Note 1. Guinea-Bissau was my first overseas posting. It will forever occupy a special place in my heart and in my imagination.
Note 2. It is said that if you ever drink from the waters of Pidjiguiti, you will always remember Guine.
August 1993. Off we went to Bissau. The first sign of the culture shock I was to experience came at the airport in Lisbon. On Sunday evenings at the Lisbon airport, flights depart to all the former colonies, Praia, Bissau, Maputo, Sao Tome and Luanda. My God! I had never seen so many Africans all together in one enclosed place. And the boxes. And the crates. And the colors. And the long lines. It all made me dizzy.
We arrived in Bissau around midnight. My new boss and his wife met us on the tarmac. It was raining cats and dogs — the middle of August and the height of the rainy season. They gave our passports to some strangers called expeditors and whisked us away. What about our luggage, we asked? “Oh don’t worry, it’ll come later with your passports.” Right. We arrived at the Embassy residential compound. It was quaint, in a word — four American-looking townhouses on the side and two colonial mansions in the middle. Cute. Quaint. “America em ponto pequeno” the locals would say, America in microcosm. The next morning the culture shock continued. My boss drove me to work and as I looked to the right and the left going down the Bissau’s main drag all I could think of was Dodge City. You know, the one with Sheriff Dillon and Festus and Doc. We arrived at the “Embassy.” What a dump! What a dump! I kept shaking my head and blinking my eyes and looking again, thinking that perhaps, what I thought I was seeing would change.
Bissau had its first parliamentary elections and its first ever presidential election on our watch. The coup leader/dictator “Nino” Vieira resigned from the military and ran as a civilian candidate. Our embassy sponsored (staged may be more appropriate) a pre-election mixed doubles tennis tournament. President Vieira, paired with the wife of the leading European retail expat, won the tournament, proving that he was virile and healthy. (Yours truly was eliminated in the first round!). The first round of the election was inconclusive; a formidable Kuumba Yala candidacy shifted the balance of the first round by capturing the Balanta vote. Ambassador McGuire encouraged President Vieira to stay the course and let the full democratic process play out. He listened and eventually won the election in the second round. Observers said the election was free and fair.
Conditions got better. We built a new, prefabricated chancery, State Department’s first, just across the street from the housing compound, and in a record time of nine months. My first assignment was to remove the squatters from the land the local government had given us. Getting the people to re-locate was easy; getting rid of the snakes, especially the black mambas, was much more difficult. I found a tiny, abandoned kitten on the site and took it home and nursed it back to health. We named her Manuela, after one of the maids in the compound. Manuela bore two litters with one of the he-cats at the next door “Chinese compound.” I caught her sneaking out the bathroom window. We provided kittens to Peace Corps volunteers throughout the country.
Other conditions got worse. Mefloquine didn’t agree with me and I stopped taking it. I came down with malaria. I caught it twice. Believe me when I say the cure for malaria is far worse than the preventative medicine. The sudden curtailment of the admin officer pushed me into his position. I doubled up on my one-a-day vitamins for a while as the work wore me down. Howard McGowan came in briefly as WAE Admin Officer and that was a big help. After acquiring a taste for the local food and the local intestinal parasites, I lost about 30 pounds in a way I had not anticipated. Ultimately I went on chloroquine and doxycycline for the remainder of my tour, and contrary to what the Democrats are saying, it didn’t kill me.
Nevertheless, this cloud had some silver linings. Friday poker night on the compound was always enjoyable, especially once I learned how to play and actually how to win! I met the Cuban cigar, Cohiba, by way of Cuban doctors resident in Bissau and we became lifelong friends. I learned to dance a modified kizomba. Going fishing with the USAID Director Mike Lukomski introduced me to Guinea-Bissau’s inland rivers, knowledge that would come in handy sooner than I expected and in ways I could not have imagined. Weekend-long bicycling treks through the backroads of the coastal region with Fulbright scholar Walter Hawthorne gave me a deep appreciation for the “terra” and the “povo.” Day trips to see the “Homem Grande” in Caliquisse exposed me to a different, a hidden knowledge. The FSN’s were troopers who always came through in the clutch.
In Bissau, the rainy season is followed by the cricket season. During the cricket season, there are crickets everywhere, almost like a biblical plague. After some complaints by compound residents, we had the gardeners apply a local product to “neutralize” the screaming crickets. One day, Manuela got a hold of a cricket that had already been treated. She acted a little strange the rest of the evening. We found her the next morning, stiff and cold. We buried Manuela in the woods at the back of the compound.
I hired casual laborers to “harvest” the bat dropping out of the attic of the old chancery as we were moving out. I saw it on one of my inspections of the building, and had heard somewhere that bat droppings make excellent fertilizer. Bats are true herbivores, after all. We ended up with enough of the stuff (boxes and boxes of it) to fertilize the whole of the new embassy compound grounds with some left over. The gardeners, God bless them all, planted new grass, one stem at a time, under a hot summer sun. In a few weeks the newly planted embassy lawn was a rich and luscious carpet of green.
Negotiating the closeout of the old chancery building was fraught with coincidences. I started in earnest negotiations with the landlord, Carlos Gomes, Sr., the richest man in the country who was in the middle of a Ross Perot-type campaign for the presidency. Very early in his campaign he proclaimed that I would be the only person in the Embassy he would talk to. For weeks he baffled me with stories about the Bissau’s former colonial grandeur, about his ancestors and the role they played in the country’s development, and about his own role both in the independence struggle against the Portuguese and in the struggle for free enterprise against the first communist governments after independence. I listened and learned.
At length, we got down to brass tacks. He pulled out the original lease from 1975 and pointed to the sentence that read words to the effect that if the US Government ever departed from his building, it would restore the building to whatever specifications the landlord required. I gasped, not believing that a foreign service contracting officer would sign such a lease. We won’t mention his name. He went on to have an illustrious career, including several ambassadorships.
After some wrangling and horse-trading, we agreed that each party would hire an architect to cost out the restoration work, then use the two figures provided as initial offers. Then, in a stroke of pure luck, the TDY Admin Officer Bob Kile and I stumbled upon the landlord’s architect, at a bar, crying in his beer because the mean old man refused to pay him for his work in estimating restoration costs (the landlord was too busy running for president to focus on such a mundane issue). We hired him, had him work up for us a counter proposal, and, to make a long story short, it ended up saving the USG about half a million dollars in restoration costs. We paid the architect his fee.
About the same time, the warehouse landlord (a different landlord altogether) asked for $150,000 in restoration costs (same type lease. What were they thinking about in 1975?). Fortunately for us, we learned that Coca-Cola of Spain was moving into town and looking for a warehouse. They bought out the lease, restoration costs and all. The gods were with us.
Note 3. If you like Year #1, you are gonna truly love Year #2! Of course these posts are really a metaphor. It is me in the final stages of healing.
Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq