prepare for an upcoming mission of WFP's executive board, coming
from Rome to tour the organization's West Africa operations, I've
been sent back into "the field," to Kankan, in the Savannah,
and back to Nzerekore, in the forests. As this the board's first
visit ever to Guinea, we roll out the tattered red carpet- my
part being to create a briefing kit with so many reports we end
up putting it all on CD lest the weight of the paper give our
board members hernias.
on the road and in the field is not so glamorous. I much prefer
the traffic and trash of Conakry for that is my home now, for
richer or for poorer. Other than the adorable spastic puppy that
welcomes me home to Classe II, a hotel run by Liberian refugees
here in Nzerekore, the forested area of Guinea that is the gateway
for refugees coming from the Ivory Coast and Liberia, my evenings
here are depressing. It's too hot and dark to exercise or read
or do anything else I love, as there is no electricity in the
interior until nearly 8 pm, and then just for a short while. In
Conakry and in our offices, we are protecting from the realities
with generators and such; here I get a tiny taste of the way the
other 99% lives. Most nights here, I end up joining the humanitarian
crowd who gather nightly at Chez Aida, a bar and hotel run by
a Senegalese family, where everyone intensely discusses the logistics
and bugaboos of their work.
when I think I can't take another boring lonely hotel-room night,
I hear the sound of drums, and throw my shoes on in search of
the source. It was a party for a newborn, women and children dancing
to djembe drums in celebration. They were so happy to have me
join them and appreciative of the few dance steps I knew, giving
me the acceptance, appreciation, and attention I find myself hungry
for but lacking here, as many of my colleagues and superiors are
selfless workaholic robots who don't seem to need or give the
human strokes I find myself needing to go on.
in the field, the normal means of collecting information - popping
off an email, picking up the phone, scheduling an appointment
- are nearly impossible. In Kankan, I am sent to cover the school
feeding program, traveling roads not fit for a donkey all day,
even having to put our 4WD on a ferry to cross a river, just to
find that the schools were closed for Tabaski, a Muslim holiday.
managed to squeeze a little information from a parent and a school
director, though given that my shoddy French was translated by
a field monitor into Malinke, the local tribal language, then
his answers back into French and finally into English, I can't
be sure of anything I think I heard. They talked about the school
feeding program, though, like it had revolutionized their villages.
it may well be empty sweet talk, but slowly I become persuaded
of the power of a meal, centering my inner pendulum, which swings
between cynicism and idealism.
N'Zerekore, I write up the latest news on the new flood of Liberian
refugees fleeing renewed fighting and the influx of refugees from
the Ivory Coast which has thankfully slowed to a trickle, with
a fragile new government cabinet. Here my colleagues are working
long, late hours to get our emergency school feeding program off
the ground. The program is criticized by some of my colleagues
for being a purely political one: as the government accuses us
and like-minded humanitarian groups of helping only refugees,
this feeds Guinean schoolkids around the areas where the influx
of people has disrupted business as usual. I'm told that local
people have generally been very welcoming to refugees, offering
them food, shelter and even farmland, though the Guineans themselves
are often very poor.
I can finally get back to Conakry, we have a long day's mission
to assess the dirt roads and collapsing bridges on one of the
main routes for humanitarian aid, whose awful state threaten food
delivery for the coming rainy season. Several years back, the
European Union promised Guinea the funds to finish the work years
ago, but as usual, by the time the government finished playing
its shell game with the money, they couldn't even buy dirt. So
we flew ambassadors from Italy, Switzerland, the U.S. and Japan
to come ride the roads in hopes of persuading them to do something
had the honor of accompanying the Japanese ambassador, a surprisingly
earthy fellow, and a chain-smoking Italian engineer: we
reminisced about green tea ice cream and café espresso
and agreed that potholes the size of semis were indeed a problem,
and getting them fixed before the looming rainy season even trickier.
road passed through Macenta, where we have a program to feed malnourished
children, the most beautiful part of Guinea I've seen yet, waves
of grasshopper-green hills with farms tucked in their bowls, and
soft fuzzy balls carrying banyan seeds in the moist air. Fat drops
landed on our shoulders during a pee break, not a good omen given
our mission. Later, though, the German government will come up
with money for urgent repairs, and they will begin repatriating
Sierra Leoneans back home via these very roads.
back in Conakry, overjoyed to meet two new interns who will get
me through a most harrowing week preparing for the board,
a slender dark eyed young French beauty, and a smart,
serious straight girl from Sweden.
interns are laden with so much work
they routinely stay til 9 and 10 pm in hopes of getting the work
done by Thursday and getting to their real posts in the field.
