Monday, January 13, 2014

F.L.A.M.E in Canchungo

There are not many Americans in Guinea-Bissau. After all my networking and meeting other  foreigners the average number of Americans scattered around the country was 5! So when you meet an American, it’s kind of a big deal.

Meeting Chris Collins was one of those chance encounters. This was during my families trip to Bissau during my senior year of college. Ironically they met him on the boat on their way to Bubaque. I only met him later that year at a fundraising event in Fresno for a non-profit he runs called WAVS.

WAVS stands for West African Vocational School.  This is the American based non-profit funding organization for a vocational school in Canchungo, Guinea-Bissau, called F.L.A.M.E. ( not sure what the acronym is).

Over the year we had gotten to know Chris pretty well, and Almamo, the schools director, even better!  But we had never gone to visit the school he was directing. My mom’s trip was a good excuse to head over.

Canchungo is a small city an hour and a half north of Bissau.  You can tell it has a rich history because it is one of the few cities outside of the capital that had paved roads, Portuguese style two story buildings, and even an attempt at landscaping in certain areas. The ambiance is like many cities out side of the capital: slow moving and calm, yet colorful and vibrant.

Add caption

          Sacrifice  +
          Union +
          Calculations +
          Organization =

The school is just outside of the market place down an unassuming dirt road. 
The school has several classrooms that host a variety of classes they offer: english, computer literacy, welding, and sewing. They even have an auto body garage for their auto mechanics class and a quarter acre space for agricultural production  Currently they are providing services to 100 students, and counting!

The classes offered by this school are adding substantially to the areas economic development by providing skill sets that allow people to start their own businesses and become self sufficient in different sectors.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to catch any action, but I did get pictures of buildings and classrooms!
WAVS has their own website, so if you are interested in learning more about about them, check out! And if you are so inspired, donate to support their transformative work!  

English Classroom

Internet room and Computer Lab

Sewing Studio

Auto Mechanic Workshop

Exterior view of  the classrooms

Welding School  (the 1st and only place I saw an american flag)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Infamous Island of Bubaque

How I went an entire year without going to Bubaque still puzzles me. Of all 80+ islands that make up the Bijagoe archipelago, Bubaque is the most inhabited and the most ‘developed’ for receiving tourists. However, after the experience I had getting there and coming back, it is most likely my first and last time.
The ship we took from Bissau to Bubaque

Bubaque is one of the countries main tourist attractions and some would even profess it is much more enjoyable than being in the capital city. And it’s a point that is hard to argue. Island life is so relaxing, even if you are working there.

To give you a complete sense of the experience, I have to start at the very beginning: the transportation. Getting information about getting to Bubaque is a challenge in and of its self! There are 3 options: Ferry Boat, Canoe, and private speedboat.  The best option is the private speedboat, it is secure, and can make the trip from Bissau to Bubaque in 3 hours. It is also the most expensive, averaging at 50 dollars a person unless you organize a group and divide the 300-dollar fee.

Your next best option is the ferryboat. It is secure, but slow.  I hear that is usually only takes 4 to 5 hours to get there on the ferry. But the ‘normal’ ferryboat was out of service due to lack of funds for maintenance, and so an old cargo ship was being used instead. The usual departure schedule is for it to leave every Friday and comes back on Sunday.

The canoe is the way most locals travel to and from the islands.  Canoes are small 50ft long wooden boats that can take about 50 people. The speed is the same as the speedboat, but it is much less secure. Just last year there was an incident just before carnival where a canoe sank only 100 ft from the port in Bissau. Because most people don’t know how to swim, most of the people on the canoe drowned. It’s tragic reality, and for this reason, my step-dad was 100% against going to the island by canoe.

View from the cabin of the rest of the ship
We wanted to spend New years on Bubaque but the ship is the only one making freight shipments between island, and so no one was sure when it would be back from other islands and when it would leave for Bubaque. I went to the port bi-weekly seeking this information.

Welcome to Bubaque
If you want to know what’s going on in Bissau, your best bet is to listen to the news on the radio. But if you are like me and don’t listen to the radio, you’ll have to go directly to the source to get the information, which actually only sometimes works. My method has become asking 5 people the same question and taking the most common answer as the PROBABLE answer. I’ve also discovered how quickly mis-information travels.

On Monday they told me the ship would leave on Tuesday. On Tuesday I was told it would leave on Friday, so when I asked on Thursday to confirm they said they weren’t sure yet because they still needed to find fuel to make the trip. On Friday morning I called the captains assistant (yes, by this point I had phone numbers) and I got the green light that the boat would be leaving. Phase one accomplished!

