Sunday, August 13, 2006

Cosmo's Steamy Summer Tips on Keeping Your Man in Guinea

Far from anxiety-provoking, ardent pleas by would-be suitors are so hapless as to inspire amusement, annoyance, or pity.
One market day, like so many others, a random young guy enters my yard without knocking to get a look at the white girl he’s heard about. And, as it turns out, they weren’t pulling his chain, I AM white, quite white, in fact, and all over, as far as anyone can tell. Unfortunately for him—despite the veracity of their claims about my skin color—I shat about thirteen times last night and am sitting on my tarp, reading about amoebic dysentery in Where There Are No Doctors. I am in no mood to discuss the burgeoning romance that clearly exists between us.
But he is an adult, so it is not socially acceptable to ask him to leave. It is thus my mission to employ passive aggression so decisively as to destroy the seemingly impenetrable wall of Guinean Male Obliviousness.
“So you are in Banfele.”
“Yes” I grumble, sigh heavily, look at my watch and resume reading all at once—that efficient multi-tasking approach with which only an American woman can blow you off.
“You have been here for a while?”
“Three months,” I say, repeating the same timeless multipronged tactic.
His obliviousness irritates me and agitates my bowels, enfeebled after a night of intense activity. It is time to abandon the time-honored passive-aggressive approach for an all-out land offensive.
I shut the book and rise. “I need to go pack my bags. I am going to Faranah today. See you later.”
But he can contain himself no longer. As if passion itself had spoken, he beseeches me, “Attends! Je t’aime, quoi.”
I think this roughly translates to “Wait, I like sort of love you.”
I don’t know what he was expecting; perhaps, “I like sort of love you, too.” But as was already abundantly clear, it was not his day, and his blatant inattention to my increasingly belligerent hints had only succeeded in preparing my intestines for round 14.
“Jen e t’aime pas” I say hotly, sure as I disappear into my latrine that if my words could not dissuade him, round 14 would.
* * *
Then there was that illfated trip to Belencoro, a small town whose muscley old groupment leader had impressively sought me out in person to work with his groupement. Despite the usual gastrointestinal irregularities, I biked the crappy ten km road to meet him. He received me warmly, but the trouble was he spoke not a word of French. After lounging around his hut all day, waiting for a French-speaker to show up, it came time to decide whether to bike home or stay the night.
“You must stay,” he said, his luminous eyes shining brightly, “Really, you must.” I hesitated, considering his nice family, my aching belly, and the rough ride home.
Then, as if to tip the balance in favor of staying, or to clarify his offer, he extended his pointerfingers side by side, and began knocking them together—the Guinean sign, or so I gathered, for not-so-platonic development collaboration. He continued to knock them against each other, grinning at me suggestively and glancing meaningfully over at the bed.
All of a sudden I remembered that that very evening I needed to charge my palm pilot, hadn’t charged if for quite some time and the contacts menu was coming up rather slowly. Plus I still hadn’t taken out the storm windows though it was mid July, and lord knows it had been ages since I’d washed my hair. Belencoro’s much sought after solar dryer would have to wait for another time.
* * *
Then there is Ibrahama, a short, skinny, kind and not-so-bright member of the Woroco groupement. A great dancer and an expert lumberer, he’s one of those well intentioned guys whose touches—innocuous from anyone else—are so infused with yearning as to creep you out.
We are sitting in his hut for the first time. I sit on the very edge of the bench looking out the open door to appear disinterested. He painstakingly rewinds an Espoirs tape by hand and places it in the windowless cassette player. The song is good but I figure I shouldn’t dance.
Above his bed there is a 2005 calendar with a picture of a boustier-clad blond strattling a chair. He points to it. “White women,” he says, smiling, as if to express his interest in, or familiarity with us. I nod, wondering if I’m supposed to say, “ Ah, yes, my sister Tanya, quite a looker, and who would think, they’re real.”
Long Pause.
He pulls out a piece of paper with a lumber order on it from the Banfele school construction project. “I cut wood, I’m good at it,” he says, reaching proudly for his chainsaw. I nod politely, amused that he is trying to impress an agroforestry volunteer with a lumber order. Silence.
He grabs a mask from the wall, puts it on, and pretends to scare me. He laughs nervously. “We dance a lot here. Lots of whites come to learn. I am good at it.”
He hands me a photo of an interracial couple smiling from behind a clean table in a first world country. “My brother. He plays the drums. That’s his wife, Koi. She took him back with her.” Silence.
He says quietly, “I always try, but so far none have taken me.” Silence.
He grasps a strand of my hair that has come loose and fumbles to put it behind my ear. I recoil. “White people have such nice hair,” he says, laughing sadly.
“Let’s go back to Sekou’s,” I say.

