Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Union of Church and Port

       What does the port of Bissau and the Evangelical Church have in common? Surprisingly, they have a lot of things in common, but at this particular moment the correct answer is my step dad and I.  Things have been so crazy with getting our truck out if the Port of Bissau and that we ran to the closest church we could find to get spiritual guidance!
            Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but the connection between port and church is real and I’ll explain why.
            After 2 and a half months of waiting, the 22ft long, school bus yellow truck my mom and step-dad shipped has finally arrived! Unfortunately, we weren’t even expecting it. We shipped both a container, which left from the port of Oakland November 19th and a truck which left the 13th of December from the Port of LA ( getting the truck to LA was an adventure in-and-of its self!). Given the shipping dates we were expecting the container to come first, but some how the truck beat it here. Now the container it’s not expected to arrive until the 15th of March because it is waiting at a port in Spain.
This is the beast of a truck we sent to Bissau.
            Anyways, the truck arrived this past Sunday, and my step has been madly trying to get everything together to get it out. The longer your things sit in the port, the more expensive it is to take it out. On average your paying 10euros a day (why its in Euro’s I have no idea). But on top of that is the 30% “tax” you pay on the value of the contents in your container. The truck was 18,000 dollars so my stepdad would have to pay 6,000 dollars just to get it out of the port. Fortunately with the corruption comes more corruption to counter the corruption. My step-dad’s nephew works at the port and was able to fudge some numbers to make the value of the truck now become 5,000 dollars, so now my step-dad is looking at paying just over a grand instead. Additionally, because half of the items in the container are for a non-profit called WAVS, they offered to put the container under their name, which will also reduce the amount we (meaning my step-dad) has to pay.
            This is where the church comes in. Carlos Pinto is the Minister of Finance and thus has lots of political leverage. Chris, an American from Fresno, is the Director of WAVS, a non-profit vocational school based in Canchungo, and he and Carlos have become close friends because they attend the same church here in Bissau. Chris told Carlos about the truck and container and Carlos offered to help with getting things out. This church has a non-profit called Centro Social and he is a member on the board. This NGO receives container shipments from Portugal once a month, so they are constantly working with the port. Fortunately for us, we now have people from Centro Social working on getting our truck and container out of the port.
            If you couldn’t tell, if you want something done in Bissau it all depends on who you know.  And in this case, we need to know the folks from this church. As such, my step dad and I have been attending this church every Sunday. I have been to church more in the past 2 months then I have in the last 8 years of my life!  
            In the process of getting paperwork ready for the truck we ran across a stumbling block that put us a couple days behind. Timing is everything and we missed our window of opportunity because now the port (along with the schools) is on strike. Now all the paperwork is ready, wer’e just waiting for people to go back to work and no one is sure when that will be. I just hope the 10euro a day fee doesn’t apply anymore!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On Marrying Cousins

            I got back from Bambadinka and Marta Alice said someone had dropped of a letter. I was excited because I haven’t received a letter since being in the states. And the ones I’ve been receiving since I’ve been gone have been for jury duty (Thanks Mom for taking care of that for me!).
            I opened the letter and found a small, folded piece of graph paper that read:

“ Dear Kumba Baldé, 
         I hope that you are enjoying Guinea Bissau. How do you find Guineans? Would you like to live here for the rest of your life? What do you find very interesting about in this country?
         There is something very interesting in our ethnic group. Cousins marry each other or date each other. Will you marry me or just be my girlfriend for the rest of your life?  I’m sorry if it hurt you. I didn’t mean to. Call me on the 25th of  February.                                                                                      
                                                                                                                Lassara Gano    

