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.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Candid Conakry

Conakry is a mess. If I wanted to sit in traffic I'd go back to LA - and the smog is less there!  I smoke the equivalent of 200packs of cigarettes just trying to arrive at the bureau in the city center. If 'this' is where Africa is going, forget it ! Send everyone back to the village, this is too much. This mess is not progress, this is mistakes made in the 1st world being made over 10fold in the developing world.  Time to throw a stick in the wheel and get everyone to do some critical thinking.  Moreover, who ever decided to put a capital city on a skinny peninsula should be shot.  Recipe for disaster, really. I can see why the embassy is so paranoid about what might happen if all hell breaks loose - exactly that. The situation is pretty close to that on the day to day.  Its like a crowd of people in a building on fire with one exit - this is what it's like getting in and out of city center during morning and evening rush hour everyday.  Get me a helicopter, please.
      In the evening its the hour when all the crippled and handicapped come out.  They wait along the road and approach stopped cars for handouts. Blind, albino, in hand-powered wheelchairs, using a pole for a stilt, missing arms and legs, its a pitiable scene.  I wonder if the government ministers ever leave their houses.  Oh, I forgot, they do but they're always in motorcades flanked by military that drive ridiculously fast so they never have to see or deal with anything.  Maybe they would stop if they saw a sign that read, " fatten your pockets here."
      I'm sure parts of Conakry will grow on me overtime - it's more about the people than the place though (and the people are amazingly friendly, so they've got this going for them). I did go check out some of the artisan ateliers the other day to satiate my curiosity.  Across from the grand Hotel Camaynnee there are a number of artisans displaying their wears.  However, upon closer inspection I discovered that about 75% of the stuff actually comes from Mali ! I took joy in all of the objects, "ah this is from Dogon, and this one is Tuareg, the symbol is the tongue of the camel etc etc."  I really blew one guys mind when I saw a very district piece of art, a face made of bronze, and I said it was from Benin and the seller acted like I had answered the million dollar question - I asked if he would give it to me for free and he unfortunately said no. There were some original Guinean paintings (mostly village girls with large bare breasts, such inspiration) and wooden masks and sacred objects from the forest region.  I've made it my mission to stop whenever I see an artisans workshop, but mostly the work is the same and lacking 'quelque chose'.  I did find one inspired woodworking studio in the Taoyah district, and I bought a statue of a musician playing the kora.  For the rest of my collection, I will leave space in my suitcase and wait till I go back to visit Mali.   
      I work between two different offices in town.  One is near one of the only sandy beaches in CKY.  However, its so full of trash it might as well be a landfill. Boys charge 2000francguinean ( .50cents bank rate, .20cents black market rate, also = to one really large baguette, or 6 bananas or 4 bags of roast peanuts, pick your exchange rate) to get in saying they supposedly clean the beach - whatever. They use their gaff money to buy beer, smokes etc. I do like the beach bar here at night though.  You can take a table and chairs and place it anywhere along the beach, including right where the waves wash up if you wish, and create your own atmosphere under the stars.
One the way to the large market in the quartier (neighborhood) I pass the house of the stand in president, fully guarded by a retinue of military, I say "bonjour" and hope they don't stop me for any unnecessary reasons.  The market is fun to walk around in - when you go with the 'see what you might see' philosophy - except the market vendors don't really respect the unspoken rule to keep meat in one section and fruit and goods in another. I was walking through the narrow pathways and stepped aside to let someone pass only to glance at a raw chicken leg almost grazing my arm, and a dead chicken head staring at me -eek ! For a vegetarian, it was a  little house of  horrors time in the marche.
        The bureau I work in downtown is in a building on the 5th and 6th story.  I enjoy looking down from the balcony to the street scene.  Oh, I spy the guy with cookies (to be bought later)! A sandwich lady; shoe shiner; money changers; sunglasses and purfume sellers; and a whole raz-matazz of city hawkers are all along the block. Since this street is home to a few banks, a whole 'streetside economy' has catered to those who potentially have d'argent (money) to trade, sell , or spend. Like paparazzi waiting to see the stars, these street vendors wait with baited breath those who come out of the bank with fatter pockets.
      In my lunch break I V-line to the Marche Niger (the 2nd largest market in CKY after Medina) and wind my way through stalls and over to a fabric seller.  Oh, ah , yes, I like this, and this and that pagne (the name for one length of fabric, about = to 3yards).  I've found normally sellers dont like to cut their 3 panges and want to sell the fabric to you as it comes all together.  But, with a little negotiation I manage to get one pange of 3 different ones (the trick, buy in bulk from one seller). He's : ) , I'm : ) Its a productive lunch break. I rush back before anyone realizes I've been gone for so long, and snag my cookies along the way.
       I get a ride with some of my colleagues after work, but asked to be dropped off at the Centre Cultural du Francais (French Culture Center), partly to get out of traffic for a bit, and also out of interest. Fabrics of Guinea are currently being displayed, and not much else going on. I peek into the large auditorium and a film is playing, but after a few minutes I'm still at a loss exactly what its about.  (French and their bizarre taste in movies, haha). I walk into the library and scan the selections.  I pick a book on the Horn of Africa and give it a good study as a chess player considers her next move.  By this time the traffic has lessened and I walk up the hill, run for my life across the busy street, and attempt to catch a taxi hoping that I'm standing on the right road to do so (guess and check method). Finally one taxi stops for me and seems to be going in the right direction. I hop in the backseat and 4 high school boys happily cram in back with me (2 in front). They sing a little and chat loudly, and we all get on our way back home.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Terez 2

