Saturday, 28 December 2013

Man #4: An Alternative Route

Man #4 took an alternative route to Europe than most I have met.  From Syria to Turkey and smuggled on a boat to Greece was what I had heard of time and time again.  The problem with this way is getting stuck in Greece; the strict border controls make problems for leaving to another country which hasn't an economic crisis big enough to justify refusing asylum seekers.

This alternative route took him, and thousands of others in the same position, from Syria to Lebanon and on to Egypt.  When Egypt could not provide a safe haven nor opportunity for work, the shining promise of a brighter future was once again put in the hands of greedy, money-making, careless smugglers.

Man #4 would pay a smuggler to join a boat heading north through the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.  The prices varied, he had to barter and beg; there were so many more who would pay a higher price or have better connections with more trustworthy smugglers.  After three weeks of networking, he managed to find space on a boat where the price was 3000€ per person.  The only instructions were to stay in one particular place until the boat would be ready around one week later and to leave all belongings behind.

The rushed meeting in the darkness of night then running to the shore to jump on the boat without making a noise was the most exhilarating moment of his life.  Optimism filled him and he felt higher than the clouds as adrenalin rushed through his body making his heart beat so loudly he was almost afraid the sound would alert anyone watching.  "It was the first day of my new life; a wonderful feeling."

The smuggler quickly organised the people filling the boat and everybody followed orders so efficiently it was as if they'd practiced hundreds of times before.  "There were thirty of us in there.  But the boat was barely big enough for ten.  Who can complain or question?  Whoever did would have lost their place in the boat, so everybody kept quiet.  I could see in everybody's eyes they could see the danger just as well as I could."

The boat set off and managed to leave the shore without being spotted by any coast guard patrols.
"Then we just had to sit and wait and look at nothing but each other and the endless sea around us."
After 22 hours there started to be problems with the engine.  It stopped and started and stopped and started over and over again.  The waves were getting bigger and the wind overtook the remaining warmth from their bodies.  People were getting more afraid by the lack of control the driver had.
"Suddenly the boat capsized.  I was waving my arms and legs up and down to try to swim but I didn't know how to do it properly.  I was thrown to the surface and took a big breath.  The first thing I did was take a breath instead of looking for my wife and children.  I had lost that short time to see them, to grab them.  Once I knew how to wave my legs to keep me upwards, all I could see was other people.  Not my children.  Not my wife.  I was shouting to them but I couldn't hear them.  I looked under the water for them but I couldn't see them.  I don't know what happened to the other people after that, I took no notice."

Man #4 sat alone on the upturned boat looking outwards and beyond the horizon for hours.  He reached land eventually.  The land was Italian land.  He absent mindlessly followed the steps he had so carefully planned before his departure from Egypt and within a few days made it to the Netherlands where he claimed asylum.  This was the country his and his families future was supposed to begin.  He had made it. But he was now left with no purpose or family.

This is the story of the best friend of my good Syrian friend who I met in Greece.  It's an incredibly tragic one but also one that has been repeated more times than anyone cares to count.  With most of the European countries accepting any asylum seeker from Syria who arrives on it's land, the rightful support needed is there for these innocent people who do not deserve for their lives to be ruined by war.  I write Man #4's story, among the others, to highlight the struggle they are forced to go through alone and by dangerous and illegal means.  This kind of smuggling can be irradiated if legal and safe ways of arrival to Europe are provided.  The war in Syria is impossible to stop, but the provision of safety for these people is in European hands.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Man #3: My Worst Memory

It was 5pm when the Assad Militia came to take over his neighbourhood. Shouting and gunfire filled the air. Afraid to look out of his window, Man #3 hid quietly with his wife and two children, afraid inside of their own home. Nobody slept that night.

By 6am the militia had finished their nights work and the results were left for the ordinary people to find.

Man #3 stepped outside apprehensively.
"People were taking photos and videos of what had happened. I asked why. `They're human beings not objects, we must move them to their families.` I told them."

[Warning. This video contains shocking footage. I have added it to this post as proof of this story, and in the hope that the horrendous reality of the situation in Syria will be noticed by my readers.]

Can't see the video? Follow this link to YouTube: [LINK]

"I went to move the young boy first. The one in the white jacket at the back of the video. Another man picked him up by the shoulders and I held his ankles. Straight away I noticed big holes in his legs and his blood started pouring all down my hands and arms. I was red all over. We took his body to his grandmother, he lived with her in the building next to mine. Before walking up the stairs, the other man and I switched sides, and I looked at the boys face the whole way up. It was the same; holes and blood everywhere, his face was destroyed. She cried as we set his body down on her floor. She kept asking what to do now that God has taken him. That boy was only 17 years old.

Returning to the pile of bodies, they noticed one of them was face down. To know where to take the body they turned it over to see who it was. The other man suddenly stepped back and gasped. "It's my brother. I didn't even know he was here." They carried him in the same way, this time to the man's own home. Despite his loss, he returned again with Man #3 to continue to help.

Upon noticing a commotion going on around a car parked nearby, Man #3 went to find out what was happening. A woman was crying so much that she could hardly speak. She pointed to two of the bodies; one man and one woman.
"Their child is inside," she said. "She was sleeping when the militia took her parents outside and shot them dead. She went to sleep with parents and has woken up with none. A six year old little girl!"
Man #3 asked where the rest of the family lived.
"I don't know, they only moved here a week ago from their last home where they said it was too dangerous to live" she replied.

After many discussions and phone calls, they managed to find a young couple who had no children of their own yet and would take the newly orphaned child in as a daughter. As for the unknown dead parents, a car came later on to take them to a mass  grave to be buried with all the other unknowns the town had found in the past.

Man #3s solemn expressions had grown in intensity as his explanation of this gruesome and horrifying memory came to an end.
"I didn't sleep for three months after that. I couldn't forget it. I never will.
I'm not somebody who likes death and blood. I don't like it, I don't want it on my hands, I don't want to see it. But I was there and had to do something. It's changed me forever."

He continued with more stories; those from inside Syria as well as those on his journey to escape. He gives me details for every memory. I realise Man #3 has more than one or two blog post stories inside of him...

Friday, 6 December 2013

Man #1: The One With All The Hope

Man #1
Age: 40s

"How long ago did you leave Syria?" I asked him.
"Two months ago.  I left my wife and children there.  I think about them every single day, every morning when I wake up.  I think about how they are in danger and I must keep on going so I can save them."  His cheeks had become flushed, his eyes watery, and his hands were trembling as he spoke these words.

Taking out his phone, he showed me pictures of his wife and three children; a seven year old boy and two girls at six and eight.  Videos of them playing widened his grin and made him giggle with pride.

He surprised me with one photo: "This is my brother. Somebody killed him but I don't know why."  The picture was of a lifeless man; swollen and colourless, his face marred by bruises and grazes.  I didn't ask why he had taken that photo.  [Maybe as some sort of evidence for a future UN human rights tribunal.  No?]  He lifted his head, looked into my eyes and reminded himself out loud that any day his family could be killed, that he needs to get to northern Europe quickly so he can save his family.

