The incredible ADVENTURE of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia

John F. Kennedy said: "Our problems are manmade. Therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings".


It was the honorable Womendea Hensely Sandi, commissioner of Ilpanplay township in Nimba county, Liberia, who told me that. But a lot would happen before I met Sandi.

Racing through Western Africa's rainforest during the rain season is a tricky business. But with recent delays to obtain visas and to cover certain distances without flying I was in a hurry. Throughout all of this craziness I have a girlfriend who supports me from Denmark. And whenever possible she flies out of our cozy little kingdom and finds me somewhere in the world. This time we had planed to meet in Ghana and with her vacation set for certain dates I was in a hurry to reach Ghana on time.

I was sitting among a group of taxi drivers at a terminal for shared taxis in Conakry, Guinea. Normal praxis is that the backseat can fit 4 adults and the front seat can fit 2. So all in all with the driver a small taxi can carry 7 people. The taxis do not leave the terminals until they are full. I was the first to arrive and ask for transport to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The distance to Freetown can be covered in less than a day depending on the rain, the amount of checkpoints and how many times the taxi breaks down.


Muhammed the taxi driver

It took 6 hours before we had a full taxi. Meanwhile I had been sitting with the drivers, sharing water, taking, eating fruit and reading in my book. The terminal is a "living place" with lots of noise, discussions, chaos, people and so many taxis that you wonder how the ones in the middle will ever get out? At one point a 13 year old girl came over to sell some food which she was carrying on her head. She put down the tray for a while and I gently gave the side of it a lift with 1 hand while looking at the others. The small girl must have been carrying around 30 kg.

I spoke a great deal with a driver named Muhammed Ali :) Not that Muhammed he would say with a smile. We had a great conversation which lasted for more than an hour. I particularly remember Muhammed saying one thing: "we have everything, but we have nothing". 


Get ready for the naked truth of a crazy adventure through the rainforest!

It was close to sundown when we somehow managed to roll out of the terminal. And as always around this part of the world we started by rolling into a gas station and fulling up. The road was reasonably good but it got late and the border closed before we reached it. It is often ill advised to spend time at such borders after dark. But there wasn't much I could do. I had some bread with mayonnaise, eggs, pepper and onions and then I went to bed in a cheap guesthouse.


Cheap guesthouse.

Early next morning we crossed the border and I did my exit formalities with Guinea immigration before I met with the Sierra Leone immigration. Before that, however, this one guy who was in the taxi with us and hadn't been home in Sierra Leone for 5 years, decided that he wouldn't go through immigration with us and got on a motorcycle taxi and disappeared into the rainforest.

I had been advised that I could get my visa at the border. I don't often think about that I look any different from everyone else when I travel. But around this part of the world there is almost always someone to remind me. An immigration officer spotted me and invited me into his office. He pointed to the wall behind me and said that the cost for a visa for someone from Denmark were 236,000 Leone's. I found the money and paid him but as he stamped my passport he reminded me that it was Sunday and that it was too early for the accountant to be there... So I might have to wait for hours to get a receipt. I knew were he was going with this but I played along. I told him that I was young and had plenty of time to wait. And so there we were: Him on one side of the desk smiling and me on the other. Total silence as time passed by. At some point he mentioned that the accountant might not even show up that day! But he promised that he would arrange for the receipt... The taxi driver and the others were getting impatient and I thought to myself that I had the stamp so I had what I needed. So I left... That was a mistake.

Although the Ebola virus is raging on in both Guinea and Sierra Leone I quickly found that there was a lot more control and checkpoints in Sierra Leone. At each checkpoint everyone had to get out of the taxi, get in line, wash their hands with a mix of water and chlorine, have their temperature checked, show their travel documents... and then get back in the taxi. 

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Checking temperatures and washing hands.

We approached a gas station and there the guy who raced into the rainforest on the motorcycle taxi was waiting for us. He got back in the taxi and we continued?! I questioned him a bit and he explained that there was an immigration officer in the forest where he crossed. But that things are much less "efficient" when you take that route.


Most main roads are in good condition.

The road was really good and soon we reached Freetown which I had seen from the seaside almost exactly 1 month earlier. Back then I was onboard the "Clara Maersk" but never left the ship. I rather like Freetown which is located on a range of hills. There are many charming buildings and traffic, though hectic, is not as crazy as in Conakry. The driver dropped me off outside of Freetown and left me to make my own way inside the city. Within seconds a number of motorcycle taxis all offered their service. One of them had an advantage. He saw the Red Cross emblem on my chest and shouted above the other voices that he was a volunteer with the Red Cross and a part of the ebola response team.


