0º00 Navigation part II – A journey across Europe and Africa.
A strange line of jagged clouds take shape below us. As we fly nearer their angular shapes become clearer – the white tips of the Pyrenees slicing through the mountains of soft weather. The plane is heading due south. It’s midwinter, but at this altitude the atmosphere outside the plane is always around minus sixty degrees. Hidden beneath the plateaux of sunlit clouds is a landscape I struggled across last July in a boiling camper-van with an irritated two-year-old and her stressed mother. A journey from the north coast of France near Le Havre, through the high Pyrenees and onwards, following the 0º line of longitude.
After the Pyrenees the clouds part to reveal the dry, flat plains of Spain. We are now almost exactly above the Greenwich Meridian. From my window ten kilometers high, I can see the towns and landforms we drove through last summer. The high pass through the mountains brought an abrupt change in the landscape – the meadows of Lourdes giving way to a dustier, more ochre terrain. The camper van got hotter, the landscape drier and the 0º line finally disappeared into the Mediterranean Sea amid pockets of industry and industrial-scale tourism.
I have €3,250 keeping my belly warm* and I am standing in line for the airplane toilet. A man pushes past and waits ahead of me in an empty seat. He catches my stare but smiles back:
“Non, non, monsieur! Je suis après vous…”
Back in my seat there is a commotion behind me. Two hostesses are talking loudly at the man from the queue. My French is terrible but I think I understand that he has been smoking in the toilet. The hostess is angry; her mascara-lined eyes are wide and hard. The man’s passport is demanded and then confiscated – he will be met by the police when we land.
The engines of the plane whine but no one hears.
The Mediterranean is passing below our wing. Two miniature ships draw faint white marks across the green surface. A yellow line emerges on the horizon and becomes the coast of Algeria. The plane banks and follows the coastline westwards – oil tanks, refineries, gas flames, towns, hills, large ports, fields.
After we land, the door is opened and there are two policemen waiting at the top of the steps. Shiny blue jackets, radios, holsters and one is holding a piece of paper. As I exit the plane, the balding man with rings under his eyes is detained. The two policemen take over the talking. I get on the waiting bus. Eventually the doors are reopened and one of the policemen stands with the man by the driver. As the line for the passport control shuffles forward I can see into a room where a new set of uniforms are talking to the man with the sad and resigned eyes.
*It is not possible to buy Dinars before you arrive in the Algeria.
I am the last person at the passport control. I had to borrow a pen from one of three grumpy guards in the glass box and now they are questioning me hard about the purpose of my visit. I am not a tourist but I seem to have no official company. Eventually I discover ‘University of Oran’ is the magic phrase – or perhaps they have just got bored.
Belkacem, a lecturer from the Anglo-Saxon department, has used his connections to get inside the security area and his friendly face beams through a final glass partition. We wait for my luggage and he asks me about my journey, before driving me to my hotel.
I eat my evening meal in the grill-house that acts as the official restaurant for my hotel next door. The waiter understands nothing I say in my lousy French, and so the compromise is that he brings me things and I eat them. I am the only European face amongst the tables that are filled exclusively with men.
The restaurant has the feel of an evening canteen. A series of fierce white lights illuminate the smoke that drifts in from the street where the meat is being grilled.
The laws of physics in this land seem slightly different. It is a universal principle that the universe tends to run-down, but here the forces of entropy seem to be just a little bit stronger. Everything is slightly broken, cracked or stained but holding together though layers of mends, tape and string. The roads are a patchwork of different textures, sudden holes and random sleeping policemen. I elect to eat my second course at a table outside and watch as the traffic and noise weaves past me. I eat a sweet creamy pudding and taste the oil fires that stain the sky.
I am a passenger in the front seat of a small car heading out of the city of Oran. The rough urban motorway takes us past the last few housing blocks of the city and the landscape begins to open out. In the weak first-light, wobbling gas flames are painting dark stains across the sky and illuminating the oil-refineries below. Walid is in the back seat – a bespectacled young student acting as my assistant and translator. His farther Hadj is sitting beside me – our driver and fixer.
Hadj likes to drive carefully. He is an unflappable ex-engineer with a moustache and smiling eyes. I never learn his true name but his nickname is a sign of respect for someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The rules of the road are different here. Driving is a process of constant negotiation – the cars sensing the emerging presence of others around them. There is a continual calculating and adjusting of paths – a weaving of trajectories and erratic flows. The drivers use mental radar and horns to judge where a vehicle will be and, by the looks of the dents on their corners, sometimes also touch. Road markings and lanes are only rough guides and Hadj’s preference, when the traffic allows him, is to drive down the dotted line – positioning himself neatly between what I would call ‘lanes’.
Using my GPS and maps I locate the exact site where the 0º line of longitude emerges from the Mediterranean. A rocky, rubbish-strewn coast outside the small town of Stidia, with the port of Mostaganem in the background. Hadj wanders bored along the low cliffs whilst Walid and I line up the first shot; camera and subject balancing on rocks among the gentle surf.
