Disclaimer: This post may be err on the negative side because transport in Guinea is a source of frustration and puzzlement for me. There are many things I have come to love and appreciate about Guinea but their transportation system (or lack of one) is not one of them. It makes no sense to me because other West African countries have managed to figure out better systems with schedules and buses. Maybe the buses or cars won’t leave on time but there is at least an effort to allow people to plan ahead when traveling.
Traveling long distances in Guinea will test your patience, to say the least. Luckily for Peace Corps volunteers we are reimbursed for 3 seats when we travel so we can travel without being so cramped or have to wait more time for the last few seats to be bought up. But for the rest of the population this is what it’s like.
There are no bus companies in Guinea. Instead there are 6 or 9 place taxis that leave as soon as they fill up. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could go the day before or earlier that day and put your name down for a car leaving at an approximate time but here are no scheduled times when vehicles leave. Sometimes you will get lucky and the car will leave within an hour or you may end up waiting 4 hours. The way people deal with this lack of organization is to try to get to the gare ( taxi station) at 7 am so they can be on one of the first vehicles to leave. If you have to do some errands before you leave however and go to the gare around 9 or 10 am you may be waiting 3-5 hours.
A 6 place, a car meant to comfortably transport 5 people (4 passengers + driver) will be filled with 7 people (6 passengers + driver). This translates into the driver and 2 people in the passenger seat and 4 people in the back. Small children and babies are not counted as taking a place. They will generally be in their mother’s or father’s laps or standing between their legs. 9 places are station wagons meant for 7 passengers. In this case there is a 2,4, 3 formation with passengers.
One of the craziest things I’ve seen is 4 people in the front. The 4th person will sit in the same seat as the driver and the driver will reach over to use the stick. I’ve heard they only do this when someone else will be getting dropped off soon. They won’t drive long distances like this but they obviously shouldn’t be doing it at all.
As for the outside. The cars are generally loaded with heavy loads composed of sacks filled with rice or vegetables, luggage, mattresses, wood, charcoal, and sometimes live chickens, sheep or goats. The poor chickens have it the worst since they get attached to the load upside down. You may also see as many as 5 young men riding on top of these loads. As far as I can recall this is the only West African country where I have seen people doing that.
Once you’re finally on the road you still can’t be sure exactly when you’ll get there. Even when you ask people there is some hesitation to give you an exact time. People seem to prefer to give you a distance. This is understandable since the duration of the trip is highly variable, dependent on how good the car is, how fast the driver drives, whenever or not you get a flat tire, etc. There are stops at prayer times and food stops. I’m grateful for these stops since they allow much needed stretching breaks & I understand it will be about 10 minutes. However there unexplained stops where you’re wondering Why on earth are we stopping again?? We just stopped 20 minutes ago.
On long trips I often find myself reciting Hail Mary’s under my breath or doing the sign of the cross. You are traveling on two lane highways, oftentimes on narrow mountain roads. If you get stuck behind a big truck you’re going to have to chance it and go around it. When there are curves in the road and people can’t see oncoming traffic they will honk their horn to warn oncoming cars. Even if there aren’t big trucks there are potholes that will force you to drive outside of your lane.
I tried to find statistics to convey how dangerous the roads seem sometimes but it wasn’t easy to find a comparable reference (Guinea is a little less than the size of Oregon but it has about 3 times the population) so instead I will provide an anecdote. I met Soulaye in Conkary when attending a wedding with people from my village. The people in my village are basically all related and they have some family in Conakry. I was in my village sitting with some of his family members one night when we received a call that Soulaye had gotten into a car accident. There had been 5 other young men in the car with him. They had all passed away but by some miracle Soulaye had survived the crash with no serious injuries.
I called him later to see how he was doing and he was surprisingly calm about the whole thing. He said “It was God’s plan”. Sometimes I wonder how they can dismiss things as “God’s plan” but what alternative is there? Asking “Why did God allow this?” and agonizing over the details of what occurred bring you back to the same place- we can’t change what happened, we have to accept it and move on. They opt to skip the confusion and simply accept the outcome.
Seeing scenes like the one above used to make me shake my head and laugh but now they just make me sad. Anyone who travels in Guinea, be it a Guinean or foreigner, would tell you the state of the roads and enforcing safety measures should be the top priority for the government. But instead of prioritizing road safety you’ll see the government installing fiber optic cables to improve internet speed and access even though more Guineans would stand to benefit from better roads than better Internet since only a fraction of people have smartphones or laptops. To be fair, there have been some improvements in the year since I’ve been here. One of the major roads in the country, the road from Dabola to Kankan, has now been paved- it was previously a dirt road. And one of the roads by me is currently being leveled. It may not seem like a big deal but it makes all the difference to be able to ride smoothly without having to zigzag and watch out for potholes the entire time. Hopefully these stay in good condition for more than a couple years.
Tips for Dealing with this Transportation System
- Make a friend at the gares you use often. I didn’t mean to be strategic in this but I’m very happy with the current arrangement. I befriended a shop owner by the gare in my regional capital and now whenever I’m getting ready to head back to my site I call him first and ask how full the next car leaving is before I head over. In return for this service I share videos of the presidential debates/interviews and provide context. I’ve also shared movies with him since he’s a pretty good English speaker.
- #1 rule in Africa: Bring a book for whatever periods you may be waiting and you’re not in the mood to chat. I’ve realized I’ve developed a fear of getting stranded somewhere with nothing to entertain me. I always make sure I have something to read on me before I leave my house.
- For long trips pack some Dramamine just in case.
- Last but not least, surrender to the West Africa travel gods! Everytime I think “woah I’m making good time” it’s like tempting fate because something will happen that will set us back. You will get to your destination when they want you to get there.