Thursday, March 8 – 8:35 a.m. Macenta
I listened to the BBC the night before I left Nzerekore to come here to Macenta. I hadn’t heard anything about Guinea and border fighting for a while and going on the assumption that no news is good news didn’t want to hear anything now. But the top news story for Africa was a statement by Liberia’s defense minister that there was serious fighting under way between government troops and rebels for control of the town of Voinjama. Voinjama is just on the other side of the Liberian border, thirty-one kilometres by road from Macenta. That didn’t sound very good. He went on to accuse Guinea of actively supporting the rebels. He described pickup trucks loaded with armed men, heavy machine guns, and grenade launchers crossing daily from Guinea into Liberia. (He made them sound like commuters.) And that sounded even worse.
But I felt I had to at least try. I had to trust the evidence of my own eyes and I saw that lots of road traffic was leaving Nzerekore every day for Macenta and on to Conakry. And where buses and trucks go, so can bicycles. At the very least I could get to Macenta. Even soldiers encouraged me to go there. If at Macenta it was unwise or impossible to go further I could always return to Nzerekore and fly to Conakry or go back north to Kerouane on a different road and from there back to Kankan.
I had another reason for believing it was safe for me to cycle through the border region and this was a general mistrust of news coming out of Guinea. The BBC is of course reliable but they only report what they are told and in Guinea I’ve noticed a strong tendency to exaggerate. I don’t think they do it on purpose. They simply have such limited knowledge of the world that all things Guinean are seen as much greater in scope and significance than they really are. Thus a little waterfall in the Fouta Djalon and a rock that looks a little bit like a woman in profile are touted as wonders of the world. Clusters of fifteen trees are called forests. Hills are mountains and a group of men with homemade rifles in the back of a pickup truck is an army.
This type of exaggeration is particularly likely to creep into journalism where issues of human rights and health and safety are concerned. NGO’s have a vested interest in making every situation sound like a crisis of epic proportions. I’ve heard lots of interviews with NGO representatives where they describe the plight of the refugees here in Guinea. They say they’re living in camps without electricity, without running water, and with no access to basic health care. Well, in my more cynical moods I note that that description could apply to just about everyone in Guinea. One BBC interviewer himself took someone to task over this. The woman was describing the crisis looming at a particular camp with epidemics of cholera and yellow fever possible. The interviewer asked her how many fatalities had occurred so far. Well, none, she admitted, but people could start dropping like flies any day!
And to all of this I have to add the gap between cultures. Guineans instinctively view being alone as bad and inherently dangerous. I’ve never believed that. Tourists seem to get in trouble when they’re on buses with large groups of people. Guineans also give me advice based on their ideas of bicycles and cycling. And if we were talking about a local bike I’d have to agree with them that cycling to Macenta would be foolhardy and probably impossible. A bike like mine is another proposition altogether.
The distance from Nzerekore to Macenta was around one hundred and forty kilometres. That’s much further than I’ve cycled on any single day in Guinea but I took the situation on the border seriously enough that I didn’t want to camp in the bush here. Ironically I wasn’t worried that much about running into rebels or bandits. My main concern was how local Guineans whether villagers or MIU’s would react upon stumbling across me and my tent. Whatever the reality of the situation the Guineans themselves certainly believe they are practically at war and would react to me accordingly.
The road was paved (goudron) which meant that if I left early enough I had a good chance of reaching Macenta before dark. To that end I was awake and on the road before the drumming parties of the previous night’s Tabaski festivities were dying down.
I got twice lucky. The first bit of luck occurred at the barrage leaving Nzerekore. The soldiers weren’t reacting very well to my tourism song and dance and at the very least were determined to hold me there till the sun had risen. But then I heard a voice out of the darkness call out something about a tourist. It was a voice of authority and it sounded friendly. When this man approached the light of my headlamp I recognized Laughing Man, the officer who had given me bananas and treated me so well when I’d arrived in Nzerekore from Beyla.
