to go to Guinea was determined by two factors: safety and availability of
flights. As for the safety issue, we had originally wanted to visit the Casamance (the area of Senegal south of The Gambia) and
Guinea-Bissau (formerly Portuguese Guinea), but I received word in January
from our acting Country Director that these were not safe areas and PCVs
were not permitted to go there. That being the case, we had to cast our
nets a little further afield. There is a flight
from Paris to Conakry, Guinea that stops in Nouakchott. That made it seem a
simple choice, and it also helped us to decide on our first destination.
obtained his visa to Guinea before this trip, but Donna and I waited to get
ours until her arrival in Nouakchott. It was not a simple process. There is
a Guinea consulate in Nouakchott, with two employees: a secretary and a
rent-a-consul. I had been to the building a few weeks ago to scope out the
process, but could not get my visa yet because we Volunteers have our
passports kept under lock and key as a security measure until we need them.
and the consul had assured me that it would be no problem: come to the
consulate on Sunday the 6th and get the visa the same day.
during work hours to find that the office was closed. The wife of the
consul was taken ill and the secretary left to buy some medication for her.
An American might say, “The office is supposed to be open. Somebody must be
there.” But in local values, it is clear that caring for a known person
takes precedence over the needs of the unknown masses. We were clearly part
of the unknown masses.
After an hour
and a half the secretary arrived and took our applications for visas. He
was able to process what he had, but all would not be valid until we had
the consul’s signature, and there was no knowing
when the consul would return.
We left for
lunch, the secretary having given me the number of his cellular phone so
that we could check with him before the office closed, to see if the consul
had arrived. I called at 2:00 and found that the papers had been signed,
but when I got there, I found that there was no visa issued to us. Instead,
Donna and I received “attestations” that indicated to the reader that we
had applied for our visas, but that because of “rupture de stock de
vignettes de visa” (out of supply of numbered visa stickers), we could not
be granted the visas themselves, only this letter.
and I left for Guinea last Monday. On the morning of our departure, I
stopped at the Air France office in Nouakchott to see if the flight had
left Paris on time and would, therefore, be landing in Nouakchott and
leaving for Conakry on time.
advised me that we should be at the airport by 1:00 for our 4:30 PM
departure. Why so early? I received an answer that I had no way of
anticipating: the king of Morocco was expected to arrive in Nouakchott the
afternoon of our departure and, as a result, the airport and the roads to
it would be closed in the middle of the afternoon. Because of this, we had
either to get to the airport by 1:00 or give up the possibility of getting
there at all!
We arrived at
the airport by a little after 1:00 PM in our chauffeur-driven Toyota
hatchback, with Mamouni serving as our chauffeur.
Crowds were already lining the streets to greet the king upon his arrival,
but we just acted as if they were there for our departure and to wish us a
safe trip. We greeted them with our imperial waves.
We were at
the airport for a few hours when the king’s plane
arrived at 3:05. We could see his entourage descend on the stairs from the
Most of the
passengers on our plane had gotten off in Nouakchott. The three of us
constituted 75% of the passengers who boarded for the flight to Conakry.
Our flight left promptly and the only disappointment was that there was no
wine on board. How can they dare to say that they are a French airline with
no wine on the plane?
arrived in Conakry, Donna and I handed over our passports with the letters,
only to have the passports withheld from us, to be told that we would have
to come pick them up the next morning at the Ministère
de la Securité, Direction Police de l’Air.
Not having passports in our possession: not a good idea.
But what could we do?
Guinea is not
part of the group of countries that accepts the FCFA. The unit of currency
is the Guinean franc (FG), and the current rate of exchange is 2,200 to the
dollar at the airport currency exchange, but 3,300 in the
very-open-and-obviously-not-illegal black market. Men who offer money
exchange are plentiful and obvious, as they circulate in some areas of town
and in front of the airport carrying large stacks of bills and calculators.
$100 at the airport for the time being and then headed to the Peace Corps
house, where, via e-mail a few months ago when I was planning this trip,
the acting Country Director had told me that we would be able to stay if
there was room. There was room. We stayed! The guards, staff, and PCVs
greeted us warmly and we got to meet the new Country Director who had just
arrived the previous Thursday.
