For the past few weeks my work has taken me to the countries of the Mano River Union, namely Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire. This is an interesting little corner of West Africa, forming sort of a bump on its southwest end. It isn't the sophisticated, very English stretch of Ghana and Nigeria, but it isn't the sophisticated, very French stretch of the Sahel either. Especially if we don't count Cote d'Ivoire, the three remaining countries form a little subgroup of their own, with many elements of shared culture. There is a long history of migration between Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and back, at least as far back as the 1970s, when Guineans fleeing dictatorship and post-dictatorship chaos looked to the more developed climes of their neighbors, only to have a massive counterflow as brutal civil wars broke out in both Anglophone countries. This back-and-forth migration has further muddied the preexisting situation of many ethnic groups (Kpelle/Guerze, Mende, Susu, Malinke/Mandingo, among others) being distributed across borders in multiple countries. The result is that there is a lot of multilingualism across the board, both in African and colonial languages. I would venture to say that in few other places of Africa do you find so many francophones who also speak English, and vice versa. It seems like everyone in a given country has either worked in one of the others, or is married to someone from a neighboring country (but sometimes with the same mother tongue), or did their Quranic studies or high school or whatever in one of the other countries.
Right now the Mano River countries are a relatively impoverished backwater of the continent, and especially of the West African region, but I wonder if this may someday change. Their coastal populations, command of both English and French, their major ports and fishing cultures, and tight links between both co-ethnics in different countries and different ethnicities within the same country, seem to suit the region well for success in a globalized world. Especially Sierra Leone and Liberia seem to have emerged from their wars with a newfound sense of unity and national identity, and a drive to make a decent, prosperous society. Bad road and air connections between countries are a hindrance for now, but this could be fixed in very short order with just a bit of political will.
There are of course differences that sort of baffle me, too. The road from Conakry to Freetown is totally atrocious throughout Guinea, up to the Sierra Leonean border, after which it becomes an excellent, smooth, well-maintained highway. The Guinea stretch literally has sections like those photos you see of jungle tracks in the Congo or the Amazon somewhere, with car-sized holes in the pavement that oblige you to drive down the drainage ditch by the side of the road, which is also car-deep but at least has smooth inclines on the side. Both countries are notoriously poor, with similar per-capita incomes and malnutrition rates, but Sierra Leone's roads look like Wisconsin blacktop, while Guinea's are like a scene out of Blood Diamond or something. By the same token, Guinea's capital Conakry hasn't had effective trash pickup for a few years, so the streets are literally overflowing with garbage, sometimes down the median strip, always on the sidewalks, and sometimes closing off entire lanes of traffic with ad hoc dump sites. There is usually a haze of smoke in the air from burning garbage--it really gets to look post-Apocalyptic at times. Freetown, on the other hand, looks like a Mediterranean beach resort, quaint, colorful houses neatly arrayed down verdant hillsides that flow to the sea. Little garbage to be seen anywhere, street signs and pavement everywhere, and light traffic. Again, I just don't know what the difference is. Sometimes I wonder if Conakry is in fact more prosperous than Freetown, and because of this is plagued with more garbage and more cars, both symptoms of higher consumption. In any case, Conakry has twice as many people as Freetown.
On the other hand, the natural environment is notably less intact in Sierra Leone, with its denser population. In Guinea you see pretty dense forest (or savanna, in drier areas) wherever you go, even along major roads. In Sierra Leone, however, it's mainly grassland and cultivation, until you get to even denser populations in the north, where economics seem to have dictated intensive planting and caretaking of oil and other palms, as well as other useful trees.
Back to the similarities. Colonialism (or maybe just the sheer abundance of languages, even before the Europeans came along) seems to have worked a perverse linguistic legacy in the Mano River Union. There is pretty broad understanding of French in Guinea, and English in Sierra Leone and Liberia. But this can be misleading. I have often found myself speaking my shaky, un-nuanced French to a Guinean whose French is (in its own, different way) also shaky and un-nuanced. Add to that a certain reticence on both sides, an expectation that your cultural referents are so disparate that you can't possibly expect to understand one another, and you get frequent situations in which all parties are ostensibly speaking and listening to words they all mutually understand, but they nevertheless don't really understand one another. Add now to this a culture of deference to authority, where people won't contradict or ask clarifying questions so as not to offend, and you've got a recipe for confusion! This doesn't just happen to me--I've seen lots of Guineans talking past each other, or not understanding the nuance of what the other is saying. If someone asks someone else to do something, it will usually take a few tries, each try with its attendant response and correction, before party A actually manages to do what party B is requesting. The misunderstanding is greatest when someone is trying hardest to please the other, since they are overly eager to act and totally unwilling to clarify what's being said!
I thought this was just in Guinea, surely not in the Anglophone countries where almost everyone understands at least Krio, if not standard English. You know that look of terror that Americans sometimes get when they are talking to a native speaker of West African English? They know they should understand, but they don't at all, and even things they probably are capable of understanding pass them by, bewildered as they are by the speaker's heavy accent. That is the look that has greeted me on more than one occasion as I respond in my Chicago English to a fluent speaker of Sierra Leonean English. They are hearing something they are supposed to understand, but they just can't get the key piece to unlock the meaning of the words mangled by my weird, twisted accent. When I try to speak more slowly and clearly, it is even harder for them to understand--I'm just making their torture more drawn-out and louder!
Food in Guinea has the other places beat, in my opinion. The cuisine across the region is similar--rice with peanut sauce or cooked greens or spicy stews--but Guineans seem to put more effort into it. There was the hamburger meal that I indulged myself in at a provincial hotel in Sierra Leone. It looked great, with a crisp toasted bun and fresh vegetables on top of a burger paddy colored red from the rich seasonings they mix with ground beef here. But once I bit into it, I found it to be sinewy and unchewable, sort of a mix of minced offal as opposed to ground prime beef. I left most of it on my plate and didn't make a fuss, but the waitress just said, "Sorry about the food," as she handed me the bill. It was as if she'd known beforehand how bad it was going to be but had been torn between the urge not to contradict me, and the decency to tell me straight out not to order it. I got a kick out of her quiet dignity mixed with a resigned frankness.
Music in Guinea is also superior to the other places. Guinea has a long autoctonous musical tradition, ever since the great medieval empires with their griots, and extending to the Communist state-sponsored music of the 60s and 70s. The Anglophone countries, on the other hand, seem to be flooded with foreign music in English. While I enjoy hearing Wham and Whitney and other 80s and 90s acts on the radio, it doesn't give you the sense of a strong national music culture.
One thing that has been noticeably absent from my experience of these countries is war. For most of my conscious life, I have associated Liberia, Sierra Leone, and to a lesser extent Cote d'Ivoire, with gruesome civil wars that raged in the 1990s. Even today people outside these countries still refer to the wars, and within the countries the war is fresh on people's minds. If you get folks to open up, they will discuss the war, and many places and events are defined in time by their relation to the war. But the countries don't look like war-torn places. Of course it's been almost 20 years since these wars ended, but I would expect to at least see more of their physical marks--craters, bullet holes in buildings, amputees. It's almost jarring to not see any of this. Freetown, which was overrun by one group and then another of marauding, coke-addled killers, just looks like a little Dutch Caribbean town or something.
I'm sure that, as with any place briefly visited, these countries have a lot more going on, just under the surface and invisible to my initial cursory glances.