He soothed the soldiers and told them I was a tourist, all my papers were in order and that I could pass. He personally lowered the rope and bid me a “bon journee.” I wasted no time cycling over the rope and disappearing into the darkness.
The second bit of luck was that the night had been totally overcast and it was relatively cool. I don’t think it had rained but the ground was soaking wet and the air thick with moisture. This cloud cover stayed for a long time after the sun rose and I made good time.
The forest wasn’t the thick jungle I was hoping for but there were many tall trees including lots of palm trees and the air was filled with colorful butterflies. Once I spotted a bird with the immense beak of a toucan float overhead. The road from Nzerekore to Seredou had only recently been completed and was smooth as glass. I still had to watch the road, however. Not looking for rocks and potholes but trying to avoid the millions of large grasshoppers that for whatever reason were walking and hopping all over the tarmac. Cars and trucks and motorbikes were not so careful and the road was practically a carpet of the dead and wounded. I didn’t want to add to the carnage and besides, when I accidentally hit one it went under my wheels with a sickening crunch.
There were very few towns and villages on the road itself but I suspect there were lots of small villages down the many forest trails I saw. There had to be because where else could all the people be coming from or going to? These were families heading out for a day of palm nut harvesting. The men used a long strap of bamboo twisted into the shape of the number eight to climb up the trees. One circle of the eight went around the tree and the other around their bodies just like the leather belts used by linemen and lumberjacks in Canada. They didn’t have specialized footgear, however, and gripped the rough bark of the tree with their feet. They chopped off the large fruit of the palm tree and dropped it down to their wives below who began removing the red seeds from which the palm oil was processed. Since both mother and father were involved the children came too and the families walking along had a festive, picnicy air about them.
I was making good time and pulled into the small town of Seredou with what I thought was lots of time to cover the remaining thirty-seven kilometres to Macenta. I stopped at the market for a plate of “riz sauce” where no one believed that I had come from Nzerekore that morning. I could feel my claim made them suspicious because the only reason I would lie about such a thing would be if I had come from somewhere I wanted to keep secret, like Liberia.
I almost made it out of Seredou and past the barrage without incident. The sole soldier half dozing at the rope only grunted and watched me as I manoeuvred my bike onto the shoulder and around the rope. This was always a delicate moment because the soldiers at these barrages make up the rules as they go. Some insist I stay on the road and let them lower the rope. Others consider that a nuisance and motion me to go around. Some want me to stay on the road and they come talk to me. They panic and get upset when I cycle towards them. Others get annoyed with me for blocking non existent traffic and shout at me to get off the road and come to them under the shade trees. And of course some consider it their duty to grill me about papers while others give me bananas and wish me well.
This soldier was of the “too lazy to care” variety and I was twenty feet past him and picking up speed fast when all hell broke loose. There was a small building back in the trees that I hadn’t noticed. It was a post of the local gendarmerie and a dozen men, some in uniform and armed, others in civilian clothes, poured out the door blowing whistles and shouting.
I turned around and slowly cycled back to them. I always do this very slowly, in first gear, and I remove my sunglasses. After stirring up a hornet’s nest it is only prudent to move slowly and act friendly and confidently.
This group annoyed me right from the first. They came at me all at once shouting and pointing. There was no way to know who was in charge and to whom I should pay attention. They were clearly upset that I’d gone past the barricade without stopping. In fact I had stopped at the barrage and given the soldier every chance to begin the interrogation if that’s what he wanted to do, but he didn’t and only then had I moved off. This would have been difficult for me to express in French in a calm environment and impossible in this shouting mob.
Eventually they calmed down and began an investigation of my papers and identity. My passport went the usual rounds. It even ended up in the hands of a couple of small children, part of the crowd of people that hang around barrages. Clearly no one had any idea what they were doing or looking for and I was confident that after proving how important they were this mob was going to let me go.
