Guinea 033

Friday, January 12 8:15 a.m.

The plan was to spend only one night in Linsan and cycle to Mamou today but the plan has changed. “J’ai beaucoup de temps” has become my motto repeated over and over again to Guineans querying me about my slow moving bicycle. And with lots of time on my hands I might as well stay in Linsan a day and see what develops.

Part of the reason I was going to spend only one night here was that very little developed after my arrival yesterday. That’s part of the penalty of happening on a luxurious place like the Hotel Mariador. It’s very comfortable but it also keeps Guinea outside. I’m ensconced in my bungalow drinking my hot chocolate, completely content but completely isolated. Of course it’s possible to leave the hotel grounds and go into Linsan proper, which I did, but a different psychology descends on you even in a very short time in a hotel like this and when I emerged and found myself on the busy streets, surrounded by people for all of whom I was the temporary center of attention I wasn’t comfortable. The urge was to buy a loaf of bread, some condensed milk, and scurry back to my haven. I fought off the fight or flight instinct long enough to cycle all the way through Linsan and out the other side and even take a longish detour up a hill on a sideroad but I never quite relaxed and never had that magical encounter that opens up the town and makes it real (as happened with Ali in Coyah, Blue Shirt in Kindia and yes, even Conde in Conakry).

I stopped for a plate of rice with what I was told was manioc sauce (it tasted like peanut butter), chatted with a fellow fussing over a flat tire on his bicycle, exchanged greetings by the dozen, and even dawdled near some men in uniform hoping for a spark, an omen that I should stay in Linsan, but my aura was contaminated by the mood of the Mariador. “Keep away,” it said. “Don’t bother me. I’m not from your world.”

The only person who overcame that aura or perhaps didn’t notice it at all was a young woman who was herself not entirely at home in Linsan. She came pounding up behind me in blue jeans and running shoes, very eager to talk to me. At first I didn’t realize how eager. We foundered on the language barrier and the fact that for me it wasn’t the first time a person had run after me on the street. I chatted my way through the pleasantries and then disengaged myself and cycled away.

It took me a few minutes but it finally dawned on me that there was something unusual about that encounter. Sure, people had run after me before but never a woman and certainly never a woman in blue jeans, running shoes, and baseball cap. I began to think that perhaps it was the omen I was looking for. I was almost sure of it when a few minutes later upon cycling up to the large and new looking “Le Sannou Restaurant and Dancing Bar” Blue Jeans came out to greet me. The restaurant she said had been built by her big brother who was the director of some large importing concern in Conakry.

She invited me in to have a look around and I got the grand tour of yet another Guinean establishment with the look of a ghost town. She pointed out the restaurant a closed up, dirty, and dark room with chairs and tables piled helter skelter. She directed my attention to three separate roofed structures each labelled with the name of one of Linsan’s quartiers. Under each was another pile of unused tables and chairs. There were sets of dirty chairs around the walls and fading murals painted here and there.

I had cycled up to this place originally hoping to get a cold beer and a place to sit down. Now that I was inside I couldn’t tell if it was open or closed. Like everything I’d seen in Guinea I couldn’t quite place it. I couldn’t tell if it was a once thriving business now shut down or a brand new one that never really quite opened or something else altogether. It existed in a kind of limbo and none of the normal cues I might use had any meaning here. Probably the only way I could judge these places (and Guinea itself) is if I had seen them in an earlier time. That was the problem. I had no frame of reference. Was Guinea always like this? Is this normal? Or has there been a tremendous change in Guinea’s fortunes recently? And how recently? I asked people these kinds of questions but the answers I got weren’t helpful.

Blue Jeans talked as if Guinea had just recently fallen on hard times. She said that for a long time Guinea and the Ivory Coast were stable and prosperous while all around them was trouble, “la rebellion.” And now, she said, look at the Ivory Coast. An attempted coup d’etat two days ago, rioting and looting in the streets. And look at Guinea. Look at the restaurant. No clients. Everyone was afraid.

“Afraid?” I asked.

