This post is a long time coming, but we figured we'd wait til the end of this segment of the trip and do one big post covering all 15 countries we've visited so far! Either that, or we've just been lazy. You decide...
I guess we'll start with the three European nations we hit en route to West Africa.
Belgium - Chocolate. That one's easy. Brussels's streets are line with chocolate shops, each one fancier than the next. Luckily, if you hang around long enough and look serious enough about possibly buying something, most of them will give you a free sample!
Gibraltar - "Apes." They're actually baboons, which are monkeys, but all the tour guides call them apes. They were brought over from Africa by army soldiers in the 1800s (I think) for...um, company? Now they run "wild" over the Rock of Gibraltar, except they seem to know exactly where the tourists with the food congregate. Saying Gibraltar's obsessed with them may be a stretch, but hey, we only spent a few hours there and don't really have any other candidates.
Spain - Ham. Or jamon, in the local parlance. Brussels's chocolate shops are replaced in Spanish cities with shops with huge haunches of pig hanging in the window, selling all manner of pork products! In Madrid there is even one emporium called the Museo del Jamon. (It made for a strange gateway to the Muslim world, where pork products are impossible to find...)
On to West Africa!
Morocco - "Berber artisan cooperatives." A.k.a....carpet shops. A guy starts guiding you through the medina (old town) and you think you're just gonna see the sights. Then he steers you to the amazing "artisan cooperative" where you are in luck the Berbers are in town, selling their amazing crafts, just for one day only! (Except that miraculously, they're still there when you walk by the next day, and the next.) Suddenly you find yourself trapped in a carpet showroom, with carpet after carpet being unfolded for your "viewing pleasure" and a slick salesman countering your every objection to purchasing ("Can't carry a carpet around the world? We ship to America!"). And then you start thinking, to your horror, "Hm, that carpet does look nice, and shipping it wouldn't cost so much..." You barely escape. Luckily, this only has to happen to you in one city (OK, maybe two...) before you catch wise and just refuse to even enter such places!
Mauritania - Tea. We thought Morocco was obsessed with tea until we got to Mauritania! A super-strong blend of green tea, fresh mint, and loads of sugar, decanted over and over until your tiny glass is just basically filled with tea foam, and drunk in three rounds over the course of an hour with your new friends, tea is an unavoidable but excellent Mauritanian experience.
Senegal - Pretending to have Internet access. In no other country have we entered so many buildings that had the word "cyber" or "internet" over the door, only to find that the place didn't even have electricity, much less computers or a connection! Senegal's sign-painters are apparently afflicted with an optimism that they will one day have Internet access, and are painting for the future, not the present...
The Gambia - "Happy couples!" For some reason, Gambians like to shout the phrase "Happy couples!" at pairs like me and Andy (i.e. whities)as we walk down the street. This is then often followed by some sort of fairly innocuous attempt to sell you something. We surmise that there was some sort of tourism-promoting PR campaign at some point that proclaimed The Gambia the place for happy couples.
Most of the time it didn't bother us, but one time we had just lost a bunch of money to a malfunctioning ATM (since recovered) and Andy was really mad. Upon emerging into the street, we heard someone call to us "Happy couples!" and begin their approach. Andy barked, "We're not happy right now, leave us alone!" And you'd better bet he did.
Mali - Mud. A lot of West African countries have houses made out of mud, but Mali takes mud art and architecture to a whole 'nother level. It has the largest mud-brick mosque in the world at Djenne, a town filled with other intricate mud-brick buildings. It also sells beautiful bogolan, or mud-cloth, dyed with different pigments derived from, you guessed it, mud. If you don't like mud, you might not enjoy Mali.
Burkina Faso - Mobylettes. The Burkinabe are crazy about their motorbikes, or mobylettes. The nicest store in Ouagadougou is a fancy mobylette emporium. Mobylettes swarm through the cities, and you see pairs that have crashed sprawled across intersections. But if, like me, you are reluctant to take one (without a helmet, down a bumpy dirt road!), people just don't understand.
Ghana - Fish. All of West Africa likes fish, but Ghana is especially obsessed and puts fish in everything. This was a real bugbear to us as we tried to eat street food, because almost every sauce had at least a hint o'fish in it. Every market has a huge, stinky fish section...and it doesn't matter if a town is many miles from the ocean or river--that's what dried fish is for! There is one toll booth in the middle of nowhere outside of Tamale in the north where women with huge baskets on their heads swarm passing tro-tros to sell people dried fish. How this situation evolved, I will never know, but everyone knows the fish-lady toll booth.
Togo - Pate. This is more learned from our Peace Corps friends than directly experienced, but Togolese people are really obsessed with the starchy staple they call pate. It's made of pounded corn and is fairly tasteless (unless you get the fermented version...bleh) but if they have to have a meal without it, they'll go a little crazy. We had to try it, of course...not bad, but we (like most other yovos we met in-country) don't really get what the fuss is about.
Benin - Celine Dion. You know those immortal lyrics, "Near...far...wherever you are..."? Wherever you are apparently includes Benin! We heard Celine playing at the bus office, at the Internet cafe...well, maybe that's it, but it made an impression. Celine seems to be fairly popular in much of West Africa, singing in French, English, and even Spanish.
Nigeria - Locks. OK, we know that Nigeria has a poor reputation for security, but it seems to have an excessive number of indoor locks. In the apartment we stayed in in Lagos, every room had its own lock and key, and in two different hotel rooms we were given a refrigerator with a lock on it. You know, in case those dastardly thieves tried to steal your yogurt...
Central African obsessions:
Cameroon - Beans and beignets. Or maybe that's just what we were obsessed with when we were there. But in every town you can find at least one lady frying up beignets (balls of fried dough) and selling them for 5 cents US apiece. The same lady also always has a big pot of beans (a bowl costs 20 cents) and another big pot of a warm sweet porridge (a cup costs 10 cents). This magical trifecta was our dinner many, many times.
Gabon - Speeding. Good lord, those Gabonese drivers drive fast. Our guidebook features warnings about reckless drivers for several African countries, but only in Gabon do we feel like we're taking our lives in our hands every time we get in a vehicle. And it doesn't matter if it's a taxi or a bus. In most other countries, if a car is driving fast, it will at least slow down as it goes through a village, but not in Gabon--the driver just leans on his horn to warn all the children/goats/other cars to get out of his way. (Honorable mention Gabon obsession: mayonnaise.)
There you have'em, the obsessions from this first leg of our Africa travels! Take them with a grain of salt, of course, and feel free to let us know if you agree or disagree!