Corps maintains a sizeable office building in Conakry. The Country Director
has a house on the grounds, and this is one of the increasingly rare
countries that still maintains a house for PCVs.
The house has three bedrooms with bunk beds that sleep six people in each
room, a bathroom for each bedroom, a large living room, a kitchen with two
refrigerators, and a washer and dryer, of which we made good use. The house
is fully air conditioned and kept clean.
order of business on Tuesday morning was to go to the Ministère
de la Securité building to retrieve our
passports. Initially, our taximan did not know where it was we needed to
go, but he did find it and – small miracle – we were in the right place!
When we arrived at around 11:00 AM, we found that the passports from the
day before had not yet been delivered from the airport. The official made a
show of writing a note to give to one of the soldiers and ordering him to
go straight to the airport to pick up the passports and bring them right
back. He then told us to come back later, probably by 5:00 PM.
We decided to
go into the downtown area and had trouble finding a taxi that would take
us. Inexplicably, many drivers, though traveling empty, refused to pick us
up. We did eventually get down there, had lunch, and got back to the Ministère de la Securité by
about 2:30. To our relief, Donna’s and my
passport were there! To our further relief, we had been told that the cost
of the visa would be $100 (what Ross had paid in the USA), but the
equivalent in Guinean francs (usually abbreviated as FG) was about $25. We
paid the money, the functionary we were dealing with put the visa sticker
in the passports, and then we sat there.
What were we
waiting for? The visas had to be signed. “Signed” here means the signature
of the proper person and his official rubber stamp. (Rubber stamps are big
everywhere I have been in Africa – not that they are legible, because the
officials who use them seem to be using ten-year-old stamp pads that have
little or no ink left on them.) The functionary told us that the person we
needed had gone to pray, but that he would soon be back.
several books about birds, so she can keep herself amused by looking out
the window with her field glasses to find birds. And she does find
them! This was a good diversion for her at this point, as she happily cruised the sky looking for the winged creatures.
stretched into an hour and a half, leading us to wonder if the man we
needed was praying at a mosque or building one. When Donna
tired of looking out the window, she left the building to search for more
birds outside. All the while, Ross and I just sat and waited. In French,
the English adjective “patient” is a verb. Il faut
patienter: you must be patient. I sat there
humming, “Put on a Happy Face” from Bye-Bye Birdie.
I asked if
there was only one person who could sign and stamp our visas. The
functionary told me that there were actually two. The chief was on a
mission in Germany and it was his second-in-command for whom we were waiting.
3:45, the man we needed to see showed up, without so much as a, “Sorry to
keep you waiting.” Once he signed and stamped our visas, though, it was
still not the end of the process: they now needed to be numbered,
which required a visit to yet another office where our names were inscribed
into a large ledger maintained for that purpose.
By the time
we got out of there, it was almost 4:00 PM. We knew that the Sierra Leone
embassy would be open only until 4:30, so we got in a taxi and made a mad
dash over there. We arrived just as they were closing, though, which
necessitated our coming back the next day to get our visas.
though it was frustrating, we realized that we had gotten off lucky: we had
our passports back. If staying in Conakry one extra day was the worse that
could happen, we were doing all right by African standards.
Our first bit
of business for Wednesday was go back to the
Sierra Leone embassy for the proper visas. The embassy is not far from the
Peace Corps bureau, and it is on the way to downtown Conakry. Our plan was
to get the visas and then go downtown to a dock in order to take a boat to Kassa, one of the nearby islands off the tip of
Conakry, so that we could spend a relaxing afternoon in oceanside
arrived at the Sierra Leone embassy, the person we needed to see was there,
we gave him our money, and he left the room for a few minutes. When he came
back, he gave Donna and Ross their passports and said to me, “I am sorry but
we have a small problem with your passport, Mr. Davidson.”
problem? What could that be?