Of the rebellion, she said.

She went on to admire my courage in cycling in the middle of a rebellion. (Unfortunately she couldn’t be more specific than that and didn’t leave me any the wiser about what was really going on politically in Guinea.)

Most of the time we talked about her and the reasons why she had felt compelled to talk to me. She saw herself as different, an outsider, and saw foreigners like myself, also outsiders, as kindred spirits. She liked to wear jeans, thought they were comfortable. But her family disapproved. She hadn’t married yet, preferring her freedom and independence. Her family felt she should have married long ago. She smoked and her family disapproved of that. She had a friend in Montreal and wanted to go live there. Failing that she was going to join the army. She was tired of being pushed around by men in uniforms. If there was going to be pushing going on she wanted to be the one doing it.

 

Friday, January 12 3:00 p.m.

I stopped at Le Sannou this morning on my way into Linsan for my cafe au lait. Blue Jeans was going to show me some rooms they had there which went for 10,000/night, with self bargaining perhaps 7,000. If this were true I was going to move from the Mariador. Le Sannou, though not really “open for business” as I understood the concept would be a more interesting place to stay since like the Marianne in Coyah it was, in the absence of paying guests, being taken over by family. And at 7,000/night I might be enticed to stay in Linsan longer.

Blue Jeans appeared still sleep rumpled with her baseball cap firmly in place. She moved in the now familiar Guinea shuffle, a slow pace that made me want to goose her along.

The rooms I saw (after the usual confusion surrounding keys and who had them) were not too many steps above prison level but were more than adequate. The price though had somehow jumped to 15,000 and no one showed the least bit of desire to rent me one. I told them I would stay at the Mariador and that meant I would be in Linsan for only one more night.

Blue Jeans gave me directions to a place where someone she knew made a good cafe au lait and she would come after her “toilette” and take me on a tour of Linsan. I went to the wrong place but she found me and asked if I wanted to go to a baptism.

We walked through a small market (big market day is Sunday) and down some paths into a neighborhood of houses and huts. A large crowd was gathered outside one house and when we approached I was greeted by thunderous applause. Well, maybe not thunderous but when three grown men, total strangers, suddenly leap to their feet when you arrive and start clapping and shouting for joy like it was the second coming, it feels thunderous.

They were griots of course and Blue Jeans slipped one of them 500 francs. He held it up in the air and the three of them danced around shouting for joy and exclaiming at the generous gift.

We made our way through the crowd and into the house shaking hands non stop. In the bedroom the chair of honor was produced and as Blue Jeans talked to the women assembled there I had a chance to look around. What struck me were the literally hundreds of pots of various sizes piled one atop the other in cabinets, on shelves, and over the floor. They will forever remain a mystery because Blue Jeans couldn’t understand why so many pots struck me as so unusual. I was left with the idea that her aunt, whose house it was, just liked pots.

Blue Jeans fussed around over by the bed and then before I knew what was going on I had the week old infant in my arms. It’s strange but not only can’t I remember the last time I had a baby in my arms I’m not quite sure that I’ve ever held one. To think I had to come to Linsan in Guinea for that experience.

Luckily the kid was relaxed and not bothered in the least by my strange face suddenly appearing in his universe. “Welcome to the world, kid,” I said into his burbling face. “Welcome to Guinea. I hope things work out for you.”

With that heartfelt benediction I handed the child back to his mother and attacked the plate of rice and soured milk that was the family’s gift to me on the day of their child’s baptism. It was the custom for the family to prepare food for all their friends and family on this day. It was a sacrifice to honor the new baby.

I was embarrassed, as I usually am, to see how much my presence meant to this family. They were genuinely honoured to have me there and I felt ashamed because I felt an imposter. I’m just this dumb white guy on a bike. I had no real reason to be there and to have intruded on their lives. How I looked to them and who they thought I was I can never know but it’s clear they saw me as something more than what I am.

