Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mandiana - Niani - Mali border

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.I depart from Mandiana customs check point in the afternoon and hit the road towards Niani.Without a proper map (as there is none) the road is not clearly marked, especially its condition. To my astonishment I find it in much better condition than the ones I got used to since entering Guinea.

At 40-50 mph this seems a real highway to me. A few checkpoints on the way, nothing spectacular, the usual 'pay 'n drive' method works well here.

The scenery has changed into complete Savannah now. Grasslands and scrubs, solitary Baobab trees, but no more the dense tropical jungle.
Life in these areas is dreadful, no running water, no electricity, as in dark ages. People though can adapt to any condition that is put upon them.
We reach Niani at night close to 19 hours P.M. and my fuel is close to nil. Of course Niani, the border town must be having fuel, or so I think. What I finally find is not the usual filling station.After crossing the town, which is not much of a settlement, I am directed to the 'station'. I can not somehow forget this scene, it is another milestone on a long road through Africa.I find a petroleum lit grass hut, crooked stems serve as poles, a straw covered roof. The fuel is all filled in beer bottles of 0.7 ltrs, lined up in a row on front of the 'gas station'. If it were not for the acute shortage, I would laugh at this, but now I realize I have no choice, for after Niani there is a 100 miles nothing except bush and unknown territory.So I fill a 50 bottles of 'beer' gas, its price almost double inflated to the normal rate. I do not even want to look for food, for I know I have to continue to Mali tonight. So I leave, with a unforgettable memory in place.The evening brings some cool air, I sense the mighty river nearby. And when I reach the bonfire that is lit near the main road I recognize the Guinean border guards who camp here.To describe this would take another chapter, however this is an entry / exit point and I must say the guards are the friendliest I ever found in Guinea. The exit stamp in my passport, i carry on, the dark road passing through the middle of the bush, beside the river. Driving carefully in the dark, against my mentors advice, I focus my full attention on the rough road ahead of me.  The river Sankarani I cant see, as it is dark, but to me it is more a lake than a river. Floating gently, but mightily. A build up to the mighty dam that feeds three quarters of Mali with electricity, the Barrage de Selingui. A gigantic project as I am to see later on. A premonition overcomes me I can't explain why, but I slow down my vehicle to a mere 10 mph. I cannot see the road ahead of me, and the high beams are not helping much either. I notice the concrete structure that stands in the dark was once a bride crossing a creek beneath. Now, the bridge has been washed away, and I am standing 6 meters over the creek that floats beneath under it. In the darkness I maneuver the car back and find a diversion I passed minutes ago, leading to the creek's bottom. The normal type of vehicle would not be able to drive through this makeshift road, but I manage to cross the waters which aren't deep surprisingly and climb up the other side to continue my journey.The road turns to the left and leads into pure grassland, with bumps shaking us to the brink. In the distance a see a shimmering light, a line decorated with obsolete plastic carrier bags in all colors indicate a further check point. No one in sight, in the middle of the Savannah. I blow my horn. It is now 20 hours and I still have to make headway, I force myself. After a few minutes a customs guy appears and tells me the border is closed for tonight, from his uniform I can see we have reached the Malian customs.I beg, a common way of getting things done in these parts, to let me pass, as I have pressing business in Bamako. After consultation for which he disappears back into the dark, he reappears and removes the rope that serves as a barrier. We cross the line and follow him, guiding us to a shelter build from grass, roots and pieces of logs. The papers I am asked to submit. He disappears into the hut, and I wait. 5 minutes, 10 minutes pass. After 15 minutes I follow him and see three customs officials inspecting my 'international vaccination card'.I am asked if all my vaccinations are in order, which I confirm. Something they must find, and in my case they ask me for a valid 'Vaccination contre Meningitis' as you guess right the vaccination against Meningitis is what delays my departure. 5000 CFA change their hands and I carry on through the night. next episode : night in the bush




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Monday, May 28, 2007

A world beneath - the tragedy

I was trying to find out about a missing link in my family's annals. It was sixty five years ago when my uncle, then nineteen, enlisted in the German Navy. I am not proud of this , neither am I ashamed of the fact, it was as it was, and parallels can be found at any time in history, even to this day. He chosde to be in the Navy and was trained on a German sub. He must have felt proud then, to fight for his 'homeland', same rhetoric used  till this day, to win hearts and minds of subordinates.

