Saturday, December 16 4:50 a.m.
My second trip to see the rooms that are available for rent was strange but probably fairly typical for Guinea. At least I was the only one who seemed to find the process a bit unusual.
I went to Marie’s small apartment at 6:30 as we’d arranged. The small door into the compound was open and I just walked in. The yard was empty and I walked into the house to Marie’s room. She was taking a shower but I sat and watched TV with her two sisters and her daughter. I wanted to talk with them, particularly since they spoke English (though it took me some time to recognize the language they were speaking as English), and they also wished to speak with me but they kept the volume of the TV set so high that normal conversation was impossible. Both sisters tried to talk with me but the TV drowned us all out. They even gave little grimaces of frustration and unhappiness at not being able to talk but it occurred to no one to turn the volume down or, what would have made me extremely happy, turn the TV off altogether.
When Marie came out of the bathroom she sat beside me on the bed and we could talk a bit but I found I was no competition for the antics of Steve Urkell on TV. Everyone in the room was totally absorbed in the show’s story line and reacted to everything as if it was real. They asked me if Urkell’s voice sounded the same in real life and wanted to know if that was his real life and did I think he would ever get the girl to go out with him. There was real concern in their voices.
The next show to come on, “Friends,” didn’t interest them nearly as much but mother and daughter sang along with the upbeat theme song. I noticed a marked difference in their accent as they mimicked the lyrics perfectly.
The landlord came shortly afterward and we all trooped out to see the rooms. We started at the front and stood in front of the car port doors. The landlord talked about having these doors replaced with regular doors, if that is, I didn’t have a car. But to my utter lack of surprise no one made a move to take out a key and open the doors. Instead we walked along the side and around to the back. It took me a minute to realize I was being urged to climb up the wall, cling to the iron bars covering the window and peer in through the dirty screen. It was dark inside but since I almost always carry a flashlight I managed to see a little bit. Marie climbed up beside me and told me about the features of the place as my flashlight beam darted about. Only blank walls and empty doorways were in evidence. Even if this unusual inspection turned out favorable I couldn’t see myself moving into these empty cavernous rooms all by myself with just my Thermarest and sleeping bag.
The landlord meanwhile was talking non-stop and Marie translated some of it for me. The main selling point it seemed was that these large windows provided a cool breeze inside. Coughing, and with my eyes streaming from the smoke of the immense garbage fire burning in the large pit that took up the entire back yard I could only stare in amazement. I was waiting for the punch line.
I was at a bit of a loss when both Marie and the landlord expected me to now produce three months’ rent in advance. I didn’t even try to explain that if they seriously had wanted me to rent the place they might have brought the key or made some attempt to show me inside. Dousing the garbage fire (which was clearly a permanent feature) at least for the duration of my visit wouldn’t have been a bad idea either. At least I could appreciate their honesty. They were being very clear that if I was foolish enough to hand over any money I would be on my own and could expect little from the landlord perhaps not even a key. I simply shook his hand and said well, that I’d think about it.
I was, as usual, consumed with curiosity about the lives of Marie and her sisters but I held back most of my questions and simply visited with them while they got ready to go out. We were going to go for a “stroll” and have a beer at a local place. I started “humphing” again as I thought how strange it was to be here in this room full of young (and very beautiful) women putting on make up, singing along with “Friends”, and laughing at Urkell dancing a polka and playing the accordion.
Some of the significance escaped me till just now. Though Marie spent the first ten years of her life in Liberia her parents are Guinean and her family home is a small village in the southeastern Forest Region. Therefore she and her sisters aren’t Muslim which is why they were so easy to get along with and so relaxed. I haven’t been in Conakry long (just a week) and know little about Muslim life here but already I can feel it, a pervasive presence, a steady pulse and beat going on all around me and it is vaguely oppressive. Because of Ramadan getting food is a bit of a problem. The food is there but one never knows when it will appear and if you miss its brief availability in the morning you could go hungry all day. And what food is available in the afternoon and evening goes very quickly. More than once I’ve been stuck wandering the streets in search of a meal. And there is no question of choosing from a menu. I look for a cooking fire with a pot bubbling on it. Conversation is pretty primitive: You have food? Give me a plate of whatever’s in the pot.
