Guinea to Senegal … a road of remembrance of villages, waterfalls and the song of a missionary

Bureh Beach is a legendary chill down venue amongst the west African overlanding community. And it lives up to its reputation. You can spend long days surfing or walking or smoking joints and doing very little. Your call. All about you are the smiling faces of the very chilled down Sierre Leone villagers and fishing folk. Rastas and surf masters line the beach offering up their brands of offerings. But mostly you are left to laze in the sun, do walks and surf all day long. Its bliss. We stay a week or so. 

Despite the peacefulness or because of it, we feel like we are chasing deadlines. Granted they are deadlines which are self-imposed, derived from the architecture of year long trip around the African continent. But deadlines nonetheless. In bite sized chunks, our topline, immediate deadline is to be in Morocco when our visa opens in late March. And now it’s late February and we are still lingering on Bureh beach, southern Sierra Leone. We need to get going. We have one month. And we have the whole of Guinea to cross, then Senegal and Gambia and Senegal again, and finally Mauritania, before we reach the southern border of Morocco. We need to get going. And we need to move swiftly, resolutely, do day drives and sleep early and rise early and drive again. Day after day. All of this is swirling around in my head. If we follow my head we will be in Morocco in a month. We will be there at the start of our visa opening. And we will have fifty days to explore the backroads of the atlas mountains and Moroccan villages and deserts before we take our already booked ferry from Tangiers to Genoa Italy in early May. 

Morocco stands like an apex country above all the rest. It occupies at almost mythical place in my mind. It’s the overlander dream country to explore. Through countless months before the trip began I had trawled through overlanding websites and watched YouTube videos of the overlanding trails across Morocco. All of that impregnated my mind with a burning desire to be on those trails exploring the Atlas mountains, living in the villages and surfing the point breaks. Morocco is the reason for us to choose to start our journey by doing the West Africa first. To take the hard part up front and follow that with the way easier and more gentle drive south down the east African coast. All of this drives my excitement, just knowing we are reaching a half way pinnacle of your trip. It feels unbelievable. Unfathomable. We are nearly in Morocco. We are going to be immersed in north Africa eventually. Lost in in its mystical ways. It feels like a dream is about to be realised. 

There is no time to laze about on beaches. We bid farewell to our overlanding friends on the beaches of Sierra Leone and head out. Following the waypoints in my head we key them into the Garmin and drive north once more. Crossing the southern border from Sierra Leone into Guinea is time consuming but smooth. Once crossed we head north east in search of what we have been told is a beautifully peaceful Catholic mission outside Kindia. It’s a long drive on awful roads again. Roads that are thick with traffic and red dust and slowness. But we are patient and determined and eventually we arrive at our destination at dusk sets in. We find the gates of the mission and pull up and are immediately transfixed by the beauty of the sound of song coming from the chapel. There is no-one about but a pure, clean and sound of women in spiritual song wafts from the chapel across the hills surrounding the mission. We are so stunned by the serenity that we do nothing, say nothing. We wander about our car stretching legs and listening and waiting. Someone will emerge. And sure enough from the forest emerges a French women with her walking stick. She has a glow that matches the peacefulness of the mission itself. We explain our wish to stay and contribute to the mission and within minutes she has shown us where to park our cruiser alongside clean and well maintained ablutions we can use.  

It’s not yet dark so we follow our hosts advice and take the farm track out of the beautiful cast iron front gates of the mission and down into the valley below us. We are heading for the river and some waterfalls she has told us about. Walking through forests and across fields we follow the sound of crashing, falling water till we find the river and the falls. It beautiful and we are all alone. So we strip-off and swim naked in the eddies of the river. Wash some of our clothes before heading home again. We watch the sun set whilst having dinner from our little hill in monastery. Its deadly silent of any people noise. It’s like everyone know that some superior being is watching for any disturbances, but no one says anything to let on. We sleep to the sound of a rustle of cool breeze ion the trees and a starlit blanket above us. The first sound we hear, alongside the bird song at dawn, is the sweet sound of the women singing in prayer again. Its unspeakably beautiful and calming. So deeply peaceful that it feels like you should stay for a month or a year or a decade or more. It feels plain wrong to leave. It is so settled and contained and without any aspirations, or sense of hope or desire even. It just is what is in its totally. The entire monastery experience pulls at something inside my hard and incorrigible atheist heart. There is something of extreme beauty here. A evolved life even. An unpretentious, deep rooted acceptance of a lifestyle steeped in order and discipline and humility and faith. That alone attracts and compels me to think and feel the inner urge to be a servant here, a sweeper of leaves, even without the faith to hear the voice of the gods about us. The thought stays with me for a long time after as the road challenges me again. 

The real world of our journey is back on us. We move on dusty roads heading for Kambadaga waterfalls south of Labe for our second night of the Guinea crossing. Again it’s a long day on the road that ends at dusk with our arrival at the top of the falls. But not before we have managed to navigate past the villagers who collect tithes from visitors wanting to see the falls. We decide this is not an African thing and engage with the tithe collectors in a mixture of broken Xhosa and Zulu. Speaking wildly and gesticulating that we are from the south, Africans like them, Xhosa speakers, we somehow impress upon our Guinean tithe collectors that we are one of them. Just a pale one. Not an English or French one. An African one. Food and gifts for the children are donated. And finally we are free to go. We decide to compensate them all on our return up the same track in the morning. 

