Travels

 

Life cont'd...
April 20, 2003

To 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.

Being 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.

Just 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.

Working 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.

I 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.

In 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.

Before 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 again.

I 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.

The 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.

Finally 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.

The 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 Conakry.

Though 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.

But 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.

We 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.

We 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.

We 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.

We 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.

Suddenly 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.

****

The 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.

However, 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 to gloves..

Meanwhile, 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

I 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.

It 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.

I 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 about?

Coming soon.... mom comes to Africa

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