Crouching between the rocks all along the coast are bands of fisherman. Each ragged silhouette has constructed an improvised boat from driftwood and erected a small plastic-sacking sail. In the offshore wind, the tiny crafts carry the fishermen’s lines out beyond the surf where their sails catch the first rays of sunlight and their lines hopefully some fish.
We join a long line of cars at a petrol station. A man in a silver suit has got out of his car in boredom. We inch closer and I can the see the attendant ahead in greasy overalls, the pump in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He stares in boredom at the nozzle chugging petrol into the white 4×4. He waits, looks at the pump and grinds out the cigarette beneath his foot.
There is a very different relationship with light here. In the breakfast room of my hotel the thick curtains remain tightly drawn all day with the fluorescent lights full on. As the sole European, I am the only person who opens the curtains each morning to let the sun in and look out on the town below.
Light is nothing special here, not the rare commodity it is in Berlin. As the sun drops out of the sky, insanely bright bulbs light up the cafes, shops and waiting rooms; the kind of light that hurts the spaces behind your eyes. Between these overexposed scenes there are long stretches of deep concealing blackness. The lack of winter light in Europe is soothed by carefully subdued lighting, but here it seems that no-one cares much about the quality of the light or the darkness.
There is another thing about the night; a strange feeling that took me a few days to pin down. The customers and staff of every cafe, every group hanging out on street corners, all the traffic in the streets and all the sellers in the shops are men. The women here are the opposite of vampires – as the sun sets they seem to evaporate at the approach of the lengthening shadows.
The very last photo in the north. After a hectic and successful schedule I’m not actually sure if I need it, but Walid and his father treat my list like commandments. They are confused if I deviate from the plan. One more photo down a dusty track in the mountains, on the outskirts of a rundown-looking village. We walk into an olive-grove and a car pulls up on the track. A big white 4×4. There is discussion between Walid and the village policeman followed by another between Hadj and the policeman. Translated by Walid: “Your documents.”
I go back to our car – leaving them discussing excitedly. The policeman takes my passport and the conversation is over. For the first time he looks me directly in the eye “Pardon Monsieur” – he seems to sigh.
The policeman gets into our car and we drive to the village where he disappears inside a small building with my papers. Thirty minutes later we all drive to the next town where the policeman hands over my passport to the local Gendarme. Walid and I are led into the police compound. The children of policemen play in the yard. We are told to sit down in a small holding room. Hard wooden benches – Walid chooses the one without the broken leg. A curtained window behind us and opposite us is a wall of posters of wanted men; terrorists and criminals, explains Walid. The wall to our left is covered in photos of coach crashes. Flipped, smashed, crushed – one mangled white bus with dried stains dripping down from the windows. The wall on the right is covered in lifeless mug-shots. Dead men found in the mountains, explains Walid – staring eyes and smashed half-faces. The police are looking for names so they can be buried. The fading prints on cheap paper flutter in the wind coming in through the curtains. This is the material of police work. Out of the sun I’m cold – Walid gives me his jacket.
After about an hour we are called in to see the police chief. A discussion between Walid and the chief. He turns to me:
“…Hello…” pleased with his English but uncertain he turns to Walid, who nods.
I sit and smile.
He laughs before I can move.
“Sit down” “Stand up…” “How are you…” “Good morning…”
A long discussion as Walid tries to explain my purpose. Walid rings Belkacem. The police chief’s number rings. Polite but irritated, the policeman listens and eventually responds. Excited Algerian peppered with words in French: “…étranger…” “…étranger “.
I watch and listen as Walid and the chief take turns to talk:
“…le Greenwich Meridian…” “…le Greenwich Meridian…”
Walid earnest, the chief incredulous. The chief then explains through Walid that we should have informed the police before we travelled. It is dangerous for foreigners, we need protection.
We are led back to the room. We wait. From time to time young policemen look through the door and smile. A builder arrives with two planks of wood. The children play outside. A middle ranking policeman looks through the door and catches my eye:
“Oui” I reply with my terrible accent.
“Anglais” explains Walid.
The policeman becomes interested. He again explains we cannot travel without informing the authorities. ‘Étranger’ require an escort.
He asks me where I live. I decide to say London.
“…Chelsea…” He beams. “Didier Drogba”
“Oui… Oui… mais ce n’est pas mon équipe”
“Quelle est votre équipe?”
Instantly I realize the names of the current players have flown from my mind. Who is the Turkish guy with the sad eyes? My mind has gone blank. The faces on the wall look back at me.
“Ramsey” beams the policeman “très fort”
“Oui, Oui, très fort” I agree.
Through Walid I am informed that we will have a police escort back to Oran. We wait another 2 hours on the hard benches and eventually we are escorted back to our car and reunited with the patient Hadj.
I feel like the president of Belgium. I am at the centre of an armed cavalcade sweeping through the traffic of small mountain towns, ignoring traffic systems and forcing people off the road. Four armed Gendarme in a fast 4×4 drive ahead of us with their lights and sirens screaming. Another car follows centimetres behind us.
