Wednesday 12 June 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau

Dear Viven,

This crossing was straightforward and generally easy, especially when acquiring visas, but did include a couple little gouges at the border which we could not avoid.  Guinea-Bissau is the first country on our itinerary that we don't have to pass through (we could have gone direct from Senegal to Guinea), but we are keen to visit the famous Bijagos Archipelago.

The information in this letter is accurate at the time we crossed the border on 11 June 2013.  We are one British and one Canadian, driving a 1996 right-hand drive Toyota Hilux Surf from Paris to Tanzania.

We entered Senegal from Mauritania.  While in Senegal, we passed in and out of the Gambia.  Our next crossing will be from Guinea-Bissau to Guinea.

Visas were required in advance, and they were exceptionally easy to get.  We visited the Consulate of Guinea-Bissau in Ziguinchor, a short distance from the border in Senegal's Casamance region.  We arrived on Tuesday 11 June at 9:30am, finished writing our straightforward forms by 9:35, handed them over with passports and one passport photo each, waited outside on the consulate's shaded terrace (and never had to actually enter an office), and received our passports with 30-day Guinea-Bissau visas by 9:50.  All the prices for the various visa durations were posted beside the door, and were as follows:

1-30 days, two entries - CFA 20,000
1-90 days, multiple entries - CFA 30,000
1-180 days, multiple entries - CFA 45,000
1-360 days, multiple entries - CFA 80,000

This fast, simple and face-value process should be encouraged everywhere.  What a relief.

Insurance and Carnet
Our Brown Card insurance is valid for Guinea-Bissau.  One page of our carnet de passages was required for entry, with the previous page being exit-stamped in Senegal.

Guinea-Bissau's official language is Portuguese, which is widely spoken, though the standard and most-heard speech is Crioulo, which is itself mixed with some Portuguese.  French is more common than English, given that Guinea-Bissau is surrounded by French West Africa, but both are relatively rare, even for police and customs officials.

Guinea-Bissau uses the Central African Franc, along with Senegal, so no exchange was necessary.  We read in Lonely Planet's Africa that there are no ATMs in Guinea-Bissau, so we brought a large chunk of cash - but found this advice is no longer accurate.  There are at least three ATMs in central Bissau (Visa only, hosted by Banco da África Ocidental), and likely more.

The Route
We drove from the western Gambia into Senegal's Casamance region, acquired our visas in Ziguinchor, and then went straight south to the crossing at Mpak, towards Bissau.  Note that all maps we looked at indicate there are two ferry crossings between the border and Bissau, but both are now crossed by new bridges, for which a CFA 500 toll is required to pass.

The Border
We arrived at the Senegalese side to exit at about 2:15pm and had to go through the gendarmes, police, military and Douane.  The military checkpoints are not typical in most of Senegal, but there is a definite army presence in Casamance (home to a slow-burning and, to us, invisible rebellion), and this includes the border.  The police who stamped our passports asked the usual "votre profession?", and I said the usual, "écrivain."  The police official was either suspicious or curious, asked what kind of writing I did, and then to see my work.  I said I didn't bring hard copies of anything with me, but had all of the material on my computer.  He demanded me to go get it.  So, out came the little PC (as opposed to the more expensive and eye-catching Mac) to show him a play I once wrote, concerning Rwanda.  I explained some of the plot and background - my first pitch in French - and he was satisfied, even interested.

The Douane officer at the next stop also responded to me saying I am a writer, and asked if he could be mentioned in something I wrote.  So here you go, Malick Sy - you had a great smile and honest eyes.  And, unlike our crossing into Senegal, neither you or anyone else at your side of the border asked for money, bribes, or gave us any trouble further than opening a laptop.

Past about 2km of not-really No Man's Land, with its tropical density and red termite mounds contoured over ancient trees still as tall as two people, and the Guinea-Bissau side was not so pleasant.  There were four checkpoints: police (for passport stamping), road tax, customs, and a final police check to go thoroughly over a driving licence.  The men at the first stop stamped our passports and then demanded CFA 2,000.  We began our now-practiced methods to avoid the payment, which we know is not at all legal, legitimate or fair: it is simply the corrupt police's way of making money off people passing through, at whatever rate they judge you will happily pay.  We asked what it was for, and the officer, who spoke barely any French and no English, said it was to pass.  Was it official?  Yes.  May we have a receipt?  No.  Why not?  We don't do that.  I said, we need a receipt for our work, which will reimburse all costs.  No receipt.  Can I get you a piece of paper?  I didn't ask for a response and went to get a blank sheet of paper.  I wrote out the receipt, and by now all of the police had nervously gathered.  I asked for the officer's name.  He said no.  I said it was necessary.  He said, put 'Commandant.'  Commandant what?  The men spoke in Crioulo, and agreed on something - almost certainly for the one to invent a name.  The Commandant took my pen and, with his hand shaking, made up a name on the improvised receipt.  We could here have asked for an identity card or badge, but the police were at this point so on-edge and nervous that they seemed liable to do something aggressive and stupid.

So, we accepted that they called our tactic, which has by now saved us €50 or more at various checkpoints and borders, and we paid the CFA 2,000 (about €3).  After this was a CFA 5,000 "road tax", administered by the crankiest and rudest woman we've encountered so far.  This may or may not be legitimate, but there is a proper form with all the stamps of authority in an office to itself, so we offered no argument and paid.

Finally, we visited the Douane checkpoint, where the official had clearly not done much of this work before.  He stamped our new carnet de passages page in the wrong place, ruining it, and had to start a new one.  We have only a limited number of these, but don't plan to use all 25 before they expire in one year, so there is room (just) for the mistake.

The entire process from arrival to departure took about 90 minutes.  By the way, the Commandant's 'name' was Victorio Mamil.  If you have any desire to pass this letter on to the Guinea-Bissau government, and if they have any desire to do anything about corruption, ask them to pay a visit to Commandant "Mamil" at Mbak.  Hopefully the cops can put their rattling money box away in time.

What We Needed

In Ziguinchor
  • CFA 40,000 (about €61; 20,000 each)
  • Passports
  • One passport photo each
  • 20 minutes
At the border
  • CFA 7,000 (about €11; 5,000 for a "road tax" and 2,000 for a blatant police gouge)
  • Passports, with Guinea-Bissau visas
  • Vehicle registration document
  • Brown Card insurance document
  • Two pages of our carnet de passages (the customs official messed up), plus the previous Senegal page for exit-stamping
  • A discussion and presentation of my previous writing
  • About 90 minutes
A little experience with this goes a long way.



The road to Mbak

The border at Mbak, Senegalese side