FOUR CANS OF BEANS AND A CHINA GIRL
I vividly remember the first time I landed in Conakry, Guinea. It was June 2012, and it practically gave me a heart attack – I didn’t know my plane bound for Sierra Leone had a scheduled stop there, and I thought I had boarded a flight to the wrong West African country. As most of the passengers exited, I decided to come back to Conakry one day, but on purpose.
It was two months into my stay in Sierra Leone, and co-workers at the Independent Radio Network in Freetown had told me it was relatively simple to get to Guinea by bus. So I got a visa from the Guinean embassy in Freetown for USD 160, and took a poda poda to the downtown stop where I would catch the bus.
Find the details of my five-day travel itinerary below, along with tips on what to do (and what not to do) in this mid-sized West African country.
Day One: Getting to Conakry by Road
If I thought travelling to Guinea would be at all like taking the Greyhound, I was sorely mistaken. The “air-conditioned bus” I was promised turned out to be a rusty metal tube with jammed windows, and I had to bribe the driver Le20,000 to let me keep my small suitcase on board with me where I could see it. He wanted to put it in storage below, next to the alcohol he was smuggling across the border disguised in rice bags.
In fact, he seemed to assume he was smuggling me too, and told me it would be difficult and expensive to get me across without a passport. I hurriedly assured him I had one, and a visa, and he asked what I had in my suitcase. “Four cans of beans,” I responded, not wanting to reveal I had any valuables. With that, we left (two-and-a-half hours past our schedule departure time of 7 a.m. of course).
Expect to spend the first hour or two getting out of Freetown traffic. The distance to Conakry is only six hours on paper, but the drive can stretch up to 10 or 20 depending on how smoothly your border checks go. When I made the trip, Guinea was still transitioning out of its military dictatorship, which meant regular security checkpoints manned by heavily-armed soldiers, and a fee to pay at every crossing. Being white slowed things down considerably, and a thousand horrible scenarios flashed through my mind every time I was hauled off the bus for interrogation at the checkpoints. “Don’t speak any English,” warned the bus driver as I was brought into dark, locked rooms and questioned about my passport, intentions and luggage. Every time, I replied in French that I was Canadian, travelling to Guinea with Search for Common Ground, and that all I brought were four cans of beans. I’m glad I paid the driver handsomely to wait for me, because by the third or fourth checkpoint, the Sierra Leoneans on the bus had suggested leaving behind as a result of the delays I was causing. (I felt it unwise to point out that they, too, were causing delays by refusing to pay the fees at the checkpoints).
By the sixth or seventh checkpoint, my wallet – and belongings – had started to thin. The borders fees in Guinea are nominal, but they don’t reflect hidden costs including bribes for officials and soldiers. Time and again, I handed over cash, pens, paper, cookies – whatever I could to buy enough goodwill to get me back on the bus. It was an uncomfortable experience, aggravated by the stifling conditions inside the bus, which was packed from the aisles to the windows with Sierra Leoneans who were transporting goods for trade, and spilling food and drinks on the seats and floor.
Despite the discomfort and security risk imposed by this crossing, the drive between Sierra Leone and Guinea – two lush, woodland countries – is stunning. If you’re willing to tolerate the conditions I described above, it’s a beautiful ride through the West African countryside, straight through farmland and small villages that lie in the heart of Guinea’s deep green forests. You may also enjoy the amusing collection of Nollywood (Nigerian) films that play on the small screens of these long-haul buses. By the end of my trip, I was cheering along with the rest of the passengers as the hero of the film vanquished the evil sorceress, temptress, snake, or whatever mix of religious blasphemy and female sexuality the director had combined to make a villain.
A WELCOME SURPRISE
By the time I made it to Conakry, it was dark and pouring rain. I had almost no money left, but with the help of a friendly passerby, was able to find an ATM machine, withdraw some more Guinean francs (GNF), and catch a cab to the Search for Common Ground guesthouse where I was staying.
I was greeted warmly by two local SFCG workers, Julien and Felix, and – to my surprise – another Canadian intern named Jacob. We went to fetch dinner from a kindly mama named Bijou Barry, who sells homemade cookry from her home in Kaporo. We bought a large dish of atthieke, made from couscous, onion sauce, chicken and vegetables, and ate it with our right hands only to be respectful. It was a delicious dish that put me straight into a deep sleep after a 16-hour bus ride, and nearly two weeks of battling malaria back in Sierra Leone.
