Africa, the Outside EdgeDec 19, 2007
Author: Kingsley Holgate
Blog 26 – Guinea Bissau200 days and 165 to go
Still proudly displaying the big Grindrod G, the Outside Edge humanitarian expedition, after having done great malaria prevention work in Conakry is now struggling to follow the coast to Guinea Bissau. A story best told from the notes in Kingsley Holgate’s expedition journal.
Tired and worn out by the insistent rain and humidity, the elephant grass taller than the battered Landies – reverse, forward, reverse again, the spotlight on the bush bar cast a wide beam as we use the vehicles to flatten the grass, allowing us a patch big enough to camp on. The rain hits us again and we dive for our tents. Up early we push on, the mud, water holes and deep river crossings make it really slow going.
I chat to Omar on the radio – he’s our new expedition member, joined us in Conakry. He’s a mature 24 year old who learnt English in Sierra Leone and speaks French and the local languages.
“Omar, at the next village, ask if there’s a ferry and if people are still crossing into Guinea Bissau and is the border post open?”
A few minutes after I get the answer: “Yes Papa King, yes. There’s a ferry and the people they are crossing and the border is open.”
I give a sigh of relief – I’d been worried, the road had now become just a narrow hardly used mud track – it certainly didn’t look like the road to an international border.
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searching for the ferry in our amphibious Land Rovers
We stop the Landies and ask again at the next village. Omar gives a big smile. “Yes, there’s a ferry,” he says and so we push on first and second, low range difflock, grinding and growling through the mud, water splashing over the bonnets, the constant swaying and jerking, the heat and humidity intensifying as we inch up the coast.
“Watch out!” shouts Mashozi as I swerve for a goat and slide side ways into a deep mud hole. Ross winches me out. How much more can these poor vehicles take? The Garmin GPS shows we’ve reached the river boundary between the Republic of Guinea and Guinea Bissau. A man in a tattered blue uniform jumps out from under the thatched leaves of a hut – there’s a rusty chain across the road. “Where’s the ferry?” we ask. It hasn’t worked for a year comes the reply, it’s got a big hole and the engine’s buggered – the government people from Conakry said they’d come and fix it but they’ve forgotten about us, you’ll have to turn back.”
I feel sick. Two days of slogging down a rotten road to nowhere and now all the way back. But then I cool down and see the humour of it all. How stupid, I should know these things by now. Is there a ferry, I’d repeatedly asked – yes, had come the answer – but I’d failed to ask if it was working and AND ARE PEOPLE CROSSING?
Yes! But in dugout canoes, and YES the border is open – that’s of course if you’ve arrived on foot or by bicycle having crossed the Kimbumbe by pirogue. We slowly turn the Landies around and stop under a tree for a bully beef and dry bread “sarmie”. There’s a type of fly here that bites like hell and leaves a blistery welt on your skin that itches and burns like hell – always happen at the end of the rainy season they tell us.
Further up the same river is another ferry. “Is it working,” I ask. “Can it carry Land Rovers like these, when did you last see it?” We can’t say comes the answer – it’s a long way away but we have heard that people cross to the other side
Across the river
We’ve found a ferry and crossed into Guinea Bissau – the Cashew nut trees and war torn Portuguese buildings remind us so much of Mozambique and we all get a little home sick. After frenetic francophone Conakry the small relaxed city of Bissau is a treat – we wander out onto the wharf side at Pidjiguiti where half sunken wrecks line the old jetty. It was here on August 3, 1959 that a ‘dockworkers’ strike took place. Police opened fire at point blank range killing fifty men and wounding more than a hundred. Jose Emillo Costa who took part in the strike worded it this way.
“This old captain friend of mine, Ocante Atobo, was leaning against the wall of the office shed. When the line of police reached the spot where he was, an officer suddenly raised his gun and shot him point blank in the chest. Ocante collapsed in a pool of blood. For a split second everyone froze – it was if time stood still. Then hell broke loose. The police moved down the pier, shooting like crazy into the crowd. Men were screaming and running into all directions. I was over by my cousin Augusto Fernandes’ boat, the Alio Sulemane. Augusto, who was standing next to me, had his chest shot wide open; it was like his whole inside was coming out. He was crying: ‘Oh God, João kill me please”. But it wasn’t necessary; when I lifted his head from the ground he was already dead. The last one to die was a boatman hiding in the mud under his pirogue, out of sight of the police. A Portuguese merchant, however, spotted him from his apartment window and shot him in the back with his hunting rifle.”
The massacre and the police interrogations that followed lit the spark for armed conflict and the War of Liberation against the Portuguese followed sadly by a civil war that brought Guinea Bissau to its knees. BUT now there’s peace. We meet with the minister of health and arrange to distribute life saving mosquito nets outside Bissau. Our Scroll of Peace and Goodwill in support of malaria prevention is endorsed by the local governor and a Guinea Bissau foreign affairs representative.
