Wednesday, January 10 7:00 p.m.
On the road again, fifty-eight kilometres up the road from Kindia in the small town of Sogueta. There’s no hotel here and I find myself camping out in the dirt lot behind the local hospital. There’s a respectable latrine and a good supply of water right at hand so with my tent, Thermarest, stove, and other technological marvels it’s quite comfortable and far superior to my New Year’s Eve abode in Mambiya. The best thing of all is a ledge running around the back of the main hospital building, a ledge that serves perfectly as a bench with the wall a convenient back rest. The lack of back rests is the one thing that makes camping out uncomfortable. Someone needs to invent a bicycle that converts into a Lazy Boy.
It’s quite private here and I have a nice view of the surrounding countryside where villagers are starting to set fire to the grass. An occasional large blaze develops, lighting up the sky with a roar. I was told at Pastoria that when the burning season really gets under way they’ll get an influx of snakes that the villagers capture when they flee the fires.
How I ended up at the hospital is a story connected with that most mysterious of Guinean creatures, a sous prefect. From the sound of the name alone I’d conclude it was one of Dr. Seuss’s creations, perhaps a tree dwelling toad that tells the time. But in reality a sous prefect is a kind of government official who runs these towns like their own private empires. I don’t know what they do and I don’t think Guineans know either but they do know one thing when a fote, an etranger, lands within a sous prefect’s domain you’ve got to go see him. Literally “see” him. This expression is invariably accompanied by pulling down the lower portion of skin under an eyeball making it large and expressive. “You must go seeeeeee the sous prefect.” The way it’s said makes the sous prefect sound like a local attraction. (While you’re in Toronto you’ve just got to go seeeeeee Niagara Falls.) Either that or they’re warning me he’s a hypnotist of great powers, perhaps the charismatic leader of a local cult. “When you seeeeeee the sous prefect you will come to understand our ways, perhaps join us when the spaceship comes.”
My first encounter with a sous prefect today was not a pleasant one. This was the sous prefect of Kolenten where I’d originally hoped to spend the night. It was a pleasant looking place surrounded by lush bush and just on the far side of a bridge over a largish river. The bridge meant a higher than normal number of soldiers running around but they seemed relaxed.
I pulled my bike up to a small stall and ordered a cafe au lait. I’m starting to get the hang of these small things now and I wasn’t surprised when the owner of the stall asked if I wanted butter or mayonnaise. That was for the bread that always comes with cafe au lait. Nor was I taken aback when he then asked me if I wanted tea or Nescafe. You might think tea is the diametrical opposite of coffee but in Guinea cafe can be either tea or coffee. Once you’ve ordered your coffee you have to confirm you want coffee and not tea.
A circle of men plied me with the usual questions about how one emigrates to Canada. I field these as best I can and even try to get across how they might not find Canada to their liking even if they managed the near impossible and got there. But it’s of little use. They have this idea that when a person arrives in Canada an immigration official greets you with the words, “Welcome to Canada. Here’s your suitcase of money and these are the keys to your new Mercedes.”
While I talked to them I tried to get a feel as to which one might be a good ally in my search for a place to sleep in Kolenten. Once I broached the idea of staying in Kolenten I could easily end up the hospitality prisoner of whoever takes charge of me.
But before I fully committed myself the sous prefect showed up. I disliked him on sight. He swaggered up with an officious manner and a ridiculous hat on his head.
“What is your purpose in Guinea? Where are you from? Where are you going? What is your nationality? Who gave you permission to come here? When did you arrive in Guinea? Give me your documents, papers, and identity cards.”
He was particularly anxious to see some kind of tourism card. Not very wisely I decided to take this guy on and told him that no such card existed or was necessary.
He disagreed and made the fatal mistake of using Canada as an example.
“If I go to Canada with my visa it says I can get on the plane but then I have to get a special card. I can’t go anywhere I want in Canada.”
It was a fatal mistake because it annoyed me to have him throw my own country in my face and of course I could tell him with debate winning finality that if he came to Canada with a proper tourist visa he could indeed go anywhere he wanted, totally at liberty.
This took the wind out of his sails but he still insisted on seeing something. I produced my passport under protest and he sniffed at it.
“Everyone must have one of these. Where is your visa?”
“In the passport,” I said with a hint (well, more than a hint) of derision.
