Sunday, March 11 8:30 a.m. Kissidougou
I’m tired this morning not having slept well last night. My dreams were filled with barrages and angry little men waving guns and shouting. Not surprising considering the day I had.
My guardian angel the Good Conde let me down. I was at the gendarmerie post with my bicycle a couple minutes before 7:00 as we’d arranged but though a few MIU’s were lounging about there was no sign of the Good Conde. The MIU’s there were not friendly and wanted to know what my business was. I tried to explain about my appointment with the Good Conde.
“Mr. Conde,” the senior MIU snorted. “Il dort. Il faut que attendre.”
So much for Mr. Conde’s pretty speech of the eternally vigilant soldier who never lets his eyes close when the motherland was threatened.
Luckily I had scouted out the gare voiture on my own the day before and at least knew where it was. And of course I knew how it worked. There’s no great mystery about it. There’s a crowd of dilapidated vehicles with touts shouting out the names of their destinations. You track down a vehicle going in your direction and then you let the chaos take you over. This I could do on my own. I was only hoping that the Good Conde’s presence would reduce the chaos and his aura of authority might transfer itself to me and stay with me somehow through the barrages.
I wondered then with this first setback whether taking a taxi brousse to Kissidougou was in fact the right decision. I could still change my mind. It wasn’t as early as I’d like for a departure by bike but there was still time and I could even wait and go the next day. But I still felt the taxi was the right way to go. The scene on Macenta’s main street had something to do with it. I had left the gates of the Palm Hotel to find the street crammed from end to end with huge trucks and mini vans. Every truck was packed with goods and people, every mini van was already full to bursting and the streets were still crowded with people clamouring for space. My first thought was that the rebels were marching on Macenta and the entire population was fleeing. There was certainly enough panic and noise and confusion in the air. But of course this kind of “the sky is falling, the sky is falling” atmosphere is just business as usual in a place like Guinea and all these people were simply going to the weekly market in neighbouring Seredou.
I slowly cycled through the crammed streets and thought things over. The temptation to keep pedalling and just let the momentum carry me out of Macenta was strong. I might have just done so if the gare voiture was out of my way but it sat right on the road leading to Guekedou and Kissidougou and I was going to cycle right past it. I told myself that I would scout the place out and if it was a nightmare scene I would cycle on. But if the omens were right and I fell into a good situation I would let events take over and commit to a day of 4 wheeled transport instead of my beloved 2 wheeled. And who knows? Perhaps my bike might enjoy a day off as well.
At the gare voiture thing were amazingly calm. There was a crowd of the usual behemoths and junkers on one side with crowds of shouting people. But on the side I approached there was a large dirt patch with only two vehicles on it, both of them Peugeot 505’s in (for Guinea) good condition. The first was going to Guekedou, the second, still empty, to Kissidougou. A polite young man approached me and when I asked about the price there was none of the sudden eye shifting and doubling and tripling of the price. “Quinze mille,” he said and after looking at the bike with a practised eye he added, “et six mille pour le velo et baggage.” I think it is customary to haggle over the price for carrying goods but I was too relieved at how easy it had been so far and didn’t bother. I was further relieved and even impressed at the way my various bags as they came off the bike were whisked into the back of the Peugeot and the hatch closed. And I was totally shocked when upon paying the 21,000 FG the young man went to a small wooden shack for a few minutes and came back with an actual ticket stub complete with the price for me and my luggage. I hadn’t expected even this level of organization and settled into the front seat of the Peugeot well pleased with how things were turning out.
It’s a good thing I started on such a high note because it had to last me four hours, the length of time that passed between buying my ticket and when we finally rumbled out with our full complement of ten adult passengers, three crying babies, one driver, one helper (standing on the rear bumper), and enough stuff to sink the famous ship that is emblazoned on every 3rd t shirt in Guinea (along with Dicapprio’s mug) four hours in the hot sun thinking all the time of how far I could have gotten on my bicycle, four hours of regretting my loss of freedom, four hours of uncertainty about whether we would be leaving that day or have to wait until the next, four hours of counting and recounting passengers to see how close we were to the required ten, four hours of agonizing as one by one passengers would join our little band increasing our numbers and then defect to another vehicle going to an intermediate destination, four hours of watching the life of the gare voiture (including a savage fight between a man and a woman which ended with him clouting her over the head with a steel bucket), four hours of various paramilitary groups marching past with an assortment of rocket launchers and assault rifles and grenade-studded belts, four hours of the constant ebb and flow of the deranged who gather at bus stations the world over and descend on unsuspecting waiting passengers, four hours of thinking about the day to come.
