On the second day of his malaria medication, Sampson decided he was up to driving and we finally headed out of Freetown, through the awfully British-sounding suburbs of Wellington, Hastings and Waterloo and back out to the rainforests and rivers beyond.
Our 14th border crossing was much easier than anticipated. I’d been girding myself for problems – typhoid confusion persisting, compounded with the fresh challenge of trying to combat corruption in French – but none materialised. Admittedly, we timed it perfectly, doing school in the morning and eating a bolstering lunch before tackling the checkpoints at Kambia on the Sierra Leonean side, ensuring we hit Pamalap on the Guinean side, in the same building, just before 4pm. At that time of day, almost every uniform was sitting back in a chair with legs widespread fanning themselves and looking forward to a well earned cold drink at the end of their shift – leaving little appetite to harass the foreigners.
The day was most notable for the fact that three times I was asked by officials for my daughter’s hand in marriage. Not one of them was put off when I revealed she was 14. The first, a tall policeman, was so taken with her he couldn’t concentrate on what I was saying. The second, a military policeman called Osman Kamara was so smitten, he eventually told me “ I love her, love her” and laughed when I rejoindered “Me too!” He gave me his contact details and begged me quite seriously to keep him in mind when she came of age.
The third was the UN Ebola official on the Guinean side who, after checking our temperature with the ThermoFlash for the umpteenth time that day, asked many questions for tracking purposes and took detailed answers of where we’d come from and where we were going. Having worked so hard to eradicate Ebola, Guinea really doesn’t want it back in. I was struggling to understand the rolling Guinean accent of his French when I realised he was asking if Ruby would be leaving with us or whether I’d consider leaving her there with him?
I was quite apprehensive about entering Guinea, an autocratic state which since demanding full independence and bravely breaking completely from France in 1958, has had a tortuous history and recently gone through a tense election. I felt very ignorant, having heard so little about the country. Even the security expert at the British embassy in Freetown couldn’t enlighten me with any up-to-the-minute info. But I comforted myself that other countries I was anxious before entering because of their reputations – notably DRC, Nigeria and Liberia – have provided some of the friendliest people and warmest interactions on this trip.
Our first impression was surprise to see such a splendid edifice as the Grande Mosquee de Pamalap in a small border town – but then each of following villages seemed to be competing for similar glory. Guinea is 85% Muslim so we have shifted to ‘As-salaam walaikum’ as the standard greeting. Huts seemed to phase out almost immediately; buildings were sturdier, with more evidence of brick, plaster and cheerfully painted exteriors. There was even the occasional mansion with pillars along the side of the road.
We spent the first night on the forecourt of a deserted filling station, safely off the road but unfortunately in the path of some acrid smoke. This obsessive burning of plastic waste in the early morning in villages, towns and cities across West Africa creates choking clouds of noxious fumes – at 3am I woke from a dream that I was suffocating and couldn’t get back to sleep. We pulled out before 7am feeling queasy and spent the rest of the morning looking for a quiet spot by a river to recuperate.
Guinea seemed more cramped than Sierra Leone, and there were fewer places to pull off by the side of the road. We were beginning to lose hope when we were stopped at a military checkpoint on the other side of a bridge in the tiny village of Dandayah.
The officer was on conservation duty, monitoring illegal transport of bushmeat and endangered species. As we were asking him if we could pull over and do some washing, an older man came up from the river vigorously rubbing off water droplets and waved us over to park in front of his house.
That first day I just sat by river nursing my nausea and thanked God and Allah for the cool. The second day we washed all the clothes. The third day we washed the towels, Sampson transferred oil off the roof into the tanks and did a show for the village to say thank you. The fourth day we finally finished our pills, and did a solid day of school. The fifth day, we were on our way.
But what did we learn from this grateful pause in the back of beyond?
The first day, while I was down at the river sitting on flat boulders in the shade with my toes in the refreshingly cold water, a parade of children passed above us across the bridge on their way back to school and shouted greetings. When I called back that we were South African, a boy misunderstood me, thought I was asking a question and replied “Non, nous sommes Nord Africains” – no, we are North African”. I was struck by how it seems Guineans consider themselves part of the Arab North rather than the African West.
