Into the Jungle – The journey home starts with delays

We headed back to the guesthouse in the middle of town for a stodgy lunch of rice and chicken once more.  The rest of the team had another meeting  in the afternoon, but Matt, Kofi and I had to start heading back to Freetown, and needed to cross the border to Guinea.  Given we had lost one of our vehicles on day one of the trip, the logistics for this was a little complex.  Hugo had lost us a second vehicle the day before, and two were needed to go forward to the southern part of Guinea.  Fortunately, the rental company had provided us with another vehicle that had travelled to Fintonia the day before; it had no papers to cross in to Guinea, so we needed to be dropped at the border and this new rental plus driver would be there to pick us up….. hopefully.

Haba would take us through the border and so we packed into the STEWARD Toyota.  He drove with his usual care and speed and we flew down to the Sierra Leone border.  There only being three of us, and once Haba had explained he was just dropping us off, the immigration did not take long.  However the stamp I got in my passport that day caused me problems at Lungi Airport.  Although I now had a multi-entry visa, the stamp at Sanya was for two weeks only, and I was to be in Freetown about 18 more days.  This was spotted as I left the immigration and only after several minutes of pointing out that I also had a month long stamp from Lungi airport, I had not seen the need to look for an extension.  How I got away without a detention or a bribe at Lungi I have no idea but sheer determination when I want to go home often gets me through silly bureaucracy.  When I try and be reasonable that is when I normally get caught out.

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Time to leave Kansema

We passed through the border post and drove into Sanya village.  The sunny weather just before lunch had all but gone; Haba was sucking through his teeth a little and saying that the wet season was well and truly arrived.  The rain was falling steadily now.   Haba was well known in Sanya and he stopped off near the Secretary’s house where he often lodged when passing through.  The rental car was parked in the centre of the village not far from where we had had lunch the previous day, but of our driver there was no sign.  We sat in the car for a while but as the windows clogged up with steam the three of us wandered up on to the veranda of the Secretary’s house, greeted various family members and friends there and perched where we could.  There being no mobile reception here, Haba’s phone was useless so he sent some people off to look for the guy.  We had a few ideas what he might be up to; a couple of which were not very salubrious.

I’m so much more patient in Africa than back home, but even so half an hour passed here very slowly and the calculations were going on in my head – the drive to Fintonia was probably 4 hours from here in the best of weather and the rain was gushing down now, it was dripping off roofs into buckets and pans, overspilling down the steps and brown rivulets of water were forming in all the erosion gullies.

There was some activity on the road while we sat there; several old rusty taxis packed full of people and their roofs overloaded with luggage, bounced down the rocky road towards the border.  Not much seemed to be going south.  A couple of trucks also passed through, belching black smoke into the rain.  I started to wonder if the three of us would have to catch one of the taxis ourselves.  Matt had to be back in Freetown in two days as he had a flight to head to London the day after.

Into the Jungle – Kansema

We had one more stop that morning in the small village of Kansema to the east of Madina Oula.  The sun had come out again and the village looked very pleasant, mostly thatched rectangular houses in the centre shaded by mango trees.  We were greeted by a couple of men and we waited as the chief came out of his house and his secretary started to direct the locals to obtain some seating.  As was now a routine, various chairs and benches, even a bucket or two, were dragged out of all the nearby houses and we had our meeting right there in the centre of the village.

As in all the other places we visited we attracted a lot of attention.  At one point I looked across the road to a shady open wooden shed and was greeted by about twenty pairs of eyes of children staring back; new ones would arrive every minute and shuffle inside to keep cool, as well as for them to feel safe from their shyness.  We could not get away without inspecting the community forest so we trooped up a gentle hill to the north.  As we headed up the view to the south revealed itself.  So far in Guinea, the land had been gently undulating and, without the forest of Sierra Leone, you could see for miles across the plain.  Here we were close to the border and the northern edge of the Kuru Hills abruptly rose up and imposed itself on Kansema.  Deep in the hills were chimpanzees and elephants, so close to a manicured human landscape on the Guinea side.  Here was the physical evidence of the fine balance needed for thriving environments but sustainable livelihoods.

Into the Jungle – A morning of meetings

And so to work.  Another busy morning started with a meeting in the STEWARD office just opposite the guest house.  Then we travelled a few kilometres up to a new school.  A large number of guests had been invited in to get the formalities achieved as efficiently as possible.  This included chiefs, politicians, representatives from various farmers organisations and a few others.  In many senses this trip was a launch in the field of the third phase of STEWARD’s work in the region and it was vital to sensitise and observe due respect for the key decision makers in the region.  Without their support nothing was going to happen.

