Tour de Guineas – Mountain biking in West Africa

Article written by Jason Andrews

Check out Jason and Dan’s TravelMap to see their full Tour de Guineas trip blog: https://jason-andrews.travelmap.net

I stared at Guinea from my backyard during the two years I lived in the small village of Dar Salaam in Southern Senegal, while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The border between this part of Senegal and northern Guinea is delineated by the steep rise of a mountain range—the Futa Jallon. Thus, when I looked southward on a clear day, particularly after a good rain, I would be greeted with a horizon filled with lush, green mountains—and that was Guinea.

Needless to say, the mountains beckoned.

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Dar Salaam is the scattered huts and fields in the foreground. Guinea is everything beyond the first rise of the mountains in the background.

A village of 215 people

I’d known for a long time that I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in French West Africa. In college I double majored in African Politics and Environmental studies, with a year abroad in Lyon, France. When the Peace Corps accepted me as an agriculture and forestry volunteer in Senegal, I could not have been happier.

The Peace Corps assigned me to a village of 215 people, called Dar Salaam, in the most remote and least developed part of the country, the Southeast. Cultural integration and local language proficiency is a central part of the Peace Corps’ program in Peace Corps Senegal. It is reasoned that the more well integrated the volunteer, the more effective their work. I would argue that this is undeniably true. Local language skills make it possible to work directly with the illiterate, rural farmers that comprise so much of the African continent’s populace; people that would otherwise be well beyond the reach of any development worker. This form of direct engagement is what differentiates the Peace Corps from so many other aid/development programs around the world.

Thus, a significant portion of my job as a Peace Corps volunteer was simply to integrate as much as possible with the village where I lived, to get to know the people, the way of life, and the language.

I lived with a group of people called the Jaxanké/Jakhanké. The Jakhanké people are not a large group. Wikipedia estimates that the total population of the Jakhanké people is about 70,000. However, the Jakhanké language is closely related to several widely spoken languages in West Africa. These closely related languages can be collectively termed the “Mandingue languages”. The largest languages in this spectrum are Bambara, Mandinka, and Malinké. If you placed Jakhanké on this linguistic spectrum it would be most closely related to certain dialects of Western Malinké.

As I developed some proficiency in the Jakhanké language, I learned a lot about the Jakhanké people. I learned among other things that the great majority of Jakhankés live in Guinea.

The Jakhankés of Guinea

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The man in the white hat is the head Imam of Dar Salaam, El-hadji Cherno Fodé Ousmane Minté, who was also my host dad and namesake while I lived in the village. The rest of the people in the photo are Talibé, or Koranic students. The Talibé of Dar Salaam came from different parts of West Africa, but mostly Guinea. They arrive in Dar Salaam around the age of 5 or 6, and will often live there for a decade or longer, learning the ways of the Jaxanké imam/farmer tradition. The Talibé system of Koranic pedagogy has been passed down for hundreds of years among the Jaxanké people.

Virtually everyone in my village was either first or second generation Guinean, including the children. Many people lived seasonally and fluidly between the two countries. Stories about the organic wealth of Guinea would flow freely. Avocados and coffee growing wild in people’s backyards; cool, rainy mountains; fat cows full of milk.

However, people’s words about Guinea would also be tinged with sorrow. Guinea is a country that has endured a devastating modern history. Sekou Touré, the Cold War era dictator of the country, led a regime that valued an iron grip of power over the country’s economic development and the rights of its citizens. He imprisoned tens of thousands and compelled many tens of thousands more to flee. I wrote a blog post about this topic one time.

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Sekou Touré

Although things seem to be improving, and the current president, Alpha Condé, has made some promising moves, the Guinean economy is still in markedly worse shape than the Senegalese economy. The trade between the two countries takes on an interesting dynamic. Senegal, being a stable economy, and a charter member of ECOWAS, has a well established, stable, and comparatively strong currency: the West African CFA. Guinea, meanwhile, has stuck with its own currency, the Guinean Franc.This makes Guinean goods very cheap in Senegal, and Senegalese currency highly valued in Guinea. The movement of people and goods is in a constant two-way flow, except for when the mountain roads become totally impassable for the duration of the rainy season. Trucks laden with all manner of goods trundle down the mountain from Guinea, filling the street markets of southern Senegal with kola nuts, rare fabrics, and Chinese motorcycles, smuggled across the border piece by piece and re-assembled for sale.

