Days of Guinea
Nearly a year ago,
on my 31st birthday, one of my best presents ever arrived on its
own four legs: a pocket-sized puppy, whimpering and shivering
in a ditch.
Quatorze, she came to be called, as her lucky day was my birthday,
April 14. (Anyone who knows our names will heretofore have no
excuse for forgetting my birthday). She quickly rejuvenates, lapping
up half her weight in water and taking to my arms like a newborn
to its mother after washing her up with laundry soap and plucking
ticks, fleas and worms from her fur. I snuck her on the plane
back to Conakry in a green-tea box, keeping a low profile lest
some officer try to obstruct passage of this immigrant from the
country to the capital without proper papers.
A year later, my Quatorze has blossomed from a malnourished pup
to a sturdy, athletic guard dog that eats nothing but the best
beef, peanut sauce and rice. She’s adorable, with a soft,
sand-colored coat, a widow’s peak framing her white face,
eyes like polished mahogany, and triangular, black-tipped ears
that flop and wave when she trots. She can run 20k without a hitch
and keep up with a speeding moped. And she is spoiled, ridiculously
so when you consider the plight of her fellow African canines.
I would hate to know what the dogs of Guinea did in their past
lives to land in their miserable, mangy fur. Often I can’t
tell the difference between roadkill and the living thing, so
torn up and tired those roadside curs are, especially in Conakry,
where it’s eat or be eaten.
What with all the suffering, there is only so much compassion
here to go around, and never enough to trickle down to the animals,
lowly creatures without souls. Dogs are generally despised or
feared; cats are thought to be sorcières, much like our
mythology of black cats being a witch’s best friend. Good
Guinean Muslims tell me that the Koran forbids dogs in the house
as unclean animals (though according to Muslim scholar Dr. Khaled
Abou El Fadl “a hadith from one of the most trustworthy
sources tells how the Prophet himself had prayed in the presence
of his playfully cavorting dogs”. In any case, I suspect
that the religious card is more of justification for throwing
rocks at dogs than a desire to follow the rules of Islam.
“Allez allez sors! Get outta here, go on!”
are the only words most people here have for dogs. When they see
me kissing Quatorze on the lips, letting her slip into bed beside
me after she’s had a nightmare, taking her heft into my
arms, I’m sure they think I’m just another American
freak. (They would be right.) I love to tell them about the pet
shrinks and masseuses, kitty cafes, matching doggie-owner sweaters
and other behavior that mars our country’s already questionable
day, my dog followed me to the corner store, and I turned back
around with my purchase to find a big guy with a long wooden bench
over his head, ready to hurl it at my darling.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked. “That’s
“I didn’t know it was yours,” he stuttered.
I made him put down the bench and pet her,
“Shame on you, a grown man acting like that,” I said.
“Now pet her.”
All his friends laughed as he followed my instructions. This has
happened several times since -- one time she barely escaped a
huge boulder someone was about to crush her skull with.
Young or old, man or woman, people run when they see Quatorze,
and I gleefully run after them with her in tow to see their terror.
(It’s so much fun to terrorize the caniphobes -- you would
think I’d sicced a basket full of hungry Cobras on them.)
I make it my crusade to make Guineans less fearful of dogs. I
look for the bravest in the crowd, usually a youngster, and have
him come up and touch her fur, which he does fast, like when you’ve
made a bet to do something really horrible and want to get it
over with. One by one, the others dare to approach, each longer
than the next.
“Your dog is different,” they will say, when I try
to show them their fears are foolish, “Most dogs are mean.”
They fail to see the fallacy of their reasoning – is it
possible that dogs are mean out of self-preservation, because
people throw rocks at them?
Admittedly, there are some scary mutts in this town. The dogs
in the park in Conakry where I run with Quatorze, le Jardin
2 Octobre, are the worst. They live underground in the waste
canals, and come out in droves to surround my baby, baring their
tetanus-dripping fangs, bristling their wiry fur and flashing
bloodshed eyes. It’s like a horror sequel: Cujo and his
Other mutts lie under giant trucks on the roadside, cooling their
bloody fly-bitten ears like gang thugs nursing their gunshot wounds
while preparing for the next driveby. Walking around with Quatorze,
what would otherwise be a carefree stroll becomes a walk through
a bad ‘hood, the way the dogs come up from hiding to manifest
to this innocent creature who goes up them like a big dufus, wagging
her tail and sniffing their butts, the doggie equivalent of hand-shaking
and exchanging names. Only Quatorze doesn’t have the gang
signs down for them to let her by without a shakedown.
