No time to delve into background reading, brush up French, read Graham Green. Events took over in little Metfield to swallow up and draw me down a rabbit hole. So
‘To be prepared is to be unprepared’ or is it ‘To be unprepared is to be prepared’?
The human mele outside the airport when you are never sure when and how you will be taken for your first ride.
‘The smell of piss is different from India’
‘Different food’, says Barry practically.
Isle de Goree:
We begin from where we’ve come: an island attribute – a perfect prison with the sea as the barrier to keep in, or keep out.
Diaspora – people fleeing persecution, hardship, forced to leave their homeland, leaving without a place to return to. Slave islands, Zanzibar, St Louis, Gore
Fittingly we began with our learning the origins of the diaspora, of the not so long ago home of the black skinned people we’d hitherto met on our island, back to the infamous slave trade. Of how, as well as European, indigenous black slavers rounded up their same tribe people to sell to French and English ships from Liverpool (a mere fishing hamlet before the industry of slavery). We saw out of the doorway through which they exited shackled to the waiting ships. We looked across the sea, which then was full with sharks deliberately encouraged by casting out the bodies of ill or dying slaves to discourage escape. We learned how slavery was sanctioned in British Law, so given a status of a moral right. The right to punish a negro who gave false testimony ‘That he be ordered to have one ear nailed to a tree there to stand for one hour and then the said ear to be cut off, and thereafter the other ear’. The English – so pedantically strict on time, and such even handedness. Of how that same law determined compensation when slavery was abolished: ‘Those who are to suffer by this abolition will come to Parliament for compensation. There will be no pretence for refunding because whatever may be the injustice of inhumanity of this trade it is not to be denied that it is a trade which has been carried out under the auspices of this House and agreeable to Law. (These days I do not have a warm view of law: it is the right in law that my tenants have to black mail money from me right now that vents my fury)
Isle de St Louis
Exiting Dakar through the inevitable traffic jam, capitalised on by traders temping us imprisoned commuters, women with oranges, men touting vests, mobile chargers, plastic kids toys, stuff off the boat from China. OUT into the land of BAOBABS, hands coming out of the sand. Date palms, mangos, cashew and finally, Thorn bush. Much road kill. Passed debris of dead horse, donkey, goat, many cars. Vultures indulging. Great modern road, to which animal tracks not
Over the Louis bridge, built by Mr Effel, onto the Island, now far removed from its slavery intention, and home to excellent French restaurants and jazz. We found La Louisiane, a duplicate of River Cat Villa, complete with coconut tree growing in restaurant. Ate delicious Lott at La Signare, the name given to native women who married European men, and achieved great status. Run by a highly painted Parisian woman with great style.
‘If I didn’t have this restaurant, I would go mad here. There is nothing to do, no cinema, little TV. My husband – he just reads his newspaper and drinks all day: I could not do that.’
There are some people you meet along the way that give you immediate confidence in them. You rest comfortably in their company. If they should say: This is the place to stay! I would go there blindfold inspired by their innate judgement. May be the nick name Assurance was given to remind him each time his name was called: to be that.
But he was not that, at least not within my sight of him in Senegal February 2008, in that short time we knew him.
It was his assured English that attracted us both to him, in French speaking Senegal, at the Dakar port looking for news on the boat to Zigachur, that one said ran and another said didn’t. He did not know for sure, he was a guide to Gore island,
‘You know, the slave island. Oh there is much I could tell you about that island’, he promised and Barry responded: ‘I don’t do guides’. We went to Gore the next day, guideless, on an early boat, the one Assurance advised us not to get for it was ‘Far too early’. We liked being the only tourists, in the coolness of the morning climbing to the islands high point, an abandoned military based topped with a gun turret and underground silos, now peacefully occupied by a colony of squatting artists, creating unusual art using every day materials discarded or washed up by the sea: forks for arms, transistor chips for bellies, corks for heads. (How fitting for African art, I thought, not to put the transistor chip for the head but for the belly).
