Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sunset Jam

we sit and have a sunset jam as the day passes
the notes usher in the night
the sky, deep blue before us
the river drops down below
a constant stream of birds
passes like frames in an old fashioned movie
one flock flapping by, pause, then the next
rastaman is singin about freedom
one more night in the eternal struggle
and yet here we are in nature, free
we chant out together

the universal Plight of Artists

I pass my days with a bunch of young artists.  Their stories are another take on the plight of artists world wide, that of the 'suffering' artist.  Most families here don't support the choice to become an artist.  Certain last names such as Koyate and Djebate in Guinea lend themselves to becoming artists (like a caste system), but others like Keita or Djallo do not.  Parents want their kids to become doctors and politicians and have a 'good job' in the capitol and be able to save/send money for the family --  But an artist?! The collective scorn isn't good for the future development of the arts.  Many students that I've talked to at the Beaux Arts University tell of breaking away from their family and making their own decision - something very bold in a country where tradition tells people to listen first and foremost to family.  (The state pays for University once a student is admitted). 
      On the flip side, I see these students as the creative future for Guinea.  The left-brain thinkers, the unafraid, the leaders, the ones that think outside-the-box (much needed in a country that does little to help its people -- so better find ways to do it yourself).  A little confrontation is good for everyone in life; but, also so is a good mentor and positive helping hand.  The country doesn't offer much support to aspiring artists (musicians, painters, dancers, actors) - but I'm sure they would  if they realized here lies the country's riches.  Guinea has been mined and abused by foreign extractors and here's the chance for the country to make a positive turn-around.  Arts never expire.  Likewise, the true artists is always growing and changing and evolving with the times in a sort of symbiotic relationship:  people develop art, art develops people.  When we see life as art, solutions come.  So , now what ?   

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How time is Spent

What in the world is coming towards me?  I try to focus my eyes, but still can’t make it out. As the man comes closer I see, ah yes, this is interesting, he has a wooden crate full of about 30 chirping chicks on his head.  I don’t know if I’d feel safe with that on my head, especially if I’d just washed my hair, but he’s got a shaved head so maybe he’s not worried too much about that. 
     I had planned to make a quick swing through the market – but really there’s no such thing.  The only thing quick in guinea is the amount of time it takes for your clothes to dry in the sun.  Tea takes at least a long and drawn out 45 min. in order to pour and froth the tea from every which height and direction. A ‘5min’ meeting stretches on to an hour (or an hour and a half, considering you started 30min late).  Walking up the road to buy bread can easily take half the afternoon, as you’re pulled into greetings and conversation by everyone along the way.  So, in due course, I had in mind stopping off quick to buy one panga I had my ‘market mama’ save for me, but I end up chatting and browsing and come back with three.  I had just come from checking out some artisana type shops up the road and I was thoroughly unimpressed.  Lots of clothing and kitsch specifically made to sell to tourists – ehgh. So I guess you could say I make my way quickly out of these shops, too. 
     I spied a few signs around town today that I really got a kick out of.  One read, “Pain” with a drawing of 2 loafs of bread above it.  Does this bread give you Pain?  I gathered it should read “Pan” instead (French for bread).  Anther was a sign for an Alimentation shop with lettering that looked like it was inspired by Rocky Horror.  I wonder, what kind of snacks and goodies do they sell in there?  I also saw a sign for ‘jeux’ games and videos and “baby foot.”  I immediately start to scan all the feet of kids that I pass in the neighborhood and see if any are missing.
   I had to go to the dentist today, and wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into.  We pull up to a building with a bunch of Chinese lettering on the outside, and before I we even reach the door I catch whiff of that unmistakable dentist smell.  Inside is a tacky/lavish décor of tiles, fake plants (including fake ivy wrapped around columns) and a huge, black counter that everyone looks like dwarfs next to (intimidation factor?).  It for some reason I feel like this could also be a public pool, with all the tiles and echoing nature.  Anyway I fill out some forms and hunker into a chair and wait to see what happens.  A Chinese lady with a black scarf wrapped tightly around her neck almost like a brace, a pearl necklace and little glasses comes out and says she has pain in her neck and one the other doctors will see me ( I guess this is her place).  I get called back into a kind of dingy room with the dentist chair, they seem to have pretty modern equipment (no pliers lying around) but still I’m happy I don't need to have any work done. 
            I meet up with Adrissa and we go to have dinner at his family’s house. I notice the taxi driver ripping the bills people hand him before he shoves them into one of the front cubbies of the car.  Hmm? Adrissa tells me that they do this to see if they’re fake.  Ok, so this explains why I get so much ripped money in Guinea.  We walk down a very rough, bumpy exposed rock road - which compares to parts of terrain found on Mt. Fuji – in order to get to the families house. Not the easiest thing in flip-flops and a dress – my mantra is “please don’t stub my toe, please don’t stub my toe.”  In fact, I have noticed that many of the back streets in Conakry would be considered hiking, if not for the fact that they’re supposedly in a city. At the family’s house, we eat tÔ with a ground up fish-peanut butter sauce.  Note to the culinary timid, Susu’s love there hot peppers.  My nose is running like a firehouse and I tell mom, “Mmm it’s delicious.” I definitely like to taste my food more than disguise it with fire.  When I rinse off my hands, one of the 15yr old cousins throws the water off the deck – and into the freshly dried clothes on the line.  We all laugh, but grandma scolds.  She’s taken her seat as grand overseer of the home, biting slackness in the butt. We say our goodbyes, and head out for a trek through Rattomah. 
        I enjoy wandering through these rough residential streets.  Youth are out all along the road, and Adrissa gets shout-outs and seems to know most of them along the way.  We come to a hilly, overlooking section where a bunch of Rasta guys are hanging out, doing their afternoon thang.  It reminds me a little of Lasa, the Rasta community just outside of Bamako up on the hill overlooking the town.  We go over to greet who seems to be the big brother of the group, who’s got a wrap on open at the top and his dreads come spilling out like an overflowing volcano.  Cool, alright, easy, fist bounce….and we walk down the hill and up to the train tracks.  This is the spot.  We have a panoramic view down into the city, and are surrounded by green up here in the hills, very peaceful.  There’s a walkway along the tracks and as we cruise along we meet groups of youth sitting and chillin.  We continue along the tracks until they run into neighborhoods again and we zigzag along till we’re back in Taoyah.  Back on the main road I feel like a deer in the headlights, I can’t stand all these vehicles coming towards me.  The lights, the dust, the pollution – take me back, country roads. 
       Nevertheless, I return back to village and am greeted by sights like kids practicing back flips in the discarded pile of rice stalks.  I walk the all of 5 ‘blocks’ from my house to the small market and greet the orange selling ladies, aka my fan club.  I continue my walk, pass groups of guys making their Friday-night-tea-and-conversation, and begin to hear my guitar.  Ah yes, the jam is in session. I’m really glad I brought this guitar as it’s gotten a ridiculous amount use already, it’s passed around like a newborn, and I’d like to think its inspiring a new wave of musicians.  There’s a group of 10 or so guys hanging around, all magnetized by the sounds.  The soft light of the moon invites everyone to stay outside longer.
      We hear drumming in one direction (coming from the beaux arts university) and decide to go check it out.  A rehearsal is in session, and wild drumming, singing, dancing, and acting ensues.  There’s even a sizable audience that’s come out of the woodwork, probably also by following the sounds.  The practice is in one large room, lit only by one battery operated lantern that gives the room a smoky, faint, almost dreamlike glow.  The dancers’ bodies are like shadows, flitting fast and furiously across the wall. The drums resound and the loud taps crack and bounce off the walls in every direction.  The acting is a sort of historical allegory - hunters prowl around, people are led off in chains, and I think I know what they’re getting at.  All these shadow bodies are so quick, supple and expressive.  Reality is more beautiful and leads to more in depth questions than the dream.      

