Night slowly penetrated the core of the city. The lazy sun gave its passionless goodbyes. The air was filled with the smell of wet earth mixed with the sounds of crackling, roasting rice. The loud screeching of children playing here and there, mingled with a giddy jumble of speech and raucous bursts of laughter. Bissau was once more wrapping itself in the dark, night cloak of a ghostly city, where the full-beam headlights of 4×4 jeeps dazzled nocturnal eyes.
In the Glowworm, one of the capital’s few restaurants, the flickering candles partially lit up some very conspiratorial faces. Although they were speaking in hushed tones, the topic was not hard to guess. They were talking about the day’s events; the first returns from the National Election Committee, and the results of the second round of a controversial presidential ballot. The returns, which at first had seemed to indicate a victory for the government-supported candidate, were being contradicted by lists in booklets, selling for a thousand francs a sheet. The Glowworm was full of people and noise. I had barely entered the restaurant when Dino Isaac saw me and nodded, beckoning me to his table at the far end of the room. It was impossible to escape Dino Isaac, the most Guinean Jew that I knew. “Gabriel,” he shouted. “Gabriel, come here, come to my table!”
Dino Isaac was just over 50 years old, he had lived in Guinea-Bissau for more than 30 of them, and he was one of those people who seemed to know more about what was happening in Bissau than anyone else. I still do not know what he does, but he says he is a “multi-faceted consultant”.
He claimed to be an expert at translating simple ideas into fundable projects. “But of course, they’re projects condemned to failure. Oh, obviously, they don’t have my signature at the bottom, I’m not stupid enough to sign anything like that.” He would say those things so seriously that it was frightening to think that anyone could be drawn into such shameful scams. Just as Dino repeated my name, the lights in the Glowworm came back on, startling my friend.
“Shit, there goes romanticism! That bunch don’t understand, they’re blinding us all with lights going on and lights going off. I can get by quite well in this endless darkness. Do you know what I think? Once they finish with this saga of cutting the power and switching it back on, and we finally have a stable electric grid in this country, Guineans will immediately rush out into the streets and demand that whatever international aid group brought them light, instead give them back their long years of darkness. That’s the way these people are, they think with their hearts, not with their brains, suddenly it’s everlasting, unconditional love!”
Those wild words made me laugh out loud.
After taking my leave of irascible Dino Isaac, I decided to take a walk around my city for a while. The country was living through weary times; almost no one seemed interested in talking about it anymore. You had to avoid the situation in order to survive. And time was passing. Slowly. It was a slowness that hurt and corroded. It was like an attempt to eternalise this harsh reality. Close to Market Square on the wall of a colonial-era building heavily damaged by the war, someone had daubed panha raiba ka tem, which meant something like “no reasons for bitterness”. I recalled seeing a cop trying to direct traffic with jerky arm movements and loud whistle blasts. In vain. Drivers ignored him to the point where he was almost run over. But the man somehow fulfilled his thankless duty with some dignity.
I woke up to the noise of music belting out of a strident loudspeaker. I had an important 10 o’clock meeting with Jean Marie Guinnot, a cultural official at the Franco-Guinean Institute of the French Embassy in Bissau. I was to film a “positive” documentary on the country. Guinnot had been in Guinea for a number of years, and was quite familiar with West Africa. He spoke excellent Portuguese, and Creole, which his French accent turned irresistibly exotic. I arrived 10 minutes before the agreed time and found Jean Marie already waiting for me on the terrace. “Bonjour mon cher ami, Gabriel Mendes.” It was crucial to make appointments with experts and especially with the other parties involved in funding the documentary.
To me, Jean Marie seemed more optimistic than ever. “My dear Gabriel Mendes, don’t worry, it’s all been okayed. Look,” he told me with a smile, “the European Union has granted one part, let’s say the lion’s share, and the rest is coming from contacts in the Guinean government through partnerships and such…”
While I savoured my French-style breakfast, I was thinking about the job that, at any moment, was about to fall into my lap. I knew full well that it needed to be made within the context of what my country was living through right now. The remit of the project was to film “the positive and poetic side of Guinea-Bissau”. A film that should show “the other face” of reality. Jean Marie Guinnot was a Frenchman with a Guinean heart. It was quite a time since his post as counsellor at the French Embassy had expired; even so, he was always looking for ways to prolong his stay in Bissau, which he had managed to do by being an excellent professional, by fluently speaking Portuguese and Creole and, above all, by being a person with an easy manner, a true gentleman.
