Yawei Ferry River Crossing

My Peace Corps home was the town of Pujehun, scattered along the meandering banks of the Waanje River and pushing back against the pervasive tropical rain forest of southern Sierra Leone.  The town was 40 miles south of the city of Bo but only 20 miles north of the Atlantic Ocean.  However, there was no road south through the coastal waterways and swamps.  Therefore the crusty road to Bo was the shortest route to needed supplies and a link to the rest of the world.  The road was an undulating stretch of laterite soil, punctuated with sections of sand, which only the Sierra Leone Department of Roads could refer to as the Bo-Pujehun Highway while maintaining a straight face.  It was little more than a two lane bush path trespassing through the ever encroaching West African growth.  Canopies of palm and cotton trees arched over the road, undergrowth and grasses found root up to the road’s berm and the 140 inch rainy season filled larger potholes with enough water to support the careers of a few frogs.  My grandfather might have been impressed with such a road in frontier North Dakota but I was not accustomed to the muddy, slippery track carved up by the rains or the corrugated, washboard surface of the dry season.

Four miles north of Pujehun vehicles crossed the milk-chocolate colored water of the Waanje River not on a commonplace palm log bridge but via the Yawei Ferry, a sturdily built barge of a wooden plank platform secured to metal pontoons likely crafted by a local blacksmith.  The ferry’s bow and stern were connected with ropes and pulleys to a three inch cable strung shore-to-shore a few feet above the high water mark.  The ferryman, who lived in the onsite Yawei village, angled the vessel slightly upstream and the sideward vector of the river’s current nudged the entire contraption 100 yards to the opposite bank.  The slower current of the dry season required the ferryman to assist the movement by hooking a homemade wrench (it looked like a long-handled ‘F’) onto the cable and cranking this lever to help propel us forward.

I was comfortable in Pujehun where I taught math and science in a secondary school.  Many evenings I played tennis with other teachers and then we quenched our thirst with Star beer or palm wine.  I found solitude paddling a dugout canoe down the Waanje to the swimming hole at the volunteer-named Bamboo Grove.  I played draughts with neighbors on their verandas and their children stopped by my house to play cards or practice their English reading old issues of Newsweek.  It was an idyllic, tranquil life.  Only occasionally would I venture north to touch the rest of the world.  Those three hour treks to Bo were often miserable.  Travel by public transportation in the world of Peace Corps volunteers was excruciating.  The Sahara desert has the camel to transport people and supplies between its oases and for centuries has been called the ‘ship of the desert’.  Sierra Leone’s ship was the pota-pota, a privately owned pickup truck converted by its owner to a passenger and freight vehicle.   Also called a lorry, the truck was fitted with wooden benches positioned around the inside perimeter of the truck’s bed and a wooden canopy to cover what served as the passengers’ compartment.  The roof’s luggage rack was welded from scrap metal or construction rebar.  Each passenger had carry-on luggage, but the pota-pota apprentice used rubber straps to secure extra luggage and cargo onto the rack.  Always a muscular young man, the apprentice built a haystack of luggage, rice bags, furniture, jugs of palm oil, baskets of potato leaf and the occasional goat to such a height that the vehicle remained upright only because it defied a few laws of physics.  Rolled canvas tarps on either side of the canopy could be drawn down to repel the rain that would otherwise splash through the slotted openings.  Passenger capacity varied between a manageable 15 and an improbable 30. There was no capacity limit because there was always room for one more passenger and, if needed, a fourth bench was removed from the roof rack and inserted down the center of the bed.  Those forced to the middle bench would interlock knees with passengers facing them from a side bench.

Traveling by pota-pota was not for the timid.  The journey started with an aggressive bartering session with the driver over the proper fare followed by a physical assault to find a seat on the crowded benches.  With many ‘excuse me’s I stepped on toes, clipped knees and elbows, and finally wiggled into a hidden space which was grudgingly conceded.  Sometimes, to aid in the seating process the driver accelerated forward and slammed on the brakes.  This action flung the huddle of customers forward and opened positions near the tailgate.