She sings to her newborn daughter
her notes touch the sky.
she washes her in a white tin pan
and pours over her a medicinal water that looks like tea.
she sits in the hot cooking hut
and sweats and sings.
she's worked and washed and
cooked and cleaned since sunrise-
yet she still finds her song.
Her joy within rises out,
transforming hardship to another plane
and celebrating life -
I hope her daughter remembers.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Young Mohamed (20) is out thrashing the rice stalks in an early 90's brightly patterned, multicolored windbreaker, complimented by a pair of black with neon bike gloves. Love it.  He raises two bamboo poles high above his head and whacks the rice stalks like crazy to get the rice to fall off, and simultaneously kicks the stalks around so that he's hitting them in different places. Sweat is dripping off his brow, its quite a workout.  I tell him that if he's mad at anyone, he is getting his agression out now ! But I make no cheaky comments about his stylish gear. He's always so sweat with a big smile on his face, I wouldn't want to change his innocnet ways. Thrash on !
    I go back home and play guitar, the wind blows my mind. Me and the little birds are singing our song ~

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The English Lesson

English class at the drum and dance school today.  The kids great me with a wave of high-five's and hugs at knee height.  I walk calmly over to the building where they have class, and they all rush back in through the narrow door for their lesson.  Well this is encouraging; they're enthusiastic ! Girls sit in front with a few boys on the right, the rest of the boys especially the older ones, occupy the peanut gallery in the back.  They've all got on their neon orange shirts and black shorts with neon stripe - the uniform for the school.  We review the "My name is____" and "I'm _____ years old" and move on to colors.  The kids don't take notes so I'm not sure how much of this will be retained, but, practice is better than nothing.  And their attention tells me at least that they're enjoying it! We play a lot of repeat-after-me games for lack of anything else to do ( I have no worksheets and the blackboard is a small movable one, crumpled and broken in the middle, so I write around the broken abyss ).  A few boys are being rowdy, not really bothering me, but one of the other boys walks to the far end of the room and returns with the wood block in his hand, a signal to shut up.  He passes it to me, but I lay it on the desk and continue.  I'm not going to hit the kids. I know this is expected in African classrooms, but I dont have the heart for that - I dont need that bad karma, no thank you.
I get the brilliant idea to work on "please and thank you." So we cross over that bridge, and before long I have the whole class in polite appreciation: "Please" "Thank you" "Please" Thank you." The classroom echos in courtesy as the kids repeat their new phrases over and over. Love it. Now tell it to your mothers ! I pat myself on the back for this fait accompli.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ma course (My Run)

