Entering Guinea-Bissau

October 14, 2023

Leaving Guinea was easy. Crossing into Guinea-Bissau, however, was a little more interesting. Firstly, the official wanted 55 CFA/visa (~90 USD). This was expected. Secondly, he then charged us an additional “police fee” of 10 CFA. However, he didn’t provide any information about what this was for but did say we would get a receipt. (Guinea-Bissau is Portuguese, and I spoke my pathetic Portuguese, thinking this would help with rapport during the immigration process.)

Unfortunately for him, and no disrespect or humor intended, his job presented two challenges. Firstly, math. On a slip of paper, he wrote down the summary problem:

Well, since I wasn’t sure about the legitimacy of the 10 CFA fee anyway, his total of 110 CFA was fine with me. We barely had the cash anyway, and we wanted some change for unexpected costs (say, a toll or something).

Secondly, his eyesight was failing him (perhaps he is over 50 like me), so he couldn’t easily read or write without glasses, of which he had none. He asked his deputy to read our passport numbers while he entered them into the computer. Then, after stamping the passports, he asked each of us to write in the date. The compensation techniques were clever but surely made his job difficult for him.

With those details complete, he put our papers and the money, minus the 10CFA, into a sealed envelope and told us we were required to have an immigration official accompany us to Gabu, which was 3 hours away on bad roads. In Gabu, the official would hand over the envelope and complete the visa process. Unfortunately, the combination of luggage and our uncomfortableness carrying an official who might give us arbitrary regulation problems of their own choosing, we decided our car only seated two people. Sure, we knew we could put bags on the roof if we were willing, but we weren’t willing since we weren’t sure about the legitimacy of this. (We found no prior trip reports documenting it.) Unfortunately, if we didn’t provide transport, they required us to pay for transportation for the official via scooter. We pushed the bags aside and agreed to allow him to sit in the back. But no, he informed us that the official policy was that he needed to sit in the front. What?? I’m all for being a servant and giving up privilege, but this was getting ridiculous. I refused and told him to sit in the back or arrange his own ride, which I would not pay for. He sat in the back and mostly talked on the phone for the 3-hour journey.

Upon arriving in Gabu, we completed the immigration process, and everything seemed legit, including the 10CFA fee. As we came to find out, but it wasn’t clear at the border, the fee was to pay the official to accompany us. That said, before leaving, the official asked us for money to buy food. What? I refused, and we parted ways.

By this time, it was dark, and finding a campsite was challenging. The one we had marked seemed too close to a village and on a used side road. We decided to cut off into the dense bush and push far enough through the brush that, with lights off, a casual passerby wouldn’t see us, certainly not from a scooter—at least we hoped that was true. We also set pre-sunrise alarms so we could be on the road before folks were up.

We slept undisturbed and continued on our journey before dawn.


Liberia Elections – Borders Closed

October 10, 2023

We actually did know there was an election, and we did make an attempt to leave before the borders closed. More on that shortly. First, regarding the elections. We saw tons of political activity throughout Monrovia in the days prior to the elections. Unlike in Gabon (where we got stuck last time), there was significant involvement from all parties.

More importantly, all the hotels are full of election observers from the African Union, the Ecowas Election Observation Mission, the European Union, and more. We have a strong sense that they are not holding back on trying to make this a fair election. Furthermore, the city is buzzing with election activities. As reported afterwards, 78.86% of around 2.4 million registered voters participated.

In the end, and announced a week later, Liberia’s electoral commission scheduled a presidential election run-off for November 14, after results showed that the two frontrunners, who had failed to secure majority votes, tied instead with percentages of 43.83% for the incumbent and 43.44% for the opposition.
In the end, in spite of getting trapped for four days in Gabon following elections there, we decided to risk staying through the elections here in Liberia based on a number of factors. Firstly, we have a great garage that can work on our car, and it’s able to get parts. This is likely the last high-quality garage before Dakar, Sénégal, more than 2,000 km away, or Northern Morocco, more than 4,000 km away. We would even be tempted to stay for 2-3 days and get everything on our list addressed except the garage suggested we leave out safety concerns based on previous elections. Staying a day or two, however, was probably fine since election results aren’t expected for a few days. Also, by staying, we will hopefully have time to check in with Global Fingerprints, whom we were unable to visit in Gemena, DRC, as we ran out of time. In summary, we are staying through the elections.