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chameleon in the City

One of my other family visits this week has me wondering through the side streets of Kaloum, in Conakry.  I immediately notice a calmer difference in this residential neighborhood. Its like a village within the city:  one story modest houses; a washing board out resting on a tree with soap still on it; laundry hanging like prayer flags, fanning out in all directions, on lines tied to the mango tree; a boy pushing a tire with a stick, running down the street.  When we get to the family’s courtyard, work stops, and all eyes turn to see what’s walked in.  I am happily ushered around from the aunties making food, to the uncles sitting around in the shade, to the young girl sweeping, and the little baby looking around in oblivion.  It’s hard to know exactly who is who, and how everyone’s related, so I generally just take the chair offered to me and sit down and smile and let the situation unfold.  The mother is very shy and stands up to greet me out from behind her sewing project.  The uncle takes it upon himself to leave his spot in the shade, and bring his chair over and give me a hard time. “I’ll come pay you a visit in Dubreka, “he smiles.  “No,” I smile back and shake my head – nice try.  I quickly change the subject. I chit chat and take some photos and then we’re off down the road to visit some musicians and dancer friends. 
        We walk along an artery road lined with the necessities of African up-and-coming life:  photo shop, barber, tailor, and little candy/cigarette boutique.  The artists are out, sitting around, looking like they’re ready for something to happen.  It’s Friday, so they have their day off their normal practice schedule.  One guys fixing a drum, another is polishing shoes, two girls are doing hair and the others are sitting around twiddling their thumbs.  I realize they have a nice communal living situation going on.  We talk about the various dancing/drumming schools in CKY and when the best time to visit is.  One guy pulls out his kora and starts to play its peaceful rhythms.  Nothing sounds of West Africa like the kora, it speaks and I listen.  But seeing how no dancing is going on today, we decide to go off for a little exploration instead to the beach.  We turn off this main road and wind thru trash ridden alleys, holes in the walls, over crumbled bricks, and into the quartier Matom.  En route we pass a HS, and one of the girls is from Dubreka and runs up all excited to see me (I guess she stays here with relatives during the week so she can go to a better school here).  We pass another lycee where kids are getting whacked with a paddle one after the other – my friend says for talking in class.  They sure seem to waste a lot of class time whacking when they could be doing something more productive.  An old man sits outside with white hair an white eyelashes (really cool looking if you ask me, cause they play off his dark skin) and in a mesh Jamaican style shirt.  He doesn’t seem bothered by the beating though, you can hear it loud and clear in the street, but he’s happy to watch what’s going and coming on the street in front of him.
              We pass the transit for the Forestier region, where 80’s model school buses are revived and packed high with booty for the upcountry.  (I wonder if I can find that crayon behind the back seat that I lost in the second grade?)  The road leads us past the community centre for the quartier, where a lot of people are milling about for no apparent reason.  A guy grills meat-on-a-stick methodically under the Acacia; and old woman gives me a friendly stare down and her eyes alight when I smile back; a line of folks seems to be waiting for something at the cementerie, but I’m not exactly sure what. We start to meander through the market and walk over layers and layers of decomposing trash, thick like mulch in an old growth forest.  I’m wondering how old the stuff is at the bottom – someone should really do a study on the timeline for decomposing trash here.  Just think, if there were fines for throwing trash on the ground here, the government would be filthy rich, and would never have to ask for foreign aid again!
          Since it’s midday, we pass a lot of bars in ‘convenient shady places’ – under trees, in the shadow of tall walls, under hangars – crammed full with functioniers, city workers, police and miliataire.  Nothing spells relaxation from the day’s heat like tea, smokes, and rice and sauce for all.  We don’t make it to the beach yet, but instead stop to sit down in a bar where my friend is close with the owner.  The barman talks in a volume 3times too loud for normal conversation - the kind of unleashed banter that’d make most Europeans anxious.  The place is fly ridden, and its best not to look around too much for fear of seeing something else disturbing.  ‘Focus on your drink at hand and do not look at our dirty kitchen where we’re preparing your food’ must be their motto.  I do hone in on 8 large percolator pots they have out and ready (and can even smell an awakening aroma from them), but they have weird braces made for each pot that run up the sides and covers the top (where the steamed coffee should come out) and it makes me wonder if they use them correctly.  Its me in a bar full of men loafing around midday:  feet up, motivation down.  The sweat from the trek across town catches up with me, and I sit and begin to get sticky.  This is my signal its time to go.  I’ve been called back to the bureau anyway, so we’ll have to save the beach for another time. 
        In order to get back I have to take 3 taxis, I feel like I'm in a baton pass relay.  I jump over a sewer ditch to get to one station where taxis wait – this made me feel like I was living dangerously (oh god, to think if I fell in!).  I also marvel at a sign at the Humdulaye round point that cautions people to look when they cross the road, and it has a picture of an accident and a guy with his arm all bloody and dripping blood.  Cool, I take a picture of this creative interpretation.  I buy some kola nuts for the elders in the village before I head back, negotiate a pagna, and go back to a boutique where I saw oats for half the price that they sell them at in the Lebanese stores – score !       
         On our way back to Dubreka, we stop at the gas station store near km36.  There’s an old man dressed up in full military regalia acting as doorman/guard/Don Quiote-esque protector of the universe.  We scratch our heads and wonder if he really was in war and won all those metals (WWII ? ) or if he’s bluffing.  Regardless, I decide to engage him in conversation, and get a closer look at all his gear. He has a 40’s style hard-domed pith helmet with goggles that I think it the most coolest-badass looking thing I’ve seen in a long time. He’s ornamented with all sorts of stars and metals and has a red, gold and green sash over his whole get-up. At his hip is a very real looking revolver, and at various places around his body he has fastened knives, and other instruments of African-European style warfare.  I'm wondering when was the last time any of these were used - yesterday?  last week? last decade? (but I wouldnt be surprised if he took out on of the knifes and used it to pick his teeth.) A real ham for attention, he jumps to the idea of me taking some photos, and when we’re off he gives us several dramatic salutes.  What a character - I’m hoping I can come back and talk stories with him another day.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Return from Mecca

Papa returns from Mecca.  The wooden-slat hangar has been constructed just in time (but it doesn't look so long-lasting). An elder woman griot is leading a call-response (I'm guessing religious inspired) song with rhythmic clapping as the beat.  Its sounds good and draws me over.  I was actually on my way out the door to ride around town to make some errands when i saw the goings-on.  I wants even told Papa was back (thanks, 'family'), so I'm a little put-off.  But, i decided now that they've seen me and I've seen it, I better go over. I don't go up and welcome papa though because he's sitting high up and in front of everyone, and I'm there with my bike and helmet on, and not dressed in festive attire.  I see the 2nd wife has a prominent seat on the couch next to papa's brother, (this is the first time I've seen her, because she has her own separate house in Conakry) and then papa - there are only 3 on the couch.  Papa is wearing an all white Muslim robe with a headdress with a black tie wrapped around it, looking very 'Saudi Arabia.' Mama's sitting at the far side of the hangar with the other women.  I have a hard time getting my head around how there can be so many prayers, benedictions, and well wishing when on opposite sides of the hangar one clearly sees the 2 poles of the cosmic creative universe:  wife number one and wife number two.  The elephant in this closet is HUGE.  Allah help us. 
       In front of the couch is a table with a plastic bouquet and a large bowl full of money - the latter seeming to beg the question that if you go to Mecca you become rich ?? right?  (or is that spiritually rich?)  A muezzin chants prayers and attendants of this celebration begin to come up and give him money, too; and more money with each prayer he chants (peer pressure).  Then even before he's completely stopped, a female griot decides she has to have her turn, and cracks into her 70's megaphone.  The first couple minutes she has no tone, no rhythm , and no style, its painful.  But then she works her way into  a song everyone knows and people help her out with the chorus.  I know its a welcoming party, but I've had enough.  I head out via bike to run my errands (i.e. things i cannot live without like pb snacks, bananas, and going to visit my favorite tailor).
       En route, I stop to visit Adrissa but see his door's locked shut (I call and he says he's on his way home).  I borrow a pen from a passerby and sit and write.  A group of marauding enfants runs up the street with homemade instruments of infant war - tin cans on sticks and strings with odds and ends on the ends that rattle when they drag them.  It looks like a fierce, ferocious, and rambunctious party - I'm thinking of joining them! A group of herons fly overhead signalling that night is coming. 
      A few hours later the motley crew of kids is still out making a commotion, partying without care under the light of the moon.  My friend tells me that when the moon's out like this, kids are expected to be out socializing  and having fun.  Not a bad way to grow up.  I walk down the dark street, led by the sound of the group, and over to give them a shout-out.  Keep livin' little ones !