And in running errands you have to take into account the regular prayers required of a Muslim. Chances are upon entering a shop I’ll find the owner facing Mecca and performing the ritual prayers.
The fasting has also given those with a natural lazy streak a ready excuse for doing even less work and that work even slower. That he is weak and tired from fasting is the steady, plaintive cry from Sundar’s young Guinean employee. I’ve rarely seen a lazier and surlier personality. Today Sundar told him to go purchase a loaf of bread. He put his head to the side and moaned in complaint, apparently too weak to move. His excuse was that there was no bread. Sundar and he argued back and forth till Sundar lost patience and walked into the street and pointed not three doors down to a large display of freshly baked bread. The boy looked briefly then said there was no bread. “There! Right there!” said Sundar. With extreme reluctance the boy acknowledged there was bread but said that the man who sold it was at prayer and will come back later. The man was standing there, clear even to me. Finally Sundar got him to move. He shuffled off as if he would collapse at any moment, then came back to say the man had only Talaba bread. “What does it matter what kind of bread?” exploded Sundar. “You damn shit boy.” I think Sundar keeps him on only as a favor to his brother.
The place we went to have a beer was a hole-in-the-wall kind of bar, the first such place I’d been in or even noticed. Marie said there are many of them but I just don’t know what they look like. Conversation wasn’t easy as I had again to compete with a television. All talk in the bar ceased when a woman on TV fell into a pool and resumed again only when she had safely reached the side. A collective sigh of relief went up. Marie seemed genuinely pleased and happy that this woman was okay. She was concerned for her as for a friend.
We talked of Canada and Australia and America. Marie had strong opinions on the differences between these places. She was currently enamoured of Canada but Australia was a close second. She currently has an Australian beau who sends her expensive perfumes, watches and clothes. He apparently was still in Guinea but hadn’t called her for some days and she was a little peeved.
My tales of a recent blizzard in Canada elicited a story from Marie’s childhood, her one experience of ice from the sky. It was an extremely hot day in her village, one of the hottest she could remember, when suddenly thick clouds rolled in and the temperature plummeted. Rain started to fall and to everyone’s amazement and fear the rain turned to hail. The entire village ran for cover. Mothers told their children not to put the ice in their mouths or they would die. Marie asked me if this was true and I assured her that it was perfectly safe. Marie’s father believed the ice from the sky was a signal that the world was going to end.
Marie insisted on walking me most of the way back to my hotel letting me know in case I was totally dense that there was room in her life for a Canadian beau as well if I was interested. She was sad that I probably wouldn’t be taking the two rooms. She had already claimed one of the rooms in her mind and would gladly have taken both while I was out of Conakry.
I saw less of Bob today than I normally do. John Telkin, the intelligence officer from his organization, had after days of waiting and aborted receptions finally arrived. Twice there was a staff car, a jeep, and an honor guard at the airport to meet John but there were problems and he hadn’t showed. Bob hinted that they were serious problems and men in other operations around the world had been killed.
I saw John briefly over a cup of coffee and was not favourably impressed. He’s a tall, stick thin man with what I believe is called a “posh” English accent. He liked to hear himself talk and held forth in a superior and condescending way on whatever topic occurred to him, the type of man who always has the last word and no matter the subject always knows more than you, always has the inside track. His was a silly, pattering kind of talk meant to impress you with his indifference, his untouchability, something I find rather uninteresting. “What ho?”
I haven’t seen Conde for a couple of days but through Bob he continues to be a presence and make me uncomfortable. Bob delivered a message that if I don’t soon come up with a bribe he is going to have customs seize my bicycle and the police arrest me for spying based on the writing in this journal.