Fittingly here we began our learning of the origins of the diaspora, of the not so ancient home of the black skinned people we’d hitherto met on our island, England, back to the infamous slave trade. Of how, as well as European, indigenous black slavers rounded up their same tribe people to sell to French and English ships from Liverpool (a mere fishing hamlet before the industry of slavery). We saw out of the doorway through which they exited shackled to the waiting ships. We looked across the sea, which then was full with sharks deliberately encouraged by casting out the bodies of ill or dying slaves to discourage escape. We learned how slavery was sanctioned in British Law, so given a status of a moral right. The right to punish a negro who gave false testimony ‘That he be ordered to have one ear nailed to a tree there to stand for one hour and then the said ear to be cut off, and thereafter the other ear’. The English – so pedantically strict on time, and such even handedness. Of how that same law determined compensation when slavery was abolished: ‘Those who are to suffer by this abolition will come to Parliament for compensation. There will be no pretence for refunding because whatever may be the injustice of inhumanity of this trade it is not to be denied that it is a trade which has been carried out under the auspices of this House and agreeable to Law. (These days I do not have a warm view of law: it is the right in law that my tenants have to black mail money from me right now that vents my fury)
When the boat for Zigachur continued to allude us, we left for St Louis, another island in the north, another slave island but now voluntarily visited for it’s jazz and delicious French food. ‘The Boat to Zigachur is running!’ our delightful room cleaner informed us on our return from St Louis, and we ran down to the port to find another false start: there was a boat but it was only on trial, perhaps next week, they said. In sha’alla.
Plan b was Assurance. While debating the illusive Zigachur boat, he’d offered us a private car for 75 quid down to Zigachur. It transpired he was not the driver, but came with the driver and the car. ‘I make no profit’, he complained. But Barry was firm.
During the long hot drive he complained of unexpected costs,
‘The Gambian police, they ask so much bribe’
Barry was firm and handed over a modest tip, The 5 hours assured drive turned into 10, and we were tired.
‘What about tomorrow?’
‘Look Assurance. I make clear, I do not do guides. I’ve seen as many crocodiles as you’ve had hot dinners. I’ve seen more of Africa than you. I don’t need anyone telling me where to go. I don’t need guides.’
But Barry was missing his English. Feeling disempowered by not being able to command direct bargaining, dependent on my less than perfect French, he was frustrated. And I, finding myself occupying an uncommon subordinate role, gave out an occasional donkey kick.
‘This is not the way I would do it’ I remonstrated as Barry got both guides, Assurance and the hotel guide, to quote for our trip to Isle of Caraban. ‘You play 2 people off against each other, get both working on the same problem, lead up the garden path.’
‘But one will win!’ said Barry, the competing capitalist.
Both came up with same price to island and back. I was surprised he chose Assurance, who would command 10 a day extra.
‘Are you sure?’ Of course I remembered saying, afterwards. But had I questioned further, I would have discovered Barry was under the wrong assumption, that one was equal to the other, with Assurance paid for.
Doomed in misunderstanding from the start, we set off.
An hours drive not the estimated 3-4 hours, no Tribal King (not at home), and a contrasting confident and jolly taxi driver, who knew every one we passed, playing hid and seek with the soldiers at army checkpoints – all should have been red light to stop. Instead we moved into our next Assurance blunder: At Elinkin fishing village, he failed to negotiate a good price for a shared boat to the island and we pay the full amount.
‘Have a good holiday on me!’ Barry tormented. ‘Like I said, I don’t need guides.’
In fact we met our guide as we were having a beer the first evening on the island. Louis was a French man, large and rounded and equally jolly with an abundance of good humour, casting his jolly net to all who passed by, rounding the women to his belly before kissing them affectionately, ‘Mon Cherie!’, ‘Mon Cher!’ , They loved it, easily laughing, mirroring this mirth. He was considered a local although he came here 4 months of every year, and had just returned back 2 days from a short visit to France. When the heat left the sun, Louis led us and two visiting Italians through the only village on the island, greeting everyone, calling into each hut on the sand path. He took us to the ‘agriculture’. A huge fertile field full of working women, leaning over in that African fashion, straight legs and straight down back weeding immaculate rows of onions, lettuce, tomatoes. As we moved from allotment to allotment, Louis taught the women how to prick out the weak tomato shoots to make the others strong, and we found ourselves helping the children spread the water they pulled from the wells. The children were not afraid to ask, they had unabashed front.
Out hotel, the most expensive of the few on the modest island, not only gave Assurance a free room, but he came and ate with us, his free food. It was not as we had wished, but it was so.
‘What do you like in Africa Mr Barry?’ Assurance opened the conversation.
