Thursday, December 28 8:10 a.m.
Waiting for Ali to show up or not last night I listened to the BBC and there were two reports on Guinea. One story reported that ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) had decided to send 1500 peacekeeping troops and monitors to patrol the borders between Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The language was ominous saying that it was an attempt to intervene as “Guinea was being sucked into the violence that had engulfed Sierra Leone and Liberia during the last ten years.”
Much of the situation is still unclear to me. Most of the concern is over the cross border incursions by rebels from Sierra Leone and Liberia. These 1500 troops are intended to halt these or at least reduce the number of attacks. But what has never been clear to me is the purpose of these attacks, the goal of the rebels. I have heard exotic phrases like “destabilize the government in Guinea” but such phrases always seem vague to me. Why would these particular men wish to do that? And more to the point I have to believe that the goals of the individual rebel fighters have to be more concrete than that. I can’t see them sacking a poor Guinean village with the cry “destabilize the government” on their lips. The idea of say, carrying off some sacks of rice and some livestock would be more to the point. At a higher level of organization (at the level of funding for example they have to buy their guns from somebody) I can believe more complex reasoning but here too I haven’t heard any sound economic reasons for the rebel activity.
More confusing is this man Foufana. He appears to be the most immediate and active threat (it was his army that recently emptied Kissidougou and Faranah and caused tens of thousands of refugees to suddenly go ‘missing’) but he himself has spoken several times and at length to make it clear he was Guinean and his army made up of Guineans. Yet in these BBC reports he is never spoken of separately, indeed at all.
The second BBC report was related and concerned a group of thirteen hundred volunteer fighters made up mainly of local hunters. One thousand of them had come from the Forest Region and the remaining three hundred from the town of Forecariah. The story goes that these hunters have supernatural powers and are invulnerable to bullets they simply bounce off their chests. The three hundred hunters recruited from Forecariah were particularly powerful and had recently gone in the lead of a detachment of Guinean regular soldiers during a rebel attack. The rebels were stunned to see their bullets bounce off the hunters and when the hunters returned fire they killed dozens of rebels. Most amazing of all according to the BBC reporter’s source (a soldier who purportedly had taken part in this engagement) the leader of these volunteer hunters was a woman.
When Ali arrived I asked him what he thought of this last story. That the government is recruiting local volunteers is true, he said. Guinea is divided into thirty-three prefectures (thirty-four including Conakry) and the mayor of each prefecture has been charged with producing three hundred men and providing for their food and pay. (They’re volunteer in the sense that the central government is not paying them each prefecture is ‘volunteering’ their services.) The central government will provide them with guns and regular soldiers for training.
But when I mentioned the supernatural powers of the volunteers from Forecariah he laughed. This was only publicity, a media story to make the Guinean people feel good and take heart.
Thursday, December 28 12:30 p.m.
The moon had already set by the time of our trip to see the Imam but Ali assured me that he’d seen the moon with his own eyes, everybody had, and Ramadan really was over. If I needed any more proof I got it throughout the early hours of the morning as music broke out all over Coyah. These were the ‘griots’ or singing beggars. They wandered the streets with drums and traditional instruments and sometimes megaphones and would sing the praises of anyone they met, making up outrageous lies about how wonderful, wise, and great the person was in exchange for a small present of one hundred francs.
There was other music, fantastic rhythms of drumming that had to be amplified, perhaps coming from right here in the Marianne. I couldn’t be sure. I lay in bed half asleep listening to the drums and another wind instrument which made a sound like an Australian didgeridoo that seemed to come from the other side of the walls. I wasn’t awake enough to think I should go investigate and simply incorporated it all into my dreams.
Ali had explained to me that everyone in Coyah would make their way to the soccer fields for prayer at 10 a.m. on Ramadan Day and we arranged to meet at the gates of the main soccer pitch where the largest gathering would take place. He was adamant that I should take my camera. Everyone would be dressed in their new clothes and the children would be washed to a brilliant shine.
“So many things to see!” he assured me. “So much that will be exciting!”
I woke up early and had my cafe au lait at the place “where all the tourists go.” Around 9:00 the old man who ran it bustled up to say that it was time to go pray and he was going to leave me. I looked up and saw crowds of people surging past in what in Canada would be called their “Sunday best.” I went outside and joined the crowds.
The people went in different directions but I followed the largest group towards the hospital and then to the right up a long sloping hill. The sun was barely out but the sweat began to roll off my forehead and into my eyes. I looked with sympathy at the two people pushing a young woman in one of the three wheeled bicycle style wheelchairs.
The road levelled out at a set of gates leading into an immense area of soccer fields and basketball courts. A couple thousand people were already assembled with hundreds more arriving every minute. The women were in a group at the back and the men at the front.
I was early and stood to one side outside the gates enjoying the spectacle of the people. It was foreign, yet familiar, somewhat like Christmas. The children clumped past in brand new shoes, most several sizes too big to give them room to grow. Many of the clothes had creases across the chest betraying that just that morning they’d been unfolded new from their packaging. Many wore brightly colored sunglasses in the shape of stars or hearts.
The men and women were resplendent in bright new clothing, hurrying up with prayer mats under their arms. The rich arrived late in their big white 4X4’s and drove right onto the field, the wheels spraying up dirt and stone as they gunned the engine to climb the sharp incline right at the gate. One driver was less skilled than the others and outraged some spectators by getting stuck and showering the beggars assembled there with sand and stone.
