European colonialists brought the slave trade to the Guinea coast in the sixteenth century, but Guinea's colonial period began with French military penetration into the area in the mid-nineteenth century. The French defeated the armies of Samori Touré, Mansa (or Emperor) of the Ouassoulou state and leader of Malinké descent, in 1898.
France negotiated Guinea's present boundaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the British for Sierra Leone, the Portuguese for Guinea-Bissau and Liberia. Under the French, the country formed the Territory of Guinea which was part of French West Africa, administered by a governor general resident in Dakar. Lieutenant governors administered the individual colonies, including Guinea.
Guinea was until recently considered to be off limits to tourists because of political unrest and hassle from the police. There’s recently been trouble in Conakry city, where the police shot a number of protesters. I visited the mountains of Guinea, but it seems I’m deluded in thinking I’m glad I’m sticking to the rural areas. These areas are the subject of various infractions and uprisings because of political protests, just after I leave the country, and these are now considered to be the riskiest parts of the country to visit.
Guinea-Bissau was a poor country, but the border post at Guinea-Conakry is even more undeveloped. It’s a series of thatched round huts and an even worse, very bumpy track. Guinea has rich reserves of iron ore, gold, bauxite and other minerals and has the highest per capita income on the continent of Africa. Despite this, more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, with around 20 percent in extreme poverty. Here, there is a huge disparity between rural and urban areas, Ebola took its toll on the economy and there is rampant corruption.
‘Boris Johnson,’ beams the immigration official. ‘Brexit good’. I feel it prudent not to argue. I got my visa in London. It’s a pretty straightforward affair and only took a few days
The Fouta Djallon area, with its waterfalls, cliffs and plateaux, reminiscent of South America’s Lost World, is the acknowledged highlight of Guinea. It gives rise to most of the great rivers of West Africa, including The Gambia River and the Senegal River.
Coming from Guinea-Bissau, we bounce over more red ridges as we make our way to the town of Labe in Guinea. The road surfaces can only be described as appalling. I’m bracing against the ‘Oh My God handles’ most of the time, as we zig- zag around looking for the least dangerous path. A huge escarpment soon appears, filling the horizon, and providing a dramatic backdrop to a village of thatched low rondavels with Hobbit style low doors. We are warmly welcomed, the women again in colourful cotton attire. They are threshing rice, filling and huge polyester bags with the straw, to make mattresses. The pride of the village is a couple of solar panels which are used to power a few lights and …the whole village’s mobile phone chargers. They’re all plugged in on one huge board.
The small children are a little apprehensive, as tourists here are a very rare and the visit is treated as a special event. The older siblings pose for pictures, giggling over the replays. No-one asks for anything. It’s very refreshing.
Lunch in a very grimy cafe at Koundhara. I’m trying not to examine anything too closely, but I wipe my cutlery with hand gel. Guide Augusto and driver Maladho are disgusted they don’t have rice on offer and pointedly leave the replacement haricots.
The road is paved from here. Spanking new tarmac white lines and speed signs. Until it reverts to rutted red sand again. We’re now on the main road from eastern Senegal. Verdant mountains fill the horizon, the odd waterfall trickles beside us. We are mostly surrounded by ferns and other lush vegetation, contrasting wonderfully with the rust soil. But every so often there are clusters of small mushroom shaped termite hills stretching as far as the eye can see instead. Augusto says that Local myths have it that termite mounds house important spirits. Red or green, the roadside is dotted with villages, neat with woven fenced compounds. Some even have little trees placed decoratively at intervals.
The police here are mainly from the Susa tribe and Maladho is Fulani. He says this is why they give him an especially hard time. Maladho is small and chirpy and happy to have a good argument with anyone if necessary. My Laddo suits him. He has a penchant for techno music, so I’m trying my usual tactic of diversion with Bob Marley, who always goes down well in Africa.