Oh , Conakry

I am both underwhelmed and overwhelmed by the state of Conakry.  I feel like boycotting the city until something better is done.  The trash, the turning the beach into a dump, the exhaust, the utter disrepair of buildings, the chopping down of the few trees that are left etc etc.  Really, its disgusting.  How can people go about as if this is 'progress'?  What do the elders think?  I ask myself every time i visit.   I'm sitting in 9am traffic, and trying to get downtown to work.  If there's no traffic it takes 15-20min. but with traffic it can take even 3 hours.  Lets hope it doesn't come to that this morning! However, all i can see are cars, trucks, vans, and more cars 'parked' on the road in every direction (traffic rules don't really apply here).  From the car window I can take a peep at life on the street as I pass, but most of the goings-on lead me to the question of, "why?!?!"  I'm sure it wasn't even this bad 10 years ago, but the thing is, once the ball starts rolling, its hard to turn the momentum back.   People want and need and desire without end - but also without reason. 
Education Now.  This is my new slogan.  Consciousness Now.  : )  Lets see what happens
      I watch a guy dump out his pushcart of trash into the green-space that connects with the RR tracks. But then I look in his pushcart and see that it's still full of trash, leading me to wonder how full it was before he dumped it.  I watch people walk up and down the RR tracks as if it was a sidewalk.  Flanking the tracks it almost looks like a park because plants have been allowed to grow (since its not any one's property), and even some people have made little gardens in this no-mans space.  We pass Medina Mkt and I realize that most of the traffic is held up because of here.  This is the main market in all of Conakry and daily resembles a zoo, with all the animals gone wild.  You can find anything here, and now that i think of it,  it would be kind of fun to stage a scavenger hunt in the market.   I see a young girl strolling along with bucket on her head, baby on back, and has swapped her panga for tight yellow jeans - both modern and traditional, the new 'femme Africain'.  Another woman has a huge sack on her head that's so big it flops over like a mushroom.( : ) Guys hawk cell phone cards, cds, maps of Conakry, anything and everything.  The market is the lifeblood of the city.  I watch one woman walk with a bundle on her head, trip, and keep the bundle balanced - amazing !  I gave her a standing ovation, but I don't think she saw through all the traffic and smoky haze.  If I don't get to work today, I think I'll just hop out here and get lost in the mayhem and maybe practice my bucket balancing (when in Rome, right? )       

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Practice Recital

The rehearsal space is like a steam room.  the kids are half smiles half concentration.  the young girls start the dance; all with braided hair, wearing shorts and no shirts (but they're so young it doesn't matter). The base movement of the dance is when they open and swing their arms back and forth across their chests and stomp their feet with the rhythm.  A fast-djembe break, and they switch to a pounding, stomping move. One of the girls calls out in song and ushers in the next rhythm, is a digging like movement. The next change they get on hands and knees and thrust their backs and do a somersault and then start back in with the arm swinging again.  The boys in back beat furiously at the drums, some dance and jump and bob in time, in place - especially when the teachers not watching, they're quite the comic crew. One of the drums is tilted the wrong way (or maybe slipping away on the tiles) so the professor grabs some jelly sandals and shoves them underneath to create the needed balance. When the girls finish and rotate out, the group of boy dancers comes out and without the music stopping, goes through the same dance. In the performance they'll all be together, but there's not enough space here in the small classroom for them all to dance together.  Just yesterday, they even moved out the bookshelves on both sides of the room to open up the tight, dimly lit space.  As i sit and watch, sunlight filters into the room, and kids stand on the building's ledge, and look in through the window by hanging onto the bars outside so they can see the performance, too (I always laugh at this because it looks like they're in jail).  I learn too late that i am apparently sitting in the danger zone, and i get tumbled onto two times during the somersault part.  The girls huddle together and close to the wall when the boys come on because they're afraid of getting whacked or kicked (the boys are pretty unpredictable, i don't blame them).
        In the pause, a girl with 'wari' (boiled sweet potato) on her head, comes to make stomachs happy.  Moreover, with the amount of energy the boys have after they eat, i would think they were laced with something - potato power !  One of the boys seems to be the ringleader and dances all sorts of silliness. Breakin, boastin, singin, swaggin, hand-standin, and making a comedic situation out of everything - nonstop, I don't think he's comfortable sitting still. He even leads the other boys in a dance, and they all join in. Maybe this was how Chris Rock was when he was 10.
This same kid also has an amazing voice; I think he trained to sing with a marabou.  Its a touching, almost forlorn, echo that rises up from deep within - too big of a sound to come from a 3'10" boy.  i listen intently as he sings a "love Africa" song.  He takes this as a cue to go in the recital space and pic instruments up and play and sing (they're not supposed to be in the room playing around while the teachers not there, but I didn't really realized this).  The professor hears and gets a little upset, but one of the other boys said that i told him it was ok.  I laugh because i did nothing of the sort,  but i am enjoying hearing hims play.  I don't mind if the little stinkers use me as a scapegoat, let them have their fun.  

