That One Time I Got Arrested in West Africa (and my first experiences of culture shock)

I. Silence Speaks Louder than Words

It is 2AM and I am sitting barefoot in a white plastic chair. Behind me, two men, armed with shotguns, tower in silence.

An old man sits across from me. He stares at my face, then at the items on the table, and then he stares back at me again. Peeling apart the empty carcass of my wallet, he spills its contents across the table like organs from an autopsy: a student ID, an expired gift card, a receipt to some airport restaurant. The anatomy of my life as a college student dissected into small plastic rectangles.

He examines each item carefully, as if coaxing these exotic artifacts into revealing my foreign secrets. He shrugs and looks back at me, and we continue to sit without saying a word. The only thing I hear is a small breeze passing under our tent. 

I don’t mind the silence; in fact, I consider myself to be a quiet person— especially when I’ve found everything in this country to be but that. From the moment I left the airport, Guinea’s capital city screamed in my face. I hear the sellers and taxi drivers smack their lips, the cars and buses screech across shoddy roads, the buyers yell to drive down prices, the chickens that squabble and goats that cry, the people gossiping in their local languages, yelling and singing at me in awful Chinese. 

But for me, the loudest thing on the street isn’t the noise. On the contrary, it’s the way that people stare that I find most deafening. Old or young, male or female, poor or rich— all types of people track me with their eyes as I walk down the road.

When people stare, I wonder what goes on behind their faces. What are they thinking when they see somebody like me walking around in this country? Do they scoff at my slanted eyes and thick black hair? Do they think I pose a threat— or are they simply curious at my presence? 

I honestly don’t know how to react, so I stare back at them. I stare at the moustached man and the men behind me and my rugged wallet on the table. I want to break the silence with a question. But when your interlocutors are armed and ready to fire, you dare don’t interrupt what they’re doing.

II. Locked Gates and Spiked Walls

But first— how did I get here?

Back home in the States, I began studying West African musicology as the focus of my final thesis. I ended up receiving a summer research grant to carry out my fieldwork in Conakry, which would involve observing live performances, conducting interviews, and learning more about the local culture.

This would be the first time I went out of the country alone. Of course, my friends and family were most concerned about my safety. Guinea had just come out of the devastating Ebola crisis that started in 2014, and for some of my American friends, the very thought of going to “the middle of nowhere” in Africa made me a hero in their mind.

The truth is that I never had any issues of physical violence while walking down the street here. I’ve certainly been harassed and called names, but I was never assaulted or mugged. Guinea (at least when I went in 2016) was a relatively safe place. 

I still always prepare myself for the worse, and it seems like Conakry’s architecture has the same idea. Institutions and private residences are surrounded by walls and fences, which in turn are adorned with metal spikes, shards of glass, and contorted pieces of soda cans. Guards are hired to act as gatekeepers and watch over the residence 24/7.

Université Koffi Annan

My new Airbnb had an outer gate, a courtyard, and a double-locked inner compound. A few days in, I got the key from my host and spent the evening with my research assistant Dougo at a concert. By the time they had finished, it was almost 1AM, and Dougo helped me find a taxi to get home.

As I stood at the gate, I realized that I only had the key for the inner compound. I tried to knock and yell to get the guard’s attention, but it seemed like everyone on the street had gone to bed— including my hosts. I tried to call them too, but there were no minutes left on my phone. 

With nowhere to go, an idea suddenly broke into my head. Why not just jump over the wall?  I’m young, solutions-oriented, and have taken a total two sessions of parkour training. Absolutely flawless thinking. 

I scanned the wall for flat surfaces and spotted a small gap between the door and the first large spike. 

I tried and failed— that space was much too small for me. 

So I made myself smaller. I took off my backpack and threw it over the wall, along with my shoes for easier climbing. 

I tried again. Still too big for this. 

I began searching for wider spaces around the perimeter. As I approached the main road, I see a large tree, and in front of it, a flat cement surface.

I tried once more. I launched myself up the wall, rolled over the cement, and jumped into the tree.

I felt my bare feet land into the wet grass. Success.

As I brushed off dirt from my shirt, I saw a tall figure emerge from the door. In its hand, it held a black and menacing club.

