Friday, December 22 9:00 a.m.
I seem to have been unusually lucky in terms of the police. I’ve ridden my bike all over Conakry and haven’t been stopped once by anyone for an ID check or bribe scam. Angie was very surprised to hear this. She won’t even go to the Madina market because she is harassed every time and counts herself lucky to get away with paying 10,000 francs. She said that if you are the policeman’s sixth or seventh victim of the day you are lucky and could placate him with 5,000 francs. But if you are his first of the day, then heaven help you.
The police have a particular Catch 22 that they like to use on Sierra Leonians like Angie. First they ask for her visa papers and when she produces them they always claim this or that is wrong with them. But if she then produces a card that identifies her as something of a landed immigrant, a Guinean, (she is not a refugee but a businesswoman) this is worse because it is an act of treason for a non Guinean to pose as a Guinean. That all of this is nonsense makes no difference and she has to pay every time.
Angie believes it is my bicycle that protects me. The police assume I’ve been here a long time and look for easier prey. We shall see if my bike continues to protect me when I run the gauntlet of police checkpoints leaving Conakry, about which I’ve heard many horror stories.
I went to the local cinema yesterday afternoon with a thirty year old Sierra Leonian refugee named Guzman. I’d met him on the street previously and we’d arranged to go together. The cinema plays two movies a day, one around 3:00 and another around 7:00. No one knows exactly what time a movie will start nor can say with certainty what movie will be playing but it doesn’t matter. The atmosphere is more of a social gathering than a reverent movie watching experience. People come and go at will, running up and down the aisles shouting alternately at their friends and the screen.
One thing I’ve noticed is that they like their movies simple, good against evil, and they have a profound feeling for justice. Watching a murder mystery on TV with Angie and Sundar the other night, Angie leaned towards the TV screen absolutely outraged that it looked like the murderess was going to get away with it. When the tables were finally turned and the hero started to get the upper hand she started screaming “Oui! Oui! Oui!” at the action. She was personally fulfilled and happy when the murderess took a bullet to the chest. “Oui,” she said and smacked the table with the palm of her hand.
The movie Guzman and I saw was a two-and-a-half-hour Indian film with a never ending series of bad guys getting their just deserts. The cornier and more over the top the scene the happier the crowd was. The moment the bad guys seemed to be getting away with their crimes and betrayals they became very upset. There was all this energy just under the surface looking for an outlet. When the projector malfunctioned and split the screen in two they didn’t give the projectionist even a second’s grace but began shouting and stamping their feet and making that horrible kissing/sucking sound. It had little to do with how the split screen affected movie quality. The print was extremely old and so badly scratched the pictures barely showed through at all. What could be seen all looked like it was happening in a torrential downpour. And the sound was so distorted and the film itself so horribly spliced and cut that it made little sense at times. The hero would be battling four men singlehanded then suddenly courting the heroine on a motorboat then as suddenly racing through the docks on a motorbike. None of this bothered the audience nor caused any discontented noise. But since the split screen was something that could be fixed by the projectionist who presumably was not doing his job the crowd instantly started calling for blood. There were so many things they could do nothing about that when faced with something they could influence they instantly swung into action.
Guzman had been worried that an Indian film would not be to my taste. But when it was over he turned to me to say that we were lucky that this particular Indian film was of such high quality. Most weren’t this good apparently. What seemed to win the audience over was the next to last scene when the hero’s crippled best friend suddenly returned by motorboat to save the day. He drove the boat with one hand while firing a heavy machine gun with the other.
I’ve been spending more time each day with the family that runs La Vina Angie, her Mammy, and the man who I’ve learned is her father, Papa. Angie continues to dance. In fact she never seems to stop and remains painfully cheerful even in the face of a total lack of customers. They’re sure that business will pick up once Ramadan ends though they can’t really be sure of that. They’ve only been open for business for two months and one of those months so far has been Ramadan.
Papa marvels at how hard Mammy works and how much she loves running restaurants. (They had three of them in Freetown.) He jokes that she could have saved him a lot of trouble and money if she’d told him this before he paid for her masters degree in mathematics. He himself has a Phd in economics from an American univeristy and personifies the exact type of person you’d expect an economist to be careful, cautious, and methodical to a fault. He believes strongly in moderation in all things. When he and his wife arrived in the United States he noticed instantly how university students dressed and marched straight to the thrift store for complete outfits. He didn’t wear a collared shirt once till the day he defended his thesis. In the ten years he spent in the United States he went to two movies An Officer and a Gentleman and Terminator 2. And he went to a night club twice simply so he’d know what it was all about. The movies impressed him in how efficiently and smoothly the theatres were operated.
