[ places - july 10 ]
Hey, I bought a motorbike! I haven't ridden since Sudan, but I had to have this one. It has a cherry-red fuel tank, sharp, chrome trim and I got a good price despite the exchange rate.
I drove it to my mother's place and glad she was to see me; the years have slipped from her face since she went into remission. She walked with me to my bedroom, though it wasn't the room I remembered. I shrugged away her delight as nothing extraordinary, as children do who go away, who knows where, returning on the saddle of their exploits, only to go away again; till they are parents, and the children keep going, becoming one with the accordion playing in an empty square that is not a real memory, only a sequence from a film showing elsewhere during the time of flight and the great depression.
The garden, too, had changed, and was now a storage space for carboniferous rocks over which my mother marvels. A pure-blonde girl in a white pinafore, the child of my mother's late-flowering womb, I nonchalantly assume, is playing close by with the composure of one at home. Later, she follows me along an enclosed footpath I do not remember that leads to Waters Upton, where no path led before. I'm sure this little girl, crying on my shoulder for a parent, is my mother before she went away herself, though neither now exist - nor the places from where they came.
It is 3.16 when this wakes me, almost guiltily. I have sworn off cigarettes, but the dawn is so far off I draw on some while the crickets glitter beneath a frog's avuncular triplets and the drops of spent rain fall from the dark foliage. It is too early for the call to prayer, which is only heard when the 'courant' is on; when the speakers are working. Then the prayer expands like an orange flower in the darkness, like a light. The cigarette gleams, the watchman haunts the gravel, followed by a dog: the day emerges tenderly.
Then the courant flows in abundance. It bounces over the table cloth between two Italians in the second team, their differences erupting into an incandescent duet of rage and blame as they embark on a period of isolated intimacy. It burns up the darkness on the road to the voting station we are due to monitor as it prepares to open because, as Mahdiu tells it, the government thinks a little light will make the day more festive. It's 5am and the bulbs are lit for no one yet awake but, like Christmas, unexpected illumination requires no witness. It's enough to know it's shining.
At Hafya, we turn along a lane that runs between dewy pasture, irradiated by dawn, and densely forested hills. Nothing is caught in the headlights. We are looking for Hindé, a village we visited two days earlier, but are quickly lost despite the lifting shadows. No matter. Hindé exists only on a plan of visits drawn up to gratify the security officer: any other place will suffice, even Bignan, with its pair of voting booths housed in primary school classrooms. Joseph and I will take one each, doubling our quota before the sun rises. There is competition with the other observation crews, even in this.
It is now warm and bright enough to see. I put on my blue waistcoat, decorated with gold stars, and stuff its pouches with regulation gear: a potholer's head torch to scrutinize the ballot boxes' plastic seals; a compass to find our way to the frontier if violence erupts; mobile phone and Immarsat for help; and condoms, in case we have to form temporary relationships to survive. In my hand is a clipboard with questionnaires on the protocols for opening polling stations and the vetting of voters by ID, stamping their cards, marking their fingers with indelible ink to prevent them double-crossing us and, in Guinea, an ink stamp if they wish to make their mark.
For someone who cannot read or write, a cross may be as hard to master as composing a symphony. It is certainly no easier to make than the symbol, Ѯ for a Christian or ? for a Greek, though Picasso might have managed the cave drawings of Cro-Magnon man. The voting paper - a Rosetta Stone for the bewildered - is littered with icons of surpassing terror, including the Roman alphabet, two dozen head-shots and the same number of symbols, some of which might be of immediate benefit, such as an umbrella in a storm, or a corn-cob for those who went without breakfast.
But others - a lion, a striking mamba, differently coloured maps of Guinea, a handshake between black and white - have broken from their moorings altogether. There are few lions, green mambas or even white people here, so their use as symbols may only be legible to those who have become aware of their power in folk tales or history books; and a map is of no more consequence than the shape of underlying soil exposed by the cracks in a road broken by rough usage. Side by side with these emblems, enclosed in black piping, are tracts of blinding whiteness that challenge the pilgrim to trespass or sully - though that is his imprint's true home.
They repeat down the page in columns of 12 - mute, receptive, untouched by the visual clutter to their left. But how to identify the one that is correct amid the noise, the heat and this pressure? The final humiliation, perhaps, is that most illiterates make their mark in a corner of the same classroom they never attended in youth, but which would have made recognizable some of these portents - and the political vocabulary they claim to represent.
The curtains of the isoloir, where the voter makes his choice in secret, close on hundreds of identical attacks of crushing vertigo, and no help is at hand because the protocols forbid it. An elector often responds with a squiggle - not a distinct mark, for that entails unlearned skills - and not graffiti, for that requires coordination the illiterate does not possess, though he may share the graffiti writer's scorn for authority.
The squiggle is a separate study entirely. Like an infant's, it doesn't mind at first where it goes so long as the ink continues its enrapturing course, but then the aversions come to the fore. A child has no compunction at disfiguring the smug, pensive, intellectual or intimidating faces of El Hadj Papa Koly Karouma, Lansana Kounyate, Fodé Mohammed Soumah or a front-runner like Professor Alpha Conde, to name some, but an illiterate's doodle betrays an awareness of propriety and authority from which children rarely shrink.
His squiggle will not intrude on the candidate's face, but may indicate its sympathy with a dot somewhere subservient in its vicinity. On other papers, like a timid gambler, the voter place an each-way bet: by underlining the face of his preferred candidate, he bestows an unconscious benediction on the rival beneath, so neutering the choice he walked for miles and waited half a century for. In the language that also rules the Eurovision Song Contest, his performance behind the curtain elicits a resounding 'nul' in the counting process immediately after voting officially ends.
The men on the stoop are waiting for the head of the polling station to come with a key. It is 25 minutes to opening, and already I feel like an experienced bully.
Now, is it this one, or that one, or one of the other 17 bureaux de votes we visit on election day I'm about to describe? They're mostly housed in the simple but dignified schools built after 1958 when Guinea's secession from France's African empire lent it the some of the same obstinate glamour as Cuba, though it later fell to pieces judging from the classroom furniture. The only ones that stick in the mind are the first and last where we watch the curtains rise and fall on the voting ceremonies.
It's takes half an hour to open a polling station, less time than to run up a road-side cigarette stall or, I dare say, an open-air mass. All you need are a transparent box (the urne), plastic seals, varied inks and pens, curtains, torches, recording documents and labeled envelopes, and you're in business. But you mustn't forget a queue, of course. By mid-morning, segregated lines of men and women in cheerful-best braid the school in glowing colours, presenting the perfect drive-by photograph of Africa waiting patiently in file to cross over to the promised land of democratic conformity. If only it were so simple...
The real action is in the lists: of those with voting cards, those with receipts for voting cards that did not arrive, two more with the names omitted from the previous two, and two after that for those voting by derogation or procuration, terms that include those too sick to vote on their own account, those with permission to vote away from their appointed office and those who man the voting station at $7.50 a day.
The more conscientious note down the names of those who do not appear on any of the six other lists - a real chore since everybody in Fouta Djallon is called Diallo - the name of the main candidate - Barry, or Bah, another man standing for the highest office. At 16.45, local radio announces a seventh and final list: anybody not on any of the other six can vote anywhere - and as many times as they want since by this time the staff is too exhausted to check their papers or write their names down. Nobody knows who authorized the announcement or if it was made to skew the result or undermine the reputation of the organizing electoral authority. No one has the will to follow the message back to its ultimate sender.
With 40 EU and OSCE 40 missions on his head, Joseph, my partner, is an expert on voting systems: he knows how it ought to be done, and the checks and balances that exist to ensure the outcome passes all tests for authenticity. But this scientific methodology is not beyond reproach. The EU gave its qualified approval to the 2009 election in Afghanistan weeks before President Karzai was shown to have stuffed the ballot boxes with a million votes to extend his term of office and, even as we were observing the vote in Guinea, an EU mission was monitoring an election in Burundi where the president was the only candidate.
I tend to err on the sloppy side, assuming that an eagerness to vote, coupled with traditional safeguards against cheating, provide immunity against wholesale fraud, particularly when the system of lists is so devilishly complex only a genius could figure a way to compromise it across the nation without detection.
We cover as many polling stations as is possible in 12 hours, assuming 30 minutes in each and the travel time between rural, suburban and urban settings. The aim is to capture a cross-section of the voting day across all the country's provinces and ethnic groups, like the Mass Observation art works in the years immediately before and after the Second World War. The more teams, the more visits they make, the more pixels will be visible in the final image, whose outline will inevitably be richer and more clear.
Throughout the morning it becomes obvious the polling station staff are not tying the ballot seals tight enough. Still in smoking mode, I find I can slip a pack between lid and drum, wide enough to stuff it with sheaves of doctored votes. When I demonstrate this at one station, my eyes encounter a certain compassionate wonder at the ingenuity of the observational art, but an opposition party member points out politely that no ballot-stuffing can possibly occur because he and others will ensure it does not. Voting into an unsecured ballot box is the highest of suspicious circumstances, but he seems not the slightest apprehensive. I spend the next hour tightening seals all over downtown Labé without ever regaining my poise.
Closure takes place at Daka 1, a densely populated constituency in Labé with six polling stations still heaving with voters, mostly young. I take one station; Joseph, another. The courant has given out, but the light is still piping through the open, metal shutters into the classroom, desks and tables stacked to the rear. A vague piety, which could be easily mistaken for an officious regard for protocol, enchants the five polling station staff and three party helpers after the doors are bolted and they launch into the unfamiliar liturgy of counting votes.
The crowd outside seethes with cries of complaint at the lock-in while the ballots are sorted into piles of 100 on the teacher's desk in a spirit of muffled attentiveness. Then they begin, and I observe. One man unfolds each ballot one by one, another examines the mark it bears, and a third recites the name of the winning party - most often 'Ooo-Eff-Day-Zay' (UFDG), headed by homeboy, Cellein Diallo. Four other men and women keep score in exercise books, building four-sided houses with a line across to denote 'five' votes called; in contrast to the prisoner's method of marking his stretch by striking out four dead men standing. The memory squares they draw look like one-storey homes on a Monopoly board - but they remain two-dimensional with scant foundation. Every hundred calls, the tallies are compared and agreement reached.
Torches are switched on as the darkness builds, but the counting continues under their blue-grey glare. At one point, the second man tips the paper he is holding towards the source to see if he holds a vote or a nul. The light cuts his face into sharp lines and planes that have lost all ordinariness, editing his cheap clothes into a dark, flowing irrelevance. The tallymen look up from their notes to hear his decision, eyes gleaming in the slanting brilliance, though his response is a predictable 'Ooo-Eff-Day-Zay'.
I glimpse a reflection of the discovery of a building block of creation in the table of elements, captured by a Victorian painter at the dawn of science, now transfigured in a down-at-heel chiaroscuro. I shrug it off as a relic of sentimental photography, a deceptive play of light in a place where darkness is another country, and counting votes no visa out. The act of counting is more like a prayer than a revelation but, as I look back again into the room from outside, the illusion is still there.
By contrast, the next three days is a 40-watt meeting in the Governor's offices where a magistrate from Conakry rules before a court of party delegates, journalists, observers, computer operators and provincial electoral experts. Outside in the corridors, 131 polling station representatives stand and wait, chat and chivy, go out for coffee, resume their places, sway, scratch, complain, lean against walls, slide down for white-night confidentials, and finally, and with what disappointment, fitfully fall sleep as the judge paces the room, his bald skull shining back up to the solitary bulb.
A prosecutor by profession - but martinet by choice - his cosmopolitan sense of the dignity of the court gradually folded before the avalanche of statistically incorrigible, but largely innocent, electoral results from the sticks. His attire betrays the fraying lines of his attack: an opening three-piece gambit gives way to a full-length boubou by the second day. His tones soften from aggressive banter to a more comradely approach to the tired assembly and it jumbled, governing laws of elections. By the third day, he's finally learned to reduce his performance time for a dozen results from four hours to a quarter. And so we eventually get through.
The legal mind of Judge Cherif, an impressive man for all his faults, pin-pointed the sub-prefecture of Garambe, with 12 bureaux de votes, for further analysis and we duly go. Traces of original forest are visible from the tarmac, between tracts of wide, cleared land and the seeds of suburban settlement. A man ambled over to the first polling station we called at, removing his earplug so we could hear the Netherlands-Brazil match, and directed us to Bassaya College, a secondary school down the road.
The place was calm and deserted. 'Le premier mari d'une femme est son métier', declared a slogan on the campus' ochre walls. We drove along a track to another dead end, to be re-directed to a polling station next to the tarmac. It had been built in the time of the founding dictator, Sekou Touré, long gone to wrack and ruin, but still a gateway for the local democratic transition; a fragment of a vandalized list of results was glued to the wall.
We made our way to the entrance, hoping the full particulars were chalked on the blackboard, as in other stations. One entrance was open, the smell inside appalling; others blocked by cut branches. Pools of blood, mixed with water, gathered in the cupped discrepancies in the concrete floor, and the walls were meticulously gashed with a tool that had left charcoal and umber scrapes in a rough, uplifted pattern that resembled feathers. A Sekou-era slogan in Pular proclaimed prosperity to the district. Clearly, the voting centre had been a slaughter house recently, though whether before or after it was the site of modernist decision making, no one could say.
The next classroom was identical: the same slogans in blue stencil, the same frenzied, feathered gashes, made, perhaps, by the horns of a maddened bull. On the wall was human figure two feet high, drawn in artful, red chalk. Its oval, hermaphrodite face, with unconcerned almond eyes and skull-cap, suggested an arresting authority, almost Assyrian. Attached to the head, but with the body obscured by the flaking surface, was a four-legged beast that must have been a cow. There haven't been horses in Moyenne-Guinée since the last king, Alpha Yahya, raised a cavalry in the 19th century.
This hybrid centaur may have been under-painted by the builders to mock the revolution, and exposed by time and the terrified feathers. But the unused classroom and its incongruous host had never been forgotten. Not in the time of the protocols, at least, judging from the blood.
What on earth have we observed, let alone seen?