There are those female figures that can sustain a huge blow in the form of a long shapeless curtain wound multiple times around them without losing all semblance of feminity. Then there is my figure. Unfortuantely for me, the name of said shapeless curtain is the pagne, and it is the single most common article of clothing among Guinean women, knowing no distinctions of class or ethnicity. From Conakry to Banfele, women wear the pagne like its going out of style (except that its not) and they look good in it.
It is exactly what I described—a two meter long swath of brightly colored cloth, rarely embellished even with a hem or a tie, that starts its life as a skirt, but which inevitably evolves into a curtail, sheet, towel or—if its really lucky—menstrual pad.
Pagne designs feature everything from exotic traditional forest patterns, to cell phones and political party insignias. Bargaining for the perfect one is as momentous for the affluent Guinean woman as finding the perfect Kenneth Cole heal for the American set, according to many a self-proclaimed penniless Guinean functionaire (who always manages to have one of those useless musical noisemakers for his bike).
One can only be impressed by the deftness with which women here manage so unruly a garment in a culture where a woman’s legs are considered sinfully erotic. Pounding rice in a wooden mortar, balancing a basin of water atop the head, or getting down in a drum circle, only rarely does a Guinean woman glance discretely sideways, briefly expose her underwear, and perform a quick “re-wrap”.
To say I look mannish in one, would be an undeserved compliment. I look like a pole. A thick one. One of those Grecian columns, whose forward-thinking architects have imbued it with the strength to support huge temples for centuries.
But that’s not the only reason I abhor the pagne. Like that Newt Gingrich mask you cannot keep on for a whole Halloween party, I can’t seem to make it to the water pump and back without incident; after sweating, spilling, and tripping on it, I may yet lose it entirely—and the 20 Liter container of water sloshing and pitching on my head—to a hardy Guinean breeze.
Thus, I am generally at peace with my decision to boycott the pagne. As I see other PCVs returning from the marche with progressively bolder fabrics—fabrics that do nothing for their “jewel-toned” complexions and which cause them to look more like big Greek poles with each passind day—I feel vindicated. My compromise with Guinea has been as follows: I will cover the parts of my body that offend you, but I will do it in a way that is most comfortable for me, by wearing capris.
But innerpeace is not without its price. The pagne is a bit of a symbol of integration for volunteers and I have heard from more than one Guinean woman that So-and-So PCV at Sandenia was “SOOO Guinean,” she didn’t wear anything but pagnes. “That’s good,” I say but what I’m thinking is she probably looked like a pole.

Sekou Kourouma sits across from me at a small wooden table and rinses his hand in a bowl of water. Now we attack the large plate of steaming chicken and rice. He is tall and thin, uneducated and softspoken, but so clearly bright and genuinely generous it really does transcend language. Scrawled on the newly mud-covered hut wall behind him is my name and his, and an advisory not to smoke in pigeon French. We painstakingly remudded the hut together last week, and my shoulder is still sore from smacking globs of sand, soil, and water mixture against the wall. This expensive and symbolic meal (chickens are gifts of great honor) is a token of his gratitude.
He quickly eats some rice and a little chicken, gnaws on the bones I leave behind, and says he’s full. “That’s a lie,” I say gregariously, “eat, eat.” “No, Aicha, this is for you.”
Every handful of peanuts, cluster of bananas, or super honorary live chicken I am gifted makes me uncomfortable, rousing a mixed sensation of guilt and suspicion. I fear the gift is either designed to elicit some bigger gift, or that in prime starvation season this imprudently selfless hut-dweller is condemning his family to smaller helpings of TO (an utterly tasteless and unnutritious ball of sandy mucous made from steamed pounded cassava), so that my already volumptuous love handles can grow more curvaceous still.
With Sekou—who stubbornly sends me off with cookies each time I leave Woroco—I usually worry about the latter. But this time I am uneasy for both reasons. He points to the hay-and-bamboo-thatched ceiling and says “tin is good, but ‘je n’ai pas les moyens.’” This phrase, “I don’t have the means”, is the classic lead-in for an enervating, unabashed request for money.
My fears of zealous generosity and tactical giving—that arise as I stare at the remaining leg of chicken beneath Sekou’s thatched roof—come up constantly here. My host mom SENDS me a bowl of rice instead of inviting me for dinner because her family eats only TO. At the same time, a groupement leader has brought me a bowl of milk and asks for a tractor (because like most white people, I have five).
These situations are painfully awkward. But everytime I am ready to condemn Guinea for rudely singling me out (like when a guest of my host mother tells me she likes my shirt and then asks for it), I am forced to recognize that Guinean culture endorses shameless requests, and equally shameless refusals. Throughout market day, Guineans unabashedly demand, “bring me back a gift,” to which Guineans coolly respond, “I refuse”. The woman who requested my shirt only laughed amicably when I said “no, but can I have your pagne?”
Still, even if its socially acceptable to refuse requests—even those preceded by gifts—I don’t want to broach it with Sekou. I also don’t need to gorge myself on his only shot at protein this month.
Sitting in the hut after lunch that day I am still uneasy. “Come here,” Sekou says, and leads me to a storeroom I’ve never seen before. He points to the two massive slumped bags of rice and proudly explains he’s been saving them in order “to build a tin roof for my family.” In a country where inflation is a constant, but where the price of rice climbs steadily every month, putting your savings in rice sacks is every Guinean financial planner’s dream. I leave Woroco content, the chicken sitting better than ever in my tummy, even the feet.


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