A flight over the Sahara desert from Marrakesh to Banjul, brought us to Aliu, the mechanic and driver of Chimbo Foundation, who was supposed to drive us, that same day, from The Gambia to Guinea-Bissau, crossing the south of Senegal. However multiple civil and military checkpoints delayed our travel, preventing us to cross the last border before it was closed. After sleeping in a not so cheap hotel in the Senegalese border with Guinea-Bissau and paying some more bribes to the corrupted border policemans and soldiers, we would finally arrive at Bissau, the capital of one of the five poorest countries in the world and, as I would later notice, a synthesis of Guinea-Bissau political situation. Such that I couldn’t find a better description than calling it “a semi-anarchical State”, I hope this text will help you understanding why did I choose those words.
Guinea-Bissau’s independence came late, in the year of 1973, in a cooperation with Cape Verde’s forces. PAIGC, the Communist Party from both countries received considerable financial and arms support from USSR, Cuba and China, which made possible the overcoming of Portugal’s domination. Medina do Boé, a village in the southeast of the country – from where the insurgency spread and later the independence letter was signed – was supposed to be the capital of the free Guinea-Bissau State, but in consequence of its reduced size and isolated location, the capital was settled in Bissau, to the west, conveniently located in the estuary of Geba river and close to the Atlantic ocean.
After years of unsuccessful and corrupted governments, the death of the president Malam Bacai Sanhá was followed by the election of Raimundo Pereira, Sanha’s minister, after a democratic pool but not so fair campaign – propaganda starting earlier than allowed, use of government money, bought of votes, etc. In spite of that, Pereira’s governmental proposals where fairly good, Among them was the plan of reducing the army’s power, since, as nationally known, this institution is firmly linked to the international drug traffic, making Guinea-Bissau the main bridge of cocaine transport between South-America and Europe.
However, threatening the army’s power have cost Pereira serious consequences. On 12 of April of 2012, just three months after the election results, a coup d’etat, headed by the general Mamadu Ture Curuma, took Pereira out of power. On March of 2013, when I arrived to the country, Pereira was still under exile in Portugal and Guinea-Bissau was under a “Transitory Government” that would supposedly end at April of that year, after new elections. The army didn’t presented any official reason for the coup d’etat and, after one year in charge of the country, didn’t provide any change for the civil life – neither for better nor for worst. While the generals keep fighting between each other for power in the political sphere, the country remains without the most basic services: electric energy is only available for those who can afford a solar panel or a generator; piped water is present only at Bissau and even so, during restricted periods of the day; medical care is provided by voluntary nurses and doctors or for those who have their own pharmacy, earning their money from the long lists of recipes they prescribe to their patients; schools are also rare and manly relied under voluntary teachers, resulting in more than 40% of illiteracy and almost every infant under child labour.
The United Nations considered the Transitory Government illegitimate and so removed all the humanitarian help from the country. International organizations – like mine – where also prohibited from making any deal with it. Even though planned for April 2013, the lack of money and organization made the new elections even more out of perspective. Thus, this semi-anarchical State will probably remain without an end at least for the near future*, but still not impeding the Guineans to say “life goes on!” – as once I heard on the streets.
* This text was written in March of 2012 and indeed the new democratic elections of Guinea-Bissau were only held in July 23th, 2014.
I was born 25 years ago, just three weeks before the fatidic November 9th, 1989, the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I grew up in this new geopolitical era they called the new world order, with the promise of globalization and a global village free of barriers. 25 years of life were more than enough to realize those promises wouldn’t stand for that same amount of time. The spectre of communism stopped hunting Europe and Germany is once again united. Nonetheless, in this meantime new fences were built to isolate the continent from its neighbours.
As from 1993, in the border of the Spanish exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco, African immigrants and even Spanish citizens have to face the violence of border police to cross the blocked border protected by a three layered 6m high fence. Between the cities of Nea Vyssa and Edirne in Greece and Turkey, respectively, another fence was raised in 2012 to isolate the continent from the perils of the neighbouring country. In Northern Ireland, the city of Belfast is still being divided since the late 60’s to prevent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.
