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
The Nigerians appeared at dawn—six of them. They were young, in their early 20s, all men. They stood in the road like they owned it. One of them was singing—something hip-hop, something Nigerian.
I don’t know where they came from, but I was sure they hadn’t been on our bus the day before: They were too loud, too brash to go unnoticed, and the only loud person on the bus yesterday had been Kennie.
We’d all gotten up early after a long night on the Malian side of the border, spent lying on thin reed mats laid over rocky dirt. A little ways away, the television ran all night, while the generator whined like a chainsaw, powering bad movies: “Matrix Revolutions,” “Hard Target,” some bottom-barrel Indian action film.
But now we wanted to go. Everyone stood around, drinking tea, waiting to get on the bus, and eying the newcomers suspiciously. It seemed to underline again how separate French and English-speaking Africa were.
At 7 a.m., the bus rolled onto the road, stopped and the driver blasted the horn. I had just ordered a Nescafe from a vendor, but the bus was rolling and everyone was running for it. I took a last sip, set it on the table, and ran too.
This time, we barely even stopped at customs, then drove into the border town where the Nigerians got up, leaped off the moving bus and disappeared into the crowd. Were they going to catch another bus? Was someone picking them up? I had no idea.
We stopped at the immigration office, where we piled out, handed over our passports and waited.
“Is this everyone?” the immigration officer asked, looking around suspiciously. We all looked around too, like we didn’t know what he was talking about, and no one really said yes or no. He went back into the office, where there began a heavy “clunk” of his stamp on passport after passport. Names were called. Passports were retrieved.
I sat down next to Kennie while we waited. She was going to Dakar, she said, because she heard it was a good place—a place she could start a new life. She didn’t know anyone there, but she had to do something.
“Nigeria is no good,” she said. “There is no progress. I need to change my environment. I like to see new things. And anyway, to stay in one place is not progress. But, you know, to make progress is not easy.”
After everyone had their documents, we climbed on the bus, and started down the road.
The bus turned back the way we’d come, and just as we were about to reach the highway, I looked out my window to see the Nigerians running at top speed. One by one they jumped on the bus.
No sooner had the last one boarded than a policeman on a motorcycle raced around the bus from behind and pulled us over. Four of the Nigerians promptly jumped off and ran away again. Two others stayed to argue their case.
The rage inside the bus was palpable. All the bottled up frustrations, all the anger, all the helplessness seemed to bubble up at that moment. Yousuf, the business man from Timbuktu, got in one of the Nigerian’s faces and screamed. Aliwaliou yelled at the other. Soon everyone was yelling, and it felt as though the crowd was on the edge of becoming a mob.
“Nigeria is the worst country in Africa,” Omar said to me.
One of the Nigerians looked at me. “Can you translate?” he said. “Can you tell them we paid the driver, and he has our passports?”
I shrugged, as if I would love to help. Then Yousuf came onto the bus and sat next to me. “Nigerians are very dangerous!” he said. “Very dangerous!”
Another of the Nigerians came over to me. “What is wrong with these people?” he asked. “Tell them they are just making things worse.”
One by one, the Nigerians came back to the bus. There was more yelling, more vitriol. The Nigerians made some phone calls, and after two more hours of haggling, all the fees seemed to have been paid, and the policeman got on his motorcycle and drove off. The Nigerians took the wooden seats in the aisle, and the bus rolled on.
In three hours, we had gone less that a mile, but finally, we were getting somewhere.
A silence descended as we headed into Senegal. We wound around through low hills on a good road before it straightened out and turned very, very bad. The concrete had disintegrated into a million tiny rock pillars. Sometimes the bus shook so much I could barely see. We slowed to a crawl, and the frame made terrible noises—groaning and creaking. After a loud crack, the driver stopped. We all got out.
“This is how it is in Africa,” said Aliwaliou, with a shrug.
“It’s because of bad organization,” Omar added.
“No, it is because of bad leaders!” said Aliwaliou.
“Africa tires me,” said Kennie.
We stopped in Tambacounda for lunch, and as we sat eating, one of the Nigerians bought me an orange soda. They seemed like nice kids once I got to talk to them. They were glad to get out of Lagos, and were just looking for something else, all headed to Cape Verde and maybe beyond. In the end, all they wanted was what everyone on the bus wanted. While scale and goals might be different, we all were on this road looking for something different, something more, something better. After all, isn’t that why this road was built, and why roads are being built across the continent? Isn’t that why any road is built: So we can reach the promises at the other end?
The bus drove all night, and eventually I drifted off. Around 4 a.m., we stopped and I looked out the window. Our surroundings were strange. We were on some kind of expressway, surrounded by something like a suburb.
Far off, I could see the lights of Dakar. We’d pulled over to let Omar and a few others off. Their bags were thrown off the top of bus, and he came on to say goodbye. I waved through the window as he walked away, then waited for us to move on.
Nothing happened. Looking up front, I could see the hood was up, and the driver was banging on something.
Yousuf made a joke about not having the right papers to go on. Aliwaliou suggested we push the bus the rest of the way. One of the Nigerians said maybe it would cost another $5 for the rest of the trip. Kennie, who was in no mood for joking, did not take the delay well.
“If this journey is not complete,” she shouted at the front of the bus, “I will go to the police! I paid to go all the way to Dakar!!! All the way!”
The driver got back in his seat.
“All the men!” he shouted. “All the men outside ... and the boys!”
We all got out and went around to the back of the bus. Cars whizzed by us on the freeway. We pushed. The bus crawled forward. The driver let out the clutch once, twice, then three times. We kept pushing. On the fourth try the engine caught. The driver revved the motor. A loud cheer went up, and the horn blared in the night.
The bus park was completely deserted when we arrived at 4:30 a.m. Wearily, we stood in the dark while the driver untied our bags and threw them down.
As we collected our belongings, we exchanged phone numbers and emails. We hugged like lifelong friends. Then one by one we picked up our things and walked on, into the streets of Dakar, where we slipped into taxis and rides that took us on again to wherever each of our roads would take us.