CONAREF ban me from entering the Burkina Faso refugee camps

Before I take you on from Boni in Mali across 90kms of sahelian bush around about 16 Feb 2014, to Burkina Faso, Djibo and the Mentao refugee camp with Radwan after his return from Timbuktu, post arrest and liberation, to talk to the family about returning back again with him to Timbuktu and their land of Ewett, let me remind you of the context that I was aware might greet me in Burkina Faso. 

 

A week to 10 days previously, when I was en route to the refugee camps for the first time from Bamako, I had been alerted by an incident that happened to Hannah, a tourist client of mine, that I might run into problems at the Mentao refugee camp with the Burkina police and CONAREF, the Burkina Faso authority in charge of the refugee camps.

Hannah had been in Burkina and the camps with guides and friends of mine for about a week. During this time the Festival in the Desert came to town with their Caravan of Peace and she was now awaiting my arrival as she wanted to join the return of Radwan as she worked with refugees in Canada.

Hannah had called me as I was en route for the camp to say the Burkina police had taken her passport away and were accusing her of working with me to repatriate the refugees – crime of crimes! I assumed this was prompted by CONAREF. 

Oddly the police “knew all about” my project and had been following the movements of my Landcruiser “the doctor” that Hannah was using. Given I had not been to the camps for four months how did they know that the car was mine? Someone will have had to have pointed out that the vehicle Hannah was using was mine. The police for some reason thought I was already in the camps  – why would the police on their own suspect this? They reported that “I had no right” to take any refugees home. Again, this is not the Burkina police’s domain, it is CONAREF’s. Hannah and Mohammed were ordered to leave Burkina without returning to the camp and without taking anybody else with them. So they left for Boni, 90 kms north of Djibo in Mali, and we arranged to meet there

This had to have come from CONAREF, but where had the tip off to them come from? 

I had been aware that the rumour mill had been working overtime in the camps about a white man coming to take everyone home and I knew that there were certain interests inside and outside the camps who didn’t want me to succeed with my Radwan plan for their own self interest. Anyone profiting personally or politically from the refugees was against any return. People and families with a position of responsibility in the camps, perhaps getting paid, have an interest in the refugees remaining as back in their real world they have no position. CONAREF themselves will be without purpose once the refugees go home, the UN funds will stop, all the benefits of hosting refugees will disappear.

But I suspected a more powerful source. CONAREF had very specific information on me that had to have come from someone who knew my program well and had a personal interest for me not to succeed. Many other groups of refugees had already returned. This was not about CONAREF or the police not wanting individual families of refugees returning, it was about not wanting me to succeed with my own project.

Now, 10 days later, we were back in Boni, 60 kms from the Burkina border and 90 kms from the camp, freed from the gendarmerie and about to take Radwan and Ishmael back to Djibo and the Mentao camp to address the family.

 

I decided to go to Djibo with Radwan to test the temperature there for myself. We’d go  in “the doctor”  leaving Betsy behind so as not to make too much of an entrance first time round – Betsy pulls focus you know! Then if the family were agreeable to the return, once Radwan had rested sufficiently, we’d bring Betsy down from Boni so we could do a snatch and run job! 

Mohammed, Radwan, Ishamael, Hannah and I left Fatimata’s camp in Boni and set off in the doctor, leaving the strange mountain outcrops of Mali’s own ‘Monument Valley’ behind us to cross the flat Sahelian bush. No tarmac roads here, just track. So many pistes, always take the most used and the middle one, and keep heading south. In 5 hours we hit Djibo, Burkina Faso.

We stopped at the gendarmerie in town to register our arrival. No one seemed to recognise or register us. I asked our friendly gendarme if I was ok to take Radwan back to the camp or did I need to register first with CONAREF? No I was told, as I had informed them, and “you are staying in Djibo aren’t you?” 

“Of course” 

Our gendarme was smiley and genial, he was happy that I’d paid the gendarmerie the respect of registering with them first, and he excused me registering with CONAREF as he could see the old man would be tired, I could pass by them in the morning. He looked out of the doorway to see Radwan being helped out of the car. “What is he doing?” 

I walked over to the car. Hannah told me Radwan wanted to speak to the gendarmes. What? We don’t want to speak to ANYONE if we don’t have to. We just need to get to the camp as quietly as possible. Radwan was now doing his usual distinctive gait: after 10 meters of stumbling forwards with his stick he sits in a heap on the ground wherever he is to recover before hauling himself back up and plodding on. Now he was right in front of the doorway to the gendarmerie sitting on the stony ground shouting in Tamashek something about an identity card.

We explained to Radwan that he didn’t need an identity card here, he had his refugee “attestation”.

Radwan barked out that he was no refugee, he wanted a Malian ID card, he was going HOME!

My friendly gendarme told me this wasn’t on. The gendarme couldn’t have an old man sat like this in front of the gendarmerie discussing identity cards. It was to us, young men, to do the work, the old man must be at ease in the car. If he needs something we can go to him. I explained that he had done this of his own will, that he had gone a bit funny and we agreed he should return to the car. 

A far cry from the gendarmes that greeted Radwan at Timbuktu I thought.

We all helped Radwan back to the car and set off for the camp.

Back at camp the family were, of course, delighted to see Radwan and Ishmael and greeted me warmly. Radwan’s ordeal in Timbuktu was probably worse for them here than it was for us. The talk talk in the camps will have wound them up to a frenzy, and I’m sure at moments they had doubted me.

We had milk – Nedo powdered milk sadly, not the fresh cow’s milk of Ewett –  and later tea, while people came by to greet Radwan.

I was a bit restless, worried about the car being visible at Radwan’s camp in broad daylight. If CONAREF got wind they’d ignore what the gendarmerie told me and use this as all they needed to give me a problem. With all these people coming and going greeting Radwan I decided to go back to Djibo and see CONAREF. When it was dark I could return to the camp and no one would know.

So I made my excuses and Mohammed and I went back to Djibo to see CONAREF.

In the CONAREF office only two lowly staff were on and they seemed unmoved and ready to shut up for the night. This was good. Perhaps they weren’t aware of my name and I could get away with registering my arrival without seeing the boss, Toué, who I knew to be difficult at best. They each looked at my passport, took down my details. They asked what I was doing. I told them I was here with a tourist client. That I had brought back an old chief who had been to Timbuktu and I had dropped him off at Mentao camp.

They quizzed me a bit about where I had met up with Radwan but I was able to claim, almost truthfully, that I had just bumped into him in Boni and he had asked for me to take him to Timbuktu.

Suddenly a little prickle. “Why hadn’t I sought their authority to take him back to the camp today?” I explained what the gendarmerie had said.

“Where was I staying?”

With friends in Djibo town (experience had taught this was the correct, if false, answer).

They had nothing. I was to come by in the morning.

Outside Mohammed was waiting for me. 

“Let’s go to that bar of ours and wait for nightfall”, I said.

“I know a better one, it’s more secluded for the car”.

We rolled into Tity’s bar –  a little off the main drag out of town to take our sundowner. Tony – my alcoholic Tuareg friend – was inevitably there. Word of Radwan’s arrest had of course buzzed around the refugee camp.

“Guy, how can we go back when even old Radwan gets arrested.”

“That’s exactly how the people who do these things want you to react.”

“But we have no choice. There’s clearly still insecurity.”

“ At root, what happened to Radwan wasn’t about insecurity, it was about money. It’s authorities profiting from the situation. This is the Mali of old that you know very well and it’s back in control and it will ever be thus under a corrupt system. 

“The thing to remember about what happened to Radwan and Ishmael is that they were reasonably quickly released. This shows that yes they can arrest you for nothing, and they will, but if you are innocent, if they have nothing on you, if you haven’t held arms, if there’s no proof there’s nothing they can do.” 

“It’s a risk”

“Yes of course but…” My pet subject, risk. I continued, pushing the boat out a bit: “I don’t understand you guys sometimes. You take a huge risk in leaving your country in the first place. You put everything you have at risk: your education, your homes, your animals, your jobs… everything, to leave. I understand, you fear for your lives so these risks seem worth taking. But now to go home you expect it all to be made up for you like a bed of roses. The risk to your lives has gone, but you search for the slightest reason to tell yourselves that risk is still there . Meanwhile the risks you take towards the things that make your life your own – your home, your education, your jobs, your community – are huge and increasing all the time. 

“The plain fact is that the UN, ECOWAS, the African Union etc are not primarily concerned with you, they are there to help the state, they are unions of nations not peoples. At some point, whether it’s now or a year or ten year’s time you are going to have to go home, and this will involve a risk whether the UN take you back or you go yourselves. But the longer you leave it the more you are going to lose, in my mind. Can you afford to leave this decision to Mali or these institutions who do not have your best interests as their primary concern? It is time for you, the refugees, to forget politics, forget the MNLA, forget the history and do what everyone else in this crisis is doing: act in your self interest.”

I was being tough on Tony but he needed it. I knew Tony really wanted to go back, but I also knew he was the sort of person who will talk talk talk about returning but never will until he is led back by his hand. In Tony I saw the whole Tuareg dilemma. The security of the camp had institutionalised the refugees and the big wide world seemed a scary place.

On my journey over here from the UK, with all the time I had to think about the refugees, I had felt a rising frustration. I was frustrated with the terrible communal survival instinct of a people who throw everything away through fear. I know it is the history, what has gone before, that creates the panic, but for everyone to throw everything away for the fear of being in the few that get into trouble seems, on the community survival level, to be a disproportionate sacrifice to the risk. 

I found myself imagining London in 1940 and the consequences for Europe and the world if Londoners had abandoned their city, as Hitler wished, and fled the blitz. Even when the exactions by the Malian military against the Tuareg population were occurring in the 6 months after the French liberation the Tuareg would have been better off staying put despite the history of atrocities against them and despite the exactions that certainly did take place. Would more have died or been taken prisoner if the community had stayed? Unlikely and possibly less. It was easy for the Malian military to enter a village market, escorted by local militia and pull aside the three Tuareg in the market knowing no one else will mention anything as they disappear off in the pick up. But if there were 100 Tuareg in the market place it would not be so easy, the bully boys would not feel so strong and if anything did happen there would be witnesses to testify. They couldn’t round up quietly 100 people.