Then headquarters drops the bomb that interns can't be in any
area higher than UN Security Phase 1 (N'Zerekore and Kissidougou,
their posts, are in Phase 3). Eventually they work something out,
though it will be an extra few weeks before they manage to leave
my workload is lighter than theirs, still working late every day,
all weekend, to get the board documents together, thinking they're
done and being handed pages back full of changes each time. In the chaos of all this, in the space of ten minutes,
moved my half-packed shit from my boss' place, Residence 2000,
to a Tunisian colleague's homey apartment on the sea, where I
will stay for the next six weeks.
it came together, and an hour before the board was to land, we
were putting their briefing kits in their hotel rooms. Now the
fun starts - my work being to schmooze with the ambassadors --
the short, sweet man from Mauritania, always in flowing white
robes trimmed in gold; smiley Mr. Mah, the Chinese ambassador,
who gives me tiger balm to keep the mosquitoes away; amicable
Ms. Slovenia, who takes to me as she has a daughter my age and
profession; an ambassador of Guinea, who asks me out over a long
plane ride; and the Malian ambassador, who could make an
hour speech on the current state of dog slobber - among others.
spend one day in N'Zerekore to see schoolkids gobbling cornmeal
and sauce thanks to the emergency school feeding program, and
generally assess the state of emergency there. The transit centers
were packed, Liberian refugees surrounding me with their concerns
and demands. they see white people in big white 4WDs and think
we can somehow wave a wand and get them reunited with their families,
eating the food they want, in a comfortable bed, things we all
want for them but have little control over. Indeed, much of the
control lies with the government and their willingness (or in
this case reluctance) to expand the camps or create new ones.
spend the night at Mount Nimba hotel, N'Zerekore's premier hotel
complete with disco and casino, surrounded by a buffer strip of
forest. I languish in the chirps and trills of crickets and birds,
a fluttering orange butterfly who lands on my arm, the artful
design of a grasshopper. a nice reminder that with all the problems
and drama of the human race, we are but a fraction of the story
unfolding here on earth.
leave for Kankan in the morning, flying into the small town of
Siguiri, having meetings with the government and hitting the road
to Tintinsibani Primary School. Meetings with the government are
generally worse than church. Luckily I am spared the details by
my still slippery grasp of French.
arrive at the school I had visited two weeks before and found
not even a class in session. Now it's transformed with WFP stickers
and flags brightening the cinderblock, dancers in wooden masks
and straw skirts, roads lined with obscenely appreciative villagers
shouting Vive Le Pam! (PAM = WFP) Apparently they even washed
up the schoolkids for us. Kankan's head of office,
was a bit embarrassed and displeased, having tried to keep the
event under wraps but the arrival of international ambassadors
to this tiny village was too much to control. I spent the whole
time running around talking to the Radio Rurale journalists here,
snapping photos and handing out WFP baseball caps to our drivers.