The track winds down into a ravine cloaked by riverine forest around the head of the Kambadaga waterfalls. Finally the track arrives at the edge of the river and opens up onto flat black rock surfaces above the falls. Its perfect. We drive onto the rock surface alongside the river and set up camp for the night above the falls. It’s perfect and we celebrate another perfect wild camp spot in the middle of Guinea with a swim in the river and a beer. That night we sleep with the sound of the falls in our ears. The next day rising early we take the final long day drive through Labe in northern Guinea and on to the border with Senegal. Everything works out exactly as planned as we cross Guinea with time to spare. So we decide to head to the coast of southern Senegal and spend more time on the lakes and beaches and mangrove swamps of the south. 


Guinea gifts us Sierra Leone

We are talking and planning the road ahead. Meeting south going travellers with their fountains of advice and information. We sit in the comfort of the city of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire and plan our route north towards Senegal. We hear more fear stories. We are told we face a choice. Head north across Cote d’Ivoire and up into Mali or north west into Guinea? The former route has its threats of terror attacks and potential hijacking of our cruiser. The latter route has its fair share of civil strife around a push by the president to amend the constitution and have an election to secure a hitherto unconstitutional third term in office. Which way do we go? It weighs on the mind. Civil strife versus terror attacks. Hard choice.

We decide that civil unrest and the potential of being blocked by security forces and re-routed over hundreds of kilometres on tough slow roads beats a potential hijacking hands down. And we are comforted in the thought that we did a Mali tour to Timbuktu some years ago. No need to repeat Mali. Not this time anyway. So it’s an easy choice to do Guinea route and drive north west on a good road to the border. 

Crossing into Guinea is an eye opener. The country looks run down and poor. Reminds us of DRC. But poverty is now more complex than before. It’s hard to measure. What standard to use. Desperately poor when measured against the wealthy nations of the world. Yet not significantly poorer than the poorest of any other country in Africa. And if happy and content and low carbon footprint were a measure of progress, then African poor countries would measure up against the best. So it’s hard to know whether what we deem as poor is a virtue or a curse. Because the people of Guinea are poor, yet everyone appears happy, and settled and at peace with themselves and all about them. And this is despite a rage in the country against the president for seeking to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term in office. We read of protests in Lomé and Conakry, but through the villages there is no evidence of any political campaigning. The countryside seems untouched by the actual or imagined turbulence in the cities. 

But still the fear and uncertainty are there inside us. We have met overlanders at the border crossing into Guinea who tell tales of being blocked and turned back by security forces. Having to re-route themselves on a round trip of an extra 200kms of the most awful roads to traverse the country. And that with a security official in their vehicle. So we are concerned that the same could happen to us. And we thinking and talking as we drive. What to believe? What not? Maybe the security force action was to prevent any picture being taken of protest action. Maybe its state sponsored paranoia. Maybe the people are all cool and have a right to protest anyway. It’s not about us. Its about their civil issues. Maybe. Just maybe. Its hard to decide. Whci way to go ? Keep the Guinee road or head to Sierra Leone. 

We check the Garmin and see the track to the Sierra Leone border branching west as we pass Faranah in Guinea. It’s a forty kilometre off road track to reach the border from the main Guinee north road. But we have no visa. And we drive a right-hand drive vehicle that is banned in Sierra Leone. And we have tried for weeks with back and forth emails to get an exception from the sierra leone tourist association to drive our right hand drive car that has produced nothing but promises. So it look like a long shot. But maybe, just maybe, they will let us through. You never know. We decide to risk it and just go for it. See what happens. Trust our instincts and goodwill. Literally as we reach the Sierra Leone track we turn left and head west on a small dirt road. Not really sure if we are running from a fear of Guinean instability or a fantasy of Sierra Leone freedom. Either way the road is beckoning us and we are following the road. 

The track is long and slow. But it is certain and takes us through quaint villages and beautiful countryside to the border crossing. The Guinea exit is hot and slow but smooth. Then we in no mans land. Cruising through open tracks and monitoring a border destination. The Sierra Leone arrival is even smoother than the Guinee exit. As we arrive we are asked to wash our hands before greeting anyone. Just out of tradition we think. The coronavirus is that far from our consciousness. We are welcomed by the officials like long lost brothers from the south. Reggae music hums in the African midday heat. They tell us that because they are a small remote border they are not authorised to issue visas, but they will make a plan to put an immigration official into our car to accompany us over an 80km journey to the first major town of Kabbalah. From Kabbalah we will get a temporary permit that will see us through to Freetown where a visa can be obtained. We happily agree and the official takes the passenger seat alongside me and Lou is perched in the gangway at the back of the Troopy. The road is long and slow. But we are excited to be breaking new ground into a country that we never even imagined we would get into. 

