Roume Island, Guinea, West Africa
Gliding across the sea in two carved wooden boats captained by Susu oarsmen was a welcome relief from my twenty-two hours of travel. The last stop—a small port in Conakry reeking of fish and waste—required a long wait. As the boat sped up, the breeze cooled my cheeks and the din of excited voices around me faded away. The further into the bay we cruised, the more the stars and constellations glistened. Without the benefit of a boat light, the sailor used his well-honed internal compass to bring us to the island of Roume off the coast of Guinea, West Africa. It was an example of the kind of resourcefulness that we would witness often in the days to come.
I had joined a group of thirty North Americans and Europeans to take part in three weeks of drum and dance lessons. I was eager to plunge into an intensive course in the djembe, the goblet-shaped drum, which originated in the region around the twelfth century. Afia Walking Tree, one of the soulful teachers at the annual women’s drum camp I attend in northern California, organized the trip.
Once we landed, a tall, one-eyed islander lifted me out of the stern and brought me ashore, returning to do the same for all the other passengers, women and men alike. By the time all the people and bags were unloaded, it was 2 a.m. We were shown to an area where whitewashed buildings shaped like a square horseshoe surrounded a sandy courtyard. Amidst palm trees our group feasted from large plates of savory chicken and rice. We each received a fork, but no individual plate, so we dug our forks right into the food on the serving platter. The noisy generator refused to cooperate, so without lights, we ate under the starry sky. I went to bed dreaming about how our adventure might unfold.
I could not have imagined how it did. Later that morning we awoke to shocking news. The president of the country, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, had died. His death threw the country into a tailspin. The military government froze federal functions like banking and air transport. Some members of our group grew worried that they wouldn’t be able to change money or leave the country. One visitor unnerved everyone by telling and retelling how her friends had faced a similar situation once and were unable to get home for quite some time.
Most disappointing of all: official protocol during the mourning period required that no drums be played. Our drum classes were quashed as soon as we arrived. The village chief, however, still permitted us to enjoy our dance lessons, accompanied by singing. “Dun go, dun go, dun go, dun,” called Yamoussa Soumah, our dance teacher, an
acclaimed master dancer and assistant director and choreographer of Les Ballet Africans and Ballet Djoniba dance troupes. So off we went—learning ten dance steps to ten different rhythms in only a week.
In the absence of drum classes, we had a chance to explore the small island. The sweltering tropical heat made us sweat like pigs, especially during dance lessons. Afternoons, following class, were the perfect time of day to swim or relax in the shade of hand-made cabanas on the other side of the island where local gymnasts practiced their sky-high leaps and contortions.
Although villagers swam in the bay right in front of our camp, pollution kept us out of the water there. The island lacked basic infrastructure. Villagers used a nearby beach among the rocks when nature called. We used what looked like a flush toilet, but we had to pur a bucket of water down it, which just flushed everything right into the bay, untreated.
Our camp was located in the middle of the only village the island could support. The path to the beach went right through the community. We passed just a few feet from their front doors, the most modest of dwellings with tin roofs, outdoor fire pits for kitchens and missing walls. Chickens wandered around, pecking the ground under the baobob trees. It felt awkward walking among people’s homes—if folks were tromping across my porch every day, I would be resentful. I also felt guilty that my home in the states was so luxurious compared to theirs.
Let’s face it. We were like millionaires compared to the islanders. All of us, regardless of ethnicity or background, enjoyed a lifetime of relative privilege, wealth and education. For our visit, including airfare and lessons, each of us had spent a few thousand dollars—more than a typical Guinean would see in a decade or even a lifetime. According to the World Bank, Guinea ranks in the bottom fifth of GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
Before we left, many of us had collected clothing and medical supplies to give away. On the second day a special event was organized in which our gifts were presented to the village. The islanders lined up behind tables laid out with goods. Our joint organizers, Afia Walking Tree, living in California, and Dibo Camara, from Guinea, who owned the Fore Foté camp village, made a brief presentation of gratitude to the villagers. The chief did the same, welcoming us with open arms. Then distribution began. A fistfight erupted among a few of the teens over a couple of items.
This upset many members of our group. From their reaction you could see that they were surprised by the incident. Although some visitors had borrowed money to come on the trip, their overall wellbeing was highly advantaged compared to the residents who were living on a small island eating one meal a day without access to health care and a full education, let alone amenities. I didn’t see the fight over the goods as a big deal. All over the world, when stuff is given away, people compete for it. When our group discussed it later, an Austrian woman said, “You should see people tackle each other when the department stores give away free items in Vienna!”
My impression was that the westerners wanted their gifts to be accepted by the island residents with joy and gratefulness. They felt the fighting had intruded on their good intentions. But the two things were not necessarily connected. In my opinion, our gifts represented symbolic appreciation for the hospitality that we expected to be given rather than real amelioration of the rigors of island life.
But this was not just a matter of wealthy Westerners and poor islanders. A local system of corruption became apparent too. We had brought more than enough gifts for everyone, expecting them to be evenly divided. Yet each of the 250 villagers was only allowed one item. Where did all the other gifts go? The director had apparently put them in storage. At the end of camp, I found out that some of them were divided among his extended family, rather than the entire village.
The mutual differences in expectations showed up again a few days later. Villagers were coming into camp to offer services for fees, such as laundry and hair braiding. I wanted to get my hair done.
“Rita, I love your braids. Who did them?” I asked.
“I’m going to ask her to do mine.” As short as my hair was, Makemba still managed to create dozens of braids on my head.
The next night Brittany, all done up, asked me, “How much was your braiding?”
“Thirty thousand francs.” (About US $5.50)
“That’s outrageous. I paid Ibrahim a good $20.00 worth! What a rip-off!”