Confronted at 2 a.m By Men With Machetes

October 8, 2023

At 2 a.m. this morning, Benjamin and I bolted awake at the sound of men approaching. I jumped out of the tent (we hadn’t put up the ladder) just in time to greet them when they arrived. There were about 15 men, ages 18–30, each with machetes and one with a rifle.
I greeted them in English and reached out to shake the hands of those nearest me. There was lots of animated conversation in what I’m guessing was mostly Dioula with smatterings of French for my benefit. I didn’t understand a word, and they didn’t understand me. More speaking and gesturing continued, devoid of understanding.
They circled the car, tried opening the doors, and tried looking inside the windows. They kicked the wheels and the bumper and tried to look up into the tent where Benjamin was lying as flat as possible.
All guesses I have for them being there result in nefarious judgments. However, after we de-escalated the situation, they resigned to just requesting they take me to their chief. I denied comprehension. After a while, they handed me a phone and had me talk with someone who spoke broken English. He explained that they wanted me to choose between leaving now or going to see the chief and leaving in the morning. I responded with perplexity. The phone was handed back and forth a couple of times. They asked for money. I waited patiently.
At last, after about 30 minutes, one man gestured that all was okay. I shook his hand. Everyone started heading back down the trail, packed in a couple of cars, or returned to where they had come from.
Benjamin and I waited until they had gone before closing up the rooftop tent. We would sleep the rest of the night in the front seat of the car. By 6 a.m., we left.
Upon reflection, we never felt truly threatened. However, it was certainly disconcerting to be woken up at 2 a.m. by so many people brandishing machetes. What the hey! It is hard to come up with any explanation that justifies the number of people and the weapons they carried besides something unsavory.
Also, we were very amazed that they saw us. We arrived in a torrential storm when no one was around. Before stopping for the night, we checked satellite maps and saw no villages nearby. And we were quite a ways off the road and difficult to see at night, or so we thought.

A picture of Codiwompler parked in the morning

Elmina – A Fishing Villiage

October 6, 2023

Elmina Fishing Village surrounds the castle there. Aside from the important role of education about the horrific history of the slave trade there, the fishing industry there is significantly more fascinating to me. We took a tour of the harbor, and it was the highlight of our visit to the Cape Coast area.

There are different types of boats for different types of fish. The smaller vessels just go out for the day, and the boats cost around 10,000 USD and can hold a crew of up to 10. The larger boats, those catching tuna, for example, will go for a week or two and have a crew of 25. These boats cost around 100,000 USD. The profit generated per month is about 10% of the boat cost. A tuna vessel, therefore, brings in around 10,000 USD per month.

However, at least in Ghana, no additional licenses are being issued because the fish population is already in massive decline due to overfishing. That means only replacement boats can be built, not additional boats.

In some ways, this village seems like a historic look back at what an earlier version of the Makoko community in Nigeria might have been like. At a minimum, the stark nature of children swimming in the same water that people are defecating in makes it hard not to associate the two fishing villages, even though they are almost 1,000 km apart.


Teni, the Shower Lady

October 4, 2023

One woman, Teni, comes to the school at 4:00 a.m. She cooks for the younger children and cleans the kindergarten area. Most days, she doesn’t leave till after 4:00 p.m. Except for Sunday, when she left early to go to a wedding, she worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week. I don’t recall, but I believe she has worked there for the last 25 years.
The first day, I happened to be up and sitting outside when she arrived. Shortly after, she came to tell me she had filled a bucket for me and left it in the bathroom for me to take a “shower.” I comply and take a bucket shower. The next morning at 4 a.m., I’m still in the tent, and she calls up. “Good morning Mark,” to which I reply in kind. After which she says, “It’s time to take a shower in a little bit.” She is calling up to me at 4 a.m. to let me know that in ~30 minutes, it will be time to take a shower. What?
The next day we don’t even camp in the kindergarten area, but again she comes over and calls up to let me know that at 4;30 it’s time to take my shower. And, just so I don’t feel too special, after I’ve completed my ablutions, she calls up to Benjamin to do the same.
On our last night, we camp behind a hedge grove, well away from the kindergarten area. I was hoping we wouldn’t be visible while it was still dark when Yeni arrived. But alas, at 4:15 a.m., she is there to let me know it is time.
While we laugh about the shower emphasis, Teni was a wonderful host. She was welcoming, knew everyone and everything about the school, and was ready to help with anything we needed.