I had no idea whether it was a good thing or a bad thing but when the ten had finally been secured (including the police chief’s fiance) I was directed to a window seat in the back behind the driver. Everyone appeared concerned that I sit exactly there. I had no opinion on the matter since this was my first Peugeot 505 experience and had no idea what variables came into play with each seat but it did mean that with the low curved roof I went the entire distance to Kissidougou with my head stuck fully outside like a family dog eagerly scenting adventure. I didn’t mind since I liked the views and my sunglasses protected my eyes from the pounding wind.
And the wind did pound. I’d been told repeatedly how bad the stretch of road from Macenta to Guekedou was but that was a relative judgement and between potholes we moved at near highway speed. It was strange to pass the villages and people, see their startled jaw dropping expressions, and then be gone before we had a chance to bounce “bonjours” and “ca vas” back and forth.
The countryside became quite a bit less lush, the ground barer and more brown, the round hills I guessed covered in coffee bushes though I couldn’t make them out. I reflected that by not cycling this stretch I wasn’t missing much. The terrain was quite familiar and though the villages were somewhat different there were more tin roofed mud structures than usual and these were much more dilapidated there was little to make me yearn after the cycling experience and now that we were moving I enjoyed the novelty of the situation.
As we went through our first few barrages I became even more pleased with my decision to take a Peugeot. Some of the barrages were armed by actual MIU’s who marched importantly up to the car and demanded to see everyone’s identity cards. Others were controlled by these paramilitary groups who lolled in whatever chair or seat they could find, fingering their weapons and staring sullenly at the vehicles who pulled up to their barrages. In their bandannas and sunglasses and with the clutter of knives, guns, and even bizarrely, rubber gloves, they appeared and acted more like competing street gangs than soldiers. They often let us sit there for several minutes before they would acknowledge us and then would saunter over to peer in at us. They took advantage of their authority to do some free travelling and there was soon a motley assortment of them sitting on the roof. With my head stuck out the window I could just crane my neck and see them. I cringed when I saw how two had found comfortable nests right on the wheels of my bike and a third had his boots jammed into the front derailleur. I thought about calling up to them and asking them to be careful but the variety of weaponry they were brandishing and the sullen way they gazed about them changed my mind.
What made me happy to be off the bike was that in contrast to nearly every other barrage I’d encountered they ignored me almost entirely. At the first one where everyone was asked to produce their identity card I dutifully displayed my passport but it was waved off without a glance. They were looking for Liberian and Sierra Leonian infiltrators (I assume) and could tell at a glance I wasn’t one of those. From then on I put my passport away and kept only my expired driver’s licence in my hand. At a few barrages a man would look at it, trying to figure out what it was but would soon give up. But most of the time they spoke with me only to get me to lean forward so they could get a better look at the three women and their three crying babies in the back seat, a kind of Peugeot rumble seat. On my bike I would definitely have had to endure “the interrogation” at each one of these barrages and would certainly have had trouble at some, probably most of them, particularly those of the street gangs.