This situation is not different around the world. U.S. extends its fence against Mexican smuggling annually, Palestinians from Jerusalem see their lives divided by the walls of Israel, North Korea tries to protect itself from the Chinese and South Korean states, Morocco prevents Saharawis to return to their own territory in the Western Sahara and India isolates Bangladesh with barbed wire fences and savage border guards (check http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2013/nov/walls#intro for a complete report of the walls around the world).
Ukraine, by its turn, is being dismantled between the EU and Russia after radical demonstrations, referendums and civil wars. Eastern Europe is once again stage for a clash between the East end West. Europe, not to say the world, is still polarized, religiously as in the case of Northern Ireland, ideologically as in Ukraine, or socioeconomically as attested by the EU borders. Thus, a quarter of a century is not a timespan to be celebrated, but to be contemplated. Communism has fallen and neoliberalism has established its success, but few things have changed. Time passed, but the problems remained.
I had an appointment with the Gambian embassy in Amsterdam at 9:30h. Leaving as early as I could from The Hague, I arrived there at 10:30h and everything went as planned. From there I had to head to Brussels, but due to delays in some trains on the way, I could arrive there only at 16:30h. Even at that time, I tried to risk and go to the address I had to see if the Guinea-Bissauan embassy really existed. It took me a while to find the tram line to get me there and the hurry and a broken ticket machine made me take the tram without paying. The embassy really existed at that address, but a note on the door announced that “all activities were suspended and every requirement should be done straight to the ambassador by phone”. I wrote down the number and took the last minutes of day light to try to find the Senegalese embassy and see if their answer was the same as the one I received in The Hague. It was almost 7 o’clock when I found the Senegalese building. They were surely out of working hours but a lit light inside the building encouraged me to ring the bell. Luckily an event was happening at the embassy at that time and the worker that answered the door, even out of his duty by that time, gave me a form and explained me what to do in the next day, which I understood even with my bad French.
There was nothing else to do that day but looking for a hostel and wait for the working hours on the next day. I couldn’t find a ticket machine and once again I had to take a tram back to the central station without paying, but this time it cost me a fine in one of the stops close to a metro station. I’d have to pay €100,00 in the next 15 days. It reaches irony how the Brussels municipality, in its incapability of providing enough functional machines to cover all the transportation needs of the city, ends up discounting on the people, in form of fines, its own incompetence.
Furthermore, I couldn’t find cheap hostels in the city (for the prices I’ve found, it was worth going back to my city, sleeping there and coming back the next day). Since I was already frustrated with the fine I’d received, I decided to sleep on the streets, like I’ve done in other occasions. I arrived at the central station where I could find a place in the way between the train and the metro station where I could sleep among beggars, crazy people and rats that used to dwell there. By the way, one of those beggars was the first person in Europe I saw throwing garbage in a bin. His act made me think that maybe only when put in such situations of socio-environmental degeneration citizens of the old world could become conscious, as that beggar, of how simple acts are capable of changing or maintaining, sometimes decisively, the environment where they live.
Some newspapers were enough for padding the floor and my cloths and make me resist the cold a little bit more to try to sleep. I say trying because cold and screams of some crazy people prevented me from falling asleep during the whole night. At 6 o’clock in the morning I gave up and decided to go finding a place to eat, charge my cell phone and head to the embassies avenues to take my Senegalese visa and try to contact the embassor of Guinea-Bissau.