The cafe au lait crowd was very much on my side by this point and the tree toad knew it. He could either up the ante and call in the police or find a face saving way to give in. Luckily for me and my silly confrontational attitude he exclaimed at how my visa was valid for six months and therefore everything was in order and he went away.
The encounter upset me more than it should have probably because I knew it was my own fault and I should have been more diplomatic and I didn’t want to stay in Kolenten anymore. The coffee crowd protested saying, “Ce n’est pas grave. Ce n’est pas grave.” But I got on my bike to ride the twenty kilometres uphill to Sogueta in the full heat of the day. That would be my penance for being an arrogant tourist.
I had plenty of time to think the incident over as I sweated and struggled up the mountains with the sun’s rays washing over me. I realized that what had triggered my hostility was the way in which this sous prefect had ambushed me right in the middle of a glorious cafe au lait chatting with a group of new acquaintances. It had been an immensely pleasurable day of cycling to that point (I joked with myself that I must have greeted a million Guineans since I left Conakry and with only seven million plus Guineans in the whole country I could end up having greeted all of them personally by the time I leave) and I was feeling nothing but a fondness for the country and all my defences were down. Then the tree toad makes an appearance and I’m sucked right back into a Condeesque mood.
But I still have to accept the blame for the encounter going as sour as it did. At the very least I should have tried out my Ontario driver’s licence on him. It looks good and so far others have accepted it as my Guinean ID, my “carte de sejour,” and so why not a tourist card? And had I been thinking I would have fallen back on some very good advice that Ali gave me in Coyah. He said that in Guinea, just like anywhere else in the world, it’s highly improper for officials or police to demand to see passports in the middle of the street. If I can’t get rid of a policeman (or a tree toad) and they persist in being super official then take them up on it. Insist that they take me to the police station. I will produce whatever documents they want but only at the Commissariat. In the case of the tree toad of Kolenten I could have insisted that we go to his office for the discussion and examination of my passport. That way I could have stood on my rights without being rude and I don’t think the tree-toad could have argued against the logic. And the strength of this technique is borne out by my experience with the sous prefect of Sogueta who was as proper, professional, and nice as the tree toad was improper, a buffoon, and unfriendly.
My trip to “seeeeeee” the sous prefect of Sogueta was begun unwillingly. I was hoping to rent a small room privately and quietly but it’s looking quite plain that no one in Guinea will deal with an etranger unless he sees the sous prefect first. The flip side of this annoyance is that once you see the sous prefect and he sees you then almost anything is possible including camping on the hospital grounds, a thing that of course would be unthinkable in Canada no matter who you go to “seeeeeee.”
The sous prefect was a gentle soul, polite, even if he never smiled. I saw him at his office where we first batted “ca vas” back and forth like Agassi and Sampras trading ground strokes.
For reasons of his own he didn’t really want me on his turf and tried to convince me that Linsan, where they had a hotel, wasn’t really that far away. When it came to that suggestion he was talking to a brick wall. Nothing was going to get me back out on those roads in that sun.
By the time he conceded that I really was too tired (and hot and sweaty, not to mention really, really smelly) to continue there were ten people involved in the discussion. One of them was the chief of the gendarmerie and he put it to the sous prefect that before the talk went any further they should establish my bona fides papers, documents, and permits, oh my. The sous prefect won my heart forever when he said in refusal, “Pourquoi creer problemes?” He then said something about tourists and how could it help Guinea to bother them all the time. The rest I couldn’t understand but the way he gestured at me and the bike I’m pretty sure he said something like, “And look at this guy. He can barely walk after cycling up the mountain to get here. How much trouble can he cause on that ridiculous two wheeled contraption out there? Let’s let him camp at the hospital. That way if he has a heart attack the doctors can treat him quickly and maybe he won’t die on us.”
Everybody treated his final speech like the very wisdom of Solomon (who in truth this guy put me in mind of) and I was soon busily putting up my tent and heating up water for hot chocolate.
It’s dark now as I’m putting the final words of the tale of the sous prefect on paper. My candle has almost burned completely down, a full moon has risen, the army ants are starting to mass for another attack, and a group of village women have begun to sing in the distance all omens and signs that it’s time for all idiot cyclists to climb into their tents and pass out cold.