• Show me the money January 30th, 2012

    I just missed him apparently. Back in 2006,  somewhere within Kathmandu’s narrow maze of streets, I met a Romanian cyclist called Cornell. Nepal’s capital is, or at least was then, something of a hub for touring cyclists in the Indian subcontinent. Some like me had crossed the border from Tibet, whilst others had entered from India or Bangladesh. Well there had been a group of us exchanging tales and I remember him telling me he would be cycling Cairo-Cape Town in the future. He left me with his e-mail address, but never replied when I later contacted him.

    Fast forward some years later and here he was, or just had been, in Lilongwe. “He go yesterday”. “We cycle together”, said Tokuru, a  tiny Japanese man about to pedal off somewhere into the city. “I need to find new tyre”, he said showing me the ripped rubber on the walls of his front tyre.

    I later thought back to my time in Kathmandu. That Romanian cyclist, who I was never going to forget on account of the fact that he spent his week in Kathmandu having a trailor made to transport an enormous wooden scuplture,  had given me a spare tyre. For the last 15,000km in Africa I’ve been carrying two!

    I returned the following day and gave Tokuru one of two Schwalbe XR folding tyres. “Sugoi desu” ’ (It’s amazing) came the reply. Well I hope the tyres I’m running and the one remaining are enough to take me the 5000+ kilometres that I estimate to be left on this journey.

    Japanese cyclist in Lilongwe

    The plan from Lilongwe had been to head towards Zambia, but for several reasons I’m now in possession of a Mozambican transit visa and about to return there en-route to Zimbabwe.

    One reason is that the Mozambican visa, short as it is, (3 days) was cheaper and could be paid for in Kwatcha and picked up the same day from the embassy in Lilongwe (Zambian visas reportedly have to be paid for in US $, which I don’t, or didn’t at the time possess). The second reason was that the mosquito net distribution using nets funded by people supporting the Against Malaria Foundation through the Big Africa Cycle, was taking place south of Lilongwe on the way towards the Mozambique border. I had also heard from other cyclists that the road I into Zambia was pretty dull to cycle.

    I didn’t see Tokuru again. We weren’t staying at the same place and he hadn’t made his mind up about which way he was going, although told me he knew of seven Japanese cyclists touring Africa, including Hiromu.

    For the first time since passing through Kampala I visited an International School in Lilongwe. The welcome and reception were tremendous. Over 400 Primary School children came specially dressed in colours representing the Malawian national flag to hear me talk about The Big Africa Cycle. Two days later I returned to speak to the Senior School and was given a generous bundle of Kwatcha, which had been fundraised by the School for the Against Malaria Foundation.

    Centre of the flag

    Talking at Bishop Mackenzie School Lilongwe

    Unfortunately Malawian Kwatcha is not one of Africa’s strongest currencies. Outside of Malawi the only person who’d take it off you might be a Malawian, and even within Malawi changing it into a hard currency like US $ or South African Rands is near impossible. Following the departure of the British Ambassador last year there is far less foreign aid coming into Malawi (the UK made up most of the foreign aid coming to Malawi). This subsequently means far less foreign currency, which in turn explains the lack of fuel. This is my understanding anyhow. Everyone wants $ so no-one is really willing to sell them. Banks will only change the money if you have an account with them. I only discovered this latter part on the morning I was leaving Lilongwe with the uncomfortably think wad of notes in my front pannier.

    They stayed there, with the pannier never far from sight, for the next two days as I followed the main road south from Lilongwe. “If only the roads were as clear as the network”, read a billboard advertising one of Malawi’s mobile telecommunication companies on the way out of Lilongwe. Not sure Airtel had Malawi in mind when they thought this one up. The road was typically free of motorised traffic and as well-paved and scenic to cycle as most of the others in Malawi.

    Main road in Lilongwe

    Road to Ntcheu

    Green green Malawi

    In Ntcheu I found the Concern Universal Office and spent the following two days helping to distribute a fraction of the 250,000 mosquito nets which are being handed out here. During the rainy season malaria is particularly prevalent with the surface water that provides a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Over 1500 of these nets had been funded by people who’ve donated to the Against Malaria Foundation through this website, so being involved in the distribution was important for me.

