Wednesday, February 7 8:06 a.m.
My concerns about the family’s eating habits appear to have been misplaced a result perhaps of too many late night fund raising infomercials with Sally Struthers working up throaty sobs over starving children in far flung places. I say this (quite callously I note now that the sentence stares back at me from paper) because later in the day I saw the family gather for another meal and this was an altogether more substantial affair. A group of men and children sat on the rebar and cord benches around a table and a second group, this one of women and children, sat on the ground near the kitchen fires. Both groups had lots of pots around them and the huge portions of rice I saw being spooned out made it clear that everyone was eating their full.
The porto decided to forego the chicken platter and make a spaghetti sauce with the mysterious corned beef. I still don’t know exactly what corned beef is (is there any corn in it?) but it certainly rounds out a can of tomato paste and turns it into a marvellous sauce. I had my doubts when I popped open the tin because it looked and perhaps smelled like dog food. I was pretty sure it was already cooked but I fried it up with some onions and a “Magi” cube anyway. No one with taste would think so but to this simple man with his simple tastes it was a feast.
I almost had a chance to test my sauce on another person because partway through the preparation process a neatly dressed and smiling Guinean man walked up to my little porch where I was hunched over my stove stirring industriously. I was astonished when this man actually attempted a bantering kind of joke. He pointed to the pot of sauce and asked me in French if he was invited to dinner.
As always I was embarrassed to have my strange eating habits exposed but I assured him that he was indeed invited to join me for dinner if he didn’t mind corned beef spaghetti sauce. He either lacked the courage of his joke or had already eaten as he claimed and declined my offer.
His name was Mr. Barry and he was an English teacher at a local high school. I was slow on the uptake but it finally dawned on me that he was there because I had in a way summoned him. I’d asked the Miracle Man if there was anyone in Telimele who spoke English, perhaps an English teacher? He took me at my word and actually sent out runners from the small boy network and the result was the man standing in front of me.
Mr. Barry had never left Guinea, had only studied English in school but, putting millions of Canadians who “study” French to shame, could speak the language quite well. I was thrown into a bit of confusion by his arrival since I was in the middle of experimental cooking, was hot and sweaty, unshaven, hungry, and still in my dirty clothes from the cycling day but I remembered my manners enough to get him a chair and a cold drink.
I felt like the ball was in my court since I’d asked for him and I tried to explain that I was just a tourist passing through and was finding the language barrier in Guinea a bit trying. And it helped me if there was a local person to whom I could speak English.
Mr. Barry wasn’t bothered in the slightest by the strangeness of the situation and settled into conversation quite easily. We chatted about my travels in Guinea and he provided me with the welcome news that there was a new hotel in Dabola, his hometown and a town through which I’d be cycling on my way to Kankan.
I asked him if he liked teaching and not surprisingly he just shrugged and grimaced. It was a job, nothing more. He didn’t really like it. It didn’t pay enough but at least it paid. Reminiscent of Ali in Coyah he said that a teacher lives from month to month, as we might put it in Canada, from paycheque to paycheque. Quite often, he said, the money runs out before the end of the month and you just try and make do till payday.
The mystery of Mr. Barry’s ability to joke with a porto and settle into relaxed conversation was solved by a knock at the door and the arrival of Jessica and Greg, a local Peace Corps couple.
“Mr. Barry!” said Jessica. “I thought you were here when I saw your moto outside.”
I learned that Mr. Barry worked with Jessica at the local school and had worked with the PCV’s who were here before Jessica and so had become quite comfortable around portos.
I’d met Jessica and Greg earlier in the day, had in fact tracked them down deliberately, a result of the same conversation with the Miracle Man which had produced Mr. Barry. The Miracle Man said that there was a Canadian woman, an English teacher at a local school and I went off with one of his sons as a guide to find her. I didn’t want to be a nuisance or bother this woman but I thought a Canadian by herself might appreciate the chance to chat with a fellow Cannuck. I tucked a tiny Canadian flag lapel pin into my pocket as a funny gift to break the ice.
I met Jessica on the road as she was leaving from her school and quickly discovered I’d been misinformed. She wasn’t Canadian but was an American with the Peace Corps. If I’d known that I probably wouldn’t have gone looking. The Peace Corps has a lot of volunteers in the Fouta Djalon region and they have a solid support network. To meet a tourist just passing through wouldn’t mean much to them I reasoned, would probably be an intrusion.
But Jessica was friendly and we walked together down some small trails to her house. As women do she immediately managed to introduce “my husband” into the conversation by saying she hoped he had cleaned the house. I’ve always been entertained at the hundreds of neat verbal tricks that women use to slip “my boyfriend” or “my husband” into the first minute of a conversation to avoid any misunderstandings. I’m not sure but I think this was the first time I’d heard, “I hope my husband has cleaned the house.”
The house in question was a large but simple affair, not a true home in the way the Forest family’s house was a home but clearly a place where some younger people were camping out. Maps were taped onto the walls. Books, papers, and kitchen stuff was strewn about or stacked carelessly in some large bookshelves. And to my delight a small puppy romped on a couch and set about driving his needle sharp teeth into my wrists and ankles.
Jessica had been with a family before but found it was too noisy there and had moved to this house. The furniture had come with the house. She’d only been in Guinea a short time “seventeen months to go!” and I got the feeling she wouldn’t mind if those remaining seventeen months passed quickly. That could have been because on this day she’d had four hours with her most unruly and difficult class, a class which had reduced her to tears on a number of occasions.
Her husband, Greg, was also with the Peace Corps but a math teacher and was placed in a small town near Mamou. He was here in Telimele only for a week and I couldn’t help but reflect how difficult such a situation would be for both of them.
I didn’t stay long since it was clear they were busy and had lots of things to do (not the least of which was the grading of a hundred compositions) but before I left I invited them to the hotel for a cold drink if they were in the mood. I was still marvelling at the existence of the refrigerator at the hotel and I was more right than I knew. Jessica said that one got electricity depending on where one lived. The top of the hill where the hotel was located was also where the sous prefect lived and therefore had the most dependable supply of juice. The electricity trickled down from there and the further down the hill and away you lived the more sporadic it became.
Even here at the top of the hill the electricity is anything but constant. There is none during the day and when it comes on and turns off at night it does so in the longest and slowest brownout I’ve ever seen. It goes so slowly I often don’t realize it’s happening and then instinctively look for a candle because it looks exactly like a candle slowly dimming and then guttering out. I think the day I arrived in Telimele must have been a rare one when the power was on all day because the drinks were ice cold and have never been as cold again.