Pam in Africa!
vous plait, monsieur…. Ma pauvre Maman m’attend dedans
et elle ne parle pas francais... s’il vous plait, monsieur,
puis-je entrer?” My United Nations identity card got me
through one airport barricade, but now I was up against a hard-lipped
security guard who found it perfectly fine for porters to be in
the baggage claim area mauling my mom’s luggage -- and perhaps
even my mother -- but somehow I posed a security threat.
it be said that my stepfather with the inside scoop on travel
advisories at the Pentagon, and other friends whose travels were
limited to weekend getaways in the Bahamas, urged her not to come
– the unrest, the disease, the heat, the war in Iraq …
And that our friends of so-called color back in Virginia said,
“You go on girl, represent! You won’t see us in Africa!”
But courageous, loving mom that she is, Dr. Pam just had to see
her baby, even if it meant taking precious little time off for
a grueling Guinean adventure.
mom, bags and daughter were reunited, we checked into Hotel Camayenne,
which I had chosen for its reliable A/C and electricity, where
we had a tummy-busting buffet breakfast and a lecture entitled
“”To Eat or Not to Eat” from a know-nothing
New Yorker who spouted complaints about Africa and later came
to me for advice and directions. Yankee Go Home!
proud to say my mom ain’t no Yankee. During her stay here,
she will valiantly ride the rough roads and brave bouts of diarrhea,
joke with and interrogate the locals, show compassion for the
hard lives of Guineans and not quibble over a few francs just
because buyers have the upper hand in this hobbled economy.
first night we went out to the Loft, the gringo bar in town, which
has a fine jazzy African house band and all the liquor you won’t
find in the maquis (the little bars and restaurants found on every
other corner). Being a psychologist, Mom is all questions and
curiosity; for her the question is what people do and why. We
played our usual game, guessing at people’s professions
and preoccupations, mom dying to know if the lithe women in their
slinky silkies purring at paunchy white guys were outright whores
or just indirectly so.
my chatty mom, the language barrier was perhaps harder than the
heat and bumpy roads, as it’s hard to interrogate a stranger
in an unknown tongue, as I well know from my work. She would say
stuff in English or high-school Spanish anyhow, then get frustrated
when I would blab and jest in French, excluding her. Suddenly
I was on the other table, as normally I’m the one who’s
lost in conversation; now I understood how hard it is for others
to translate every word for me as they fly by.
second night here, I arranged a “spectacle” for her
and friends and colleagues, hiring the dance group I work with
to put on a show on the roof of my friend’s building. Take
all the energy that your average American expends in a lifetime,
dress it up in sweat-soaked orange, green and yellow costumes,
add a danced story of love, death and tradition woven together
with fast drums, fancy footwork and nimble acrobatics, and you
have “le spectacle.” I had seen bits of the show in
rehearsal, but never in full regalia and power. I was inspired
me to dance again, and made plans to start rehearsing on the weekends,
when I had more time and patience.
I forgot a key element – lighting – and as everyone
showed up fashionably late, the show didn’t get started
until the sun was already diving into the ocean the roof overlooked.
So soon we were just watching silhouettes and Sorrel, the director,
sent out for lights to finish the show. I only saw pieces as I
was up and down the seven flights of stairs to escort people to
the bathroom and search out anything I could find to feed the
hungry artists who even gobbled up the plain raw cabbage the cook
had mistakenly put out. There was a near riot when the mob started
fighting over the peanuts and chips; meanwhile someone stole bottles
of fancy French wine and peppermint schnapps I had put out.
was pleased to see my old drummer friends from the island mixing
with my normally office-bound colleagues… Emmanuel, the
charming French pilot grinned like an ad throughout the show,
Aaron, a colleague from Kankan, mixed with the drummers, Sune,
my counterpart at another UN agency, grooved in his seat, Naouar,
the Tunisian food security consultant I’ve been living with,
snapped tons of photos. A good time was had by all but the guard
I had forgotten to pay off and the grumpy downstairs neighbor
who was frantic for sleep even though it wasn’t yet 9 pm.