    Bed-net distribution

    The logistics of distributing such a vast sum of nets requires a great deal of time and labour. Each village and every household had been registered in a census by district health officials with the number of sleeping spaces in each household determining how many bed-nets were given out. People assembled at a designated distribution point and waited for their names to be called out, before coming forward and placing a thumb-print next to their name when they had received a net. Even with over one thousand nets being given out to several villages at a time I found the name lists and the number of nets almost matched exactly with those who were present to receive them. In order to prevent anyone from re-packaging and possibly selling the nets the plastic wrappers were collected and burnt at the end of the distribution – not great for the environment, but it seemed the best solution.

    Bed-net queue

    Opening the bales

    Recording the distribution

    In 6 months time district health officials will conduct a post-distribution follow-up to see how these nets are being used, and review the incidence rate of malaria as recorded at district health clinics since the distribution.

    This is the third and possibly last bed-net distribution I will be involved with, but your continued support for the Against Malaria Foundation is much appreciated. I’d like to hit £20,000 as a fundraising total, so there is some way to go.

    Fortunately I managed to dispense with the bundle of kwatcha in Ntcheu by handing it over to Concern Universal. They will pay it into the local bank from where the $700+ will be transferred to Against Malaria in the coming weeks.

    Tomorrow I will cross back into Mozambique, albeit very briefly. There is a about 200km separating me from the border with Zimbabwe. South Africa is getting closer…

  • The Clean Sweep: Robbed July 16th, 2011

     

    “The horror! The horror!” (Joseph Conrad)

    I think it’s every traveller’s worst nightmare: to return to your room and find a thief has been inside. You locked your door when going out and now it’s open. Standing at the doorway you take stock of the bed and floor, which is now scattered with the contents of your bags. But of course it’s not all the contents. The thief does not want your clothes, your tool bag or your spare inner tubes. It is cash, cameras, laptop and any other item deemed valuable in the eyes of this crook.

    Well this particular crook did a good job. The only valuable item left in my room was my passport. Otherwise it was pretty much a clean sweep. Laptop and modem – gone, Nikon SLR camera with 2 lenses – gone, compact camera – gone, money belt containing credit card, £100+ cash and personal collection of African bank notes from every country I’ve been to – gone, Ipod and external mini speakers – gone, camera tripod – gone, solar battery charger – gone, tent poles (bizarrely enough) gone. But most significantly of all, far more valuable than electronic items that can be replaced, was my external hard-drive. This is the storage device that contains thousands of photos and videos of the trip. I had last backed up my photos in Nigeria, over 6 months ago, and was planning to do another back-up in Nairobi within a few weeks.

    And what of the bicycle? Well fortunately that was with me at the time. In actual fact I was still on the Guest House premises when the theft took place.

    Let me put this awful story into a much wider context. Then you’ll realize just how angry, frustrated, dumbfounded and emotional I am about it all. This is going to be quite a long blog post. Please bear with me.

    I was and still am as I sit here now, in the small town of Kapsabet, western Kenya. The region has a cool climate and is surrounded by rolling hills of tea plantations and forests. I came here for a specific purpose, which was to observe and assist in a distribution of 2500 mosquito nets for surrounding rural communities. Some of the nets had been funded from people pledging donations to The Big Africa Cycle. A small team of Catholic nuns from India who help run a maternity clinic in the town were conducting the distribution.

    The sisters had arranged for myself and four Spaniards, also to assist in the distribution, to be lodged in a comfortable Guest House close to the town. “We are choosing this place because it is quiet and secure” remarked Sister Mary, in her Tamil twang. And so it seemed at first. My room and the four for the Spanish were located in a separate annex – a one storey building located beside a freshly cut lawn where local Kenyans come to eat and drink.

    After a peaceful first night the four of us joined the sisters the next day, journeying through beautiful rolling pastures and tea plantations towards the edge of the Nandi escarpment. Several local Kenyans were alongside us, one of which plays a significant and unfortunate role in this whole story.

    Ken, a local from Kapsabet, had been asked by an American well wisher over the Internet (someone with a vested interest in malaria who had donated $1000 to buy bed-nets)  to assist and observe in the distribution, as well as to collect and document what information he could about the incidence of malaria in the area around Kapsabet. For a man with qualifications and skills in IT it seemed a little strange, but Ken was educated, open, friendly and actively participated with an interest in the distribution. He had no camera and requested whether he could use some of my photos to forward to this American. Not a problem. I was willing to oblige. Monday passed and we all returned to our Guest House in the evening.

