Archive for the ‘Guinea’ Category

Dakar – Dalaba (Sunday)

December 26, 2011

Sorry – not bothering with a map today. Same as yesterday’s map anyway. Why would that be? Read on….

 

Manda is about 100 kilometres from Tambacounda. And as we rattle along in clouds of dust along the bone dry dirt roads towards Mythical Manda, I realise for the first time that it’s hot. Very Hot. Hopefully they have some shade there in Manda.

We hit a tar road. A few shops here and there. Suddenly Moussa sits up – he’s been sleeping most of the time, yet another example of how people can simply ignore the most hellish din on earth – and relax… Admittedly, I’m not very good at this.

‘I’ve seen one truck.’ He gets off as quick as he can and hobbles towards a large lorry. His men sit in the shade. ‘Need to sort this out. And the other one too. See you later.’

Which turns out to be dead easy because Manda is essentially one sun-drenched roundabout with four roads branching out in each direction.

And next to that roundabout, the glorious sight of brightly-coloured, yellow-black-red-green pimped up and remarkably sturdy Neuf Places. Guinean taxis. Yes, they stuff two more people in the same car: two on the front seat, four in the middle, and three at the back. There is no transport to Dalaba directly but I can take one to Labé, which is nearby and the capital of the Fouta Djalon, home to the region’s cattle experts, the Peulh. It’s ten in the morning, I am the first passenger. And have the right of choice.

I take the two seats at the front for the princely sum of 28,000 francs. €40,00. Seven to go. One man tosses my luggage on the roof. Hope it doesn’t melt.

And I go walkabout.

For an international transit point (The Gambia is nearby too), Mythical Manda is decidedly underwhelming. You can walk along a few open air eateries on either side of the roundabout (follow the roads to the left and the right and the place peters out quickly). There’s tea, cold Coke at the petrol station, some fruit stalls at a small market just across from the taxis, a remarkably clean toilet at the back of another eatery – and remarkably little shade for a place where the sun now beats down on my uncovered head without the tiniest shred of mercy.

No hats for sale here either. Time to get back to the taxi. How many more to go?

‘Seven.’

Alright. Back to the market for a little “brochette”. A taste of things to come because if there is one thing I adore about Guinea it’s the meat sandwich. Small pieces of well-cooked meat, spices, bits of tomato and paprika all wrapped up in a freshly-baked “baguette”. Now for a beer! Ah well…forget it.

As I’m eating my sandwich, an unusual creature bounces through the market. Youngish white guy, bicycle, slippers, shorts, multicolour shirt, happy, speaking the local language, cracking in-family jokes and totally ignoring me.

Which I can understand. I’m not part of the occidental flotsam and jetsam deposited in these vast and welcoming lands. Up and down the continent, you can feast your eyes on near-naturalised Westerners happily floating about in this, the lovely warm baths of their large hospitable and demanding adopted families. I’m looking at him and imagine him forever bouncing about in Mythical Manda – and get an urgent impulse to run like hell…

Well at least I’ve got a ticket, as I tell Moussa when we meet in the shade of the petrol station and talk about his troubles with the trucks. ‘Oh those, no, they’re fine. It’s that nephew I’m worried about. His phone is still off. What the heck is he up to?’

I wander off to check on the taxi. How many more to go?

‘Six.’

Dakar – Dalaba (Sunday morning)

December 25, 2011

Damn! I’m good….

And there it is! (i.e. the cockerel)

It’s not yet light but the first passengers come trickling in. And with them the shopkeepers. Water on pavement, the swish swish swish of broom across stone. Amazing that even the most worn down pavement will still be kept meticulously clean by the owner of the adjacent shop.

Enter also: a contingent of begging children. It’s an industry in Senegal and a national shame. It is also condoned, if not maintained by all manner of authorities in the land, first of all religious but also by the state. It merits much more attention but it does take a lot of time and effort to really get your head around. There will be more on this in 2012.

These children are among the more visible legacies of ten years of nominally liberal government: closed down core economic activity like commercial agriculture and industry and a once proud nation turned into a collection of  beggars.

As we walk around the – by now thoroughly depressing – bus station a couple of Sept Places rattle into place. Could ours be one of them? Time to ask around.

