The sky was just beginning to lighten as the roar of a motorcycle drew near.
Moments later, there was a light tap at the door.
“He’s here,” said the young man who runs a guesthouse in the diamond-studded eastern Sierra Leonean town of Kenema.
Out on the street, motorcycle driver Abraham Bungara balanced my bag on the handlebars, rammed a helmet on my head, and we sped off on a 140-kilometre journey to the Liberian border.
A minute later, we rolled up to a police checkpoint.
It was the first lesson in the art of bribery school — a necessity in some West Africa countries where authorities supplement painfully low salaries with a handshake that leaves a few banknotes in their palm.
The practice drives up the cost of transportation, a form of informal taxation, and wreaks havoc on many services that should be free: paying bribes for treatment in a hospital, for passing grades in school, or for a job application to be reviewed. Corruption means even basic services for citizens, many of whom live in extreme poverty, are free only on paper.
At the roadblock, several men sat in a mud hut next to a line of strings knotted together to form the barrier.
“Moo de bodee,” said Bungara.
“Moo de bodee,” he said. “Off.”
He was speaking Krio, a Sierra Leonean dialect comprised of buccaneer-style English with lots of local flavour that originated from freed Jamaican slaves who settled in Freetown in the 19th century.
We clambered off the bike and Bungara disappeared into the hut. A minute later, the strings were lowered to the ground and we roared off into the wilderness of the Gola Forest.
As we tore along the gravel road, knees kissing the dirt on the corners, the sun was rising over the dense forest, painting the mist that still hung on the hills pink.
Soon, we reached another checkpoint.
Bungara went into the hut with a policeman in a tired blue uniform too large for his skinny fame. A woman in a bright orange tank top and jeans approached me and introduced herself as Alice.
“Can I see your documentation?” she asked.
“What documentation is that?”
“Just your documentation,” she said.
I held up my passport.
“What organization do you work for?” I asked her.
Bungara finished ponying up the bribe money with a smile and a handshake and we were on our way again.
“Did she really work for INTERPOL?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he replied.
At the next road block and the next, we repeated the process. Each roadblock cost 4,000 or 5,000 Leones, the equivalent to about $1 CAD. Over the 140-kilometre trip, we passed through six or seven of them.
Should you refuse to pay, said Bungara, you could be detained.
“But you haven’t done anything wrong or illegal.”
“They’ll still detain you,” he said.
“And then what?”
We reached the border a couple hours ahead of schedule, which made Bungara smile proudly. The faster he goes, the more trips he can do, and so, the more money he makes.
With an awkward hug, we said goodbye and I headed into the maze of immigration offices, braced to grease more palms with banknotes on my journey to Monrovia.