Hitchhiking Guinea: Part Three
Conakry to Pita
We left Conakry mid-morning, which maybe was too late to beat the traffic although it seems like in this city, it doesn’t matter what time you hit the road, you’re bound to get stuck. We had asked friends the best way to get out of town and I’m glad we did because it was much more convoluted than we were anticipating and there are no set schedules or maps for public transportation in Guinea. It is almost impossible to hitchhike out of big cities, at least African ones, so the best bet is to take a taxi to the outskirts of the city and hitch from there.
Our first taxi took us to Kagbelén, a mini city that was nothing but a traffic jam. There was a construction crew in the process of building or widening a road so cars, trucks, taxis, and motorcycles were having to detour on small dirt strips parallel with the road to circumvent the work being “done”. It was a classic construction crew, typical all over the world: one guy working, five guys standing. Except here the guys were laying asphalt by hand. It would be a while before they finished this project. Essentially building the road by hand wasn’t the only reason the work would take so long to complete.
While lounging on the beach of a popular island one day in Conakry, we were told by a Guinean friend who works for a mining company about public projects in the country. He gave us an example of a road being built in Guinea. He said that the government will allot money for construction and a team will go out and begin the project in earnest. However, along the way, money get siphoned off and work comes to a halt. A few years later, when construction even more necessary and the people more agitated that their road is still shit, the government will again allocate funds to the same project and the process continues all over again. Because of this, multiple administrations have been working on the same projects for decades with only marginal improvement. Since no one maintains projects that actually do make it through construction, they are constantly throwing money at the same projects instead of allocating the wealth to any of the other countless infrastructural problems in the country.
After waiting at a near standstill in Kagbelen, the other taxi passengers decided they were better off walking from there and hopped out. Our driver, who had earlier agreed to take us to the next town over apparently was also sick of the traffic and before we knew what was happening, he had called over another taxi driver and was transferring our stuff into the new car. He and the other driver had worked out a deal that suited both of them and we were back to waiting, just in a different vehicle.
We arrived in Coyah, a small town on the farthest reaches of Conakry just before noon. It wasn’t long before we were picked up by Barry, a long-distance truck driver who took us another 15 or 20 km down the road. After that, we waited under some shade not more than 10 minutes before a transport truck stopped for us. The driver initially wanted money to take us but the other passengers, including the 6 boys riding in the back, persuaded him to take us for free.
We climbed in the back with the boys and rode all the way to Kindia. The trip was only about 60 km but ultimately took 3 hours and that was on relatively good roads, especially compared to what we had experienced getting to Boke. The kids all looked under 16 but were professionals at tying up the ever-loosening tarp we all took shade under and we could tell this obviously wasn’t their first journey. I wondered about their background, if they ever went home and if so, what their home life was like. In Guinea it is not rare to see many school aged kids working manual labor jobs. Public school is basically useless and a good private school costs around 45000 GF ($45) a month per kid, well beyond the means of the average Guinean.
When we reached Kindia we got let off and began walking to our next spot. Along the way, we attempted to flag down some passing 4x4s and one, driven by a Guinean guy who seemed to work for the Algerian in the passenger seat, stopped and picked us up. The Algerian man, who introduced himself as Monsieur Boba, worked for a construction company working to improve the roads. He told us the company was French, but we suspected there was more to the story as just a kilometer away from where he dropped us off was a giant building housing the Chinese Road and Bridge Construction Institute.
All throughout Guinea road signs around construction sites are in French and Chinese. The relationship between the Chinese and the Guinean government is no secret and is pervasive in many different facets of life in Guinea.
Basically, the Chinese want access to the many different natural resources Guinea has to offer but since the country has next to no infrastructure to transport those materials, the Chinese have invested heavily in roads and bridges to connect the resources to the ports to ship back to China.
One of the problems of this arrangement lies in the fact that since the roads and bridges are only intended for the short term transportation of raw materials, they are not built to last. Therefore, there are always crews, such as the one I assume Monsieur Boba worked on, that have to come in to ensure the roads remain viable enough for exploitation of minerals.
Once again, after getting dropped off by Monsieur Boba, we hadn’t even gotten to the next spot we were planning on stopping at before another 4×4 stopped for us. This one was driven by Ahmed, a Guinean man who was on his way to a small town called Dalaba for work. Dalaba lies on the road between Mamou and Labe. We were planning on getting to Mamou, the crossroads town between the north, the east, and Conakry, and making camp for the night before heading east toward the forest region.
We had arranged for a Couchsurfing host in Pita, a town south of Labe, the second largest city in Guinea that we had already been denied entry to twice due to political unrest. The waters had seemed to calm the days before we left Conakry when the controversial referendum had suddenly been postponed. However, in classic Guinean fashion, things had once again deteriorated quickly and our Couchsurfing host had advised against us traveling on Thursday because of a scheduled protest. It was Wednesday night so we were once again thinking about abandoning our plans to visit the northern province, which we were also told, unfortunately, was the country’s most beautiful. However, when Ahmed told us we could ride with him to Dalaba, which would put us within 55 km of Pita, we decided to chance it. Thursday would be basically impassible but Friday should be fine, we were told.