    Tuesday 5th July was a repeat. Breakfast early and off into the countryside with another 500 nets to distribute. Before leaving I’d given the key of my room to the guardian, a quiet young man who didn’t appear to speak any English. The floor was dirty and I gave him permission to enter and clean – nothing unusual there.

    The bed-net distribution finished early that day and we were back at the Guest House at 3pm. Ken said he would not be continuing with the distribution for the final two days as he needed to return to Eldoret, where his wife and children lived. I agreed he could take some of my photos as earlier requested, but to return to the Guest House at 4pm, after I had taken lunch with the Spanish.

    At 4pm I was back in my room, having received the key back from the guardian and noted the bed was made and the room clean. The Spanish left soon after to visit a nearby waterfall, but I decided to stay, partly through tiredness and partly because I’d told Ken he could come to take some photos. “Come and find me in room 3” I said on the phone when he arrived at the Guest House.

    He was still in my room 20 minutes later when I received a call from the Doctor at Nandi Hills Hospital. We had met and spoken the previous day about having the press covering a story about the bed-net distribution and my role in having cycled all the way from the UK. The Doctor was coordinating the press and now at 16.45 they were coming to the Guest House to conduct an interview.

    “Take your camera or laptop to show photos to the journalist”, suggested Ken before we left the room together and went to meet them at the entrance. It seemed a bit too much effort, for surely they would arrive with a photographer. I locked my door, put the key in my pocket and walked with Ken and the bicycle to the Guest House entrance, some 100 metres away. Ten minutes later a group of 5 of us, including Ken, were sat on a grassy area some 20 metres now from my room. For the next 30 minutes I talked about the hows and whys of riding a bicycle thousands of kilometers across a continent and my involvement with the bed-net distribtion.

    “Show them some of your photos”, Ken remarked again during this conversation. But no-one had brought any laptop or digital storage device so the matter was dropped. “How can we read more about the journey”, asked one of the journalists. I started to write the website down, but decided it would be more professional to hand them a card. So I dashed back to my room. And that is when I noticed the door open and everything gone.

    Who Dunnit?

     

    The shock at what took place between 1700-17.45 on Tuesday 5th July at the inaptly named ‘Steve Nice Guest House’ in Kapsabet, was joined by anger, disbelief and frustration at how the response and investigation was conducted.

    Theft and robbery is a common occurrence in Kenya, and perhaps one should not dwell too much on the loss of one’s valuables, but when action is not taken to incriminate those who are clearly guilty you feel justice must surely prevail. My spirits have been at an all-time low since the robbery. 

    It wasn’t just my room that had been opened with a spare key, but every other room. When the Spaniards returned an hour after the theft had taken place they too found their locked rooms had been opened and whatever valuables they had not taken with them to the waterfalls had been stolen too.

    What surprised me at first was the slowness of the management to respond. No-one came forward to offer an apology. Lips sealed. Not even a sign of shock. The guardian responsible for the keys stood like a deaf mute as I asked where he was when this took place and where his keys were. The owner’s son soon started covering for him, switched to the local dialect and when the police finally arrived all blame was pointed at Ken, saying he was present when the theft took place.

    “How well do you know this Ken character”? asked police and locals with an inquisitive interest in what was taking place on their turf. Of course when I said I’d met him the day before eye brows were raised. Even the Doctor came down to the Guest House and said Ken was where the blame needed to be pointed.

    Had I really been duped? Moments earlier I’d told journalists that I’d met so many people on this trip that I valued my judge of character to be very high. Could Ken really have tricked me somehow? There were some things that seemed odd. Why would a man involved with IT attach himself to a bed-net distribution organized by Catholic Missionaries? Why was he leaving that same day from Kapsabet?

    Ken, the guardian of the Guest House, the manager and assistant manager were taken suspect by the police. When I gave my statement along with the Spanish the next morning it was with the belief that Ken had been at the centre of this.

    The day passed. Another distribution of mosquito nets was taking place and I broke down in tears when the local chief asked me to introduce myself and why I was here. It has not been the only time I’ve cried in the past week.