passport has twenty-one pages for visas, entries, and departures. The visa
for Guinea had been stamped on the twenty-first page. There were a few
pages following, listed as “Amendments and Endorsements.” The man said that
he could not stamp my visa on one of those pages. It had to be on a
page specifically intended for a visa. He said, “This is
very simple. You go to your embassy, get extra pages, and come right
back. Twenty minutes.”
informed us that the American embassy was deep in the heart of downtown
Conakry, we knew that it would be much more than twenty minutes. In fact,
it took us forty-five minutes to get downtown!
embassy is not far from the port, where we needed to go for the boat we
wanted to take to Kassa. To get the pages I
needed and then return immediately to the Sierra Leone embassy would take a
minimum of three forty-five-minute trips, thereby giving us very little
time to enjoy the seaside tranquility we were hoping for.
The taxi trip
downtown gave us time to weigh some options and figure out another plan. We
thought it would be best to go downtown, get the passport pages, and then
go directly to Kassa. But we didn’t
know if the Sierra Leone embassy official would be in his office that
pages were being added in the consular section of the embassy, I explained
the situation to an employee and asked her if she could call the Sierra
Leone embassy for me, to see if it would be all right to go back for the
visa later in the afternoon. She obliged by making the call, and the
official at the embassy said it would be all right.
We took a
taxi to the area where the pirogues leave for Kassa.
We negotiated the price and headed over with a guide and two others. There
were at least a dozen partially sunken ships littering the bay between
Conakry and Kassa. One of the PCVs had told Donna
that various countries had paid Guinea for the right to discard their
destroyed ships off the Guinean coast.
arrived at Kassa, our guides led us to a place
where we could eat lunch – a walk that would take “only five minutes,” they said. The walk turned out to be not only more
than twenty minutes, but the hotel to which they brought us was closed. It
was beautifully appointed with a swimming pool, outdoor bar, and huts that
were named after explorers. Unfortunately, it is now open only on the
did get to a small hotel for lunch, and the service was extremely slow. We
ordered our lunch at about 1:30, thinking that we had plenty of time to
enjoy it, but it wasn’t served to us until almost
3:00. That meant that in order to get to the SL embassy, we needed to get
off the island immediately, into the pirogue, and back to Conakry.
when we got back to the Conakry port, a taxi was discharging passengers, so
he was immediately free. Downtown Conakry is at the tip of a peninsula,
with only a few roads servicing its thin length, so he didn’t
have much choice with regard to how to go back to the other side of town.
The driver made good time, got us to the SL embassy by 4:00, and I had my
visa within ten minutes.
morning we were up at 6:00 so that we could get an early start. We knew
that we would have a long trip ahead of us. We got out the door of the PC
house by 7:40 and took our first taxi of the day: to the garage in the
district of Bambéto. On the way to the taxi
garage, we could see that traffic heading into Conakry was backed up for
several kilometers. It was not the direction in which we were going,
decided beforehand that we would be willing to purchase extra seats. We
were doing this both for comfort and expediency. The taxi fill-up policy
here is the same as in Mauritania: two passengers in the front seat and
four in the back – six passengers where there is room to fit four
comfortably. The car to which we were led had only one passenger purchase a
seat so far. We told the driver that we would buy the other five seats.
Within about fifteen minutes we left the taxi garage with just the five of
us, not having waited for that sixth passenger. We counted that as a stroke
of good fortune.
we had this “spacious” arrangement, with Ross in the front, Donna, the
other passenger, and me in the back, there was barely enough room back
there for the three of us. Some of the road had twists and turns, and the
driver took them at high speeds, which meant that we were constantly
sliding into each other.
We stopped in
Kindia, about a third of the distance to our
first destination of Pita, and I asked if this was a meal stop. The driver
said no, that he was there to pick up another passenger to continue on to
Pita. But where is he going to put another passenger? On the roof?
There was no
way that a fourth person could fit in the back with the three of us, but I didn’t want to say anything in advance. I thought I
would just let a demonstration of the situation tell the story for itself.
After about forty-five minutes, the driver arrived with a passenger, put
his luggage in the trunk, and all of us – except the new passenger – got
in. When it was time for the new guy to get in, they told us to “move
Move over where?
