It is often said that first impressions count, and leaving Senegal behind for The Gambia this was never more poignant. The friendly checking of passports by Senegalese policeman took place whilst buried under a sea of groundnut vendors screaming in French. This was to be replaced by suspicion and fear at a primitive, burnt-out shed, twenty metres walk across no-man’s-land in Karang. The initial gauntlet was what passed for customs. Three rotund men, sporting western baseball shirts and mountains of gold jewellery, inspired no confidence that I would be leaving this border with anything more than the clothes I was wearing. This initial phase completed, I found myself fielding a barrage of accusatorial questions from several sultry looking women, wearing uniform that was anything but uniform.
The final stage at any African border crossing is always the money traders. Groups of these suspicious men invariably lurk around the first corner to be found in the country with several bricks of worthless, filthy notes, hidden from view in shopping bags. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the more surprising of the world’s successful integrated economic zones. The majority of former French colonies use the same currency, the West African Franc, which until the introduction of the Euro was pegged against the French Franc. What makes it all the more surprising that the currency works is the delicate care with which the notes must be handled. With the high temperatures and exhausting humidity they take the form of a dirty, sweat ingrained pulp.
Summer in Sub-Saharan Africa is rainy season. The same summer that saw Charles Taylor reluctantly relinquish power in Liberia was in the main dry and unforgiving for me. On one of the few days in which this norm was violently broken I happened to be destined for the far eastern tip of The Gambia. Morning in Basse-Santa-Su saw me trudging through rivers of mud and rubbish, which had to be negotiated in order to reach the bus station. This was stocked with a surprising number of the battered white Peugeots found throughout Africa.
The rain had broken the fragile crust that had previously existed on the surface of the mud track. Each metre saw the truck lurch into another hole, covering me and my bag with more watery silt. The vehicle floundered, and from time to time the gang of children hanging onto the roof jumped down and struggled to push us out of another hole. The water brought the land to life. Trees became a vibrant green and glistened in the morning sun. The barren earth was a deep burnt red. Ten kilometres from the town we reached the border, a single thatched hut without even so much as a gate. Having answered the customary questions I waited for the cheerful guards to fill in their dog-eared logbook. A poster on the wall sang the praises of the currency, the Dalasi, and promoted the mint which, to my bemusement, was apparently in Wales.
In recent years Mali and Senegal have been linked by an African Highway that in Britain would pass for a minor A road. This route is impassable in the rainy season, leaving the train as the only option for crossing the border safely and away from the bandits in the north. Two trains run each week from Dakar in Senegal to Bamako in Mali, taking a nominal sixty hours. In practice this is rarely the case, the engines setting their own pace as they chug peacefully though the undulating plains of eastern Mali.
The train screamed to a halt at the border, providing a much needed opportunity for breakfast. Passports and identity cards were gathered and taken away for checking, and the passengers flooded onto the barren plains lining the track. Opportunistic locals had set up a bazaar of stalls, and frenetic bartering and trading commenced. I settled for a tot of sugary instant coffee and freshly baked bread, heavily infused with sand. We stopped for an hour and throughout this period a constant chain of muscular men loaded the already heavily laden train with countless bags of grain and vegetables, and even more plastic buckets. This worried me slightly as the previous night had been sleepless, with little room for my cramped legs, and did not bode well for the next. Suddenly my thoughts were shattered. It was time to retrieve documents and in no time a large crowd was swarming like flies around the officials.
The Gare Routiere in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, is considerably quieter than those in other capital cities in the region. Despite this I still encountered the usual hustle and bustle and soon found each of my limbs being dragged towards numerous dilapidated vehicles. I managed to fight my way through the crowds and eventually settled down for the long wait for the departure of my chosen car. The procedure is always the same. Find a car, haggle over the price, load the bags on the roof, and then wait for the remaining places to be filled, sometimes for hours. This time I was lucky and soon on the road. The driver shared the front with two men on the passenger seat. Immediately behind them sat three more men and a colourful lady nursing a baby. I was squashed in a poorly welded seat in the boot with two others. During the journey the baby also found its way back into this tight space and spent most of the journey on my knee.
Some borders are pompous affairs, with all the regalia and importance of halcyon colonial days. In stark contrast to the extensive no-man’s-land separating The Gambia and Senegal, Ghana is announced with arches and new administrative buildings. The people of Ghana are some of the more fortunate in region. Known as the Gold Coast during colonial times it was the richest of the African colonies, fostering a thriving press and boasting the best schools and civil service in the region. Since gaining independence it has suffered a modest three coups, making it one of the most stable of the fledgling democracies.
I was travelling across the border into Ghana, and a small town called Bolgatanga. Before long I wished I had chosen another of the cars. The rickety frame was suffering on the poor roads, and an hour into the journey we found ourselves pulling over for the third time to tend to the engine. By this stage we had also passed five accidents, having driven no more than a hundred kilometres. All involved trucks of various sizes, one of which had driven into a village. The road was strewn with bales of straw, gallon drums with unidentifiable contents and scrap metal. Eventually we passed under a ‘Welcome To Ghana’ arch and with it the relative safety of the border. Looking back it was unclear whether driving into Burkina Faso takes the driver under a sign that reads: ‘Bye-Bye. Safe Travel’, or the more appropriate: ‘Bye-Bye Safe Travel’.
For me the final border to be crossed was that between the free-for-all front of Cotonou airport and the quiet, clean and heavily sedated international interior. Cotonou is the capital of Benin in all but name. Ministries line Avenue Jean Paul II and a single railway line snakes tortuously to the north of the country, the birthplace of Voodoo. The roads are clotted with a sea of mopeds and almost impossible to cross. The streets and buildings are littered with rubbish and caked in mud and a fine dust that infiltrates every pore. Myriad Beninese seep from every corner, and unlike many African towns and villages the people all seem to be on urgent business. The airport is not finished. Only the lounges are complete, fostering in weary arrivals a false sense of security. The exterior is a building site, with steel bars protruding from heavily amputated columns. The final sermon on Africa, a radio plays at ear-splitting volume in the left ear, local television vies for attention in the right.