February 22, 2003
Conakry is not
what you call pictoresque -- remove its few street signs and you could
be in most any third-world country: little stalls offering
green-skinned bananas and tiny bags of roasted peanuts, dirty rubble
where a sidewalk would be, noisy taxis honking for riders, telecom
centers for phone and internet rubbing shoulders with ramshackle houses
with tattered cloth for doors.
But I write to
you from princess digs, my boss's apartment at the Residence Deux
Mille. Though in one of the world's poorest countries, I am living
richer here than I do in the U.S. This place is an oasis of money and
manicured lawns, a complex of new seven-story high-rises overlooking
Conakry's nicest section of sea (the rest is drowned in sewage and
garbage). I share a huge living room with funky modern-tribal-artsy
decor, sparkling tiled floors (thanks to the twice-a-week maid), full
kitchen with Italian stove and well stocked liquor cabinet, washing
machine, three each of balconies, bedrooms and bathrooms. The place is
buffeted by one of the city's only parks, green with banyans and palms,
its delipidated playground a contrast to our gushing fountain, rose
bushes, Olympic pool, and air-conditioned weight room. My boss actually
lives with her boyfriend in the Novotel, but has kept this place for
friends and newcomers like me until February, at which time I'll seek
out my own modest place, as my salary is pratically equal to the rent
here, $1400 a month.
I share the
place with an American photographer has been working with WFP, UNICEF
and other agencies for the past year. We get acquainted over falafel at
a nearby Lebanese restaurant before joining my camp compadres at a
disco, where music of Senegal and Guinea mixed with American and Latino
pop, and we Fotes (white folk) mixed it up on the tiny, crowded dance
floor with the locals.
It's hard not to
give into such vice in this devil-may-care country. I've taken to
guzzling Cokes, drinking Nescafe and puffing on Cosmos, leaving behind
all my well cultivated habits. It's too muggy and dirty to jog here, I
haven't find the time to find fresh veggies, and rather than walking,
I'm often shuttled around in one of the office's white landcruisers.
Between the cars and junk food, my lifestyle in Conakry is more
American than mine is at home, though the comparison certainly ends
there. I'm having to even get used to throwing trash on the ground, as
there is not a real system for garbase disposal, let alone recycling.
And did I
mention the other slight change in my lifestyle, holding down a J-O-B
for the first time in seven lucky years? My first reaction to my job
description is horror, comparing its tedium to the more creative
projects I've steadily worked in recent years. Basically it's a lot of
consolidating information: local offices send me reports which I
compile into a national report. There are biweekly, monthly, quarterly,
annual and special reports... a treadmill of paperwork. But much to my
relief, I'll soon enough be launched in the field to do more
Amazing how much
coordination and staffing involved in just getting food to people --
and WFP doesn't even serve it; that's done by its partners. Some 80% of
its aid (gifts from various countries, the largest chunk coming from
the US, either as food or funding) goes to emergency feeding. Right now
the focus is on N'Zerekore southwestern Guinea, where Ivorians,
Guineans and Liberians are fleeing the armed conflict in the Cote
d'Ivoire. One of the more interesting of my tasks thus far has been to
get a grasp on this disheartening situation.
The rest of the
aid goes to more hopeful projects to move the country forward, such as
school feeding projects that ensure that students have enough food for
thought and also encourage parents to send their kids (especially
girls, as they are the ones that more often get left at home) to
school. They also do food for work and training programs, where people
are given food so they can save other rice for planting and invest
their savings in small businesses.
After two days
on the job, my boss (with whom I've spent scarcely 10 minutes, as she
is so busy and overworked) sends me in the field. Kofi Annan is sending
his envoy McAskie from the Ivory Coast here for a special visit, and we
need a report flaunting all that WFP is doing here to feed the people
fleeing that country.
I spend half the
day in security briefings to get me up to speed on the situation there
-- rebels have taken the north after a failed coup d'etat, and as
foreigners are being blamed for some of the country's troubles, and
nationalism is on the rise, those in the south are leaving for other
parts, Guinea being the closest safe haven. Most of the refugees are
Liberians, having taking refuge in the once-peaceful Cote d'Ivoire
fleeing armed conflicts in their homeland and having to again find a
home, now in Guinea. The rebels want nothing less than to take the
government over, and aren't particularly willing to share the power, so
there's not much room for peace or compromise.
changes her plans to come this weekend, and I'm asked to stay here and
work on the briefing. Then again, at 4 pm, I'm told that all has
changed again -- McAskie will come the following weekend -- I will fly
to N'Zerekore in the morning to work with the local staff on the
briefing, and, as it turns out, pass some quality time in the disco.