My morning run takes me past the football terrain and skirts the town as i follow along the rice fields.  I enjoy this route because 1.) I'm mostly on red dirt, country road, and not concrete 2.) I don't see many people 3.) Nor hardly ever any cars or motos. I did see a big snakey looking lizard the other day and he startled me so that I almost ran into the bush - never seen one several feet long like that one here before!  I run by two schools and love that school is out right now because this means less screaming kids.  In a few places along my route, guys have stacked up mounds of wood in the brush to make charcoal (they get this by chopping down trees, unfortunately). The smoldering piles make the air smell like burnt earth. 
I wave to families as I pass their compounds, some say 'hi' everyday others don't; a few people know my name and shout "Aisha" en route, others yell " fotey" (white person).  I run out to what looks like an abandoned village, but i learned later after questioning the bizarre nature of all the big homes in the countryside, that these abandoned looking homes are occupied.  I guess some locals that live abroad (or so the rumors go) send money back to construct these quasi-African style mansions.  But why here, in a village that is a  hamlet of another village, and why let the homes go into a state of disrepair, letting nature take over like the ruins of Angkor? The mystery remains - I try not to think too much about it, I'm running,
     A few women walk by on their way to market, one is selling roast peanuts she's balancing on a tray on her head. I run by a hangar with a few people squatting down underneath.  They're digging into a bowl of food, "invitation," they call, which is an invitation to come eat.  I decline as I'm on the move. At two points along my run on the hills, I can see Conakry off in the distance.  Its a nice feeling running in the country knowing I'm far enough away not to be effected by the cities craziness, but close enough that I can go in if I need to. Yes, the sun's out and I'm sweating buckets.  Everyday when I get back I look like I've jumped in a lake.  But I'm sure all this sweating is a good way to cleanse the system and hopefully will deter any parasites from making me home.
     I stop to stretch and a goat runs by with a rope-leash dragging from its neck, then a small boy comes running after.  Tomorrow is Tabaski, the Muslim holiday where everyone eats maybe this goat knows he's got something to run for!
      When I arrive back, I walk over to my host family Diallo's house and pick up my day's bread - they get it fresh for me from the neighbor's wood oven (you have to get it at 6am otherwise it's all gone, and they go over there anyway, so I see no need to be up at 6am too! ).  Mohamed (20yrs) is out in the courtyard doing his own laundry (wow!, usually you only see the women doing this) and he's getting water from the well for the women's cooking - big points.  Mom has taken her new grandson to the hospital to get vaccinated as he was born this last Weds., and Yaya the mother of the baby is resting on the couch eating porridge. Dad will be back from Mecca next week (after the Fete) so the house is going through repairs and is in a general state of disarray. A chicken is climbing on the stack of newly cut rice laying in the doorway.  I chat for a few minutes and then grab my bread by the piece of paper cement sack that is economically used as a partial 'wrap' around the bread (this is how bread is handed to you), and head home to hit the showers.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Big Day passes by slowly in Village

