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Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 8:59PM
30% of my meds for Guinea

Written by Patricia R. Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies and AFS Film Envoy

Three continents—North America, Europe, Africa—three flights, and three days of travel. 

Africa—well, more exactly, Guinea—is harder to get to than Beijing. 

My vaccination card secured by a rubber band in my passport verifies I have a yellow fever vaccination. Guinea requires this documentation for entry into the country. 

The nurse practitioner at the Cornell University travel office insisted I take two cards. She has heard of immigration officers in Nepal , Benin, and Guinea Bisseau apprehending the vaccination forms and then selling them on the black market.

I politely share there are several countries called Guinea: Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Papua New Guinea. She knows: pointing to the Center for Disease Control site for travel to Guinea  shining on her Dell computer, she cautions me about malaria, yellow fever, tetanus, diarrhea, dengue fever. 

I’m in Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris for a second day.  It’s 8 a.m.  Ensconced with travel carts, backpacks, carry ons and earbuds dangling, everyone in this lounge stretchesout. Shoes off, hats shrouding their eyes, they sprawl across the taupe couches.  Comment t’allez-vous,? I ask a two year boy staring at my Kindle.

 I’m thinking: An airport that actually understands the deepest desires of travelers to stretch out and sleep.  But I am nervous. Will I ever make it to Guinea?

In his Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way  (Brookings Institution Press, 2010), Stephen Radelet points out the staggering size of Africa, the world’s second largest continent.  The continental United States fits snugly into West Africa.  Most West African countries have been postcolonial for 50 years.

Africa is a complex place.  It is also a place completely overdetermined  and smothered by Western literary,  cinematic, and missionary fantasies.  Think Joseph Conrad , Heart of Darkness. Think Out of Africa.  Think King Solomon’s Mines. As a corrective, think Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Nigeria); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (Nigeria); Tierno Monenembo ,The King of Kahel (Guinea).

It is maybe the only place in the world reduced  and vacuum pressed to the generalizing, essentializing, unifying, problematic of one word: Africa, a shorthand, covering term for a western, racialized white imaginary  of the vast, the  unknowable, the chaotic, the undecipherable.  In The Economist magazine’s view, Africa looms as the last frontier, a place rich in untapped  resources to be extracted to meet the ravenous demands of globalization and rapid development.

West African countries differ significantly in terms of culture, language, economic growth, the rise of democratic and accountable institutions, environmental conditions,  agriculture.stability, civil society,  anti-corruption, and health. HIV/AIDs continues in epidemic proportions compared to the rest of the world.

Radelet identifies emerging and threshold countries that have featured annual income growth and declines in the percentage of citizens living in poverty.  Nigeria has oil.  Ghana has cocoa.  Over the last 15 years, both have posted economic growth. Guinea is not on these lists.

Ibuprofen, immodium, albutorol inhalers, malarone, ambient, zyrtec, DEET, giner chews,  and five small bottles of anti-bacterial cleaners bulge in Ziploc bags in my suitcase. According to our contacts at the Embassy post in Conakry, the meds are not to be trusted in Guinea due to procurement issues. 

Stewart, my partner, teaches international public health. As a result of his background and my asthma, I’m always on high alert about health issues in countries where I travel, researching conditions and problems. 

According to the World Health Organization, the life expectancy in Guinea, a country of 11 million, is 54.  The leading causes of death in children under 5 are malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea.  Access to maternal health care is limited. 

The Guinea Development Foundation, a health nongovernmental organization, claims that health conditionsin Guinea are among the poorest in the world.  Potable water is inaccessible.  73% of the population live in areas inaccessible to health care.

According to the BBC News country site, Guinea’s vast mineral wealth in bauxite (a key  component of aluminum), iron, and diamonds, ranks it as one of the most resource rich countries in Africa. Yet its people are among the poorest, in the lowest 25% of the least developed countries.  Some contend Guinea is actually one of the three poorest countries in the world. Most people live on $1 a day. 

Delayed by over two hours, my Air France flight from Kennedy Airport in New York City landed in Paris Sunday afternoon.  I missed the flight to Conarky by 90 minutes.  Kate Amend did not even get on the flight.  Her flight from Los Angeles was on time but circled Kennedy for nearly 40 minutes.  Then, she discovered the flight to Paris was booked. She spend the night in New York, booked the next day.

The Air France customer service desk booked me on the next and only flight to Guinea—on Monday morning.  Kate texted.  Rewarding herself with a glass of wine, she wanted to confirm we were booked on the same flight to Conarky.  The original plan entailed traveling together from New York City, a plan we both looked forward to so we could chat about  and plan our presentations on documentary in Guinea. At least the last leg of our journey would be together. Our plane will stop first in Mauritania, then onward to Conarky. 8 hours of travel  south from Paris.

The efficient and smiling Air France representative handed me vouchers for a night at the Ibis Style Hotel, with dinner and breakfast.  The quest to sleep in a bed after 25 hours of airports and airplanes got me through the disorienting maze of DeGaulle to find Niveau Cinq , where the complimentary hotel buses would pick us up.  I make a note in my iPhone to remember to take my Malarone, the expensive anti-malarial drug, after I eat dinner. My two and a half week prescription cost $110.

The free airport WiFi refused to load.  I worried that our contacts at the US Embassy in Guinea—Emily and Kimberly—would not get news of our delay.  I figured they were probably accustomed to flight delays into Conakry. I texted Kate. I  asked if she might let them know our new flight plans.  Jet lag and fatigue amplified  my worry we would end up in the airport in Conarky with no one to expedite us through customs.  We were told to not go through alone.

Kate got through to post.  They would pick us up at the Conarky Airport at 6. 

Now it’s time to walk to gate M46.  I’ll take a shot of Kate and I, united at last.  And then I ’ll board the plane  to Conarky with hand sanitizers, backpack, and Kindle loaded with books on West Africa and Guinea. 8 more hours.

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