             I couldn’t believe it. “This has to be a joke,” I thought, “A reeeally bad joke.”
I read it several times over because it was just too funny to me. I know cousins marrying cousins is a reality here. Even in the states I grew up with my dad telling me I was going to marry my cousin.  He had a cousin picked out for all my siblings to marry.  It was the joke between my siblings because we knew my dad was pretty serious, but that none of us could actually fathom that taking place. It wasn’t until I was 19 that he finally said, "Kumba, I know that if I set you up with a cousin you will refuse, so I wont make you marry your cousin.”    ****sigh of relief****
            Since then, we hadn’t talked about marriage until this past summer while I was living at his house. This conversation was brief, and it boiled down to the fact that I had just graduated from college and it’s about that time for me to get married. He said that a daughter’s right over her father is for her to have him find her a husband.  And that when I’m ready I can ask him and he will find me a good Muslim man. 
            Another quick example are my Aunt and Uncle who moved to the states 5 years ago from Portugal. They are both Guineen and are 1st or 2nd cousins. So the idea of marrying cousins is not foreign to me, but this letter was definitely a reminder that it still exists.
            Later that week I saw my uncle and I mentioned the letter. He just smiled and said he had told my cousin Tamba to bring it to me. By his smirk I knew that he knew what the letter was about, but neither of us brought it up.
    On the 26th I got a call from an unknown number. It was Lassara and he wanted to know if we could meet at my uncle Bacars’s house. (As you can tell I never called) My inital response was “Definately not!”. But he is my cousin, and at the end of the day I‘m here in Bissau to meet family, so I decided to go. 
            Before leaving, my step-dad gave me the run down. He said,” Be straight up. Tell him you’re too young, you didn’t come here to get married,  and you didn’t come here to get married.”
            I looked at him quizzically. What did he think I was going to do? Go there and  run away with the guy??  “ hahaha I know! I’m not trying to get married!”, I responded.
But he continued with something I didn’t know. “Make sure you don’t eat or drink anything they offer you. People here do voodoo to get people to marry them (or do other things). They put it in the water or in the food. If you start liking this guy I’ll know they did voodoo on you.”
            Now I was scared and off guard. How the heck can I protect my self from that??
            When I arrived, my whole family was there. Folks were sitting on the veranda and in chairs in front of the house. I greeted everyone and they gave me a chair up in front of everyone. I felt center stage and everyone was just looking at me grinning. I immediately sensed the gravity of this meeting.  I think they really thought I was going to marry this guy!
            Lassara was eating, so my uncle and I chatted for a bit about how we were planning to visit his and my dad’s village the following weekend. Once lassara was done they gave him a chair and he sat down next to me.
            It just started off weird. As soon as he sat down everyone cleared out to give us “room to talk.”  He started off saying he wasn’t Lassara, but that his name is Alberto, and Lassara left because I showed up late (10 minutes, give me a break). But my uncle had already said he was Lassara when I arrived, so I waited to see where he was going to go with this.  He put up a whole front about being 22 and a math teacher at a local high school. The whole time he talked I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking that made him choose to be “Alberto” at this moment.
            My uncle would come back every once in a while to check on us, a radio playing the local soccer game was in his hand.  On one of his rounds, for some reason he introduced Lassara to me again. Lassara realized his whole front was blown. After that he began telling me who he really was.
            Lassara is a 41-year-old air traffic controller at the Bissau Airport.  He speaks fluent English and is currently studying to become a lawyer. His grandma is my grandpa’s sister. That makes him my 3rd cousin? I’m not sure how that works, but he’s my cousin none-the-less.
            We chatted introductory stuff for maybe half an hour. The whole while he talked his pinky was in his nose, which made it hard to look at him during the conversation. Eventually I had to just get to the point.  
            I asked why he wrote the letter and why he wasn’t married yet. He said it was destiny and asked if I believe in destiny. I said No. I knew exactly where he was going with that. I was frank with him and told him essentially what my step-dad had said.
            His response wasn’t clear. It was almost like he was denying that he wrote the letter. That it was more a means to meet me; he wasn’t really trying to marry me. ( Then again, what do you say when someone rejects your marriage proposal?)  Then he said that you never know what the future will bring. “ VOODOO!” immediately popped in my head. I told him I hope he finds a great woman.
              It was getting dark and people had started to trickle back to where we were,. I said it was time for me to go so I said my goodbye’s and my uncle had Lassara walk me to catch a taxi.
            Hilha and her friend Danny were outside the house when I arrived. They asked where I went and I told them the story. Hilha suddenly said, “ Did you eat any of the food? Or drink the water?? Be careful of nhamijdodo (which in Fula means eat and sit). That will make you want to marry him.” 
            The voodoo again! I would have never thought marriage and voodoo could be so intertwined. It must be real and not just my step-dad being paranoid (which is sometimes the case).  I don’t have this voodoo consciousness, but it looks like I’ll have to get some. As for Lassara, I haven’t heard anything since. Hopefully he has moved on to the next.

NOTE: What I have been calling voodoo is the spiritual or ‘extraworldly’ manipulation of situations, people, and etc. and may or may not be related to what is known in the US as voodoo. I’m calling it voodoo because that is what my step-dad has been explaining it to me as, and for lack of a better word, I have continued to use it to explain this phenomenon.  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Armindo's Ranch in Bambadinca

