Though I had flown on a UNHAS flight from Conakry to Freetown, I returned by road, about a 5-hour drive. When we crossed the border, I expected to pull out my passport, but we just honked our way until a series of ropes dropped across the road. I barely paid attention when my French-speaking driver for the first half said, “Okay, now we’re in Guinea,” because I expected that someone would ask for our identification, even if we weren’t interrogated. When I turned to him a minute later and said, “Wait, now it’s Guinea? Why didn’t I have to show my passport?” he replied, “It’s because we’re in a diplomatic vehicle.” This was true – my driver was from another West African country’s mission based in Freetown, but I’m not a diplomat, especially one from West Africa, and it didn’t look like the border control was any stronger for any of the other cars going through.
Just over the border, I switched cars to make the trip through Guinea. This driver was one I had met before in Conakry, and he was a military officer who does something like diplomatic security. Because fuel prices are so much less expensive in Sierra Leone than in Guinea, we drove back across the border – where he had to surrender his gun that he had stowed in the center console of the car – got gas, then drove back across the border, where he retrieved his weapon, and we were on our way.
Funnily enough, neither driver spoke English, though they were both able to cope in Sierra Leone enough to get gas. I actually don’t think there was much of a shared language at all, even a local one, but this is more about the attitudes of West Africans to help facilitate basic communication, a big contrast with many Americans and Western Europeans, who are much more rigid about the level of language skill. There was a problem with payment, and I considered offering to translate, but it was quickly cleared up and we were on our way.
On the Sierra Leone side, this highway was fairly newly paved, with occasional signs that it was by the assistance of the European Union. Once into Guinea, however, the road was full of potholes and our journey was much slower. The better to see the landscape and villages and find a clean cooking pot from which we could have our lunch!
The night before I left Freetown, I had dinner with another friend of a friend who works in justice promotion as part of the larger development industry in Sierra Leone. We had a long discussion about whether development money is good for a country. I noted that there was public education for social issues, that Ebola had been at least acknowledged by the government, that there were paved roads with minimal potholes and about a quarter of the amount of trash on the streets as there is in Conakry. His point was that despite these modest improvements, there was still no economy to speak of and that all the development money was making people dependent on it so that when the money starts to go away (which it perhaps is nearly 15 years after the end of the civil war and about a year after the end of Ebola), the country will be in big, big trouble. The corrupt government can barely function on its own.
I don’t know what I think. Certainly I want the economies to grow on their own in their own way; however, smooth roads facilitate trade, even within a country or region. A population’s or government’s dependency on foreign skills and money will likely not contribute to any lasting “progress” or “development”; however, when basic services are nonexistent, it seems that it’s necessary to provide for them in some way.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.