Under Foreign Skies – Jan van Maanen

This entry is part of the series Under Foreign Skies
Jan van Maanen
Jan van Maanen (©Eric Beauchemin)

Jan van Maanen has lived and worked in Guinea Bissau for nearly a quarter of a century. He initially went to the West African nation to set up an office for the Dutch volunteer organisation, SNV. A decade later, he decided to become a businessman. Mavagro became one of the former Portuguese colony’s biggest companies. But one of the things that makes his Dutch heart beat a bit faster is the walks he organises every year, based on one of the world’s premiere walking events, the International Four Days Marches in the southeastern Dutch city of Nijmegen.

“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people abroad doing remarkable things.

Photos: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: November 14, 2003

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Under Foreign Skies: Portraits of Dutch People doing Extraordinary Things”. The programme is presented by Eric Beauchemin.

You’re going to Guinea Bissau. Guinea what? New Guinea? No, no. Guinea Bissau in West Africa. Oh yes, Equatorial Guinea. No, no. That used to be Spanish. That’s near Nigeria. Oh sorry, now I know: Guinea Conakry. I said, no, no, no. It’s Guinea Bissau, Portuguese-speaking, south of Senegal. And then people realise that indeed, they never heard of it.

Jan van Maanen has lived and worked in Guinea Bissau for nearly a quarter of a century. He first went to Africa in the early 1970s and spent 3 years in Nigeria working for the Dutch volunteer organisation, the SNV. Afterwards, he returned to The Netherlands to pursue his career as a civil engineer. In 1978, the SNV asked Jan van Maanen to establish an office in Guinea Bissau.

The first few months was this logistics organisation of getting an office started. And I remember, the first 6, 7 months, when I stayed in a hotel, one bed was my office and my filing cabinet and the other bed was to sleep in. I managed to borrow a small typewrite, a manual typewriter. In the restaurant of the hotel, I was typing my first letters to my office in The Netherlands. EB: What was the situation like when you came to Guinea Bissau when you came in 1978? Well, we were still having nice socialism, which meant empty shops, long queues at the filling stations, practically no private investment, private enterprise, business. Everything was controlled by the State and therefore it didn’t work. Well, as long as you can be independent from the public services, and I mean the electricity supply. If you have a backup generator, if you stock enough fuel for your car and your generator, if you made your monthly trip to Ziguinchor in southern Senegal to get your supplies, well, life was quite pleasant. Not much different from today, except that you don’t have to do so much effort to get your fuel, to get your merchandise, to go to the super… Now you can chose between supermarkets, and in those days there was nothing because the only supermarket in Guinea Bissau was the government supermarket, and they were selling maybe 2 or 3 different articles, and the whole shop was filled with maybe 3 different articles. I remember shelves and shelves and shelves full of baking powder. Well, as I never bake cakes or bread or whatever, half of the assortment of the shop was already useless to me. I remember times when we even bought live chicken and bread in Senegal because there was nothing in Bissau. EB: So how were Guineans surviving at the time? Well, with the same difficulty. The Guinean is fond of rice and rice grows fairly well here. And there was shortages in those days. Rice was imported by the government. But we have had periods of famine, light famine. I remember a houseboy I had, who was a sturdy, strong boy. We went on holiday, came back after 6 weeks, and this guy was really skinny. And he said, ‘well, there’s nothing to eat’. And he hadn’t eaten for days.

It took Jan van Maanen 9 months to set up the office and find a decent house. At the time, the SNV volunteer organisation was sending technical professionals – like mechanics, carpenters and medical doctors – throughout the developing world.

