Notes from Bissau 1993 – 2019


A thousand thoughts flood my thinking space.
The physical diversity of people flying to the same country,
The events that caused their permanent departure
Draw them all back home for the holidays.
I am a part of them.

My ancestors kidnapped so their African sweat
Could raise America’s crops, build her roads and cities,
So their African sons and daughters could fight their wars
And fill their prisons in their wayward wandering wanderings.
I am a part of them.

Their hopes, their dreams,
Returning to the motherland fulfills –

It is the winter solstice – The shortest day of the year,
And so many things to do that require the light of day –
But it is also the longest night, where hidden things
Remain hidden in the darkness.

The war twenty years ago and subsequent political events
Decimated the population through mass migration
To avoid a fate just as bad as death itself.
Many lucky ones crossed the Atlantic.
I am a part of them.



A facebook status update
By a shipmate reminded me
Of some crazy shit we did in our youth.
I have no regrets – it was all
For God and country.
But it was stuff I never talked about.
And now the whole world knows.
Finally underway. 2008 GMT.



The hotel is adequate
But all the books in the bookstore
Are either old from dust
Or damaged by water.

There is a sadness –
Too much drinking,
Always under pressure
To hold back the tide,
The flood that will surely
envelop us and swallow all our hopes.

Mango trees lining the street
Are hermaphrodites.


Bissau Velho (Old Town)

Dust from the street
making me wheeze
When I breathe

Fine particulate –
centuries of accumulated bat shit
Falls from every attic
every time a soft breeze blows –

Black mold on the walls
And very likely in our lungs
Certainly in our brains –
Clouds our vision.

There is still time
And space for a
Great work –
Heavy loads to lift –
miles to go.


Wednesday Haiku

Death’s shadow stalks us
Lurking in the crevices
Between the silence

Sleepless in Lisbon
Jet lagged from Ultramar flight
Eyes red and blinking

Not a single bite
From the mosquitoes that halt
The empire’s army.

suitcase living sucks
But some Fado Sunday night
Makes it all worthwhile.


Mar Atlantico

How many souls
have spent months, years,
lives in your embrace?

The beach is calm, placid.
Waves, incoming,
Lightly kiss the shore

And repeat.
Light kisses that please,
Hypnotize, and deceive.

In the distance,
in the far distance,
You already know the sound
Of the roar and crash
Of waves that break


Natural Forces, or Notes to a Former Lover

Guine-Bissau is a land of sudden change:
High tide rolls in and out within minutes;
There is no dusk, no reflective moments
between daylight and darkness;

The dry dusty season follows quickly
on the heels of the rains and floods,
(as if one can’t wait for the
other to get out of town . . . )

The calm coolness of winter begins
while the heat and humidity of summer
are still there with us . . . .

When you leave, roll out like high tide,
dramatically, instantaneously,
leaving my beach bare, exposed and muddy.

May your departure be as brief an interlude
as the fleeting dusky twilight between
afternoon and nightfall.

Let the rains of tears you brought me evaporate,
instantly, in the rapidly approaching,
dry sun-scorching drought and
coolness of dawn –

The temperature of my passion dissipating
while the heat of your madness yet remains.


Return to Mother Africa

I return to Mother Africa an alien,
my African blood thinned
through generations of race-mixing
with the Cherokee, and the Blackfoot,
and the Scots and Irish of North Carolina and Virginia . . . .

I go to the discotheques but the Senegalese rhythms
are far too complex for my sensibilities,
too difficult for me to even imagine trying
to dance to; but I fake it, trying to stay in step,
consoling myself in the knowledge that,
at least, I know.

With the locals I find myself at a loss for words,
not necessarily because they’d laugh
at my broken Crioulo
(or even at my flawed Portuguese),
nor even because I know they know
I can’t make any promises I cannot keep . . . .

No, I’m awed by them because of their courage,
because their mere existence is a triumph,
a remarkable overcoming, an achievement
that stands them alone, at least from we,
who have known neither true poverty nor deprivation,
who have always had access to clean hospitals,
and uninterrupted electricity, and drinking water,
the best of schools with well-stocked libraries,
and, lest we forget, to the latest in high-tech running shoes . . . .

Yes, I’m awed by their courage, by their resilience,
by their hope, by their optimism…

I return to Mother Africa an alien,
my natural senses dulled, my skin tone lightened,
my kinky hair relaxed, my third eye shriveled
from generations of de-Africanization.


Rains of Bissau

I miss the rains of Bissau –
the soft pitter-patter at dawn –
the heavy downpour, like clockwork,
in mid-afternoon – as chuvas veem –
(the rains come) the lightning and the thunder
at sunset, raging against the end of days –

I wish we had some postcards
from that magical place –
we have a painting of Joao Landing
before the Chinese built the bridge –
and statuettes from the Bijagos.
Manjaco cloth draps the sofa,
and music CD’s from the Tabanka
are on the shelf – but postcards não ha.


Tree from Bafata

I know that tree from Bafata,
I know her well –
as a child I watched the old men
meet with her and harbor in her shade,
and whisper in dark, low tones –

We ran circles around her
in Bafata, year in and year out,
and the women took her fruit
and drew a chalky powder
from her brown-green pods
to make a tarty drink – cabaceira!

