It's been a while since my last, rather eventful email, which I sent from Guinea Bissau. I had only gone to that country to visit a group of beautiful islands off the Atlantic coast. But having been sent to one port and then another, and having been given a series of different ferry times, I decided that the existence of transport was nothing but a myth. I turned around and headed up country…
After a couple of taxi drivers tried to rip me off, a kind man took me to the bush taxi station for free. This was to mark the end of the most frustrating period of my trip. For whilst Bissau was memorable, for all the wrong reasons, it was also frustrating. And the rest of the country proved much more enjoyable. For the first time I was able to put my bag in a bush taxi without paying a fee (or a white person premium). And I had a pleasant few days in a beautiful town surrounded by forests and cornfields, where I saw a frenetic game of football played out by men who were wearing jelly shoes.
Of course a part of me enjoyed the chaos of Bissau. In Africa you have to accept that chaos. You have to it embrace it. You have to become one with it – it’s all part of the fun. Otherwise you might as well just wear a suit and sit behind a desk in London or New York or Sydney or any other materialistic hellhole.
And this part of my trip was ‘real travel’. In fact, I didn't see a single person in the whole of Guinea-Conakry or Guinea-Bissau who looked like a tourist. When people approach me, they didn’t ask, “Why are you in Africa?” or “Are you a tourist?”, but “Who are you working for?” Tourists are as rare as rocking horse poo here. But aid workers are normal, especially in Kissidogou; a town full of refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Herds of bright white, brand-new, 4-wheel-drive jeeps have taken over that place; juxtaposing with the dusty streets and dusty people they pass, like aliens visiting the fifteenth century.
The natives in this region can be best described as 'naked and noisy'. Noise is prevalent all over; car-horns are set to screech, and shouting is as normal as talking. Boys urinate anywhere, as if putting on a show. Breast feeding in public is the norm. And showering is also a public affair. On one occasion, I saw two naked men showering in full view of a grandstand full of football fans!
I left Guinea-Bissau and headed for Conakry, wedged in between two of the biggest ladies the world has ever known; caressed by warm blubber, ridged, and struggling to breathe. We broke down so many times that it took us three hours to travel 15km. The only time we didn’t break down was when I was expecting us too; driving through a puddle that was so deep it came up to my thigh. It was as if we were in a boat, and the road was actually a river! Water flooded in under the bottom of the door, and the engine gave off some funky smells, but our vehicle managed to power on through.
The areas between nations, it would seem, are a sort of no-man’s land. Neither nation, on either side of the border, takes responsibility for this space. Which is why, perhaps, there was no bridge or engine-powered boat over the 100m-wide river which separated Guinea-Bissau from Guinea-Conakry. Instead, one boat, capable of holding one vehicle at a time, was attached to both shores by a metal cable. Two boys worked a slow pulley system to drag that float across. It took the best part of an hour to make the short crossing. We had to wait four hours to board.
Finally we made it across. After thirty-five hours in total I made it to Conakry itself. It was there that I found out there had been a coup in Bissau shortly after I’d left. This is from The Independent’s website:
“ARMY SEIZES POWER IN GUINEA-BISSAU BY BARRY HATTON IN LISBON
“15th September 2003
“The army in the west African country of Guinea-Bissau staged a bloodless coup yesterday, arresting President Kumba Yala and detaining government ministers.
“Troops were deployed at strategic points in Bissau, the capital of the former Portuguese colony, to enforce a curfew, but there were no reports of shooting or injuries. An army spokesman said a military committee would govern until elections could be held. The Portuguese government said it regretted the coup and urged the military to "return to constitutional legality".
“The coup, announced by radio to the nation of one million, came amid mounting political and social unrest. The country is one of the poorest in the world and public-sector workers have not been paid for six months.
“Elections promised by Mr Yala were postponed last week for the fourth time this year, causing widespread anger.
“The chief of staff of the armed forces, General Verissimo Correia Seabra, in a brief radio interview, accused Mr Yala of causing "political instability" that undermined the country's development.”
