Saturday, December 30 8:00 a.m.
I came across Ali around 6:30 last night sitting in the chair of honor in the semi dark outside his house. He said that he had fallen sick to his stomach and so hadn’t been able to have dinner with me. It was a particularly believable tale because I had just spent much of the day myself trapped near a toilet. We “back ate” and decided that our first meal together, the horrible beefsteak, was the culprit. That he was sicker than I made sense to Ali because he had eaten more than I. The steak had proven too tough for my poor teeth but Ali had practically inhaled his and much of mine.
I put myself back on Sundar’s patented diet of plain rice and bananas. No yoghurt this time because I haven’t been able to find any in Coyah. (I went up to two stores that had giant yoghurt signs but they looked at me like I was mad.) Bananas luckily are easy to find. Practically every yard has a banana tree and as the bunches ripen they are placed by the road for sale at around one hundred francs each.
In Conakry even the innocent banana had become a victim of the climate of suspicion. Papa explained that many poor Conakry residents had nurtured with love and expectation a big bunch of bananas only to have it stolen the very day before they were deemed ripe enough to eat. There was just such a bunch in the yard of La Vina and it was causing much anxiety. La Vina was enclosed by a high wall but this particular bunch was hanging right next to the wall and an agile and prepared thief could just manage to get at it. Papa had charged the night watchman with extra vigilance and looked with suspicion at anyone casting coveting eyes on his bananas.
My annoyance with Ali vanished as I knew it would in the face of his irrepressible energy and the way the life of the neighborhood flowed through him and therefore around me. One of the first visitors was a pleasant man said to be the best tailor in Coyah.
Ali gave him an encapsulated version of my history and when he learned I was a tourist he shook my hand and, as many people have done, told me in French “to have courage.” When I first heard it I thought people were reacting to my choice of the bicycle as transportation, complimenting me on my courage. But according to Ali they were literally telling me to have courage, to take heart, to buck up. Not because of the bicycle but because of how tough they perceived life in Guinea to be.
“In Africa we have everything bad,” said Ali. “Every disease we have. Hunger we have. It is so bad they tell you to have courage because you will need it.”
Another man clearly didn’t believe my tourism story. He joshed and cajoled Ali, telling me through him that I could tell him why I was really here.
“Come on,” he seemed to be saying. “You can trust me. What’s your real purpose in coming to Guinea?”
He wasn’t suspicious of my motives. In fact he admired my prudence and elaborate cover story. He wanted to know what I was really doing here (gold? diamonds?) so that he could get in on it. He said he had some money and contacts in Conakry and would be a good partner. He eventually gave up but with a look meant to tell me that Ali might have swallowed my story but I wasn’t about to pull the wool over his eyes.
Happily not all of the visitors were concerned solely with money (and using me as a springboard to Canadian citizenship). In fact one woman hadn’t come to see me at all. She descended on Ali like an aging fury. She had a lot to say and Ali took on the air of a magistrate, chin on hand, listening carefully and judiciously.
The problem was a marriage dispute and the Fury had come to ask Ali to intervene on her behalf and talk some sense into her blockheaded husband. They had a daughter that no one wanted to marry. This unwed daughter had already had two children and it was beginning to be a problem. But now a man had said he wanted her for his wife. (Ali’s actual translation was ‘housewife’ which put me more in mind of a servant than a wife.) The Fury’s husband had clapped the suitor on the shoulder, shook his hand, welcomed him to the family and was ready to have the ceremony then and there. The Fury clearly felt they shouldn’t be hasty and that the proper forms should be attended to. But her stubborn husband wouldn’t listen to reason. Maybe he would listen to Ali?
I didn’t learn all this till later and at first was convinced that the subject of the Fury’s tirade was me. Indeed she pointed at me several times and I clearly heard the word “fote” or “white person”. My fevered imagination went over the last couple of days trying to place her and remember how I might have offended her. There wasn’t much point to that because by inadvertent acts of omission and commission I could have offended everyone in Coyah as far as I knew. I was relieved to learn the true story when Ali translated (when I heard “fote” she was actually saying “Fode,” the prospective groom’s name) and chastised myself once again for letting the paranoia of being in a foreign country get the upper hand.
Saturday, December 30 1:30 p.m.
Ali’s suggestion for today was to rent a bicycle for him and the two of us would cycle into the countryside south of Coyah with our destination the village of Wonkifong. I was to come to his house at 9:00 to see if he was successful in locating a bicycle but at 8:00 this morning he was pounding on my door to show off his bike. It was a relatively new bike (at least it still had plastic wrapping around the frame tubes) and seemed up to a short trip despite some serious wobbling in both rear and front tires.