This, I'll quickly learn, is the way this place works -- give up any
semblance of control over your life, or give up your sanity.
The situation is
compounded by the poor infrastructure here -- it's nearly impossible to
get out even a local phone call in the office, unless I use the
expensive satellite phone. Infrastructure is even poorer in the
interior -- in the hotel I will stay in N'Zerekore there is only
electricity from 7:00 to midnight, cell phones are useless, and email
is pretty impossible unless you have the patience of the Dalai Lama.
plane, piloted by Bulgarians, sweeps over lush green countryside wetted
by wide rivers to arrive in N'Zerekore, in the thick of southwestern
forested Guinea. A chauffeur is waiting to take me on the skinny, bumpy
road that cuts through thick green bush and palms. Villagers carrying
firewood on bikes and heavy bundles on their heads stop and step into
the bush to let us by, hands over their mouths to keep out the red-gold
dust that blankets the tops of trees.
The town of
N'Zerekore thrives with small, simple shops, bars and pharmacies, faded
signs for international humanitarian agencies posted along the
so-called highway. WFP's office here is small and calm, compared to the
bustling 5-floor Conakry office, with a nice reception area with wicker
couches covered with batik cloth bearing the WFP logo.
says his work is his wife, and that goes for most people here, who
breathe, dream, and eat their jobs -- working 8 to 8 isn't unusual, and
sometimes with just some eggs and peanuts to sustain us in between. I
still feel very much like an outsider, not convinced of the ultimate
importance of my job, and also not knowing quite what I'm doing either.
Between not knowing the language, politics, my job, my colleagues -- I
feel somewhat lost and timid and exasperated, an unfamiliar and
uncomfortable position for me, especially as I often can't contribute
to the conversations held in machine-fire French.
taking off for visits to the field, see-sawing and zig-zagging on the
poor, bumpy dirt roads while one of the field monitors plotted our
course on GPS systems and documented our mission with digital camera.
Our first stop
is Thuo, a town straddling the Liberian, Ivorian and Guinean borders.
Thousands of people have landed here since the Ivory Coast crisis began
in September, many after walking days through the bush with their
children. A bunch of Liberian refugees and their luggage were gathered
under a big banyan tree by the police station. The last truck for the
night had left, so they were here for the night basically without food
or lodging, sleeping uneasily in the open air. One of the kids cried
seeing me -- her first close encounter with the white kind. Surprised
to find how calm it all was, the police playing a game on what looked
like the world's largest checkerboard, homemade -- not exactly the war
zone I was somehow expecting.
Our next stop
was Bossou, a transit camp mainly filled with Liberians with whom I
could chat in English. Catching the end of lunch time, where local
ladies wearing flimsy Croix-Rouge (Red Cross) shirts over shirts ladles
out maize, blughur, and sauce from huge black cauldrons set up on
rocks. Rather than being grateful for our food, many of them complained
about the food (milled corn and bulghur, which they say is pig's food
that gives them diarrhea). There are not enough mats to sleep on and
the toilets are dirty but mainly people's minds are on where they will
go next, and whether they will be able to reunite with their families,
as people often sent their children or wives or mothers in advance,
leaving to God that they would be able to find each other later.
We check on
supplies, numbers of refugees here, when they will be transferred.
Getting information often requires field visits like this, as the
information one gets would otherwise be inaccurate or unavailable.
Boxes of biscuits to be handed out to young kids and pregnant moms are
labeled "Gift from Denmark..." The words international community never
really seemed tangible until now, but on the scene, I have a sense of
hope that we can and are working together, in spite of all the
On I was
supposed to go on mission the next day, checking on a group of Liberian
refugees stuck near the border, but I got left behind at the hotel with
a dead radio, waiting hours for news or a ride out.
