The soldiers have surrounded the house by the sea. It is one in the morning. The darkest hour. Even under star-lit African skies. A quarter moon hangs low to the East. There are about twenty, thirty soldiers, a section, the equivalent of a platoon, dressed in khaki fatigues. Rifles are clustered on the crazy pavement around the house, neatly, by threes, butt on the ground, gun muzzle upwards. Some soldiers stand near their rifles, chatting in low voices. Others squat on the ground, warming their hands to makeshift petrol fires lit in discarded tin cans.
The house is caught between the West African sea to the North, a dirt road and the thatched roof huts of the African village to the South. Millions of stars above. There is little electricity anywhere, even without power cuts, so no urban lights dim the stars. My father would teach us the constellations at night. Ursa Major (the great bear), Orion’s staff (the three stars in a row), the small dipper. And many others which I’ve forgotten.
The place is the suburbs of Conakry, capital of newly independent Guinea, on the coast of West Africa. I am about eight, my little sister, five and change.
And the soldiers surround the house.
My parents are out. In those blessed times without TV, when turntables barely held six or ten months before being eaten away by cockroaches or the humidity, I remember that my parents were out almost every night. Well, when you’re that age, almost every night could well be three or four times a week. A party at the American or Italian embassy. Conakry was a small town then, with possibly more ambassadors by the square foot than any other capital in the world after the Vatican. Or it might have been a cocktail held by one of the airlines or mining companies. A dressed up (at 30 C) event at a ministry; or just bridge and twist or madison at some friends’.
The soldiers surround the house. Waiting. The low wooden gate to the dirt road is open.
My parents are coming back from the party, reception, cocktail, bridge, whatever, in their right-hand drive Consul automobile. Chatting. Laughing. My father barely notices that the gate is open as he turns left onto the gravel lane leading to the house. Then, as he slows down on the scrunching gravel, my parents spot the soldiers at the same time.
“My God”, my father says, “they’ve come to arrest us.”
“Les enfants! The children”, my mother says.
Guinea, a former French colony, had gained independence barely two or three years before, but already, the rule of Sekou Touré, the first President, was marked by arbitrary detentions, people vanishing into thin air.
The car slowly grinds to a halt. There is no going back. The soldiers are all standing now. Watching. My father kills the engine. Both my parents open the car doors and step down on the gravel lane, shaking inside, looking at the soldiers. Both hold their backs straight. Never show fear. Ever.
An officer, dressed in a crisp khaki uniform, walks up to them at a leisurely pace. Stops three feet away from my parents, clicks his heels and salutes:
“Good evening Patron, good evening Madame. I am Lieutenant Diallo. At your service.”
“Good evening, Lieutenant,” my father says. “May I ask what is going on?”
“We’ve come to arrest the cook, Patron.”
After an inward, somewhat selfish sigh of relief, my father asks:
“The cook, Lieutenant? Why? Soriba is a good man. I vouch for him.”
“He is a spy, Sir.”
“He is a spy? Soriba? A spy? I doubt that very much, Lieutenant (the man can cook, and very well, but can barely read or write. Now to be accused of being a spy is a serious matter). And where is he? Why are you… why are there so many soldiers here? (and how are the children?)
“I have my orders, Patron, but your cook, he is difficult, Patron.”
“He is difficult?” my father repeats. (Have you noticed that in times of trouble, one tends to repeat what the other says, as if repeating absurd words will make them go away?)
The lieutenant shakes his head. “Very difficult, Patron. He refused to be arrested.”
“He refused to…” My father stops repeating. Just looks at the lieutenant.
“He refused to be arrested, because he had the charge of the children, Patron. Since you were out, he said he would not leave the house, and leave the children asleep, alone in the house, he said it was too dangerous, and we could kill him, but he would not leave the children alone until you returned. So we set up “camp”, put the rifles in bundles and waited for you. Do you want to see the children? I went to their room only half an hour ago, they’re sleeping like babies.”
“Yes, yes”, my mother says, “we would like that very much. And Soriba, too. Where is he?”
“In the kitchen, Madame. He also said he would not leave the kitchen until you were back. I tell you. A difficult one, your cook. Tsss!” The Lieutenant clicks his tongue, a typical way to manifest reprobation or discontentment in West Africa.
My sister and I are fast asleep in the air-conditioned room. Soriba stands tall and upright in the kitchen, dressed in his usual white trousers, shirt and spotless apron. I’ve never seen him without his apron. I think he slept with it.
The cook, the Lieutenant and my parents come out of the house to the gravel path. The Lieutenant barks an order. All the soldiers scramble in a line, two grab Soriba, our poor cook, by the arms. The Lieutenant clicks his heels again, salutes. My father asks:
“Lieutenant, I understand you have your orders (in troubled times never question a military regime’s orders.) But I can assure you that Soriba is not a spy, there must be a mistake. The President’s Chief-of-Staff is a very good friend of mine, so please… let us go slowly in this matter (don’t torture him please). Where are you taking him, so I can go tomorrow and talk to your commanding officer?”
“Very well Patron, we will go slowly (he knows the Chief-of-staff), we are taking him to Camp Alfa Yaya. Good night, Sir, good night Madame.”
“Good night Lieutenant, good night Soriba. I’ll go get you out tomorrow morning.”
Soriba attempts a small smile. White teeth in the dark of night. He is a bit grey in the face though. “No problem, Patron, I’ll be waiting for you. Good night Madame.”
Alfa Yaya was a better option than Camp Boiro, where hundreds or thousands of Guineans were eventually held prisoners and executed.
The next morning finds us at breakfast on the round table by the African sea. I am munching mango. Nothing beats the taste of mango, except maybe goyave, guava. To this day I still remember the first mango I tasted on that very same table. A fishing boat iddles by, ten, fifteen feet away, on the blue-grey waters. It’s high tide, I figure that after the compulsory digestion time of one hour, the water will still be high enough for a good swim. My parents are silent, each likely thinking: “Now what?”.
My father looks at his watch. A fancy Omega or Jaeger-Lecoultre affair. I still have it somewhere. Still works. He downs his coffee, stands up and says:
“I’m going to Alfa Yaya. Got to get Soriba out.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” my mother asks, “I mean, we do have to get Soriba out, but…”
“Yes we do,” my father said. “I know it’s risky, but it should be safe enough, I can always drop a few names in government. Minister So-and-so.”
“And Kaman, too, right?” my mother said.
“Yes. Those guys were Army. If push comes to shove, Kaman is a good last resort.” Colonel Kaman Diaby was the Deputy Army Chief-of-Staff, a very good friend of my parents. I still remember him vividly, he and his wife, Aissatou, one of my mother’s best friends. But that, “best beloved”, is another story.
My father gets up, walks on the gravel path to open the wooden gate to the dirt road, and stops. At a distance two men come walking, or rather stumbling. Bras-dessus bras-dessous, arm in arm, best buddies, a tad tipsy, there come the cook and the Lieutenant. They stagger towards my father, not quite hammered yet but close (at nine in the morning?). They stop. The cook has clearly been beaten up. Just a wee bit. He has a swollen, half shut eye, a split lip. Which does not affect his good humour. The two look like they’re having the time of their lives. Not a word does my father say. He waits. Best option in unexpected situations: keep your mouth shut. The lieutenant does a somewhat shaky salute:
“Good morning Patron. I came to bring your cook back.” He laughs. Soriba laughs too, as if this is the best of jokes.
“Good morning Lieutenant, good morning, Soriba. Er… what happened?”
“We made a stupid mistake, Patron, the Lieutenant says, with a mighty laugh. Your cook is a good man, like you said. We arrested the wrong cook.”
“Yes!” Another mighty laugh, “the spy is your neighbour’s cook!”
“Is he really?” (‘hope the other poor bugger is already on the run.)
“Yes! Ever so sorry about the mistake. Bad paperwork you know, but since your cook is a stubborn man, and would not confess to being a spy…”
“I told you, Diallo,” the cook says, “that I am not a spy.”
“I know, my friend, I know,” the Lieutenant says, “but all spies say that.” Turning to my father:
“So, since some of of my subordinates were a bit rough on your cook, once I realized the mistake, I invited Soriba to a couple of beers. To make amends. Now that is done. I leave the cook in your hands. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go arrest the other spy, I mean, cook. Good bye Patron, good bye Soriba.”
Soriba was lucky, and so were we. We stayed in the magical house by the sea for another two or three years. Then left for Holland. I will not elaborate much on the shock – weatherwise – of that change of venue. Suffice it to say that I had to wear shoes all the time there, not good.
Two more years afterwards, all our friends in Guinea were arrested. French, Lebanese, Greeks, Guineans. Some stayed for years in Sekou Touré’s prisons. Many were executed. We were lucky to leave on time.
Hell often lies just around the corner from Paradise.
Text and photographs (c) BMO and Equinoxio, ‘xcept for the bundled rifles.