             Armindo has 200 hectars of land in Bambadinca and with some of his time here planned for a trip to visit his ranch. I tagged along with him, Gina, and his 18 yr old nephew Elton to check out the ranch.
The village sign. Maybe it says: Welcome to Sintchan Moli!
            We drove along the same road to get to Gabu, but this time was different because I learned so much more along the way. For example, there is a stretch of road where the trees are a lot further back then along the rest of the road. I found out that’s because in 2011 Columbians cut down the forest on both sides of the main road so that they could land a plane filled with drugs. The road is long and straight enough that they could land and take off with out having to turn around. Military troops just blocked the road off for the take off and landing to stop local traffic during the drop off.  I was surprised at the bluntness of the drug trafficking. The statement it makes could be clear enough: drugs are getting into your country one way or another. It was a one time drop off, but I’m sure they have come up with other creative ways to get drugs in the country.  
This is a glimpse at some of the property that has been cut down.
            It’s funny to say you own land when it hasn’t been developed yet. The “We’re here!” moment was very anti-climactic because we were looking at lots of shrubs, trees and tall grasses and then at some point they said “Armindos land starts here.” Which looked exactly like the same as the shrubs, trees and tall grasses we had just passed. 
            But 200 hectars is a lot of land ( almost 500 acres) and once we ventured further onto his property I saw the vast vegetal diversity. There is a riverhead somewhere near the middle of the property where the plants are lush and green.  There is an over grown cashew forest that creates a nice shady ambiance. Then there is what seems like a desert with a few small trees and tall grasses. There are trees that bleed when you cut them and many types of fruits like pineapple, mango, and cashew.
The bleeding tree. Its wood is some of the best in Bissau.
            Marciano, Armindo’s younger brother who lives in Bissau, goes back and forth from Bissau to work on the property in Bambadinca. There is a village near the property called Sintchan Moli and he hired 15-25 men to work on landscaping.  They are mostly clearing some space on the property, but given its size it’s A LOT of work.
            The vision they have for their property is enormous. On one part they want to turn their land into an eco-tourism vacation spot. Their location is perfect because they are just off the only road that goes into the south of Bissau. They want to create a lake, and walking trails and put in picnic tables and build huts people can rent out for the night.  
Wild pineapple growing on their property
 On another part they want to put in a mango and cashew processing factory where they will make juice and dried fruit. The story behind why they want to do this perhaps what’s most interesting.
            Gina is a breast cancer survivor, but suffers from peripheral neuropathy, which is chronic pain due to nerve damage caused by chemotherapy. Pain in her legs and feet is part of her everyday reality, but on her most recent trip she noticed that her pain had completely disappeared.  It was cashew season and she had eaten lots of cashews so she looked into it more. Apparently cashew juice is one of the few, if not the only, natural reliever of the pain caused by peripheral neuropathy. It is also really good for diabetics because it affects blood sugar levels slowly, so it doesn't cause dangerous spikes in blood sugar that diabetics try to avoid. Gina explained that she even read about potentials for curing diabetes with cashew juice.
             Gina is a nurse turned manager at Kaiser Perminente and has lots of experience in working in health care. Her thought is that cashew juice can be the next acai berry or green tea. It has lots of health benefits likes boosting the immune system, it has 5 times the vitamin C of orange juice, and it lowers the risk for heart disease. And can help alleviate pain in many peoples lives while also making a lot of money via selling and processing the juice.
Some of the children playing with bubbles
            If I had to describe Guinea-Bissau’s natural landscape in 2 words it would hands down be cashew trees. Who ever had the idea of planting the cashew tree. But with the abundance of cashew trees comes cashew fruit ( which is arguably better then the cashew nut). But the fruit is just tossed and the nut is saved. What im getting at is that there are very few cashew juice processors, despite the abundance of fruit. The major issue is that the cashew fruit has to be processed with-in 24 hours of being picked to get the best quality juice. That’s not a lot of time in the processing world.
            Anyways, the trip was short since there wasn’t to much more to see and they were on a time crunch. Gina brought gifts like soccer balls, jump ropes, bubbles for the kinds in Sintchan Moli.  Armindo brought the workers their paychecks.  By the afternoon of the 2nd day we had made our way back to Bissau.
            There is a lot of work to be done to realize their vision, but Armindo will be taking an early retirement at the end of this year to spend more time developing his ranch. It’ll be interesting to see how the developments come along.  I’m looking forward to the hook-ups on cashew juice and dried mango.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Trapped in Refuge and Human Rights