But there was one man in civilian clothes who once he got hold of my passport kept it for a long time. I had and still have no idea who he was, whether he was an authority or a local shopkeeper who could read, but he knew enough to recognize a Guinean visa and examined it for such a long time that I wasn’t surprised when he then asked me for more papers.
I tried the usual “dumb tourist who doesn’t speak French” routine but it didn’t wash with this guy. He had a point to make and if it took thirty minutes of talking in my face (it did) he was going to make it.
His point was that I should have a letter from the Minister of Tourism in addition to the visa. I didn’t have such a letter apparently. In fact I had no papers at all and he, like a teacher dressing down and humiliating a child, wanted to know why this was so.
My claim to know nothing of such a letter only brought on more lectures. Why didn’t I know? Wasn’t it my duty to know? How could I expect to make a tour of Guinea without a letter from the Minister of Tourism? I pointed out, helpfully I thought, that I in fact had completed a tour of Guinea without such a letter and I listed ad nauseam (a small revenge for all the Guineans who had done this to me) all the places I had been, town by town.
He brushed this aside, hadn’t in fact listened to anything I’d said. He was entranced by his own eloquence and experience of the world and trotted out two more arguments, one of which I’d heard before and which backfired on him just as it had on the other MIU’s.
He tried to shame me by comparing the situation to that in Canada. If he went to Canada as a tourist, he said, he couldn’t expect to go just anywhere he pleased without letters and papers and permits. Of course I jumped on that and with convincing energy told him that if he had the appropriate visa and went through immigration at the airport he could indeed travel unmolested and anywhere he pleased. I had the appropriate visa for Guinea and had been processed by immigration. I pointed to the visa and entry stamp.
But this visa, he argued, only allowed me to “be” in Guinea. It did not allow me to “travel around” Guinea. Both the “be” in Guinea and the “travel around” Guindea phrases were accompanied by expansive gestures. The “be” in Guinea was accompanied by a downward stabbing of both hands at the ground and when he talked of travelling around he made big circles with his hands. The audience oohed appreciatively at this fine distinction. He certainly had me there they all felt. And indeed against that stunning illogic I had nothing to say. I thought about asking him how a tourist could be expected to “be” in Guinea without moving. Surely there wasn’t a room somewhere full of tourists who were allowed to “be” in Guinea but not move. Were they kept in suspended animation for the “duree de sejour” that this man kept harping on? Such sarcasm, however, is really only possible in your native tongue and my persecutor took my silence as conceding his point.
Having proved I needed a paper and yet had no paper he then went on to lecture me some more about why this paper was necessary. At some length and with much repetition he explained that this paper was for my own security. This paper was not for the benefit of Guinea but for my benefit. There were rebels in Guinea, he said. And robbers. If they saw a tourist on a bicycle they might harm me and so such papers were important.
This was too much and I asked him just how this paper would protect me. If the rebels point their guns at me do I hold up the paper and the bullets will bounce off? Is it magic paper? I went so far as to pantomime holding out a piece of paper and dodging bullets.
This was unwise on my part and not very diplomatic but at least it had the effect of shutting him up and moving the process along. He now obviously had to do something and to my secret glee he honestly had no idea what. I asked him point blank if the road from Seredou to Kissidougou was currently safe for a tourist on a bike. And if it was safe can I go? I pointed out that I still had thirty-seven kilometres to cycle and this hour of pointless lecture might mean an hour of cycling in the dark which, paper or no paper, couldn’t be a good thing for my security if that was what he was concerned about. I even laid out options for him and I wasn’t bluffing when I said I was quite willing to go back to Nzerekore and fly to Conakry. It really didn’t matter to me. If it was true I couldn’t enter the Macenta Guekedou area then fine. Say so and I’ll go back the way I came. If it is possible then let me go. But let’s put an end to this non stop lecture.
And in true Pontius Pilate fashion he washed his hands of me and said that I would have to go “seeeeeee” the sous prefect in Seredou. And so I found myself with an armed guard walking my bike back down the road to Seredou. The sous prefect was at his villa but in conference and I was told to wait under a roofed pavilion where a group of soldiers lounged about.
