WEEK TEN: Four Cans of Beans and a China Girl
(A continuation of weeks one through nine in Sierra Leone)
It was a bitter-sweet feeling leaving Sierra Leone for a week in Guinea. I was excited to see a new country, but I knew when I came back I would have only one short weekend to say goodbye to Freetown. Since thinking about it made me sad, I decided to focus on the adventure ahead: Conakry.
And what an adventure it was.
If I thought travelling to Guinea would be at all like taking the Greyhound, I was sorely mistaken indeed. The “air-conditioned bus” I paid for turned out to be more of a rusty metal tube with open windows and I had to bribe the driver Le 20,000 to let me keep my small suitcase on board with me where I could see it. He wanted to put it in the storage below, next to the alcohol he was smuggling across the border disguised in rice bags.
He said it would be difficult and expensive to get me across the border without a passport, and after hurriedly assuring him I had one, he asked me what I had in my suitcase. “Four cans of beans,” I said, not wanting to reveal I had any valuables. With that, we left (two-and-a-half hours late, of course).
Despite the lush, beautiful view of Guinean countryside, the trip to Conakry was long and uncomfortable. The bus was packed from the seats to the aisles and even with open windows it was stifling. To make matters worse, several of the passengers refused to pay fees at the military checkpoints between Sierra Leone and Guinea, resulting in lengthy delays at each stop. A thousand horrible scenarios flashed through my mind every time I was hauled off the bus by armed soldiers for interrogation. “Don’t speak any English,” warned the bus driver as I was brought into dark, locked rooms and asked about my passport, intentions and luggage. Every time I replied in French that I was a Canadian, travelling to Guinea with Search for Common Ground, and that all I brought were four cans of beans.
These must have been the right answers, because I made it to Conakry in one piece. I was dropped off in the pouring rain, with no money and not a clue where I was. But my Le 20,000 had bought the bus driver’s allegiance and he sent a friend to see me to my destination. I arrived at the guest house with a pocketful of Guinean Francs and an empty stomach. I went with another Canadian SFCG intern to buy atthieke, a traditional dish of couscous, onion sauce, chicken and vegetables, to be eaten entirely with one’s right hand. We picked it up from Bijou Barry, a kindly old woman who sells cookry from her home Kaporo. It was FANTASTIC.
I spent the next day driving around the city using a crude, hand-drawn map I made of Conakry. The city has paved roads and much better infrastructure than Sierra Leone, but also suffers from the worst traffic I have ever seen in my life. Nevertheless, after hours of hopping into different cabs, I managed to make my way around the entire city, which is roughly four times the size of Freetown. What shocked me more than the size of the city however, was that everyone in it seemed to think I was Chinese. Now I understand Middle-Eastern, Latin American or Mediterranean, but Chinese? And I’m not talking about a few isolated incidents, I mean every single person – cab drivers, store owners, servers, street vendors – everyone I have spoken to so far has asked if I am from China. I thought perhaps my strange Canadian-French accent had done it, but a couple of questions quickly revealed that it was indeed, my appearance that led to this belief.
Despite some quite impressive pieces of art scattered around the city, I felt none of the warmth and vibrancy in Conakry that I had been used to in Sierra Leone. Nobody smiled or waved and I only got a few, weak calls of “Fotay!” (white person) during the entire trip. I’ve learned that this lack of spirit is unusual in Guinea, and is the result of strain from Ramadan fasting and the country’s current struggle with democracy after years of military dictatorship.
But I have enjoyed my time here immensely and taken in all that Conakry has to offer. On Wednesday, I woke up very early to start my tour before traffic hit. I hailed a cab from outside the guest house in Kipe and headed straight for the National Museum downtown. I was surprised indeed to discover that the “National Museum” was actually a very small statue garden and a couple of jewellery-makers under a tin shelter. Instead of paying the 10,000 GNF admission fee, I had to by a necklace to get in, which I wasn’t pleased about. Now that I have it however, I am quite fond of its bright blue, hand-painted bead and clay design. The photos below are of statues in the garden, each with a different significance in Guinean history.
I then visited Conakry’s two largest religious sites, the Catedrale Sainte Marie and the Grand Mosque. The latter was vastly more impressive, completed in 1984 and with space for more than 10,000 worshipers. I wasn’t allowed in, and only managed a few photos before I was ushered away by veiled women who seemed quite unhappy to have me there.
By that time, my cab driver and I had built up quite a rapport (he kept calling me ‘China Girl’), so he took me to see his wife and newborn baby in the hospital. I could tell it was very important to him, so I was more than happy to go along and meet his family. I have never been to a hospital in Africa before, but was not surprised to find it rundown, crowded and poorly equipped. Jalloh led me straight to the maternity ward, where his new, unnamed son was sleeping in a room with a dozen other babies. I spoke with his mother while she breastfed him. She told me he has been in the hospital for a few weeks now, because his health is poor. I hope with all my heart that his condition improves.
After the hospital, Jalloh took me to Camp Boiro, the military camp where thousands of prisoners and other prominent figures were killed and tortured during Sekou Toure’s reign of terror. The camp affected every sector of society and most present-day Guineans can name a friend or family member who was held or murdered there. I wanted to go in and see it, but before I could ask if this was permitted, an armed soldier came up to me and accused me of taking photos of the camp. He yelled and yelled, and demanded to see the footage I had taken. I pulled out my camera, and showed him truthfully that I had taken no pictures of the camp. No matter how far back into my pictures I went however, he didn’t seem convinced. I knew he wanted money, but when I refused to pay up, he turned on Jalloh. The shouting continued until another soldier came over and told him to leave us alone. I quickly showed this soldier my innocent photo reel, and he sped us on our way.
The day ended with a trip to Lanbanyi Beach, behind the runway fields of the Conakry airport. Though the beach has beautiful trees that grow in the water and hundreds of peculiar see-through crabs, it is by far the filthiest beach I have ever seen. Walking through the water stained my feet grey, and it was difficult to find a places to step that weren’t covered in garbage. Nevertheless, as this photo reveals (right), Lanbanyi is a nice place to get away from the severity of the city and bask in the company of one’s thoughts.
I spent the next day at Madina, which is one of West Africa’s largest markets. There is almost nothing you can’t find here among the thousands of vendors selling everything from used clothes to elaborate headdresses. I held on to my possessions tightly and kept my eyes up – the market is home to some talented thieves. I was reminded of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, where lack of care not only gets you robbed, but helplessly lost in the sea of identical stalls. I am lucky to have had a friend guide me through it, but tomorrow when I catch the bus back to Freetown, I will be here alone.
The trip ended as any trip should – at a bar with new friends. Jacob, myself, Julien and Felix went out for dinner at a nice restaurant, then found a dark, out of the way place to enjoy a few drinks. Guiluxe is Guinea’s national beer and has a much richer flavour than Star. After singing a few Disney songs with some expats and locals, it was time for bed.
Conakry has been a fantastic adventure and an exciting change from Sierra Leone. I leave Guinea with another piece of the puzzle in my understanding of Africa, the conditions that affect it, and the position it holds in the world today. I no longer have the four cans of beans to help me through the border, but at least if they call me a China Girl, I’ll understand why.