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Family Visits

I find myself becoming popular to drag around on ‘family visits.’  I can imagine the conversation, “I’m marrying a white lady, let me bring her over and you all can see her;” and I’m told something like, “Please come visit my family, they are very much looking forward to meeting you.”  But I don’t mind so much, really.  It’s a good excuse to people watch for me too, I have an all access pass to gaze into this cross section of society: the family system.
            I go to visit the family of one of my friends’ ‘grand’. ’Mon grande’ (literally: my big)  is the term guys use to address their acting older brother aka the guy that will school them on life, send them on a million B*** errands, and generally have their say over the things they do.  Similarly, ‘mon petit’ (lit:  my small) is given as the name to the younger ‘acting brother.  From my observations it seems that most guys are both someone’s petit and someone’s grand – some more active than others.  Girls don’t really seem to follow this tradition – I still haven’t come up with a definitive reason why.
            So this particular ‘grand’ that we are visiting is, to be blunt, idolized by my friend and I find it very interesting to see this relationship play out as I visit his gargantuous 3 story gated house in the villagey-suburbs of Conakry.  His ‘grand’ speaks English, he’s lived in Europe for many years and is married there, he drives a used SUV, and has the sort of money supply envied by most Guineans.  When in town, his family is at his beckoning, like a king in his domain.  He eats what he wants to eat, lounges where he wants to lounge, and speaks to who he wants to speak to. Life is good for this European flight attendant, returned home to flying colors. 
            I am more impressed with talking to his elder aunt, Hajji Aminatou, a woman in her 70s who’s made the trip to Mecca (hence the title).  She has virtually flawless unwrinkled skin, a sparkle in her eyes, and large intimidating biceps that pay homage to a life of hard work.  She doesn’t really speak French so I ask questions and they’re translated to her; she seems surprised that I’m interested in her life (like her nephew steals all the thunder and she’s just the old woman sitting quietly in the shade).  I ask if I can take her picture and she says she’s “villain” (very ugly) but then I finally get her to acquiesce.  She wraps a rose colored transparent shawl over her head, which partially covers her worn night dress she’s wearing , with the sides opened up to allow more air.  With the sunlight dancing on her motherly, knowing face, turns out divine.  I walk over to go check out the young daughters veggie garden (mostly green onions) and when I get back underneath the grand outdoor pavilion we’re all sitting under grandma has pulled out a small plastic bag, and I laugh when I see what’s sticking together that she’s trying to pull out: brightly colored gummy worms.  Where in the world did she get these?  She’s not even sharing with the kids – these are obviously her prized gummy worms she is enjoying so much - so I don’t even bother to ask for a handout. 
            Two of the young girls doing all the cooking in the background take turns coming up and flirting with my friend in the guise of asking him for money. “500FrancGuinean” she coyly pleads.  He agrees and the sum requested quickly becomes 1000, then 2000 – I find this kind of neediness very annoying.  At first I thought these girls sweet, but now they’ve lost my respect and I don’t bother to engage them in conversation as I gather that any signs of friendship would lead them to ‘requesting’ something – and I don’t humor this. 
            Food’s brought out and we all eat rice and sauce.  “Le Grand’ has just polished off a bowl of rice not more than 30min prior (actually, rice caked onto the side of the pan, which he’s poured water into and then scooped out with his hands – like rice crispies I guess, without the milk), yet he still eagerly fills his plate and goes back for seconds.  Grandma has moved to a spot below the mango tree, over by where 2 guys (unintroduced) are making tea.  We drink our 'primier,' and our 'duexiem,' and then its time to go.  But wait, not before the girls do a dance!  Popular music is played from one of the cell phones, and two 8year olds take the floor doing their interpretations of how to dance based on (what I’d guess as) how they’ve see adults move and what they’re feeling with the music.  Oh, it is hilarious! They’re ultra-serious and almost deliberate in their moves, but I’m almost on the floor.  One girl keeps gyrating and rolling her left shoulder as she tries to move sexy and go from standing, to squatting down to the floor, to standing again – she’s left handed I’m told, hence the oddly, one-sided emphasis.  The family gets a huge kick out of it, but I can’t help feeling someone should put her under their wing and teach her some kids’ dances.
            We get back to km36 and it’s a zoo as always.  Taxi’s line up almost by the mile, people hustle and bustle in every which direction, it’s too much of a dusty, loud sensory overload for me.  I want to put up a sign that reads, “Car horns are a privilege not a right” (i.e.: shut the F up, we heard you the first time).  Nevertheless, girls sitting under a large umbrella selling watermelon are part of the scene too, so I take a moment to reflect on the interconnectedness of it all too. 
            When I get back to village a Conte, the winning pres. Candidate, party is in full swing taking over the central ‘transit.’ (I imagine in the not too distant past, this was a villagey-style, dirt, central meeting ground, but now it’s all paved over).  One part of the circle is taken over by the band and the rest is flanked by dressed up on-lookers and dancing participants.  Because the losing Djallo party represented virtually all Peuls in the country, the out celebrating now include everyone in town but the Peuls.  Songs that were before used as rallying calls for Djallo are played, with the words changed to sing praise for Conte (ouch, slap!).  One group of women from the Forest region are having their own side party and are dancing around an overturned large metal bowl that one of the women is drum-tapping on.  I dig their style of fast, quick-footed, unabashed, booty-shaking dancing, and especially since they look to be mothers, just coming out away from the chores for a while to enjoy the fun.  The principle dancer is shaking a wand with a tassel of hairs that sticks out from one end.
            I’m surprised to see that my friend Mohammed is the main griot on the mic for this celebration.  My other hiphop friends want to rock the mic for a song, so they wait around until their given the opportunity.  I love hiphop, but it almost seems incongruous to have traditional griot music followed by loud beats and DMX style hardness, yet, the crowd digs it just the same.  Even some middle aged ladies come out to grind with one of the performers who’s out doing some down and dirty dancing to hype up the crowd – including the lady with the big teddy bear tied to her back like a baby (I’m still a little confused about this bear symbology, but I was told something to the effect of ‘being born,’ ‘taking care of,’ ‘Conte,’ “Guinea,’ ‘We’re all together’ yeah, really cant expect these young kids to be specific.  This one’s a lost cause. I’ll just have to still shake my head and wonder)   A comedian crew has been rallying the crowd too.  One guy has a leotard on, stuffed to make a huge protruding belly and bulging backside.  He’s got a Santa hat tied on like a loin cloth and holds a contraption he’s put together of a plastic bottle and an oil bottle (supposed to look like an instruments?).  He enjoys thrusting his large parts around, and surprising the crowd with outbursts of spontaneous wild caricatures and hip thrusts.  I wonder what his life is like outside of the costume. 
            I finally get back and get to rest for a bit at my friend’s house.  There’s no electricity so I’m sitting in darkness with the candle.  I let out a big sigh, unconsciously, watch as the flame flickers, and then pray that it doesn’t go out.                   

Friday, December 10, 2010

The River at Dusk

The river at dusk
bustle before nightfall
fishermen arrive with the last of the days catch
their red, green, and gold painted wooden boats and similarly colored flapping flags
color up the scene
as women in brightly colored pangas cart fish away on their head
the rest of the catch lies out on the ground in piles, ready to be bought
kids play in beached pyrogues, pretending to steer and captain -
they're put to work untangling nets too.
the sky is full of abstract dots -
birds flying in ones and twos and clusters for the night
there's a buzz of activity in all directions
but here, I'm perched on an abandoned structure along the river
away from the world 
but so close to home

Thursday, December 9, 2010

To the beach

     We take a day trip up north, and for once are able to leave our humble abode of Dubreka.  The landscape is lush vegetation, and lush plains dotted with palm trees.  Some of the palm trees look like they’re decorated for Christmas with large balls equally spaced about on all the branches – these are bird’s nests. The oceans somewhere over to the left in the distance – but I can’t see it.  To the right are imposing cliffs that seem to be the protectors of the landscape.  I look to their heights and feel a distant longing; I would love to be sitting upon them on high looking out over the land too. We drive through Tanéné (a village with a name I can never get over; seems to be funnier every time I hear it), over a few rivers and locks and out to a port village.  As we drive into the village I admire the wild black/red zig-zaggy paint job on a ‘night club.’  One of our staff gets off the bus – I assume to covertly acquire some palm wine under the guise of doing some reconnaissance work in village – I’ll say no more.  We stop at the port (because this is one of the only points of interest in the area?) and are a magnet of interest for the locals, as if they were praying for Allah to send a busload of white people right into their fishermen’s nets.  The walking dollar signs commence to wander around, not really sure where we are , why we’re here , or what we’re doing……so the least we can do is buy some snacks (oranges, fried breads, dried fish if you dare).  In a country so hard up for money right, it amazes me how there are always stacks and stacks of oranges everywhere…who buys them all?  I suppose if people buy them the seller makes a few extra francs, but if not, the seller and family are happy to eat them too. I admire an umbrella that shades one of the tables with “Love Obama” written like a logo.
        We are back on the bus and I’m working on ‘sucking’ my oranges.  One I brought from home, is a little hard because it was peeled yesterday, and instead of it going in my mouth I think I manage to get more than half of it dripped all over me – but I never give in, it must be eaten !  I wisely go for the second hard orange, and repeat the process, then start looking for places (people) to wipe my hands on.  I’ve lent Adrissa my ipod for the duration of the journey and he’s like a kid with his favorite toy, completely oblivious to the rest of the world.  Since I don’t have anyone to talk to I really want to take a nap, but since I haven’t been through this area before , I force myself to keep my eyes open. We stop at deceased pres. Condé’s mausoleum at an especially beautiful spot along the sea.  There is a group of hovering guys and a few off-duty looking militare are there to great us.  The memorial is in its own private building on the grounds and inside one must take off shoes and cover the head (I was cringing that I’d have to put a rag-like cloth they gave me over my head).  There is a large pit of sand where he is buried, and a big wall of flowers displayed behind and a very un-African silence in the air.  “Has anyone told them this looks like a big litter box?” I wonder as I stare at this large sandpit memorial. 
          We criss-cross through thatch hut villages.  No one is really sure where this beach is, so the drivers are constantly asking directions, but most people I think are intimidated by a bus full of white folks so give blank stares.  Finally one boy sitting on a chair with his feet up in another points us over to an overgrown road and says the beach is down there.  Our driver is undeterred and we begin an adventurous all terrain ride.  This is a fieldtrip:  literally.  From the beginning I was thinking we should be getting out to walk now, but our tenacious driver and trusty encouraging local staff persevered on their pet-project to find the beach.  From this point on, we’re on rutted dirt road through the fields, we reach an especially deep rut on a slight hill and I get out to watch and see if the bus can make it.  Indeed she does.  The rice fields are extremely peaceful and I can’t help feel we’re intruding. I gaze out at the flocks of herons and enjoy witnessing the symbiotic relationship of the cows and egrets.  We continue on and reach a bridge that’s not all the way together – and the local staff feel that moving the logs back in place should make it good enough to cross.  Alright.  I and some local kids who were swimming and doing washing in the channel, gather to look on to see if the bus will roll the logs out again and fall in.  I’m almost a little disappointed that it made it across, I was kind of hoping for something more catastrophic (well, I guess that would’ve meant we’d have to do a lot of walking back in the heat).  We get going again and are at about the palm tree line that indicates the beach, when we turn right and the road becomes completely overgrown with rice.  Nevertheless, our driver stands up in his seat and laughs as we plow through where he ‘thinks’ the road should be.  Occasionally he flips the wipers so the rice stalks fall off.  This is beyond ridiculous. I think all of us are getting used to the fact that the road is long and unpredictable, and if a gorilla just happened to pop out and run us down now, no one would think anything of it.   
        We are driving parallel with the beach now, and we get to a spot where the sand: rice stalk ratio has tipped onto the ‘too much sand’ side, and the bus finally stops and we get out to walk.  Feels good to stretch the legs.  I gaze out into the sea though, and am disappointed by the blackness that I see: oil.  The beach is a forlorn scene, lined with oil too.  What?! All this way to an oily beach….we can’t swim in this.  And to top it off one of our trainers tries to tell us its ‘natural oil’ that comes up from within the ocean – natural my ass.  I start to launch into a long tirade on enviro-protection but then I can see he’s too hot and preoccupied to care, so I focus on collecting shells.  When we arrived on the beach I noticed a young guy run past us with his dog – running at noon in Africa?? My first thought was:  crazy.  Then he ran past us again back the other direction, which I will come back to in a bit.
       We reach the washed away, dilapidated, walls of what once was – so I’ve heard – a nice hotel run by a French guy.  This is what happens when you build too close to the sea, her taxes are high.  The others sit under a shelter and get into lunch, I walk around with Adrissa and check out the thatch hut fishing village that sprung up opportunistically because of the hotel.  Nets are hanging between palm trees to dry, and most of the villagers are tucked inside their huts in the mid-day heat.  A few chicken run here and there, a girl sits in the shade with oranges, and one man is working on carving out a new boat.  I love the rustic feel of this village of about 30 huts.  I can’t help wonder what they do if the sea is angry though, they are precariously close.  Even if it rains hard, I would imagine the village to be wet completely through.  I’m guessing their toilet is the sea too, or the neighboring reeds, which would make things very precarious if there was flooding. From the edge of the beach we think we’ll be able to see back down to the port – not so.  We do see a fisherman out with his boat and rudimentary nylon sail like a cast away.
        Since we can’t go swimming we stay just a little over an hour and then head back.  Luckily we’ve got our ‘road’ already laid out for the return. However, we get a little ways and see smoke and fire above the rice stocks - someone has lit a fire along our path! A very deliberate fire (we think it was the jogging guy).  Why he’d want to stop a bus full of white people…..? Hmmm.  Anyway, his plans were foiled because we got out of the bus, pulled up beach-weed-vines and started thwacking it and throwing sand on it to put it out. Nothing like fighting a fire in 100degree African heat.  We get it out for the most part – enough to get the bus through anyway – and like a rodeo rider the bus rampages through. I jump across the smoking embers and hop on in an exhilarating way, and we continue along on our journey… 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How the Day goes by.....

