Guinea-Bissau Offers Much Beyond the Headlines

Guinea-Bissau residents

Guineenses go the extra mile to make visitors feel welcome. The residents are reminiscent of those on a tropical island. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR hide caption

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Guinea-Bissau Scene

Guinea-Bissau is one of those oldy-worldy, badly potholed cities, but with gorgeous and once-grand, decaying vintage buildings, painted in rainbow-colored pastels. hide caption

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The Drug Trade

Guinea-Bissau has become a way station for drug traffickers attempting to travel from Latin America to Europe. Read about the practice, and the beginning and ending stages in Venezuela and Spain.

Guinea-Bissau has made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons — reports of links to international cocaine cartels.

Drug lords are reported to be trafficking cocaine through the small, West African nation from Latin America en route to Europe. Some experts are even calling Guinea-Bissau Africa's first de facto "narco-state," warning that it risks being overrun by drug barons.

But there's much more to this country, as I found out on a recent assignment there. As a first-time visitor, I was captivated by the charm of the rundown capital city and its residents.

Bissau is rather lovely — lush, green and very, very wet at this time of the year. It's the rainy season, though the sun did burst through the rain clouds.

It's one of those oldy-worldy, badly potholed cities, but with gorgeous and once-grand, decaying vintage buildings, painted in rainbow-colored pastels.

The cornices and balconies of the colonial Portuguese buildings bow in homage to a riot of tropical plants, blossoms and fragrant flowers grown, it seems, just to delight the eyes and senses of residents and passers-by.

But, just as you smile in wonder at how leafy and tree-lined Bissau is — with its Atlantic shoreline and lapping waters — your eyes wander down the central boulevard. This runs smack into the imposing former presidential palace, at the bottom of the central square.

Its architecture dates back to the Portuguese colonial era and it dominates the plaza. But what strikes you most is the roof — half of it is missing. Windows have been blown out and the mansion is crumbling. The president lives elsewhere these days. The half-ruin is testament to gun-battles between opposing forces in the devastating short civil war at the end of the '90s.

Bissau Guineans complain that so much was needlessly destroyed in a poor country that had little to start with.

Swing right past the contemporary red-roofed prime minister's office and head toward the parliament house. This was purpose-built by the Chinese. It doesn't have the same charm as the older buildings. It's not so lovely.

But the Bissau Guineans are. They're so relaxed — just like you'd imagine islanders would be, though Bissau itself is on the mainland. The capital is a high-speed boat or long, dugout wooden canoe ride away from an archipelago of dozens of tiny islands. That's where most of the cocaine is dumped by the drug traffickers, hidden away from detection and inspection.

Guineenses, as they call themselves, are never in a rush. They greet visitors warmly in their musical, lilting accents: bom dia (good morning/day), boa tarde (good afternoon), boa noite (good night) — lingering over greetings and pleasantries. And many Bissau residents switch effortlessly from Criolo (Creole — the linguafranca) — or the official language, Portuguese — to French and even a smattering of English, to make a stranger feel at home. Guineenses go that extra mile, so you know you're really welcome.

Come rain or shine, I shall definitely be going back to Bissau.

Quist-Arcton is an NPR correspondent in Africa.



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