Kabbalah is a quaint and beautiful small town in northern Sierra Leone. It houses the office of the regional immigrations command. Our travel companion takes us straight to the office where we are greeted and welcomed by a certain Mr Crosby who stamped our passports for a 48hr period in which we are told to obtain our visas in Freetown. And he gives us an official letter to say we are authorized to cross the country. And the letter is stamped with the same stamp as is in our passport. A kinda double security he says. He even phones his colleague in Freetown to introduce us over the phone and to say we are coming for our visas. And we are free to go. Blessed Africa. 

We overnight at a B&B called Wendays which is clean and neat with a cold shower and toilet in the hills of Kabbalah. Whilst there we meet an Italian man doing good social work to empower women for an NGO. For the first time we hear of the corona virus from our Italian friend. He tells tales of how his wife was in Abidjan searching for a flight home. How there is a virus in northern Italy that came from China. We think: poor souls and scarcely give it any further thought. The next day we drive to Freetown. All the way down officials at checkpoints welcome us as the South Africans without visas and flag us on. They have been told we are coming. 

It’s an easy road to drive. And it feels like a kinda homecoming of sorts to drive into the legendary Freetown. The road widens as we get into the outskirts of the city and then narrows as it weaves into the built-up zone of the Freetown downtown area. Since Garmin takes you the most direct route, without consideration to on street life, we get seriously stuck for a few hours or more in the people dense markets on the back streets of Freetown city. We find ourselves locked into a series of street markets. People are everywhere. Its dense and colourful and loud. Everywhere is a buzz of traders and customers selling everything from Chinese plastics to colourful Sierra Leone fabrics. We roll with the masses. Creeping along at walking speed. It feels safe and good. People smile and wave or simply ignore us. Our cruiser weaves slowly and gently through the phalanx of people and colour and sounds and smells. We can’t believe our good fortune to be legal in Sierra Leone driving a right-hand drive vehicle with no visa in our passports. It feels all wrong. This was all meant to be impossible. But it feels appropriate. This is Africa and everything is possible. All you need is time. And we are taking our time. We don’t really have a choice. 

We find a small hot room with occasional weak aircon on Lumley Beach Road. It’s a base from which we visit the city sights and immigration office to get our visa in the centre of Freetown. Our visits to immigration and a certain customs official take the first three days. Back and forth we go through the streets of Freetown. All good : we have Sierra Leone visas in our passport. We are legal in a country which said we would always be illegal. Feeling free we decide to head out to the beaches to the south of Freetown. Find the surf spots and camp out for a week or so. We need to walk and swim and surf a bit. Meet village locals and fellow overlanders. So we head to Bureh Beach…a known overland and surfers paradise some 100kms south of city.

The travellers and their stories…

Land based travelling across Africa comes in many forms. It comes from backpackers who walk or hitch hike or ride public transport. They are the real, base line economy class travellers. With the people and amongst the people all the time. Going at the people’s pace on the people’s wisdom only. This is the domain of the youth mostly. European youth mainly, finding themselves in Africa and living an African lifestyle. 

One step up from the “public transport” league are the bicycle riders. They are the ones that cycle at a rate of a maximum 30kms per day and often far less than that when mud or rain shut them down. They seem to be wanting to release something horrible from deep inside their systems. The cyclists I met were all freeing themselves from broken relationships and not committing to anything other than their love of their bikes. It’s like the hardness of the bike and the roads and the journey had freed them from thinking about their broken hearts. 

A big step up is to rely on a combustion engine of sorts. In this category we have the motorcycle men mostly. Though not solely. Mostly men alone, and sometimes the occasional women riding pillion or on their own. They ride anything from a Chinese manufactured 150cc motorcycle at the bottom to the large and heavy Honda Africa Twin at the top. And they ride across the continent because Africa is legendary amongst motorcycle off-road communities for its toughness, requiring of the rider a raw and indestructible resilience to keep going. It’s a challenge that any genuine off-road motorcyclist just has to do to be a somebody significant in the off-road motorcycle global community. West Africa is well known to be way up there. It has a legendary status. The kinda gold standard for genuine off-road motorcycle madness. 

At the top end of the road travellers list comes in the relative comfort of the mostly 4×4 overlander tribe with their camper vehicles or their mobile homes of various shapes and sizes. The campers are what their name implies: campers in the form of a VW Combi bus or Landcruiser or Hilux or Hardbody. Whatever works for camping in, or on top of, or even alongside of. A camper on wheels. The mobile home is of a different order. It’s a home on wheels. Typically, the home includes double bed, eating area, kitchen, full ablutions and packing areas all housed in doors. All loaded on the back of a Mercedes or Iveco horse. A massive truck that shields the passengers from the world outside. The ultimate secure home on wheels. 

