It’s dark by the time we arrive in Forokonia, a small village in Guinea’s mountainous border region with Sierra Leone. We’re surrounded by dense forest, and the contours of a nearby mountain are clearly visible against the bright, star-lit sky. My driver turns the engine of his motorbike off. The silence is overwhelming. Hushed voices, soft footsteps and the beams of cheap, Chinese-made flashlights are the only indications we are not alone here. I’m thrilled by the thought that the next day we might reach our destination: the source of the Niger River.
In the morning, we – Samba Diakité, my local friend and travel companion, and I – had set out from Banian, a small rural trading town straddling the main road in southeastern Guinea. It was only a hundred kilometers from Banian to Forokonia, but it had taken us more than twelve long hours to cover the distance.
This was partly due to the poor infrastructure of the region. Only a handful of urban centers in this underdeveloped part of the country are connected by paved roads. Mud tracks and rocky trails inevitably make up the bigger part of any trip to the region’s smaller towns and rural villages.
However, the many encounters with local officials, police chiefs and military commanders on the way had been the most time-consuming aspect. Each of them had jumped on the opportunity to demand a ‘present’ or a ‘voluntary contribution’ and the negotiations had been endless.
That evening, after one of the local elders of Forokonia had offered us a bed for the night, Samba and I felt exhausted and excited at the same time. There was no official purpose to our trip (which took place in early 2011) and it had been hard to explain to the locals what exactly we were doing here.
Our aim was to find the source of the Niger River, the birthplace of a lifeline that sprouts from the earth 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the Atlantic coast, and defiantly turns its back to the ocean, preferring dusty interior over the lush and breezy coastal regions. It has been a bulwark against the ever-encroaching Sahara desert for thousands of years. The Niger has made life possible in places that otherwise would have been uninhabitable.
The great bend of the Niger River, seen from space, creates a green arc through the brown of the Sahel and Savanna. The green mass on the left is the Inner Niger Delta, and on the far left are tributaries of the Senegal River. Photo: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC
Banian, the starting point of our trip, was buzzing with activity. Hundreds of people had flocked to the town for the weekly market. The majority of the market vendors were local villagers and small-scale farmers, selling the surplus of their harvests to buy essential goods: tools, cloth, batteries, cosmetics and cigarettes.
Most of the market stalls were simply a cloth or a few newspapers spread out on the ground with small heaps of fruits and vegetables stacked on top of them. Buying anything was surprisingly difficult. The vendors were predominantly women, and they were so caught up in the conversations with their neighbors – discussing the latest news and exchanging the latest gossip – that it was hard to get their attention. The weekly market was as much a social affair as it was an economic one, and the former clearly took priority over the latter.
Samba kept on ridiculing my attempts at buying some supplies for our trip. “You have no idea how out of place you look,” he laughed, before finally giving in to my desperate pleas to help me out. With his support, the job was done in no time. For the total sum of just one dollar we bought four bananas, three oranges, a packet of cigarettes, one liter of water, bread and two fresh hibiscus juices. Finally, our trip could begin.
Finding transport for the first leg of our journey was easy. The driver of a shared taxi agreed to take us to Banbaya, a village at the foot of the Loma mountain range that forms the border between Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Together with eleven other passengers we squeeze ourselves in a 20-year-old Toyota station wagon. The driver skillfully packs every available space in the car with goods and people. Samba and I occupy one of the front seats, and another passenger shares the driver’s seat; four people sit in the back, with three kids standing between their legs, and two women occupy the trunk, which is left open, while one of them nurses a baby. Several large bales of merchandise are strapped to the roof and serve as seats for an additional four men.
At this point, I’ve traveled quite a bit in Africa, and have become well versed in the packing and stacking procedures that come along with traveling in local buses and shared taxis called ‘sept-place’ (seven seats – an understatement). But this driver is breaking all the records. Eighteen people plus luggage in a station wagon.