The memory of the taste of it
still lingers, still soothes me.
Ah! Cabaceira!

And the ju-ju men in Bafata
worked magic in her shade,
shaking the bones and reading
eggs and guts of chickens slain,
sacrificed to foretell the future.

This tree has seen generations
come and go. Mostly go.
She continues giving up her fruit,
in season, and witnesses everything.


the lady from Gabu

I watched, mesmerized, as she danced,
the lady from Gabu, her lips
moving slowly to the English lyrics.
Our lines of vision crossed.
She looked surprised.
and came over and offered to dance.

Dusky brown, light of step,
smiling. I said, rather sheepishly,
“I´ll try to keep up.” She said
“You´ll do just fine.”

“You are a good dancer,” she said.
“but how is your Crioulu?”
“You are a good liar,” I replied,
“but it´s ok. My Crioulu is limited
to bu misti & ca tang.”

I want and I don´t have.
“That´s a good start,” she said.
“Spend 7 days and 7 nights with me
in Gabu and you will speak
um bom Crioulu.”

It seemed her feet
never touched the dance floor.
& I, I never returned to Gabu.


Back in Bissau velho

the smell of mold and of years

of accumulated bat droppings

fills the urban air!

Ah, back in Bissau velho!


The night air is smokey brown.
My cunhado has blocked off the road
in front of his restaurant.
All the brothers & sisters
and nieces & nephews
and old friends are gathered.

Ah, back in Bissau velho!

I take a sip of red wine
and in memory of the ancestors
& pour a bit on the ground
for their spirits to enjoy.

Ah, back in Bissau velho!

One more verse before the end.
The fragrance of bat droppings
fills the air. Love, pure love
is true. False faces quickly
fade from memory.


facing an uncertain future

The future approached me & reached for my hand,
wrapping his tiny fingers around my thumb.
He was dark and skinny, maybe a bit malnourished,
his eyelids puffed from infection.

But his pupils were wide and round
and full and deep dark. Foreboding maybe.
Full of information. Full of warning.

The future approached me and held out his arms.
I reciprocated and lifted him to my lap.
He didn’t speak, but his eyes spoke volumes
of pain and hope. His lips remained still.

Reaching back to inform us, to warn us
that it is coming and it won’t be long.
We have every reason to prepare, to be ready.


visiting my embassy

my embassy
representation of my country:
closed, burned down,
cannibalized, sacrificed
on the altar of the new world order

hands off, but still stirring the pot
from afar – by default
and by omission

a country’s progress halted
by internal entropies –
we watch and wait.


Return to Africa again

my wife brought me here for healing –
“the African sun will do you good.”

And here I am, bathed in family
and tribal love. My village
surrounds me. The ladies bring
fresh fruit and warm bread
and no part of it
is genetically modified.

Flesh still a bit tender from the cut,
but the stitches are beginning to dissolve.

I boil some bottled water for tea –
then watch the housekeeper top it off
with water from the tap – they say
once you have tasted from the waters
of Pindjiguiti – waters made sweet
by the blood of the martyrs,
their bitter sweat, their salty tears –
you will always remember Bissau.

The old man in Caliquisse
told me returning was part
of the spiritual deal we struck.


Prabis memories (12/21/2015)

last night we dined in Prabis –
oysters from the mangrove swamps,
grilled fish from the green sea,
galinha de terra, ice cold Sagres.

I remember the marineiros –
the old men who smoked too much,
and their stories, their memories –

we once hooked a huge serra,
must have weighed 40 pounds – too big
to bring aboard our tiny boat.
We let it drag us up and down the river,
almost to the sea, and hoped the line
would hold. The fish got tired before we did
and we hauled it alongside. Then took it
to my future father-in-law’s house
(who knew?) for cleaning and division.

There is an ancient lighthouse in Biombo –
at the far end of Prabis beach,
built by the Portuguese explorers
to help them navigate unknown terrain –
right where the river meets the sea –
an invisible line they needed light to see.

Prabis lives long in our collective memories –
the mangrove swamps, the river, the sea.


Bissau city notes

the call to prayer awoke me,
aroused me from my slumber –

20 years ago inside the walled compound –
inside the isolated international zone –
twice separated from reality –
we never heard the call.

But now, inside the city,
we hear it, and it calls us to reflect,
to contemplate, to consider
our course of action.

There are more people in the city:
more languages being spoken,
more cultures mixing,
more women in hijab, more buying
& selling in Bandim Market.

I hear people are immigrating here,
traders from Conakry and Senegal,
refugees from Mali and Niger.
The state apparatus is small & weak
so opportunities are many.


Feira Africana (and rambling thoughts)

Tuesday was laundry day
but there was no water running in the city –
electricity was on the blink
for most of the afternoon.
Man, we are roughing it!

WiFi didn’t connect in the Feira,
but there was plenty of real shopping to be done.
Spent a few hours with my cunhado
at the Pindjiguiti memorial –
remembering the dockworkers
who were martyred there –
remembering their noble intentions of non-violence –
remembering the armed struggle decision –
remembering the glorious revolution
that overthrew the jugo estranjeiro –
its successes, its failures.