Minutes later we were racing towards the center to find the Red Cross. The head office was closed but he took me to a nearby local branch. I met with Mohammed who greeted me but as I reached out to shake his hand he avoided it by putting his own hand on his chest. "Here we do not shake hands as long as the Ebola virus still poses a threat" he said. Fair enough I thought. He then offered me a plate of food but before handing it to me he himself used the spoon to take a bite ;) There is a strong culture of people touching each other, shaking hands, hugging, sitting close, sharing food and much more around these parts. And it must be extraordinary hard for people here to deal with a virus that spreads by touch and though bodily fluids. You can safely travel around in both Guinea and Sierra Leone if only you do a little research in terms of what to look out for. I feel safe everywhere.

Elvis, a Red cross driver, was also sitting in the office with us. He spoke of a wedding and invited me to join. Besides he told me that he would be honored if I would stay in his family home for the night. That is also the kind of hospitality you can expect around here. In terms of hospitality the culture between the Western African countries have not changed much. If someone is having a meal I have rarely walked by without someone waving me in to join.


Elvis and I drove off to the wedding which was a very nice thing to be a part of. Another Mohamed from the Red Cross was marrying Umu. Loads of music, lots of people in fancy colorful clothes, plenty of smiles, no lack of food or drinks and an abundance of small talk. Eventually Mohamed and Umu drove off to the nearby mosque to get married. I was allowed to enter the mosque as Sierra Leone is a very tolerant country regarding many issues. It was a quick ceremony and soon after Elvis drove me home to his place as I was getting so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open.

After a few ours of sleeping in Elvis's room I got up. I sat outside with his brother and talked until it got dark. His mother gave me some coconut bread and a torch since there was no electricity. Electricity is a scarce commodity in that neighborhood and some days they have it while other days they don't. While I was there the flatscreen TV, the DVD player and other electronics were lifeless.


The next morning Elvis's mother babied me with good food, tea and a warmhearted send off. I then found my way to the Liberian embassy and applied for a visa. $100.00!! + $50.00 for a one day service. No transit visa available. Tough luck. Actually the Guinea visa wasn't cheap either. But food, transportation and the occasional guesthouses are quite affordable and as long as I'm not buying a visa everyday it's no problem staying on budget.

I was moving around in Freetown with a taxi driver who told me not to use the seatbelt. "Seat belts are only for the drivers these days because of the Ebola" he said. I accepted that and we started talking about life, culture, history and football. I'm pretty clueless when it comes to football but you sort of need to know some stuff in order to break the ice. These days I tell people who ask that my favorite team is Arsenal and I know a Danish guy named Niclas Bentner plays for them. That is usually enough for me to "pass the test". Eventually he asked what I felt about people in Sierra Leone and I told him that I enjoy the cultures and traditions which have developed throughout the past 2,500 years. I told him that people were kind and friendly to me. Then the driver said: "We don't like each other. We only like strangers".

After I met with the Red Cross it was clear that they enjoy a lot of recognition among the population. When the Ebola started to create panic and effectively shut down the country basically everyone left: Airlines, foreign investors, tourist... everyone. But the Red Cross stayed. I can tell you a lot of stories about how the Ebola virus spreads and how it destroys a countries moral, development and sense of community. But you can read countless of articles about that. Just know that fighting Ebola does not stop when the virus is killed.


The region I'm traveling through receives the most amount of rainfall in Western Africa.

Sierra Leone's president was going though the city in a convoy along with a number of military vehicles and that was blocking traffic. But my driver (who called himself "Topup") was quick to "leash on" to the convoy and we managed to make good time going through traffic by following the president :) I was able to find a taxi which was heading to Kenema, which is on route to Bo Waterside, which is at the border to Liberia. It turned out that it wasn't really a taxi. It was a couple (Mary and Amidu) who both work within the security sector. But they were going from Freetown to Kenema so they thought they might as well pick up a few passengers at the terminal to cover for the costs of gas. Why not? They were great!! We had a lot of fun and interesting conversations. Mary and Amidu were getting ready for their wedding which is to take place on June 26th. There were 2 other passengers in the jeep and we would randomly stop to buy snacks like eggs which are sold along with some hot pepper. At one point we stopped to buy bushmeat from a "hunter" who was standing on the road in the middle of nowhere. Bushmeat is among the items which have been identified as one of the causes of the Ebola epidemic. Especially this animal which is known as a "grass cutter" is a prime suspect. But "bushmeat is good" according to Mary who did get a little worried about it with me in the car. After they treated me dinner it had gotten dark and the rain was pouring down. It was pouring down really hard!! I had been instructed to go to a Red Cross guesthouse in Kenema and that's were I spent the night.


