• Across the Cashew Republic June 25th, 2010

    The cashew nut should be the national emblem of Guinea Bissau. They, or rather the trees, cover this small former Portuguese colony. The nuts are surely the country’s biggest export, although drugs reputably bring in more money.

    The capital, Bissau, is a sorry reminder of a country that has seen better days. From the President’s palace that has no roof to the pot-holed streets, bordered up shop-fronts and fact that there is no running water or electricity, Guinea Bissau isn’t one of Africa’s success stories.

    They still watch the football though – they being the men of course. If you can afford the £0.15 entry fee what better way to forget your plight than watch the World Cup? Take a noisy generator, a dark room lined with hard wooden benches and preferably a TV, then throw in anything between a dozen and several hundred male black bodies and you have a scene which is surely being repeated in hundreds of villages, towns and cites throughout this continent.

    Argentina were outplaying Nigeria when I popped my head into the first of these TV halls. The idea had been to escape the afternoon heat. Instead it was like entering a sauna with a very distinctive smell. I’m trying to think how best to describe the nose-sensation of one hundred African men perspiring in a crowded airless room. It’s not pleasant. Just as walking into the men’s Squash club changing room back home wouldn’t be for the first timer. One gets used to it perhaps.

    Watching the football

    I emerged soaked in sweat to continue cycling through this land of cashew trees, hoping that a less tortuous cell would be screening England thrashing the USA later that day. My wishes were answered. Not with the score-line, but the fact that I got to watch it outside.

    One of the legacies of the civil war in Guinea Bissau is that many people fled the country – crossing to Senegal and The Gambia. Baboucar might have once been a bumpster on the beaches south of Banjul, except he didn’t have dreadlocks and actually finished school. The residents in the small town of Nhacra called him “Gambiano”. It was his Mother’s funeral that had brought him back to the country. But that didn’t dampen his mood. He was about to take a bus to Bissau until I arrived and asked where I could watch the football and pitch my tent. “You will do so in my compound.”

    He later showed me a bed in a windowless room. I could hardly breath under the humidity and heat. “You can sleep here”, he said pointing to his bedand if you don’t mind I will sleep next to you”. After some persuasion that mosquitoes, ants, rats, scorpions, snakes, bats and any other wild creatures wouldn’t come inside my tent, I explained that it was preferable if I pitched my tent on the veranda outside.

    Camping in Nharca


    The road leading east to the border with Guinea is the only real road in the entire country. Given how dysfunctional most of the infrastructure is in this country I was surprised to find it paved. Spaced several hundred metres apart concrete posts rose above the canopy of cashew trees at the roadside. At some point in the past there was electricity linking the towns. Now wires hung lose in the air. People living nearby in thatched huts did so like they’ve always done, oblivious to these foreign intrusions.

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    Bafata is Guinea Bissau’s second city and another ghostly reminder of the past. Rising up fom the banks of the River Geba the Portuguese created a sizeable and impressive urban settlement here. Now it is crumbling and neglected. In fact I almost missed this part of the town. My tent was pitched on the veranda of another Gambiano’s house, who like most of the residents of Bafata, was living away from the river. Like Baboucar in Nhacra, I met Abdu on the roadside and asked where I could pitch my tent. He seemed only to happy to host me and bemoan the sorry state of the country.

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    If there ever happens to be a stable government and inclination to preserve something from the past, this river-side town could re-create something of the charm it once had. For the moment it looks continued to decay as vehicles lie rusting at the roadside and people live within half-ruinous corrugated shells. For all it’s decrepitude I quite liked the place.

    Sinking dug-outs

    The road began to deteriorate as I pushed on east towards the border, but a badly pot-holed road is not nearly as bad to pedal over as it would be driving a 4-wheeled vehicle. One can happily pick a course and weave between the dips and bumps.

    Both of my Gambiano friends expressed a little concern when I explained where I was heading. Guinea currently has no functioning government and is preparing for elections. In fact it is probably the worst time to be entering a country whose former military leader was shot in the head by one of his army last year. Dark clouds ahead it seems. At least there was the football to quell the politics. I was hoping England would fair better in their next game.

    Road warriors

    Water girls

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  • Days in the life: Journal excerpts June 12th, 2010

    As well as blogging on this website, I try to keep a hand-written journal. At some point in the future I will read back through it all and probably wished I wrote more. Here at least is what went in for the last two days.

    Work stations


    10/06/10

    DC (distance cycled: 111km)

    RP (resting place: customs building: Bula – Guinea Bissau)

    Almost leave (Ziguinchor) without paying. No-one is around when I’m ready to leave the auberge – 7am, nor is there any sign of anyone. But as I wheel bike out of gate I hear a yell from behind the mango trees where I was camped.

    Border with Guinea Bissau comes earlier than expected. Like many African border posts it does nothing to make itself obvious. Exit stamp done with no problems – same on entering Bissau. My attempts at Wolof and Mandinka don’t get far now – most people here speak Creole – mixture of old Portuguese and local dialect. Calls of ‘toubab’ replaced by ‘blanco’. Added to latter are some more words sung in rhythm, sounding like “Blanco bay-lay-lay, blanco ba-ba”. Children in every village shout this out repeatedly when they see me. After all the toubab yells I don’t mind it – at least for now.

    Roadside vegetation almost entirely dominated by cashew trees and every village I pass through smells of the fruit fermenting. Guinea Bissau’s main export? Surely. Villages appear basic – no electricity. Houses are different. Instead of a compound consisting of several separate buildings (as in Gambia and Senegal) it seems Guineans prefer to live under one big corrugated roof. I stop in one village and witness the end of some singing/dancing performance – young men holding machetes and lots of stomping to jangle the metal-wear tied around their boots. They then chant in rhythm and move in a circle (kankarans?). Someone watching alongside me speaks some English. I ask him if there is a place to eat – but only food on offer looks grim – bowl containing hunks of dark meat and in another bowl dry spaghetti Flies descend on both before a towel covers them up again. He invites me to eat with him, instead I pedal on and end up resting for few hours within a cashew plantation – falling asleep but woken by large ants crawling on me.

    From the map I expect to have to take a ferry across a river – big surprise to find there’s a bridge instead – looks new. Spot rain clouds up ahead – shortly after I’m cycling into the first downpour of many I’m sure. Whilst locals run for cover I seize upon cool air and enjoy  the sensation – steam rising from tarmac. Doesn’t last long, but sun now dropping and not sure where I will sleep. Luckily I meet English speaker on outskirts of small town called Bula. Joachim is a Customs inspector – find him sitting on roadside studying English from age-old text book. He shouts “how are you?” as I pass. Explain I want to pitch my tent. He talks with colleague then agrees to let me do so in spare room within customs house across road. Later we eat together – rice and fish. I ask what he is looking for in vehicles. Drugs, guns, anything he says. Insects/mosquitoes descend on light of his torch. No electricity. Retreat to sweltering hot room early – scorpion-like insects frantically running around near candle-light. Joachim says they’re not dangerous. Glad I have tent. Thermarest soon soaked in sweat. Don’t know why I pulled sleeping bag out – won’t be needing this for long time.

    Bissau flag

    11/06/10 DC: 41km

    RP: Bissau

    Up and on bike before 7am – stopping shortly afterwards for what is basically bowl of rice and palm oil. Latter burns in my chest when I start riding. Silly idea for breakfast. Should have waited and bought bread.

    Soon cycling into Bissau with more traffic than expected – mostly mini-buses and blue and white Mercedes taxis. There are even a few hills. Lots more cashew trees, but very little sign of the actual nuts! Once I’m past airport the roadside becomes more built-up. Not quite sure why I”m actually cycling into city. Don’t know anyone here, have no need to come and from what I’ve read there’s not a whole lot to see and accommodation is expensive.

    Entering Bissau

    Several days ago I did e-mail one of the contacts I’d received from MRC (Medical Research Council in Gambia) – she replied to tell me I could stay in hotel for 25-30,000CFA ($50-60), which is way too expensive. I then replied to say as much and inquire about a place to camp. It is a positive reply to this e-mail that I’m looking for in Internet Cafe. It’s not there and Internet keeps crashing.

    A blonde woman – early thirties? enters cafe – turns out to be English. Says she’s been living on one of Bijagos islands for 2 years doing anthropological research for her Phd.  I had thought of going, but boats run very sporadically. She tells me of house owned by Cape Verdean family in Bissau, which I may be able to find room at. She draws map and I later find it, half-regretting not arranging to meet up with her later. She makes some comment about Bissau being so small we’re sure to bump into each other – doesn’t happen.

    I find the Cape Verdean place. The owner is a fat woman with a mean face. She wants 12,000cfa ($25) and ends up shouting whole load of words I don’t understand when I tell her I will pay a maximum of 7,000. In the end I surprisingly get my way, although for £10 the room is very basic and dirty. There is talk of it being cleaned, but this doesn’t happen until much later. The sons working here are more interested in setting up TV screen for opening World Cup game – South Africa vs Mexico. I walk out around Bissau as it kicks off – later watching it in a bar whilst sitting next to Liberian who soon asks me for money for his bus-fare home. I ignore this.

    Bissau is very quiet – like Banjul. Most interesting site is Presidential Palace, which is a complete ruin – roof having fallen in during civil war here. Don’t know much about it – must research. Feels odd to see Portuguese signs everywhere. Area close to port dominated  by container lorries and Portuguese buildings – most displaying some import/export sign – very decayed feel to the place.