Day Two: Getting Around Conakry
I spent the next day catching cabs and poda podas around Conakry using a crude, hand-drawn map I made drawn of the city (I hadn’t had access to a printer for weeks). As of 2012, it had paved roads and much better infrastructure than Sierra Leone, but the traffic was several orders of magnitude worse than Freetown. It was a bit of a trial and error day – I couldn’t make it to any of the historical sites on my list as a result of the congestion, but I did make it all around the city, which is roughly four times the size of Freetown.
During this time, different drivers, vendors and passersby kept asking me in French if I was Chinese. While I have some Middle Eastern heritage, never in my life have I been mistaken for Asian. At first, I thought my foreign French accent had caused the confusion, but more than one person assured me that it was because I simply look it. I did however, get a few weak calls of “Fotay, fotay!” (white person) every now and then.
Conakry has some delightful urban artwork, and while they add a layer of colour and warmth to the streets, I encountered little of that warmth from the people themselves. I didn’t see to many smiles anywhere in the city, and felt the atmosphere was, at times, grey and submissive. I later learned that this lack of spirit was unusual in Guinea – an unfortunate combination of Ramadan fasting and strain from the difficult transition to democracy. I still had a good time in Guinea, but it was largely thanks to a single cab driver in Kipe whom I met the following day.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM
Once I had figured out the lay of the land, I took another stab at touring Conakry. This time, I ditched the attempt to take public transit, and hailed a cab from the guesthouse in Kipe at 6 a.m. before morning traffic. I negotiated a day rate with the driver rather than a fee per ride, and to my recollection, Jalloh seemed quite pleased with my offer of GNF 140,000 for the day (about CAD 20). He sped off with gusto to the National Museum (la Musée National) downtown, which is located in Kaloum, close to the hospital on 7th Boulevard.
It’s a small, mostly-outdoors establishment, but worth the 30 minutes and GNF 10,000 admission fee (about CAD 1.50) it takes to see it. The museum has a limited display of cultural artifacts and many of its rooms are empty, but its garden is pleasant enough, containing a variety of topical statues. During my visit, the museum’s jewelry-makers pressured me into buying a bright blue, beaded necklace for GNF 60,000. While I’m quite fond of it, I hadn’t realized upon entering that part of the expectation is that you’ll buy a piece of jewelry, since admission is so cheap.
CATÉDRALE SAINTE-MARIE AND LA GRANDE MOSQUÉE
Saint Mary’s Cathedral is close to the museum; about 15 minutes on foot if one heads north on 7th Boulevard and makes a left on 6th Avenue, past the Central Bank.
I’d only stop and see it if it’s directly on your way – its congregation is small, as Christians are a minority in Guinea. As such, not much was invested in its architecture or visual appeal, and your time is better spent visiting the Grand Mosque, which is 15 minutes from the cathedral by car.
Completed in 1984, the Grande Mosque has space for more than 10,000 worshippers. It was built under Ahmed Sékou Touré, the first president of Guinea, with funding from the king of Saudia Arabia. The mosque suffers, however, from an unfortunate lack of maintenance, and unless you a practising Muslim, you won’t be allowed in. This is one of the places I ran into trouble taking photos, so I advise you to be discreet or keep your camera stowed.
AN UNEXPECTED VISIT
It was almost noon, and with no one to talk to other than each other, my cab driver and I had built up quite a rapport. He kept calling me China Girl, and I kept calling him Joli Jalloh (joli means ‘pretty’ in French). He insisted I come meet his wife and newborn baby in the hospital, which I was more than happy to do. I was simply sorry that he had to work with a wife and baby still in care. We tread carefully through the crowded, rundown corridors to find his partner in an incredibly ill-equipped maternity ward. His son, so young he had not yet been named, was sleeping in the adjacent room with a dozen other babies. His health is poor, his mother told me, which is why they had not been cleared to leave. Jalloh seemed proud that I had met his family, and after holding his wife’s hand for several minutes, we moved on. I felt the interaction to be genuine, but admit that may have been intended at securing a bigger tip.
FROM CAMP BOIRO TO LAMBANYI BEACH
Our next stop was Camp Boiro, the military concentration camp where thousands of prisoners and prominent Guineans were killed and tortured during Ahmed Sékou Touré’s reign of terror. Touré was the first president of Guinea and among the primary nationalists who secured the country’s independence. But he ruled as virtual dictator for more than 20 years, having declared his as the only legal political party, and he imprisoned or exiled most of his opponents. It is estimated that under Touré’s regime, at least 50,000 Guineans were killed. Most present-day Guineans, Jalloh told me, can name a friend or family member who was held or murdered in Camp Boiro.