We end up in a small corner of the Gare routière next to a carcass on wheels. The taxi – to Manda? Yes, someone casually answers. The door is open. Good! Get the luggage! We get in; Moussa does the sensible thing and goes to sleep. There’s no floor to speak of. The upholstery left the chairs ages ago and luggage is planted on top of some unidentifiable clunky metal objects.

Ten minutes later, we’re ordered out by an exceedingly grumpy piece of work wearing a woolly hat.

‘But this is the taxi to Manda, right?’

‘You need a ticket.’

‘I understand that. Who’s selling tickets?’

‘He’s not here.’

‘Is he coming? Do you know?’

He scampers away. We sit on a dirty concrete ledge, in view of the carcass.

Around 7.30 in the morning a fellow drags an old small wooden table across the terminus floor and posts himself behind it. Ticket seller? No reply. Nice bunch around here….

Meanwhile, we have been spotted by a bevy of begging boys and immediately surrounded. It’s been a while since I’ve been more eager to get the flippin’ heck out of a place…

It’s an atmosphere that becomes more unpleasant by the minute but we are finally sold our tickets. Mr Woolly Hat, who runs the carcass passengers and luggage system and Mr Say Nothing behind the ticket table have clearly decided that they will make our life as uncomfortable as possible. So yes, we have our tickets but no, you cannot enter the car.

Bloody hell.

But then, the carcass starts filling up remarkably quickly and contains, besides us, a nice little mixed crowd, including a stylish young guy who is in possession of an iPod. From Dakar? Absolutely, student at Uni there and he insists on speaking English.

The driver is a genial old man from the rural areas. This is his daily run; as we’ll soon find out he knows absolutely everyone en route – the policemen waving him through the roadblocks, the store owners saying hello on one of his numerous stops, his fellow taxi drivers…

It’s still early when he rattles from his resting place at the station on to the petrol station across for fuel and a tyre check. In many parts of Africa, drivers prefer to do these important checks with the passenger inside the bus/van/car/Sept Places. Doesn’t matter. I experience a surge of pure joy – we’re leaving!

Oh – where’s Manda?

Dakar – Dalaba (Saturday night, Sunday morning)

December 24, 2011

See? I’m getting better at it!

On with the story then…

* * *

Boom.

We’ve been deposited at the Tambacounda terminus. It is still warm and dry. And dark. We’re sitting on the pavement close to a small shop that keeps a steady supply of spicy coffee (known here as “café Touba”), cigarettes and bottled water going. No food – the customers have left. The taxi touts gather in a building opposite to smoke; the distinct smell of local weed wafts through the air. And we have seven hours to kill before the first taxi departs to that magical place called Manda.

Soon enough, we are the last customers sitting outside. Apart from the young men smoking and walking about the place, no-one is there. The two Mauritanian guys who ran the shop have called it a day. A giant padlock is secured over the metal door they have clanged shut. It’s about the last sound we are going to hear for a while. Hold on to your luggage – and talk.

About football, Mali, Holland, Senegalese women (who, Moussa rather boldly claims, “don’t work”) and his other mission. Apart from rescuing his trucks, he must also locate his wayward nephew, who is supposedly having a great time in a locality not far from Manda. ‘I have been trying to get him on the phone for hours but he’s switched it off. I have no idea what he’s been up to…’

So there we stay, on our hard wooden bench, eyes on our luggage. And talk some more. Take a walk to the nearby toilet. Come back. Have another smoke. Hotels? Moussa confirms that there aren’t any that he would even consider in this part of town. The taxi boys have gone to sleep somewhere in the bowels of the building we face; we can only see the dimly lit entrance.

There is hardy any light to speak of in the entire place. A few streetlights are standing sentry and that is it. Which is just as well because you really don’t want to find out that the rest of the grandiosely names Gare routière has the exact same lack of redeeming features. In that one memorable phrase: we have arrived at the arse of the end of the world and there is only one thing you want: for the night to hurry along, so we can get out.

To Manda!