Hadj sweats and mutters as he attempts to keep up with their speed and omnipotence. When we reach the edge of their jurisdiction, my passport is handed to another set of Gendarme in identical cars and the ritual is repeated. After yet another change of police cars we arrive back at my hotel in the city. I am told that I am not to leave the hotel without an escort. The flashing lights disappear into the darkness, the policemen hurrying back to the mountains and their children.
The green plains get emptier. The rectangles of fields start to not join up. The spaces between them grow bigger and the rectangles become less distinct. The mountains from the air look like wrinkles in the fabric of the planet. Greens slowly fading to ochres. Early morning sun leaving the valleys in darkness. Trees made visible by their long shadows.
The trees become sparser. A huge salt lake with stretches of dunes. Little pockets of sand continue after the lake. The dunes fade out. Long spines of mountains push through the plains again. Creases begin to be softened by tails of sand. Shivering old skin – vertebrae, knuckles and ribs. Areas of sand clump together – wrinkled up into dunes. Clouds cast shadows across the land below.
Scale is confusing. There are things I recognize from English beaches; a pebble left on Ramsgate’s sands creates cuttlefish forms downwind. But here, far below my window, the pebbles are in fact, boulders or mountains.
“Not sand, Hamada…” explains Walid “…little rocks”. Walid is accompanying me south in the plane; his father left yesterday in the car.
The roads have stopped now. The towns have stopped and the rectangles have stopped. Only looping lines of endless crenellations between the sand and the rock. Then the crenellations fade out and there is just the soft plains of blank sand and dust. A low-tide drainage-system wrinkles across the plains but it looks like the tide left a few millennia ago.
One road. One black dot slowly inching along a line of tarmac – Walid’s father..?
A small town glints in the sunlight; “no, desert farms… you are seeing the plastic sheeting”.
The pilot announces our descent. With no guide to scale it is impossible to tell if we are actually getting lower? A video-game background that never gets nearer. Wing flaps pitch us into a yet steeper descent into nothing. The aircraft’s display tells us that Adrar is approaching; still nothing. No sign that we are nearing anything but sand and hamada.
One line drawn across a yellow screen – gills of sand quivering out from its edge. Otherwise, nothing. Sand and nothing. One black dot casting a shadow (a penguin?). Lower and lower and at last maybe a surface. The flatness of a still lake when my eyes are centimetres above the water. Fearfully flat.
When the propellers have stopped, a strange white being descends from our plane followed by two accompanying women. A long white robe with a hood which hides her carefully down-turned face. The creature walks like a new deer balancing on thin legs. Waiting for our bags, I glimpse the ends of white heels. A frail old woman gets up to let her sit down. Separate, alone, delicate. Her two ladies-in-waiting don’t seem to talk to her – they act as if she were ill or might break. Walid also doesn’t understand. He says he has seen nothing like this before: “maybe a wedding?”
My passport is taken by the Gendarme and we are told to wait. Hadj argues with the policeman pointlessly. We wait in the café. All the passengers from the plane have left and the café owner wants to close. We wait. The café closes. Another policeman appears – Hadj and Walid explain again. The first policeman returns, mutters into the ear of the second and hands him my passport. We are escorted out to Hadj’s car. We follow the police cars through the desert with their lights and sirens pulsing out across the sand.
When my passport is away Walid and Hadj change. They rush to carry my bag – I have become an escorted object. Fragile and white.
To travel across the desert to Timimoun we have been told we must have a police escort, and to arrange the escort we have to present ourselves at the ‘Délégation Sécuritée’. Hadj’s navigation method is to shout out of the window at passersby: “Salam aleikum”
It always seems to work (eventually) and we find the town hall down a side street. We enter the compound; a series of low buildings connected by covered walkways. Like all the buildings in the desert the walls are a dark dust-red. We walk down long corridors past silent offices. Most are empty; some are so still that they appear empty. When my eyes adjust, I realize there is a dust red man sitting quietly at a large desk. He gives us further directions and I follow Hadj down more corridors, across a courtyard and into another building. A large office; empty apart from a desk, a man and a small box. Many years ago the cardboard was carefully covered in pink paper – the man, the office and the paper have faded in the sunlight. The box holds a row of black passports but we are not this man’s responsibility – these are the passports of French nationals.
Further corridors, Hadj asks whoever he can find and finally we arrive at the ‘Délégation Sécuritée’. Everything is closed. All the hotels are full and Hadj has lost his patience. He tells me what we are going to do. We must drive without the Gendarme. Walid translates my instructions – this time I am travelling in the back: “When we come to a checkpoint – you sleep”.
“Mauvais estomac” adds Hadj.
I’m tired and my stomach actually is a little strange, so I decide it’s easier to really lie down and close my eyes. The car accelerates out of the town towards the desert highway. The car slows. I can feel three curves; a sharp turn to the left, a slalom back to the right and a final straightening out. We accelerate away from the first checkpoint. From my place in the back I can see the roofs of occasional passing trucks and the dark blue sky. Another slowing and a slalom of turns. I am accelerated away from a second set of unseen Gendarme. From the stoppings and turnings its finally clear to me we have reached Timimoun. I get up.