My equanimity had returned now that no one was lecturing me and I settled back to let events unfold as they would. I reflected that if the soldiers holding me under loose armed guard were an indication of the seriousness of the military situation I had little to worry about. There wasn’t one under forty-five years old and they spent all their time bickering over who ate more than their share of rice. These were hardly combat ready troops of a country “on a war footing” as the BBC put it.
The senior man and the one most concerned with rice portions was a friendly fellow with a goofy gap toothed smile. He carried an ancient machine gun with a round ammunition cartridge and he pointed it at me from time to time while we talked. This wasn’t a threat but more in the manner of an absentminded teacher with a pointer. I explained my situation to him and he said, “No, no, don’t worry. You can go anywhere. Macenta, Guekedou, Kissidougou. Everywhere you can go.” He patted me on the shoulder as if consoling a child.
I waited there for a further forty minutes but the sous prefect apparently remained in conference. I started thinking about a Plan B. I’d noticed with surprise that there was a hotel in Seredou. I didn’t imagine it saw much business or was “open” in the traditional sense of the word but I could probably find somebody who knew somebody who could track down somebody who might know somebody with a key to one of the rooms. After a night there the question of my going on to Macenta might be settled and if not I would gather my destiny back into my own hands and return to Nzerekore.
I was just gathering myself to break free from the seniors section of the Guinean army and go to this hotel when Pontius Pilate appeared in front of me. “What? Still here?” his expression said. I think he was beginning to regret not letting me pass. I was turning into a bigger problem than he had bargained for.
He asked around and learned that the sous prefect was still unavailable. He now looked for a face saving formula and found one. I could go to Macenta, he said, but I had to promise that when I got there I would present myself to the Central Commissariat of the Police. I duly swore that I would (and to my credit kept a straight face) got on my bike and cycled out of Seredou with a cheery wave to the mob at the barrage.
“Monsieur Douglas,” one of them called, “tout est correcte?”
“Oui,” I shouted back. I had papers once again. Truckloads of them.
“Well, that’s all right then.”
Within a kilometre of the barrage the road entered the Foret Classee de Ziama, a large area of highland rainforest. The grades were typically very steep and with legs that had already completed one hundred kilometres I now stood on the pedals and used my body weight as well as my muscles to drive them around. I rarely did this but with the time pressure felt it was wise to power up these climbs as fast as possible. I had no idea whether this was just one long climb to reach a higher plateau or whether I’d be going up and down the entire way.
It was also after Seredou that the new pavement ended. The road was now heavily potholed and in some sections gone completely as the jungle reclaimed it. I’d heard about how bad this section of road was but that was for a vehicle. For a bicycle this was perfect. It was smooth riding but didn’t have the monotony of normal highway riding. I had to zig and zag from one side to the other threading a path through the craters. When I completed the uphill and started a few fast descents I had to make split second decisions and any error at that speed could mean a broken spoke or warped rim.
It was probably my imagination but the land here had a lawless feel to it. Off to the south was a tall ridge covered in jungle and it marked the border with Liberia. The Loffa River rose here and flowed into Liberia and it was Loffa County that all the news stories mentioned as being the heart of the struggle between the rebels and the army. There were few villages along this stretch and the half dozen men I encountered looked wild indeed in their ragged clothes and with their machetes as well as crude rifles. They eyed me with suspicion and two of them ran after me shouting angrily. I don’t know what they wanted and did not stop to find out. Luckily this occurred on a flat stretch and I could outdistance them easily and they gave up the chase.