The loud television on the Institute’s covered terrace bothered me. But I did not have the nerve to show it in front of such an enthusiastic gathering. It was a documentary about the undersea world of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Without subtitles. I opened the dossier that my French friend had painstakingly prepared. I began to re-read the project that sought to “sell” a futuristic Guinea-Bissau, which included a wishlist of people to feature in the documentary, along with various locations and “model” projects. Jean Marie avoided broaching the subject, but he knew very well that I did not agree with anything that was being proposed. An unavoidable truth tormented me, because he knew that if I did get the job, the documentary would not meet the promoters’ expectations. At the same time, he really wanted to help me, to convince me that I could gain enough prestige through the work to provide me with the influence and money to complete my “great work”.
The presentations at the French Embassy were tiring. The room was occupied in particular by a consul with an ostentatious moustache smoking a fat cigar. I couldn’t wait to leave it.
We lunched at the popular Coconut Hotel, where I was staying, and we finalised the details for the preparation of the following day’s work; it would be taken up by interviews and organising production teams. I was enjoying a coffee on the hotel terrace, when I was interrupted by a member of staff who told me that a gentleman had been looking for me. He handed me a note that read: “My good friend, don’t think that you’re free of me. Get away from all those foreigners; tonight, you’re going to have a drink with me in a fantastic place. If nothing else, it’s the only place where we can have a nightcap and dance to good music. It’s called The Box, an apt name, as it really is a box… full of surprises. I won’t accept any excuses—Dino Isaacs.”
I folded the paper, put it in my shirt pocket and lit a cigarette. There was an unusual bustle on the avenue. Military vehicles and some luxury cars were causing traffic that alienated people. I went up to my room. On the old chest of drawers next to the small wardrobe was a book titled Anthology of the Poetry of Guinea-Bissau. I opened it and turned to page 59. The poem was called “Liberty”, written in 1962 by Vasco Cabral:
What wind blows through men’s hearts?
What anguish is there
The white dove crossing space?
What crushing pain
The pain of the soul of the oppressed?
What a wound
What blood flows
From the infinite bed of the sea of life
In each wind you are
Your clear expression is in every anguished moment
And in the tears
and the wounds
and the blood
and the bodies
and in ecstasies
and the cry of deflowered virgins
and your red and beautiful face
lie hope like the face of the moon
I fell asleep and into a recurring dream that had haunted me for years. It is of a faceless man, wildly riding towards me on a white horse. He appears to be holding a document in his right hand, a message. The noise of the galloping horse is terrifying. Though I’m only metres from the horse, it never reaches me, and the man’s face remains a mystery. I once spoke about my dream to a friend who told me not to be afraid, that it was not an ill omen, it was just a sign that someone would give me an important message that would assuage many of my fears. I carry on waiting.
I was woken by the telephone. I picked it up and recognised the young receptionist’s voice: “Senhor Gabriel, this is the time you asked for a wake-up call, it’s seven o’clock in the evening.” My body was glistening with sweat.
The Box was true to its name. A small space where bodies mingled in a dancing frenzy, where everyone seemed to be enjoying something, whether it was the drink they were holding, the conversation they were having, or the beautiful swaying bodies of the young women as they slowly and purposefully cruised the four corners of the room.
It was a good night, but throughout the evening, one thought kept whirling around in my head. The film’s connecting thread would be its main character, or rather, its host, and that person could be no other than Dino Isaac. He had the right profile, the right authenticity. I decided that no one could do a better job of narrating the real Bissau than this unique figure.