I asked. Madame (Donna) is up against the door. I am up against her. And
this man is up against me! How can we move? It was obvious we were not
supposed to be having both butt cheeks flat on the seat. We were
supposed to make due with one on the seat and the other on the lap of the
We told the
driver that we couldn’t make any more room than
we already had. He said that we would have to buy that seat, and then we
would be able to go. We agreed to pay the extra money. Off we went.
It wasn’t too long after we were on the road again that I
took a look at the driver, saw him drinking something from a can,
and asked Donna, Is that beer he’s
drinking? A second look confirmed my suspicion. Yes, he was drinking
beer, which made all of us uncomfortable! Now how are we going to handle
nobody else in the vehicle besides the three of us spoke English, so we
were able to talk openly about how to proceed. Our greatest concern was
that there would be a meal stop and that he would opt for yet another brew –
something we wanted to avoid. We all agreed that we would ask him to wait
until the end of the trip to drink any more beer, at which point we would
offer to buy one for him. As it turned out, there were no more meal stops.
of Guinea is called Fouta Djalon.
We enjoyed the scenery as we drove through: plateaus, rolling hills, and forested
areas, all green and attractive. The villages, while not exactly prosperous
in appearance, were kept fairly clean. The predominant housing was either
mud hut with thatched roof or the more modern and less traditional
ranch-style home with pitched roof that had one of the eaves extending
higher than the other.
who predominate in this area are Pulaar, one of the groups that lives in Mauritania. I have some Pulaar friends, so
there are a few words that I have been able to add to my vocabulary. Pulaar
is a language that changes from one country to another. "Thank
you" in the Pulaar of Mauritania is ahjorahmaa.
The same word, though, in Guinea is a greeting: "hello." People
are happy to hear a foreigner say "bonjour," but they are radiant
when one says "ahjorahmaa." By
the same token, the country is about 85% Muslim, so the standard Arabic
greeting of "Salaam aleichum" is also
useful. (About 8% of the residents are Christian and the rest follow
The next town
of any size was Mamou, where we stopped to get
the engine a look-over. “Just one minute,” said
the driver, and it stretched into twenty-five, but we were soon on our way.
We knew that
when we arrived in Pita, we had to get yet another car to arrive at our
final stop, a town with the improbable name of Doucki.
Once again, we had to negotiate to buy extra seats, for the usual reasons.
This vehicle was a Peugeot station wagon, the dreaded nine-seater: two next to the driver, four behind the driver,
and three all the way in the back on a slightly raised seat where I have
already found out in Mauritania that I will not be able to have enough room
to sit upright without my head hitting the roof.
told us that there were five seats left to be purchased in the car, and we
said that we would be willing to buy all of them. He squeezed three people
in the front next to him, three in the middle, and two in the back. We told
the driver that we wanted to go to Hassan Bah, and he told us that he knew
where to take us.
One of the
passengers in the front seat was a Guinean who spoke good English and told
us that he was currently here on vacation, that he is now living in the
Bronx, where he is a taxicab driver. His visit here is for two weeks. His
wife, who was sitting next to Ross, was staying at home in Guinea while he
worked in the USA. He said that he was earning more money to support his
family this way than he would if he had stayed in Guinea. All I could think
is that it is too bad that the only way to support a family is by breaking
We arrived in
Doucki at about 6:15, after a full ten hours of
travel. As we got out of the taxi, Hassan, the person whom we were
visiting, was at the junction, and he took us to his grounds, a walk of
about a kilometer along an unpaved road of igneous rock and reddish dirt.
had quite the build-up from many PCVs who have visited him during the last
few years. He lives in a remote area and leads hikes all over the territory
for his visitors.
Sierra Leone in 1962, this guy is indefatigable and always on! He and his
younger brother were educated in Sierra Leone, which accounts for his
excellent English. He also speaks French, Spanish, and his native Pulaar.