When the fighting reached his home in Syria, he and his family packed the possessions they needed, took a quick video of their house as a small reminder of the place they had lived so happily together, and headed to a safer area in Damascus.  He knew that if there was any chance of saving them, he had no choice but to leave them behind and take the treacherous and illegal journey to find asylum in Europe.  He took long distance buses and walked secretly between checkpoints in order to reach the west coast of Turkey, then had to wait weeks and barter extremely high prices with smugglers before he found a space on an illegal boat heading to Greece.

The boat was too small for the sixteen people who were crammed inside.  They set off when night had come to avoid being seen by sea patrol guards.  When only half way across the sea the engine cut out and without any life jackets they knew that whatever happened next was God's decision.  They sat in the boat and waited in the dark for the entire night, seeing nothing and hearing only waves crash around them.  As if by fate, the tide had pushed them to the coast of Greece before sunrise.  Sixteen people had been successful in escaping war stricken Syria and reaching Europe.  Ten more died the day later when their boat capsized and there was no luck or fate around to save them.

For these sixteen people their journeys still haven't ended.  Greece has one of the lowest rates in Europe of acceptance for asylum seekers.  They must try to make it to northern Europe where their chances of acceptance are higher.

I'm sat here with Man #1 in Athens, only days after he first arrived in Greece.  He has put his fate, and the remainder of his money, in the hands of smugglers and fixers who have assured him he will get to Austria, his choice of country to begin a new life.  He doesn't know how he will get there yet; "I just do everything they say and..." he shrugs.
"I believe that if a man has enough will, he can do what he wants.  God is with me, but it is my will that keeps me going every day.  It's taken two months already, that's fast, but I need to keep on going fast until I get there."

Once he arrives in Austria and applies for asylum, if he is accepted (currently less than 50% chance), his wife and children will be allowed to travel to Austria legally and join him there.
"I will keep on going," he repeated, "and in the end I will save four souls."

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Gateway to Safety

I'm in Athens.  The capital city of Greece; the gateway between Asia and Europe.  When I arrived I immediately began to notice people from Syria in the streets, those injured in someway and therefore vulnerable and with no alternative, easily forced to beg for money.  I looked into the Greek policy on asylum seekers and was shocked to find how inhumane it was how they dealt with the illegal immigrants they found.  That's all a different story, of which I'm sure I will be able to share more specific and individual stories with you later on.

What is happening now is that, for some unknown worldly reason, I have found myself accepted into a circle of Syrians who have escaped their country and are trying to make it to northern Europe, to countries where they will have a very good chance of being accepted as asylum seekers.

I have been given the utmost privilege of getting to know them, to learn about their families, their journeys from Syria to Greece, their plans for the near future, their stories of survival.

I have a predicament in which I do not want to give too much away; this is a public blog and I do not want too much information available on the internet for those who would want to stop these people from saving themselves and their families.  But I believe that what I know, and what I am still learning every single day that I meet these people, is so important and worth while to write about.  Every day I am incredibly humbled by their stories and the awful situation at hand that I can't even dream that merely writing some stories for my few followers to read could change anything for these people.  That is too ambitious and naive.  But who knows, maybe even one person reading this will be as outraged as I am, stop everything they are doing, stop thinking about themselves for one minute, and commit themselves to SCREAMING SO F***KING LOUDLY that what is happening is wrong, that it can be stopped and should be right this minute, until something changes.

In this hope, I share with you their stories; one by one...

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Syria in Greece

Today I saw two young men begging on the main shopping street of Athens.  They both had burned faces.  One was burned all over his body, with only small patches of hair remaining in his head.  Both of his arms were missing too.

I watched from a distance for a while, expecting that whoever had put them there to beg would be lurking round the corner ready to show up and take their money.  Instead, I saw them both suddenly jump onto their feet and start running, looking over their shoulders as they did so.  The police were walking down the street.  They had to run away from them. Why is a story I'll tell another time.

Once they returned to their places, I approached them to hand over a little money and ask about their story.  I spoke to the one with burns all over his body.  His eyelids were melted into unrecognisable shapes and his grey eyes peered into mine with so much fear that I almost backed away.

We had no common language, but I managed to understand the reason of "Syria".  Just what I had suspected.

Greece, being the main gateway into the EU for migrants, has been continually flooded with illegal refugees from Syria since the civil war began there back in 2011.  But since the "economic crisis" began here in Greece back in 2009, the government has dramatically reduced the number of asylum seekers they approve, introduced refugee detention centres to keep men, women and even children locked away for months, and all of this has been supported by an ever increasing majority of the Greek public who feel the stresses of austerity measures in their country.

As I stood up to leave the burned Syrian men to their demeaning begging, I looked around and saw these "struggling" Greek people carry on their shopping and drinking coffee in the sunshine, completely oblivious to the people sat beneath them.

There really is a huge difference between "struggling" and struggling.

I think I'll focus my time in Athens on this subject.

Short update about how I got here and why I'm here in Athens:
After three months at home in England, attending my best friends wedding as well as visiting friends and family around the country, I set off again through Europe heading East.  After visiting several travel friends in their hometowns and travelling with my friend from home for a few weeks, I wanted to find somewhere to spend winter, earn a little money, and have some time to write.  I was really lucky and found a job in a hostel/travel agency after just a few hours of asking around.  So here I am, with a place to live and time to learn in a country with so many interesting affairs currently going on.  Let's see what happens!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Painting Dreams

"I dream my painting and I paint my dream"

After being at home for around three months and having a wonderful time with my family and friends, I am finally (am I allowed to use that word?) at the beginning of a brand new trip.  I've decided not to tell everyone what my plans are this time.  Partly because the concept of a plan is almost impossible to me, partly because I've changed this "plan" about five times in the past few weeks alone, and partly because I think it will be more fun for people to guess and be excited and surprised about where I check into on my Facebook page [plug - follow me]!

My first stop was London.  I met Katie; a woman who I had met in Liberia five months earlier.  We had a great day in the sun (sun in England in late September? Yes!) catching up on how many changes had come about in our lives since we last saw each other.

She told me something which really stuck with me.

When I dreamed up the idea of travelling overland through West Africa [link] I posted in some of the countries Couchsurfing groups telling them my plans about reaching that country in a certain month and asking for advice.  She read my post in the Liberia group (living there as a working expat), looked at my young age and how hypothetically I had written the post and, as a very experienced traveller herself, decided not to reply because I would never make it.  Then around six months later she received a couch request... from me.  I would arrive in the capital city of Liberia in one weeks time.
She said I had really surprised her and proven her completely wrong.

Of course, I know more than anyone how difficult it was to travel through West Africa, but I've never thought of it as an achievement until Katie told me that story.  It was an achievement because I had dreamed it, planned it, and actually made it happen.

I'm telling this story merely to explain the reality behind a dream.  Yours may be small or big, regular or unique, believable or unbelievable, possible or impossible.  But it is yours and it is only you who can make it happen.

There will be challenges.  The biggest for most people is having certain responsibilities.  Mine used to be doubt, because I knew of nobody else who had done what I wanted to do.  Now, apart from feeling so adventurous yet finding it so difficult to leave my family and friends at home, my biggest challenge is being told over and over again that what I'm doing isn't the right way to live, isn't sustainable, is too dangerous, or that I "will have to settle down one day"... each time having to explain my reasons and thinking, knowing that most people will won't ever understand it or agree.  But I can tell you one thing for free... an absolute truth... my own proven fact... if you want something enough then you can make it happen.

