Time out in Bissau

Guinea-Bissau, Djobel village. 2013.

21 Apr Time out in Bissau

Lisbon, February 2006

Time out in Bissau


Guinea-Bissau – situated on the West-African coast south of Senegal and not even half the size of Scotland – becomes an addiction. That is clear soon after my visit to the country in January 2005. Within a year, I, branco pelelé or foté (white man), am back and soon after I have arrived, I once again become immersed in the bath of friendly warmth so typical for Guinea-Bissau. Kuma de korpo? Korpo esta bem! Djarama buí!. How’s your body? My body feels great, thanks very much!

Contrary to the other former Portuguese colonies, Guinea-Bissau never became westernized. The Guineans maintained their traditions, religions and, last but not least, their fighting spirit. Through the centuries, they steadfastly resisted the Portuguese colonial rulers, and so, Portugal never managed to get a complete grip on the country. Although Portuguese is the official language, Creole is most commonly used. The war for independence was fierce, lasted for more than ten years and the colonial dispute was settled here in Guinea. It finally became independent in 1974, followed by Mozambique, Angola and São Tomé e Príncipe in 1975.

Applying for a visa at the Guinean Embassy in Lisbon is a fitting introduction to Guinea itself: friendly, chaotic, and long rows of people waiting patiently. But for what? Derelict computers and an office chair stand forlornly in the centre of the barren lawn. Then, shortly after Christmas, our waiting is over. We land in the middle of the night near the capital Bissau and are driven in a rattling sixth-hand bright blue Mercedes taxi to the city centre. First surprise: the streetlights of the largest avenida are back in order! Could it be true that the newly elected president Nino really will provide the country with a better and brighter future?

First destination is the Bijagós archipelago. Scores of bounty islands 50 kilometres from the coast. About a third of the country is covered by water. The coastline is many thousands of kilometres long with countless creeks, bays and large rivers reaching far inland. We have rented a boat from an environmental organization, which was to transport us, but well, you see, there are huge waves and, incidentally, where is the skipper? He turns up the next day and so, we find ourselves at sunset on the island of Bubaque, the only island with a tarred road. Portuguese Miss Dora warmly welcomes us with an ice-cold beer and for the next week, we explore Bubaque and the neighbouring islands. Bird and nature lovers, choose Bubaque as your travel destination! About one million birds from northern Europe winter here. One stumbles across birds like the Curlew Sandpiper, Knot, Redshank but also the Royal Tern, Saddle billed Stork, Pelican, Flamingo and Fish Eagles. However, in the last couple of months the Bijagós Islands have featured in the international news and the agenda of the United Nations for quite a different reason: as a transit port for hard drugs from Latin America. So it was that villagers from Bubaque Island recently found thousands of small parcels with white powder which they put up for sale on the local market as fertilizer. And indeed the salads tasted out of this world!

On the eight o’clock news the commander-in-chief of the national army makes an urgent plea: “Soldiers, do not use your weapons on New Years´ Eve! Shooting is not allowed! And please remember: No driving between 12 midnight and 1 o’clock in the morning!”

Free-lance reporter René Zwaap arrives. We race from appointment to appointment. René is especially interested in the recently discovered oil fields off the coast of the Bijagós Islands. However, every time that the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, the conversation strands. Oil is taboo in Bissau. And, let’s suppose that the income from oil would triple the national income (at present 60 million dollars), would the population benefit from it in any way? Just look at what’s happening in Angola.

No visit to Bissau would be complete without a chat with Mr. Jan van Maanen, the Honorary Consul of The Netherlands and The Commonwealth. But, as we enter his office above his supermarket, Van Maanen throws a British passport on the desk in front of us. It belongs to Brandon Charles Clarke, 84 years old. “He died yesterday, no family, hardly any luggage and he is beginning to smell.” We race behind Jan in the direction of the neighbouring hospital where Mr. Johannes Mooij, also a Dutchman, officially co-director of the hospital, unofficially Jack-of-all-trades, is already zipping up the body bag. A Portugal Airlines label is still on it, a remnant from a previous body transport. We race after the ambulance to the cemetery of Atuna, and there Clarke finds his final destination in a poor man’s grave. Farewell Brandon, is there a soul anywhere on earth who will miss you?

