I had to do a separate entry on Conakry as it is so different from the Guinea I saw in the forest region.
I went out of my hotel to search (in vain) for somewhere showing the Newcastle v Man Utd match, found myself immediately in the middle of what seemed to be just a sprawling slum. The buildings mostly single-storied (and low enough for anyone taller than me to probably need to stoop to enter), crumbling, with patched-up corrugated iron roofs – and swarming with people. Everywhere there are people, playing football, cooking, eating, washing, laying out their laundry on a spare patch of wall (or road). It was as if I had somehow walked into the inside of people’s homes.
Later I found out why. So many people inhabit most of the houses that they occupy them on a rotational basis: while one goes outside into the street to wash and cook, the next takes his turn to sleep in the bed. The effect is that people mostly live in the streets. So walking about, as a foreigner, is very odd, giving the feeling that you are intruding into people’s private lives just by being there – although I felt no hostility.
I also stumbled upon a little “sub-slum”, it seemed, for the disabled. It was outside a big building with railings out front, and there was so much stuff slung over the railings that at first I thought I was in some sort of market. But as I tried to work out what was for sale I realised that I was looking at people’s bedrooms. Mattresses, pillows, towels, etc – with the usual washing and cooking equipment piled on the pavement in front.
I also noticed quite a few wheelchairs and crutches around, and then realised that the people lounging on the mats, and those moving around, weren’t quite ‘normal’. They were shuffling, and limping, and the wrong size and shape, with limbs missing, or twisted and withered. All of this was out of the corners of my eyes – I so wanted to LOOK. But I knew that if I did I would have to pay, and there were just too many people there to start handing out money, no matter how shocking their circumstances.
One part of the city is different – that is where you find the presidential palace, the government ministries and the cathedral. Not an area of obvious wealth (I never found the quarter that houses the government ministers and their families and friends, whom stories suggest have an awful lot of money), but one devoid of life. No one lives on these streets, the army would soon stop that, with the result that it feels like a ghost town.
As with the rest of the city, everything is crumbling and mouldy, and scattered with bits of rubble and litter, but with no people to give it life it has the air of being abandoned. A couple of parked cars – typically rusty and decrepit – look as though they have sat there for years.
It is only when I get out my camera and take a photograph that another human being appears – some sort of security guard, who claims to be a policeman and asks me if I have a photography permit. I laugh and tell him they’re not necessary any more, that Guinea is a more free country now, and I offer my hand in greeting. He relents, and tells me he will let me go “because you are a woman”, before moving on to the more usual subject of whether I am married and whether he can visit me in my hotel. I tell him I am flying home to Dakar that evening, where my husband will be waiting for me, but that I will pass along this street to say hello next time I am in Conakry…
Lots of ups and downs in Guinea (though no teapot trees as yet).
- Driving through the few remaining patches of primary tropical forest, the type where mankind has not shaped or even altered the landscape, where you feel very much like an insignificant visitor to a powerful natural world.
- A weekend spent with a local community in their village – eating, drinking, sleeping and washing the way the villagers do, and experiencing their wonderful hospitality.
- Getting to watch the Man Utd - Arsenal FA Cup game (which my team won embarrassingly easily) despite being in a town with seemingly no facilities at all.
- ‘Showering’ from the bucket of cold water left outside my hotel room in the mornings.
- Tripping over on the way back from work one evening (no pavements, no streetlights, no moonlight – and my torch left in the hotel).
- My second bout of ‘Guinea belly’, at the same time as a heavy cold, a mild temperature, a headache, and lots of work to get through.
– The Harmattan. Yes I know I’ve written about this before, but I’ve not experienced it quite like this: blotting out the landscape in a white haze, burning your throat, constricting your breathing as if something had been wrapped too tightly around your ribs, and with a constant taste of dust in the mouth.
- Sir Alex deciding to rest Ronaldo the one time I get to see a match.
Lying on my bed in Gueckedou, looking up at the low energy light bulb dangling from a few wires at the end of the broken fluorescent light casing (hotel generator switched on for a few hours), and listening to the rain hammering down on the corrugated iron roof above, I had another of those “what on earth am I doing here?” moments. They come every so often, as I find myself shaking my head in wonder or disbelief at some of the strange places or surreal situations I find myself in these days. (I had another during the eight-hour drive between Kissidougou and Conakry, when the driver changed the music from Guinean griots to Barry White singing “My first, my last, my everything”)
We used to have our main Guinea office in Gueckedou, until rebels (mostly child soldiers) came across the border from Sierra Leone in 2000 and started killing people. The Guinean army responded by dropping bombs on the town and many of the buildings were destroyed (and many people killed). The shells of those buildings are mostly still there, as the owners could not afford to repair or rebuild them, and the town has grown up again around them.
Now I am in N’Zerekore, in another strange place. Although some 14 hours’ drive from the capital Conakry (during the three months of the dry season – sometimes inaccessible during the rains), and in fact closer to the capitals of Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and Mali than to the capital of Guinea, this town boasts a ‘luxury’ hotel. I say ‘luxury’ because it is still nicely designed, and modern, and clean, and amazingly it still has a functioning swimming pool. However the new Chinese management team seem determined to wring as much profit as they can from the place so many of the rooms no longer have running water, the generator is only on for a few hours a day, television sets have been removed from the rooms to save on repair costs and the advertised satellite TV (for the one – 12” – TV available to guests in the bar) now refers only to the dish on the roof as the subscription to the satellite channels has been cancelled.
The restaurant menu boasts such temptations as guacamole, spaghetti in a cream and mushroom sauce, and bottles of red wine, but in fact none of these things are available so it is back to chicken or beef with rice or chips and a bottle of water to wash it down.
Strange to think that this country has gold, diamonds and one third of the world’s aluminium ore, yet has no telephone lines (and very poor mobile connectivity), no mains electricity and no public water supply in most of the country. Soon it will have no surfaced roads either, as a lack of maintenance (and poor standards of construction as most of the funds are siphoned off through corruption) means that the rains are washing away the surface to reveal the hard red lateritic soil beneath. You really do feel a long way away from the developed world here.
The other ‘down’ I suppose was my visit to Mount Nimba. This mountain, on the border with the Ivory Coast, is a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve, set up to conserve its wildlife – the chimpanzees, but more importantly a protected species, the ‘crapeau geant’. That is French for giant toad, but in fact the creature in question is a small frog – unique, according to the locals, because the females breast-feed their young. I’m not sure that I actually believe this, but I was certainly keen to see the birds and the chimps, so was very pleased when the office here managed to arrange transport for me.
However when we got to the park entrance on the Sunday morning, the guards on duty would not let us in. Apparently access to the park is now closed by order of the Societe des Mines de Fer de Guinea – an iron-ore mining company that has just started operations inside the park. So much for conservation.
Above is a photo of an amulet, from a collection at the Kissidougou museum, worn by one of the rebels in 2000 - some cream-coloured cloth with some bits of wool stuck on. Many of the rebels believed that wearing amulets like this would protect them against bullets.