His Spanish is thanks to a seven-year stint during which he lived in the
Canary Islands, where he worked as a seagoing mechanic. He has even lived
in Nouakchott for a year, where he worked at the Zambian embassy. My friend
Lisa gave him and his hikes a great review, and all the Guinea PCVs we met
in Conakry raved about him. This stop is a Guinea must-see.
obviously enjoys language. He makes abbreviations or acronyms out of almost
everything we say; either that or he spells out words. When Donna said that
she saw his blue gate ahead of us, he called out, “The B.G.” When he
cautions us to “walk sideways” to keep from slipping, he invariably
followed that up with, “W.S.”
Hassan is one
of eleven children, which includes both full and half-siblings. He has
seven brothers and three sisters. In Guinea, the males in the family
inherit land from their father. This is divided among lots depending on how
many wives the father had. In Hassan’s case, his
father had had three wives, so the land was divided into three parts.
Within each of those parts, the sons of that particular wife make further
When I asked
Hassan how many wives he had he said, “Only one. I am not an H.P.M.” Here’s another Hassanism
for Hot Pants Man.
A Guinea PCV
named Adam Lebou helped Hassan start his business
in 1998. At that time, Hassan began offering meals and hikes to visiting
PCVs. Since that time, he has built several guest huts on the land. Among
Hassan, his brother, their wives, and their mother, all pitch in to take
care of visitors. They charge PCVs 30,000 FG per person per day, which
amounts to about $9, which includes room, three meals, and all the guided
Our hut was perfectly
adequate: round, made of mud bricks that were mud stuccoed
over, with a full bed in the center, a loft bed above it, and, true to form
in Africa, not a nail, hook, shelf, ledge, or other surface to place or
hang our possessions. There is no electricity in the guest huts, but Hassan
has furnished his own house with a solar panel.
It was clear
to us that since it had taken so long to get to visit Hassan all the way in
Doucki that we would not want to turn around and
head back to Conakry very soon. We opted for staying three nights, counting
on some hiking, rest, and relaxation after dealing with all the bureaucracy
that we had experienced over the previous week, in both Mauritania and
morning out, we took a four-hour hike that Hassan refers to as Indiana
Jones World. On our way out, we stopped at the little school next to Hassan’s land. For more than an hour we had been
hearing the children’s singsong recitation of
their lessons. Now we were going to see it in person.
As soon as we
walked into the room, all the students stood up together, as one. We found
out that this was an all-first-grade school, the first of its kind that I
had ever seen. The students were arranged on three sides of tables, with
nine students sitting around each table. There was
a total of fifty-five students present, of the total enrolment of
introduced us, and the students sang, “Bonjour
messieurs” for Ross and me, and “Bonjour Madame” for Donna. After Hassan
told the students about each of us, they burst into applause. They were all
wearing uniforms, were immaculately groomed, and cooperative.
we were off on our hike! Very little of the terrain is flat, so we were up
and down hills a few times, into the treed areas, over, around and
underneath rocks, straddling streams, and balancing on some rocks that were
wet and mossy. The two focal points of this walk were water-related: the
waterfall and “the Jacuzzi.” The water was refreshing in both places.
referred to the canyon below us as the Grand Canyon. The local name for it
is Aindeh Kokulo; Kokulo is the name of the river that runs through it.
We were back
at Hassan’s for lunch and repose, after which we
set out again, a little after 4:00 for another walk, this time to Hyena’s Rock Overlook. (Local name for the rock is tounti binoji.) One of Hassan’s shticks is that he holds his hand to an ear as
if he is on the phone, and “calls ahead” to the areas where we were
visiting. In the afternoon, he was calling the monkeys. Sure enough, from
the Hyena’s Rock Overlook we were able to see
some green velvet-backed monkeys frolicking in the trees far below where we
breakfasts, we had brought some oatmeal with us and cooked it up each
morning. Hassan provided tea, bread, bananas, and oranges. Lunches and
dinners were delicious: usually a starch with some sort of sauce. Various
meals included such base ingredients as green bananas, potatoes, squash,
taro, yams, or folio (a rice-like grain). There were usually two sauces
available: a peanut sauce that included no meat and a fish sauce. Donna
decided to go vegetarian, saying that it was safer. She let Ross try the
fish sauce, saying that she was "beta-testing" him, to see if he
would get sick from it. (He didn't.)
there is school in the morning. Donna noticed that the kids were circling
the flagpole with the flag needing to be raising.
