LAGOS 2 DAKAR: MY WEST AFRICAN ODYSSEY. (5E PARTIE – The Road to Guinea is Full of Surprises)

Continued from 4e Partie

Eight women, a few villagers, a sleepy driver, and a goat, meet along the way. What could go wrong? Murphy’s law.

I was advised by both Victor and Osman to purchase two tickets for my trip to Guinea. This was important because the cars and buses that make this trip are usually filled to the brim with passengers: the front seat (single) is shared by two people and the back seats (two rows), by eight people. Buying two tickets for the front seat would ensure that I had the seat to myself. It didn’t seem right that I would have to buy two tickets so as not to share my seat with another passenger, but comfort is the second most important thing during overland travel in Africa. Safety being the first.

I got to the bus park at 4:30am and it was already a mad house. The moment I arrived, I was beseeched by all sorts claiming to have the best drivers, best cars, and even best routes to Guinea. One thing I failed to mention in my last entry was the difficulty I had understanding the Sierra Leonean pidgin English. As a Nigerian, I pride myself on speaking, ok, at least understanding pidgin English, but this was unlike anything I was used to. I didn’t think I would labor to understand people in Freetown, but I definitely did. It basically is Creole.

Luckily for me, Osman’s driver was given strict instructions to help me navigate the madness and stay with me until departure or close to it. Unfortunately though, the driver was not the know-it-all I hoped he would be, so when faced with key decisions, he seemed to punt to me. I had to make the unpleasant call to Osman shortly after we arrived to ask certain pertinent questions like, “I know you warned me yesterday, but is it ok to take a bus? They will be leaving soon and the cars aren’t ready”. When he responded with a raised voice, “do not get on any of those buses. You absolutely do not want to do that”, I felt vindicated for waking him up.

Turns out those buses, despite their allure, are death traps. Cheap as I may be, I do not play accounting with my life. When we had a full car, we readied to set off. It was the driver, eight women and myself. Funnily enough, the car didn’t seem much better than the buses, but I trusted Osman and Victor. So in spite of the state of the car I entered, I felt ready for the road. Maybe I should have taken that bus.

About two hours after we started the journey to Conakry, Guinea, I awoke from my nap and noticed that my driver seemed to rock back and forth. At first I thought he was praying, being Muslim and all, but when he veered slightly off the road, my worst fear was realized: he was sleeping at the wheel. I yelled out, “manager, why you dey sleep nar yar?”, trying out my horrible Sierra Leonean pidgin. He responded with a guilty giggle, but denied that he fell asleep. I looked back to the women for support, but they were all sleeping so I decided to turn and face the driver in hopes that making him uncomfortable would keep him awake. It worked…or so I thought.

In what seemed like a show of force, the driver started speeding, probably thinking that speeding would prove to me that he wasn’t sleeping. Just before I could tell him to slow down, I noticed that the SUV that had passed us just moments ago slowed down somewhat dangerously in front of us. At the same time, a man on the side of the road seemed to be waving the SUV down, so I figured that the car was stopping for him. My dare devil driver, however, decided that he was going to pass. As he made his move, I saw a goat running across the path of our car. This little guy was literally running for his life. But it was too late. Screech. Impact. Stop.

We reversed a few meters to find a bloody, dead goat that still had its eyes open. I turned around to find all the women awake and asked, “una dey ok?” Just as I turned back, I saw about five men waiting just outside my door, staring at us. It could easily have been a scene from a horror movie. Without asking, they “helped” me open my door and asked that everybody come down. I never felt for my safety, but I instantly knew this was going to be a difficult negotiation.

To make matters worse, the owner of the goat was not around. An argument started amongst the villagers as a few men wanted to negotiate on the owners behalf. Since no progress had been made for about 15/20 minutes, the village elders decided to step in and help settle the matter. But we couldn’t do that on the roadside, so with two men carrying the dead goat and leading us, we followed everyone into a hut further inside the village.

Another forty or so minutes later, with the help of the elders, we agreed on a sum to be paid as compensation. I could not understand what was being said because they spoke in a local dialect that I suspected to be Mende. To be honest though, I stopped caring after a while. I just wanted to leave.

After they let us go, they were kind enough to help the driver and I temporarily fix the bumper that just got broken. We shook and bid each other goodbye, but I had a feeling that the car was worse than it seemed. I was right.

The car made funny noises each time the driver braked or turned the wheel. By this time, we had entered into Guinea and the roads were the worst I’ve ever traveled. It seemed obvious to everyone but the driver that there was a problem with the car.