Chimpanzees and mountains and tailors, oh my... The next day we
took the WFP plane to N’Zerekore, back in the forests of
the southwest. Though Mom was sick all night, our first morning
we were up early to tackle Mt. Nimba, Guinea’s tallest mountain
though not really so tall. An hour went by and the chauffeur that
Bac, a WFP colleague, had arranged hadn’t showed up, and
no one was answering my radio pleas from “Charlie Whiskey
49” (my co-sign, if anyone cares to call me on a UN Codan
radio). Two hours later, Bac showed up with a young kid driving
an old car with no seatbelts, windshield wipers, door or window
handles, or shocks. We soon learned the driver had never been
to Nimba, either, though he assured us we would find the way.
stopped to buy mushy avocado, roasted plaintains, lethally strong
cigarettes and lots of water and ask directions before turning
off toward the Ivory Coast. Mom snapped photos of all the village
kiddies en route, happy that here people are a bit more relaxed
about photos. (In Conakry, she was forbidden from her photojournalistic
exploits, as people are a bit paranoid, perhaps thinking photographers
to be spies.) Mom coveted the quintessential African photo of
women carrying jugs of water, stacks of cloth, bottles of peanuts,
you name it on her head, though she never got it.
we arrived at the village at the foot of Nimba, where an out-of-work
miner with a serious case of plumber’s butt offered us his
guiding services. After dropping off a gas can full of “white
wine,” i.e., palm brew reeking like fermented feet, we started
up the route in our trusty dusty vehicle, the rocky, windy path
made more for goat hooves than worn rubber. At the next “station”
up, we met a plump French couple I would have ever pegged as backwoods
vets, but here they were, sunburns radiating beneath their khaki
vests carrying GPS systems and animal ID books though it was doubtful
much actually still stalked these woods.
off on the trail, we left our guide Phillipe behind in the heat
and dust within moments, leaving me to carry the backpack laden
with 5 liters of water. Hearts pounding, we wound our way up the
old mining road, completely exposed to the sun as it was flanked
only by grass and a few token trees, the rest being huddled in
the valleys where the trail didn’t go though all the birds
did. We hardly saw any flora or fauna other than a remarkable
variety of butterflies, the most beautiful being blue with golden
stripes and orange targets on its wings that would have made Nabokov
and my grandma gasp. When they would stop and open their wings
to reveal their beauty, it made the crazy trip worthwhile.
Mom, out for the good sport award, was suffering from near heat
exhaustion and a bladder infection that had her squatting in the
steamy grass every few minutes. Under the circumstances, we decided
to forego the top and set back down. It wasn’t until we
were two-thirds down that we “caught up” with our
guide, mom and I joking that he had our back – way back.
He did show us the toothbrush tree, fed us wild grapes with bitter
eggplant skin, and told us the names of minerals streaking the
rocks sunset colors (though he could have told me the local word
for booger and I would have just repeated it with feigned fascination).
And he valiantly carried the bag, now void of its heft, downhill.
sweet, stoic driver was waiting for us at the bottom, swatting
at a relentless storm of no-see-ums like his arms were windshield
wipers. Our last tourist stop was an abandoned shack filled with
cylinders of marbleized ore extracted with machines that left
the area with all the foreign money, once it became clear that
Guinea was not going to finance its railroad after all.
picked up three of our guide’s friends and a couple dozen
packs of expired water, our guide suddenly deciding to come along
for the rest of the road trip to sell the water in Conakry. It
wasn’t until after we get stopped at a checkpoint that mom
asked me if I saw the rifle-looking thing they packed in with
a bit of extra time, we decided to take the roller-coaster road
to Bossou to see the famous chimps that lurk in the bush there.
Mom had to stop and pee in the bushes every few bumps; our prissy
guide complained of a backache from the road; the driver wasn’t
saying a word. When we at last reached Bossou’s chimp research
center, the director took us back to his office, put out his official
nameplate, and said, “Je suis desole, mais c’est le
jour du marche. Aucun de gens qui s’occupent de chimpanzees
ne sont la maintenant.” I.e., no chimps today.
we do the road in reverse; soon after hitting the paved roads
again, the rains come. At this point we realized mom’s window
didn’t roll up and the windshield wipers didn’t work.
Our driver rolled “doucement” (carefully) and put
on his hazards as rain smeared across the splintered windshield.