This time, with a tram ticket in hand, I arrived at the Senegalese embassy at 9 o’clock at the same time as its workers. I had no problems in getting the visa and on the way out I was happily greeted by previous night worker, congratulating me for now being able to visit Senegal. In front of the Guinea-Bissauan embassy I called the embassor that promptly made his way to the building to meet me and provide the visa. After some minutes waiting, there was him, a peculiar figure. While entering the embassy, we could trip over a pile of letters accumulated just in front of the door, indicating nobody showed up there for some time. The reason of his absence, he explained, was a work on a neighbour building that was making working there quite unpeaceful. Once more the visa was given without any bureaucracy, I just had to find an ATM to withdraw money and pay him with cash. On the way back he was already waiting in his car, saying he had to attend a meeting. I paid him and he offered me a ride. I asked him to leave me at the central station. After some conversation about Bissau, the work I’d do there, a stop at the centre to solve some ‘urgent’ deals, he left me where I wanted, leaving me now only the time to enjoy the good part of Brussels and look for a place to sleep properly in that city before leaving it definitely.
I had finally found a place where I could enjoy making my thesis. Chimbo Foundation, a Dutch NGO that works mainly with chimpanzees conservation in Guinea-Bissau, wanted me to make a small field research for them. The first problem, however, was how to get there (plane tickets from Europe to Guinea-Bissau are extremely overpriced). The solution, was then to fly to Gambia and arrive in Guinea-Bissau by crossing Senegal, but for that, visas from all three countries would be necessary.
The only embassy that gave me some trustworthy information was the one from The Gambia in Amsterdam. From the Senegalese consulate in The Hague I could only get a “je parle seulement français” by the telephone and some crossed information by e-mail that could only give me a glimpse of their working hours and the necessary documents. The Guinea-Bissauan embassy was by far the worst, from which I could only get their possible address in Brussels. With so many things to worry about, it remained no more than two weeks to arrange all those visas before the flight. The solution was to travel through those three cities with nothing but the hope I would get them all.
The first itinerary was to go to The Hague and see what I could get from the Senegalese consulate. After little more than three hours between buses, trains and walks I could get to the embassy, but just to receive completely different information from what I have received by e-mail. One of the workers, in his precarious English, explained me they would only provide me the transit visa to Senegal once I had the one from Guinea-Bissau, and even so, this service would take some days. I didn’t have that much time, the alternative would be reaching the Senegalese embassy in Brussels in the next days while going there for the Guinea-Bissauan.
The only thing that rested me during that day was to look for a place where to print some extra documents, a mission that unexpectedly proved itself very difficult, since, as I later realized, it was easier to find a coffee shop* than a copy shop** in The Netherlands. After six hours of walking around I finally managed to find a place that could simply print those documents for me. Since it was already late, there was nothing else to do than finding a place to sleep and prepare for my travel to Amsterdam and Brussels in the next day.
* Where one can buy Cannabis sp. for their own consumption;
** Where one can buy office material, print and make copies.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, the famous French anthropologist, once wrote a book called Tristes Tropiques (“Sad Tropics” in English), after spending two years visiting some indigenous populations in Brazil. In his writings he summarizes all his memories and the sadness of remembering the time spent in the tropics. I mention his work because now I finely understand what he meant. In Portuguese we have a word that represents this emotion Strauss took a whole book to describe; it is called Saudade, the felling of missing something, mixed with sadness and nostalgia.
Even in Suriname, especially during the last days I spent there, thinking that the time of coming back was arriving used to make a little spark of sadness light inside me. In December, after I came back to The Netherlands, it became a blaze of saudade, only serving to cool me even more in the frozen winter. The fact of being Brazilian and have grown on the tropics could be one reason for felling so much at home in Moengo, but there is also something more, something I cannot define precisely. Maybe the Surinamese people, maybe the brutal wildness, maybe it was a place for running away of my temperate problems. Maybe a little bit of all that.
What I can surely attest is that besides missing that country, the rastafaris, the poumpo mousse (a sort of grapefruit) and the starry sky, I will also carry with me the humbleness and the respect I learned from that people and, of course, the willingness of coming back someday.
Grantangi fu alamala, Sranan! (Thank you very much for everything, Suriname!)
