Tuesday, March 13 7:42 a.m. Conakry
I was supposed to meet the Sierra Leonians at the Nelson Mandela Hotel at 6:30 for an early start. Amadou, the driver, clearly felt his reputation as a driver (which was quite good) depended largely on getting from A to B in the shortest time possible. He saw himself as a kind of rally driver and shouted down the other passengers when they argued that 6:30 was too early.
I doubted very much that anything much would happen at that early hour but made sure that by 6:00 my pannier bags were packed and I was ready to move my bike out of my room. I’d given fair warning to the hotel staff that I’d need to leave at that hour but they still looked distinctly peeved at being disturbed. I felt it was their own fault. If they didn’t want to be disturbed they shouldn’t have put their mattresses in the hallway right in front of the doors. Nor should they have padlocked from the inside both those doors and the outer door leading to the street. (A latch I thought would be sufficient.) And if I was giving them advice I’d also have suggested not putting the keys to those two locks in two separate rooms requiring waking up two more people. By the time the process had been completed one of the other guests had been woken up and was angry enough to open his door and see what was going on. He looked ready to open his mouth and complain but was too startled upon seeing me with my geeky headlamp on my head to say a word.
I didn’t get very far down Kissidougou’s dark streets before I was stopped by an MIU.
“Ou venez vous comme ca?” came the now very familiar question. It’s a question that in its many forms has given me endless trouble. In its simpler form “Ou venez vous?” I never know if they’re asking where I’ve come from on my journey or what country I come from, ie, my nationality. When I guess wrong they sigh impatiently or tsk me and rephrase it to make it clearer. But even when I understand that they’re asking me where I’ve come from on my journey it’s not clear in what sense they mean it. If I tell them where I’ve actually come from that day they generally don’t believe me. It’s usually a tiny village (the closest one to my camping spot) or a small town and this makes no sense to them. No one comes from those places. And if I choose the closest large town and they think about it they realize I couldn’t have come from there in one day on a bicycle. And even if they accept that I did they wonder how in the world I managed to start from that town in the middle of nowhere on a bike. Did I just drop from the sky? So then I’m forced to go for the most general interpretation of their question and explain that my journey, this trip, began in Conakry. But this leads me into trouble when they ask where I’m going. The day’s actual destination, some small village they’ve never heard of, is unacceptable for the same reason as before. No one goes to a place like that. The next large town is too far away to reach in one day. And the reply “Conakry” which is the true and actual destination for my trip is obviously a puzzle. Why would I leave from Conakry intending to go to Conakry? I must be stupid or lying for some nefarious purpose of my own.
“Ou venez vous comme ca?” is little better. The “comme ca” does make it clear they’re asking about my trip. But it has a hostile overtone. It sounds like what a father would say to his teenage daughter who comes down the stairs in lots of make up and a very short skirt: “Where do you think you’re going like that, young lady?” The “comme ca” referring to my outlandish bicycle, is obviously disapproving in the same way or at least incredulous. And for an MIU in Guinea doubt and incredulity is only a short step away from denial, suspicion, and obstruction. “I don’t understand this situation so I’d better say ‘no’ and be obstructive.”
All of these complications are terribly compounded, however, when a dumb white guy like myself takes it into his head to ride a bike at 6:00 in the morning when it’s still dark, from one hotel to another hotel in the same town.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Where are you going?”
“Hmmm. Where did you enter Guinea?”
“And where are you going?
“All right, wise guy, let’s see some papers.”
I have no idea what this MIU made of my long explanation that I had slept in one hotel while the driver of the vehicle I was travelling in slept in another and I was going there to meet him, put the bike in the vehicle and leave Kissi. I don’t think it penetrated at all largely because for one thing “les blancs” don’t ride bikes. They ride in immaculate white 4X4’s. And they never go to meet the 4X4. The 4X4 obviously comes to them. For another thing the hotels didn’t make sense at all. “Les blancs” always stay at the best hotels in town while their drivers stay at the dives. But if he were to accept my story this blanc had stayed at the divey Nousso Conde while his driver stayed at the Nelson Mandela, one of Kissi’s top three hotels. I can only guess that the combination of absurdities short circuited his obstructionist instincts because he let me go.
