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Into West Africa and ‘The Heart of Darkness’


To Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone. April 2013

My tray-table, a clutter of beer cans, red wine and tuna rolls juddered as we swooshed through mountainous columns of cloud, descending into Conakry, Guinea. A runway appeared through the dim dusk light, along with three bright floodlights, blaring out into a mass of black land and moonlit sea. For Conakry is a gnarly, witch’s finger-shaped strip of land that juts out into the Atlantic. A world capital no less, shrouded in total darkness.

The more I looked, the less I saw. Peering down on this gloomy city, home of 2 million, there was no evidence of anyone ever existing, let alone one single light beyond the airport. I knew the city was here somewhere – it had to be. But just shimmering moonlight bounced off the ocean, enveloping, drowning this narrow stretch of obscurity.

Conakry Airport‘Baggage tag please’, asked an old, uniformed man at customs – I was enjoying my iPod when he pulled me over so I took out the earphones and made him repeat himself. ‘Do you have something for me?’ an annoyingly frequent question in West Africa, ‘No, but you can keep my baggage tag sticker’, I hissed. And with that, I pushed my way outside into the sweaty arrivals melee, a scrum of greedy taxi drivers and moneychangers.

After some gentle negotiation with an old, grey-haired driver, we set off. It was pitch black however as we entered the narrow Corniche Sud, the southern artery of this dense, claustrophobic city. My driver stopped on the blackened street, illuminated by candles and the passing headlights of other cars to ask for directions – yep, lost already. The first man we spoke to said ‘Le Plein Sud’, my destination hotel, had closed. ‘Fermé’, he announced in French. ‘C’est fin?’ I double checked. ‘Oui oui’.

There was no Plan B. We trundled along the muddy road, passing low-rise huts and stores populated with groups of candle-wielding locals and gangs of young men chatting heatedly. The heavy air surely reeked of paraffin and wood fire. It was through candle light that I caught my first tantalizing glimpses of this medieval West African backwater and it was in this darkness that my mind first began wandering. You’d be surprised what it’s capable of making you think, the tension it can create, real or imaginary, in just a little darkness.

Arriving in Conakry was like arriving on a different planet. In this largely forgotten, unlit corner of the world, it’s easy to feel on edge. I felt it when my driver stopped, unannounced to chat to locals (he was just getting directions, although that, like everything else at the time, was unclear). Each time we stopped, he would disappear into the gloom while I sat alone in the car. The beaming headlights caught tall dark shapes, white eyeballs in the night that shouted and walked towards me. The tension manifested itself in a beady layer of forehead sweat. It’s at precisely these moments that you hold your nerves and stay calm. Be patient, be still and remember: you wanted this – you chose to be here. Do this and you are a good traveler. Enjoy doing this and you are a real traveler.

Eventually the faint blue neon sign of Le Plein Sud appeared and I knew I was safe. I ordered more beer before retiring to my fan-cooled room. The power cut-out around midnight.

Guinea wasn’t the destination, rather, a means to an end: Sierra Leone, over the border was where I wanted to go, but not before getting the mandatory visa from their embassy here in Conakry. I paid 100 Euros for the visa plus a $50 bribe to ‘express’ it. However, after hanging around for 4 hours in the little embassy’s waiting room, I felt the meaning of ‘express’ had gotten lost on the consular’s chaotic desk.

I met a friendly Indian businessman and his local fixer known only as ‘the doctor’ on account of his profession. The doctor, a thin, feeble Guinean in his mid twenties told me he had only been paid once in 5 years of working at the main hospital.

“So if you’re not being paid, why continue working?’’, I asked.

“Because we get money from the patients directly. You see, healthcare and medicine here is very expensive so by selling that, on the side, we make a living’’, he said, smiling sheepishly.

“Will the government back-pay you?”

“I don’t know” he sighed.

The Indian was busy juggling calls and texts between his iPhone and BB, while a stream of Guinean migrant workers came and went, collecting their Sierra Leone work-visas. In a lull, he finds time to tell me his business.

“I buy cashew nuts from a farm up north, stick 4 tonnes in a container, ship it to India where I process it and then sell on to Europe and America. Doing business here is so time consuming – they don’t understand that time is money. If I could process (the nuts) in Guinea and ship to Europe from here, my costs would drop considerably. But there’s too much corruption and even the power isn’t guaranteed’’.

