Postcard from Guinea Bissau


One day with my friend Kumba Yala

Dear all, family, friends, fans and non-fans,

I have been wanting to share this story for a while now. It was many moons ago before the rains started, when one Saturday I spent almost the whole day with this famous Bissau-Guinean, former President Kumba Yala.

Mr. Yala was President of this unhappy country from September 2000 till 2003 when he was deposed in a largely bloodless coup.

I was Timor-Leste’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and was sent to Guinea Bissau in August of 2003 the month before as the Special Envoy of the CPLP (Comunidade dos Paises de Lingua Oficial Portuguesa) to defuse the very palpable prevailing political tensions and prevent a widely rumored military coup.

I was not very successful in that coup-preventing mission! During the trip I had that sense that, given the almost general political malaise in the country toward Mr. Yala, the coup was close to inevitable.

I was right. On 14 September 2003, just a few weeks after my first meeting with him, he was removed from office in a military coup.

President Kumba Yala was born 15 March 1953, in a very humble, poor farming Balanta family. As a teenager, like most Bissau-Guineans, he joined the national liberation movement, the “African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde” (PAIGC). Many years later, disenchanted with the PAIGC leadership policies and their alleged exclusion of people of his Balanta tribe, Mr. Yala left the party in 1992 and founded a new one, the Party for Social Renewal.

Yala says he studied Theology and Philosophy at the prestigious Catholic University of Lisbon. He is knowledgable on the writings of Ancient Greek philosophers. In conversation this politician-theologian-philosopher will quote you Aristotle a hundred times.

Yala was raised and first educated in a Catholic school until age 17 when, as he told me, his father threw him out of the house to “go out, be a man, make a living”. Balantas cultivate a macho, warrior image, and young men are expected to be fighters.

In 2008 Kumba Yala converted to Islam and took the name Mohamed Ialá Embaló. This conversion might not have been inspired by religious motives; as he told me, it may have been motivated more by criticism from the Bishop of Bissau and what Yala felt was the Bishop’s excessive involvement in politics. (The Bishop of Bissau since 1999, José Câmnate na Bissign, is also from the Balanta community, a lovely, charming, humble prelate, widely respected by everyone, including by his Protestant and Muslim colleagues.)

This is not meant as political essay. It is just a short story about this charismatic, passionate, unpredictable political leader, emanating from an enigmatic ethnic community, the Balantas, a very horizontal society that discards hierarchy, unlike many other very hierarchical traditional societies.

The Balanta fighting spirit and military cunning contributed decisively to the 1973 defeat of the Portuguese colonial army. Of course the then Soviet Union and Cuba provided military training and equipment, including portable anti-aircraft missiles, assistance that played no small part in clearing the skies of Portuguese air dominance.

When not at war, the Balantas are pastoral, sedentary agriculturalists, enigmatic, deeply embedded in their own mystical beliefs system. They reject wealth and ostentation. They resent being looked down at and excluded by the country’s elites.

Kumba Yala was and is still the eloquent voice of the Balantas. There has been no more effective spokesperson for the people.

Today one is hard pressed to find a positive note in the international media about Bissau-Guineans. Among the small and conspicuous foreign community in Bissau, one hears comments like “the politicians are all corrupt” ; “the military are all involved in organized crime”. And of course there is a rising chorus echoing the refrain that Guinea-Bissau is the only “Narco-State” in the world.

This is nonsense. Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and others have far bigger drug problems and have much greater resources to fight back organized crime.

I have read few papers on the drug problem and most seem to be quoting from each other. From all that I have seen and read, perhaps I am utterly naive, but I am not persuaded that this is a “Narco-State”.

It is a very fragile State, with extremely weak institutions. Corruption is pervasive at every level, undermining justice and democracy, good governance, pushing the country towards the abyss of a Failed State.

But Guinea-Bissau does not produce illicit drugs such as cocaine or amphetamines and does not consume these drugs to any noticeable degree. Yes at times it is used as a transshipment point from Latin America to Europe with the active complicity of many. But this does not make a country deserving of the title “Narco-State”.

The other rumors heard frequently on the wind among the tiny expatriate community include the gossip that leaders like Kumba Yala and Gen. Antonio Injai have become super rich off of the country — something else I have not seen borne out in fact.

I have been here for six months now. I have been in many parts of this not very pretty city and in the rural areas. I engage many local people, students, academics, journalists, small or richer business people, politicians, military, police, etc. in many different settings.

I am sharing with you some photos I took from my most recent visit with President Kumba Yala and his family. From left to right, President Kumba Yala, me and his older brother, in his mid 70′s, seen here wearing a worn-out shirt or jacket, maybe some 20 yrs old, never washed. The house belongs to Mr. Yala’s parents.

The older Yala still lives in the house, now ramshackle, where Kumba Yala was born and lived until he turned 17. Their sparse food intake is cooked in open air in a clay pot, seen here also. Equally sad and heartbreaking is to see where the former President’s older brother sleeps, on an improvised bench, outside the house, seen here also.

I handed over the older brother some money to buy himself new clothing. In my next trip I hope to bring him a proper bed and better cooking utensils.

Mr. Kumba Yala no longer lives in his “tabanka”. He now lives in a very modest house in Bissau which I also visited. I was taken to every room by the former President. At some point he searched in a box for his favorite books of Aristotle, pulled out a book, and subjected me to another round of rambling citation of the great thinker.

It was by then a hot mid afternoon. Kumba Yala was very gracious and wanted to give me a tour of the town. I excused myself. I was tired. I was saddened by the story of this good man, somewhat eccentric and unpredictable, but essentially good.

He laments the two years that were robbed from him in 2003 by the coup, when he had just completed three years in office. I think of his destitute family; and he himself is poor. I am saddened by Kumba Yala’s story and I am saddened by the story of this often betrayed people.

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4 thoughts on “Postcard from Guinea Bissau

  1. Filipe Quintunda

    um homen ten de ser edocado pelos pais e saber lutar so para que se tornar um homen justo e recto, lutador com a propria forcas e a enteligensia num canpo aberta

  2. Dianne Casley-Smith

    Another well written and absolutely interesting look at a country we know nothing about. Thank you for your insights, observations and compassion for this sad and mis-managed country. God bless you in your endeavours to make a difference in whatever way you can. I admire and respect you for the contribution you are making wherever you are.

  3. Delia D. Villegas

    A sad story of a man thwarted to do something great for his country,through you it is made known to the world at least and that is the where the greatness of your mission lies. Hope to hear more stories like this.May God always with you in whatever missions you undertake.

  4. Frank James

    What a wonderful story in that there is a place where wealth and power are not stored up like grain in a silo. That there is a culture where they reject wealth and ostentatiousness as well as the “the Balantas (having), a very horizontal society that discards hierarchy”. We have so much to learn from this community within the country. And yet the suffering and struggle continue as well. Thank you for all the work have done and are doing to provide the leadership to nations to find ways to resolve conflict without violence.


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