"Western Africa" story # 19

Bubaque, Guinea-Bissau           April 18, 2012

"Succeed. How?" - J.Breen philosophy (2007)

"Go to your home ... Guinea-Bissau!" - J.Breen philosophy (2012)

If one were going to Guinea-Bissau for the first time, and he read the U.S. State Dept.'s "information for travelers" posted on the internet, a shiver of fright would pass through his bones. At least, that was what happened to me.
     The U.S. State Dept. made it sound as if, just by entering Guinea-Bissau, a person would get thrown in prison and no American would hear from him again. Crime was apparently rampant, and the State Dept. advised against showing "any amount of currency" in public. How was one supposed to buy anything? There was no consulate to help Americans in Guinea-Bissau.
     But, I had other sources of information.
     Uncle Cheikh-Oumar in central Senegal, a military man, said Guinea-Bissau was synonamous with "drugs" and "drug trafficking". I shouldn't go there.
     In southern Senegal, everyone claimed police roadblocks were prevalent in Guinea-Bissau. The police didn't even look for a road violation in soliciting bribes from people. They just said, "Give me money." Foreigners, black and white, were expected to pay $2 at every entrance to (and exit from?) towns.
     The country was politically instable. A coup d'etat had taken place there this very year!
     The Senegalese claimed the Guineans were highly uneducated, and this was the cause of so much crime and political fighting.
     Apparently, many islands (in the Guinean archipelago I was going to) had no police presence whatsoever. Actually, this bit of information sounded nice to me.
     I got the impression that Guinea-Bissau was a dark place in which jungle - a jungle filled with landmines - hung over everything. Soldiers with muscles bursting out of their uniforms blocked your way with guns. Uneducated men lurked in the capital, looking to victimize people who had money.
     Gulp. I was scared. Nevertheless, there was no question about it.
     I was going to enter this country!
     On August 2nd, I left Nfally Souane's house in southern Senegal and walked to the transit station. I bought myself a ticket to Bissau City in a sept-place taxi (a car with room for seven passengers).
     The man who charged us for our baggage took one look at me and tried to rip me off. Actually, he ripped off everyone. I told him I wouldn't travel, in that case. This man, with a big and surly head, threatened that I wouldn't travel out of the transit station this day. That was fine; I preferred to brave the hot sun and hitchhike. He yelled, as I was walking away, "Il faut courir!" (You'd better run!)
     I got my ticket refunded. Outside, I caught a short ride from a trucker. Then, a sept-place taxi stopped and offered me a reasonable price to Bissau, which I accepted.
     I wondered, was that big-headed guy a Muslim who was angry because he was fasting during Ramadan? He was probably Senegalese. I was pretty sure he had been the hostile one during our encounter, but I recognized that this had put me in a tense, defensive mood.
     It had been my plan to ask the Guinean police for sympathy, to grant me free passage. But, I was now worried that I might assume an attitude that could get me into trouble. I decided that, at the first roadblock, I would silently pay if asked to. I had to make it safely to Bissau.
     We passed customs and entered my destination country. Woohoo, Guinea-Bissau!
     We continued through a jungly, low land full of waterholes and flowing puddles. Amid the jungle, people sat in front of their homes, still covered by pyramidal roofs made of straw or rusted tin. The large, square homes were made of packed red mud, or cement. In one town, little girls' hands entered the window of our stopped car to offer us cashews. I paid $1 for a small bag of the country's major export.
     Whenever our car approached what seemed to be a police checkpoint, I put my hat over my eyes and pretended to be sleeping. After a brief stop, I felt the taxi moving on. Once, I was surprised by a checkpoint and didn't have time to hide. An elderly cop with a gentle face checked my passport. Handing it back to me, he pushed it into the face of the guy in front of me, for a joke. Ha ha! But, he didn't ask for any money.
     So, I made it to Bissau. The Guineans there were upset to hear the Senegalese claimed their police solicited bribes.
     I would spend the night in the suburb of Sao Paolo, in the home of a friend of a friend. A bumpy dirt road led from the capital, passed through a marsh full of bright green reeds, and came to a collection of houses beneath palm trees and above a swampy lake. There was no electricity in my host's home (maybe in the whole suburb?). I showered outside with a bucket of water, inside walls of sheet metal which didn't completely conceal me ... while it was raining.
     And the following day, I caught the ferry. To the Archipelago of the Bijagos. My final destination. With $70 in my pocket.

I paid $20 to rent a room for a month.
     That was more expensive than some rooms in Senegal, despite the fact that Guinea-Bissau was a poorer country. (My Aunt Kim found information suggesting it was the world's 5th poorest country. That was pretty elite company.) Yet, I felt I'd gotten a pretty good deal, because the room came with a mattress and mosquito net. It, of course, had no electricity.
     Actually, I was being helped by the friend of a friend of a friend. In West Africa, it was good to have money. But, it was even better to have friends. This new friend's wife had her tiny daughter bring me rice and fish every day, and a bucket to shower with.
     At first, it was difficult to get used to this poor life. But, I soon felt comfortable.
     Seated in front of my room, I could ponder palm trees and patches of jungle. That was all there was to do.
     Just kidding. Though the overwhelming trees made it feel like I was in the countryside, there was actually a village of 7000 people surrounding me. Walking its dirt paths, I greeted and was greeted by nearly everybody. The people here were among the world's friendliest.
     They also seemed intelligent. Speaking the Portuguese of their colonizers, they told me stories of airplanes landing with shipments of drugs from Colombia. They explained that the year's coup d'etat had been a peaceful assumption of power by the military, and was supported by the people. Democratic elections were to take place afterwards; but, they hadn't yet.
     Most of the islanders had nothing to do with drugs or politics, though. They were fishermen.
     So, why had I chosen the Archipelago of the Bijagos?
     The archipelago's inhabitants, the Bijagos, had mostly maintained their traditional religious beliefs. In addition, theirs was one of only a few matriarchal societies in the world. This meant, among other things, that both men and women could become village chiefs.
     I began living on $1 or $2 a day, and looking for work. I would stay here for as close to three months as I could.
     Top 5, baby!

peace from the islands,
Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Yunus Saliou & a little boy for the ride!
Much thanks to Seydi, Mama, Seli, Mam-baba, another girl, & the twins for the place to stay!

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