The cramped compartment was an olfactory lab, a mixed bag of scents.  Fumes from a poorly performing engine seeped into the compartment.  A nursing baby paused in breast feeding, lolled her head towards me and burped.  The gooey stench remained on my forearm even after I wiped away the milky spittle.  A chicken, hobbled by twine tied near its spurs, slid on the floor like a shuffleboard disk whenever the pota-pota swerved or cornered.  Inevitably, the petrified bird would defecate and then glide through its own excrement, spreading the green ooze over its feathers into the ozone.   My personal body odor was offensive to me, let alone to my travel companions.  Deodorants were ineffective against the tropic’s insidious humidity.  Given the pungent aroma wafting up from the infant I was sure the chicken wasn’t alone in releasing a bowel movement.

The baby’s regurgitated lunch wasn’t the only skin discoloration endured.  Billows of red laterite dust thrown up by passing vehicles rolled through the compartment like a dust storm, leaving streaks of a bad tan on exposed skin.  When this dusty grime contacted damp clothing it seized on the threads and proved more difficult to scrub away than red wine.

The life span of a pota-pota’s struts and springs was shorter than that of a malaria carrying mosquito.  One month or 1000 miles whichever came first.  A wheelbarrow ride through a rock quarry would have been smoother.  Travelers were frequently tossed upward, which led to new space allocations upon returning to the bench.  Passengers muttered oaths, groaned with each inflicted ache and protested vehemently to the oblivious driver as the vehicle shimmied over washboard gallops, slued sideways in fields of sand and bounced through potholes as wicked as badger holes.  Anticipating the innumerable rough spots was hopeless so kidneys became shock absorbers.  After a lorry journey it was a few minutes before I walked upright and a few more before all my internal organs returned to their rightful physiological location.

Once the struts and shocks lost their effectiveness the vehicle’s muffler and tailpipe were soon scraping the road surface.   Eventually, they dropped off and became road obstructions.  Their demise added a headache-inducing rumble to the journey.  Instructions and entreaties to the driver had to be shouted to be heard and repeated when he ignored requests for a safer journey.  Likewise, conversations and disagreements between passengers were boisterously loud.

With all this suffering there was one place of hushed repose and possible healing.  I always wishfully anticipated the Yawei Ferry crossing, especially on my returns to Pujehun.  On the ferry there was a quiet solemnity in contrast to the vehicle’s muddle of noises, odors and roughness.  As a precautionary safety measure passengers descended from their perch before the lorry revved up the ramp onto the ferry platform.  The platform was large enough to carry two lorries and for travelers to discover personal space.  The pota-pota’s engine was stilled and not spewing noxious fumes, conversations and arguments abated, anxiety levels dropped and peace cloaked the scene during the calming drift across the river.  The current rippled and gurgled against the pontoons, the cable rhythmically creaked under the weight of its load, tree leaves whispered of an approaching storm, a fisherman offered a friendly wave from his canoe after casting his net and I savored the succulent juice of oranges purchased from a Yawei village vendor.

Each pota-pota owner painted a slogan or phrase on the back end of the wooden canopy, offering wisdom, irony or comedic relief.  More than a few of these slogans served as ominous forebodings of troubles the traveler soon encountered.  “Get Out Of My Way”, “God Bless The Traveler”,  “Take Courage” and “Struggling For Survival” could have been interpreted as enter at your own risk disclaimers.

The ferry was not stenciled with any motto.  Rightly so.  The ferryman did not need to offer counsel or disclaimers as we entered his vessel’s sanctuary.  Had he opted to paint relevant information on the pontoons he might have chosen “Peace Is Flowing Like A River” or “Heaven On Earth”.

This glimpse of heaven lasted only 20 minutes.  After the lorry departed the ferry there was another mad scramble to secure personal bench space and when fully reloaded the pota-pota would shake, rattle and roll the final four miles into Pujehun.

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