they are going and why; at various points, this letter is validated with the all-sacred-in-Africa rubber stamp. Write your own ‘mission’ order and include the license plate number of your car and the name of anyone traveling in it with you. You’ll probably want to have the ($120; 5/10) press accreditation from the Ministry of Communication. (Easy to get; just show the cash.) It couldn’t hurt to make yourself a flag that says “PRESSE” and fly it from your car, either. No one, even the stamp wielders, gets money from you. Only the toll booth guys, who are as legit as their fancy receipts.
- Don't bring plastic bags into Rwanda. Seriously. You'll just end up carrying anything inside.
- Borders in the DRC are trickier these days (early 2011; still true May 2013), especially at Goma. No more buying visas at the border -- and if you don't reside in Rwanda, Uganda or wherever you are trying to cross from, you have to get the visa before you leave. If it's not from your country of residence, you won't get in.
- Make sure you have your yellow fever vaccination card when you arrive in the DRC. A not-so-friendly woman will take it from you and register it in her book. It's straightforward, but keep your eye on the card. You don't want to be crossing this border without it.
- Though you wouldn't know it from things you can Google, I'm told by Immigration in Zambia that you can buy your visa on arrival at the Lusaka airport. (I haven't done that, though, so don't call me in protest if it doesn't work.) (12/11)
Getting out of the airport
- A taxi from the airport to town in Kigali is 10,000 RWF (about $20, 4/10). No need to bargain; very straightforward.
- A taxi from the airport to town in Bujumbura is 20,000 Burundian francs ($16, 6/10). No need to bargain.
- A taxi from the airport to the center of town in Bangui is 3,000 CFA ($6, 5/10; 4,000-5,000 CFA farther away). Agree on the price before you get in.
- A taxi from Freetown is not recommended, only because the ferry ride is so long. Brave the helicopters in Freetown, if you've got about $80 (12/09). If not, taxi to the ferry is 15,000 leones ($4-$5, depending on exchange rate; price as of 3/08). Ferry passage is super cheap, I forget even what it was. You can also take the water taxi, but you might want to double check before you pay your $40 which boat they're taking. Normally it's large enough and covered, but every once in awhile they put you in a speedboat without warning...in the rainy season...
- All those Kenya Airways miles can get credited to your Delta Skymiles account (1/09).
- Taxis in Nairobi aren't cheap. I know a terrific guy who will give you a fair price without any hassle. He also has a very luxurious car, especially if you've been rumbling around on the continent's notoriously bad roads in an old Land Cruiser for awhile.
"Will I get ripped off if I change dollars before I get out of the airport?"
- Bujumbura -- not really. 20 francs less than town, 6/10.
- Bangui -- if you can, I didn't notice in the chaos of my arrival.
- Nairobi -- A bit. But not all that badly.
- Freetown -- sort of. Worth it to get across on the ferry; if you're taking the helicopter, wait to get to Freetown.
- Kigali -- never done it, actually. I would bet you'll get a bank rate, which is always lower than a street rate. (Best rate in town is always the Indian guy across from Caritas, btw. Consistently 8-10 francs higher than everyone else.)
- Monrovia -- ditto, because US dollars are regular currency here.
- Dakar -- not if you call a good money changer. I've got one; email me. He gave me a great rate for USD to CFA -- and vice versa, which is hard to find.
- Goma -- not that you'd fly into Goma, God help you, but if you did, change on the street.
- Lusaka, Zambia -- yes. (12/11)
Where to sleep
These are ideas for people like me, who need to perform alchemy on their reporting budgets. There are always more expensive places to stay than I choose. Most of these places are charming.
- Freetown: Hotel Africanus, off of Congo Cross. Up King Street (aka Wilberforce Street), take a left. Best bed I've ever slept on in Africa. Published rate is $75, but you can talk them down. There is also a very cheap hostel-type place, Jane's I believe, not far from here, in Aberdeen. 120,000 leones/night, or about $35. Hard to find cheaper. And worth blowing a bit of the budget to upgrade to Africanus.
- Bujumbura: Hotel de l'Amitie, aka "the hotel of journalists" according to one Rwandan friend who works down there a lot. You can get a room for about $20 a night, with wifi.
- Kigali: I have a soft spot for Iris Hotel, in Kiyovu. But there are lots of choices, and cheaper. I've heard from people that they like Beth Shalom Guest House (about $50, I think) and One Hill Motel in Remera (was told $30, but that was 5 years ago). And there's a small guest house/youth hostel (you can take your bed pick) run by my friend Julius.
- Bissau: Pension Creole, hands down. Totally beautiful and charming, and the owners are the nicest couple. Right in town, across from Kalliste (which people will know, and which also has rooms but they're double the price). 18,000 CFA/night (about $35) for the nicest room in the place. Gotta go to Kalliste for wifi, though.
- Dakar: Beautiful, restful B&B called Ambre, not far from the airport. They'll arrange to pick you up for 6000 CFA, which may be a bit high but is worth not having a hassle. Lovely decor, good internet, nice dinners cooked for you, and the most fabulous spread of jams from Europe and Senegal... In the $100-ish range, which is the same for the far less warm and welcoming Airport Hotel I've been stuck in before.
- Monrovia: A good friend's couch!
- Goma: Stella Matutina, on the same road as (just before) Le Chalet, which all the moto taxi guys know. $50 a night (late 2010), with the best internet you'll find for about an hour in the mornings and then again after 5 pm. Beautiful gardens, comfortable rooms, right on the lake.
- Nairobi: Ndemi Guest House is affordable, sweet, and has great wifi. I usually find Kilimani, the neighborhood where it sits, is a perfect location for getting to interviews in various parts of Nairobi. And the Ethiopian place around the corner makes it good to be a human being. People also ravi about Miti Mingi, in the posh part of town, but they've always been booked when I'm sleeping over.
- Lusaka: Mint Lodge was the best combination of value, location, and reliable power/Internet when I spent a month there (12/11).
Where to file on deadline
These are the places with the fastest internet I've found in towns otherwise tough to find fast internet in.
- Freetown: Hotel Africanus internet is pretty good. I didn't find anything faster. If you're not staying there, buy a coke and ask for the password. Or I recommend buying the $75 modem. It's at least reliable, and you can do a long upload from anywhere, rather than having to sit at the internet cafe.
- Bujumbura: Tropicana, in town, not far from the (old) market.
- Kigali: Things have improved remarkably, but speed rates on the portable modems ("sticks") still vary wildly. If you absolutely need reliable Internet to Skype an interview, or if you're uploading photos, you still do best to go to one of the hotels. Mille Collines is best combination of price and reliability. Umubano (aka Leico aka Novotel) holds up well. (5/13)
- Bissau: Kalliste is super duper fast, odd and shocking. You have to pay 2000 CFA ($4) a day to use it, but it's a day pass. Hotel Malaika also has internet and will let you bring your computer in even if you aren't a guest; buy a drink or something.
- Dakar: This is not an issue.
- Monrovia: Mamba Point Hotel, in Mamba Point. $5 to get online, but it's the fastest you'll find, and if you're freaking out, it's totally worth it.
- Goma: The internet is just slow, slow, slow. Give it time and patience. (I think it knows when you're freaking out.) There's internet cafes on the main drags in town.
- Kenya: Also not an issue. They have the cable! Nairobi you can find it anywhere, but there are also good, surprisingly quick connections in Isiolo and even in Marsabit.
Who to work with
I can recommend fixers, translators and drivers in these places -- and I can warn you away from recommendations I got that I didn't think went well. But there's no need to smear people publicly, or to put a bunch of phone numbers out on the internet, so just drop a line.