LIBERIA: free at last! Truly that’s what it felt like to finally get out of Côte d’Ivoire. I have nothing against the place – its people were very kind to us and the coast was beautiful – but the unscheduled month of typhoid and extra malaria plus the relentless rain had begun to feel like quicksand dragging us down. The day I posted the last blog, the sun came out and somehow, miraculously, stayed out for five days straight. On the third day, we set off for the border, praying that had been enough time for them to rebuild the collapsed bridge.
Our timing was immaculate. Our friend Pastor Daniel Cuthbertson had warned us that on Sunday, when he last went out of town to preach, only cars were managing to cross and there were miles of lorries queued up either side. But by Thursday, when we left, a Caterpillar had piled up and packed enough earth for us to drive over. Phew.
Our original plan had been to stick to the coast and cross into Harper, Liberia, from Tabor, but we’d been told that the ferry at the border – built, incidentally, by Mazen’s Dad – was not operating because the water levels were too high. Never mind the problem of the waterlogged roads the other side. So that’s why we’d driven back from Béréby to San Pédro, in preparation for heading north, before we fell sick again.
Happy to be back on the road, Big Reg trundled northwards on pitted but passable tar past Soubre and Issia towards Man. The roadside was very green with occasional rice paddies, studded with small pretty mosques. Village houses were mostly wattle and daub, which we’d recently learned about in Zola’s Science and Technology book. I am super proud that he managed to catch up by doing two terms’ work in one term, and looking forward to going at an easier pace in term three!
After breakfast in Duékoué and lunch in Danané, we stopped to chat with the polite officers at the Douanes check point – I don’t think we had a single bad experience with an official in the whole 2 months in Côte d’Ivoire – and were waved towards the most unlikely-looking road which led to the border: it was tiny.
Now, we’ve traversed some challenging roads on this trip, particularly in Angola and DRC, with the last 30km of the Cameroon to Nigeria border among the most notable (see https://africaclockwise.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/a-mighty-tree-has-fallen/). But that was before The Tipping (https://africaclockwise.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/a-birthday-to-remember/). Big Reg definitely took strain on that occasion, and seems to be struggling with his hips. Going straight forward feels the same as it was, but if there’s any sideways play, he’s wobbling far more than he was. M. Brice and the team had checked Big Reg over at the LPI workshop and they were confident he’d be fine, and we certainly saw other lorries rocking as much if not more than we were. But when you’re used to feeling more solid, it’s a wee bit terrifying.
Put it this way, when we dipped this side, I was sat in the passenger seat with my feet braced against the dashboard and my left foot wedged in the corner, holding on to Sampson’s armrest. Hats off to my husband for handling this road with aplomb. For once he wasn’t as worried as me. There’s not as many photos as you might expect for such an exciting episode, but that was because I was mostly hanging on for dear life. As Sampson said, it was “like riding a block of jelly”.
I was also struggling a bit because of the concussion. As if malaria and typhoid at the same time wasn’t enough to be recuperating from this week… In retrospect the concussion was worse than both together. As we were about to leave San Pédro, I was climbing onto the bed when our 4×4 Mega World fridge rolled out onto my feet because Zola had forgotten to lock it down. As I bent down to remedy this, Sampson pulled out into a massive pothole. Crunch. The side of my head hit the bed board, narrowly missing my eye, but nearly knocking me out.
I’d had slight concussion once before, at school after being hit with a hockey stick, but this was worse, with bouts of nausea and shivering. When we hit the dirt road, it was no longer safe lying on the bed so I had to get up and get strapped into seat belts like the others. I was popping paracetemol and ibuprofen ‘combos’ as my dear midwife used to call them, but the constant shaking (not to mention the sphincter-clenching terror) didn’t help my head.
According to the Garmin GPS, this road between Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia is called “United Nations Drive”. It’s only 47km from the last town in Côte d’Ivoire, Danané, to Kahnplay, the first town in Liberia, but we went at such a snail’s pace, this section took about 8 hours. It was the most horrendous road yet.
After two exhausting hours, we’d done 20km and pulled off on a handy bit of flat in front of a school. When we asked if we could stay the night there, we were referred to the Chief. M. Honoré was a true gentle-man, delighted to hear all about our trip and relieved when he realised we weren’t needing beds, only space! He was surprised to hear that hospitality wasn’t the same in Europe, and that villages there didn’t automatically feel obliged to provide accommodation for the visitor.
We spent a peaceful night there in Blizreu, apart from the village’s youth out celebrating the full moon partying with live drumming and singing till about 11pm. At 6am kids were waiting outside already, and by 8am there was a crowd of about 100 ready for the promised show. When the Chief arrived, we sat him in the middle on a camping chair, and Sampson and the kids did their thang. Then, as the rain was threatening once more, off we plunged again into the road. It seemed never-ending.
This blog is dedicated to a proud Afrikaaner with the most English-sounding name in the universe: Martin Graham. Martin is The Truck Fundi* in Cape Town. His expert directions via email, text or satellite phone have made him our saviour on more than one occasion since we left. But the best piece of advice he ever gave Sampson was “Bietjie bietjie maak baie” which (I think) translates as “Little by little makes a lot”. What he meant was: take it easy, trust Big Reg, don’t thrash him along and you’ll get there.
