By Amara Thoronka
I recently returned to my motherland Sierra Leone after spending almost two years as editor at The Fatu Network, a leading online news outlet in The Gambia. Initially, after reaching an agreement with the news network in late 2021, I travelled to The Gambia by air, but after my recent mutually agreed farewell, I decided to explore the adventure of travelling via land [road] from the Smiling Coast of West Africa (The Gambia) to the Athens of West Africa (Sierra Leone).
To have a holistic experience of the voyage, I decided to onboard an 18-seater commercial vehicle whose target distance ranged from Serekunda, The Gambia to Ferry Junction, East Freetown. The journey from The Gambia to Senegal to Guinea and finally to Sierra Leone was a great but painful experience.
Like other cross-border road travels in Africa, I was made to understand that the said legitimate journey has been ongoing for decades. The only thing is that very little has been published about it, hence the essence of this article. What I did throughout was to hide my identity as a media practitioner, so I can really and truly ascertain the veracity of some shared experiences I have heard in some casual conversations prior to the journey. From the accounts of previous travellers who were in the same vehicle with me and from what I witnessed myself, the unfortunate realities explained herein are predominant in Senegal and Guinea. Their occurrence is very minimal in The Gambia and Sierra Leone.
Extortion of passengers and drivers
One disturbing experience passengers and transport operators go through on such a journey is extortion by security and immigration personnel that passengers and drivers pass through. It suffices to say extorting money from passengers and drivers is prioritized over providing security and immigration functions.
Approximately, there are over thirty heavily-guarded and lightly-guarded security checkpoints, including immigration and antidrug checkpoints. At most of these checkpoints, passengers and drivers are asked to disembark their vehicles and report for security checks. In almost all those checkpoints, very little or no consideration was given to actual security checks. All that those security personnel did was to ask for money. Those with legitimate and valid documents were still asked to pay while those with invalid or no documents were asked to pay more money.
As a way of making a scene to justify their extortion tendencies, most checkpoint personnel delay the free flow of vehicles without doing actual security checks. When such happens, the driver collects something from all passengers and adds his to be allowed to pass. In some checkpoints, passengers queue to pay an imposed amount without a receipt or valid cause of payment. Though unfortunately excruciating, people pay to avoid being unnecessarily delayed.
Exploitative foreign exchange
The call for adoption and implementation of a single currency in the subregion is hugely justified when one engages in such travel. Imagine going through the disturbance of exchanging one currency for the other at every border of the four nations to settle security officials and buy food.
There is a crooked black market foreign exchange scheme at every border. I did not see any government currency exchange establishment or coordination in those interstate crossing points. Interestingly, the black-market guys have different exchange rates. I and many other first-time travellers were confused with the exchange rate as almost everyone had different rates.
The other aspect is the risk of being given fake notes, especially if one is not familiar with differentiating fake and real notes of the various currencies. That is indeed a big risk as there is no documentation or proof to show for such foreign exchange transactions.
Many of us were shocked to later understand that the rates were far lower than the actual ones. But what else can you do where an alternative legal government or private structure is not available? The exploitation in that direction is sad, especially on the basis that all the said nations are interconnected West African countries.
Pain, fatigue and health risks
Even though some experienced drivers and passengers I spoke to informally did not recall witnessing the death of someone on such a journey, there are however circumstances that may cause fatality. Firstly, just like travelling to rural areas within many African countries, most of the cross-border vehicles are heavily loaded with persons and property. Those vehicles that cannot cope with such pressure have frequent breakdowns, causing passengers to spend several days instead of the usual three-day journey from The Gambia to Sierra Leone.
Also, because some vehicle operators virtually overload passengers, with very little or no space to freely move one’s legs, many passengers experience fatigue and swollen feet.
Many passengers also sweat profusely, a situation that can cause transmission of diseases. Throughout the journey, I did not see any enforcement of COVID-19 and other health precautionary measures.
Another sad reality is that there are no accommodation arrangements for the usual three-day journey. At any point where the driver or drivers get tired, everyone disembarks the vehicle and sleeps on bare surfaces. You will risk being left behind if you find a comfortable accommodation nearby and fail to turn up at the rushing time of departure. As I said initially, the usual three-day duration is when there is no issue with the vehicle. Vehicles with faults spend several days on the road. Passengers often sleep in mosquito and other insect-infested areas. Imagine the vulnerability to infections and diseases. Because I had made some enquiries on the journey, I bought a cold cap, face mask, hand gloves, socks and other clothing to protect myself from possible health issues. Also, those of us who are able-bodied did quick workout to stretch our muscles to reduce fatigue. I also had some fruits and medication. Those without such clothing, medication and foodstuff suffered excruciatingly.
I mentioned driver or drivers because our vehicle had two drivers and an auto mechanic while others had only one driver. From what I gathered, vehicles with two drivers and one or two auto mechanics are the most preferred by passengers because the drivers exchange the steering while the mechanics immediately fix any fault. A vehicle with only one driver to cover such a distance or without an auto mechanic often makes the journey much more stressful and prolonged.
Political, security and transport authorities of these countries and other African nations should be vigilant and decisive in addressing the perennial pain, extortion and exploitation people go through in travelling legally via road within the subregion and the continent in general. The emphasis is on legal travelling.