The last neuron: on being a scientist working on Africa

 

By Dyhia Belhabib

“I have one Neuron left, I cannot think straight”

I am in Conakry as I start writing this. Conakry is the capital of Guinea, a country which I visited for the first time in 2012, after which I promised myself never to go there again.

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The level of corruption is so high here, that the military and police would invent any excuse to harass and to blackmail tourists and visitors.

Guinea is classified amongst the worst when it comes to corruption, 145 over 175 countries to be more precise.

 

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Since January, I was working with the MAVA Foundation to organize their strategic planning workshop. An exciting venture, as we are about to embark in a new result based era. For the first time, we are creating focus with people and organizations in the sub-region. It is not about what we, in Canada, think is right. It is about everything else that needs to be included in a science, evidence-based, policy, and regional and international cooperation. Going from the knowledge of scientists to the status of fishermen, it is about illegal fishing, and traditional and cultural knowledge. It is about the value of information, way beyond numbers. I like the idea that this strategy is inclusive, and I am honoured to be the one who has been chosen to work on it, and deeply thankful to the MAVA Foundation for this opportunity.

Before the trip, I told Sarah Popov, my assistant in this trip, that she was lucky not to go to Conakry. For the unexperienced, this country is plagued with corruption, and I had promised myself that I would limit all engagement efforts with our dear colleagues in Guinea, from the outside. It was too much for me to handle, or … was it?

This journey was certainly one that was full of surprises.

Let me give an account on how it went, and how despite intense fatigue, one still keeps hope and hard work always pays.

When you are expected to be a lead expert, and then get 3 hours of sleep over a 48 hours journey, and have to react quickly to really adverse situations, one asks the question: How the heck do I make this work?

 

 

2               Sarah Popov and Dr. Dyhia Belhabib at the Sheraton hotel. At least we spent the night in a nice hotel.                                                                                                  Conakry, Guinea 2017

 

As we began our journey in Vancouver at 6am on Saturday, I was telling Sarah that I was happy that her first trip to Africa starts with Senegal, it is a pretty nice portal, both for beauty, science, and engagement. After all, it is the hub of major regional and international organizations working on fisheries in the sub-region.

I prepared the presentation halfway before the trip, and then 90% of it was ready as we were in transit between Vancouver and Toronto, and as I was missing only one little bit of info I needed to extract from the Sea Around Us website, I decided to do it once in the hotel in Dakar. I was naïve!

[One thing about me: I do not like to recycle presentations. I feel there is always something new to be told, and it is a matter of respecting my audience that already knows my work to give them something new and easy to digest].

 

2Confusion in Conakry’s airport. Where the hell is the shuttle? Where is the staff of the airport? Where are we going? What is going on? Conakry, Guinea 2017

 

Indeed, once on the flight, halfway through to Dakar, a man falls, he has a cardiac arrest and, despite all the efforts by the nurse, the crew, and everybody, he dies. That meant that while they were trying to save him, we had to stop in Lisbon for three hours. At first it was ok, and then the pilot decided to take us to Conakry, stop there, take passengers, and then go to Dakar.

[usually some flights in West Africa would go to more than one city or country at a time. In this case the flight route was Brussels-Dakar-Conakry-Dakar-Brussels. I know it sounds weird, but sometimes t go from Dakar to Accra in Ghana you need to go to Europe].

Bad idea, Brussels Airlines, bad idea!

Once in Conakry, the authorities took so much time, that the crew was no longer authorized to operate, and if they did, they would have lost their licence. We had to get out of the plane, take shuttles, and go to the hotel. Our hopes of getting to the workshop on time were suddenly crashed, my hopes of adding the last stretch of data to the presentation destroyed, and my exhaustion level suddenly peaked.

The last few neurons I had left faded away leaving behind them one last soldier, a fighter who stood up whenever I needed him. The last neuron helped me as I opened my computer at the airport and recorded an early version of the slide show. Why not? My idea at best was revolving around the notion that whatever happens, we will make it work!

 

2                                                            The police comes to escort us to the airport.                                                                                                                                            Conakry, Guinea 2017

 

But, suddenly, my computer battery went down, and there were too many people for the unique and only power plug of the airport. The power plug joined my neuron in his solitude.

