Guinea 042

Thursday, January 25 6:00 a.m.

It must be the nature of the hotel and room but Ditinn feels colder to me than Dalaba. That’s strange though since Ditinn is 600 meters lower than Dalaba and doesn’t sit in a valley. Of course it could also be because I’m taking cold water bucket baths at 5:30 in the morning (by candlelight and standing barefoot on a gravel floor).

There’s no good reason to be up so early. It just suits the days in a place like Ditinn with no electricity and not very much to entice me to stay up late. I could have joined whoever was sitting around in the local watering hole but I haven’t gotten good vibes from all the men in the courtyard of this hotel and in Ditinn in general who seem to have nothing better to do than lounge around. So instead I went to sleep fairly early and found myself wide awake at 4:00 a.m. I was amused that just at the moment I stood naked with the first cup of cold water poised over my body the Muslim call to prayer rang out. It gave the shock of the cold water a ritual feeling. One morning I’ll have to seek out the man who does the prayers. I hear it every single morning wherever I am but still know nothing about the custom. I don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about it. I’m particularly curious about how he knows it’s time to begin the prayers. I assume he has a watch but how does he wake up? An alarm clock? Or does he have an internal body alarm like mothers seem to develop? And after the prayers does he go back to sleep? Does he ever sleep in and miss them? I wonder if sometimes he grumbles and moans, doesn’t want to get out of his warm bed. Perhaps he leaves the window open and simply stays in bed, calling out the prayers to the ceiling.


I was all prepared yesterday morning to ride my bike to the local waterfalls (“C’est tres touristique,” the sous-prefect told me) when the motorbike brother knocked on my door. It took some time to cut through the language barrier but within a few minutes I was sitting on the back of his Yamaha 125, waterfall bound. We stopped on the way out at the local gas station (a small stall with exactly eight litres of gas in glass bottles). Nearly half of his stock went into our tank and we set off.

We followed the main road back towards Dalaba but turned left at a dairy plant. I could have cycled that road and the distance easily but there was no way to know the route. I’d have had to stop and ask for directions a hundred times. The sous-prefect the day before hadn’t been much help. When I asked where the falls were he pointed and said, “la-bas.”

We paralleled a ridge of high cliffs moving towards a point where they intersected another ridge moving at almost right angles. It makes sense that a waterfall 80 meters high would have to be in those cliffs but I see that in hindsight. On my own I’d still be out there looking.

The road ended near a river and Motorcycle Brother locked up the front wheel of the Yamaha and hired a group of kids to keep an eye on it. He said that there was an organized gang of kids who preyed on tourists who visited the falls. They’d descend on any untended vehicle and strip it bare. It occurred to me that in this sparsely populated area such a thing could not go unnoticed and it’s sure the gang of kids guarding the bike knew the gang of kids who wanted to strip it. They were probably all one and the same.

On the way there we’d picked up another person, a young man on a bicycle. Motorcycle Brother stopped to talk to him on the road and next I knew he was roaring along behind us, his feet turning the pedals like mad. At first I was annoyed. He appeared to be a self-appointed MIU who was going to force his presence on us and then demand money for non-existent permits and photo rights. I had this idea all the way on our 2-3 km hike down a footpath when the road ended. I had Motorcycle Brother in front of me and the MIU behind me. I felt like a prisoner being marched to execution.

The falls themselves were your basic falls. If you stumbled on them by accident on a bike they’d be cool But to make a journey specifically to see them, marching lock stepped with two warders is a bit much and by the time we arrived I was rebelling in small ways by taking different routes over the boulders and then not taking the pictures they expected me to.

I found out later my annoyance at the MIU was wasted energy. Motorcycle Brother had actually hired him for 500 FG to come with us. The idea was for him to protect the motorbike. (This made sense but it was strange then that he hadn’t stayed with the Yamaha but had come with us all the way to the Falls.)

Back in Ditinn we stopped at Motorcycle Brother’s brother’s house to pick up a bag of potatoes and onions before driving out into the countryside to visit his mother. I was very excited about this excursion not having seen much of village life in Guinea.

We followed the dirt road that continued on to Fougoumba but soon turned onto a bewildering set of footpaths that criss crossed over the hot and scorched land. I was thinking how awful it would be to live out here. The land was flat and dry and almost featureless. There was nothing for the eyes and mind to seize on. How can anyone survive let alone live out here, I wondered. I was even more startled when Motorcycle Brother told me that his 87 year old mother preferred it out here. He had offered to set her up in Dalaba but she didn’t want to leave the village, the place where Motorcycle Brother had been born.

