Guinea Bissau: Day 6 – First Week

Today is Saturday or Sabado, the 6th day, and the end of my first week of work here in Guinea Bissau.

Yesterday, the appearance of the moon in the sky above also marked the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting during which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking (this includes water!) and sexual relations from dawn until sunset.

This has been widely apparent, as 40-50% of the population here practices Islam, and their abstinence has often become apparent through their absence during evening meals. Most tend to rise early, and fill their stomachs before the sun comes up, perhaps get some sleep during the day, and then feast as soon as darkness sets in again.

This custom is only carried out by adults though, as children, although eager to emulate their parents and other adults around them, are under no obligation to partake and are refused this right by their parents until they deem them old enough.

To take it’s place, now begins the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, during which food is donated to the poor, everyone puts on their finest, and usually new, clothes, and communal prayers are held in the early morning by a large mosque nearby. Sadly I missed this sight yesterday, but I heard that it was a sight to behold – an ocean of people rising as waves across the plain, an undulating wave harmonious with calling of the prayer, a myriad of splendid and vivid colours, reflecting in the sun.

I wish I had some images to share, but I’m sure these google images will give you the idea.

But Islam aside, I’d like to share with you some of what has passed since my arrival here in Bissau.

Approximately 4 hours after writing my last post, I arrived at Bissau airport, located just outside the city centre. Stepping off the plane onto the tarmac, I immediately was given my first dose of what was to become the leading standard for local weather to come; hot and rainy. Indeed it was somewhat akin to being given a mild dose of steam bath, the effects of which were probably exaggerated by its stark contrast to the cool and air-conditioned interior of the plane I’d just departed. Now I like to see myself as one never to back down before a challenge, but instead rising to the occasion, so I resolutely hiked up my breeches and purposefully stepped into the air-conditioned bus awaiting us for transit to the airport building itself.

Once there, and through the required passport check, I was greeted by Sanne, a Danish PhD student working under the same counsellor and with the same HIV group I will be basing my research on. She, having a special cooperation card afforded to long term (3 years+) researchers based in Bissau, had been allowed through customs to help me claim my baggage, while a driver employed by the Bandim Health project had been forced to wait outside. Apparently this varies from time to time, as sometimes they allow the drivers in to help with the baggage, and other times not.

As I have found to apply to many situations here in Bissau, when no fixed rules are set or upheld, the main things to consider are seemingly the loose interpretations carried out by the whims of whomever is left in charge. But in short time baggage was found and claimed, and having passed through the VIP/Diplomat gate at the local customs, greatly assisted by the words “Projecto de Saude de Bandim”, we rallied with the driver outside and quickly skipped through the rain towards our car.

An uneventful 15 minute drive later, we arrived at Forto Branco (Branco meaning white in Portuguese/Creole), which is the compound of houses in which we research year students and some of the PhD’s share apartments and common grounds. The houses are rented by the project from a local man, who also lives in one of them, but has remained as of yet an unseen and elusive figure in my everyday life.

The houses in Forto Branco are arranged as a rectangular block with a single point of entry, through either a door or a garage. Inside are the houses arranged with some space before them, serving as a “front” yard, some walled off and some sharing the same open space. Also belonging to the same block is a row of larger apartments with a separate entrance, with windows opening up to our common space. My house contains 2 apartments, accessible by stepping into a wide corridor/veranda between them, and then taking the door to either right or left. The two are almost mirror images of each other, but do vary slightly due to asymmetrical layout. Each apartment contains 2 rooms, one larger than the other, one bathroom, a kitchen and a living room.

In my house, that I share with a student of public health named Frida, I have the smaller room of the two, as in Bissau, seniority sets the place you live, and as I was the last to arrive (everyone else here has been here 2-3 months now) I got last pick. It’s not the worst room though, they say, which supposedly is the mirror image of mine, but located in the apartment to the right, where an Thorny Icelandic girl, now resides by herself. Her roommate had arrived in May to begin her project, but decided that this kind of work was not for her, and left just a few days before I would come.

Upon my arrival, I was shown to my room in darkness, as electricity at the compound is generated by two diesel driven generators, which only run at certain times of the day. As I’ve understood it those are from 06:30 to 10:00, then again from 12:00 to 16:30, and then again from 18:30 to 01:00.

These times  are actually set to match the everyday routine of the people working here, which for me (and the HIV people) would look something like this:

07:00 – Wake up, take shower, brush teeth, check email, eat breakfast, take malaria prophylaxis (In my case, as I have to take 1 pill every day).
07:45 – Meet in the parking lot outside, drive to the HIV clinic at Simao Mendes Central Hospital
08:00 – Sit in HIV clinic, prepare for patients (- Internet)
08:30 – Greet first patient, take Blood Pressure, take blood samples, inject experimental vaccine, monitor patient for one hour.

