Friday, March 9 8:13 a.m.
My initial favorable impressions of Macenta have not faded. Unlike Nzerekore it has a discernible center, a downtown where my hotel is conveniently located. It is ringed closely by jungle covered hills. To the northeast two chains of hills run parallel to each other on both sides of the town. The buildings, mostly remnants of the French colonial era, hug these hills and climb up their slopes leaving a wide area of flat land inbetween that is still cultivated. And though Macenta has the lush vegetation of the Forest region around Nzerekore it has none of the overwhelming humidity. The temperature is pleasant and even at midday I can walk the streets in comfort.
At the start of my exploratory walk yesterday I walked past the gendarmerie. “Hey tourist!” called out an officer. He shook my hand, welcomed me to Macenta, and asked how my time in Guinea had been.
I asked him about the situation around Guekedou and whether it was safe for a tourist to pass through. He said that depended on the kind of vehicle I was driving and on how many people were with me. I said I was alone and travelling by bicycle. He goggled at me in disbelief. “A velo? Vraiment?”
“Vraiment,” I assured him.
That changed everything and though he didn’t actually say it was impossible or dangerous he did say that it wasn’t “prudent.” Like the head of the police this officer was another rare MIU of great common sense. He said that it was probably perfectly safe to cycle to Guekedou at the moment. But the road paralleled the Liberian border, coming, he said, as close as two kilometres to the actual frontiere. So unless it was absolutely necessary why take the risk? He even offered a solution. He said I should come to the gendarmerie when I wanted to leave Macenta and he would take me to the “gare voiture,” put me and my bike in a car or truck to Guekedou, and I could continue cycling from there.
If I could be sure that he would follow through on his offer I’d be tempted. Not so much because of concern over rebel activity but it would likely get me past all the barrages with less hassle. And so far in Guinea I haven’t had the dubious pleasure and experience of riding in a single taxi brousse or in the back of one of those monstrously overloaded goods trucks. Those forms of transportation are a huge part of life in Guinea, almost a defining part, and I wouldn’t mind doing it once just for a new perspective. I would never do it on my own because I have a particular aversion to the chaos and confusion surrounding the loading of these taxis particularly when a foreigner is involved. And I would never take one on a long journey unless I had to. But from here to Guekedou is only eighty-eight kilometres and beyond Guekedou to Kissidougou another eighty-one kilometres. It would still take several hours I’m sure, perhaps even a full day including the time it will take to get the taxi loaded, then overloaded, and finally monstrously overloaded before we left, rumbling uncertainly towards our first breakdown or flat tire. But I think even I could handle that.
Knowing me it’s unlikely, however, I’ll take the officer up on his offer. In the end the simplicity and control of just getting on my bike and pedalling off will seduce me and off I’ll go. The relatively short distance to Guekedou also makes it more appealing to cycle there. Depending on the delays at the various barrages I could be in Guekedou as early as noon or one. If so it’s also unlikely that I would, as the round bellied policeman suggested, approach the army for logement. I know I’ve been constantly looking for solutions to the problem of logement in Guinea but I can’t believe the army will be inclined to help me in my search. Instead once I’d gotten that far I’d just keep going and get as far from Guekedou as possible. It’s unlikely in the extreme but with luck I could even cover the full one hundred and sixty-nine kilometres to Kissidougou. Just as with my other long days of cycling there wouldn’t be much sense or point to it but these days I don’t seem to mind long hours in the saddle and I’ve now got the physical conditioning to handle it without much problem. I’m also not that concerned about “papers.” Even if I run into a barrage where the demand for non existent papers stops me cold it’s unlikely that they’ll send me back. After the usual hour or two of lectures I imagine they’ll end up kicking me forward to Kissidougou which is where I want to go anyway. Even a thickheaded MIU would have to realize I was already so far into the Forest Region that sending me back to Nzerekore wouldn’t solve the problem.
