Guinea 029

Monday, January 8 7:23 a.m.

I’m already showered, dressed, and drinking a cup of coffee made on my camp stove in the bathroom. No electricity yet this morning so I’m writing by candlelight. To begin the day so early is not unusual for me here. In fact I was awake much earlier and forced myself to stay in bed. What I do is pull my sleeping bag right over my head and give my body a ten- or twenty-minute superheating in anticipation of the cold water bucket bath. The electricity decides whether I shave or not. If there is electricity (and I have the magic touch to coax the light switch in the bathroom to make contact) I shave. If it’s a candle lit shower and I’m feeling not up to shaving in the gloom, I don’t.

The funeral ceremony was a low key affair but not without its interesting points. At first I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I didn’t see Ashaki, Phd, or Blue Shirt all day and assumed they’d forgotten they’d invited me. But the little brown Mazda with its characteristic rattle pulled up around 1:45. Ashaki, Phd, and Ashaki’s sister climbed out carrying the usual assortment of pots and pans filled with rice and sauces.

“Come, Douglas,” Ashaki called out. “Eat!”

I guessed that the funeral ceremony would involve a huge amount of food and was careful to eat only enough to stem the tide of desperate attempts to refill my bowl. It appeared a good strategy particularly since Ashaki had gone off on an early morning errand to buy a sheep. I asked her if she had found a sheep and she said no, she’d bought a cow instead.

My experience with Guinean food hasn’t been that extensive yet but it hasn’t impressed me. I can’t see returning to Canada and deliberately seeking out a restaurant that serves Guinean food.

And I haven’t quite adjusted to the manner of eating. Both men and women bring a certain zest to the task that takes me by surprise, particularly when they use their hands. I’m accustomed to eating with my hands from time spent in Ethiopia and India but in both those places a type of bread is used to gather up the wetter food and they generally stick to using the ends of fingers. Here it’s a full on assault and the rice is gathered up in the palm of the hand like a child making a snowball or a mud pie. Then it’s more or less crammed into the mouth with great licking of the entire hand from base of the palm to fingertips. No one is shy about spitting either and unwanted food is sent spraying in almost any direction.

I watched in amazement as Ashaki’s well dressed and pretty sister wrapped a long length of meat and gristle around her thumb and fingers (like the opening move of a cat’s cradle design) and then began gnawing and tearing at it. Ashaki is fond of bone and during this meal broke up a large bone and bit off chunks of a dark grey substance (I assume it was marrow), crunched and chewed it up, sucking out the juices and then spit it all out into her hand and on the ground over the plates and cups there.

In the end I may as well have joined in because I’d guessed wrong and there was no food served at the funeral. The only person eating there was an old man obviously suffering from a neurological disorder which caused his limbs to shake uncontrollably. He was also a bit mad and had both arms buried deep into a large plastic bowl filled with rice and other food. He forced this food into his mouth with incredible speed and ended up with dripping rice up to his elbows. He got up, looking for more food and stood over me shaking badly and throwing food all over me like a dog shaking off water. I did my best to pretend nothing was happening and calmly took out some toilet paper and wiped myself off as the embarrassed hosts led him away.

There were a couple hundred people at the sacrifice when we arrived. They were sitting in a large circle around a reed mat. The Imam and his helpers were seated on this mat reading the appropriate passages from the Koran. The men and women held their hands out from their bodies with palms up, as if in supplication, and repeated a short response, a counterpoint to the Imam’s reading.

Crumpled up one hundred-, five hundred-, and one thousand franc notes were thrown out of the crowd and onto the mat, donations to the Imam for his services. The Imam’s helpers gathered up the notes, smoothed them out and organized them into carefully counted and sorted piles. The money was counted and sorted over and over again and this process drew everyone’s eyes including my own. It had the hypnotic effect of watching a Las Vegas croupier stacking chips. The money seemed the point of the gathering and I was mildly surprised when I was handed a printed card showing a photograph of the deceased man. I’d forgotten it was a funeral.

Happily the events did not pass without opportunity for idiots. I watched all this money sailing through the air and wondered if I should crumple up my own notes and throw them over the heads of the crowd and onto the mat. Or would that be acceptable coming from an outsider? I dithered for a long time till I began to wonder if people were looking at the fote and thinking he was a cheap bugger. This suspicion seemed correct when I suddenly found one of the Imam’s helpers standing directly in front of me and looking very annoyed. He locked eyes with me and then held out his hand, rubbing thumb and index finger together in the universal sign for money.

He was quite rude but I thought I’d better give him some money. He had a bullhorn in his other hand and I was afraid if I didn’t cough up some cash he was going to flick it on and tell everyone what he thought of me.

I took out a thousand franc note and handed it to the man. But instead of throwing it on the mat he neatly tucked it in his pocket. Phd was with me and I asked him about this odd behavior. Phd laughed and explained. The man wasn’t one of the Imam’s helpers. He was a griot, a beggar, essentially just some guy who wanted some money.

The bullhorn should have tipped me off since I’d had the exact same experience in Coyah at the ceremonies to mark the end of Ramadan. It’s ironic that both my encounters with these griots occurred at solemn events where it wasn’t possible for them to sing, what these griots normally do, hence the bullhorn. Someday I’ll have to meet them under normal circumstances so they can sing my praises and I can get some value out of my donations.

 

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