SIAFU -- THE TIM BAILY STORY
CHAPTER TWELVE: THE WAR ZONES OF CENTRAL AFRICA
We spent two days at Agadez, relaxing, thirstily consuming beer and generally sorting out the customs, police and immigration procedures necessary on entering Niger. We also found time to explore this fascinating old half Arab and half African town, situated on one of the ancient caravan routes that once linked the powerful empires and dynasties of proud desert Emirs.
The central feature and landmark was the mosque. At ground level it was a cool warren of low mud cloisters and for a small fee we were allowed to climb the inside of the slender pyramid of the tall mud tower. The stairs were tight and twisting and even bent double we felt our shoulders scraping on the ceiling beams. At the top there was barely room for two people to stand side by side, but looking down we enjoyed an eagle’s-eye view of the town which was a flat, sun-baked brown maze, dotted with miniature donkeys, camels and people. There was racetrack on the edge of the town with a fine mud grandstand, for the desert nobles of Niger were fond of racing their superb horses.
We descended to take a closer look at the market which was a shanty town of little huts made from straw mats spread over frameworks of crude branches. Each little stall holder had his wares spread out over his own little square of brown earth: we saw dried figs, dates and red peppers, onions and carrots, sacks of grain, trinkets, beads, mirrors, sandals, trays of cigarettes or pens or soap, and great piles of useless looking junk, including mountains of empty tins and bottles. One corner of the market was full of little tailor’s shops, and another stacked with sheaves of long grasses that were being weaved into mats or ropes. One peculiar stall, carefully marked out with a boundary of stones, was the dispensary of the local witch doctor. He had on display crow feathers, gazelle horns, bits of bark and bone, and the white skull of a dead bird.
The stalls were thronged with a colourful mass of people; blue-robed, black-masked Touregs; fat Nubians in rich silk robes with brightly-beaded skull caps, smart youths, black and cool in western shirts and pants; old men looking like blistered-sun-scorched hermits in rags, women in gay headscarves, skirts and blouses, and women with slack bare breasts feeding babies on their hips. Their faces were drawn from all corners of the desert but they were predominantly African rather than Arab. Donkeys, camels and goats were tethered all over the place, but although it looked like chaos nobody seemed to be hurrying or haggling. People just wandered, and many of the young men wanted to brush hands and smile and murmur “Savah”, the local word of greeting.
When we headed south for Zinder the country continued semi-desert with the scattered thorn trees gradually becoming thicker, healthier and greener. The road started out as hard dirt corrugations but soon became two deep ruts in soft, drifted sand. It would have made a formidable obstacle for vehicles with a low clearance but fortunately it was possible to weave a path through the low bushes alongside. Even so we stuck several times and had to dig ourselves out. We passed a number of camel trains, sometimes a string of less than a score with only a handful of riders, and sometimes a large caravan of more than half a hundred of the laden beasts. I had the feeling that in any century, past or future, the slow-moving scene would always be the same.
We came to a desert well thronged by nomadic Fulani with a large herd of their superb long-horned cattle, a breed which they have raised themselves. The well was at least a hundred foot deep and they were using a long rope secured to the neck of a huge black bull to haul up the goatskin bags of water. The rope passed over a wooden pulley held by a wooden frame which creaked and screamed as it turned slowly. The Fulani were very slender with smooth dark features, lacking both the broad noses of the Nubians and the fierce, proud eyes of the Touregs. Once their ancestors had ruled one of the vast empires of the Southern Sahara but now their clothes were mostly scraps and rags. Their women wore silver pendants, bracelets and a multitude of large hoop ear-rings, and both sexes had their woolly hair braided into short ringlets.
About one hundred and twenty miles south of Agadez the road became very bad. We hit a stretch of hub-deep ruts in soft sand, where “Matilda” broke a half shaft. It was a four hour repair job and then we continued on the high ground to the right of the road before making camp.
