The Roads Between Us: A Journey Across Africa

Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Frank Bures explores the meaning of travel when arrival is not guaranteed

04.19.10 | 11:58 AM ET

Photo by Frank Bures

“Engine off!” yelled a policeman standing in front of our car, pointing his machine gun at the driver. “Get out!”

It was still dark, long before the sun would come up, and we had just started out from a city in southern Nigeria called Oshogbo. The taxi was packed with people heading north, when our driver tried to run through a checkpoint. Before he could make it, one of the policemen jumped in front of us.

“You’re playing with our lives!” an old man protested from the back. “You just pay the 20 naira, or he’s going shoot!”

The policeman, machine gun now cradled in his arms, came toward the car.

“Let me see your particulars,” he yelled at the driver.

MORE: Mapped—The Roads Between Us: A Journey Across Africa | Interview with Jeremy Weate: Off the Map in Nigeria

The driver turned off the engine and got out. Together, they disappeared behind the car, while the rest of us waited. Waiting was something I was used to by then, and time was something I knew I would be spending a lot of on this trip. I was on my way to Abuja, where I would take another car north to Niger. There, I would get on the Trans-Sahelian Highway, which is reported to be the one of the few—if not the only—completed legs of the Trans-African Highway network, a system which, in theory, will someday interlink the continent, revolutionize travel and trade, and usher in a new era of road-fueled prosperity so great, it is hoped, that Nicholas Kristof will be out of a job.

It is one of many schemes for improving Africa’s notorious roads, which take countless lives in accidents every year. The carnage costs countries around 2 percent of their GDP, while the delays, paperwork and the rest end up costing much more. Not unlike America’s interstate system, this highway plan entails nine tarmac corridors crisscrossing the continent. The impact would surely be huge, and could well have other less salubrious effects too. So this, at least, was the guise for my trip: an investigation into the state of transport in West Africa. I wanted to travel across one of these new roads to see where it might be taking the continent, and how it might change things for better or worse.

But I was starting to see there was another good reason to be here, too, something I hadn’t fully realized until I arrived. Back in Lagos, I talked to a woman who had recently moved home to Nigeria from the U.S. And while life here is not always easy, she had no intention of leaving.

“Now,” she said, “whenever I go back to the States, I feel like everything there is so easy and safe. There are no smells, no texture. It’s almost like you’re not really living.”

The author on the bus in West Africa

Her words had been running through my mind ever since. I thought about them when I looked out the car window at the burned-out husks of cars and buses. I thought about them as I smelled the mingling diesel and wood smoke. I thought about them when I tasted the sweet egusi soup at a roadside stop. I thought about them as I remembered the wrecks I’d seen along all the roads in Africa: The bus cut in half by a train, the minivan that plunged into a ravine, the young boy who’d been hit by a car and whose body was being picked apart by crows.

“The African road is about blood and fear,” wrote Peter Chilson in his book, Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa, “about the ecstasy of arrival: the relief of finding yourself alive at the end of a journey and the lesser relief of passing unscathed through another army checkpoint. The road is boredom, joy, and terror punctuated by heat in the air and under your feet. The African road is a world of extremes lived out with the punching of a foot against a gas pedal.”

Maybe that was it. Maybe I was looking for the feeling that life is something you must push toward, not just some couch to sit on. I recently read about an Indian tribe in British Columbia whose elders would order the entire village to move to a new location when life got too easy, too soft, because “without challenge, life had no meaning.”

There were challenges aplenty in Africa, and now that I was here on the road, I realized that I didn’t really care that much about infrastructure. I cared about feeling alive. And when arrival is not guaranteed, you feel it much more keenly.

In the dark the other policemen at the checkpoint milled around, while we all waited patiently, in silence. The three old men, one young one, three women and I all sat quietly, all staring ahead as if our time were some other kind of currency to be offered to those who demand it. There was no gunshot. In time, the driver reappeared, opened his door, got in, and turned the engine on. The policeman waved us through, and we drove on.

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Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


11 Comments for The Roads Between Us: A Journey Across Africa

Cecille Soriano 04.19.10 | 2:46 PM ET

Excellent Story. . . Nicely written.
Thanks for sharing

Lola 04.20.10 | 5:04 AM ET

Totally takes me back home. Solid narrative and looking forward to the rest.

Ayababa 04.21.10 | 6:24 PM ET

Good job, “Mr Frank!”

Hassan 04.23.10 | 5:52 AM ET

“The road is closed, but the road between people is open.” Almost brought me to tears!

Kelsey 04.23.10 | 11:14 AM ET

I leave for Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda) in two days. Thanks for helping me get mentally prepared. That’s a nice bit of writing. Well done.

Valentin 04.23.10 | 10:29 PM ET

wow!!!! I loved the stories!!!!

Janet Wilson 04.25.10 | 9:43 AM ET

I loved your stories you capture the essence of traveling in West Africa so well. Having traveled some of these same roads, I understand the feeling of relief at the end of the day, knowing I had survived yet another day. I love Africa and the spirit of the African people. Makes me want to go back

Mount Martha 04.27.10 | 9:24 AM ET

Traveling in that particular country is not easy. I like this story very much….....
Great stories! Thanks for sharing it.

Nonya 04.30.10 | 7:52 PM ET

Liking the article except for my biggest pet peeve: referring to the whole place as “Africa”.  FOR GAWD SAKE, its a f**king CONTINENT of fifty-something diverse countries.  So if talking about an African city/country, pls refer to it by name.  I wouldn’t ask a traveller in Brussels how they liked Europe because we all know that the 1 city is not the diverse continent.

Lola 05.02.10 | 1:52 PM ET

@Nonya - Under different circumstances, I would be offended too. After all, a few countries don’t make up the entire continent which is as diverse as they come.

But I personally know the author of this series and there’s no doubt that he’s got a genuine passion for Africa, especially West Africa.

“A Journey Across West Africa” would be a more appropriate title and WH should add “West”, but that oversight shouldn’t detract from the core narrative, which as a native West African myself, is quite solid.

Laurie 05.30.10 | 6:07 PM ET

Very well written. Africa is a fascinating place and many people skip it or miss it. Thanks for sharing some of your stories.

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