            Armindo, Ramos’s best friend and cousin arrived from the states today with his wife Gina. They are close family friends and we spend just about every holiday together with their family. They were only staying for a week, so their schedule is packed with activities. Fortunately for me, I get to tag along.
            The first day was very political. First, we stopped by the PAIGC office, which is something I’ve been meaning to do since I’ve gotten here. The PAIGC is a  political organization created by Amilcar Cabral that governed Guinea Bissau from independence up until the late 1990's. Here I met generals who had fought in the War for Independence, one of them being Theodora ( I forget her last name). She is one of the 5 women who played a major role in the revolution, another being Francisca Perreria, who is Armindo’s counsin.
            Armindo’s brother is, or was, the Minister of Fisheries in Guinea Bissau. Somehow, someway, his car was found amongst others during the unsuccessful counter coup, so the military and government officials in power now think he is against them. To remove him as a threat to their power his life was threatened and he has taken refugee at the European Union. He has been there since October, which is about 5 months now. We made our way to Quelele where all the Embassy’s are to visit him and 2 other men who are also refugees at the EU.
            But before we went in, we stopped at the UN office because Armindo had written a letter to the UN head of Human Rights in Bissau and wanted to present it. Due to the nature of the conflict here, I’m not at liberty to give details about whom exactly we spoke with, but I walked away from the conversation with a whole new perspective about the situation in Bissau. One thing became clear: there needs to be more value to a human life, which is most often the collateral damage to the political instability.
            Bissau’s history after they won their independence has been shrouded in military coups and civil wars. I still don’t even know the complete history, but this current military coup has left many people dead and those who are alive are living in fear. Citizens can’t do anything to counter the situation because, as I mentioned, life is not given the same value and you just might get yourself killed. Journalists can’t speak about what’s really happening because of this same fear. So on the surface, Bissau seems calm, but on the ground there are numerous human rights offences occurring every day.
            The US has no interest in dealing with or helping the situation in Bissau for  two reasons that was said explicitly to Armindo by US government official. The US has no economic interest here in Bissau and the drug trafficking that is happening doesn’t directly affect the US. Other countries are also benefiting from Guinea Bissau’s political instability and don’t want anything to change either. As such, investors can come in and rape the land of its resources while displacing thousands of people and negatively impacting the environment. The environmental issue is key here because the Sahara desert is expanding due to global warming .  If environmental precautions aren't taken, the lushness of Bissau could easily become a desert, mirroring its neighboring countries Senegal and Guinea Conakry.
            Bissau has a population of 1.5 million.  It is a very small country, but in relation to the size of guinea, the amount of human rights offences could parallel Afgahanistan or other big countries experiencing human rights abuses on a large scale. Human rights offences here aren’t 50 people getting blown up on a bus. If that was the case, then maybe Bissau would receive some international attention. Human rights abuses here are genital mutilation, violence, gender discrimination and lack of access to basic human needs like education and food and proper health care. Infant and mother mortality rates are the highest here then in other countries in West Africa.  
            There are horror stories that happen here that go untold to the national and international community that reflect the reality of the political situation. One story I heard was about the tragedy of pregnant women. She was in labor at a church in one of the villages when she started experiencing major complications. This was April 16th, four days after the military coup of 2012. Because of the coup, tensions in the country were high due to the recent violence and political shift. The resources at the church were not enough to support the women, so they volunteered their church ambulance to rush the women to the nearest hospital. The hospital in the capital, Bissau, was too far away and they didn’t think the women would last the drive, So the amblance took her to Zigishour in Senegal. When she arrived at the Guinea- Senegal border the military wouldn’t let her cross for fear that the ambulance was carrying politicians trying to escape the country.  With no other option, the ambulance was forced to return to the church. When it arrived, the mother and child were found dead in the back of the ambulance.
            If something like this happened in the US there would be mass uproars, but here similar situations come and go with the wind.
            Walking away from this conversation I was awe struck. I had been totally blinded from  the human rights abuses that were happening. I was given the 2010-2012 UN Human Rights Summary for Bissau and in thumbing through it came across many things I didn’t know where going on.  In reflecting on my past experiences with human rights in mind, a lot of things I had encountered suddenly made more sense.
            As if that conversation weren’t enough to dwell on, next we spoke with Thomas Barbosa and the 2 other men who are in refugee at the EU office. This conversation was in creole, so I understood a lot less of it, but most of it was just Armindo catching up with him and making sure he was ok.  He is a free man but cant leave, which is exactly where the Guinean Government want him.  Five months is along time to spend in the same place and more then anything else, it is mentally trying. Its the same thing every day, he can't see his family, and he can't leave the compound. They are just sitting and waiting for things to blow over.
            While at the EU office we had the opportunity to speak with the Ambassador of the European Union to the Republic of Guinea Bissau, Joaquin Gonzalez-Ducay. The ambassador is a Spaniard and that speaks fluent English. He explained further Armindo's brother's situation and ensured that they would be welcome to stay at the EU as long as need be. They are waiting for diplomacy from the Guinean government and a written document ensuring the safey of their lives if they were to leave the EU compound. Until then, they are trapped in refuge. 
            Armindo and his wife wrote a letter pleading for the US ambassador in Senegal to take some interest in the situation here in Bissau. The US does not have an Embassy in Bissau and so Senegal acts as Bissau's embassy. The Ambasssador offered to forward the letter directly to the US Embassy in hopes that he might be interested in focusing on some of the issues here. 
            Armindo here and Armindo in the US seemed to me to be 2 different men. I wondered where all this activism was coming from. But I realized the situation here is more then political for him, its also personal. Many of his family members are or were in politics or government. His older sister, in addition to his younger brother Thomas who I just mentioned, is also a political refugee. Nucha Barbosa is or was Guinea Bissau's equivilant of the head of FBI and was probably the biggest political agent against the drug trafficking. The military are essentially the ones conducting the trafficking and the recent coup put a military puppet in power. After the coup she was put on a hit list and her house was bombed. She fled the country and is waiting, like her brother, for the ok to return.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Carnival Bissau 2013