Bush meat. Meat from the bush which sometimes is killed and other times has been found dead.

Early next morning I went to the terminal where all the taxi jeeps take off from. From now on the road would be unpaved and it would lead through the dense rain forest. And bargained a price and ended up sharing the 1 person front seat together with someone bigger than me. Oh the joy.


The red dirt road stood in beautiful contrast to the green nature around us and the grey sky above us. It rained now and then. The road conditions would change between good, fair, bad and terrible. The jeep would brake down time and again and we would stop to fix it before continuing. I honestly can't remember the last time I traveled with any form of vehicle which didn't break down? I might have been in Morocco?

Checkpoints are common. Even in the rain forest. It normally goes smoothly however sometimes it can be time consuming. This one checkpoint was different!! My entry stamp to Sierra Leone was not a visa! I needed a visa!! "Where was my VISA!!?" The immigration officer got more and more upset. How did I enter the country? Where was my visa? Where was the receipt? I started out calm and reasonable but he eventually got me fired up :( That didn't make the situation any better. It reached a point where he confiscated my passport as evidence for me being in conspiracy with a corrupt immigration officer! It was all a game. This officer wanted money. But the situation seemed hopeless as I was standing there in the uncivilized surroundings, being accused by an intensely angry immigration officer who was throwing wild accusations at me. My telephone had no more credit so I couldn't call for any assistance and reasoning got me nowhere.


Officer Thomas from behind before the fun started.

Then Mr. Thomas stepped in. He was the senior immigration officer at the small outpost. The angry officer had called the police, which was ready to arrest me. Mr. Thomas was cool, calm and collected. It was clearly the old "good cop / bad cop" routine. But I was alone and couldn't do much. It was intense and very intimidating... and ridiculous. However I was dead set on not paying them anything!! I pulled out the business card of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Secretary General and threatened to call him which seemed to give me a break. Then my driver showed up shouting and screaming that I should come out and identify my bag so that they could continue without me. Great?! The driver was barking in my ear, the police was ready to arrest me, the angry immigration officer was barking in my other ear, the passengers were standing watching all of it and mr. Thomas was calmly studying the business card.

Then they let me go with a warning...

I was very displeased with our driver after this!! But I was happy as I felt like I won. I didn't pay them anything. However it turned out that the consensus among several of the passengers was that the driver had saved me. That the driver wasn't going to leave me but by threatening to do so he put pressure on the immigration officers who couldn't deal with me or give me a place for the night. I don't know. I think there is some truth to that. I also think the business card helped. I simply don't know.


We were racing forward at a good speed when the front right side of the jeep suddenly sank into the red dirt road and stopped??! I looked out the window and the front wheel was gone!! It looked like we had hit a soft part of the road or something like quicksand and that the jeep had sunk in. What actually happened was that the wheel broke off and disappeared behind us. A situation which could easily have flipped the jeep over on its head in a devastating crash.


Ups!? What happened to the front wheel?

Where I come from a situation like that would lead to a phone call, a service vehicle, a garage, a repair and a lot of lost time. Perhaps days? Not in Sierra Leone's rain forest. The driver and his assistant had us back on the road in less than an hour. But know we were going really slow as the wheel could only be reattached with a single bolt!! But the show went on.

Then the engine broke down a few more times and eventually as the sun was setting and the border to Liberia was closing... the wheel broke off again!! As per protocol it is the drivers responsibility that we make it to the border. So he started to arrange for the passengers to get on some of the motorcycles which were passing by. But he couldn't get a good price for me since I look different than everyone else and my price is higher. That I look different was pointed out several times throughout the rainforest as we passed multiple small villages. When the children of such villages saw me they would run after the jeep while screaming "PUMOY, PUMOY" (white man, white man).


Since the driver wouldn't pay the increased price for his "Pumoy" passenger I was the last to reach the border... 36 minutes late. AAAARRRRGGGHHHH! In hindsight I could have paid the increased price myself and I could have reached the border in time to cross. It would only have cost me a few dollars... Alas, another night at another border and more delay on the crazy, wild rain season, rain forest race. 

A sweet old lady who was a fellow passenger teamed up with me at the border. It was good to have her support. The next day we crossed the border together and it was clear that I was harassed far more than the locals. I was sent to far more offices and had to answer the same questions over and over again. But it wasn't hard. It was simply time consuming.

The old lady had arranged for a taxi and the driver eventually agreed that I shouldn't pay more than everyone else. And off we went.  


The chicken is helping her - or what do you think?