Whilst he underwent training in Pilau U-boat training school he sent a post card to his family in June 1941. Another one was sent in winter 1941, showing the U-boat in the icy sea off Newfoundland. It was on 24th July 1942 when their U-90 sub incl. all 44 men were sunk by the Canadian destroyer 'St.Croix'.

It is difficult to imagine the last minutes and the agony that he went through, only 19 years of age at the time. In the year that followed the vessel 'St. Croix' itself became a target to the German sub U-305.

The irony - U-90 never sunk one enemy ship. After 65 years  we knownow  the events relating to his death. His death was documented in 1943 in the registrar's office in Wilhelmshaven, Germany.

Yet, as it seems that we never learn from the past, as I am writing, many innocent lives are lost becauseof  yet another 'wannabe'. And the world is unable to stop him. And with every innocent life lost the danger of escalation rises. What a world of hypocrites we still live in, with those crying for 'justice' and 'freedom'. Yet they themselves far away from the guns, when in fact they ran away from performing their duty - to serve their country when called to do so.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mandiana Customs scam, night in the Savannah, Barrages de Selingui, Mali

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Once dawn breaks I am up again, trying to locate the facilities of this shabby place I spent the night. The couple with the motorcycle episode still on my mind, I find my way to the washroom, and what a washing room it is.


There is flowing water however and I have my shower under the fresh morning sky, the cold water from the well helps me to clear my mind at once. I have a difficult task ahead of me, and I need lots of luck to get my merchandise out of the customs clutches. So mad the whole story sounds, no one would ever imagine the agonizing moments I go through with these officials. Like leeches they prey on their targets, remorseless their approach to empty your pockets.


The night before I visited the local hawkers and to my astonishment I found quiet palatable food. Without a meal the whole day I longed for a dinner, and I found it in form of a decent Spaghetti Bolognaise, and some 'sauce 'd arachides' a peanut butter based sauce with stewed rice. Amazingly, the dishes were of agreeable taste, and reasonably cheap.


The appointment is set to 80.00 AM and I drive up to the main junction that links the western border Bougoula, with the northern and eastern route, to Kankan and Niani. The customs building is a simple tin roof thatched house, but the main negotiating room is on its left, and is comprised of a raw concrete floor, some wooden chairs, and a grass covered rooftop, open to all sites, so that the traffic can be observed. Whatever passes through here, is subject to pay road tax, in one way or another. The capital is far and here the officials can act as they see fit.


The night before I drove up to the main junction, the Customs officials on duty sitting near a bonfire in one of the huts erected to control vehicles that pass through here. I was asked to report the next morning, having no choice I will follow the order. Again the officer who we found at the entry point to Mandiana tells me that I do not have valid car papers, and thus adds to my already big problem..


I drive up the yard, and after the initial exchanges of welcoming : 'bienvenue', the officials, three of them, begin their process. All eyes are focused on the big Renault articulator, now parked at the side, under scrutiny of the customs. They will not let go of this truck till they receive their share The one in charge appears, with the copy of the transit invoice in his hand and tells me the amount involved. The figure is somewhat less than at the Bougoula border,  but it is still beyond my acceptable figure 


When I insist that the value on the invoice is incorrect, the official displays the transit documents, and I realize the blunder made by my own staff. The valuation on the documents contained an error, committed by the Ivorian Customs. The whole crew of the truck has by now assembled around the vehicle and I request the original invoice issued by our company back in Ghana. Here the amount is a complete different amount, and I produce it as evidence. Seeing an opportunity slip by, the man in beige now tries to be stubborn. I am now in full steam and ask him to physically check the load instead. Upon his instruction a few bales loaded are released and the weight is being taken. By multiplying the number of packages he derives at the figure on my invoice. This solves the puzzle and he grins. We know the icebreaker worked. We have all settled into the straw- hut and two official in a hammock are explaining the procedures, and warning of the 'brigade', the customs flying squad that seizes all goods that are not properly declared. All to intimidate us and to find ways to extract more money.