‘I like to see powerful animals. Animals that threaten us humans: lions, tigers, snakes.
‘And to eat?’
‘Yes, the same. I like Piranahs best.’
‘Pirana’s are fish that feed of human flesh’
‘You are very … ill est tres droll.’ Assurance concluded.
We passed easy time on the Isle de Caraban. We became as the place, laid back, watching people pass, children playing in the sand, nothing rushed. In the evenings looking out to sea, we collected stories from others passing through. Natalie, who had lived in India, in Varanasi for 2 years.
‘You twos have much in common’ observed Barry. She’d somewhat radically married her Indian music teacher: she was30 and he 50. On the eve of their wedding he became ill and old overnight. After 6 months of nursing, she became a little mad. Unexpectedly he changed expecting her to be as reclusive as an Indian wife, and his illness got worse. After she left for Europe to search for medicine, he died, suddenly. But not before writing her a letter releasing her from the marriage. ‘He cleaned everything up’, his brother explained later in a letter.
Trouble was brewing. I’d found some cotton material on the island, Indigo blue, sufficiently modest for Barry to agree to it, and there next door was a waiting tailor. Just like India. But the tailor failed to copy the given shirt, and the result was not acceptable.
‘Who does he think I am? Billy Bunter? These people, they’ve got no idea. Didn’t you see how bad it was? I wouldn’t have accepted it. I would have told him to keep it.’
‘Is he thick or something? I asked when the boat is coming, he says in half an hour at 10.30. It’s 10.30 now! These people, they are so thick!’
‘How’s your gout?’, I asked, surprised at Barry’s irritation, wondering if this were the source.
‘You enjoy the Isle de Caraban?’ It was an odd question Assurance asked us at Effinian as we waited for the taxi that was supposed to be waiting for us and wasn’t.
‘I shouldn’t have to wait. He might be on Africa time, but I am not!’ Barry, sitting with his leg up in the cool shade, was getting increasingly agitated.
When the taxi finally arrived, with the same jolly driver arriving with his smiles given all around, the tailor, who’d been hanging around with us, asked if he could get a lift with us to Zigachur.
Barry went ballistic. ‘I don’t believe it. You are unbelievable. I’ve paid for this car. Is he going to pay half?’
‘Je suis tres desole, Mosieur’ I turned to the shirt maker, who was unaware of the origins of Barry’s wrath
‘C’est pas grave’, he replied with understanding, and turned away to find another lift,
‘That was the tailor.’ I said to Barry
‘You shouldn’t have told me that. You must be joking. After what he did to my shirt! I don’t believe it. How could you ask him?’
We both knew the end would be firey. Of that we were assured, and Assurance turned up trumps by demanding 50,000 each way, plus his 10,000 a day ‘for his holiday’.
‘I call the police’, he challenged.
‘Call them. I am here. I’d be delighted if you called the police’ Barry returned.
Liberia March 2008
We left the gentle innocence of Guinea, where people, forever curious about us white skinned visitors, easily broke in to a smile while calling out ‘Ca Va? Or ‘Aller bien?’ knowing that it would solicit a response, a dance. Driving across the natural boarder, the Nimbi mountain range, immediately a different land shocked us: bombed out homes. Not the African mud huts but solid rectangular concrete established homes, roofless with steel RSJ’s exposed, and in place of families, jungle growing.
The violence and destruction of the 25 year old civil war is in this abandonment of buildings. Buildings peppered with shrapnel, limbless men, hardened faces that do not easily smile and give a look of weariness in their eyes. But it is also in the still jungled landscape; war has prevented logging and building, leaving nature to grow reproduce and decay, silently as it always had. There is good and bad in all.
Over a silent railway, grasses growing in between the track: ‘It is being renovated’ said Sam, our Immigration Police escort. He was an unexpected guide, being foisted on us by the Boarder Immigration officer: we’d arrived at the boarder without a visa and 5 phone calls later they let us through with Sam carrying our passports to Monrovia.
‘Renovation’, ‘Rehabilitation’, ‘Rejuvenation’ Words on signboards lined our road, describing the ongoing projects run by US AID, UNHCR, EU. Perhaps it was the relief of seeing English again, that drew our attention but there did seem an unusually high quota of proclamations.
