Thursday, March 28, 2013

Luz Ten, Luz Ka Ten ( There's Water, There's no Water)

            I met some youngsters from Benin the other day. They have been living here for the past 2 years because their dad works for the UN and UNDP. They speak French and so I proposed a French/English exchange. One day we were siting and chatting and I asked them to describe Benin to me. They said,” It’s great! It’s not like here because you always have running water and lights!” Because I was having them speak in English their words turned into huffing and puffing for the lack of word to express their frustration. But its true, water and lights aren’t always available.
            Lights, or electricity, here are provided by the state. You set up a contract and they provide electricity to your house. It’s very PG&E-like, but the power source is different. Electricity is generated by big generators that run on oil. And here is where things get sticky. If there is no gas, then there is no electricity. And often times there is no gas or oil.  I remember once my step –dad and I were supposed to go visit his sister. His nephew usually picks us up, but he called and said he couldn’t pick us up because there was no gas. I misunderstood this to mean his car ran out of gas. But it wasn’t the car that was out of gas, it was the country! None of the gas stations had gas and so no one could get anywhere, let alone have electricity.  ( A quick note on gas: there are gas stations, but their aren’t many. Folks have made this a business opportunity and sell gas on the side of the road in used plastic water bottles and gallon containers. I was in a Toca-toca once and the driver waved at someone on the side of the road selling gas. He ran up with a funnel and a gallon of gas to put in the car. The driver paid and we were on our way. Its pretty effeicient if you ask me.) But what I’m getting at, is that electricity is not consistent. Imagine coming home after a long day of work and not having lights. That means your cooking in the dark, your kids are doing homework in the dark, you needed to charge your phone or computer? Not today.  
Industrial generators cost on average 15,000 USD or 7million fc
            In my Portuguese class people come to class early, not to get a good seat, but to claim an outlet to charge their cell phones. It didn’t occur to me until I witnessed the underground war. Everyone has their cellphone chargers on them. I didn’t think this was a big deal because I have some friends back in the States that would carry their chargers around with them in their purse. The guy on my right was charging his phone and the girl on my left asked him if she could hop on the charger ( Batteries run out quick because more people have internet access on their phones then anything else which is a reflection of the high costs of computers and the high costs of using internet)
            He looked at his charge and said he barely had 2 bars, so he’d let her on at 12:10, leaving her 20 minutes on the charger before class got out.  I thought it wasn’t fair because he had been charging the whole class period, which starts at 1030 and it was already ten till noon. I tried to argue her case and say at least let her on at noon, but he just responded with, “She’s a girl, she has money.”  Now I’m not sure what he ment by that, but she went on to explain that it’s 100fc to charge your phone (I’m not sure where, but I imagine its at cyber cafes) and she didn’t have the money now to charge it. ( Solar phone chargers, or solar anything, would be a big business opportunity out here if someone wanted to take that on, just saying). He didn’t budge, but it was a taste of reality for me because I can go home and charge what ever I want with out thinking twice.
            Now some people can afford to bypass this inconsistency. If you buy your own generator and gas then you will have power when most don’t.  But gas is expensive so people tend to wait until it gets dark to turn on their generators. The amount of people who use solar panels are even fewer, but they do exist.
The Bank across the street provides lights at  hang out spot
              If you drive around at night you will often see lots of people hanging outside of their homes or on the side of the road. Think about it. If you have no lights, would you sit in your house in the dark or outside where you might get some light form the road or the moon? If you don’t have lights its most likely your neighbors don’t either, so everyone is outside.
            This is true for my neighbors. At night everyone hangs out in front of their house to chat under the lights from the bank across the street. As a safety precaution the bank across the street always has lights and they offered to power Avo Alice’s house because of her age. If Luz ka ten, then by 8 or 9pm most folks come over to watch Novelas because we almost always have lights in the evening. It’s more often that we wont have lights in the morning or afternoon but the sun is out so it’s not that big of a deal.
            Outside of the city of Bissau is a very different situation regarding electricity. Bafata, which is the countries second capitol, has many people spending their evenings illuminated by candlelight, unless you have a generator of course.
            In the villages you are guaranteed to be using candles, flames from a fire, flashlights, and lanterns.  But in one tabanka I did see a solar power phone charger, which was quite the scene. I wish I would’ve taken a picture! But imagine a small mud hut covered by a straw roof with a solar panel laying on one of its sides. Talk about leaps in development.
            Luz ka ten? That expression means “there’s no lights?” in Creole.  It just rolls off the tongue.  Its probably one of the first complete sentences I learned. Another is “luz bin!”, or “ the lights came!”. I put an exclamation mark because it’s usually a big deal when it happens. If you’re used to not having lights every evening and suddenly they come on, the announcement is going to be an exclamation. As with my neighbors, once someone notices the lights are back on, most people put away their lawn chairs and head inside.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Africa's Cocaine Hub: Guinea-Bissau a 'Drug Trafficker's Dream'

Africa's Cocaine Hub: Guinea-Bissau a 'Drug Trafficker's Dream'
I feel like I haven't done a great job of explaining the drug situation here in Bissau. It's mostly because its complicated! And there is so much I still don't know about Guinean politics.  SO, to spare you all my confusing explanation, I found an article that I thought did a pretty good job explaining some of Bissau's history with drugs.

