You find them all over the continent – conmen, bandits, highwaymen. In the Congo they are referred to as ninjas. They erect roadblocks and force travellers to pay a “toll fee”. Sometimes this is a friendly request. More often than not, behind the toll collector lurks a man with bloodshot eyes and an AK47. This is one of the hassles of travelling on the continent.
In the north of Kenya, on the road between Marsabit and Moyale, bandits lurk. This road was described by Paul Theroux as the loneliest road in Africa. It is also one of the most dangerous. With a vehicle approaching, they try their luck. Often they fire a few shots to intimidate travellers. But very seldom, thankfully, do they shoot to kill.
When we travelled north through the country we were very aware of these hucksters. And we planned for the inevitable moment when would run into them. We decided that we wouldn’t stop on lonely roads, would always communicate with each other over our two way radios, and most importantly, stay aware.
We were flagged down twice by travellers who seemed to have engine trouble or perhaps needed help with a flat tyre, but we looked the other way. Being a Good Samaritan was simply too risky, and moreover, we had been warned that this is one of the bandits’ oldest tricks.
With luck, we made it safely past the town of Turbi and all the way to the Ethiopian border. In the Congo, however, we had bigger problems. Once more we were warned: you will encounter robbers on the road between Brazzaville and Point Noire. The issue, you see, is that road conditions between Brazzaville and Point Noire is very different from that in the north of Kenya. This is not a desert – it is a jungle. In northern Kenya’s desert it is possible to drive around an obstruction if you have a well-equipped 4×4. In the jungle that’s simply not an option.
The Congo’s ninjas construct their road blocks on narrow bridges, so there’s no driving around them. To avoid paying them, you have to find a different solution.
We left Brazzaville late in the afternoon. The road to Kinkala is an excellent tar road that was recently rebuilt. Not a place where one should fear the ninjas, in other words. But after Kinkala it becomes a different story. The brand-new road devolves into a narrow track that runs through a thick forest. And here the ninja’s lurk.
The robbers use their bounty to finance their lifestyle. This is a lifestyle of drinking, smoking a bit of dagga and womanising. None of these activities are obviously performed early in the morning. Mornings are used to recuperate after the previous night’s party.
So if you want to escape the ninjas you have to travel early in the morning.
We left Kinkala just before sunrise. The road conditions prevented us from travelling at high speed and at times we even had to engage low range, but overall the going was pretty good. We passed a number of villages. Most people were still sleeping.
Steadily we travelled through the ninjas’ territory. Once or twice one of them, taken by surprise when our three vehicles rushed through their village, ran out and tried to stop us. But we were too quick for them.
Around 10h00 we approached a small bridge. Here we found ninjas who were either desperate for money, or hadn’t partied quite as hard the previous night. They had a massive rock placed in the middle of the bridge. It was impossible to pass without removing it.
I approached them slowly. They came up to my car, spoke in French and demanded a toll fee. I reacted by speaking in Afrikaans and greeted them warmly. With hand gestures I offered to use my winch to help them remove the rock. The more I spoke, the more they demanded. I stuck to my story until they gave up on me and walked over to the vehicle behind me.
Deo Magoye, a friend from Tanzania, was travelling with us. Deo is black, and they therefore expected of him to be able to speak French. Sadly, Deo’s Frenchs is even worse than mine.
He had another advantage, though. He had our cameraman Lourens with him. And Lourens smoked. When the ninjas realised they were not getting any joy from the South Africans, they agreed to remove the rock and let us pass through in exchange for two packets of cigarettes.
All things considered, this was a very cheap toll charge. So here’s my advice: outsmart the ninjas by being friendly, speaking Afrikaans, offering assistance and handing out a few packets of cigarettes if necessary.