Boy walking on a road outside the capital, Bissau
Boy walking on a road outside the capital, Bissau

Local technicians were hardly available in those days because, let’s say, development-wise Guinea Bissau is a bit behind other countries in Africa. It has to do with the fairly low-level of development of the mother country of those days, Portugal. And it has to do with the late moment of independence. So foreign aid did not come to Guinea Bissau until ’74 – while Nigeria was it 1960 or Ghana ’61 – and that was the period that most countries became independent. So Guinea Bissau with ’74 and then Angola, Mozambique ’75 or ’76 even, I think, were quite late. So therefore the level of education of the average Guinean was very low, and it still is low. I think the statistics show that more than 50% can’t read or write in this country, which is rather different from other countries that are more developed, more progressed than this one. In 1980, Guinea Bissau’s president was overthrown in a coup. The country’s new leader decided to abandon socialism and introduce a market economy and a multiparty system.

Jan van Maanen’s contract expired in 1983, and he returned to The Netherlands. Less than a year later, he went back to the country to investigate Guinea Bissau’s economic potential.

When all the reactions were – without any exception – positive, and the government was prepared not to object, I decided to quit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to jump into the deep and the unknown, being a businessman in Guinea Bissau in 1984. It was obvious that when you end socialism and you start capitalism, there are chances. If you take the risk, you have a chance to succeed because competition was going to be very little. Well it sort of exploded. In ’85, sales went up and up and up. First we had one container every two months. Then we had 2 containers every month. Then it went 3, 4, 5 containers every month. It grew and grew and grew up till about ’93, ’94. And then it stabilised because the country had shown to be stable and we’ve had democratic elections in ’94 and that for many investors was a sign to step in. Of course, we had the advantage that we had stepped in about 10 years earlier and we had grown to about the biggest company in Guinea Bissau.

Mavegro supermarket and office in Bissau
Mavegro supermarket and office in Bissau

Jan van Maanen’s company is called Mavegro. It initially imported products such as water pumps, vehicles and generators and sold them to embassies and development organisations from a warehouse in the port of the capital, Bissau. But demand was so great that Jan van Maanen decided to buy a property in the centre of the city.

We were still supplying the photocopy machines and the technical equipment, the air conditioners to the projects, but we opened a little corner with foodstuffs. Very soon after, we had to expand because the food became very important. We had a good selection of European-made articles, not always the cheapest of the cheapest but products that were appreciated, and with the good salaries that diplomats and development workers usually receive, price wasn’t an issue. EB: But when you came to Guinea Bissau and set up your business, did you come here because you thought there were real economic possibilities here or because you felt some attraction to Guinea Bissau? Let’s say I fell in love with the place when I was in charge of the SNV office from 1979 to ’83. Of course I knew Nigeria, and if you live in Guinea Bissau, no doubt you know Senegal and Gambia too. There’s a special attraction: the people are very nice in this country. Not that Nigerians are not nice. But they are very, very nice here. It’s a good feeling to feel at home in a place, to feel appreciated, to have a normal life and that was one of the attractions. The other attraction of course was the business, and the business was good and became better and still better, better, so we have never had the idea to leave.

Jan van Maanen regularly comes back to The Netherlands, among other things to take part in the world’s premiere walking event, called the Nijmegen 4-days march. Tens of thousands of people from all over The Netherlands and abroad gather every year to walk 200 kilometres in 4 days: the goal is not to be the fastest, but to walk the entire distance. Jan van Maanen has taken part in 28 of these walks, and in 1998, to prepare for it, he organised a walk in Guinea Bissau.

I

Van Maanen also has a gym for his employees
Van Maanen also has a gym for his employees

invited a few boys in the office, and I said, ‘well Sunday I want to walk to Prabis which is 20 kilometres, do you want to go with me?’ I mean, it’s always nicer to have some company. People were prepared, ‘why not?’ Then people of my Nissan workshop came and said, ‘well, we heard you’re walking to Prabis on Sunday’. ‘Yes, that’s true, why?’ They said, ‘can we go too?’ I said, ‘yes, join us.’. And then we have a volleyball team that play in our yard. They said ‘we heard you’re going to Prabis. Can we go too?’ I said, ‘yeah we are’. So it expanded and expanded and that Sunday morning we had 200 people walking to Prabis. And immediately they said, ‘oh, when is the next walk?’ I said, ‘well, I haven’t thought of that’. I said, ‘do you want to walk again?’ They said, ‘oh yes, yes, yes, it’s very nice.’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll walk around Bissau 2 weeks from now’.

