Saturday, March 3 7:10 a.m.
For the second morning in a row I’ve woken to the cheerful and welcoming sound of church bells. The sky seems a bit overcast meaning that this probably would have been a good day for cycling but I’m going to spend today and possibly even tomorrow in Beyla. I’m enjoying the luxury of my table and chair too much to easily leave it.
Guinea hasn’t been much in the news lately and I’ve fallen out of the habit of listening to the BBC’s Focus on Africa. But yesterday I tuned in and heard a remarkable story out of Conakry. An ammunition dump at the main army base caught fire and a series of explosions rocked the city. The population concluded that the rebels were attacking with artillery and tens of thousands of people fled in all directions. People simply ran from their houses and market women abandoned their wares providing a field day for looters. There were even reports of numerous men in army uniforms “taking to their heels and fleeing” as the BBC put it.
It seems too strange to believe but not if you’ve been to Conakry and experienced for yourself the high levels of suspicion and fear like I have. And everyone is all too familiar with what happened in neighbouring Sierra Leone when the rebels came to call. They’re primed for panic at the first hint of trouble. I wonder if Sundar and Ashok had some kind of evacuation plan in readiness and started to execute it.
I can believe almost any similar story of panic and irrationality in Guinea. I experience it on a daily basis myself most recently when I went for my first stroll around Beyla late yesterday afternoon. I wanted to find some dinner, do a bit of shopping, and see some of the town. I didn’t get very far before the first of three of the men I’d met at the barrage came up to me. He was out of his army uniform and looked very much like what he was a little kid. He explained that he wasn’t regular army but a volunteer, called up in this time of tension with Liberia and Sierra Leone. Personally he wasn’t that concerned about the country’s security. He volunteered because on the days he serves at the barrage he gets his meals provided. He didn’t say it in so many words but he implied that since he was unemployed and just hung out doing nothing all day he might as well hang out at the barrage, do nothing there and get fed. In that context it’s no surprise that when a dumb white guy on a bike shows up they’re a little bit confused about what to do and what their role is. Their constant demand for “papers” is their way of passing the buck. They have no clue what exactly is involved in a foreigner coming to Guinea and assume that I must know, that each “blanc” that comes to the barrage must know the procedure better than they do. So they ask for “papers” whatever documentation we can come up with.
This first fellow was the fish eater and he at first kept up his role as interrogator and wanted to know why I was still in Beyla, why I hadn’t gone to Nzerekore like I said I was. Did I have papers to stay in Beyla? I ignored him and switched the conversation to the hotel, to which he had directed me. He also let the issue of papers drop and then pleaded with me for my address so we could have a correspondence.
The second volunteer from the barrage came around with papers of his own. He had signed up with a penpal organization called Pen Friends International. He’d gone to considerable expense to do so and had sent out nine letters but had received none in return. He showed me a list of eight names that PFI had sent to him. Beside each name was either an X or a dash. The X indicated that he had rejected that potential pen pal and not sent them any letters. I noted that all the X’s were beside the names of people from African or Asian countries. Each dash represented one letter sent. All the dashes were beside the names of people from Europe and North America. There were three dashes beside the name of a woman from Les Ecoumins in Quebec and this is what he wanted to ask me about. What was with this woman he wanted to know. Why hadn’t she written back?
By this point in my walk I had reached the far end of Beyla’s tiny downtown and was about to turn back. But then I had the misfortune of running into a man who was definitely regular army, assault rifle and all. At first I thought it was going to be cool. We shook hands and engaged in some small talk. (Anywhere else in the world even this small talk would have come across as hostile but I’m somewhat accustomed to the direct, pounding questioning that Guineans subject foreigners to.) Then he wanted to know what my “mission” was. I wasn’t sure if he meant mission as in purpose or mission as in what organization. But it didn’t matter since I had neither and told him I had no mission. I was just a tourist.
“No mission?” he echoed as a look of anger came over his face. He planted his feet squarely, looked up at me (he was much shorter) and subjected me to a tongue lashing. The French came too fast for me to make out but he was clearly upset that I had no mission. Foreigners have to have a mission. They can’t just come into Guinea and do as they please without a mission. This was a sovereign country.
I’m not sure what he said that finally made me understand but it was suddenly clear he wasn’t asking whether I had a mission but “admission.” Had I been admitted by the proper authorities? Did I, in other words, have ‘papers’?
When I understood I hastened to assure him that yes I had “admission.” Did I have papers? I had papers like you wouldn’t believe truckloads of them.
Three months ago I would have been amazed that simply telling this man I had all the right papers would be enough. But now I was just slightly amused when he did a quick about-face, stopped yelling at me, shook my hand with a “well, that’s all right then” expression on his face and walked away.