    Later that day I heard the three Guest house employees had been released by the Police, but Ken was being held as a prime suspect. It was then I started to think about the whole day again. Ken had told me the waterfalls were not really worth going out of my way to see. It is part of the reason I let the Spanish go without me. And he’d also suggested showing the journalists my photos from the camera and laptop. This is at a time when the theft could still have been taking place. Not once during the moment I left the room with Ken and locked my door to when I returned 40 minutes later to find it open and robbed had Ken used his mobile phone. He had been alongside me all along.

    It was then that I realized that Ken was being framed by the police. A convenient scape-goat whilst the Guest house management were let off.

    This was an inside job. The spare keys had opened those doors and the questions needed to be directed to the guardian, where he was when the theft took place and where the keys were.

    I returned to the Police Station on Thursday, two days after the theft, and asked to speak with Ken alone. He confirmed what I had thought, and I apologized that I had not trusted my instincts about the guy. Whatever he may or may not have done in the past, this man was not guilty. An opportunist making a small sum of money from an American well-wisher who’d probably never before been in the country, yes, but a criminal tipping someone off to enter my room with spare keys, no.

    By this time I had lost whatever hope I’d ever had that the police were going to help me. Had someone at the Guest House paid the police off to have their 3 employees released and Ken used as a scapegoat? Quite possibly. I was wasting my time with the police, who told me they would ‘continue their investigation’.

    At this stage I naively believed that my embassy would come to the rescue, but when I vented my frustration about the police investigation to a Kenyan voice at the consular service, she sighed and apologized. “This is Kenya. The Police aren’t like those in your country.”

    The incompetence of the Police was confirmed to me by a Korean woman, eccentric to put it mildly, who has been in the country long enough to know how things work. She suggested I contact the Mayor. Along with his team of councilors and elders we descended on the Guest House the following day, where the manager attempted to make lies up about Ken and his whereabouts at the time. The Mayor and the councilors were convinced like me that this was an inside job. The management of Steve Nice was responsible and if these things weren’t brought forward the license of the establishment would be removed.

    Accompanying the Mayor and his entourage was an elderly man who remained silent during this gathering of people. “This man will help recover your things” vowed the Mayor. “We’ve worked with him before”. When I asked how this frail old man would physically recover the valuables I was told “He can work miracles. Trust him. Something will happen now”.

    Well that was over a week ago as I write this now. My hopes were raised for a short period over the weekend when an independent team of investigators travelled from Nakuru to conduct their own findings. They departed with enough evidence to return to Kapsabet, arrest and take these 3 Guest House suspects away unless items were returned. In the words of the Mayor I had been assured that by Tuesday of the following week (12th July) things would be brought forward. “They cried with us to be given until Tuesday” stressed the Mayor. Well Tuesday passed, the Mayor was in Nairobi all week and nothing happened. Merely talk and no action.

    As a back-drop to all the telephone calls, conversations and banging-my-head-against-the-wall moments when people say they will call be back but never do, I have been staying with the Catholic nuns in the mission since the theft. The thief hadn’t even left me with 10 shillings. It’s an odd, but calm and safe place to rest my head and I’ve been made to feel very welcome. “Don’t worry Peter. God will take care of everything” repeats Sister Mary with that characteristic south Indian head waggle I remember so fondly from the sub-continent. I wish I had such faith.

    Had the theft been all valuables except my hard-drive I probably would have got over it by now. Cameras and laptops can somehow be replaced. But as I told the police, the Mayor, the press and the management of the Guest House, this hard-drive is invaluable and I’m willing to pay a far higher reward to get it back than it can be sold for on a black market. Still nothing.

    The miracle worker, who might well be dubbed a ‘witch doctor’, was called a second time yesterday. Just like the week previously, he, the Mayor and his entourage and myself headed to the Guest House. The Guest House staff present were assembled and a traditional prayer was voiced loudly in Kalenjin. At one stage he stripped to reveal a bony torso before pacing back and forwards thrashing a leafed twig through the air. I tried to keep a straight face.  ‘Something will come from this weekend” assured Ken, who was present as well. He told me the same thing a week previously.

    I’m slowly coming to the realization, almost 2 weeks on, that what has happened happened. And worryingly the ease and speed with which it took place whilst I was metres away is a reminder that it could have happened in many other places. Just as I am here I’d be the helpless mzungu naively expecting justice to prevail, as any other westerner who has grown up in a World where law and order have some level of merit might do.