Outside the bombed out palace, with near naked, white clay faced tribesmen around the Landies we meet Steve who with a team of experts is lifting landmines in the interior. He directs us to a river north of Bissau where we go about preparing to launch the expedition boats into the Bijagós Archipelago. Made up of more than 40 islands, it is the largest island group along the West African coast.
There’s the familiar smell of outboard fuel and the sweat of pumping the pontoons, inserting the boards and bolting the tough Yamaha Enduros onto the transoms of the two 6m long One Net One Life Gemini inflatables. Then it’s the loading up and tying down of camping equipment, basic supplies, first aid kit, a change of clothes, bales of life saving mosquito nets for remote island communities, some Captain from the Land Rover water tank, paper maps and the Garmin GPS’.
It’s low tide and hot as hell by the time we snake through the mangrove swamps and out into the sharp chop of the waves of Guinea Bissau’s warm North Atlantic. Pelicans fly overhead in perfect formation. We find an island filled with birds and baobabs. Ross catches a good sized barracuda. Another island is knee deep in shells but too rocky to camp on and somehow the spirits don’t seem right. By late afternoon, the setting sun an orange ball in the west, we find our island paradise – 90m long by just 30m wide – a beach and a lone baobab tree, plenty of firewood and not a human being in sight.
Ross and Anna fillet the barracuda whilst Egyptian vultures dive and swoop over the sharp toothed big eyed carcass. Bruce, with his shirt off, map of Africa tattooed on his back and now looking a bit skinny after all the months of hard travel, chops the fillets into chunks and fries them up with hard round onions from the Central Market in Bissau. He then adds some precious Nando’s hot peri-peri sauce and we all sit with our backsides in the sand under a starlit sky, helping ourselves thumb and forefinger African style to succulent pieces of Bijagos peri-peri barracuda. There’s no menu, no bread or salads, no music or TV, no cellphone reception and there’s not a sole in the whole wide world that knows where the bloody hell we are, other than somewhere on the outside edge of Africa – will keep you posted…
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mothers receiving life-saving nets on the island of Bassoul
27000 kms to date
17 countries with 16 still to come
millions of tyre revolutions & potholes
100’s of campfires and river crossings
buckets of sweat, loads of adventure
and tens of thousands of lives already saved and improved through this world-first humanitarian expedition
The South African humanitarian expedition that is tracking the outside edge of Africa through 33 countries has now reached Dakar in Senegal. The expedition is linked to a One Net One Life campaign in which thousands of long lasting World Health Organisation approved mosquito nets are being distributed to pregnant mothers and to children under the age of five, a Right to Sight programme in which spectacles are given to the poor sighted and a Teaching on the Edge programme, handing out mobile libraries and writing materials to remote schools.
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Cassamance schoolchildren holding up life saving nets
In the Cassamance area of Senegal mosquito nets were distributed to small groups of mothers and to a primary school in the wetlands near Cap Skiring. Using expedition inflatable boats and a massive pirogue approximately 1,500 mosquito nets were carried to the island of Bassoul and a net given out to every mother and child in the five communities that make up the island.
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to the island of Bassoul with 1,500 nets for every mother and child…
In Dakar at a media function attended by the head of the malaria control programme and ministry of health officials we handed over a symbolic bale of nets to the local hospital. Ministry of health officials endorsed the Scroll of Peace and Goodwill in support of malaria prevention which has also been endorsed by Nobel Prize laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. The South African embassies that we have had contact with along the outside edge of Africa have been incredibly supportive of the expedition. Lovely Thembi Majola, Ambassador to Senegal, Cape Verde, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau and The Gambia and her competent staff members Derrick Williams and Andre Jacobs have been exceptionally kind and helpful with the ambassador writing these words in the expedition journal:
To my fellow compatriots. Your epic journey along the West Coast of Africa to bring awareness and to physically distribute treated mosquito nets to expectant mothers and mothers with babies up to five years is clearly a noble act... A very personal experience that has touched many people in a most direct, personal life saving way. I salute this noble expedition and want to express my deep respect and pride in the humanitarian work you are achieving at a great deal of personal cost. I wish you Godspeed on your journey, and am proud that you fly the South African flag, representing South African resilience, a caring spirit and a will to succeed. Hambani kahle!
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Ambassador Thembi Majola endorses the Scroll of Peace and Goodwill in support of malaria prevention
The Outside Edge expedition is also carrying a scroll from South African National Parks with a message encouraging a conservation partnership with its neighbours in Africa. With it they have sent three stones to be taken by expedition Land Rover to the three corners of the continent where we will collect stones to be placed at Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa. And so at a ceremony facilitated by the South African Embassy in Dakar a stone was placed and another picked up at Les Almadirs, the most westerly point of Africa.
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The most westerly point of Africa, with Kingsley Holgate holding the conservation stone above his head…
From Dakar Grindrod supported humanitarian expedition will continue North up the beach to St Louis, the oldest French settlement in West Africa and until 1958 the French capital of Senegal and Mauritania, where with the assistance of the ministry of health, more life saving mosquito nets will be distributed in the vicinity of the Senegal River.
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