So this is from me (and Vicent Van Gogh) to you:
"I dream my painting and I paint my dream". 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Last days in Africa

After the countless days on the road through Mali and Senegal, I reached my Gambian family’s [link] compound at 2am when everybody was fast asleep. They weren't expecting me. I had promised that I would return when I left in February, but with no contact since then they had no idea where I was or when we would see each other again.

“Penda! Open the door!” I shouted in a hushed voice as I knocked on her window pane. Her mother Ami heard me and opened her door shouting “Kimmie!” a little loud for the time of the night. We knocked on Penda's window pane for another five minutes and when she finally opened her door, all disorientated from sleep as well as completely naked (the probability of having to answer the door in the middle of the night might have seemed unlikely), she jumped on top of me shouting in excitement as she instantly recognised who it was.

I woke up late in the morning after my tiring journey the previous day.  By late morning I mean late in African terms; about 8am.  I stepped out the bedroom door into the open air square compound and there they all were; the family I had missed so much and who I had thought about so often during my trip.  They screamed and danced and shouted “Awa!”: my adopted African name.

I spent a wonderful few days in the Jonga family’s compound, immediately being reminded of the incredible happiness that surrounds them all individually and the reasons that I love them so much.  Many changes had come whilst I had been away.  Sister Ami had given birth to her baby; to my relief they had decided on another name, not Kimmie, when it turned out to be a boy.  Two of the wives had become pregnant, Fatou and Safi; both promising that if any were girls they would be named after me.  Nena, a young friend of the family who lives nearby, had gotten married to a man who lives far away and who she has only met a few times.  In two weeks time she would be moving away from everything she knows, from the tiny village to chaotic Dakar city, to be a typical wife-servant for his entire family; the expectation for women in most of rural Africa.  Mamoud, one of the oldest brothers of the family, had found a job.  Great news for the family as the other brothers, who work so hard from morning until night every single day of the week, occasionally come home from work with no money in their pockets.  Other than that, everything else was the same.  Oh, and one little thing not to be missed was that the huge tree in the centre of their compound, which the whole family use for shade every day, had hundreds mangos ripe and ready to be picked!  Breakfast!

My time re-visiting my Gambian family ended after just three days.  Here’s what happened:

From the moment I first arrived I was completely in love with everything I saw and experienced and learned about Africa, but I was finally reaching my tipping point.  I had been feeling sick for weeks; from almost constant diarrhoea to absolutely no appetite to vomiting in plastic bags when on the move, and I was becoming so tired of feeling like this and having nothing to comfort me.  I was yearning for the comforts of home and of the easy, privileged life us Westerners all have.  I was so desperate to eat something other than rice and fish; even with a variety of food sometimes available at a costly price in West Africa (which was now impossible for me to buy), it could never reach the standards my stomach was yearning for.  I wanted a clean, flushing toilet and a hot shower and a thick duvet on a bed to hide from the cool British night air.  I wanted to return home faster than I had planned (for my best friend’s wedding in summer), but the problem was how?!

At the time I felt like I maybe had a tiny insight into what it feels like to be a person stuck in the “poor world” who so desperately wants to reach Europe.  But, of course, that is entire bullsh*t because I have an easy British passport and people who can lend me money to catch a flight home.  And that’s what I did.  I’m writing this post from home.  I actually feel guilty for having these privileges.  But I do.
For the past half an hour I’ve been trying to think of some philosophical thought to explain this feeling of how utterly nonsensical life can be, but all I can think of is…

[Look it up.  Or better still, do a trip through Africa and find the true meaning.]

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Out of money; still in Africa!

I got through the border of Ghana on the wise-mans [link] motorbike and upon reaching the Burkina Faso side I stepped off in an awkward way and burned my leg on the exhaust pipe. Within seconds a huge blister had formed.
“Stay there! I’ll get some ink!” shouted the driver as he jumped back on the bike.
He came back five minutes later and poured blue ink all over my wound. Then another man had the opinion that toothpaste would help and before I knew it he was spreading toothpaste over my blue-ink burn with a tiny corner of toilet roll.

That day I managed to reach Banfora, a small town in the south west area of Burkina Faso. A guy I met in Mole had given me a phone number of a Couchsurfer in this town. With no money for access to
the internet, I had no choice but to take opportunities and chances like this. I phoned Soma and explained my situation and without any hesitation he took me in for a few days. He even accompanied me to the hospital one afternoon to sort out the blue-toothpaste-burn on my right leg. The doctor said he could sort it out for me, but first I needed to buy him some clerical gloves from the pharmacy across the road. He peeled away my skin, and the blue toothpaste mess along with it, which definitely made the list of the most painful moments of my entire life.  One day, driving there on his motorbike, Soma and I visited the famous waterfall where we spent the whole day swimming in the most beautiful location for a bath which you could ever imagine.

Over the next few days I had to cross Mali. Still officially at war, I decided to miss out on the tourist attractions which are concentrated mainly in the north of the country, and where the danger is apparently still lurking four months after the burst of terrible kidnappings and killings of foreigners and the beginning of the French military intervention in the country.

I'm not sure exactly where I spent the following few nights; I was given free rides on public buses all the way across the country, but as I mentioned previously, typical African transport is pretty unreliable. One night I had to sleep rough under a tin roof in the parking area of the national buses. Others who were also waiting for buses the following day slept beside me so there was no reason for me to feel alone or scared. Another night, after more burst tyres than I could count (and more heart pouncing moments of me thinking that the sudden bang was a terrorist gun-shot) we found ourselves stuck in the middle of the desert in the darker than dark night with no more tyres available. The bus was too hot to sleep in so everyone lay together on the desert floor until the morning when another bus drove past. I only realised later on how dangerous this was; hyenas, wild dogs, snakes, and scorpions all call the desert their home!

I made it across Mali alive and into Senegal just as easily. They say you never really travel without money until you really have no money. It’s true. I'm a budget traveller and when I say budget I really mean budget. I can go days without spending a penny but in the end I still spend a penny. This time I had no more pennies to spend. And the result was that I found it easier to get on with no money than on a budget. I didn't have to think about budgeting because there was no budget.

Getting from Mole National Park to Burkina Faso and onwards to Mali and Senegal was probably the some of the easiest travel I've ever done. People understood my situation and passed my story on to others who could possibly help in more ways; I was given further rides and meals at cafes and drinks from shops. After feeling slightly sick for weeks and with not much appetite since the fish basket incident in Tamale [link], this gave me the chance to offer the bulk of my meals to kids living on the street. Sure, they were grateful for the food, but they always gave the idea that the huge never-ending smile was because I was a rare white stranger who sat with them whilst they finished the meal.

For the entire few weeks I made this trip with no money, I had this incredible sense of sharing and giving and just how powerful that was. I think I just found the answer to world peace.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Elephants with no money

Hitchhiking into a national park is probably one of the most impossible things to do, so I settled with the bus, which runs once a day, the time unspecified.  The few white people I saw at the bus station were, as I correctly predicted, also heading to Mole.  We waited all day for the bus and when it finally set off it had broken down within ten minutes of travel.  We set off again once fixed but had to make a short stop because the driver then wanted to do his prayers.  Three words: typical African transport!

