Wednesday, December 13 9:17 a.m.
I’m back at the same cafe, Le Club Altesse, where I’ve started most of my days in Conakry. The short walk to get here does not overwhelm me anymore. Certain things – the people, the roads, buildings, colors, smells and sounds – are falling into familiar patterns so that it doesn’t hit me all at once and my mind has begun to filter it and organize it. Highlights now appear and I see new things that weren’t there before such as the two elderly men on white mats begging and I notice the things that remain constant. I recognize the same women operating the fruit stalls, the same security men sitting in chairs, the same stalls selling schoolbooks, scarves and toiletries. People have begun to recognize me and call out to me by name. Some of them I’ve spoken to before, most I haven’t. The problem is that I can’t tell which is which. I’m meeting too many people to keep them straight.
Those I remember tend to be, like me, foreigners, the refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia. They are easier to get to know for the simple reason that they speak English.
Bob and I had dinner on the street the other night with a 20 year old Sierra Leonian named Fonti. It seems Bob has the same problem I do because Fonti immediately upbraided him for not telephoning him as he said he would. Bob apologized but excused himself saying that he’d met so many people in such a short time that he can’t remember them all.
Fonti is a refugee and had a familiar story to tell of the terror in Sierra Leone and the tortuous path that eventually brought him here where he’s living with an aunt. Not that I picked up many of the details. When people speak of events in West Africa it’s still a blur of unfamiliar names of places and people. And their stories are so far beyond my experience of life that I can’t picture it at all and I’m embarrassed to ask my questions, the questions of a simpleton.
Fonti, for example, was in full swing describing himself running through the streets of Freetown, climbing fences and hiding with friends. I realized my mind had been drifting and tried to focus by picturing what he was telling me. I imagined myself jumping fences in Freetown and realized that for me to be doing that someone must be chasing me. That’s what had been missing from my mental image of Fonti’s story.
So I asked him “Who was chasing you? Where were they? Right behind you?”
That’s when I got the simpleton look.
“Everywhere,” said Fonti. “Men with guns and machetes. All over the streets. I have to escape.”
Fonti’s dream was to immigrate to the United States and become a rap star. He’d heard the stories and listened to the lyrics and it appeared to him that all a man had to do was scream some profanity into a microphone and untold riches were his. He didn’t know why this was so but it seemed the perfect life to him and he told me over beer that he practised his rap lyrics at home and had even made a rough demo tape or two.
Unwisely I told Fonti my one claim to fame, that through a bizarre set of circumstances I had once spoken to Puff Daddy on the telephone. “Yo, this is Puffy,” he’d said when he came to the phone. Fonti was ecstatic when he heard this story. What luck for him to just happen to meet a white guy who had contacts with the likes of Puff Daddy. He was convinced I was some kind of big shot music producer and nothing I said would convince him otherwise. He pressed me hard for an introduction to Puff Daddy and only with bad grace accepted my story that I really couldn’t do it.
The person I’ve gotten to know best (besides Bob and Conde who still suddenly looms out of the darkness whenever I am talking to someone new and clearly disapproves of them all and views them as competition) is also a foreigner, Sundar, the Indian shopkeeper.
The day the story of Foufana’s rebel army broke I made a point of stopping by Sundar’s shop to ask him what he knew of the situation, whether this army was a ghost or real and if real what its significance might be. His response was similar to the response I got from most people serious in terms of fact but remarkably unconcerned in tone, or perhaps fatalistic is a better word.
He said that as far as he knew the stories were true. People were fleeing from Kissidougou and this army could eventually reach Conakry.
“Are you serious?” was my now all too common reply.
“Oh yes,” he said with that typical Indian head shake. “It is very serious.”
He went on to describe the looting and chaos that would likely occur in such an event. He waved at his shop behind him, “It could all be stolen or destroyed.”
He gave another fatalistic shrug and head shake as if to say, “Hey, life sucks but what can you do?” For him, as an Indian shopkeeper in Africa such things were simply part of the landscape and beyond his control, reoccurring phenomenon like the typhoons that hit India each year. They always come. It was just a matter of when and how well you’re prepared for it.
He’d quite recently experienced it his last residence being in Liberia. He was forced to flee Liberia when the civil war began and came to Guinea. What happened and how he managed to arrive here and establish a business, navigating all the complexities, is beyond me. I’m pushed to my limits simply retrieving my luggage from the airport. Sundar deals with the full weight of officialdom and maintains a large stock of goods from Johnny Walker whisky to suitcases to household goods, and he talks of it as if it is nothing at all.
I’m happy to have met Sundar. He’s a nice man and it’s good to feel I have a friend here. He’s also a good counterweight to the clutches and presence of Conde. He and I are both foreigners here and he gives me information and help in a disinterested way. In fact we can help each other.
Yesterday we made a deal to share the rental of a telephone line. It’s a peculiarly West African thing with many twists and turns, something I could never have accomplished or even known about on my own. As far as I understand it ministers in the government are given cards that allow them month by month unlimited access to international phone lines. These are immediately sold for millions of francs. The purchaser is a man with a cell phone who wanders the streets offering the use of the phone at rates far below what a person would pay in an official telephone office. It is all totally illegal and everyone makes out like bandits. The man with the phone makes as much as 500,000 francs a day.
Sundar is able to strike a deal because he knows people but mainly because all his calls are to India and because of the time difference he makes his calls from midnight till 5 or 6 in the morning when few people in Guinea make calls. He rents the phone card for 40,000 50,000 francs and keeps it for the entire night for what essentially are off peak hours. His suggestion was that we split the cost and I could have the phone from perhaps 10 12 at night and he would have it for the rest of the night. The midnight deadline for me was because I would have to use the phone at Sundar’s home and there is some kind of unofficial midnight curfew on the streets. Plus Sundar cautions me that it is extremely dangerous on the streets at night and especially after midnight. Sundar tried to get a card last night with much cloak and dagger activity but the deal feel through and we’ll try again tonight.
While we waited last night Sundar joined me for dinner and then invited me to visit his home. He led me down the usual maze of pitch black alleyways till we reached a gate beyond which his psychotic watch dog barked, whined, grovelled, nipped and threw herself against our legs.
Sundar lives in a large cement house with his brother and a Frenchman. The Frenchman rents the bottom half of the house, Sundar and his brother the top half. They pay a total of 300,000 francs a month, which they split amongst them, a sum Sundar says the vast majority of Guineans could not afford.
Sundar has a TV and VCR and a couch but the house could not be called luxurious. The upstairs half is large with dirty cement walls. There is a single large room which serves as living room and primitive kitchen. The actual kitchen is in the Frenchman’s half which, however, Sundar and Ashok can use. There was a bathroom both upstairs and downstairs. I don’t know if there was running water. There were 3 bedrooms, one of which was empty. Sundar gave me the grand tour and I couldn’t help but reflect on the barrenness of the place. In his bedroom Sundar had a dirty mattress and a wrinkled sheet and little else. I wondered if this was the result of not being able to afford more creature comforts or was the result of a refugee mentality. Why accumulate things and put down roots when in an instant you may be forced to flee once more?
Sundar showed me a photograph of his wife and daughter who are still in India. He spoke of the day when they would join him here and I had to wonder what she would make of their new home and what transformations she would make to it.
I have a modest goal for today and that is simply to take my bike outside and ride it around for the first time. Like my first walk alone it seems a small thing but it isn’t. I would like to cycle the full length of the peninsula and see the downtown area but I might not make it. I’ve fallen sick to my stomach and urgent calls of nature might force me back.