Jonah: Today was another strikingly beautiful rain-washed day. Ashley woke around 6 to go film the Salamatu, the mother of the family next door, grind beans and make fried cakes. Each time we passed Salamatu’s house in the last few days, she’d wind her hands in a circle and say, “Video. Cook, cook,” and smile, revealing tar-black gums. Her excitement about having her day-to-day tasks documented is immense. A few days ago her boys and I were playing Frisbee outside the house. She saw the camcorder and her face blossomed; she immediately strode within 6 inches of the screen and spoke a river of Temne expressions with accompanying hand-gestures. She’s illiterate, “ignorant about education,” her boys said. She used broken English and Krio to get across the point that still, she wants to learn, wishes she could have gone to school. “I see,” I said. “Still, she’s a professional at raising children and you can’t get education from that.” Her youngest boy Alhasan translated it into Temne. Salamatu covered her mouth with a hand covered in rice and closed her eyes.
Around noon we left for the Guinean border town of Pamlap. Arun, the AMNet co-ordinator here in Kambia, said that the border guards usually let people cross over into Pamlap without a visa to buy supplies. Commodities are significantly cheaper in Guinea. While Arun assured us of the normalcy of it all, he simultaneously spoke of the great trouble Guineans continue to suffer under a junta regime and the “bad manners” of the Guineans.
Borders make me smile: waiting in jail in Greece for my film to develop because, while taking a picture of a grove of trees near the Turkish border, they thought I was a spy. Six hours later, the exposures showed shadowy leaves reflected on the glistening snow and a few pictures of pigeons on minarets. Hi-tech spywork, indeed. They handed me my passport and I had to literally yank it out of the officer’s hand. He must have been really bored that day.
Spending the night in a jail in Zimbabwe because the Budget rental office in Namibia gave us incorrect papers. Our Vehicle Identification Number on our Toyota Corolla didn’t match the documents so the Zimbabwean police thought it was stolen. They called INTERPOL, frowned and huffed. Had us sit with petty thieves and skinny men selling bootlegged Nike t-shirts. I thought we were going to be beaten to a pulp when they directed us down a narrow black hallway that sweated misery. All was fine, of course, but only after a dozen hours in a dingy cell and many chest-heaving parades by the various officers, boys mostly.
Riding in the backseat of a classic 70’s station wagon with fake wood paneling between Montenegro and Albania with two middle-aged men, who were really probably only in their 30s. The wagon was the only car we had seen in hours. It was 10:30 at night. Having been told it was a completely lawless border area full of bandits, we jumped at the chance for a ride. After a few hundred yards into the trip, we discovered two men were ludicrously drunk. We then prayed. Profusely. The men chain-smoked with the windows rolled up for about 80 miles before we made it safely in Skhodra, Albania, greeted by generators on fire and gunshots in the rainy night.
Today, however, the border scene was much tamer. The bright orange dirt road smeared its way up a hill that led to the Guinea border. We crossed the Kolenteen river, huge and bordered by dense greenery. Smooth rocks arched out of the water like the backs of hippos.
A local NGO, Association for the Well-Being of Rural Communities and Development (ABC) was conducting an ‘Edutainment’ piece at the border and conducting HIV exams with results being given in five minutes. Two comedians acted out common issues between the sexes. A few dozen children stared, some sitting in the dirt some standing with innocent hands on hips. Small groups of adults hovered outside the entrance to the HIV testing facility, a splintered shack. The gaps on the walls let in cloudy light. One young man waited for his test results with arms folded and a keen interest in my shoes. His life would perhaps be irrevocably changed in the next 2-3 minutes and he spent that time asking me questions like, “Where are your shoes from? What did they cost?” Felt like we were shooting the breeze in a locker room. The volunteer called his name, said he was negative. The man turned to me and said, “I am still protected, yes,” like a schoolboy satisfied with a C+ on a science lab.
We left our passports with a languid man at a desk in the customs office and sped off for the border. Felt like leaving a kid in a department store to fend for himself, only on purpose. Ashley’s blond hair was bright against the mahogany neck of her driver and the motorbike made slight swishes around fuel-filled mud puddles. We past three more checkpoints before reaching the official border. This international border crossing consisted of two wooden shacks, a piece of bamboo that stretched across the dirt road, and a Guinean officer in fatigues who managed a string tied to the pole. Two others sat, wrinkled their noses and squinted, this being the obligatory, international expression for government workers under a military dictatorship. One Guinean guard said we didn’t need our passports, so we got on the bikes to continue. A short, grumpy officer then came around the corner and said we had to go back for them. Okay. Arun and Ashley got on their bike and returned to customs. I waited with the officers.
The difference in demeanor between the Guinean and Sierra Leonean guards was immense. While the Guineans sat and tried to look fierce, a Sierra Leonean guard came up behind me and clapped me on the shoulder: “What is your name, Sir?” “I’m Jonah, you?” “I’m Mathias.” “Hey, that’s my middle name,” I said. “Ah, then we are brothers!” “Sounds good, Mathias. Where are you from?” “Kambia, of course!” He lolled his neck around, chuckled, and thrust out his hand. Our handshake soon transformed to a loose hand-holding that lasted for a few minutes. He pressed my hand occasionally, as if pumping my palm would illicit great amounts of information. I looked back at the Guineans and their expressions had changed to those of forlorn puppies who are left on the porch while the others get to go out and play.
Ashley and Arun returned a few minutes later. No luck. Passports had to stay at the Sierra Leonean border. Usually Arun crosses with frequency and with no need of a visa or passport and has done so before with foreigners. He reiterated the fact that Guineans are extremely paranoid, especially about spies. I told him no problem, my spying days were over. We got on our bikes. Mathias rushed out of the shack and brought me a pen and paper, directed me where to write my name and number, and said he’d be in touch. He laughed and slapped me again on the back. I waved at the Guinean guards and said, “Au revoir,” in the worst French imaginable. One of the guards managed a smile and waved weakly. We then kicked up some dirt headed toward the town of Rokupr where we’d secure boat passage for the trip to Freetown the following week. The rain began to fall. The slightly soggy roads were soon filled with rivulets of rainwater that bisected each other, making eager passage to the River Kolenteen.