When we reached Guekedou I wasn’t so much happy that I’d made the decision to travel by Peugeot but aware that there really had been no decision to make at all. From the first barrage it was clear that a dumb white guy on a bike had no chance of being allowed through Guekedou. Looking at the situation I was astounded that the police chief and others had actually talked as if cycling through the barrages and Guekedou would not be a problem. (Their sole concern were the rebels.) And I marvelled that the chief had actually advised me to approach the army for help in securing logement. For one thing to approach the army requires that there be an army there, an organization, a unit with some sort of structure. These soldiers running around like kids at a carnival all seemed to be a law unto themselves, controlled maybe, by whoever was the soldier nearest them that might be of a higher rank. They swarmed over every vehicle that approached and whatever they thought their role was it certainly wasn’t to help and protect Guineans as they traversed a dangerous region and it most certainly wasn’t to help a tourist find a place to sleep. I don’t imagine they thought very clearly about their role at all but if one could get into their minds I imagine their conception of their purpose would boil down to a single word: obstruction. They were there to obstruct, create difficulties, establish their authority, intimidate the local people, and if possible, shake loose a few 1,000-FG notes and put them in their pockets.
But even here I got through with little problem, only a little harassment by one soldier to give him 1,000 FG so he could buy cigarettes.
Moving through Guekedou with our merry band (now including a heavily armed escort on the hood) was an eerie experience.
The town wasn’t “flattened” and though the structures along the road were totally gutted and empty and many buildings were burned and roofless there wasn’t the kind of destruction I had been led to expect. But as the chief had told me (and which I didn’t really believe) the town was totally empty. Not a single person was visible anywhere and no one moved through the streets. This would be an astonishing thing to see in any Guinean town and was particularly so in a town as large as Guekedou and I was left quite unsettled as we moved through the deserted streets.
The other passengers pointed out areas of the worst destruction and oohed and aahed. They were clearly impressed with the gravity of the situation there. For myself I couldn’t help but wonder at the real reason the town was so totally abandoned. I can’t believe that the inhabitants of Guekedou were so frightened of rebel attack that they had left their homes and businesses abandoned for so long. I can easily picture a sudden panic and the inhabitants fleeing but it has been calm for so long they must have wanted to return. It’s not like they all have summer homes to go to. The situation simply did not appear serious enough to justify this massive ghost town particularly when as close as a kilometre on either side of the city limits there are fully inhabited villages. In fact just north of the city on the road to Kissidougou we suddenly hit a town so bustling and full of normal Guinean life that the roads were practically impassable with vehicles and people. It was market day and life was going on. Why, then, was Guekedou so totally empty? The answer has to be that the army has forbidden the people to return. This fits with the view I’ve come to have of the authorities. Denying people the right to return to their homes would fit right in with their obstructionist mentality. Any excuse to tell people what they can or cannot do and extort a bit of money along the way.
As we continued north of Guekedou towards Kissidougou and the barrages actually became more frequent and more grasping and more confrontational my thoughts along these lines developed till an image struck me that brought home the full irony of the situation. All the authorities that I’d had dealings with, all the MIU’s, used the threat of rebel attack and invasion to justify what they did. They warned of rebels and Liberian and Sierra Leonian armies invading the country. And as I watched, time and time again as the MIU’s came to our car and harassed the inhabitants and called our driver over to the shade where the chief relaxed at his ease to hand over his tribute, his toll, his tax of 1,000 FG, it struck me that the Guinean authorities, the police, the gendarmerie, the army, were in fact the occupying alien force they kept warning about. They were not protecting the people but had set themselves up in opposition to them. They had taken over all the roads in the country, established thousands of checkpoints, controlled all movements on the those roads and extorted money and goods from everyone who passed. How is this different from what an invading, occupying army would do? In its essence it is not different at all.
The only difference I can think of actually makes the Guinean authorities look worse. One assumes that a foreign occupying army would at least have a sense of unity and perhaps even purpose and this would translate into a certain order and system. At the barrages we encountered the three wings of MIU’s, the police, gendarmerie, and army, were variously represented. Sometimes there’d only be one, sometimes two, and sometimes all three were present and they bickered amongst themselves over who was in charge, who got the spoils, and who had the authority to take the rubber band off the nail and lower the barrage. Our driver was constantly caught in the middle as he’d slip the chief 1,000 FG but then the men at the barrage itself, men from a different order of MIU, would refuse to let us pass unless their palms were also greased. Our driver would appeal to the man to whom he’d given the money. “C’est finit?” he’d state and ask. This would set off a battle amongst the MIU’s and there we’d sit, waiting. Once while such a battle raged and vehicles waited on both sides a car containing an army officer drove right up to the barrage bypassing other vehicles and tooted its horn. The man controlling the rubber band was gendarmerie and refused to take it off its hook which infuriated the man from the army. He emerged from his car purple faced and descended on the group of gendarmerie and police. He shouted at them to have respect for the army, a unit of MIU he clearly felt to be the real deal while the gendarmerie and police were pale imitations, children playing at soldiery. He ended with a levelled finger and a direct order to lower the barrage. The gendarmerie stared at him belligerently and didn’t make a move till he felt honor had been served, then lowered the barrier.
