Flashback to Bissau
At the Senegalese Embassy, the day after Carnaval, we were delighted to discover that their tourist visas are FREE! When the lovely bilingual Mohamed told us, Sampson and I threw our arms in the air and shouted “Poulet!” In The Gambian Embassy across the road, Fatou told us theirs cost 25000FCA each (only R500) and would take 2 days. We were certainly going to be eating a bit better this month! How we long for the AU’s dream of an African passport to be realised.
I took a pile of forms back to the truck and set to filling them in while the kids did school in the baking truck parked outside the SA Embassy. Senegalese visas were issued by lunchtime, then Sampson took our passports through to Fatou and charmed her with magic tricks into having them ready in 24 hours rather than 48. We were desperate to get out of the city and down to the coast for a rest.
A lovely young German couple, Niels and Clara, popped by. They are travelling from Germany to Ghana in their Mercedes 11/13 ex-fire truck – with their dog Tia. We didn’t get to meet Berta this time, but hope we might bump into them again en route!
I was on a deadline for an article I’d been asked to write for Mercedes Benz magazine, so Zola cooked supper that night.
The next day Sampson did a show for the Ambassador. At five to 11am, I had to send him back to the truck to put long trousers on. Sigh. But I have to admit, although his cluelessness about basic etiquette drives me up the wall sometimes, my husband did a really great half hour show about the trip for SA Embassy staff, with the lovely Mamadu Baldé murmuring a simultaneous translation to Portuguese speakers at the back of the room. Everyone was very enthusiastic and kind – and what a spread!
The Ambassador generously offered to pay for the kids to go swimming with Elisa that afternoon to a nearby hotel, which was very thoughtful because the truck was like a furnace.
The following day, I submitted my Mercedes Benz piece thanks to the Embassy wifi; even then it took me the whole day to load high res photos to Dropbox. I sat on their stoep long after they’d all gone home until it was finally done. The Ambassador, who’d left in gym clothes on his daily 6km walk, came back at 8pm with a pack of awesome sandwiches and a citrus sponge cake made by his wife as padkos for the children. Bless them both for their kindness, and we pray Dr Noel is recovering from his recent health challenges.
When Sampson asked the Embassy for carnival contacts, logistics manager Larin Napoco arrived almost immediately despite being exhausted after 5 consecutive days of Carnaval on only 2 hours’ kip per night. His French is about as good as mine, so we could just about communicate! Later that day, Larin picked me up with translator Alfredo Sonda, a pan-Africanist DJ who has lived in Lisbon, Madrid, Berlin, Paris, London and Jo’burg and was full of enthusiasm about all of them.
They chauffeured me to the government buildings to meet the President of the National Carnival Commission, Spencer Embaló, a slight guy with thick dreadlocks to his waist wound into a thigh-sized pony tail, wearing an elegantly beaded silver-grey dress shirt. He was attending an official ceremony to hand over prizes to the Carnaval competition winners in the presence of Guinea-Bissau’s President and several ministers. I immediately warmed to Spencer – not only does he share a name with my brother (HAPPY BIRTHDAY SPENCE!), but all passionate carnival people feel like family to me.
While waiting for Spencer, I quizzed Larin via Alfredo and found out the details of Guinea-Bissau’s annual Carnaval: 9 provinces send winners of regional competitions to Bissau, a group of 105 people each. With 3 winners from the capital, that makes 12 troupes, with the total official number of performers around 1300. The biggest day is Monday when all 12 troupes parade from the airport roundabout where we entered the city and are judged when they reach the stage by the Catholic Mission. On Tuesday there is a winners’ parade of just the top 3 groups. The foundation of the judging criteria is authenticity: unlike other carnivals where novelty of spectacle is prized above all, Bissau’s Carnaval reveres its traditional rituals and honours their preservation.
My mind boggled: 1300 is several hundred fewer participants than eMzantsi Carnival at its biggest (before Main Rd works began) but whereas we struggle to get an equal number of people to watch as to take part in our parade, Bissau has half the population of the city (200 000) out on the streets! Nothing speaks louder to the ancient heritage of Guinea-Bissau’s Carnaval and the extent of national pride and identity bound up in its performance than this astonishing number of spectators.