How true that was. While we waited in the embassy, there was rioting on the street outside. They were protesting about the rolling power outages. Large crowds of men had set fire to rubber truck-tires and were blocking the main road in and out of Conakry. Rocks were being thrown at the police who, completely outnumbered and perhaps a little sympathetic, did very little crowd control.

I weaved my way past the rioters and acrid black smoke until I found a sept-place station beyond the madness. A sept-place (French for seven-places) is a cross between a taxi and a minibus which transports passengers in great discomfort and very slowly from A to B. And in Guinea, sept really means neuf. Escaping this hot, hellhole of a city, even in the middle of the day took two hours. With only one main road, traffic jams choke the potholed artery all day long. A grimy layer of sweat and pollution are Conakry’s signature parting gift – be sure to bring a cloth.

The fare was 115,000 francs which included bribes for all the village checkpoints along the route to Sierra Leone. The checkpoints are nothing more than a length of rope strung across the road, manned by a feisty local villager. Everything was smooth until the final Guinean checkpoint where our driver, a short, angry little man, got into a fist-fight with the blue-uniformed guards and refused to pay up. Thirty minutes of bad noise passed.

On the road between Conakry and Freetown

On the road between Conakry and Freetown

West Africans are the most hot-tempered people in the world. The slightest disagreement; an accidental shoulder-barge, a misplaced glance and most incendiary of all, the financial transaction, can all ignite the burning rage that simmers just under the surface of every man and woman here.

“I’ve never seen anything like this guy before – he’s so stupid. He took our money now he should pay the guys”, my Sierra Leonean seatmate grumbled in between cigarettes. Eventually the ancient, toothless gatekeeper pulled the rope and released us (without paying), just as a huge heard of bulls began charging toward us, plumes of orange dust trailing in their wake.

We raced over gentle green hills, passing villages with young guys in English premier league football jerseys and topless old woman, their wrinkly breasts sagging in the sunlight. Occasionally we passed long-distance joggers out on their own and then in the villages, elders lay spread-eagled on the earth outside their huts as chickens and dogs sauntered around.

Meanwhile inside the car, I was surrounded, bunched up claustrophobically rather, with 8 Sierra Leoneans all going home after doing some or other business in Guinea. One particularly fat, loud and verbose 40-something woman next to me asked my nationality. “Ahhhh you are my master!” she proclaimed for all to hear. I should imagine everyone in whatever village we were passing heard it too.

“Excuse me?

“You are our colonial master – you, the British!”

Was I supposed to feel something? Post-colonial guilt? I wasn’t yet sure where she was going.

“You are the reason” she lectured, “that we speak English.”

“Would you rather the French had been your masters?” I asked, tentatively, for this one was fiery – no telling what she might say next.

“No no no!” she screamed.

I shifted my legs a few centimeters. Keep the blood circulating, I thought. But when sandwiched between two very fat ladies in a small car, options are limited.

“Are you OK?”

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“No you are not fine! You are uncomfortable. You are in Africa now. Welcome to the land of suffering!” she declared and began laughing to herself. “The British never say what they feel but an African will”. The rest of the car listened on in silence.

Finally the border appeared just as the sun began diving beneath the palm trees. I paid another bribe, 5000 francs, to exit ‘more smoothly’ then passed yet another checkpoint where a guard predictably asked, “What do you have for me?”

“Absolutely nothing” I barked, breezing past over-confidently. Walked across no-man’s land as the stars began emerging from a perfectly clear sky. There is no electricity or street lighting here so when the sun sets it stays dark until morning. An unmissable billboard on the Sierra Leonean side, with 3 happy, smiling government officials reads in giant letters, ‘NO TO CORRUPTION’. I thought about the $50 bribe I paid my government official earlier at the embassy and smiled.

I was found promptly by an un-uniformed official and led into a private office in the one-storey customs building to fill out an entry form. I was fully expecting to pay more bribes, even had the notes ready and folded neatly in a separate pocket.

“British!” boomed the unidentified border agent with sensationally bad breath as he browsed my form. I had deliberately written “UK” under the citizenship box, something I always do to save time when filling out these stupid forms. This place, being a former British colony, I thought wouldn’t object to my writing UK instead of British. “You are not ‘UK’. You are British!” he scolded on. Then he picked on the black combat-khakis I was wearing. “And you cannot wear those here. Those are illegal! You should not enter Sierra Leone looking like this!”