Few modern-day pictures exist of the dilapidated prison, and within minutes of viewing the it from across the street, I was accosted by a soldier who accused me of taking some. Truthfully, I had taken none, but this was not the answer he wanted to hear. He shouted hysterically, and took his rifle off of its shoulder strap as I scrolled through the images on my camera to prove my innocence. He seemed equally furious with Jalloh, whom he deemed partially responsible for my actions, and demanded a lofty bribe. When I refused to pay, he went back to shouting and threatening me with arrest. He attracted so much attention, one of his peers came over to see what was happening. Upon viewing my innocent photo reel, he reprimanded the soldier and sped us on our way.
Somehow, Jalloh and I found a way to laugh about this on our ride to the last stop of the day, Lambanyi Beach. We had come so close to ending up in the cop shop together, and it took a while for the nerves to subside.
I wish I could say that Lambanyi Beach is a stunning West African coastal paradise, sparkling in the setting sun. Unfortunately, it’s the filthiest beach I’ve ever seen – undoubtedly the result of dumping and trash blown in from the Conakry airport, whose runways are visible between the trees.
It is home, however, to some delightfully peculiar transparent crabs. It also offers a bit of a refuge from the din and severity of the city – there aren’t too many flights taking off from the airport daily, so Lambanyi remains relatively quiet. If you visit, stay out of the water – treading through the shallows close to the beach stained my feet grey within minutes, forcing me to walk back through the garbage to my shoes.
Day Four: Madness in the Marché Madina
I spent the next day the Marché Madina, one of West Africa’s largest markets. You can find almost anything here among the noisy, hectic sprawl of hundreds of vendors, who sell everything from Chinese cookware to elaborate headdresses. I held on to my possessions tightly as I browsed through the stalls – the Madina is notorious for its talented pick-pockets. I was reminded of my visit to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, where lack of care not only gets you robbed, but helplessly lost in the sea of identical booths.
A new friend in Conakry guided me through the rows of shops, and laughed after I admitted to having slipped in the market’s bathrooms while squatting over a drain on the floor, and coating my shoes in something gross.
If you’re travelling to and from Sierra Leone, Madina is where you catch the bus back to Freetown. I highly recommend visiting the before your departure to locate the terminal – you don’t want to be wandering around trying to find it in the last few minutes before the bus leaves.
Day Five: Journey Back to Freetown
I spent my last night in Conakry with Jacob, Julien and Felix. We had dinner at a nice restaurant in Kipe, then found a hole in the wall to enjoy a few drinks. Guiluxe is Guinea’s national beer and has a much richer flavour than Sierra Leone’s Star. The bar was crawling with expats and locals, and after a couple of beers, we joined them in belting out Disney tunes before returning to the guesthouse for bed.
My trip back to Freetown the following morning (which left, predictably, two hours late from Madina) was just as uncomfortable as the journey there. But I knew what to expect this time, and had replenished my stock of cookies, sweets and cash in order to bribe soldiers at the checkpoints. I no longer had my four cans of beans, but I came back with a good story to tell my friends in Sierra Leone about the ‘China Girl’ who almost got arrested in Conakry, Guinea.
Click here to continue reading about my return, and departure, from Sierra Leone.
Know Before You Go
- I was young and inexperienced when I travelled from Freetown to Conakry by bus. What’s safe for locals isn’t always safe for foreigners, and I was lucky to make it through the crossing unscathed. It may be safer now than in 2012, but if you choose this method of travel, be aware of the risks.
- I DO NOT RECOMMEND travelling to Guinea if you don’t speak French. English is not widely spoken even in the capital, and is at times, met with a hostile attitude from locals.
- Arrive in Guinea with francs and a healthy amount of U.S. cash. It’s hard to find an ATM or bank machine, and easy to swap currency on the streets.
- If you’re travelling from another West African country, and you need to return to that country, triple-check that you have a multiple entry visa.
- Buy a local SIM card in Guinea – it’s not a country you want to get lost in with no way to call for help. I also recommend finding a reliable cab driver, and keeping his or her number with you at all times.
- As of 2012, it was cheap enough to pay for cab driver to take me around, and not worth the pain of mastering local public transit. If you’ve got the cash, I recommend seeing Conakry by cab.
- Consider staying near Marché Madina, which has a variety of affordable Airbnb accommodations that weren’t available when I visited.
- Be careful about taking photos in a heavily militarized country. Keep a spare camera memory card in your pocket that you can whip out if someone demands to see your photos.
- Keep photo copies of your ID and passport with you at all times. If a soldier asks, give them a photo copy. Be very careful about handing over your authentic documents to anyone – you might not get them back.
- Honestly, nothing about Conakry knocked my socks off as a traveller. There are few historical and cultural attractions and access to them is limited. If you visit at all, I wouldn’t spend more than three days here.