The road from the Sierra Leonean town of Kenema to the Liberian border is not the smoothest ride in the country, but it may be one of the more interesting ones.
The road is an unpaved dirt trail that winds eighty kilometres though the thick jungle and swampy lowlands of the Gola Rainforest. I left early in the morning on the back of a motorcycle with my bag strapped behind me. This is probably the fastest way to travel this road, as bikes are able to skirt the many deep puddles that could easily swallow up an ill-equipped vehicle. Even so, the journey still took more than six hours to navigate.
At sunrise a thin, silky mist rose over the red earth, weaving its way between the tall grass and tree trunks. Past the Gola Rainforest National Park are acres of palm plantations, harvested commercially for their oil. Aside from opportunities in agriculture, tourism and a few non-governmental organizations, jobs here are limited. The road passes through villages where people mainly subside on sustenance farming and raising livestock, leading some to find other enterprising methods of making a living.
When returning from the border back to Kenema, I was this time fortunate enough to get a ride in a jeep owned by a local NGO that operated both in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Deep in the jungle, we came across a massive tree that had fallen across the road.
There would be no way around it, and turning around was not a desirable option. It was then that we noticed four young men standing in the midst of the leaves and branches. They had axes and seemed to be in the process of clearing the pass. I got out of the car, and offered my assistance – but they refused my help.
I then noticed that the fallen tree seemed to have been cut into pieces much earlier in the day, with the branches and trunk actually dragged back into the road to block the path of traffic and exact a small fee. They had done the work – even if it was hours ago – and they wanted to be paid for their service. After all, if it wasn’t for them, the tree would still be there and vehicles would have little option than to turn back. Our driver paid and the branches were dragged from the road so we could continue on our bumpy way.
When the dry season comes around, most transport headed this direction will take another road from a different town, which involves a ferry crossing that closes when the rains push the river too high. Then, those who live in the village will struggle to find new ways to get through another six months, any way they can.