When a bunch of smaller boys came down to investigate further, I was fascinated by the homemade toy one of them was clinging to proprietorially. At first I thought it looked like a tiny Christmas present, all red and gold; on closer inspection it proved to be a squashed tomato paste tin with cord threaded through a pair of holes. When twirled then released on taut threads, it whirred satisfyingly, like a spinning top. The boys could get it up to a very impressive speed and noise level.
We were also delighted by tiny peeled pineapples on a stick, a deliciously refreshing afternoon snack for 1000 Guinea francs (R2).
How many hours a week does an average African woman spend sweeping and washing? If domestic work were valued as part of the GDP how rich the continent would be.
Everyone is obsessed with sweeping dust from the patch in front of their house into corners. Leaves too. It is the harmattan, there is a constant wind from the east dropping sand from the Sahara, so the task is Sisyphean, yet every morning at dawn, you hear the women sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. With a brush made from long twigs, bent from the waist, no bending at the knees. This stance is maintained for the clothes washing.
I have watched handwashing happening on riverbanks below the road all over West Africa, but in Dandayah it was fascinating to be in the midst of it and see the technique up close. The locals were almost scoffing at my limpwristed efforts, swishing clothes about in a bowl amidst washing powder suds. They don’t feel a garment is properly clean unless it’s been soaped liberally on all sides and thrashed half to death against a rock. I watched a tiny girl of about three bashing her best dress to bits, dropping it from her full height over and over before slapping it in the river to rinse it. I wondered how long the gold braid would last.
I remember when I was at primary school, sometime in the late seventies, interviewing my grandmother for a project about The Past and her describing doing washing with a ‘dolly’ and a ‘mangle’ when she was a girl. Were techniques much different in Birmingham a century ago?
Villagers were using an excessive amount of soap, either bars or powder, local or imported. My heart sank as I watched all the suds flowing downstream, imagining the thousand others doing the same right now, using twice or three times more than necessary. Is it a point of honour to be seen to be using more soap than other people, to be considered more fastidious?
The vigorous scrubbing extends to washing themselves from top to toe, especially the extremities – the boys rub soap through their closely cropped hair, scoring their nails along their scalps. I watched a group of children on their way home from school almost attack their own feet, scrubbing toes and soles and sandals as if any speck of dust remaining would either poison them or else damn them to eternal shame. Echoes of my Brummie grandmother came back to me “We was poor, but we was always clean.”
Dandayah’s river flowed downstream in the morning, changed direction at midday and then changed back again mid-afternoon, the current moving with the sea tides. M. Cissé told me that if water is moving it’s good, it’s sweet i.e. it’s potable. I’m not certain that always applies, but it’s a good adage to live by: if it’s moving, it’s good; if it’s still and stagnant, avoid.
This side of the border, boobs were Out and Proud. Actually that’s misleading, there was no evidence of pride per se, merely the absolute absence of fuss. On day two, I was gobsmacked to sit at the river with a host of topless women and teenage girls, whacking their washing about and swaying their bits on one side, while a load of teenage boys on the other washed themselves and their clothes, completely ignoring this ‘nakedness’. They weren’t ‘being polite’, they were totally uninterested. It just wasn’t an issue.
Could the outlook at this river be any more refreshing?
At first I was pleased that Ruby had such a range of bosoms to critique and compare – she was comforted to see a pretty girl with far more lopsided growing breasts than hers – but after I while I realised it was good for me too. Despite being quite aware of how I have been brainwashed by the patriarchy into considering a certain body shape ‘acceptable’ I don’t think I had fully appreciated the full range of boob types until now. To see women my age and older completely comfortable with low-hanging mammary glands that had seen a lifetime of service to many children was very restoring, far better for my self-esteem than any airbrushed Dove advert.
On the fourth day, after filling the truck’s washing water tank, the kids had a dip to cool off and Ruby ended up walking back from the river in just her swimming cossie. It has a skirt to the mid-thigh so is relatively modest, but she felt the disapproval of the ladies sitting on a bench in between. So it seems that in Guinea, it’s fine to walk around with your tits out as long as you wear a wrap around your legs – the girls even swim like that.
I was thinking how weird it was that exposure below the waist is rude when above isn’t, until I realised that Guinea is the only place I have experienced gender parity on nudity: exactly the same rule applies to women and men. So which culture has got its taboos topsy-turvy now?