When we would hit dry pockets, he would zoom off to try to escape
the next torrent. We were all silent and white knuckled until
we finally made it home and could raise glasses to another day
next days, though only spent shopping, would be even more intense
-- sweating over endless reams of cloth and cases of jewelry and
stacks of cassettes, trying to cut a bulk deal… As translator,
I end up negotiating, which I dread like the rainy season. We
have clothes tailor-made for all our friends and family, chancing
it without their measurements. One of the tailor’s assistants,
a tall lean Liberian, stood in as our standard model: “Yes,
tall like him but fat! His waist, but big chest! No slit here
– you know what slit means?” We drew diagrams, hoping
they’d magically get it all right, telepathically channel
the leg lengths and bust sizes of our American friends.
as I’m getting used to having my mommy around, she’s
gone, leaving me with sacks of hand cream, odor eaters, pulp fiction,
Tobelrone, Stevie Wonder CDs and other Western delights she had
lugged halfway across the planet for me. But as a toddler clinging
to a blankie well knows, there is no substitute for the real thing.
At least soon I will have my cook-maid guy in my new place who
makes my bed and salads just they way I like them. I even successfully
teach him how to make Thai curry, getting tired of riz gras and
sauce feuille, the staple Guinean dishes.
As I edge toward my 30th birthday, I feel something in the stars
steering me into a new career, my ideal to be working on development
projects that fight poverty and support women and the environment.
In N’Zerekore, we met a charming Guinean named Pierre, now
working as the hotel’s accountant but trained as an economist.
He wants to put in place a program of microcredit, to encourage
a “human economy.” It’s refreshing to hear this
term here, a term coined by the likes of Hazel Henderson back
in the 70s that is now all the rage in America’s sustainable
following weekend a lean, brown sugar-eyed boy whispered to me
in Conakry’s arboretum, a universe of tall, winding, wisely
trees with small hard red seeds, creeping vines and gigantic pods
that brought me back to life’s mystery. Bouboucar showed
me around the labyrinth of green and brown, being happily dwarfed
by the towering trees looking over stinky trash heaps he called
“compost”, rivaled only by his pungent body odor.
the arboretum (not quite so organized as that, but for lack of
a better word), each family has a chunk of space for their leafed
wares – hibiscus, fox tail, coffee, avocado, bougainvillea
and countless others whose names I forgot before I could remember
them. But with no water, so many plants dying… Each family
had kicked in money to try to create a small reservoir, but the
money ran out before they could finish building it. Ideas erupt
in my brain – having them write up a plea for funds to send
to NGOs in Conakry, hitting up plant lovers at home, giving them
an interest-free loan, training them as botanical guides and offering
their services to tourists.
showed me saplings he’s tending for a tree plantation, arriving
in the wee hours to water them for his aged father before heading
off to school. But most excitedly he tells me about his latest
venture – chickens. He already has 300 chicks but needs
materials to build pens… 25 bucks is all he needs, certainly
not a sum I’d miss. But why not put him to work in my garden?
Quickly I call up Kassem, my Lebanese landlord, and get him a
job fixing up a garden for my “villa,” though Kassem
treats his workers less than humanely and I fear I’m just
throwing him into the lion’s jaws.
gives me hope at least to see kids like this, taking charge, building
dreams… So many Guineans have giving up on making anything
of themselves, resigned to what little they have, cynical about
the corruption in Guinea’s government and business worlds.
I would love to join with the likes of Pierre and start up some
kind of microcredit project here for people like Bouboucar who
just need a little boost to get started with a small business.
apartment-to-be is not ready for April fool’s (April fish
– Poisson d’Avril – in French) as promised,
but I do move in time for my birthday, blessing it with incense
a friend sends from Seattle and dancing around the house naked
to Nina Simone -- enfin je suis chez moi, at last I am home, though
home without an address, as I’m not even sure my road has
new home is on the grounds of the old Nigerian embassy, which
is now in shambles; my view is of its rubble and the muscle men
who work daily til dark to fix it up. Every day for weeks I yell
at my landlord to fix everything – the door handle is broken,
water doesn’t floor properly, the air conditioner is wimpy…
Demain, insh’allah, tomorrow, if god is willing, he says,
but God isn’t in the plumbing business last time I checked.