These are the modes if transport of the trans Africa land travellers. And we are learning from them all as we go. They all seem to sing the same song: crossing north to south or south to north of west Africa is the toughest over-landing experience in the world. And many of them have been travelling for years across the world. So they should know something.  Their stories of fear and loathing across the continent are as old as the continent itself. Everywhere we go we hear or read them. Stories of the dangers that lurk across the borders. It’s like each country has a story about the other. And each story generates waves of fear in the ears of the listener.  But like with all stories from all travellers, they need to be measured against one’s own litmus test of experience. In my experience they seldom match up. 

Amongst the overland travelling community there are Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups where travellers ask questions and share experiences of their travels. Their posts are littered with stories of untoward officials seeking bribes or enforcing rules that offend the reasoned sensibility of the western travellers, or officials simply changing rules to suit themselves which upsets the stable mind. One constantly finds stories of dangers of travel through west Africa and what to avoid and what to not. You cannot ignore them. They are on your phone or in your ears wherever you go. And they eat at one’s sense of stability and well-being. Even when one knows that we come from the south, that is we come from the most violent and crime ridden country on the continent. Yet, yet still the stories eat at your sense and sensibility, eat at your inner threshold of what one deems as safety and security. 

And all this happens within the lived experience of nothing but warmth and affirmation from every African whom we meet on the road. And we meet plenty of Africans on the road. In the markets and villages and camp sites and countless checkpoints, we have yet to experience a hostile reception from anyone or to pay a single bribe to anyone. Yes, not a single bribe. Only love and affirmation. This is our reality so far. We trust our experience. Try to rise above the fear and bribery narrative of other travellers. Rely on what we know and what we have experienced. Trust the people about us and the process as we go. But still the fear factor is there. Omnipotent and ever present. It colours one’s road ahead and even directs us as to where to go and what border to cross and what to avoid.

Perhaps it’s because tourism in west Africa remains an industry in its infancy. Or non-existent in some countries. Tourists are scarce. Facilities to cater for tourists are even scarcer. Perhaps it is this that generates a sense of aloneness and fear amongst the tiny few tourists that are here. That and the foreignness of it all. The visibility of the other. White on black. Without even a common language or experience to connect with. Not surprisingly the pale identity of a overland tourist from the north bonds the travellers together in expat enclaves scattered across the beaches, waterfall sites and mountains of west Africa.  Enclaves that regurgitate and repeat the narratives. Enclaves in which overlanders gather to tell their tales of roads and places and officials, and to share their fears and hopes and dreams. Places to call home. A comfort one in the midst of the dark heart of west Africa. 

And yet, yet despite the infancy of the tourist industry and the rudimentary services, tourists are still treated like gods. Like someone high up said something like “pale skinned tourists are special and need to be handled with care and respect.”  Because everyone does that. Even when the service is poor and the facilities even poorer, still the respect is always there. Nay even more so. I found that the poorer the place the greater the respect and warmth that it imbues towards the foreign tourist. Every house is open, every meal available to be shared. Not surprisingly this hospitality culture of respect and warmth amidst the most rudimentary tourist services, sits uncomfortably next to the inner shadow of fear and uncertainty in the heart of the tourist. Yet again the narrative doesn’t fit the experience. Another African adventure irony. 

Africa – our beginning and our future.

It feels oddly surreal, bordering on the insane, to be in the Coté d’Ivoire city of Abidjan, four months into our African overland journey, and to read the stories of the antics and emptiness of a SONA night back home. Its weird. Other worldly. A kinda tragedy and a farce all in one act.

South Africans are locked into a social and economic death spiral. A death spiral occasioned not just from a history of lack luster leadership or outright pillage and state capture, or racial profiling on a landscape of inequality and unemployment. Or la any of the countless other phrases that we use to describe our illness. It’s way worse than that.

South Africans have not yet come to terms with the deeper illness that binds them and blinds them. They have not yet understood what it means to be an african, or more specifically to be newly born African nation that is the bastard child of the continent. South Africans suffer from the toxic combination of an inflated ego that hides a deep identity crisis within. We look to the northern hemisphere to answer our problems in the African deep south. We distrust the continental experience beyond seeing it as a potential market to exploit and accumulate from. We have no idea of what it means to build a nation beyond our own winning a beauty contest or a rugby World Cup. We truly are the lost and arrogant children of Africa. Worse still is that we don’t even know this about ourselves. We are an egotistical and violent people. To others and to our own.

I can hear the push back coming. The talk of being the friendly ones. The caring ones. The proud ones. The ones who overcome all obstacles. The negotiation capital of the world. The rainbow nation. The peace loving ones. I can hear all that. Yet, yet it’s thin. And hollow. It borders on a lie. It’s measure of success is ourselves, our own rhetoric, our own image in the mirror. And only that. It’s a kind of self congratulatory praise singing. And it’s nowhere near the truth. At least not when viewed from the sobering distance of being immersed for months in the countless African villages and towns and cities of west Africa.

