To the rational creature, only the irrational is unbearable; the rational he can always bear. Blows are not by nature intolerable.
I left the tiny country of The Gambia for only the second time in sixteen months and took my first vacation days this December as I took a week long sojourn to the nearby West African country of Guinea (Correction – I left the country one other time but it doesn’t really count as I took a wrong turn on my bike and accidentally ended up in Senegal. I was only there for a couple of minutes so I don’t think it really qualifies as international travel). Just to make clear I travelled to Guinea, not Guinea-Bissau, not Equatorial Guinea, nor Papua New Guinea. So many Guineas – the African nations of Guinea are so called because they lie along the Gulf of Guinea with the word Guinea originally deriving from the Berber word for black.
Before I left I didn’t realize how much I needed a break from this minuscule, mad and endearing country (gosh I’m patronizing!). I had been losing a sense of context by being in the same place for so long, unable to acknowledge the complexities, irrationalities, difficulties, and beauty of this slither of West Africa that has randomly become my home. Reflecting on The Gambia from the confines of another, albeit similar West African country, has given me a clarity in understanding of the uniqueness of Gambian society, yet it has also muddled my idea of what role, if any, I should play in it.
Lets get away from all this self-reflective pomposity and get to the nuts and bolts of my trip to Guinea. Travelling the relatively small distance to this neighboring semi paradise is by no means an easy feat. Our journey, I was travelling with four other fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, started in the Gambian town of Basse in the far east of the country. We approached the Basse car park early one morning, with its ramshackle collection of old Mercedes and Peugeots destined for a multitude of destinations across West Africa, and headed towards the sleek but battered vehicle adorned with speed stripes of Mohammed Jallow, a driver we had spoken to the previous day, who we knew was heading to Guinea. I apologetically roused him from his slumber atop the roof of his Peugeot 105 to enquire whether we had enough passengers to begin the long journey this morning. With an affirmative answer we began the lengthy process of getting all the passengers in the same place at the same time, piecing the luggage on top of the station wagon in an intricately towering puzzle, and finally push starting the vehicle to get the engine going (a faulty alternator is an inauspicious start to a long journey).
And so we set off – two hundred bags, twelve adult passengers, four children, one driver and a partridge in a pear tree (I only exaggerated once) – crammed like sticky dates in Styrofoam. I was sat in the front seat with two other passengers, Abdou – a morose Fular man whose somnambulism was hindered by his straddling of the stick shift, the driver’s hand frequently plunging between his legs to change gears – and Sarah, a Peace Corps volunteer from Connecticut whose posture and patience were tested to the extreme by the impressive feat of going the whole journey without being able to lean back against anything.
The lack of comfort on a long journey numbs you as you breeze through check points and border controls and hit the bumpy dirt road that will wind you through the mountainous jungles of Guinea. We spent the night, or rather six hours of the night, sleeping on the floor of a truck stop called Kunsitel. How trucks manage to travel along the rutted creviced roads, I do not know? Mohammed told us the stop was necessary as there had been a brutal murder of a driver recently in this region in the dead of night. No argument was needed, risk of murder or not, Mohammed clearly needed the rest after a long day of intricate driving. 4a.m came and we hit the road again with the aim of hitting the pull ferry at Bantala at dawn. I wolfed down some rice and peanut porridge at the crossing and then we were on the home stretch. We arrived in the large town of Labbe and negotiated our way through a couple of car parks to find another vehicle which would take us on to Pita, and finally to Duki. We bought a crate of eggs and some delicious crusty yet fluffy bread, accompanied with skewers of marinated goat served with a tangy sweet mustard sauce. The meat sated our ravenous stomachs and reminded us of the glories of well-cooked fresh meat. Usually little care is taken with the butchery or cooking of meat in The Gambia for some reason, so this delectable treat was a welcome introduction to a new culture.
