Friday, January 26, 2007

Talking About a Revolution

Since its independence, Guinea has been a country of almost extraordinary peace. Despite its bellicose neighbors – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea Bissau all border – Guinea resisted all temptation to plunge into civil war, and even its token military coup was pulled off in 1984 with a minimum of bloodshed and comparatively few bruised egos.

Which isn’t to say that Guinea hasn’t had problems: its people are among the poorest in the world, the government has long squandered a vast wealth of mineral resources and the country was recently declared by Transparency International to be the most corrupt in Africa. Electricity doesn’t work, running water is nearly non-existent, the price of rice has skyrocketed over the past year and the roads are of the type that swallow trucks whole. The currency has been in freefall for years. It is one of the few countries in the world that seems to be visibly deteriorating over time, like an abandoned city left to rot. Yet the president has been re-instated over and over in a series of laughably fraudulent elections, and each time the population grumbles but does nothing. Some call it passivity, others call it patience. But for whatever reason, Guineans, for the past 49 years, have always just sat there and taken it.

Until now.

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to visit Guinea again about a month ago, less than two weeks before the current strike began. A friend of mine is a Peace Corps volunteer there, as was I four years ago, and we ended up spending several days in the Peace Corps training house in the village of Forekariah. Crossing into the country from Sierra Leone delighted me, as it always does. I couldn’t suppress a grin as I argued with the familiar, pig-headed Guinean gendarmes, sucked on cheap Guinean oranges and began tossing Malinke exclamations into my speech. That dinner’s rice and sauce was, I would have sworn, the best I had ever had.

But the biggest thrill was when, sitting alone at the house, I suddenly found myself face to face with Makan, one of my own Peace Corps trainers from 5 ½ years earlier. Not only did he remember me, but he remembered my name. Immediately. Later we were joined by Daffe, another old trainer of mine, and the three of us reminisced about days gone by, shared news about other volunteers I had known and gossiped about life in Guinea. A new training group was on its way, a volunteer turnover was about to occur and yet another new cycle was beginning. Le plus que ça change . . .

Or so I thought. On January 10, the unions in Guinea declared a general strike, the third one in a year. However, this time the demands went beyond the usual lowering-the-cost-of-rice and removing-the-tax-on-fuel. Conte had personally released a friend of his from prison, Mamdou Sylla, also the richest man in Guinea, who was being held on corruption charges. It wasn’t a particularly surprising move, but it was enough to push an already strained population over the edge. This time the unions wanted blood, and even the political opposition parties stood aside to let them go for the kill. They demanded that Conte step down, and 16 days, 49 lives and tens of thousands of demonstrators later, they are still holding fast. The Guinean people, they say, are tired of empty promises.

We Guinea-philes working in Dakar followed all of this eagerly, amazed at the sense of national unity evident in the demonstrations and a little bit stunned that Guineans were finally rising up against everything that had been so wrong for so long. But most of all, we were proud. Wouldn’t it be amazing, we speculated, if after all this time, Guinea ended up being the West Africa country whose people succeeded in overthrowing a dictator through popular uprisings? It would just go to show that what we’ve always maintained is true: the government is appalling and nothing in the country works, but Guineans themselves are some of the most wonderful people in the world.

Two days ago I met my friend Karen at her house, and was alarmed to find her in tears. She had just had word from a friend of hers, now a Peace Corps director in Guinea, who had been sent to Bamako. Karen played me the voice mail message: “I needed a good cry tonight . . . you never think it’s really going to happen . . . the cars have already been sent out to evacuate the volunteers, and they’ll be here on Thursday. If they get sent home it’s going to break my heart.” Karen had been evacuated years earlier from Cote d’Ivoire, and was re-living painful memories. I just sat and stared at my hands. I pictured the white land cruisers pulling up next to volunteers’ huts, ten minutes to pack, hurried goodbyes to those who could be found, plans and project and friendships uprooted, a country receding into the distance.

But the picture that really stuck in my mind was of sitting in the Forekariah Peace Corps house several weeks earlier with Daffe, joking about other volunteers we had both known. Suddenly he vanished into the office and appeared again a minute later, brandishing several sheets of paper with little passport-sized headshots stuck all over them. The pictures were of us, my entire training group, taken when we had first arrived in Guinea. I was 21 years old. “I have them all hanging above my desk, so I will never forget any of you,” Daffe assured me. Our faces peered up at me through water damage and fly spots, still looking fresh and naïve after all these years. And I thought about how wonderful it was that here, in a forgotten corner of West Africa, we would live on forever as the idealistic youngsters that we once were.

All I can say is that I wish the best for Guinea, with Peace Corps’ help or without.

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