Ahmed ended up being a very interesting, very intelligent man and was passionate about his political sentiments. He told us he worked for a private company called CellCom. He had had the opportunity to work for the government but had turned down the job feeling like accepting it would compromise his morals. The conversation naturally turned, as many do with Guinean people these days, toward the referendum. Ahmed was heavily opposed to the proposition and was adamant that one of the most important things a leader can do is leave office when his term has expired. He spoke only French so Gabe continued the conversation asking if he had any solutions to the problems in Guinea. Jobs, was his big sticking point. The government, in his opinion, needed to create more jobs for people so they could have the opportunity to make a living. We found this interesting considering he also maintained that private enterprise was a more noble professional route than working government jobs.
Pinpointing the problems of Guinea is easy to do, however, implementing solutions is almost impossibly difficult. Corruption in the government is almost hopelessly engrained. Alpha Condé, the current president, was at one time a promising opposition leader committed to development and casting out toxic companies and government piranhas leeching the mineral and tangible wealth out of the country’s coffers. However, ten years later he is now part of the problem, corrupted himself by what author and journalist, Tom Burgis, describes in his incredible book of the same name as: the looting machine.
The population recognizes the corruption all the way down the line. When riding in the car with our Guinean friend, Aliou, through Conakry we passed a few police officers lounging in the shade. Gabe and I made eye contact with them and our friend nervously laughed. “The police will always find a reason to pull you over,” he said. “Even if you have done something that warrants a ticket you still get upset because you know the money is not being collected as a fine but is just going into the pocket of the officer…But you can’t really blame them because they are just doing the same thing they see from their superior.”
Aliou studied in Turkey for five years. He had recently returned to Guinea and worked for a mining company. His decision to return was one of principle, which he maintained was crucial if Guinea was to experience any real transformation. He described the situation we had become all too familiar with when traveling through West Africa: young, educated people save up money to get to Europe and land a job paying them enough money to support their family back home. However, in this scenario, returning to their home country is reserved for special occasions. They made it abroad. Why return home?
This question is extremely important for Aliou and many other people we have spoken to. “Foreign corporate meddling is a problem, yes, but it is up to the people to determine their own fate,” Aliou had told us on the beach. People couldn’t depend on the government to fix their problems, he maintained, because it had proven it was incapable of doing so already. It was up to people educated abroad to return home and share their knowledge with their fellow citizens who, because of financial or social barriers (not to mention inherent limitations in the system they live under) have been incapable of accessing the level of information required for implementing change.
Understanding the shortcomings of the political, economic, and social situation in Guinea is a convoluted web involving the same actors or actions but different ideas about how to correct them. And at the end of the day, I could only speculate about surface level solutions and knew that it would take much more than that from Guineans themselves to actually fix the problems.
Our ride with Ahmed quieted as the sun set and we found ourselves careening around pitch black mountain roads narrowly bypassing oncoming motorcycles. We made it safely to Dalaba and Ahmed insisted on dropping us at a hotel so we could camp while ensuring our belongings were secure. However, the hotel wanted to charge 80,000 GF ($8) for us to set up between two trees so we decided to move on a find another campsite. We succeeded by walking a few kilometers out of town and finding a place between two roads, which ultimately proved to be a great spot. The next day we hunkered down in Dalaba, waiting out the protests we had been told were occurring in the north and walked to another camping spot outside of town once the heat broke.
The next morning, we got an early start and walked a bit farther down the winding roads towards Labe and managed to score a ride in a lorry truck fairly quickly. The truck was going all the way to Pita, which was not surprising as we saw very few towns on the road in between. Arriving in Pita, you would not have known there had been such unrest the day before, but as is often the case, the situation on the surface rarely reflects the reality.
We stayed with Karl, a German expat who had become broken by life. His back story was a trip: an old hippie found Jesus, joined a sex cult, left(ish) said cult, moved to Africa as a missionary but now thinks everything is shit. His wife and his home were lovely, tucked in the hills the whole property was covered in a lush garden he had painstakingly taken the time to cultivate. Still, Karl was fed up with it all and ready to abandon the project, leaving the land and the house to his wife (“even though she doesn’t deserve it”).
Karl did show us the way to a beautiful waterfall and we hiked through the woods, dodging police checkpoints to reach the spot. We felt we were barely scratching the surface of all the natural beauty Guinea had to offer but we couldn’t stay forever.
The situation was bound to escalate again and we couldn’t get caught in the middle of it. Besides, we had to get to Liberia! And also, staying with Karl ended up being a full time job and we didn’t know how many more conversations we could take about whether the Holocaust was as bad as they say or whether the age of consent is an unnecessary hindrance to free love.
Notes from the road…you never know who you’re going to meet.