Travels

 

Finding Home, Coming Home
July 28, 2003

A lot of water under the bridge since I’ve last written… literally. Conakry is, according to international weather authorities, one of the top ten rainiest cities in the world. Every morning and night, the sky opens up and mother nature’s fun begins, spraying bullets of rain on my tin roof and bombing the city with thunder. The sheets of rain collect in huge lakes in the streets, making mud of the little maze-like paths that connect Conakry’s courtyards and clogging up the traffic in long honking lines. Sometimes the showers last all day at full force but the nightly showers come like clockwork, like the bass and soprano chorus of grenouilles and moustiques (frogs and mosquitoes) that serenade me to sleep.

Since our office sits at the bottom of a small hill (like most of the city, without proper drainage), the parking lot becomes a pool after really rainy nights. One morning I vacated my taxi prematurely as the car instantly started filling with water. I had to take off my shoes and roll up my pants to wade to the door. The boon is also evident from the plants and flowers popping up in my garden like well-fed children outgrowing their shoes – onion, garlic and basil; fuschia foxtails (cou de renard, not the same plant we call foxtail in English), apricot ‘double-fuschia,’ others whose names I only know in French, like yellow and green speckled crouton.

After six months, I’m feeling settled into my work, especially now that I have ample support – an amicable, Amazon-tall secretary and bright, eager French interns, here in Conakry as well as in the field offices, who help me immensely. But if the work has become more manageable, it’s no less hectic, as new projects and urgent requests pop up without notice from all directions.

I’m constantly bouncing from project to project, which suits a concentration-challenged person like myself… Writing and laying out articles and brochures, taking photos, working on joint projects with other UN agencies, preparing documents outlining our emergency operations for the coming year, chasing down and renconciling figures from our sub-offices, schmoozing and arranging missions for journalists, putting together a photo exhibition and other events, developing a action plan on HIV/AIDS (I am now the office’s focal point for this topic… luckily not a huge crisis in Guinea yet, but we want to do some preventative work – condom distributions and awareness trainings with staff and beneficiaries -- so it doesn’t become one).

Meanwhile, a good half of my time is spent chasing after folks for every little thing and pulling my hair out over the ineptness and mismanagement in the office (the chauffeurs love to play hide and seek with us when we need to go somewhere; I’ve been fighting for a month just to get toner for my printer and have succumbed to writing desperately bitchy emails to my colleagues). The speed at which I’m expected to crank out work is inversely proportional to the speed at which people produce the things, be it statistics or supplies, I need to get it accomplished.

A mud-and-wood bridge on the one and only road into the Forest region recently collapsed under the weight of one of our trucks, killing two truck assistants and cutting off access to Nzerekore, the heart of Guinea’s humanitarian operations. We had took ambassadors and government officials over this very bridge months before to warn them… now, at the peak of the monsoons, it’s too late. Eventually local villagers did a quick and dirty repair (basically laying down some palm trunks), which lasted a good week. I joined the head of our logistics section visiting some businessmen with a financial interest in keeping the route open to see if we could get them to do something – Our only route to quick action, as the government is broke and even if the UN could mobilize funds, it would be hung up in bureaucracy for too long to be immediately useful.

Things are constantly in flux here. We just closed one of our sub-offices in Upper Guinea, as it mainly served a camp of Sierra Leonean refugees who have now repatriated. Meanwhile we are hosting more and more Liberian refugees given the inflamed conflict in that country. Virtually all of the upper management has left for other posts in the last month, including the country director; most of the international staff have contracts of one to three years. It’s partly to ensure that no one has to stay in an unsavory post for too long, and that there isn’t time for complacency to settle in, but the result is sometimes a lack of efficiency as people are constantly having to readjust, reexplain, reestablish relationships.

The new director has just arrived, yet another Italian (I’m beginning to think the mafia has connections in WFP), seems strict yet kind, the kind of father figure the office seems to need in its chaotic state. My former boss, was likewise tough but had wit and heart. One night I was in the office until 1 30 am Saturday night trying to get out a project – I burst into tears over the phone and Myrta left her soiree with colleagues to come straighten it out and radioed the duty driver to come bring me beers to get me through it.

