Gorée island off the coast of Senegal. The largest slave trading post on the African coast for centuries and now a place of pilgrimage. Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama have both been here. In the first episode of Africa With Ade Adepitan (BBC Two), it’s the turn of the Paralympic athlete, TV presenter and all-round good egg to bear witness to this tiny speck of land that symbolises the greatest inhumanity.
“Bye-bye Africa for ever,” the guide explains as Adepitan passes through the “door of no return” at the House of Slaves Museum, memorialising the final exit point for 10 million African slaves. The Yorùbá, the guide adds, were known as “stallions”; prized above all other slaves. “That’s my tribe,” Adepitan says quietly. The Londoner, who was born in Lagos and left with his parents after contracting polio when he was 15 months old, gazes out at the Atlantic pounding the rocky coast. Where many Africans jumped, preferring suicide to what lay ahead. More than a million died before reaching the Americas. “What happened here for them was just the beginning,” says Adepitan, aghast.
It is easy to forget how much BBC travel programmes have changed. What used to be an endless procession of genial white male presenters encountering “colourful” foreign lands and cultures is slowly becoming a diverse genre. Which, apart from anything else, makes for better telly. Travel documentaries are so much more nuanced, interesting and moving when people with actual connections to places go or return to them. Or someone really smart and self-aware, such as Sue Perkins heading up the Mekong river. It makes a difference when “colonial” is used to describe history as well as architecture.
Adepitan begins his four-part quest by parachuting over the bleak, mountainous landscape of Cape Verde, Africa’s most westerly point, in a modified wheelchair. For a moment, I was fooled into thinking this might be the kind of silly, upbeat documentary in which Adepitan zip wires across the continent. But the fun pretty much ends here. Even when he meets the next generation of star footballers at Ivory Coast’s hallowed ASEC Mimosas club, where Kolo and Yaya Touré lived and trained, a positive story ends with the thousands of young men trafficked abroad every year by dodgy football agents. Yet another of Africa’s remarkable resources ruthlessly exploited.
On the island of Fogo – and Adepitan’s ability to get around the most inaccessible and remote places is amazing – he visits a village in the shadow of an active volcano that buried half the homes in red hot lava when it last erupted. The local taverna owner is unperturbed. “I’ve lived through two eruptions and never known anyone to be killed by the volcano,” he shrugs. One active volcano is nothing compared with centuries of destruction wreaked by man.
In Senegal Adepitan finds that fish are, as the international sea shanty goes, increasingly scarce. That is due to the 116 foreign industrial fishing boats out there, turning it into fishmeal for western cattle and farmed salmon. Adepitan asks a fisherman who is to blame. “The sorry state of Africa is Europe’s fault,” he replies. “They take all of Africa’s resources. There’s another kind of slavery now.”
Next, Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, and to Lagos, where Adepitan was born. He visits some fellow polio survivors who, like him, are disabled and love sport. They career about on skateboards, or rather scraps of wood attached to wheels, playing the most impressive game of football I’ve seen. One man, Ortega, takes Adepitan out on his tuk-tuk, modified so it works with hand controls. He shows him the bridge under which he lives.
Then it’s on to a megachurch which looks more like a football stadium and can apparently hold a million evangelical Christians. Nevertheless, they are building a bigger one. A squirming encounter with a representative from the Redeemed Christian Church of God ensues. He says the church’s vision is to … help more Africans out of poverty? Nah. To build churches all over the world. Adepitan does ask him about the pastor’s private jet and notorious wealth, which he defends on the grounds that it is a necessity. Ducking both an invitation to join the church or probe further, Adepitan moves on swiftly. “If you get a rollercoaster I’ll think about it,” are his parting words, which feels somewhat satirical considering there is an actual funfair in the town surrounding the church headquarters. This world. You couldn’t make it up.
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