Tuesday, January 16 2:41 a.m.
I was having trouble sleeping and decided to get up and have one of the world’s best cheese sandwiches. It’s very good. Unfortunately most of the mosquitoes in Mamou have decided to join me. They’re the small, soundless ones with the really savage bites. Their anti coagulant produces a much stronger allergic reaction than that of the big hairy mosquitoes. I’m surprised to see them because I didn’t notice any mozzies beating against my mosquito net. They appear only when I’m sitting at the table.
I spent a very pleasant and domestic day and night in Mamou highlighted by a two minute birthday call to my father, a trip to the market, a spaghetti lunch cooked on my stove, and a wonderful home cooked meal with the Forest family, Baptist missionaries living in a large house three kilometres up the road to Labe.
I met Tom Forest at the phone company. He dropped in there periodically to try and pay his phone bill without much success. I hesitantly said “bon soir.” He, as hesitantly, said “bon soir” back. (I’d guessed before he even opened his mouth that he wasn’t French and his accent confirmed it but in the way we anglophones have didn’t dare presume and speak English first.)
Tom was tall, bearded, casually dressed (complete with straw hat), and chatted amiably with the phone company people in Fular, the local language. I would have said he was Peace Corps except for his age which I put at mid to late thirties.
I was eager to talk with Tom (not having had contact with a real English speaker for a month) and was pleased to find that his basic nature was friendly and helpful. He offered to wait while I placed the call to my father in case I needed help.
I wrote the phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to the woman at the desk. She had three telephones on the desk in front of her and started to dial on one of them. It was all wonderfully low key and a moment later I was directed to Booth 2 and told to pick up the receiver.
I hadn’t really expected to find a place to phone my father on his birthday and I didn’t really think it would work but to my surprise I heard his voice on the other end of the line. If I was surprised, he was astonished. The line was clear but a time delay and a pronounced echo on my father’s end made talking a challenge, but we managed.
Luckily I’d said the magic words ‘happy birthday’ right at the beginning because after two minutes the line suddenly went dead and that was it. The line to Conakry was cut and my call couldn’t be placed again. Tom said I was lucky that I’d gotten through at all.
We chatted outside beside Tom’s big and white 4X4. I hoped Tom would have some time to sit down somewhere and talk for a while. He did me one better and invited me out to his house for dinner that evening. I got his directions all wrong and might never have found his house except he mentioned that they’d just put a new thatch roof on the playhouse he’d built for his three children. I turned left at the rusted “Memphis” sign three kilometres from the carrefoure (one direction takes you to Labe, the other to Faranah) and found myself in a tiny suburb of large walled in homes. But in the midst of all that concrete and galvanized tin there was one tiny thatch roof, the grass still shiny and neatly layered in the traditional Fular fashion. That had to be the Forest home.
The wall around the house was high and bristled with glass shards. At the steel gate I saw a large flat doorbell button. I didn’t imagine it would work but like the entire complex it seemed brand new and I pushed it. You never know. But nothing happened and I hesitantly pulled the door open and stuck my head through. As Tom had warned me to expect I was looking at a tiny piece of America with Guinean overtones.
Two blonde haired young boys were chasing each other around the playset with the new roof. There was a small basketball court beside that, a gravel driveway with the 4X4, a large house with a high balcony across the front, and guarding it all, Brownie, the family dog.
Feeling very strange I asked the boys if their father was home. They said he was and kept on with their games. Brownie kept barking. I pushed open the gate and rolled my bike through, hoping I wasn’t being presumptuous and making a terrible faux pax. When Tom had proffered his invitation it was more in the manner of giving me his home phone number. But having no easy access to a phone and knowing my time in Mamou was limited (and being starved for conversation) I was the one who had suggested that very day for my visit. I could tell that Tom was one of those people you might describe as being “too nice,” someone that people might take advantage of and I didn’t want to do that.
Brownie kept his distance despite my friendly overtures (the youngest boy later said that Brownie was probably frightened by my big black watch) and kept up her barking till Tom came out to see what was going on. He approached me with a big smile and an outstretched hand and I immediately felt welcome.
Inside, the house was reassuringly familiar. There was a set of couches and chairs in the living room. The shelves overflowed with books, videotapes, music cassettes, and children’s toys. In the hallway was a set of shelves piled with family games like Yahtzee. Everywhere was evidence of the variety of interests in their lives from hobbies to previous travels. On a table was a cage containing the newest additions to the family zoo two bright green birds who entertained us by dangling from the wire roof by their beaks and then upside down by one foot. They swung back and forth like feathered clappers in a bell.
The oldest boy, Case, told me that they’d gotten the birds just the other night. A local Guinean had appeared at the gate with them. Case wanted to tell me all the family anecdotes and described how after they’d purchased them they’d realized that one of them didn’t have a tail. I looked and sure enough the more active of the two was waddling around without a tail. Its backside just ended in a strange rounded shape that put me in mind of a penguin. I’m sure this species is that way naturally but Case told me how his mother made a joke by stomping around saying they’d bought a bird without a tail and should get their money back.
The kitchen and bathroom were both fully modern with running water and propane powered appliances. They had a generator back up for electricity and all the other dozens and hundreds of things that in the US and Canada are considered part of a normal life, everything from a home computer to a nice globe.