3am. Time crawls. 3.30am. Still no sign of anyone coming or going, except for a lone taxi that drives in, turns around, and leaves. 4am. No daylight yet. Just us, on that bench on a worn out pavement, our luggage, jealously guarded, water, smokes and dwindling conversation. 4.30am. You get tired of your own voice after so many hours. 5am. Stand and stretch, sit down again. Waiting for that sure sign that a new day has begun, the ubiquitous African alarm clock: the cockerel.

Dakar – Dalaba (same Saturday)

December 23, 2011

See? Making progress here. All you need is Google Maps, a printer, a felt-tip pen, a steady hand, a camera, a cable from your camera to your laptop – done!

On with the journey!

 

When I feel like it, I walk from the airport to my house. Takes all of 40 minutes. As of 2013 (or 14 or 15) that will no longer be possible. Reason: a new airport, past Patte d’Oye (traffic jam), past Pikine (traffic jam), past Thiaroye (traffic jam), past Rufisque (monstrous traffic jam), on to Damniadio (traffic jam). Turn right, as we are doing this Saturday afternoon, and you’re on the way to the seaside resort of Mbour – neon, crass airport art, loud bars, touts and obnoxious Europeans on holiday.

On the way, you see the large building site, to your left. This will be the new Blaise Diagne International Airport, one of the more sensible new projects of The One Above God, who, as we all know, runs this country, at least until February 26 next year. Yoff Airport may be convenient for me but it also sits in the middle of a densely populated built-up area. Also, moving it will free up a huge area, which, after clean-up, can be redeveloped to alleviate Dakar’s groaning housing shortage.

In other words, expect land speculation, colossal rows and endless litigation.

In parallel with the new airport, the state is also building a toll road across all the areas between my flat and the new airport. The question now is: which one will be finished first? The airport – or the road? From the Sept Places, it is difficult to see which one is winning. One thing is certain: if the airport wins, my transfer time will expand from a whistling 40 minutes walk to – well that depends on how bad the traffic is.

This Saturday turns out not too bad. Two hours after departure we are out on the road past the airport and on our way to Mbour.

Not so fast.

A policeman has spotted that the luggage on the roof may exceed the maximum height by 0.3 centimetres. In Senegal, so far, harassment of travelling citizens by uniforms is definitely less in-your-face as it is in, say Côte d’Ivoire, but it is there all the same. Except that here the target is mostly the driver. It is the one thing these “syndicats” (the taxi drivers associations) can do nothing about.

In the glow of the late afternoon sun, two policemen and the driver argue, point. Papers are checked. All in order but that is of course not the issue. The matter is settled with payment of some (as far as I can see) 2000 francs, about 3 euros. One more of these and any thought of making some profit out if this trip goes straight out of the window.

As it happens, it is the only check and the rest of the trip to Tambacounda is remarkably uneventful, partly because the road I remember from a previous trip as a pot-holed hell on earth has transformed itself into a more than decent two-laner.  Excellent!

Er…on second thoughts: not so excellent.

 

‘Moussa, welcome back, how are you?’

‘Fine, I was just sleeping.’

The savannah outside has receded, just shadows of trees flitting past, as we now positively hurtle towards one of the few major towns in Senegal’s interior.

‘You’ve done this trip before?’

‘Sure. Number of times now.’

‘When are the taxis to Guinea leaving?’

In Guinea, they drive these things days and night and I was under the impression that there may be one of them parked at Tamba’s bus station. Ready for departure. With us inside.

‘Oh – they don’t leave until tomorrow and you have to go to Manda first.’

‘Manda?’ First time I hear that name. ‘Where’s that?’

‘Towards the border.’

‘And the taxi to Manda…’

‘…leaves tomorrow morning. Around seven.’

Right. That’s settled then. We have a night at Tambacounda’s bus station ahead of us. Bring coffee. And conversation.

Onwards! (Dakar – Dalaba)

December 22, 2011

I promise I am trying to get myself educated enough so I can put a MAP here. As in: I was planning to go THERE – but I am still HERE…

 

‘Tamba!’ ‘Tamba!’ ‘Tamba.’

‘Biscuit!’ ‘Biscuit!’ ‘Biscuit!’

The first speaker is the man scouting for passengers to my first stop: Tambacounda. The second speaker is a woman who absolutely refuses to understand that someone sitting in a bush taxi in the middle of what has now become a stiflingly hot day…has no need for biscuits. ‘You must eat biscuits.’

