Features | A country of contradictions

Joe Penney recounts a shift in perspective after working as a photojournalist in Guinea-Bissau

“He wrote me that the pictures of Guinea-Bissau ought to be accompanied by music from Cape Verde. That would be our contribution to the unity dreamed of by Amilcar Cabral. Why should a country so small and so poor interest the world? They did what they could. They chased Portugal out, so traumatizing its army that it moved to overthrow its own dictatorship and led briefly to believe in a new revolution in Europe. Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window.”

— Chris Marker, Sans Soleil (1983)

I was drawn to Guinea-Bissau because of its extremes and contradictions, its peculiar status as the sole ex-Portuguese West African country (it’s located directly south of Senegal), its dozens of small, unknown islands, and its complete anonymity on the world scale. I wondered how a tiny, poor, illiterate nation with few resources fought the most successful African liberation war, but could manage little more than political infighting and civil wars for 35 years after independence. I wondered how a country incapable of creating a functional central government could have produced one of the 20th century’s most visionary leaders in Amilcar Cabral. But above all I was eager to enter a country that seemed to exist only in my head, a place of contradictions I could not fathom. I wanted to know the other, the unknowable.

As a third-year McGill student at the end of my fall semester last year, I decided I needed a break. I couldn’t handle another four months of staying inside during -30 degree weather, spending 15 minutes preparing myself with layer after layer if I needed to go to the corner store, or waiting indefinitely to wear shoes other than boots. I could not handle another semester of essays, Redpath, Tim Hortons, myCourses, and Minerva.

I had been planning to spend the winter semester in Havana to get involved with community living and public education projects, but those plans fell through at the last minute. Since I had spent the previous two summers in West Africa doing volunteer work, I thought instead of the Caribbean I could go to a new place in a familiar region. I emailed the Reuters news bureau in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa, to see if they accepted any interns. I was soon on a direct flight from New York to Dakar with plans to work as a journalist for five months.

Before I left North America, I immersed myself in the region by reading a book on Guinea-Bissau’s revolutionary liberation leader, Amilcar Cabral. Cabral almost single-handedly led an illiterate, impoverished populace to drive the Portuguese colonists out, before being assassinated in 1974, one year before Guinea-Bissau gained independence.

One of the first mornings after I had moved into my apartment on the third floor of a new Dakar building, a BBC radio broadcast transmitted news that the president of Guinea-Bissau had been shot in Bissau, the capital city, the army chief-of-staff had been blown up, and a successor would be elected in three months. I knew I had to be in Bissau for those elections.

Over the next three months, I kept Guinea-Bissau on the periphery of my mind. There was plenty of other work to do and people to see, but Guinea-Bissau tinted all my actions. I befriended Alberto Yusuf, a 23-year-old Bissau-Guinean studying French in Dakar with dreams of owning a business. I visited his house, a sparse and small room with one bed that he shared with another student. In an attempt to construct Guinea-Bissau in my head, I asked him what he thought of his country (it’s great), would he would go back home eventually (yes), will he vote in the upcoming elections (no), how is the food (très bon), does he miss his family (yes), how the girls are there (beautiful), what his house is like (he didn’t know how to describe it in French).

Yusuf took me to his uncle’s house, a typical Dakar home apart from the Brazilian soap operas and talk shows, just as permanent a household fixture as the uncle’s spot on the maroon felt couch and the picture of Mecca on the wall.

I was slowly understanding Guinea-Bissau by way of Dakar, gathering hints and picking up as many traces of the country as possible. I constantly checked the Reuters wire for news about Bissau. When the idea of a vacation came up with my dad, I immediately thought of Portugal. With the money I had made – and with minimal planning – I was soon in Lisbon. In the Portuguese capital, I always kept an eye out for African immigrants, and even wore a T-shirt from Dakar to see if any wandering Senegalese or Bissau-Guinean would spot it.

On my last day in Portugal after a week of tourism, I contacted Yusuf’s cousin who had immigrated to Portugal the year before. In my broken Portuguese, we managed to meet for lunch outside Lisbon. From that brief encounter, I collected information about immigrants from Guinea-Bissau to Portugal. He ekes out a very meager but sincere existence: his daily 12-hour construction shifts netted him about 900 euros a month. Nevertheless, he bought me a 20-euro lunch simply because I was his cousin’s friend. Over lunch, he told me in earnest his plan to get rich in Europe: to move to Hamburg and sell coke with another Bissau-Guinean as soon as he got an EU passport. Then, he said, he would have enough money to live comfortably and send plenty back home to the extended family. As a practicing Muslim, he did not drink nor dabble in drugs, so there would be no risk of adverse effects on his personal life.

W hen I arrived in Bissau in late June, I had a better idea of what to expect, though I had known it all along: a poor West African country similar to southern Senegal, but Portuguese-influenced and less developed. But that still did not tell me much.

I went to Bissau as an unaccredited freelance photojournalist, with Reuters as my main client. Even though Reuters did not want to take any legal responsibility for my presence in the country, they were willing to buy any useful pictures of political events. Because of how little the elections of a small country with few resources matter to an international audience, Reuters sent no photojournalists to Guinea-Bissau. I was left with virtually no competition.

The few other Western journalists covering the election gave me a ride from Dakar, which eased the feeling in the pit of my stomach from the daunting endeavour. The trip would be crucial because I was now an unqualified peer of professional journalists, and because I had built up Bissau in my mind as an otherworldly city. On a Friday night, our group of four journalists (three Americans and one Brit) took an overnight ferry to southern Senegal, and drove three hours to Bissau the next morning. Anticipation swelled as we crossed the border from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau in our expatriate-staple white Toyota four-by-four, and entered Bissau city less than two hours later.