We arrived in Duki, disheveled and dusty, 33 hours after leaving Basse, to be welcomed into the home of Hassan Bah, an eccentric Fular man of Sierra Leonean origin who had set up a hiking retreat and had been recommended to us by numerous volunteers. After a nutritious and glutinous soup of cassava, sweet potato, squash and dried fish, we set out on our first trek to watch the sunset over the ‘grand canyon’ of Guinea. To be hit by the scale and glory of such a bucolic expanse after being stuck within the topographical blandness of The Gambia for so long was awe inspiring.
The rest of our stay in Duki was occupied by an impressive variety of hikes. Each hike has been given a theme park style name by Hassan such as ‘Indiana Jones’, which takes you down into dense and humid Cambodian style jungle, or ‘Chutes & Ladders’, which is an adventure down waterfalls and up rickety branch and rope ladders. Hassan and his brother Abdou are experienced and entertaining guides. Hassan is a constant performer, whether he is hand standing, limboing or juggling, although he is adept at giving you the space to be dumbfounded by the beauty of the country. You can tell he has been working with tourists for many years, and only his teeth, or lack thereof, betray his prodigious age. You can get below the tricks and gimmicks which many tourists require from their African hosts and get a real idea of Guinean life, and he is full of interesting anecdotes and facts (for example Sierra Leone was named by the Portuguese explorer Pedro di Santra who named it Serra Leona, meaning “Lioness Mountains” after hearing thunder coming from the mountains and mistaking it for the roar of lions), as well as acronyms for everything – Guinean bread is B.A.B (Big Ass Bread), ‘Chutes and Ladders’ is a K.A.H (Kick Ass Hike). You can definitely tell he has worked with Peace Corps in the past.
During our stay in Guinea we were constantly comparing things with our nearby home of Gambia, some of us more disparagingly than others. There can be a tendency amongst PCV’s in The Gambia to be vehement in their vitriol against the country they live in without acknowledging the difficulties it faces and the material facts that cause many of the problems within The Gambia. I have certainly been guilty of having the cantankerous mindset whereby everything wrong with The Gambia is the fault of stupid, lazy people and if they just pulled their finger out the country could be transformed. But I like to think, perhaps misguidedly, that for the most part, I don’t place blame for the difficulties in the country on its inhabitants. Rather I see the difficulties it faces, such as its struggling education system, poor healthcare and widespread malnutrition, as a result of a multitude of factors – from a colonial hangover, to an inhospitable climate, to a lack of natural resources, to a less than perfect government (I hope I get away with writing that understatement here).
One of the difficulties faced in The Gambia is building and maintaining fences, so we were struck by the huge lines of sturdy fences with working gates in Guinea. The initial reaction to seeing this disparity in fences is to immediately ask, “Why can’t they build fences like that in The Gambia?” and blame Gambians and/or Gambian culture. But with a bit more thought it becomes clear that within Guinea it is far easier to build these impressive fences as trees grow far more easily and plentifully there. There just isn’t as much wood available to work with in most villages in The Gambia.
The fertility of Guinea was a clear difference to the arid landscape of much of The Gambia at this time of year. Huge plots of cassava, and banana and orange orchards adorn the countryside in abundance. I saw many oranges rotting on the floor, something that I think would not be countenanced in much of The Gambia.
Even with these benefits Guinea still has problems of its own, but it was very tempting to look at the country through rose tinted holiday shades – to ignore the widespread corruption, the terrible roads, the lack of electricity – and simply focus on the beautiful landscape and delicious food.
On return to The Gambia I felt disheartened to be entering this land lacking in trees, but with an ample supply of annoying check points and bad peanut sauce, but on arrival to the village of Ker Sait Maram I was uplifted by the response of my host family to my return, no doubt helped by the ton of bread I bought them. I realized how much I had missed everyone in our compound and how thankful I am for being taken in and accepted by them. Many Peace Corps volunteers do not stay with a host family or do not have a good relationship with their host family, so I am eternally grateful for the hospitality of Abdou, Fatou, Kaddy, Souliman, Sering, Yassin, Sert, Allisan and Isatou to name a few of the most important people to me in the Njie/Sallah compound of Ker Sait Maram.