Crazy traffic. Potholes. People everywhere. Chaos. Rubble. Piles of trash. Stray dogs. Goats. Street vendors. Constant honking and hollering. Women in brightly-colored dresses balancing baskets, boxes, and buckets on their heads. Young boys playing soccer on the side of the street. Shacks and makeshift houses. Crowded markets. Too many people piled into a car. Too many people piled onto a car. Lush vegetation. Sudden downpours. Sincere, welcoming smiles.
This was my introduction to Africa. I landed in Conakry, Guinea on Friday, September 2nd around 6pm local time. After getting my passport stamped, I was greeted by seven tall Guinean men who retrieved my bags, expedited me through customs, and immediately whisked me off for an interview on Guinean national television. I was still foggy from the Dramamine that I have to take when I fly, and I’d been traveling for nearly 20 hours with two stopovers in between Washington, D.C., and Conakry. I hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth or hair since before leaving the U.S., so I can only imagine the first impression I made on these men.
One of them was the founder of Barack Obama University, the institution to which I have been assigned as a U.S. Department of State English Language Fellow. He is the one responsible for providing me with an apartment, cleaning crew, and private driver for any time I want to go somewhere. The second man was his own personal chauffeur. The third man was one of the English professors at the university. He has been serving as my interpreter/translator when needed (and even when not needed). The fourth man was the Dean of Finances & Logistics Director at the university. The fifth man was the Cultural Affairs Specialist from the American embassy. The sixth man was his chauffeur, and the seventh man was an expeditor whose presence allowed me to skip the customs line.
The hour and a half it took to get from the airport to my apartment allowed me to see much of the city. Forty minutes of that time was spent just sitting in traffic, not moving at all, and I was able to observe the rhythm of the city. The swarms of people darting in and out of traffic, and the cars and taxis themselves, appear to follow no rules or even patterns of logic; what appears to be utter chaos from an American perspective is simple routine for Guineans. There is no sitting still; there is no time (or means) for leisure. The desperate need to make ends meet is what drives this constant movement. This is Guinea. This is Africa.
My apartment is on the third floor of a beautiful building, surrounded by what appear to be dumps and ruins. Upon closer observation, the dumps turn into sidewalks and playing grounds for children, and the ruins turn into never-finished constructions and makeshift shacks and houses. My direct neighbor lives in a shack with a tin roof on stilts and with dirt and rubble for a floor. I live on the third floor of my building, with a balcony that wraps around half of the perimeter of the building. I have three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a kitchen, dining room, and living room. The entire neighboring shantytown probably lives in less square footage than I do. This is Guinea. This is Africa.
Guinea is a former French colony, located on the west coast of the “bulge” of the African continent. It’s inside the yellow-fever belt, meaning it’s within the region of Africa where yellow fever, malaria, Zika, and other diseases carried by mosquitoes are most prevalent (in the world!). I had seven immunization shots and one oral vaccination before coming to Guinea, and I take a daily pill to prevent malaria. There are mosquitoes, poisonous spiders, and a blister-beetle season that starts just after rainy season ends. The water is not safe to drink or to wash fruits and vegetables with. The power goes off at least once a day. I have to wash laundry by hand in a bucket with soap and water. I constantly have to battle cockroaches and plaster worms. I have bars on my windows and doors, and my main door has four locks on it (the outer barred door has two locks). The internet is painfully slow. And yet, I’m living better than 99% of Guineans. I have my own driver and my own cleaning crew. This is Guinea. This is Africa.
Since arriving in Conakry, I have spent a day with the staff at the American embassy and a day with the staff at Barack Obama University, where I was interviewed on national television for the second time. The founder of the university, who we just call “Monsieur Le Fondateur,” informed me that I will soon be meeting the President of Guinea. (Yeah, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that one.) The level of importance to which they hold me is truly mind-boggling – hey, I’m just an English teacher! – but I’m in Guinea, and my mere presence here provides them with access to desperately-needed resources and expertise in the English language. Furthermore, I am the first “foreigner” the university staff has ever worked with (Guinea is not exactly a tourist destination), and having me here, in a sense, gives them a glimpse into a world that most of them will never have the opportunity to know. This is not the so-called “first world.”
This is Guinea.
This is Africa.