It all started so well…
I probably had the best cycle ride of my life, peddling through Casamance’s deep and dense, green-green-green forest; passing villages which were full of friendly people, some of whom even gave me a free mango when I was knackered and lost.
From Ziguinchor I headed east to the Isle De Carabane in the Casmance River, where I chilled for a couple of days, and saw the most amazing sunset of my life. The two banks of the river formed a tree-lined horizon, in between which the sun sunk deep into the water, dragging every cloud with it as it went. Everything was orange; every cloud, every drop of water, and every inch of the sky. The whole of nature seemed to be on fire.
The next day I left Casamance thinking that the Foreign Office’s warning against visiting that region were totally unwarranted. Yes, there was a high military presence and a number of checkpoints, but I did not see any signs of trouble and everyone seemed relaxed.
The journey to Bissau started slowly. I waited an hour for a boat, which took a further six hours to cover the 50km to Ziguinchor. I waited there for a couple of hours more. By the time we crossed into Guinea Bissau it was already early evening.
I noticed the change as soon as we entered that small country, when we passed a tribal man who stared at our shared taxi from the side of the road. He looked eight foot tall! He was naked, apart from a grass skirt, and was painted all over with a cloudy white, clay like substance. (I think this is typical of boys during their initiation period).
The person I have just mentioned didn’t move an inch. But another boy, who didn’t look at all tribal, was not so wise. Our vehicle sped down the left hand side of the road, whilst he stood on the opposite side. Rather than stop walking, or turn back, that young lad upped his pace. He sprinted out in front of us! Of course, our driver slammed on his breaks. It seemed to happen in slow motion. The brakes squealed, our bodies jolted forwards, and the young lad’s hip crashed into the bonnet. His body flipped round. It flew up. And then it was gone. Time stood still.
I was in a state of shock. “It's his fault”, I thought. “He shouldn't have run out. Why did he run out? He could have just stayed where he was. It’s not our fault. Don't worry about it, Joss. It’s not your fault.”
Whilst thinking these harsh, cold thoughts, which protected my psyche from guilt or harm, the driver swung his door open and jumped out. He picked the boy up, ushered me into the back, and then put the boy into my seat. The wheels screeched as the driver performed a quick U-turn with his foot pressed down on the accelerator. We sprinted down the dusty road, dodging potholes without slowing down, and shot towards the small hospital in the previous town.
I didn’t sleep that much that night. My nerves calmed with time, but my skin did not. As I lay in the only hotel in that small town, a dark and dusty place where a small number of rooms circled an overgrown courtyard, I felt every inch of my body start to itch. I lathered my body with mosquito-repellent, but it made no difference. I used another type of repellent, but to no avail. I wrapped myself tight inside my sheet, but still I felt myself being bitten.
I found out the next morning that I had been attacked by an army of microscopic biting ants.
We headed back to the scene of the crime, with a couple of cops and the boy himself. The boy seemed to be totally fine. God knows how – he must have been really lucky. The policemen tracked down the boy’s father. One of them drew a silly diagram. He took random measurements, like from the top of the cars wheel to the spot on the ground where there was a little patch of blood. The other policeman asked questions.
Alpha, a Gambian who was a fellow passenger in the car explained to me that people were very ‘backward’ here, and that it wasn't like the other countries I had visited; it was incredibly underdeveloped, full of people who could not be trusted, and who would always try to do you injustice. He said that we rushed straight to the hospital the night before because if a tribesman had seen us, they would have attacked us all. He said that we couldn’t have returned without the coppers – it wouldn’t have been safe…
I arrived in Bissau, 150km from Carabane, 31 hours after I had left, and found the only budget hotel in town. It was the grottiest establishment of my trip. A dark corridor snaked between the wooden cubicles which constituted ‘rooms’. There were no windows. The electricity was only turned on for four hours each day. And prostitutes did a brisk trade each night.
My troubles did not stop there.
Whilst I knew that the banking system would not be as good as in Britain, I was still shocked to discover that were no ATMs in the entire country. Nowhere accepted debit cards. So I did the only thing I could, and e-mailed home for some money to be sent to me via Western Union.
The next day, therefore, I needed to check my emails to see if the money had been sent. And so, on seeing a sign for a cyber cafe, I edged through a hotchpotch mixture of muddy market stalls, with wooden tables and plastic roofs, which had been wedged between the road and a block of shops. As soon as I entered, I was barged in my ribs and pressed up against the side of a wobbly stall. I turned side-on, to let the man through, and then walked on. But a few seconds later, with Alpha’s words ringing in my ears, I decided to check my pockets. My wallet was missing! I had lost about £20, my debit card, driving license, and some passport photos.
I rushed back to the scene of the crime, and shouted: “The boy! That boy! Where has he gone? He’s stolen my wallet!”
A sea of blank faces stared back at me. A few people shook their heads. Others ignored me. Perhaps they thought I was mad. Or perhaps they were just confused. The official language here is Portuguese, although only a third of the population speak it. Most of the people in Bissau speak Creolu. Next to no-one speaks English.
But one person, a Nigerian named Williams, understood me. He echoed Alpha’s sentiment, that you couldn’t trust the people here, and that it's their own fault that their country will not progress. Whereas I had doubted Alpha, by this point I was convinced. But I decided not to take his advice and go to the police, since I did not trust them one bit.
My mind became focused. I checked my emails, got my Western Union code, then went to collect my money from the bureau in town. But their system was down. I returned later, but it was still down. In between, I found another office, but there system was also down. In fact, the only thing I was able to do that day, was buy a visa for Guinea Conakry. But even that was a chore. I needed new passport photos, to replace the stolen ones, and practically every photo shop in town seemed to be closed.
I woke up the next day with two objectives; getting my money, and heading off to an island on the one o'clock boat. I was one of the first customers at the bureau and was served quickly. But the woman just tutted, shook her head and scowled. A man who spoke English told me that they had no record of my transfer.
I emailed home, and was told that the process could take 24 hours. So I waited until 24 hours had passed, then returned to the bureau once more. It was hot, crowded and frantic; full of people who had been unable to collect their money the day before. I kept hold of my money belt at all times, for fear of another theft. But when I was finally served, I was told that my money had been sent to Guinea Conakry, instead of Guinea Bissau! So I returned to my hotel-cum-brothel, seven hours after I had left, having failed to collect my money, and having missed the boat as well.
When I arrived I had a pleasant surprise. I was told that my wallet had been handed into a shop, and so my Ghanaian neighbour took me there. We returned to the building next to the market where I had been pickpocketed, and climbed the stairs to the first floor. Then we waited. We waited for three hours in all. The boy who had my wallet had been held up, first by a circumcision ceremony (male thank god) and then by the rain.
In the meantime, I chatted to the Nigerian market trader who had spent a whole day tracking me down, and the Ghanaian who had walked me to that shop. They told me that when parliament was debating whether or not to allow mobile phones into the country, one person had asked said: “What if you are in a club with your girlfriend, when a boy sees you and rings your wife, who comes and catches you red handed?” After that question, the vote went against mobile phones.
At half-time in a very entertaining under-17 World Cup match, the boy arrived. We all went into the office of a man who, judging by the amount of money he had on him, was not rich only by African standards but by Western ones too. From the translation, I gathered that the boy was claiming the thief had dumped my wallet in his shop, that he had come and gone twice in an attempt to find me, and the he wanted £200.
The office man, who seemed to be negotiating for me, said that I should give the boy what I could. So I gave him £5, which was the most the Ghanaian had said I should pay. The office man gave him another £5 too. It left me with just £11 to my name. I felt guilty that I couldn't give the Nigerian something as well, but he said that he only helped me because I’m British - a member of the Commonwealth, just like him.
So my time in Bissau has been memorable, frustrating and (in the end) uplifting as well. On the plus side, I’ve seen all four of the sites of interest in the town, which took about fifteen minutes in total, and I’ve watched an England football match in a hut made from woven mats.
Anyway, I'm off to try to get my money (again). Hopefully this time it will be more successful. If not, I do still have £5 to live off of. Hmm…
WEST AFRICA BLOGS
Back in the summer of 2003, aged 21, I went travelling on my own for the first time. The emails which I sent home, edited versions of which appear here, were my debut efforts at real writing.
Looking back, my trip around West Africa was eventful to say the least. In these blogs you'll encounter rampaging prostitutes, charismatic scammers, debilitating illness, and petite crime. But shining through it all is a real sense of humanity. The warmness of the Africans, their friendly nature and welcoming personalities, struck me almost every single day. Hopefully they'll leave a similar impression on you too...