Ali turned out to be a pretty serious rider and drove himself hard till the sweat poured off his face. I tried in vain to get him out of “Tour de France” mode and ultimately let him go on ahead as I dawdled. The few times I drew up even to chat only made him go faster.
The road network off the main road was far more extensive and in much better condition than I expected. The roads weren’t paved but they were wide and smooth and inviting. Only when we reached Wonkifong was there anything like a hill and Ali attacked it with a vengeance, standing up on the pedals and building up speed on his approach. He made it a short distance then fell over. He turned to see how I would fare and I had the satisfaction of seeing his jaw drop as in granny gear I stayed in the saddle and cruised up at a stately five km/hr without any effort at all. He finally began to believe that I might be able to manage the Fouta Djalon mountains after all. I’d tried to tell him that the roads here in Guinea (at least so far) were practically superhighways compared to those I’d cycled in the mountains of Ethiopia but this offended his sense of how bad off Guinea was, a fact he and others I’ve met seem almost proud of.
The land through which we cycled didn’t appear to be farmed in any intensive or organized way though to a casual observer it looked very fertile. The individual houses were for the most part built of homemade mud brick with thatch roofs. Not having seen the inside of one of these houses yet I asked Ali if inside they were divided up into rooms. He said some were but they often enough just build another smaller house for their children.
Ali had billed Wonkifong as a small traditional village and I expected simple thatch-roofed huts and lots of animals and tiny fields of different crops. But it turned out to be a bustling little place, essentially a mini Coyah. On the outskirts was hidden a giant communications center. Ali said it was placed there to keep it secret from rebel groups. A nice fantasy but I suspect its position near Conakry and raised up on a hill was simply for good reception.
When we returned to Coyah I announced to Ali my intention to leave the next morning. He escorted me over to the police station to let the authorities know I was leaving. Everyone believes this checking in and checking out is very important but somehow it’s never gelled into any kind of coherent policy or system. The police we approached (sitting under a shade tree playing a large board game) looked up dumbly and it took a long time for Ali’s story to sink in. He kept hammering away at the existence of the ledger, the big black book that had been used to sign me in. We moved into the station, the ledger was produced, and page by page they began to flip through it looking for my entry. In the absence of any kind of system any and all police business was written in this one book. Some entries were in point form, others in long hand. Lines were drawn erratically between them to divide up the page into squares. My original entry was finally found but that didn’t solve the problem of what to do now nor the problem of the lack of a pen. I solved the pen problem by lending mine. The problem of what to do was solved by an upward spiral of rank. As the crowd and debate grew, officers of higher rank would appear to see what was going on. They would take the pen, sit in front of the ledger, and try to make sense of the story. Inevitably just as they appeared to be grasping the idea an officer of higher rank would appear and the cycle begin all over again.
When we reached what appeared to be the highest ranking officer he solved the problem with an elegance that everyone admired.
“When are you leaving Coyah?” he asked through Ali.
“Around 8:00 tomorrow morning,” I replied.
“Good,” he said while handing back my pen. “Come back tomorrow at 8:00.”
On our way out we were trailed by one of the rank and file who made noises about my giving him some money. Ali tossed off some comment about tomorrow, that he would get his graft tomorrow. I wished he hadn’t done that and I wished it again when later on in the afternoon the same gendarme tracked me down on the street. He was quite belligerent and played with his gun while staring at me through mirrored sunglasses.
“Why didn’t you give me something?” he demanded in French. “Give me something now.”
He said a lot more that I couldn’t understand but I gathered it was more of Conde’s carrot and stick I am your friend and can help you but if you don’t give me something maybe some other gendarme on the road won’t let you pass.
I’m surprised at how strongly I react to these situations. I find the entire business repugnant and offensive. It’s demeaning and insulting both for the police and their victims. This particular gendarme came across on the one hand as a grovelling dog, a whining beggar, and on the other hand as a repulsive bully. But worst of all is the total naturalness of it, the way it is accepted as a part of life. To me it isn’t a part of life at all. Such corruption tears at the very heart of society. Authority figures, those in uniforms carrying guns, are the final stop for the values of a society. If they cannot be trusted, if they have no professionalism, I can’t see any hope.
I hated myself for it but once more I hid behind a wall of incomprehension. I pretended we were not talking about extortion and shook his hand and smiled and talked about leaving Coyah tomorrow on my bicycle.
I wonder if I will ever become accustomed to it or will this continue to throw a negative mood over my entire time in Guinea? I know I should compartmentalize separate the good from the bad but I’ve never been good at that.