The taxi station is not just there for transport. It’s also a giant open air supermarket. So while I spend my first hour waiting for Passenger Number Two to come in, I can admire the sheer variety of goods that are carried about from one end of the station to the other: biscuits, newspapers, pocket knives, carpets, copies of the Holy Koran, water, cool drinks, bananas, plastic “leather” covers for passports and wallets and mobile phones…. For some reason the women selling biscuits and the men selling wallets are the most persistent. One of them drops a wallet in my lap and then expects me to pay for it. Luckily, I have bought a ream of newspapers and so I steadfastly concentrate on the Saturday crop of what Politician X said yesterday about politician Z during some meeting or other while steadfastly ignoring our persistent wallet dropping friend. After a full ten minutes of a very silent standoff, he asks it back.

Another passenger arrives. It’s a middle aged man from Mali who is on his way to Guinea to prevent his two trucks from getting caught up in the clutches of Guinean customs officials. We get on fine from the beginning, which is good because this is going to be a long day – and night. ‘We’ll not get there before dark,’ he assures me. We might as well introduce ourselves, then. ‘Bram,’ I say. ‘Moussa,’ he returns. He will be a most entertaining travel companion for the next 24 hours.

‘Do you want to hear about my accident?’ he asks. And then launches into a long tale about how he was in a convoy with a bunch of trucks (‘overloaded, of course, they always are’) and trying to get these monsters up a slope. This is Guinea of course, there are no flat roads there – it either uphill or downhill. ‘And then one of them couldn’t make it. Started rolling back – that’s where I was! What do you do…you’ve got one of those thing heading for you cabin, you’re stuck between that guy and the one coming up behind you…. So the only thing I could do was hit the steering wheel, turn off the road and then hope I could block him and then just how I could get out. If I did nothing I was going to get hit. I ended up on my side. Lost the truck and hurt my leg really badly. I had to go to the hospital to have it fixed. I’ll never walk properly again. And I’ll never drive again: I cannot push my foot down on the gas; it hurts terribly. But I stopped that truck from destroying the entire convoy….’

During our conversations and more hair-raising tales from near death experiences (mainly on the road and in the air) the Sept Places has slowly started filling up. And indeed, after a seven hour wait (’Tamba! Tamba! Tamba! Deux places! … Tamba! ‘Tamba!’ Une place!’) – we are finally on our way.

Bye Bye Pompiers Gare Routière. On to the murderous six-lane Autoroute, past Dakar’s very own traffic spaghetti bowl known as the Patte d’Oye and straight into the inevitable traffic jam on the single way out of town. It is the reason I may contemplate moving to another part of town. More about that later. For now, just enjoy the thick fumes coming from the cars, lorries, buses, minibuses, vans, mopeds, scooters, taxis and Sept Places that run on diesel, petrol and in some instances, I suspect, cooking oil.

Night out

April 15, 2011

Cold beers! A delight in a place without electricity. Few consumables are more repelling than tepid (or worse: warm) beers.

And so the evening begins in the one restaurant in town that actually serves not only cold beers but also beef and potatoes and various other local and French delights.

And it is here that I meet Mahmoud. He enters with another colleague and immediately zeroes in on me with a story about a lost relative somewhere in Europe and that I should be the one to find that relative.

Sure. Have another beer.

He then tells me that he knows a place that is by far (by far!) the best place in town. Money is not a problem he says. Of course not – I will be paying. He insists, almost violently. So we agree to go to the best place in town – for one drink.

But not after a wild and unstable ride across the sand roads of his town, on his motorbike. It is indeed a miracle he manages to keep the thing from straying into a garden, a house or an animal. But we do arrive at the very best place in town. Where he will continue his drinking spree.

The best place in town is a low-ceiling den next to a rather grandiosely named “Night Club”, where the beer is (you guessed it!) warm. But Mahmoud has a solution to this problem: he switches to whisky. The television is belting out Ivorian happy-go-lucky music: the conflict there is reaching a decisive phase and a bunch of artists has decided to record a song entitled ‘Ca va aller’ – Ivory Coast’s national catchphrase.

