Along the rough red roads we keep rolling through West Africa. We really feel at one with the people, relaxed, their beaming smiles, their bright clothes and their beautiful children. School kids run along with us on their way to school. People carrying bundles of firewood on their heads. Market stall ladies carry out their work with baby on their back. A tiny baby lies on the ground under a table . Another lady is breastfeeding her child. Children help their mums at the stall, boiling water for tea and coffee.
We are staying in a lot of villages for the night as it is too far between towns with hotels and the roads are very rough. Each night is a unique experience. The people become our friends and help us get set up. We might end up in a school, in someone’s yard, between some mud huts, or on a verandah.
People are so welcoming and kind. We are usually exhausted and establishing where we are going to sleep, wash and eat is a slightly fraught end to a long day cycling. After a tough ride from Kindia, across the border into Sierra Leone, with the usual formalities that went smoothly, and a few police checkpoints, we arrived at the strung out village of Yani, and were met by the kind, welcoming, warm hearted Betu who let us camp next to her house.
A village stop starts at about five o’clock, as you need the two hours until darkness at seven o’clock, which comes in quick this near to the Equator, to get everything done. We cycle through the village checking it out, looking for water pumps or wells, possibly a school, and other groups of friendly looking people. Then we engage with them, after the obligatory greetings, smiles and exchanges, we explain we are looking for a place to stop the night in our tent. We have found it’s best to use the tent as a room in someone’s house which is often kindly offered will usually result in a poor night’s sleep as a visit from a rat scurrying around the room is likely. We get the tent up, which confirms what we are doing, just to make sure there hasn’t been a misunderstanding. The next task is water collection for drinking, cooking and washing ourselves and our clothes. We are filthy by the end of the day cycling in 35 Deg C on dusty roads. Sometimes there is a river to wash in and this is the best. It’s a lot quicker as there is no water carrying, no bucket required, and there is an unlimited amount of water. Wells and pumps are the centre of life in a village, busy places, where everyone helps each other fill their containers, and there is a chance for chat and gossiping. We find out if there is a washing place if there is no river and what the set up is for going to the loo. Once we are washed things feel great. The skin feels cool, free from the grime of the road, and we start to cook our supper and filter water for drinking.
If we can get the tent up, mattresses inflated, bed made, us and our cloths washed, supper cooked and water filtered before darkness we have done well. When darkness falls, it is really dark and the stars are very clear against the black sky.
Naturally there are continual pleasantries and exchanges to be had with the family we are are camped next to and other people that pop by to observe the curiosity that has arrived in their village for one night only. Children gather in groups and peer at us. Some strike up simple conversations. Adults shoo the kids away. Eventually we are on our own and bed down for the night usually quite early, and we lie in our tent and look up to the stars through the mesh roof. We only put the inner tent up as it’s cooler this way and very unlikely to rain.
The villages in Guinea are very spread out and each family has a large compound, that has trees, a garden, and several round mud huts with pointed grass roofs that come almost down to the ground.
The roof sits on an outer dwarf wall, that often has terracotta colour embossed patterns set in it. The habitable space is set to the inside behind a second mud wall, creating a shaded gap around the building, which keeps it cool. A raised fold in the roof allowed head room to stoop through the decorated wooden front door. Out the front of the hut there were several areas of smooth baked mud with low mud up stands around. The purpose of these were to mark clean areas that could be swept, which could be used for cooking and food preparation. Our tent was put on one of these spaces. There was one hut for each of the man’s wives. Supper of rice and marrow was being cooked by a group of colourfully dressed ladies outside one of the huts. Large trees in the central part of the villages created cool shaded communal areas. We often stopped for our lunch at these havens and sat on simple timber benches provided.
In Sierra Leone the villages tend to be stretched out along the central road or track, like a Wild West town. The houses line the road and, are large and have a veranda at the front and a yard out the back. They are positioned close together, built from mud bricks, and mainly have tin roofs. Lots of cooking on several fires takes place to feed many parts of the same family that all live together. Some houses use wattle and daub type construction for the walls instead of the mud bricks. With these the red mud is splattered to either side of a slender lattice of sticks that make up the wall.
From Yani we pushed on through denser humid forests, crossing the odd small river that had vegetation and palm trees arching over them. We were heading to the Outamba National Park where we could camp the night and canoe down the Kabba river to see hippos.
The forest became thicker and we could hear the crackling and smell of bush fires that unnerved us. Some came close, but they were not as ferocious as you might think. Locals burn areas to allow new shoots to grow for cows and goats to feed on. The fire darts through the forest burning only some of the vegetation, leaving a lot in tact. It’s like a fire that never really gets going, neither does it go out, it just moves on with limited vigour. We wondered whether they ever got out of control, but just hoped they didn’t.
Eventually we got to the clearing in the forest next to a wide river that had tall trees along its banks set against thick jungle. A rather dilapidated camp that once had rooms and facilities that were destroyed in the war, along with a total lack of funding, and control on hunting logging and poaching made for a rather pathetic sight, but we were able to canoe down river and view the hippos family at alarmingly close proximity which was very moving.
As we bed down in the last of the light you could here the monkeys swinging and jumping around the high up branches in the trees. As darkness fell the chorus of jungle noises came alive, and there was the odd crack as a weighty enormous leaf fell from a tree.
Heading across Sierra Leone as the day starts, large metal pots containg rice, leaves and fish brew on open fires. School children of all ages, smartly dressed walk to school. We hear the organised singing of children as they start their school day. The songs are a set call and response, everyone coming in at the required time creating a very atmospheric scene as the children stand in neat lines outside the simple school buildings set on the outer limits of the village with a forest backdrop.