11:00 – Drive to Laboratory, analyze blood samples, do CD4 count etc.. (lab stuff) (+ Internet)

12:30 – Leave for Forto Branco where food is being prepared
13:00 – Eat lunch prepared alternately by one of the two ladies taking care if our houses (who are named Fatima and Sabado respectively)

13:30 – Check email, sleep Read or in my case, prepare for Creole lesson
14:00 – Keep sleeping, reading or using Internet, or in my case, take Creole lesson for one hour.
15:15 – Meet in parking lot outside, drive to the Project Site

15:30 – Arrive at Projecto de Suade de Bandim, where we have offices, archives, storage rooms, a conference room.
15:45 – Work on funding applications, fix printers, clean storage rooms, fix computers, prepare for presentations, do paperwork etc. (+ Internet)

17:30 – Leave for home (Forto Branco)
18:00 – Either make food, or go out to eat with some of the others.

19:15 – Finally some free time to relax, take a bath, chat, Skype etc. (+Internet)

22:00 – Go to sleep, exhausted..

This varies of course, as I’ve now downgraded to taking Creole classes only every other day instead, as they thought of never having a minute to myself except in the evenings, where I even though tired, try to be somewhat social as not to be labelled “The Hermit” right from the beginning : )

Back to the night of my arrival, darkness didn’t stop me from unpacking, as I just whipped out my fancy new flashlight (those of you that I’ve met in the weeks prior to my departure will most certainly have seen it and my demonstrating its every function, and promptly started setting my stuff into place upon the shelves of what now fulfils the function of shelf space in my room. Pictures were immediately taken, and promptly uploaded to the Internet a few days later.



Finally going to bed around 3 AM, I was afforded the unusual “luxury” (here, as at home I’d call it habit) of sleeping in the following day, as Sanne then came to pick me up around 11, by which time I’d already taken a shower (cold, as hot water is not a feature but a bug) and managed to watch the last part of a Swedish movie I’d gotten started on while waiting for my flight in Lisbon.

After taking me to her house, located in the row of houses accessed separately from ours but sharing our common ground, I was fed breakfast and informed of everything a fledgeling branco (whitey) in Bissau should know, and after giving me a tour of the compound, showing me the freezers which I am to take care of from next week on, I was driven around town for a quick meet’n’greet with all the important people in Bissau. Not the best with names in general, I do think that I managed pretty well, and at least I’ll remember some of the faces for next time, I hope.

At lunch time, we came back to the house (according to schedule) and I got to meet Grete, Grith, Thorny and Frida for the first time. Later followed Leo, Susanne and Peter. Grete and Sanne are both doctors doing their PhD’s here, Thorny is an Icelandic medical student from Århus (6th Semester) and Frida as I mentioned earlier is a student of Public Health, also completing a research year in Bissau. Grith is the local administrator, a master of public health from Copenhagen, doing work here in order to gain experience for further work with NGO’s in the future, but is pregnant and therefor leaving tomorrow evening in order to have her baby in Denmark, not scheduled to return. Peter (Aaby) is the founder of the project, an anthropologist and a doctor, who has his own house at the Forto, behind which we usually sit and eat our lunch by a dark wooden table with benches, located under a rough thatch roof. Finally Leo is an engineer I believe from DTU (Copenhagen), who has signed a work contract with a man named Andres at SSI (Statens Serum Institut) in Copenhagen, to do work on his research project down here. He is the one person down here who is seemingly always busy, and often arrives late for lunch, if arriving at all.

Interesting thing is that yesterday evening, Sanne and Grete left for the UK, where they are to attend a week long seminar on infectious diseases, and Sunday marks the departure of Grith and Peter to Denmark, so it’ll only be Thorny, Frida, Leo and myself from Monday on. With no other doctors on site, I was promptly declared senior staff member, and given a tour of our medical supplies if something should go wrong.

The days to follow were marked by my purchasing a local dictionary (and some comics, but I’ll get back to that) and beginning my lessons in Creole, with Gabriel, who was also the teachers of those to come before me. Besides having an annoying habit of slapping my hand every time he wants to say something, he is an excellent teacher who speaks Portuguese and a bit of Spanish and English as well, so most of the time we’re able to communicate quite well. Price of lessons is 2500 FCFA pr. hour, which equates to 25 DKK (divide by 100) and must be considered quite cheap.

In general I’ve found that the prices here are not easily equated beforehand, as for example I can buy a bread (white, baguette) in the local store for 100 FCFA (1 DKK), but also in a bakery get a slightly larger bread for 1500 FCFA. Yoghurt is between 1200 FCFA and 1800 FCFA for a four pack of something similar to Petit Danone available in Denmark, and a can of tuna can be had for 750 (7.5 DKK).

I bought a SIM card for my phone, for 500 FCFA and deposited 2000 FCFA worth of cash to my account through a small scrape-off card with a code. So far using Internet (having visited the phone company office and waited 30 minutes for GPRS access point information) and occasionally calling people I’ve only managed to spend around 100 FCFA and have the impression that these minutes go a long time on very little cash. I was told that the locals usually don’t buy more than 500 FCFA (5DKK) worth of cards for deposit, and that this lasts them some while.

Stores here are nice and clean by most standards, but carry very select items only, some not having certain goods at all, some only periodically. This was well illustrated when I heard Thorny gasp out loud today, upon finding 6 small bags of oatmeal in one select store near the central market. Apparently oatmeal has not been found here for some months, and the prospect of hot oatmeal with raisins, apples, cinnamon and milk was very great indeed.

The clinic at Simao Mendes is not as bad as I had feared, but leaves no luxury to the patients that come. “Luckily” for those infected with HIV, the treatment offered is free, but as the clinic was recently moved from an isolated house to the front entrance of the hospital, many patients are uncomfortable being seen in there, by all those that pass by, and some of the patients in the vaccine study will only come on weekends or at times where the clinic is usually closed.

The procedure for the trial is as I described earlier, with patients waiting one hour after injection, to ensure that their BP (Blood Pressure) stays up, to demonstrate no immediate adverse reaction to the drug given. During this waiting period, which they would spend sitting on a plastic chair in a small office where people sit and enter data from the forms they fill out, I found them mostly idly twiddling thumbs and staring at the slowly rotating ceiling fan up above.

Thinking back on my own personal waiting periods at hospitals and such, I asked if no entertainment could be afforded, a radio, a television, maybe just a newspaper, some magazines and such. I was first told that they didn’t mind the waiting time, as outside they would often lounge about for hours on end, not doing more than idly watching the clouds go by. Asking the local staff I was told that they might like some entertainment, but that many of them didn’t read very well, so that newspapers might not be the best to go by, but some magazines with pictures might fly.

When I later went to get my Creole – English dictionary at a local bookstore, I then happened upon some children’s comics written in Creole, and purchased a couple along with a larger issue with Portuguese authors. After later placing these in the office and prompting the patients to read, I was happy to see their reaction, as most would smile and laugh at the idea at first, but also start reading, slowly and out loud (I’m guessing to try to make sense of the written words they they wouldn’t recognize by sight, but know by sound) and after a couple of minutes it was like watching children at play, giggling and talking to each other about the adventures of the characters involved.

A staff member tried to walk me through one of them, that revolved around a local boy N’tori (the protagonist of both children’s comics), who wanted to make himself a mobile phone in order to impress a local girl. He’d made it out of clay and baked it in the sun, later placing some glass from a coca-cola bottle in it as a display. Then putting the whole thing into a small case/box which he’d hung around his neck, he walked around town with his head held high and proud until he finally got to the girl. To her he said that it was a special phone, not from Bissau, and not for blacks but only for whites (Pretus and Brancos) and that it was given to him by a white person. She could not touch it though, as it was made from special chemicals, and one need to wear special gloves in order to use it.

When I stopped reading (after only 5-6 pages out of 30) the girl had actually fallen for his rouse, but I’m sure that there’s some kind of moral in the end, which I’ll discover come Monday : )

Other stories from this week would include me and Thorny having a small water balloon fight with the local children today, my giving Salsa lessons to Grete, Sanne, Thorny and Leo, which were very well received, my taking a local TucTuc (minibus filled with people) to the outer areas and back just yesterday after a walk from the hospital through the market and on, our going to a luxurious bakery today and eating banana’n’nut cake with a cup of cappuccino and also one from the first night in Bissau, when we visited a luxurious restaurant with standards very far from everything else I’ve seen down here. These places exist spread out across the city, like the Palace hotel, which I have not visited just yet, where one can pay to gain access to fast Internet (Skype Video Chat fast) and a swimming pool for around 30 DKK. It is not my intention to become accustomed nor addicted to them, as I’d like to find my place by those around me, but I cannot yet swear by not at some point feeling or giving in to the need to get away for just a day, and for such an occasion I like to know they are there.

Small stories aside, I have come to like it here very much, the locals, the other people at the project. I believe I can make a difference by using all the skills that I have, for the people around me, the project, and everyone involved. I hope I can one day look back upon my time here, and feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, be it by large events or small, a smile or a just nod of gratitude.

My best wishes from Bissau to you all!

2 thoughts on “Guinea Bissau: Day 6 – First Week

  1. Elsa

    Takk fyrir að leyfa okkur að skyggnast inn í þennan heim með þér Pétur! Hlakka til að fylgjast með ævintýrunum þínum. Kær kveðja úr lúxusnum í Stokkhólmi 😉

  2. Claus Franz Overbeck

    Hey Petur,

    Sounds like you are fitting in well so far and that the standard of living (for you) is better than expected. I think that will make your stay a lot more pleasant.
    Cool that you have begun language class in Creole, im sure it will come in handy.
    And of cause spread the salsa vibe…always a great way to make new friends.
    Enjoy the hot weather….its been raining here in Århus.
    Claus 🙂

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