Within a few minutes, the city – and the country – I had spent so much time dwelling on in the past few months lay bare before my eyes. I was startled. Bissau was nothing more than a few blocks of crumbling colonial-era buildings with a couple of miles of humble West African concrete houses surrounding downtown.

Walking around the city, which I could cover on foot in under a half hour, I was struck by a number of extremes. There were the glaring, obstinate images – abject poverty, cratered roads, crumbling buildings, exhausting heat and humidity that turned a two-block walk into a day’s exercise – but subtle contradictions made the place a West African twilight zone. The hotel most of the journalists stayed at was occupied by members of the Western media, non-governmental/UN workers, and members of Colombian drug cartels taking advantage of Bissau’s instability and its geographical position, a midpoint for cocaine trafficked from South America to Europe. The country had no substantial electricity grid or water planning system, but boasted several nightclubs, restaurants, and even a bumper car park.

Bissau was dying slowly, its fragile pages tearing at the edges. Its haggard skyline showed how little it had developed over the last 30 years. Yet vigorous, fervent Bissau-Guinean music, a loud, up-tempo Afro-Latin dance rhythm called gumbé, poured out of the decrepit buildings, breathing life into the deliquescent topography.

Everywhere I went, I saw stark contrasts. These were some of the poorest people on the planet (the fifth poorest country according to the Central Intelligence Agency). Average Bissau-Guinean income is $460 a year, and yet I could not walk two blocks without someone inviting me into his or her house to eat.

Before I left Dakar, I had asked Yusuf if I could stay with his family during my trip. With only one day’s notice, he told me it was no problem, called his parents, and informed them of my imminent arrival. They were a poor family, but offered everything to me and treated me as their own because I was a friend of their son.

Bissau-Guineans have an intense national pride, despite that, in the words of an International Crisis Group report, “Guinea-Bissau needs a state. Its political and administrative structures are insufficient to guarantee control of its territory, assure minimum public services or counter-balance the army’s dominance.” Each day in the main square, pedestrians would stop campaigning and salute soldiers who raised and lowered the flag in front of the old liberation movement party building. They were saluting memories more than anything, for the leathery building had been unoccupied after being shelled during the country’s 1999 civil war and was now pockmarked by bullets and grenades.

The longer I stayed in Bissau the more I appreciated the country. I felt free. Walking the streets, driving around the peeling building blocks and potholed boulevards in a seventies Mercedes with a Senegalese friend, attending large political rallies with loud gumbé and thousands of energetic Bissau-Guineans. There was always a sense that you could not predict the next day, that anything could happen, that life was on the edge for Guinea-Bissau.

I suppose it was then that I recognized the folly of my judgments. Why did I view these things as contradictions? I had seen in Guinea-Bissau some of poorest people in the world, but that did not mean that their lives were fundamentally different from my own. They were still the same people as you or I; they had the same desires, the same human traits. Had I expected the people in Guinea-Bissau to be a different type of humans, who can more easily adapt to living in a country with no state, no running water or electricity, no health services or welfare, nor access to Internet or computers? No, there was nothing in their blood that made them more predisposed to poverty, to unemployment. They woke up every morning and did not see contradictions or extremes; they saw features of a day, a week, a life.

A contradiction is a contradiction only if we let it be. Absurdities are only absurdities because we view them from the confines of our environments. Obstacles and boundaries only exist if we allow them to. If Bissau-Guineans did not consider their country absurd, what reason should I have to disagree? Were their lives any more extreme or contradictory than ours? If you or I woke up to a world without health insurance or broadband Internet, we might consider it absurd. But would a Bissau-Guinean not find my life completely absurd, travelling so far from home with no immediate reason to leave my family? What right do I have to judge the logic of one’s life if, as Albert Camus says, we are all elected to the same fate? The variations in defining what is normal eventually renders the concept completely useless. Anything can be normal, just as anything can be absurd.

Once I realized that, Guinea-Bissau was easy to reconcile. The last few days I was there, I accepted everything about the country as normal. I didn’t mind the blinding, sweaty heat, or the Colombian drug dealers, or the drunk soldiers with AK-47s, or the squat toilets – all of it became a part of the environment to which I was now privy. In the words of Immanuel Kant, “human understanding is the true lawgiver of nature.”

In a search of self-affirmation, I looked for the other in Guinea-Bissau, and for a while I was content to view, observe, and interpret the country from afar. Once there I wanted to live the other’s life, if only for a little while, to understand it in an attempt to construct a contrasting meaning for my own life. But after two weeks, what I realized is that the concept of the other has no firm basis in reality and exists only to help me define myself. The other is not only the same as me, the other is me.

Upon returning to North America, I fell into a bit of malaise. Gone were the days of inviting my neighbour to my house to eat, or helping out people I did not know, or treating everyone with respect. After two weeks in a house in Bissau, I had met more people on that block than I know on my block in Montreal where I’ve been living for three years. In many of my conversations, I reverted to competing with my friends about how much I spent on clothes, or how hard I partied, or how much more or better I had done something, rather than taking a genuine interest in a friend’s well-being.

I still struggle to instill some Guinea-Bissau mentality in my life, even though it is easy for me to readjust to my North American life, for it is mine. The solidarity with the fellow human is something I hope to live up to.


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