On the road in Sierra Leone
'Nearly half the money motorcyclist Abraham Bungara charges for a long-distance trip goes into covering bribes at the many police checkpoints along Sierra Leone's roads. Photo by Jessica McDiarmid.
By Jessica McDiarmid
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.
Several men sat in a mud hut next to a line of strings knotted together to form the roadblock.
"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 with people freed from slavery in Jamaica, who settled in Freetown in the 19th century.
We clambered off the bike and Bungara disappeared into the hut, where he shook hands with the police officer before the string was lowered and we roared off.
Paying bribes to get around is a necessity in some West African countries where authorities supplement low salaries—that may never be paid—with a system of informal taxation, collecting "tokens" from citizens for services such as road travel, primary education, and treatment in public hospitals.
It means free public services to people, the majority of whom live in extreme poverty, are free only on paper.
We tore along the gravel road, knees kissing the dirt on the corners, the sun rising over the dense forest.
Soon, we reached another checkpoint.
Bungara went into the hut with a policeman in a tired blue uniform too large for his skinny frame. A woman in a bright orange tank top and jeans approached 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.
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.
If you refuse to pay, you would be detained, said Bungara.
"But you haven't done anything wrong or illegal."
"They'll still detain you," he said.
"And then what?"
"So you pay?"
He smiled. "So you pay."