Sunday, April 30, 2006

Africa Works . . . ?

A week in Bamako crawled by. I was waiting for a train to Dakar, the famous Bamako-Dakar "express," though it took me three days to even learn when it left: Wednesday. But when I went to buy my ticket on Tuesday, I learned that the train would not be leaving that week, nor could anyone guarantee the following week -- there was a fete of marabouts in Dakar, and the train had not come back to Bamako the week before. However, there was a train leaving that night that went as far as Kayes. I pretended that all made some sense, and bought the ticket.

The train to Dakar is legendary throughout the region, largely because it is so unreliable and uncomfortable. Everyone in Bamako also pointed out that it had been de-railing a lot lately, although the details changed all the time. Were passenger trains or freight trains de-railing? How many people had died? Was the company owned by Germans, Canadians or Americans? No one knew. No one was talking about it.

I arrived at the station promptly at 7:30pm. "No, of course the train won't leave on time," a conductor snapped impatiently at me. "No one knows when it will leave, it doesn't have a schedule. Ici c'est pas comme en France!" Annoyed, I told him I wasn't French, but later I heard him use the same line with everyone who complained about anything.

We pulled out of Bamako at 8:30 -- an hour late. Everyone on board was astonished at the train's punctuality. They told me it usually doesn't leave until 10:00 or 11:00. I settled into my spacious vinyl chair with its cracked and pitted armrests, and marveled at the fact that despite my good fortune in sitting next to an open window, no breeze came through the carriage at all. The old man sitting across the aisle was wearing a turquoise boubou and gnawing on a mango, swallowing the skin. He fanned himself with a woven straw fan and stared at me fiercely. Everywhere I looked, fans fluttered like moths. We sat like that for the next 18 hours.

The woman next to me was a rich girl whose family owned two houses. Her hair was finely braided and tied back, and her pedicure made her toenails look like enamel claws. Every time the train stopped, she hung out the window and did some shopping. Standing barefoot on the seat, she bought bunches of mint, toothbrush sticks and bags and bags of mangoes. "Chez nous, des enfants sont beaucoups," she explained. Everyone else was buying mangoes as well, and in massive quantities. Mangoes piled up in sacks and buckets in the aisle, and soon the motionless air in the carriage hung heavy with the sweet-and-sour scent of rotting fruit.

Desperate to escape the smell and the heat, I sought out my favorite seat on every African train: the steps by the open door that says "Do not open while train is in motion." At this point I always feel acutely grateful for the continent's general lack of concern for health and safety. My feet planted on the bottom step and one hand braced against a handrail, I sat and watched as rivers, villages and desert scrub brush sped by, hoping the next jolt wouldn't send me hurtling into the dry grass. Behind me a ferocious-looking conductor in a grey suit was muttering to himself as he meticulously recorded each stop the train made, and the time it spent there. I couldn't imagine why. He had a forked beard and woolly hair in which was lodged a blue pen, and after he had tucked his notebook into his pocket he railed at everyone within earshot about how late the train was and how nobody respected schedules. No one seemed to be listening.

Some of the villages we stopped in looked too small to have a road, let alone a railway station. Women came running out of the huts to mill about under the windows selling mangoes, brochettes and bottled water. Pulling away from one stop I leaned out to take a picture, and my lens cap fell off and rolled into the dust. "Don't worry, we can get it back for you," one of the conductors assured me. "There's a train behind us. We'll telephone to tell them to look for your lens cap when they stop in that village, and then we'll bring it to you in Kayes."

It was a far-fetched proposition, but it occurred to me that here in West Africa, this was one transaction that might actually work. After all, ici c'est pas comme en France . . .

It hasn't happened yet, but if a Peace Corps volunteer in Kayes were to email me here in Dakar to say that my lens cap is on its way back home, I wouldn't be entirely surprised.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Waiting for the mangoes to run dry

A friend of mine from Wellesley, Caitlin, is a Peace Corps volunteer in southern Mali. She was my official excuse for making my way back to this country. Meeting her in Bamako on April 8 was the only fixed appointment I had to keep during this entire trip. Of course, I missed it, and by a spectacular two whole days.

We did finally cross paths in the town of Sikasso, from where we headed out to her village. Caitlin lives much further "en brousse" than I did in Guinea; her village is about 9kms off the paved road, with no transport in or out, no women selling rice or milk or fried pastries on the side of the road, and no shops. If it weren't for the wealth of mangoes ripening on the trees, food would be a real problem. Caitlin assures me that in a couple of months, it will be. She talked about the hungry season last year, when she watched children fighting over the inedible pods growing on a bush outside her house. "They fill your stomach," a local man had told her, "but they make you sick."

