Farewell to My Year of Magical Growth: Bye Bye Bissau
I spent 2015 based in Guinea Bissau. My year there allowed me to meet some incredible people who are both full of life and dedicated to the crucial work they do; but it also allowed me the time to step back from the world and do some critical work on myself.
Guinea Bissau is a poor place. Sometimes the dismal stats lie, but in this case they really don't: to work in Guinea Bissau is to serve some of the world's poorest people. It means learning the value of things that we routinely take for granted — why else would we call them creature comforts that we make a big show of giving up when we go camping? Yes, hot water, electricity and internet seem like cute things to forego while exploring the Shenandoah Valley, but making do without adequate infrastructure can really make life a drag. That said, there is a solidarity born from the difficulties of life in Bissau. As you sit drinking to the lazy beat of a humming generator, the bullshit fades to black: you can learn more about a person in weeks than you ordinarily would in years. Maybe that's why I'm calling my year in Bissau "My year of Magical growth”.
From a superficial standpoint, as a young black woman who grew up in a country that told me that my hair wasn’t long or straight enough, and that I would never be beautiful, Guinea Bissau was an exercise in accepting my own beauty. It helped that the guards downstairs banded together to create what seemed to be my very own fan club, but it also came from the levels of respect I got from men. Some of the attention was inappropriate, ill-advised, and annoying. But it gave me a boost I didn’t know I needed. And I can truly say that I am more confident now than I was before.
On a more serious note, the stunning lack of infrastructure, proper sanitation, and medical facilities has made me confront and accept my own mortality. Unlike Abidjan or Dakar, where the existence of basic infrastructure allow the rich to get by, there is no hiding in Bissau. Life expectancy is low. Seemingly young, healthy colleagues up and die of malaria, and everyone seems to be battling something chronic (which, given the state of healthcare, could be fatal). There is a brutality in it all, an inability to run — or drive— for the sterilized hills of America or Europe. I can earnestly say that I have come to accept how small and fragile we truly are, but also that nature’s majesty includes some nasty creations, many of which are fatal.
All the while, I learned to deal with head offices, relatives and friends back home, who kindly suggest I “just do X” or remind me that the rules can’t be bent, regardless of the circumstances. These parallel worlds that I navigated in and out of can feel schizophrenic. Luckily, I wasn’t alone in this, and after a few glasses of whatever poison we’d gotten our hands on, I was to complain, commiserate, support and find support. Were it not for the kindness of those around me, I’m not sure how I would have coped.
I was lucky enough to be born in a wealthy country, and I grew up in an era of major strides in gender, racial and religious equality. This made my time in Bissau a permanent confrontation of what life should be (at least from my America perspective) vs. how life is. And it happened joyfully. Over cups of coffee where the ever patient Jassi calmly explained to me why people never demand accountability; and over painstakingly streamed Masterchef episodes with Jose.
I come away from it all with a sense of appreciation. With the courage to go after what I want. With renewed faith in humanity and gratitude for the kindness of strangers. But also, the ability to dance anywhere, explore everything and take nothing for granted.