“no, no, Simon, sleep!”
I lie down again until Hadj tells me we have reached the Ksar Messine hotel.
If there was a geiger-counter that could register the forces of entropy, the needle would be twitching off the scale in this place. Everything is in the process of being built but nothing seems to reach completion. Almost all the buildings have steel bars poking out of the rough concrete columns on their roofs – perhaps one day someone will want to build an extra floor. Some constructions have got further, with the structure already having the concrete skeleton of a stalled first floor. Even stranger, others buildings only have a top floor completed and the ground floor is left as an open grid. Some are nearly finished, some prematurely occupied, and others are shells that will wait. And as they wait, the mends and patches merge with the beginnings.
Roads are half-finished and half-corrupted. The main street is a duel carriageway with only one side finished. The other lane is used as an extra space for adventurous drivers avoiding the mounds of waste and rocks that were left by the absent road-crew.
Everything is breaking. Hadj, an ex-engineer, explains that the sand destroys machinery in the desert. To protect their engines cars must stop in a sand storm and the 4×4’s all have high plastic snorkels that attempt to suck dust-free air into the engines. At night the car’s headlights light up the banks of dust hanging in the air. The last rays of sunlight illuminate long shafts of dust that slice diagonally through the gaps in the buildings. You can feel the dust in your throat and at the end of the day, you are confronted with what your nose has filtered from the air.
Albert Speer and Hitler dreamed of buildings that would make perfect ruins – they transported themselves a thousand years into the future and looked back at the romantic ruination of their plans. Here in the Sahara things don’t get that far. Structures are at once ruins, building sites and homes. Everything is in a state of becoming and unbecoming. Nothing is complete as everything seems to be unpicked by the sand and wind – even whilst it is being woven. But perhaps my understanding of things is backwards – including time. When the gendarme asks me the name, date of birth and nationality of my mother, they translate the sounds into Arabic and write them backwards across the paper. To my eyes, the newspaper left in my seat has its title and headlines on the back page – from where the news stories work backwards to towards the front.
Water wells up through sand. Ancient water that has nothing to do with rain emerges into the sunlight. The sitting rooms and hotels in Timimoun are decorated with the numerous fossils found in the desert. The water percolates up to the surface from millennia past, and on its way flows over the petrified corals and timber from the millennia when forests grew here and waves crashed.
The water flows across the sand in carefully channeled streams called Foggara. Hadj explains the mechanics of the system. At intervals along the stream, a slate stone is placed across the flow. Regular slots carved in the stone divide the water into precisely equal parts. Miniature fish and snails grow in the tiny streams. Centimetres wide, they head off in different directions – under walls, streets and houses if necessary. The streams are divided again and again until a tiny rivulet reaches one family’s plot of land. I watch a farmer directing the flow to individual carrots and potatoes – building temporary walls of sand to divert the flow of water this way and that, as each plant receives its quota. The gardening looks something like hydroponics to me – there is no earth, just carrots growing in sand and ancient water.
Above the spring a swift swoops over the rooftops. The bird screeches and draws the same looping lines as it drew above my Berlin balcony back in August. A yearly commute for better insects.
The only things with completed lines are the dunes. Pure raging entropy, but perversely the forces of chaos are building perfect shapes that flow and shift in front of my eyes. Any presence is immediately reacted to by the dune. A bag left on the surface, or a foot planted for too long starts to be reflected in the geometries of the sand. The flow of air is disturbed and the sand it is carrying settles in new ways.
Eddies at the base of an object cause the sand to flow away from the obstruction – leaving a dry moat surrounding the obstruction and in the lee of the object a small sand-tail starts to grow. Reflections of forms and ripples in the surface modulate downwind until the disturbance is dissolved in the lines of the greater form.
In places the sand is heaved up into architecture three or four storeys high, with futuristic looping lines and sinuous peaks. What seem like cathedrals of sand, though, are actually slow moving waves travelling backwards across the dry stone plains. At their crest, the sharp lines of their backbones are always in motion. Sand or dust flows off the edge and out into the air, before settling downwind.
The leaves of the palm trees rustle in the desert wind, and the low sun throws patterns across the wall of my chalet. A huge wall-mounted TV with the rolling news from the English language channel of Al Jezeera:
Afghanistan; children with shrapnel wounds, Syria; “UN hopes for a freeze” but casualties and dead in their millions, Iraq; Sinjar Mountain, US airstrikes against ISIS positions, Niger and Mali; large guns mounted on Toyotas, Gaza; Israeli soldiers showing a missile crater in a field, Pakistan; protests against a school massacre, 21 Taliban killed.
Then… A little Ebola, a little HIV, a flood in the Atlas Mountains before getting back to the wars – this time starting with Libya before moving on to Nigeria and Boko Harem.