It was somewhere around here that my luck changed for the worse. The MIU’s started to take more of an interest in me. Most of the attention was focused on my bike clearly visible and very expensive looking on the roof. At two barrages in a row they asked for papers for the bicycle but were distracted by my usual patter and ramblings. The third time, however, the MIU was not to be put off and insisted I produce some papers for the bicycle. I have no idea what papers he could mean and of course no such papers exist but gave him my passport. The MIU, being illiterate, accepted it as a “paper” for the bike and let the matter drop.
At the last barricade before Kissidougou my luck ran out completely and I was directed out of the car and to an officer sitting in the shade. It was essentially a repeat of the confrontation at Seredou except that this man wanted me to produce some papers that indicated how long I was able to stay in Guinea. I had no choice but to refer him to the visa in my passport, the only “paper” I’ve got.
Just like Pontius Pilate he dismissed the visa. This, he said allowed me to “be” in Guinea but did not say how long I was allowed to “stay.” I helpfully pointed out that the visa did in fact specify how long I could stay six months. He took this as an affront to his authority and became furious. After that I had no choice but to retreat into my standard ploy of not comprehending French. The only answer to any of his questions was my visa and any attempt to refer to it only made him angrier. He was also annoyed at the crowd which had by now gathered around us. They insisted on grabbing the supports of his wobbly shade structure. Again and again he had to tell someone to quit leaning on the poles. “Ce n’est pas guarantie” he told them over and over again. I’d hate to think what would have happened to his temper and thus to me if the poles had given way and the grass and leaves came tumbling down on our heads.
He eventually lost patience with me and sent out a call for anyone who spoke English to translate. One of the matrons from the back of the Peugeot was presented. She listened intently to my MIU and then turned to me and offered a translation. I looked at the MIU helplessly and in apology because she spoke Kriol, not English and I couldn’t make out a word she said.
By now my fellow passengers were getting impatient and one of them who was in the audience said to the MIU, well, okay, you’ve made your point, but what are you going to do? And this MIU just like Pontius Pilate in Seredou found that once challenged he really didn’t know what to do. He was quite good at putting up obstacles and obstructions but when it came to solutions he was bereft of ideas. All he could do was kick it upstairs and walked off with my passport to a weaselly little man who I assume was in charge.
In the lull I found myself surrounded by a ring of my fellow passengers and a woman completely floored me by saying in perfect English, “Why don’t you just give him something?”
I could only stare in astonishment. Where had this sudden English ability come from?
Then a man added in English, “Just 1,000 or 2,000 francs will be enough. Then we can go.”
Then a second woman chimed in, “All he wants is money. Just give him some.”
I was totally flummoxed. What was going on? Suddenly all these people spoke English when for hours in the Peugeot they had given no hint that they possessed this ability. Even when the call went out for a translator none of them had come forward. (I found out later that they were Sierra Leonian but trying to pass themselves off as Guinean. As such they kept their English fluency a secret and used it now only to give the dumb white guy a lesson in the real world.)
I honestly hadn’t thought money was the issue and told them as much. The MIU seemed genuinely concerned with this issue of papers and gave absolutely not the slightest opening for the offer of a bribe. We were surrounded by other soldiers and spectators the whole time and as far as I could tell there was no way I could suddenly have pulled out my wallet and handed over cash. In the context I imagined it would be taken as the gravest of insults. In my experience even in extortion and bribery there is an etiquette, a procedure, a proper method.
