WITNESS: Chase for the news can take a while in Africa

Alistair Thomson has been a Reuters correspondent in Africa for eight years, covering everything from military coups to commodities markets. A British citizen, he has worked for Reuters in London, Brussels, Ivory Coast and South Africa, and is now based in Dakar, Senegal. In the following story, he recounts his slow race across the continent to cover rebel fighting in Chad.

People carrying their belongings are seen through a star-shaped cut as they cross Ngueli bridge over the Logone-Chari river into Cameroon, fleeing fighting in N'Djamena, in this February 4, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun

By Alistair Thomson

N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - When rebels entered Chad’s capital, I was told to get there as quickly as possible.

Half a week later, at the end of a 2,000-km (1,250-mile) chase across central Africa by bus, train and taxi, the lofty promises of increased transport investment intoned at countless African summits rang very hollow in my head.

Africa usually hits the headlines for war or famine. But even the countries you don’t hear so much about can be pretty dysfunctional, and air links are pitiful.

So early last month I left home in Senegal before dawn to fly -- not east towards Chad, where the rebels were battling loyalist troops -- but north to Morocco, with no prospect of an onward flight until midnight.

After another long flight, I saw the sun rise in Douala, in Cameroon, which borders Chad far to the north. I finally felt I was getting somewhere, only to find out commercial flights to N’Djamena were still suspended.

A newspaper colleague had secured a place on a cramped charter flight, but it was full.

“You want to go to N’Djamena? There are problems there,” exclaimed Valdo, a youth who spends his days at Douala airport sipping coffee and helping out foreigners for a little cash.

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An internal flight might have got me part of the way, if only Cameroon Airlines staff had known if it would go that day, or even when the plane might come back from Europe.

Over cups of bitter coffee Valdo and I planned an overland route, and I had to rush to make the bus for a three-hour ride to Cameroon’s capital Yaounde in time for the night train up north.

Bouncing about in a Chinese bus hurtling through lush forest, I prayed the rumbling beneath me was not a tire being shed and fastened my seat belt as I spotted wrecks rusting by the roadside.

Later, after a scalding shower -- unusually, the $10 hotel room had hot water, but no cold -- I battled through a raucous crowd of passengers and porters to my twin cabin in the train.


As the train rumbled out of the station, I felt like an intruder in Yaounde’s wood- and mud-built slums, my heart skipping a beat when a toddler ran close to its creaking wheels.

My cabin-mate Mohamed Ibn Souleymane, a trader from northern Cameroon, intoned his dusk prayers on the floor, a familiar and pleasantly soporofic lullaby after two days on the road.

Late at night, I awoke to grab a drink from the buffet car and sipped a Coke as a cockroach strolled across the bar.

In the morning, I heard my TV colleague Emmanuel Braun, who had left for Chad before me, had managed to cross to N’Djamena.

But the main press pack was being held at the airport where their tiny plane had dropped them the previous day. That gave new impetus to my mission.

When we stopped, I haggled with the owner of a 1992 Corolla for the 770-km (480-mile) ride to the border. When the fan belt broke 20 minutes later, I wished I’d held out for a better car.

We soon got going again, with Ahmadou Bobo indulging an exhilarating if pathological wish to accelerate down the middle of the road at oncoming traffic, swerving at the last moment.

Late at night, wary of bandits and having squashed a village cockerel and a hedgehog, we pulled up at a guesthouse to find dozens of tipsy Chinese guests drifting out of the bar.

They said in broken French they had fled the Chad fighting. Over breakfast of stale bread came another warning not to go on. “Things in Chad are not good. There are always rebels. Everyone wants to be president,” said my waiter.

A few hours later I left Bobo’s car and fought through a tide of motorcycles to cross the narrow border bridge into N’Djamena.

The fighting was over, the rebels long gone. My rivals had been freed from the airport the previous evening, beating me to the centre of town by hours.

As I finally got down to work, I could only hope my return home would be as fun.

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