a bit of a celebrity in Conakry, being the only white person to
dare to bike around town. Sometimes complete strangers will approach
me when I’m in a store or on foot and ask, “Où
est le vélo? (Where’s the bike?)” All
the other foreigners are in their cushy white 4x4s where they
belong, or in weathered taxis, where at least they have some rusty
armor to protect them.
Admittedly, cycling in Conakry is as risky as sleeping unprotected
with a Liberian hooker, and about as demeaning as being one. The
peanut gallery is on all fronts: the kids chanting Foté-Foté
(Susu for white) like an anti-war slogan, Lebanese Romeos making
kissy-kissy noises from their car windows, traffic cops trying
to arrest me for driving without a license.
There seems to be a tradition here about heckling cyclists. At
first I thought it was spontaneous wit, until I heard the same
wisecrack a dozen times. They include the following:
“Je peux t’aider?” = “Can I help
“Tu peux me supporter?” = “Can you
handle my weight too?”
“Déplacement!” = “Taxi!”
“Donne-moi ça cadeau!” = “Gimme
“C’est bon!” = “Good!”
“Foté!” = “Whitey!” (repeat
“Tu es fatigué?” = “Are you
“I loove yoo, baybeeee!”
“De courage!” = “Have courage”
I used to find that last one endearing. I am often given the de
courage while engaging in physical activity, whether cycling
or running from bandits. How nice, I thought, that they are encouraging
me. But more and more I have come to feel like they are cheering
me on in that Special Olympiad kind of way. Even the cripples
outside the mosque shout it out at me. I want to make a t-shirt
that proclaims “White girls can jump -- and run and bike.
P.S. My name’s not Foté.” Little do these well-wishers
know that I actually box large, hard-bodied men in my spare time.
I could use some courage in that endeavor, but they don’t
have it on tap there in the ring.
If you watched a film showing just my face as I bike down one
of Conakry’s demo-derby streets, you’d probably think
I were manic-depressive. Grimacing, I shout “qu’est-ce
que tu fous, tu sais pas conduire!" ("What the
hell are you doing, you don’t know how to drive!”)
like a ranting street person as yet another taxi cuts me off,
leaving me to veer into a small lake (“drainage” does
not exist in local languages), splashing muddy water on my already
sweat-stained work clothes.
Then a cute, shrunken old guy in a long bobo gown gives me a big
thumbs-up with an infectious toothless grin; my face crinkles
kindly back at him. The Kodak moment doesn’t last long;
“Bête!” I yell, as a truck overloaded with Chinese
rice leaves me in a black cloud that cuts my visibility and oxygen
by half. My face again sweetens as some toddlers not yet old enough
to say “Foté” waddle and wave at me…
I suppose my cavalry is karma. Back in the States, where cautious
driving is still a living practice, I am an outlaw. Stop signs
and traffic lights (neither of which exist here), in my opinion,
are for the unthinking cyclist. If there’s nothing coming,
why sit there wasting time or momentum? And why go the long way
just because you’re faced with a one-way street? That’s
why bikes are skinny – to fit between lanes.
But you can ride that way in America because you know how the
rules work, and more importantly, the rules work. Like they always
say in writing classes, you have to master the rules before you
can learn to break them.
In Conakry, I am forced to drive on the defense because I have
yet to divine the rules by which these drivers live. For example,
one of the main arteries becomes a one-way drag for the morning
commute, yet there are absolutely no signs to indicate this (I
leave you to imagine the frightening way in which I learned this).
There is also an unwritten rule that a driver has the right to
barrel onto your side, forcing you into a roadside cripple or
into his grill, if there is a pothole on his side of the road.
And of those there are plenty, plenty, as they say in Creole.
Perhaps the only law of the lane-less Guinean road that people
uphold is the one stating that you must honk before passing. And
honk they do, like a band of rapid geese plotting a revolution
against feather-pillow producers. The average Guinean car lacks
functioning seat belts, window handles, windshield wipers, speedometers,
gas gauges or even lights, but I have yet to see a car without
a working horn.
The right of way here also follows a law -- Darwin’s. The
guy with the biggest caboose rules the road; the UN chauffeurs
sitting pretty in their land rovers have rights over the lowly
driver of the “Macbana,” which is something like the
corroded shell of a mini-van packed tighter than a slave ship.
This right of way is taken quite literally. Once a guy tried to
turn smack into me, and when I started lecturing him on right-of-way,
he said “But I signaled,” quite proud of his on-road
As a cyclist, I am not quite at the bottom of this wheel-eat-wheel
food chain. As there are no sidewalks in Guinea, pedestrians compete
with us two-wheelers for the shoulder. This means I can run the
schoolchildren in their pretty checked blue uniforms off the road,
and tant pis, too bad, for them -- Gotta look out for #1 on this
highway to hell. Often the older ones are little hellions, playing
chicken with me, grabbing my handlebars, trying to make me flinch
or yelling out one of the aforementioned slogans. So I figure
better to look tough and not give them a chance to act up. Moreover,
both pedestrians and cyclists must fight taxis for the fringes
of the road, as they are known to veer to the shoulder without
warning or clearance to pick up or drop off a passenger.
By the time I get to work -- riled up, dirty, sweaty and, on a
rare occasion, bruised -- I am indignant. Every day is a struggle
just to survive my daily commute. Yet no one else seems to find
Guinea’s roadway customs quite so contemptible. Is it my
good old American sense of entitlement, the mother of righteousness
and outrage? That all countries should respect basic human rights,
like the right to ride a bike to work without being attacked by
rice-truck exhaust, Lebanese hustlers, traffic-cop comedians,
homicidal taxi-men or high-school hoodlums? How dare I demand
something so obviously unattainable. Any other way and it just
wouldn’t be Guinea.
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