1994-1995. Bissau, Guinea-Bissau – the second year

Part 4. Bissau, Guinea-Bissau – The second year

Note 1. Yes, Guinea-Bissau requires two posts. A country small in geographical size, it is gigantic in historical significance, in spiritual force, and in wealth potential.

A whole chapter is required on my journeys to Caliquisse and meetings with the Homem Grande. “Homem Grande” in Portuguese means great man. But in Guinea-Bissau, Homem Grande means the big voodoo/spiritual/mystic guy, and Caliquisse is the capital of the spirit world. Now I was not particularly a believer in this stuff, though I did read a book on Santeria as an undergraduate that led me to make a pilgrimage to the above ground crypt of Marie Laveau in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Glad I made that pilgrimage then, because I doubt those sites still exist! Anyway, returning to the original subject, a warehouse theft that we couldn’t solve resulted in my boss’s decision to consult with the Homem Grande to find out who was ripping us off. My boss was a very religion guy, very observant, but he had this obsession with, how can I say it, “local culture.” So one Saturday, five or six of us piled into two vans and headed to Caliquisse to visit with the local oracle.

After a huge midday feast at the home of a local merchant, Silvestre was his name, I think, we picked up gifts for the Homem Grande, rice, live chickens, a baby pig (leitao), and several bottles of cana (a Cape Verdean sugar cane liquor) and started on a trek into the bush. When the road ended, we continued driving until we reached a clearing, then the guide took us by foot several hundred yards to a wooded area where we found a large tree with a hollowed out base, one of those ugly trees that grows the delicious cabaceira, a white tangy powder in a large green pod. There, we awaited the arrival of the spirit man.

The spirit man arrived, greeted us and offered us a sip of cana, a distilled spirit made from sugar cane, from what appeared to me to be a very questionable container. I very politely declined. Through a translator, we explained that we needed to know who was robbing our warehouse. My boss believed our warehouse employees were guilty, but I maintained they were innocent and that it was clearly an “outside” job. The spirit man nodded, took another sip of cana and pulled a long rusted knife from a sheath. I thought to myself, “Oh shit, he’s gonna kill us!” But the knife wasn’t for us, it was for the hen we brought, the galinha de terra, the reading of whose entrails were to provide the answers we traveled to Caliquisse to seek.

With a quick snap of the wrist, he decapitated the chicken, while holding its still twitching body in his left hand. Then, with a smaller knife, he cut open the chicken’s underside. Here, he began the close reading. Looking carefully at the chicken’s ovaries (I found that out later), he revealed to us that bandits were entering the warehouse through the roof, and that it was definitely an outside job. I took a deep breath of relief; my staff was not involved at all! Then he asked us if we wanted to know anything else! My boss and the OBO project director asked if they would have sons. He said yes, sons for both. But in exchange, both would be required to bring their sons back to Caliquisse for a visit. He looked my way, but I kept my mouth shut! (I had attended a lecture earlier given by a lady named Crowley (can’t remember her first name) on the practice of making deals with the Spirit world. To break a promise is very bad ju-ju. Better not to make it.) The translator advised us that once we uncovered the plot and learned the truth of the robberies, we would be required to return to the Homem Grande and bring more rice, more cana, and more chickens. Satisfied, we piled into the vehicles and returned to Bissau. Little did I know, this would not be my final encounter with the Guinea-Bissau spirit world! Here is a link to a poem I wrote about Bissau: http://poemsbyray.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-return-to-mother-africa.html

The locals, employees and contacts, adopted me as one of their own. They exposed me, through weddings, funerals, and late night parties, to the full cultural panorama of life in Guinea-Bissau. My favorites were the baby-naming ceremonies and the end of Ramadan Eid al-Fitra celebrations. The Peace Corps volunteers who came around on weekends from the interior of the country became lifelong friends as, after their service in Bissau, they navigated their way through life transitions, careers, family, etc.

We transitioned from the horrid location downtown to the new Embassy compound in Bairro de Penha. We managed to preserve the cashew trees on the compound, guaranteeing a supply of delicious cashew fruit and nuts. We also managed to preserve a supply of poisonous black mambas on the compound lawn.