Perhaps Angie is the way she is as a reaction to her father’s faultless control. She can’t sit still and shimmies and shakes all over the compound to her favorite tapes from all over Africa. I enjoy them for a short time but then the incessant fast beat which makes my legs jiggle uncontrollably starts to get to me. I yearn for a change of pace and wish when the tape ended she wasn’t so quick to rush inside and put on another.
She, Mammy, and I sat around an outside table for some time last night. I’d just returned from having dinner in a tiny place near the market and Angie demanded to know why I didn’t take my meals in her restaurant. It’s odd but I’m embarrassed to make claims of economy (though it’s the truth a substantial local meal costs 1,000 francs while a less filling meal at La Vina could run as much as ten or twenty thousand francs which I can’t afford). There is so much mythology surrounding the wealth of white men that I’m always caught living in a way I can’t explain. It’s doubly strange when many of the people I speak with have far more money than I do, which isn’t hard since I basically have none.
Angie demanded to know what I had eaten. I described the meal as best I could. It was a plate of small grained red rice with a variety of condiments on its edges with a hunk of chicken in the middle. Angie hooted in derision. At a cost of 1,000 francs, she said, there is no way it was chicken. She and Mammy then teased me for fifteen minutes about all the things I’d probably had for dinner. Rat or cobra were Angie’s choices. Bat, monkey, or maybe puppy dog, countered Mammy.
In the teasing department they had an advantage over me because they could trade jests in their native Kriol, a Sierra Leonian pidgin English that was maddeningly beyond my comprehension. I could hear English words from time to time but the way they were strung together and the rhythm of it was totally beyond me. I should ask Angie to write down one or two simple sentences in Kriol so I can get an idea of what it looks like.
Ever since Angie spoke to me about the air conditioner and the high cost of electricity I’ve been very careful. I run it for only twenty to thirty minutes a day in ten minute bursts when I want to get to sleep. It’s meant that I haven’t been able to spend any time in my room except to sleep at night but that’s worked out well. Plus it’s forced me to adjust more to the heat and the past few nights I’ve been able to sleep despite the heat. I’ve actually been sleeping too much and I’ve been dreaming deeply. In all the dreams I’m somewhere else and each morning I’ve woken with the same disorientation, wondering where I could possibly be.
Papa finally explained why their electricity bill is so much higher than anybody else’s. It dates back to the day he signed the lease on the restaurant. Almost immediately authorities from the power company descended and “discovered” an illegal meter by pass in the electrical wiring. Papa could honestly say he knew nothing about it, refused to pay the “fines” and asked that they remove the bypass and reconnect the meter. His philosophy in such things is simple. He wants everything honest and aboveboard.
The hydro men went way nonplussed by an honest man. But they missed their regular kickback and returned a week later wanting to reinstall the bypass in exchange for bribes. Papa sent them packing and instituted the regime of electrical economy that now prevails. It’s just my luck to stay with the last honest man in Guinea, the only one in the country perhaps who pays metered rates. What interests me is the real cost of the electricity. Somebody has to pay for it. As an economist Papa might know the answer.
I tracked down Bob today. It was the first time I’d had a chance to talk to him in several days. I rescued him from yet another John monologue which apparently goes on non stop. I don’t think I’d be telling tales out of school if I say that Bob has just about had it with John’s manner of speaking. Bob is not one to avoid an unpleasant situation and has told John exactly what he felt. They’ve had words but John is John. The forces driving him are too powerful, too elemental, to be stopped or even slowed. He simply can’t change.
Their task of securing a contract for their mercenary services from the Guinean government is not looking hopeful. They’ve had an endless series of meetings with various government officials who talk of huge possibilities and then work for two hours to secure from John a “cadeaux” of 5,000 or 10,000 francs for taxi fare or gas or a sick mother or any one of a thousand other things. John is at the end of his patience and his normally direct manner of speech has become vitriolic. Guinea now ranks in his mind as the armpit of the universe and he can’t help himself but quiz me each time about what on earth could have induced me to come to such an awful place for a cycling holiday.
At the center of the web of conspiracies surrounding John and Bob is of course Conde the trap door spider. I had hopes that Conde had forgotten about me since I finally handed over my cadeaux but it seems he hasn’t. Just this morning he gave Bob an envelope to give to me. Inside the envelope was an official looking letter from the Ministry of Tourism giving me clearance to travel in the coastal and Fouta Djalon areas. On the outside of the envelope was Conde’s handwritten price 52,800 francs.