I mentioned previously that the boat ride is 4-5 hours. So I’m still trying to figure out who lied, because we left the port in Bissau at 2 pm and arrived to the island at 10 pm, a full and healthy 8 hours, just in time to have a late dinner and go to bed.  I also mentioned that the boat returns to Bissau on Sunday, so our trip was looking shorter than we had anticipated.

Casa Dora
We stayed at a small Hostel called Casa Dora ( Dora’s House). Dora is a portuguese woman who has lived in and run the Hostel  for 20+ years! She has a small piece of property with 18 bungalows, a cabana area for meals and an adjoining building with administrative rooms, a kitchen, etc..

Bubaque really is a beautiful island. My mom had already been there before, so we decided to Island hop to Rubany, where I have been told that two French women have created a beautiful getaway. Rubany is a small Island, so their resort amazingly covers just under half of the island.  

We spent our time on Rubany enjoying the beach and admiring the landscaping that has gone into making this island sanctuary.  The have a nice arrangement for tourist that they can get a free ride to the island if they have lunch. We went with the deal and couldn’t have made a better decision. There is a balcony that goes out into the ocean, giving you the since that you are   We had Ondjo (a hibiscus drink), grilled fish, with rice, salad and French fries.  I would show pictures, but we ate it all before anyone remembered to record the moment!
Old, broken freezers to store the fish caught 

On our way home we had the chance occurrence of being accompanied by a couple that needed a ride to the tiny airport, which was on the other side of Bubaque from where we had boarded the boat.  The airport stop happened to be near where the rest of our group had gone swimming for the day. We arrived and found them basking in the sun and playing in the sand. The tide was low, opening the beach for beach soccer and all the cows that found their way to the beach.

The evening was leisurely and uneventful. Most of it went to deciding what our plans were to return to Bissau in the morning. The Boat and the canoe were going back to Bissau on Sunday, so we had to make a decision about when and how we would be going back. 

We would have preferred to stay an extra day or two, but the next canoe going back to Bissau wasn’t until Wednesday and the next boat wasn’t until the following Sunday and we didn’t have that much time to spare.

We decide to go for the canoe, since they made the trip in 4 hours instead of our 8. So by 8 am we were lined up to buy tickets. Unfortunately we weren’t the only ones with this idea. With all the extra passengers lining up to get a ticket for the canoe they suddenly decided that the canoe was going to leave on Monday instead of Sunday.

So we made our way back to the line for the boat, knowing very well we had AT LEAST another 7 hour ride ahead of us. Other folks in our group decided to come along as well.  We bought our ‘VIP’ ticket for our seat in the small cabin (as opposed to meant sitting on top of the boat or down with the cargo are in the sun).

Here’s where things get interesting.  We began our journey just as slow as when we had arrived. It took us nearly an hour to get out of sight from the island. And the boat kept stopping and starting. We were going so excruciatingly slow that we didn’t even notice these stops until they started happening more frequently.  Some stops were 10 minutes, others 30 to 40 minutes. No one really knew what was going on, so we just tried to entertain ourselves to help the time pass. 

We got about half way to Bissau when we stopped, but this times we didn’t start again. Two hours had gone by at a stand still in the ocean before people started to fuss and ask what was going on.  Between my step-dad and I we were able to gather enough information to determine that we had stopped because there was an issue with the engine. Something about there was water in the engine oil?

Beach side pool on Rubany
Basically the boat broke down.  We were stuck 35 miles away from shore; the nearest piece of land was barely visible in the horizon. It was a Sunday and Sundays are Guinean’s favorite day of the week because everything is shut down. So that meant the port was closed and there is no existing coast guard we could call.

So 2 hours turned to 3 hours and everyone on the boat is trying to get ahold of the ‘directors’ at the port. The combination of people not answering their phones, phones being turned off, and the signal being horrible since we were in the middle of the ocean, prolonged the process.

You could sense the energy on the boat shifting to dis-ease as people began to realize that we might be stuck here for a while. By this time is was 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the heat of the sun was at its peak. We were inside the cabin, but at least 150-200 people were sitting under the heat. The only water and food available on the boat was whatever you brought with you! Of course no one was expecting anything like this would happen. Mothers tried soothing crying babies, and people were crowding under what shade they could find, laying on the ground or on top of each other hoping when they woke it would all be over.  We even began to ration what water we had because we weren’t sure how long this would be.
Cows on the beach

Earlier that morning my mom had made friends with a cute little girl at the port. She found her sitting on the steps and offered her some oranges and water. This started a conversation that led to us discovering her father was my step-dad’s nephew! Not an unfamiliar situation given how many brothers my step-dad has, but a delightful discovery nonetheless.