We ended with a ceremony where board members gave out tins of
oil to the cooks who prepare the meals in the canteens. A tin
of oil is like gold to these families who must literally manage
every penny as carefully as Ben Franklin.
we're in the skies again, landing back in Conakry heat, learning
that a boat of Guinean evacuees will land here tonight from the
Ivory Coast and my interns will leave tomorrow for the interior.
duality of my life here sharpens when my feet shed their shoes
and beat on the dirty floor of the Maison de Jeunes - my cerebral,
computerized, desk-bound world versus the earthy, energetic, mango-from-the-tree
life mingling with the locals. After yet another Doundoumba "spectacle"
(the strong man's dance, Guinea's national anthem of a rhythm),
I insisted that my teacher Oumo show me the steps once and for
all. Then finding myself frustrated when I just couldn't get it,
feeling sloppy and awkward and incapable, and annoyed at her for
being so unfocused and unhelpful of a teacher, though even when
she took my arms in hers and moved me like a marionette, I couldn't
seem to get it.
my short-lived dance career gets somewhat jettisoned for late
work nights and a foray into karate to live out my Jackie Chan
fantasies. Yes, short, squat, white me with a half-dozen ultra-buffed
Guinean guys and a litter of rambunctious Lebanese boys. The teacher
is a sadistic Lebanese computer repair guy; the satisfaction he
gets from punching people in the gut while they do jumping jacks
creeps me out. We do two-man stretches and leaping squats that
threaten to snap my ligaments, and stiff positions that seem to
increase the tension in my body rather than release it. I'm matched
with a Guinean boxer with eyes like polished onyx and teeth like
piano ivory to do kicks that always fall short of his faraway
head. He tips me off to a boxing place on the other side of town,
and before you know it, kicks give way to punches and kimonos
managing with the daily frustrations of my job, like having to
bribe the office supply lady with a badge chain to get hanging
folders, chase after my check, and find files hiding on five different
computers. Every day a new urgent thing thrown on my desk with
an unrealistic deadline. Frustrated by how hard it is to do simple
things - I can't even write a cover letter by myself, being unfamiliar
with the form and politesse and vocabulary. My only break in the
day is often just to go outside our gate to eat rice with peanut
and leaf sauces scooped from big vats by a Sierra Leonean woman.
On the brighter side, I snagged a beautiful, spacious and unoccupied
corner office overlooking the sea, where tiny fire and banana
bellied birds that perch on the wires and drink from the AC.
my love life takes several dramatic dead-end turns. I have many
suitors but no real contenders. A local colleague becomes a friend, looking to be more than that - writes me love
notes and brings me breakfasts of fried fish and plaintains -
confides in me that his main dream is to find a woman to dedicate
his life to. And, of course, go to the States, where his mom is
already set up, thanks to a visa lottery she won. He is such an
intense, giving person - holding his whole family of seven brothers
and sisters together as his parents are gone - the woman who takes
him will be happy indeed, though it won't be me.
finally find an apartment, rather a tiny "villa" on
the grounds of the old Nigerian Embassy, now looking a like a
war zone, with rubble and ripped out wires everywhere. I take
it on faith as the first time I see the place, it is basically
a raggedy shell of a building. It is of course Lebanese-owned,
as they run the real estate biz here, and apparently dabble in
money laundering on the side.
will be six weeks before I can actually move in, and even then
many problems to solve, but at least I will get a custom-made
garden, curtains, cushions, furniture and more at the other end
of the bargain. Everything available here is either handmade -
wicker furniture, gorgeous cloth in flamboyant colors and patterns,
leather sandals and silver jewelry - or cheap stuff made in Asian
sweatshops, and it is appalling how similar the prices of the
two sets of goods are.
must always end on the bright moments here: The comforting call
to prayer at dusk soaring over the city with the hawks and eagles.
Early morning sea breath blowing across indigo skies. Riding past
my bicycle boy and the fruit ladies, moms soaping up tots in buckets,
old ladies 'brushing' their teeth with the long branch of a cavity-fighting
plant. Hole-in-the-wall bars where you can listen to African rap
as you sip a cold Skol on which you can get drunk for a dollar.
Halloween-colored lizards and butterflies that slither and flutter
around my front yard. The amusing frequency with which I hear
Fote (white person, here generally a term of endearment) and deplacement
(what you say to hail a taxi) as I tool around town in my wobbly
Chinese dirt bike. The cook and cleaner-upper, a sweet, short,
front-toothless guy with two wives and eight children to support
on $75 a month. Nothing else quite melts my edge but coming home
to his baby grin. If he can still smile, what do I have to frown
soon.... mom comes to Africa
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