    Continuing the Journey

     

    I never planned nor wanted other people to somehow fund my trip, as I’ve seen others do from long-term journeys. But after almost 2 years on the road things are a bit desperate on the budget-for-the-trip side of things. If I’m to continue to blog, photograph and document the journey to its conclusion then finding a replacement laptop and camera is essential. Photography has always been integral to the trip.

    So if you’ve enjoyed reading this blog  – newcomer to the adventure or a follower from the beginning, I’m asking you to contribute, if you can, something towards covering the cost of the stolen items. It is why you see this paypal donate button here.





    As for anyone actually on the road doing something of a similar nature to me, my message is BACKUP BACKUP BACKUP – you cannot predict when a thief will strike, but you can plan when to backup your invaluable and irreplaceable photos. I wish I had done so in Kampala when I had the chance. 

    Something may miraculously appear in the coming days and weeks, but I’ve pretty much exhausted my efforts here. I need to get back on the road. One day I might look back philosophically about what has happened here in a small town in western Kenya, but  that time has not yet come.  

  • Malaria bites October 11th, 2010

    He was lying on the hospital bed with his hands on his forehead and a drip protruding from his wrist. Thirty minutes previously I’d received a phone call from a man to say “your friend collapsed in the Internet Cafe and is now in hospital. Please come!”.

    Hiromu had seemed fine the night before. After saying goodbye 9 months ago in Morocco, we met again the previous evening and had plenty to talk about. He too is cycling to South Africa, having started his journey in Istanbul last year, so I’m hoping we can make a plan together. Now he looked pale and in pain as I tried to decipher his Japanese in the accident and emergency ward.

    Sure enough he had malaria, and when the nurse rolled him over and jabbed him up the backside with two injections of quinine I was glad it wasn’t me. Not even my joke about this being her first Japanese bottom to deal with produced any response, apart from her asking me to leave the room. I went in search of food and found what you see below.

    Hiromu with Malaria

    Hiromu hadn’t been taking any prophylactics to prevent himself from the disease. What did he expect after cycling through the rainy season in west Africa (we followed similar routes as far as Liberia, after which he went inland to Mali and Burkina Faso)? Now he was paying for it. And would do for the next several days as I delayed my departure and nursed him back to some semblance of life, whilst he ached, groaned and sweated it out from a shoe-box-sized room in a guest house.

    Despite the pain and his foolishness for not taking any prophylactics, Hiromu is one of the lucky ones. He paid the £40 hospital fees and received the necessary treatment to get better. For millions of other Africans (often pregnant women and children) malaria is a step into the grave. Lack of funds and access to treatment means many people die. An insecticide treated mosquito net, such as the ones I’m raising money for in support of the Against Malaria Foundation, is a simple and cost-effective way to prevent the disease. Your support is much appreciated.

    I’m happy to say Hiromu made a slow, but sure recovery, although I left him after several days and journeyed on alone to Accra. It will now be Togo, Benin or Nigeria that we meet again.

  • 2000 bednets for Sierra Leone July 21st, 2010

    Approximately 300km east of Freetown lies the village of Sahn. Like most villages in Sierra Leone it has no running water or electricity. Many people living  here survive through subsistence farming, (rice and cassava) and for the lucky, repatriated money sent from relatives working in larger towns or cities.

    Malaria is prevalent, particularly now during the rainy season, but for most people paying $5 for a mosquito net (much more if they wish to buy one for every sleeping space in their house) is simply too costly. Millions of people in Africa die from malaria every year. Bed-nets are the most cost-effective means of preventing the disease.

    Now however the people of Sahn (and many others living in the Malen chiefdom) are able to sleep under an insecticide treated bed-net funded by those who’ve kindly donated money here.

    Before showing some pictures of the distribution I should explain a little about how I became involved in it.

    For a number of months I’ve been liasing with Rob Mather, founder  of the Against Malaria Foundation, to arrange helping with a distribution of bednets funded by people who’ve sponsored the Big Africa Cycle. If I could get to southern Sierra Leone by mid-July a distribution of nets would be taking place. The original plan was to cycle there, but time was too short.

    The NGO (Global Minimum) organising and funding the distribution have previously used the Against Malaria Foundation to purchase nets from in the past. They required 10,000 nets to ensure that everyone living in the Sahn Malen chiefdom could benefit from sleeping under a bednet. Why this particular chiefdom? The Sierra Leoneon founder of Global Minimum knows the area well and how much of a problem malaria is. I subsequently agreed with Rob Mather to allow 2000 of the nets funded by people sponsoring the Big Africa Cycle to be ringed for this distribution.

