Tuesday December 12, 9:30 a.m.
It turned out there was nothing sinister going on at the cinder block cafe. I was imagining that these men were recruiting soldiers to fight Foufana or forming their own splinter group. Such is the power of arrival disorientation. The truth was so harmless as to be laughable. The men were gambling. The cafe I’d stumbled into was a bookie’s establishment. The papers which everyone was examining with such interest contained a list of the horses in a race in Mali along with a complex set of numbers which I assume gave each horse’s record and other information a gambler needs to make a choice. I learned all this when a man leaned over and asked me if I was a betting man. The word he used was “jouer,” perhaps as in, “do you play the horses?” It took some time for me to sort out his meaning. While trying to figure it out my mind seized on all kinds of ridiculous interpretations based on my Foufana paranoia. Perhaps he was asking my political leanings. Was I a Foufana man or a Conte man? Would I throw my support behind his cause? In truth he was probably asking did I fancy Pretty Boy to win or show in the third race?
I think my simplicity can be forgiven. After all, everywhere I go I hear about a large rebel army moving on Conakry and I’m just here on vacation. In terms of preparations I’m equipped to deal with flat tires and broken spokes. I’ve got nothing in my pannier bags to deal with a rebel army that seems to have appeared out of nowhere and particularly one led by a man with the unlikely name of Foufana.
It doesn’t help that I’ve been spending time with Mercenary Bob, a man who can’t walk from one end of the street to the other without getting involved in delicate (or fanciful) negotiations about sending hundreds of British paratroopers to fight for different factions all across Africa from Guinea to Cameroon for whoever essentially has the coin to pay him.
His negotiations with Conde have, not surprisingly, broken down. Conde was supposedly to have been in secret contact with high level politicians, chiefs of staff, and generals on Bob’s behalf. It appeared this was expensive and Conde had already lifted $400 off Bob to pay for the use of special secure phone lines. (Such language would be irresistible to a man like Bob.) But then negotiations bogged down over money. Conde needed $1500 to push the negotiations to the next level and set up the meetings for the Colonel, the Intelligence officer from J&L Security. Bob said there would be no more money. Conde argued a meeting was impossible without it. A man cannot shake the hand of a five-star general without putting a hundred dollar bill in his palm. And who would pay for the drivers, the cars and the gasoline to bring the generals to the meeting? And there was the question of renting appropriate meeting rooms at a luxury hotel. Bob waved his hand at the tables at Les Hotels Mantisse. They could meet there. I wasn’t present for this conversation but I can picture the little grimace of distaste on Conde’s face at this prospect.
The Intelligence Officer was scheduled to arrive on last night’s Air France flight. There was talk about staff cars, motorcycle escorts and an official reception. I was not in the least surprised upon running into Bob to learn that there had been a “balls up” and the Colonel had not been on the flight but I was disappointed. I want some of this story to be true and was eager to meet the Colonel.
Bob, however, is undaunted. It would take much more than that to dampen his enthusiasm. He is already talking to a refugee from Sierra Leone about riches in uncut diamonds there for the digging and to a refugee from Cameroon about a promising lead regarding a rebel group there that is very interested in the services of J&L. When Bob starts feeling down he bucks himself up with a set speech of how a small force of 2,000 British mercenaries could take any country in West Africa within two months. I don’t doubt it but I did wonder aloud what you’d do with the country once you had it.
My own relationship with Conde has gone from bad to worse, has in fact sunk into farce. For several days in a row I was prepared to give Conde a generous cadeaux, a bribe, a “port du vin” as it is called locally, just to finish our dealings and get him out of my life but each time he has done something to annoy me. He has become a lurking presence like a spider, monitoring my movements personally and through spies on the streets. He shows up unexpectedly and forces his way into my day, weaving elaborate stories designed to move money from my pocket to his. His attempts range from the short and childishly simple (“Douglas, I do not have any money”) to last night’s latest complex one.
I was sitting in my room when there was a knock on my door. I opened it expecting Bob but it was Conde, unexpected and increasingly unwelcome. He forced his way into my room, closed the door, sat down and launched into an involved and incomprehensible story about phone calls he had been trying to make on my behalf, had already made or was going to make I couldn’t tell which and it didn’t matter especially since I’d asked him to make no such calls. The point was such calls whether made or not are expensive and he needed money to continue working so tirelessly on my behalf. The calls as far as I could make out were to other cities in Guinea as he wanted to make sure conditions were secure before he could “allow” me to cycle north.
It was an admirable attempt with both carrot and stick. The carrot was that he was trying to help me. He was my friend using all his spare time and influence to keep me safe and to further my journey in Guinea. Plus he himself was responsible for tourists. If I got in trouble it would be traced back to him and there would be problems for him. He had a duty towards me but I also had a duty towards him. The stick was contained in the word “allow”. He was implying, for the first time, that he had the power to keep me in Conakry, in fact to send me out of the country. The ostensible reason would be that it was not safe. The real reason would be that I had not sufficiently greased his palm.
I doubt very much that he has the authority to do either but it is beyond question that he could feed me to the wolves when in six months time I attempt to leave via the airport where he sits in his office, the spider in his lair.