The two of us spent three nights in the village, moving slowly, chatting lazily and avoiding the sun. Caitlin's Malian counterpart had just run off with a stash of project money and she was left trying to negotiate the fall-out. This scandal was the subject of every conversation -- that and elephants, a herd of which had just passed through a week earlier. Caitlin had gone to see them with several dogs, and the elephants had charged. Caitlin had nearly been trampled and two of the dogs had to be shot. Everyone wanted pictures.

We slept outside every night, me swathed in a dusty mosquito net, Caitlin taking her chances in the open air. Her house is on the outskirts of the village, but the nocturnal noise is still surprising: crooning radios, barking dogs, the unearthly wailing of the donkey next door. The only pump in the village broke, and everyone was drinking well water. We wandered listlessly around in the dust, pausing under mango trees to chat with old men parked on woven mats, fielding questions about the elephants.

On Sunday we bicycled 10kms to a nearby waterfall, the closest thing in the area to a tourist attraction. A thin spray of water dribbled and spat off a mossy cliff into a pool so deep I couldn't touch the bottom, where dry season mud swirled thick and orange and there were rumors of crocodiles. Vegetation grew thickly on the rocks and the air felt at least 5 degrees cooler. We swam, lay on a cool ledge, napped, and swam some more before trudging back to the bikes through a mango grove carpeted in leaves and crawling with red ants.

"That's the thing about Mali," said Caitlin. "There are so many places that are almost great, but aren't."

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Guinea gets its own

I did all the calculations in my mind, and decided that I had left Guinean transport in the dust. I had cleverly managed to avoid most of its nastiness -- after a week spent in-country, all I had had to suffer through was a Peace Corps ride and two hitched lifts in 4x4s. The only thing that remained was the trip from Kankan to Bamako on a road which, as the only sign of progress in the past three years, had been paved. It was an easy ride, they told me. Shouldn't take more than 6 or 7 hours. So 11:00am found me sitting in the Kankan taxi park, book in hand, confident that I would be eating dinner in Bamako. All that remained was for the taxi to fill up.

There are clearly many, many things I've forgotten about Guinea. The taxi, of course, did not fill up. I waited at that station for 9 hours, during which time they moved us to a minibus, loaded and unloaded and reloaded luggage on the roof, waited around for the driver to show up, waited some more while he disappeared again, and generally wasted time until 8:00pm. By that time I was spitting nails, furious at the thought of having to get into Bamako in the middle of the night. As it turns out, I needn't have worried. After taking our time filling the gas tank and stopping for a leisurely coffee break in Siguri, We rolled up to the Mali border at 12:30 -- half an hour after it had closed.

Along the way we stopped in a small village to investigate a fatal traffic accident. Leafy branches had been piled on the road to block off the scene, and crowds of people were milling around in the moonlight. They were gathered in front of the little white Peugeot that had struck down a villager, and in the center of the group old men with white beards were speaking softly and gesturing toward something on the ground. I tried to get closer, but as I craned my neck to see I felt a hand on my elbow pulling me back. It was a man from my minibus. "Let's go," he whispered. "You don't want to see that."

The border post was manned by 3 or 4 tired customs officials in navy blue uniforms. They sat languidly on the steps of the office or lounged on bamboo beds in the courtyard. This was the night shift, and after midnight there was nothing to do but listen to the radio and turn people away. Our minibus parked outside the office and my fellow passengers scattered into the night. I didn't feel like going anywhere at all, so I parked myself on a step, chatted to the bored officers and talked them into letting me crash on one of the bamboo beds. By 1:30 we were all sleeping fitfully under the stars: me, several men and women in uniform, and a guard who had left a car radio blasting to keep him awake. He looked particularly peaceful snoring on a bench next to me when I woke up to the morning prayer call.

What with customs drama, roadblocks and random shopping stops (someone wanted mangoes, someone else needed onions), we didn't get into Bamako until 11:00am the next day -- a full 24 hours after I had arrived at the Kankan taxi park.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

West African Seasons

Wow, I seem to have fallen rather behind here. I blame this on Guinea, on the fact that the only internet access in Kankan is infuriatingly slow, and on my own personal laziness. So in the name of efficiency, let's just skip the rest of Cote d'Ivoire (there wasn't much) and move on.

As most of you know, one major goal of this trip was to return to Guinea, to see some of my former students and to visit my various families there. I knew I would be arriving in the middle of the hot season, and in Haute Guinea the hot season is not something to be taken lightly. I have memories of sweltering nights that force you to sleep out on the porch, and of fitful naps snatched between the buzzing of mosquitoes and the morning prayer call. I remember wrapping myself in a wet pagne to keep cool, sweating during showers and counting to days until the rains would finally come to take the sharp edge off of the heat. In my personal mythology of life in Guinea, the hot season was hell.

