Every once in a while, I take a day off from writing about homelessness to tell a completely unrelated story…
This is one of those days…
I had just crossed the border from Ghana into Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in West Africa.
I paid my fare to take a “bush taxi” to the capital city, Abidjan.
The bush taxi was an old station wagon car that had been converted to hold 10 people.
I was in the very back, where luggage would normally go. My back was against the hatch of the car, with my knees up against my chest since this was the cargo area. Since we were four people across, my right shoulder was jammed up against the glass.
We set out in the early evening as the sun was beginning to set and drove silently down a straight road. Thick African jungle lined both sides of the road.
At first, the jungle was beautiful.
After the sun went down it became an impenetrable wall of darkness enveloping the road.
My French is poor… a liability in a French speaking country. While most of the passengers chatted quietly, I sat with my own thoughts.
After several hours of driving, the car began to slow down.
Everyone in the car immediately stopped talking.
I looked around but could find no reason to stop. Dark jungle was on either side of the road. There were no lights ahead.
The other passengers looked nervous as the car came to a stop in the middle of this jungle road.
In broken French, I tried to ask the gentleman next to me why we were stopping.
Without turning his head, he told me to be quiet.
The driver turned the car off and then the headlights. We sat in total silence and darkness for several seconds. Everyone continued to stare straight ahead.
I heard a distinct “clink” on the car window immediately next to my head.
I turned to look and saw a dark metallic circle up against the glass, inches from my face.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized it was the barrel of a gun.
My eyes adjusted more, and I saw the rest of the gun: the iconic AK-47 assault rifle.
(Useless trivia: The AK-47 is the standard military rifle in 106 countries, making it the most widespread weapon in the world.)
My eyes adjusted further still, and I saw a figure in full green camouflage holding the gun up against the glass.
It seemed impolite to stare.
I forced myself to look away.
That is when I noticed that the car was completely surrounded by men in camouflage, all pointing machine guns at the car.
A soldier approached the driver who immediately rolled down the window. They talked quietly for a few seconds before the driver said something to the passengers.
Everyone (except me) got out their wallets and passports. Each person shoved money into their passports and passed it up to the driver.
While I had a pretty good idea what was happening, I had no idea how much money was appropriate.
Sensing my confusion, the man next to me asked for my wallet and passport. With few options, I complied. He took a few bills out of my wallet, put them in my passport and passed them to the front.
The soldier looked briefly at the passports as he pulled the money out of each. He handed the (now empty) passports back to the driver who disbursed them back to the passengers.
I put my wallet and passport away.
Looking up again, I realized that the soldiers were gone, having melted back into the dark jungle.
As the car started to move again, everyone laughed nervously before beginning to talk again.
Unable to join in the conversation, I did a quick calculation in my head about how much this little stop cost me.
I had paid 2 million CFA (the currency used in former French colonies in West Africa).
The exchange rate was 1.2 million CFA to the U.S. Dollar.
Without a calculator it took me a minute…
I would have gladly given them twice that to skip the part where they pointed machine guns at me!
A few hours later we arrived in Abidjan, a city of nearly three million people…
… where I accidentally booked myself a room in a brothel.
But that is a story for another day because I’ve already gone over my word count for this email!
Have a great week!