It seems to me that our truth is what we watch and hear and read about from the commentariat. It’s the tiny truth of the insiders club. That’s our small world focus. It’s the obsessive and yet deeply boring and predicable singular focus on big labour and big capital and big ANC in government. Of European look alike social compacts for the rich in the name of the poor. Of progress and development measured solely through the tinted glasses of the world bank and IMF and ratings agencies. Of a western democracy with a colorful constitution, and national flag to match, which is yet to be embedded in the ethos of the mass of ordinary outsider South Africans. Of our slavish love for mining and financial services and automotive and textile manufacturing that need tax breaks and protection and countless IPAP’s for everything else. Of apartheid spacial city planning to protect the values of the properties of the rich and to keep us looking “modern” and “western” with that sexy clean and european like look and feel. All for the insiders. For those few extremely wealthy souls that support the bulk of the tax base and who eat and party under candles, even when we not being load shedded.

It’s a hoax and it’s paper thin. And it’s not sustainable. It’s the age old trickle down economics from deals between the big three social interests. Its a trickle that will not reach the restless mass of outsides. Not in my lifetime. It’s not even remotely viable. It’s just a matter of time. It will implode. Bit by bit. It’s has already started with the implosion of state owned enterprises and the downsizing of businesses. Every macro economic indicator is heading south. Debt rising beyond revenue collection. Jobless rising. Currency weakening more and more. The capital markets flatline at best. Construction and freight industries decline. Properties lose value and will be worth virtually nothing. We are only at the beginning of the death spiral. There is a long road down. A long, long road.

As we go down we should take off our western tinted glasses. We should look at the bare face of our neighbors and beyond them across the African continent. Look deep at them. See the African villages and the towns and the cities. And in each your will see a rickety stall or collection of stalls or a sprawling market. On every street and in every country. See the way the road itself has become a market even before it is built into an asphalt road. Already the market is there. There in the dust. And in every market there are sellers of onions and tomatoes and avos and pineapples. Countless sellers of all that grows. And they are there every day. Because they have customers to service. Alongside them are the yam and peanut sellers and bread makers or chicken grillers. And the textile weavers. And the tailors. And the motor cycle mechanics and bicycle repair shops. Look deeper. This is the guts of the home market. It’s the african home market. It’s alive and it’s vibrant and it’s busy and disorderly and dirty. Its an african home market. There are customers and sellers. Everywhere. No one has a liscence to be here. The liscence they have is what everyone has. It’s not given by a government official. It ordained at birth. It’s the liscence embedded in the DNA of every person. The liscence to educate and create and grow and sell and make. Everyone honors it. Everyone does it.

Look deeper. Behind the goods and the seller. There is an african. Thousands and millions of Africans. Educated people. Proud people. People who know that their future and the future of their children depends on them. Not on government. Or even big business. Or big labour. But on them making and creating and trading and surviving. They are the rock of the home market of Africa. Don’t laugh. Don’t smirk. Learn from them. They are the bearers of all the lessons for our future in the south too.

Look into the village. Look deep into the village. See the households and homes. The ownership of the land and the village. The patterns from dawn to dusk. The simplicity of everyday life. The low carbon footprint. The children dressed for school and studying hard. The bells and the call to prayer. The sweeping mother. The pounding sister. The men and women who till their small pieces of land. The water and wood carried in to wash and cook. Just enough. No more than the days needs. Tomorrow is another day.

The land is owned or leased by the people. There is low unemployment and everyone has some land or home assets from which they can produce for themselves or their home market. On this foundation the village is an economic unit with buyers and sellers. It is the expression of the collective economic enterprise and will of the people. Every day it rises to the same tasks to be performed. The same rituals to be fulfilled. And behind it all stands an unwritten commitment, a covenant even, to educate and work and to work to educate for each other. Over and over. It’s embedded in the value system of the Africans themselves. Makes even the poorest of the poor stand proud. Hold their heads up. It’s the glue that cements the nation together. The street trader survives on street trading. The welder on welding. The tailor on sewing. The cook on cooking. And so it goes on. Each for the other. All for one. One for all. No getting ahead of the other. No falling behind the other. All rising. Slowly and painfully. But rising nonetheless. Against all odds.

I long for a bit of this Africa at home. I long for a tiny taste of the lessons from the continent in the veins of our people back home. Where our leaders start with a conversation about themselves. About who they are and what it means to be a South African. Perhaps that conversation can ask : who are we? Not as labour or capital or government agent. But as a people. What values define us ? Not the tired phrases of rainbows and resilience. But what ethos and way of being binds us. Are we truly a people of Ubuntu, as Mandela once hoped for ? And if so what does that really mean ?

You see if we are to truly build a South African nation we all have to give up a lot and be prepared to learn a lot from each other as a people. We need a new conversation about nation building and development. A conversation that is free of our caps and our agencies and our selfish interests. A conversation that starts with what we are prepared to give up, not what we want. Like land owners giving up their unfettered right to freehold ownership of land and the landless giving up the threat of occupations because they see the land being restored to the people. Like government giving up the right to regulate and police to become a facilitator of a package of new tax incentives and accelerators to fashion changed behavior for the nation. Like labour giving up the rights to regulate standards across even those businesses that are struggling and closing. Like capital giving up their right to make unfettered profits at any costs and committing to invest and share in the wealth they create with others. Bottom line is that we need to start the stakeholder conversation by putting in the table all that we own or control and the rights and interests we hold and saying: all of this is up for reshaping and sharing in ways that grow the nation and the national identity as the apex and sole right and interest. The test is not the barrow stakeholder interest or rights, but the test is how any proposal enhances the building blocks to create the South African nation, to cement its values and ethos, to grow the cake of opportunity for all.

