Guinea

 

          Our decision 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.

          Ross had 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.

          The secretary 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.

          We arrived 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.

          Donna, Ross, 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.

          An employee 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 plane.

          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?

          When we 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.

          We changed $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.

          The Peace 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.

          Our first 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.

          Donna has 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.

          “Soon” 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.

          At about 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.

          In all, 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 tranquility.

          When we 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.”

          A small problem? What could that be?

          The American 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.”

          When he 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!

          The American 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 afternoon.

          While my 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.

          When we 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 weekends.

          We finally 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.

          Fortunately, 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.

          On Thursday 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, fortunately.

           We 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.

          Even though 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 over.”

          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 adjacent person.

          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 this?

          Fortunately 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.

          This region 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.

          The people 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 traditional beliefs.)

          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.

          The driver 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 it up.

          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.

          Hassan has 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.

          Born in 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.

          Hassan 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 divisions.

          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 hikes.

          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 Guinea.

          Our first 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 fifty-six.

          The teacher 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.

          From school 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.

          Hassan 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 were standing.

          For 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.)

          On Saturday 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.

          Saturday 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.)

          Our round 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.

          We passed 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.

          In the 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 before.

          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.

          Mamadou 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.

          The next 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 Freetown.