One reason of course that it is easy for the Tuareg to flee is that as nomads and with a history of persecution they are, so to speak, professionals! Furthermore, with nomadic genes the Tuareg are a people who are attached to place spiritually though not materially. In the desert it is not the specific place or town or village or house or even tent that they refer to as home.  Home is their family, their community, their animals and, in its general sense, the desert. This spiritual attachment they can take with them, the physical is not so important, thus my Londoners of 1940 analogy does not really work on a number of levels. Firstly Londoners faced a threat from outside the country, the Tuareg faced a threat from within. Secondly, Londoners needed to stay in place to preserve their country, their culture and everything they knew and to flee would have put all this in jeopardy, for the Tuareg their country had in some ways already abandoned them and, with the AQMI occupation of the north and the ethnically targeted exactions after the liberation, the Tuareg had to flee to preserve their culture and community.

Ironically the Tuareg, in their nomadic disrespect for borders that sees the entire desert as their boundless home, consider themselves the freest of all people even from the restrictions of a refugee camp. Their freedom is spiritually physical – it is of the desert – a liberty of the soul.  It does not so much matter where in the desert they are, just to be in the desert. 

One of the biggest complaints I came across in the camps was that they were not in their “climate” or “environment”. No one remarked that they missed Timbuktu, or their village, or their house. Their discomfort was primarily the different heat and the humid air, they were troubled by their alienation more than their exile. A nomad’s strength and resilience is thus also, in a world of borders and nations and private property, their Achilles heal: they are, at the same time, both always and never in “exile”.

It is thus perhaps inevitable that when one region becomes risky they will move to another that is not at the drop of a turban.(Sorry) It is only the complications of the modern world and the interests of states with physical borders that make them “exiles” or “refugees”. At heart, a nomad is at home wherever his family are, or wherever his animals are. Pewrahps this has something to do with why the Mentao camps don’t feel like your image of a refugee camp, because these people are professionals.

It was dark. Time to leave to go back to Mentao now as no one could recognise the car at night.

At Fatimata’s I feel at home. I have a few “homes” on my travel routes and with friends in Mali, but nowhere do I feel quite so at ease and looked after than with Fatimata. I have known her and her 7 children for about 3 years and since coming to the camps it has always been here that I feel most relaxed, inconspicuous, myself. And she makes a mean mango, tomato and onion salad, apropriately named Fatimata’s Salad. Sorry CONAREF I couldn’t come to Djibo and the camps without saying hi to Fatimata, Mariam, Abdullah, Fatim, Sarid, Mullay, Oumar.

Mohammed and I had a lovely evening eating, chatting, having tea, catching up on my “haj” as Fatimata calls my caravan idea. “No No No”!! She is not ready to go back to Timbuktu. Her two eldest daughters, Mariam and Fadi have work with one of the NGOs so they bring in between them a reasonable living of about €150 per month. If she was to return there is nothing for them at Timbuktu so they’d be much worse off. Another catch 22 that confronts the refugees.

Lying out that night under the intense night sky, a flimsy mattress and a sheet all I need as comfort from the elements, I pondered over the irony of my situation. At home and at ease though clandestine in a refugee camp. Here solely to help a family go home at my own expense and in the process creating huge suspicion both from refugees and the authorities supposedly there to look after their best interests.

I am happy here, and so are many of the refugees, especially the young, and this is part of the problem. For many it is like being at a permanent holiday camp. All your friends and cousins and brothers and sisters are nearby, families normally spread across a nation are all here together in a space 6kms x 1km. Back in July I took Fatimata’s eldest daughter, Mariam, back to Bamako to inscribe herself back at the university after a two year break for the coming months when she was expecting to return. After 3 days in Bamako Mariam was itching to get back to the camp, not because there were problems in Bamako but because she missed her friends, her family, her life there and the big wide open real world of the city she had fled was now strange and probably a bit daunting.

Politically this is a problem for the refugees too. Cocooned in their camps from the reality of Mali, abandoned by the outside world and forgotten by their country, their ideas of solutions to their situation tend towards fantasy. When I first arrived in the camps in I heard two ideas for their return: either when an independent Azawad was created, to which I replied then you’ll be here for many decades, or when the French military leave the MNLA (who most support now, though before the crisis their support would have been negligible) would go back to war against Mali, to which I replied that they’d be waiting at least ten years, perhaps more, as the French have not entered Mali to leave so soon that is for sure. Just like the British and US in Afghanistan, once in it’ll take a lot of peace to remove them!

——-

In the morning I visited some friends quickly, dropped in at Radwan’s camp and then took Ishmael into Djibo to see UNHCR and CONAREF about returning the family.

UNHCR informed us that we had to go by CONAREF first, they being the higher authority. Really, what nonsense: a Burkina Faso government department, whose only raison d’etre is hosting refugees, has overall authority over refugees returning? Just another example of how the UN is set up so that it can only represent the interests of nations and not people.

We went onto CONAREF. Same two guys in the office.

Ishmael began to explain that we had come to find out what procedures he needed to follow for the family to leave the camp. He explained that I was a friend and I was going to take them home. Immediately the atmosphere stiffened The questions followed:

“Why hadn’t I mentioned this last night, I said I was here for tourism?”

“I am. I am with a client. But she is leaving from Ouagadougou. Once she has left I am going to take my friend back to Mali, as it’s on my way!”

Side kick got up and left the room.

Abas to Ishmael:

“What about security back in Mali? How would they get by? There is no assistance”.

Hmm. So CONAREF are aware that the UN are still not handing out assistance in Timbuktu! Even the UN pretend that they are. 

Sidekick comes back into the room and hands me a phone:

“Toué, our boss, he wants to speak to you”

“Good morning Mr Toué.

“Good morning, how are you?”

“Fine thank you. And you?”

“Fine thank you. You are banned from entering the camps”.

“Sorry”

“You are banned from entering Mentao camp under any circumstances and if you want to take any refugees away you will need an order of mission from your embassy and will have to come to the office in Ouagadougou”.

He was practically screaming at me. No need to explain my mission, he clearly knew, or thought he knew, all about it and I clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere so I handed the phone back to side-kick as Toué continued his rant. 

I left the office determined CONAREF were not going to keep the upper hand. Ismael was with me, I had to take him back to the camp. Perhaps it was time to test this ban, and to test the resolve of CONAREF.

We returned to Mentao and explained what happened to the family. A discussion broke out about the refugees’ prisoner status. Radwan insisted I stayed for meat but I didn’t think I could. My deliberation was decided for me when Mohammed indicated that the vehicle sounds I could hear outside the tent were the police.

A couple of CONAREF guys ducked into the tent. Minutes later and Hannah, Mohammed and I were escorted to the police post within the camp.

Was it coincidence that as we arrived at the post Haima, the refugee head of site for Mentao north, who knew me well and was connected to a large and influential family that I suspected were behind  much of briefing against me, rolled in on his motorbike?

At the post, a large camouflaged net/tent/shelter, our passport details were taken. Police officers came and went, as did CONAREF representatives. Haima, friendly and in good humour, told me to go and see him when I was finished with the police.

After about an hour the pleasant police, having asked no questions, seemed to be wrapping up with our passports. I asked if I could take them back to be told that no they were going to the police commissariat in Djibo. No explanation given as to why we had to go there having been here. If they, like CONAREF, wanted to ban me from the camp then they could do that from here. Perhaps it was just all obstruction and time wasting.

So we were escorted to the Commissariat in Djibo town. Waited about an hour with our CONAREF friends in tow, eventually we were to be seen by the commissar. CONAREF accompanied us into his office.

He began directly with me. How often had I been to Burkina Faso? Often. How many times? Oh four or five times. “But Mr Guy there is no trace of these visits in your passport. No Visa, no entry stamps, no exit stamps”. 

“Oh Sorry. That is my new passport, my Burkina stamps and visa are in my old passport.”

 I got up and went out to the doctor and got my other passport from my bag.

As I walked back in holding another passport my CONAREF minder looked less assured. I handed the passport to the commissar, who flicked through, nodded and deciphered and handed my passport back to me.

“Well I see indeed you have been in Burkina and you have the stamps. You are welcome. As far as the camps are concerned that is CONAREF’s business, as for us at Djibo we have no problem. In future you must come and register with us.”

Walking back to the car after paying the police $2 each for the pleasure of stamping our passports I decided to settle for the day’s 1-1 draw. 

Bugger CONAREF. Same as yesterday, hang out till dark and then back to Fatimata’s, MENTAO sud. Home in prison. A stowaway in a refugee camp! What had become of me?

Radwan and Ishmael arrested in Timbuktu but the lion of Ewett returns

As the various uniforms – military, gendarme, plain – and shades approached the car Reservoir Dogs style Radwan stared straight ahead unflinching. Ishmael, in the back seat next to me, was uneasy – he had not his father’s experience of the battlefield to fall back on. The foot passengers looked on waiting for the action and were sent on their way. An element waved me to put down my camera.

“You and you” pointing to Radwan and Ishmael “get down from the car”.

Ismael had gone into an automatic trance and was doing as ordered. I got out. “I’m the group leader, what’s going on?”

“You are to be escorted to the gendarmerie. These two must go in the pick up”.

“All of us to be escorted?”

“Yes.’

“Then why can’t they stay in my car to the gendarmerie?”

“These two are going in the pick up”

“The old man is 86, he’s weak and frail and can’t walk.”

“Today he will walk”.

Radwan greeted by an old friend on the ferry moments before his arrest

Reading Other Worlds and Strange Ways

15 January 2014

Today is Mohammed’s birthday.

Not one of my many friends called Mohammed, THE Mohammed, the prophet who received the Quran, he who is responsible for the fastest growing religion in the world, the religion that is ubiquitous in the Sahara and West Africa and that has given this part of the world its ways, and of course the religion some would say has created all the problems in the world today.

