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.

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