It definitely has some length, but its very insightful. Read it HERE!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


        Some experiences you come back from and feel a little different from before you left. For me, this weekend was one that really worked at my life muscle. ( I say life muscle because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that life is a muscle. The more difficult, different, and unpredictable situations you put your self in, the more you work that muscle, You may feel sore and tired, even broken from working that life muscle, but in the end you walk away a little stronger and with a new understanding of the world we live in.)
My uncles and cousin at my grandfather's headstone
            After this weekend I can check off a BIG personal goal: I went to the village, Talico, where my dad was born and met my family that still live there. My dad woul d aften talk about Talico, but in my minds eye it was “ a village in Africa”  in the most stereotypical sense, almost like a place in a fairy tale. But now Talico is real!! And there are faces and a story to go with it.
            Talico is a village that is about a 3 hours drive north from Bafata. That may n
ot seem like much, but it’s only 3 villages short from the Senegal-Bissau Border. My dad’s side of the Family, which is from the Fula ethnic group, all came from and grew up in this village.
            My uncle Bacar said this would be a good weekend to go to Talico because the largest Muslim ceremony in West Africa, Gamu, would also be taking place not too far from where we were going. So my uncle, my cousin Tamba, my step dad and I took an autocaro from Bissau to Bafata. In Bafata we ran into a cousin who offered to drive us to Talico.
            The village is literally all family! It is made up of 7 or 8 compounds, or groups of houses, and every compound has between 5-40 people. All the people in the village were related to me either by blood or by marriage. Each compound had one “head male” and lived there with his wives and children. The women sleep in what is called a “bumba”, which is essentially a room or place where only women live and the men each have their own hut.
The current village chief with the staff of King Brahim
             The organization of the compound is reflective of the cultural system of marriage. Once a son is old enough he gets his own hut and his wife will live on his families compound. Thus, once a daughter is old enough, she will leave her family’s village to live in the village of her husband. Wives and husbands are often cousins who grew up in different villages and girls get married pretty young. The youngest I heard was 13 or 14 but the average is more between the ages of 16 and 18.
            In Talico, I saw my grandfather Tamba’s grave.  Brahim, the king of that region which included around 300 tabankas, is my granda’s older brother and he lived in Talico as well.  I was told that while Brahim had the power, my grandpa had the wealth and he had over 400 heads of cattle, a motorcycle, and a car to show for it.  Not that any of it matters now, he is buried next to only 3 of his many wives. My grandma was not there. She died at the hospital in Bissau and her body only made it as far as Bafata.  I tried to ask how many wives my grandpa had and no one could give me a solid answer. Many wives of his had passed before they, my uncles, were born and all of my grandpa’s direct descendants no longer live in Talico.  They are either in Bafata, Bissau, Senegal, Gambia, France, Portgual, Germany, Spain, or the USofA.
This is the school building in Talico
            I learned a lot about my dad’s family, which is HUGE.  But what was most entertaining was comparing what I was learning here with what my dad had told me growing up. Some of it matched perfectly, other parts, not so much
            We made our way to my aunt Corca’s tabanka the following evening. She and Bacar have the same mom and dad (Penda and Tamba). We spent the night and afternoon there.  She has two sons who are married and both their wives names are Kumba. My nickname is kumba, and I have been going by kumba for the most part here.  So at night around the campfire, 5 of the 10 grown people there were named Tamba or Kumba. I’m sure you can imagine the confusion that was.  Fula’s like to reuse names of their ancestors, which only made it harder to figure out who was who in the family.
            I went with my cousins to watch them herd the cows and spent some time getting to know them a little better. They asked why I wasn’t married yet and which of them I wanted to marry. (And this topic came up WAY too many times! I started saying I don’t ever want to get married just to see the looks on all their faces.)
Big group picture before leaving Talico
            In the afternoon we hopped on the back of my cousins motorcycle and rode to the Tabanka where Gamu was taking place. Gamu was crazy! There were Muslims from as far away as Mauritania, Sengal, and Mali. They all came to participate in this annual ceremony. I walked around and took pictures and thought it was all really cool. It wasn’t until afterwards did I learn about how spiritually deep and revered this ceremony is.
            How we were able to navigate around all these villages without our own car is a miracle to me, but my uncle is a miracle worker.  We caught a van back to Bafata that night.
            That ride felt like I was in a movie! Because of the mass exodus of Muslims going back to their homes, there were lots of vans and trucks transporting people.  But there is no law on these roads, and it was like everyone was racing each other to get back. Dust was up in the air, horns were honking, and cars filled with people were flying by.  And then it would slow down and we would pass many cars that had broken down along the way and watched as cars full of people sway back and forth over the rocky roads.
Thierno Bachir, the speaker at Gamu, addressing thousands
            Once we got to Bafata we went to my uncle Cherno’s house, which is the house he, my dad, and my uncle saleu (who is now in the states) grew up in. There I met my uncles 2 wives and his 7 children.  Cherno has the same dad but different mom as my dad. He is in Portugal so unfor
tunately I didn’t get the chance to meet him.
            My cousin wanted to go to club kiss. She said there was an event we HAD to go see. So we went and saw.  My cousin is 16, so when we got there and I saw a bunch of young kids I realized I should have asked what the age was for this event. Ha! That was my American mind at work, there is no age limit or range! As we entered I noticed a girl to my right who couldn’t have been older then 13. Up ahead was a boy about the same age smoking a cigarette. I was so astounded by this and other things I saw that I spent most of my time standing and watching people while my 2 other cousins danced.
4 chickens, 3 people, 2 bags, 1 motorcycle
            The place was packed! I don’t mean American packed, I mean Guinea Bissau packed. The event had started and people were forcing their way through the only entrance and exit to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. It was so hot and sweaty in there that my hands were beginning to prune and I had sweat marks on my shoulders (I don’t know about you, but I never sweat there!).  There were no windows, just baby fans moving the hot air around.
            The performances were amateur; it was just one bad Karaoke singer after the other. I had decided I’d had enough, and was beginning to get paranoid about the lack of air and space, but I was trapped. Three weeks ago there was a story in the news about a club in Brazil where 230+ people died because of asphyxiation. I wasn’t going to be one of those bodies in Bafata. Fortunately I left at the right time because someone else was trying to leave too. I flowed his path, even though it didn’t help much. After what seemed like a solid 5 minutes of pushing, pulling, grabbing, shuffling, sidestepping,  and tiptoeing to move the 7ft  out of the door, I made it! And then I immediately regretted it. The streets were packed with people, I am obviously a foreigner and so I was getting A LOT of looks. I looked back, I had left both of my cousins inside, but there was no way I was going back in. People were calling out “Bajuda” or “Girl” and motioning for me to come over to them. Others approached me and tried starting up some conversation. Fortunately my cousin wasn’t too far behind me and we left my 16 yr old cousin to enjoy her self there.
A glimpse of Gamu with the village Mosque in the background
            I got back to the house and hopped in bed with another cousin. Getting into bed with people I just met is starting to become more of a norm then I’d like it to be.
            The next morning we went around Bafata to see family before going back to Bissau. First was my cousin Omaru. He is the son of my Aunt Maryama who has the same mom and dad (Tamba and Kumba) as my dad. My younger sister Maryama was named after his mom. She recently passed away from HIV, but is remembered by 2 children who live in Senegal, one who lives with us in California, and this son in Bafata. 
            My uncle tried to warn me and said my cousin had a mental problem. I had no idea what to expect because my dad never talked about him.
            We arrived at a run down house that had the entire outside wall missing. Inside of what was once a room, was a sheet covering a tattered straw mat. “ This is were he stays, but he’s not here.” My uncle said.  My uncles were determined for me to see him, so I hopped on the back of one of my uncle’s motorcycle and we drove around to find him.          