The Prime Minister, Carlos Correira, suddenly swept out of the chamber, a very tall, dark-suited presence with a wound dressing around his throat. I was surprised Kideliqueia was so proud of him, until he told me this octogenarian was a great freedom fighter, who knew both Mandela and Castro, and has been PM three times before. “We keep calling him back when we get in trouble” he said ruefully. He seemed to have a lot of respect for the old man, but less for his colleagues.
There was a notable lack of visible security; no phalanx of suits around the PM, and no bodyguards at all for the ministers who greeted Alfredo on their way out. It all felt somewhat surreal: only three days ago I’d been crawling along dirt tracks by the border; today I was hanging out at the Guinea-Bissau equivalent of the Union Buildings.
Meanwhile Alfredo was telling me how effective Guinea-Bissau’s secret police are, with such a reputation for tracking down terrorists, France asks them for help. (Interestingly, the first time my Mom called me on our Guinea-Bissau phone number, she got cut off and the next 3 times she tried to connect she got the first 2 minutes of our initial chat replayed to her… Was somebody warning us they were listening in?!)
The Carnival Commission took me out to supper at an outdoor restaurant on the site of a half-finished building where the traditionally prepared chicken in lime sauce was absolutely delicious. As the conversation became more passionate the more wine was consumed, I began to realise that Alfredo tends to get carried away by his enthusiasms and thus was neglecting to translate mine. At one point I interrupted his torrent of Portuguese to say, “Hang on, I definitely didn’t mention the First World War, I asked you to ask Spencer what his ambitions for carnival are!”
I found out Spencer is planning a two day conference to show footage of carnivals past, invite old stars and ask why the ‘Golden Years’ were back in the 1980s. What happened? Apparently the event has gone downhill since the civil war of 1998-9, and is another victim – alongside the economy – of continuing political instability. Since 1980 there have been nine attempted coups, and since independence in 1974, not a single president has served a full 5 year term. Last year, Guinea-Bissau experienced three governments in four months.
Spencer’s team faces a lot of criticism, for everything from being determinedly non-political to wearing dreadlocks with pride. But they have been granted a 3 year mandate to develop the carnival and aim to achieve longevity. Larin certainly has the passion for it. Spencer was understandably shattered and ducked out home to his family at 9pm, but Alfredo and Larin were there with me until nearly 11 discussing the young man’s dream of holding a Carnival World Cup in Bissau.
Anthropologist Roberto DaMatta famously said “It was not Brazil that invented Carnaval, but Carnaval that invented Brazil”. I have a sense that the same could happen for Guinea-Bissau, but in a very different style. The carnivals of Brazil, especially that of the slave-landing point of Salvador, look to West Africa as the source of the spirit of their celebrations. Guinea Bissau is situated at the very heart of those traditions, almost the very source of that source. You don’t get African carnival more authentic than Bissau’s – these ritual celebrations have been performed for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. It was a privilege to be present at the dawn of what I hope is a glorious new era of appreciation of its heritage.
After Mar Azul
Nearly two weeks later, after our recuperative stay at Mar Azul, Sampson dropped me back at the SA Embassy to load blogs, while he found a mechanic on the outskirts of Bissau to replace four broken thread bolts on the left back wheel with modified tractor bolts.
We spent another couple of nights on the pavement outside the Embassy. While it was unpleasantly hotter back in the city, with mossies dive-bombing us all night and burning plastic smoke choking us in the mornings, this time Ruby was just thrilled to have kittens sleeping on her bum. When I checked in with my carnival brothers, Larin invited me to a presentation at the Portuguese embassy that evening, just a kilometre away. At 6pm I walked through the centre of town to be treated to a fascinating display.
The theme of this year’s Carnaval was ‘Guinea-Bissau: Tera di N’Turudu’ – the Land of the Mask. I couldn’t understand the speeches but it was fascinating to see the winning creations, all made from papier-maché and wood.
