Travelling in style

We achieved the record for a ‘sept places’ (seven-seater) the other day. This is considered the most luxurious form of transport in this part of West Africa. It consists of a Peugeot or Renault estate car slightly modified with an extra row of seats where the boot should be. It is designed to seat seven plus the driver.

If you are seated in the front or middle rows, it is fairly comfortable, provided of course that you don’t object to clouds of dust billowing in through the uncloseable windows, chickens pecking around your feet, or spray from the driver’s spittle occasionally flying in your face.

If you are seated in the back, however, it is less luxurious. You then have to choose either to bend your legs double in front of you so that they are folded tight against your chest (and these cars never stop during the journey, so your knees may be folded for seven hours straight, as mine were on our first sept places journey), or to put your legs on the floor and instead have your head rammed up hard against the metal ceiling. Shifting from one buttock to the other, moreover, to avoid contracting haemmorhoids from the rock-hard seats, is impossible – there is no room.

The middle row is only comfortable, of course, if the driver sticks to the 7-person limit. Often, however, he cannot resist the temptation to fit a few more in. Sometimes there are four people in a row designed to squeeze in three, turning the sept places into a neuf places. This is uncomfortable, but not the worst of all possible worlds.

The other day our driver allowed no less than 16 passengers (plus 3 chickens) into one of these cars. There were people standing up! They were leaning from the rear row over the middle row, where Ebru and I were seated with three others and the chickens. Astonishingly, nobody complained when we stopped to let in more passengers – when there are fourteen of you in a car designed for seven, after all, a couple more bodies doesn’t make that much difference.

The driver was not satisfied with our discomfort. He decided to make the journey even more challenging by giving us a demonstration of his driving skills. He seemed to have only recently passed (or bribed his way through) his driving test, for he looked extremely nervous. Sweat poured down his long hooked nose from under his white Muslim cap. He gripped the wheel tightly, and hunched over it to be closer to the road surface. Then, every time he reached down to change gear, he lost control and the car veered into the middle of the road. This behaviour provoked some complaints from the passengers; we were lucky the road was virtually deserted, so that when he regained control of the wheel we were still intact.

Near the end of the journey, a rotund, stern-looking woman passenger asks him to stop to let her out. “Where?” he asked. “At the mango tree.” The road is lined on both sides, as far as the eye can see, with mango trees. “Which one?” asks the hapless driver, gripping the wheel and staring intently ahead. “That one there, straight ahead,” the woman replies, tutting at the driver’s stupidity. He keeps driving, bemused, sweat pouring down his black robe, until she shouts, “This one! Stop!” We screech to a halt, and are down to a more comfortable 15 again…

Adieu Guinea-Bissau

And so we move on from Guinea-Bissau. The journey to Ziguinchor in the Casamance region of Senegal passed without incident, although reports of the road from here to Gambia are less positive, with the separatist rebellion hotting up in recent months. Have decided to hole up here for a while to write – although Ziguinchor is surrounded by trouble, the town itself is well protected by army roadblocks and appears peaceful.

It was strange and slightly sad to leave Guinea-Bissau, a difficult, testing little country that somehow we’d grown to like. You can learn a lot about a place by leaving it. Although itself one of the world’s poorest nations, Senegal is affluent compared to Guinea-Bissau. It has buildings of two storeys. Some even have three, four floors! Its markets have piles of food rather than just scraps. There are factories, cash machines, bookshops! People in boats are made to wear life jackets. There are tourists, and the incessant hassle from hustlers that comes with them. Guinea-Bissau has none of these things.

Most amazingly of all, Senegal has electricity. You press a switch and a light comes on! Wonder of wonders! Fans turn instead of lying still. There are streetlights, so you don’t need a torch to pick your way through the potholes at night. Food is stored in refrigerators. Guinea-Bissau, whose lights went out in 2003, has none of these things.

But I’d take Guinea-Bissau over Senegal any day. The people are friendly but not overfriendly. Foreigners are left in peace. There is solidarity among Guineans, too – despite its poverty, there are far fewer beggars there than in Senegal, and far fewer people yearn to make the dangerous trip to Europe. Guineans who are in trouble can turn to family and friends for food and shelter, and they are ridiculously generous even to wealthy strangers like us. And despite its governments’ venality, the country is at peace, and its people have hope for the future.

I myself am less optimistic than many Guineans. The drug trade (of which more later), an over-reliance on cash crops, an over-hasty rush to the cities, and the clash of generations are likely to put a brake on the country’s development, while it may not always remain unaffected by the instability of the region as a whole. On the next stage of my journey, I will find out how it compares with Sierra Leone, and then Burkina Faso. It should be an interesting ride.

A prodigal son returns

Yesterday on our way back to Bissau from the south, we were stopped at a military checkpoint and forced to empty our rucksacks. Well, empty them until the soldier got bored halfway through and told us to stop – he didn’t look at the other half.