At lunch Walid made a surprisingly convincing argument that ISIS was created by the American CIA (everybody here seems to be believe this, even Belkacem the university lecturer). Walid’s argument runs that the organisation suddenly appeared from nowhere equipped with large guns and sophisticated intelligence. Oil prices crash, Russia is weakened, arms are sold. I don’t quite believe this but it’s hard to argue against the logic… In a way I do agree that the west created ISIS but Walid means that this was done intentionally.
But now Walid and his Father are gone. At the back of my chalet, behind the carefully watered palm trees, is the first line of razorwire and a fence. Behind that is a narrow dirt track that allows the hotel’s armed guards to circle the compound. And beyond all that, hiding the desert, is the high perimeter wall topped with watchtowers and lights. I am a kind of luxury prisoner in a hotel that from the outside looks like a military prison and on the inside resembles a three star resort. This in not a place for tourists; it is designed for the Chinese and European workers from the oil fields and construction projects. The armed guards on the gate won’t allow a foreigner out of this compound without a pre-arranged military guard, so Walid and his father have had to drive into town alone to search once more for the ‘Delegation Securité. Hopefully, this time they will succeed so that I can be carefully escorted to the airport and get out of this place.
Kilometres beneath me, Mali is a dark expanse that I am not able to enter. I am advised that the jihadist war has left the Northeast too dangerous for a white European to travel through. In the growing darkness beneath my plane’s window the landscape remains a mystery.
A dusty wind blew across the hot tarmac as I walked towards the tiny terminal of Ouagadougou International Airport. There was a queue at the entrance where each passenger was directed to wash their hands in a tingling antiseptic soap. A camera opposite filmed each face as it entered the country. Before the regular passport control there was another booth that checked the little orange inoculation booklet that I was given in Berlin. I thought this booklet was only for my records and it was lucky that I actually brought it with me. The booklet isn’t for my benefit – it is a passport for the populations of bacteria and bugs I might be carrying on or inside me.
Now though, I am sitting outside my hotel. I miss my 2-year-old daughter already. She is learning words at an amazing speed and apparently she told a mum at kindergarten that her Daddy is in Ouagadougou – naturally the mum presumed she invented this strange name. When I checked in my bags at the counter in Berlin, the Air France worker laughs at my itinerary. “How do you say that?
“Waga–doogoo” I explained.
The street life is so different from Algeria. Women and men bustle through the loud streets. Suddenly everyone has bodies and they like them. There is a sense of theatre and style. The guys that are sitting backwards on their parked mopeds, chatting to each other and striking poses, know that they look good. There is a showmanship to how people wear their clothes. A knitted ski-hat perched on the very tip of deep black skull – tweaked upwards into a little mount Fuji. A burgundy corduroy hat pulled down almost over the eyes. I am an oddity but that feels ok here.
I am driving across the flat dusty landscape in a beaten-up pickup with two new comrades. Amidou is tall and elegant – he studied English and quotes Milton and Bronte. He has a shop that sells African handmade designs but works on the side for ‘Jovial Productions’. Abdoulaye, our irrepressible driver, is very short. He has a fantastic high-pitched laugh that is almost childlike and which bursts spontaneously and frequently through the rhythm of his speech.
Spaced across the plains like fortifications, we pass ranks of Baobab trees. The gnarled trunks are wider than our pick-up is long. Massive squat water towers with thick, stumpy arms that abruptly end in a crown of twisting, arthritic fingers. They all seem dead but Amidou tells me that when the rainy season comes they will sprout leaves and flower. It is rare though, Amidou says, to see a baobab with leaves.
Standing under a tree, Amidou tells me that one as thick as this might be more than a thousand years old. In my head I calculate that this means when the first white faces appeared on these plains this tree would already have been 800 years old.
Trucks strapped high and leaning over at crazy angles. Bulging bundles of cargo teetering high above their cabs and trailers. They lurch along the potholed roads tilting scarily like drunks on their way home.
Microbuses stuffed full with people and sheep. Mopeds, bikes and more people on the roof. Others holding onto the doors at the back. One young man rides his moped even whilst its strapped upright on the roof – his black coat pulled around him and flapping in the wind. The traffic must stop for the ‘Peage’ controls. Swarms of sellers mob the microbuses’ windows, thrusting nuts, sesame biscuits, carrots and little bags of water through the windows.
Everywhere thin, dusty plastic bags are snagged on stems and rocks. They flutter like huge flocks of tatty birds settled across the land. Sun-bleached colours; black, blue and a ghostly see-through white. Street-pigs, street-dogs, street-vultures and, in the smaller villages, street-cows. All roaming amongst the detritus, turning things over, looking for scraps. A bunch of kids kick sections of discarded watermelon to a happy cow.
Big furry bundles go bumping past, strapped onto the backs of the flocks of Honda 50cc mopeds. A web of strings and ropes of different colours knit together brown bundles of legs and snouts. Sheep. It’s only when one of the snouts poking out of the bundle bleats repeatedly that I realise they are actually alive. Moped after moped weave through the dust and potholes, each with a brown star of fur attached. All utterly passive except for this one angry lamb, unhappy with his lot in life.