Reading about Amilcar Cabral
during my youth drew me to this place:
Norfolk Journal & Guide & Baltimore Afro-American
came to the house every week
(along with the Future Outlook) –
later I’d buy Muhammad Speaks,
The African World, and Black Panther
newspapers off the streets.
My earliest African heroes, though,
were distance runners: Mirus Iftar and Kip Keino,
& Dona Juliana who taught me my first
Amilcar Cabral poem.


Bandim, or, to someone I should have loved

Bandim, Bissau’s principal market
is both larger and more dense
than 20 years ago. But it still
has the same heartbeat & pulse,
the same rhythm and baseline;
it is the same living organism,
the same tessellation –
just spread out wider.

Memories crowd
the reflective space – informing,
seeking effect. But I learned
last night the past has no life,
only rest & peace in an unkept
cemetery. A garbage dump is just outside
the walls where pigs and buzzards
co-habitate, picking through the trash –
and people drinking beer nearby,
without a care on a warm December night.
The market was too thick, too dense,
so I contented myself to shop on the edges.
Panos de pente were lovely, but nothing
caught my eye – same traditional stuff.
At the far edge I saw something familiar:
stacks of bags of cabeceira!
The lady behind the table, hoping I’d spend
the whole 2K CFA, offered me veludo and faroba
and said I should mix the three.
Sounded reasonable. She gave me back 500 CFA.
How could I have paid more attention?
Too busy at work, mastering the craft –
too busy on the weekends partying
until the wee hours –
too busy traveling, south to Cacine,
north to Farim, west to Gabu…
too busy plotting a future perfect.
I should have known better –
I should have paid more attention.


Boxing day in Bissau

I hit a bump on the poetry road –
too much to eat, too much conversation
left no time or space to write. Catching up
now that the day has passed –

memories of old mythologies:
A boat that was buried
the time of the giants
confusion among the petite bourgeoisie

the “state” is a massive mythology
whose political parties play a football game
that can go either way as long as it all
self-preserves – the mechanics of administration
a curiosity that captures our best minds –
time better spent in education & poetry.


observations of the voyage

every voyage has some disappointment,
missed communications, money change failures,
shopping opportunities lost,
transportation misfires –

The mango seeds sound like
rain falling,
spoiling my last Monday.

I know how to go,
but I know how to stay
and avoid unknown risks in the streets.


a soft rain fell on a cloudy yesterday
both uncommon in the dry season
more wigs, more weaves, more straightened hair
in the market – the French influence
more Fula & Mandinga traders, immigrants
at the bank – the Muslim influence
buyers, money traders, information seekers –
bankers accept dollars – reject American passports
for our account transactions.


The cooperative class & the petite bourgeoisie
are too closely linked, by blood, by culture,
to carry out effectively the goodwill intentions
of the ruling class. Something has to give here,
to relieve the pressure of the expanding gas.
Class suicide is required by both, together,
and both need to consider anew their re-Africanization.


Walking about thoughts

It is not easy to walk these broken streets,
and not become incensed, radicalized
by all the obvious asymmetries

one sees. Women on each corner selling
fruit & shrimp & peanuts & cashews.
Men in big cars with big, bald, shaven heads.

The table spread. Each outlaw seated.
The chiefs and the youngest of the 3rd generation
The chiefs and youngest of the 4th. All gathered.

The imams have arrived from Guinea &
Sierra Leone, from Morocco and Mauritania,
from Niger and Mali, from Senegal and Gambia.

Unguarded frontier & porous borders equals
weak state. Everything is ripe for the picking.


Departure: Bissau

Finally. At the airport. Our voyage almost complete.
As GSO I spent so many days here,
so many late nights meeting visitors,
crews, teams supporting our new building project.

Half all caught up in a series of local dramas.
I remain detached, aloof, aware
of the inconsequentiality
of fleeting trouble phantoms that soon fade.

Goodbye for now, Mama Africa!
We have your hopes & dreams in our baggage –
cross-stitched with our own –
your cabeceira, veludo, and farola
from Bandim market, your malagueta
spice and honey, triple-wrapped for the journey –
the sweetened waters of Pindjiguiti,
the reddened stain of palm oil on our lips.


empire sunset

at the end of time
sunset will seem
to last forever

a thin red strip
on the horizon,
thinning, flickering

in its futile attempt
to stay, to widen
to reverse time itself –

but we all know
that time only reverses
itself in poetry –

and in Superman movies
when Lois Lane dies

and the Man of Steel
reverses Earth’s rotation
to forestall, reverse
her death’s circumstance.

At the end one might
even be persuaded
that that sunset is itself
a beginning –
a dawn, not a dusk –

but that would be
a deception.


A benediction in haiku

Romance me. Make me a rhyme.
Let me be the poem.

Things still remain wrapped
up – that want to be unwound –
thoughts and worlds unformed.

Can I stop it now?
Is there ink still in my pen?
A pulse in my veins?