Naughty baboon playing in the hotel grounds

We finally arrived in the park at around midnight.  As I was coming to the very end of my supply of money, I had to look for the cheapest option available.  To pitch a tent in the campground was almost the same price as taking a bed in the dormitory.  Except the dormitory wasn’t pitch black and waterlogged. I struck lucky as the Finnish girls I had met on the bus offered me a place on their hotel room floor.  To get the ‘included’ breakfast in the mornings, I tried my hardest to confuse the hell out of the waiters and succeeded mostly due to their kindness in turning a blind eye to my changing room number each day.

I used the very last of my money on a safari walk, where we saw plenty of monkeys, antelope, warthogs, and birds.  A group of people collected together to take a jeep safari, which would reach further out into the park and improve the chances of spotting elephants, and after hearing my situation they let me jump in on their jeep tour.

Within ten minutes of driving we were climbing off the top of the jeep and following a huge male elephant through the trees.  Compared to seeing an elephant in a zoo this was something special.  It was an incredible feeling to see this wonderful, giant creature pushing its path through the dense greenery and being completely at peace in its natural home.

Hitching into the park may have not been possible but hitching out was.  A military car was making its monthly food-supply trip from Tamale to its isolated destination in the north-western region of the country and had to pass through Mole.  This proved to be very lucky for me, as when we reached their destination they used their superior attitude to easily convince the driver of a public minibus to take me to the border town for free.

I say for free, but I ended up working for the cost of my travel.  The young woman sat next to me got tired of her baby falling asleep in an uncomfortable position, so she just handed him to me.  No words were exchanged. Typical Africa; someone has handed you a baby so just deal with it.  Five hours later I handed him back to her; we had reached the woman’s final destination.

I tried to catch some sleep at the border town, where I had a little trouble but was taught a very valuable lesson by a very wise man.  I don’t want to go into details here because both the situation and the resulting lesson feel very personal; but I will tell you that, sometimes, a plain old human being can make it very easy to believe in angels.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Dancing and bananas

I reached the capital city of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, the day before my 24th birthday.  Coincidentally, the sister Amy of my Couchsurfing host was to celebrate her toddlers 3rd birthday that night at a club
downtown.  Celebrating a kids birthday in a nightclub?  Yes.  I didn’t ask questions, except “what am I supposed to wear?”  After being dressed by the women in tight leggings and a one-shoulder sparkly shirt, I came to the conclusion that only black women can wear these clothes and look good.  I resembled something similar to a gypsy traveller from the British TV show ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’, except I didn’t have the fancy attitude to match.

The night was full of entertainment, provided mainly from the young women shaking their booties and the occasional man with the confidence to show off his body popping skills.  Young boys less than ten years old gathered outside the open aired club, their one chance to listen to a variety of loud, fast-paced music, and competed to find the best dancer between them.  They saw me watching and reverted back to their daytime shyness of giggling and waving at the sight of a white person.

Manitu, the man who owned the house I was staying in, was a professional singer widely known through Ivory Coast.  Although his English was very limited, he still managed to make the list of the funniest people I’ve ever known.  Cracking the top off a beer bottle top with his teeth and slyly pushing it back on, he then handed it to a woman asking her to open it.  On her attempt it opened too easily and spilled all over her front. She scowled angrily at him as he rolled around in fits of laughter.

Just after midnight, the group around me attempted to sing ‘happy birthday’ in English, but failed miserably, singing something like “happy baaaahaaa la laa, happy baaaahaa la daa...” at least the happy part was right!


My impressions of Ivory Coast were mainly that it was much richer than the past few countries I had been in.  Compared to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, all of the roads I encountered were fully paved and one massively noticeable difference was the variety of food in the markets.  These may not sound like reasons a country is more prosperous, but they are in fact huge factors which affect the level of poverty people live with.  Roads ensure that business and jobs are accessible to everybody, a big benefit to those who live in rural areas, and therefore reducing the concentration of wealth in the cities and the difference across the country.  The variety of food reduces the probability of children or even adults of becoming sick from malnutrition.


My time in Abidjan revolved around the four visits I made to the embassy of Ghana, all comprising of lies from the workers about visa laws changing and resulting in my stubborn arguments, the last one being hassle-free only because this was the time I collected my passport with the visa fixed firmly inside.  With not much time left to spend, I headed straight to Ghana the following day, a mix up in the transport meant I was sent straight to the capital Accra more than half way across the country.

Fati and her brother Mubarik hosted me, showing me around the city and entertaining me every day.  Our favourite spot was LA beach, were it seemed Fati had endless energy enough to jump up and down in the waves literally all day long!  We took a short trip one day to the Volta region and found some monkeys in the forest, then enticed them with fruit to come closer but kept ended up in a struggle of who could grip each banana the tightest.  Stubborn me always won, forcing the monkeys to squash the banana and lick it from my hand.

Fati even accompanied me to a town in the north of Ghana, Tamale, where her boyfriend invited us both to stay in his apartment.  A short stay there included a trip to the local market, where I was shouted at for taking photos of the produce and got stuck in a human traffic jam with a basket of dried fish shoved in my face for ten minutes.  From that moment on I can no longer eat fish.

I was now a few days away from using up the very last of my money.  What was eating me alive was the fact that I had come to Africa but still hadn’t seen any large mammals living in the wild.  The devastating civil wars in West Africa had caused poaching for financial gain; therefore where wildlife was once abundant it is now almost non-existent.  For that reason I decided my next destination would be Mole National Park, the largest national park in Ghana, where, despite my lack of money, I was determined to tick off one last objective for my trip in Africa.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Liberia: Religion and Rebels

After the evening in Ganta watching the Christian preaching show [link], I woke early the following morning to make the long journey along the messy, un-driveable road to Zwedru.  A jeep full of suited men and women stopped first for me.
"Are you a Peace Corps volunteer teacher?" said the most important looking man.
After being a traveller for so long, I've learnt how to always say the right thing to any person I come across.  So this time, I said; "Yes!"  A little white lie won't hurt anyone I thought.
"Oh good! Jump in then! I work for the Ministry of Education.'
So I had given the right answer.
We stopped for lunch along the way where I got talking to one woman named Deborah.  She worked for the Norwegian Refugee Council (the jeep was full of professionals from different organisations all connected in some way), and she was also a Reverend at her local church.  I took the opportunity to ask her opinion on the preachers crusade in Ganta that night.
"I don't like that he asks for money.  Nobody likes that.  People here don't have money to give."

After lunch, we reached their destination where they then helped me find a ride going further on towards Zwedru.
"She's a Peace Corps teacher" Deborah said to the UN officer who had stopped, importantly, for the white woman who was apparently in need of safe guarding.  He took me to the UN headquarters where he tried to find anybody who was driving to Zwedru that day.  Nobody was.
"It's ok, I'll just go to the road and wait for a car."
Ever paranoid as UN peace workers seem to be in Africa, he escorted me to the road and said to the guard;
"She's a Peace Corps volunteer, make sure she stays safe."
That meant that my little lie was carried on to my next ride with a woman from another branch of the UN, the UNHCR (whatever that is), thankfully enough because I had to fill out a waiver form for the vehicle and state which company I worked for.  Peace Corps it was!  I'm not proud of lying, I just think this story is funny, plus I'm not entirely sure I would have gotten anywhere that day if I had told them I was just a traveller.  Nobody even understands the word 'tourist' in Liberia... because there aren't any.