Today’s the day of the big vote (7/11), the infamous day the whole country’s been waiting for since time immortal, the day where no cars are to be out on the road, where all citizens are supposed to stay close to home to vote, the day where anything can happen. Yet, here in the village it appears as any and every day - women are sitting out braiding hair and doing wash, men lounge around in the shade, just another lazy Sunday. I assume everyone got up early, made their 6am votes, and are now playing the waiting game once more (or did this game never stop?).  Yesterday I was admiring the impromptu billboard set-up on the corner with pages and pages stapled to it of names and faces for who votes where.  I kept my distance though because I didn’t want anyone to think I was inspecting or involved (although so many people have been asking me if I voted today – which makes me wonder their understanding of their own political system!)
            So this afternoon, seeing that the coast was clear, I strolled over to the house of Fatim, my new 16yr old friend. We planned for a language exchange after she harangued me into conversation yesterday as I was walking home from market.  Actually, I had started talking to her friends who were sitting outside, separating out by hand the bad parts from the rice grain, when Fatim came bounding up. Basically everyday I get offers from people to come hang out, practice language, be friends etc but I don’t go for them all.  Fatim has an encouraging and dynamic young spirit, and I love being around and befriending dynamic women, so I accepted her offer.
            Fatim’s at the house next-door when I arrive, but spots me almost instantly (yes, I suppose I stand out a bit, like the president randomly strolling through town).  She leads me in her gate and through her courtyard with big, shade-giving mango tree (complete with a group of elder men sitting underneath it. “Bonjour” I shout and wave over to all), into her house, and plops me down in her ‘salon.’ Stoic portraits of her grandfather, father and mother in their finest Muslim attire seem to shed their protective gazes across the room. I take out my notepad and begin to question her on Susu basics: “Hello,” “How much,” “make it cheaper,” “no I’m not married, but no I don’t want to marry you,” and useful phrases of this nature. Then we switch and I help her with English. Some little pestering siblings are looking over my shoulder at everything I write, I wouldn’t mind too much but they smell a little too, so I shoo them away to the other side of the room. Fatim’s friend Fifi comes in and pulls up a chair.  She’s all smiles and has thick tress braids like dreads.  I tell her that I like her style and she says its called “Bob Marley” with her comic village-girl-Afro-French accent. Dig it. Fatim hands me some popcorn in a plastic bag (which her neighbor sells) and we continue our lesson. We continue our practice thru the hot afternoon until we soak in enough foreign language that we can’t think any longer and decide to continue ‘Won Tina,’ tomorrow.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

At the Market

She is not afraid to show her breasts in public
she sits under her tattered umbrella and ladels out her sour Fula milk.
her brash friend with the buckets of juice and a tray of fruit
calls out from beneith her shade and becons me to buy quel que petit chose.
another market woman tests her few words of english
and approaches me in her bright-colored but faded pagne.
I move aside for a young girl
balancing a tub of oranges on her head.
she swivels around and continually stares at me as she passes,
not tripping over the uneaven, trash spewn pathway-
not dropping a thing out of her tub on high-
nor colliding with the man rushing by with an extremely heavy bag of rice on his back -
and although he sweats under the weight of his load, he smiles.
here I was thinking I am in the way,
but really I'm a welcome mid-day market distraction.

City streets are Full, but of What ?

Driving our from Conakry by bus, I watch out the window as the mundane passes by at wharp-speed, making the life on the other side of the glass seem oh so much more active.   In the span of 30seconds we pass in a whirl of color:  Obama Restaurant; guys shoveling cement to make the crude blocks that make up 90% of new city housing, and another guy tossing buckets of water over the finished blocks to keep them from cracking in the drying process; women tressing hair, sitting on chairs outside to view the comings and goings; kids tearing off their school uniforms the moment they leave the school grounds (ie: kacki shirt for boys with an urban tee underneath); a guy fiddling with his radio, propping the antenna up in various positions hoping for the clearer signal; women tailors sizing up shiny blazen cloth; metal workers welding gaudy, elaborate, so-utterly-not-down-to-earth-Africa doors and bedframes; women peeling oranges and adding them to the white-peeled pile of the ones for sale etc etc. Life is lived on the streets here vs. driving down the street in the US where most things are done behind closed doors and gated neighborhoods. 
     Conakry draws people in from all regions of the country; lured in by ideas of the 'good life' and that things happen in the capital.  People come to build a better future here and the city is expanding exponentially - what was open country land last year has turned into the new suburban shops, buildings, and new homes. The building doesn't stop.  Along the main roads out of town, one can find a veritable Home Depot of supplies ready for the entrepreneurial builder:  window frames, cement blocks, beams, boards, tiles, and squat toilets.  If you are looking for quality - well that is another matter - but the quantity is here. (I've been told that Guinea is one of the receptacles for all unwanted goods in the world. i.e: If it cant sell anywhere else - send it to Guinea ! This would explain the incredibly-stylishly-tacky-bulky-mid 80s- faux leather couches for sale in numerous places on the side of the road.  I must buy one for someone as a white elephant cadeau !)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