It is worth mentioning here some Guinea-Bissau folklore. Going back to around the 13th century, the march of Islam across the Sahara and the Sahel saw the emergence of the Malian Empires of Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa. The legend goes that the Malian Empire stopped its spread at the Kingdom of Kaabu, allowing that distinct people to preserve their non-Islamic culture. Kaabu later became present day Gabu in eastern Guinea-Bissau. Oral tradition and family records indicate that Kaabu was allowed trade and co-existence with Mali via Mandinka traders. It would explain the pride in culture displayed by the Guinean people. Over time, the leadership of Kaabu moved west to Bissau and Bolama. There is also a legend that a ruler of the Kaabu Kingdom, upon the arrival of the Portuguese, took a large amount of gold and buried it underground inside a boat. No one can locate the boat now because the land underneath the surface has shifted and moved around. Finally, and I heard this from a young finance student vacationing in Bubaque, during the colonial period, Portuguese Guinea had its own currency, paper money and coins, backed by gold reserves in Lisbon. When the freedom fighters defeated the Portuguese to become the first Portuguese colony to achieve independence, several Portuguese families who had lived in Bissau for generations withdrew to Portugal and other countries. But the gold reserves never “transferred” back to Bissau and allegedly hundreds of millions of escudos of gold in present value sit in a Portuguese back somewhere if not in the Central Bank of Portugal.

In July, 1994, shortly after the move to the new embassy compound, we got a call about trouble in a neighboring country. Well, sort of “neighboring.” When Gambian troops returned home to Banjul, Gambia, after a peacekeeping stint in Liberia, the troops, led by a then unknown Lt Jammeh, ran into a bit of “disrespect” from airport officials. In response to the airport slight, Jammeh and his crew plotted and carried out a coup d’etat. The Wikipedia article says “In July 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) seized power in a military coup d’etat, deposing the government of Sir Dawda Jawara. Lieutenant Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state.” When the coup occurred, the deposed president was out taking a maiden voyage on a navy patrol craft the United States had provided to the Gambians. We maintained VHF radio contact with the president’s party from Bissau. Sir Dawda Jawara didn’t return to Banjul until several years later, when a more enlightened President Jammeh decreed that all former presidents would be maintained and taken care of by the State for life.

When the time came, my CAO, Nick Williams, asked me where I wanted to go next. His predecessor, Kathy Peterson, who suggested I consider bidding Bissau in A-100, promised me a good follow-on assignment if I did well in Bissau. I thought, “Go for it now! It’s your only chance.” I asked for the London, CON/POL rotation. My second choice was GSO in Nassau. He said he would work on it. I got the London assignment.

Here is another Bissau poem: http://poemsbyray.blogspot.com/2009/12/natural-forces-or-notes-to-former-lover.html

We can, frankly, end the whole story of my foreign service career here and it will be quite complete. Everything after Bissau is pretty much a footnote to be truthful. But let us continue.

p.s. Addendum 1

Our private security company (a model well-to-do neighborhoods and gated communities are likely to turn increasingly to as we take steps to defund public police departments) found car batteries for sale in a local market, traced them back to our embassy and to the band of thieves, who when pressed (spare us the details, please!), confessed they were entering the roof at night across the tops of several adjacent buildings.

As fate would have it, the owner of our security company is now the country’s Minister of Interior. But back then he was just a guy with a security company.

And yes we went back. Well, you know Americans, after getting what we wanted there was no great motivation to return and actually pay the price. But towards the end of my stay I kept remembering that lady’s lecture about making deals with the Spirit World (She is still around, I think in Europe with FAO, Eve Crowley). With three weeks left and my boss having left post in disgrace, I got a driver to take me out to Canchungo where Silvestre lived, and he made the arrangements. We took a box of several bottles of Cape Verdean cana, aka grog, along with a couple of baby pigs and full grown chickens and paid a final visit to the spirit man.

Of course he wanted to do the whole thing again and give me a reading. I very politely declined.

Eid al-Fitr with Sadjo Tchamo at the Bomba. 1995.
Farewell to Bissau Party, 1995.

Addendum 2. December 2018.

I learned some interesting factoids over dinner tonight with GB Ambassador to the UN Delphim da Silva

1. Secret back channel communications between Jonas Savimbi and GB President “Nino” Vieira attempted to resolve the almost 30-year conflict in Angola. The will of international arms dealers to prolong the conflict was just too strong.

2. Portugal revised its constitution in 1951, identifying its overseas colonies as provinces, before signing on to the UN Charter in 1955 to avoid any UN requirements to decolonize. Lots of ramifications here for a whole generation of several nationalities of people.

3. Reasonable people disagree on the political and philosophical legacy of Guine-Bissau native and Pan-African thinker and strategist, Amilcar Cabral. I have my own thoughts, but perhaps I need to do further research. But from a perspective of critical theory, he remains near the top of my list.

4. Finally, and this may come as a shock to some, I think President Trump is highly misunderstood in Africa. There are several reasons why this may be so.

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

1 thought on “1994-1995. Bissau, Guinea-Bissau – the second year

  1. Pingback: Navy memories | might be time for a change here

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