That ride took me all the way to Zwedru, where I met a friend of a friend, Frank, an American working for an organisation which organises refugee camps for those who had moved to Liberia during the civil wars in their own countries.


Liberia imports all it's fuel, making it very expensive, therefore making traffic incredibly scarce especially in remote areas such as Nimba and Maryland.  Because of this, the following day, I waited around three hours for even one vehicle going anywhere near Harper.  I was lucky though, as I always seem to be, as a man stopped for me, apologised for not having air-conditioning, then drove for five hours all the way to the village just before Harper.

Once I arrived, I met a friend of a friend (again!), Tim, an American who is a Liberian history teacher at the local university.  He introduced me to his friend Lee who gave me a place to stay for two nights.  So he was a friend of a friend of a friend.  One my second day there, Tim held a presentation at the university on his current research project about a sacred rock situated just south of Harper.  For hundreds of years this large rock was believed to be sacred by everybody within its proximity.  There were traditions and rituals carried out in the name of the rock following the strong beliefs by the people.  When the country was founded in 1821 by freed African-American slaves, they brought with them Christianity and spread it through the country to the indigenous people.  The rock then became less and less important in the lives of these Liberians, till the point where now only the elders of surrounding villages remember and have stories to tell.  As with most religions, traditions, and beliefs of the world, if they are not documented in the 'western' way they are easily pushed aside and forgotten.  The rock, which was incorrectly translated to English as "Devil's Rock", had its stories passed down through generations by word of mouth.  Just as the rest of Africa, and Latin America to add, the traditional beliefs of the people of the land were nullified by Christianity.

Hearing this story from a professional historian, it confirmed to me my belief of how strong Christianity is.  I compared this to my recent memories from the Jesus Crusade in Ganta.  I questioned if it is Christianity which is saving these people.  Could their original religions do the same for them?


Now if I thought that Zwedru was difficult to escape from, imagine my difficulty leaving Harper; the last and only town with an open border along the entire stretch of Ivory Coast!  Apparently rebels of Ivory Coast hide out along the border and cause trouble for anyone worth anything - like professionals, military personnel, or even Westerners if they have the chance.

I took a motorbike early in the morning but got stranded half way to the border when the tyre burst and needed changing.  We stopped in a tiny, isolated village whilst the driver got it fixed and I was offered a seat on a small block of wood outside the villages shop.  Some women came to sit with me, to keep me company I suppose.  Then a strong, fully-built deck chair was brought across the village especially for me.  I sat, looking around and realising the truth behind the fact that Liberia is the second poorest country in the world.  Almost everybody was skin and bones with huge, swollen bellies indicating malnutrition.  A young boy, I would guess around four years old from his height, was crying and moaning continuously.  He sat alone outside on the dirt floor in a tired, uncontrollable sob.  I asked a woman if he was ok.
"No.  He sick.  He got piles."
His extremely skinny limbs contrasted sharply with his huge belly.  He was so malnourished that his liver had swollen to the point of pushing his insides outwards.  He reached upwards with his small arms to pull himself to his feet.  His little legs quivered with weakness.  He tried to walk the few steps needed to reach his mothers side but fell down after two steps.  His mother picked him up and sat across from me with him on her lap.  I coughed away a few tears and swallowed hard to relieve the lump in the throat.  I felt sick with hurt.  I asked the woman if I could take a photo of her with the boy.  She smiled and said yes.  She didn't know my reason.

The motorbike was fixed and before we left I took one last look at the little boy who had no hope of living very much longer.


We reached the border where I hastily got my visa checked and passport stamped, then jumped into the boat which would take me across the river to Ivory Coast.  The driver, or paddler should I say, told me a ridiculous price for the five minute journey.  I told him I would swim instead.  Everybody in the boat laughed then one woman blurted out; "I paid 150, it's 150!'  The driver snapped her an evil look, then sighed in disappointment as I handed him the 150.

Frantically searching through my collection of coins from around the world for some West African Franc which I might have left from Senegal, I realised I was stranded with no useful money in this remote border town.  Here, there were definitely no vehicles to hitch with.  The woman who helped me on the boat then offered to pay for my journey to the next big town where I could then pay her back.  Wow!  Where did this woman come from?!  Who was she?  She was Catherine and she was my saviour for the day.

We reached Tabou, where I managed to exchange some money, and where Catherine and I had decided to be friends for the next day.  She was heading to Abidjan the following morning on a bus, so I decided that was my plan too.  We got a hotel room between us for the night.  After lots of conversation, I got to know her story.  It was during the civil war that the rebels came to take her.  Her father protected her but they shot him in the foot to warn him of their power.  He handed her over to them.  She was raped multiple times by the gang of rebels.  She was fourteen years old.  Nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy.
"He lives with my parents.  If I look at him he reminds me of what happened."

It wasn't all doom and gloom conversation with her though.  She was actually a happy, cheerful, independent woman with a good life and a good job in Harper.  That night we got drunk on beer on the expense of a French white man who we met in a bar.


What a lot to write for only five days of travel. Liberia really is a place full of people with incredible stories.  Tragic stories at that.  But also ones filled with hope and faith in God and in themselves, looking to a future whose only way is up.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Christian preaching in Liberia

I had seen the signs all over Liberia:
"Healing Jesus Crusade - Dag Heward-Mills"
I had no idea, though, that when I finally decided to leave Monrovia, I would, after six hours of hitchhiking, arrive in a town on its first night of the show.  I was told by the diver of my last ride that God must have organised it this way for me and therefore I must attend.  [I don't usually call this God, more a coincidence or fate... but what is an a word?]  I took his advise and decided to stay here for the night.

As I walked through the dark; dim-lit streets of Ganta, a man named Thomas decided he would accompany me to the show.  The open football field was filled with thousands of people, people who had come from remote villages from all over the Nimba region of Liberia, even people from neighbouring Guinea, all just for this special event.  Thomas told me the last time there was a large Christian crusade like this was in 1989; four years before the civil war began.

The show started with hymns being sung in the traditional African call-and-response way between the singers on stage and the thousands of spectators in the crowd.  I decided to join the big family behind me, mainly made up of children who had noticed the white woman and all had their turn to hug me, who were especially enthusiastic in their clapping, dancing and singing.

Then the preacher came on stage and ruined everything by asking for money.
"Who has $1000?"
"Probably nobody" I thought, disgusted.
"Who has $500?"
"Is this man even on this planet?!" I couldn't believe my ears.
"You can be part of this crusade you can be our brother or sister in spreading the message of God to the people of your country!  Be our partner and God will reward you!"
Some rich person chirped up with $100.  Then a few more did.  People in red shirts came out to the rest of us, shoving bags in faces encouraging people to give what cash they had.  I gave in to the pressure too; it was embarrassing not to.