“Why are you so surprised? That’s how the market works. A vendor goes for the highest price people will pay. Just like in the West,” I responded.
“I’m getting the feeling that we are just dollar signs around here,” she said, disappointedly.
The visitors felt they were perceived only as customers, not people. On the other hand, we expected the Guineans to feed and care for us, teach us and perform for us for a dollar value way below any amount of money we would ever be able to pay in the West, in short, way below the “value” of their services. The Guineans saw a good opportunity to earn as much income as possible during our visit. Class differences like this are repeated again and again every time Westerners tour developing countries. It was clear that our varying expectations were not going to be resolved on this trip.
* * *
On the fifth afternoon, after the president’s public funeral was held, the ban on drumming was lifted. We all cheered that classes, one for beginners and one for advanced, were finally going to begin. Our affable, twenty-something teacher, Allisar, who grew up right behind the camp, taught the class in French. One of the Canadian students
translated. Mostly we watched his hands and listened for the rhythms. Base-Tone-Tone-Slap. Base-Tone-Tone-Slap. He knew a few English words and yelled “Timing!” more times than I could count. It was a real thrill to take lessons in the place where the music originated. The roots of all cultural music, including Latin and Caribbean beats we enjoy in the U.S., come from Africa. We were learning from the source, the griots. Griots carry the sacred lineage of their people’s music, stories and rites of passage from one generation to the next. How fortunate I felt to receive the offering given by the Susu griots, which they had directly inherited from their ancestors.
Our drumming dreams, however, were short-lived. Just when classes began, we started falling sick. Many of us came down with high fever and acute respiratory illnesses. I was struck on Sunday of the first week. Lying in bed at night, when the ocean breeze had ceased, my hacking cough, together with the hot air, made me gag. Accumulation of the smoke in our camp from the day’s cooking fires didn’t help. When my roommate came down with it, she had to leave the room each night to get to the shore just to breathe. I figured that we had gotten the swine flu in the East before it had traveled to the West.
Two people had to head home for medical treatment. I considered it as well. My island days were now devoted to languishing on the bunk, drifting in and out of sleep and skipping meals. The tissues I had brought were long gone. I had taken to using my towel to blow my nose. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I threw it in a corner of the room with the rest of my stuff. Later, gathering my laundry, I noticed a trail of tiny little red bugs marching from the doorway up to my towel and devouring its deposits while ignoring the Trader Joe’s snacks nearby. Gross, yes, but also a lesson about life in a tropical ecosystem—nothing goes to waste.
After several days, I started to feel better and decided to stay on the island rather than return home early. Heading to the beach, I ran into a few of the local drummers I’d first met there. They invited me to a nearby “bar,” a tiny shack that served beer and soft drinks (and on lucky days, ice brought by boat from the mainland), to be enjoyed on the deck overlooking a small private beach. The moon, half full, spilled ivory light onto the patio. The swaying palms lit up. I could just barely see the guys’ faces as they drummed and sang. Their warmth and openness made me quite comfortable, and I spontaneously came up with a song for them as well. I had never just upped and played for anyone before.
In between songs, we chatted in broken English. I had only picked up a few words of Susu. The conversation revolved around a single question.
“Are you married?” asked Immanuel, a handsome 25-year old.
“Because I have a boyfriend back home and we don’t need to get married.”
“Then why don’t you marry my brother here?”
“Because I have someone special and I don’t want to get married.”
And so the conversation continued.
As an advocate of a woman’s right to independence, these questions would normally have offended me, but I understood why they were asking. From their perspective, having a family with a westerner would solve many of their problems, which included deep poverty and the boredom that comes from living on an island smaller than the one Tom Hanks washed up on in the movie Cast Away.
But, seriously, I was old enough to be their mother. Where were the women their age when the guys were drumming on the beach?
They were doing all the domestic chores, which on an island without electricity or plumbing, is a heck of a lot of hard work. Up at 5 a.m., the women and girls lit and tended the cooking fires, prepared the food, cleaned up, cared for the children and hand-washed the laundry. Some piled produce or fish atop their heads and traversed the island on foot to sell it. Others packed baskets and barrels of fish and a bit of produce onto boats headed for the markets in Conakry. Meanwhile, the fishermen, who got up at 3 a.m. to catch their daily supply, sat exhausted in one spot smoking, eating and drinking, while the women ran village affairs.
Occasionally a few girls found time to drum. It was refreshing to see that Susu customs, a blend of Islamic beliefs and ancient traditions, did not prohibit girls from drumming as happens in many other parts of the world. One afternoon, four girls, aged ten to twelve, bounded into camp and jumped on the djembes during a class break. Their hands struck the drums in just the right way, producing loud, fast rhythms. The girls feigned seriousness as they began to play, but toward the end of a pattern, they burst into laughter.
Drumming just does that to people. It has that effect on me, making me feel relaxed and giddy. Living briefly among the Susu gave me a gift—drumming is like breathing. All life has a rhythm, and as human beings we embody rhythm and sound, and seem destined to live in it. I had listened to drumming many times before where I live in California, but I always had to drive to the performance or get to the class. It somehow exists outside of us, rather than resonating from the inside out.
On the island, live music is part of everyday life. I watched a toddler approach a djembe confidently, joining in to play, smiling widely. He had heard the rhythms in the womb. He could easily slap the drum in sync with the music. On the island of Roume, the Susu people live in the sounds, tapping out original rhythms. The mix resides within. It’s as essential to life as oxygen. No need for fancy technology. Music is simply a natural plug-in to the soul.
- · Names of villagers and participants are pseudonyms.
© Leanne A. Grossman