Mohammed received the Quran (meaning recitation) in stages over many years. When he received the suras (chapters) Mohammed would go into a trance and recite and his words were taken down by scribes. “Read” is the first word of the first sura Mohammed received. Throughout the Quran the reader or listener is instructed to be reasonable and to use reason to interpret the world.

To the outsider there is a thrust to the Quran that is surprising given the world today. Muslims are urged not to try to convert others to their ways. People will follow if they are so guided, but trying to persuade others to the path of Islam is presented as fruitless: it is God who guides.

I am staying with my friend Oulibou in his small hotel in Nouakchott, Mauritania. I am his only client today, so he brought round some food – camel meat cooked with onions – and invited Pierre, a Frenchman who is a teacher here, to join us. Pierre was staying here when I arrived, but he has found himself a flat now near the school he works in, but as he knows no one in town Oulibou brought us two waifs together for the “fete”.

Oulibou called me down from my room to eat. In the salon was a single plate with some camel meat on a small table which I assumed was our starter dish before rice would come later. Pierre was hovering over the dish when I greeted him and had a set of cutlery in his hands. His body language was conveying ownership of the dish, so I wondered if this was the dish I had been called down to eat.

Then Pierre started tucking into the meat. This was clearly Pierre’s dish as according to west African ways you do not start until everyone is sat around the plate. I sat aside and waited.

Mocktar, who works in the hotel, entered and sat down next to Pierre to eat. He broke some bread, offered some to me with “bishmillah” inviting me to join. Mocktar was about to take some meat himself when Pierre said:

“If you want to eat go and get yourself a plate”. Mocktar looked at him puzzled. “It’s like that with us” said Pierre looking at me for approval “everyone has his own plate, so get yourself a plate and you can eat”. I shifted uncomfortably. Mocktar has an unfortunate manner and can be annoying but he hadn’t deserved this.

In most of Africa, but especially Muslim Africa, everyone eats off the same plate at the same time, with their hands freshly washed, not because they can’t afford the crockery, or knives and forks haven’t yet reached the continent, but because it is their way – it is a communal world. If you a foreigner, in respect for your foreign ways, you are offered a spoon, never expected to eat with your hand if you don’t know how, it’s a difficult art and messy to the unexperienced.. Pierre, in all his time here, could not have missed all this.

“But it’s not like that here” I ventured to Pierre.
“But it is for us, so if Mocktar wants to share the food I am eating he can share, but I eat in my way.”

He turned to Mocktar: “When I have Mauritanian friends to my flat I give them each their individual plate, so they can see how we do things in France.” I could hold back no longer.

“But you are not in France and you are not in your flat here”.

“No, but we have our ways and they have to respect my choice.”

“So if in France a Mauritanian came round to your house and at the dinner table collected all the individual plates and scraped all the food onto one big plate and began eating with his hand and expected you and everyone there to do the same, in resect of his “way” that would be OK?” I pushed.

“No” said Pierre. He mumbled something dismissive I missed but his tone suggested he was not for moving, his way was right.

Mocktar went off and fetched a plate. He came back and put it next to Pierre’s who put about a quarter of the meat on Mocktar’s plate. I hovered, very uncomfortable – Pierre had clearly thought the whole plate was for him. I wanted to leave but I was hungry. “Bishmillah Guy” said Mocktar again.

So I sat next to Mocktar and he and I shared his plate. With two of us tucking into a quarter of the food, we finished quickly. Each time we finished, Pierre would pass over a few more morsels of meat for us to share. After a few mouthfulls Mocktar got up and left, I could tell he was not amused. I finished up the plate, but no more came from Pierre so I took myself aside to sip a rare glass of wine Oulibou had brought in for us for the occasion. Wine, in a Muslim country, on Mohammed’s birthday! Other ways are welcome here.

Pierre eat on alone, while I sipped my wine, until he had finished his plate. He and Oulibou chatted, but I couldn’t partake. Eventually I climbed the stairs to a tent on the roof where the hotel guys make their tea.

Later on I was preparing my coffee, my one “way” from home I carry with me wherever I go, reflecting over the Pierre incident, and how it described the tensions in the world. The incident churned into a metaphor which took my mind over to Mali, to the French military presence there, the UN, the IMF. My mood darkened further as I wandered on to the war on terror, to the chaos in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to the clash of worlds, religions, ideologies and ways of life; to the mis-understandings and lack of acceptance of others’ ways and all the trouble that ensues.

My coffee gurgled its readiness on the single gas stove. I poured some sugar into my empty glass. “Guy, careful with the sugar” said Mocktar for the third time today – God he can be annoying! I had had enough.

“Mocktar, that is the third time you have said that to me today. Once more and I’ll whack you. When you guys have your tea how much sugar do you use? Look at how much I have taken” and I held my glass up for him to inspect.

“No no, you get me wrong…”

“No I don’t, that’s the third time today!” I insisted.

“My friend” interjected Oulibou, stirring from his slumber aside, surprised at my outburst, “you have misunderstood. He cares not how much you take for himself, but worries for your health.”

“Yes” said Mocktar. “When someone pours sugar, that is what we say, there are sicknesses that come from sugar. Like you say, we Mauritanians like too much sugar, so we must warn ourselves to change our stupid ways.”

I got off my perch and apologised for mis-reading Mocktar’s annoying way.

Betsy towed 500km across the Sahara to find a messenger had arrived in Nouakchott

My attempts to find a tow in the freight lorries park where the trusks await for their  escort across Mauritania to Senegal came to nothing – too loaded up or foreign trucks that could not take the chance – so that night Betsy and I were pushed across the final frontier for this border I decided to hang with her rather than return to Nouadibou with Cheick who would look for a local truck going to Nouakchott.

I eat chicken and chips and salad that was about an hour and a half late, slept in my tent in the back of Betsy 10 meters on from the gate which consisted of a chain across the road to be awoken at dawn by the mornings border traffic lining up to go to Morocco.

I got up and decided to record myself so went to a rise in the sand to set up my tripod and camera. I was dressed in my prize Algerian camel wool djellaba which and doubles up as perfect cold desert night gear and alternative sleeping bag which was stolen in Rabat.

With the hood up, and Rachel’s sheep skin slippers on for the morning chill, the spot I chose was a rise in the sandy rock overlooking the beginning of the border, though I was behind all the action so no one could really see. Technically not done to photograph at borders.

I did my stuff, wandered about taking photos of grafitti and rubbish and went over to the only cafe had some bad coffee – good coffee ends after Morocco – sat inside and did some writing on my computer waiting for Cheick to come back with a solution for Nouakchott. At about 10 he came in.

“There you are. I thought you had been stolen! I tapped your tent, banged on the truck but nothing. I walked all the way to the gendarerie, no one has seen you.”

I was the only white boy in town sleeping in a union jack tent on top of a broken down truck painted as a hippy wagon emerging at dawn like something out of star wars flashing a camera meters from a border post. I think I’ve perfected the art of blending in.

Cheick had good news. A truck was leaving Nouadibou at 3pm and would tow me to Nouakchott for €300. With Betsy’s old petrol engine it would have cost me that in fuel.

“Let’s go”

€50 later a mercedes car was pulling Betsy and I to the Nouadibou-Nouakchott turn off, and Cheick and I went back into Nouadibou to have lunch, email off to family and meet up with Mohammed and Aly and their old green 40 ton Mercedes Truck carrying waste metal to Noauckchott.

Twenty meters after take off this very big bird ran out of diesel from the main tank. This was going to be a long ‘un. Memories of early day’s travels, trucking from Zimbabwe to Kenya, cooking steak on the gearbox slowly over the course of the day’s travel. I’m back to trucking with the boys! Slow, methodical, every mile an achievement, the journey the thing, not the destination.

It took us 2 hours to get the 60kms to Betsy who looked so small being tied up behind the Mercedes. Then we rolled.

We rumbled along through dusk and into a Saharan starlit night, Aly making tea and cooking dinner as we drove, me in Betsy staring at a back end of a truck and lining my steering up with a precise line on this green screen until about 11pm, when we stopped to eat good desert food of pasta and meat and to sleep, Mohammed on a mat on the ground sheltering from the wind behind a wheel, Aly in the cabin of the Mercedes and me in my tent in the back of Betsy.

I forgot to tell you. Without her canvas on – taken off to reduce “military aspect” – at a standstill Betsy sings, but only seemingly at night. In a wind her poles and holes hum and whistle. In her working life she did India, testified by her badges of honour. In her song I hear elephants, sitars and perhaps a past that she is singing to re-join. We’re nearing the tropics old girl – well a couple of thousand kilometers away but closer than you’ve been for decades.

I think she might be enjoying the heat – and she’s got it easy now, stubborn bitch!

Dawn and up.

Back to the rolling, back to the line on the screen, back to the rumble of Betsy all day, rescuing another truck stuck in the sands at one point, so Mercedes pulling Betsy pulling stuck truck. All ropes snapped! Sand plates did it in the end. And on till finally rolling into Nouakchott at 6pm and Auberge Awkar and my old friend Oulibou who OWES ME LOTS OF MONEY and has promised to sort me out with a solution to get to Bamako. Hurrah for Oulibou not being able to settle his debt all year!

As Mohammed pulled Betsy into place outside the side entrance to Auberge Awkar where Ibrahim, the ever-sleeping guardian could keep a watchful eye, a European man leaning on the wall smoking cast an amused and wistful eye on my arrival.

After finding out from him that Oulibou was not around and would be back soon so Mohammed would have to hold 5 (an African 5 of course) for the balance payment for the tow, the smoking stranger ushered me into the auberge to have a seat. He clearly wanted to chat.

Turned out he saw in my arrival a madman of his own image. He was a Saharan/African/West African traveller in the 60s and 70s in this part of the world. He was also a mechanic. 

I told him my problem, showed him round Betsy. “Bite the bullet. Change the engine, put in an old diesel one here in Nouakchott.”