            Carnival! Its all people have been talking about since I’ve been here and it finally arrived! Carnival in Bissau is 4 days long and this year it started February 9th and lasted until the 12th. 
Folks in a tree trying to watch the parade
            From what I experienced, Carnival can be divided into 2 parts, the barakas and the parades. A Baraka is a small bungalow make from the bark of sugar cane intertwined into a fence.  It’s a quick set up given the brevity of carnival and it costs about 25,000 fc to build ($50 US dollars). Barakas can be found around the city, but the biggest setups are in 2 neighborhoods, Bairro de Ajuda and O Centro. In these neighborhoods there are between 20-50 barakas that serve food, drinks and alcohol throughout the night. You can order things like grilled pork, chicken, salad, french-fries, and of course grilled fish.  Beers and caipirinhas are the beverage favorites.   These barakas are raking in at least 300,000fc (600USD) a night! That’s because people will show up around 5 in the afternoon and stay until late hours of the night. Even after the barakas folks will look to continue their night at one of the local clubs. On average people are getting home at 6am.
            But baraka culture didn’t used to be so strong. I was told that in the past carnival was more about walking around town and displaying costumes and masks. People still get dressed up now, but the focus now is more towards meeting up with friends at the barakas to hang out.
            I spent the first 2 days of carnival at the barakas The environment here is actually pretty child friendly (or there were just a lot of children there). They play music and there is lots of chatter and laughter. Occasionally a really popular song would come on and people would get up and dance, but for  the most part dancing isn’t a part of this scene.  In Barrio Ajuda there is a stage for live music, but I didn’t get the chance to check it out. The roads close at 3pm everyday of carnival, so if your going anywhere you are walking and Barrio Ajuda is at least a 30minute walk one way.
            The last 2 days of carnival were the days Bissau put its colorful culture on expose. Monday was battle of the barrios or neighborhoods. Every neighborhood participated and had 4-5 different dance groups to represent it. Each dance group had their own dance, which was usually the dance of one of the ethnicities. Guinea Bissau has 13+ ethnicities, each with their own culture and language and dance.
             The cultural richness is deep and it was moving to watch the parade, especially since the traditional side of Guinea Bissau can only be seen in glimpses. Here it was magnified many times over. Folks in the parade seemed so proud and full of life, there was a power you could feel while watching them dance. And the crowd responded equally with their support and active engagement. The feeling was contagious. I felt an immense sense of pride in being Guinean and part of this culture.
            By the end of the day it was decided that Barrio Misra was the winner of Bissau.   The following day, Tuesday, was the battle for Guinea-Bissau. The drill was the same, but this time the groups in the parade were not neighborhoods in the city of Bissau but cities throughout Guinea-Bissau. The winner from the day before, Barrio   represented Bissau the city in the parade. People came from as far as Gabu and the Bijagoes.  Unfortunately, I didn’t attend this parade. The night before I had eaten something bad at one of the Barakas and had food poisoning. But I did watch it on TV, although it wasn’t nearly as exciting.  It was definitely a lot safer though. Monday’s parade drew lots of people and the competition for getting a good spot to view the parade was fierce! Folks were sympathetic with me because it was obvious I was a foreigner (big camera and fair skin is always the give away) and had never seen the parade before. At one point there was a huge eruption of people from behind me fighting for space upfront. In response, the police came waving their batons trying to get people to move back. The pressure from the front and the back was humorous to me, but I’m sure the crying child who lost his mom didn’t think so. I just thought about those videos of stadiums collapsing and people being crushed. Realizing my physical vulnerability I decided I had seen enough and went on to walk around to try and get some better pictures. 
    I got really lucky and was able to snap some pictures without getting a permit. If the police catch someone who looks like a foreigner taking pictures with out a permit they will take your camera. They are really strict about this because of the history of foreigners taking pictures and selling them abroad for thousands of dollars without the people in the pictures receiving anything. To avoid that they make you go through a permit process that ensures you wont be selling any of the pictures they are taking.
            I was surprised to learn that not everyone is a fan of Carnival here. I have met lots of folks who said they weren’t participating, many of them being Muslim, but some even from other religions.  Once you really break carnival down its just an opportunity for people to get drunk before lent. So if you don’t drink and you aren’t big about the party scene then its easy to see why it wouldn’t interest folks. It’s also an especially dangerous time. People are wearing masks and costumes so if something happens you can’t always tell to who it is. Fortunately I didn’t experience anything of the sort, nor did I hear anything from people that I know.
            With the end of carnival folks have head back to work. The barakas are still up and folks are still heading there at night. Kids are not back at school yet because the teachers at the state schools are now on a month long strike.  