Bob continues to try and keep his relationship with Conde a happier one (since he believes he needs his help) but he is also always on his guard. The other night Bob was the intended victim of a con that he feels Conde may have instigated. I was present for the opening move and the entire scheme was fairly ingenious.
I had just run into Bob outside the hotel when a Guinean man approached us. There was some confusion as we tried to figure out if we knew him. Every day we are reproached by people we’ve spoken to and then forgotten.
In this case neither of us had met him before but like perfect victims we both helped him by making suggestions as to how we met. At the airport was the most obvious because he claimed to be the head of airport security and he dropped Conde’s name.
I found the con interesting because it operated on so many levels. The first move was simply to hit Bob up for a bit of cash. The man said his car had run out of gas just a short distance away and he had no money to buy any. I noticed that while explaining his situation the man made repeated references to his uniform, a handwritten ID card, his cell phone, and a ratty briefcase he carried, clearly establishing the validity of his claim to be head of airport security.
The carrot here was that to know the head of airport security could be very useful to a man in Bob’s line of work. Who better to help get weapons through the airport? Even if Bob was suspicious, which he clearly was, he figured that 5,000 francs wasn’t a bad investment in a man who might turn out to be real. He took a 5,000 franc note out of his pocket and gave it to him. At that point I left and heard the rest of the story later from Bob.
As they walked along the man wondered if Bob would be interested in an airport pass, an official ID that would allow him to move freely anywhere. Of course Bob was and they talked about the process including the need for four photographs. In the meantime 10,000 francs would get the ball rolling and he would write out a temporary pass on a piece of paper. Bob went for that too and handed over the money.
Now the discussion moved on to changing money and the con man was ready for that too. Of course he could change money for Bob and in fact the man’s commander lived right around the corner and this man always wanted US dollars. If Bob gave him the dollars to change he could bring them to his commander, make him happy and so Bob would be doing him a big favor.
Of course he had to go alone and would return with the Guinean francs. This was no problem because as security he was willing to leave behind his briefcase and inside it was a thick brick of money, more than a million Guinean francs, and an envelope containing a million French francs, both of which he showed Bob. Both of course were sealed.
This was intended to work on the victim’s greed, a chance, though slim, that he would end up with far more money than the one or two hundred dollars he was handing over. And if that weren’t enough, and for Bob it certainly wasn’t, the con man played what is perhaps his strongest card our fear of being open to an accusation of racism.
“You don’t trust me,” the man told Bob. “You don’t have confidence in me because I am an African. I am willing to trust you with millions of Guinean francs and French francs plus my satchel of important papers but because I am a black man you don’t trust me.”
This, as I see it, is the critical moment of any con, the first time the con man expresses the idea of trust. The victim here is forced to extreme action and plain speaking which we are reluctant to do. Bob could either capitulate and hand over the money or call his bluff, say that he’s right, he doesn’t trust him and demand that he open the packages and show that there really was money inside them.
Bob, being cannier than I, foresaw even more possible problems, ones that could be worse than losing his two hundred dollars. It was a possibility that the moment the man disappeared from view several accomplices would emerge, steal the satchel from Bob and he would be charged with the theft or at least blamed for it and he would be held responsible for the satchel’s fictitious contents, the money he’d never seen with his own eyes.
When Bob insisted on being present for the money exchange the man said that they couldn’t go to his commander then but he had a friend who changed money and they could go to his house which was only a short distance away. Bob handed over $200 and the two of them set off on foot.
Bob agreed to all this because the man had assured him that his friend’s house was only a short distance away. But soon after, he hailed a taxi and bundled Bob inside. Bob’s patience seems miraculous to me but when the taxi driver said that the fare would be 2,000 francs, far more than required for a “short” distance, his patience came to an end. He told the taxi driver to stop. When he didn’t he gave him a smack on the arm and repeated his command. His defensive instincts had kicked in and he began to regret not carrying his combat knife, thinking that the final level of this con might turn out to be a physical assault.