III. The Subtle Art of (Mis)communication

Learning a language in school is not the same as using it in person; I learned this truth the hard way. The accents and slang used across French-speaking Africa can differ considerably from the “proper” Parisian accent most Americans are used to. Months before landing in Guinea, I took it upon myself to study French through books, series, and online learning apps. I even finished the entire Duolingo French tree, which made me feel pretty accomplished in my skills.

It turns out that classroom materials can only take you so far. Duolingo didn’t have a module at the time for dealing with Guinean law enforcement (and they probably still don’t). Instead, the green owl insisted I learn more practical phrases, such as “le singe mange une orange”.  

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to use my favorite sentence because I never saw any monkeys or oranges. But if there’s one French phrase I learned how to say correctly in Guinea, it is “J’ai pas compris” (literally, I haven’t understood). I used this phrase so frequently that it became an automatic reflex, whether I understood or not.

As the guard approached me with his weapon, I greeted him loudly in French. 

“Bonsoir, Gaossou!” I shouted. The guard stood about ten meters away in the darkness. 

He replied with something I didn’t quite understand. 

“Quoi? J’ai pas compris,” I replied.

I could hear the irritation in his voice. He spoke again, this time more slowly.

“J’ai pas compris?” I took a few steps forward.

Audibly annoyed, he simplified his speech: “Tu viens d’ou?” Where do you come from?

I told him I came from a concert. I’m an American here doing research, and I just moved into this property a few days ago. 

He started off again, yelling a string of words that flew past my ears. I waited till he’s finished. One does not simply interrupt a monologue when one’s interlocutor is holding a weapon.

“J’ai pas compris,” I replied. 

He moved out from the darkness, but I didn’t recognize him. Was he a friend of Gaoussou’s? 

He enunciated the following: 

“TU. HABITES. PAS. ICI.”

At this point, I really didn’t understand. Why would he tell me that I didn’t live here? I might have gotten in here unconventionally, but this was still my Airbnb. I had paid to stay here for three months. Right?

My eyes strayed over the front of the house, I noticed the little decoration on the wall, the shape of porch, the little pool next to me.

And in that moment, I realized—

There wasn’t a pool at my house

This was not my guard

And

I had jumped into the wrong courtyard. 

IV. Rich Humans, Poor Humans

I was back out on the street. The neighbor’s guard let me out but didn’t bother calling my hosts. I still had no way to get back into my own house. 

I looked down the empty, quiet road. Maybe I should just sleep outside. Near the University Kofi Annan, there are sometimes people who spend their nights sleeping outside. Perhaps I should just do the same. It’s my fault anyway for getting here in the first place, in this situation, in Africa.

I looked back at the gate and knocked, searching again for spaces along the wall.  It’s obvious these walls were meant to keep people out. For some, the architecture may be a beacon of security and progress, but they also symbolize exclusivity and class divisions.  You can walk past a huge beautiful building in the city center and also see people sleeping out right next to them. The inequality here is crazy.

I think of all the times I’ve felt uncomfortable here, or asked for money simply because of my citizenship or what I look like. How does it measure up to the extremes of poverty I see every day in this country? How does it compare with 400 years of colonialism? Is my personal discomfort as a Westerner comparable to discomfort others experience on a daily basis?

Sometimes, I wonder— what do I really deserve? Here I am, a grantee with a safety net and a comfortable life, attending a 4-year university, doing “cultural research” to fulfill a graduation requirement when in fact, I have no idea what it’s like to live here as a Guinean. I don’t know what it means to be born in a “developing” country. I don’t understand any of this. So why am I really here?

V. Trial and Error

My internal monologue was interrupted by the eerie headlights rolling down the dirt road. I squinted as the vehicle came to a stop, and I saw four men in police uniform. The tallest adjusted the strap of his firearm, slid down the side of the truck, and approached me.

The man says something to me, very quickly.

I freeze. 

His face turns to annoyance. “Donne-moi ton passeport!” he yells.

I shake my head. “I don’t have it.”

“Quoi?”

“I don’t have it.”

Please speak French, I say to my brain. High-stress situations are not conducive to language learning, but my anxiety tells me this could be a matter of life or death.

“C’est dans mon sac-a-dos.” I reply in French, by some miracle. It’s in my backpack.

He asks where my backpack is, and I tell him I threw it over the gate.

The officers exchange glances. The squad leader looks me up and down and then points to my feet.

“Et tes chassures?” And your shoes?

“Je les ai jetées par-dessus le mur aussi.” I threw them over the gate too.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the guard on my left fidgeting. And then they all burst out with laughter. They started speaking to each other at once, code-switching between French and Susu.