We parked the Yamaha outside a stick and stone fence and climbed over it into a large field. On the left was a tree spreading broad leafy branches. Motorcycle Brother pointed out the straw underneath and explained how cool and relaxing it was under that tree out of the hot sun. I had a flash picture of him as a boy playing there with all his brothers and sisters.

We climbed over a second stick and stone wall into a meticulously clean and comfortable courtyard. A rectangular mud-walled house sat on one side surrounded by a collection of thatch-roofed huts. One of the huts was where his mother still liked to sleep. Another was the kitchen. The others were for the goats, chickens, and sheep that roamed around everywhere. Three or four trees grew in the space inbetween creating delicious islands of cool shade.

It was an abrupt lesson in how false first impressions can be. Just passing by this sun scorched plain I’d think it a horrible place, an impossible place to live. But stop, take a closer look and little secrets are revealed. And this was the dry season. Who knew what transformations the rains would bring, what sudden growth would emerge, how lush and green these brown fields would become? I began to see why Motorcycle Brother’s mother might be comfortable here, preferring it to the relatively bright lights of Dalaba.

Meeting his mother, indeed his whole family, was an emotional event for them and me. His sisters and aunts and uncles came pouring out towards us, hugging Motorcycle Brother and greeting me with long handshakes and huge smiles. His mother sat in the shade against the house and was thrown into delightful confusion by our arrival.

She was a tiny thing with barely the strength to stand up but she held my hand with a powerful grip. She laughed and cried, quite overwhelmed and held tight to my hand as she used my arm to pull herself up. She continued to speak in Fula, making little cries the whole time. Motorcycle Brother said that she was happy to meet me, really happy. It took a long time (and the intervention of Motorcycle Brother’s sisters) to get her to relinquish my hand and calm down.

Motorcycle Brother and I sat in a couple of chairs that were placed under a tree and sampled a sweet manioc pudding, some cooked manioc, and some oranges. The chickens crowded around my feet darting at any bits of food that fell to the ground. They pecked at my legs as if telling me I should spill more food. Occasionally one would rush in and seize something out of my hand or off my spoon.

But the real stars of the show were the goats. They were very tame and friendly and came right up to me like dogs looking for a handout. They were particularly interested in the orange peel and pulp which we tore up and fed to them. I felt like Dr. Dolittle with all their bright eyes focused on me and the tiny jaws and tongues of the goats smacking away on the oranges. They seemed to like it when I held the orange peel and they could seize it and shake their heads back and forth tearing off bite sized chunks.

(Before Guinea I’d never thought about goats very much but here they’re a part of life and I see them in an entirely new light, as intelligent and interesting animals. Several days ago on the road just before Kolenten I stopped to watch a goat put the finishing touches on the total destruction of an orchard of young trees. As I watched, the goat walked up to one of the last remaining saplings, glanced at the luscious green leaves just out of reach, then put his front hooves on the tree and began walking upwards. The weight of his body bent the sapling down and snapped the trunk and he happily began eating the leaves. Behind him I saw that nearly every tree had been subjected to the same treatment. What impressed me most was that the goat hadn’t gone from tree to tree in a random fashion but had moved in straight lines, methodically working his way through the orchard. This way he wouldn’t miss even a single tree.)

The whole family walked us back to the Yamaha and waved us on our way. I had a glow all over my body from meeting Motorcycle Brother’s mother, his family, and menagerie and so it came as quite a surprise when back at the hotel it was clear that Motorcycle Brother sat waiting for some cash, waiting for his payoff.

I wasn’t sure what to do. The waterfall trip had been his idea, not mine. He’d practically forced it on me (and I’d paid for the gas). And of course paying him for introducing me to his mother was an abhorrent idea. But there is something in this culture, some different perspective on money, something to do with gift giving perhaps, that doesn’t exclude payment from friendship.

I knew it was hopeless but I asked Motorcycle Brother about this. Had he brought me to the waterfall as a guide or a friend? Was I expected to pay him and if so, how much?

His answer was predictable but not helpful. He said that I could give him whatever I wished. “Comme tu veux.” In the end I gave him 5,000 FG. He was happy and instantly left. I saw him later in the afternoon and he said he would drop by my room in the evening. I reflected that I didn’t know how to feel about that. What if he did show up and we sat around talking? In tone it would be no different than the morning we’d spent together as friends. Would I be expected to pay him again? A friend with a built in parking meter? Where do you draw the line?



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