Drying rice grains has usurped the place of drying clothes on the street.  Now is the ‘recult’ (harvest) and all able hands are busy gathering and preparing the staple crop. (Ive heard Guineans say that they can eat and eat and eat everything and have a huge feast, but they don’t feel satisfied until they’ve eaten rice….of course they’ve never had lasagna so the bizarre situation of asking for a side of rice with the lasagna hasn’t ever occurred to anyone here).  Anyway, the division of labor usually plays out that boys and men go out to cut the rice and women whack the stalks so the grains fall off at home when they bring the rice in, and then they dry and store it (but Ive seen sexes swap these roles too).  After the harvest is the time for most traditional dances to take place, and even more so in the villages – I hope I'm invited to partake !
      I’ve been told that if people wait too long to gather their harvest people will come and steal it at night! Also, I just found out this applies to bananas (which explains why these green bananas I bought have taken over 2 weeks to ripen !)  I would think villagers would be more contentious about each others' harvests, but , maybe this is sign of 'Guinea’s difficult times.
    After a 2 week break due to the general election confusion, the kids drum & dance school started back up again today with balaphone (xylophone) practice.  I get in on the action with a tin can filled with seeds aka a shaker.  I marvel how the balaphone teacher taps out a fast rhythm for the kids to learn, and isn’t even watching his hands !  Each instrument has its own unique sound due to its rustic wood, twine and gourd construction.  One of the young girls sings out a “Yankadi” rhythm, a boy and a girl are on the balaphones, and one boy is on djembe along with the balaphone teacher accompanying and motivating the song along.  Yaya (the principle teacher at the drum school) taps out at will his syncopatic volition's on djembe.  Its all quite groovy. 
     We go for a breather in the shade of the building but then move under the mango tree because we cant talk with all the banging on the drums the kids are doing.  They’re so amped to be back on the drums after their vacation – and listening to them you wouldn’t think at all that a group of 10 year olds was creating such a rocking sound!  Yaya sits askance on his chair, as usual, smokes a cigarette, and digs into telling me about a village he lived in for 6 years and the old men that talk to the ‘djenes’ in the baobabs.  He does it so nonchalantly I listen and don’t try to sway the conversation but just let him get out what he wants to put on the table --- is he trying to test my comprehension?  He’s going deep but I follow; but then the kids come out and the conversation shifts.  One of the boys has a homemade instrument consisting of a 2ft long stick with one fishing line tied along it and running through a tin can fastened onto the bottom end.  He’s playing out a fast rhythm picking with a small twig at the can end and plucking with his thumb at the other; the sound is twangy and catchy, and he’s got a huge smile on his face.  I'm impressed that he’s able to keep a beat with such an unassuming instrument, the mark of a true musician  - real cool.  I dig it and his big smile is mirrored on my face too. The song he’s playing is foreign to my ears, but Yaya immediately recognizes it and humors him by humming out the rhythm and correcting him in an encouraging way.  The old teacher sees himself in the actions of the young pupil, and so the generations appreciate each other and keep each other going. 
      Yaya wants to drum with me a bit, so we go inside and jam for 15 before lunch comes.  The school is sponsored by UNICEF and each day the kids get a simple lunch – today its rice with bony-fish and oily pepper sauce (oh these peppers are serious ! ).  All the kids huddle around a large bowl and eat with their hands and Yaya and I share one bowl with spoons (he insists on me eating here, as well as giving me a gargantuous share – I eat some but leave the rest, knowing that the kids are more than happy to finish what I leave behind).   School’s now done for the day so I walk through the sweltering , humid heat back home across the village and assume my rightful position at the hammock.  I ‘drink’ a few oranges (as they say here , because people don’t eat oranges they squeeze peeled ones into their mouth….sometimes a very messy process indeed, depending on the cooperation of the orange).  I read for a few minutes before I doze into mid-day dreamland; and 45 min later I awake sweaty and disoriented.  “ah, yes” I see I’m in the hammock.  I change scenery and play guitar for a while, sitting on the ground in the shade of the building because my favorite morning spot to practice is in full sun now.  I get a call from Adrissa aka street name ‘9-6,’ who’s wondering where the group’s English teacher is??  I started street side English lessons for a small group of college students yesterday, and 6 students came to study and another 5 looked on.  I appreciate their enthusiasm and interest – they seem to get that motivation is key to life.  So, I tuck my baby (my guitar) away and head out across the village again.  After the obligatory ‘big-up’ fist punches and greetings in French we sit down on the rickety wooden benches (which I must include, are actually in the gutter) and get started.  The group has seemed to have picked up some English along their way in life – movies? Rap music?  So we can have a little more than basic conversation.  Their favorite phrase of the day was after I told them how to say " I have a headache," I switched it up and said jokingly, " You give me a headache!" They laugh and get this right away. 
      Sali, one of the stylish girls that hangs out with this college crew, was supposed to come by to teach me some dance but she's getting her hair done (most girls/women here do this once a week - braids, extensions, you name it, they create it. So, word to the easily confused, don't try to recognize women here by their hairstyle!)  She comes later and we start to dance a bit, but its now dark and there's a big ditch behind our small practice space, and its hard to see her movements as her skin now blends in with the night sky.  So I say I think its better to practice earlier and another day.
     As promised, an elder lady that likes to take care of some of the college kids has adopted me as one of her own, and prepared for me a big pot of dinner which she sends over with her grandson.  I open the lid and it turns out to be a sort of soup with potatoes, yams, taro, manioc, green banana, hot peppers and fish.  Ital food, yum!  I was very surprised because this is remarkably similar to what they call "fish broth soup" in Trinidad and Tobago (which is one of my favorites).  I will remember to share with her tomorrow how 'its a small world after all' , and that ancestors all the way over the Atlantic are making the same thing too ! ..... yes I can almost smell is wafting across the sea.........