So as the Big Green Truck lurched drunkenly along the road into Liberia, with me clinging on tightly, I was thinking how right Martin had been, and how, no matter how slowly we seem to be crawling along, we’re still progressing. We were about to cross into our twelfth country in twelve months. It’s at times like this you have to hang onto facts like that.
So we edged slowly towards the border and crossed just a day before our Côte d’Ivoire visas expired. We wondered if the road was not busy because it was Sunday, or the day of the World Cup Final, or both.
There were more people in the offices at Loguatou on the Liberian side, but they seemed to be less organised. Two enlightening exchanges revealed a little of the Liberian personality. When asked how far to the nearest town, the first policeman said “Oh, five minutes or one hour”.
The second guy demonstrated his national pride as he reviewed the visa stamps in our passports: “Liberia – we are free! Freer than Côte d’Ivoire, than Ghana, than Nigeria”. In a country infamous for its savage civil war, this was a cheering welcome. It’s more than 10 years since peace came to Liberia and, unlike Côte d’Ivoire, which still appears punch drunk from their recent violent history, as if slightly in shock, Liberia has a newly confident, hopeful air, despite appearing significantly poorer.
Almost immediately the countryside seemed slightly different: the bush was denser, more marshy, more mossy, the trees thick with creepers. There were lily ponds surrounded by waving purple flowers. Buildings were sparser but usually made of brick, with boards everywhere acknowledging aid given by the UN, the US, Bangladesh. The road was a bit better in places thanks to a Swedish-Liberian project.
We were skirting the Nimba mountain range, where the climate up here away from the much wetter coast was mostly sunny all day and cool at night – even verging on cold around 4am. Delicious! Ruby was back to making iced rooibos tea with green lemons for our mid-afternoon relief drink.
About 4.30pm, we negotiated a tricky swaying turn only to be faced with another steep incline ravaged by fissures, which had been packed with some dry palm fronds in a desultory fashion. A few youngsters stood in front of a barrier, hoping to extricate a small fee for the service. We both sighed, not feeling up to that sort of negotiation on top of all the vehicular ones today and stopped outside a house belonging to Rachel.
Now, when Big Reg rocks up in a remote village like Lampea, it’s like the aliens have landed. Seriously, there is so little alternative entertainment, people will just stand around the truck watching for hours. Even when we’re too tired to talk anymore and shut the door. Not just kids either, grown men. “Close Encounters of the 3rd World kind” quipped Sampson, “Do-dee-do-duh-dah…”.
The difference between Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia became more obvious when for the second day in a row we were woken by the crowd outside at 6.30am. Liberians are LOUD. Shamelessly, delightfully so. It’s like the difference between Xhosa people and South African English people. Xhosas greet confidently and directly, even to the point of shouting across the street to hail elders, and would consider British whispered discretion very rude. Liberians are like Xhosas but with added American whoop.
Sampson doing his stretching and me doing wobbly still-concussed T’ai Chi drew a crowd of about a hundred, many providing an ongoing commentary to passing bicyclists. “Women must be strong to drive trucks” I explained to girls watching open-mouthed. They were so eager to see the children, they even asked for them to appear. When I reflect on how my shy son has learned to cope in these conditions, I am amazed; even extrovert Ruby was finding this level of scrutiny uncomfortable.
The Sampsons doing 20 minutes juggling and magic satisfied the villagers’ craving for spectacle while I washed up the breakfast things. What was lovely, was that after enjoying the show, a young woman ran ahead to dismantle the barrier we had stopped ahead of the night before, much to the dismay of the boys manning it. The crowd obviously felt we’d paid our dues already.
However endearing, it was all rather exhausting, so for the following three nights, we endeavoured to find places off the road in isolated spots outside villages so we could rest in peace. Big Reg bumped onwards until we finally arrived at Kahnplay, or Kamplay, Karnplay, Kahnple or Kannple – I saw it written differently on every single sign and map.
After that, the road improved enough to take our average speed up from 5kmph to 25kmph and we staggered into Sannequellie, which, I learned from this sign, was the birthplace of the Organisation of African Unity.
Côte d’Ivoire deserves more tourists. I found its wild, green, gorgeous coastline so much more appealing than most of Ghana. Northern Liberia on the other hand seems beyond tourism. Pulling into the dusty town of Ganta, with its shed-like shops, basic foodstuffs, nothing fresh, I was reminded of the settler towns in places like Oklahoma in the old cowboy movies we’ve been watching recently. The hard frontier life. This is truly the wild west coast of Africa.
In Ganta, Sampson got out to buy Lonestar cellphone credits and I was sitting on the bed in the back trying to figure out the value of Liberian dollars compared to rand and West African FCA. A man outside the window spoke to me – “Where you from?” “South Africa” I said. “No,” he said in French, “You’re not African,” and he rubbed the skin of his arm at me accusingly before stalking off. Yet at the very next check point, a maroon-uniformed traffic police officer, after hearing where we’re from, looked surprised and shouted a correction back to his colleague who had assumed we were European, “Oh no, they’re black. They’re from South Africa.”
* fundi from the isiXhosa word meaning ‘learned’ is SA slang for expert – we South Africans are a polyglot lot
Drafted July 15th