Sunday, July 5, 2009

Guns in Guinea

Dear friends,

Last month I caught a ride to Mamou with a military man named M. Diaby. When you are a car-less Peace Corps Volunteer in the middle of rural Guinea, catching rides to go places is kind of like signing up for classes on the Middlebury College online course registration system, Bannerweb: you always end up waiting longer than you want to, and you are never quite satisfied with what you get.

Here in Boulliwel, if I need to get someplace that is outside the radius of personal bike-assisted locomotion, I walk out to the main road that bisects my village, stop, and put my arm out. All manner of transportation passes through Boulliwel: motorcycles, trucks, bush taxis, NGO land rovers, large cows, and the occasional German tourist doing a pan-african bike tour. I usually spend about an hour waiting for a car that a) has room for me (a rarity here in Guinea: you don't see too many empty cars here) and b) is going the same place I am, be that Mamou, Dalaba, or Conkary. When I do finally stumble upon that perfect match, and they stop, I am left to haggle the price of both my seat and whatever baggage I have with me. These tasks accomplished, I then squeeze in next to goats, chickens, breast-feeding mothers, and/or puking children, grit my teeth, and pass the time in the taxi by calculating complex physics equations in my head:

If Vehicle A, a 1989 Peugeot station wagon, carrying 12 people weighing a total of 1700 pounds and baggage weighing a total of 600 pounds, takes a 130 degree turn at 65 mph, what are the odds that the front axle will snap and send Vehicle A and all its contents careening over Cliff B and flipping end-over-end until finally coming to a stop in the potato fields of Village C?

Tough question.

Yet back to M. Diaby, the military man. The day I caught a ride with him, the bush taxi gods seemed to have aligned the planets in my favor: I walked out to the road, held out my arm, and presto! 30 seconds later a car had stopped and I was haggling with the owner of the car, a large man in army fatigues. We settled on a reasonable price and I climbed into the back seat, which, to my surprise, was completely empty. What luxury! We left Boulliwel and I stretched my legs, pleased with my spacious accomodations.

I struck up conversation with the driver and the man in army fatigues, who introduced himself as M. Diaby. M. Diaby struck me as your classic G.I. Joe sort of fellow-- thick, well-built, deep-voiced, proudly moustached. He was also, I noticed, toting a large pistol that was hooked, holsterless, through his belt. He fingered it idly.

I continued my casual conversation and didn't think much more of the gun until we rounded a corner and almost hit a sizable brown baboon. Upon seeing the car, the baboon started and scampered across the road towards the bushes. M. Diaby, seeing a potential kill, whipped out that pistol of his and rolled down the window, trying to get a clear shot.

"What a shockingly dangerous thing to do," I thought, gritting my teeth in expectation of a bang.

Thankfully, the monkey got away, disappearing into the brush. M. Diaby muttered a few words of disappointment to himself and turned around to look at me.

"Almost got him," he said, shaking his head.

I nodded, shell-shocked.

"Here-- look at my gun," he said, handing me the pistol.

I took it gingerly, wondering if the bush taxi gods had indeed been smiling on me when I got into the car with M. Diaby. The gun was heavier than I expected.

"It's made in America," Diaby said proudly. "Take a look."

I looked at the words engraved on the handle.

Manufactured in: Hartford, CT USA, it read.

Hartford, CT: the city of my birth. Sure enough, it was made in America. I shook my head ruefully.

"Americans make the best guns," Diaby continued cheerfully. "Everyone knows that."

"We make good guns, huh?" I muttered.

"The best!" Diaby pointed his finger in the air. "All of us militaires know that."

I handed the gun back to him, speechless and ashamed. Diaby thrust the pistol back in his belt and started talking with his driver, leaving me to stare out the window in silence, and think.

That our country makes the world's best guns-- perhaps I already knew that. Our military is, of course, the best-equipped in the world, and the majority of our weapons suppliers are American. The arms industry in the US is enormous, due largely to steady contracts from its top client, the US government, which spends more on our military than the next 14 countries combined. These were familiar facts.

Yet, sitting in the back of DIaby's car in the middle of French West Africa, I burned with shame. Of all the things my country makes and makes well, this was what found its way to Guinea, into the hands of careless military officers? Is the reputation of making the world's best guns something to be proud of?