Though I would like to stay in Guinea after my contract expires in January, I don’t plan on extending my contract (my boss has suggested he might try to rotate staff and put me in charge of one of the sub-offices implementing rural development projects, but that’s iffier than iffy) In any case, I feel like I am accomplishing and learning enough to stick it out in spite of the frustrations of working here. There are lots of organizations doing interesting work here – and there is much to be done – so I don’t think it will be difficult to find something else satisfying.

Unlike my first months in Guinea, when I was constantly on the move, I’ve been stuck in Conakry in the last months. We did, however, organize a weekend for the international staff on the beaches of Freetown, Sierra Leone. We peasant volunteers (I am technically a volunteer, though I earn nearly 20 times the average Guinean) went by road while colleagues with proper UN passports took the helicopter.

Like Conakry, bidonvilles abound in Freetown but the tall hills sprinkled with lights (unlike Conakry, one of the only capitals in the world to lack electricity) give the town an elegant air, reminding me of San Francisco. We spent a lazy day at “River #1,” running barefoot on the white sand and taking a boat upstream, listening to the clicks and whirs of creatures stirring in the mangroves, glimpsing the white curve of an egret’s neck hidden in their roots, gazing on green hills dreamily blurred by the mist, napping in the sun after stuffing ourselves on coconut milk and fresh-caught grilled shrimp… and the UN calls Freetown a hardship post? We danced the night away to zouk, rap, “slow’, and Europop, my colleague angrily pushing away the locals who wanted to get down and dirty with us. It was nice to be out and about with colleagues, to talk about something other than maizemeal stocks and drought assessment missions for a change.

In my alternate life I’ve continued training with Guinea’s national boxing team. I am really quite terrible next to these tuff guys – we just made a video in preparation for my return home and I was appalled to see my sissy punches. But it’s hard not to get an inflated ego there – the children chant ‘Avril le champion’ when I come in and the guys all lavish attention on me.

Though at first they all just seemed like a bunch of brute jocks, I have gotten to know and love them each individually… There’s Balde, who speaks good English, a young pot-smoking cop and self-proclaimed former thug, now finishing his degree in engineering. Ibrahima, who has the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen on a boy, keeps hip hop flowing on the radio while we tap the sacks. Bangoura, a bodyguard for one of the government’s ministers, teaches me ‘kingboxing’, as they misname that sport here. Hablai, a rapper with terrible pitch, abandoned school to pursue the world boxing title. A supposed "drageur" (womanizer), he denies rumors that he got one of the only other female boxers pregnant.

Then there’s Amadou, a young, smart, scrawny, curious guy who can proudly name all 50 states (we play a game where he tries to name them all fast… when he misses I punch him while saying the name of the state he missed). I explain him my Buddhist beliefs, he lends me African novels. Amadou dreams of going on a cross-country American trip, marrying the mother of his adorable young girl (he is from a different tribal group, one that prohibits marriage after sexual relations have already taken place, rendering this dream difficult). And like the rest, he mainly dreams of living abroad as a world champion and boxing legend.

Yet I’ve chosen Saroudja, the team captain, a sweet young little thing with a grand smile and a gentle demeanor, as my Saturday night fever… He improves my left jab and Soussou (one of the local tribal languages), I teach him how to salsa and eat with chopsticks. We lie in the bed in the rainy wee hours, listening to Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Guinean and American rap, Capi translating the Susu, Peul, and Malinké.

Saroudja, like most local youth, is fascinated by black American culture. He watched an Ice-T flick I brought home three times, admiring the music, language and gestures… Luckily action flicks require little translation.

Far from being a vain tough-guy, the Capi insists on cleaning my house though I already pay someone to do it (Africa is making such a bratty - though rough-footed - princess of me), and watches over my fitful sleep when I’m sick, which has been frequent lately: the evil eye (conjunctivitis, or Apollo as they call it here, as there was a big outbreak around the time of said moon mission) which had me half blind and looking perpetually stoned for a week, minor boxing wounds, mainly from my bad hand-wrapping, two knockout colds, an assortment of female ailments, tummy upsets, a persistent lung pain, 2 million mosquito bites, luckily not resulting in malaria…

Saroudja and I come from such different tribes, classes… He quit school the year his parents died, his mother passing in his very arms, a devastating blow for a Mama’s boy. I am fond of him, comforted by his presence, still I know though he may be a friend for life he is but romance for a spell.

