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.