Once outside I was reassured as absurdity took its accustomed place on my shoulders and nestled up close. A female griot with a bullhorn had arrived. She put it to her mouth and started to shout or sing in my face. The sound was deafening and not even remotely pleasant. I don’t know out of what historical tradition these griots came but as Blue Jeans explained they’ve evolved into a kind of low-level extortion. They will stand there and make this horrible noise until you pay them to shut up and go away.

At a nearby mosque Blue Jeans urged me to take a picture. I’m still extremely reluctant to take out my camera in Guinea despite enjoying photography. But with her encouragement I started to frame up a shot of the mosque with its towers. I was looking through the viewfinder composing the shot when in the lower left hand corner appeared something that made my heart sink. A man in uniform. Of course. Where do these guys come from? They appear like magic as if there is a system of trap doors and tunnels throughout the whole country allowing them to pop up whenever you least want them around. And they’re always the captain of the local gendarmes, always rude, always angry, and always full of rhetorical nonsense questions that can’t be answered. This one was no exception.

He marched straight up to me and demanded to know what I thought I was doing.

I bit back the sarcastic answers that came to mind and said I was taking a picture for a souvenir, for my mother back in Canada. (I’d used this story before with positive results.)

Who gave me permission? Under whose authority was I doing this? And come to that, who are you? Who gave you permission to exist? Who said you could breathe our air? And so on.

The encounter annoyed me particularly coming just minutes after the baptism. I find it difficult to reconcile the open friendliness of the average Guinean with the obtuse hostility of the authorities. These MIU’s (Men In Uniform) are desperate to enforce regulations but without any clue as to what those regulations are. They’re mindless authority looking for a reason to exist.

In this case the situation was defused because Blue Jeans said I was taking the photo under her authority. She had given me permission.

The mind reels but the captain of the local gendarmes accepted this. First I’ve got hotel owners dictating policy to sous prefects. Now the captain of the gendarmes is accepting the authority of a girl in blue jeans. Forget fancy letters with seals and stamps. Forget permits and papers and documents. Just get a young girl in blue jeans to ride shotgun and the police and army will run for cover.

I suspect it had something to do with the twisted attitude towards “etrangers” that Guineans have. It’s why I was still carrying around a slimy banana peel from an hour and a half earlier. I’d been walking amongst mountains of garbage all morning but didn’t dare throw the banana peel away. I was afraid I’d be arrested for littering. Blue Jeans and any other Guinean could toss it anywhere they pleased but as Sundar explained in Conakry that didn’t mean I could. I was in Guinea on their sufferance and this sufferance often took on strange and ill informed shapes.

Taking advantage of Blue Jean’s presence I got her to accompany me on a short walk around some of the back areas of Linsan. We walked past the ruins of the Linsan train station. She pointed it out to me as a remnant of the “epoque colonial.” I’d have loved to take a photo of this wonderful ruin but was thoroughly spooked and didn’t dare take out my camera. Who cares that a train hadn’t pulled up here in decades? A train station it can be argued is essential to national security. And let’s not forget the strategic manioc field off to the right. Enemy forces would pay large sums for the secret of Guinean manioc which, incidentally, I was munching on in its raw state for the first time in my life. (“It’s good for this,” said Blue Shirt while grabbing his crotch.)

About this point things started to get weird with Blue Jeans. At first I thought I was imagining it (maybe it was the effect of the manioc?) but it was soon clear she was trying to hold my hand as we walked. Without the language skills to get out of that situation with dignity I was reduced to keeping my hands firmly in my pockets and elbows tight against my sides as I danced around and put obstacles between me and her.

This strategy worked for a while, even through a market lunch of riz sauce served up by one of her many friends. But I found I had no ready response to her sudden declaration of love.

“Je t’aime,” she said. “Je t’aime.”

I sputtered and made a fool of myself in French (all the while thinking fondly of all the witty and sensitive things I could say in English). Finally I spoke the one language I know very well that of movement. I cycled away. Poetry in motion.

 

Friday, January 12 9:17 p.m.