Everyone introduced themselves and I surprised a few of my colleagues that I could muster enough French to apologise to them how bad my French was and that I was ” géographe qui travaille avec le teledetection et les Systems Information Geographique” .  Slightly sweating I sat down again and hoped no one would ask me to speak again.

The next part of the morning was spent at one of STEWARD’s activities from past phases; a large development plot on a hillside outside Madina Oula.  Several hectares had been hedged in and different organisations were working on improving the ground and making demonstration sites to teach farmers new techniques.  There was plenty of scrubby space up here for expansion, but there was still a lot going on, as we were treated to orchards, beehives, fruit shrubs, tree nursery,  bananas, crops, and goats, pigs and cattle.  At each part of the compound we met up with various collectives, including a very enterprising women’s group that was developing their own ventures up here.  We inspected their plots, the wells, the trees and animals, even the compost heaps.  I absorbed it all; I am fascinated when people want to impart their specialisms on you, and whatever I could retain could be useful for Kofi and my work when we returned to Freetown; helping people map the activities out here, and do spatial analysis and comparisons with other data.

As we were making to leave, a middle aged farmer in navy blue overalls who had been following us around the plot invited us to cross the road to his own fields. He took a lot of pride in showing what amounted to a miniature version of the official demonstration plots.  He had a set of small trees in plastic packaging ready to be planted out; he was multicropping to reduce pests and diseases, he composted and manured, he had a kind of drip irrigation system.  This was extension in practice and it might only be a little win for STEWARD, but it was encouraging to see it happening.

Into the Jungle – Morning Ablutions

Next morning I felt sticky and dirty and decided I must shower.  It was a slightly cool morning for the tropics, late night rain was now steaming from every surface and the grey cloud above us made the scene rather miserable.  I filled a bucket from the containers which in turn had been filled up by the local STEWARD staff the evening before, and took my washkit, microtowel and water down to the “bathroom”.

In theory this was no problem; I’ve bathed in several of these open rooms before, but this one was in amongst the houses of the town, and the grass fence was made for Guineans who were shorter than I.  I am no giant, but my chest was above the top of the fence, and I drew quite a lot of attention from the people around as they didn’t often see such an amount of pale skin.  It was worth showing it off as afterwards I did feel better for dousing myself in cold water and becoming at least a little more fragrant than the night before.

We breakfasted back at the Guesthouse, and one of the USFS colleagues, Susan, showed us her roomy for the night.  In the top corner of her bedroom was the most enormous spider, not just long legged but with substantial bulk.  I’d have been happy to have a buddy like that in my room, the number of flies that had been buzzing around.

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Roomy

Into the Jungle – Sampling Madina Oula’s nightlife

I felt I needed some local currency, and Stephanie needed to exchange some project money, so we walked back in to the market.  Guinea exchange rates and note sizes are worse than in Sierra Leone, so Stephanie ended up with a couple of black bags.  I changed only 20 dollars but still managed to come out with a pile of notes.

It was late afternoon and the stallholders were starting to clear their spaces, pack  up what they could take home and leave the rest for the vultures.  We headed back to the main guesthouse and ate a pile of rice and chicken, during which Haba turned up with our passports all stamped.  After dinner the guys decided they needed a beer and someone who had been in town before took us along a road to the edge of town.  We entered a compound surrounded by a large white wall.  On one side of the car park was a chunky single storey edifice with no windows; Madina Oula’s sole nightclub.  On the other side was a more pleasing looking building with thatched roof.  This was just a bar and we piled in there.

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The STEWARD office in Madina Oula

We were the only customers, a single barwoman was fiddling with items on the counter.  The bar having electricity, Guinean TV was playing from a set hanging from a wall, and a Coca Cola Fridge was humming behind the bar.  We took a couple of beers here but there was no atmosphere.  Of course we had walked in about 7.30 pm and the nightclub didn’t get started till midnight.  But the owner did come in and have a chat with us; I found out later he was quite a bigwig in the area.  We did not stay long; we had an early start tomorrow, and Matt, Kofi and I had to return to Sierra Leone, overnighting in Fintonia before heading back to Freetown the next day.

Matt, James and I sauntered back to our guesthouse.  There was little point in staying up as there was no light and we were all bushed.  I settled under my mosquito net and read for a while but I was very soon asleep.  I did wake up in the night to get rid of some of the beer, and I did awake a couple of times when people passing by my window were chatting or I heard the scuffling of rats on the roof, or bats coming in and out of their roosts under the eaves, but otherwise is was a restful night… just.

