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…