We’re on the road for 11 hours, before we reach Labe, the capital of the Fouta Djallon, nestled in the forest and mountains. My small hotel has pastel stylish bungalows. The ceilings are decorated with woven roundels, as is the fashion in all the important buildings in Guinea. Electricity all day. But no Wi-Fi. The mattress is pretty solid too. I’m checking to see if it’s made of rice straw.
We’re starting today with a drive to one of the many waterfalls. My Bob Marley tactic has misfired. Maladho is demanding more as soon as I get in the car. And I only have the one album. Good as it is, I don’t want it on repeat all day, so I’ve told him my phone isn’t functioning.
Most of the goats in these parts have metre long horizontal sticks suspended from their necks, to stop them getting into the gardens. It can’t be fun touting one of those all day. Much of the land alongside the road. has been burned off. Smoke and flames indicate that the process is ongoing, showcasing-the termite mounds. I’m thinking that we should test the new fire extinguisher that Maladho has just bought in an attempt to reduce police hassle. The last one didn’t have a date stamp on it.
We stop to watch some weavers set up by the side of the road in Pita, calm and dexterous. Maladho is oblivious to their muttering about cadeaux.
The waterfall is impressive, definitely worth the excessively bumping and the shouted demands of villagers for money towards the upkeep of the road. At one point the car is straddling a small ravine. I’m not sure what the locals can have done to improve things.
Kambadaga is two wide cascades above each other, one with an eighty-metre drop. There are great views from the edge of the precipice we’ve clambered to. There’s another escarpment to provide a dramatic panorama, a wobbly and dilapidated vine bridge and some smaller falls upstream, to picnic by. There are even a few other visitors bathing in the water - Danish and French people who work here.
Maladho has outsmarted me. He has discovered a USB stick of his own that contains a Bob Marley album. I think he’s made a visit to his home, near Pita.
The town of Delaba is another hour up the road. Here, we make a last visit to the historic circular Casa Apalable, where the leaders of francophone West Africa met to discuss their struggle for independence. It’s covered in decorated plaster and has the colourful roundels on the ceiling. The ornate old residency building is next door.Tonight’s hotel terrace has a great view across the mountains. However, the rooms are the most unappealing so far on this trip. The lampshades are splintering, the curtain pole off the wall and I’m not convinced the sheets are fresh. I’ll be using my sleeping bag liner. The staff are all busy watching Manchester United play Everton on the big dining room television. It’s a draw. The electricity has been off for half an hour - they’ve just got the generator to work, but now there’s no water. I’m not even asking about Wi-Fi.
Augusto has been telling me about voodoo and fetishes today. Most of the village houses have bottles and half calabashes nailed near the door, to keep away evil spirits. And animistic religions thrive, often being subscribed to by those who also follow other religions. Chickens are frequently used for sacrificial purposes. Part of the procedure involves dissecting the cock to examine the testicles. It’s good news if they’re white, bad if they’re black. Bad news either way for the cockerel.
More mountain chains, even redder soil, long misty valleys filled with palm trees, and more waterfalls, flowing into tempting pools. We pick up the main road from Bamako, now travelling south east towards Conakry the capital. The road continues to be an exhausting experience. Sadly, there are none of those brand-new stretches of European like highway we encountered two days ago. Despite this, the traffic increases, as does the number of folk clinging precariously to vehicles. There’s a boy asleep in the back of an overloaded hatchback (tailgate open of course) and a guy standing on the roof of an estate car, clutching onto the load on the roof rack, coat billowing.
We travel through a meat selling area. It’s a novel experience to have a rack of ribs flourished on the tarmac, instead of the usual bag of tangerines. Coyah, our stop for tonight, is on the outskirts of capital Conakry. Chicken and chips for lunch – and dinner.
Another early start. I’m bleary eyed. Bob Marley has been permeating my dreams and Maladho switches him on straight away. It’s like Chinese water torture. He’s my driver for two more countries yet. The area leading up to the Sierra Leone frontier is a scrimmage of police demanding money, even grabbing it from Maladho’s hand, and jostling money changers. Let’s hope it leads to better roads.
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