Foutah Djallon is a historical highland region stretching from Labe in central Guinea to southern Senegal, northern Sierra Leone in Koinadugu and north east of Liberia in Nimba. Its highest peak is 1,515 feet above sea level.
My journey was primarily to search for the things that unite us as a people belonging to the same regions with so many similarities, yet we know so little about each other. My mission was to explore possibilities on getting to know each other better through academic and cultural exchange, translating our literature into English and French, and promote civil society interactions.
It is a combination of the Fulas and the original inhabitants called Yalunkas who were driven south through conquests by the Fulas to northern Sierra Leone where they live a quiet life. The Yalunkas are cousins of the Susus and can be found in Forecariah, Coyah in Guinea, kabala and Kambia in Sierra Leone.
Nomadic Fulani herdsmen settled in Foutah Djallon 200 years ago and have spread their influence in the region farming and herding cattle.
Having read and heard so much about the region, I saw the only opportunity to visit during my recent vacation when I was invited to Labe by the founders of both the Guinean PEN Center, a writer’s collective, and the Musee Du Fouta, a museum that captures and displays the customs and traditions of the Fula people. I started my overland journey by crossing the Mano River Bridge at Bo Waterside. My first disappointment on landing at Gendema was that there was fuel shortage in Sierra Leone. This meant that all the Peugeot taxis were grounded and the only available means of transport from Gendema to Bo Town, Sierra Leone’s second capital was by a motorbike. Half of the journey of only 27 miles took us nearly four hours on a bike due to its deplorable nature. It is the worst segment of the road from Liberia to Guinea and very uncomfortable and dangerous even on a bike. I slept soundly in Bo after a tiresome journey from Gendema. The journey from Bo Town to Pamlap was a smooth ride all the way and we changed vehicle at the Pamlap border.
Now on Guinean soil, Guinean soldiers demanded every passenger to pay 5,000 Guinean Francs before stamping our passports, otherwise, we won’t be allowed to enter. I asked why we had to pay as ECOWAS and MRU citizens but the unfriendly soldiers were highly irritated by my refusal to pay. We moved on to the last checkpoint into Conakry called Transit in Coyah. Here again, the soldiers asked each passenger for 5000 Franc Guinea before they would allow us to continue our journey. I insisted that I won’t pay but another passenger paid my tax because of the delay. The car had to move on and it is the usual operation for the hungry soldiers, one of whom was already drunk at 6:30 in the evening when we arrived there.
We left Coyah where Foutah Djallon starts its rise in the afternoon for the momentous adventure into the land of the spiraling mountains. The scenic view was breath-taking as we started what seemed like a merry-go-round . The road was winding, no sidewalks and deep scary valleys. Coyah, Kindia, the fruit basket of Guinea, Mamou and Pitta have similar features and topography being mountainous with deep valley, but Kindia was the most advanced in terms of infrastructure development. It is a real city with a university, many paved streets, street lights powered by solar panels and boasts of the oldest military camp in the world. During French rule, large fruit plantations were established but all disappeared after independence although the culture of producing fruits remains.
On the road to Labe, there are 150 kilometers of highland plateaus from Hafia University to Mamou plains where cows were everywhere. Mamou is still rich in protected forests.
We passed by a city called Dalaba, which is reputed for growing the best bananas in Africa. It is also known to be the coldest city in the Foutah Djallon because of its height and large forests. My guide, who was a diplomat and deputy in the Guinean parliament, gave me a lot of history of his large country. A man who is still inspired by Sekou Toure said the late President conserved a lot of mineral and forest areas for Guineans to exploit now. An example is the Segeya forest near Kindia, where Toure planted many foreign species of trees he received from his friends. They are there for all to see.
There is a major West African international market center called Linsan near Mamou. This town has a railway project linking Mali and Burkina Faso and it is where so many cultures merge.
I arrived in Labe on the third night of my road travel. We were at the highest point in Guinea and it felt like that because I was shivering from the wintry weather. This was another part of the world. I was lucky to call home after many failed attempts on LoneStar and CellCom, although there is a CellCom Guinea telecommunications company. LoneStar’s assurance of its Roaming service did not work once we started climbing the Foutah Djallon. When my daughter asked me where I was, I told her I was closest to God; that was the reality as it was as if I could touch the sky.
Although Guinea was one of the first countries to start a national airline service, it does not have one anymore as its last military jet went down with all its passengers and crew near the Robertsfield International Airport in February, 2013. So it takes six hours by road covering 456 kilometers from Conakry to Labe, while flying time is only 45 minutes.
Founded by Alpha Mamadou Selho Diallo, Labe is surrounded by three mountains: Limboko, Saala and Kohlima. It has a population of more than 100,000 people of mainly Foulahs, Madingos and Yalunkas, and many other minorities. It is 1000 kilometers away from Dakar. This is the seat of Foulah origin and culture with education starting in 1901 when the first school was built, long before the other three regions of Guinea.
Labe was so advanced politically as a nation state that there was a Fouta Djallon embassy in Paris, France by 1882.
There are 28 quarters in Labe separated by four rivers: Senegal River, Gambia River, Rio Coulibal and Conqueror River which together produce reliable hydroelectricity for the region. The Foutah Djallon is also the source of the River Niger, which connects several West African countries and the venue of many historic African unity meetings chaired by the visionary Sekou Toure, President of Guinea from 1958 to 1984 when he died in Cleveland, United States of America.
One of my new findings that would promote better understanding among people of the region is the story of Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, referred to in the book Prince Among Slaves written by Teddy Alford of the United States.
Ibrahima, as he is referred to was a Major in his father’s kingdom army and was captured in Foutah Djallon and sold into slavery at 26 years old. He spent 41 years in slavery in America before a visiting Irish businessman recognized him as the son of an African King who helped him while he visited Africa. Ibrahima’s fortune changed and through the Irishman’s influence, he was released from slavery.
He set sail for Monrovia which is closest to Foutah, where his sight was, aboard the Harriet from Nofolk in 1829 as a guest of the United States government. He travelled along with J.J. Roberts, who became Liberia’s first President in 1847.
Ibrahima died on July 6, 1829, six months after his landing. He was buried in Monrovia but there seems to be no accounts of him so far.