The road was good and paved on the Liberian side of the border and it only took a few hours to reach Liberia's capital Monrovia. A part of the capital sits beautifully on an island and the city itself is a mix of new and old. I suppose you can find whatever you want in Monrovia. I was in a taxi with a driver who called himself "many-faces". I met with the Red Cross and a few hours later I was on my way to a really dodgy part of Monrovia which is known as "Red Light". If you come to Monrovia then you should probably stay away from there :) But that is where I found a shared taxi which was heading to Batu. I was trying to reach Ganta which was where I could find a ride to Loguatu which is at the border to the Ivory Coast. At this point it still looked like I could make it across the Ivory Coast and into Accra in Ghana before my friend Mette would leave for her vacation. A few days later my girlfriend would arrive and I would be there a few days ahead of her. All good. But I was soooo tired. Soooo exhausted. And sooooo hungry. Tough luck - keep moving soldier...

Before the taxi left "Red Light" the driver paused and asked us all to bow our head while he would pray?! Then he prayed that we would have a safe journey and that the Lord almighty would protect us on the road and then he said: "Let Jesus take the wheel!!" I would have preferred that it would have been someone with a drivers license... but oh well - I can't be picky :) It was dark and I had hardly had any food. I feel asleep and woke up many times as my head bounced around all over the place. The driver was playing Christian songs out loud and singing along to most of them with a great deal of passion :)


I've seen a lot of scenery like this lately.

We arrived to Batu after midnight. But I wanted to reach Ganta for the night. The taxi stopped at an immigration checkpoint where the officers where blocking the road with a rope like they do everywhere. I spoke with immigration and they promised to find a vehicle for me. After about an hour that vehicle became a truck which was carrying liquor. The price was fine and off we went into the dark night. We reached Ganta around 02:00am. A motorcycle taxi brought me to Jackie's Guesthouse which wanted $50.00 for the night. Apart from that price being about 5 times too high I tried to bargain by explaining that I only needed a room for 3 hours as I would get up and continue at 05:00am. There was nothing I could do. These people were not businessmen and the price was $50.00!! I was unbelievably tired but not so tired that I would pay that much for 3 hours sleep. So I left the guesthouse. Across the road there was a gas station and the security guard explained that there was another guesthouse for "the locals" not far up the road. I went to see if I could find it but had no luck so I returned to the gas station to see if I could put up my hammock there. I ended up sleeping directly on the ground. For that I gave each of the security guards $0.50 for looking out for me and my bags during the night. This made them very happy!

Around 05:00am I got up and bargained a price with the driver of motorcycle taxi to take me to the border. A trip which would take about 6 hours in a jeep but 3 hours by motorcycle. Dolu was the name of the driver and he might have been "Evel Knievel" reborn. There was only 1 speed: FULL SPEED!! For the first hour I sat on that motorcycle behind Dolu and thought about how crazy this was??! 2 wheels on a dirt road in the rain season? At this speed? No helmets, no safety, no hope of getting help? When it started raining I asked Dolu if he thought we should stop or continue but he just handed me a look which said "What are you talking about?"


That is Dolu in the bottom left.

However after about an hour I had become numb to the danger. Now it was exiting to race down the broken dirt roads at extreme speeds. It was great to feel the engine roar as we jumped from one piece of good road to the next. Children in the villages would chant "WHITE MAN, WHITE MAN, WHITE MAN" as we plowed through the red dirt leaving nothing but mud and dust behind. I was going to make it!! I was going to reach the border, cross the Ivory Coast and make it into Ghana and Accra on time. But I was cutting it close! :)

Last Thursday was when Dolu and I reached the border. I had a meal of rice, fish and spicy sauce before I said goodbye to Dolu and walked across the bridge to the side of the Ivory Coast. I was however arrogantly waived away and told that the border was closed. A while later I found myself speaking with the immigration chief commander. It took place on the middle of the bridge between Liberia and the Ivory Coast (like some scene from a Cold War movie). I was told to arrange for Red Cross representation and an official letter from "the big boss" before I could cross.

With nothing left to do in Loguatu I backtracked to Sanniquellie which is 90 minutes away from the border. I did that because I had seen that there was a Red Cross office when we passed though earlier that day. There I met Moses and Princess at the office. Great names :) I explained the situation and was given all the help I needed to coordinate with the Ivory Coast Red Cross. 