And we need more than a stakeholder process. Much much more. We need every community and institution to mobilise South Africans to come together across the divide of the factory shop floor and the boardroom table, or the squatter camp and the polished walled home, the street trader and the retail giant, the skilled workers with the artisan and engineer and designer. We need to pull our people together across the countless divides in every household and school and place of work or worship or village or town. We need imbizos everywhere that initiate and embrace a new dialogue of who we are and what we can do for each other and how we can protect and grow one another and the nation at large. A dialogue that breaks the divides and cements the daily work and social lives of our people together. That opens up land and ownership and markets and skills and education for all. That places care and help for each other and nation building at the very centre of all economic and social and design and layout plans and activities. Everyone must be helped and a culture of hard work for the family and the nation must be instilled.

It’s a long road down. There will be plenty of doomsayers. There will be plenty of negativism and armchair critics. And there will be active opposition. To succeed we need leadership. Real steadfast and visionary leadership that is frank and honest and humble and yet, yet able to rise to the calling of the nation above any stakeholder or factional interest. A leadership that facilitates and guides and listens. And that is bold in upholding the national test as the apex test, and implementing the will of the nation and the very big changes we need to save ourselves from ourselves. We need that kind of resolved and evolved leadership. A leadership that knows that Africa is our home. Our heritage and our future. And that builds, brick by brick, a new national identity for our people to become an authentically African nation of the south. Truly African in its core. Saturated with the ethos of Ubuntu in everyday life.

The song of a Ghanaian birder

We are sitting still. Dead still. Behind me I hear a cicada or cricket. Dunno which. Now and then I hear a turaco or hornbill overhead. And before me I see a leaf drop to join millions of other leaves that carpet the floor of the Ghanaian forest with a soft brown cloth. Shafts of light carve through the canopy and dance occasionally in the light breeze of the forest. It is still – dead still. You can literally hear the leaves drop. Each one of them.

We are waiting. Waiting before a giant piece of hanging rock that has created a cave like structure on the slopes of the forested hill. We are seated on ancient pieces of forest log-seats. On the roof of the rock is a birds nest. It’s built like a swallows nest out of blobs of thick mud with a long hole entrance protruding south. To a casual observer it could easily be mistaken for a swallows nest, except it’s about four times the size and the blobs of mud are thick and untidy and bulgy. No swallow could have made that. And it hangs off the roof of the rock cave seemingly defying all gravitational pull. It’s that big and bold and strong.

We are still waiting. We sit in total silence. Silently waiting for the evening homecoming arrival of the Picathartes (rock fowl). A rare, ground based, fowl like bird who occupies a senior place in any birders must see list. More so because it is also a long standing member of the IUCN deeply endangered “red list”. Which is why we are here too I suppose. Trying to get to see the rock fowl before it disappears into the blank pages of what remains of the history books of the anthropocene era.

We have been sitting silently for more than an hour. Just the sound of the forest leaves falling and the cicada now and then. It’s late afternoon and we are still waiting. Alongside me on my left is a beautiful Rastafarian man who has gone to sleep mode. Alongside him is the village chief who greeted us on arrival in his village and who insisted on joining us. On my right sits Kalu Afasi our Nigerian born Ghanaian bird guide. They all sit knowingly. Confidently. They have all been here before. Many many times.

I am writing this as I wait. I’m driven by the need to put to paper my thoughts and impressions of our journey through Ghana. My mind is exploding with thoughts. It’s burning so hard that I fear I will lose a lot of them in the ashes of the afterglow when we leave this country. So I gotta write them down. Record what I can. Get started. Waiting for the Picathartes alongside a cave like rock with a mud nest hanging from its roof is as good a place as any to start to write my thoughts down.

It’s Kalu Afasi that has bought us to this rock in the forest. I met him online after Lou read “My year of birding” by Noah Stryker. She made me aware that there was this man named Kalu Afasi who had showed Noah Stryker every bird on his west African bird list. All 250 plus of them. Google found him and we talked on WhatsApp for two months all the way from the Congo’s to Accra Ghana. When we finally arrived in Accra he came to see us in our apartment.

Kalu is Ghana’s top birder. He can literally identify any and every bird call in Ghana. More than that. He can tell if the bird is flying away or coming near. And he can tell if the call is of the bird settling or startled. Flying or settled. It’s as though he can see the bird through its call. And it always turns out the way he says it will. He knows when we will see the bird even before we actually see it. He is that good as a birder.