Having learned from past nightmares with men who jumped too rapidly from bed to marriage, I told le Capi upfront that I had a coeur d’acier, heart of steel, and not to fall in love with me or expect a future but rather to learn to enjoy our time for what it is. While he has respected my wishes to keep it casual – we reserve our fun for the weekends, and no one in the team knows about it – his family is wild with appreciation and amazement that I have let him into my life. His sister brought me a shiny purple and black purse and a gaudy necklace before she had even met me.

Such gestures are touching, knowing how great the poverty is here, disenheartening and draining. Often there may only be one person in the family who is working – and by family I mean extended family, mom, brother, sisters and their kids, on which all the rest depend and share their 50 bucks a month. Most have little education (and in the rural areas the rates of education really dive), but even those who have a degree are often employed.

My dance teacher Lansana’s brother has done extensive volunteer work with the Red Cross, teaching people in his ‘hood how to prevent illness and water contamination, distributing food to Guinean evacuees back from the Ivory Coast, helping do conflict mediation during elections and football matches, when fights run rampant…. Yet he has searched for the past years in vain for work. I’m always especially eager to help when it is someone motivated, with a plan, and not just looking for a handout that will be dust by tomorrow. I put together a CV with him and am trying to get him enrolled in a computer course. I also used a donation my mom left in my hands to get Lansana’s mother back in the marketplace. She was a cloth vendor before their father died. As it is expected for the widow to remain at home, in prayer, for four months after the spouse’s death, she lost her business and now needs money to get restarted.

Everyday I’m asked for money from someone-- my boxing trainers, local colleagues, guardians, artist friends -- for shoes, cigarettes, bread, medication for sick mothers and brothers, rain-ruined roofs, transport to funerals, money to cover them til the end of the month… Even though I am in astoundingly good financial health, it is tiresome, because I feel I am everyone’s safety net. And now that everyone knows I’m headed back to the states, I’ve been bombarded with requests – organizing box and dance videos to try to get contracts abroad, orders for hip hop style clothes and walkmans, a proposition to export African artifacts to in the U.S.

Gifts arrive at my doorstep as well – Lansana surprised me one day with Doundoumba clothes in a bright blue tiger print and a pigeon for the house I “mistakenly” set free, Capi shows up weekly with a bag bursting with cakes and coconut and peanuts and mangoes (and one night, a kitty), my gardener friend (with whom I am doing this little export biz) with a pink-blossomed tree his boss brought me as thanks for the help I had given him.

My house does feel like a home now. A middle-aged Lebanese-American woman and her three kids have moved into the house in our little complex. The adorable girls with their dark long curls and wide giggling smiles come and play hide and seek with me and stalk my new tiger-kitten, Kéké, into hiding. Sometimes they drive me totally nuts, pounding on my door (normally they just knock without entering) and ignoring my pleas that me and “the baby” are resting.

I don’t go out much these days, as much of my amusement comes to me, a stream of visitors, teachers, and suitors. We now hold Sunday afternoon dance rehearsals on my patio, two drummers supplying the rhythm, me supplying the breakfast they gobble up as if it was their first meal in days. Slowly I’ve built up my repertoire of dances -- Doundoumba, the strong man’s dance, Mani, the dance of women, Saba, Senegal’s national rhythm, Tiriba, the dance of masks, Yankadi, the rhythm of seduction…. I dance with zest in my own yard but get timid when it comes to the marriage parties where each is expected to dance alone in the center (thankful that no one has handed me the handkerchief, as that means you have to dance).

In short, I feel like my horoscope was right – Conakry is a special place in my destiny, the astrological magnet that drew me here was not mistaken. As frustrating, sad, difficult, and crazy this place is, it feels like home, for now, and there aren’t many spots on earth that I've said that about – perhaps only San Francisco. In fact, I feel confident enough about my path here that I am finally giving up the apartment that has served as my home – and home base whilst traveling – for nearly ten years. And it is to that base I will return August 2, til the 20th. I am certainly ready for it, fed up with my failed French lessons and bureaucratic battles, needing an injection of clean streets and good radio and meandering conversation with you…

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