Considering the size of the assembly (climbing up into several thousand) I was surprised at the relatively few beggars. I counted only six at the gate. And I was surprised at the nearly total lack of food and drink sellers. I had expected a market of sorts to spring up as people took advantage of the presence of such a large crowd. But there was only one girl and she was only selling bags of cold water. And while I watched she had no customers at all.
I noticed a quickening of the people and a sudden buzz of activity from inside. Ali hadn’t shown up yet but considering his record I figured I’d better go inside. Even in that crowd he’d have no trouble picking me out if he showed up. The field was wide and featureless, offering no place for me to fade into the background and be an unobtrusive spectator. I walked to the edge of the men’s section and claimed a spot on the back corner of a cement basketball court. I did not have a prayer mat but many other people didn’t either. I noticed that everyone had taken off their shoes and I did as well. When the prayers began and everyone began the ritual of pressing their forehead to the ground I had no choice but to follow suit. It was that or stand out like a sole poplar tree standing in the center of a wheat field.
The ceremony was surprisingly brief and in the middle of it while we were left sitting comfortably on our knees Ali suddenly appeared at my side. He inquired anxiously after my camera and when I produced it he disappeared into the crowd to take pictures for me.
Without fanfare the prayers were over and the people began to file out. My hand was shook a thousand times and everyone wanted to know if I had prayed. I said yes, thinking that was what they wanted to hear and assuming that pressing my forehead to the earth qualified even if I didn’t know the words. This pleased them and my hand was shook a thousand times more.
I committed a few faux pas, in particular not recognizing for a time that the women who surrounded me were griots and expected a small gift. They were dressed to my eyes as well as anyone else and this led to my not knowing they were beggars.
They actually said, “Nous sommes griots,” but it was the first time I’d heard the word and didn’t know what it meant. It was Ali’s son, Junior, who clued me into what was going on.
When Ali returned he was pleased as punch. He’d shot thirty pictures including the head Imam intoning prayers and a group portrait of the fifteen soldiers bristling with guns who watched over the ceremony.
“You can frighten your mother,” he said. “You can tell her that even when they pray in Guinea they have soldiers and guns.”
Ali walked with me back to Coyah proper. I was introduced to dozens of new people I haven’t a hope of remembering. One stop we made was of particular note because the household was obviously one of the richest in Coyah. It even had its own private mosque built especially for the patriarch’s aging mother who could not walk more than a few steps at a time and couldn’t go to a town mosque.
We sat with a pair of imposing women to whom Ali imparted my pedigree. A table was laid and rice with a delicious meat and potato sauce was produced for Ali, Junior, and myself. I had to endure the usual badgering to heap my spoon higher and higher. One woman argued I should set aside the spoon and eat the traditional Guinean way, with my hand. After all, three times as much food can be placed in a hand at once as opposed to a spoon.
I was pacing myself because as I understood it I was invited to Ali’s house for a Ramadan Day feast. I did not want to insult Aisha by being unable to eat when we got there.
I needn’t have worried because afterwards Ali said I would eat with them that evening, not just yet. Another of those bits of information that would have been nice to know in advance.
We zigzagged through Coyah shaking hands and spreading “ca vas” and “bon fetes” like a farmer spreading seed. I met the hereditary chief who I learned is different from the mayor (who is elected locally) who in turn is different from the sous prefect (a government official appointed from Conakry). The distribution of power and responsibility amongst them and then between them and the Imams would likely take months to figure out, if in fact it could ever be understood. I suspect that there is lots of grey area between them and a great deal of apportioning of power is done in a process and a case by case basis.
In many ways Ali is the perfect guide/host/friend to a wayward fote (white man) like myself. He’s teaching me much about Coyah and Guinea and then he abruptly disappears for great lengths of time, leaving me on my own to rest and gather my resources for the next lesson. Today, after our surprise lunch and Coyah mini tour, he shook my hand and popped into his little house like a rabbit disappearing into his hole. At four or five he said he would send for me and we will eat together with his family.
The Marianne Hotel is also something of an ideal place for me. It’s in the heart of Coyah and yet on a quiet sandy lane. It is a hotel but not really. It’s a hotel long past its prime, a hotel slowly collapsing in on itself. This room, Room 8, is the last little piece holding on by its fingernails to its hotel identity. All the rest has been taken over by the family and has dissolved into a shapeless, formless mass. In Room 8 I can claim my anonymity and privacy. Just outside is the hopelessly muddled (to my eyes) family life which takes the cold edge off my anonymous life. A foot in and a foot out, just as I like it.
Thursday, December 28 7:30 p.m.
The near euphoric mood of the morning dissipated, dwindled, then vanished, victim of Africa time. Ali, needless to say, did not show up. I was waiting at four, then five, finally six and by six fifteen hunger pangs drove me outside to seek food. I chose a direction that took me past Ali’s home thinking to salvage the evening or perhaps even my opinion of him. But his house was closed up, dark, no member of his family to be seen anywhere.
It’s a puzzle to me. There was no mistaking the arrangement. Ali mentioned several times how Aisha was at his home busy preparing a special meal for me. This was the reason given why she did not come to prayers in the morning.
But it’s difficult to stay annoyed at Ali. He has the mentality of a child and seems intensely aware of something when it is directly in front of him but quickly forgets it when it’s out of view. I was wondering a little about him today as he flitted from person to person like a butterfly visiting flowers. I wondered if in the eyes of the other Guineans he wasn’t considered a little unstable, just a touch mad.