Guinea-Bissau – Bumpy Roads and Corruption

After leaving The Gambia with a heavy heart we made it into Guinea-Bissau with ease at the border. Things had started well, we had a bush lunch on the side of the road and camped overnight in a quarry with a few locals working around us breaking rocks and eyeing us with a mix of amusement and confusion.

We hadn´t been sure what to expect from this small country but the poverty was evident and we were regarded with increasing levels of incredulity as a massive, orange, eight wheeler truck full of grinning tourists passed by followed by a large, shiny Landrover. But the people were as friendly as ever waving and smiling back at us.

But at this point things were starting to get a little more difficult.

First off, there was a false start 100 metres out of the quarry when the big truck blew a brake line. Overalls were donned and a fix was made within an hour or so.

More time-consuming however, were the numerous police and army checkpoints throughout the country. This is a fact of life in all African countries but Guinea-Bissau seemed to take it to the next level. At the second one we were asked to produce our warning triangles and an in-date fire extinguisher. We had both, however apparently we needed two triangles not one and were fined for the error. A slip of paper told us we had 7 days to buy a second!

We were heading for the capital Bissau which turned out to be a small, friendly town. It was roasting hot and getting a little more humid as we had officially crossed into the tropics.

Whilst we tried to soak up the atmosphere and see some of the town, we were yet again on the endless run of sourcing visas and more photocopies of various official documents – and running around the town trying to negotiate costs, find data or wifi to send things for print and battling the seemingly random African opening times was beginning to get us all frazzled in the 38 degree heat.

There was the now mandatory city barber to visit though!

Some respite was provide by a lovely lunch spot which served pizza, chicken and cold drinks but that evening we failed to find a camp site and ended up spending two nights crammed in to what I can only describe as someone´s front garden on the outskirts of the city! We set Henry up and the others pitched their tents all round the main walking route into the community and we were nose to nose with the people whilst they did their washing and lived their lives around us.

This sort of living is not for us, both James and I find it difficult being jammed up against other people and need our space so, just as in Dakar, we were starting to feel as though the trip was becoming more of a mission than an adventure.

The group split into three the next day, one group set off for a two night stay on an island, a second voted for a day trip on a boat to three different islands. We chose to stay in Bissau, get some space from everyone and try to relax a bit. We spent the day food shopping as we were on cook duty, returned to the lovely restaurant from the day before and simply ambled about. Whilst driving back to the camp site that evening we stopped by a large market and against all the odds managed to find a new warning triangle! Ridiculously expensive and a bit broken but over the next few days we became increasingly relieved we had it as checkpoint after checkpoint asked to see them – almost as though someone had rung round giving them the heads up beforehand…..?

Sadly, there is not a lot to Guinea-Bissau as it is so small and the best parts are the islands which we had chosen not to see. They are beautiful national parks full of pigmy hippos, turtles and other wildlife. It therefore says something about how we were feeling that we decided a day´s excursion with 10 other people from the group was too much at this point. As it happened no hippos or turtles were seen by anyone but the photos they came back with showed beautiful, lush, green landscapes and pristine beaches. Somehow, I couldn´t mind too much at the time and still don´t……

After two nights in Bissau we had an early start to head for the Guinean border. We hadn´t seen much of the country and were sad about that but this is what our trip seems to have become – rushing from one country to the next, spending most of the time securing visas for upcoming countries and camping in crowded, noisy spots. Nerves were beginning to fray and they weren´t helped by the increasingly poor state of the roads.

Most roads in Guinea-Bissau are paved, however lack of maintenance has taken its toll and most of our journey from Bissau to the border was spent travelling at 10-20km an hour weaving our way around potholes, craters and dust bowls in the road. It was tortuous and exhausting – one mistake and Henry could have been seriously damaged falling into a metre-deep hole or bounced off a sharp ledge.

There were other dangers we tried not to think about as we weaved our way across the roads….

The National Guard were manning most of the checkpoints as we crossed the country and here we came across the first blatant corruption on our trip. At one checkpoint we provided all the required documentation, showed our triangles and fire extinguisher and I was patiently waiting at the office for everything to be returned and waved on our way. The officer leaned back in his chair grinning at me. Ýou give me money´ he said, making the requisite hand signals. I politely enquired what he was charging us for, he repeated his request. I offered him more documentation, asked again why he wanted money. His grin broadened and his demands continued. I walked away back to the Landrover to get our pack of documents and as I left he shouted angrily and others joined in demanding my return. When I got back I tried to gently pull our carnet and insurance documents from his desk asking whether these were for me. He grabbed them and shoved them out of reached, hand outstretched for his money. Eventually I think he simply got bored and shoved them back at me with a dismissive wave. I was angry, very angry, but no money had changed hands and I maintained a calm exterior as I walked away and jumped into Henry telling James to put his foot down!

Checkpoint after checkpoint followed a similar routine, aggressive demands, threats. We paid nothing to anyone but the officials of this country have left a very bad taste in the mouth completely at odds with the warm and friendly welcome we received from the people themselves.

On our last day, as we drove through a town, we stopped at a large food market to stock up for the next day´s cooking. This was a highlight of our time in the country. Banter and friendly chatter with the sellers, a group of men in tribal dress surrounding us and doing something which I can only describe as dusting us with little brushes – not a word of English or French, just big grins and bouncing around! We managed to buy more fruit and veg that we had seen in days and came away feeling far more positive than we had in a while. Sadly no photos, it didn´t seem polite to stick a camera in these people´s faces.

Our lightened mood didn´t last though, that night we again failed to find anywhere to camp and again had to negotiate space on the side of the road in someone´s front yard. Noise, no space, feeling as though we were causing inconvenience to the people. The whole evening we were surrounded by locals standing and staring at us, pointing or just gazing. Everywhere you looked, everywhere you went you were stared at by something resembling a reception committee. A few weeks ago it was fun, now we just wanted to be left alone if only for a short time. I was beginning to understand what it must be like to be famous! We couldn´t wait to get away as early as possible.

But the next day held a border crossing into Guinea, reputed to be corrupt and difficult. Indeed the FCO has a lot of not-so-good things to say about Guinea in general. I feared we were about to jump out of the frying pan into the fire and was begining to wonder whether we had made the right decision driving rather than shipping our beloved Henry to Namibia…..

4 responses to “Guinea-Bissau – Bumpy Roads and Corruption”

  1. Wow challenging West Africa hey? Fingers crossed you guys find a respite somewhere for Christmas. Good luck and respect ! cheers Ben


  2. I am beginning to think the pandemic was a good thing last year – it kept us from driving West Africa by ourselves. Keep writing and may your holidays be safe, restful and fun.


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