Into the Jungle – Exploring the new digs

We piled back one more time into the vehicles and expected another long bumpy ride, but instead we headed about 100m into the central square of the town, turned right up a narrow street between several houses, right again and came to a stop under a large tree.  To the right was a well built house with new aluminium roof.  We piled out but Stephanie warned us not to unpack the luggage just yet.  There were still about a dozen of us in the party, plus the drivers and we could not all fit in the guesthouse.  The four women would stay here.  The men would be dotted around a number of houses in the town.  With a little trepidation as to what the accommodation was to be, myself, Matt and one of the Freetown STEWARD staff, James, headed off with one of the local STEWARD staff who had come out to greet us.  We walked past a small mosque, down a couple of footpaths in between various houses and came across a solid building with wooden shutters across the windows.  The main entrance was hidden away in a small courtyard shared with several other houses but there was another door out the back.  The building had four small bedrooms off a main room, but the furniture was austere.  In the main room there was a small wooden table with one chair, and there was a low flat bed and chair in each of the other rooms.  The only other objects were a set of plastic buckets and water containers, all empty at present.  There was no kitchen, and we were shown a communal lavatory, basically a hole in the ground in a fly ridden shelter outside, and the bathroom.  This was a gravelly space enclosed on four sides by grass fence but no roof.  Well, we were only here one night; we could make the best of it.  However we thought it was a concern that none of the doors had locks on them so we talked to the local STEWARD guy and while he searched for a handy man, we took a turn around town.

Into the Jungle – On to the Guinea Border Post

For as we all piled back into the vehicles and the cavalcade headed off down the track round the corner I had been observing, I realised there was no border post on the Guinean side.  Indeed we then proceeded to drive for a further 40 minutes.  We were not at a border, we were at a frontier. I’d had the feeling ever since we crossed the Scarcies River on the ferry that I was detached from the rest of Sierra Leone, but now I realised we were heading through a gently changing continuum from one country to another.

The landscape continued to open up and there were far more areas of just grass. Northern Sierra Leone does not have cattle, they tend goats and maybe a few sheep and pigs, but no cows.  Here I saw my first herd as we drove through this no-man’s land.  Indeed this was no empty space between the two countries; there were people on bikes, herdsmen with their cattle, women and children carrying wood on their heads, and even the odd collection of inhabited huts.

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Deep in frontier land

The weather had closed in again as we crossed a large bas fond, heavily grazed down to the roots, and our way ahead was barred by a barbed wire fence.  Near our track was a camouflaged watchtower.  Aimed at our vehicles was a machine gun, although since it was rusting out in the rain I doubt it would have done us much damage.  There was the usual style of chain check point, but it did not go down immediately.  Haba chatted to the three guys in their fatigues, showed the vehicle laissiez passer and I fully expected we would be next to be inspected.  But instead the chain went down and we passed through.  This was merely the military border.  In fact our driver explained that technically we were still in Sierra Leone.  We had not left yet.  The border was ahead of us running through the southern part of the town of Madina Oula to which we were now gently descending.  We passed a series of fields, then huts, then more substantial houses and were finally coming into the market of Madina Oula when I spotted the actual barrier that marked the border between Sierra Leone and Guinea.  Right outside the police station in the centre of town.  And when I looked at my GIS maps of the area, although there was some confusion as to where the exact border was all round here, several of the lines converged on this point.

With the market still in full swing around us, Haba once more went through the process of getting his laissiez passers inspected and stamped, and all our passports were taken in a bundle into the dark recesses of the station.  Stephanie accompanied Haba and came out with a tired smile on her face to tell us we could go ahead to the STEWARD guesthouse and they would pick up the passports later.

Into the Jungle – At the Border

We said our farewells to Hugo and set off down the road out of the village.  I’d been pondering what it was like to cross the border into Guinea.  Was it like so many places where the two huts were a few yards apart and there was a little no man’s land in between?  From the meeting room where we had lunched, I could see the road wind down through the houses to where it was obvious there was a stream hidden in the trees and I imagined that was where the post would be, but when we drove down and back up the other side, I realised the village was set back from the border.  It was in fact another kilometre or so before we reached the police post on the Sierra Leone side.  The rainclouds had all but cleared now and the sun was beating down on this point.  Haba and the other drivers took our passports and the vehicle paperwork into the small brick police station at the side of the road while the rest of us sat quietly in the cars.  The most senior official came out and walked to a small open wooden shelter covered with reed thatch adjacent to the road, and Haba beckoned us to join him.

