Though I had flown on a UNHAS flight from Conakry to Freetown, I returned by road, about a 5-hour drive. When we crossed the border, I expected to pull out my passport, but we just honked our way until a series of ropes dropped across the road. I barely paid attention when my French-speaking driver for the first half said, “Okay, now we’re in Guinea,” because I expected that someone would ask for our identification, even if we weren’t interrogated. When I turned to him a minute later and said, “Wait, now it’s Guinea? Why didn’t I have to show my passport?” he replied, “It’s because we’re in a diplomatic vehicle.” This was true – my driver was from another West African country’s mission based in Freetown, but I’m not a diplomat, especially one from West Africa, and it didn’t look like the border control was any stronger for any of the other cars going through.
Just over the border, I switched cars to make the trip through Guinea. This driver was one I had met before in Conakry, and he was a military officer who does something like diplomatic security. Because fuel prices are so much less expensive in Sierra Leone than in Guinea, we drove back across the border – where he had to surrender his gun that he had stowed in the center console of the car – got gas, then drove back across the border, where he retrieved his weapon, and we were on our way.
Funnily enough, neither driver spoke English, though they were both able to cope in Sierra Leone enough to get gas. I actually don’t think there was much of a shared language at all, even a local one, but this is more about the attitudes of West Africans to help facilitate basic communication, a big contrast with many Americans and Western Europeans, who are much more rigid about the level of language skill. There was a problem with payment, and I considered offering to translate, but it was quickly cleared up and we were on our way.
On the Sierra Leone side, this highway was fairly newly paved, with occasional signs that it was by the assistance of the European Union. Once into Guinea, however, the road was full of potholes and our journey was much slower. The better to see the landscape and villages and find a clean cooking pot from which we could have our lunch!
The night before I left Freetown, I had dinner with another friend of a friend who works in justice promotion as part of the larger development industry in Sierra Leone. We had a long discussion about whether development money is good for a country. I noted that there was public education for social issues, that Ebola had been at least acknowledged by the government, that there were paved roads with minimal potholes and about a quarter of the amount of trash on the streets as there is in Conakry. His point was that despite these modest improvements, there was still no economy to speak of and that all the development money was making people dependent on it so that when the money starts to go away (which it perhaps is nearly 15 years after the end of the civil war and about a year after the end of Ebola), the country will be in big, big trouble. The corrupt government can barely function on its own.
I don’t know what I think. Certainly I want the economies to grow on their own in their own way; however, smooth roads facilitate trade, even within a country or region. A population’s or government’s dependency on foreign skills and money will likely not contribute to any lasting “progress” or “development”; however, when basic services are nonexistent, it seems that it’s necessary to provide for them in some way.
One of my interviewees in Guinea offered me an opportunity to travel to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to conduct research there; she said that the women’s activism there was quite strong compared to Guinea and that I might be interested in seeing what they had to say. So with her facilitation, I left Conakry for a week to Freetown.
What a difference in the two capital cities. While certainly poor, Freetown is swarming with development money – signs for NGOs big and small, international and local are everywhere, and so many white 4x4wd vehicles roam the streets. This is in stark contrast to Conakry, which has a few evident foreigners but not the mass of NGO-as-a-business as Freetown (or business-as-business like Abidjan).
Also remarkable was the number of public-service signs around the city – old billboards and murals educating about Ebola prevention and access to treatment, new posters urging girls to wait until they’re older to have babies, alongside others that calls violence against women a crime against state security. I have never seen such an amount of educational advertising as I did in the one week there. I’m supposing this is a positive thing, but it is just another sign of the amount of money pouring into projects there and makes me wonder to what extent it is having an effect.
I feel like I have so much more to say about Freetown than I do about Conakry, but I think it’s because I’m putting Guinea in context. So many people dislike Conakry that I’m disposed to like the place just to be contrary. But Freetown is seducing me with its cleanliness – not to mention its widespread English.
Why yes, Morocco is beautiful. Why do you ask?
