It was getting dark. We passed a little hill and began to cross a valley on an earth bund a bit above valley floor. A cloud of dust in front indicated a truck is coming towards us. Now both of us are approaching a narrow road bridge from either side. As the truck seemed much bigger in size and weight, our driver opted to let it cross the bridge first. We waited for it to clear the bridge, and waited and waited... It is not moving. May be, the truck driver wanted his assistant to clear something blocking the path, as a piece of log popped up. Noooo, more logs are popping out! The truck started sinking..., as in a slow motion film!

Sri Lankan train salvaged after 2004 tsunami
My first thoughts were that our minivan should have crossed the bridge first. Well, 'minivan' probably was the original intention of its designers. We were 19 adults plus 6 kids inside, and who knows how many more on the roof, hanging on to the meter or so tall pile of passengers' baggage. Each axle of our vehicle, proportionately, carried more weight than that of a 18-wheeler. This car looked more tattered than the Sri Lankan railcars that were recovered after the 2004 tsunami rolled them into a bog. It clearly qualified to be treated as a 'senior citizen'.

I got into this in Kankan, a big city in Guinea Sahel belt. I missed the day's first car to Kerouane by a whisker. Missed it in the sense that they could not pack me, the eleventh paying passenger, into that small station wagon. As the first passenger in the next car, I had the privilege of sitting in the front row, right by the driver, and could escape the all-round passenger pressure (the Guinea version of 'surround-sound' effect.)

The bridge did not collapse completely. Probably the huge load in the back of the truck, yet to reach the bridge, held it, but the driver's cabin was leaning heavily to one side. We jumped out and got close to the bridge. The concrete bridge deck had already lost a large piece long ago, and a series of logs had been placed across the steel bridge beams. The driver had not aligned with the beams the front tire, which is now hanging in air, among the logs broken like matchsticks. The front axle is resting in peace on a bridge beam, as if not to let anybody haul this beast out of its misery. It should not have been allowed to take this road with the bridge in such a bad condition. Welcome to Guinea..., where everyone is a government unto oneself.

Guinea taxi with a small load
Sitting next to the bridge, I took stock of my precarious situation. I was the only non-local in the van, still some 1300km away from my destination in Ghana. This day, I had spent 7 hours sitting in this van for it to fill up with passengers, and then with gasoline. Our driver had somehow beaten the thousands of motorbikes lining up at the gas station. The day before, I waited 4 hours in Labe terminal to find a taxi who had enough gasoline to cover the 400km trip. Then came the excruciating 16 hours, packed with 14 others in a station wagon. A third of that trip was on a recently laid asphalt where the car would reach rocket speed, coughing, puffing and belching smoke. The rest was one long chessboard: of asphalt and of red laterite soil, with bone-cracking jumps between them. Thanks to that great start to this 'ultimate marathon', my body was like a just kneaded bread-mix, which allowed me easily handle what has so far been a rough-seas-ride from Kankan.

Food wise, I became much wiser after the initial 'Ramadan' days in Freetown. My first meal in Freetown was a $4 rip-off, from a formal restaurant. The next day, I landed the same type of food with a better taste, for a tenth of the price, at a pavement food vendor, during my long walk around the city. I simply could not find a food vendor in my neighborhood for two days and had to replace lunch with the sweet-potato-like tuber they call 'chinese'. Hearing that, my friend's housekeeper took me to a 'restaurant' just 200m from home. I protested to the girl the lack of a billboard at the entrance. "Can't you see the curtain at the entry?" My cultural baggage had prevented me from peeking through a curtained doorway. Their shacks can't spare a curtain unless it is meant for something else. I never missed a lunch since. On long trips, however, I had the habit of carrying some fruits. In Guinea long-distance transport, the all-round pressure applied on that tiny space they call a 'place' (it is about half of a seat) your oranges come out as pulp, not to speak of bananas. My Sierra Leone friend's very thoughtful gift of a plastic bottle of peanut butter survived barely three days travel in Guinea. So, roasted or boiled-and-dried peanuts became my survival food.

Health wise, I am in decent shape. Since I now eat mostly street food, I strictly follow the advice I got in 1995 from my fellow amazon boat rider, another survivor of Araguaia massacre, and regularly eat papaw with the seeds. Unlike in South America, papaw is not highly marketable here and they don't bother to spray the fruit. They are as sweet as what we plucked from the garden in my childhood. If I get a decent lunch, I would only eat fruits for dinner and breakfast. That helps me get the 6-hour uninterrupted sleep I need for my brain to function. I had to suffer only once or twice, when I was obliged to finish off huge dinner plates to placate the hosts. And, my daily dose of 2-3 hours of walking gets my muscles in shape for the acrobatic movements needed to get in and out of those oxidized, jam-packed minivans providing urban transport in Freetown.

Work wise, I never expected to get as far as I got in Guinea. In my attempt to see the Sahel Belt of Guinea on the left bank of Niger River, I got trapped in the little town of Tougue for lack of transport. I then sought out local farmer federation leaders and somebody led me to the acting President who is also an agronomist with the local government. To reinforce what he could understand from my pathetic French, he called for a local university student who spoke perfect English. The next day, we had an informal discussion at a local shop with a few elders but translations between Fula (local language), French, Krio (Freetown language) and English became too cumbersome. Having tasted the disposition of people to talk about traditions, I sought the help of Honey-collectors' Federation in Labe. At Lymboco, where the time does not seem to have passed, the village sage too took part in the conversation and received my gift of a banknote with a prayer. At Kankan, the offer of help did not materialize in time and I decided to advance to Kerouane.

During my second week in Cote d'Ivoire, my friend took me to a well-respected Senofou rainmaker near Korhogo. The villagers said they have no Climate Change issues here, as the rainmaker and the village chief combine to solve the problems through rituals and social control. However, seeing how the poor rainmaker suffered through the long chain of translations, from Senofou to French to English, I decided to put off interviews till I work more on my French.

Kashyapa A.S. Yapa
March 2017, Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa.

If you would like to start a discussion on this theme, please write to me.

Back to INDEX