Little stands of metal or rickety wood are dotted along the roadsides. Lines of bottles filled with a brownish murky fluid – the remains of the stained labels sometimes showing the bottle’s original use; Special Dry Gin, Lola Pastis. For days I’ve been wondering what this fluid was that everybody must need. Sometimes there is a young girl with five bottles, sometimes a bigger stall with 20 bottles lined up and ready to go. It was only when I finally saw a girl pouring bottle after bottle into an old Mercedes at the side of a dusty track, that the secret was revealed. It struck me that this was the first time in my life I had seen the colour of petrol.
Abdoulaye drives the old Toyota expertly. I am in the back where the cooler air from the basic air-conditioning doesn’t quite reach, and the shocks from the road seem less cushioned by the aged suspension. I’m sharing the back seat with piles of baggage that collapse on me periodically. The benefit though, is that I can listen to the uninterrupted ebb and flow of the conversations between these two old driving companions. Sometimes, there are passages in fast French that I can just about understand but mostly they converse in Mossi, the central Burkinabe language. The pattern of the conversations have a beautiful cadence and flow. The passionate discourse is woven with a syntax of high exclamations when something is deemed mad, too expensive or unbelievable (something like an American “Jeez” but much higher and falling away at the end). There is also a little double-kiss delivered with a slow shaking head when the speaker wants to underline that something is incomprehensibly bad. Invariably the other companion agrees and adds their own emphasis. Amidou is the more earnest of the two and when passionate about a subject he raps the dashboard in percussive stabs; once, twice or three times for special emphasis.
Our progress is occasionally halted by the crossing of nonchalant animals. Cattle with long dignified faces and a slow catwalk gait. When Abdoulaye honks his horn, they turn theirs heads and look with eyes full of pity and disdain – oblivious to us and the swarms of mopeds buzzing around them.
In Algeria there were cats everywhere. Mangy, hungry but tolerated – slinking under the tables looking for scraps from the lamb brochettes.
In Burkina there are dogs. Lean, fast hounds that leap out of the little village compounds, barking at our pickup. Amidou explains that the Arabs interpret the Prophet’s word to mean that dogs are unclean. In Burkina they don’t seem to mind but curiously, cats are entirely absent.
The hotel at Quargaye is the worst of my life. Cracked and stained remnants of a toilet seat with a broken flush. A brittle layer of ancient dry dust settled on everything except the bed sheet (thankfully this is fresh but is still patterned with stains). One short fluorescent tube above the bed whose harsh light almost reaches the ‘bathroom’. Windows and doors that don’t close.
I am so glad I brought a mosquito net with me. The idea of it was claustrophobic but the reality is like a silken childhood den. A delicate force field spun around me, repelling the unseen or imaginary arrays of mosquitoes. Each buzz is loaded by my imagination with an array of Hellfire missiles marked: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and (irrationally) Ebola – but within my shroud I feel like a minor princess.
Waking up is a slow process. Through the walls of the hotel, before the first light and the call to prayer, I can hear the snorting and rasping of walruses – the clearing of ears, noses and throats afflicted by the constant dust. As I’m gradually woken I soon have to join this strange dawn chorus.
The dust is as pervasive as the rain in England – Amidou and Abdoulaye are regularly popping pills in the front of our car. Medication, they explain, against the effects the dust in their throats. Amidou says that although they may look healthy, at this time of year, in the dry season, everybody is ill.
“Je suis Charlie…” Je suis Charlie…” Amidou is angry. “Non, je ne suis pas Charlie” (the ‘pas’ expressed with a Gallic explosion of disdain). “Are some people worth less than others?” he asks.
Two thousand people have been killed in Nigeria and almost nobody noticed.
He is angry with Africa’s leaders who don’t mark the event with marches and tears like the French. He is angry with the western media and it feels like he is perhaps angry with me. I asked if he is worried that this might spread to Burkina. Amidou explains that Burkina is a mixed and tolerant place – Muslims, Catholics, Evangelicals all seem to live easily amongst each other. But he explains that yes, it could come here. Nigeria was the same. Ten years ago Boko Harem didn’t exist, but Amidou’s fear is not that the Burkinabe might also get caught up in ideas of hate and truth. Amidou explains that his fear is that it might happen here for the same reason it did in Nigeria.
“Boko Harem is created by the Americans. How else is this possible? How can they suddenly have better weapons than the Nigerian Army? New tanks. How can Nigeria do nothing against these people? Nigeria is powerful… a wealthy country… No, no this is not possible. America has done this because they want control of Nigeria, because they want to sell arms, because they want to control the oil”.
Back in Waga (as the locals say). I decide to take coffee in the ‘Cappuccino’ over the road from my hotel. I am sitting outside with a decent cup of coffee and then a beer. A beautiful woman beyond the perimeter (demarcated from the street by a line of potted plants) catches my eye. A few seconds later she sits at the table opposite me. I try not to catch her look again but it’s difficult. Each time I allow my eyes to raise beyond the top of my laptop’s screen, her dark African eyes are trying to lock onto my pale blue European ones. I stare harder and harder into my laptop. Eventually she succeeds with the only other single white guy at the tables. They exchange many smiles and easy laughs and after a beer they get up and walk back across the road (to the hotel I think). Another older white guy walks in with four young beautiful Burkinabe girls. I guess this place is seedy-central but my radar seems to be way off line here. I thought this was a reassuringly normal cafe.
