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Geotag Icon Into Guinea-Bissau: drug barons, dogs’ heads and difficult decisions

Blog posted by on Nov 3rd, 2009
Street scene in Bula, Guinea-Bissau. © Listen to Africa

Street scene in Bula, Guinea-Bissau. © Listen to Africa

First off, here’s a thunderstorm for you, recorded yesterday afternoon in Guinea-Bissau’s capital, Bissau:

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While you’re listening to that, here’s a bit about our last week or so on the road:

If the border crossing into Casamance was good, the crossing into Guinea-Bissau was wonderful. The immigration officer smiled at us fondly, shaking her head and repeating: “Williams [Huw's surname], Rebecca – welcome to Guinea-Bissau!” The country – ranked the fifth poorest in the world by the UN – gets less than 5000 foreign visitors a year. Not many of them, we suspect, arrive by land, never mind by bicycle.

Across the road, at customs, a beaming man stood and beamed at us. His beam grew broader when we greeted him in Portuguese (I grew up in Brazil). We chatted. He beamed. We chatted some more. Finally, we gently reminded him he was on duty: did customs need anything from us?

“Oh, just a document,” he said. A passport? “No, a document. Like a paper or something.” We couldn’t think of any papers he might want to see. “Oh. Well, if immigration thinks it’s OK, then I suppose that’s fine,” he beamed, and we cycled into Guinea-Bissau.

There was another customs house in Sao Domingos, the first town we came to. Outside it, another beaming man beckoned to us. Did he need anything from us? “No,” he said. “Here in Guinea-Bissau, it’s no problem.” (He wasn’t joking. Here in Guinea-Bissau, an estimated one tonne of pure Colombian cocaine leaves the country every day; this little nation has been called “the world’s first narco-state“.)

He just wanted to know whether we needed anything in town – a restaurant, maybe? A restaurant sounded great, so he walked us to a place where “two steaks please” meant two steaks, two plates of chips, two fried eggs, two salads, two bowls of rice and a big basket of bread. We decided we loved Guinea-Bissau.

We wobbled off into suffocating humidity, and sheltered pointlessly under a tree when it finally broke into a rainstorm. Two peanut farmers joined us. They were cycling the 50-odd kilometres from their village to Ziguinchor in Senegal to sell their produce.

“Guinea-Bissau is good,” they said. “There is freedom here. But the government doesn’t have any money to buy our groundnuts.” So, having bicycles, they took the peanuts to Senegal. “The problem is that, when we get to Senegal, the soldiers often take all our groundnuts for themselves.” They just take them? No payment? “Yep.” They smiled wryly.

Bissau's port. © Listen to Africa

Bissau's port. © Listen to Africa

Once we couldn’t get any wetter, we set off and cycled through the rain – soon to be joined by Mario, a man in his early twenties cycling back to his village. Did we want to stay at the mission in his village? We did, so the three of us pedalled off to meet Beryl, a softly spoken American librarian-turned-farmer-turned-missionary with sparkling blue eyes.

Beryl, who had been in the village for four years and in West Africa for ten, invited us to make ourselves at home in his church – a room half filled with sacks of cashew nuts and decorated with a candle, a few wooden pews and some scribbled-on whiteboards. He offered us a tour of his project, taking us first to the cashew fields, where we met teenagers who were packing up for the day to have their shelled nuts weighed by Beryl. He showed us the cashew shelling shed, and the land that they were reforesting. He told us about his plans for slowly expanding cashew production over the next few years, and hopefully getting the villagers access to the fair trade market, making the project self-funding and giving villagers without land the possibility of a long-term income.

“People are waiting for me to build a hospital and a school – that’s what white men do. But that model really, really doesn’t work.” We silently cheered. So many of the aid projects in Africa are capital projects – new schools, new hospitals, new roads. New roads are built but not maintained, meaning yet more new roads have to be built a few years down the line. New hospitals are built, but the ongoing costs of medical supplies aren’t funded. New schools are built, but teachers aren’t paid. In this village’s school, there’s no money to pay two of the three teachers, so now one teacher takes every subject at every level.

Several of the teenagers we met were working the fields to pay for their own schooling; an improved income for villagers through agriculture means they can pay the teachers the government can’t or won’t pay and children can keep getting an education – whether it’s delivered in a building or under a tree.

An agnostic with secular instincts, the work of missionaries sparks mixed feelings in me – in theory. In practice, missionaries and religious organisations seem to be more-than-usually successful at improving the quality of life of the people they work with in Africa. Whether it’s because they live almost as frugally as those around them, or because they – like most rural Africans – live a life centred around spiritual belief, missionaries seem to be able to succeed where many organisations fail.