When snacks were served, a Director in Ministry of Culture recommended I try the fatoba juice – I didn’t know what it was, but it was delicious, thick like guava but tangy like jackfruit I remembered from Indonesia. When Larin told the Director how we had arrived at the end of carnival and missed most of it, he invited me to see a performance by the winning troupe at the Hotel Azalai the following evening. It meant spending an extra day in town, but I was thrilled to have an opportunity to get just a flavour of what we missed.
Sampson had found Bissau a very easy city to drive through, and I felt very safe walking across it alone in the dark. It was great to feel absolutely no intimidation while passing through groups of young men sitting on corners. There was a lovely breeze wafting up the Avenue Amílcar Cabral but it was stifling in the truck, so I took my daughter out for a drink at KBar across the road. This city just felt so relaxed, it was very alluring.
Bissau marked an end to the dominance of the previously ubiquitous Nigerian hip hop: as in Guinea, local radio was proudly playing only local music, or regional sounds from Mali and Senegal. KBar played everything from Afro-soul to jazz and swing, I loved it.
In the morning I walked down the Ave. Cabral towards the docks at the bottom. As I passed the cathedral, I reflected that, with the harmattan dust hanging in the air, Bissau somehow has the sepia-tinged feel of a sprawling town rather than a built-up city. The crumbling colonial vibe of the centre reminds me of Havana-in-my-head (I’ve never been to Cuba’s capital, but it’s what I imagine it looks like). The long Mercedes taxis everywhere add to the feel of a faded Kennedy-era glory.
Certainly the shining promise of independence is long tarnished. Alexandra told me that the island of Cape Verde, a fellow ex-Portuguese colony, has less than 35% of the resources of Guinea-Bissau yet is outstripping it in terms of development. The petty intrigues of the political elite, scrapping for tidbits of the failing economy, are creating never-ending instability for this country and discouraging foreign investment.
At the bottom of the road, I was amazed to discover this sculpture, which I think represents a Black Power fist salute, but looks rather more like a Rubik’s cube version of it. The statue was a bit run down, and needed a wipe. Next to it were some disturbing blown-up photographs of dead bodies, which I worked out must commemorate a watershed moment in Guinea-Bissau’s history, during a dockworkers’ strike for a living wage.
On 3rd August 1959, police opened fire at point blank range, killing 50 men and wounding more than 100. The massacre and police interrogations that followed lit the spark for armed conflict and the War of Independence raged until 1974 when Guinea-Bissau became the first Portuguese colony to gain full sovereignty.
Amílcar Cabral, the founder of PAIGC (the Pan-African Independence movement of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) and the inspiration for their struggle, never got to see the realisation of his dream: he was assassinated in 1973.
Walking that evening in an otherwise spotless Praça dos Heroïs Nacionais I saw a group of cockerels prancing about on a pile of litter just opposite the Presidential Palace. As I watched the scavengers stalking each other across the rubbish heap, I was reminded of my conversation with Alexandra.
After a hot day doing chores such as typing up scribbled contacts from the little notebook I always carry, I dug out The Dress from the back of my clothes cupboard. Spruced-up Sampsons got a taxi to the Hotel Azalai, where we found out we were three hours early for the celebratory showcase of 2016 carnival winners Netos de Bandim. I wasn’t taking any chances this time.
But boy was it worth the wait. The troupe of around 100 performers, almost half of whom were children, were so superbly professional: so smiley, so focused, so present, so living it, so loving it and so uncompromisingly good. And this isn’t just my obsessional carnival-self talking. The rest of the family were as entranced as I was.
Sampson loved the humour of the ‘Lords of Misrule’ while Zola loved the stripey-trousered tumblers (and was inspired to try handsprings on the beach the following week). Ruby was just going crazy next to me, out of her seat hooting at charismatic dancers beaming their delight while shaking their thang, or as acrobatic performers somersaulted off the stage.
I was glad she was expressing enthusiasm on our behalf as I was hampered by having my Olympus stuck to my face – I was trying to get some decent video footage despite poor lighting to support my forthcoming proposal for a Cape Town-Calabar-Bissau carnival collaboration. What do you think? Would you come out on the streets to see it?