A weight lifted. 

Through the  haze of the past few days, from the piston blowing, the rush to get out of Morocco by Christmas eve to avoid the fine, the difficulties at the border getting in, then planning for getting towed across Mauritania in 7 days and onto Bamako  to pick up her parts and get her fixed, i hadn’t thought of a new engine. Fixing her old up anyway was a gamble in itself, these petrol engines are not known out here, the wrong carburetor setting or wrong oil probably blew her piston, without Joe to monitor I was pissing in the wind. I’d almost given up the idea of her being used for the return, just get her to Bamako and fix her there while I go on to the camps and do returns with my landcruisers. But I could be towing her all the way there for another mechanic to make another mistake and she’s out again.

If I change to diesel she is more robust, cheaper to run – perhaps 3 times more efficient on cheaper fuel – better suited to the climate, easier to maintain out here, she has sale on value. I’ve got to spend on her anyway, if I do this now I’m salvaging Betsy for the future AND she’s ready to go again from here and onto the return.

The man’s name was Hervé. He was in his late 60s, French, in his words “a peasant” from the Massif Centrale, flying out of Nouakchott that night. Hervé had had the urge to leave the cold in France 10 days ago, as I was leaving Marrakech for Agadir. He drove an old banger he had stashed in a garage down and sold it to pay his journey and was going back home.

Our paths crossed as I was considering my next move to Bamako. An old weary traveller giving me my answer for the next push forwards.

Later that evening Hervé and I discussed. Our generations and nationalities clashed horns. We argued, saw things differently, he nostalgic for the generation past, me for just a few years ago, he seeing the problems coming from within and on the ground, in “Arabisation” and Islam, me blaming outside pressures, and suggesting a perversion, mythology and foreignness to any “islamism” the region supposedly has but that I have never heard defended.

I was up late that night and bumped into Hervé as he was leaving the auberge for the airport at 3am.

“Bon voyage” I said to his back as he walked to his taxi and I climbed into Betsy.

He did a theatrical wave without turning back, slid into the taxi and disappeared into the silent morning. Another messenger.

This trip has been burdened with bad luck and big problems, but blessed with messengers with clues to the way forward when I’ve needed them. Mohammed in Ceuta, Abdullai in Agadir, Cheick in Nouadibou and now Hervé.

And here I am, New Year’s day, Nouakchott, catching up on the end of the year. Last night a friend from the camp’s cousin called me. I ended up at possibly the only Tuareg gig in town, a large auditorium with not enough refugees to really make it fire. My first guitar, first Tuareg, first refugees of this journey, seeing out that difficult year and hoping to see Timbuktu very soon with Radwan and his family and my friends.

Today Betsy has been towed off again, this time to the mechanic’s to have her new engine put in. German Mercedes 11 13 diesel is marrying an old British war elephant. She’s learning the key to success in Africa: adapting to the environment.

So an African hybrid of ancient European models will emerge, a sign of the times behind in Europe and for her future in Africa. Fitted for new purpose, forwards efficiency and durability for her new climate. This is no time for tears for tradition or protocol or nostalgia. All that matters now are the 3000kms she needs to do to get us to Timbuktu.

Happy New Year from us both.

Goodbye to the old, bring on the new.

Come on 2014 – take us all back to Timbuktu in peace.

High Tailing it out of Morocco and not a jolly Christmas on the Mauritanian border

Dawn. Boxing Day. Nouadibou, Mauritania, after the worst Christmas Day on the Morocco Mauritania border. No family, no friends, no food, a little water, not a tinsel or coloured light to be seen, no telly, no games, no alcohol and not a wrapped present awaiting.

I spent the day explaining Betsy’s drastic situation to officials: why I had no engine, why Betsy had to be carried to the border on the back of another truck, why I was alone.

When I got to the Mauritanian customs I skipped losing my mechanic, losing my driver, the tons of metal I had left behind in Ceuta after 2 weeks of deliberation, the changing of Betsy’s “military aspect” into a hippy wagon, the cost of these trucks transport and the refugees project ahead. So I kept it to the past few days of this inadvertently epic journey. 

I skipped also how en route to Marrakech Betsy began her farting again which I had a Marrakech professional look into and then en route to Agadir a piston blew on me near a lovely lake and how Mocktar my Moroccan guide and his cousin Abdullai came to the rescue and before I knew it I was sailing across the a Sahara on the back of a breakdown truck. 

I jumped forwards to the present and how I had solutions to be towed to Bamako if only the custom’s chief would give me the normal tourist “laisser passer” which allows me to pass through the country rather than the normal lorry escort he was threatening to the Mali border. I even plunged into the whole refugee project ahead – something I have always kept quiet on official business as its amazing how much suspicion one arouses mentioning refugees – in an attempt to emotionally blackmail him. 

Despite the custom’s chief’s kindly face all was to no avail. My only options were: 

– put my truck onto another (towing not possible) and be escorted with all the freight lorries to the border, paying for the escort and of course my carriage. Arguing that Betsy is not exactly a lorry lorry, I have no merchandise, I am using her as a camping vehicle essentially, she is 57 years old….did not wash. 

– leave her at the border get my parts and return to repair here and drive her through Mauritania.

In that barren, sandy wasteland, the light went out on my journey, and like that crunching metalic thud that shuddered my hopes when the piston blew near Agadir, or the moment George announced he couldn’t be a driver, or when I lost Joe the mechanic and when the Moroccan customs couldn’t see beyond Betsy’s “military aspect”, I knew I was fucked. But this time – perhaps out of exhaustion, perhaps because this journey has broken me financially, and certainly because I realised that even if I passed this hurdle, I no longer had the resources personally and financially to climb anymore mountains – I could spy no chink of light.

So I packed up my personal things with my friend and guide Cheick and left Betsy at the border to go into Nouadibou wash, eat, drink, sleep. Cheick took me back to his family home. They fed me and watered me like one would a camel after a long caravan. 

I wasn’t able to stay at Cheick’s house. New security measures – all “tourists” (euphemism for white people) have to stay in hotels “for their security”. Don’t you love it! If I was looking for a tourist to kidnap, was I more likely to find my prey in a hotel or by searching all the houses of Nouadibou? But logic doesn’t work with security measures – the world over in my view, not just in Africa. It is just important to have rules, to have put in a measure, reacted. If someone tries to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb but they fail miserably, rather than laughing at their craziness we check everyone’s shoes when they get on a plane forever more. Thankfully the underpants bomber did not have the same effect – decorum bing more important than security I assume. But I’m drifting…!

So here I am, Christmas night, the only guest at Ali’s campement, everything seems to be over, the whole refugee return project hanging on a thread. As I lie down to sleep I have no new ideas other than turning up at the camps with a landcruiser and driving Radwan home and then relaying his family back to him and leaving it at that. I can still make a little effort, but its not going to be the caravan. 

What a Christmas.

——-

Dawn has come, the sun is out – at least its warm here! – and something is bubbling away inside my head. 

If this journey has been trying to tell me something perhaps it is that these trucks are not my answer. They are a hinderance, a burden and I possibly should have been bold in Ceuta having lost Joe and done something that was fluttering in my head all the time: go it alone.

And if this campaign, 7 months in the making, has indicated one thing it is that I am best alone: whenever I have sought outside help I have been thwarted, cornered, delayed, frustrated and betrayed by others’ interests.

I have to work this out now from within the refugee community.

Perhaps  now I need, perhaps, to start shouting loud. I’ve been too cautious. Now I must just be bold, say it as it is and use my trump card. 

I can’t say too much about this for fear of scaring it off. It’s an ace card, someone who has it in their power to enable me to help the refugees. If I play it I have to be sure, I have to play it well.

Full speed to Bamako without the burden of vehicles, travelling as I like it: alone, on foot with my resources in my head and in my bag.

—————–

Boxing day I returned with Cheik to the border to decide what to do with Betsy. Either I give up now, and take her back across the Mauritanian border into “no man’s land”, a 5km chunk of mined desert between Morocco and Mauritania, a place littered with the carcasses of cars and trucks, where deals are done on vehicles between borders. There I’d park her up and Cheik would come each day, as he does anyway to help tourists through the borders and hope to find guiding business, and slowly he’d sell off Betsy’s parts or sell her whole.

Or I leave Betsy with customs at a charge while I go off and find her parts, do my business, come back and repair her. This would involve more spending on a truck that had lost its purpose. If I left her with the customs and didn’t return they’d sell her off themselves. I’d prefer Cheik to gain something. So caught between customs and no man’s land!

 Cheick wanted me to make my decision but I felt I had to give the chief of customs one last go. Cheick said it would be impossible, no way would they give me a laisser passer because they knew I’d get Betsy towed.  I was going to go for all or nothing. I wanted the laisser passer, because I knew I had the big man Oulibou waiting in Nouackchott and he owed me cash. He had already told me he had a truck that he was trying to sell and if he couldn’t he would take it to Bamako and could tow me. 

So the only solutions that suited me were leaving the truck for the wolves in no man’s land and forgetting it, or towing it to Bamako with Oulibou. The latter demanded a laisser passer.

The chief has a kindly face and I felt there was sympathy yesterday.  When I braved to tell him about the refugees his response was “you should help those in Mauritania too.” I jumped on that: “I am. Many of those in Burkina have relatives in the Mauritania camps”.

I explained to the chief that I’d tried to look for a breakdown truck to put Betsy on but not found anything (a wee lie, Cheick had told me they don’t have them in Nouadibou). I told him about my solution for towing all the way to the Mali border so if I could just get a laisser passer I could resolve my situation. If not, then I will have lost everything.

He interrupted: “I’ll come and see the vehicle”. My heart jumped, this was the opening I was looking for.

I waited and waited, hardly daring to hope. Eventually he came while I was scoffing a sandwich “No – continue eating” he said as I put my food aside “no, no not at all” I replied. He took a brief glance at the truck and turned back to his office.

About an hour or so later Cheick came back to me: “he’s giving you a laisser passer!”

