The day after I last wrote, a bright orange Land Rover rolled into Bissau, carrying Lynn, Tim and Will of Atlantic Rising – an excellent 32,000km journey circumnavigating the Atlantic, creating an educational network and documenting what will be lost if climate change predictions come true.
We’d previously been in touch with Atlantic Rising about the precarious situation in Guinea and our dilemma in common, and they’d tentatively mentioned the possibility of giving us a lift across the country if they decided to go ahead and traverse it. When they arrived in Bissau, they were still waiting to hear back from a shipping company before making their decision.
In the meantime, the obvious thing to do was to all go to a stunning, white-beached island in the Bijagos archipelago in search of salt water hippos.I’m not going to write about the boat to Bubaque, its bottles of cana and palm wine, the exuberant Sierra Leonean hair dresser who slapped all the drunk men she saw around the face, the Norwegian Boris Johnson, the camping on the porch of an environmental organisation’s building, the night swimming in phosphorescence under the stars, the jellyfish sting, the tiny wooden pirogue carrying pigs and goats and chickens and us onwards to Orango island, the running aground on a sand bank, the long walk through the shallows to shore with all of us carrying pigs and bags and panniers on our heads, the unsuccessful meeting with the village chief to get permission to camp, the expensive hotel and our subsequent lack of funds to take the tour to go and see the hippos, the walk through the mangrove forests, the warm sea, the endless white beach, the journey back to Bubaque in the same boat but with five new bovine companions, the waking up to church bells on Bubaque or the long pirogue journey back to Bissau. It will only make you jealous and there’s already too much to say in this post. But we have put up this this gallery and some sounds:
Instead, I’ll start this story when we’re back from the islands, in Bissau again, where Will, Tim and Lynn decide to go ahead and drive through Guinea, and where we spend our days in the wifi-casino and our nights in the mosquito-infested car park a kind man offered to us all as a camp ground. We meet a French radio journalist working on a story about the ill-treatment of small children in many of Senegal’s maraboutic schools. We get to know the Guinean security guard in our camp ground, and his fury at Africa’s poverty. We research and talk about the latest developments in Guinea. We re-pack the Land Rover so it can absorb our eight panniers, two bikes and large wooden box, carefully hiding any journalistic-like kit deep in the heart of the chaos.
Eventually, we all climb in and drive towards the border-that-isn’t-marked-on-the-map between Pitche in Guinea-Bissau and Farafenni in Guinea. The landscape changes, the people change, we whizz through.
We arrive at the border just before dark. Customs is lounging in a reclining chair on one side of the road. Immigration is on the other side, sitting primly at his desk. We start traipsing between them.
Is it OK to camp here?
“You can camp over there,” says Immigration with a scowl.
“You can camp over here,” says Customs with a smile, and he calls two children to pull weeds from a patch of ground.
We need to leave at dawn so we can keep a rendez-vous with a man from the Guinean government’s agricultural department, which has offered Atlantic Rising a motorbike escort through the country, so we ask if it’s possible to go through the formalities now and leave at first light.
“Absolutely,” says Customs.
“Absolutely not,” says Immigration.
“Don’t listen to him – you are free,” says Customs.
“Don’t listen to him – he only deals with goods,” says Immigration. “I am responsible for people and you are people. If you stay here, we will keep your passports and you will have to wait until we open in the morning.”
What time do you open in the morning?
“Time?” laughs Customs. “We are in Africa. Here in Africa there is no money and there is no law and there is no time.”
“Eight o’clock,” says Immigration.
Eight o’clock is too late for us, so eventually we all agree that we can do the formalities now and get our passports back as long as we camp in no man’s land, out of sight of Immigration, so that he cannot be considered in any way responsible for us. We set off, with a huge bag of peanuts given to Huw by a woman (who lives on the Customs side of the road) whose water container he filled up at the water pump.A couple of kilometres later, we reach a village and military post. Is it OK to camp here? You are so welcome! A space between the huts is cleared, water is brought, chairs are offered, conversations are had and we cook vegetable stew on an open fire, drinking palm wine from a plastic bottle.
At first light, we’re off, bumping along the track, sploshing through cavernous puddles, steering through bushes and branches and forest debris. When we reach the river, little cloud-like wisps of mist are just dissolving from its surface in the early morning sun. A clunking great machine tilts in the water at the near bank, attached to a chain stretching between the two banks.
We look at the mist, inspect the ferry, talk to the policeman living there. “How are things in Guinea?” I ask. “You know,” comes the answer, “Africa is so hard. There is always war or poverty or misery. There is always one, we are never free.”The Land Rover is negotiated onto the ferry and Tim, Lynn and I get on the ferry. Huw and Will paddle a dugout canoe to photograph the crossing from the water. On the ferry, half of the passengers sit down and gossip in the shade while the other half start hauling the chains that pull the ferry across the water. With Tim working up a good sweat on behalf of the team, Lynn and I mentally join the sitting down crew – Lynn to take photos and me to record the clunking and crashing of chains. An old man comes up and looks me in the eye. “You are very strong,” he says. Nothing else. I take the hint, put down the recorder and start hauling.
On the Guinean side, off the ferry, we reach our first checkpoint. They look confused by our arrival, and a half-hearted preamble to a demand for money peters out before it’s really begun.
At Farafenni, Tim does the border formalities and in no time we’re in the village, breakfasting on peanut balls, honey and sardines. By lunch time, we’ve seen hills (hills! It’s been so long…) and bumped far enough along the track to reach the first major town, where we’re meeting the government escort.