I spend the
afternoon instead with one of Guinea's only woman chauffeurs, hearing
about her hard life -- five kids from different dads who didn't want to
get hitched, other than at the crotch (and apparently didn't want to
wear condoms either.) I've been told that girls here are taught not to
say no to any advances, rather to use sex to get what they want,
whether a better job or better grades. Many parents don't want their
girls in schools, for many reasons, really, but the sexual abuse that
takes place there is just one more reason to leave them at home with
We go to the
market together, and I was glad to be away from the Humanitarian Aid
World that is so international and yet so insulated. Women sat before
their puny garlics, tomatoes and eggplants, parceled out in handfuls
arranged in neat rows -- she bought a few things, but very carefully,
searching for the just-right price, though it was just a few cents'
difference. I wanted to pick out cloth to have some clothes made,
though dizzy with all the patterns at my purchasing disposal,
eventually I settled on a fuschia and indigo print and a batik swirled
Spent my Sunday
in repose, the day's highlight being a trip to the hairdresser where a
Liberian refugee, a young unmarried woman here with her son, twisted my
hair into locks à la Bo Derek in 10. She went to the Côte
d'Ivoire in 1990, when she was but a child, learned French and
eventually got her own hair salon. Left the troubled town of Danane a
few months ago, when gunshots punctured the city's fragile peace,
snatching her son out of school. Like most of the rest, she walked the
long journey from the border, passing time in the transit camps before
At the end of my
first week, I feel like an official bureaucrat: I can't remember
working longer hours to get less done. I suppose I can't expect too
much -- it will certainly pick up, as I will soon see. ****
Two weeks later,
I finally start feeling settled in Conakry, with the help of a rickety
bicycle whose chain broke within five days and whose wobbly wheels
don't let the brakes grip it quite right. Still it's good enough to get
me the few kilometers from home to work. But just as I start to feel at
home, they send me back in the field to report on the country's
development programs for an upcoming visit by WFP's executive board.
But before then...
I spend much of
the first week back in bureaucratic hell, every day at the UN
Volunteers coordinator's office, filling out endless paperwork and
doing inane medical tests -- bearing my breasts to the x-ray technician
(x-rays penetrate cotton and silk, as far as I know), making me touch
my nose and feet (I don't think I would have found my way to Africa if
I wasn't coordinated enough to do so).
I also spent
these last days depressed from isolation -- with the sketchy phone
lines here, it's a miracle if I can get a line out, a double-miracle if
the number is good, and a triple-miracle if the person happens to be
home. So I have given in to the convenience of cell phones at last
(00224 25 15 11 if you wanna call).
But it's more
than being out of touch, I've had a bit of a crisis of meaning here,
wondering if I am doing more harm than good. The good, as I see it,
providing information on our decidedly worthwhile activities to
important people who need it to make important decisions (hopefully
with the outcome of giving us more money), and giving a tiny boost to
the local economy with my dollars, and of course the richness of my
presence, which can't be quantified :). But compare it to the impact of
my presence as just another body to feed, endlessly riding in cars,
contributing to the city's mounds of trash... Wondering if I have a
more positive impact at home, where I can perhaps influence things more
directly and at least live cleanly.
But I know I
must think long-term, and perhaps after I get French well under my
ceinture I will be able to work on a project I see as more worthwhile
and lasting, one that suits my mission of sustainable living and a
decent life for all people, one that preserves that diversity of
cultures and natural resources we share on Earth. (Ha. A few more weeks
in this corrupt country, where the government steals or wastes
everything it can before it dribbles down the people, will dash those
haughty goals, for sure.)
Some days have
been insane -- umpteen projects dropped on my lap at once, with umpteen
changes to things I thought were done deals, obliged to attend
meetings, though I could hardly understand the French, plus sudden news
of more travel -- I have try to grin through gritted teeth at my
over-over-worked boss and know it will all come together.
I take solace in
the small things here -- a few minutes sweating out the stress in the
apartment's gym room before its manager, Abouboucar, glances and sighs
impatiently at my watch telling me to get out. The waves and smiles I
get on my bike ride to work, guys asking if they can hire me as taxi;
the ride home, a breezy blur of soccer fields, mosques, cows, chickens,
hairdressers, cigarette and orange vendors -- the staples of Guinean
life. The flocks of butterflies that binge on bougainvillea nectar at
my lunch stop in N'Zerekore, where I feast on a huge plate of rice with
potato leaf or peanut sauce and meatballs or fish for 50 cents. Waking
and taking bananas and oatmeal on the patio overlooking Conakry's
nicest stretch of sea. The drummers jamming in the park, their rhythms
persistently knocking at my bedroom window. Realizing I can understand
a conversation in French that I couldn't have just a week ago. Sitting
at a "maquis" (small snack stop) drinking triplysweet Nescafe and
straining to hear the news on his scratchy radio. Hot, crowded nights
in the discos, where I'm handed from partner to partner without pause.