Oh my God. Last night it was all over, I was resolved to going on alone by foot, and almost looking forward to it, but the loss of Betsy was hard to take. Suddenly its all back on. All I need to do is get her to Bamako. From there I have her forever. Now I just need to find a tow to Nouackchott!

Not sure I can cope with much more of this see-saw ride. What more is ahead?

Why am I doing this and why should you care?

Now I have broken the barrier and am finally in Africa proper I can see the journey ahead and turn my attention again to its purpose: the refugees in Burkina Faso, Radwan and his family, my friends and the people I have grown to know this year.

Why should you care if I get across the Sahara, through Mauritania, into Mali with an old truck so I can help some friends? A hundred or so people I can hope to help – it’s a drop in the ocean! There are 50,000 in Burkina Faso alone. What impact can this possibly have in the greater scheme of things in Mali?

And why should it concern you anyway that some obscure dispossessed people go home? Hey shit happens, the world is a complicated place and this is Africa after all!

For me it’s not just the humanitarian principle of a state and an international politics that denies and ignores a cultural catastrophe that is happening to the Tuareg, some of the world’s last real nomads, whose ancestry recedes and branches back from the guardians of the Sahara to the Berber and the Atlas mountains of Morocco, the Moors of the Alhambra in Spain, protectors of the Prophet Mohammed in Arabia, to the shores and the sails of Phoenicia and perhaps, some say, on backwards to the centre of western tradition, the family of Israel. Are they the lost tribe of Israel? If they were this would explain the world’s blindness and deafness: it’s in our DNA!

For me it is the politics and mythology of the war on terrror, which is fundamentally the west’s war to wage on wherever it finds its strategic interests lie, that has driven the Tuareg to this catastrophe. Radwan Ag Ayouba’s story is testimony to this: in his 90 or so years he has weathered every Saharan storm thrown at him from drought to sword war fare to rebellions. He weathered this crisis – the rebellion, the coup d’etat, the MNLA take over of Timbuktu, the Al Qaeda occupation right up to the French “liberatation” and then he fled Timbuktu and Mali for the first time in his life, leaving all his livestock behind. The international world, represented by the French military, the UN agencies and 12,000 peacekeeping troops have been present on the ground in Mali for the duration of Radwan’s exile. During the past 6 months he has watched peace return to his country, a president elected, recent legislative elections done and dusted with no incident, tourists coming back and yet he is withering away in exile aong with most of the Malian population of his colour.

If Mali was in Europe, if it was say Yugoslavia, you’d know what was happening, but the only time you hear about Mali is when something happens in Timbuktu. Moreover, in the coming years, military chiefs would be hauled up before the Hague. No one will face justice for the campaign against the Tuareg, that’s for sure: no one has ever been put before a court for any atrocities committed against the Tuareg, and they have come after every rebellion, the camps are full of the testimonies.

I hear, though I cannot confirm, that the 2012-13 exodus from Mali is the greatest migration of people from the Sahara region ever. How often have you seen images of the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, or Niger on TV? Often enough to justify one of the biggest ever migrations of people in Africa? And what do you know about what drove them to migrate? Have you heard the term “ethnic cleansing” or a ‘colour war” applied to the Mali crisis? If not, why not when 95% of the refugees are light skinned Tamashek, aka “Tuareg”?

Before this journey, over the past 6 months, I have tried every angle I could to seek support for helping the refugees begin returning. The conditions are there for it to be possible, but they are stuck in political limbo. The UN will only help them back once Mali signs off that it is ready to take them back.

Meanwhile all the people of the north – Songai, Arab, Peul – are suffering. Those who are in, say, Timbuktu, suffer because without half the population the economy cannot get going, many displaced people within Mali (225,000 according to UNHCR) wont return because nothing is happening, and the refugees don’t go back because they have no means and they are not sure what humanitarian set up awaits them because they get no information.

The UN will only support the refugees to go home once the Mali government has signed off an accord with the UN to say it is ready and prepared to have the refugees home. Why isn’t it ready now? There are 12,000 UN peacekeeping troops on the ground, with the French in force as well, all the UN and NGO agencies needed to reconstruct, development money waiting to come in: the country has never been safer. They have an elected president and have had two country wide elections. Peace is back and yet the refugees can’t go home.

The refugees are on their knees, many have been out of Mali for 2 years, all have had to support themselves with anything they want other than 12 kilograms of rice a month which is all they receive from the UN. Their resources have depleted, their animals stocks are again decimated or totally lost, their lives have been turned upside down, their children have missed out on education, students’ degrees are on hold, lives are all in limbo while the government and international institutions that should be looking after them continue to play the politics which got these people into this mess in the first place.

This journey aims to be a spark to bring this issue to light.

Mohammed “Mouss” and Parking Marmeta to the Rescue

 

Mohammed Mouss and Maud in Parking MarmetaWe rolled into a maelstrom of parked cars and laughing smoking men ushering us into a wired off parking lot perched on a windy hillock between the coast road to the Morocco border.  Cars tables, people had to be moved so intricate backing could be performed. When all was done we were ushered out of the strengthening wind by the main man with brown stained front teeth (those left) into an old van that was now, he explained a sitting/dining/tv/office for him and his staff. “Mohammed Mouss welcome to Parking Marmeta”

We huddled into the van. Lots of smoking and a smell of Moroccan hashish. Our lad explained what he knew of our situation. I was relying on George’s Spanish to complete.

“So what do you want to do?” said Mohammed.

I didn’t know yet, but I needed to leave a truck and the trailer here for some time, possibly 10 days, possibly quite a bit longer. 

“No Problem. €15 per truck per day.”

If I went down to Mauritania and sold Maud and returned for Betsy that would be about €150. Not bad for peace of mind.

A hot tagine appeared at the door in the hands of a toothless hoody, with a sack of bread placed before us. Mohammed broke us off some bread and took the top off the tagine –  declaring: “Bishmilla Parking Marmeta”. I got the name now: “marmeta” meant cooking pot all over Africa. We had landed in a parking cooking pot!

I hadn’t eaten properly for a day and a half. The warm food was deliciously other – the taste of fruits, nuts and spices of the orient. I felt comfortable and familiar in an African way, something I had left behind in Mali two months ago. It’s the warm bosom of an African community, and although we were still technically in Europe, we were clearly amongst Africans. Moroccans don’t really see themselves as African, their focus is much more on Europe, but they are more African than European whether they like it or not.

I sensed salvation to my predicament lay here in this car park on a windy mound looking east out to sea, north to Europe and south to Africa. In all my travels help and solutions always come from the community, never from authorities or embassies.

———–

I can’t converse with Mohammed. He speaks no French or English and I speak little Spanish and worse Arabic. But we communicate as brothers.

He is the ‘kindness of strangers” the traveller meets frequently and relies upon to get through the journey.

 

Mohammed Mouss

 

 

On that first day in the parking lot I went over to Mohammed squashed up in his van with his boys to negotiate a better price. He immediately dropped it by a third “because you are helping the poor, like me” he laughed and indicated the waifs and strays he had taken in and surrounded himself with in the caravan. “How can I help you? Whatever I can do I will, I want to help your journey, tell me?” 

I thanked him and told him he had already helped by giving me breathing space.

Later that day I was preparing to leave again for the border with Maud and the trailer, but again I wasn’t convinced we should be going, I was feeling rushed for the George’s sake because of previous delays, but again, before a crucial decision I knew this was unwise and something was telling me I needed to stop here the night, I needed to take stock. I needed to get this next step right or this whole trip might be over. As though having read my mind Mohammed approached me in my dilemma as I tied up the trailer in the wind and rain with “don’t go now… It is late, tomorrow”. I submitted.

That night Mohammed took me back to his house, nourished me with food, a hot shower and a bed which, having slept in Betsy since Bristol, was luxury.

Since then I have stayed with Mohammed for 10 days. He hasn’t let me pay for anything. He has fed me, housed me, escorted me, encouraged me when I thought of giving everything up and would love to come to Timbuktu to help on the caravan.

Mohammed is a central figure in the community of Principe. Everyone knows him and his patronage gives me the keys of this “village” perched on top of a hill above the parking lot. 

It’s a strange community of Moroccans living isolated and marginalised from Spanish Ceuta. Down the road Ceuta is white and gleaming and European. Principe could be any Moroccan town: red, brown, orange and purples, narrow streets and close buildings, cafés filled with smoking men, women selling their produce. Anyone illegal stays within the Principe quater because the police don’t enter. Everyone is unemployed, all talk of the corruption of Ceuta, police harassment, “a prison”. Mohammed talks of escape, of coming with me to Timbuktu, of bringing his family but there’s something here, an echo from the walls that tells me no one is going anywhere, ever.

Ironically it is a prison to all of us: Spaniards on 3×2 kms of land with seeming little interest in venturing south (in the petrol stations maps of Europe and Spain for sale and not one of Africa); the Moroccans imprisoned as the troublesome underclass; the border officials with their petty rules imprisoned in the resentment of history over this border; and me and my two fat ladies imprisoned from my journey and from fluent communication. The phones don’t work well, even my computer has lost all its memory and is imprisoning me from accessing my photos on my camera and relaying what is going on to the real world of cyber space.

Mohammed talks of escape, of coming with me to Timbuktu, of bringing his family but there’s something here, an echo from the walls that tells me no one is going anywhere, ever. Their entrapment mirrored my own, but for now I was happy to be trapped here. I had found a new home, a space to think how to get myself out of my own prison of my own making.

———-

Mohammed gave me space to think over my options.

I had to decide how far I could realistically get with these trucks. They were costing me too much and now they were possibly more of a hinderance than a facilitator to the whole return project. Mohammed proposed being my other driver, but I was now looking at my fleet and my 3 blows in 24 hours, plus the burden of responsibility to get to the camps, and felt I had to streamline. Plus if I was having problems already with the trucks being ex-military, what might happen further on? I had been intending to paint them anyway in Morocco for Mali because of all the war machines there, but I hadn’t expected Morocco to be a problem. Only months earlier I met Mike, a crazy Canadian with a Karl Marx beard, who had travelled down in an ex-Austrian military vehicle with no problem.

