Hell is a bus ride to Tambacounda.
I am trying to Celebrate Africa, but I tell you these our bus driver, border officials and their mates, are not helping my mood at all!
The bus ride was an adventure or misadventure – take your pick! - I didn’t bargain for. A journey that was supposed to take five hours became a bus-ride from hell!
The bus left Kayes – a border town in the west of Mali- after a 2-hour wait and a mad rush to get onboard that completely disregarded the fact that you’d paid the full fare for, gasp, gasp, a seat. If you weren’t nimble, ruthless or cold-blooded you simply ended up standing all the way to Dakar. I gave up my seat for two elderly people and squeezed myself between two really large people, it was a little suffocating, but all for a good cause, and I didn’t really mind as it was going to be a mere 5-hour drive. 5 hours? Yeah, right!
At the first immigration check-point, we all submitted our passports on command and had to pay a “special handling” fee of 1000cfa each to get them back. I’m thinking, “that’s okay, it’s normal even though it’s not written in any books anywhere but it has become institutionalised.” Again, I reminded myself that border control duty was dirty and dangerous, and that these poor, prosperous looking guards had to be helped in any way possible.
Next, we get to the border [yes, there are two immigration posts at Kayes] and once again, we submit our passports. We wait for our names to be called out aloud, my name is called last and when I walked up to the customs official to collect my passport.
Customs Official: ‘Give me 10000cfa!’
Sassy Nigerian Woman: ‘ 1000? For what?’
This support of Customs Officialdom is getting to be too much: I cock my fist and put in on my hip in an unmistakable gesture of defiance.
In the meantime, the other Nigerian on the bus who has been asked for the same amount quickly pulls out a 5000cfa note, causing the immigration officer to look at him and say ‘if you don’t have the money, go to that side and wait for me’. So I follow the Nigerian man (who by the way has a Ghanaian passport, which may explain his quiet acquiescence) and we wait for a few minutes in the two-person No-Money line.
Some Nigerians, who were travelling in the other direction toward Mail, overheard me as I complained to my fellow “sequesteree” about the injustice of the situation. These experienced border crossers, overhearing me, said to me, gently, as in the way you talk to a difficult child, ‘look, na so dem dey do for dis place o, if you come from English speaking country dem go dey treat you as dem like. Infact the Senegal side worse pass sef’
In surprise –maybe, I was buying too much into the ECOWAS hype, I ask them ‘why 10 000, why not 1000 like all the others?’ They just laugh and tell me to bargain for 5000cfa.
I walk up to the counter and hand out a 5000cfa bill to the official and after a long song and dance act about me being a student and not having more to give him, he accepts and signs my passport.
Being a believer in‘The Secret’, I make promises to myself that I would cross the Senegalese border without paying a dime. Well, I guess I haven’t gotten a hang of The Secret yet, because not only did I pay 10000cfa, but the officials subjected me to a barrage of pushing, shoving and screaming, the like of which I hope never again to experience when I refused to pay. Another official seized my passport and kept yelling at me ‘ Just pay your money! Pay your money!’ This is not the Africa I was counting on Celebrating, I can tell you, gentle reader!
Eventually, the pressure to become a good fellow traveller and to allow the bus and all of the people on board to continue on their merry way broke through my wall of resistance and I paid the bribe. It was ugly, but it had to be done, my fellow travellers were wondering whether I had taken leave of my senses, my Ghano- Nigerian brother was literally begging me to pay so that we could leave. I was boiling-point livid, but it was clear that my righteous anger was not going to resolve the problem there and then! I consoled myself by thinking that these guys obviously did not get the memo that ECOWAS citizens don’t need more than a passport to cross the border. Or maybe they did and could not be bothered.
The thoughts kept on crossing my mind with some frequency: “surely, this is not the Africa that I left my home and family to celebrate? This one where I get beaten up when I refuse to pay a bribe? This one where they don’t even ask for a bribe nicely? Should I have stayed home?” These thoughts release me from my inhibitions and I curse these thieving Customs Officials and their brothers wherever they can be found throughout the world, but that doesn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks.
Advisory to the Senegalese government: “Stop your employees from sullying your country’s good name, or and put up signs at the border posts that say ‘Beware! Crazy officials at work’! You would be doing travellers a favour!
Time check, 11pm.
The bus drives for a few more minutes and drives into the customs garage at Diboli, a Senegalese border town. All the passengers begin to alight and spread cloths on the ground around the bus. Bewildered, I quickly look for the Nigerian guy, and ask, ‘what’s going on?’ ‘Oh the bus is not moving again till tomorrow morning. There are some women in this bus who have goods to declare at customs but the customs have closed so we have to wait here till morning!’ Ok, I take deep breaths, I can deal with this. I quickly take out my blanket, dab on some insect repellent and stake my claim on a spot on the ground. Bonne nuit.
Time check, 2 am,
There’s a heavy wind blowing and the woman lying next to me says something loudly in Wolof. At once, all the sleeping people wake up and quickly rush back into the bus. I, as usual being clueless about what’s going-on, walk behind the bus for a quick pee. When I’m done, I turn around to see that the heavy wind has turned into a sandstorm, blowing so much sand my way. Sand in my eyes, my hair, my mouth, my clothes, everywhere!
I run as quickly as I can back into the bus, back to my seat.
It begins to rain and I try to sleep in my seat, but I can’t sleep because there’s a really strong smell coming from right next to me. It smells like urine, sweat, bad breath all combined. I think the old lady and her blind husband have urinated on themselves. All the windows are closed, it’s suffocating. I can’t stay in the bus, but it’s raining outside. I chose the rain over dying by suffocation.
Time check, 7 am.
All the passengers are awake and in high spirits, making loud conversation and laughing loudly. I try to cheer myself up by washing my face and brushing my teeth. I discover a huge blister on my neck, I must have been bitten by an electric fly. So much for using insect repellent.
Time check: 2pm
We are finally back on the road and have been since 11am, which was when the almighty customs officers resumed work and cleared us. We’re eleven kilometres from Tambacounda, where I’ll be staying with my friend and her family.
We get pulled over, again! Customs officials on a stop and search, we all alight with our bags submitting our passports as usual. The customs official peers through all the bags and detains a passenger for daring to question his authority. We get delayed for one and a half hour. Tamba is so close yet so far away.
Time check : 4:30 pm
The bus finally rolls into Tambacounda, 24 hours since I left Mamou’s family in Kayes. It looks like a dusty old town but after my ordeal on the bus, I’m ecstatic to be here. I feel sorry for the other passengers who still have to get to Dakar, another good 8 hours from Tamba. If anyone tells me they’re travelling to Senegal from Bamako by bus, I would say ‘Enter at your own peril.’