After the cringe-worthy section was over, he got down to the real preaching.  The story telling.  The guilt-trip avenue.
"Let's talk about sins..."
"How many of you have lied before?"
Everybody put their hands up, laughing guiltily.
"How many of you have stolen before?"
Everybody put their hands up, laughing, chatting, admitting to each other.
"How many of you have fornicated before?"
This got the loudest laugh as most people put up a hand.
"How many of you have killed someone before?"
There was a striking cry of guilt as half of the crowd put their hands up.  My heart sank in momentary confusion.
"Yes, many of you were involved in the war; you were rebels or otherwise!"
He ended his speech with a long prayer for the crowd to repeat after he had spoken.  Not one person remained silent.  They spoke to God softly and with passion and love.  They spoke to Satan with anger and strength; "Satan! I am finished with you! I belong to God!"
The electric force of the cries of the thousands of people around me sent shivers through my body and jolts through my heart and tears to my eyes and an unbearable lump to my throat.

After my time so far in Africa, I have been coming round to the opinion that religion is actually good.  My self-important, "intellectual", "western" mind of thinking that religion, forced or otherwise, has so many negative effects has gradually become void.  After witnessing the reactions in this crusade, my mind has been changed entirely.  All these people who have terrible pasts filled with war and death and who are faced with guilt and heartbreak in their memories... How could you ever move on from that?  You can't, because you are still waking up every day struggling to feed your family because you live in one of the poorest countries in the world.  Until Africa is relieved of its poverty, religion and belief in God is the only answer for individuals.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Diamond Differences

[Link to photo album for this post]

This time I had no choice.  I was in the middle of nowhere, so hitching was the only way to reach the closest city 200 km away.  Exhausted with malaria, I sat at the side of the road waiting for a vehicle.
I was stuffed in the back of a jeep, sharing a one person seat with two other people.  The road was unbearable.  Spoiled by the rain and bad driving, we got stuck several times behind vehicles which had been too hasty.  Stopping gave me a chance to vomit out my guts and for others to feel sorry for me.

Upon passing through the border of Liberia, I was put in the front seat of a taxi and waited for it to be filled.  My brain didn't work fast enough to think of finding a ride which was leaving immediately.  So I just sat there.  For hours.

Finally, here I was in Monrovia.  Desperate for rest, I stopped in a compound and lay down on a sun lounger at the side of a pool.  I was woken up hours later by a man asking what I was doing.  He invited me to stay in his home, where I stayed for the next week.  He turned out to be the second richest man in the second poorest country in the world.

For the following three weeks, I was shown dramatic differences in wealth in this country.  This also reflected back to what I saw in Sierra Leone, but hadn't fully comprehended at the time.  These two countries have such a large expat community, especially Liberia; with NGO's (Non-Governmental Organisations), big businesses, and funding from Europe and North America at every turn.  Both countries are rich in natural resources like diamonds, gold, and iron ore, among others.  Yet, despite all these facts, more than 60% of people live below their national poverty line in both countries.

It was nice to have a rest from the difficult conditions I had been living in for the past few months, so I couldn't really complain about staying with rich, white people and hanging around with them every day.  They were all very nice, interesting people.  But it was strange to adjust to this way of life when in the back of my mind I knew I was in poverty-struck Africa. Here's how my story in Monrovia went...

One night I went to a party of the man who I first stayed with, the second richest man in Liberia; only expats were allowed into the party, money was spent on alcohol, and by the end of the night there were people falling all over the dance floor from drunkenness.

The following day I was kindly invited to a buffet lunch; it was Easter Sunday so they had hidden painted eggs all around the house for us to find.  I admit I had a good time, had some nice conversations, ate some good "western" food which my stomach was dying for after such a long time away from it.

I met some journalists from Canada at this lunch, and managed to tag along with them on their business trip to Robertsport.  It was really interesting to hear them talk about how they create a story, how they find out all the information they need.  They asked about my trip and were astounded at what I was doing.  From then on they kept asking me questions about what I had come across, about people, about poverty.  I shared my stories willingly of course, but it did feel strange to be being interviewed by these people, who were also in Africa.  It was like they didn't know that they were here too.
Whilst the journalists were out collecting information each day, I spent my time at the beach and in the town.  There was a little boy, Elijah, who was always hanging around the beach, collecting coconuts and mango's to sell to people.  He said he didn't need money from me because I was his friend.  I ignored those comments and gave him a few dollars here and there.
When he was still at the beach in the afternoon, I asked "Why aren't you at school?"
"Oh, I didn't collect enough coconuts" he replied.
"What do you mean?"
"The teacher said no money, no school."
"What about your parents?"
"My mum is in Monrovia because my grandmother has died.  So I'm here by myself.  That's why I'm collecting fruit to sell."
I costs five US dollars for the books he needed for the whole school year.  I gave him the money.  He gave a fast, heavy sigh, smiled, said "thankyou my friend" and ran up the hill towards school.  I saw him later and he told me all about what he had learnt that day.
Later in the day, he hurt his foot playing in the sand.  He ran to me to tell me.  I cleaned it and wrapped it up in a bandage.  I felt like I was his mother!
When the journalists had got their stories, we returned to Monrovia.  I gave Elijah some money and told him to be careful with it and don't spend it all at once.  He is ten years old, so I doubt he will be manage it all that well.

After spending a week with the second richest man in Liberia, my already-organised Coushurfing host returned from a trip home, so I moved in with him for the following two weeks.  Mario had a good job, lots of money, but I could see that he didn't spend it on himself; he always talked about his family and what he had done for them.  Staying with him was very funny, he lived such a bachelor lifestyle!  One evening we had cereal and beer for dinner.

I was invited to a weekend trip to Mount Nimba by the friendliest couple I've ever met, Katie and Guillaume, and some of their other friends.  We had a great time, everyone was so friendly and fun to be around.  We walked up Mount Nimba, (where I unfortunately began vomiting; the first signs to me that the malaria had come back for a third time.  I won't tell that story again, it's the same as the last one), and saw the beautiful landscape together.
     After expecting an untouched jungle with an abundance of wildlife, I was saddened to see that whole mountain tops had been dug into mines to collect iron ore from the 1950's until the 1970's and left to stay like that for eternity.  On the other hand, this did create a unique picture of layered hillsides as well as a lake that had burst through from a spring during the mining, the iron ore even made the lake a bright blue colour.
     During the long drive back to Monrovia, we stopped in a leper colony to check out a shop which had been recommended to us by somebody.  The people of the village handmade wicker baskets, which I have to admit, were really impressive and would probably sell in Europe for more than fifty euros each.  There was a church service going on when we arrived, and when I went to watch the people singing their hymns, a small boy reached out to shake my hand.  For the first time on my trip in Africa, I had to refuse.  Leprosy is spread through touch.  He looked at me confused.  My heart sank.
     As we waited for some of our group to purchase some baskets, some of us sat in the car waiting.  The conversation was something about this new technology that had been developed where you put this tiny computer in your shoe and it can somehow tell you directions to the place you desire to go....our driver of the rented car, a Liberian man, who hardly talked for the entire trip, burst out "Why do you need that?!"  Yeah, that's right, what a stupid conversation to be having when we were in Africa, for one, and in the middle of a leper colony, for another.  I wasn't the only one who though this; we all looked at each other in embarrassment.

None of this story is meant to attack the people I met, who were all very nice people, or anybody else who is working and living in Liberia.  I am only explaining my experience and that it felt very strange and kind of unethical to be so separated from the real world, living a life of luxury, drinking, partying, playing, not being involved in the Africa that surrounds you.

After writing this post, I can see it will be really difficult for me to adjust when I return home. 