We stepped out of the plane to the wonders of the city I promised myself never to go to again.

Conakry, here I am after 5 years.

Needless to say, there was no shuttle, there were small minuscule cars taking one batch at a time. People were confused. I grew up in Africa, and I was confused.

It is one of those few time when I felt like a kid again. I don’t know what is going on and I keep asking someone and I just follow you around, like … wide-eyed. You float along where the crappy current takes you.” (Sarah Popov talking to Dyhia Belhabib, Conakry, 2017)

Eventually, the organizers (driven by a not so smart idea I had) put us in cabs and sent us away to the Sheraton hotel. Not much time after we got into the cab, the thing that I feared the most happened. Those ugly corrupt and illiterate police officers (and I am being nice) stopped us and asked for our papers. 

Obviously, after we showed them our passports [in my hands fiercely grabbing the passports telling them loud and clear to stop pulling and that the passports of the 4 of us, all women, remain in my hands], and after I explained the situation, they told me “you still need a visa”, I told them that we would be happy to drive to the airport all together to get the visas. That is when the second excuse was brought up: “then you need a residence card”.

[Let’s put this in context, we were basically illegal in Guinea, because usually you would get into a company shuttle that takes you into the hotel, and you have at least a stamp on your passport. There was nobody at the airport to stamp our passports, so we were basically ghosts in the middle of Conakry, in the middle of the night]

I was very furious, because he was just looking for a reason for a bribe, and I on the other hand needed a punching bag. I was not going to give him a bribe. It was not possible for him to get anything from me. My diplomatic features faded away. Certainly that one and unique neuron I had left couldn’t think straight on its own at that point.

I told him: “ask God to send it to you because not only no one wants to reside in your country, but also, I will not give it to you and I am not interested in getting one”. At that point, he was saying stuff and I was telling him that his accent was not understandable. I was mocking him, his accent, his weapon, and his outfit.

“I was both really freaked out and glad that you knew what you were doing. I kind of liked the sense of camaraderie with the four of us from the cab. I was kind of in disbelief, both tired and scared, and like oh my God!” (Sarah Popov to Dyhia Belhabib, Conakry, 2017)

I had no clue what I was doing, I was not impressed nor intimidated by his AK47, or his outfit.

Let me walk you through the number of excuses they can make to make you pay. If you ever find yourself in Guinea, there are rules you should follow, because, unless you are in a government’s car, or the UN, or some impressive other thing going on, you will get stopped, and you will be blackmailed, and you will be harassed. Do not get me wrong, you will get harassed, I cannot say it enough. So, what to do? [paying was not an option for me]

  1. They will stop you, and look mighty behind their machine guns

Remember: behind their machine guns, they are just men. They have a complex of inferiority and they overcompensate by showing off guns and some kind of “know it all”.

Do not be afraid: They are there to intimidate you.

Smile, greet them and show them that they are not intimidating. Really, you don’t care about that gun, they cannot use it against you in any possible manner. They cannot put you in jail, you are a foreign citizen who did nothing wrong, and even if they did, they will have to report to their supervisor, and they don’t want that to happen. They cannot do anything. In fact, have you ever heard about someone (a foreign citizen) who was arrested because he refused to pay some kind of fictive visa which was not their authority to start with?

[Ironically, you have a lower chance of getting detained in Guinea as a foreign citizen travelling, than in the US at the moment…]

or, you can just pay the bribe…

  1. They will try looking for excuses and things to find a problem. The first thing they will ask you is your papers (passport). Then if it is in order, they will ask for a residence card, even if you tell them you are not a resident, or a car document with a triangular stamp which he mentions by the way only after looking inside your car and seeing that triangular light sign. Here is how I did it this time [it was not the first time, and apparently, it may not be the last because Brussels Airlines can just decide to parachute you in Conakry as they see fit].