The reason for this sudden rigour (at the same checkpoint a few days previously mentioning Manchester United was sufficient to avoid a bag check) is the return to Guinea-Bissau of General Bubu, the former head of the navy. Bubu had to flee the country 18 months ago when he was discovered plotting a coup d’etat against the then president, Nino Vieira. He took sanctuary in Gambia.

Last Monday, weary of exile, the general returned secretly to Guinea-Bissau in a dugout canoe, entering via one of the country’s many rivers. Eluding checkpoints such as the one we passed through, he arrived in Bissau, walked into the United Nations building and claimed refugee status. There he remains today.

The government wants the UN to give him up so they can try him for his crime – although Nino Vieira is now dead and Bubu claims he has come in peace, you can’t trust anyone around here, especially someone with his popularity. But the UN constitution makes handing him over impossible, so there is deadlock. All that can be done is for soldiers at checkpoints to make sure people like Bubu don’t get through in future (although checking only half of one’s bag and not asking for ID may not be failsafe). After us, the regional governor passed through the same checkpoint. His bag was searched too, and he angrily asked the soldiers why they were shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. The soldiers, chastened, shrugged.

Plumbing the depths


This morning I went to an orphanage in Bissau (see @markweston71 on twitter for more photos). Can there be a less promising start to life than being orphaned in Guiinea-Bissau? Actually, yes. Some of the orphans were disabled, physically and mentally. Others had been raped and were infected with HIV (unfortunately the southern African myth that you can rid yourself of HIV/AIDS by having sex with a child has reached West Africa, and orphans are an easy target).

Some of the children wanted to play and have their photos taken, and to touch your white skin and long hair. Most, though, just wanted a hug, and to rest their little head on your shoulder for a while.

In a land without land registries

A dispute broke out in our neighbourhood in Bissau when a woman bought a plot of land and began to build a small shop on it. A neighbour objected, claiming the territory was his. The man who had sold the land to the woman remembered that a palm tree used to mark the border of the neighbour’s plot. “Where’s the palm tree?” he asked the neighbour. “It died many years ago,” came the reply.

Undeterred, the landlord asked the neighbour to get out his spade and dig in the place where he thought the palm tree once stood. This the man did, and he eventually found the roots of the old palm tree between his own land and the woman’s new shop. Realising his error, he apologised to the woman, who promptly got on with building her shop. Property rights, Guinea-Bissau style…

(For more on my travels in West Africa, see @markweston71 on

Piracy is good for fish

Last December I wrote about a Somali pirate’s justification for his choice of career. A former fisherman, like many of his countrymen, his main gripe was with foreign fishing vessels which overfished Somali waters and bulldozed local boats out of their way.

Well it turns out that now, thanks to the pirates,  fish stocks off the Somali coast have recovered. The greedy foreign piscatorial plunderers have been scared off, leaving locals to haul in bumper catches. Now that his justification for piracy has been removed, I wonder if our pirate friend will go back to his fishing rod.

Update: On the other side of Africa, Guinea-Bissau is clamping down on foreign fishing vessels too, but so far in a less swashbuckling way than the Somalis. The tiny West African country’s government has had a trawlerful of Spanish fishermen in custody for the last two weeks (which given the flimsy state of Guinea-Bissau’s navy and its complete absence of prisons is no mean feat). Apparently, the Spaniards are “losing patience.” Should have kept to your quotas then, shouldn’t you?

A new war in Africa? Or just a new political ploy?

Cross-border wars in Sub-Saharan Africa have been few and far between since the end of the colonial period. Instead, the continent’s disaffected have fought numerous battles with their own countrymen. Last weekend, however, Guinea’s new leader, Dadis Camara, who took power in a coup last Christmas, claimed that neighbouring Guinea-Bissau was amassing troops at the border in preparation for an invasion of his country.

This would be a remarkable move by Guinea-Bissau, which doesn’t currently have a leader (the second round of presidential elections is due on 26 July) and whose army is a disaffected ragbag of poorly paid, badly trained young men who have enough trouble keeping the peace at home (their chief of staff was assassinated in March) without contemplating an invasion of a much bigger neighbour.

Camara reckons the planned invasion is a plot by the region’s drug lords, from Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Latin America, to remove him. Camara has been surprisingly thorough in his purging of those Guineans involved in the cocaine trade which has plagued the countries of the Mano River basin in recent years, and he believes those high up in the industry want him out so that they can maintain their freedom to operate.

A war between the two countries would be disastrous for both and for their region. Both are extremely fragile politically, dirt poor and surrounded by other historically unstable states (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal’s Casamance region). Guinea’s opposition parties are less worried, however. They see Camara’s warning as a ploy to entrench his power ahead of promised elections in October.  Given that he has also banned all political and union activities in his country, it seems that a false alarm of an invasion would indeed be in keeping with a strategy to stay in power, despite his promise to step down once elections are held.