"Western Africa" story # 23

Bruce, Guinea-Bissau           September 29, 2012

Upon writing and re-reading my last story, I came to the realization that my local market actually offered many cooking possibilities. It could be fun to buy and cook with what was in season. For example, on Fridays, cow meat was in season.
     I bought a chunk of beef. I took it to the home - a broad, colonial home with a pyramidal roof and porch - which Father Luigi had given me so I could have a kitchen.
     A butcher's knowledge was required to chop up this piece of cow quickly. The chopping took me an hour. I sat in the home which shared a yard and cornfield with a similar home full of Bijago people. Left to myself, I felt an overwhelming happiness resulting from the peace and quiet.
     When I sat and enjoyed a big plate of beef pasta, my body became so happy it wanted to fly like a bird.
     The following day, I found someone selling baobab juice - virtually the only fruit product I'd seen during these months. I drank this chilled mixture of creamy, butterscotch fruit and milk. My body laughed and wished it could become baobab juice. I couldn't remember a time when good food relieved me so much. It must've been what my body was really needing.
     The following day, happy and healthy, I borrowed a bike to go to the opposite side of the island. It was eighteen kilometers away.
     The moment I left the town of Bubaque, I was enamored by beauty. Crossing through the center of the island, I passed fields where palm trees were harvested for their oil and fruit and wine. The randomly positioned trees were fifteen feet away from one another. Each towered over the bright green rice grass that sprouted to cover the field.
     For some reason, some fields had craters in the middle of them, and these craters also filled with bright green grass. In the gray sky above, purple clouds floated. And people sat on thatched platforms, resting above their fields.
     I rode a terrific bike effortlessly through a flat land. I weaved my way around the potholes.
     The sun came out. But, where there weren't fields, there was jungle. This shaded me.
     A man passed me on a motorbike. On the back of his bike he transported a red, rain-proof bag that may've had the Red Cross on it. I wondered: Was he working for the Colombian drug lords???
     I'd heard that a ton of cocaine per day, worth $25,000 a kilogram, entered Guinea-Bissau. It used to be, several planes daily arrived on this very island carrying goods from Colombia. Everyone knew about it. The sons of the Senegalese and Guinean presidents controlled the local traffic. But, the drugs stayed under the ownership of the Colombians, who used West Africa as a trampoline to Europe.
     I'd been told that all of West Africa (places like the port in Gambia) had drugs running through it, and that's why there were so many coups-d'etat.
     The Commonwealth of West African States (funded by the U.S., Europe, Japan, Korea) had now made it difficult for drugs to travel openly. But, they still traveled.
     A youth leader in Bubaque, a highly-disciplined young man and my soccer coach, had once unknowingly helped the traffickers. He'd thought he was transporting medicine. But, when he was paid handsomely for almost no work, he perceived the reality. He quit. Unfortunately, some of the youths he'd recruited to help him with this job were unable to resist the money. They continued to carry bags to boats for the traffickers, and one ended up in jail.
     I would never know what the motorcyclist was carrying. "Send my love to Colombia!" I could've yelled. I ignored the man and concentrated my feet on peddling me onwards to the beach!
     I rode through the villages of Etimbato and Bruce. I'd been excited to see them.
     Their lifestyle was no doubt more traditional than that of Bubaque; yet, their appearances looked similar. People in Western clothes sat around, eating rice and fish, in front of homes like colonial homes but smaller. Most homes still had straw roofs, unlike the metallic zinc roofs of Bubaque. These slightly rounded hats of the homes huddled together in a tight penguin colony.
     Traditional Bijago villages were very communal and united. Each village selected a man from outside to be chief, so he would be impartial in his ruling. Other than him, the village elders were authorities.
     Far outside of the last village, I came to a few cubical buildings made completely out of thatched reeds. They were beautiful. I stopped my bike, for I'd mistaken a giant cucumber in the road for a sign that papayas were for sale.
     I was greeted by an elegant middle-aged woman who wore an orange dress and had her hair covered because she came from a Guinean ethnicity that had accepted Islam. She (unlike some people along the road this morning, and everyone in the afternoon to come) didn't beg, she was happy to just talk. Her name: Mariama.
     She gave me crisp and flavorful cucumbers from her garden, which was next to her cornfield and rice field. She told me about the snake which had stolen one of her eggs. A chicken's egg, not hers. She put small shark fins on the roof to dry. These were sold for big money, then used by hospitals to sew surgical cuts.
     Her son, Mani, returned from fishing with a net from the beach. He was quiet at first. He had a shaven head and several golden teeth.
     He said he'd once traveled as far as Spain. To get into Europe, he'd had to climb a seven-meter, electrical fence near the Rock of Gibraltar. He wrapped a shirt around his hands and climbed. He spent two months in Spain, before being caught and deported.
     I asked if the police had hit and beaten him. He said they had.
     Minutes earlier, Mani had turned on the radio. Today was September 24th, 2012. Independence Day in Guinea-Bissau. On this day in 1973, the country had obtained independence from Portugal, after eleven years of fighting.
     In memory of this day, the radio was playing old Guinean music. A song came on that was a rapid and rhythmic twinkling of sweet banjo plucks. It grabbed a hold of me and wouldn't let me go unless I danced. Mani informed me that it was sung by Mama Jambo.
     Mani photographed me with Mariama. And I resumed my bike ride. I passed no more houses. The road suddenly rose up, reached its apex, turned to grass, and slid me down to the beach. My destination: the beach of Bruce.
     Here and for countless kilometers, the island's boundary was a light, light beach. The forests and beaches of other islands were visible out to sea - as always in this archipelago. There were only me and a local fisherman in sight, just as there had been only me and a motorcyclist or two on the road.
     Inland, a perfectly flat bed of fluffy grass was decorated with exotic trees; this gave way to jungle. I could see why those three penniless Portuguese travelers had chosen to spend five weeks here. It felt like my long trip from the Czech Republic to get here had truly been worth it.
     I swam. I sprinted. I ate bread with unsweetened peanut-butter made by a fat woman in the market. I rode my bike over the flat sand, past fallen trees that had come to drink the sea.
     I entered the jungle, at a place where a black, stagnant pond attracted animals to it. I climbed a tree and searched for monkeys playing on the pond's far side.
     I ran to the sea and took off all my clothes and played in the waves. It occurred to me that, of all the continents to be come across naked in, Africa - a place where adolescent penises and adult female breasts were everyday sights - was the one where you'd be immediately understood.
     I yelled:
     "Africa. Yes!"

the Modern O.

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