That’s not to say I’ve finally come to terms with barrages and the eternal Guinean obsession with “papers.” I don’t think I could ever get used to it and if there is one thing that will make me breathe a sigh of relief upon boarding that jet leaving Conakry it will be leaving this climate of heavy handed authority behind.
It happened again yesterday as I continued my walk around Macenta. I was fairly relaxed having been vetted thoroughly by both the police and the gendarmerie. It was market day and there was lots of bustle and activity. I walked out along a path into the cultivated fields in the middle of Macenta. The town looked even more attractive from that perspective and I stopped to gaze around me.
A man walked up to me and when we made eye contact we shook hands and greeted each other. I was still a little bit wary because I knew at any moment our conversation could turn into an interrogation. Part of the problem is that Guineans never make it clear what they’re up to and the opening moves in an official interrogation are essentially the same as those in the “getting to know the foreigner so I can ask him to take me to Canada” conversation. So this man asked me where I was from, how long I’d been in Guinea, and what I was doing in Guinea. All of this was done in a chatty and friendly way, just two guys standing in a field getting to know each other. We were “exchanging cultures.” We were a mini United Nations right there in Macenta. I was very forthcoming and open as who wouldn’t be? But then he started asking me what I was doing in Macenta and in that field in particular. He asked if my papers were in order and then demanded to see my passport.
I was furious. Not because of the interrogation per se I’ve endured my share of those with many more to come but because I felt I’d been suckered into the interrogation under the guise of friendship. I asked him first what gave him the right to examine my passport. He said he was the police. (Out of a population of seven million I think Guinea has a police force seven million strong.) I asked him to show me his police identification which of course he couldn’t do. Then I let him have it. I told him I’d spoken with the Chief of Police and my “papers” had been examined. I told him I’d met with an officer of the gendarmerie. I threw in the sous prefect of Seredou and the prefect of Macenta for good measure though I’d met neither one. Taking a page out of Ali’s playbook I then told him that if he really was the police I’d be glad to show him my passport but not in the middle of a field. If he was the police and was concerned about my activities and identity let’s go to the Commissariat Centrale. Let’s go to the police station. “Allons y,” I said pulling him by the sleeve and motioning that we should go there together. “Allons y.” Let’s go.
I have no idea what this man thought of my tirade or how much of it he even understood but he showed no willingness to go with me to the police station. And so I finished off by telling him clearly that if he wasn’t willing to come to the police station I had no interest in talking to him, would not talk to him, and most definitely would not produce my passport. And I walked away.
If this was a victory for the dumb white buy on a bike it was a pretty miserable one. I felt ashamed of my outburst and yet my anger stayed with me all the way back to the hotel where I stopped to greet the crocodile and the two sad turtles that lived in the hotel’s fountain. And now I have a second day in Macenta but the pleasure I felt in being here is gone and though this might be the most physically attractive and pleasant town I’ve come across in Guinea it’s unlikely I’ll do much exploring. A white guy walking down the streets is simply too weird for the locals to handle.
And the atmosphere today makes me even less inclined to stray very far. There are many more men with guns walking about. I’ve seen a couple of large trucks roar past with groups of armed men shouting and holding guns triumphantly over their heads. This little cafe where I’m writing and drinking cafe au lait is a buzz of activity of men in various bits of paramilitary gear and talking into (or at least holding) an assortment of radios and walkie talkies. Every second male from teenager to grown man has a large knife in a sheath attached to their belts. Some even have sheriff’s badges on chains around their necks, the kind you get with a wild west costume. One child in full military fatigues and with an assault rifle over his shoulder (which was almost taller than he was) stood in the door and glared at me for a long time before swaggering off. Most unsettling though have been these strange trucks with the top half chopped off. They’re painted all manner of clashing colors which I assume is meant to be camouflage and are filled with collections of men brandishing weapons and sporting whatever bits of clothing they felt gave them a commando look. Some had dug up red berets from somewhere but most had camouflage cloth wrapped bandanna-style around their heads.