As we drove past a military checkpoint-- chock full of gun-wielding soldiers taking turns demanding bribes and napping under bamboo lean-tos-- I couldn't help but think of the horrific civil wars that had ripped apart Guinea's neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the latter a mere 25 miles away down a dirt road from Mamou. Surely it is not a stretch to think that the 12 and 13 year old boy soldiers who were taught to rape and kill in these wars might also have wielded guns manufactured in Hartford, CT? Surely it is not unreasonable to assume that, if soldiers like Diaby can get their hands on American weapons, then Leonean, Liberian, or even Sudanese governments, who have all committed unspeakable atrocities against civilians in the name of quelling rebel movements, can also procure similar arms?

How these weapons get to places like Guinea, what shady deals brokered and what sums of money change hands, I don't know. Yet I feel a deep shame when I think of that well-intentioned, blue collar American worker who earns a living making pistols that wind up in the hands of drugged-out, half-starved boy soldiers who have been brainwashed to murder indiscriminately (see Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone for more on this).

This is not that American worker's fault. Nor is it the boys'. There is a problem with the system in two places in the world that could not be more different if they were on different planets. Countries like Sierra Leone face nearly insurmountable challenges: building just, equitable governance, stamping out corruption and putting natural resource revenues to use for the benefit of the people, putting men and women to work, putting children in school, fostering reconciliation between bitter enemies. Organizations like the Peace Corps are working to address these issues.

The US, on the other hand, has a different set of challenges to deal with, challenges which get debated on the evening news and the op-ed columns of the daily paper. One of these challenges, I argue, must be a reform of a system that allows Hartford guns into the hands of Guinean soldiers. Perhaps this means a fundamental rethinking of our military-industrial complex, a vast economy of corporate and political interests spearheaded by US mega-corporations like Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. Our US "defense" budget this year is over 500 billion dollars, with many of these firms receiving the lion's share. These companies literally live off the sale of weapons that wind up, well, who knows where. "More than 150 countries have had arms contracts with US corporations such as Lockheed Martin," writes activist Chris Haw. These are the same corporations that enjoy such a cozy relationship with our government.

That same government, of course, condemns conflicts like those currently raging in Darfur and wages its own wars in the name of freedom and democracy. There are thousands of good American men and women in positions of influence who are genuinely seeking to bring the US's political, economic, and corporate might to bear to address these issues. And yet how cane we, as a country, decry civil wars in which their militants kill one another with our own weapons? "The US is arming 75% of the world, while it tells folks to disarm, which is like handing out guns to kids in our neighborhood and telling them not to shoot one another," writes author-activist Shane Claiborne.

I do not claim to have good answers to these troubling problems, yet I do have daydreams every now and then. What if we put all of Raytheon's or Lockheed Martin's engineers and technicians to work designing and building wind turbines and solar panels instead of high-tech weaponry? Two of our glaring national challenges right now are, of course, energy independence and climate change. Or what if we cut the country's military budget by a mere 10% (equal to over 50 billion dollars, or about China's military expenditures) and poured that funding into the search for a malaria vaccine, one which could save the lives of over a million people a year in villages like Boulliwel? What if, as a nation, we truly prioritized the clamp-down on arms being sold to rogue states or genocidal regimes? What is American citizens like you and me vigorously advocated our leaders to pursue creatively non-violent paths to conflict resolution no matter what the circumstances? What if, one day, Guineans would point to their American-built hospital and boast, "Americans make the best hospitals. Everyone knows that."

These are no doubt the wayward musings of a young idealist who has lived just a little too long in a small African village. While my perspective is limited and these daydreams certainly aren't a Brookings Institution public policy recommendation, the issues addressed remain nonetheless pressing. Thank you for taking the time to read these stories.

Much love,
As always,

P.S. News updates! Peace Corps Guinea needs your help once more! If, by any chance, you had wanted to contribute to my NGO headquarters project but did not get the chance, you now have the chance to give to help the country of Guinea. At the end of this month the Peace Corps Volunteers in the Fouta Djallon are organizing the 11th annual Girls' Conference! This conference, one of the staples of Volunteer activity here in the country, is held to encourage and train young girls from villages and towns all across Guinea in the areas of education, health, leadership, community organizing, and the challenges of life as a woman in Africa. Each Volunteer invites a girl from their locality to participate in a 5 day seminar that for many is the highlight of their adolescence thus far.
This year we need your help! We need to raise a little under 3000$ in the next two weeks in order for the conference to start on time on the 26th of July. If you are interested in giving (every little bit counts!), please go to the Peace Corps site (, click donate, and find the project under Guinea projects. This link should work as well:$[eom]
Thanks again!