Was it just this border? The problem was it was going to cost me a ferry back to Algeciras and another ferry to Tanger to find out.

It rained the first few days so no painting was possible. a few people came to enquire if Betsy and Maud were for sale but like most things here in Principe there is much talk but little happens. 

I considered all the variations: staying here till I sell them, leaving all with Mohammed and going on down to Mali by hitching and bus, going home and giving up. 

For the return, if I went on alone, I have to use my Landcruisers already in Mali, and could pull in others from the refugee community in Ouagadougou and a couple of trucks I know of with people I know. 

After a few days the sun came out, the winter gloom slowly lifted. It became clear I wasn’t going to find a quick buyer in Ceuta and I had to just act, I had to do something. I began painting Betsy, to show buyers I was going, I wasn’t hanging on for any buyer, and to give myself something to do. 

As I painted her, the purpose flooded back: the refugees – Betsy was perfect. She may be 57 but she’s built for another 50 years. She’s strong, simple and has all she needs to make me a great travelling home after all this. I’ll change her into a hippy wagon, though not too hippy, once Im in Western Sahara the Moroccan police hate anything that smacks of humanitarianism potentially there to sympathise with the Sahawiri of occupied Western Sahara, another dispossessed people. Morocco/Western Sahara is the Israel palestine of Africa, but because it is Africa you probably have never heard of this issue, despite 30 years of UN resolutions against Morocco. Morocco supports western policy, are supportive too of Israel and so the west does nothing to trouble Morocco.

As I painted Betsy, the parking lot boys rallied round, especially when the camera was rolling! If George took a day off I was alone with my work. We got her all white in 3 days. Then I began colouring her up. All white she looked a bit UN! I had to make her look as inoffensive and, if anything,  slightly ridiculous, to make that initial official impression a smile rather than  a growl.

And the result:

Mohammed Mouss, Betsy and a painter in the wind

 

When she was done, after big fanfare goodbye to Parking Marmite, we attempted the Ceuta border once more. 

Again we felt huge chugging through the lines, but I had the impression that the police were not recognising Betsy with her new look and indeed this was the case with the customs. A kindly looking older man came up and suggested he helped me through. As this was going to be delicate I took him on.

First customs officer got all the way to completing the form but then somone came back and mentioned the word “camion” which she wrote on the back with a question mark and sent me to see an inspector. 

The inspector looked her over, checked that no merchandise and was happy to let her go as a camping truck. He took me to his desk, got out his stamp, hovered it above the form then put it aside and said just let the ‘chief” see and pointed to a man in the suit. Rats! That was so close. That stamp was all I needed.

Cheif took a quick glance: “Non, camion, à Tanger!”

I begged him to reconsider. “Ok see the chief”. “But I thought you were the chief”. ‘No I’m the second chief, but I’m sure he will say the same thing.”

Big chief eventually comes out – its the same man who refused my first entry as “military aspect”. Amazingly he didn’t recognise Betsy nor me, but he was not for moving. As a “camion” it had to go via Tanger.

So we rolled back to Parking Marmeta. Would we ever leave?

—-

Ceuta is 60km from Tanger by land, the port even less. No it was not possible for me to take a taxi to Tanger with my papers and photos of the truck and present my case there and if they give the go ahead send message to Ceuta to let me through. No, I had to return to Spain and get another ferry to Tanger. 

So last option Tanger. Ferry back to Algeciras and ferry onto Tanger.

After more boring tooing and froing whilst customs decided what Betsy is – a lorry, wrong side drive, a camping car, a wagon, a white elephant or a crazy  Englishman’s idea – at midnight they gave up and stamped the ‘fiche” and we crossed the border with 10 days to get to Mauritania and a high five.

 

Ah the relief. We were in Africa for proper. Trimmed down, make up on Betsy looked the biz and after nearly 3 weeks trapped in Ceuta it was great to be on the road.

We had a good drive on down to Rabat, stopping off en route to camp up the night.

In Rabat I took Betsy in to have the once over that I had wanted Joe to do before we even left England, to tweak her carburetor to make her more fuel efficient and a few other odds and bods.

 A much needed hamam – hot rooms for washing, a bit like Turkish baths but without the bath – was had by all. 

When the mechanics were done onto Marrakesh. En route Betsy’s farting began again. The mechanic at Rabat had cured her of her wind but in a high gear she began blowing like a trooper, so rather than continue on to Agadir I called my Moroccan guide Moktar who took us to his mechanic who took great pleasure in showing of his skills on old trucks.

That day I fell ill, just run down. After the mechanic had sorted Betsy I parked her up and slept in the back. That night there was some football match on . In my exhaustion sleeping in a tent on the back of Betsy the city roared – some match was getting this town going man.

 

Next morning the parking attendant told me it was the Club World Cup semi final. Casablanca, only in the tournament As Morocco are hosts, beat the Brazialian South American champions against all odds 3-1 to go to the final against Bayren Munich. Geroge had been offred tickets and had been at the match. 

 

So with renewed good cheer we hit the road for Agadir. Pulling out of Marrakech I pulled in for a hitcher with a green and white Casablanca scarf on. He jumped into the back of Betsy and within minutes was sheltering from the wind in my tent.

 

Services, fill up, coffee. “What’s your name boy?”

“Mohammed”.

 

 

 

 

The third blow in 24 hours and everything grinds to a halt.

I must apologise for my silence. I have been writing, but as may become clear in the following pieces, as well as being trapped physically in a corner of Europe on Africa my computer began playing up and I was trapped outside cyber space as well. Plus as will become clear, major re-thinking about how to go forwards has been going on daily.

I slept well in Betsy the night the border prevented our military convoy passing, better than I had since we left England. With the stress of worrying about Jarmo and Anna gone and having reconciled the thought of going forwards without a mechanic, the border issue seemed a minor obstacle.

George, the film maker (real names are all now changed for legal reasons) hadn’t slept well. Passers by commenting on the trucks kept him awake. Opening Betsy’s canvas I saw a throng of Moroccan women and children walking in from the border, for the day’s work and school I presumed.

We went across the road to a cafe for coffee. It was all Moroccan men, smoking on the terrace with an empty interior. It would be the other way round 1km away. We entered and ordered our café con lechés at the bar, and went out to the terrace to warm up in the morning sun.

A kindly looking Saddam Hussein without the tash welcomed us with “Bishmillah” and asked our nationalities. Michael trotted them out and we discussed the way forward. I would get some paint and we’ll spend the morning painting the trailer to show an effort and then try and cross as early as possible to catch the big customs chief. I was no longer convinced, it felt like pissing in the wind, but what else could we do other than return to Algeciras and re-cross via Tangier?

We finished up and went back to the trucks. Michael was antsy, possibly picking up on my lack of conviction.

Not to waste time I decided to go and find paint. I went back to the cafe and asked Saddam where I might find paint. A young lad jumped up and said he’d take me – the kindness of strangers – and seconds later I was burning round Ceuta checking out the paint stores. Not speaking Spanish, this was lots of charades and my Italio-French with “th”s and “b”s. Typical I thought – I’m trapped on the one tiniest little corner of Africa where I can’t converse and I’m in the shit.

Finally found paint that would do the job. Bought 5 liters of “peace” white – I may look a bit UN but any other colour had connotations – and returned to Michael who I found sitting in the back of Betsy looking out to sea.

“I got to talk to you man. You got another problem on your hands. I can’t take over from Joe  and drive Maud across the border. I’ve been here before when my grandmother died and it would be mad to put myself in the same situation for my grandfather. Plus it’s just beyond journalist protocol. This is your journey, I’m just here to film, but I can’t be trappped in the journey. I’m sorry but one thing is certain, I am not having a vehicle in my name across Morocco.”

Well they come in threes! Joe, customs chief and George in less than 24 hours! Now I really was fucked. Two huge trucks, no mechanic and only me as a driver and George to film how I get out of this mess! The whole return, this journey, all I had been working for this year was falling away from me. I lay down on my bed space. “We’ll be here for some time while I figure this one out.”

Michael threw me a lifeline: “it could be the answer to your finance problems. Take Maud to Mauritania, sell her there and then use the money to come back and take Betsy to Burkina.”

“That will add 2 weeks”.

But it was an idea. Now Joe and Emma have gone, the one thing we have is time. There’s no date for the refugees, we’re already later than planned, with one vehicle we are less a military convoy…

Again the dark dark cloud lightened, he was talking sense. There’s always a chink!

I could see a truth about this journey which troubled me but also gave me a strange comfort. Despite my attempts to push the codependence of this group, I was alone on this journey, as indeed I was on the caravan of refugees project and as are the Tuareg themselves. I have sought help, partnership, I have tried to hand over to others, I have been taken on and strung along and engendered interest at high levels in the UN, but so far when push has comes to shove, when I have required a leg up, when I relied too heavily on others with power to push forwards or reached out into the official world I have found only mirages.

From now on this particular journey I had to concentrate on what was best for me and my purpose. The film, George, Joe and Emma had been having too much impact on my decision making. To move on now I had to play the same game, I had to act in my interests, which are getting to the refugee camp and not bankrupting myself in doing it, preferably with these vehicles but if not by selling them and using the money to fund the return in-situ by hiring other trucks out there. If I now have to camp up here in Ceuta for a month to sort myself out, so be it. One thing is certain, I cannot take these trucks back to UK.

I had pressed our co-dependence as a group but to no avail. Its one of those African things, and something the lone traveller relies upon but which the individual tourist finds difficult to take on. It’s letting the journey dictate, suppressing individual need for that of the group, the journey and the vehicle (s) carrying you.

I needed to go forwards now looking after my interests in the trucks and this journey or I will have nothing left for the refugees. I needed to go back to my way of travel. First principle: don’t rush. Second: trust in the community. Only problem I’m not quite in Africa Africa yet. But those guys in the cafe, they are essentially African, though being Arab they may not accept it.