The Nelson Mandela wasn’t far away and I was going to be early so I cycled slowly trying to blend into the night and escape further MIU encounters. At the roundabout, however, I had the misfortune to meet a convoy of huge trucks that I guessed were carrying Sierra Leonian and Liberian refugees from one camp to another. They came roaring out of the darkness with military escort and other military and police personnel standing at corners blowing whistles and giving directions. I stopped the bike and tried to be as small as possible but it was hopeless. Soon many sets of eyes had spotted me, an apparition, a “blanc” on a bicycle watching our secret transport of refugees. This can’t be good.
I took advantage of the confusion of the last few trucks in the convoy to slip away and head for the Nelson Mandela only a couple hundred meters away. But the gates there were locked and I had no choice but to stand astride the bicycle awaiting the inevitable.
“Ou venez vous comme ca?” said the first soldier who tracked me down.
What’s in the bags he then wanted to know. This is the other line of questioning that always leads to problems. In my more lighthearted moods I reply with a counter question. “Which one? There’s a lot of bags you know.” This rarely amuses.
Most of the time they actually point to bags one at a time and ask about the contents. Unfortunately they always start with a large one on the rear pannier rack which happens to contain my tent. A tent for camping in the bush. Hmmm. Rebels live in the bush. Hmmm.
The contents of my other bags are all equally problematic, either because of what they contain or what those things look like. In one bag there’s a camera, maps, books, and notebooks not a single item I can mention without getting in trouble. In other bags the items are more innocuous like a camp stove, water filter, and tool kit but they are very difficult for me to explain and look very high tech and unfamiliar which tends to trigger the MIU’s “I don’t understand must obstruct” instincts. (Sort of an MIU Prime Directive.)
By the time I ran through the exact same story with this MIU that I’d used with the first I was running out of energy and patience. And so, when a third soldier appeared and said, “Ou venez vous comme ca?” while tapping the bike with his rifle I just snorted, pointed to the other MIU, and said in English, “Ask him. I’m tired.”
Amadou, if he ever really intended to have everyone moving by 6:30 fell down on the job and I was the only one in the courtyard of the Nelson Mandela ready to go, the only person awake in fact. And besides not waking anyone up he neglected to gas up the truck, pump up the tires, or do any number of other things that, considering his “road fever” could and should have been done the day before. Add to that the various errands that all the other passengers had left to the last minute and we didn’t face the first barrage leaving Kissidougou till nearly 9:00. None of this bothered me. I had adopted the empty zen mind, void of expectations, that is necessary to survive travel in Guinea with even shreds of sanity left at the end.
I was more than a little interested to see how this NGO truck fared at the barrages as compared to a bicycle and a Peugeot and as I’d been warned there were a lot of barrages and I had ample opportunity to make the comparison.
My first observation was a happy one since I was hoping to travel under the protective umbrella of the NGO truck. This would only be possible if the MIU’s at the barrages did not focus on us as individuals. If they asked for my “papers” it would quickly come out that I was not associated with the NGO in any way, but was only a hapless tourist, a dumb white guy on a bike hitching a lift. But happily their focus shifted entirely.
When on the bike they of course focused their attention entirely on me, thinking of the bike, if at all, only in relation to customs duties. When in the Peugeot they focused on the vehicle only to the extent of extracting the normal 1,000 FG “MIU tax” and then spent all their energies verifying the identity of all the passengers one by one, occasionally cutting one out of the herd for devouring. But when it came to this NGO truck they were so seduced by its shiny newness and the self important way in which Amadou piloted it that they totally ignored the occupants, instead centring all their attention on the truck’s paperwork and its “mission.” This couldn’t have been better for me and I passed the entire ten hour journey and countless barrages totally unmolested. My only participation in the barrage encounters was to occasionally lower my window when the bulk of the MIU’s were on the right hand side of the truck.
The “mission” that the MIU’s constantly asked after was a new addition to my barrage vocabulary. (I also realized that the soldier in Beyla was indeed asking about my “mission” and not “admission” as I’d eventually concluded.) A vehicle’s mission was the purpose for which it was going from A to B. As Yosuf, one of the passengers and an employee of the NGO explained in his deep froggy voice, all travel and movement on the roads in Guinea had to have a specific purpose, a “mission.” Our mission was on a piece of paper that Amadou kept under the visor. Across the top was emblazoned the words “Ordre de Mission” and blanks in the body of the paper contained the names of the occupants of the vehicle, the date, the point of departure, and the destination. At the bottom was a signature and a short printed paragraph stating that this vehicle was about urgent business for the NGO and it was “on a mission of the utmost importance.”