The next morning we began to observe the first signs of wild life; a red-billed hornbill came close to the camp, egrets in white clouds clustered around the mud holes, and later we saw two beautiful blue-winged rollers. The road improved to a hard, wide dirt track with corrugations that rattled us abominably but made it possible to drive up to thirty miles per hour. The chief hazards were straying goats and donkeys and the occasional African on a bicycle. We passed a few small villages of thatched and brick huts, gay-frocked African women carrying gourds or clay water jars on their heads, and a number of men on horseback wearing conical straw hats, like something between Asian coolies and Mexican cowboys.
Late in the afternoon we completed the two hundred and eighty mile journey to Zinder, a modern town by African standards with a tarmac road, two petrol stations, a blue-washed post office, a yellow-washed bank, a cinema and two or three large department stores. We headed inevitably for the hotel beer garden and spent the rest of the day washing down the dust, watching the orange-headed ghecko lizards scuttling up and down the trees, and bargaining with the flock of souvenir sellers for python skins, gazelle skin rugs, African masks and carvings, leather goods and filigree silver bracelets and pendants. The prices were low but the most noticeable thing about Zinder was the great flock of ugly brown vultures wheeling constantly over the town. They were the only waste disposal system. On a later trip when an expedition member was unfortunately bitten by a scorpion and had to be taken to the tiny local hospital for an injection, we found that the vultures even had their own favourite perches inside the hospital wards.
When we drove on the next morning it was only a two hour run to the Niger border post at Matambye. It took me an hour to get the party through and four miles further on we reached the Nigerian border post at Kongolam. Here it took a full three hours to satisfy a group of officials that we were not a group of would-be mercenaries or arms smugglers heading for their cruel and embarrassing civil war in Biafra. All of our baggage and every single one of our vehicles had to be thoroughly searched and every passport was scrutinized with absolute care. When I insisted that we would pass very quickly through their country the unhappy officials reminded me that the whole of Central Africa was a very hazardous area, and that no expedition had even tried to make the overland journey to East Africa since the Congo had exploded four years before. I answered that the Congo was relatively settled now and that we were determined to be the first expedition to reopen the overland route. Reluctantly then they gave way and let us enter, but not before making a passionate speech to ensure that we understood the Biafra crisis and why it was absolutely right and necessary for the federal Military Government to resist the Ibos in their ill-fated bid for secession.
It was a pattern that was to be repeated throughout Nigeria. The war itself was contained in the Ibo homeland to the south but the war atmosphere had permeated the whole country. The road had improved to a single tar strip with hard dirt shoulders, but now instead of breakdowns we were repeatedly stopped by military checkpoints. At each stop every vehicle would be stripped and searched, presumably for arms, by impolite soldiers bristling with weapons. At the end of it the frustrated expedition members would be left to pick up and repack their belongings. In contrast the police and ordinary civilians were courteous and friendly but every official we met insisted on impressing us with the government propaganda. Every conversation had to be steered round to the war. They had an urgent need to discuss and justify the grim and bloody events in Biafra.
We stayed three days in Kano, the capital of Northern Nigeria and once the centre of the proud Hausa Empire. The old town with its spiky mud architecture and crumbling mud walls was a fascinating place, with the elegant brown and white palace of the Emir and the green dome of the mosque standing out like bright gems in the surrounding drabness. The modern side of Kano was a sprawling muddle of grubby shops and bungalow buildings, all sliced up by the pattern-less railway lines. Bicycles flew along the dusty streets and sweating men pushed heavy handcarts and threw despairing glances at the honking traffic. There was a stamp of the British Raj in the English signs and road names and a Kano Club where the straight-backed old Nubian doorman wore a white uniform with a red fez and sash. One of our party who had made the overland trip to India remarked that modern Kano would have been better named Kanopure.
All seemed calm now but we learned that immediately prior to the Biafra conflict the Hausa troops here at Kano had mutinied and slaughtered thousands of Ibos.
After we had rested up and re-stocked our supplies the expedition took to the road again, heading due east over the three hundred and seventy miles of pot-holed tarmac strip to Maiduguri. We crossed over a number of wide flowing rivers and small green fields marked the bright red earth. There were numerous villages of thatched coned huts all fenced in with grass matting, and the road was lined with tall flame trees. The markets that we passed were all bustling with colour and people. The women all wore bright clothes and the jostling African faces were patterned with tribal scars. Food produce was much more plentiful and we bought mangoes by the bucketful. In the evening the Nigerian girls walked along the roadside with their water jars balanced on their heads, as graceful and erect as Paris models.