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Watering Hole

Today is a day to venture to a new spot along the Bondabon river.  In order to get there, we bramble through the village in an up-down, zigzag fashion. We walk along what i would call 'goat tracks' and cut through basically everyones' yard/outdoor living space/outdoor kitchen en route.  I would feel awkward doing this on my own - having to explain myself to so many families - but as I'm walking with a local, I can just wave and pass on through without complications.  Its pretty interesting getting this cross-section of the village.  I'm sure it's quite startling to randomly see a white lady walk through your yard and then keep walking, almost like an apparition.  Maybe I will become fodder for the evening's story tonight ! ha
I only wish i could take more pictures, I mean I could,  but i dont want to interrupt the flow of the day.  Usually when I ask to take people's photo here, they stop whatever was interesting that they were doing (that I wanted to take a picture of) and line up!  So much for a candid shot!  So i just let everyone be and take the scene in and let it all be recorded to memory to relate in as much truth as possible later : )
     So, we pass through shaded dirt courtyards; past thatch cooking huts; groups of women pounding grain; kids beating the freshly harvested rice stalks; families sitting around eating and chatting; women stirring pots big pots, cooking on the charcoal fires; men preparing tea etc etc
We cross over the RR tracks, cross a creak, hike up hills and down hills, jump over trash piles......this simple outing has turned out to be quite the trek - but so worth it.
We finally get to the river, and I am hot , sweaty and ready to jump in.
This spot here is the last rapids area before the river dumps into the sea.  The river is open here and very scenic, fringed by palm and other greenery and is boardered by big rock slabs.
We are not the only ones who've come to this spot however, there's a big group of women doing their washing with their hoards of little kids playing around (luckily they're on the other side of the river);  a fisherman is working on bundling piles of branches also on the other side of the river, but further down (hes also wearing only a pair of tiny red briefs); a few boys in late teens are gathering to practice their hiphop moves on the big smooth rock surfaces, in the breeze - they even do some head-spinning! (I'm pretty impressed); another group of boys sits in the shadows under some bushes, I'm guessing their smoking but not close enough to see or smell what;  the big palm trees opposite are laden with dozens and dozens of birds nests, it looks like Christmas ornaments (!) - along with the accompanying chirping-chattering raucous; and then there's this lone white lady, no one can ever figure out what she's doing or how she got here : )  Yes, I am these villagers entertainment as much as they are mine.
But, despite all these watching eyes, I strip down to my suit and thoroughly enjoy the waters coolness. Im glad to be welcome at the village's secret afternoon get-away.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Town and Country

I leave the village for one night , and one of my friends ends up in the hospital with malaria (and enjoys telling  me about the shots he had to take in his butt), the other spends the night in jail for chasing down a burglar but then he beat him up pretty bad.  Are they trying to tell me i shouldn't leave town? 
     I went to CKY to have tea at the ambassadors.  If you don't know anything about inviting PC folk to a nice function know this:  have lots of good food for the vultures to devour. PC volunteers have wide eyes and bottomless stomachs like hungry puppies.  We've been deprived too long, we look forward to the simplest of pleasures i.e. mixed nuts. Granted we may have been handed these on the plane or as a cheap snack in a bar and completely overlooked them before, but now when the lack of good food reaches all time highs, these simple snacks are golden. Worth fighting for really. Turn you're back and its gone.  Yes we are pathetic, but this is what we get reduced to.  In fact, I distinctly remember a time my mom called once while I was in Mali, and I was at a Mexican dinner where the food was just being put out.  I told her to call me later, otherwise I knew all the food would be gone, and this was a risk I wasn't about to take.  So anyway, needless to say, the tea in Conakry was a big success. We even made off with dinner napkins stuffed with cookies, mini-quiches, toasted almonds and the like - to be rationed out and consumed at a later, desperate time. The ambassador makes a hell of a 'purple punch' too.  I've been told it can be used to fuel the jets if the country runs out of fuel - I'd guess its been tested before.
           Its nice to be missed when i get back to village.  I walk around and make the rounds, telling everyone how Conakry was and how much i ate.  People love to hear any story that includes 'good eating.'  I walk with my friends to go check out a spot along the river, but its overgrown, so we turn back.  Its dusk now and i stop to watch the cranes flying into my favorite baobab tree.  I'm instantly reverential and in awe of nature.  This scene puts me at ease - I could do this every night.  When we get to the road, young boys are out practicing hiphop moves right in the middle of the street. Breaks, holds, and spins, they're full of energy and have found there own slice of freedom. 
        We get back to the 'stoop' (yes, the ghetto tradition has its roots here : ) and I'm asked to talk about the US.  I explain how its further between NY and Cali (6hr) by airplane than from Conakry to Paris (5hr). Ilove this comparison because people can start to picture the vastness of the states; and also understand that, although I'm from the states, I'm not going to know XY and Z relative or friend in NY or Florida.  Then something comes up and I hear one say, ' the 52 states.' And they say 'yeah, 52 states in America.' Apparently the geography teacher here has been teaching them this.  I remind them that the US flag has 50 stars so we'd have to change the flag if we got a few more states.  Anyway, even though its basic info, they're real interested in all of this.  They feel like they don't really get the 'full scoop' here and are eager to get some outside perspective.  Glad i can be of service.  When its all said and done though , we're really teaching each other.    

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Its in his Blood

Its in his blood
these rhythms
he feels, he plays
the drum responds
calling out the collective name
the vibrations resound through the courtyards, down the street,
up to the topmost branches of mango trees and to all neighbors.
newborns, ancestors, youth, aged alike
this secret frequency of the spirits
dances with the earth
and captures all ears
it is an awakening
to what it feels like to be home
in tune with the generations

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Baobab

At sunset, the cranes come here along the river to roost
in this towering baobab
not one, two, but by the dozens
they fly in from the rice fields in all directions, and take their perch on high
I strain my neck to the uppermost branches
in this prehistoric, majestic tree
the cranes flap their white wings, squawk and throw quite a raucous
as if greeting friends and retelling the tales of the day.
I'm in awe, and take in also the sunset in the distance
This tree is like a giant pause between two worlds 
-the real and the mystic, the earth and sky, the ancient and the new
villagers gather and lounge in her shade by day and the birds for shelter at night
generations of stories this tree has heard, overseeing the whole village.
Knowing she must be listening
I go over, stand underneath her shadow and whisper into folds of her roots:
‘where are we going?”

What is Normal?