Mahmoud is engrossed in his whiskey and he does not see me leave. This town is small and the next port of call is a smallish bar, run almost entirely for the benefit of the students and lecturers of “The Institute”. It is a training centre for vets with a fairly large and vibrant student populaton. We have a lovely little time sitting around a plastic table, talking about the imminent downfall of Laurent Gbagbo in next door Ivory Coast, The Institute, The Netherlands “where you have so much good cattle” and Life After The Institute – which, quite frankly, worries them. Where are the jobs?

It’s a question left hanging in the air when I make my way back to the hotel but before getting there, a sound catches my ear. It comes from the Bar Manding. Fiery percussion, high-pitched singing and a frenzied keyboard that mostly reminds me of the organ frequently used by legendary rock band The Doors. But then on steroids. The band does manage to drown out the sound of the generator. I enter a big square hangar where they are  playing next to a motorbike and assorted industrial debris. Over a royally disgusting warm beer one of the band helpfully explains that this is a general repetition for a Big Launch tomorrow and I am heartily invited. With ringing ears and slightly nauseous I leave the hangar half an our later, on my way, finally, to the hotel.

Which is half-lit. No, actually, just a quarter lit. In the cavernous dining hall, there is an island of light and here I find myself discussing life, politics and the universe with the manager, over a few bottles of not exactly cold but still acceptable beer. A tiny generator outside struggles to light up even that small space. Ah, the melancholy of once-great hotels that still try and keep up past grandeur…Africa is littered with them. And I love them.

One final stop. Next door to the hotel is another night club and since I just got to know the owner from a business exchange earlier this afternoon, it would be nice to pay him a visit.  

“Entry 10,000 Francs,” I am told. That’s a euro and a half for one, maybe two final drinks as I do begin to discover a slight and rather disconcerting wobbliness. It’s after midnight and really really dark. But inside there is upbeat popular Guinean music. It’s produced by the bucketload and I like it: they basically have one band in a studio somewhere in Conakry, which plays two or three standard tunes. They then put different singers in front of the band – and a new hit is born.

The barman comes from Cameroon. And yes, he studies…at The Institute. He likes it here. There is not much conversation as the music is very loud. Hey – this is a nightclub. You’re supposed to watch, be watched, drink and….

‘You must dance with me,’ she says. She is pretty and copiously blessed by Nature. I am reminded of the old Shakespearean punchline about drinks provoking the desire but taking away the performance. Time to make my way towards the exit.

Now I stroll with great calm and dignity towards the hotel, meanwhile feverishly hoping that I am not going to be chased after by the she-person who just accosted me at the bar. Or Mahmoud on his motorbike.

The hotel door is invitingly open. In a few hour’s time, the’ sun will once again shine its light on a dazzling display of mountains and valleys. I only have to open my bedroom curtains. Meanwhile, Dalaba, Fouta Djalon, Guinea, will most certainly party on without me.

Terrace, veranda, music

April 11, 2011

Outside terrace, Hotel SIB, Dalaba, Guines

This place is divine. Even better when the two schmoozing students have taken their leave from “my” terrace. Well, not so much because they are young but rather because when they leave, their mobile phone leaves too. And not even because it is a mobile phone but because it has a small metallic-sounding loudspeaker that has been incessantly emitting a steady stream of US-made R&B. R&B is a disease that has covered the world in a thick, slimy, rancid layer of audio vomit. It has even reached this part of the planet, which produces vastly superior sounds of its own.

The metallic noise retreats and I am left with the sound of birds and miles and miles and miles of mountains and valleys below and beyond.

***

‘This is where she used to sit and rehearse with the musicians.’ A broad veranda, same view as the hotel terrace: mountains, alleys, trees, flowers. Birdsong all the time, insects zoom. This idyllic setting is the place where Miriam Makeba decided to settle, late 1960s, away from the ineptly named “government” of her own South Africa. The apartheid regime of the day refused her entry to the country, so she could go and bury her mother. So she may be forgiven for overlooking the rank cruelty of her new host, Guinea’s first president Ahmed Sékou Touré; after all: that cruelty was not directed at her but at Guinean citizens who had the temerity to disagree with the Visionary Guide and Leader.