You know you're in West Africa When...... (ongoing list)

1.) you have a favorite plastic bucket and favorite plastic cup. 
2.) you're chewing banana bubblegum.
3.) you're host family keeps you up all night watching Bollywood movies turned up full blast (this only happens if it is a night with electricity ie: one in 4)
4.) All prices are gauged in reference to how much 1 coke costs.  ie:  I could get 3 cokes for that much
5.) you dream of ice water.
6.) 10year old girls can carry a bucket of water better than you.
7. ) laundry is put out to dry laying flat out across the street.
8.)  walls, especially walls with ledges, have rub marks from the goats that walk and rub along them.
9.) antenas are assembled with half their parts missing. (yeah, that looks close enough)
10.) you see an "Obama Salon de Coiffure" and "Obama Resturant"
11.) four people in the back seat of a taxi means there's room for at least one more.
12.) you play the 'beep' game to get people to call you back.
13.) guests devour a whole Xtra large jar of mayo in one sitting - putting it on their fried chicken of course !
14.) guys stand in rush hour traffic selling spray cans of cockroach zapper
15.) (in conakry) you watch a series of people over the course of 10min. get out of the elevator, confused, and walk down or up a floor using the steps - as if button pressing in the elevator is an aquired skill
16.) you can get a mayo sandwich, designer fake watches and sunglasses, shoes reglued, repaired and shined, prayer mat, all within half a city block
17.) 8yr olds play football (soccer) in the grass in the round-about during heavy rush hour traffic; and teenagers run and do their training in the slim center median between all the irratic comings and goings of traffic
18.)   you say something in the affirmative and then say "insha'allah" because you know its not going to happen.
19.) you accept military rushing thru town in their fancy trucks, at high speeds, all hours of the day, shooing cars and people aside as if they're conductors in a video game.
20.)  you are the michellen critique of street food vendors
21.)  you sweat maggi
22.)  you go swimming with local friends and realize you're the only one that knows how
23.) you vie for territory in the compound with the chickens
24.)  you know how to say 'white person' in more than one local language: 'fote', 'anasara', 'toubab' ecc
25.) When you take of your sandals, you have a dirt outline of your sandals and when you wash that away 
        you have a sandal tan (maybe even 2 if you have more than one pair of sandals! ).
People don’t hesitate to write up phone numbers and calculations on their homes or on buildings so 
         they can remember them for later
Being on time means being 30minutes late
You see a guy walking a monkey like its his dog.
Large groups of kids play around the one light within miles that works at night
You can have a business charging phones
Kids never get tired of having their picture taken, and then go nuts when you show it to them like
         they’re their own celebrity
You mistake the French word ‘grossess’ for being fat, and later learn that it means getting bigger in
         pregnancy ( you were wondering why your host family said their 3yr old nephew needed to stay with
          them because his mom was getting really fat - well i just went along with it,  haha)
The electricity comes on and the whole village sighs in response. 
You go to the market with a plastic container because you don’t want the peanut butter lady to scoop
        out your spoonfuls of PB into a plastic bag.  (same with the tomato paste lady…. And the oil lady……
        plastic bags full of oil are just an accident waiting to happen)
You learn that oranges are not eaten but ‘sucked’
When in doubt, put more official looking ink stamps on it.
People don’t realize that white people can get tan
Sometimes all you can do is sprawl out and hope a breeze passes by

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Stuck inside by forces of nature, wanting to go out, I wait.