Our Worst Day Yet – Ghana Immigration

September 30, 2023

Today we had to stop by the Ghana immigration office to pick up new Ghana visas for our return from Sao Tome & Principe (a country off the coast of Gabon) before meeting with International Justice Mission (IJM) later in the morning. We arrived at immigration slightly after they opened and met with an immigration officer who was pleasantly helpful.

He took our passports and asked us to wait. We waited. Next, he returned to tell us we needed an invitation and that there was a business outside that could provide the letter. We paid for the letter, only to discover that, in fact, it was just a letter of application, of which we were the authors. Oh well!

After submitting the letter, we again we waited.

Next, they wanted money—cash in USD. $300 for the two visas, to be exact (a ridiculous price but the only option since we were denied visas five times when we visited Ghana embassies on our drive up to West Africa).

Again, we waited. By this time, we had totally missed our appointment with IJM and requested a reschedule. The immigration officer dismissed us, but not before we confirmed we needed the visa (and passports) by 2 PM, since we had a 4 PM flight.

We drove out to a mechanic and left the car for repairs. Leaving it at a mechanic was a great way to ensure it was secure while we traveled out of the country for the weekend. Our time at the mechanic was rushed but we were able to communicate what we needed and rushed back to pick up our visas.

Back at Ghana Immigration, we waited. And waited. And sent messages. And waited. And muttered, fretted, and waited some more. We arranged for a cab to be on standby to take us to the airport. The cab left. We switched to hailing a scooter to be on standby since scooters can lane-split, so they are less affected by traffic. We waited some more.

At 3:45 PM, the immigration official arrived with our passports and visa. We had presumably missed our flight. We went to the airport anyway. Some friendly military guards at immigration took pity on our plight and gave us rides on their motorbikes. One commented,

“While I can tell you how fast a bullet travels across the street, I have no idea what happens inside that immigration office.”

We were dropped off at the airport, but it was the wrong terminal. By this time, our flight had departed so, with stress gone, we walked to the correct terminal and looked for Air Portugal. Their office was closed. We went upstairs to the food court and connected to the Internet to attempt to make an appeal. All requests for understanding were denied. Once the desk opened, we went downstairs and made our appeal at the Air Portugal desk to reschedule our flights. They sent the request to management and asked us to wait. Eventually, they got back to us and denied the request. They said that since the flight had now left, our tickets were cancelled under the no-show rule, and we would be out of luck. There was nothing else to be done. I tried sending some emails, but they fell on deaf ears as well.

In summary:

  • Ghana immigration held onto our passports until after our flights left.
  • We ran a red light that was extremely hard to see and paid the consequences.
  • We completely missed our meeting with IJM and had to reschedule for the following week.
  • We had to delay leaving Accra in order to wait for our meeting with IJM.
  • Our car (and home) was now at the mechanic, so we would need to find a hotel.
  • By the time our visa came through, we couldn’t use it, so we waisted $300 USD.

Were the immigration officers corrupt? I expect that they were pocketing the $300 somewhere. Although I requested them, we never did get receipts. However, not issuing us a visa in time makes no sense, even if they were. They simply didn’t make it a priority.

I chatted with the immigration official over WhatsApp afterward. Although it didn’t help, he was very apologetic. He even tried connecting us with an immigration official at the airport. However, that also wasn’t going to help us with the airline. In the end, we should have just left and traveled on our backup US passports and then applied for an emergency visa upon arrival back in Ghana. Presumably, this would have been successful. Unfortunately, hindsight has no effect on history.


Our Best Diggs Yet

September 30, 2023
Our balcony overlooking the courtyard

After the frustrating day yesterday, and because we don’t have Codiwompler to stay in, w rented an apartment for the night. It wasn’t actually that expensive, but it sure was nice. Pool, Internet, bed, toilet, shower, kettle, TV,… what more could you want.
And, on top of that, Terry and Graydon were coincidentally staying in the building across the street. They brought over some pancake ingredients to express condolences on our misfortune yesterday, and say goodbyes. (They successfully have a Ghana reentry visa and won’t be back from Soa Tome & Principe before we leave Accra.)