My friend and cohort-mate, Kelsey, has been conducting her own fieldwork in Morocco, and as Casablanca is a direct flight from Abidjan (and no travel visa needed), I spent a week with her, touring a bit of the country.
The photos above are from Chefchaouen, in the mountains south of Tangier. Many of the buildings in the media are painted blue, making it lovely and peaceful and cool. So lovely. Blue city, in the mountains – possible future writing retreat.
Between us, Kelsey and I spoke four languages, which was such an asset in Morocco, where the Moroccan version of Arabic is mixed with legacies of Spanish and French colonialism (and tourism), so we could communicate with just about anyone we came across.
We also visited Casablanca, where the Hassan II mosque (pictures below) is located, as well as Rabat and Tangier, taking the train and bus everywhere.
We also exercised our passport privilege by hopping on a boat to Spain, where we stayed in Granada for a few days, exploring the Arab/Moorish/Muslim influence on southern Spain and compiling a "best of" tapas restaurants in the city.
On a whim, just hearing about FESPACO, the Pan-African Film Festival held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, I decided to go if I could. There's a few direct flights from Abidjan, I had nothing concrete planned, and a friend was thinking of going as well, so I'd have a bit of company. So I bought the plane ticket a few weeks ago, got my Burkina visa last week, and hopped on the plane without knowing much about Ouaga or West African films.
Verdict so far? Amazing. I love Ouaga with its desert dry heat and its ladies of all stripes driving scooters; I love the film festival for being unapologetically African in its outlook and sentiments. There's been films that I've really enjoyed (Des Étoiles, Four Corners) and some I haven't (the series of shorts almost entirely about women's victimization/rape). But people's enthusiasm about films from their country or neighboring ones, their cheering for when the bad guy gets got, the big deal that is FESPACO, even if few others outside film or the African arts scene even knows it exists).
I was uncertain if I would be needlessly spending money for an excuse to visit another West African capital city when I'm not much of a film buff. But for both Ouaga itself and for the film festival, it's totally worth it. This bit of vacation is doing something for my psyche and my cultural and French-language expansion.
The most marked feature of my fieldwork, I think, will be my language skills. Unlike in Senegal, French (or an adapted form of it, called Nouchi) is the language that unifies a great number of ethnic groups in Cote d'Ivoire and is widely spoken across the country, especially in Abidjan. This is generally good for me, as I'm not having to guess whether I'm not understanding someone's French or whether they're not speaking French at all. But it also means that I'm quickly identified as a non-native French speaker, since the average level of the language is much higher than in Dakar.
But at times, it's such a shock when, after a brief conversation, people still misidentify me as French. The first time this happened was when I was buying a bed. After 5 minutes of discussions on the quality, the price, and whether they would deliver, the seller asked if I was French or Moroccan. Aside from the blue eyes that generally mark me as not-Moroccan, I was so surprised that he didn't register my lack of language facility and thought he was teasing me. Then he guessed Italian. Okay.
The second time was this week, when we had a plumber come back for a repeat visit. My French roommate had told him of the problem over the phone and arranged the visit, so I was just there to let him in. I spoke a few words with the plumber, and he communicated that he would have to return another day to do the whole job. When he returned, he asked for a few items and tried to explain what he was doing, but I couldn't understand him – I didn't learn home repair vocabulary in French class. Later, when he asked me another question and I asked him to speak "doucement" – slowly, gently – his assistant realized I wasn't French. Once they learned I was American, the plumber was much warmer toward me, and it dawned on me that he thought I was being rude to him with my miming, when I really didn't have the vocab for "drain."
It's troublesome that language and our use of it in in law and policy is central to my project but that I'm so tense about it in everyday life. Aside from the daily shopping and greetings, I read documents in French, I try to text my bilingual friends in French, I eavesdrop a bit on others' conversations, I have a French tutor, and I can talk about my project in French. But I am still so hesitant to not be able to explain myself fully, something I take such care about in English, selecting just the right word.
Apologizing up front for my French skills, explaining that I'm American, and being friendly seems to go a long way. I guess it's time that I just get over myself.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.