It is time for a visit to John Blacken. At the end of last century, John was the American Ambassador in Guinea-Bissau. Later, he returned, married a Guinean wife and is now in charge of an organization which clears landmines. Mines are plenty in Guinea. Even Portugal did not bother to clear up its mess after the colonial war. Then came that ridiculous civil war of 1998-1999 and at present Guinea is still suffering from a slumbering conflict in the Casamance, the region which borders with Senegal where not one but two rebel movements fight for independence. Blacken’s office is stuffed full of all kinds of nasty landmine material and decorated with photographs of a young John next to Ronald Reagan. Would we like to see some dangerous ammunition in real life? Yes, we would and so, John drives us to Brá, on the outskirts of Bissau. A former army barracks that received a direct hit from a Senegalese bomb (yes, the Senegalese not only took part but also transported the entire national archives to Dakar…). The bang was reported to be huge and the barracks immediately a ruin. Just a few metres into the barracks, we stumble over loads of unexploded bombs, mortar grenades and AK-47 automatic rifles. Further on, somebody had lit the bone-dry grass. “Is that not dangerous?” we ask. “Oh, no”, replies John, as he parks his jeep half on top of a life-size bomb. A few moments later we hear a huge explosion: a mortar explodes close to the spot where René had just been shown the crater of the ammunition depot. Later that day we mention John during a conversation with other people. “CIA”, they whisper.

Although the streetlights along the Amílcar Cabral Avenue are lit at night, chance conversations reveal that there is major discontent amongst the civil servants, waiting on overdue salaries for months and now, at Christmas, this hits especially hard. But these hardships are minor, compared to João Cunde from Mapatá, who is employed by the electricity company and has not received any wages for 71 months…

Meanwhile, national politics continue to rankle at village level: the recently appointed government of President Vieira is said to be unconstitutional. So, the Minister of Justice requested advice from the Supreme Court. But, by coincidence, the Supreme Judge is the wife of the Minister. Within this context, the location of the hideous bust of the father of the nation Amílcar Cabral turns out to be symbolic: turned with his back to the nation, gazing mindlessly at the sea.

Time out in Bissau. We could easily start writing a basic travel guide. The best restaurant? Tá Mar. Accommodation? Dona Berta´s Pensão Central (room number 7!). Postcards? Only at GSM in Santa Luzía. Information? The Dutch Consul Jan van Maanen (also for funeral arrangements!). Press accreditation? Senhor Perreira (“the Minister is just about to finish his meeting”). Best terrace for watching ´tout Bissau´ passing by? Baiana. Do you want to visit the Buba pothole? Talk to Alí Ousmane. Can´t find a restaurant on Bolama Island? Ask for Dona Maria from the pharmacy!

Oh, Bolama! The island that served as the colonial capital until 1941. It looks like one big film set. Those verandas, that impressive square in front of the Governor’s palace. But everything falling into decay. Only one-third of the Hotel Turismo is left standing. Giant streetlights big enough to light the parking lot at Heathrow – but they do not work. No diesel for the generator. Well yes , there is – for two days at Christmas! We planned a three day stay at Bolama and it turns out just as great as last year’s visit. The guesthouse of the Ministry of Fisheries, near the waterfront, is a great place to stay. A perfect spot to finish “Equator” by the Portuguese writer Miguel Sousa Tavares. In my opinion, an unparalleled book, which I would greatly recommend. My only regret being that it only contains 400 pages.
The huge tidal differences, the countless birds that parade along the beach, the fishermen, the canoes with their tiny sails made from the nylon food aid bags – all these in the light of the exquisite sunset – provide the backdrop for the photos which we will file away under ‘seagull sex’, a label to remind us of those happy moments. And all the while, Dona Maria (yes, the pharmacist!) satisfies our palate with huge dishes rice and fish.
All the colonial statues have been torn from their pedestals after independence in 1974, including the one of the American President, Ulysses Grant, who successfully mediated in a dispute between the English and the Portuguese in 1870. As a result, Bolama remained Portuguese and as a token of gratitude, a life-size statue was erected of Grant. But where has it gone? After a thorough search, we find the bronze lower part of his body in pieces, in the garage of the former Governor’s palace. But Grant’s head remains missing.
Another relic of the colonial history is resurrected in the ex-Portuguese Mr Tomás José Sampaio. He was born in1922 and brought up in Bolama. Despite his age, he is alive and kicking, as not long ago he married again – a Guinean woman and already they have three beautiful coloured kids of 4, 6 and 10 years. He recounts vivid stories of the colonial past of Bolama where his father worked as a senior civil clerk for the government.
We also learn more from an excursion to the fruit juice factory. Donated by the Dutch government in the seventies and managed by Dutch technicians for some years, it was later handed over to Guinea-Bissau. All that is left now is a skeleton and, walking through the dense bush, we find heaps of labels. The original Dutch idea was good: to bring the factory to the raw materials, because Bolama produces fruit which is both plentiful and of high quality. However, the machinery, spare parts, fuel, packing, and the labels all had to be imported and how could this be sustainable when the country has hardly any hard currency…
On the spot, René and I decide to start Pelelé Tours. Bird, canoe and other excursions for small groups of Africa lovers.
It is time to return to Bissau. Two hours in an 18 meter-long canoe (piroga) with a powerful outboard engine under the strict command of an alert skipper. More than one hundred passengers on board plus some 2000 kilos cargo. As the sun sets, the sky explodes with colour while the flamingoes circle above us.

