* Pronounced (n- JAH-ra-ma)- Hello, or Greeting in Fulani
Some names have been changed (*)
I took this trip unexpectedly. It wasn’t planned as a vacation; I had gone to do some research and discovery on Guinean dance as part of an education initiative for my new non-profit organization. So, while I did see a lot, it was mostly about learning, recording, and documenting dance. I stayed part of the time with my teacher Bangaly* as part of a dance workshop intensive. The trip was a study in sensory enrichment; I spent much time watching, listening, and commenting, and less doing.
Well, this trip got off to an interesting start. First off Air France cancelled my connecting flight to Conakry so my 6 hour Paris layover turned into a 24 hour one. The Guinea president had died, and this, coupled with potential political unrest, was putting all flights to that region on hold. No worries- Paris is an excellent layover, although I am pissed that they didn’t bother to give me a hotel voucher or any kind of accommodation. I had tried calling Bangaly*, but his phone was off, so I emailed him to cover all bases, and just prayed that he would get the memo from the airline regarding the change in my arrival. I made the best of my Paris stay by visiting my favorite market (Marché Aux Puces) and stopping at the Mosque for a relaxing steam. I ended up buying a wool African tunic, a skirt, and a hooded sweater for 3 euros. I didn’t have a towel for the hammam, and, not wanting to blow 4 euros borrowing one of theirs, I picked up a cheap 1 euro one at a Tati store on the way. But anyway, my big issue was getting in contact with Bangaly because of my flight change. I didn’t want to end up in Guinea with no escort. When I was in Senegal I got lucky and a cab driver let me use his phone, and my friends came right away. I again called Banagaly, and then his manager in New York, and tried to get the numbers of my teachers M’Bemba and Youssouf, just in case anything went wrong. But in the end, I just put it in God’s hands. If I didn’t end up with Bangaly, I had plenty of other friends to take care of me in Guinea.
The excitement starts as we disembark. Apparently the new Prime Minister was on our plane. I look out the window, and some dude is on the tarmac wrestling with a bunch of military men. Turns out he is some overzealous journalist. The passengers of the plane are greeted by a media frenzy as photographers and television crew struggle to get a look of Kabinet Koyate, the new leader from Paris.
I am in Guinea and it is chaos. 50 times worse than Dakar. There is energy everywhere-people fighting over baggage, employees offering to help, men, women offering to help, everybody offering to help—for a fee. An airport security boy sees me, and offers to help me locate my baggage off of the carousel, but he is more hindrance than help; I spot my luggage before he does. When the other bag doesn’t come—the one with my actual clothing—I am pissed. Because it is 90 degrees, and I am standing in a hot ass Guinea airport with a thick wool hoodie, leather jacket, jeans, sneakers, two pairs of socks, and a suitcase full of children’s toys which are useless to me. I am tired and thirsty, and I need to pee. And Bangaly is not there, of course. Did I panic?
The baggage claim was a disaster. It reminded me of the craziness of the New Delhi station with everyone crowding into a room fighting for the attention of the single baggage clerk. She worked slowly and deliberately, and her makeshift fan barely managed to circulate the musty overbearing air within the tiny room. I filled out my form, she typed up a few things, and handed a form back to me.
It was Tuesday and I could not believe that this chick was telling me that I would need to wait until SATURDAY to get my clothes. Were they serious?! This is Air France! Well, screw Air France! I got hold of a cell phone from a European tourist and called up my boys from around the way. They came shortly after and we all headed to the Hot and Fresh (ahh, the Hot and Fresh—I have stories!), and then to a hotel in Lambanyi, a town 15 minutes from the airport. Little did I know that Bangaly was staying literally ONE block away from us!
God is good. This is why I didn’t worry one bit.
New Year’s Eve and still no word from Bangaly! I had really wanted to spend the new year with my best friend Jamila*, which was the whole point of getting to Guinea before the new year. But a girl’s gotta eat, so off to Hot and Fresh. Ok, let me tell you about Hot and Fresh. It’s a gas station restaurant. It is really nothing special. It just has a bigger array of Westernized food, like pizza and croissants, and the power is always on. I didn’t know why that little detail was such a big deal, but I would soon find out. The Hot and Fresh was packed with businessmen and their wives/girlfriends eating breakfast and watching the latest news on the new Prime Minister. This is actually how I found out that he had been on my plane! It seemed like the Hot and Fresh was the place to see and be seen—whatever that meant.
I managed to catch up with Bangaly’s brother at the Hot & Fresh, and we made it back just in time to ring in the New Year with the rest of the family. In the early hours of the New Year, Barbara and Rebecah, two women from upstate New York, came to the house.