Once the final calculation comes out we are to pay in the region of 3000 US Dollars, still high but of course much less than the previous figure. Now it comes to the finals, the crew is invited to have lunch with the officials, I politely refuse indicating to my stomach. They withdraw behind the house to  .savor he local specialty 'cailler'. When I see the fermented milk, with thousand flies swarming around it, and the sugar being added in large amounts, I return to the point of the vehicle, finding a place in the shadow under a large Acacia tree and wait for further developments. I feel the deal is nearly done. With the meal over, the people return to prepare the final release documents. Without telling anyone in the group I know I have a most important meeting to attend in Europe, after 3 days in Prague to be precise. How I will reach there I don't know. We are in the middle of the bush, no airport, only rough roads leading into three different directions, one of which is towards the north to Mali, and I know that I will have to take this route. I urge to conclude the deal, already 10 days have passed since the truck has entered Bougoula border (Encounter at dusk, part II). With a few twitches in the final figure we agree to the amount. Now all the attention is on how much money everyone will collect from the deal.  Smiling faces abound, I realize we are done. I am preparing to depart, handing over the amount to the woman in charge of the consignment, to be paid against official receipt. And with the new friends made waving goodbye, I set off towards Niani, the border with Mali. The time is 15.00 PM, and I have to drive approx 300 km through Savannah road to reach the border town, also know to be a smuggler's haven.


Continued : Night in the Mali savannah .


Saturday, May 19, 2007

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Encounter at dusk, Odienne forest, border Guinea

Encounter at dusk, Odienne forest, border Guinea

The Renault truck was loaded to the top with no room left to spare. 30 tons of merchandise consisting of packaging materials and other goods had crossed from Gonokrom, Ghana towards Ivory Coast, Agnibilekrou http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnibilekrou. On the first night they slept at the border to complete formalities to obtain transit documents, a cumbersome affair.

They had made friends with the border customs officials in order to facilitate the process faster. The wife of the head of the customs border point invited them to dinner, consisting of Fufu (mortar pounded Manioc, plantains and yams), and the delicious peanut butter stew.

The days that followed were in stark contrast to this, the truck transiting Ivory Coast from the north to the south, just 150 km before Abidjan, and then turning right towards Yamoussoukro. It took 3 days before Yamoussoukro was reached, and heavy rain poured down on them in the center of the metropolis built by Houphouet Boigny, the former president. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0824299.html

They slept the night in their vehicle, the crew of 4 and the woman in charge of the goods. It was cramped, uncomfortable and sticky hot, but they had managed all through out their journey the conditions were similar.

The made an attempt to call to inform their whereabouts but no telephone line was available to contact those waiting for news.
Next morning the truck moved north towards the regional capital of Odienne http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9056764/Odienne, and the driver took the decision to cross the rainforest into Guinea, without knowing the road and its condition.

Being on African roads is a danger in itself, with vehicles parked in broken down condition during nightfall, blocking the roads, and without a warning triangle as the norm. Many people lose their lives this way, from passenger cars ploughing into those trucks on the road. Thousands of people die as a result but nothing is being done to alter the situation. No government since 50 years has ever been able to control this number one cause of road accidents.

The road through the forest is unpaved, a stretch of 50 miles of green, impenetrable jungle awaits them, only cut by a narrow, laterite road that serves as the main route to the border with Guinea. So narrow is the path that no two vehicles would be able to pass each other would they meet. On some areas the road is wider, and this would be the only way to allow two trucks to pass side by side, leaving only inches of room.