My first rain, hammering the office ceiling and instantly cooling the
bright spot of my recent weeks has been finding this young dance/drum
group that rehearses next to the office in the "maison de jeunesse,"
one of the youth centers found all over the city leftover from the
country's communist days. I heard the drums, went in and watched,
slipped the director a note, he called me up and we set up private
classes for me every day after work.
The group voted
on a new name for me -- Fatim Camara -- and thus begins my life as a
Susu (the local tribe) dancer. My dance teacher, Oumo, is a young, lean
honey of a dancer, tough but sweet, not fawning over me but not afraid
to hug me like I'm her baby either. At first I am frustrated that she
doesn't feed me the movements faster, but then I know she's right
because I will learn them better this way. When I see the dancers
rehearse on stage, moving like rhythmic fairies and sorcerers, my
spirit soars, even if it also drops a bit, feeling like I could never
in a lifetime learn to dance like them. (Click here
Happened to run
into Lamine, one of the drummers from the island, and we've become fast
but strange friends... He was the one to help me get my bike, a $100
deal after a long wrestling match with the calculator and many
crocodile tears. He shows me dance steps in his little bachelor pad,
before taking me out to the disco, where I meet his friends, including
a wild-eyed bald guy who danced me dizzy, spinning me every which way
to a Senegalese salsa tune, my feet barely touching the ground. He
would pound on the bar like his hand was a gavel, demanding drinks for
us all like he was king of the universe.
weekend Lamine kidnaps me to the countryside, vaguely saying something
about visiting his family but not telling me we are going to spend the
night, nor that his sis lives 40 minutes outside town. It was my first
time out of Conakry by road, and a good chance to see just how thickly
peopled it is, every kilometer as dense as the one before it, not
American-style sprawl with a mammoth yard to each family, but tight, no
place to breathe or think or dream. Welcome to Planet Earth, 2002.
Lots of arguing
going on with the driver in Susu, they stopped for gas and I was the
only one with money to pay for it -- ended up being wasted as the
driver left us on the side of the road, refusing to go on the last
bumpy road to his sister's house as he said he didn't have proper
papers. Instead we walk the potholed roads in the dark, me slipping in
sandals never envisioned to be put to such a task. I was fuming, at him
for his poor planning and assumptions, and at myself, for not heeding
my own intuition to stay home, and now, for not just going with the
flow and accepting the situation. Going over rivers, vegetable gardens
and through a maze of dirt paths to finally arrive at his sister's
large cement-block house, filled with children and spirit and not much
else. The kids all leaped on Lamine like monkeys, as his sister, a
cute, lean woman, slipped out of bed half-naked, smiling at her
surprise guests. Soon we were all sitting around the kitchen table, lit
by candlelight, in a deep dialogue with the family's dad about American
life, politics, polygamy and more... The rooms surreal, a piece of
furniture or two for each large room andn not much else, like it was
built for dream possessions more than reality. Slept next to Lamine on
a limp mattress, hardly sleeping through the heat and mosquitoes.
In the morning,
we eat a breakfast of sugarwater tea and margarined bread before
exploring the environs, loads of women washing in the river,
kelly-green patches of potato, onion and manioc crops... we stop on
Lamine's extended kin, who examine me like I was a beautiful new dress.
Getting antsy, knowing tomorrow I must leave for two weeks and have
much to do.. he feels guilty and snatches the keys to his
brother-in-law's beat-up pick up, asking me to drive as he has no
license. After sputtering out several times (the engine is half-dead
and I haven't driven stick in years, let alone on a collision course
like this), managed to get out of the gate and onto the rocky roads.
Made it a few turns before it gave out, we gave up and got a taxi. How
do I get myself into these things?
stories, past, present and future, keep visiting www.aprilwrites.com.