Extreme Commuting in West Africa

“Why no Honda?” It was a good question and one for which we had no ready answer. The man who had asked it, clad in pinstripe trousers and a white shirt, was Alhadji Koroma, chief of Moboima village in the Bo district of Sierra Leone. We had just turned up at his hut covered from head to toe in sweat and dust of Trumpesque orange after 12 hours of gruelling cycling.

Turning orange on a road under construction by the Senegalese

Work travel in Africa can be a drab affair consisting, as it often does, of unreliable airlines, congested cities and soulless hotels. So, after discovering that I needed to be in Liberia for a few days of meetings I started looking for ways to enliven the trip. Since the outbreak of Ebola in 2014 the only European airline flying to this part of the world is Brussels Airlines with a flight that stops in Sierra Leone on route. The natural conclusion, therefore, was to disembark in Freetown and complete the final 500km of the journey by bicycle. Fortunately I managed to recruit R, a veteran entrepreneur in West Africa and long term resident of Sierra Leone, as a travelling companion.

Our first task was to buy bicycles. For this we visited the bustling street stalls of downtown Freetown. When asked where the bikes had come from the vendor, a former soldier with biceps bulging under a very tight t-shirt, replied “Dey come in di container from oba yander”. We chose not to ask how they came to be in the containers in the first place for fear of incriminating ourselves.

Undecided between thinner tyres that would enable us to travel fast on good roads and fatter tyres that would cope better on bad roads we opted for one of each, thereby ensuring that one of us would be uncomfortable under all conditions. But we did manage to find two bikes with wheels that were approximately round, handlebars that were vaguely straight and brakes that generally worked.

With just four days to complete the trip we set off in the half-light of dawn. Escaping the traffic of the Freetown peninsula as fast as possible we soon turned off the main road and onto dirt tracks. Our luggage was minimalist although, as I was to discover, R had inexplicably managed to find space for an electric tooth-brush and a soap-dish.

Our route took us along the famous railway that used to run from Freetown right across the country to Pendembu. It was on this line that Graham Greene travelled in 1935 on his mysterious trip into Liberia, the subject of his book ‘Journey Without Maps’. We had maps, although as became increasingly clear, place names, distances and the status of roads were not always entirely reliable.

For some reason I had thought of Sierra Leone as relatively flat. This was an odd assumption given that its name literally translates as ‘Lion Mountains’. There is some uncertainty about whether the Portuguese explorers were referring to the shape of the mountains looking like lions or the noise of the thunderstorms sounding like lions. However, it was probably overly optimistic of me to think that the mountains were also metaphorical and the first day found us sweating our way up steep hills. R had the satisfaction of bending two different pedals in the process, such was his effort.

Each evening we faced the dilemma of where to stay. Larger towns tended to offer the relative comfort of a ‘guest house’ while in smaller villages one received more friendliness and hospitality (albeit with more rats); we generally opted for the latter and were not disappointed. One evening, after dining on local rice and ground nut curry we were savouring the last of our tobacco when an elderly villager approached. “People dem tell me it no fine for welbody” he asked, seeking confirmation. I left R to explain in his best Krio that yes, smoking is bad for your health but we had decided that the trade-off was worthwhile in moderation. In a country with a life expectancy of less than 50 years smoking related diseases are far from being the top medical priority.

The (former) bridge at Mabang

The bridge at Mabang had recently collapsed but fortunately there was a cable ferry (well, small pontoon) to take us across the river. In wet season it can require a team of men to fight against the current but when we crossed it was very calm and we were able to spend the journey refuelling on energy bars and fresh coconuts. Signposts proudly proclaimed that the EU would be funding the construction of a new bridge in 2016 but so far there was little visible evidence of progress.

During the second day we re-emerged onto tarmac roads. While this enabled us to progress faster it made conversation harder and exposed us to the peril of speed-bumps. In the UK speed-bumps work as a deterrent and are therefore brightly coloured and publicised. But in Sierra Leone they are a form retribution and are disguised so as to punish unsuspecting drivers or, in this case, cyclists.

Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, is a dusty and chaotic place with little reason to attract visitors. For hungry cyclists it does however have one redeeming feature: its thriving diamond market means that one can find excellent Lebanese food. We gorged ourselves before getting back on the bikes and rolling out of town.

Being out-paced by the local school children

Passing through villages we became accustomed to children shouting out excitedly and running alongside us. Quite suddenly we went from being ‘Oporto’ to being ‘Pumwe’ and knew that we had crossed from the Temne north of the country to the Mende south.

From the town of Zimmi to the Liberian border the road deteriorated fast and it was easy to imagine how rainy season reduces it to an impassable quagmire. But after three long days we finally arrived at Jendema, a small settlement with all the charm one associates with border towns. It was here that next morning we separated, R turning back to Freetown and me heading on to Monrovia (although I ended up hitching a lift for the last 50km).

Fortunately a colleague had flown in with a bag of clean clothes and work paraphernalia so I was able to turn up to my meetings on Monday sunburnt and saddle-sore but respectably dressed, and undoubtedly enlivened.

For anyone wanting a better prepared and less rushed experience of cycling in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the charity Street Child are organising a trip in May 2017: https://westafricacyclechallenge.com/