Then from Bissau, we are heading towards Buba in the south-west. Early in the morning we make our way to the suburb of Brá which is the point where all the toko-toko´s depart in all directions. A pleasant chaos. But the vendors make up for the long wait with their refreshments, cakes and imitation Rolex watches. The two branco-pelelés buy three tickets for some extra comfort and, to the beat of the local pop music, our driver steers his Mercedes Funk-Bus (once in action in Munich) with élan between the considerable potholes in the road. Further on, the journey turns into a kind of Dakar rally, when to the cheers of the 28(!) passengers we pass a former Dutch Garden Centre bus and a ‘taxi’s Conditorei – Luzern’ van.
In my memories from 1979 Buba is a very different place. What a hole! But the beautiful setting on the bank of the river and the warm welcome by the Romanian Gabi in her guesthouse Bela Vista compensates for a lot. Gabi married a Guinean student in Bucharest and has lived here since 1984. Romania does not mean much to her anymore but Guinea is also far from a paradise. And hardly any guests, except for us…
The bar “O Contentor” conjures up some food (fish! rice!), a rather corky Alentejo wine and cold beer, while the barman, senhor Gomes, gives us the vip-treatment. Buba has actually only one main road. The governor’s residence is the most beautiful sight worth seeing and then at the end of the road one arrives at the river, where the Londoner coaster Thameswood rots away. At high tide, the river is wide and full, but at low tide it becomes a shallow brook.
We stroll along the main road inland, where we run across a fine example of industrial archaeology, a souvenir of better days. A timber factory, built by the Swedes, managed by a stream of Elvströms and Erikssons for another eight years and then generously handed over to the state. Now, this huge complex lies rotting away. The former chief technician senhor Moreno gives us a friendly reception in his pre-fab home furnished by Ikea. Two other former workers join us for a rather sad tour past enormous machinery and broken down Volvo trucks.
The reputation of Holland is still quite solid in Buba thanks to a big scale water project (800 shallow wells) in the eighties. How many wells are still functioning, nobody knows, but we saw quite some people pumping up fresh water. A meeting with a Guinean ex-project manager causes confusion. We arrive more than an hour late while the good man had thought: Dutchmen! Sure to be punctual!
René returns to Bissau in search of more facts and opinions about the oil business (and what he learned did not sound too good!). I stay for another day in Buba and get a ride from a fisherman up the long slow river. I have a chat with senhor Torres, a classic figure from the time of the Portuguese colonisation who organizes fish and hunting safaris. I had already heard about his dubious reputation and his overdue salary payments (28 euros or 18 pounds a month) to the local workmen. Torres: “I am here to become rich, not to make others wealthy”. That same evening I manage to phone Lisbon by cell phone. A new means of communication and most likely the greatest, most revolutionary development in Africa in recent years. It is incredible that now the mobile network reaches even the most remote areas of Guinea-Bissau. Abubácar in the deep south can have immediate contact with his family in Bafatá in the east of the country!

I have been invited by the non-governmental organisation Acção para Desenvolvimento, AD in short (Action for Development) for a week-long visit to their projects in southern Tombalí and in particular to the tropical forests of Catanhez. Pepito, the director, gives me a lift. Pepito is a national personality in Guinea. He founded AD 16 years ago, and to give honour when honour is due, the work of his organisation is exemplary. AD facilitates in that it is responsible for the financial support and coordination, but it is the population who has the full say over its activities and results.
Here, more than elsewhere in the country one feels the influence of the past: this was the region where the liberation movement PAIGC literally crushed the Portuguese colonial army.
We stop in Guiledje, for Guineans a household name, but for Portuguese ex-soldiers a nightmare. An army camp that was under constant attack by PAIGC combatants and when Guiledje fell on May 23rd 1973, all other eight army encampments in the region had to surrender within weeks. Five months and one day later, Guinea-Bissau declared unilateral independence while the final independence, recognised by Portugal, came on September 23rd 1974. On the web one can read tragic, sad and sometimes hilarious stories of simple rural boys from the Alentejo and Trás-os-Montes who did not have a clue about where they had landed, let even alone which cause they were serving. Although nowadays a ruin, the lay-out of the camp can still be seen clearly: the fence, the tabanca (village) of the local population who served as a human shield, the canteen, chapel, the workplace full of car wrecks with trees growing up through them, the landing strip, the ammunition depot with lots of unexploded grenades lying around.
We continue our trip to Iemberem, the base camp of AD. On the way, a policeman orders us to stop. ‘Imposto-cerveja’ , beer tax, Pepito mumbles. But no, the policeman would like to know why Radio Lamparám has been off the air for some days. The communal radio is also an initiative of AD, like Radio Kassumai in the north, Djalicunda in the east and Quelelé in Bissau. The radio provides a great means of communication and is highly popular.
The road is incredibly bad. Even our sturdy jeep often has one wheel off the ground and it takes us a full hour to do 20 kilometres.
Iemberem is a pretty village with one main street and the high antenna of Radio Lamparám as a land mark. The small market, the mosque (the majority is Muslim), the bar, the discothèque and close to the forest, the camp of AD. That night, ‘tout Iemberem’ passes by to greet Pepito: the régulos (traditional chiefs), the Homem Grande (the religious leader), the administradora (the district administrator) and almost everyone of any importance. I diligently take down the names in my notebook and get all kind of good advice for my ‘Time out in Iemberem’. At the end of the evening my programme for the week is completely full and every day someone else guides me around under the strict supervision of Abubácar Serra, the local AD director.
Till late that night Pepito tells me about the setbacks, the corruption, the civil war and the impossibility of doing any longer term planning (the donor organisations prefer ten years plans!) when there could be a coup d’état in Bissau at any minute. But Pepito especially likes to talk about the successes. The region has now a health post, schools, fresh drinking water and electricity (thank you Lister-Petter!), while the environmental project is also making progress. Corridors are being created for big game from neighbouring Guinea-Conakry and the people are collaborating more and more to protect the flora and fauna of the extensive matos, forests, while fishing and hunting is carried out according to commonly agreed quotas. No elephant as yet but we regularly spot gazelle, bush pig and all kind of exotic birds like the Yellow-casqued Hornbill (officially named: Ceratogymna elata). And, last but not least, Catanhez is home to a large group of daris, chimpanzees! Plans for eco-tourism are well underway and the first guides have registered for a language course in French and English. Pelelé Tours, here we come!
Another highly commendable activity carried out by AD is collecting the lifestories of the elder régulos, some of them already in their eighties. However, their portraits are missing from the lifestories and Pepito is delighted when I offer to make these. So, that week we visit régulo after régulo and I have the opportunity to listen to their impressive stories. Like that of Braima Galissa, now 84 years young, who decided to defect to the PAIGC with the whole tabanca. Only at dawn did the Portuguese discover that the whole village had been deserted: there was literally not a chicken to be seen. It would be three tough years in the bush with hunger, disease and Fiat jet fighters scattering napalm and phosphor bombs (thanks, NATO!). Or the story of Mamadu Séidi, born in 1915, who served for three years in the colonial army in Macau in Asia. Or Alaíji Salifo Camará, 82, who takes one further back in history and within an hour has given us a memorable lesson on the Kaabu empire, slavery, the Conference of Berlin and the Portuguese peace campaigns at the end of the 19th century. He falters when touching upon the independence of Guinea-Bissau and sighs “today is exactly the day of the death of our national hero Amílcar Cabral” (Amílcar Cabral, founder of the liberation movement PAIGC and assassinated in Conakry on January 20th 1973; E.S.).
Indeed, independence brought little progress, even the road has not been maintained for years and that is why the population took the initiative into its own hand (and did it well!). The region of Tombalí is the granary of Guinea. The bolanhas (rice fields) produce the best rice in the world but the last year’s harvest was a disappointment because of scarce rainfall and even when the harvest is plenty, one can hardly get it sold because of the lack of transport and the terrible roads. Meanwhile, the free rice from China and Thailand wrings the small farmer’s neck. The World Bank has been kind enough to construct four impressive quays with large cranes but, unfortunately, without any road link. That was the responsibility of ‘Bissau’.
“Ha, Bissau”, sneers Alaiji, “Bissau…, here we look after our own affairs”.

I would like to visit Caxixe as I had heard much about the place, at the time a Portuguese enclave surrounded by ‘Marxist-Leninist terrorists’. The boat that ferries me across is rather angular but in perfect condition. It turns out to be made of aluminium. In the stern there is a copper plate with the information:
Corps of Engineers, US Army – Pontoon Half, Aluminium M4 for floating bridge, M4.
Manufactured by Consolidated Builders Inc., Portland, Oregon.
Model Nº M4 – Serial Nº 1491 – Dated Dec. 28, 1944

Next morning I am up before dawn, walking along the path which I already know quite well, when suddenly I am confronted by a pair of huge, pitch black chimpanzees. They also spot me, stand upright and let out a deafening and terrifying roar before disappearing into the mato. A bit further on, I catch up with a group minjéres, women, with nets and buckets on the top of their heads. Today they going fishing and I ask if I can go with them. They giggle and I read their minds: funny chaps, those fotés. The banks of the river are still wide although the water level is steadily rising. Light as a feather the ladies quickly hop over the muddy banks towards the water. I take off my shoes and walk after them with my cameras over my shoulders. At first, all goes well but closer to the water mortified I sink into the mud up to the waist. They roar with laughter when they spot me like a human tripod helplessly stuck in the mud. No way can I get free on my own and putting my cameras in the mud is not an option either, as my dear Leica cameras would immediately sink. Fortunately, senhor Bissoram who is at work on his plot nearby, becomes curious about the noise of the fishing women. When he sees me in my awkward position, he jumps across to me, first brings my cameras to safety and then returns to pull me out. As a token of gratitude, I give him a present of my multi-functional boatknife and Bissoram is happy as a king. In exchange, he is prepared to save me once more and indeed he must, as I can take a much better photograph of the ladies fishing against the light….
While senhora Duturma at the base camp toils to clean my pitch black clothes, I enjoy the pleasure of pouring a bucket of fresh water over my head. Then relaxing on the verandah with a cold beer and a cigar. Isn’t life great!!
At night, Mamadu Silá teaches me Creole again and I learn: minjéres di Guiné tá panha pis tiú , the women of Guinea catch a lot of fish. There is a lot of noise coming from the main street: Brazilian missionaries are showing a sugar sweet film about the life of Jesus Christ on a life-size screen. It causes a lot of excitement; but the final of the Worldcup football would probably have been an even greater success.

My stay in Iemberem is coming to an end and I take a last walk among the huge trees, like the 60 meters tall Copaefera Salicunda only four of which have been identified in Guinea. It originated in Brazil and it is a mystery how it got as far as Guinea.
That afternoon I am confronted by my own past working for development aid, when two Italian consultants dash into the compound. They are doing a survey for the United Nations giving recommendations for better transportation of agricultural and other products. Abubácar: “that’s simple, construct better roads!” Great idea but you know that is the responsibility of Bissau. Bissau… Soon afterwards, another Italian UN expert. appears. He is studying the possibilities of eco-tourism in Guinea. Could he be shown around by Abubácar? Yes, let’s see. It’s possible tomorrow. But no, it has to be today. Pierluígi has only 20(!) minutes for a visit and has to return that same evening to Bissau… When he spots the first giant tropical tree, he jumps out of the jeep, takes two pictures and he has done enough for today. Undoubtedly it will be a splendid report costing thousands of dollars a day.

It is time to say goodbye. I distribute my Benfica- and Sport- 2006 calendars among the men and for the ladies the classic Portugal cockerels.
Djarama buí! Embraces, abraços. I will be back next year. God bless you all! Adeus te para ano, pa Deus danu vîda kumprido!

In Bissau, my bed in room number 7 at Dona Berta’s pension has already been made up. A last meal, a souvenir from the market and I am ready for departure. I leave Guinea-Bissau with acertain sadness but also with some relief. For now I have had my share of Africa and besides, I have the consolation – Portugal is closer to Africa than to Europe.


With thanks to Jenny de Sonneville

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