Liberia is the only American colony in Africa. As always the root of todays discord saps water from the past, but it’s not the usual story of colonization – not the story of a superior colonizing country’s ambition to appropriate the mineral or other wealth for that countries benefit, (Belgium Congo, etc). No, this land was dramatically and courageously colonized by freed black American and Carribean slaves, returning back to black Africa having survived shackles, cotton fields, and stark prejudice.
Jehudi Ashmun envisioned an American empire in Africa. During 1825 and 1826, Ashmun took steps to lease, annex, or buy tribal lands along the coast and on major rivers leading inland. Like his predecessor Lt. Robert Stockton, who in 1821 persuaded African King Peter to sell Cape Montserado (or Mesurado) by pointing a pistol at his head, Ashmun was prepared to use force to extend the colony’s territory. His aggressive actions quickly increased Liberia’s power over its neighbors. In this treaty of May 1825, King Peter and other native kings agreed to sell land in return for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten iron posts, and ten pairs of shoes, among other items.
Known as the Americo Liberians, they became the Brahmins, the Rwundan Tutsis, the elite. Their mission? To Christianise and civilize the primitive African. Their fault line? They withheld rights and franchise to the 97% indigenous people, in other words they behaved exactly like the Indian mother in law: they imitated their masters. So the human rift is carved, throughout our social history.
After a century of growth, after gaining Independence 100 years before any other West African state, (in 1847, nimbly avoiding a colonial interest from England), after becoming the beckon of development in West Africa, trouble erupted in 1980. A coup toppled the last Americo Liberian president and Samual Doe was elected the first Non Americo-Liberian President. His first action was to exact revenge: at the age of 28, Doe ordered 13 ministers to be publicly executed on Monrovias beach. The ruinous civil war
A poster in the immigration office announced. It is the pledge of the new government to reform itself. What is Right Sizing, the poster helpfully asks. Many people on the local government payroll are either
– Live abroad,
– Have multiple identities.
The bullet points are refreshingly stark. Sentiments we all know, jest about over a beer, but not often seen in back and white as an official government notification.
……………………Rapped? Seek Free Treatment Now
Explicit reminders of the violence then. I think this is an aural and visual culture, not given to cerebral words. Shop signs are accompanied with supporting art: hair cutting is particularly colourful, with the different bradding possibilities.
…………………… ‘It astonishes us to live with his calm’
Said one of the check point officials – we were stopped a dozen times coming into Monrovia.
‘Liberia good for us now. Now combatants are working fine. They learn computers, agriculture, skill they never knew before, yes, they learn now, and they work. Before? Before everyone was for himself. There was no control. No one made anything because anything taken away. Each one was for himself.’
……………………Stop living in fear or denial. You can still live.
……………………GOD IS IN CONTROL – Foreign Exchange
……………………IN GOD WE TRUST – Bank of Liberia
Water day in Liberia
Walking out from the M Point hotel, I pump into the morning tanker pumping up the water needed for our 100 flush toilets, hot and cold showers, gin and tonics. Around the water tankers backside local Africans (probably the service providers for our hotel or local UN HQ) wait with their containers for the dregs. An enterprising kid puts his bucket under the dripping pipe. Down hill, down to the shanty town that as always lives near the waters edge, the concentration of the outlets for the shit and piss of the city, it is still early and the only traders operating are the water barrow boys. They are selling gallon containers of water for 25 Liberian Dollars. This is the cost of living in Monrovia. Further up I find the enterprise. It’s a pump well controlled by the water business boys, who levy out the water to the barrow boys for distribution round the city. Their route is uphill from here.
Later that evening with the heat of the sun just gone, on our last day in Liberia I swam in our hotels swimming pool. I was the only person there, and swam 30 lengths remembering the water boys.
May 20th 2008
Letter to Claudio Fasau
The White Lion
5 Hermitage Street
We finally made it to Freetown, and the car did bring us FREEDOM, but it was a process.
I sent this story to Damiano and thought you’d like to hear it too.
I hope this letter finds you well and fit and recovering well in the late spring of England, down in Crewkerne. How WAS the operation?
It was a pleasure to meet you in Gambia. I have very found memories of our conversations. I began reading your book, the little world of Don Camillo, a perfect companion for a long journey, interspersed with unexpected lulls of breakdowns in the African bush. I’ve left the book in the car for when we resume our journey at the end of this year, and find myself missing it, unexpectedly.
