Travels

 

A Simple Case of Snap and Run

All right, all right, if I had thought about it, I probably would have known better. Guineans, especially in Conakry, the capital, can be extremely sensitive about having their picture taken. I can recall angry soccer players coming after my mom when she snapped them playing in the street without permission.

Other times I had seen the perfect shot - man with a colorful pillar of cloth on his head, a handsome weaver with gorgeous indigo cloth in the making, a natural healer with animal claws and furs and painted sign graphically depicting hernias and diarrhea - and asked permission, only to be asked some sky-high price for the photo. Apparently people believe you are going to sell it to books or magazines for some multiple-digit sum. As if anyone knows, let alone cares, about this po-dunk country. Had you ever heard about Guinea before you this story?

Yes, I should have, known better, but it was too late now. Coming home from our friend Anita's birthday party, I spied the sign I had been looking for to put on my website's contact page: Telecentre Californie, with cute paintings of a man and lady on opposite ends of the line. As Saroudja and Aaron were waiting for me, I snapped and ran.

The angry customers came after me, chanting "Donne l'appareil. On gate le bobbin ou l'appareil reste ici." (Give us the camera. We "spoil" the film or the camera stays here.)

Dozens of bystanders, smelling a fight, quickly gathered like vultures. "But there's no bobbin! It's a digital camera. See, I'm from California, and I wanted a souvenir ·" But no one was listening. The crowd wanted nothing less than l'appareil.

"You can't just walk up and take a picture like that. What do you think you're doing?" People were shocked by my poor judgment and immorality. The conversation heated as the swarm thickened. Saroudja started to produce the camera despite my protests. I was worried that the mob would snag it.

"Get out of here! It's none of your business!" I screamed at everyone and anyone, as Saroudja tried in vain to explain, appease and calm. "Reste tranquille, stay calm!" he yelled back at me, eyes big with fright and sweat pouring from his face. I clung to my bag, worried a pick-pocket would take advantage of the situation.

I yelled over the many speculating voices, trying to explain that it was a digital camera and I could just erase my mistake before their eyes, but it was certainly not an atmosphere conducive to explaining the white man's techno-voodoo. They insisted Saroudja produce the camera; I insisted it stay in the bag until we were someplace safe. "I know the law; I have the right to take a photo!" I said, words would soon regret.

A cop showed up, apparently not trained or interested in crowd control or conflict management. Everybody was talking and nobody was listening. "Fous le camp, get the hell out of here," I screamed, desperate to get the crowd away. "Who are you? An old crazy!" I screamed at one grey-headed guy who was chanting "Donne l'appareil."

"She works for the poor Guineans," Saroudja tried to explain, "the World Food Programme."

We finally managed to get away to the telecenter where I showed them how to erase the photo, clicking through souvenir photos to prove that I was neither spy nor professonal photographer.

"Don't do that again, okay?" the owner said, rather nervous to get the crowd away from his business.

"Okay, pardon!"

Thinking the affair was finished, we found Aaron, who had distanced himself from the whole affair. The cop, who wasn't worth his made-in-China navy uniform, insisted that we pay for having defended us. Saroudja said he should go with us in the taxi, that to take money out here would just invite more problems.

Just as we were about to get in the taxi, four hands swiped Saroudja quick as kidnappers'. The young men, dressed in streetwear, had not been amongst the mob. I was shocked, pissed and confused. I tried to tear them off of him, surprised that my bucking boxer boy wasn't fighting back. That failing, I attached myself to his waist and let myself be dragged off with him, screaming the way.

He was the bait, and I bit down hard. They shoved us both into the paddywagon with a bunch of rowdy young men. Aaron was on the outside and I tried to open the window to talk with him but they slammed it shut. He asked where they were taking us and he got shoved in too. He didn't say a word, doing all he could to avoid something being pinned on him. I started pulling out all my connections, saying I had permission to take photos as a journalist here, that I worked for the UN, that I had papers from the minister back in Labe, all the things that I hoped would scare them straight.

If we tried to talk I was told to shut up, the so-called commander saying, Ha, she says everybody knows the law in Guinea, she says we have no law here, and we'll show her what the law is all about. We were told to shut up; that we would be doing our explaining soon enough. The commander started waxing on my arrogance in saying "Everybody knows the law in Guinea· She means to say we have no law."