    Over the space of a week in more than a dozen villages I’d like to think I helped open and hand-out something like 2000  nets. It was a rewarding and insightful experience, and I hope that by sharing it here in pictures it will encourage more people to donate money to fund bednets for the next distribution I become involved in. Please do share any questions or comments.

    Poda Poda loaded with nets

    Bales of bednets were loaded into a mini-bus at the start of each day and driven, along with the team of distributors, to one of the villages within the chiefdom.

    Briefing
    Before visiting each house within the village, people would gather together to be instructed on how to use and maintain their bednets.

    David Sengeh: Founder of Global Minimum

    David Sengeh, the founder of Global Minimum conducts a survey to question each household and determine how many bednets to distribute.

    Questionaire

    People were asked a number of questions before being given bednets and each house was checked to see how many sleeping spaces were present. Bags were opened and kept so that bednets could be both hung up to air out and not later repackaged and sold.

    The Global Minimum team

    The team involved in the distribution were both local residents and students from the cities of Bo and Freetown.

    Roof-top rider

    I chose to sit on the roof of the mini-bus as we drove between villages. Fortunately most of the distribution was done without it raining.

    Village children

    The population of villages in Sierra Leone is dominated by children. Reducing the size of families amongst rural communities is no easy task and it is not uncommon to find more than 20 people living within several rooms of a compound.

    Sick child with mother

    Many children sleep on the floor in villages because there is no bed-space. It is children under 5 that are most at risk from malaria. Educating parents about the importance of their young ones sleeping under a bed-net was necessary during the distribution.

    DSC_0386

    Girls as young as 12 often become mothers in the village, and by the age of 16 most girls will have given birth. It is during pregnancy that they are most at risk of malaria.

    Lunchtime

    Rice is the staple food in Sierra Leone, often served with a cassava sauce and occasionally  fish or bony lumps of chicken. It’s not as bad as it looks and communual eating is common in the villages, usually using one’s right hand rather than a spoon. Oh how I miss a nice juicy steak and English mustard!

    Happy child

    Once the insecticide-treated nets were given to families they were hung up so as to allow them to ventilate. What matters is whether the nets are used in the long-term. Global minimum will return to the villages in the the next few months to conduct spot checks.
  • A vote for Guinea June 27th, 2010

    Greetings from Guinea. This post, like the previous one, has been written from my hotel room in the town of Labe. There is Internet connection here, albeit very slow, which is the first I’ve come across since leaving Bissau two weeks ago. Not in the hotel I should note. I’m surprised there is even electricity. There isn’t much of the time. My room and the rest of the hotel give the impression that there have been very few people staying here in recent months. It has that musty airless smell of an attic. If there ever was a cleaner, he or she has not been working for a while. A family of large cockroaches has moved in during the interim. Most have now disappeared under my foot, except the largest, who is particularly nimble. I realised last night he is actually a mouse.

    At least my room has a window. It overlooks what at first glance appears to be a car scrap-yard. This is Labe’s public transport hub. Battered seven-seater Peuguot and Renault estates dominate. Typically there would be a hive of activity out there on that red-laterite forecourt, but at the moment it is eerily quiet.

    Today is an important one for the country’s 9.5 million population. They get to vote for a new President. I’m told there are 24 candidates. How about that for choice! I almost cycled straight into a political gathering when I crossed the border a week ago. It’s not the safest place to be. Young men waving flags and banners were speeding around town on their motorbikes, whilst a swelling crowd of people vociferously awaited whoever it was that was arriving. I decided it much wiser to lay low until it had finished, later emerging from my hotel to watch England in another unconvincing display against Algeria.

    I escaped into the mountains soon after. The Fouta Djalon isn’t one of the World’s great mountain ranges, but with the humidity, heat, incessant flies and pretty dire roads they make for a challenging ride. Oh, and the rains have begun, which adds an extra level of interest. After many months seeing lifeless shades of brown and yellow, nature is now positively exploding in a riot of greenery at the roadside.