Poster advertising the Bissau-Prábis walk
Poster advertising the Bissau-Prábis walk

With the publicity we had on television because television was there at the finish on the Prabis walk, very quickly we had 600 people doing the round Bissau walk. And of course, they said, ‘when is the next walk?’ We were heading towards the rainy season and it becomes risky to organise something outdoors because of the rain. But 1000 people appeared to do the walk Bissau to Quinhámel. Which is how far away? That’s 40 kilometres. And I had flown in real medals from Europe. So everyone would get as a souvenir, would get a medal at the finish. Why was there so much interest in this walk or these walks, do you think? Well, first of all, people like to do things together. And on the other hand, very little is organised in this country for young people.

It was on that walk from Quinhámel in June 1998 that Guinea Bissau’s destiny changed forever. Mounting tensions within the government led to civil war. Hundreds of people were killed and more than 250,000 had to flee.

Well we left at 4 o’clock in the morning and at 5 o’clock the war started. So when we got to Quinhámel, we couldn’t go back because you could hear the shooting at a distance of 40 kilometres the shooting and the shelling and especially the shelling, yeah. Well, of course, we were very worried. My wife went with me with a car with drinking water and a clean towel and a clean T-shirt. And I had to live on that for a month because we had to stay in Quinhámel for one month and then there was still no forecast to get some sort of ceasefire, some sort of peace. And the Portuguese navy had sent a ship and evacuated us from Quinhámel to Cabo Verde Islands where we were loaded into an army plane and the Portuguese air force flew us into Lisbon. EB: All 1000 people or just the foreigners? No, no, no, just the foreigners. I think we were a group of about 100 people that were evacuated. Then I stayed in The Netherlands for two months and then there was a ceasefire and I have heard of people travelling from Gambia to Bissau. So I said to my wife, ‘why not? I’m going back. I mean, you have a business. You have a house. You have people, some 80 families who depend on the company. So we were closed from early June to early September ’98, and then we re-opened in September.

Mavegro FM radio studio
Mavegro FM radio studio

EB: What was the situation like when you came back in September? Was your shop looted? What had happened? There had been a break-in, but the staff of our company owns a radio station, an FM radio station, which re-broadcasts every hour the BBC World Service in English, and for the rest of the time we fill it with some easy listening music and some advertising. OK, when the war broke out, the main transmitter of the national radio of Guinea Bissau was in rebel territory. And of course, they shut it down immediately. Our business is in the centre of Bissau and we were still in government area. So the government confiscated our radio and broadcast their messages for the country through our radio. Therefore the radio became a target of the rebels. But we live, our business is just opposite the hospital, and most of the shells they sent to silence our radio fell on the hospital, killing people. When this became known to the rebels, they stopped shelling. On the other hand, being the voice of the government, we had extra soldiers in front of our door, which also protected the business. So it was a mixed blessing. It was, yeah, and it worked out to be very positive in the end. We had one shell which hit our compound and the rest all fell on the hospital, so…

But the civil war was not over. There was another round of fighting in October, and then again in January 1999.

When that war was over, another ceasefire. We had the ECOMOG, the West African peace force, around, trying to keep the two sides separated. And well there was a programme which would go towards elections, etc., etc., but on the 7th of May, the rebels took Bissau and that was the end of the war. In January 2000, Mr. Kumba Yala was elected president. So the so-called constitutional order in this country was restored.

But Guinea Bissau remained unstable: in less than 3 years, the president appointed and then dismissed over 60 ministers. In September 2003, the president was overthrown by the military in a bloodless coup. The political instability has devastated the country’s economy and Jan van Maanen’s business.