            We found him at someone’s house and we sat and chatted for a bit. What I learned was that it’s not just a mental problem, was  a drug problem turned mental problem. When his dad passed away he left him a lot of money. My cousin took off to Gambia, spent all the money, and has never been the same sense.  Apparently a cousin of mine and my dad had paid for rehab, but he relapsed and is now back on the streets.
            We took him back to my uncle Cherno’s house to shower and we bought him some food to eat. My step dad spent a lot of time talking to Omaru. He explained that his first wife went through something similar and that Omaru needs a lot of family support in his life right now. We had lots of people to visit and only one day to do it, so we left him there with the family and took off to meet my grandmother’s side of the family.
            I met Aunts and Uncles and cousins and more cousins. At this point I started to loose track of how people were related; some people being more related then others. But one part of the family was especially important to me.  Mamudu, who is the son of my Grandma’s sister, is the man who took my dad out of Talico and began raising him in Bafata. This is significant for me because if he hadn’t done that, my dad could easily still be in Talico, and I wouldn’t exist!  Mamudu is no longer living, but I met some of his children, my cousins, who told stories of him.
The poor chickens
            Bafata is much easier to get to then Talico and I ensured the family I met I would be back to visit soon. I especially want to visit my grandma at the cemetery and see where Amilcar Cabral started all is revolutionary work.
            By the time I got back to Bissau I had been given 4 chickens. They traveled with us every step of the way. I kept telling my uncle to give them away. I don’t know how to cut a chicken, gut a chicken, or defeather a chicken. I could barley hold the chickens without squirming.  It’s embarrassing sometimes since kids as young as 6 can do all of the above, but it’s part of the experience. I gave one to my uncle and the rest went in the chicken coup at Avo Alice’s house.
            When I got home I tried to start explaining my trip to Avo ALice, but I just began rambling in my Portuguese, creole hybrid language. Avo Alice smiled knowingly and put into words perfectly my experience: THIS is real life, everything else is just fantasy.