I don’t know if this means something has happened or if this is just business as usual. My arrival and first day in Macenta coincided with the end of the Tabaski fete and perhaps the local “village defense forces” and vigilantes put away their toys for the holidays and now are taking them up again.
I know Pontius Pilate would assure me that these paramilitary types were for my security and protection. Even the officer of the gendarmerie dismissed my concerns over treatment I might receive at the barrages here and Guekedou. But I think it’s a safe bet that if the dumb white guy on a bike does run into trouble on the road it’ll be at the hands of one of these overzealous Guineans and not some mysterious rebel.
The die has been cast and I’ll be travelling by taxi brousse to Kissidougou. I’m a little disappointed that it turned out this way but I think it will prove to be a wise decision. The omens certainly pointed in this direction.
For one thing the number of these vigilante trucks and the strangeness of their occupants has been increasing all day. They’re zooming around, the backs packed with men who look like they’d like nothing better than to start blasting away at something and a dumb white guy on a bike would serve for target practice as well as anything else. One fellow came up to me, a machete in one hand, a pistol on his hip and asked me in passable English if I knew anything about the satellites. He pointed to the sky and repeated, “The satellites. Who controls them?”
But the gendarmerie officer is the main reason I’m not cycling to Guekedou. He saw me walk past, called me in, bought me some bananas, and essentially ordered me to report there at 7:00 in the morning and he would escort me to the gare voiture and make sure I got on some form of transportation to Kissidougou. I could have said no but couldn’t think why. It turned out his name was Conde and I figured he must be the good twin separated at birth from the Evil Conde in Conakry. I asked him if 7:00 wasn’t too early for him. He scoffed at the idea. When the sovereignty of his nation is threatened a soldier never sleeps, he said. “Dors pas!” he emphasized.
In the end it wasn’t his talk of danger and risk that convinced me. I just enjoyed the fact of having an ally and thought it would be nice to be packed into a vehicle with a bunch of people for a while. And once the deal was made I felt good that I’d be covering some ground off the bike and wouldn’t have to worry about water and food and logement. It’ll be nice to sit back no matter how uncomfortably and watch the world go past through the window. And finally I reflected that it will be refreshing to do something for a change that everyone wants me to do, that everyone approves of instead of constantly fighting them and having to listen to warnings and cautions all the time.
It turns out that my observations of the street activity (if not my reading of the omens) were quite accurate and something has occurred. This morning, according to a report on the BBC and another I heard on VOA, rebels attacked and took the Guinean town of Nongowa, twenty kilometres from Guekedou. The government in Conakry issued a statement that the army has since retaken the town but there was considerable surprise expressed because Nongowa was thought to be well fortified and one of the most heavily defended towns in the Parrot’s Beak. (I can’t say that I’m surprised. Being sort of “on the ground” here I can imagine just what “heavily defended” means in Guinean terms. I have to wonder which truckload of Rambo wannabes finally drove off the rebels?)
The VOA report came from the UNHCR out of Geneva. They had a team in Guekedou on Thursday (yesterday) assessing the situation towards resuming relief efforts to the refugee camps. But a half hour ago they announced that because of the resumption of fighting they were cancelling those plans once again. A UNHCR rep said that it was regrettable but that’s the way things were in Guinea. There would be a lull in the fighting, sometimes for a considerable length of time, but then it would start up again and usually quite unexpectedly.
Unless I get more information in the next twelve hours I have no intention of changing my plans. I’ve got the Good Conde on my side and though this attack on Nongowa will probably mean all the barrages will be boiling with activity I can probably get through. All I have to do is get past Guekedou and it should be clear sailing all the way north to Kissidougou. Despite my claims in Seredou that I was more than willing to retrace my route through Nzerekore and Kankan now that I’m in Macenta and so close I do not want to go back.