I cannot remember when we decided to call the car Danny Boy, Barry’s pronunciation of Damiano (far too foreign a name for an East Ender) but the name stuck and reminded us of its birth in Gambia each time we spoke it. Pleasantly, I hasten to add.
One of Barrys desires on coming to Africa, (along with ticking off a few countries) was to find native tribal people. The tribe we encountered from Gambia on was the ‘tollerman’ tribe of car mechanics. Every town we limped into we befriended these humble hardworking men, taking shade under their trees, which also served as hocks for fan belts, drinking cococola, asking what and when? And how? And If?
We didn’t get passed Banjul that first day after leaving you: the radiator dramatically spewed water onto the street, but we found our first kindly tribe of mechanics, run by Ben, near the Banjul port. Here I improved my Wolof language, learning to say: Today we want to go to Mali
Much conversation amongst travellers in Africa revolves around roads. A volunteer of a visited place usually solicits a response: how was the road? Thank the lord (World Bank probably) the only good road in Gambia – smooth tarmac – was the one we drove four times: From Banjule to George town, then back again: we returned to Ben to get a replacement fan and radiator. The radiator, perhaps luckily, was the wrong model, so we avoided this cost, and Ben and his unbelievably merry men gave the original a thorough clean and weld. Their optimism was contagious.
At Basse I practiced a new French phrase:
‘Il a perdu la force’. (is a car masculine or feminine?) The losing power problem we first learned to resolve by putting a wet rag on the coil (donating a pineapple for this information on the side of a road) .
The boarder between Gambia and Guinea was our low point. But as Barry philosophically remarked afterwards, it was also our highpoint. It was a very long night sleeping in broken down Danny Boy on the side of a boarder road in no mans land. Busy with traffic throughout the night, always passing never stopping. But a lorry driver did stop. Through him we understood why it is imperative for all African drivers to be or have mechanics. He generously spent 3 hours working into the dark with our head torches, under first the bonnet, then under the car determined to solve our problem, before realizing he couldn’t, and recommending a mechanic in Guinea, 4 hours away. The next morning he dispatched his co-driver to send message. We were in the lap of the messengers stranded in no-mans land, with Daminano’s grapefruits, and a pack of Maggie noodles, which the local women, intrigued by such food in a packet, cooked for us. The mechanic arrived the next day with electricican, diagnosed a petrol pump problem, (Barry was right, of course, and said so all along). They returned back along the 4 hour dusty road to try and locate one. Another night in the boarder town, which we were getting to know well, finding a giant termite mound to act as a show cubical. With good fortune we were still living off your grapefruit. After eating we threw the empty cup to the ground, and saw it was eagerly picked up by a woman, who picked out all the seeds. What would she do with them? The mechanics did return, having found a new pump. How great is trust without a mobile phone. The next day and we drove – trouble free for the first time – to Kundara to find the dingiest hotel on the planet, home to a colony of mosquitoes, but not running water.
From Kundara to Labe the problem seemed to be solved. But not quite. Belt problems, break problems, air conditioning problems, ensured we met more of the Guinea tribe of Car Mechanics. Our highlight was finding one with a PIT. It became conditioned in us to observe all mechanics we passed on the road, in case we should come to need them, which we often did.
At Labe we reassessed our journey – we’d never make it to Mali – so we turned south into the jungle of Guinea, where we watched chimpanzees living in the tall trees in Bossou. At the boarder into Liberia, we were allowed into the country without visa but with a personal police escort to Monrovia, who kept our passports under his firm control. ‘Because of your age, I decided to let you into our country’ the big boss told us once we’d arrived in the capital. The previous day they had turned back two bicycling Dutch people. Obviously too young and fit. When the average life expectancy is 42, age gives respect. It felt unusually pleasant to be so old.
Crossing the boarder from Liberia to Sierra Leon, Danny Boy came into his own: the roads were not roads but red earth tracks with huge pot holes filled with water. It took hours to drive a few kilometres, but great pleasure in a car which could do it. As we drove through thick forest, into the night, local people ran away from us when we stopped to ask them the way. They were frightened of us, in our chariot of steel. The war and those dark times were not so far behind us.
In Freetown we found a police compound, where Danny Boy rests peacefully, battery disconnected, until we return in November.