(Quick note: The pictures taken during carnival will not be sold)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Fórum Económico Bissau ( Bissau Economic Forum)

            Since I have been working with Rotary International I had the opportunity to attend the Bissau Economic Forum. T Institute Benten, Action for Development, and the Amilcar Cabral Institute were the hosts for the forum. The theme was “What would Amilcar Cabral Do?: Laying the Foundation for Guinea Bissau’s Economic Transformation. (Amilcar Cabral was the Revolutionary leader of Guinea-Bissau during the war for independence. )
Rotarac Bissau Crew- Abdu, Edu, and I
            I had just gotten back from Gabu and the tabankas the day before, so the amount of thought I had put in to this event was minimal. I got dressed and met with my friend Abdu to go to the forum. The event was at Hotel Azali, which is probably the nicest hotel in the country. As we walked up to the hotel I noticed there were a lot of really nice cars. As we got closer to more people I noticed everyone dressed in suits, dresses and traditional clothing.  The last straw was when I approached the rest of my crew and saw how everyone was dressed. I realized that I definitely didn’t get the memo. I began to feel very out of place and after several minutes of standing around with my group feeling awkward I said, “I’m going to go home to change. “ The president of our club looked at me and replied, “yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” 
            I caught a cab home, ran an iron over some more professional clothes and headed back to the event.  That was probably one of the best decisions of my life! In attendance at this event was the President of the Republic of Guinea Bissau, the former President of Nigeria, the Prime Minister of Senegal, Bank Presidents, directors of many international non-profits,  CEO’s and entrepreneurs, international consultants,  and professors from European universities, and country ambassadors. 
            The forum was dived into 4 parts. There were 3 panel sessions and a breakout discussion. The 1st panel topic was:  Guinea Bissau in the context of regional integration and Globalization. The second panel topic was Strategies for the economic and social transformation of Guinea Bissau. The last panel topic was  Public-Private engagement and international cooperation.
Panel Discussion
            It was amazing to be in this space and hear the opinions of so many accomplished professionals. It was also amazing because of the diversity of languages being spoken. People hopped from one language to the next like they were playing hopscotch. Each panel was held in a different language to be fair to those in attendance, the languages being Portuguese, French, and English.
             It was pretty funny meeting someone and not knowing what language they spoke. Generally if you started with one, the person you were trying to talk to would give you the nod yes or no. But most people had 2 out of the 3 under their belt, so once you figured out what language to speak it was smooth sailing.  
            For the breakout sessions I attended the one focused on agriculture.  I think agriculture is important because it’s political, social and economic while also being a huge human necessity. We all have to eat regardless if the country you’re in is rich or poor. Anyways, there were also other topics like tourism, energy development, infrastructural development, and political stability. In each session we were asked to identify some of the problems in the sector and come up with a solution ( Not knowing that the President of the Strategic Investment Fund of Gabon, who manages the 2 billion dollar fund, would be offering to fund the groups with the best solutions/projects).
            The session on agriculture was very interesting and had some of Guinea Bissau’s biggest agricultural stakeholders. Guinea Bissau is still very much an Agriculture based country and most GPD is generated from sales and exports in the cashew industry. Given such, much of the conversation was focused on commercial exports of rice, cashews, and mangoes and the possibilities for expansion.
            However, Guinea Bissau is one of the largest receivers of international aid. The rice I eat every day is imported either as aid or for sale.  So the other half of the conversation focused on improving food security with-in the country.
The man on the left is one of the biggest names in agriculture
            The conference hands down was male dominated, and so was the breakout session. There were 4 women in the session, 2 of them being much older and both of them, when given the floor to speak, pleaded that the focus needs to be helping the women in the interior with food production. Having just gotten back from Gabu I had a good sense about what they were talking about. It is Guinean women who feed this country, no question about it. These older women were addressing the fact that for positive long-term development the most important form of agricultural investment will be in the production of food locally.
            But where is the financial benefit of helping women in the interior feed their community? Especially when exports like cashews are so profitable. I got the feeling that the seemingly minimal (and gradual) return on investment in women in the agricultural sector is why the issue wasn’t being as thoroughly addressed as exports.
            I walked away from that session feeling disheartened. The obstacles are huge, and the more I learn and experience here, the more it seems to me that the biggest obstacles are the minds of those in power positions. In speaking with my colleges they expressed a similar feeling of disappointment. In their case, the older folks were not receptive to the ideas of the youth at the table.
            In reflection about the event, two things didn’t get addressed that I felt are pivotal to the development of Guinea Bissau. The first being investment in the youth and the prioritization of sustainable, socially conscious developments and investments. Youth were simply not mentioned at all and most investments and developments being discussed are ones that are know to have negative environmental impacts (drilling for oil, damn building for energy). I didn’t once hear about solar panel investments.
             I mentioned this at the event and someone tried to explain that economic development is the focus of the forum.  If investments in youth and sustainability aren’t included in the conversation of economic development, let alone being considered as remotely related, then there truly is a lot of work to be done.
            Regardless of my critique, I feel very blessed to have been able to attend the forum. Most people watched it on TV or listened to it on the radio. It was a great learning and networking experience and a glimpse at how working professionals work and think.