Thunder loud enough to make the trees jump
Sheets of water pouring down from the sky
Lightning brighter and more dynamic than Chinese New Year's fireworks
Nature is asserting her grand role in the sceme of things
If she can't subtully persuade man to alter his ill-thought course
She will do it by force!

Monday, November 8, 2010

La Discoteque

The village discoteque is where it's at Samdi (sat.) night - modern, vibrant, up-and-coming Africa at her finest. Supposedly this club, Bistango, was the private club of former pres. Conde, who's from this small hamlet of Dubreka. Hence all the paved roads, and the water that ran freely from pipes once upon a time (Conde is no longer with us). 
This nights outting is the result of the motivation and urging by my host sister Kodjatu.  I think the politics in the family are that if I want to go out, she can go out too, so I am 'the excuse' for the night, but I'm alright with this.  Kodjatu, aka Nanafuta aka 24yrs old, spunky and is in a  really flashy, short, tight, pink dress with glitter down the front.  Next to her I feel underdressed in my peace corps issued jeans and tank top, but, I figured I was dressing for a village bar, not a night out to the 'village big time.' Also, I attract enough attention as it is.  Thus said, when we arrive round 11pm, I am completely outdone by all the uberly-stylish women and girls in the club who obviously got the dress-to-impress memo (not quite sure what the age limit here is, or if there is one).
We enter the club and are affronted with a haze of sweaty hot air - ugh, no 'current' tonight, therefor no AC.  How can you have an inside dancing venue in Africa with no AC - hotbox! Couldn't you have made it 'covered'?! Maybe its someone's sick idea of a weightloss,  sweat to cleanse program. Haha. Nevertheless, I'm here so I set about checking the scene.
The disco dots are in full effect. I plop down on one of the plush, gaudy couches with Nanafuta and watch the dancing action. Infectious polyrhythems and beats are being pumped out; I can't help but join in. The dj switches from Guinean music, to Ivorian, and even some songs in english (where he's gotten these ones from I have no idea, never heard them before).  The tunes are all upbeat and fastmoving, but the dj keeps cutting the beats haphazardly to speak over the song, or switch tracks - party killer.  People ask me if I'm tired because I stop dancing when he does this - well, how can one dance without a steady beat? Stop doing shout-outs and play! - my messege to the village DJ (who I've heard comes to Dubreka every weekend from Conakry, as if this means he's good. But well, his work speaks for itself). Nevertheless, I enjoy checking out all the different dancing styles, and Nanafuta gets a kick out of seeing me on the dancefloor - I take pride in shattering the widely held belief here that white people can't dance. 
Beers here at discoteque Bistango are half the price of a coke, and cheaper than water so I make the economic decision.  I sit down again and survey the crowd, so many beautiful ladies and mostly unattractive guys - hum, isn't that the case the worldover (hey, I can play critic here).  Still most everyone is dancing, sweating, getting their saturday night groove on till 6am sunday morning. 
I go outside for air and see that the rain has finally come.  I greatfully soak in the cool and get pulled into conversation by a few guys hanging around the door.  One is from the local art school and the other's the bouncer.  They both confess their love for me, and their desire for marraige, true to west african standards (yes, the vast majority of men here will propose within the first 3minutes). I go back inside to dance to avoid having to respond sarcastically to any more of their unrealistic requests.
A few Ras guys come in.  I'm guessing their from the art school too. The Ras lifestle and guys with dreads are not looked upon favorably in west africa, as one might assume the otherwise.  Most west african men have shaved heads - either because they're Muslim or they're trying to beat the heat.
Well, its now 2am and my feet are threatening to stop working.  I know Nanafuta wants to stay but if I stay any longer I'm going to be catatonic and cronicly dehydrated tomorrow.  I get a ride in someone's small red car, and have to cover for Nanafuta (who's going to stay out all night) when all my banging on the door is finally heard by my not-happy-to-be-woken-up host mom. She's all questions and I spit a quick response out, politly, and then hurry to my room.  I'm like an african high schooler making up late night excuses.  (*note, i still have to open the sqeeky door to her bedroom and go in to brush my teeth, since i am sharing the house bathroom with her, which happens to be in her bedroom ! I would just go outside an do this, but she puts a pretty serious bolt on the door at night and hides the key from me.  oh, the joys of host family life)