“OK George. So we are staying here tonight. First I have to find somewhere to park up Betsy and then I want to paint the trailer and possibly Maud. Just a little to do today.”

First port of call. My lad who took me for the paint, his car was still outside the cafe.

With my Italo-FranglArabia and gestures I explained how I needed to park one truck for some time and I needed it to be for free. I heard in his Spanish: “I have a friend, just here, you can park for free” and he was marching to his car.

We climbed into our trucks, and turned round (not easy) back to follow our lad towards the border. A few hundred yards and right up a winding hill and into a fenced off lot perched on a hillock above the coastal road to the border. To the right was the border, to the left a gleaming European city looking out east from the peninsular to the Mediterranean sea. The day had become cold, drizzly like a British coastal town so Gibralter across the sea was now hidden. We were between Europe and Africa, at the Gates of Hercules between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I had a massive burden on my shoulders. I’m really not sure where all this is going suddenly.

Betsy and Maud cause more problems…

Betsy Bedford and Guy Lankester, copyright Michael MeredithPhoto ©Michael Meredith.

The border lights loom ahead. It’s midnight as our metal convoy rolls up and joins the queue of loaded up cars returning with Spanish goods to Morocco. Ancient elephants amongst burdened donkeys.

Borders, arbitrary scars across the landscape of human history, symbols of conflict and “security”, mankind’s crossing points from one system of control to another, restrictions to our primal urge: migration.

The Spanish authorities wave us through, broad smiles and chuckles emanating from toy soldier uniforms at our oversized tonka toy army. We snake through quickly and pull on to the Moroccan side. Again, as we throng through the foot soldier guard and the touting throng of hooded men, the respectful reception to our midnight majesty.

Park up. Ignore the smoking touts wanting to fill in an immigration form or “fiche”and ultimately charge me a euro to show me where to queue, warn Michael off them as he’s spinning in the maelstrom, line up for our police number to be tattooed into my travel documents so the police can trace me and bind me to my truck, cheerful but wily police man: “do you smoke?”. Is this a test question or a request? Truth is best. “Yes”. He puts on a sternness, “do you have tobacco?”. I don’t believe him and I’m not in the mood: “No” I lie.
“Nothing to give me?”
“Nada, desolé.”
He hovers, considers then smiles and hands me my passport. “OK. bon voyage!”
“Shookeran”

Customs queue. Fill in green “fiche” for Betsy, hand Michael one to fill in for Maud. Michael hesitates: “do I have to put Maud in my name?”. “Yes as the driver.” “I can’t do that, you didn’t tell me”. I thought I had when we discussed taking two vehicles but I had forgotten to add this point when Joe left.
“Well I’m sorry if i didn’t but obviously I can’t drive two vehicles at the same time and each country we go into the person who drives the car in is responsible for that car and we lost our other driver.”
“What if I have to leave Morocco – I don’t intend to but if my grandfather gets ill… I got trapped in Guatemala doing exactly this and nearly missed seeing my grandmother before she died. If my grandfather is dying I have to be able to get out.”
I assured Michael he could get out. I had to do this last summer when my friend Dave had to leave Morocco. We transferred the vehicle out of his name and left it at customs at the airport.

Michael wasn’t happy but filled out the form on my assurance that if he had to get out we’d impound Maud at the airport.

“La Grande Bretagne” said the customs officer as he plugs the details from my vehicle and my police number into the computer, “your first time to Morocco?” “No.”
Moves onto Michael. “America”. All seems to be going swimmingly as he chats about baseball to Michael when he gets up and leaves his cubicle, walks across the tarmac to an older man in a smart light blue overcoat and over done military hat – a bit like the king in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – hands over the papers and points to the trucks. They can only really see Betsy. I turn bak to her. She does look like a huge elephant next to the tiny cars!

A minion beckons me over. I begin to walk. He shoos me back to bring Betsy forwards.
Once this is done I try to charm the chief: “50 years old!”. Nothing, just a shake of the head as he eyes her up and down, picks at her details… He’s looking pretty negative, just ride this one out. Feign lack of concern, nothing to worry about as nothing to hide…

After about half an hour of them pretending we are not there things come to a head. The chief is dismissive “militaire” and walks away to a desk and chair randomly positioned on the tarmac. I approach him slowly as though he’s a big beast with much power and I am a little ant, I plead Betsy and Maud’s antique quality, their 50 years. He looks beyond me. His side kick – a tad Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther – barks “military aspect” and signals me to turn round and go back.

As I give up, too tired to struggle now, the chief throws out “come back in the morning and see the chief”.

Another chief! We cause a great stir turning Betsy and the trailer round and returning to Spain the wrong side of the road, having to move barriers and bollards and gates to squeeze out our girls. I km back towards Ceuta there is a lay by by the sea. We pull in, makes ourselves a sandwich, crack open a bottle of wine and camp up in Betsy the night with the glimmer of hope the big chief in the morning.

I decide in the morning I will paint at least the trailer, show an effort to de-militarise, for sake of the big chief!

——————————–

I slept well in Betsy, better than I had since we left England. With the stress of worrying about Jarmo and Anna gone and having reconciled the thought of going forwards without a mechanic, the border issue seemed a minor obstacle.

Michael hadn’t slept well. Passers by commenting on the trucks kept him awake. Opening Betsy’s canvas I saw a throng of Moroccan women and children walking in from the border, for the day’s work and school I presumed.

We went across the road to a cafe for coffee. It was all Moroccan men, smoking on the terrace with an empty interior. It would be the other way round 1km away. We entered and ordered our café con lechés at the bar, and went out to the terrace to warm up in the morning sun.

A kindly looking Saddam Hussein looky likey without the tash welcomed us with “Bishmillah” and asked our nationalities. Michael trotted them out and we discussed the way forward. I would get some paint and we’ll spend the morning painting the trailer to show an effort and then try and cross as early as possible to catch the big customs chief. I was no longer convinced, it felt like pissing in the wind, but what else could we do other than return to Algeciras and re-cross via Tangier?

We finished up and went back to the trucks. Michael was antsy, possibly picking up on my lack of conviction of the way forward.

Not to waste time I decided to go and find paint. That at least i knew i had to do. I went back to the cafe and asked Saddam where I might find paint. A young lad jumped up and said he’d take me – the kindness of strangers – and seconds later I was burning round Ceuta checking out the paint stores. Not speaking Spanish, this was lots of charades and my Italio-French with “th”s and “b”s. Typical I thought – I’m trapped on the one tiniest little corner of Africa where I can’t converse and I’m in the shit.

Found paint that would do the job, 5 liters of “peace” white and returned to Michael who I found sitting in the back of Betsy looking out to sea.

“I got to talk to you man. You got another problem on your hands. I just can’t do it – drive Maud across the border. I’ve been here before when my grandmother died and it would be mad to put myself in the same situation for my grandfather. Plus it’s just beyond journalist protocol – if funding came through for the film and I had to go back to the US for interviews and I was stuck in Morocco it would be really bad. I’m sorry but one thing is certain, I am not having a vehicle in my name across Morocco.”

Well they come in threes! Joe, customs chief and Michael in less than 24 hours! I understood and sypathised with Michael’s position. But now I really was fucked. Two huge trucks, no mechanic and only me as a driver and Michael here to record how I get out of this mess! The whole return, this journey, all I had been working for this year was falling away from me. I lay down on my bed space. “We’ll be here for some time while I figure this one out.”

Michael threw me a lifeline: “it could be the answer to your finance problems. Let’s just go in one vehicle and once through Morocco come back for the other”

“That will add 2 weeks”.

But it was an idea. The one thing we have now is time. There’s no date for the refugees, we’re already later than planned, with one vehicle we are less a military convoy…

Again the dark dark cloud lightened, he was talking sense. There’s always a chink!

I could see a truth about this journey which troubled me but also gave me a strange comfort. Despite my attempts to push the codependence of this group, I was alone on this journey, as indeed I was on the caravan of refugees project and as are the Tuareg themselves. I have sought help, partnership, I have tried to hand over to others, I have been taken on and strung along and engendered interest at high levels in the UN, but so far, at every turn, when push has come to shove, when I have required a leg up, when I have called in an “interest”, when I have relied on another or reached out I have found only mirages.

From now on this particular journey I had to concentrate on what was best for me and my purpose. The film, Michael, Joe and Emma had been having too much impact on my decision making. To move on now I had to play the same game, I had to act in my interests, which are getting to the refugee camp and not bankrupting myself in doing it, preferably with these vehicles but if not by selling them and using the money to fund the return in-situ by hiring other trucks out there. If I now have to camp up here in Ceuta for a month to sort myself out, so be it. One thing is certain, I cannot take these trucks back to UK.

I had pressed our co-dependence as a group but to no avail. Its something the lone traveller relies upon but which the individual tourist sometimes finds difficult to take on. It’s letting the journey dictate, suppressing individual need for that of the group, the journey and the vehicle (s) carrying you.

I needed to go forwards now looking after my interests in the trucks and this journey or I will have nothing left for the refugees. I needed to go back to my way of travel. First principle: don’t rush. Second: trust in the community. Only problem I’m not quite in Africa Africa yet. But those guys in the cafe, they are essentially African, though being Arab they may not accept it.

“OK Michael. So we are staying here tonight. First I have to find somewhere to park up Betsy and then I want to paint the trailer and possibly Maud. Just a little to do today.”

First port of call. My lad who took me for the paint, his car was still outside the cafe.

With my Italo-FranglArabia and gestures I explained how I needed to park one truck for some time and I needed it to be for free. I heard in his Spanish: “I have a friend, just here, you can park for free” and he was marching to his car.

We climbed into our trucks, and turned round (not easy) back to follow our lad towards the border. A few hundred yards and right up a winding hill and into a fenced off lot perched on a hillock above the coastal road to the border. To the right was the border, to the left a gleaming European city looking out east from the peninsular to the Mediterranean sea. The day had become cold, drizzly like a British coastal town so Gibralter across the sea was now hidden. We were between Europe and Africa, at the Pillars of Hercules between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I had a massive burden on my shoulders. I’m really not sure where all this is going suddenly.