I realize how lucky I am compared to the guardian, who is temporarily
living in the old embassy building with his wife (who amuses me
endlessly by greeting me topless with the three-part finger-snap
Guinean handshake) and kids, without light, furniture, stove,
fridge, and all the other things I take for granted. I realize
how ingrained is our capitalist thinking that if you have money,
you have the rights to something, if not, the world owes you nothing.
times I get depressed here, feeling the difference between an
apartment building, where you may live alone but at least have
the sense of people around you, and an isolated house where it’s
just me and the guardians. Though I can hear children playing,
singing and reciting the Koran on the other side of my wall, they
seem so far away.
add to my one-woman family, I steal two small scruffy kitties
from their momma at a local restaurant. One promptly runs away
never to come home; the other escapes the house after a few days
hiding under the bed and refusing the cat food I’ve put
out, perhaps waiting for the fish and rice scraps it got at the
of the guardian’s boys finally get the hutzpah to come sit
on my stoop – the elder one sat there watching me for an
hour as I looked into the mysterious void we call a computer,
then asked, “You’re alone here. Why can’t we
come and live with you?” I give him a brand-new pair of
shoes, a birthday present from a colleague, when he tells me he
can’t go to school anymore because his shoes are broken.
It seems like such a small offering in the face of the poverty
here, but hopefully better than nothing.
place has some nice touches, like a deck tiled with white and
brown mosaics and semi-circular stairs, but the bathroom is worse
than the Psycho shower scene -- the toilet, tub and sink in a
wretched shade of blue last seen in the ’70s on the eyelids
of disco chicks. Kassam promises to change the harsh fluorescent
lighting and replace the dingy fabric on the wicker furniture,
but it’s all a long time coming.
just another chapter in the lesson book entitled “Letting
Go of Having Things the Way I Want Them,” as well as its
companion book “Clearly Stating the Things I Want Before
It’s Too Late.” Either I spend precious endless hours
doing things myself or I trust it to someone who’s bound
to get it wrong (like my other young charge, a bike mechanic by
night, student by day – who installs this god-awful “bell,”
a police siren with four settings loud as a truck horn.)
my petty troubles, I have found an outlet and obsession to ease
them: a boxing ‘gym’, where I am welcomed warmly,
given a mouth guard (lavender or green?) and put to work until
I’m hot pink and huffy puffy. The gym, in addition to the
usual dusty cement floors and ancient graying paint, and iron
bars on the windows, is festooned with photos of “boxeuse”
like myself, pouting with painted, bruised lips and posing with
their big red gloves. When I remarked on the posters, the trainers
responded with pride, not seeing the irony – there’s
nothing but male steel here, besides the director’s 9th
grade daughter. The posters seem more like the pin-ups you see
in auto body shops of chicks with melon breasts on motorbikes
than truly celebrating the female athlete.
will start training there every day I can; this becomes my daily
sado-masochistic treat. After a few weeks on the bags, they let
me in the ring with a small guy and told him to go easy on me.
Happily they treat me like an equal and call out “faible!”
(weak) when I throw a sissy punch. The guys are rather childish,
being proper jocks, though their sculpted bodies invite primal
fantasies… I can’t help but to peek when they strip
down to their undies to weigh in.
than a few female colleagues I cocktail with from time to time,
I mainly go out with the guys, like my drummer friend Lamine from
the island. We hang out at his family house from time to time,
where I dance with the girls and do karate with the boys and climb
into the long, open arms of an apple tree (the courtyard shared
between houses here always seems to have at least this God-given
luxury). Getting a hold of Lamine is always difficult, as only
his sister has a phone and she can’t call me on it because
she never has any money. Like so many of the women I meet here,
she seems so tough and yet tender, resigned to a probable life
of poverty yet still dreaming of another life, whose design shows
in the curvy red gown she wears when I invite her and Lamine out
is kind of like a big brother, bodyguard protection so I can run
freely in the streets on cool nights, yet a kid, in that he doesn’t
have any money of his own, not even enough for transport to come
see me. Our friendship is difficult on this point, as it puts
in my face the uncomfortable fact I constantly struggle with of
being relatively rich in a very poor country… I make 30
times as much as he or the average guy makes here, yet I know
that making him dependent on handouts from me isn’t exactly
a sustainable solution either, and a poor basis for a friendship.
by day, petit a petit, molding into this new life, heat, stress
and dirt and all. I am starting to feel at home, truly happy to
be here, aware that I won’t be here forever and that being
here a gift I can’t afford to ignore. If anything, more
than missing reliable electricity and telephones, I feel the lack
of deep companionship and creativity, the awe that comes from
slow attention and observation, from taking walks and measuring
breaths, that comes when the banyan tree you pass everyday pops
out at you and says hello, as unforgettable as the girl next door.
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