This high tech border post needed only three pieces of kit; a tatty old ledger, a rubber stamp and an ink pad.  He took some time moving the date on the stamp to today’s date.  Carefully and laboriously the man wrote all our passport details into the ledger, rolled the stamp across the ink pad and firmly marked our passports with the exit visa.  Amongst the several American, the couple of British, the Ghanaian, Nigerian and several Sierra Leone passports, I was processed about half way through and walked back towards the vehicle.  The track headed across a small stream from here and I imagined the Guinean border post was just round the corner, obscured at present by some shrubs, and I also imagined the process would be as long and laborious round there.  Apart from this hut and an old abandoned brick shack on the other side of the track, there were no buildings in sight.  I was just surrounded by farm land interspersed with scrub.  It proved that borders could be very artificial artefacts of human life.  This was to be proved in spades over the rest of the afternoon.

Into the Jungle – Heading to the Border

It was a long drive to Sanya, and I noted that the road itself was of poorer quality once we left Sumata.  The rain had also started to fall.  With the steam on the inside and the drops on the window, there was not a lot to see, but at least we were lucky to be in the dry.  We passed by people huddling under the trees, or just walking along in the rain by the road, trying to avoid our splashes as we went past.  At one point the convoy came to a complete halt; up ahead was a medium sized bridge – it was two metal girders over two concrete posts crossing a ravine of some 7-8 metres deep.  The general structure seemed sound enough but there were some concerns about the wooden planks over the top.  The ones perpendicular to the road were in various states of decay; and overlain there were planks along the road to line up with our tyres, but one section of these were missing completely.  We were not entirely certain that the planks were nailed together properly and with the weight of the vehicles plus luggage and passengers, we were wondering how much shifting of the planks would occur, potentially destabilising the whole structure and sending us toppling off into the ravine.

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The gloom deepens as we approach the border

Clearly we were not the only ones that were concerned about the bridge.  To the left of the road, down a steep rocky incline, was a second track, down to the dry river bed and back up an easier slope.  One by one the 4x4s negotiated this slippy hill and we went on along the track on the far side.

The rain began to clear, but our rental drivers were again inexperienced in dealing with the now muddy road and Haba had jumped way ahead.  We caught up with them at a point, where for both men and women was a useful relief stop, and I finally got a few moments to look around.  The terrain was changing.  In the east, a sheer cliff of sandstone rising over 1000ft to a plateau.  Gray confirmed this was the Kuru Hills.  Where we were now was a more open woody savannah, more grassy areas in between the tree stands than in Fintonia.  We dropped down over the next few miles to Sanya village.  Although the weather was gloomy, it only added to a feeling of decay in Sanya.  Yes the same mould and moss was all over the houses as elsewhere an everywhere looked muddy, but more of the houses were in poor repair.

Into the Jungle – Trouble with Visas

I’m never keen on arriving in a new country alone late at night without very explicit instructions, and I was possibly overzealous to get the instructions from my new boss, who worked for Thomson Reuters in Washington DC.  I was able to get a visa on arrival for Sierra Leone, but also had gone to some lengths to obtain year long visas for Liberia and Guinea.  Guinea was the most bizarre – their embassy in London was away from the usual rich Georgian honeypots of Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia or Kensington, but was in the north London suburb of Kilburn, not far from the High St train station.  There were no markings on the outside to show it was Guinea’s representation in the UK, and when I went inside I realised the building was shared with several businesses.  I never got to see the embassy offices that time, but was asked to sit in a lobby area – looking like a cafe without any coffee in sight.  A pleasant enough guy eventually came down from the offices and I showed him all the relevant documents – the passport itself, photos of myself, the application form.  He flipped through it and asked me about the cash – several hundred pounds.  No hope in them having a card machine; I had to pay cash.  And I did not have enough in my pocket.  So he took all my materials and asked me to meet him back here in an hour with the cash.  So I wandered the streets of Kilburn with a wad of twenty pound notes in my pocket.  When I returned, I was relieved that the embassy was still there and I had not been hustled into handing over my passport to a bunch of con artists.  He showed me the visa in the passport (saying “the visa is the only receipt you have”).  It was a blue label stuck to a page, with text that I could easily have printed out for myself.  Indeed when I got home I had to Google the visa and find it was actually legitimate.

By comparison the Sierra Leone visa was a breeze.  A company called VisitSierraLeone helped to deal with payments and forms, as well as a whole host of other tourist activities.  I was soon to discover that Sierra Leone had a very small tourist market but this company obviously helped to take some of the stress over logistical arrangements and I heartily recommend them.

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