The next day, Friday, I returned. The Ivory Coast Red Cross was waiting for me on the other side and I approached the bridge with the French letter from "the big boss" in my hand. It was signed by the Secretary General of the Ivory Coast Red Cross. After crossing the bridge I sat with the military, the police and the immigration officers of the Ivory Coast. The letter was handed to the officer in command. I was then told that everything was in order...but...that I now needed to have "the big boss" call the prefect of Danané (the regional city near the border on the side of the Ivory Coast). Then I was shown back across the bridge to Liberia by a soldier.

I called the Red Cross again and they spoke with the prefect of Danané. Now we were instructed to speak to the ebola council... and the security council.


A side road in Loguatu.

By the way, the border at which I am crossing is as I mentioned at a small town called Loguatu. There is no electricity (except from generators), there is no running water, no street light, there are lots of mosquitos and malaria, the roads - all roads - are unpaved, and it's VERY difficult to get a phone signal. Forget about internet. Actually to get a full phone signal you must climb a tree, hang from one arm, sing the national song of Japan and solve a middle hard sudoku with your foot!!

I spent the rest of the day coordinating all of that with Koné Fansu at the Ivory Coast Red Cross. A man I trust as much as myself when it comes to finding a solution. It will be a great pleasure to shake his hand. Long after nightfall I was told that it was ill advised to take the treacherous rainforest road back to Sanniquellie (90 minutes away). So I spent the night at the border. 

At the border I was however lucky to meet the Honorable Commissioner Mr. Sandi. He is the regional commissioner and also the spokesman for all the other commissioners in Liberia. He is very well spoken and very charming. As I was not in a good mood (having lost a day already and the possibility to meet my friend Mette in Accra) I wasn't keen on speaking with Sandi. But he charmed me. As I was waiting for a call from the Ivory Coast Sandi was looking though a copy I had of the RCRC magazine which is a Red Cross magazine. As he came to a certain page he stopped and looked at me: "Isn't that you?" I was featured in the latest edition and there was a picture of me. Sandi read the article and asked me with surprise in his voice: "Am I sitting next to a goodwill ambassador?!" Then he went on about how he as commissioner should be addressed as "Your honorable" while I was entitled to be addressed as "Your excellency". I tried to say that I was just a man but Sandi was quite exited. And charming and funny too. 


The Honarable mr. Sandi who is asking for your help to make Loguatu look more contemporary. You can contact him by phone (+231) 0886494999 / 0776835223 :)

It was Sandi who arranged for a place for me to sleep and from this moment on I would spend all my time with him. Before I went to bed I had the biggest beer I have ever had in my life. It was as big as a wine bottle.

The following morning Koné Fansu and I did everything possible to get me across. Fansu had been in touch with a lot of high ranking people. But as the day progressed it became clear that I wouldn't get to pass until Monday morning at the earliest due to paperwork which must be processed first.    


The gavel of authority which belongs to the honorable Mr. Sandi.

Ironically I am allowed to go to any international airport in Liberia, fly over the border, land in the Ivory Coast, take a taxi to the border on the opposite side, stand 50 meters from the bridge and stare into Liberia. From Liberia I can stare into the Ivory Coast. So in reality all this fuss is about allowing me to walk 100 meters!!? And to top that, the prefect of Danané, in the Ivory Coast, says that "officially" the border is open.

Before I left Loguatu to return to Sanniquellie the honorable Sandi invited me to visit the local school where a group of more than 30 woman had gathered for the "Village Saving Loan Association". It is an association which is in place to empower woman and this association exists all thought out Liberia. The woman pay an amount to the association and with the cash flow which over the years now has exceeded 1.3 million Liberian dollar ($14,000) they now have a very large amount of money! The woman can make a loan from the association in order to create a business or for other purposes. They are also trained in handling money and making the right investments.

As I sat there in the room with all these women I couldn't help to think to myself: "How did I end up here?" I used to be a young boy in a schoolyard less dusty then the one I could see through the door. 


After about an hour Sandi wanted to leave but one of the woman stopped him stating that they were enjoying my company? I wasn't doing anything else than sitting in a small chair in the corner observing. But I stayed anyway for a few more hours.

I am now back in Sanniquellie where I am staying at a Red Cross guest house. There is no running water and we only have electricity when the generator is running which it does in the evening in order to have the air conditioning functioning. It is a clean and nice place to stay and it turns out that it was sponsored by the Danish Red Cross. It is a small world sometimes.

My girlfriend will arrive to Accra tomorrow so there is no chance for me to be there waiting for her. But she is clever, independent and resourceful so I am not too worried about her. The only misery is really that we will have less time together.


Okay, that is just about the longest blog I have written so far. But be honest; have you ever heard a story like that before? :)

Best regards
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - his excellency ;)

Once Upon A Saga


Once Upon a Saga
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