After a long-haul flight above Europe and Africa, I arrive in another new land – this time at the edge of the ocean. Nii, who has planned my journey and will be my assistant in Ghana, spots me amid the chaos of the arrivals gate. It’s hot, my clothes were chosen for a winter day in London and we are meeting for the first time. I’m a little confused.
Nii shepherds me through the hawkers and taxi drivers and escorts me to my hotel. I gladly leave Ghana behind for a few hours of proper sleep. At 6.20am the reception calls me. I fail a number of times to understand what they want to say. Eventually I grasp that they have woken me up to tell me that the electricity is back on. I’m totally confused and entirely awake. A big hot sun is just rising behind the rooftops.
We have driven to the north of the country along erratic roads and have long since left the last shreds of tarmac behind us. Richard, our driver, negotiates the red dust tracks in silence and Nii is horrified that there is no working CD-player or radio in our smart 4×4. The car belongs to a tour company that usually employs Richard to ferry rich white tourists across the countryside.
He is withdrawn and seems confused by both our mission and Nii’s role.
As we travel further south, the landscape begins to change. Up near the Burkina and Togo borders the trees were still spaced out across flat open planes but as we have slowly progressed south, the vegetation has grown thicker. The trees have crept closer together until their branches have begun to touch. There are more palm trees and mangos and now the odd banana plantation has begun to appear by the roadside. The grass has grown higher and thicker, and the undergrowth has begun to merge with vines drooping down from the tangle of branches above.
Along the roads between towns, almost every person, man or woman, swings a long blade nonchalantly by their side. The Ghanaians call the huge knife a ‘Cutlass’ and it lends the walkers a piratical, dangerous air. Actually, the knife is employed in the farming of yams or cassava but is also used for simply cutting a way through the undergrowth.
Rising above everything else, at intervals, are strange trees I’ve never seen or heard of. Excessively tall, their elegant bare trunks climb four or five storeys high into the air – smooth and shiny like a young snake. Right at the top there is a dense crown of green leaves raised needlessly high above the canopy below. At their base, the trunks sport fins like an early Russian rocket. The thin wooden blades emerge from the trunk above head-height and run down into the earth forming a kind of organic flying buttress.
Left alone by the side of the road, there are often sacks of yams or charcoal – presumably waiting to be collected. I ask Nii if nobody ever steals the sacks? Nii explains an elaborate system of beliefs that act as an apparently reliable deterrent. Theft is rare because the perpetrator lives in fear of the ‘small gods’. After two or three days, the aggrieved party makes a sacrifice of a goat or chicken to honour their personal god (apparently Antua, a little river god, is particularly effective and deadly). The god receives the soul of the animal in the spilt blood and the person still has the flesh of the animal to eat. In return for the soul, the god will enact a deadly form of retribution upon the thief.
Everybody, it seems, believes in the system of gods to some degree. Nii tells me, for instance, that professional footballers can sometimes be seen walking backwards onto the football pitch at the behest of their own small god. But it seems that people are somehow embarrassed about these beliefs – the footballers often hiding their backwards walk by pretending to turn and wave to a friend in the crowd.
The system seems to work amazingly well. In town I am always worried about my suitcase left in view in the back of the car (containing laptop, hard-drive and camera). Nii and Richard, though, look at me as if I have an odd nervous condition. They assure me no-one will break into a car partly because of this belief system, partly because everywhere is so full of people and life that there is no space left for thieves to operate.
The ‘small gods’ are ‘small’ in comparison to the larger monotheistic systems imported from the Middle East. In the south of the country we often pass stone buildings that loom above the ramshackle roofs of the towns. The arched stone-windows and bell-towers of the Anglican churches look like they have landed from another universe – only the patched tin-roofs fit with the African skyline. In the north the minarets of mosques rise above the roofs. For now though, the three systems of belief seem to cohabit and overlap amicably, if chaotically.
Further south we reach a stretch of brand new road. A skin of tarmac has been laid down onto a wide bed of flattened bush. As we’ve travelled, I have slowly begun to grasp the full cycle of how tarmac roads evolve back into dirt tracks.
First, potholes begin to appear randomly and intermittently across the smooth surface and at this stage Richard can still swerve across the road in a delicate ballet to avoid them. Then the potholes become more frequent and the path between them ever more convoluted. Cars and trucks travelling in opposite directions now veer across all parts of the wide carriageway ahead.
Then the holes multiply until there is no viable path left between them. At this point Richard sometimes chooses to leave one wheel on the still mostly intact ribbon of tarmac at the very edge of the road and the other, a foot lower, on the levelled dirt strip that runs along the side of the road. The potholes then start to join up until finally there are only isolated islands of black in amongst the flat, red dust. These tarmac islands, rising about half-a-foot out of the dirt, then in turn become the objects that Richard must dodge. Once the road has reverted entirely back to dirt things actually become slightly easier. It’s slower and dustier, but at least we can drive in a relatively straight line and there are no vertebrae-jarring jolts when a wheel drops down into an unavoidable chasm between tarmac and dirt.