Today was special because it was Barbara’s birthday. We had our classes as usual and then Rebecah planned a surprise birthday celebration. She managed to get a cake from Centre Ville—I believe at the ice cream shop right next to Mouna, the enormous multi-level cyber café in the city. Bangaly arranged for a dance troupe to stop by and perform. They were spectacular! A fula flute player, acrobatic male dancers, and explosive drumming summoned the local community to Bangaly’s courtyard where we all shared in song, dance, and cake. Too bad NONE of our cameras were charged. I came to learn that the power doesn’t come on until about 5 or 6, and by then all of our batteries were nearly depleted. Working with our electronics would be a task; at 6 pm everyone scrambled for an outlet to recharge. I managed to catch a small amount of video on my camera, and caught some extra footage with Jamila’s camera, but most of the memories are in my mind. Later, after multiple days of trying to charge my battery, I opened up the manual and realized that I didn’t have the right kind of charge for my camera! Luckily I was able to use a friend’s instead.
Jamila had been telling me all year long about how she wanted to go to Kindia, a city in the inner region of Guinea. Supposedly it was this beautiful, lush place, with a fairy-tale like waterfall. I did go to Kindia with my friend’s brother, Bobby. I will never forget the experience. We passed through Coyah, an lush and mountainous region from which the bottled Guinean water originates. The little cab that we hired for the day miraculously drove through mini ravines, rocky hills and deep ditches., I honestly didn’t think the car would make it. I think pictures say a thousand words, so I will just impress you with the visions through my camera.
The Wildlife Preservation
I had taken the fabrics that I bought a Medina market and gotten some dresses made at the local tailor. The tailor is always an experience. And getting the details just right is an art, especially when you can’t speak in enough detail in a foreign language to explain exactly what you want. Luckily, my other friend was with me, so we got things straight. I had my clothes in about 3 days.
It had been 3 weeks and I still had not made it to a real club. The crew from the house had gone to a few local bars, and I had been to some lounges, but an actually dance club? No, I hadn’t had the experience. I put on my favorite freekum dress and went with my friend down to a Sierra Leone club that sat on a street akin to Club Row in Chelsea, NYC on a Friday night. We get into the club and all eyes were on us. I guess I was obviously American, which gave my escort extra clout. Anyway, I ordered a Baileys and it was the worst Baileys I had EVER tasted. Being a diva, I sent it back-it was obviously watered down but the bartender would hear none of it and still ordered us to pay. I settled on a vodka and juice, which tasted just right. I got a feel of the room. Surprisingly there were a number of teenagers in the club, dancing , drinking, and smoking alongside the adults with no one stopping them. The young girls, obviously below 17, were wearing some of the trashiest, skimpiest outfits I have seen this side of Brooklyn! They worked the crowds getting drinks and money from older gentlemen, most likely in exchange for sexual favors. The club was packed wall to wall with a giant flat screen TV silently playing the latest hip hop and R&B videos, while the DJ played the hottest hits. I remembered looking up at the screen and Jaszmine Sullivan was bashing some guy’s house up. Then L’il Wayne came on and the club went nuts. As the riding bass of Lollipop pumped through the speakers, the drinks flowed, hips swayed, and hands pumped in the air. The air conditioners, on full blast, barely held back the sweat dripping down everyone’s back. And then the lights went out.
A collective sigh went through the crowd because it seemed the party was over because of a faulty generator. Soon enough, the problem was fixed, and we partied until dawn.
There are endless stories that I could tell about this trip. But many are far too personal to discuss here. To my friends, you have most likely heard the stories, or will likely hear the most intimate details when we meet face to face. But overall, I truly enjoyed myself, and had a moment to really begin to understand Guinean life.
For one, I was disappointed and surprised at the disdain for traditional African clothing by the younger generation. Yes, there were plenty youth wearing African-printed wraps and head scarves, but the trend was towards hip hop ghetto-fabulous wear. I do remember seeing this in Senegal, but here, I felt the strain more prominently. Even in the shops, I sore piles upon piles of imported clothing—likely donated goods that were being resold. Even when I visited a wildlife reserve in Kindia, instead of being guided through the wonderful flora that grew abundantly in the region, I was shown the great hall of a hotel on the premises, which held a cinema-sized TV screen. I was not impressed. And not because the brand or the style of the TV was not good enough for me; I was non-plussed because I never came to Guinea to see the developing country’s version of American western life, and I was tired of the Guineas constantly pushing this upon me.
I was also shocked at the sexual expression here, in a Muslim country. Though general Muslin rules were followed ( no pork, some prayer), the daily practice was lax, and I saw many women sharing men, and openly engaging in sexual acts. One friend revealed to me that it was not uncommon for a girl to sleep with her best friend’s man if there were kickbacks involved. And the men were keen to this scheme. It’s not that I haven’t seen this in the States—I just didn’t expect that behavior here.
All in all, the trip was quite good, and despite the urge to please me with Westernized advancements, I was always reminded of the roots, the movement, the sounds of the drum. Those foundations will never leave the Guinean soul and will be forever ingrained in mine.
Susu to know what kind of store it is.