Walking the Madina Market

September 30, 2023

The school yard we are camping at borders the Madina market, where I have been on the hunt for various car parts: container for Starlink Satellite, 12-48V DC converter, an auto-battery charger, a power strip, dinner, etc. So far, all I can find is good food, but that makes everything better anyway, so… Plus, I find walking around open-air markets fascinating, so I don’t mind.


We Ran a Red Light

September 29, 2023

Okay, yes, it is true; we ran a red light. But it was virtually impossible to see until we were through the intersection. Of course, what are the chances that anyone noticed? This is virtually standard practice in Africa. In fact, there was a policeman at the corner who raised his hand. Not knowing there was a problem, I gave him a thumbs up! (Yes really!)

A minute or two later, he is passing us on his motorcycle and flagging us down. What? The police virtually never have access to a vehicle, never mind a snazzy motorcycle.

The conversation commences, and he informs us of our infraction. Bummer! Only now do we realize what happened. Stink! Benjamin and I discuss in a manner he can’t interpret. He tells us to follow him to the police station. We comply. On the way, we quickly but nonchalantly check the dashcam. Halfway there, he pulls over again and informs us he is calling his superior officer. We wait. The superior arrives—it is his brother. Things are starting to get really suspicious. However, we have broken the first guideline of Africa, checkpoint/stop negotiation:

To avoid corrupt police or paying a bribe, don’t be in a rush or care about where you are going or when.

Unfortunately, we have a 4 p.m. flight to catch and several errands before then. We ran a red light, and any excuse about its visibility is not going to stand up to scrutiny while we are negotiating with the officer on the street.

We chit-chat and learn about how he finally was accepted into the police force, but that, in fact, the job isn’t that great. However, once you are on the force, it is extremely difficult to leave. Also, friends still believe it is the ideal job, so leaving would be viewed as ungrateful. He requests contact information because he has participated in the USA immigration lottery for a few years now and is looking for help. I comply to his request but assure him that immigration was not something I could help with. (Kinda like he can’t help me with Ghana immigration which has been a nightmare for us and going to get worse – although we didn’t know this yet.)

We aren’t getting anywhere, and the day isn’t getting shorter. I pay him $40 cash (I expect I could have gotten away with less, but hindsight doesn’t change history), and we are dismissed. In fact, I suspect we could have talked our way out of this, but our time pressure took priority. This is the second time we have paid a bribe, both times because we were likely in the wrong (although both times it was unknowingly), so we didn’t have much ground to negotiate with.


Driving Sawla to Accra

September 28, 2023

Meeting Two Village Chiefs

September 27, 2023

Our host in Sawla, Moses, leads the Ghanaian portion of International Assistance Partners (IAP). This afternoon, Moses took us to meet with two village chiefs. We sat down and talked with the first in his meeting room.

He believes that some of the problems in Ghana are due to the continued use of colonial practices: English, for example. He thinks the country would be better off abandoning teaching English. Admittedly, I’m an Anglophile with little understanding of Ghanaian issues, but I disagree. In fact, I suspect Ghana is doing as well as it is, compared to its neighbors, because English is the primary language.
While we were there, a visitor came to meet with the chief. Only, he wasn’t allowed to speak directly to the chief. Rather, he spoke to an interpreter, in English, and the interpreter repeated what he said, to the chief, still in English, and back and forth the conversation proceeded. What? What is the value in this? How can any effective business happen if an interpreter, speaking the exact same language as the source language, is required.
Not just that, the visitor was asking the chief whether he could interview a woman in the village who applied for a job in a different town. The woman applied for the job, and now the interviewee has to request permission from the chief to interview the woman. I’m an ignorant American, but this is crazy.
Next we visited another village chief in his home, a mud hut. It was a totally different interaction.

This second chief lives in abject poverty and is grateful for the well that IAP has dug for his village. We sat outside his house with his wife and had a conversation, albeit limited since he didn’t speak English.


