By Roger G3SXW
We crossed borders with our stock-pile of equipment every other year, nearly a dozen times. We had discovered the formula: to appear like normal tourists (which in fact we were!). But this meant that we needed several white faces on the bus to justify our huge pile of weird equipment. At each border you, of course, have to leave one country and enter another. At each you face police, immigration and customs making a total of six hurdles. Most of these were tedious, slow, boring but otherwise no problem. Typically they would take between one and three hours, mostly just sitting in an over-heated bus, waiting for the formalities to unfold.
One time I was told to pay the equivalent of five dollars. There were no papers. I asked: “Why?”. He said: “Because otherwise I won’t let you through”. I paid! Another time I was asked to pay two dollars to the Big Man. He said: “I need it to feed my family”. I paid. He then immediately asked for another two dollars for his assistant!
However, some of these crossings were far from ‘normal’. One time we were entering Togo from Ghana. The border-crossing is immediately beside the capital city of Togo, Lomé, so there is a mass of pedestrian humanity, very noisy and colourful. This could be a little intimidating for a rookie but we had been this way before so knew what to expect! When formalities were completed we waited, then a policeman approached the bus and asked for the ‘chef de groupe’ (leader of the group) to come with him, but he must be British. As I spoke reasonably good French I was ‘volunteered’. Inside the customs office I was ushered into a marvellously air-conditioned room, the office of the Head of Customs. After some pleasantries he said he needed my help. He brought out a British football pools coupon and asked me to help him choose which games would result in a draw. If we got this right he could win a lot of money. I did my best and we were then allowed on our way! The guys waiting in the bus for those twenty minutes were nervous: would they ever see me again? They fell about laughing when I explained what had happened.
At the same border-crossing, but in the other direction (leaving Togo and entering Ghana), only two of us accompanied a hired truck full of our stuff. This proved, if proof were necessary, that the “bus-full of white tourist faces” was essential. We were asked for our papers. We said: “What papers?”. He said: “Well, you cannot move such equipment without at least an inventory and an import permit”. He was right. To cut a long story short we had to leave the truck in customs and go on into Accra, persuade the PTT to issue our renewed transmitting licences (which they did within two days, a miracle!), go back to the border and complete the importation. This cost us nothing – only time and extra days of truck-hire. In the English-speaking countries we found that, compared to the French-speaking countries, bribery and corruption was rare. On that occasion I tried and failed to solve the problem with dollars!
Entering Niger we each had to stand in front of the immigration officer in turn and answer his questions. There were no forms to fill in – he just wrote the answers into a big ledger. Name, nationality, occupation etc. Several of us had already done this, some of whom said ‘Retired’ for Occupation. When it came to G3PJT (later to become President of RSGB!) he answered Occupation ‘Manager’. The immigration officer looked up with a wicked glint in his eye and said: “But surely you are also retired’. Naturally for the rest of the trip Bob was referred to as Grand-Dad.
Entering Burkina Faso was one of only two occasions when customs charged us serious money. We had to find some $1,200 (between nine of us). Interesting that this was the one time when we had hired a ‘facilitator’, an importation agent to help us. We would have been better without his ‘help’.
But to cap it all, we were all arrested for drug-smuggling! Yes, for real! On a reconnaissance trip from Sierra Leone to Liberia three of us were in a four by four with hired driver. We had completed border formalities when we were pulled over for a drug search. They found some hash in the driver’s bag, so the vehicle and all four occupants were impounded. There followed nearly four hours of intense searching, every square inch, during which he counted how much cash we were carrying – all designed to ramp up the bribe. Finally, the officer said: “So, either you can all return to jail in Freetown or we can finish this now”. In my best French I answered: “Let’s finish this now”. It cost us $400. This was on the French-speaking side. We will never know if this was set up by our driver. Entering Liberia (English-speaking) we were met by smart uniforms who were utterly polite and presented no problems. On the way back we were searched for diamonds but the Liberian (English-speaking) officer was thoroughly courteous, checked every corner and then said: “I trust you so I will not also search your vehicle”. He was a nice old guy!
So many stories. I could go on all night!