Road trips in Guinea are always an adventure and a sight to behold. First, allow me to explain that there are levels to travel in Guinea and most West African countries.
Flying: this is obviously the best option. It's quick and direct. You might have to wait several hours for a plane but at least you're waiting in some level of comfort.
NGO / personal SUV: they tend to be well maintained; the chauffeurs are usually experienced with the routes so they avoid the potholes; the vehicle is usually comfortable and the odds of breakdowns are ever in your favor. This option is interesting because it's not, technically, allowed for the drivers to offer rides to passengers. However, it's an easy way for them to earn money. They charge the cost of the route you're going. Sometimes they may charge a bit more or a bit less.
Personal car / illegal taxi: this option is iffy; sometimes it works in your favor, sometimes you're a fool! Just like for NGO SUV, this option involves standing on the side of a road, near some socially determined point, and waiting to be picked up – can we talk about unplanned planning?
Next are the public transportation options. Taxis of 6 to 9 passengers depending on your route; autobuses in greater frequency in Guinea, probably 36 to 52 passengers; minibuses, probably between 15 and 24 passengers; transport trailers – goods go in first and people get in where there is room; sometimes if it is on a return route, without any goods, it will be loaded with passengers and their baggage.
As with all things, all of these options are a question of economic situation. My preferred option is an NGO / Personal SUV. Sadly, these are few moments of bliss for me, and my usual option is two front seats of a 9-passenger vehicle. You might be asking yourself what is a 9-passenger vehicle. Imagine a small station wagon: in the back, it sits 3 to 4 people; in the middle, 4 to 5 people; and in the front, 1 to 3 people, thus 9 passengers. You might also find a few young boys on the roof.
My adventure this Thursday 11th August unfolded thus. I spent a few hours in the office. I worked out of my house, arranging things with Kaba and Dougo, and making plans. My plan was to head out to the spot and try to find a vehicle for about 30 mins. If I didn't find anything there, I would head to the Gare. I live near a Gare so I thought I would go reserve a spot as an emergency. When I arrived, they informed me that there were no more cars leaving that day. The only option left was to take an autobus and I wasn’t going to do that so I headed to the spot. I found a car pretty quickly, within 30 mins, so I was pretty confident this would work out. A note: I generally do not depart for Conakry after 12pm. I got to the spot at around 11am and found a car so I thought things were going ok. It took some time to get the other passengers and we ended up not leaving till after 1pm. Still, I accepted that this was not too bad and was ready to go. I really wanted to purchase this truck and get back to Kankan.
At 1pm we are off. The road between Kankan and Kouroussa is one of the nicest in the country. A bed of bliss and comfort compared to Kouroussa – Dabola. However, Dabola has some of the best honey I've ever tasted in my life, so I do not blame the city for the torturous nature of the road. Between Kankan and Kouroussa, we get a flat tire. Even if flat tires are a fact of life, this is a troubling sign. It takes about an hour to fix the tire, and we are off again. Once in Kouroussa, we spend another hour or so repairing the inner tube and getting a spare tire. This makes me confident that though it will be about 12 or 1 am, I can arrive in Conakry on Thursday night, get my hands on a truck and be on my way to Kankan by Sunday. It turns out that we didn't get a quality spare tire. The driver knows this. He also knows that the road to Dabola from Kouroussa is one of the worst in Guinea. Yet, he is speed racing. I, along with the other passengers, tell him to slow down, that we don't mind getting there late, we just want to get there today. He simply answers “I know my car, I know what it can do and we will be fine”. Flying along, we take a pothole and bang, the tire pops, rim cracks and our reaction is: 'seriously homie what part of slow down didn't you understand'. Second flat in less than 6 hours. This is now a bad sign. Conakry is now out of the question for Thursday. If things go well, we can get to Kindia and just be 3 hours from Conakry. It takes some time to get the tire fixed. We arrive in Dabola at around 8pm. I hang out and chat with a Peace Corps volunteer who works with a local waste collection project as a side experience. I get into a fight with a Guinean woman who lives or lived in the States about the poor parking job they did on their broken down car.
We are now in Dabola. The question of the day is: “do we continue and try for Kindia or just sleep here?”. Sleeping in a car on the side of the road isn't something I'm excited about. I have a friend in Mamou, the next city on the road. While I'm hoping we'll get to Kindia, at worst, I can crash at her place in Mamou. We push on. Sadly, we don't arrive in Mamou until 1am. The long stop in Dabola didn't help at all. Most people go to sleep way before 1am so this means I'm sleeping in the car. I grab dinner: Shawarma. It is surprisingly good so I now have a Shawarma spot in Mamou. I end up sleeping in a car, in a gas station in Mamou. In the morning, I take pictures of the beautiful sight. We're on our way.