“Why not?”

“RUF! You look like an RUF soldier!” I guess the fact that I’m white and British was momentarily overlooked.

He was definitely an overzealous customs official and I guess not surprisingly, didn’t try to solicit the bribe I had poised for him. He just handed me back my passport and said almost sarcastically, “Welcome to Sierra Leone.” Perhaps the huge billboard had an effect on this outpost. It was most unusual.

By 11pm, finally reaching Freetown, we trundled past street after suburban street of shady bars with garish florescent signage and packed, smoky cookery shops. We were bombarded by waves of reggae music blasting out of the ubiquitous shack-bars lining all the roads around town. Our sept-place had been on the road for 9 hours and covered a mere 300km. Of course, nobody travels anywhere fast overland in Africa, for, sometimes the road on the map turns out not to be a road at all. But for all the thousands of potholes on that damn highway there are probably still more bars in frenetic Freetown.

Stepping out the taxi, onto a mucky wet car park in pitch darkness, surrounded by a small but vocal throng of bag carriers, street vendors and taxi drivers all hustling for business, is not really the ideal way to ‘arrive’. This is Africa though. It felt like stepping back in time to some Victorian era London. With the muddy uneven surface of the ground, the smell of sewerage, the dirty streams and piles of rotten litter everywhere: this could’ve been a scene from a Dickens novel. Clearly, Freetown doesn’t waste any time rolling out the red carpet for its precious few visitors.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire, as they say. From the sept-place I jumped into a local cab and began looking for my much needed hotel on Wilberforce Street. I was a little shocked when the driver said we had arrived because it looked worse than south-central Los Angeles in the 90’s. Dozens of men, layabouts, vagabonds, all homeless had decked out on the pavement in cardboard boxes. Drenched in filthy rags they greeted my taxi. Shapes moved in the shadows, eye balls popped through the gloom. I distinctly remember one dark shape shouting in my direction, “Hey you, where you going? …Fuck!”

I began to wish I wasn’t wearing my Tag watch, or white skin for that matter. Most seemed drunk or high on something but to be fair, I experienced no unfriendliness – in fact every time we stopped for directions, these same men helped us to the best of their ability. The fear, the sense of intimidation, stemmed in large part from the lack of electricity. What a difference a little bit of street lighting makes when you’re tired, alone and lost in a new country in the middle of the night.

The next morning I found a trustworthy-looking taxi driver called Djibri, also 31, and hired him to drive down the Freetown Peninsula to a place called Bureh Beach, which promised stunning views. The coastline is magnificent but the road leading to it was in bad shape. Djibri told me he’d been driving this car for two years after having been a truck driver. He was a polite man, spoke only when spoken to, and spoke in a soft but determined voice. He and his wife were raising two young children and the 80,000 Leones I gave him was, “a very good fare. Usually I can’t make this much in a whole day”, he smiled appreciatively. He was also ex-RUF.

In many ways, the presence of diamonds in Sierra Leone led to the rise of the RUF and the infamous 11 year conflict which ravaged the entire country and cost over 50,000 lives. It wasn’t until the British stepped in and quashed the RUF in 2002 that the country finally began to rebuild – although the diamond trade and has grown exponentially since then.

After doing a quick calculation in my head, I figured Djibri would have been of fighting age.

“They forced me into it at 17 you know, and I was a soldier for 6 years after that.”

“Did you take drugs?” I asked as his yellow and black taxi lunged from left to right, traversing the potholes.

“No, I didn’t. But some others did.”

“When you fired your gun, did you ever fire up and miss the target?” There is a theory that new recruits are often so scared, they deliberately miss the target.

“No, no. We had to kill the guys in front of us” he said pointing over the wheel, beyond the ocher-coloured muddy track at a line of palm-trees about 200m ahead, “We just had to shoot. If we turned back or tried to run away the RUF would kill us. You know, there was always another line of soldiers behind us, ready to shoot us.”

“How do you feel about it now?”

“Very, very bad” came the solemn response. Djibri stared up at the mountains where it all happened. How many unknown tragedies lay up there in the trees? As we neared the beach, his battered old car began making an unhealthy creaking noise and we rolled to a stop, white smoke oozing from the bonnet.

Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone

Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone

Immediately the smell of the sea, the sound of the bubbling white surf caught and lured me down to the sand. A fresh water river cut picturesquely along the long, sweeping gold beach, all framed by dense green rainforest on the mountains for which this Peninsula was named after. It was the first Portuguese explorer to record these very peaks who named them the ‘Lioness Mountains’, Serra Leoa, in 1462.

I sent up tent, made for the bar, met a group of holidaying Peace Corp teachers and settled down for a night of prolonged drinking, BBQ seafood, sunsets and music into the wee hours. And it was here that the event happened. The moment that defined my entire West African adventure. A dark memory to carry.

Around 2am, a little drunk, I was chatting to Alex, a 23 year old American teacher on the beach when two black guys appeared from the gloom beyond our bonfire and began stripping right next to us. Pretty soon they were completely naked. Naturally we were surprised, but then one of the beach elders, a local called Michael explained calmly what had happened, and more ominously, what was about to happen.

“We are going to beat them. We are going to teach them a lesson they will never forget. They will tell their friends what happened here on this beach and they will never come back” he said calmly, with nostrils flaring.

They had been caught stealing from the nearby bar where many ex-pats were enjoying the party and they were about to be very publically flogged. Flogging is a primitive form of punishment, prevalent in many countries around Africa. I read a story about a guy beaten to death and left to rot in a ditch just for pick-pocketing in Kenya. Without a reliable police force, locals quickly take matters into their own hands and the sentence is swift. So, keen to protect his beach and his business, Michael and the others played judge, jury and executioner.

The two teenagers were whipped, beaten, kicked and punched by the baying mob, which grew larger as the commotion became louder. Everybody in earshot got involved as planks of driftwood on the beach were sourced and rushed over to aid the beating. The atmosphere grew in intensity: they shouted, chanted and sang with delight. Men, drunk angry local men, safe amidst the anonymity of the gang, their faces hidden in the night, took liberties they might not otherwise have taken.

There was some primeval, animalistic behavior at play which seemed to overcome everyone, almost as if an overpowering smell had blown across the beach seducing them into depravity. Like a pack of hyenas squabbling over a carcass, they struggled to land their blows on the two, terrified and bloodied boys.

Alex and I were quickly swept up in the mayhem as they began moving away from the light of our bonfire to the darkness by the ocean. Perhaps some things weren’t meant for everyone to see. And in this light, you could get away with anything.

I am not proud of what happened next, but, caught up in the fervor, I began to shout, point, even instigate further violence. Michael ensured Alex and I saw the whole beating, every lashing, the blood, the screaming, the pleading, all of it. Their faces were rigid with fear. One cried throughout, the other remained more composed – probably not his first beating.

Summary justice on Bureh Beach

Summary justice on Bureh Beach

In the final indignity, they were frog-marched back to the club where they had sinned, still completely naked and covered in blood dripping from their ears and noses. They were forced to dance awkwardly to reggae music while drunken revelers snapped pictures, illuminating the scene with their mobile phones.

An hour passed. They were given their clothes and released back into the night: like wild animals, they darted into the gloom.

Within a few days I had returned to London, riding the bright, air-conditioned Gatwick Express into Victoria on the last train of the night. Speeding smoothly through the suburbs, rain smeared down the window, orange lights and familiar stations flickered by. From Conakry to Bureh to London, darkness had seemed to follow me around. Or had I been chasing it?

The trouble with the dark continent is just that: sometimes it’s difficult to know, to see what’s really happening in front of you. Add power-cuts, foreign languages and the absence of law into the mix and the darkness suddenly takes on a more sinister tone. In a strange environment, imagination runs riot when deprived of a little sunlight, and you might surprise even yourself in such a situation. But if no one can see you, if no one would ever find out, well, that’s the question I guess. As the saying goes: When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Arriving in London was to arrive on my planet again. Bright lights adorned the glassy skyscrapers, everything was clear, except perhaps the sky of course. With so much light, with the clarity of vision, of mind, the thought of disappearing into the gloom, of losing oneself is impossible. You can’t escape yourself here, not in a place like this.

As I disembarked at Victoria, out of habit I guess, psyched myself up for the scrum of money-changers, shouting taxi drivers and scheming scam artists only to find a deserted, lifeless train station. Just a handful of cleaners and solitary travelers ambled around. I kind of missed the buzz, but at least there was nobody to ask, “Do you have something for me?”

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