Three hours turned to four hours and no one had gotten ahold of anyone from the port. However some creative mind called the national radio station and was able to get our situation broad casted across the radio. This ended up being our saving grace. And after a short period we got the news that help was coming!

In the meantime we watched as canoes and private speedboats cruised by us. One of the canoes happened to be the one that we had attempted to board earlier that morning.  The private speed boats were filled with tourists. It frustrated me how locals can’t catch a break! No one has the money to afford a speedboat trip, but that seemed to be the only reliable form of transportation to the island!

Finally we saw a little boat chugging its way towards us. The mechanics had arrived!! Now we just had to see if they could fix the problem!
Inside the cabin

By 8pm we were back on route and at the same slow, steady pace we made our way back to Bissau. When we finally got to the port it was 11pm! From the distance we could see a huge crowd had formed awaiting our arrival. The crowd comprised of concerned family members, reporters, politicians, and even presidential candidates.
Apparently a similar situation had occurred 2 or 3 years ago, but the boat sank!!!

Politicians are disgusting. With elections expected in the next couple months, these politicians wanted to make sure their faces were seen as having been there for moral support after this distressing event.

I scowled as I watched them pass out snacks and water. Fortunately for them the desire to quench my thirst greatly outweighed my desire to smack the box of refreshments out of their hands.

Our rescue team
This is how they get away with it! There is absolutely no accountability for things like this that happen all the time!! The next day life went on as if nothing had happened, and it drove me crazy!!! Where are the riots, the civil unrest?!! How could people allow this to be the standard of transportation and then allow these politicians to show up with goody bags after the storm has passed! Why was no one asking where all the money to fund transportation services goes?!!

I’ve come to understand that there is a learned mentality about these situations. People are just happy to be alive to tell the story. In more dire scenarios people have just died! And this is understood as part of life in this country. When circumstances like this are the norm, how would you know what the alternative even looked like?

Besides the fact that this isn’t an uncontrollable force of nature and is an issues  that could be solved with less than a $50,000 dollar investment, I imagine Guineans must feel about these situations the way people in the mid-west of the US must feel about tornados. They are scary and life threatening, but they happen and they can’t be controlled.  All you can really do is be happy you made it through another one.

Monday, December 23, 2013

December in a Nutshell

Here are some recent political and current events that were happening in Guinea Bissau in December:

As of Decemebr 7th TAP airlines has stopped their direct flight into Guinea Bissau due to a security breach in Lisbon. The Guinean transportation Minister falsified Guinean documents and Visas for some 70+ Syrians, allowing them to enter Lisbon
More of the story can be read here:

This completely shuts down air traffic into Bissau and makes transportation to and from Bissau even more difficult. Since the Coup in 2012, Cape Verdes airlines stopped running flights to Bissau. Now TAP, which had the only direct flight from Bissau to Europe, is also shut down. Air Senegal has taken over TAP airlines flights into Bissau, so all flights in and out of Bissau stop in Senegal. However, they are also are in the process of declaring bankruptcy! This extra traffic might be good for them. The alternative route many people are using is the 4 hour car ride north to Zuguinchor, in the south of Senegal and taking the Ferry (14 hour ride) from there to Dakar where they can catch flights direct into Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America.  

From December 16th- 20th  there was a general strike across all public services due to the government  debt owed to public service workers. That meant everything was shut down! For four days there was no traffic on the roads, all public service offices were closed, many restaurants were shut down, the usually populated and lively markets were deserted, and banks and other institutions were closed. Literally all forms of commerce and daily activity were brought to a stunning halt! The only activity you would find around town were police officers patrolling the streets to make sure that the Taxis and toca-tocas weren’t on the road. They were supposed to be supporting the strikers, but lots of folks saw this as an opportunity to make a few extra bucks sense people where still trying to get around.

This is so incredibly stunting for the economy. Everything was at a stand still. No one was making money, so no one was spending money. And this happens frequently! Never had I experienced it for 4 days in a row, but one day strikes are as common, if not more common than sighting the full moon


This is entrance to the immigration building on Day 2 of the strike. The note on the door reads as follows:

General Strike
December 16th - 20th 

"The non-payment of public workers salaries 
  is a violation of human rights"

On a lighter note:

My mom, brother and sister will be coming to Bissau for the holidays!! I am super excited and can’t wait for them to get here. It has been over a year since I have seen them. They will be staying for 3 weeks and so we are busy trying to find activities to do even though the month of December is pretty quiet. The Holiday plan is looking very similar to last year: Christmas Eve at my Aunt’s house, Christmas day at my Cousin’s house, and New years will be with the hommies!  Happy Holidays  Everyone!