I reflected on how this “normal” family life was so incredibly unusual in this place. I’d only been in Guinea just over a month but I could feel my mind reacting to it all like a dehydrated body sensing water. My eyes roved among the bookshelves drinking it all in and the possibilities of knowledge and experience and sensation and the outside world. I kept myself reined in (I think) but if Tom and his pretty and pleasant wife Amy had left me alone for a while I’d have had to rummage through it all flipping through the books and listening to what music they had. The image that came to mind was the one I’d seen in many movies where the successful thieves take out all the money they’d stolen and roll around in it and throw it in the air. If Tom and Amy left they’d come back to find me rolling around on the floor covered in books and tapes and things. “Look at all this stuff!” I’d giggle, intoxicated by it all. My strong reaction was particularly amusing to me because this was after all the family of a Baptist missionary and the books and music reflected that. They were heavily sanitized and wholesome and family oriented. I wouldn’t find any rock and roll on those shelves or any of my favorite books or movies. But to a mind that literally hadn’t seen a bookshelf let alone a book in English for over a month it was heady stuff. I lusted after the copy of “Roots” I saw placed by itself, high on a cabinet out of reach of the curious fingers of young children.
My wide eyed sense of wonder continued throughout the meal that Amy prepared baked potatoes, broccoli with cheddar cheese, stuffed green peppers, and for dessert, brownies. All so terribly, terribly normal but for me at this time so wonderful and fun. I’d already said a few strange things to Tom and Amy, things that probably made them wonder what kind of loon they’d invited into their home, so I resisted the impulse to convey any of these impressions to them but I almost lost it when it came to preparing my baked potato. The tinfoil struck me as wonderfully shiny and crinkly. The jar of sour cream was an emissary from another world. And what can be said about bacon bits? It’s right there in the name: bacon bits. It’s no wonder I run into trouble communicating with people in Guinea. I come from a world where we sprinkle bacon bits on our baked potatoes.
Tom and Amy had been here for a year and a half. They knew no French at all when they came and hadn’t learned any since arriving choosing instead to invest their energy into learning Fula (or Pulaar). They had a regular teacher who came every other day and now they could speak basic Fula quite well. Tom enjoyed the notoriety of speaking Fula but no French. This went down quite well with the Fula people who live in this part of Guinea.
Christians are thin on the ground in Guinea, particularly in the Fouta Djalon and Tom finds himself working very closely with the other missionaries of whatever denomination in Guinea. There were three other missionary families right in the same neighborhood and the conversation was filled with references to “the Peppers,” “the Dobs,” and the other family (whose name I didn’t catch). They all had young children and they were being homeschooled together by an American woman named Marie who had come over for just that purpose. Marie showed up part way through our meal carrying a tupperware dish of homemade biscuits. That and the neighbourly comments about the Peppers and the Dobs and their weekly get togethers made it difficult to believe I was still in Africa. A quick glance around me soon changed that, however. In clear view from the verandah where we were eating were some foothills of the Fouta Djalon, beautiful hills dotted with picturesque thatch roofed huts. Off to the left was a craggy cliff and as the sun went down grass fires became visible here and there.
Tom and I compared notes on the usual experiences of a “porto” in Guinea. (Foreigners or ‘white men’ were known as fote’s in Susu, the language of Conakry and the coast. But in Fula, the language of Mamou and the Fouta Djalon, foreigners were known as porto’s. As I approached Mamou the cries of “Ah fote” began to diminish and be replaced by “porto”. It doesn’t really sound anything like it but I can’t help but hear the name of a Musketeer and assume an appropriate swashbuckling stance.) He talked about half hearted attempts at shakedowns at barrages. As a missionary and needing the good will of the local people he always tried to do what he calls “the right thing.” The few times he really was technically in the wrong (like forgetting to bring his driver’s license) he agreed with the gendarmes that he was in the wrong and would pay the fine but only at the commissariat or other appropriate place. The gendarmes were helpless in the face of his total honesty and genuine friendliness and always told him to move on.
His oldest son Case responded to my “Land of La bas” story with one of their own that had passed into family legend. On an outing a Guinean had offered to show them the way to a local attraction, a stone bridge. “How far was it?” they wanted to know. “Only four minutes away,” their helpful guide told them. Forty-five minutes later they were still walking. Now on any longer journey someone in the Forest family always pipes up and asks, “Is it four minutes yet?”
Case was also full of stories of their encounters in small villages around the mountains. In one village they were given what he called “a big’ol rooster.” This rooster, he said, was the loudest rooster he’d ever heard and it crowed at 3:00 every morning. It had a very short stay in the Forest family zoo and ended up in the cooking pot.
I could have stayed for hours and kept talking and listening to their stories (I was particularly interested in how they dealt with their Guinean neighbors and demands on their time, privacy, possessions, and money) but it was getting dark and I could sense that the routine of putting the Forest family children to bed had to be gotten under way. It was time for the porto who’d invited himself to dinner to make his exit.
I turned on my flashing rear light and my headlight and bumped down the rocky sideroad to the main road back to Mamou. It was now very dark and I had to stay sharp to avoid pedestrians who appeared out of nowhere. Traffic wasn’t a problem since there essentially was none but these people on foot apparently felt rather invincible because they walked down the sides and middle of the road without a care in the world. I avoided collisions only by matching their chameleon like gait and straining my eyes to the limit.