He is also a tall and good looking man in his late thirties or early forties. It’s hard to say which. He has a toned physique with a perfect posture and a warm welcoming smile that brakes out on his face into large pieces of happiness when it erupts. And it erupts all the time in a childlike giggle, smeared with a grin that stretches from ear to ear. But it’s the energy you feel when he is present in your space that is his most striking feature. An aura of warmth and serenity of a resolved and evolved human being surrounds him. He grabs you and holds you with that energy even before he starts speaking. And all this happens when he himself is motionless, but present. He moves only when he needs to. And when he moves he moves in slow motion. Lightly. Invisibility. He has low to zero carbo footprint. You know that without even asking.

And then he starts speaking. Forcefully yet gently. Eloquently. He responds to my conversation starter question of “how did you get into birding?” with a monologue that runs for 45 minutes flat. And yet, yet it holds one transfixed all the way through. “It was a chance thing” he says. “The kind of chance thing that was very unusual”. He goes on to account a story of how in his mid twenties his close friend invited him to participate in an online penpal lotto. “Choose a number from 1 to 100 at the Internet cafe and the desktop computer will generate a penpal message and we will come back next week to see if anyone responded.” Reluctantly Kalu chose a number and sent it into the internet ether. Expecting nothing. Honoring his friendship. That’s all.

The next week they returned to the Internet cafe and to his absolute amazement there was a message for him from a sixty something year old danish man. A kinda hullo and how are you type message. Kalu responded “out of politeness”. And the next thing was that the danish man was flying to Accra and asking Kalu to meet him at the airport. “This was serious” says Kalu. And its a problem. Because Kalu was an established professional football player. A striker who was feared by the opposition. A striker who dreamed of playing for Nigeria or Ghana or any African country for that matter. All he wanted was to be was to be seen by the touts as a supreme striker from Africa. And he was at this point at the height of his career. Feared by defenders. But also with a warning for failing to attend a practice hanging over his head. His career was on the line.

So the hard choice was to meet this strange online European penpal friend at the airport on his arrival or to attend to his football commitments. He thought about his career aspirations, his dream to play football in the top leagues of the world, and he chose to attend to the football and stood the danish visitor up. He didn’t get to the airport or even to meet the danish man on his first visit to Accra. He learnt later that he had sacrificed a wristwatch which the danish man had bought for him in the process. It mattered not.

Despite being annoyed for being stood up, the danish man did not give up on Kalu. He wrote more and came to Ghana more. And he persuaded Kalu to go birding with him. Kalu agreed. Reluctantly. Out of “respect and duty” he would say. And maybe fascination too. Because it was strange. That this white man would come all the way to Ghana to see birds. The very idea was unimaginable. But out of a sense of loyalty and intrigue Kalu went birding and found himself trying to identify birds with a poorly illustrated, in black and white, birdbook that the danish man had given him.

But there was another dynamic happening. Kalu was desirous of playing big league football, but felt his chances slipping away. He was nursing a bad knee injury and getting older. Age and injury – two fatal flaws for a professional footballer. And what’s worse his birding interest was being frowned on and laughed at by his football peers. He was mocked and told he is being led astray by a white man. His trusted friends spoke to him in earnest. Told him his activities with birding would threaten his football career. Even his father and kingsmen summoned him to tell him that football was his future. Kalu sat in silence. And once everyone left he said to his father that he felt he should continue to see the white man and the birds whilst still attending to his football duties. An uneasy truce was reached.

For a long while two potential career paths hung before Kalu. The professional footballer or a bird guide. The white man has said that you could make a living from bird guiding. But Kalu was uncertain. Not least because he was already scorned and belittled by his community for even having an interest in birds. But Kalu knew something no one knew. His injury was still there. It was getting worse. He was losing his mojo. “I was not feared anymore” he said. Kalu knew that an injured player walks a time line before he reaches his sell-by date. And Kalu knew more than anyone that his date with destiny was fast approaching. So he held on to his nascent, budding, birding interest as a way out of his humble life to find some income without football.

We are still in the forest. Everyone is motionless. Even typing this story into my phone feels disruptive. No one complains. I write on. I look at Kalu alongside me. And the Rasta man on the other side of me. They both seem to be in a trance like state. Motionless. Staring at nothing. Their ears working constantly. I can feel their ears burning. I can’t even see them breath. But I can feel their ears. We are into hour number two. Waiting for the Picathartes. My mind starts to wonder if they will ever come. And then I start to wonder if my compatriots are also wondering if they will ever come. I will never know. I couldn’t imagine ever having the audacity to ask. It feels like we waiting for a god. Maybe we are. I am not sure. I only know that this bird is 440 million years old with a featherless yellow skin covered head and wings that lost the capacity to fly over the course of its long evolution in the forests. That makes it god like in my world. Really god like. But like with the faith based supernatural god, no one in our tiny team of bird watchers asks if our bird is actually real and present. There is just an aura of acceptance and belief. It will come. Such is the space we are in.

I look again at Kalu. He looks stately. Noble like. And maybe that’s because in my head I am playing back all the conversations we have had on the birding roads to and fro. Deep and wide conversations. Ones that started with some gentle questions from me and then grew into a great big painted canvass covering his family, his ethnicity, his people and their politics and struggle for freedom and independence.

