Tuesday, February 6 8:00 a.m.
My second chicken was even more minimalist than the first. This one didn’t even come with a tomato. Just a knock on the door and a big white platter with a whole chicken planted in the middle of it. My first chicken came after a physically hard day and so I enjoyed it very much. This second chicken though was unexpected and after a day of almost total inactivity eating it didn’t feel like a meal but more like slaughter. I certainly didn’t need it.
The layout of this hotel adds an interesting angle to eating whole chickens because all day long I watch the chickens running around tracking down bugs. And at night the children are detailed as chicken catchers. They are amazingly adept at it and grab each chicken with a single swift move. When captured the chickens are popped into a long wicker basket shaped something like an oversized pill. They sit quite comfortably throughout the night but by morning they’ve had quite enough of each other’s company in such tight quarters and they start squabbling and fighting, eager to be released and begin the day’s hunt.
And hunt they do. After a week of chicken watching in Douki and now a day of it here I have a whole new respect for chickens. At Douki there was plenty of old leaves and other vegetation on the ground. The chickens would quickly scrape away a large patch of this debris then as quick as lightning back up and drop their head down to snap up whatever insects were uncovered. They brought an intense ferocity, a single minded sense of purpose, to this task that was frightening to watch. As if in evolutionary response the ants I’ve seen in Guinea are also unbelievably fast. I’ve tried to kill some of the big red ones that stray into my tent and it was all I could do to get them. They had a burst of speed that was incredible and an uncanny knack for doubling back and zigzagging that left me breathless. But they are no match for the chickens. Dozens of times I watched a chicken track down one of these big fast-moving ants. They just walked calmly behind them, their heads cocking easily from side to side. Then when they felt the time was right, a quick thrust with the beak and it was all over. There was never any question about the outcome of the chase. I pictured the ants as people and the chickens as a monstrous hairy addition to the Jurassic Park menagerie and shuddered to think what the ants would feel if they could actually see what was chasing them.
The children at the “Hotel de la Revolution” offer a second line of entertainment. There are lots of toddlers running around and they’re pretty overjoyed to have a “porto” in their midst. They’re frightened of me but also intrigued and stand at a distance shouting out “porto” over and over again till I look up. Then they wave like mad things and their whole face disappears into huge smiles of delight when I wave back. One little girl in particular is keeping a close eye on me. She’s very sweet and keeps popping her head around the corner to giggle and wiggle her fingers at me.
One small boy though is not happy at all and is taking out his unhappiness on everyone around him. My first night here he kept up a screaming and wailing fit till I thought I was going to lose my mind. I made the mistake of joking to the Miracle Man that that little boy wasn’t very happy. He marched right off and lectured the mother to keep the boy quiet because he was disturbing the porto. The kid still screams and cries all day but now the mother chases him with a little switch and swats him to try and shut him up. I feel terrible because while she swats him she points to me and my room, telling the kid that he should be quiet because the porto is angry. I don’t know what Guineans tell their children white people will do to them (probably eat them) but it’s a daily occurrence here for people to push children towards me to frighten them and make them cry. I was actually a little surprised on my long day from Douki to here to see how frightened children sometimes were. Those with family members would run to them and clutch their legs when they saw me. Those with the misfortune of being on their own would run as if the devil himself was snapping at their heels. They’d take the first trail off the road and disappear into the bush. Their fear was so genuine that they didn’t even stop in the bushes to peer back out at me from cover. They just kept running to put as much distance between us as possible.
I think I wrote in my journal a long time ago that though the Guineans I’d met were friendly and polite I found them distant and unknowable. I can’t say that my impressions have changed. I’m not sure what it is but I feel very much on the outside here. I watch this family that runs the hotel and pick up little cues as to what they think and feel, how they live, but there seems to be no natural way to go further than that. I’ve tried to talk with a few of them but the conversation goes nowhere. The language barrier plays a large part of course but it’s more than that. No one seems willing to put out the energy needed to talk with me. No one ever expresses any curiosity about who I am, where I’m from, and what I’m doing. They’re equally unconcerned about telling me about themselves and their culture. This last strikes me as particularly odd. In my experience people have a natural urge to show you things from their world, to explain themselves, to proudly introduce you to aspects of their culture. But here I’m left alone. The men in this family gather at prayer times on colorful mats in the courtyard. They pray and bow to the east but not once in Guinea has anyone acted on the urge to tell the foreigner about their religion, to talk about it. (Except for Ali in Coyah but he was very much the exception that proves the rule.) There must be a family life. The older children must go to school. The women must prepare meals and they must eat. The men must have various jobs that they go to. But I never see any of this happening, or at least very rarely. And certainly a door into this family life is rarely if ever opened.
These thoughts were prompted this morning by my just happening to see about six of the family members (women, children, and one man who busies himself around the kitchen shack) gathered around a tray placed on the ground. I couldn’t see clearly but assumed there was rice and sauce in the tray. They were a silent bunch quickly shovelling food into their mouths. It appeared almost competitive to me, as if the rice in the tray was all there was and you’d better eat fast to get your share or go hungry. They finished in seconds and I didn’t have the impression of a meal ending because they were full but because all the food was gone. One child remained after the others had left and ran her flat hand over and over the surface of the tray gathering up every last grain of rice and trace of sauce.
I reflected that I had no idea what the significance of this scene was. Was the child wiping the tray like a child in the West would run a finger around the icing bowl to get every last drop of a treat? Or was she wiping the tray because she was still hungry? There is at least one boy here who looks thin far beyond what can be considered normal. His arms and legs are little more than sticks. And one of the toddlers looks classically malnourished with the swollen belly. And is this why the other toddler is crying all the time? Is he so irritable because he’s always hungry? I simply don’t know.
On the surface you couldn’t say this is an impoverished family. Despite its falling apart nature the hotel appears something of a going concern. Truckers to and from Senegal sleep here. The TV room is crowded on Sundays when the sports are on. There are luxury items here like a refrigerator and of course the TV. Plus the market is packed and the shops full. But I’ve noticed on other occasions, for example my meal with the family in Diaga, a big difference between what I’m served when I buy food and what is served for the family. At Douki for example when the family provided meals for me they served up huge bowls of rice and sauce that I could never have finished. The few times I’ve seen families eat or eaten with them the food provided for everyone was less than the portions given to me as an individual. I suppose the whole thing could be an illusion resulting from just how fast they eat and how large the handfuls of rice they eat. Give me two minutes to eat and I’m going to go hungry. But a Guinean can put away a lot of food in two minutes.