Kano to Maiduguri would have been a pleasant run except for the endless military checkpoints, the delaying searches, and the speeches!
Maiduguri was the provincial headquarters, a dusty, fly-ridden town with a vast central bazaar and market. Practically anything could be bought there, from a witchdoctor’s cure for impotence to signed pictures of bosomy Hollywood film stars in jazzy frames. Perhaps the two went together! The girls who did all our shopping and bartering restricted themselves to buying camel meat for a stew.
Here we went through customs and immigration to leave Nigeria and optimistically hoped that all the war fever was behind us. The tarmac had ended and we followed a white ribbon of dirt and dust through the sparse bush to the frontier with the Camerouns. Gamboru, the final Nigerian police and customs post was an army barracks of white buildings set under a few trees, with a straw hut beside a barrier across the road. A reasonably short delay and we passed through the barrier, crossed a bridge over the river, and reached Fotokol, the border post for the Camerouns. We were back again in what had once been French Colonial Africa. The officials wore French-modelled uniforms, the signs were all written in French, and the police were the Surete Nationale.
It was a short run across this narrow neck of the Camerouns to Chad, a mere sixty-seven miles of the white dirt road. One the way we saw a beautiful flock of tall, golden-crested cranes and flocks of plump guinea fowl running at a slow waddle into the jungle. The sight of the latter made my mouth water and my trigger-finger itch but on this trip there could be no hunting for the pot. In the last couple of years Africa had become highly sensitive about guns and it was practically impossible to get a permit.
We camped that night in sight of Fort Lamy, the city lights twinkling palely on the far side of the broad Chari River that flowed down from Lake Chad. The next morning we checked out at the little white-washed customs and police post and then drove down to the grey barrier of the river and loaded our vehicles aboard the ferry. It was typical African ferry, a wooden platform on three large flat steel barges, with a wheelhouse and engine mounted on the centre barge. The native river traffic that floated by as we chugged slowly across consisted of long dugout canoes.
On the far bank were the Chad police and customs posts, looking more like wooden Coca Cola stalls except for the identifying signs. Again it was a lengthy process getting through and once again we had arrived in a land of war. Chad had the same problem as the Sudan for it straddled the vague ethnological line where Black Africa mingled with the Arab north. Here the balance of power was reversed and it was the Africans who formed the government and the war was being waged against the rebellious desert tribesmen of the north. The whole of northern Chad was a turmoil of raiding bandits and a closed area where the French Foreign Legion had been recalled to help stem the revolt in France’s former colony. This was all disturbing news and it began to seem that the whole of our trip was to be dedicated to picking a delicate path around the war zones of Africa.
At last we drove into Fort Lamy, a neat widely-spaced town of white-washed, cloistered shops and public buildings. There was a bank that was actually open and no sign of a black market, and so we changed money legally for the first time in Africa. In the large central park of dusty green trees was the massive oval cathedral. The impressive dome was patterned with red tiles and zig-zag lines of yellow and blue, while above the doors a beautiful stained glass cross was set in the brickwork. We found native curios, carvings and spears and shields spread out by vendors under the trees. There were French cake shops where ice creams could be brought in a dozen flavours. The French colonial stamp was much smarter than the British legacy in Kano and Maiduguri, perhaps because they hadn’t allowed the influx of Indian traders, or perhaps because they had been much more determined to leave their mark and turn Chad into an overseas France.
Our stay was as brief as possible, for Fort Lamy was the most horribly expensive place I have ever visited. Chad is a completely land-locked country, smack in the middle of Africa and practically all goods have to be imported at fantastically high transport costs.
While we were there we heard the bleak news that a small group who had preceded us had been ambushed and killed by the rebel tribesmen on the road to Fort Archambault. However, we had crossed half the continent and it was too late to turn back. We had no choice except to take the same road south.