Europe from Africa, Europe in Africa!

————-

Next up: how Betsy turned from the above to this and who the little thing is:

Hippy Betsy Bedford

 

A Story of Two Fat Ladies as the Return 2 Timbuktu Departs

Betsy and Maud climb through an English villageThis is Betsy and Maud.

They have got me into a bit of trouble at the southernmost point of Europe and the northernmost point of Africa. From here I can see Morocco, Spain and a piece of Britain. But to reach my goal and achieve my aim I know i can no longer do this alone, i now need to garner support.

 

So I must tell our story:

 

Ceuta, Spain in Africa.

I rarely write publicly as I travel because I don’t like revealing my whereabouts. But I am cornered now on this journey of all my journeys I am making from UK along the familiar route to Mali and my way out and my mission depends now on openness.

 

My mission is to cross the Sahara and reach Burkina Faso with vehicle capacity and a camera to take an old Tuareg chief and his family back home to Timbuktu.

 

Security is not my concern. In Africa security lies in the community and this i am never without, and here I at least found Mohammed who is central to the Moroccoan comunity in Ceuta so I am with Africans and they are looking after me well.

 

Nor do I envisage security to be a problem further on if  get through and finally make it into Mali, nor do I think it is the number one issue for the refugees returning, which is what this journey is about. If I felt security was an issue at any stage I wouldn’t be going forwards.

 

No my problem is not security. My problem right now is Betsy and Maud. They are the reason this journey has been so cumbersome and expensive, they are the reason we had to take a mechanic with us so he could look after their vintage needs; they are the reason the mechanic has abandonned me and they are now the reason I am cornered in Spanish Ceuta on continental Africa, unable to pass into Morocco; they are the reason I now have to change direction, change plan and come up with a new idea of a way forward so I can get myself and my remaining companion, the film maker Michael Meredith, to Burkina Faso to take Radwan Ag Ayouba, to his ancestral lands. These two large ladies!

 

I’m being unfair. Its not really all their fault. They are victims of heritageism!

 

For the journey from UK to the southern tip of Spain they had been waved at and photographed, pointed out to children and respected for their considerable age. Then suddenly, crossing into Morocco, chiefs of customs in smart uniforms were speechless, slick dudes in shades tutted and photographed and a guy straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the tash, the stick, the white hat and big belly ran his fingers across Betsy’s curves and barked “military aspect!” Poor old Betsy and Maud blushed and my heart sank.

 

I’d better go back to the beginning of this journey to explain Betsy and Maud.

We met… wow only a few weeks ago, seems like a lifetime… in York where I went with Michael Meredith, a US film maker who is with me to record the journey, to look at a 1957 Bedford army truck and her sister, a 1964 Bedford Towing truck, for our upcoming trip to Burkina Faso.

 

The 1957 was fit for the purpose of carrying a lot of people and, I was assured by the charity I was buying from, solid as a rock, simple petrol engine and geared for their own aborted journey to Africa.

 

I was in unchartered territory with such a big and old truck but bit the bullet and bought her. She  promptly conked out a mile down the road. So Michael and I left York in our hire car with the promise that the charity we were buying from would sort the vehicle out in a week’s time.

 

Back home in Bristol I said to Michael that I was going to abandon the idea unless we took the two trucks, one as security for the other and a mechanic.

 

A week later we returned to York with a new deal with the charity –  we take the two trucks, one on credit – and Michael had roped in his Finnish friend Jarmo who was an uber-mechanic who specialised in classic cars and was up for the journey if he could bring his wife, Anne who wanted to come down to Mauritania with us and they she would leave and he would continue onto the camps with us. Perfect.

 

Again our departure from York  was delayed by a night as the trucks hadn’t been moved for months and the work we assumed was being done to prepare them for us after our first aborted attempt clearly hadn’t been done. 

 

But eventually we got going: the big bird “Betsy”, a towing truck who became “Maud”, a solid trailer sadly without name, me knowing the way and the why and driving Michael to film,  and Jarmo our mechanic and the other driver with his wife Anne to just enjoy the madness of it all had arrived. We were a strong enough team thrown together at the last minute as we left northern England to go back to Bristol, and then the following day onto Portsmouth for the ferry to Bilbao and …. the Sahara.

 

Early signs on the journey were worrying. Jarmo and Anne arrived with colds and were anxious to get to the sun and I was pressured to rush which I hate when travelling as it gets you nowhere more quickly and usually the opposite with something left undone or behind. Anne’s high heeled shoes when we left Bristol caused an eyebrow lift from Mum as she waved us off. I was getting messages that unless we got to Morocco quickly Jarmo might jump ship because Anna wanted the sun, and then we’d be stuck without a mechanic. So on we rushed.

 

Portsmouth to Bilbao and across Spain.

Luckily I delayed our departure from Bristol as it gave me time to buy jump leads which were promptly used 12 miles into our journey to Portsmouth. Tinkered a little with the trucks for a drizzling afternoon in Bilbao and then the next day set off across the mountains of the Basque country. The sun was out as we climbed and descended and Michael took advantage of the light, got into his harness and tied himself onto the back of Maud the tow truck to film me driving. Awesome day.

 

The journey across Spain to Algeciras where we would get the ferry to Morocco was surprisingly without incident with the trucks but Jarmo was appalled at their mechanical maintenance. But after a hesitant start my two old girls were great. Betsy didn’t start one morning, Maud was a bit of a carbon monoxide chamber, Betsy “back fired”, as she calls it, like a trooper, but what to expect from 50 year old ladies? And everyone loved them.

 

We pulled into Algeciras in the evening of our third day in Spain. The first leg was over, we had made it across Europe, though we had done nothing to sort out Betsy and Maud’s outrageous drinking problem so I was burning money in a race to get Jarmo and Anne to the sun of Morocco where we would stop for a few days to have a good look over the trucks and try to curb their crazy consumption.

 

I suggested we take the ferry straight onto Tangier that night and we could be in Rabat by the next afternoon, but Jarmo wanted to stay the night in Algeciras. I was getting a bit tired – the trip had become all about Jarmo and Anna, the purpose of getting to Burkina was getting lost, and yet they were travelling for free and Michael was paying all their costs. I had been sold Jarmo as this tough Fin who was totally up for a road trip. All I could see was a couple who needed  a Holiday Inn each night and could only do what they were engaged for for their free ride when we got to the sun.

 

And then the first bombshell landed. After delays leaving Algeciras as i had been alerted to a potential problem getting my trucks into Morcco as they were lorries so i may need to pay transit costs Jarmo and Anna decided they were going to leave us from Rabat. 

 

Bombshell and pissed off. I had agreed to do this journey with these old Bedford trucks for the sake of the film and because we had an expert mechanic all the way to Mali. We had just raced across Spain without looking at the trucks at extra expense to me just to get Jarmo and Anne to Morocco so that Jarmo would stick with us to Bamako.

 

That night I couldn’t sleep. My head was spinning with the possible consequences of Jarmo leaving. Also someone had alerted me to a problem I may have with the trucks getting into Morocco at Tangier – I may have to pay transit charges as they could be seen as utilitarian vehicles.

With my mind racing I decided we couldn’t take the 6am ferry as planned as I needed to check out the Tangier issue. Understandably Jarmo was furious, but I had no option. When I feel like I’m heading for trouble and I don’t know what to do, I have to stop and do nothing until I see the right solution.

 

I spent the morning rushing round checking this Tangier issue. Nobody could give me a firm answer. Spanish customs and even Moroccan police couldn’t say. Eventually the best advice from two people was rather than cross to Tangier to go to Ceuta instead as this was a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast, a bit like Gibralter, so if there was a problem on the border I wouldn’t have to pay for the vehicles to return to Spain by ferry.

 

I remembered Ceuta from my first time crossing the Sahara. It can be a problematic border   because Morocco don’t like Spain having a rock of theirs. Sounds like Spain about Gibralter no? Ah colonialism!

 

I was ready. That was the plan, we’d go to Ceuta. We could catch the 1200 ferry. Word came back that Jarmo was stalling. We missed the 1200. At 1330 Michael, Jarmo and Anne came over to me at the truck yard. 

 

Second bombshell: Jarmo announced that he and Anne were leaving that night for Sevilla and flying from there back to Finland. They weren’t even coming to Rabat.

 

We were a week into their trip. All had been focussed on getting them out of the cold of UK and northern Spain to Morocco, Michael had been putting them up in hotels all week and I had been throwing cash at fuel aiming for Rabat, no work had really been done to the trucks and there’s lots to do but Jarmo wanted to do it in the sun, and just as we are ready to go across the Med to the sun, the Sahara, and Africa… Jarmo and Anne left Michael and me and Betsy and Maud as they disappeared in their hire car.

 

Its going to be tough and once we get to Rabat I need to rethink things. Let’s just get to Rabat. I get 19.30 tickets to Ceuta. We cause a stir getting Betsy to back the trailer onto the ferry. And gradually I realised it was for the best that they left. Jarmo and Anne were not up for the rigours of Africa, and certainly not for this particular trip.

 

On the boat I discuss with Michael how losing Jarmo felt initially like the floor falling away from the whole journey but now felt like a relief, now the journey is what it is, with no pressure or agenda that isnt to do with the project ahead. Now it was my journey and Michael was filming it. Not having the extra driver was going to be difficult but we’d have to work something out on that.

 

In Ceuta we decide to stop off to get cheap last minute wine and something to eat from the  last European supermarket we’d see before hitting the border. Neither of us were tired and we could sleep the other side.

 

Ceuta is about 3 kms long then there’s a wall snaking up the mountain and a border post by the sea. We all rolled up to the border. Africa at last, from here… i know where i am.

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 7.45.52 AMPhotograph: Michael MeredithPhotograph Michael MeredithP1070154