The truck could not move at more than 10-15 mph due to the bad condition of the road. In the afternoon the torrents pour more water on them, the jungle becoming a morass.
Visibility is reduced to a few meters. The driver does his best to continue, he is aware of the many dangers that lurk in this thick, green hell. They must make it to the border post. The rain still gushing down on them, he was crossing a creek overflowing its embankments. The floods are dark from the soil of the rainforest, and the driver can't see the huge rock that is laying in the middle of it. All he feels is a heavy jolt on his truck, and he forces the car to move out from the creek to stop on the other side and inspecting his vehicle. He had unwittingly damaged his radiator whilst running over a big bolder of rock hardly noticeable because of low visibility and the dark brown floods.

Desperation overcomes them when they see the damage. No way could they continue till the water tank had been repaired. They decide to stay over the night and remove the tank the following morning.
It was late afternoon close by the time they had crossed the flooded creek. Tropical rains happen to be a regular menace to drivers and as fast as they come they will go. At 6 PM all was over and the forest was getting dark, quickly.

They prepared for the night in their cramped vehicle once again, only this time in the middle of the jungle, and without knowing their exact location.
After the rain the canopy over them turned into a lively neighborhood with green monkeys jumping from branch to branch, amidst loud screams they were protesting the human presence below them.

Night fell and the jungle voices rising, myriads of mosquitoes descending on them. Windows could not be closed completely unless they would suffocate, so they fell prey to the blood sucking insects. It was real hell, no food except a few loafs of bread was with them. A negligence they realized at that moment.
The night creeping endlessly, with the occupants feeling prisoners in their tiny cabin which had two bunks infested with another insect, fleas. In addition to their already dreadful condition, the fleas attacking them in the bunks and menacing them.

When daylight comes they are relieved, move out from their vehicle and disappear in the bushes behind. The creek is now at its normal level and the rock can be seen clearly. Nobody will move it except by nature's force. After a meager breakfast of a few chunks of 'tea bread, water from the creek, the driver and mate remove the radiator, a task of two hours. It is near 10 AM when they depart back to where they came from, carrying the heavy tank on the drivers head, the African way.

No one knows how long it would take them to return. A pathetic thought in the middle of nowhere, only a breakdown in the desert could be of similar magnitude. So they wave goodbye and pray to return safely.

The day passes slowly, the jungle steaming with the day heat, the sun now over the canopy they melt in this near 100 % humidity environment. They watch the monkeys over their heads, and pass the time with telling their own problems to each other.
The owner of the vehicle was a laborer in London, UK and saved up in many years to be able to acquire this truck to enable him to make a living back home. Many tales are told on this day, for there was no other means to beat the time.
They wonder where their companions may have reached, their hopes are dim, knowing the condition of the road.

Afternoon brings again the daily rain. Everyone is waiting for the storm to finish before preparing for the night once again. A bucket of water is carried for the woman to the vehicle to the rear of the cabin to take her bath. She has no choice and uses her African printed cloth to wrap it around her big bosom and cover herself from the view of the others. Sitting on the back on the top of the spare tire, she manages to take her shower.
The water is fresh and invigorates her after the hot day. Proceeding with lotion her body, using a perfumed body lotion to smoothen her skin, she suddenly hears a sound from the side of the road behind her.
She calls the attention of the vehicle's owner and points to the shadow that comes towards her. As dusk has set in she is unable to see clear, yet she notices the abnormal size of what comes towards her. She tells Paul in the front to look at this big dog. When the remaining mate sees it he is shocked and calls in a quiet voice, she should move into the cabin, as this was not a dog, that rather it was a lion. With her Adrenalin rising in a flash, her 220 pounds of flesh moved as fast as in no time before. She jumps to the cabin like a 14 year old schoolgirl, slamming the door behind them. They see the Forest Leopard standing behind, whacking his tail nervously, confused. The scent of perfume is an unknown odor to him, and this saves the life of the female. They see him and hear him, a few meters away from the vehicle, growling deeply, his spotted skin vaguely visible in the dark.

They had crossed the path of a Forest Leopard http://www.africaguide.com/features/trvafmag/015.htm, and escaped his attack by a margin. The margin was the body lotion that sent the Leopard into confusion. God was on their side. The Leopard still standing, and growls on more time in a deep, catlike outburst of dissatisfaction, till he finally disappears back into the jungle.

Continuation : Bougoula border, Guinea........



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