But the taxi driver pulled over and Bob turned to the man in the back and in Bob’s special way told him to hand over the $200 this second or face some rather unpleasant consequences. Bob got his money and emerged 15,000 francs poorer but otherwise intact. He showed me his airport “pass” which the man had given him, a hand written note and scrawled signature on a scrap of paper torn from a notebook.
Between Bob and his mercenary cloak and dagger, Conde’s web of intrigue, and Sundar’s daily battle with extortion at his shop I find myself living in a world of paranoia, suspicion, deceit and half truths an environment I’m not suited for. I imagine everyone on the street is looking at me strangely as Conde’s stories about me circulate. (He has said that if I’m not a spy I at least am writing bad things about Guinea). I’m not comfortable with the hotel staff either since learning that Conde’s brother owns it.
Sundar, though totally straightforward and something of a friend, actually contributes greatly to my unease. This is because he speaks so matter of factly about violence here. I asked him about the downtown part of Conakry, if I might be better off finding a hotel there. He argued against going there not because Taouyah is more interesting or downtown is too busy but because if trouble starts that is where it will begin and since it sits on a narrow peninsula there is nowhere to flee. I asked him yesterday if I could leave a box at his apartment while I travelled around Guinea. He said I could on one condition – that he couldn’t be held responsible if there was full scale war, revolution, a coup, or riots and he was forced to flee. When this happens, he said, he and his brother would run with only the shirts on their backs.
My mind in going over the logistics of cycling north isn’t thinking along these lines at all and after an hour with Sundar and another with Bob I wonder if I’m really as naive as I must appear to them. I chose Guinea as a destination in the full knowledge that there was political tension along the borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia but I have no death wish, no urge to cycle through a war or among rebels.
Sundar speaks so directly and his stories are so extreme that I find myself doubting them. I simply cannot imagine how a small shopkeeper stays in business in the situation he describes with dangers on all sides. But I’ve witnessed it myself. Yesterday two men in ordinary clothes walked in and in clear French said, “Vite! Donnez moi quinze mille francs.” Quick! Give me fifteen thousand francs. There was some discussion, some smiling, Sundar gave them some money (he didn’t say how much) and they went. These were “health inspectors.” Some potato chips were within two weeks of their expiry date, still well within legal limits, but because of this the inspectors were going to return with a truck and clean out the entire stock of the shop and shut him down. Of course, they added, if you bribe us, we won’t do it.
There is no polite charade, no thinly disguised talk of service fees, permits, or even presents. It’s pure extortion. Give us money or we’ll rob you blind. Why? According to Sundar it is because he has no rights here. He is an Indian. They can do what they want to him and he survives on his wits, his charm, his encyclopedic knowledge of the costs of goods, and his precise feel for what the market will bear as a minimum in bribes. Every month these same men return, sometimes every week, and they are just one group on a revolving merry go round of officials practising extortion and blackmail on a regular basis. And to this must be added the individual police and soldiers who walk in expecting free Cokes, yoghurt, or bottles of water every day, nickel and diming him to death. Then there are the thieves with their bags hidden under voluminous lapas, the quick distraction and sleight of hand as goods are shovelled into the bags. And over all this hovers the very real threat of armed robbery (three people only a couple of streets over were killed two days ago in a shop robbery gone bad) and riots in the streets.
Over lunch yesterday in my favorite restaurant run by a Senegalese family I listened in amazement to a BBC story of a riot with many injured that had occurred that very day here in Conakry. At issue was the killing of a wealthy Fulani Muslim cleric. The Fulani closed their shops out of respect and the riot was sparked by anger at some other shops run by non Fulani who did not close their doors. I’d noticed the many closed doors in Taouyah and wondered at them but had no clue as to their significance.
Even having lunch has political overtones. The Sierra Leonian waiter spoke English and I asked him how he was.
“Not as good as you,” he said.
“Not as good as me?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“I am a refugee and you are not.”
Fair enough I thought.