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The International Writers Magazine
: Senegal or Guinea- France in Africa

Life Between Two Nations
Matt Brown

It looked like just another collection of small, round, mud-walled huts. A thick, bare baobab tree kept a solitary watch as a woman with a baby tied to her back rhythmically pounded cassava leaves behind a bamboo fence. A few dusty, half naked kids rolled around in the dry grass while an old man, fingering a string of prayer beads, lounged beneath a mango tree. To me riding through on my bike, this was just another West African village, but these people called it home.

Having just passed the Guinean border post, I had yet to reach the Senegalese side. I was riding through the 13 km stretch of No Man’s Land. And that got me wondering, "What do these people call home?"
I left the mountainous Guinean town of Mali-ville early in the morning, hoping to ride my bike to Kedougou, Senegal by that evening. The 120 km route steeply descended the Fouta Djallon mountains and the first two hours were an exhilarating downhill coast requiring not one bit of pedaling. I passed through thick bamboo forests inhabited by curious baboons who barked out at this strange two-wheeled intruder.

Though people had told me the road was passable by car, I couldn’t imagine any vehicle but a tank making it up the boulder strewn track. It was so steep and treacherous that I had to constantly keep the brakes on, and soon my forearms began to bulge like Popeye on steroids.

Around noon, I hit the Guinean border post and found little more than a few mud huts and a woman selling mangoes. I steeled myself for the hassle that is Third World officialdom. Knowing that a little smooth talking helps speed up African bureaucracy and minimizes bribe requests, I entered the Army hut and greeted the border guards in the few words I had learned of the local language, Pular. It was immediately apparent who the chief soldier was, the oldest, fattest, and dressed in the nicest fatigues. He was lounging on a bamboo cot, and I walked over and sat next to him to shoot the breeze.
"How’s your work?" I asked in Pular. "And the family, are they all healthy? What village is this? Lougee? Is there any evil here in Lougee?"

A little local language goes a long way, especially with gun-toting officials who could have made my life a lot more difficult. The chief soldier quickly warmed up to me and I could tell the border formalities would be no problem. I surveyed the hut and counted four younger soldiers in ratty looking fatigues squatting on low wooden stools around a fuzzy radio crackling out a Salif Keita tune. One of the soldiers crouched over a tiny pink teapot above a small charcoal fire. At length, he daintily poured the brown, steaming brew using just his thumb and fore finger into petite glasses and passed them around reminding me of my little sister playing tea party when she was five. I sat and sipped a round of strong, sweet tea with the soldiers, then the chief stamped my passport and I was on my way into No Man’s Land.

I wasn’t expecting to see anyone until I got to the Senegal side, so when I arrived at this small village between two nations, I couldn’t help but wonder, "What country are these people from?"
When there are national elections, which leader are these people coerced into voting for, Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade or Guinea’s Lansana Conte? If someone in the village started a Britney Spears internet site, would the web site end in .gn or .sn? Supposing an enterprising villager decided to open a Mercedes Benz dealership in the village, would I be paying for that new SL series in Guinean Francs or Senegalese CFA? What if one of the village inhabitants took up the luge and was good enough to qualify for the Winter Olympics? Behind which flag would he march into the Olympic Stadium in 2006?

These are the kind of hard-hitting questions I couldn’t let go unanswered, so I stopped my bike to chat with the woman pounding leaves. I asked in French (my Pular only goes so far), "Is this Guinea?"
"Yes," she answered.
Surprised that she even understood French, I posed a follow-up question. "Is this Senegal," I asked.
"Yes," came the reply.
"That’s more like it," I thought. Just for final confirmation, I asked, "Is this France?"
"Yes," she said.
Wow! I had biked all the way to France! I would have never guessed that the French still live in straw-roofed huts.

I rode on a little further past the village and sat down on a nationless rock to eat a tuna sandwich and ponder my unanswered questions. Maybe these villagers can’t be bothered by archaic, nonsensical national borders drawn up by greedy European leaders at the Conference of Berlin over 100 years ago. Perhaps they simply consider themselves African and are content to farm their corn and raise their cattle without needing to cling to a synthetic national identity. Or, maybe they have a Guinean Red, Yellow, and Green waiting in one of their huts to wave proudly at the luge gold medal ceremony.
© Matt Brown April 2004

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