At each barrage the MIU would ask for the vehicle’s mission. Amadou, unfailingly polite and spouting long phrases of gratitude for the work the gendarmerie was doing, would instantly produce this paper. The MIU would scurry off with it and present it to the chief relaxing at his ease in the shade who would examine it carefully and then hand it back and indicate we could pass.
I was impressed with the effect this paper had and asked Yosuf where he got it. (I was thinking I could get one for myself.) I was astounded, however, when he said with a laugh that they printed it themselves. This “Ordre de Mission” was nothing more than an internal document made on the NGO’s computer for themselves. As such it had absolutely no validity at all as far as the “legitimate” Guinean authorities were concerned and yet they accepted it without question. My mind reeled. The MIU was essentially asking, “Do you know where you’re going and why?” Amadou produces the paper that says they did. “Well, that’s all right then,” says the MIU and up goes the barrage.
Of course it all makes sense when you consider that, as Yosuf explained, the MIU’s couldn’t care less what you were doing on the road. You could be carrying anything from illegal diamonds to guns marked “For the Rebels” and they wouldn’t care. The examination of the “Ordre de Mission” was simply a drama being acted out to give the MIU’s time to decide whether they were going to screw us over or not.
I don’t know on what basis they make their decision but we were very lucky that day and all the way to Mamou, past dozens upon dozens of barrages, we were subjected to only a few times where they asked a bunch of questions and made Yosuf and Amadou jump through a few hoops. Only upon leaving Mamou did we get nailed and the incident is very instructive.
The MIU asked to see, piece by piece, every scrap of documentation that the truck carried. Then he picked one at random (it was an insurance certificate) and claimed it was expired and ordered someone out of the truck to go discuss the matter with the chief. At first Amadou took him at his word and was angry that whoever was in charge of such things at the NGO had allowed the insurance to lapse. I was surprised as well since my impressions were that this NGO was very much on the ball. But then Yosuf looked at the insurance certificate and discovered that it was not expired at all. The MIU had simply lied. But lie or not they still had to deal with the matter and over the next forty minutes one or another or all of them were involved in an intense negotiation with the MIU chief.
The fine for our “contravention” was set at 20,000 FG. I was pleased though to see that none of these men were cowed in the least. Amadou declared that they weren’t going to get a single franc out of him. He’d simply walk away and leave the vehicle before he paid them anything, especially since he could show that the insurance had not expired.
But these MIU’s used a similar form to the one that had been used on me and with its blank space for the “contravention” the MIU’s could make up anything they wanted. In this case faced with a united front by the truck’s occupants and a visibly legitimate insurance certificate they abandoned that charge and instead fined us for not having a fire extinguisher in the vehicle. Amadou and Yosuf beat the “fine” down to 5,000 FG, paid it, and came back to the truck laughing and joking over the receipt. Amadou explained that in his long experience on the roads of Guinea this was the first time he’d ever even heard of the lack of a fire extinguisher being used to screw over a vehicle and its occupants. It shows in my mind how totally out of control the MIU’s are. You can’t fight on any legitimate grounds a police force that has a free hand to write any law they want at any time. Put a fire extinguisher in the truck and the next time the MIU’s will fine you because you have a fire extinguisher. They’ll say it’s dangerous because it was pressurized and could explode. The ugly truth is that they can say and do literally anything they want.
As disturbing as that is I find it even more disturbing that Guineans in general (and the resident Sierra Leonians and Liberians) are so accepting of it. The initial fighting words of Amadou notwithstanding the two Sierra Leonians and one Guinean in the truck weren’t angry about being shaken down nor did they rise to my comments about the corruption. I don’t think they even thought of it as corruption, just as the way things were. They’ve never experienced any other way of life and don’t see it as wrong, only as inconvenient when they have to pay. They also did not respond when I tried to draw them out on how they felt about the individuals doing the extorting. These three men spent the entire day saying please and thank you to the MIU’s, pouring honeyed words into their ears as they made us await their pleasure. Didn’t they hate themselves for being so servile and despise these MIU’s for their evilness? Well, no. They didn’t even understand what I was getting at and though I don’t like the thought I’m pretty sure that if roles were reversed and Amadou had ended up an MIU he would behave in exactly the same way. In fact Amadou and Yosuf in response to my questioning went so far as to defend the MIU’s, pointing out how hard life in Guinea was. They need the money, they said, defending the extortion.