Well, the economy of Guinea Bissau has two pillars. Pillar 1 is cashew export. Cashew nuts. And the other pillar is aid. The international community was not keen on re-starting any new programme because of course there are negotiations before a new project, a new whatever scheme is started, and every time these diplomats came to negotiate, they found a new minister in their office. So they simply gave up. Aid to Guinea Bissau being about 100 million dollars a year before the ’98 war, went down and down and down, and I doubt if it’s more than 25, 30 million at this very moment. EB: And what has been the effect for example on your business? Oh, it’s a disaster. I mean, as we were specialised in supplying to the foreigners, to embassies, to development projects, with the reduction of people, foreign staff, and the shrinking of the budget for projects, business is down to about 20% of what it used to be. EB: Why didn’t you bail out earlier? I mean, after the war in 1998, and everyone started leaving, why did you come back? Why did you decide to stay here? Well I’ve got so much property. We did very well in the first 15 years of our existence. We were able to buy abandoned property in extremely bad state in the centre of Bissau. All our profits went into the purchase of the complex and the repair of the buildings and it’s mainly the property, worth big money, that kept me here.

EB: Do you feel like you’re chained now to Guinea Bissau? Well, in a way, yes. If you have a simple job with an employer, you can resign and find a job somewhere else. But if you are tied to a country through property, it’s difficult to leave. You can’t take it with you. Of course the value of property has gone down a lot because there’s nobody who has money to buy it. So time will tell if I have done the right thing. But you cannot just abandon a big complex like we have here. I mean we have some 18 different buildings, the biggest being 50 metres long and 25 metres wide. It’s not something you just leave behind because well, the economic situation is not good at this moment and we just run away. It’s not as easy as that.

Logo of the Kingdom of the Netherlands outside the Dutch consulate in Bissau
Logo of the Kingdom of the Netherlands outside the Dutch consulate in Bissau

Jan van Maanen’s compound lies on a dirt road in downtown Bissau. Anyone in the city can tell you where it is. On the façade of his Mavegro supermarket is the emblem of The Netherlands. Inside Jan van Maanen’s office, the queens of Britain and The Netherlands peer down at him. In the late ‘80s, the British embassy in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, asked him to become their country’s honorary consul in Guinea Bissau.

It gives you some extra prestige. It’s easy for contacts with the diplomatic service. And it’s not a bad idea at all to say mix diplomacy with business, and you’re as you say near to the fire, you’re near to where the action is, you’re near to where projects are, so it could be helpful for the business, and it appeared to be helpful for the business. And then you became consul for The Netherlands also. First of all, The Netherlands sacked their honorary consul because it appeared that he was not as good as they thought he was. And then they asked me again. And I said, ‘well, I already have a flag on my car. Why put two flags on my car?’ So I said no. Then they appointed somebody else, being the field director for the organisation I worked for, the SNV director, but the disadvantage of people working for a non-governmental organisation is that they only stay for three years. And the appointment takes a year, so effectively you can only be consul for about 2 years. Then the war broke out, and of course The Netherlands’ consul fled and never came back. The aid programme was still going on from the embassy in Dakar, and they came to see me and I helped them out in many things. And I told them, ‘listen, if there’s anything you need, just phone me, and I’ll see what I can do.’ This resulted very unexpectedly in a formal request, ‘why can’t you be…if you do so many things for us, why can’t you be our consul?’ And I had to give it some thought and after a few weeks, I decided, OK, yes, why not? The business aspect counted, but also having been here so long, knowing practically everybody, and as people are…they are very accessible. To make an appointment for a diplomat is just one phone call away. So I’m the only one in this country who represents two different countries. Is it a lot of work? It has never been much work for the British, but developments in Portugal are forcing me to have more work. Over the past 20 years, some 40,000 Guineans have managed to leave Guinea Bissau and are now based in Portugal. As the Portuguese don’t control their immigration as well as countries in the North do, sometimes, being desperate with so many illegal immigrants, what they do, they declare a general pardon for everybody and everybody illegal becomes legal. Therefore many of the then Guineans have now become Portuguese. They started emigrating from Portugal to The Netherlands and from Portugal to Britain. Sometimes they come back. They want to marry a Guinean girlfriend or they remember they have a few children here they want to bring to Europe. And as Portuguese citizens of the European Community, they have a right to do so. This gives me a lot of work with visas and immigration documents, although all the visas are dealt with with the embassy in Dakar, they still come to me first and I check the documents, if it’s complete, and I talk to the people to see if they realise what they are doing, not that they are doing a bad thing, but I’ve seen people leaving Guinea Bissau looking for a new life in Portugal and several came back after 2 or 3 months, and they said, ‘well, yes, it’s too cold over there’, or ‘I couldn’t find a job, and in the end, it’s not that bad over here’. So my contacts with the families of immigrants is now daily work. But it’s still worthwhile doing. Oh, well, with 20% of business, I’m not that busy on the business side. So therefore, it fills my day.