My photographs have taken longer than expected and now the sun has dropped from the sky (like it always does in these regions at around six o’clock at night). In the gathering darkness, clouds of dust are rushing towards us through the headlights of our 4×4. I have no idea how Richard can see anything ahead, let alone sense the deep potholes he swerves around intuitively. The blackness reduces our world to a boiling sphere of dust illuminated ahead of us.
When we finally arrive in Yendi the town is dark. There is yet another ‘Light Off’. Some stalls have a lantern, some trucks have lights but otherwise everything moves in darkness. We find the ‘lodge’ but it also has no lights. They tell us they can’t start the generator till 8, so we decide to try to find something to eat and blunder off into the darkness.
In a back courtyard someone with a generator and a fire is making Fufu. They dish out lumps of unidentifiable meat and the soft slimy ‘dumplings’ – all floating in a delicious, oily soup. In the light from Nii’s phone, we eat the Fufu and red stew with our hands. The generator grinds in the darkness and a crescent moon drifts on it’s back above our heads – hanging exhausted in the dusty sky.
The people we meet in the street seem to be almost universally welcoming and friendly; interested in who we are and why I’m here. The people who end up in my photos, the people selling things in their stalls or the women running their ‘chop shops’ (food shacks by the side of the road) – all seem to be glad that I’m here or at least are tolerant and generous with their time. But as soon as we step into a hotel, or a waiting room or anywhere that Ghanaians are put in a position of service, there is a Jekyll to Hyde transformation. The friendly smiling faces become stone-faced, implacable and surly. They will barely answer a question and seem insulted that they are asked to serve you. It’s hard not to be paranoid but I notice that the rich Ghanaian businessmen receive exactly the same reception and as soon as we are out of the door, the joyful, loud, smiling world resumes.
We arrive into the loud chaos and dirt of Accra. For the first time since Algeria, we are stopped from taking a photo by an angry set of policemen. Nii attempts to argue our case but quickly retreats when it becomes clear this is futile (he later tells me that officers were actually looking for a bribe). Nii solves our problem with a phone-call to an old friend. We drive for two hours through almost stationary traffic to pick up the old schoolmate, who now joins us wearing his Ghanaian military uniform (even though he is off-duty).
We then resume our photography in Accra’s teaming streets, docks, and railway lines protected by the magical shield of a uniform. At the coast we reach the old colonial area of Jamestown. I wanted to see the remnants of the British colonial past. From this fort and trading post the Atlantic slave trade was invented, or at least refined, but there is little left to see. The buildings and traces that do still exist are collapsing, boarded-up or squatted by the homeless. One part of the fort that we try to gain access to has been appropriated by a band of self-appointed caretakers who demand a small fee for their ‘stewardship’ of the collapsing rubble of history.
But we are in a good mood – we have almost finished. Leaving the market in Jamestown, a woman walks closely behind the three of us, along an empty litter-strewn street. She comes nearer and is singing something just behind our heads. She is improvising the text of a song – adapting a Bob Marley classic. It is clear her words are meant for the ears of Nii and Richard.
You are laughing – with him.
He will kill – you,
You can not kill – him…”
We all instinctively remain silent and turn off abruptly into another street.
I have reached the end of the line.
We took the last photograph on the unused beach next to the industrial port with the container ships studding the horizon. There are still two days before my flight back to Europe, so I check into a tourist hotel on the ocean. Even though the hotel is called Palm Beach, a huge fence prevents access to the white sand and ocean waves. Although it keeps the rich tourists and Ghanaian businessmen in, the barrier is actually designed to keep the beach hawkers and vagrants out. No-one though, seems to want to go further than the palm-fringed swimming pool and ‘African Village’ bar. Except me.
Further down the coast I find a bathing place with a row of bars, sun loungers and shade. In the waves there is a flock of happy laughing faces crashing around amongst the white foam of the breaking ocean waves. Sunlight is glistening off dark, black skin. Beautiful bodies are leaping and diving – playing games of dare with the curling, collapsing waves. The impossible curves of young Ghanaian women in small bikinis and the muscular bodies of lean young men are sparkling in the salt and sun.
In amongst this undulating flock though, is the occasional ungainly and older white body. A delighted old man with a joyous smile pats a beach ball back and forth with a group of athletic teenage boys. Pot-bellied engineers saunter into the surf holding the hands of exceptionally beautiful Ghanaian girls. On the surface everyone seems blissfully happy. Complex levels of transaction seem to be taking place. Some couples appear to be genuine, if asymmetric, holiday romances. Other pairings look more temporary and financial. It’s fascinating partly because it’s so hard to tell what exactly is going on.
I doze and dream, happy to be in one place for a day. I watch the waves crash onto the continent, the container-ships slip over the horizon and the occasional plane paint the sky.