Visiting a Child Survival Program with Compassion International

September 24, 2023

Today we visited a Compassion International Child Survival Program (see https://www.compassion.com/how-we-work/compassion-survival.htm and https://survivetothrive.compassion.com/child-survival/). IntelliTect supports five or so of these in Kenya and Tanzania (https://stewardship.compassion.com/intellitect/2023/06/09/launching-a-new-child-development-center-in-tanzania/), but since we couldn’t make it to either country this trip, we are visiting the one in Togo. While we had to go through background checks and child safety training, I expected the visit to be relatively informal, with just a walk around the facilities and perhaps a chance to meet a few of the moms. I was wrong. Compassion International partners with local churches for its facilities, and this was no exception; we met in a church a couple blocks from the Ghana Embassy. When we entered, everyone stood and started singing as a way of welcoming us. The church leadership then greeted us and ushered us to the front of the church. Those who know me can imagine my internal reaction was less than positive as I dislike being made the center of attention, especially regarding Elisabeth and my philanthropy. Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to catch myself, change my attitude, and behave. The Compassion International staff, along with the moms with their children, genuinely wanted to thank us for our philanthropy and I accepted their gratitude.

Welcome Singing and Dancing!

The program started with some wonderful singing and dancing. I would have joined in if I’d known the words. It was beautiful. My only regret was that we couldn’t stay tomorrow and attend the church service.

Preventing the Child Survival Program

Next, they proceeded with introductions and a presentation of the data regarding the program. They had stats for their impact and challenges. Although it was French, they had a translator, and we were also able to translate using our phones as they went along.

Following the presentation, several women were courageous enough to stand up and share how the program had impacted them personally. In some cases, it made the difference between life and death for their children. For others, it was the difference between a malnourished child and a parent choosing to go without their own nourishment, so their child has some meager sustenance.

Once the program was over, we walked around to various job tables and interacted with sample job-training stations. We asked lots of questions about the business and its effectiveness. Some were sufficient to help people escape extreme poverty; others were less so, only providing a side “hustle” for students in school.

The weaving station, although it produced beautiful crafts, did not seem viable for the amount of work and time. (Update: When visiting Ghana, we saw weaving machines that required less effort but the earnings were still meager.)

The last station was a playroom where the moms focused on playing with their kids. It was good to see the healthy interactions and coaching that goes beyond survival and helping the parent-child relationship thrive. This is in addition to the home visits that Compassion International makes once a month.

While I didn’t see enough to be able to provide a full analysis of the effectiveness, I’m confident that Compassion International is accomplishing a lot with a small budget and making a significant impact on women and their children. Whether you are a Christian or not, by partnering with churches and leveraging their infrastructure and congregants during the week, Compassion International is able to accomplish so much more on a small budget.

Action

At a cost of less than $50 per month, you can support a child through Compassion International, choosing both the age and location. If you are willing to invest more, consider supporting a child survival program, that transforms the lives of ~25 moms and their children before they turn 5 years old. Or, browse through a host of other investment opportunities to select from.


Insane Traffic Leaving Lagos, Nigeria

September 18, 2023

When we arrived at our hotel last night, our expectation was that we would be four hours from the border (Google said three). We could visit Makoko in the morning and be across the border to Benin before nightfall. The night clerk at the hotel told us that with traffic, there was no way. It would take eight hours if not more, to reach the border. Ughh!!!

Since I wasn’t willing to miss Makoko, we left Lagos at 1 p.m. and hoped for the best. The traffic was insane!!! While driving along, we were stopped by some locals who told us we needed to switch to the “express lanes” (the term I’m using for the left lane with a median protecting it)—and, for the advice, we had to pay them money. We switched lanes and relied on a local military official’s timing to avoid the fee, as he informed the locals that, while they could charge a fee, they couldn’t slow the traffic flow, and it was building up.

Traffic was moving along for the first 15 minutes, and we were smug watching the parking lot of traffic on the right we were passing. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. It wasn’t long before, we too, were parked. We waited 30 minutes. At some point, we heard a broken-down truck in our single, median-bound lane. Hmmm!!! Since we can’t get over the median—even with Codiwompler—and no one can come down the lane to rescue, we are going to be here a while. We inched forward. Eventually, we could see that cars were being lifted over a dip in the height of the median and a drainage gutter—for a fee.

At that point, cars were reversing up the lane and then taking turns to exit. Of course, at 5 tons, it was doubtful our car would be lifted. However, when we arrived, we realized that, with the slight ramp of dirt and brush, we could probably jump the curb. Benjamin exited the car and helped navigate. We jumped the curb and drainage gutter, and we were back in the right lane, which was now empty because of a block earlier. Oh, the blessing of having such a capable car!

As we drove on, we passed more and more gridlocked traffic. It was crazy. I question whether it would end by nightfall. And how many cars would run out of fuel in the process, exacerbating the parking lot traffic problem even more? Nigeria is so broken.