Medal for taking part in the Bissau to Quinhámel walk
Medal for taking part in the Bissau to Quinhámel walk

EB: You still organise these walks, don’t you? These walks, oh yes. When the war was over, those people who took part in the walks before the war came back and said ‘when are we starting again?’ And I hadn’t realised that it had such an impact. Being highly appreciated this medal, having this medal is something of great honour, I asked the Dutch embassy in Dakar to help me with the purchase of the medals, and they agreed. Medals were flown in and we started again. The first walk we did was Quinhámel-Bissau, showing a sort of – we ended up in Quinhámel with 1000 people when the war started – now we have all come back. The only thing was we went with 1000 people, we came back with 2200 people. And the problem is you have to transport these people to Quinhámel. You see, Bissau used to be an island. It’s the shape of an octopus, and the road goes from Bissau to Prabis and there the road simply stops. The road goes from Bissau to Quinhámel and there the road stops. Therefore you cannot do round walks. If you want to walk Quinhámel to Bissau, you have to carry the people to Quinhámel, 40 kilometres away from Bissau and then they all walk back. Well, the next year we organised four of these walks and the average number now is about 4000 people taking part in these walks. And luckily the embassy is still donating the medals for these walks and they’re really famous now in Guinea Bissau, I tell you. It was quite incredible. Last night you were showing me television footage of these walks and there were even people whose shoes were falling apart, but they were walking away. Yes. EB: And it’s in the middle of the night, also, right? Yes, well, one of the main problems is temperature, of course. To walk in the sun, it’s too much of an effort. So we usually start our walk at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. So the first two hours is still daylight. But then we usually chose the weekends of full moon. The moon is quite bright in Africa, so it’s not as dark as it sounds like. With the economy down, poverty is all around, and people buy second-hand shoes in the market, and even if they are worn out, they try to fix them with some pieces of tyre from a car. The minimum wage in this country is 15,000 CFA which is 22 euro which is about 25 dollars. And that’s not per day, that’s not per week. That’s a salary per month. So how they manage, it’s very, very difficult. Unemployment is very high, and of course I’m approached daily by people who have sick people in hospital. They need medicine. They don’t have the money. Some people come and they say, ‘I haven’t eaten in two days. Give me 500 CFA. Give me 1000 CFA.’ It’s not the nicest part of this society at the moment. I’ve never seen it so poor.

EB: You’ve said a couple of times that you’re 55. Do you plan to stay a long time here in Guinea Bissau? Oh I think they can bury me here one day. There’s no problem with that. The only problem is that I’m 55. If business becomes better, I should retire one day and retiring means not having to do with the business any more. So we would sell the place or rent it out or… There’s no real solution yet, but even then I will stay in Guinea Bissau. EB: You don’t feel like returning to The Netherlands. To do what? It’s too cold over there. Of course, the summer months are nice and the rainy season here is not so pleasant, so therefore, I think my future, with my wife in Guinea Bissau, say 9 months of the year, and three months in Europe. Something like that. And we’ll buy a new boat and go to the Bijagos, fishing, swimming. I’m very good at doing nothing, sometimes. So staying in Guinea Bissau, yes, and do useful things for society. If you fall in love with a place, you don’t start to hate it one day after the next day. The love for Guinea Bissau is still here and I don’t think it will ever go away.

Jan van Maanen in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. “Under Foreign Skies” is a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.

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