But it appears not in Guinea. At least that’s what my informants now told me. They never give you an opening, they said. They only invent some problem and will shout at you and berate you until you take it upon yourself to just hand over cash.
I had to believe them but it is certainly alien to my way of thinking. I went over the entire encounter in my mind and saw no point at which it made any sense to hold out a couple of thousand franc notes. I just couldn’t see it. The MIU says step out of the car and come this way and I ignore the command and just hold out some money through the window? The MIU says show me your passport and I don’t comply but instead yawn and hold out a thousand francs? The MIU asks where were you directly before entering Guinea and I don’t answer, don’t even look at him but flick a couple dirty notes in his direction?
I may be wrong as I am about so many things in Guinea but in each case I see myself under arrest and probably with a rifle butt in the teeth. I would certainly take such behaviour as an insult, as belittling, like I was saying “go away little man, you bother me.”
I told my informants that I was more than willing to part with some money if it would get us back on the road but I didn’t know how to do it, especially now that my case had climbed the MIU ladder. They called over the driver of the Peugeot to act as mediator and I gave him the 2,000 FG he felt would be enough. He joined my interrogator and the head Weasel as they discussed me but it seemed the time was not right and I was called over.
If the interrogator was confused and angry the Weasel, a dried up, bent and bitter little man was just plain nasty, the kind of man who can only degrade and humiliate, the kind of man you find difficult to picture going home to wife and family. He allowed me no chance to speak let alone offer money but poured out a venomous torrent of words, dressing me down severely. The whole scene was far out of proportion to whatever bit of procedural neglect he though me guilty of and I was oddly disassociated from it all. His behavior offended my sense of what should happen in a sane universe. He took it all so personally and was so angry. But I was otherwise unmoved and simply stood there taking it all in and waiting patiently. As in all these situations there was nothing for me to do anyway. The MIU’s ask questions that have no answers and otherwise do not invite participation from their victims. But he wasn’t satisfied with simply enlarging on the severity of my crimes. He started to threaten me with a “What do you think about them apples?” expression on his face. He was going to keep me there at the barrage. He was going to arrest me and take me to “le bureau” in Kissidougou.
He couldn’t know it but these threats held no terror for me. I knew my presence at the barrage with my bike and all my baggage would be much more bothersome for him than me. I saw myself setting up my tent and firing up my stove to make hot chocolate and had to hold back a smile. And taking me to Kissidougou? That’s where I wanted to go anyway. And once there I knew he, too, would falter when it came to a resolution of the situation and would pass me on, probably to the prefect. At some point I would have to finally come before someone with a smidgen of common sense who would say, “This is just a tourist. He’s just a dumb white guy on a bike. If you think he needs this or that paper then let’s give him the damn paper and be done with it. What’s the big deal?”
Things might have been different if this was the end or middle of a long day of uncertain cycling like at Seredou but I’d just been sitting in a Peugeot all day and all my worries like getting through Guekedou were far behind me. I was already at my destination (we were about five kilometres from Kissidougou) well rested and I could sit there for hours longer enjoying the Bizzaro world of a Guinean barrage. I could certainly outlast the Weasel if it came to a waiting or bluffing game. I was waiting for him to threaten me with a trip to Conakry and being put on a plane out. I’d shake his hand and thank him!
Luckily he never went that far and so I never had the chance to find out what effect that kind of performance would have had on him. He’d likely have had me shot. Instead the driver of the Peugeot and one of the passengers who now miraculously spoke English intervened and the money was offered but refused. They turned to me and asked me for more. I gave them 5,000 FG but this too was rejected. With an evil smile and his eyes riveted on me the Weasel said, “Quinze mille.”
A couple of spectators drew in their breath at this sum (about $8 US) and the Peugeot driver let his hands fall to his sides in defeat. I kept my eyes firmly on the Weasel’s, took out my wallet, and without missing a beat removed three five-thousand franc notes and held them out. Everything I did was calculated to insult. I was saying to him, “Your honor and dignity are worth only 15,000 francs to you? Then here it is. You are so eager to be exposed as a thief and extortionist? Then take it.” The moment, unfortunately, was ruined by the Peugeot driver who took the money from my hand and gave it to one of the Weasel’s flunkies.