But what struck me on the bumpy ride between N'Zerekore and Kankan was that the hot season is many other things as well. It is the season of ripe mangoes, of small children with sticky, fruity fingers and roadside tables piled with bright orange pyramids. It is the season of baobab fruit and creamy red cashew fruit, which market women insist cannot be eaten with milk (no one is quite willing to believe them, nor is anyone prepared to try it). It is beach season, when the women and children of Kankan descend on what's left of the Milo river to scrub clothes, bathe, play in the water and exchange gossip, while men in pirogues load their boats with sand and slowly punt their way upstream. They are headed to the brickery; with the sun hot enough to bake the ground solid, it is also brick-making season. This is the only season for swimming, because, as the locals will tell you, all the crocodiles spontaneously disappear when the water gets this low. We think about it a little, contemplate how nice it feels to be wet, and decide there may be logic there after all.

The hot season is also the end of the dry season, and the dust is at its dustiest. It coats the wide teak leaves by the side of the road, hovers in a cloud for a full 5 minutes behind each passing vehicle and leaves brown sweaty streaks on your skin. It gets into your eyes, gets into your hair and grits between your teeth, and whenever a gust of wind whips by there is nothing you can do but cover your face.

And so, dirty and reveling in seasonal fruit, I made my triumphant return to Kankan, to Sanguiana and to the life of a Peace Corps volunteer. The PCVs in the area were not hard to find -- a new group had just arrived and was swarming around Kankan's only respectable hotel -- and I was soon updated on what had changed in the program and what had not. To complete the time warp, I even got the chance to attend a Peace Corps party in the true Haute tradition, and for anyone out there who knows what I'm talking about, the newbies do not disappoint.

My host family in Kankan was glad to see me, but didn't seem particularly surprised. "Where have you been?" they asked, then went back to cutting up fish. The reaction in Sanguiana was more enthusiastic. People came running out of their huts to meet me, food was proffered from every direction and more people seemed to remember my name than ever knew it to begin with. I spent the night in my old hut, newly-thatched, and marveled at how little had really changed.

(A political side-note: Guinean villages may seem like peaceful places, but Sanguiana has an activist side I never would have given it credit for. During the elections last year, the Prefet in Kourousa came to the village and announced that no one without an identity card would be allowed to vote. In rural Guinea, this includes most people -- many have never even been to Kouroussa, let alone to a regional capital where an ID card could be purchased. Moreover, Haute Guinea is a traditional stronghold of the opposition, and no one was under any illusions as to why they were being cut out of the electoral process.

So the villagers burned down the Sous-prefet's hut, ransacked his house and stole everything inside. Shots were fired and three people were injured, at which point everyone gave up and went home. I can't believe that anyone voted at all. Now the Sous-prefet, who has since moved his family back to Kouroussa, lives in a house right behind the ruined shell of the old Sous-prefecture. The incident doesn't seem to have tarnished his political career, though, and no one I talked to had anything bad to say about him.)

Ca c'est la Guinea!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Pioneering the north

Abidjan was a pleasant surprise. I had heard a number of damning reports of the city, including one from a friend of mine who was mugged in broad daylight crossing a bridge. Since he was there in 2003 the reputation of the bridge hasn't changed – anyone can tell you that if you cross it, you WILL get mugged – but having taken all due precaution, I found Abidjan to be an exciting, diverse and surprisingly up-beat metropolis. Nothing I've seen in West Africa can rival it for scyscrapers or good restaurants, and yet the neighborhoods till retain a good deal of friendly African charm.

But after 6 days I knew I had to move on, so I headed north toward Man. This involved crossing the Zone de Confiance, the cease-fire line separating rebel territory from government forces. As it turned out, though, the crossing was the least of my worries. By the time my minibus had bribed its way through a vertitible forest of military barrages (road-blocks – I counted 7 in one hour), we were all too happy to escape the underpaid Ivoirian armed forces.

Government territory ended with an impressive line of razor wire, a military encampment, two white UN tanks and a dozen or so Bangladeshi peacekeepers sitting around in blue helmets. They seemed interested in very little other than staring at me as I marched past, and when I smiled back one of them took a picture of me with his mobile phone. When I got back into my minibus they all came running up to ask, 'Which country? Which country?' I told them I was American, which earned me rounds of applause ('America is very good country! Very big!') quickly followed by an offer of marriage.

The rebels, when I finally found them, were a rag-tag bunch. The men at the first barrage over the border ushered us into what looked like a child's home-made fort and proceeded to go through our papers. The young man with the AK47 asked me a series of rather pointless questions ('when we see white people, we like to chat a little,' he explained) then let us go. It was the last I saw of them until I got into Man itself.

More to follow on Man . . . watch this space!