That argument, however, doesn’t wash with me anymore. I’ve heard poverty used a thousand times to justify everything in Guinea from the corruption to how dusty a chair or table is to a person lolling about doing absolutely nothing. One of the NGO employees who stayed behind in Kissi said something to me that struck me as very apropos. He said that someday he hoped to go to Europe or America. This was nothing new but he added that he only wanted to visit. He could never live there. He said that we Westerners worked far too hard, like machines. We had too many bills to pay and appeared never to stop working. He preferred life in Africa where he had nothing but didn’t have to do anything either.
On the long journey to Mamou and then to Conakry (the relative ease with which we were passing through the barrages convinced me to stay in the truck and forget about doing any more cycling) I had plenty of time to ponder these things and one thought in particular kept recurring. I reflected that the roads were thronged with police and military who monitored and controlled our movements all in the name of our own safety and that of others. And yet they did absolutely nothing about Amadou and his driving. He was, without a doubt, the worst, most dangerous and reckless driver I have ever seen and I’ve seen some real winners. He went through villages crowded with children and chickens at over one hundred km/hr. He hadn’t a prayer of stopping if someone appeared in front of him. He went around blind corners at incredible speeds while swerving all over the road. The only thing that convinced him to touch the brakes, ever, was the certainty, the absolute certainty, that if he didn’t we were going over the cliff or headlong into another vehicle. If the four wheels didn’t actually lock up and screech he acted annoyed that maybe he’d hit the brakes for nothing. That we had only one real near accident was a miracle. In that case he guessed the other truck was going to move right and then it moved left. I have to give Amadou credit that on instinct he made the right decision. The impulse must have been to cut the wheels to the right and try to miss the truck that way. But it was clear the angle and speed were too great and we’d have rolled for sure. Instead he hit the brakes and after the wheels locked up had the presence of mind to ease up so that he got control back and stopped inches from a local truck packed with villagers.
I was considerably surprised that this incident made an impression even on Amadou and for ten minutes he actually drove under control. But the road exerted some kind of powerful hypnotic energy and soon we were back at the fine edge of disaster.
From Mamou to Conakry I was back on familiar ground and as we hurtled along at Amadou’s breakneck pace I ticked off the landmarks I remembered so well from three months earlier. There was the bench where I’d eaten my banana sandwich, there the grandfather tree and over there the dismal little room in Mambiya where I’d spent my New Year’s Eve. In Tamagaly I waved to the boys at the gas station as we passed by. I might have been able to convince Amadou to stop but he would only have driven faster afterwards to make up the time. In Linsan I looked for Blue Jeans but didn’t see her and later in Sogueta I gave a nod to the residence where the wise sous prefect lived. Coyah is perhaps the one place I regret not being able to stop. I’d have liked to see Ali again. But even there who knew if they would rent me a room again? Perhaps by now even that last functioning room at the Hotel Marianne had faded away and Coyah was now just another Guinean town with no logement.
After Coyah we were firmly in the clutches of Conakry. Trees disappeared and the buildings got uglier and uglier. Traffic increased until we were hopelessly snarled in a mass of vehicles and people. Trente six passed without incident. In these cases Amadou’s arrogant and passionate driving stood us in good stead. Rather than wait in the long lines of vehicles at the checkpoints he’d haul the wheel over and race past them heading directly into oncoming traffic, blowing the horn and slamming on the brakes just feet from the barrages. The startled MIU’s almost always let us pass. They must have thought Lansana Conte himself was in the truck. How else could a driver find the courage to act so crazily? Only once at the bridge with the soldiers with rocket launchers did Amadou miscalculate. We hit a dip in the road that threw him off and we nearly slammed into the bridge. The soldiers were furious and I thought I was going to find out whether those rockets worked or not.
Amadou asked me where I wanted to be dropped off and I really didn’t know. The only hotel that even occurred to me was the Cesar but it was in Taouyah and I didn’t want to be anywhere near the Evil Conde if I could help it. For that reason the only other logement I knew about, Les Hotels Mantisse, and the one room at La Vina, were also out of the question.
Amadou and Yosuf were typical of everyone in Guinea and were of no help at all. They both said there were lots of hotels in Conakry. Lots of them. I only had to choose one. But when I asked them for suggestions, just one name, they had nothing to say. The hotels like everything else were la bas.
I decided to stay with the truck as it went to the NGO’s office and hoped I’d see a hotel along the way. This was a good decision because it helped me get oriented in Conakry once again and at the NGO I was greeted warmly by Stephen and the other expat employees of the NGO. I was a bit freaked out by the day and nervous about the prospect of being back in Conakry and having to face the airport and so it was good to talk with some men who came from my world. Conakry and Guinea seem very different places when you are on your own and when you are in company. By myself the Evil Conde looms as this terrible presence, a real threat. But talking with the NGO employees Conde shrunk till he became what he is a pathetic and petty little bureaucratic and con man.
But I was amused to note as I talked to the NGO expats that though we came from the same world our experiences of Guinea were quite different. They all stayed in the $100/night Camayene luxury hotel and could suggest no cheaper hotels either. They flew on a weekly basis to places like Monrovia and Freetown and so faced the airport all the time but couldn’t advise me about that either. Their arrangements were all made for them and they had drivers and helpers. To me it’s a powerful irony that these men were spending millions of aid dollars to help people in Guinea and yet none of them had ridden in a Peugeot 505 with fifteen other people. None had spent the night in a spider infested village hut. The Guinea they saw was totally different from the one I saw. Stephen was surprised, for example, that I’d had so much trouble with my camera. He took pictures all the time he said. But of course he would have always been escorted by Guinean officials and had the influence of the 4X4 and NGO behind him. Taking out a camera in those situations is profoundly different from doing it as a dumb white guy on a bike, all by yourself.
That isn’t to say Stephen with his work at the NGO didn’t run into problems or Guinea’s basic corruption. It’s just that the corruption he encountered was on a much greater scale and was even more systemic. While talking in Kissi he told me that one of his greatest problems was that the Guinean government had a vested interest in NOT solving the refugee problem. The refugees were a huge cash cow for them. They brought millions of dollars into the country and all the government officials took their cut. If all the refugees were repatriated the flow of UNHCR funds would cease and the officials with whom Stephen had to deal did not want that to happen. Rather than help Stephen in his work they put obstacles in his path and extracted what bribes they could.
The other two expats I met at the NGO, a Brit and a Norwegian, struck me like Stephen as very aloof from their work. They laughed and joked. There was no urgency in them as I thought there would be. Their work didn’t feel people oriented but paper oriented. This was, they said, because they had to keep careful records of everything “for Geneva.” They had to deal with expense reports and the usual endless memos that were the lifeblood of any large organization.
Stephen explained how they were often caught in the middle. For Geneva they had to be organized and keep track of everything. And yet they also had to function in the chaotic environment of Guinea.
He gave an example of how they needed fifteen trucks on the road doing different things. Each truck had to be accounted for and on forms were listed as Truck A, Truck B, etc. But his Guinean subordinates kept using different trucks. So they had 35 separate trucks with different plate numbers and papers but only fifteen working at any one time. The paperwork became boggling and indecipherable to Geneva. They tried to trace the activities of each truck but these trucks on paper kept appearing and disappearing and it was impossible to sort through it and see if the money was being spent wisely. Stephen tried to get his subordinates to keep the same trucks at the same tasks day by day but being far from the paperwork they didn’t see why that was necessary.
The German I met in Kissi, the “one man NGO,” had a lot to say about this. He said he worked in “development” in Africa for a long time and he was fed up with the big boys. He said the NGO’s spent millions and millions of dollars and accomplished nothing at all. Not little. Nothing.
He on the other hand accomplished a lot and he told me what he did. But what I found interesting was that as he described the way in which his efforts were effective he was essentially talking like a businessman. It was all private enterprise. And why not? The people needed to make money. He helped them set up small businesses with the intention of making money.