We watched the ceremony during which a student raised the flag, everyone
sang a song, and then the class quietly lined up to go to the adjacent yard
for their physical education.
dawned much cooler than the previous day, so we thought we were in for a
much more pleasant walk. This morning’s
destination was Vulture’s Rock. Ross had his
binoculars with him this time, so among him, Donna, and Hassan, they
constantly were sighting birds and discussing their attributes. Every time
they pointed a bird out to me, I looked where they told me to, and it was
gone by the time looked over there. They were obviously enjoying
themselves. I couldn’t see how they could
identify any of the birds at all, since they moved so quickly. They
constantly talked about various color markings on the birds, yet all I saw
was a black blur. Donna informed me that when I got back home, she would
enroll me in her partner Dotty’s remedial
bird-watching class. I need that! I have a hard time telling one from
another. I can identify a really distinctive bird like an egret. Other than
that, though, I am afraid to say that I have a hard time telling a
melodious warbler from a woodchat shrike from a Senegal puff-back
flycatcher. (Yes, these are all birds that Donna has seen.)
trip hike was just under five hours. By the time we got back, though, just
before 2:30, we had been walking in the hottest part of the day, in a
terrain that had much less shade than the day before, and had had no stops
for refreshing ourselves in the water. In all, I was beat.
through several villages in the morning, each of which had beautifully
painted huts. In the afternoon, upon our return to the homestead, we met
three Americans who were visiting: Mike and April, who work for a local
NGO, and Martha, a PCV. April and Martha told me that the beautifully
painted huts in the local villages are not typical of Guinean
architecture, that this is a comparatively rich area.
Late in the
afternoon, around 5:00, Hassan and Mike went to get some GPS points so that
Mike can add to the maps he is making of the area. I was finished with
hiking for the day, but Donna and Ross went to the edge of the “Grand
Canyon” with Hassan’s cousin Saidou. Donna came
back and told me that during the walk, Saidou offered to build her a house
with a view of the canyon, so that she could wake up every day and look at
the beautiful scenery and birds.
evenings we spotted some glowworms around our hut. One evening, we came
back to see a spider sitting where a glowworm had been just a few moments
For our trip
back to Conakry, we bought all six seats in our driver, Mamadou's, taxi.
This cost 150,000 FG, about $44 total for the car. Having the entire car
for ourselves gave us a little bit of flexibility, as we asked Mamadou to
stop occasionally for various photo opportunities. We told him from the
start that our driver coming to Pita had drunk beer while he was driving,
to which Mamadou said that that was strictly forbidden and he would not do
it. He added that he was a smoker, but that he would not smoke in the car.
We were happy that we had found him!
On the way to
Conakry, we told Mamadou that we were going to Freetown, Sierra Leone the
next day and asked if were able to drive there. He said that when he got to
Conakry, he would check to see that everyone in his family was all right.
If so, he would consider driving us. He called us at the Peace Corps house
that evening, precisely at the arranged time. His call was the worse
telephone connection that I had ever experienced. It sounded like he was
speaking underwater and I continually had to ask him to repeat what he was
saying - not that that did any good! He drove back to the Peace Corps to
speak to us in person. We were impressed by his sincerity.
explained to us that he would be able to drive us to the Guinea/Sierra
Leone border. We agreed to that arrangement. It gave us the advantage of
not having to cruise the streets for a taxi in the morning and not having
to go to one of the garages to negotiate the deal.
morning, Mamadou arrived precisely at 9:30, our agreed-upon time. Once
again, with the flexibility of being the only passengers in the car, we
asked him to stop in Forécariah, one of the
bigger towns on the way to Sierra Leone, so that we could spend some of our
remaining FG on some of the beautiful indigo fabric that is made in Guinea.
Most of the
road to the border was paved, but as we approached it, the asphalt gave way
to reddish dirt. Mamadou took us to the taxi stand that was populated by
Sierra Leonean drivers and helped us to negotiate a price for the trip to