    After the rain 

    The rain doesn’t come unannounced. One gets the pleasure of seeing and hearing an orchestra in the sky first. Usually there is a light show in the distance to begin with, followed by a series of drum rolls. This is merely a rehearsal before the main act and can go on for hours. Late afternoon and early evening are currently the favoured times for the performance to commence. The best seat in the house is one with a covered roof. I don’t have great confidence in my 3-season yellow spaceship withstanding a serious African downpour.

    A few nights ago I was lucky enough to watch it from a Primary school. The clouds had been darkening all afternoon and wherever the sun was behind them it was soon going to set. A plaque on the wall of the school showed it had been built in 2004 by a German-financed project. The building was locked and apart from a few nearby huts it appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dense jungle. Judging by the insect-life in the outside latrine I also guessed it hadn’t been open for some time. I peered through an iron-grill window and saw the date May 12th written on a blackboard. Summer holidays must start early here.

    The school was visible from the road and it had been the wide concrete and corrugate-covered veranda that I wanted to stake my claim on for the night. Not wishing to set up camp without permission I asked two nearby women walking on the road. Unfortunately the Pula for “Where is your chief” is not in my note-book. It ought to be for I didn’t feel 100% safe without the headman’s permission. I assumed the torch that shone out between downpours in the darkness several hours later would be my man. Instead it was a teenage boy wearing a Chelsea football shirt with a rifle across his back. I should note that guns are not that uncommon out in the mountains here, where young men head out into the jungle for the day to hunt. Regardless of that, meeting a nervous teenager in the dark with a gun does not make for the most restful of nights. Fortunately it passed without incident and my friend returned the next morning so I could take a better look at his gun.

    Rifle boy and friends 

    Out in the Guinean countryside there appears little political tension. People, mostly women, are out preparing and planting the land with manioc, lifting themselves up from this back-breaking work to greet, wave, laugh, and question the white man who is riding a bicycle. My progress with speaking Pula wins far more smiles than it does with French out here. Say hello (‘jarama’, ‘tanala’), ask how their family is (Nuk ben guri ma?), their work (Nu lee gima?), complain that it’s hot (Heeno wooli), riding a bicycle is difficult (Nosati), that you’re tired (Meetampi) and anything else you can remember and you’ll soon make friends. Gone are the demands for cadeau. People here don’t see many white faces. It’s very refreshing after Senegal and gets my vote for friendliness.

    There is next to no traffic on the roads in northern Guinea. I say roads, but much of the time they are merely tracks through the jungle or resemble the surface of a river-bed, often both. I spent a good amount of time pushing my bike for the first few days as I climbed up to 1500m and the town of Mali-ville. On a clear day you can look down into Senegal and the upper reaches of the River Gambia from here.

    Climbing through the Fouta Djalon mountains

    By all accounts and appearances Guinea is as economically crippled, undeveloped and unstable as it’s Portuguese speaking neighbour. Hardly any electricity, no running water and what concrete fabric exists is in serious decay and disrepair. The only construction I have seen taking place in the last week was that of an enormous mosque, impressive not just because of its size, but the fact that the entire edifice was being supported by an intricate scaffolding of wooden poles. I’m guessing it is Saudi-financed.

    Several Policemen stopped me as I rode into the outskirts of Labe. Following nothing but smiles and waves from people further north, their demeanour was altogether different. They weren’t smiling. It’s the first sign that all may not be safe for me at this time in the country. After one scrutinised my passport then demanded to see my vaccination certificates, another (drunken) wanted to search through my bags. I steered the conversation to football and began speaking in English, telling them I was a teacher. The mood changed as each vied for my attention in showing off what they could say. I congratulated them, apologised for having no reward for their efforts, before putting my vaccination cards away (the first time I’ve ever had to show them) and being given the nod that I could pedal off.

    Something makes me think this may be more common on the road from here to the capital – Conakry. It’s hard to predict what the post-election mood will be like, and my French is far from fluent to confidently gauge the topic. Plotting a straighter course to Sierra Leone may be a better option. Whichever way I go there’s sure to be more mountains and rain.

    On an additional note, next month I will be helping to distribute the mosquito nets which many of you kind people have paid for. First I have to get myself to southern Sierra Leone. Right in the middle of the country’s rainy season malaria is at it’s most prevalent during this time. The roads are also likely to be at their worst. I can hardly wait. If you would like to make a donation and see your nets distributed, please show your support here.

    Road to Labe