Author’s note: After my recent post on the famine in the Sahel, I was contacted by a reader and writer who I have featured before on my blog, Chloe the founder of C.R.E.E.R, a non-trafficking organization focusing on the Ivory Coast. A conversation began on how famine and trafficking were inter-related and I asked her if she would like to do write a post on the matter. Here is what Chloe has to say.
The real stories behind the headlines in Africa
Following Thirdeyemom’s post about famine in the Sahel, I suddenly realised that for many the concepts of Africa are a little skewed, predominantly by the media in whichever part of the world you live in.
Let me go back to 2006, I was in Guinea Bissau and Guinea, there are three Guinea’s in Africa: Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Guinea (sometimes referred to as Guinea Conakry (after its capital city). The African Guineas are not to be confused with Papua New Guinea which is thousands of miles away from Africa, just north of Australia.
Guinea Bissau was a Portuguese colony until 1973, and has experienced its fair share of civil wars and coup d’états. Guinea has suffered for years under dictatorships since the French gave its independence in 1958. The Guineans of both countries are incredibly poor with some of the world’s poorest average annual incomes; the populations are made up of many ethnic groups with a large majority of both populations being Muslim.
My trip to Guinea Conakry was rather awkward; the previous night I was in Bambadinca, Guinea Bissau where there wasn’t anywhere to stay, a large extended Muslim family of three-generations took me in for the night, fed me and I gave out some clothes for the children that I had been carrying with me. I explained in French with one son translating for me that it was Christmas Eve for me; usually families would be together at home but being with this family meant a lot more than giving material gifts.
Waking up on Christmas morning to a fire being lit, cockerels crowing and the children of this extended family all awaking I said my goodbyes. I tried to find accommodation before the border but yet again I was stuck in the border town of Quebo in Guinea Bissau with nowhere to stay on Christmas Day. It was a choice of sleeping on the veranda outside the police station or getting a truck which would get me to Boke, Guinea that night I was told.
We set off at 4 o’clock with adults and children sitting on sacks of nuts being transported over the border. I did end up in Guinea that night but in the small village of Kandiafara split from its twin across the river, which we traversed to in dug-out canoes the next morning. The Guineans on the truck were extremely concerned about my sleeping arrangements in the village; they paid (and refused my payment) for a hut belonging to one of the younger men in the village who slept in another hut with the rest of the family.
The villagers had very little and lived on subsistence farming with the additional income from ferrying passengers and supplies across the Kogon River. There was a pulley barge system that had long since fallen into disrepair so dug-out canoes replaced it. I was taken by other women on the truck to bathe on the banks of the river, mud up to our ankles we all wiped off the grime of the previous day’s journey. The men were all listening to radios which set off my political alarm bells.
Terrifying travel on the very top of the truck with about 50 other passengers as we lost the second truck that joined us that morning (it toppled over). We had lost our brakes, had several flat tires, didn’t have any headlights nor a first gear which had the truck going fast down a hill in the dark in reverse at one terrifying point. We somehow jubilantly arrived into Boke at about 10 pm the second day. I had really thought it was going to be the last Christmas I’d see; for Guineans this trip is often the norm.
Fast forward to just after New Year 2007 about two weeks after entering Guinea; I was now in Labe, a large town in the north not far from the Senegalese border. I’d already been stuck in Dalaba a little further south due to a petrol shortage. No transport had been moving at all, I had heard that a petrol strike had taken hold in the capital, Conakry. I decided to get out of Labe as protests were starting in Conakry and I realised this could spread north, my alarm bells had been correct! Early in the morning I made it to the ‘gare routiere’ to find transport to Kedougou just over the border in Senegal, a mere 80km away.
We finally set off at midday in an old beaten double cab pick-up. We had several false starts with passengers who had paid for a seat going missing, they had gone off to buy more staple goods to sell in Senegal. We were probably carrying 20 trays of 24 eggs on the roof, I did wonder if those eggs would make it and if my fellow passengers who were selling them would make a profit in the long term. After midday prayers at the mosque, we headed out of Labe, 18 of us squashed into a small double cab pick-up.
The track wasn’t too bad after the tarred road finished about 10km outside Labe. The scenery was stunning, the mood was jovial and we were all getting along well but there was a tension in the air, with the worry of what was happening in Guinea. Our driver, Aboulaye was a lovely man telling me that he had to make this journey to ensure he had the funds to pay for his children’s next semester at primary school. Just outside the village of Koubia, there were screams from the back of the pick-up where the other 12 passengers were sitting. Our fuel tank had just fallen off, with no fuel left in Labe and no chance of any fuel until we reached Kedougou over the Senegalese border, it was very worrying.
The men got to work under the vehicle to save the fuel that wasn’t already lost and we limped into the centre of the village where, as with most places in Africa, they managed to cobble the fuel tank together. As I sat on a porch of a shop, the children were fascinated by me; as in Koundiafara there were many that were malnourished, some with rickets and others in need of basic healthy food which clearly wasn’t available as there was very little to buy or eat in Koubia.
We left at dusk, the road got worse, driving incredibly slowly in the dark on some dreadful tracks, some lights came out of the roadside at around 11 pm and Aboulaye pulled up. To this day I don’t know what there was to eat; we were served two big bowls of rice with sauce which I presumed was okra and some meat to eat with our hands. The others encouraged me to eat the meat, I preferred to just have a little of the rice and sauce; due to seeing the men along the road earlier in the day, who had been killing monkeys in the bush. Aboulaye refused my offer of payment for the meal, yet another Guinean telling me this was their hospitality.
We continued on, I watched Aboulaye getting more and more tired, but he wanted to keep going, he needed fuel in Senegal and to return to keep his family safe from any possible violence. Finally at 2 am we drove up a steep escarpment and saw some trucks and other vehicles, quite a few people sleeping around a fire. We got out and joined them, relieved to be out of our squashed spaces in the double cab. I found a space on a bench with a small boy from another vehicle trying to sleep next to his mother, he was freezing cold. I returned to the vehicle and managed to access my pack finding the last remaining piece of child’s clothing I’d brought with me, putting it on him I got the most enormous smile from him; finally we all slept for a few hours. My 80 km journey was nearing the end, I had met more incredibly kind, generous people for 28 hours!
I’ve always lived by karma, what goes around comes around. The people I met on this trip and others; their joy and hospitality means a lot. We don’t share the same culture, language or religion but they give and share the little they have. My journey was fraught with problems, due to the lack of infrastructure, and their economy being so weak but yet, I had so many wonderful experiences of ‘real’ human beings sharing all they had with me in so many ways.
However the hardship can become so difficult for some they sell their children out of desperation who are put to work elsewhere in the region. It’s why after my meeting with ‘M’ in 2009 that I had to give back and start C.R.E.E.R (To read Chloe’s earlier post on child trafficking, click here). It’s a struggle but someone needs to take action for trafficked children and be the link to gain help.
This is a guest post from Chloe, the Founder & President of C.R.E.E.R in France & Cote d’Ivoire. C.R.E.E.R – Centre de Reinsertion et Education pour les Enfants de la Rue, or in English, a centre of reinsertion and education for street children.
To learn more about C.R.E.E.R, please see below: