It is going on a week now (two by the time this goes live) that I have been living in Guinea-Bissau. Between inspiration, amazement, loneliness and excitement, I believe I have felt all possible emotions. I would say, however, that I am mostly at peace. I am in my own little corner, in my own little world (sort of) and living it day by day. There is so much to discover yet so much is right in front of me. This week has been focused on adjusting and learning about the country, its problems and, of course, of the UN presence here. Let me tell you more about Guinea-Bissau.
1. The Basics
Guinea-Bissau is a small country on the West coast of Africa and shares borders with Senegal to the north and Guinea to the south. To its west, is the Atlantic Ocean. With a population of just over 1.5 million (New York City alone has 7 million more residents) and 36, 125 sq KM in land (slightly less than three times the size of Connecticut in the US), it is a small country with a large history. Not many people have heard of it, and those that have know of it because it is a former Portuguese colony (when we were mighty explorers in the 1400’s) or because of its drug trafficking problem. Due to its colonial legacy, the official language is Portuguese, which is taught in schools and required as a first language. Over time, it has blended with local languages and many people speak this mixture. I’ve been able to communicate with the locals using my Portuguese but it is funny to hear the different idioms and ways of saying things.
2. The Turmoil
Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1974 but in the 80’s, a military coup d’etat put Joao Bernardo Vieira in power as a dictator/president. Even though he was able to establish a multi-party system and a market economy, the people suffered unbelievable violations to basic human rights. Multiple attempts at a coup d’etat failed to unseat him in the early 90’s, and in 1994, he was actually elected in the country’s first free election.
Between 1998 and 2005, two civil wars broke out, two military coups and a (luckily) bloodless overthrow of the government ensued. Vieira, however, was re-elected in 2005 on the condition that he pledge “to pursue economic development and national reconciliation,” only to be assassinated in 2009. An emergency election was held in which Malam Bacai Sanha was put in power. Following his death in 2012, another military coup thwarted free elections… and so here we are.
3. The Now
Currently, Guinea-Bissau is governed by an interim President and Prime- Minister with help from the UN. Dr. Ramos-Horta, or the “Big Boss” as I like to call him, was sent here as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in January 2013 to lead a mission on peace-building, government reconciliation and reform in order to get the country back on its feet. The UN office has been extremely well received by the people and the government alike, so they are managing to do their job. Additionally, what I’ve learned is that the people themselves are strong and resilient; they’re open, ready and desperate for change. Change has to come from the will of the people and we’re lucky to have at least their will behind the mission.
So far, with help from the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), we have managed to schedule free elections for November which is an enormous feat considering the coup happened just over a year ago. Aside from that, the UN is working on issues in education, health, human rights, gender equality, peace and security, and most urgently, drug trafficking. Although Dr Ramos-Horta and the UN refuse to call it a narco-state, drug trafficking is still a huge problem. There simply aren’t enough enforcement resources to prevent Latin American drug lords from shipping drugs in large containers through Guinea-Bissau into Europe. It is a huge priority and strides are slowly being made.
In terms of agriculture and produce, the country is famous for its cashews, mangoes and regional fruits that are similar to papaya. The cashews and mangoes are unreal. They’re truly unlike any nut or fruit I’ve tasted before. Located in the West of Sub-Saharan Africa, Guinea-Bissau is blessed with fertile land, rain when it feels like it, and coastal regions to catch plentiful fish. If Guinea-Bissau could produce enough to export, I’m sure that’d boost their economy…but they can’t due to with instability in the country’s climate, economy and government. It’s honestly a vicious cycle: there isn’t a stable government to lead the country which impacts economic and social growth, so there isn’t money to invest in basic development needs, and so the people can’t produce enough to export and make more money.