Youth and Elders
How I love how this journey has taught me that I enjoy having washing to do when it takes me two days to do it, compared to the chore it feels like at home to get a load or two in and out of the machine in the middle of a busy day. The sheer commitment entailed in doing all the towels and sheets for the family turns it into a meditative service that is immensely satisfying.
But the typhoid meds were knocking me back to 60% normal capacity, so I was taking it slow, sitting back often to rest. I was very content just to be sitting there in the green shade, next to the cooling water; but the locals didn’t understand.
Four times in two days youngsters offered to do my washing for me: two girls and two boys. The first, Jamacariah, a student at Conakry University studying banking and finance, explained “You are my superior, I am inferior, I cannot stand by and watch you work”. Quite apart from the indignity of having a handsome young man of 20 wash my smalls, I couldn’t bear for him to think of himself as inferior (although translating from French, he was perhaps meaning younger rather than older). In the end I had to insist he was not to worry himself, it was me who dirtied the clothes!
This evidence of respect and care for the grey-haired was mighty humbling. I couldn’t imagine such thoughtfulness to an elderly stranger being displayed by a youth of similar age in UK.
On the second morning, Fatimata, aged 15, who’d come down to the river to rinse a bucket, came running back from the neighbouring settlement of Monta to offer her help. I graciously declined but tried to engage her in conversation, despite her knowing little French, her mother tongue being the local language Susu. I found out she was the oldest of six children, but when I asked if she went to school, she looked crestfallen and embarrassed, shook her head sadly and repressed a tear. I felt like a fool for being so insensitive. 70% of Guineans are illiterate, and one girl attends school for every two boys. Someone else arrived to greet me, and when I turned round, Fatimata had disappeared.
The thank-you show started with a truck tour for the ladies of the village who’d been trying not to be nosey but were dying to know what was inside; M Cissé translated the commentary into Susu. Dandayah is hardly even a village, just a congregation of six homesteads, so it didn’t take long. When I asked, through M. Cissé, to take a photo of the community, two thirds of the village obliged, and the other third, mostly women, hung back to the left side. The elders then asked for their own photo, and Moussa’s ma gents theirs. The villagers were a quiet and gentle lot, and quite formal in the photos, so it was a surprise to discover how audibly appreciative they were as an audience.
Sampson did well to spin the juggling out with a bit of inventive call and response. The kids’ magic was very well received, but of course, after the ‘Walk of Death’, it was Ruby’s fire dance that brought the house down . Moussa had taken a taxi to Forécariah to buy half a litre of paraffin, which was all we had cash left for, but it was just enough for her finale. It was a particularly mature performance, as one of her chains kept going out, but she kept her head and altered her pace appropriately.
Afterwards, as Boom Shaka’s Nkosi Sikelela continued booming from Big Reg’s sound system, a spontaneous dance-off started. Ladies of the village came to boogie with me, then M. Cisse graciously took my arms and led me in a more sedate pas de deux…!
It was lovely how, on the morning after the show, we were greeted as neighbours and friends. Kids passing on their way to school cheerily waved hello like they now knew us well. M. Cissé brought us a bunch of bananas, then stitched Sampson’s leather sandal back together and refused to take payment, almost hurt by my offer to pay: “We are friends!”
At breakfast, Sampson reflected how different the mindset here was compared to at home. M. Cissé wears a suit (Guinean-style short-sleeved, very chic) and is a man of property: he owns his house and all the land to the river including another dwelling. Four of his five children live in Conakry but he has come back to live in his parents’ house now they have passed on. With only two broken wooden chairs on the stoep, he seems to have no aspirations to beautify his place with paint, or to make it more comfortable. Despite being a relatively wealthy man, he feels no need for an ostentatious display of status. Like Chief Michael in Lakka – if you have a concrete windowsill to lounge on, why would you need a sofa?
The one thing M. Cissé couldn’t live without was his radio. It was tuned to what sounded like Richard Nwamba’s African Connection all day, and the Salif Keita-like sounds floating through his open window made me so happy, even the sad songs. A part of me thought I could stay there forever.
Just before we left, we made him a present of Sampson’s spare Leatherman, and a St Justin Celtic knot pewter broach for his wife. He was absolutely thrilled. I told him he had transformed my idea of Guinea with his ‘gentilesse’, the ‘kindness’ that in French sounds so gentle.