by Unoma Azuah
From West Africa to North Africa by Bus (itinerary):
Lagos to Accra, Accra to Ouagadougou, Ouagadougou to Bobodoulassa, Bobodoulassa to Siakasso, Siakasso to Bamako, Bamako to Nouakchott, Nouakchott to Noudhbou.
Timeline: 6th July—depart Lagos at 7am
6th July —–arrive Accra at 10pm (Ghana)
9th July—–depart Accra at 2pm
10th July—–arrive Ouagadougou at 1pm (Burkina Faso)
10th July—-depart Ouagadougou at 3pm
10th July—–arrive Bobodoulasso at 10pm
11th July——depart Bobodoulasso at 10:30 am
11th July——arrive Siakasso at 3pm
11th July—–depart Siakasso at 5pm
11th July——arrive Bamako at 10pm (Mali)
13th July—–depart Bamako at 5am.
14th July——arrive Nouakchott at 9:30pm (Mauritania)
15th July——depart Nouakchott at 4pm
15th July——arrive Noudhibou at 9pm.
A priest friend of mine who is stationed at Mauritania, Nourdhibou, had pestered me so much about how I needed to visit him so as to see the kind of hardship immigrants from mostly West Africa encounter on their attempt to reach Europe for greener pastures. The stories he shared with me of their experiences were unbelievable. He urged me to visit and document these events. Most of these immigrants leave West African countries by road and go as far as Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, for instance, in an attempt to cross over to Spain or any other European country. I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t even fathom going from Lagos to Mauritania by road. However, if I were to buy half of what he shared with me about these immigrants, I had to make the trip myself. I had to travel from West Africa to North Africa by road. I was determined to make the trip, this “impossible” trip.
The slated date to set off the road trip to Nourdhibou, Mauritania was the 6th of July, but by the eve of the 6th I felt too fatigued to start the journey the next day. My friend Ijeoma whose house we stayed in, that is myself and my travel partner, at Surulere, Lagos, nudged me to do the required things: get a Chisco bus ticket to Accra, Ghana, arrange for a taxi to pick us before 6am, and pack the needed items: frozen water, snacks, tissue paper, a well-loaded and charged phone, etc. My travel mate had the experience of a veteran traveler. She made sure we wouldn’t lack the basic needed items including a bottle of hot dry pepper, a must have item when traveling through the terrains of unfamiliar cuisine.
5:30am on the 6th, our alarm went off. Reluctantly we woke up, took a quick shower, and within minutes, Uche, the taxi driver began to blare his horn. 6:30am we were at the Chisco office in Maza-maza, after Mile 2 in Lagos, but we were at the wrong station. Eventually we got to the right place, just before 7am when the Accra bus was scheduled to leave. Our luggage was tagged and checked in at 9:30am. The bus was set to leave at 10:10am, but it left hours later.
We were relieved to be on the move: The relief was short-lived there were more than a dozen road blocks before we got to Seme, at the Benin-Nigeria border. The Nigerian Drugs and Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, did its search and insisted on its share of some kind of bribe. The Badagry local government did its search; and then there were customs and immigration official checks; it seemed endless and frustrating. Needless to say, the real delay started at the immigration office at the Seme border – the Benin Republic side. One would have thought that our transporters had established some form of cordial relationship with immigration officers at the border since it is their regular route. NO! We had to wait for hours while immigration insisted on checking every item on the bus. By the time we pulled out of Seme, the day was ready to retire.
At the Cotonou border, the next country after Benin, almost every luggage in the bus was checked. We resigned to fate. By the time we entered Accra, it was 11pm. We were glad to crash on the wooden floor a friend offered us. Morning of the next day was not too bright as the GTB MasterCard we relied on for most of our monies wouldn’t work at any atm in Accra. Several calls made us realize that attempting to use a GTB MasterCard in Accra was futile. The only two countries, in the world where the GTB MasterCard never works are Ghana and China. Go figure! Our trip was delayed for two days in Ghana as we sourced for an alternative means for funds.
We spent two nights in Ghana and headed for Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. However the bus transportation from Accra to Ouagadougou had its own set of surprises. Its luggage seemed more than the human traffic. Bags were strapped at the top of the bus, and on the sides as well as on the compartments meant for luggage. The bus was threatening to tilt over. Bags of yam, cassava, even live chicken and goats were piled up along the stretch of the bus aisle. To get to one’s seats was an ordeal. I made sure not to step on a goat, while avoiding the possibility of tripping on the massive bag of dry cassava. Babies were not left out of this affliction—there seemed to be babies everywhere, either strapped to their mother’s back or straddled between their thighs.
For a journey of over 24hrs, I admired the strength and tenacity of the babies and kids in the bus. And for some reason this bus was not in the habit of stopping for adult ‘wee-wee’ talk more of baby ‘wee-wee.’ We survived the journey, somehow. Most mothers were innovative enough to have their babies pee into small pans or plates which they poured out through the open windows. I had eyed a mother, as some urine moist floated towards my face.
We moved through the highland of Northern Ghana, through barren lands and quarries and entered Burkina Faso. For an apparently barren and solemn landscape, Ouagadougou was shockingly abuzz. To get our luggage from the bus and get to our next stop was a tribulation. There were highly red-eyed motor park touts milling around. Assistance was imposed, not solicited. Not being fluent in French, didn’t help matters. The only French I could muster at that point was- “sorties mon baggage.” That must mean “get out of my luggage. For some reason, it worked. While my travel mate sorted out a way for us to get to our next destination, which was Bamako in Mali, I ran off to piss. In my hurry, I forgot to grab some toilet paper.
As I looked ahead the toilet-keepers were collecting money per piss. Then I automatically assumed that part of their services was to provide tissue. I was wrong. They had a kettle of water instead. It took me a while to figure out what was going on and how to use the plastic kettles. Then my eyes settled on an elderly lady in her full Islamic regalia. I watched her squat and then wash her private with the water from the kettle. She was able to give herself the needed privacy with the way she wrapped her hijab around her body. I envied her effortless skill. It may have been easier for me to squat and wash if I had a wrap, but I was on shorts. Needless to say that by the time I was done, half of my shorts were drenched with water and urine but I got to our waiting taxi on time.
The Ouagadougou-Bamako motor park had its share of chaos. We needed to know the bus schedule and try to get the time slot for crossing the Burkina Faso-Mali border before they closed at 9pm. Language was a barrier. We were given several versions of their timetable and border crossing. It was overwhelming. I had never heard one word, “frontier,” repeated so many times in my life. I started to feel like an alien because of the word” frontier” until somebody explained to me that it’s French for border. We decided to take the next departing bus and prayed to cross the border before they closed. We didn’t make it across the border that night, and Bamako was nowhere near. Instead of continuing the journey on to Bamako, our bus stopped at a calm, exquisite small city called Bobodilasso. This was about 11pm. We were asked to wait at the station until 6:30am the next day. I was hissing and sighing and scanned the crowd in search of anybody who looked like the driver. We needed an explanation. However, some of our co-travelers struggled over the space at the rear of the station. They spread their wrappers and clothes on the dusty floor for make-shift beds for the night. There were so many mosquitoes and small stinky pool of dirty water around the spaces they settled into. I couldn’t imagine settling for the night there. Determined, I looked away from the retiring travelers and frantically looked around for the driver. There must have been some kind of reason or an answer for the stop at the wrong station. The drivers and bus officers were nowhere to be found.
To be continued…
Unoma Nguemo Azuah is an award-winning Nigerian writer and an important new voice in African literature. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the Virginia Commonwealth University.