It was again a neat piece of work by Conde. It cost him nothing and by giving it to Bob to give to me he felt sure I’d at least end up with it in my possession. If he’d approached me personally I’d simply refuse to take it. But since Bob had it what could I do but take it? I didn’t feel right leaving it in his hands and putting Bob squarely in the middle again. And once it was in my hands it would be my responsibility to get it back to him. If I didn’t I would feel responsible for the fictional 52,800 franc price.
The letter also contained his trademark carrot and stick. The carrot is the slight chance that perhaps this letter was legit and would in fact open doors for me and pave the way. The chances of that were remote but the doubt was there particularly considering the current political tension.
The stick is the threat of Conde taking action to ensure I can’t leave Conakry. The signature and seal on the letter were not Conde’s but of some senior official. Conde could then (if he ever tracks me down) use this official’s name to browbeat me further and convince me that my movements in Guinea really are at his pleasure. And of course no matter what else happens there will come the day when I fly out and will be on his turf and it’s likely that could be a difficult and expensive day. I comfort myself by reflecting that flying out is going to be tough no matter what. And there is no guarantee that playing Conde’s games now will mean he’ll help me out then. In fact the opposite is likely true. If he gets money out of me now it only means he’ll try to get more out of me later.
In the end, after talking it over with Bob, I handed him back the letter. He will tell Conde the truth that I didn’t ask for such a letter, don’t believe such a letter is necessary or would be helpful, and finally if I was crazy enough to hand over 52,800 francs for a piece of paper meant to get me through police and military roadblocks that I’d certainly want my correct name on it. For whatever reason I’d ended up as IVAN John DOUGLAS in the letter. Wrong on several counts. And the letter spoke only of the Fouta Djalon and the coast and said nothing about Haute Guinee and Guinee Forestiere, the two regions where such a letter might prove helpful.
I am the first client at the movie theatre and I have the whole place to myself. I’m early but that’s okay. It’s a touch air conditioned inside and a nice quiet place to sit. Even after a week and a half the streets outside can be intimidating especially in the dark. There are no streetlights and I have to step carefully to get through the obstacle courses. When a car appears I am temporarily blinded and then nearly walk off the street edge or into a person in the dark. Bob instinctively uses some mercenary trick to protect his night vision but I don’t know what it is.
Many of the shops close up after dark and about half of the stalls around the market are gone but still I’m gently teased and joshed as I walk, on top of the usual cries from the taxi drivers. Where the cinema is located is also where the mini vans load up with passengers. A popular destination is the Madina and the touts cry “Madina! Madina!” My ears hear “Marina” and I imagine everyone rushing off to spend a relaxing evening aboard their yachts.
Sundar advised me strongly against going to a movie at night. He says that the audience is full of drug addicts and drug dealers and thieves and I’d be sure to get in trouble or at least annoyed by the people smoking and talking. For Sundar it makes sense to be cautious and not go out at night. He would just be asking for trouble and this is his life he’s talking about. For me it’s just a game, a travel game.
That’s not to say I don’t take precautions in my own way. I’m carrying only my passport and what few thousand francs I need for the movie. Even if robbed I can lose very little. And if the police stop me on the way home when the streets are empty they too can make off with only a little booty.
Besides that I always carry a flashlight of some kind. Tonight I’ve got both my key ring light plus the headlight from my bicycle which fits smoothly into my pocket and is powerful enough to light up the whole street.
I also walk with care, always aware of my surroundings. It’s possible I’m being overly cautious because I was quite jumpy as I made my way through the market. I was thinking of the lecture Sundar would surely give me if he knew I’d not only gone to the cinema at night but alone when I nearly jumped out of my shoes. A young boy had come up beside me and held out his forearm around which was coiled a thick bodied and colorful snake. He had the jaws of the snake open between thumb and fingers and jabbed its exposed fangs at my arm. He meant to startle me and succeeded probably beyond his wildest imaginings.
I’ve made a friend at the cinema. He was outside sweeping the pavement when I came earlier to see what was playing and at what time. We had the usual circular conversation but I eventually gathered the movie, an action film starring Jon Voit, would start at 9:30. I didn’t believe him and came earlier which is how I ended up sitting here in the dark scribbling in my notebook. The sweeper was here again and he walked me into the cinema talking about how good this movie was. I got the impression that he was going to come sit with me when the movie started and chase away all the smokers who might disturb me. I think the movie has been dubbed into French so even if he does join me and talks a mile a minute it won’t bother me.