That evening, Mario came around to take us to his friends’ house (rural families in Guinea-Bissau tend to live under one large roof instead of in individual huts within a family compound as in Senegal). Mario’s friends, Julio and Quinta, lived with Julio’s brother and Quinta’s sister in a clean, spacious and sparsely decorated home. After talking for an hour or two and a quick lesson in Kriolu (Portuguese Creole), Huw and I said we should be leaving. Quinta suggested we first pray together.

As five people around us sat praying aloud in three languages for our health and well-being, I found myself thinking about the sentiment Ryszard Kapuscinski (yes, him again – we don’t have much space in our panniers for books…) wrote about in The Shadow of the Sun:

“The European in Africa sees only part of it, usually only the continent’s exterior coating, the frequently not very interesting, and perhaps least important, part of it. His vision glides over the surface, penetrating no deeper and refusing to imagine that behind everything a mystery may be hidden, and within as well.”

The next morning we found ourselves firmly back in the physical world, cycling through villages that seemed to have more bars than shops, and natural landscapes that gave the first tiny hints of the jungles to come.

At around midday, we were pulled over at a roadblock: a rope pulled taut across the road by unarmed men in plain clothes. The man flicking through our passports had an inch-long fingernail with the remnants of white powder stuck to it. This, we guessed, wasn’t an official roadblock. It was a friendly one though, and we were waved on with “um abraco” – a hug.

After accidentally falling asleep for four hours in the afternoon, we didn’t reach Bula until after dark, cycling through dusk past men with hunting guns, and other men carrying pigs or dogs tied around poles. For food? We we’ren’t sure but in Bula, we found out. The first restaurant we went into had only meat – no rice or chips. We were hungry – what kind of meat?

We were shown to the back of the restaurant, where the lid was taken off a pot to show what we are sure was a steamed dog’s head. We weren’t that hungry. In another restaurant, we plumped for the safe option: spaghetti. Unfortunately it came with unidentified scraps of dark meat which I pushed around my plate gamely.

Bissau's port. © Listen to Africa

Bissau's port. © Listen to Africa

We reached the capital, Bissau, the next morning, cycling past billboards advertising beer instead of the free prayer mats/fertiliser with every SIM card we’d become so used to in Senegal and The Gambia. Bissau is a strange place, architecturally – part colonial, part communist bloc and part art deco. It’s still scarred from the country’s long and bloody struggle for independence from Portugal (in which the Portuguese used some of the same tactics the US infamously used in Vietnam, including napalm and defoliants), and its shorter civil war just over ten years ago.

If rural Guinea-Bissau is the cheapest place we’ve been to so far, Bissau itself is the most expensive, and the inequality between the city’s (usually foreign) rich and (local) poor is vast and shocking. Ironically, it’s most obvious around Che Guevara Place, where shoeshiners and hawkers ply aid workers, expats, government ministers, the odd tourist and possibly drug barons for trade.

This square also gave us our first glimpse of the consequences of the cocaine racket on Guinea-Bissau’s people. Two shoeshiners – one of them obviously high – got into a fight in front of us; this was the first serious physical fight I’ve seen in Africa. When cocaine first washed up here, it was found by local fishermen who used the white powder to mark out a football pitch. Nowadays, people clearly know exactly what to do with it.

A few days later, we’re still in Bissau. Our trip’s taken a pause while we catch up on the latest news from Guinea – where over 150 protesters were massacred a little over a month ago – and look into our options.

We briefly thought about possible boat transport to bypass Guinea but, after seeing the state of the vessels in Bissau’s port, we decided we’d rather take our chances on land… The news we’ve heard from inside Guinea suggests that things are calm outside the capital, so we’ve decided to cycle through Guinea, avoiding towns and cities – although there is a small chance that we’ll get a lift through the country.

We’re leaving on Thursday and we’re not expecting to have internet access until we reach Freetown in a couple of weeks’ time but, as usual, we’ll be updating the microblog whenever we have mobile coverage (if we have it).

Leave a comment »

  1. Phew! Sounds like you two haven’t lost the knack of befriending everyone you meet ;)

    Best of luck for Guinea!

  2. Befriendings aren’t hard in Guinea-Bissau :)
    Thanks Harry.

  3. thanks for really really interesting update, good luck xx

  4. doing great job…travelling west africa on bicycle.
    keep it up

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