I tried again, “me man, you for go slow. De motocar no good”. By this time, he must have had it with me telling him how to drive, so I wasn’t surprised when he ignored me. Just as I was cursing him under my breath, I saw the strangest thing: a mad man walking, with two dogs following along obediently. Nobody would believe this I thought to myself, a mad man has, not one, but two dogs.

Minutes later, the unthinkable happened. On a straight road, we heard a loud bang and then the car came to a screeching halt. The entire right wheel had fallen off. How could this be? The last village was about an hour behind us, and the next one was about forty minutes away, according to the driver. Here we were, stranded in the middle of nowhere. The ghost of the goat was not done with us.

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Cars full of passengers drove past and slowed down to look at us, but none of them stopped. Luckily, a guy on a motorcycle came by and agreed to take the driver to the next village to find a mechanic. While that was a good thing, I couldn’t help but feel a ton of pressure; I was the only man, left to protect eight women in the middle of a road, surrounded by bush somewhere in Africa. Suddenly, I felt the urge to pee.

One of the women, the only woman who spoke English, took an interest in me and wanted to know why I was traveling by road. “Is it for the adventure?”, she asked. I tried to play coy by asking in return why she would think I was only doing it for adventure. She laughed out loud and in her “American” accent, said “honey, it is obvious you don’t belong here”. She then laughed some more.

I couldn’t believe it; almost three months into my Africa travel – three months in the sun – and I was still easily made. Little wonder all the border agents took so much money from me. We talked about my travels and her trade business for a few minutes. After that, I decided to find a shade, so I turned to walk away and just as I did, she yelled out, “no be crase man be dat?” I looked over the car and saw the mad man with two dogs I laughed at about 30 minutes ago. He came back to haunt me.

He was still about 30 meters away, but the women became visibly panicked and slowly gravitated towards me. I wasn’t sure what I was to do, but I knew I had to project strength. The man seemed to mind his business, but when the women started screaming and running around the car to me, he interpreted that as a clarion call to act.

The mad man set his eyes squarely on us and started reciting some gibberish. My first thought was, “how is this happening to me again?”. One of the women grabbed the back of my t-shirt and yanked me back to reality. He was closer now. I tried to maintain composure. He hit the side of the car, still reciting whatever it was he was reciting. The women bolted into the nearby bush.

I summoned every ounce of courage I had and looked him dead in the eye, while moving ever so slightly away. I tried to make a stand, but this guy wasn’t intimidated. Once he made his way around the car to my side, my act was over. I ran into the bush, while the women laughed. I didn’t care. This was a mad man.

Thankfully the mad man didn’t follow us into the bush. After he and his dogs left, we came back unto the road; we were all covered in dust up to our waists. I tried shaking the dust off, but I would soon realize that that was unnecessary. It wouldn’t be the last time we would hide in the bush.

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There he goes

About an hour later, the driver returned with two mechanics. Our spirits were lifted. Unfortunately, this elation was short-lived when both mechanics looked under the car and shook their heads profusely. This was not something they could fix. We needed new parts. So the mechanics, along with the driver, hoped on their motorcycles and went back into town to buy the required spare parts.

I think we each resigned ourselves to the fact that this was going to be a long wait, because we all stopped talking to each other. I found a somewhat comfortable stone under a tree and assumed my waiting position. I wondered what my mum would think if she knew I was on the side of a road somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Guinea, waiting to get a car fixed and hoping nightfall would not meet me on the road.

I remembered my experience in Kenya and how exercise helped me pass time while in detention. So I went for a little walk. When I returned, I found the women talking animatedly and pointing to a huge lorry approaching. Our car was right in the middle of the road, so the question became, “how would the lorry pass?”.

All four men came down from the lorry looking menacing and demanded where the driver was. After we told them what had happened, they turned to look at me as if I was supposed to do something. When they saw that I was not going to do anything, they turned away in disgust and muttered somethings to each other. The driver got back in with one of his comrades, while the other two stayed on the road.

The women and I stood on the right side of the road, fully expecting the lorry to try to pass the car on the left side – the same side other cars had used, but in a shocking twist, and with no warning, the lorry, after having reversed, turned right and drove towards our side.

One of the women cried out, “nar yar e dey come oh!”. Wasting no time, they bolted back into the bush, with me close behind, but this time they went deeper in. I reckoned that I was at a safe distance behind a small tree, but because the side of the roads were slanted, the lorry became a bit unstable and tilted towards me. It felt like it was tipping over, so I turned and galloped over to the women as the small tree fell behind me. I felt like Rambo in First Blood. Again, the women laughed in concert, but this time I joined them. The ridiculousness of the entire episode was not lost on me.