On a Wednesday, November 29th, 2012 our team visited some reforestation areas of SURALCO, the Surinamese franchising of ALCOA, a mining company that entered Suriname in 1916 and now extracts mainly bauxite. Even though they have been exploiting the area around Moengo for 96 years they started to rehabilitate it only about 30 years ago, intending to recover the whole area in the close future. Reforestation is a politics of the company and not a government requirement. “Do you leave your dog under the sun or underwater the whole day? You must have the same care with the soil – it is a living soil,” the rehabilitation chief of the company explained us.
Before starting the exploitation they do a social research in the communities that depend on the forest and only start their work after an agreement. The first step is selling the trees with commercial value and giving the profit to the logging company or whoever has the concession ownership. The top-soil is kept aside when opening the area to be put back when the mining ends, as the first step for rehabilitation. After mining is over, reforestation takes place. They also work in concessions in Brazil and Australia and the rehabilitation process from Moengo is based on the model used in Trombetas (30 min. flying from Santarém, north of Brazil). The planting system consists of 1600 seedlings/ha, with 100% of native species (around 60 different species between pioneer and timber wood varieties). The only fertilizer used is chicken manure and seedling growth is done by the Petro Ondo community. The total price for recovering those areas rounds between 5 and 40 thousand Surinamese dollars per ha.
The company works with a Reforestation Index, a practical method to measure rehabilitation success, but even so, their methodology isn’t perfect yet. Ground is too compact and rocky and the physiognomy of the rehabilitated forest isn’t the same as that of a forest that recovered itself naturally (trees don’t grow straight, most of them bifurcate and the understory is almost absent) thanks, for example, to the wrong ecological succession applied in the process (pioneer and climax species are planted simultaneously).
As previously mentioned, there isn’t any government requirement or benefit for forest rehabilitation in Suriname. Besides, SURALCO works without any certificate. In spite of that, the company lemma is that the mining process stops only when the rehabilitation is finished. This politics is important to keep the popularity with their customers, “Keep the sustainable image of the company” – said the chief – “If you don’t work right, the picture will be in the papers: ‘That is what the company does’”.
After English, French and a much longer Dutch colonization, Suriname has become independent only around 30 years ago, after a severe civil war. Slavery has been abolished for a longer time than that, but even today the country keeps the remains of that period in its population dynamics. Indigenous groups occupy mainly the west of the country while the Bakras (European people) and other recent migrated ethnic groups live around the capital Paramaribo (except for the Chinese, who own markets in every corner of the country). By the other hand, in the east of Suriname, population is almost completely composed by African slaves descendants. The escaped slaves, and after them the released ones, moved to the relatively less populated areas of the country to find villages and work in places far away from their former masters. Those communal villages, quite isolated from the rest of the country and immersed in their own socio-economic context ended up giving origin to a new traditional group that only exists in Suriname, the Maroon ethnicity. During this field stage of the Forest Management Plan, I’d got in touch with three of those villages, Ricanau Mofo, Abadukondre and Bernati Mofo and this three weeks were enough for getting a broad impression of their culture.
Although Dutch is the official language of Suriname, the communication between Maroons would happen either in Aukaans or Sranan Tongo, two of what they call Surinamese languages. These languages, as I noticed, and after confirmed by one of the villagers, could be described as a mixture of Dutch and English with a heavy nigga accent. Catholicism, despite being recently introduced in these communities, compose the main religious beliefs of that people, even though a significant part of them (specially the self-called Rastafaris) still refuse to go to church. The descendancy system is matrilineal (surnames and social status are herited from the mother) and respect for elder women is evident, for example, one isn’t allowed to stand still in front of a grandmother while she is seated.
Their economy is mainly based in agriculture, commercial and self-consumption crops are planted in the kostgrondjes, small familial plots opened in the forest after slashing and burning the previous vegetation. Life in these communal villages might be little ambitious but most of its members show a big material appreciation, an imported new car isn’t difficult to purchase and expansive watches, rings and golden teeth are not rarely seen when walking around.
Thus, the Maroons could be briefly described as a population firmly rooted in its African past but having the scars of the European domination still present in their cultural identity. A society that can open itself to national market dynamics and even so, maintain a communal and relatively environmentally harmless productive system.