The real fun began, however, when I left the forest behind and began to approach Macenta. There was no real military presence to speak of. No tanks, no troop carriers, no gun placements, no entrenched positions. In fact I saw no military vehicles at all, not even a jeep. But what this stretch of road did have were barrages and plenty of them. Most were little more than bits of rope with plastic bags attached to them and were staffed by a motley assortment of near children and sometimes real children. Their reaction to me was bewildering. Some simply lowered the rope as I approached. Others demanded papers and questioned me closely about my movements and the contents of my pannier bags. Some shouted abuse at me but made no move to question me, lower the rope, or interfere when I simply went around the barrier and cycled on. One lone fellow crouching under a rudimentary thatch structure begged me for some food since he hadn’t eaten last night or all that day. The most disturbing incident involved a young boy, no more than nine years old, who shouted at me incoherently and ran at me making threatening stabs and slices with his machete.
Only one out of all these barrages had even a semblance of a military presence. This was right at the entrance to Macenta and the four soldiers with their guns planted on the ground in a pyramid stack called me into the shade. My passport went the rounds (I think the gendarmerie, the police, and the army were all represented) and was handed back to me along with a hotel recommendation and the offer of some rice. From their elaborate uniforms and insignia it was clear that this was the true control point for traffic going into and out of Macenta and I thought upon passing it I’d be home free but the barrages continued including one where a group of children wearing mirrored sunglasses and with long knives strapped to their thighs refused to let me pass. It was a strange feeling to stand there at the mercy of a group of armed child men. They stayed seated on two long wooden benches and shouted questions at me as they occurred to them. They clearly had no idea what they were doing but thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of power and authority.
I let it go on for a while and then turned on their leader and demanded to know on whose authority he was asking these questions. “Qui etes vous?” I asked. “Le police?”
“Oui,” he replied. “Je suis police.”
I asked him to show me some identification feeling more and more unsettled at having this adult conversation with an armed child. I used a hard tone of voice, a challenging one and it had the desired effect as this menacing group suddenly dissolved back into children. The leader giggled, then started to laugh as the other children joined in. It was all a great game to them.
What turned out to be the last barrage also had a number of children present but with some teenagers and a couple of uniformed soldiers. They all were sitting on the steps of a pharmacy and with typical irrationality allowed a drunk Liberian to conduct the interrogation right to the point of asking for and examining my passport. I thought about refusing and making an issue of it but couldn’t see the point of being confrontational. I’d gone through so much weirdness that day it hardly seemed to matter that I was handing over my passport to a drunk self professed Liberian refugee at a Guinean control point.
I surprised myself in Macenta by presenting myself to the authorities as I had promised to do. I had no real plans to do so but when wandering the streets looking for a meal I found myself outside the post of the gendarmerie. My mood, boosted by Macenta’s pleasing layout and the wonderful rambling hotel I’d found, was good and I went through the gates and walked up to the MIU’s sitting outside. I couldn’t see that registering with them or the police would do any harm and I might be able to learn something of the security situation on the road to Guekedou.
The two men felt I should go to the police and summoned a subordinate to escort me to the commissariat centrale. Unfortunately my story had gotten garbled in the translation and the subordinate presented me to the police as someone under arrest and whose identity was suspect. All the brownie points I thought I might gather as a tourist who voluntarily pays his respects to the police vanished and I became someone who had been captured and handed over to the police.
Luckily as my case went up the ladder it eventually landed in the lap of a genial, round bellied man sitting in a chair under a shade tree. He was the top of the food chain and also a man of rare common sense. He talked to me, examined my passport, and then soothed all the police and dismissed the subordinate. He’s a tourist, he told them. He has a visa valid for six months. There’s no problem here.
I figured I might as well see what this man had to say about my onward journey and after standing at attention for the flag lowering ceremony I asked him about Guekedou. Would I be able to spend the night there? Are there hotels?
He laughed. Sure, he said, there are hotels in Guekedou. The problem is that there are no people. Except for the army the town’s empty.
This took me aback and I automatically assumed there’d be no chance of cycling further. But the man with common sense actually encouraged me to go. Why not? he said. Just present yourself to the army and they’ll find a place for you to sleep.
Only in Guinea, I thought.