Ever since I entered Dalaba, music has been buzzing in my head. A large orchestra in an echo chamber, yes, recording facilities were rather primitive. But then also: the distinct, crystal sound of a kora cutting the air above the orchestra. Punctuating percussion, sounding a bit hollow – yes, recording facilities and all that. And then an old Manding melody sung in that voice, instantly recognisable. No “Click Song” or “Pata Pata”. This is altogether different: “La Guinée Horoya”. You can hear that the South African vocal chords need adaptation to follow the broad flow of West Africa’s songlines but she handles it admirably. And now I am standing in the place where that music was created. Next to Mr Bah Mamadou Alpha, who was charged with welcoming the world-famous singer, when she came driving up from Conakry to the mountain resort she chose to stay. ‘She didn’t like protocol,’ he recalls. ‘She would just come into my house, sit and talk, and then go home and cook her own meals…’

***

Makeba describes life in Dalaba and her reasons for not returning there in her autobiography. If you haven’t read it, get yourself to a library or a bookstore. Her musicians have gone and we must rush back to our original terrace where there is a bit of a din going on. Let’s see…a big boombox on the terrace floor. Local flute (Peul flute it’s called, very beautiful distinct sound, the player sometimes sings and breathes into the instrument at the same time), stop-start syncope rhythm, gravel-like but clear voice…there is some serious Fouta roots music happening here. And they have come here, singer, dancers, to record the video clip. It will be almost indistinguishable from all the other Guinea clips: flailing limbs, flowing boubous, swift and subtle hand movements and always against beautiful decors: the sea, Conakry’s landmark hotels or indeed: SIB’s terrace.

The boombox belts, the singer and dancers go through the motions and an hour later, this bit of the video has been done. It will be mixed and mashed with similar dancing routines against different decors. But hey – thank Christ, the stars and whatever else you believe in: R&B it ain’t. Phew!

The view.

April 6, 2011

 

The man who runs this place after his uncle passed away last year keeps calling it “The Switzerland of Africa”. Now, I could be following the Swiss founding father of Dutch Protestantism and provide you with a fine demonstration of tight-arsed guilt. This I would achieve by showing you this pic over a caption containing some back-handed remark, as in: ‘…I shouldn’t really be enjoying this but yea, I suppose the view was not bad…’.

But I will do the opposite and tell you this: for four beautiful days, this is what I saw when I drew the curtains of room 5 at the SIB Hotel, in Dalaba, Guinea. Glorious. And that’s not even mentioning the fresh mountain air when opening the windows…

Here’s another one…

The hotel terrace, as seen from my window

Thought you’d like them! More on this nostalgia-filled town in another installment.

Balla Onivogui (1938 – 2011)

March 21, 2011

Balla Onivogui, trumpet player, composer, arranger and leader of one of the greatest bands from the Golden Age of Guinean music: Balla et ses Balladins. He passed away a week ago today.

Balla was a founder member of Guinea’s first post-independence band, L’ Orchestre Syli. Due to its size, Syli split in two and Balla found himself at the head of Jardin de Guinée, some 50 years ago.

Jardin de Guinée, very early 1960s

You can already hear what became his the trademark sound: gentle, lilting songs that had a knack of wandering slowly into your memory through your ears – and staying there, forever.

Here’s an example from later date:

Jardin de Guinée morphed into Balla et ses Balladins, among the top performers of the Guinean music scene. The band briefly had to change its name into Pivi et ses Balladins (after the second band leader), following a short-lived political conflict between Balla and a minister. Remember that all this glorious music was produced under strict state control and the slightest tiff with the government could end your career.

None of this affected the music.

The cover photo for their last album Objectif perfection

Their last album Objectif perfection was my very first encounter with that great Guinean sound of the 1960s and 70s. It was made at the very tail end of that era and they had every reason to call the album exactly that: it was perfect. No coincidence that Stern’s Africa used a good chunk of “Objectif…” on its luxury 2 CD set, which you should all acquire forthwith.

Here’s just one track from that perfect album…

So here’s to a fine musician and here’s to the remaining members of that dwindling musical fraternity from the golden age, some of whom I hope to see when I visit Conakry legendary La Paiotte, shortly.

The two great bandleaders, Balla Onivogui (l) and Pivi Moriba