Monday, February 4, 2013

To Gabu for the Guru

            My stepdad pretty much dropped everything in the US to come here and start working on this year’s cashew campaign. At 60 years old, I’d say it’s a pretty courageous thing to do because there is no guarantee how things will turn out.  He told me he often can’t sleep at night because he is up thinking about how we are going to pull this cashew project off. Mamudo offered a solution to ease his worries.
Village boys carving out gourds
            Mamudo is a guy who comes by to help Avo Alice with housework.  At 24 he hasn’t been able to finish high school because it is too expensive (public schools are not free here) and finding work with out a college degree, let alone high school diploma is slim. He is at the house all the time so my stepdad and I have gotten to know him pretty well. He is Fula and his mother is from a Tabanka (Village) called Seao Folbe which is 54kilometers outside of  Gabu. He told my step dad about a man named Yaya who is a Muslim spiritual leader or Imam in one of the villages near his mother’s village. This man, Yaya, gives spiritual guidance, does future readings,  and provides “assistance” with resolving problems or obstacles in peoples lives. He has received visitors from as far as Cape Verde, Sweden, America, and Senegal.
            My step dad is not Muslim, but he wanted to see what Yaya had to offer. So off we went to Gabu, this time via public transportation.
             On a bus in the US, an aisle is an aisle so people can move around. Here, aisles mean more space for more passengers. The autocaro, or our greyhound bus equivalent, was packed! People were stilling in the aisles, there were at least 7 people standing up next to the driver and we all still had to get on and off the bus to show our ID’s at the rest stops. As you might image, it was a very long process.
            After 4 hours we arrived in Gabu to wait another 4 hours for another vehicle that would take us to the tabanka.  This vehicle was bigger then a van but smaller then a small bus. It was probably one of the scariest rides of my life! The van was filled with 40 people and the top was loaded with personal belongings, bikes, and there was even a goat up there at one point.

The Van we rode to get to the Village Seao Folbe
             I say the ride was scary because the roads were HORRIBLE and given the weight of the van any excessive lean to the left or right felt like we were going to tip over.  On theses roads transportation casualties are not out of the ordinary. A one point Mamadu turned up the music on his cell phone to drown out the voices of women saying “Aos! Aos!”. “Aos” means today in Creole, and in this context it meant “today is the day it’s tipping over!” It got to the point where I began to think about how I would maneuver to avoid being crushed buy 3 rows of people in the event that it did.  After three and a half hours of rocky riding at 10 mph it’s hard not to let your mind to get to that point.
             The driver stopped along the road to left people off at different tabankas and eventually we arrived at our destination; sweaty, tired but in one piece. The tabanka we arrived in was made up of maybe 20 families, the neighboring tabankas being a 5/10 minute walk away. We were stayed at Mamudo’s Aunt’s house. Her husband had passed several years before but she lived with lots of Mamadu’s other family members.