Kalu is an Igbo. But not just any Igbo. He is the first born son of one of the Igbo kings. His King and his father is a pharmacist by training. A pharmacist who provided medical support to the maimed victims who fought the civil war. Together with his uncles and aunts and his whole Ibho community Kalu comes from a long line of fighters who were deeply involved in the Nigerian civil war. They are all committed Biafran separatists who put their lives on the line for an independent Biafran state in south east region of Nigeria between 1967 and 1971.

Kalu talks of the civil war with a mixture on deep anguish and pride. Sad for the loss of somewhere between a million and three million lives. Pride and deep belief in the cause of his Igbo people to forge their own Biafran state. He says over and over that victory was certain but was stolen from them by Russian and English forces who backed the Nigerian government against the Igbo Biafran separatists. And together they crushed the rebellion. He is convinced that had it not been for the Russians and English fire power backing Nigeria, the Nigerian state would have acceded to their demand for sovereignty.

Layer by layer the onion skin that housed my bird man is peeled off. And as each layer falls I too become naked. Naked in my thirst to hear more, naked in my very being and my thoughts. Stripped down to a point of uncertainty about anything I thought I once knew for certain. I drift along, listening, absorbing all I can absorb. Sharing tentative thoughts. Building a fragile consensus around the eternal question of what is to be done.

“No food for a lazy man” says Kalu summing up the work and entrepreneurial spirit of the Igbo people with a glowing sense of pride. “We are not Nigerians” he says emphatically. “We are Igbo and Biafrans. We are not lazy : we struggle and we triumph”. He uses his own experience as an example : “At the end of the Nigerian civil war the victorious Nigerian state gave each of its victims families twenty pounds to rebuild their lives and their homes. Today I am one of three siblings who are all tertiary educated. My father did that with his twenty pounds” says Kalu.

We have talked for hours and I have learnt so much about the history of the continent, it’s traditions and it’s ethnic diversity, the strength of the tribal traditions, it’s slavery and it’s colonization, it’s post colonial state and economic recolonization by Asia. We have laughed at the local interpretation of the ruling Nigerian APC party as meaning “all promises cancelled”. We have admired and celebrated the warmth of the Igbo people and their belief that “If you do something bad to a stranger then something very bad will happen to you.” We have delved deep into the religions from Christianity to Moslem to Voodoo. And we have concluded that Voodoo is the only religion that has never exploited anyone. And that Voodoo is “to fast track a problem that Christianity can’t solve” with the “sacrifice of a hen or goat”. Which is why Christians easily migrate to voodoo but voodoo believers never migrate to Christianity. We have unpacked the meaning of word “Biafra” as the combination of Bia , which means “come” in Igbo and fara which means “live” also in the Igbo tongue. And I have learnt of the organisation of the Igbo people today : their country by country branches and chapters across the continent and abroad. The way they meet and share and plan for the independent separatist future that they hold in their hearts.

The sun is setting. Going into its golden metamorphosis. And suddenly there is a flash of movement in the forest. Everyone awakens from their trans like state. We are alert. Hand signals indicate that the Picathartes is near. We are frozen still when suddenly a bird appears on a rock no more than five metres from where we sit. It stands proud. It’s dark black eyes holding our stare. It feels god like. We are transfixed. The bird stands for a few minutes, then it hops from one rock to another, glances again at the bird watchers and then disappears into the forest. Only to be replaced by another. And another. Three in all. Each presenting and witnessing and disappearing. As of to say : “we are here, now you can go on your way”. Which we do. In silence we walk down the long path through the forest. Back to the village from where we came.

The bird men pick the path home. They walk silently. Lightly and deliberately. It feels like they are here, not as outsiders, but as part of the forest itself. Organically so. As we walk I feel a certain and distinct lightness and softness and slowness within me. It’s present and it’s sweet and gentle. Each step I take is deliberate too. Like every step is embedded with a sense of special care for even the dead leaf bed of the forest. I’m nowhere near the evolved and settled state of my bird men in front of me. But I am behind them, following in their footsteps, holding vigil with them, as an apprentice in the school of African life.

It’s early days. I have so much more to learn. But despite my infancy, or because of it, I feel like I have been changed forever. Kalu and an ancient bird have unexpectedly combined to radiate an energy that changes me. I am no longer who I was. That is for certain. But I know not who I am. And it doesn’t trouble me a bit. It’s that familiar feeling of the unknown that is pervasive across Africa. Only now it’s the unknown me trying to find a settled state in not knowing me or even caring about who is me or what I believe in. It’s a blissfully open and empty space. A blank space waiting to be filled with whatever emerges from the classroom of lessons that are etched into this african journey. Both physically and metaphorically. A state of being that is present and accepting and open and free. A floating space filled with nothing but gratitude. Really really. A feeling of deep gratitude.

Gratitude to have witnessed the Picatharthes in the forest, gratitude to have heard and learnt so much from the stories of Kalu. Just a deep gratitude. For everything I have heard and seen and experienced. Because each bit of it is stripping me down and creating a new me. And that too is the great gift of african overland travel, for which I will be forever grateful.