And as usual I underestimated the utter weirdness of Guinea for the Weasel actually gave me a receipt. He had a big book of tear out coupons and with much ado and consulting of my passport he filled one of them out. He explained and the passenger translated that this paper would serve to get me through the rest of the barrages. It would show I had paid the proper amount for my infraction (whatever it was I still didn’t know) and if challenged I only need present this paper. But just as he held it out to me he hesitated then took it back and started writing again. The passenger translated his explanation: he was limiting its validity to seventy-two hours.
In its way this paper will become my prize souvenir from Guinea, not just because of the way it was obtained and the final “screw you” gesture of limiting the paper’s validity to seventy-two hours, but by its very nature. It’s essentially a blank check for corruption. On the top there are spaces for the offender’s name and of course vehicle plate number. In the middle there is a column of five boxes ranging from 1,000 FG to 100,000 FG and on the bottom is a blank where you simply fill in the offense. The MIU’s have whole books of these and can simply make up whatever offence they want and check the box to indicate how much money they want.
And as if all this wasn’t enough, two final details completed this picture of total absurdity as I exited the Forest Region of Guinea. The Weasel pulled out a piece of cardboard, what used to be a cigarette carton, and carefully added the figure of 15,000 FG to the bottom of a long column of figures, their take for the day which I imagine will be divided up amongst them in some standard way. As he did this a man, the driver of another Peugeot, came running up to hand over his 1,000 FG donation to the Weasel’s coffers. He was in a hurry and the transfer didn’t quite take place and the bill fluttered to the ground, half on one of the Weasel’s boots. The Weasel barked at him and told him to come back, pick up the bill, and “give it to me properly.” When the driver did so the Weasel pocketed the bill and carefully added another 1,000 FG to the column.
Finally free, the merry band and I climbed back into the Peugeot for the final short hop to Kissidougou proper. With a name like that one would expect a place of some character and interest but Kissidougou is quite unremarkable just the usual Guinean clutter of gas stations, broken down shop fronts, and dirty back streets. It sits on flat land and spreads out in no discernible pattern or shape.
But one thing Kissi does have is a lot of hotels. Unfortunately with the troubles in Guekedou this is the closest place to the refugee camps in the Parrot’s Beak region and all the hotels were filled to capacity with UNHCR personnel and other NGO types. I cycled from one pleasant hotel to another only to be turned away. After each rejection I returned to the gas station for more advice from a group of Sierra Leonians who were sitting there enjoying the shade and the chairs. They spoke perfect English and a number of them or all of them work for IOM (International Organization for Migration), an NGO which specializes in the repatriation of refugees. They knew Kissi well and directed me each time to a new hotel until finally I found a room at the Nousso Conde, a pleasingly past its prime kind of place where each room comes with a colony of the loudest crickets I have ever heard. My ears keep ringing long after they’ve stopped chirping.
Most of these Sierra Leonians were staying at the more up market Nelson Mandela along with an Italian rep from IOM named Stephen. I chatted with Stephen for quite some time about his work and he offered me a lift all the way back to Conakry in one of his organization’s trucks leaving early tomorrow and I accepted. I felt a tiny twinge about not cycling anymore but only a tiny one. Much of interest came out of my trip in the Peugeot. I think travelling with these Sierra Leonians in an NGO truck will be equally of interest, certainly more interesting than cycling would be. I don’t think there is anything new or interesting on this route from a cycling perspective except perhaps the town of Faranah and one seven kilometre climb to get up onto the plateau where Mamou is located. The clincher argument for me, however, was the information that the barrages from here to Mamou are among the worst in the country, on a par with those from Macenta to here. The Sierra Leonians and a German fellow I met who, as he puts it, was an NGO all by himself, all confirmed my impression that the Mamou Coyah stretch of road was one of the nicest in the country and the barrages there the least obstructive. So by this time tomorrow I should be in Mamou within shouting distance of Conakry.