[Link to photo album for this post]

Friday, 19 April 2013

How di body?!

[Click here to view my full album of photos for Sierra Leone]

"Hey! How di body?"
"Di body good man!"
I learnt these phrases in Krio, Sierra Leone's half English language spoken by 97% of the population, pretty quickly. In fact, my body was getting much better, I was recovering from the malaria at a surprising rate. Wojtek and I made it to Freetown only a few days after my bout in hospital.

We took a shared taxi there; the first time I had used public transportation for a long journey so far on my African trip. Sharing really means sharing when it comes to these taxis. Three people in the boot filled with make-shift seats, four people squashed in the middle section, and two people on the passenger seat up front, one of them sharing the drivers leg-room. The road from Conakry was terrible, but after the border and beyond our spirits were lifted by the chaotic atmosphere created by the people we encountered along the way.

"Maa, I wana chick. Gimme a chick. Yah tha one! Yah give it here!"
A chicken was passed behind us through the window, squawking in Wojtek's ear, flapping it's wings frantically. The woman in the back needed to check out the chicken before she decided on a price to pay.
"Yah ok, gimme two!"
They were tied onto the top of the car.

"I said I wan banan! Woman a ya listenin to me? Ahh dis woman, she no listen! I wan six banan!"

"Eyy white man, you wana banan? Have a banan! Ya wan water?"

"Eyy white woman, lemme give ya a mango and ya be ma friend?"

This is what happened every time the car stopped; sellers throwing and offering goods through the window, men and women in the car asking and squabbling over prices.

Wojtek and I had fallen in love with Sierra Leone in less than an hour.


We had a Couchsurfing host organised in Freetown; I knew it would be a nice rest from the basic living conditions I had been used to for the past few months. Hamid was his name, I could probably tell you right now that this man is the future president of the country. His one hundred housemates, all of which gave us all the attention we desired, ranged from bankers to economists to social workers to educated unemployed.

We stayed in Freetown for around a week, but I honestly can't come up with many specific stories about our time there. Mostly, everything was just funny:

We got shouted at for not negotiating the entrance price for the national museum... by the woman who manages it.

The man in the tea shop never understanding our order of bread and egg; the only option available. Our English accents obviously weren't... clear enough?

"Hey white man, buy me a football an we can play together here", a child called out to Wojtek one day, pointing towards a flooded football pitch.

We also made a day trip to the famous Number 2 Beach, were disappointed by the amount of tourists, but astounded by the beauty. Lush, forested hills rose up around the pale white sanded beach and reflected in the clear, still water enclosed by a rocky edge.

Wojtek with Eugene the Uke

We hitched 400km to Kenema, managed to get ridiculously sunburned in the back of a pick-up truck, and was then offered a place to stay in the town by a nice man named Abdul. We stayed with him together for two nights, before Wojtek left to continue more quickly than me towards Liberia.

Whilst in Kenema, Abdul took me to meet his friend who owned a diamond business, who then took me to see a small-scale diamond mine where around ten men were working manually for two months straight on a wage of four euros for a ten hour day. They waved and posed with their spades whilst I took photos.
The owner of this business used to work just like them, but alone and illegally. He found a 15 carat diamond - a guaranteed one million dollars in his pocket. From that he created a legal mining business and is now richer than rich.

One morning, on my daily walk through the towns market chatting to random people, there was a huge commotion; people pointing and shouting and laughing. I was told there was a witch in town. Apparently a woman had made another woman pregnant. The pregnant woman's husband reported the witch to the local authorities. Nobody questioned it; it was true. I tried telling them about the old history of witches in Britain, and that there is always an explanation for strange things going on.
"No! This is AFRICA!" I was told.


I hitched alone through the tiny towns and villages of Eastern Sierra Leone, my last ride being stuffed in between the driver and the front passenger. Only slightly uncomfortable! On the up side, I was invited to a celebration they were attending in the small town of Potoru; it was a kind of wake for the death of a senior lady of the family. Hundreds of people gathered in the dark night, drums were played whilst the senior family members danced this traditional ritual in a possessed-like way around a fire, people sang loudly to the absent music, and I sat there in awe of what I was witnessing. I didn't get any pictures, it was too real and deeply spiritual to think about that.


I left the following morning, taking a bike then a boat to Tiwai Island. This place is home to one of the highest concentration and diversity of primates in the world, as well as 135 bird species, 700 plant species, and the rare pygmy hippo. The eight communities which surround the island take care of everything there. They protect the island from mining and poaching, they charge tourists for visiting the island and for guided tours, and then use the money gained to improve the facilities as well as for schools and infrastructure for the local villages. Check out the website for more information [click here]

Termite mound
Spider bigger than my hand

I took a nature tour, and saw countless monkeys swinging in the trees, so many huge spiders sat lazily in their webs, thousands of gigantic termite mounds bigger than myself, and trees with roots which I wasn't tall enough to step over. This island really is a jungle!

Spot the monkey!
I spent the night on the island, then started feeling ill again. By the morning I was a mess. I knew it was the malaria again. Back in Potoru I visited the health care centre where they gave me medication and told me it was free. I took refuge in the Tiwai Island tourism office for a few days but the medication just wasn't working. It must have been free because it was donated, and it must have been donated because it was old. The thing about malaria is that you lose all your ability to think straight and make decisions. This time I didn't have Wojtek with me. I slept for two days straight and I wasn't getting any better. Somehow, luckily, I made the decision to get to the closest city, where I could get up-to-date medication. That was around 200km of undriveable road away...
The whole journey I had a new answer:
"How di body?"
"Ahhh, di body no good!"

Monday, 8 April 2013

Malaria is real

Hardcore hospital - Wojtek and me
[Click here to see the full album]

Well, it's official - I got malaria. My guess is when I stayed at Jalou's place in Conakry [link], because it was exactly ten days after this that I got sick (which is the estimated time of being infected to when symptoms first occur).
I vomited, I sweated, I had diarrhoea, I sweated, I was cold, I had the worst headache of my entire life, and I sweated some more. Oh, and I slept through most of it - completely unable to muster enough energy to think straight, never mind move.

Seka in the testing laboratory

Thankfully, I was still with my travel friend Wojtek, so he made all the decisions for me. The hospital I went to, where I was given IV drips and medication, probably gave me more diseases than I first arrived with.

And that's all I can describe. I was sleeping the rest of the time.

The "clean" needle cabinet
When I got better after a few days (malaria treatment is effective almost immediately unless there are complications), I started to realise the luck I had compared to the reality for Africa's poorest. First off, I had money for hospital treatment. For most people here, money just for medication bought from a pharmacy is sometimes difficult to come by. Treatment is not free anywhere in Guinea. Secondly, I had somewhere safe and clean to sleep whilst I was ill; Wojtek and I went to a hotel for once on our trip. This makes a whole lot of difference. Most Africans are faced with sleeping in the same conditions where they contracted the malaria; in their homes (or slums) where there is dirt and stagnant water everywhere. Stagnant water is where mosquitoes breed. If somebody is sick and weak with malaria, how can they get better if there are many more chances to get infected again and again?

On Room Island [link], the French expat hotel owner's child contracted malaria and three days later she was dead. She was just three years old. Children are just too weak to deal with the disease.