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When we returned to the road, we were entirely covered in dust. We looked like ghosts. I thought that was funny, the women did not. At least two hours had passed since the driver had left for a second time, and now the women started to speak openly about potentially having to spend the night in a nearby village. We accepted that the car was not going to get fixed that day. I allowed myself to worry for the first time.

As fate would have it, a taxi with only one passenger came by. We flagged it down and found out they too were going to Conakry. I couldn’t believe our luck. The driver, sensing our desperation, charged an exorbitant fee, but I didn’t care. When three of the women also agreed, I ran to the car to get our belongings.

Our driver had locked the trunk, so I had to go through the inside of the car to get the bags out. It was quite a difficult task, but it was also the first chance I had to prove my worth to my fellow passengers, so I could not fail them. I cut myself in the process, but because of the adrenaline, I didn’t even notice my wound until we were a few minutes into the drive to Conakry.

In my excitement, I forgot that because of this unexpected expense, I was low on money, which meant that I may not have enough money to bribe the Guinean immigration officials. To make matters worse, everyone had told me that they were some of the worst. Minutes later, I would find out for myself.

In the back, seated next to three of the women I initially set out with, I spared a thought for the other women we left behind, and also for the people who had no choice but to travel this way. When compared to my situation, I wondered who I was, ‘sympathetic soldier’ or ‘poster boy for clueless privilege’. Whoever I was, I would have to deal with checkpoints manned by corrupt officials.

The first checkpoint post Sierra Leonean border was pretty standard; I got down from the car along with the other passengers, showed my passport and paid the “entry fee”. The second checkpoint was a bit less standard; because I used a Nigerian passport, the commander demanded I pay more than the “locals”. I protested knowing I was low on money; just as he started to raise his voice at me, some sort of commotion outside caught his attention. He pocketed the money I gave him and dismissed me. The third time, however, I was not as lucky.

When asked to show ID, I was singled out from the group and asked to pay more because of my Nigerian passport. These gendarmes looked menacing so I decided to pay and not argue, but instead of giving me back my passport, the soldier called his commander and handed him my passport. Taking one look at the data page, the commander motioned to me to follow him. As we walked, he asked where my luggage was and then ordered the driver to back up so I could identify my bagpack.

The commander brought me to a hut where four other officers joined us. I told them I was American, spoke to them in French, and smiled as much as I could, but nothing worked. I was ordered to empty all my belongings on the floor. It was Kenya all over again.

The commander told my fellow passengers that they could leave if they didn’t want to wait, but these women would not have it; one of them started a shouting match with the commander. I was later told that she said I was her son and would not leave me behind. When the commander questioned her statement, she cursed at him.

After they let me go, the women tried to raise my spirits, and while I was very grateful for their help, I knew from previous experience, that there would be at least two more checkpoints. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to hold up. Little did I know…I had my own personal army.

At the next checkpoint, before getting out of the car, the lady who spoke English told me to keep my passport in my pocket and give her an amount equivalent to what they had paid at every checkpoint. I was too sad to question her, so I obeyed, but when I got to the officer’s hut, I understood why.

The women literally formed a protective circle around me, paid my entry fee on my behalf, and flat out refused to let me show my passport when it was demanded. It was truly astonishing; there I was, scared of what may happen because of this show of defiance, but these women, who I didn’t have much regard for earlier in the day, were in an African style Mexican Standoff against Guinean gendarmes. All for a young man they barely knew.

It was pretty much the same story at the last checkpoint, save for the standoff. When the women refused to hand over my ID, the officer just shrugged and told everyone to get out of his hut. I had always known about the power of the African woman, but watching this unfold was something to behold.

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These women are my heroes

Upon getting close to Conakry, we heard that there had been student demonstrations earlier in the day and that two students were killed by government soldiers. The students retaliated by burning cars and stores. Basically, it was bedlam. This meant we had to take a different and longer route.

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Life is NOT easy.

After 14 hours on the road and quite simply the most bizarre experience, I finally arrived at the location that my host in Guinea was supposed to pick me up from. However, this was the beginning of a whole new set of challenges. Murphy wasn’t quite done with me yet.

Continued in 6e Partie

Song of the Day: I picked Prisoner, from the late great Lucky Dube, because so many things on this trip reminded me of when I got locked up in Kenya.

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