(We don’t know whether having a government escort in Guinea is a good or a bad thing at the moment, but this worry turns out to be academic anyway; our escort whizzes ahead and we barely catch a glimpse of him all afternoon.)
Infinitely varied and stunning landscapes fly past the windows: rivers and hills and tidy villages and forests. And for all of us, there’s a bit of regret here, not to be able to slow down and breathe in this extremely beautiful country. Guinea with its Fouta Djallon highlands where so many of the region’s big rivers originate. Guinea with its forests and rivers, its bauxite and iron ore. Guinea, whose people seem more conscious than any other West Africans we’ve met of just how much they don’t have.
Guinea, which was the only Francophone African nation to stick two fingers up at de Gaulle and vote for independence in his 1958 referendum. (“We prefer poverty in freedom to riches in slavery,” said Ahmed Sekou Toure, and that’s what Guinea got; when France pulled out, it pulled out all of its aid, its civil servants, its doctors, its businessmen, engineers, teachers and administrators. What it couldn’t pull out – files and records and furniture and bulbs and medical supplies and windows and crockery – it smashed and burned.)
Guinea, which at the moment of independence, had only six graduates and a primary school system that educated just 1.3 per cent of its children. Guinea, which then watched – and fled – as Toure descended into a world of paranoia and purges and fear and executions, in which football results and cholera outbreaks were all proof of plots against him. Guinea, whose next, also long-serving, president, Lansana Conte, brought the country into repute as the second (equal) most corrupt country in the world after Haiti (Transparency International, 2006).
And Guinea, whose new “President” – an opportunistic young army captain called Moussa Dadis Camara who came to power in a coup hours after Conte died – seems to have ordered the murder, mutilation and rape of hundreds on September 28th (the Human Rights Watch report is here – although I haven’t managed to stomach reading the whole thing) and is now reported to be stirring up ethnic tensions, training ethnic militias and generally creating the whole range of conditions needed for another West African civil war, which some commentators are expecting to break out imminently.
Which is why Peace Corps and French embassy staff and mining company executives have all been pulled out, and why we are now in a car instead of on bikes, and why the country is now flying past the windows.
At Boke, the main town of the region, we finally catch sight of our escort. He tells us there is a choice of hotels. One has a “court” – a courtyard, we suppose – so we choose that one, for camping-related reasons. The court turns out to be literally a court – a youth centre’s basketball court. We set up camp there and then find a restaurant in which Huw asks whether there is a toilet, is told “yes, there is,” and is shown to a bush on the pavement. We are serenaded by musicians, we watch an expert game of boules and we fall asleep on the basketball court under fluorescent floodlights which blot out the starry sky.
It’s morning. It’s still dark and we’re already packed and caffeinated. Today, we’re taking the main road from Boke to the Sierra Leone border, past the turnoff to the capital, Conakry. This is where the problems will be if there are any; this is where all the army checkpoints are (amazingly, we haven’t seen one checkpoint so far).
Our escort is nowhere to be seen. When we’re just about to leave, he turns up on a motorbike, in clothes that look suspiciously like pyjamas. He gives us directions and we thank him for his help and he goes back to bed, probably.We leave, we get a puncture, and we get it immaculately, excruciatingly fixed. We carry on through this beautiful country, across bridges and through villages and over hills and past fields that are being slashed and burned.
The checkpoints begin an hour or two’s driving away from the turn off to Conakry. At the first one, we’re nervous and not nearly self-assured enough; we eventually hand over a tiny part of the money that’s demanded – our second bribe of the journey, and Atlantic Rising’s first. But we get into our stride and, at the next six or seven checkpoints, no money changes hands. Some of the soldiers are gentle and talkative and interested, others are belligerent and steaming drunk and demanding money, and we keep smiling and handing over papers and official-looking documents and smiling and standing our ground and slowly we inch forward towards the border. (In the middle of all this, the immaculately-fixed puncture blows, so we whip it off, put the spare on and quickly carry on.) It feels edgy, but it never tips over into feeling dangerous.
Just before dark, we reach the border – and suddenly we’re in Sierra Leone.
It’s a party. The Sierra Leonean side of the border is a party. Our hands are shaken, our backs are slapped, we’re handed all sorts of mobile phone numbers, Will and Huw have found wives, I’ve found a new best friend with a gold front tooth, and we haven’t even left customs yet.
We finally extricate ourselves and drive to the nearest town, where it’s dark but filled with little paraffin lamps that throw half-shadows on the faces of all the people sitting at their roadside stalls and moving about in the dark. “Hey, IMATTs!” someone shouts at us, and we get lost and a man climbs into the car and sits on Tim’s lap and shows us to a hotel, where we eat goat and rice, drink Star beer and start relaxing into Sierra Leone.
The next day, we drive along another dirt road towards Freetown, flying through villages, being offered gold and diamonds by road workers and bananas and cassava by villagers who gather around the car at checkpoints. There’s no angling for money here; just signs and billboards telling us to “help fight corruption” and “report corruption” because “corruption kills development”.
The road turns into tar and the public information signs carry on all the way into Freetown: “Be a patriot – pay your local tax” and “Protect your baby – test yourself for HIV during pregnancy” and “Nor piss ya” [“don’t piss here” in Krio, we presume] scrawled in white paint across tempting walls.
In central Freetown we hit traffic jams and traffic jams and eat frozen yoghurt and fried cassava and dried plantain as the car inches its way along until we arrive in a smart guesthouse that’s far too expensive for us but it has a fan and a bath and tomorrow we’ll look for somewhere else but today we’ll just stay here, and we’ll slow down and we’ll catch up with ourselves and we’ll sleep.