Getting malaria myself forced me to learn the harsh truths behind this disease. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2010 alone, malaria caused an estimation of between 660,000 and 1.2 million deaths. So why is it one of the biggest killers in the world? Considering the fact that there is both prevention (using mosquito nets, repellent, or medication) and a cure, this question is answered very easily: poverty. According to different sources, around 90% of these deaths (in 2010) occurred in Africa.

With both cheap prevention and a cure available, deaths from malaria are avoidable with funding put in the right direction. It's very simple. Doesn't it make you wonder why it's not happened already?

[Click here to see the full album]

Magical Room Island

[Click here for full photo album]

Off the coast of Guinea's capital city, Conakry, lies two small islands and an even smaller island in between.  Google maps doesn't even know their names, but I do.  Room Island is the smallest.  It's full of jungle, beaches, and Rastamen.  All three of these are impressive beyond explanation.  The jungle; rife with palm trees larger than any even seen in South-East Asia, countless mango trees providing unexpected food at random times of the day, and as many plant species as you can imagine.  The beaches; quiet and perfectly white, unspoiled by tourists, and surrounded by beautiful scenery.  The Rastamen; ready to philosophise about spiritual life and always on the edge of song and dance comparable to the best in the world.

I met with my travel partner Wojtek (who I hitched with through the Sahara desert [link]) and we were welcomed to pitch our tents on the grounds of a small hotel owned by a French expat and his Guinean family.  This was our home for two weeks.

With the presence of other foreigners limited to weekends - mostly just French expats living and working in Conakry - Wojtek and I were treated to the full and undivided attention of the most entertaining people on the island.

Me, Ibrihim & Wojtek
First, there was Ibrihim; a hotel owner who would cook us dinner for a very cheap price and then get all three of us drunk on health- authority- unapproved gin.  The malaria which kept reoccurring made him look almost dead one day, before he would be sprightly running around unaffected the next day.

Second, there was Fire Bon Dem.  Mikey was his real name, but this Rastaman deserved a stage name; his musical talent exceeding most I've ever known.  Even jazz instrumental music could provide a base for his reggae singing. [Video below].  There was a problem one day when, whilst watching him and his band play, a local man caused a stir:
"Hey mon, ya spoilin uz! Dis iz a interview gon on naw!"  Fire Bon Dem shouted.
"But datz ma guitar mon, ya stole it!"
So cool is Fire Bon Dem that he can casually walk into somebodies house and borrow their guitar without them knowing!

There's many more amazing people on this island, but the last I will mention is Seka.  The cook (/singer/dancer/drummer/tourist guide) at the hotel who took a liking to me and started giving me free meals and after work taking me to his Rasta hangouts.

One night after a party, Seka and I waited on the rocks to get some hot bread that was being cooked for the village for the following day.  We were looking at the stars when I asked him if he knew what they were.  Me being a little drunk, I started talking rubbish:
"There are people just like us there; sitting around, eating, swimming..."
His face was hilarious.  Completely speechless.  Looking at me then back at the stars:  "Eh? Ah!? Eh! Wa?"
In his beautifully simple life of no conventional education, just growing up then his job of catching fish to cook for tourists, and knowing the same few hundred people from the village all his life... imagine how incomprehensible aliens must be?!

The parties were another thing altogether.  Guinean drumming from the best drummers in the world - you can look up anywhere about the reputation of Guinean musicians - a band of ten drummers pounding with incredible force and artistic beat was a show alone.  Then the villagers began to dance in the middle of a large opening, sometimes just one and sometimes a whole group; oh my, I have seriously never seen dancing so good - in the USA, Jamaica, Latin America, or anywhere on TV.  These people know what dancing is.  These parties were the best shows I've seen in my entire life.

Room Island really is a magical place.  The awesome nature, people, and entertainment (and lack of tourists) made me decide:
"One day, when I've finished with travel life, I'm going to come here to stay til the end."

[Click here for full photo album]

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Noticing Poverty

Upon arrival in Guinea's capital city Conakry, my truck friend Jalou [link] took me to his family home.  It wasn't so dismal; they had walls, a couch in their living room, beds in their bedrooms.  We went out to meet a friend of his and passed the local market.  A large, steaming rubbish tip sat beside it whilst the flavourful smoke mixed with the people and produce.  Fishes gathered flies as they lay waiting to be sold on the uncleaned mats on the floor, sharing the same space as fruit and vegetables which were fingered by the owners hands which had been licked clean after eating a plate of rice and sauce prepared in somewhat unsanitary conditions.  Piles of used clothes were thrown around by searching customers landing on the sandy ground or on neighbouring food stalls.  People walked or jumped across stalls in the shoes they had walked across city grounds and garbage in.  There really was no order.  But how can there be order when there is no money to support it?  These were normal people trying to make a living with the little produce they had; they couldn't afford to set up a shop or even make a stall off the ground.  All they have is the mat they brought from home which the kids probably sleep on.  Besides, all this lack of cleanliness would only affect a weak Westerner like me - Africans like this are born with stronger stomachs which become even stronger with age.

I bought a bag of water (drinking water comes in bags here, not bottles) for both me and Jalou as we sat waiting for his friend to finish work.  Some kids close by were staring silently at me.  I said 'Bonjour', waved and smiled, but they continued to stare.  Then it clicked in my head that they were thirsty.  I extended my arm towards them and it took less than one second for them to grab the water bag.  'Merci!' they shouted as they shared it between the three of them.

Later, I saw a woman with sheets of material for sale and, interested in buying some, I asked her how much they cost.  French numbers confuse me sometimes, especially anything past thirty-something... plus this had a thousand at the end (one thousand Guinean Franc is approximately one euro), so I asked her to write it down on a small piece of paper I had.  When she finished I stared down at the shaky scribbles on the paper.  This wasn't just bad handwriting; she actually couldn't write.

Another instance of meeting completely unschooled people was later on in my time in Guinea when I asked for a number of oranges, for example.  Because of my bad French accent, I would hold up three fingers to assure understanding.  More than often I would be met with a confused expression, then given the wrong number of oranges.  It took some thinking, but I finally realised that three fingers means nothing to these people; if you have had no schooling then you can't necessarily count.  How can you count three fingers to know that means three oranges?

Back at Jalou's place, in the evening I was introduced to his family who had just returned from work and school.  They were all very excited to have a white person staying in their house.  One of his younger sisters was disabled; she couldn't speak, she couldn't understand everything her family were saying to her, and she had saliva dribbling down her chin soaking her chest and t-shirt.  Jalou and the rest of the family treated her so well, giving her attention and always hugging and holding her.  They told me that there is a special hospital in Paris which could help her, but they couldn't afford to send her.  She started to dance in front of me with a huge smile on her face.  For the first time on my trip through Africa, tears filled my eyes and the lump in my throat was unbearable.  I knew that they will probably live their entire lives in hope of sending her to Europe, without it ever materialising.

Conakry is for sure the poorest place I've ever been to, the combination of the squalor of the marketplace to the complete lack of education for the poor.  It's so shocking to see that it even puts me, the most stupidly idealistic positive person in the world, in a pessimistic state of mind.  How could this ever change?  It seems impossible.  I began to forget what the West is really like after that.  Look around you... what do you have?  Poverty and the imbalance of wealth in the world is just incredible.