Sunday, November 7, 2010


She wakes before the sun
baby tied to back.
dishes need to be washed
chickens let out
the courtyard swept.
Each day is a trial, like the last -
yet she excepts, and carries on.
laundry washed
market errands run
food prepared  in big pots over the smokey fire,
and her eyes remain dry.
The day passes by, with time spent not her own but her family's.
yet sometimes as she carries on
she breaks out in song
and taps into something far greater than herself.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

African Rains

The rain is unstoppable.  Everyone and everything is wet - even people standing under awnings are wet! The street is a rushing torrent.  Water from up the street to the left and up the street to the right merge together and cascade violently to lower ground. Rainwater is ratta-ratta-ratta rapping off the metal roofs and  pouring evenly off all the corrugated grooves.  The music of the downpour drones out all else.  Plush leather couches left out on the street on display in order to sell are now the recipients of a high pressure rain-wash.  The currents rush through table legs and chairs, and lap like waves upon the low concrete stoops of the shop doors - proprietors looking on, more bemused than worried.  A stylish woman with Cleopatra eyes painted on the side of the 'Susu Salon du Beaute' watches the commotion, her grace out of place in this wild world.  Wise city planners forgot to put drains into the city layout and now everyone suffers these temporary floods during rainy season (and did i mention Conakry is one of the wettest cities in the world?)
Cars are submerged, streets are navigable only by boat.  Men have a fairly good, honest excuse to stop and sit at bars and conversate until the waters decline ( I say this because they'd be doing it anyway).  One woman braves the flood-waters and is drenched with her kids in tow - or maybe they just all needed a shower? Buckets are strategically placed by the dozens to fill up for later use.  Its hard to imagine now, as the rain pummels down, that it could ever be dry. Wait 30minutes after the rainy barrage, however,  and it will be as hot and humid as ever.  For most then, this rain is a welcome change.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Excerpts from A walk thru the Village

In order to get to know a place, the people, the rhythms its best to make yourself a part of it.  I set out and take a walk through town and see what catches my eyes, ears and imagination.
Freshly dried laundry dries in the sun, flayed out all along the paved road, on trees and over bushes.  I've never quite understood the principle behind washing clothes and then laying them on the dirty street, but I don't care to stop and have a long conversation about why the street is 'dirty' to villagers who would clearly look at me strangely and continue washing and drying as they please. 
Five women in pagna's and headscarfs are across the road, taking turns with long wooden chest-high pestles, pounding the corn into the wooden mortar.  Once beaten into a fine grind, sour un-pasteurized milk will be poured over it - this is a staple of the Fula diet (and yes, Fulani people do love it!).
A woman walks down the road with a large bundle of sticks wrapped up in her headwrap - for easier traveling.  A group of young, tattily dressed kids sits under a mango tree, like a scene from the 'lost boys.'  Young men sit and converse under a thatch hangar smoking and killing time, dutifully doing their part to look cool and help the cigarette makers turn a profit in Africa. 
The afternoon mosque call blends in with the rest of the noises in the distance, but not everyone goes to pray.
The sun is beating down and with each step I'm sweating.  I feel somewhat a part of this village scene with each hello as I pass by, yet somewhat apart in knowing that I'm walking through these people's everyday, their life, their culture, and I'm here only temporarily.  Having lived in so many places, I have a unique view of the world, and for the most part, the people in this village only have one.  Its best not to compare but just be present, and I'm thankful for being here and now albeit on this hot village street of drying clothes.  If I cant see how everything falls into this moment then i have learned nothing.  To be alive in the simplest of moments is a blessings, and I soak my surroundings in like the sun.