What was once awkward, frustrating, unthinkable becomes normal
when one spends any length in Africa
bucket baths are what you look forward to,
electricity is hard to come by
and time is spent talking with friends is the best entertainment
here if you have a child, anyone in the village would take care of your baby whenever you feel like it - all the women in village are your potential 'tanti'
if you want to want to go see someone - friend, neighbor, colleague - there's no need to call beforehand, just stop on in (and feel free to make some joking cousins banter to ease the conversation)
In most cases when I visit people, I'm offered food where ever i go - and villagers don't take 'Im not hungry' for an answer
When I walk down the street, friends call out my name and wave along my whole route - not because I'm the mayor but because people look out for each other here
I wake with the sun, and go to bed with the moon (er, sometimes)
I am familiar with all things that crawl, fly, jump and slither and am not phased to find critters in unlikely places
weddings, baptisms, and all manner of festivities require being present -
there's no substitute for being present.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Baptism

The family and friends gathered around in the courtyard, in front of the house, in their finest attire like they could be going to a ballet, a presidents ball, a gangsters funeral, or an African baptism (the latter).  I show up almost 30min after my family told me to, on a hunch, and I am right on time.  Everyone eyes my flashy African attire (my host sister helped design and pick out the fabric) – it’s a hit. Without too much more adieu everyone shuffles over and attempts to cram into the few cars that people have brought out for the occasion.  I am in the front seat of a small beater Dotson like car with my host sister, and we try to make sure the fabric from neither one of our ‘completes’ gets stuck in the door as we suck-in-and-hold-on.  We don’t have to go too far, as the baptism is for Nanafuta’s older sister and is just a ways out of the village along a deeply rutted mud road.  (I feel sorry for the people that have to walk all the way here).  When we arrive the courtyard is already full of people paying their respects, and groups of men have started to gather in one area, and women in another.  I go into the house  -not really sure if I’m supposed to, but I figure I’m easy to spot so someone will tell me if I’m not supposed to.  A group of women are sitting and chatting in the front room, and 2 rather large griot women I recognize from before are here too, ready with their obnoxious megaphones ( note:  I already despise these griot ladies, they sing horribly, and they just come around uninvited to any party or event, sing in your face, and expect you to give them money - I never do.  Granted I appreciate the tradition, cultural significance, and skills of some griots, but these 2 really give the profession a bad image. Yes, I give them the take-your-mic-and-shove-it eye yet they still try to come over and sing to me.  )  I walk down the hallway and enter door number one: the master bedroom.  I see the familiar face of my host sister Terez sitting on the bed, so I decide I can enter, and happily get away from the fray in the other room.  Yaya, the mom who’s son is being baptized is here too, so i greet her with congratulations.  The son (who will get his name today) is sleeping in the midst of all this, and he’s pushing his lips out funny so all the ladies are putting their fingers in his mouth trying to make him look more respectable. Obviously no one’s worried about germs an infant might acquire.  Its 105degrees in the room so I wander outside again and sit with a group of ladies under the mango tree.  They really don’t do much other than sit and look at each other, so I politely get up and take some pictures of the crowd (my favorite being a group of raggedy neighbor kids who are climbing and perched upon a large tree stump, not officially invited but trying to get in on the action anyway).
       Then the music gets cut and people get ‘relatively’ quite as the Imam sings lines of prayers and benedictions over the Koran.  Three boys hold down a goat just in front.  The Imam announces the son’s name Mohamed Adrissa (in honor of the boy’s grandfather who is in Mecca now), and I see a red stream of blood flow down and color the earth.  The sacrifice and blessings have been witnessed and everyone is happy. The goat is hauled away to be cut up in the back and people go back to socializing.  Huge bowls of rice and sauce are brought out and deposited in various sections for people to share a meal.   Figuring there’s meat involved and not wanting to have the complication of explaining myself to a bunch of visitors here I don’t know, I stay clear of the eating circles, hop over the patch of blood on the ground, and go back into the house.  I’m in the master bedroom and a group of women dancing rowdily and wildly stomping feet and bending up and down, dance with Adrissa into the room.  I am surprised that no one seems worried by this either – I mean he’s only a couple weeks old.  He doesn’t cry though ( I hope his head’s not snapped) and then my host sister holds him and does a crazy dance with him too, as if to say, "Welcome to the world, baby !"

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What does one not see? What is one missing?

How does she balance these socks on her head?  I marvel.  I even nod my head to the side, right then left, and try to see if she's got them all stuffed in a bucket or something, but I can't get any clearer of a picture of this gravity defying, precariously positioned, market-selling act - and she's walking through traffic no less!   The woman's got a good 3 dozen pairs of socks draped over each other, flopping over like rabbit ears or pairs of wilted flowers, in this colorful, elaborate display on her head.  Dare I ask for the red, marry Christmas pair on the bottom?
     An equally daring market woman, shuffles over to approaching vehicles with her open carton of 24 eggs.  In the US people seem to panic when placing 12 eggs on the top of a perfectly padded grocery bag, however, carrying 2 dozen eggs out in the open, in the hubbub of cross-roads traffic ?!? Accident ready to happen, or seasoned egg seller?  We drive off before I have a chance to see any memorable collisions.
    We pass shared-taxi vans loaded with people and sporting decals like: Madonna stickers.  I wonder how many decades will have to pass before all the Madonna stickers run out? There's also a kamikaze moto-rider heading straight into oncoming traffic. Our driver seems unfazed, and I am glad to not be driving in a country where maybe 3% of people have taken any sort of driving test.  I'm content to just sit back, giving up all responsibility, and assume that we'll make it from point A to point B just fine (and from time to time close my eyes). 
    There's a new semi truck pulling an empty bed, making a left turn into traffic.  The military guy sitting in the front seat with baret and pins shining in the sunlight sits tall, an unspoken assurance that everyone stops to let them pass.  Several young boys stand up on the moving bed, as if they're badasses ready for ...???  Does the military dude realize they're back there stealing his thunder?  And I'm wondering what this big rig is going to be used for.
    On the side of the road is a huge pile of watermelons looking like they've been dropped down from god - being such an obtrusive and funny place for an infinite supply of watermelons, it must be an act of the Divine.  A boy is sleeping on them, the guardian at the gate of luscious fruits. 
     Buildings along the side of the road make one wonder:  are they coming up or being torn down?  The new-style, cement workmanship is sketchy and circumspect.  I definitely wouldn't put my family on the 3rd floor.  Are these faux-lavish with their columns necessary?  Everyone the world over, keeping up with the Jones's.  Lets do some creative, eco-friendly city planning before this gets out of hand.  Or better yet, award all sustainable villages with an incognito thatch-roofed Internet cafe and an AC community center (wishful thinking)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Voyeurism in the Marketplace

I perch myself on a ledge in the shade and let the market action pass me by.  I like this voyeuristic approach.  I can even go unnoticed, if there is such thing for a white person in Africa.  (Kids without fault will always call you out like smelly cheese, "Fote!" )  A couple young girls approach, one with what appears to be an empty tray on her head, but when she sits down I see she has 2 scrawny bananas still in it.  They don't say anything, so my secret watching spot is safe for now.  A boy to my left is listening to headphones, I know he is watching me out of the corner of his eye, but he pretends to be too cool to notice.  I'm fine with this.  There's a little girl of about 5 with frizzy braids standing 10ft in front of me, in a really chic tie-dyed 'blazen' shirt.  She has a empty plastic coke bottle and is hitting the ground with it just in front of what I see now is a little kitten laying sleepily under her mom's wooden stool.  Atop this stool is a huge mound of medicines in a basket, basically overflowing with boxes and creams and pills and who knows what.  I'm guessing some of that stuff has an expiration date of 1975.  I'm wondering who has bought from her today - while I'm sitting here I see no customers. Also in front of me is my favorite banana lady.  She's already beckoned for me to come buy, but I told her I'm good for bananas today.  I notice for the first time a large plastic jar on the shelf below her table, it looks melted, distorted, and has the residue of some brownish black substance on it.  Dare I ask?  A youth about 20 walks by with a Rocky stride and thick blue head-warmer on.  Taxis jostle for space at the front of the line. Groups of young women and their babies sit to my right , peeling oranges for sale and talking the day through.  They also sell popcorn, salad materials, and the signature oddly shaped cookies (we've been calling them the vagina cookies because of their two lip shape, I mean really, who designed this? ). A woman walks by with my favorite peanut snack on hear head ( a square of ground peanuts, sugar, rice, my Guinean power snack), except usually sellers keep this in a plastic tub, she has hers exposed and in the sun on her head, not the best selling tactic.  Other women in panga's with babies on their backs (when does one NOT see this in Africa? ) A boy walks by eating a fried bread, and the guy with the blue head-warmer cruises back along the other side of the street.  I spy a little girl with a black "I Love Africa" bag on her head, and her friend is balancing a tub of oranges.  Imagine being this young and part of the daily market grind; going from being the baby to having the babies.
       Then my invisible paint seems to have worn off, and someone who I don't know but they seem to know me, comes over and disturbs my observation meditation.  Ggrrr.  I act cordial and try to find the words to get him to wrap up conversation. Little does he know how much of a good time I'm having being the anonymous scene-ster.  