A year later, I
look to commemorate another birthday, a year with Quatorze, and
the end of an intense two and a half years here in Guinea, where
I’ve received as many joys, privileges and luxuries as I’ve
endured hardships. Perhaps the gris-gris really worked. I had
no plans to spend a few of the best years of my life in this place,
but I did. And though I have decided to move on, hopefully with
Quatorze in tow, I’ve decided already that I will have to
come back, whether sooner or later.
I know this place has changed me more than I’ve changed
it, though we do-gooding Westerners always set out to impose our
own great ideas, rather than let the radically different environment
dissolve certain illusions and idealisms. On one side of the scale
I can put all the things I’ve done for various individuals
here, and the things I’ve learned, some more useful than
others; on the other I can count all the myriad failures to even
put a ding a system than is far stronger than I.
Being a writer, it is relatively easy to work things out perfectly
on paper, but being in a place like Guinea, you are faced with
the extraordinary, never-ending challenges of real-life at its
hardest and rawest. To go on, you are forced to accept certain
norms as reality – whether cultural, such as marriage or
circumcision violently forced on prepubescent girls, or political
and personal corruption and dishonesty leading to widespread and
often founded mistrust that undermines progress and positive relationships
– and to adjust one’s convictions and actions accordingly.
I have also seen facets of African society that could serve to
teach Americans much – particularly how to live communally,
to sacrifice individual rights at times for their greater good,
and, I would add, to not be so damn uptight about things like
time, planning and other things so often out of our control. A
small example: when Guineans have problems, they will call a family
meeting (or if it’s a conflict outside the family, a meeting
between the parties, which a sage will oversee) to air things
out, let people state their case and let family members try to
mediate. We’d probably call that meddling – and it
frightens me to imagine the results of that in my own family –
but here it often results in peaceful solutions. Government healthcare?
Forget it. Family members call on one another in time of need.
Families have regular meetings to discuss problems or see how
they can each chip in to help a sick family member. What to do
about the landless refugees? Give them a piece of your own land
you’re not farming. Not that there aren’t plenty of
land conflicts, but it’s common practice to temporarily
hand over land to needy strangers, with nothing more than an oral,
good-faith contract. Perhaps these ideas and more could be introduced
through a two-way Peace Corps, where Africans come to teach in
the hamlets of Americana as our fresh-out-of-college idealists
do here in Africa.
While I have stand more firmly against the tide of our current
government than ever (as it is hard not to do once you free yourself
from the chains of American propaganda and begin listening to
what the rest of the world has to say about things), I am perhaps
more cynical about certain aspects of the leftist movement, the
many well-intentioned people who have lofty ideals about anti-globalization
without ever coming abroad to see the realities and the challenges
to putting them into practice, and without seeing all those uncomfortable
shades of grey that can keep a conscientious person up at night,
wondering whether or not they’ve done the right thing.
I have had to give in and accept that humans, often unconsciously
through the creation and perpetuation of cancerous systems, have
chosen an errant path, and that I alone am powerless to change
things that aren’t ready to change, though I won’t
cease to try. Until there is a critical mass pressing on politicians
and other decision makers to make major changes and electing new
ones if they don’t, until people are willing to make personal
sacrifices in their lifestyles in order that life as we know it
can continue, the large-scale change we need will never come about.
To some that may sound defeatist and pessimistic, but to me it
is just accepting reality and making the best of it that one can.
All that said, I am returning to the States to be close to family
and friends again, and to pursue a MA in International Development/MBA
at American University in DC, where I received a scholarship from
their School of International Service. Being here, working with
NGOs and local people, having tried out my first full-time job
in almost a decade, reiterates my desire to work independently
– both in that it suits my character and the lifestyle I
want to pursue (ie having free and flexible time to enjoy this
beautiful life while I still have it, on this beautiful Earth
while it remains so. I continue to lean toward holistic solutions
such as Fair Trade and hope to make my MBA and MA degrees intersect
in this idea.
Ultimately, solutions to environmental problems and poverty have
to address the economic, and it is in this vein that I am looking
towards business ideas, including a potential ecotourism venture
(www.aprilwrites.com/ecotour) and exporting solar-dried foodstuffs
and artisanal goods. I do believe in the Body Shop sort of sustainable
business model – that it is possible to do well by doing
good, and it’s the only way business can survive in a world
of deepening despair, collapsing economies, increasing poverty
and environmental destruction. The world is ruled by commerce,
and if those of us who care about the world don’t start
paying attention to it – starting with our very own purchases
and the impact that our consumption of everything from cars to
coffee has – the game, I’m afraid, is lost.
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