“The borders work a little differently here in Africa. Here, for instance, the border is marked by a rusty chain and three grazing pigs. No human to be seen. After waiting a few minutes, a sleepy man in slippers emerges from a wooden hut close to the chain. It turns out he’s the border guard. We offer him some boiled sweets, and he writes our details in a booklet then waves us on.
Only 200 meters, though, because then there’s the customs post. The small customs. The big customs, where the commander works, is in the next town, and only he is qualified to handle our case. His working day is already over, though, and he has gone home. Come back tomorrow. We say no, it’s not good, it has to be today. We argue a little, and insist on calling the commander. This in itself is no easy matter, as first we have to get hold of a telephone card. A gaping boy is sent hurrying to a nearby pigsty to get a card. He brings the card, but we have to pay the charge – a poor customs official can’t afford such expense.
After waiting half an hour for the phone to charge, we call the commander. After a long argument, we are permitted to travel on to the next town, on the condition that we report to the customs commander there at 9am next morning, with all our papers. By now night has fallen, and it is pitch black. It is a 36km drive to the town.
We drive down a ravine, on a road used mainly by trucks, and cover the distance in two hours. We drive through some small villages, where the people sit and talk by fires in front of their huts. No electricity anywhere – people really live in a way virtually unchanged for centuries. When darkness falls they light fires, cook, and talk.
We slowly leave these villages behind us, and are only a kilometer or so from the town when a man steps out in front of us. He’s in shorts and sandals, and has a Kalashnikov. We stop at once. Another two guys appear – one of them likewise has a Kalashnikov, while the other has an ancient bolt-action rifle. After a short conversation it transpires that they are the national guard. More than a little alarmed, we hurriedly share with them caps, t-shirts, biscuits… anything and everything we can lay our hands on. After half an hour they let us drive on.
We soon reach the town, which is totally bizarre, because it’s quite a large settlement, with a bustling nightlife, but absolutely no electricity anywhere. The darkness is complete. Whatever, we’re heading on to Bissau. As we drive, the moonlight strikes something and catches my eye. We stop. Not far away, a boat is bobbing on the water. It’s the river that sparkled in the moonlight. And not a small one. We ask a local where the bridge is. He grins, and says there isn’t one here. But there is a ferry. Great, we say, we’ll take it across.
We set off in the direction he indicates, and sure enough, before long the ferry gleams into view before us. Except of course it doesn’t – rust doesn’t gleam. The bigger problem, however, is that it isn’t sailing. The boat has no lights, so it can only cross the river during daylight. The captain is gone. Someone hurries off to look for him, but doesn’t find him, because he’s gone to some other village on his bicycle. Checkmate. We sleep there.” (phica, 2019)