Soon we found ourselves walking into the BAC -- aka anti-criminal brigade -- station. How typical. All the thieving and cheating I'd seen here go unpunished, and an innocent picture-taker was being taken in by criminals as a criminal.

The first man played good cop. I told him my tale of innocence, turning on the tears, pledging my allegiance to La Guinˇe, that I have been here a long time and wanted no problems. He asked for my ID, and I trotted out my expired robin-egg-blue UNV card, hoping he wouldn't notice that it had expired.

Then the runny-eyed Commando came in and started establishing his power. "It's not tears I'm concerned with here. Who told you to sit here?" he barked at Saroudja, like the angry mob, not interested in a response to his own questions. Throughout the interrogation Saroudja would try to help me explain and revise my answers, but Mr. C would shut him up.

"Do you think you can just walk around here doing whatever you like? Would you do that in the U.S.?" When I answered yes, he scoffed like I was putting him on, everybody knows you need notorized documents to take snapshots in the real world. "Tout le monde connait la loi en Guinˇe," he repeated, "Everybody knows the law in Guinea." Once he got me to repent my sin, he brought out the problem of deplacement for the cop who had so nobly defended us. "How much does he normally make an hour?" I asked innocently, knowing it was probably no more than a couple of dollars a day. 15 mille a day, he answered, and I offered the generous sum of 10 mille, which was quickly accepted.

But he was just beginning to play his hand and feel out what I had in mine. Next we got to hear about how these bandits were ready to attack us, and it was thanks to their services that we escaped to safety. And what I did was an infraction for which I would have to pay.

Now his cohort brought to his attention that my card was out of date.

I explained that I now worked as a consultant in Labˇ, and that I had purposefully left my passport at home for fear it would be pickpocketed. I suggested that we call my good friend the American ambassador to help straighten out this whole affair. "I don't want to create problems for you; I just want to come to an understanding." We both knew that meant an understanding on how much of a bribe I was going to pay.

I was not ready to give up so easily, though conscious of the fact that my friends, both of whom had to work tomorrow, were suffering at my expense. "I don't have much money on me - you know, fear of bandits," I said. "Why don't we just make a court appointment so I can be properly fined? Or do you have the penal code here so you can show me the infraction and its fine?"

The second-in-command snickered. "You want to see the justice?" he laughed again. I kept my poker face on, but waffling on my play - Would this just invite in more people I would have to pay off?

My principles were quickly crumbling. I plunked 10 mille on the table, hoping he wouldn't raise me, but call it a game. Then we got into the idea that we needed to go to Aaron's house to verify my ID (even though he had refused to show me his or tell me his name, saying I could visit him here anytime), which would cost us a full tank of gas. I looked over to Aaron for advice, who had been intentionally mute the entire time. I knew he had previously been taken in for the infraction of a 3-day expired ID and that he had dropped 20 mille for the gas to his home.

If I pushed things, would I make things worse or call their bluff? Who really held the balance of power here? It was all a game I was playing without being sure of the rules, and surely with no referees. Saroudja called in one of the "petits" into the other room. He came back and told me to lay another 10 mille on the table and we were free to leave.

I plunked down the third 10,000 of the night, and we move back to the paddy, where they kindly gave us a ride halfway home.

We sorted out stories and impressions later, Saroudja saying I had done well to stand my ground and make them a little scared too. Aaron diagrammed their strategy as such: make us scared, make us repent, make us grateful, make us pay. I vowed to look up the law, report the incident to my embassy, start an anti-bribe brigade, buy a black-market handgun (illegal for the common citizen) and become a vigilante.

But, as the Commando probably counted on, I was too busy, had to jet back to Labˇ the following day, and his deed slid by, encouraging him to do the next thing the following night, I'm sure. Still I will get my money back sooner or later, when this story becomes a chapter in my hit book "Foibles in Guinea," accompanied by photos that the self-fulfilling Guinean prophets predicted I would profit from. In the meantime, one of the first articles I wrote for my new job's newsletter was an editorial on citizen's rights during detainment.

But here, people don't consider such behavior as scandalous. It's a given that authority is to be abused rather than put to good. It's normal that you pay people for doing a job they're already paid once for. Given that people often don't actually do their jobs, if you make them work, it seems natural that you should pay. I explained to a friend the idea of civil servants, that with citizens' tax money they actually pay the salaries of the uniformed. This was absolute news to him, assuming that the President of Guinea was paid by some rich country to lead his own.


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