 

Police Officer [PO]: Your passports please

Me [opening the window of the cab with an anticipated anger]: Of course

 

Tip: NEVER EVER give them any of your documents, always show them in your hands, even if they try to take them away, grab them strongly and tell them [NO, it stays in my hands, do not grab them, it is an offence as YOUR passport is a property of YOUR government and a Guinean police officer has no business grabbing it forcefully]

 

PO [Taking the light, and before even looking at the passport]: where is your visa

 

Me: Here is the story, we don’t have a visa because Brussels Airlines sent us to the hotel and there were no shuttles. [I told the entire story, which was a waste of time].

 

PO: You need a visa, we cannot let you go.

 

Me: Ok, we will go to the airport with you and we can get it, so you just follow us.

 

Tip: Take the power back, do not lean, do not give them any chance of winning the argument. Do not hesitate, show an angry face, remove the smile, be firm and use a louder confident voice. Use any thing that empowers you.

 

PO: No, you are not going anywhere, where is your resident card

[see how he tries to find another excuse?]

 

Me: I don’t want to reside in your country, nobody wants to be here.

 

Tip: Take a superior stand and look naïve when you do it is so that you look as truthful as possible, which will make him feel miserable.

 

Me: Listen, you have only two choices, either we go this way (airport) to get the visas, or that direction (hotel) to go and get some sleep because we are exhausted.

 

Tip: You dictate the rules, whether they want to follow them or not, the choice does not include any money, or bribe, there is no way they will obtain anything from you, you are a monster and you are as stubborn as a rock.

 

PO: you are not going, where is your residence card

 

Me: are you not listening? I do not want to be in your country, I did not want to be here and I do not have or will not have a residence card.

 

PO: It is the law

 

Me: No it isn’t, and you don’t know anything about the law.

 

PO: I know that…[Me actively ignoring him, and turning my head to talk to my friends at the rear of the car].

 

Tip: show him his talk has absolutely no value to you, he has no importance. Then when he is almost done talking, interrupt him as if he did not say anything and say:

 

Me: so which choice is it.

[Active undermining]

 

PO walking away with cab driver telling him you are not going anywhere.

 

[Cab driver comes and asks me for money]

 

Me: [Shouting to the face of the PO] Are you not ashamed of yourself? You call yourself Muslim? I WILL NEVER GIVE YOU ANYTHING. [Then I read a verse of the Quran about corruption, and read it again, and read it again as he walked away super surprised and shocked because of what just happened].

 

[Information: These guys are Muslims, it is strictly prohibited in Islam to give, or receive a bribe, corruption money, or interest, it is even worse than drinking wine in Islam].

 

Tip: Then, use any contact or act as if you have a contact in the government. Do not mention what the contact is who the contact is, just say to anybody who is around you that you are going to call (Insert Guinean name) who is an official.

 

Me: (the name of my Guinean friend is masked in purpose), I am so sorry to wake you up this late. I am in Conakry and police officers do not want to let us go. Please come and help us out. [My friend said he would come in 5 minutes].

 

I get out of the car (again it is one in the morning in Conakry), and I take the phone to the cab driver, while holding to it strongly [it is not the cab driver that I was worried about, but that he hands my precious phone to the stupid PO]. The cab driver tells him where we are.

 

Not long after that, maybe 2 minutes later, we were already driving to the hotel.

With all this, we arrived at 3 in the morning to the hotel, where I gained the surname “the bodyguard”. The first thing we did was sit down and re-record the power point for the workshop to send it to the MAVA Foundation. My last neuron was still standing, it was up and running.

 

 
  

That day, protests exploded in Conakry, five people were killed not far from the hotel we were in, and we could not leave except with a police escort.

As we headed to Dakar, we were so happy to finally get into that plane. We got into the hotel at 2.30am.

Other excuses I used in the past include:

  • “ Do you have an ATM machine or a credit card reader nearby, I will be happy to use my credit card, I have no cash on me”
  • “Please give me a receipt first”
  • “I have 200 Mauritanian Oughouyas”
  • “You want us to pay you or go back? Fine, let me close the window first, and then be my guest and push the car”
  • “I am sorry I do not speak French” … said in Berber.

With all this, I could not stop asking myself, as we had to work on over-exploitation and reducing foreign fishing effort “How are we going to be able to change things over here?

 

 

— Next story: Finally in Dakar and then Saly: The workshops