Police checkpoints can be a regular occurrence on some days. A string line with plastic carrier bags attached indicates the nuisance ahead. Lots of smiling and normally some young men at the barrier engage in jovial conversation asking about our trip. It’s a tricky game we have to play. We want to get on our way, but mustn’t show we are in a hurry. First we stay sitting on our bike while chatting, but it’s the uninformed, usually fat, senior man you have to watch who is normally sitting under the shade of a tree, set back from the road. When he calls us over, and gets the chairs out for us, and offers us food it’s not going well, and we are in for the duration. It’s always friendly, but we need to get on, and sometimes you can get a few of these in the same day. We also go many days without them too. So far there has been no asking for money, it’s just a social thing. “Did we vote for Brexit” is a common question, followed by gasps of “why is Britain doing this” . We end up going on our way apologising about Brexit.
We push on our way across the country and soon hit some very good tarmac roads where progress is much better. The mid part of the days heat is very draining though. The countryside becomes hilly.
As we approach Koidu the hilly green skyline changes to harsher looking steep sided slag heaps, indicating we have arrived in the diamond mining area. The rocky spoil looms in the evening light, while people are digging in small excavations hoping to find diamonds and gold. There are shops selling, picks shovels and large round sieves. There are two sorts of mining here, a few people toiling round a water filled muddy pool, and then there’s the big mechanised mining companies from all over the world. Diamond dealers line each side of the Main Street of Koidu.
We left Koidu and were soon immersed in thick jungle traveling on a narrow rough track heading to the Far East of Sierra Leone. The forest closed in on the road, streams and small rivers percolate through the dense vegetation. It is hot and humid, and we are pleased to have some shade from the tall grand towering trees and coconut palms. Every so often we see people scaling the dizzy heights of the coconut palms using a rudimentary sling. The hacking noise of a machete as the fruit are released to the ground below.
At times we feel isolated and on our own, but villages come up every so often and you pass through people’s lives with exchanges of greetings, “how da day? how da sleep? How da body? fine, not bad, thank you,” and then we are gone and back in the forest negotiating the rutted, wholed muddy track. A village stop for banana cake and chatting with Maurice Decoma, the village chief, makes for a welcome break. Large green and blue crickets leap up from the road.
It’s Sunday, we hear melodious church singing, gentle african drums and percussion.
It’s a long haul and after 55 miles we start looking for a place to camp, and end up at a community health post , staying with the midwife.
A wide river to cross in a leaky canoe, more jungle tracks up and down, and eventually we get to Kailahun.
After much discussion at a stall in the market, with Mark a microbiologist, who was eating fried goat, and Helen a friendly chatty lady who decided she must be Helen’s sister as they have the same name, it was decided that we should take the shorter route to Koindu despite it being a much tougher track. Mark reassured us it would be an experience, Helen said go the easy longer way. We took the short route, and it was beautiful, thick jungle and coffee and cocoa plantations. Beautiful broad leaved arching plants, flowers and birdsong.
Agriculture has been pretty non existent until now, when we start to see cleared areas for coffee and cocoa plantations, projects run by a German NGO. The project is all about trying to build an organic cocoa and coffee business for export to the west.
Food production and growing of crops, vegetables and fruit really doesn’t exist and it is quite a mystery. It’s been like this on most of the trip so far, but has hit the worst level in Sierra Leone. We haven’t seen a tomato or orange for a couple of weeks. When we asked about fruit and vegetables, they say“that’s what goats eat, we like fish or chicken and rice” we are in the tropics, no mangoes, no papaya, no pineapple, and no tomatoes, just imported rice from India, Vietnam and South America. Shops sell imported processed cheese, sardines and sometimes you find a bigger shop in a main town that has a wider selection of imported tinned vegetables and jam. Bread and bananas are always available which is great. There are many signs up about projects that are promoting food security, but no evidence that much is happening. We think there might be a stigma attached with farming and people do not want to do the work. There is very little small business too that you see so much in Asia, just a lot of people sitting about. The grafters though, that you see working really hard are the carpenters, motor bike mechanics, and tailors. It’s a mystery too the amount of broken water pumps, all provided by foreign projects, but no one can fix them. A hand pump can’t be that complicated.
The country seems so aid dependent, that it’s easier to wait for the next project to provide. There is a massive surplus of buildings that have been built by projects, all with their signs up stating the funding sources from the international community, but a lot lying idle and unused. A smart network of tarmac roads link the main cities now.
Schooling and education is however the best we have seen in West Africa, great attendance, well organised, and free to all ages. The new government are really promoting this and have clamped down on any scams of schools asking families for money. Free health care is being pushed too. There is a really positive feeling of political optimism, that’s progressive. Troubles of the past are definitely behind them and there is complete genuine tribal and religious tolerance.
As we move through the East of the country, on small rough tracks, towards the border with Guinea we pass through the town of Koindu(different to Koidu), which still has the scars of war and a feeling of emptiness, destroyed buildings everywhere, with the jungle growing out of them. A lot of people left this area and have not returned. A rusting tank sits by the roadside, discarded and leaning into the bush.
Had a lovely chat with people over a coffee in Koindu, covered everything from the politics to the war, and how things are really going well now in Sierra Leone, and of course it moved onto Brexit too, which people are confused about and concerned for us.
Eventually we found our way down to the Moa River which we crossed by a large canoe to reach Guinea. We thought back to the lovely people we have met in Sierra Leone, their greetings and broad smiles.