But when you talk to the NGO types you get the impression that they don’t even want that kind of success. They are charities. That’s how they raise their money. People want the feeling of giving a gift. They don’t want to give money to an organization with the goal of helping other people make money. They want to give money to an organization that is “helping” people which often translates into giving them things. So they give like Santa Claus. And they spend and spend and spend.
And there appears to be the normal pressures that exist in any organization. They can’t be static. They have to grow. Thus Jason’s Oxfam came to Guinea, not with a crisis to be solved, but with a budget to be spent. That was their starting point. We have X number of dollars. By March we want to “impact” on X thousand people. They land in Conakry, spend lots of money on hotel rooms, finding and furnishing offices, vehicles, telephones, computers, and then they go looking for some people to “help.” It sounds crazy but when you think about it it’s hard to see how it could be any other way.
I eventually took a room at the Cesar back in Taouyah. This increased the chances I’d run into Conde but it also meant I could drop in on Sundar and the family at La Vina. Seeing Sundar again was enjoyable but at the same time it only increased the uncomfortable sensations of being back in Conakry. He and his brother and cousin speak mainly about negative things how bad business is, how corrupt the Guineans area, how hot it is, how dangerous it is.
I asked Sundar about the day of the explosion at the ammunition dump. He said that the streets were full of panic, taxi drivers were charging extortionate rates immediately taking advantage, and everyone was running away. But for himself he just shrugged it off. When he heard on the radio that it was just a fire and not a rebel attack he opened the shop for business. He’s been through much much worse in Liberia and for him this was a walk in the park.
His poor cousin is not faring very well. He talks endlessly about all the bad things in Conakry while reminiscing about how good it was in Monrovia in Liberia. He talks about all the good food in Liberia and how just outside their shop in Monrovia they could buy all kinds of meals and snacks from vendors. He pointed to the street here to indicate the difference.
Sundar’s helper, Guzman was as surly and uncooperative as ever and seemed even more lazy. I can’t imagine why Sundar keeps him on. His endless whining and avoidance of work of any kind and particularly that aggravating shuffle would drive me crazy. He wouldn’t last a day as my employee. But watching Sundar at work it’s equally clear that I wouldn’t last a day as a shopkeeper in Guinea. I wouldn’t be able to maintain his patience nor could I be as friendly and jovial. Sundar certainly has a low opinion of Guineans. He talks only of their laziness and corruption and yet when dealing with his customers is happy and friendly. I don’t understand how he can feel such contempt for all the people around him and yet not let it show. Of course he can’t let it show. He’s a businessman and to keep his business he has to be friendly and even smile and laugh as he pays off every MIU who comes by with his hand out. He also has to endure the endless hassle of customers trying to knock down his prices. When I was there a very wealthy looking man came in to buy one hundred and fifty kilograms of rice three huge fifty kilogram sacks. The transaction was endless and the man went so far as to walk away. Sundar called him back with a jovial “Mon ami!” and agreed to drop the price by five hundred FG. His purchase totalled somewhere around 80,000 FG and yet he forced Sundar into fifteen minutes of debate over five hundred FG. As I said I wouldn’t last a day.
And then Sundar had to argue with Guzman because he refused to carry the rice to the man’s car. He said he was sick. Sundar, instead of firing him, which I would have done, called over one of the street porters. He also refused. The second one Sundar called over agreed but only after arguing over how much he’d get paid. I was sitting in a chair all this time, not even a participant but I was ready to scream in frustration. I was two seconds away from carrying the rice to the guy’s car myself. It would only have taken a minute. I would have done it except it would have embarrassed Sundar.
My reunion with Mommy and Papa at La Vina was similar in tone. They weren’t so much happy to see me again as relieved. They said they’d been very worried about me. Papa told me about all the things that had happened in my absence, all bad things. He told me about one incident where he had to pay 200,000 FG to a bunch of soldiers to stop them from confiscating and stripping his car. He also told me about his ongoing electricity troubles. He still refused to get involved in any shady dealings and his last bill totalled 400,000 FG. When he paid it the other people in line nearly had heart attacks. Everyone gets bills like that but nobody pays them. They just line the pockets of the people at the electricity company. It’s no wonder then that even in Conakry there is no electricity except for some irregular hours in the evening.