Here is a rough summary of my week there:
Mamudu and Imam Yaya

Day 1: We walked one and a half hours to Yaya’s tabanka. He only speaks Fula, so Mamudu translated Fula to Creole for Ramos. Much to my disappointment I had to wait outside with Buba, Mamudu’s cousin and our guide, while they went into his room.  I was told that Yaya would ask for my step-dads name and the name of his mother. He was going to pray that night and would have news for us in the morning.      When I got back to Mamadu’s Aunts house I met the infamous Concoran. The Conoran deserves its own blog post but, to be brief, it is a spirit or a human in a trans? I’m not exactly sure what it is, but it is something not human that comes to the villages when young boys get circumcised.  
            I had not been in any way prepped for this. So when everyone was running away from this thing looking like a pile of carrot shreddings come to life, I, out of ignorance or amazement, but definitely out of confusion stood around and watched. Mamudo’s aunt had to come and grab me to tell me to get out of the way. Apparently the Concoran is a women beater, which is why all the women were running.  For some reason in my mind I thought I was untouchable. Spirits can tell the difference between locals and foreigners too right?
The Concuran and women drumming
            The Concorans chased people for a while and then wanted everyone to dance. So young men and women began to drum and chant while the Concorons danced. Did I mention there were two of them? I learned that what I saw was just people dressed in costume (which is what I figured but everyone one around me made it seem so real that I second guessed myself), but a real Concoran does exist and when it comes you want to be nowhere in sight. Fortunately it cannot enter your house, but it can fly and it is known to kill. It is controlled can called to the village by the village chief.  The entire situation reminded me of M. Night Shamalons, The Village. And now that I think about it, he must have stolen the story of the Concoran and made it into a movie.

Day 2:  We woke up early and made the same hour and a half walk to Yaya’s tabanka. This walk was a lot more quiet. We were all wondering what the ‘divine revelations’ would be.
             He gave Ramos some really good news about how everything is going to turn out, so that was a great relief. But he also told Ramos he needs to be careful. Apparently Ramos has enemy’s who don’t want him to be successful, some of them being close friends and family members, and that he needs to learn to keep them at a distance.
Ramos and Mamudu give bread to school children
            The next day 2 days at the village were homework days. Ramos was given the assignment of giving bread and sardines to school children and 7 bananas to a rich man. He also gave Ramos a bottle of water that was infused with magical things that no one but him can know. He is supposed to wash himself with this water to give him influence when speaking to people he needs something from. One example is getting help from folks with getting his container and truck out of the port.  He was given some other assignments, but he payed Yaya to do them for him. He said if he had too much “homework” he knew he wasn’t going to do it, so it was better that Yaya did it instead to be sure it gets done. Does magical/mysical stuff work like that where you can pay someone to do it for you? I guess we will find out.
            A quick note on the location: As much as it felt like the middle of nowhere, the international presence in this region was much greater then I would have thought. The Chinese came and put in a water pump, the Spanish had several red cross building, the Japanese had invested in building several schools and I herd that folks from Brazil come every year to help with the bolanhas, or community gardens. There was also a huge absence of men. Women and children could be found everywhere, but grown men were hit by the plague of emigration. They left make money and find better lives for their family. So in the villages it was women running the show.
Mamudu's Aunt and neighbors pounding rice
            Getting home was an adventure in-and-of itself. We took the same van back into Gabu, which, surprisingly was the smooth part.  As I’ve mentioned, transportation here isn’t like the US. There are no set schedules and departure times. Only when vehicles are filled to the max do they even think about hitting the road.
            It was noon, so we paid for the bus that said it was leaving at 2 o’clock. 3:30 rolled around and we still hadn’t left. We were told the bus wasn’t going to leave because there weren’t enough passengers. So instead we paid for a car to drive us, which is 3 times as expensive, but it’s a much faster trip and guaranteed to leave Gabu that day. As we waited for more people to fill up the car we saw a sudden wave of people filling up the bus we just got off. The look on my stepdads face was priceless. He had just gotten his money back from the bus to pay for the car only to watch more people get on the bus.  It was a game of claiming a seat on the vehicle that leaves first.  Fortunately after about 30 minutes enough people filled the car so we could hit the road. As we were leaving we watched more people filling the bus. The driver of our told us it was better we took the car because the bus wouldn’t arrive in Bissau before midnight. It was just past 4 pm at this point.
Women working on the community garden
            So we made the drive home. It was hot, but smooth enough until, in the midst of all the commotion at one of the ID checking points, the car gets a flat tire. While I waited for the tire to be changed some folks on the side of the road were hassling me about money. It was one of those “we are so close and all I wanna do is go home” moments. Traveling through Guinea-Bissau is tiring!  It’s no wonder so many people have never left the main city.  The driver was nice enough to take us directly home, but only after he dropped off the 7 other passengers first. 
            After a week of bucket showers outside in the open and sleeping next to people I didn’t know, I am more then happy to be back in Bissau taking bucket showers indoors and sleeping next to people I do know (I share a bed with Avo Alice).