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Breakfast with the Talibé of Dar Salaam. Photo Courtesy of Alice Liang

Imagining a Tour de Guineas

In geopolitical terms, I lived in Senegal during my Peace Corps service, but my cultural experience in the Peace Corps was not the beach culture of the Wolof people that is strongly associated with Senegal. The culture, people, food, and life I experienced was all far more Guinean in nature than Senegalese.

Thus, it only felt natural to go straight to the source, to Guinea itself, which is what my friend Dan and I set out to do less than a week after concluding our service.

Another crucial factor in our trip to Guinea was that Dan lived in a Pulaar village in northern Senegal for his Peace Corps Service, and grew adept at the language. The Pulaar (often called Fula) are a fascinating group of people, united by their pastoralist culture, funny sounding language, and strong dedication to Islam. Most historians believe that the Pulaar people originated as an ethnic/linguistic group around what is now northern Senegal/southern Mauritania. Today the Pulaar/Fula span the Sahel from the Atlantic coast of Senegal and Mauritania, all the way across the continent to Ethiopia, sometimes as scattered cow herders, sometimes as urban traders and entrepreneurs. The Pulaars also migrated south into Guinea over the centuries, sometimes as peaceful herders, sometimes through Islamic holy war such as the Pulaar Jihads. Today Pulaars comprise a plurality of the population of Guinea.

Except for pockets of Jakhanké and a few other small ethnic groups, the mountains of Guinea are dominated by Pulaar. Luckily, The Pulaar dialect that Dan learned in Northern Senegal would prove to be extremely useful, even several hundred miles to the south, in the isolated mountain villages we passed through in Guinea.

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Can you find “Diakhanké” on this map?

The other Guinea

As for the Guinea-Bissau portion of the trip, this developed a little more sporadically. The country inspired our interest in large part because it is such an unknown entity. When is the last time Guinea-Bissau came up in a conversation?

Generally, if someone has heard of this tiny, former Portuguese colony of 1.7 million at all, it is because it is a top tier “narco-state,” functioning as the halfway point for drug runners between producers in South America, and the lucrative markets of Europe.

Here is a video about “Africa’s Cocaine Coast”.

The second most notable thing about Guinea-Bissau is that it is home to an archipelago of some renown: Los Islas Bijagos. These islands are quite numerous, and can be very difficult to get to. Most of the 90 or so islands in the archipelago are inhabited only seasonally, if at all, and the communities that do exist are home to insular island peoples. These are all reasons why it’s such a good place to smuggle drugs.

During the Peace Corps I did some research and read some interesting things about the intact cultural traditions of these islanders: matriarchal villages, amazing seafood, a strong indigenous drinking culture. I also learned about the world’s only population of saltwater hippos, which live on the largest of the Bijagos Islands—Orango.

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The Orango hippos of Bijagos Islands

Thus, Dan and I decided to bike through both of the Guineas in West African. We would basically do a big loop. We did not plan much more than that. In Guinea-Bissau our only real destination was the islands to see the hippos and hopefully some traditional locals. As for Guinea I had the vague notion that I would like to see the Jaxanké people in their spiritual and cultural capital of Touba, and some lush green mountains. Other than these vague notions, we had nothing specifically planned before we took off.

The trip unfolded one day at a time. I had the feeling that if we rode our bikes into the Futa Jallon mountains we’d end up having a good, or at least interesting, time.

Traveller vs Tourist

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Dan at a cheery breakfast stand in the Futa Jallon

I think that there is an important distinction between being a traveler and a tourist. It might seem like a pedantic distinction, but it actually influences the very fabric of the travel experience. A tourist is one who goes to a place with a specific experience in mind. They have already decided what experience they want, and this is what they are going to do. They are going to pay to do this thing. The tourist’s trip is thus formulated around fulfilling specific pre-conceived notions about what the place they are visiting should offer them.

Put another way, a tourist goes somewhere and seeks out exactly what they imagine and hope the place should offer as an experience. They go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and check those boxes off the list. A traveler, on the other hand, strives to have as few assumptions as possible about what they will do anywhere they go. This isn’t to say that one should never have a bucket list. Anyone could enjoy seeing the temples at Angkor Wat, hiking to Machu Picchu, or smoking a creamy joint at a coffeeshop in Amsterdam. These are lovely things to do.

But eventually, if you are like me, you might find that these hallmark attractions are not actually the substance of travelling. During a truly exploratory trip, the bucket list items are not the main event, or even the point of the trip. The main event is getting lost in a strange land. And this is just what Dan and I succeeded in doing, if ever so briefly, during our Tour de Guineas.

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Jason and Dan near the border of Guinea-Bissau and Guinea


If you are interested in other things Jason did during Peace Corps Senegal, check out his blog: The Good Thing

 

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