That night, I hardly slept as I lay there mulling over how to convince Dino to take part in a project that we hadn’t formally discussed. The following day, I told Jean Marie about my idea. The Frenchman turned pale. “You’ve just had a bad night, you must have had a nightmare,” he said with a hint of desperation. “Gabriel, don’t you understand that the project is to showcase the country, its tourism potential, the few things that run well here?” “Yes, the film’s going to show all that,” I replied, “but also local reality. I want to film daily life, and there’s no better character than Dino Isaac to lead us through this narrative.” Silence. Jean Marie wiped off the sweat trickling down his head and shot back: “Right, you can’t say I didn’t try, but I’m telling you that I don’t believe the backers will accept what you end up handing in.”
The next meeting was easier than I had anticipated. I bumped into Dino in Bandim Market; he had gone there looking for a spare part for his tiny generator that kept the lights going in his small apartment. “Gabriel,” he said, “my friends from the Box liked you a lot, but they thought you were a bit timid, quiet, but who cares…” Dino knew Bandim Market’s small, muddy alleys better than anyone. He would chat to almost all the stallholders, haggle over any product, criticise and give advice, all being greeted by everyone.
We stopped at an old shipping container that had been converted into a bar, and had cold beers and a bite to eat. I was waiting for the right moment to spring the idea upon my friend. I told him the plan. After a long silence, he burst into laughter. “You never stop surprising me, Gabriel. Me, Dino Isaac, the narrator of a documentary about the real life of the country?” His expression changed when he saw how serious I was. “Okay, I’ve already thought of that, but you know, the terms aren’t right, you’re the producer, you’re the one with the know-how. Give me some time to think it over. I need to know everything, the terms, payment, these basic things.” We discussed the details and arranged a meeting for the following day.
Dino met me very early at the Coconut Hotel. He was unrecognisable. He had had a haircut, had trimmed his beard, and was suited and booted. He smiled when he saw my surprise: “Don’t worry old friend! This is the way it is, you must get respect, otherwise that lot won’t take you seriously.” I explained to him that his casual look was just right for the project. Over breakfast we talked about the theme and the shape of the documentary, but Dino seemed distracted, absent. It did not take him long to tell me his worries. He said that he had some friends to whom he owed favours. They wanted to take part in the film as it would be a matter of prestige for them. “There are about a dozen people or so,” he said, “it shouldn’t be much of a hassle.” I again explained the nature of the documentary to my friend and that it certainly was not a fictional film or an amusement for his friends. Dino agreed. But straight away he began to quiz me about the chance of a down payment, “a small advance in my hand”. I began to silently question my judgement in choosing him.
Shortly after breakfast, Jean Marie Guinnot appeared. He did not look happy. After the usual greetings, he got straight to the point. In the end, the backers had not even authorised the release of the funds that were already available. “They believe the project has strayed from the proposed theme,” he said, “and that your attitude verges on the arrogant. I’m very sorry, mon cher ami, but I did warn you.” Jean Marie wished me all the best while patting me on the shoulder. Dino Isaac saw it all. He gave me a fixed stare and said: “You have to get back in the game then maybe you’ll really understand what you’re up against. Thanks for trying; it was too good to be true. Let’s meet up later at the Braima container, in Santa Luzia, we’ll have some oyster soup and a few beers and then head off to The Box to dance a bit and forget all about that nonsense, okay?”
The next day I packed my cases and left the hotel a little before noon. The taxi driver who took me rambled on about everything; the problems, the delay in the announcement of the electoral results, the delayed payment of civil servants’ wages, and petrol, which everyone was led to believe existed, but nothing had been said about it.
On the way, we passed the colonial-era building with its familiar mural and message: “panha raiba ka tem”. “No reasons for bitterness,” I repeated.
On the plane I fell asleep and into the recurring dream that had haunted me for years. It is of a faceless man, wildly riding towards me on a white horse. He appears to be holding a document in his right hand, a message. The noise of the galloping horse is terrifying. Though I’m only metres from the horse, it never reaches me, and the man’s face remains a mystery. I once spoke about my dream to a friend who told me not to be afraid, that it was not an ill omen, it was just a sign that someone would give me an important message that would assuage many of my fears. I carry on waiting.
Translated by and published courtesy of Paul Southern. Read his essay on Waldir Araújo here.