Friday, November 26, 2010

To the Market and to the Jam

I hitch a ride into the market for a mid-day stroll.  What will I find today?  Are their good bananas? Maybe some cookies?  Only Allah knows who will bring what to sell today. One usually has about a 30% chance of finding what one's looking for. So it's best not to get you're hopes up and just revel in the sweet surprises. For instance, today I am delighted to find: apples ! I also run down two little kids I see sucking on yogurt bags and I ask their mother where they bought it (the yogurt sellers walk around with the white plastic yogurt bags on their head, so there's no telling where you might spot them, like Where's Waldo).  The mother is very sweet, and she has me give her 8yr old son the money and he runs off to buy me two - how efficient.  I now can boast I also am familiar 'un peu' with the market layout; ie:  the ladies at one side sell bananas at extortion rates, the Peul lady at the other always seems to have a fair price.  I also tend to walk on the other side of the street from where they have the huge hanging dead animal carcases, and subsequent grilling action.  I return to the same fabric sellers, and whether they remember me or not, they always have a big smile when I show up (maybe its the 'here comes the white person with money smile' ).
        I am invited to lunch by one of my colleagues and I arrive as the last stirs of the big rice pot on the outdoor charcoal burner are being made.  We eat the natural 'local rice' (as opposed to imported white Chinese rice - i prefer the former) with a sauce of potato leaves.  This was my first time eating the potato leaf sauce because my Fulani host family never prepared it for me, it's supposed to be very popular down here in lower Guinea, but maybe they don't like it (maybe I will ask them later).  When thinking 'potato leaf' the first thing that came to mind for me was: goat food.  But actually it tastes pretty good, or is that the loads of Maggi (MSG flavoring) that's added to all cooking here. I wish with all my heart that someone would ban this stuff from the developing world, but it seems to be prolific.  The Maggi MSG phenomenon is everywhere:  cambodia, mali, vietnam, brazil, T & T, venezuela, senegal, morocco, etc etc and of course the inventor of the horrible 'Agi no Mono' (literally translated as: 'the taste of a thing' aka MSG) japan.  Let me start a campaign for natural eating.
         After I get through a meeting in the afternoon, I rush to head back into village for what I've been waiting for: a jam session !  I drop of the glass coke bottles I need to return to the boutique along the way and head over to the spot under the trees 'where the musicians hang out.' 
The other day I was heading home on my bike when I was waved down by Enriko, a student at the Arts University here.  He urged me to sit down and chill with him and his friends, Biggie and Bouba. Without much adieu they bring out a djembe and some congas and start jammin and freestylin.  One's got a cigarette dangling from his mouth the other has some m.j. and is working the rhythm with a Susu lyrical flow. The djembe has a hole in the top, but Bouba still gets a good sound out of it (musicians, no money to fix things : )
Enriko sings me 'bienvenue to Guinea' and I appreciate the warmhearted welcome.  Not content with me just sitting there and bopin my head, Bouba begins to teach me the 'Yankadi' rhythm on djembe - he plays one side of the drum and I play the other. Then he starts to hit a complementary rhythm on the other side of the drum and an insta-streetside-jamsession is born.  Cool, I dig this.  Villagers come by and stop and stare at this foreigner beating out their tune. I'm sure they thought it was just the boys playing, but now they see there is plus one.  We keep the groove going till sundown.
      So now I am back again for more.  Enriko's gone to Conakry to a recording studio for the night ( for his upcoming rap album) so it's just me and Bouba.  He's chilled out sipping palm wine he got in Dofilila today, and puffing a cigarette.  I tell him I hate smoking and he agrees that its no good and he'll try to stop - as does every man I give this counsel to (African women dont for the most part smoke). We pull out the guitar and he wows me with a bunch of Salif and African rhythms, so we work on that.  Bouba had a guitar before, but it broke, but he's hoping that one of his fellow students might bring a guitar he can use soon (school was supposed to start today, but its been postponed again till after the final decree by the senate in regards to the election). We play until my fingers are raw, so this must mean its been a productive session.  The jams not over though, we leave it 'to be continued.'  I walk back through the village as darkness moves into black, and at this time everyone else in village is either home or on the road back home. I stop in quickly to see my host family - mom has malaria again!  - admire the full moon, and then retire for the night.          

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Bike Ride

       Its approximately hot enough outside to bake bread, and I am gearing up to go for a bike ride?! To top things off I had a mysterious wave of tiredness creep over me at noon and I fell asleep for 2 hours, hard, while lying on my floor (*note on this at the end). I realize I have a bike trip planned and i need to get up, but sleep is weighing heavily on my eyes;  I jump up and down a few times and attempt to shake it out.  Backpack with water, check, sunglasses, check, bandanna to keep some of the sweat out of my eyes, check.  But wait, Sal has the great idea to get whiskey and coke to take on our journey to drink at some beautiful spot along the way, so we do some circling around town first to find a bar open that will sell us whiskey shots (that we pour into our plastic coke bottles).  Yes, this should do us well in our state of dehydration.  But all for the joy of the open road.  All unnecessary needs accounted for, we ride off toward the far end of Dubreka and out along the road through the rice fields to the village of  Dofilila.
     The path is bumpy because of the ruts that trucks and rains dig out.  The scenery is very beautiful and panoramically distracting, but I remind myself to pay attention to the road otherwise I might find myself on the road.  Men are out working in the rice fields, gathering their harvest.  I've heard that if families are lazy and don't go to get their rice on time, there are some people who will go to steal it !  There are several trucks overflowing with rice stalks that pass us - each turn they have to slow down so kids can jump off the rice stalk pile and gather the bundle that fell off - others carry theirs slowly back by wheelbarrow.  White herons, hawks, and an assortment of chattering birds make this wetlands home. We arrive at Dofilila, a village of several thatch huts and one prominent hut to buy palm wine, and continue on through.  The path here is a little more foresty and lush before it opens up to the far 'port' (aka place where people have their boats).  All the dugout, long, canoe-like boats are pulled up upon the thick, exposed mud - I'm not sure if this is a planned configuration or if its the result of a storm, all the boats are pretty haphazardly placed.  Each boat has been affectionately named and painted by its fisherman, and the designs on these boats are long faded.  Some nets sit around, a hammock under the palm trees, but no body seems to be working today (Sunday).
      The road from this point turns to be parallel with Dubreka and the 'smoking dog mountain' and the other hills are in plain view across the expanses of rice fields.  I take in a deep peaceful breath, we can even hear the sea here.  Ah, this is my spot.  The road stretches out and we ride peacefully along listening to nature as there's no one else here.  When we arrive closer back into Dubreka we encounter more people harvesting.  An old woman passes me with a sharp digging tool balance on her head.  Kids play in the mud on the side of the road while their parents harvest.  Boys who are resting from the toil, let their eyes gawk as we pass by. 
Sal slows down I don't know why, and then a few minutes later he tells me I road right next to a python and didn't see it! That it was slithering along right next to my peddle!  He didn't tell me at the time because he didn't want to scare me.  I want to go back to see it but he says its already in the bush. I know I was busy looking at the scenery but how could I miss that !? Good thing nothing happened. 
       We arrive back in Dubreka and head over to Hotel Bagabonde which has seating right out along the wetlands.  Its peaceful, there are a few other groups of Sunday afternoon drinkers, and we relax into our chairs at a table set apart by mango trees.  Apparently the proprietor doesn't mind that we've brought our own drinks , and so now we pull out and enjoy our warm whiskey cokes and admire the rose colored sunset.    

(*being it so ridiculously hot here in Guinea, I have noticed that many people take mid-day naps lying flat out on the floor because it is cooler here than say on a hot bed.  The first time I saw this I was at my tailors, and I noticed a very large woman lying topless on the floor in the room behind.  I was a little perplexed - 'is she sick, is she 'ok,' etc - but then after seeing this bodily position over and over again I realize that its ok to be lying flat out on the floor like you've fallen down and can't get up again. So when in Guinea, don't be alarmed, and let people sleep happily on the floor.)