They surround me and motion for me to get into the truck. Somewhere along the way the guard takes off lecturing me about my bad behavior. All I can give him was a poor rendition “I need to talk to someone who speaks English,” served with a fresh blow of improperly conjugated verb forms. 

I wanted to tell him a lot of things, particularly that this was all just a silly misunderstanding. But my efforts are fruitless as they carried me off into the night. 

VI. “Je suis pas Chinois

So there I was, thousands of miles from home, being interrogated by the police in their outdoor police station. Without my research collaborator, I didn’t really have many ways to stand up for myself. What would they do to me? Throw me into prison? Beat me up?  My mind began searching for movies I had seen about traveling to Africa. I could only recall Sahara and Blood Diamond— neither of which predicted a good outcome for me.

The police chief is the first to break our silence.

“Tu viens d’ou?” Where are you from?

“Je suis americain,” I reply. 

Just from the movement of his eyebrows, I can tell where this conversation is about to go:

First comes the “Huh?!”
My new friend is surprised.

Then I say: “Oui, c’est vrai!”
I point to my American driver’s license.

And then he delivers:

“Mais t’es chinois!”

As I predicted, the officer followed my daily formula of interaction. 

While the majority of people stare at me, other bystanders engage in more direct means. There’s always someone every day who yells “chinois” to me. Or some random kids will jump in front of me and pretend to do karate motions. Grown adults will call me Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. Others yells “ching chong!”, “ni hao!”, or simply weird, unnatural vocalizations that are supposed to sound like an Asian language but clearly aren’t. Even the police have stopped me on multiple occasions to see my papers, only to be shocked that I have a U.S. American Passport. 

I suppose if you were born and raised in a country where the majority of Asian people you see are Chinese (i.e. the dominant foreign workforce of infrastructure development across the continent), I guess you might have that kind of reaction. But even if I try to justify their behaviors with intellectual knowledge, it doesn’t make me feel any better. 

Sometimes I ignore them, and sometimes I go up and correct them. But most of the time, I don’t feel like talking to anyone. It’s not that I don’t like the Chinese culture, or Jackie Chan movies, or the Chinese languages. I just don’t want to be called by something I’m not. And I don’t like being yelled at on the street. As the typical American would agree—  I just want to exist, on my own, and in my own space.

This is why if I ever lose my French, there’s at least one phrase I will always remember: I am not Chinese.

VII. Going Beyond the Cultural Wall

The police chief, it turns out, was actually a kind man. He listened to my situation and never once raised his voice at me or asked me for a bribe. He seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing in Guinea, and even talked to me about my research. By the time his officers reached my hosts and took me back to my house, it was almost 4AM. I was exhausted, but I spent at least an hour on the couch trying to process what just happened.

I didn’t tell my thesis committee what happened that night until the day of my first paper presentation. I was afraid they would reprimand me for being unprofessional. But when I mentioned this anecdote to my supervisor, all he could say was, “That story definitely needs to go in your thesis.” And that’s exactly where it ended up. 

I can’t help but draw some tacky life metaphors from this experience— like how entering a culture can often feel like getting past a wall— but it’s true. Entering another culture is not easy, and it takes a lot of trial and error to figure how things work. To add to that, culture is always changing. I’ve spoken to people who have spent years and years in a foreign country and even they will be the first to admit that learn something new every day. 

After traveling in over 25 countries on five continents, I still find West Africa one of the most challenging regions to live in. There were many times I felt uncomfortable, lonely, or disrespected because of the way I was treated or by the immense societal differences I witnessed. Of course, I didn’t need to get locked out and arrested to figure this all out. But sometimes, you have to take the long way to figure out the most basic of things. 

As I finish writing this piece five years later from my studio in Côte d’Ivoire, I still wonder why I chose to come back to this region. Part of me thinks that I would feel better doing something elsewhere, while another part welcomes the joys and challenges of diving deeper.  Most of my internal motivations are a mystery that continues to unravel itself as I grow older and more self-aware.

What I do know is that Guinea is one of the major reasons I started traveling so much. We know so little about this world and its people, and the very process of knowing can be challenging and uncomfortable. Yet, it was my encounter with the Guinean police chief that showed me how to get there. No matter how high the wall is, there will always be someone on the other side who is kind enough to bring you in.

 

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