Sunday, January 7 8:45 a.m.
I’ve been in Kindia nearly a week now and it’s starting to feel like time to move on. But not today. Today I’ve been invited to a kind of memorial service for Ashaki’s uncle. He died forty days ago and the entire family and many friends have been arriving all weekend for the service or “sacrifice” as Phd has been calling it. At the very least I’ll get a look at another Imam.
I learned about the memorial service last night when Ashaki opened the car door and in her usual peremptory fashion said, “Come Douglas.” I don’t even try and ask questions anymore but obediently trot up and climb into my appointed seat in the back. It always works out in my favor anyway. Like Ali, Ashaki, Blue Shirt, Phd, and the rest of her team seem to understand instinctively that I’m curious about all the day-to-day events of life in Guinea. Even a quick drive to the Elf gas station to buy three litres of gas is fun and teaches me new things (gas is tinted pink and costs 1600 francs/litre and no one ever says the French equivalent of “fill’er up” it’s too expensive).
After getting gas we bumped off down a side road I hadn’t gone down before. Phd was forced to pay attention here because most of the pavement had fallen away leaving only a narrow rough path. A wheel dropped off the edge would either have broken us in half or left us stranded, perched on the car’s undercarriage. The Mazda’s suspension was only a dim memory of happier days and when Phd faced obstacles like the railroad tracks he inched over them so slowly that pedestrians passed us, watching in amusement.
Phd told me the name of the quartier through which we were driving (which I promptly forgot) and said it was Kindia’s uptown. It struck me as a lively residential district (once we got through an old age home for buses) and I was pleased to be out there in the after dark hours to witness the activity.
We pulled up in front of a house that belonged to yet another branch of Ashaki’s family. The sacrifice was to happen here and already a formidable array of women in bright cloth sat in a line along the ledge and steps at the front of the house. Ashaki moved me down the line shaking hands. The first time you meet a person in Guinea you shake their hand in a special way. First there’s a normal clasp of hands. But then you disengage and clasp hands upwards in that classic ‘street’ way (as if you’re going to arm wrestle). And finally you return to the original handshake. I still can’t take it seriously. It feels too much like the secret handshake of a group of teenagers. To move down a line of matriarchs in the dark, shaking hands in this fashion was more than comical, lacking only a few finger snaps and a “what’s happening cool cats?” to descend into bad 70’s television.
The chair of honor was produced and the fote was placed by himself off to one side as if directing the scene. The first child overcame his shyness and came up for his handshake. His success opened the floodgates and I shook and “high fived” and “low fived” dozens of tiny little hands that emerged out of the darkness till Phd came over and rescued me.
“That is a good question,” he said when I asked him about how he’d met and courted Ashaki. I assumed it had to be an interesting story since the two of them represented very unique cases. Phd was in fact the holder of the only Phd in International Law in Guinea and Ashaki with her Master’s in Geography and position as a university professor also came from a small and select group.
I was surprised to learn that they’d been married for only six months (they were both in their late thirties). They’d been introduced by the wife of one of Ashaki’s brothers. Phd said their courtship had followed the usual pattern except that they’d gone to France together to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium.
Phd went on to talk about his ten years in Geneva studying and working. During that time he’d managed to fit in trips to all the great cities of Europe. But ironically the place that made the greatest impression on him was not in Europe at all but in the United States New York, the city that never sleeps. He’d gone there recently for a six month program of English study (the reason we could communicate at all) and could confirm that it really was a twenty-four hour a day place. Any time day or night there were stores open, places to go, and people on the street.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his experiences in other lands Phd had a profound feeling for his home country of Guinea. He was passionate about wanting to make things better for the average Guinean and, more interesting to me, he had a fine appreciation for what was already very good about Guinea. He didn’t have to look very far to find examples of what he was talking about. It was all around us in the intense social life of the neighborhood, in the dozens of food stalls, in the children playing with ingenious homemade toys, and most of all in the surging, babbling, bickering, hand shaking, and laughing family that surrounded Ashaki, all of it lit up by the flickering light of kerosene lamps.
I knew the idea was beyond my ability to express in French or his to understand in English but I wondered if he realized that success in achieving his dreams of economic progress for Guinea would likely mean destroying what he loved so much.
This idea was clear even in my own experiences and feelings. The lack of water, electricity, roads, working vehicles and on and on is what threw people together in so many mad jumbles. We ate together from communal pots in the dark courtyard, piled seven and eight into a car built for four, gathered by the dozens on streets and in restaurants to watch the Sunday afternoon soccer game on the one available TV because we had no choice. And the strong family connections were there out of economic necessity. No one can survive on their own here.
It’s simplistic to the extreme but the comparison with times of emergency in Canada is apt. One minute everyone is inside in their houses watching their individual TV’s. Then the power goes out. If it stays out people go outside to see what’s going on. They talk to their neighbors, sometimes for the first time in weeks, and exchange stories. And my time in these broken down hotels in Guinea is very like camping trips in Canada. Staying clean is a struggle, for me impossible. Getting water involves wells and buckets. Light is from candles. It’s endlessly frustrating and difficult but in the end the day has been richer and more interesting.
Not that I would willingly make the switch. I grew up in a place where things work, choices are possible and individual desires paramount. No matter how long I lived in a place like Guinea I could never quite shake the feeling that things weren’t right. When switches are flipped, lights should go on. When keys turned, engines should run. When new movies come out they should be in the theatre for me to see. That’s normal for me.
For Phd I assume that deep down despite his time in Europe and the United States the almost total lack of infrastructure in Guinea is still normal. At some psychological level these things wouldn’t bother him as much and he can see past them and truly appreciate the flip side of the coin, the richness and natural variety of life here.
And if it came to a debate of the issue I’m not sure I could hold my own. By being here in Guinea I’m likely going to miss the theatrical release of Jurassic Park 3 but I don’t think I could successfully argue my quality of life will therefore drop significantly.