I had my goodbye beer with Blue Jeans in the company of two young men, both of whom spoke some English. The one wearing a USA shirt was from Liberia but had been living in Guinea for 12 years. His name, he said, was Johnson. The one wearing a New York Yankees cap was a Guinean born and bred. The two of them teamed up with Blue Jeans to pour into my ears such a torrent of negativity about West Africa that it made me want to run screaming for the airport.

“It’s hard. It’s very hard,” Johnson said over and over again as he thought of his many years as a refugee. At one point he’d had identity papers provided by UN personnel at a refugee camp. But when sentiment in Guinea began to turn against the refugees he tore up his papers hoping to pass as a Guinean. He told me how when Guinean President Lansana Conte made the famous speech that sparked widespread attacks against Liberians and Sierra Leonians living in Guinea he made a run for Conakry not feeling safe in the countryside. He had his paltry savings of 30,000 FG with him. At Trente Six (the checkpoint thirty-six kilometres outside of Conakry) the police interrogated him harshly in a small room, lifted his 30,000 francs, and let him go. Now he was living without papers in a country not his own at the mercy of every passing MIU.

“It’s hard. It’s very hard.”

He and Yankee Cap both worked for a road construction company. Sometimes they didn’t get paid for months and then only a fraction of what they’d been promised. Each man in the payroll distribution chain pocketed some of their pay and they got only what was left at the end.

“What do you do about it?” I asked.

“What can we do? We complain and they say ‘Fuck you. If you don’t want this job go away.'”

“What about the police?”

“We go to the police,” said Johnson. “They say they know nothing, see nothing.”

“It’s hard.”

Yankee Cap used to work for various foreign owned companies for good salaries. He mentioned a Brazilian and an Italian company. But there it was the same. The fote would pay full wages to the Guinean in charge of payroll but this man would take his cut, the man below him his cut and so on till Yankee Cap got nothing.

“My parents tell me I should get married, get les enfants,” spit out Yankee Cap, “but how can I get married? I have nothing. I have nothing for a wife.”

The dream of both Johnson and Yankee Cap, as it was of most Guineans, was to get out of Guinea and go to the United States. Johnson had a sister living in Philadelphia. She was established there with a husband and four children. Many Guineans had close relatives living overseas but no one ever mentioned them helping out and I always wondered about this. I asked Johnson if his sister couldn’t help him and he explained, quite sheepishly, that she used to but not anymore.

What happened was that over the years the family had asked her for help, had in fact pulled all kinds of scams till the sister had gotten fed up and cut them off. Johnson related how once she was told that a family member needed to come to the US for a medical procedure that was unavailable in Guinea. The sister sent a plane ticket and the family had tried to cash it in.

The prejudice against their own race shown by both Johnson and Yankee Cap was extraordinary. “Don’t trust black men,” they told me. “The black is not just skin it goes right to the heart.” When they wanted to describe a man they thought particularly bad they called him simply a “black man.” A man even worse was “too black.” The worst of all was “all black.” And it didn’t even matter they said if a black man did come into some money.

“They are like children,” said Yankee Cap. “They get the money but they don’t know what to do with it. They eat and drink till it is gone.”

“Yes,” chimed in Johnson. “They eat the money.”

And black women. Don’t trust them they told me. They tell you this, they tell you that, but they will always betray you.

This was said at a time when Blue Jeans had left us alone. She’d said that instead of going to Mamou the next morning I could stay in one of the rooms at Le Sannou and it would cost nothing.

Johnson and Yankee Cap while translating this proposal were all in favor of it. They said that Saturday night was a big night at Le Sannou. There would be dancing and music all night. We could see each other again. And Sunday I could go to Mamou. This was ideal, they said, because Blue Jeans already had a “program” to go to Mamou on Monday and she could show me all the sights there. It was perfect.

But when Blue Jeans left us they did an immediate about face and essentially told me to run, run fast and far. Black women, they said, are bad. They will betray you. They will get you into a room and when you are making love the police will arrive. “What are you doing here?” the police will say. “This is very bad.” And it will cost a lot of money. A lot of money.

 

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