Staying put, in the Bissau-Guinean context of COVID-19, is a loose concept for the most part. For most Guineans and the nationals of neighbouring countries, the borders are as fluid as the interchange of language between the indigenous tongues and the bastardised kriol. As we entered the Cantanhez national park, in one of the southern regions of the country, Nelson, the agricultural engineer leading our mission, pointed out the window to his left, which I imagine must have been southward, and said “a few kilometres down is Conakry*. Back in the day, Manecas (another work colleague) and I used to walk down to the border all the time.” That is to say, not much had changed in the way Guineans crossed the terrestrial imagined boundaries because, for most of them, they have never mattered. Or perhaps they have never existed at all.
For myself staying put meant, for the most part, travelling between my bedroom, the kitchen and the living room and only occasionally risking the public transport to go to the office when it was absolutely necessary. Though the pace of my life had slowed considerably, politicians continued to enjoy the fast life, playing politics with everyone else’s lives as though they were meaningless. I learned this year, after a twenty odd year stint outside, that it is difficult to remain hopeful and to love your country when you cannot leave it.
At the beginning, I had found Bissau to be romantic, albeit downtrodden. But I also found the romance of the place to be contingent on its ephemerality. The difference between returning to leave again and returning to stay, became the same as the difference between sabura** and kasabi***. Now, the humdrum of corrupt politics leveraged by sex and drugs, feels inescapable, with potholed roads holding us hostage at the whims of tantrum-prone men of power. I often fall out of love with this country that does not seem to love us back when I forget that there is a world of Guineans beyond the capital. So, I am always grateful for the opportunity to travel beyond Bissau. I have learned, from an earlier trip to the east of the country during the height of post-electoral antagonism, that the problem of urban centricity evaporated as soon as I stepped away. Though I also learned how much urban centricity informed the consciousness of those confined to its margins.
I had the opportunity to visit the south of the country for the first time, my excitement only slightly dampened by the fact that it was a work affair. (Self) Discovery was second only to the work that I was sent to do. I had known the conditions of the road, but on this trip, deep into the Cantanhez forests, I developed an intimate understanding of the extent of state violence implied in the whiplash I suffered as a result.
The populations of Cantanhez, who in large belong to the Nalu ethnic group (the national park is known unofficially as Tchon di Nalu****) have an acute awareness of their isolation. They recognised our fatigue as their own and affirmed knowingly that it is why no one knows they are there, except of course during presidential campaigns when they become strategic points of contact.
We arrived in Iemberem, the village in Cantanhez where we would stay, in two large cars; a 4x4 and a pickup. News circulated among the dwellers, and would only reach us the next morning, that they had been scared at our arrival. They had mistaken us for the military and wondered why we were there. I wondered what abuse they might have faced at the hands of military personnel for it to have put them on guard through the night. We often ask ourselves about trees falling in woods; for the Nalu, who exist so far at the margins, they told us about their kansera*****, and how no one saw it, and no one cared to.
All this to say that my consciousness cannot be separate from those who are indigenous to a land. I did not take only with me the rest I found in their neck of the woods, being so far away from politics. I also took the kansera they felt in their neck of the woods, being so far away from politics. The Nalu do not “stay put” per se, often using motorcycles (no one has a car) to access the health centres, markets and other villages. But for the most part they feel confined to the region because that’s where the crops grow and their faith is in the rice production, palm oil – the southern region is known for its palm oil and rice – and of course, as it is Guinea-Bissau’s principal export, cashews.
I don’t know when the next time I head down to the region will be but I wondered, as I promised to return sooner or later, if they had stopped believing those of us who lived closer to, if not at, the centre.
* Conakry: A note on the Guineas: us Bissau-Guineans are often unknown and erased, but to ourselves we are the principal Guineans. The other Guineans (Conakry and Equatorial) are the ones to be identified by their capitals.
** sabura: Good life, enjoyment
*** kasabi: Hardship; hard times
**** Tchon di Nalu: Land of the Nalu
***** kansera: Hiredness; misery