I stayed at the ‘Mission Catholique’; a hotel where real life nuns hid in every nook and cranny. At first I found this highly amusing. Then I realized that the nuns were just normal people wearing silly clothes. And that’s not so unusual in Africa!
The Mission Catholique was, however, the first place for two weeks which had a mirror. I was shocked to see my own face. I had grown an afro and a beard, which made me look like an ape.
The first thing I noticed about Conakry was the number of army people, who were seemingly stationed on every single street. It seemed to me that there were more soldiers than civilians in Conakry, which made it necessary to carry my passport and vaccination certificate at all times, so as to avoid having to pay bribes. The second thing I noticed was the number of governmental buildings. I'm sure that some of them repeated themselves; that there were two ministries for the economy, three ministries of forestry, and so on…
The banks almost all had MasterCard signs, but none of them accepted MasterCard. That was mighty annoying, given that my Visa card had been cancelled. In the end, I was shown to the central bank of Guinea, where, despite the military presence, I was allowed to walk straight in. I couldn't get any money there either. Fortunately, I received another money transfer without any problems.
Later that day I decided to go to go to Camp Boiro; a site where atrocities had been committed by the previous government. The guard at that site, like those at the central bank, allowed me to walk straight in. It was quite a civil place; full of woman, children and Coca Cola signs.
It didn't take long for an army man to come and talk to me. And so, after my experience with the friendly soldier in Banjul, I tried to strike up a conversation. But this man didn't seem to have a friendly bone in his body. He insisted that I join him in the site office, where it was explained that I had gone into an army camp. I apologized, explained why I was there, and said that I’d leave. But the soldier shook his head.
There were about ten soldiers in that small room by this point, all of whom had gathered around me in a circle. Communication was hard; the soldiers spoke very little English, and they made no compensation for my lack of French. They merely explained that Guinea-Conakry is a francophone country, and that in francophone countries people speak French!
The soldiers asked me for a pass, and so I showed them my visa. They asked to empty my bag, and took particular interest in my camera (which doesn’t even work). With these two items on the table, and with proceedings at a standstill, I got out my guide book to explain what I was doing. But the soldiers grabbed that book, and I instinctively pulled it back.
Twenty stony eyes shot in my direction, steely and harsh, icy and cool. My heart dropped. Time stood still. You could have heard a pin drop.
I let out a little giggle. I smiled and laughed. Shoulders fell. Breaths exhaled. The atmosphere lightened.
An older, fuller-bodied man wearing beige clothes came in, took my book, and left. He was, I presumed, the boss. And so from that moment on, I felt comfortable ignoring everything the young soldiers were spewing at me in quick-fire French. I ignored the dweeb who had accosted me in the first place, who wanted a bribe. And I waited for the big man to return. When he did, he shook his head, grinned, and allowed me to leave. It was all over within ten slow minutes.
From Conakry I visited the Fouta Djalon; a hilly region of outstanding natural beauty. The owner of the chalet I stayed in was one boisterous character. When I told him I was 21, he emitted the heartiest laugh I have ever heard, and said that he lived at home until he was 35, that people in Africa were very dependent on their parents, and “Would I like to marry his younger sister?”
The banana fritter woman in Kissidogou also wanted me to marry one of her daughters. As it was, the only thing I took from that town was a Guinea football shirt. I had needed an extra shirt for a while, but had found the Senegalese version a bit too common. My football shirt also seemed a little less political than the 'I love my president' t-shirts that vary from country-to-country, and the Osama Bin Laden t-shirts that do not. Sadam Hussein t-shirts, whilst popular in Mali, are slightly rarer.
The last thing I did, before heading on to Mali, was to have a haircut at a roadside shack. Having rejected a ‘Paul Gascoigne’, and having paid my twenty pence, the barber attacked my hair with a pair of eager scissors. But he left the back virtually untouched. Finally, after remedying this with my pen-knife, I looked human again. For looking like a chimpanzee is only fun for so long, and then it does get a bit annoying.
Take care of yourselves,
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...