Early morning driving in Guinea is a secret gem in the world. The Basse Côte region is verdant and lush and a wonder to behold. Our car is humming along and we all hope to get into Conakry before midday. This, at least, would allow me to shower and maybe go see one or two vehicles on the same day, visit them with a mechanic the next and make my way back to Kankan on Sunday. Alas, Allah did not wish it to be so. A common refrain in Guinea is, “If God/Allah wants or wishes it to be so”. “Will you come to work tomorrow? Will you call me later? Will you be free to eat dinner?” All will be answered in the same fashion: if God wishes it. We are humming along. Then another flat tire. We wait for more than an hour. The driver takes the tire to town and gets it fixed well enough to get us to Kindia where we do it all over again. In Kindia, we spend another hour and he does whatever he needs to do to get the tire fixed. At this point, he begins talking about how he has used all his money to repair flat tires. It is now past 1pm and I have been on the road for over 24 hours. He repairs the tire in Kindia and we are on our way. We decide to stop and eat in Kindia as it’s been a long journey thus far. Besides, Kindia has two spots whose food I miss. As we go to eat, the driver mentions that we need gas but that he is out of money. You may be wondering why he does not have enough money for gas. This is an interesting story about how everything is a negotiation and how some people have better bargaining power than others. I eat my meal, mad as hell at this point since I will not be arriving in Conakry until the evening. There goes my plan to leave Conakry on Sunday! I already know I will be paying for gas. The driver has no problem pretending to not have money or he may actually not have any money. Either way, at this point, I just want to get to Conakry. I walk away while he tries to figure out the gas situation knowing full well that he has already decided to bank on me, as the other passengers, 3 soldiers and an elderly woman, have no intention of paying anything else. An hour later, I've purchased gas with his promise to pay me back from the money he is going to make from driving my truck back to Kankan. I let him know that he would not be driving my truck back but that I would be expecting my money. I gave him my phone number and to this day, I am still waiting for my money. I finally arrive in Conakry at 7pm on Friday, more than 30 hours after I left Kankan.
The actual purchasing of the truck was uneventful in comparison to the trip. I had a few friends make contact and ended up having two vehicles to choose from. One vehicle, an older Renault, I believed was too small. However, I would have taken it as a last resort. I negotiated a price for it but let the vendor know that I would be back with a friend and mechanic to check it out. This meant that I would be able to change offer at that point. The other vehicle was a newer Italian Ford with a key lock on the gas tank. Unfortunately for me, the opposition parties had planned protest marches in Conakry and there was a declared national holiday. Combined, this meant that I would definitely not be leaving on Sunday as planned. After doing a bit of searching for other vehicles and having a friend of a friend inspect both vehicles, I decided to take the Ford. I decided on the Ford on Tuesday, got it repaired and working on the same day, finished up the repairs on Wednesday, then picked up a few dozen waste bins from the factory. We provide customers with several 60L bins to encourage waste separation and facilitate quick collection. Unfortunately, they only had 80L bins. I could have waited another day for them to make the 60L bins but I really wanted to get going. One lesson I learnt that day was to always make sure your supplier had what you needed long before you actually intended to secure it. I purchased 15 dozen of the 80L bins and was on my way. This was around 1pm. I know, another late departure! Perhaps at this point, I should learn my lesson about leaving for a road trip after 1pm.
So off to Kankan I go, riding shotgun in my truck with my driver, Fofana, behind the wheels. I was hoping to arrive in Kankan at around 2am. It wasn’t a significant problem since Kankan was a safer town than Conakry at night. Who knew it would take 2 hours to get beyond the new km 36 Barrage (control point)? It was only at 5pm that I was fully out of Conakry's orbit. I hit Kindia at 7pm, Mamou at 9pm. Quick pause for a meal. A chat with a friend. We arrive in Dabola around 1am. At this point, it isn't worth pushing on without a nap. So we nap. Mosquitoes eat us alive. At 4am, we are on the road again. Fofana is awesome! At 10am, we pull into my yard in Kankan, I'm exhausted and dirty. The guys are there to check out the truck and to start work. We have been waiting over two weeks to start service. Incredibly, Fofana says he is hopping in a taxi right away. He has another contract waiting for him and has to be ready for work the next day.
There goes the story about how we got our first truck. I hope you were able to learn a little bit about Guinea and my life here. Stay tuned for more stories!
Cuthbert A. Onikute, Founder - Dechets a l'Or