How Not To Cross A Border in Africa!

Border Crossed: Ghana to Burkina Faso
Border Crossed Date: 29 November 2014

In principle, crossing a border should be a relatively simple affair. Not necessarily ‘easy’, but the basic framework is sound: go through the gate, get stamped out of country #1, reach next building, get stamped in to country #2, exit gate, profit (or loss, depending on relative visa fee!).

Hamile Bus Station
Hamile Bus Station. Yep, bus station. Really.

Having arrived in the small town of Hamile the previous day, my plan was to cross the border and head directly to Bobo-Dialassou. I’d asked a couple of people I’d met in the town which way the border was, and they’d all told me ‘straight on, you can’t miss it’. From passing by shacks and stalls, the sandy, dusty track had opened out onto litter-strewn mounds. Motos passed me from either direction, and, having walked a couple of minutes through wasteland, I came past a small mosque and onto a long straight road with stalls lining either side. I figured this must be the pre-frontier market area, and I clarified with a couple of the locals that the border to Burkina Faso was straight on. Yes, Burkina was that way, they said.

6km later… 😀
Having walked through countryside under an unforgiving sun, I reached a small village called Ouessa, where the road ended, not at a frontier post, but at a junction. Confused, I saw a police station and wandered inside. After a short conversation in broken French, it had turned out that I’d missed the frontier completely, those stalls were indeed a pre-frontier market but from the other side, and I’d accidentally managed to cross into Burkina Faso illegally. In a country that just three weeks previously had experienced a revolution, overthrowing a dictator, so where security and tension were still a bit high, this wasn’t a terribly comforting situation. Thankfully the policeman was quite civil rather than defensive.

I headed back up the road; fortunately a passing moto gave me a lift back to the mosque. My problem now was that I would have to illegally cross the border again, and because I knew that’s what I was doing, it felt somewhat scarier. I took the first tentative strides onto the sandy path to try to retrace my steps.
– “You want Ghana?”
He was a toothless man, probably late forties but looked much older, wearing a Chelsea football shirt, as seems to be fairly ubiquitous in Ghana. Normally I’m loath to get help for such a short distance but this was an unusual situation, so I gladly let him lead me back to Hamile. He pointed out the Ghana border post in the distance – indicated by a huge arch that would be blindingly obvious to anyone taking the correct route.
Apparently, crossing the border ‘illegally’ happens all the time, and the guards don’t seem to worry too much about it, but he was surprised that they wouldn’t have noticed a tall hairy white man with a backpack.

Due to this ‘unusual’ incident, I ended up spending the night in Hamile. That evening, I was ‘harangued’ by two locals enquiring about my travel plans and my money situation – the Burkinabe visa was only payable in local currency (CFA Franc), rather than Ghana Cedi or hard currency, which meant I’d have to change some. One of them physically went to the border whilst I waited and confirmed that the visa was 24,000 CFA (about £30); although reasonable, this meant I’d have to change some hard currency as well as my Cedis. The only rate I was offered was a meagre 4 Cedis/£, rather than the 4.8 I’d managed to negotiate in Tamale (the real exchange was around 5) – apparently ‘it’s hard to change currency up here because no-one knows what it is’. Yeh, right.
Except that when I got to the border the next morning, I found out that 24,000 CFA would only get you a 3-day transit visa; the full entry visa was 94,000 CFA (over £100). This caused a bit of consternation; fortunately I still had a ‘fixer’ with me from Hamile, and a weird tri-lingual discussion ensued. A transit visa wouldn’t do me any good at all, unless I were going to Mali – not somewhere in the current climate that’s on my list – as it would take longer than 3 days to cross the country from here.

In the event I paid for a transit visa and decided to worry about it later; overstaying my visa is probably not too much of a crime here (!). However, on closer examination of the visa while waiting for the minibus to Bobo, I noticed there was neither an exit date nor a time limit on the stamp in my passport …

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