    Roof-less Presidential Palace

    Portuguese quarter:Bissau


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    Bissau Port

    My Portuguese doesn’t extend beyond greetings – end up talking to people in mixture of English/French. Communication not very easy here. Restaurant prices very expensive, which combined with accommodation make this capital the most expensive one I’ve been to in Africa – very ironic given how run-down it is. At least there is minimal hassle on street. Can’t afford and have little inclination to stay here longer – will head off tomorrow in search of TV screen showing England game.

  • Thank You Mr President: Visas and biscuit throwing June 1st, 2010

    The Guinean Embassy in The Gambia is not where my guidebook says it is. Readers Google searching for an address may now end up here, or here, which is where I found its new location. Attempts at asking shopkeepers and traffic police directly outside its former address met with limited success. One person told me one thing and the other another. I think a lot of useless information can be gathered this way in Africa. Thank progress for the Internet.

    I arrived at the correct address just as the Consular was opening his office. It was 9.30am. My search to find the place had begun at 7am, so at least I’d killed time in one way. I’d cycled up to Banjul early to wave Jon off on the ferry. That is where my guidebook, published eight months ago, located it to be. Instead it was 15km away in Serrekunda, which is really the economic hub of the country.

    Embassies consisting of a single room and just one member of staff seem to have a habit of changing addresses on a frequent basis. At least in a number of countries I’ve cycled through. It was only a matter of time on this trip before I found one. It was in fact not an embassy, but a consulate – the latter dealing with all matters pertaining to granting visas.

    On a wall above the only desk in the room hung a map of the country, alongside a picture of ‘Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’, the country’s former military leader who was shot in the head by one of his presidential guards last December. At least I assumed this was a picture of him. For the past several months some other general has been running the show. The country is planning to undergo elections this June. Perhaps not the wisest of times to be applying for a visa.

    I filled out the application form and handed over a wad of cash, opting to pay extra for a double-entry visa that will allow me to travel back into the country from either Sierra Leone or Liberia. Given the usual bureaucratic delays that define such matters I expected to be told to return in a few days.“Come back at eleven”, said the voice behind the scattered pile of paperwork. I clarified that he meant eleven the same day, although in reality he could have done it there and then. We were two in the office and I doubted many more people would be coming to apply for a visa.

    It was all too easy, and got easier the following day when I cycled to the Guinea Bissau embassy. Guinea Bissau, which borders Guinea (or Guinea Conakry for clarity) to the north, points to Portugal for its colonial history, whereas Guinea Conakry was French controlled. Confusing I know.

    The Guinea Bissau embassy was far easier to locate, and its visa, at a mere $10, far cheaper. My passport disappeared for little more than 10 minutes before coming back with the correct stamp. Only the Sierra Leonean embassy requested I return after the weekend and provide the address of the hotel I will be staying at in Freetown, the answer to which I have no idea. I was about to make one up on the application, but decided it wiser to ask the Consular for a recommendation. This seemed more important than knowing the particulars of my yellow fever vaccination, which I think is mandatory for entering the country.

    Of far greater interest than applying for visas was an evening in the country’s national stadium. “Rediscovering the Mystical Roots Of Our African Heritage” read the billboards advertising the World’s first ever Michael Jackson tribute concert. It seemed like an event not to miss. For $4 Gambia showcased some big local artists, before everyone’s attention turned to the procession of black Hummers entering the stadium. The President appeared from one of the two limousine-sized behemoths and stood through the skylight as several army generals flung packets of his own Presidential branded biscuits to the crowd. I’d been told this was common during public appearances.

    The biscuit throwing spectacle was possibly the highlight of the evening. That and when his Excellency stood up later on to dance. Jermaine Jackson was finally on stage at this time and the doors to the stadium had been open for free. Bare-footed children scavenged for empty plastic bottles to be re-used whilst women balancing cashew nuts on their heads wandered gracefully through the crowds. How the babies tied to their backs were sleeping when the music blasted away I don’t know. It was after 1am.

    This was also after a Gambian group had sung a thank-you tribute to his Excellency’s work in the country’s health-care programme. The words caught the attention of the  audience and we all listened. “Thank you Mr President for curing HIV and Aids. Don’t listen to the west and their ways”. This was repeated several more times before the next act came on. The word is that natural herbs of some kind are used in this special medicine.

    Why and how Jermaine Jackson came to be performing in The Gambia I have no idea. A personal Presidential invite perhaps. It was his Excellency’s birthday last week and The Gambia is currently celebrating some ‘Roots’ festival, which is a word I hear often here. In the words of another popular billboard in this small African nation, ‘Thank you Mr President’.

    Back To Our Roots