My work as a volunteer for an American international charitable organization for children requires me to visit and stay on my designated mission country. After finishing my tour of duty around Asia, the head of our organization sent me to my next assignment, Western Africa. I was sent to Guinea together with my wife who also works as a volunteer. We were given a month to live with the locals and oversee the children’s needs. It was an eye opening experience to discover a world I did not know existed.
It was a humid Monday morning of September when we reached the country of Guinea. We meet our counterpart Mr. Rukmini at the Hotel Del Niger in Conakry, the capital city of Guinea. We were given our designated communities to work for together and at the same time tour around Guinea. He drove us around for a day tour of the city, we started at Iles de Los, and we rented a pirogue (small, flat-bottomed boat) at the Petit Bateaux Port to take us over to the island groups lying off Conakry Islands. A guide led us to the beaches in Roume Island; it has waters that were very clean, relaxing and lightly undeveloped. From the boat we had a great view of the Tolombo Island and the Kaloum Peninsula in the Atlantic coast of Guinea. We visited the other neighboring islands like Tamara and Kassa.
Then we head way south to visit the small islands like Coraille, Blanche, and Cabris. Most of the surrounding islands were inhabited. We were able to walk freely and undisturbed along the white sand beaches and green forests. We head back to Roume Island and have a sumptuous lunch at the Ile de Rome Restaurant. After this we tour the town to visit the National Museum (Musee National), it houses a cross section of secular and sacred items such as masks, exceptional sculptures and a guide who explains Guinea’s culture and political history. A few blocks from here is the Jardim Dos Octobre or the 2nd of October Park, where we saw some locals playing a dejembe (African traditional drum instrument) and dancing to the hip African rhythm. We got satisfied watching live music over a plate of fresh seafood and a bottle of vodka in The Loft Restaurant located along Cameyenne District.
The next day we drove around the town to visit the Grand Conakry Mosque, a small mosque with 4 minarets. We were welcomed by the Imam and he was happy to tour us around as we took pictures of its interiors. Across from here we shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at The Indoor Market (Marche Madina). We saw lots of plantains, cassava, corn, rice and bread. My wife bought handcrafted woodwork and quilted rugs. I saw women balancing a tall stack of freshly baked breads on their heads. I noticed most Guineans wear their national dress of cotton wraps around their waist. My wife bought one and wore it around her jeans; she said it feels cool on that steamy 30 degree plus weather. After shopping we went to check out a famous attraction, the Palais de Presidentiel, it is where the President of Guinea holds office. We paused to pray at the St. Mary’s Cathedral, an old church built since 1930’s that is painted in yellow and red. We drove further along the trash lined roads and pass military checkpoints to get to the magnificent Soumba Waterfalls and to the Mount Kakoulima located in the nearby town of Dubreeka. This attraction is rich in Guinean flora and fauna, I took pictures of different species of plants while trekking. Its botanical garden has towering trees and exhibits a typical Guinean forest.
Afterwards, we head to the dry plateau area to visit a small community called the Fulani Village, while there we saw poor families living in rural huts made from sun-dried mud (adobe) and palm leaves. From the locals I learned that these huts are cheap to build and cool to live in on this hot weather. Most of the Guinean men are farmers, fishermen and wood carvers. It was interesting to see children smiling as we pass by the Malinke Village, it is a savanna located in the Upper Guinea. Most of the roads are in poor condition but we were rewarded by the hospitability of the Guinean locals. They were excited to see us; we were more excited to know what their needs are. Most of them requests for good education for their kids and stable work for their husbands. Most families were self sufficient too; they sell almost anything inside their communities. I call them “little malls” because it has basic necessities sold at reasonable prices. The presence of military men does not even hound them a bit, they are literally all around.
We then head to the next village along the swampy coast called the Susu Village. I saw more settlers in a depressing state of life. Their houses do not stand on land but on stilts over a swamp of water, no clean water nor can clean toilets be found. But I was amazed that most of the kids smile when they see us and keep shouting “Mzungu, Mzungu! (Foreigners!) It was a humbling whole day experience interacting with the local Guinean community.
The next day we went for an early morning stroll in the center of Conakry on Route de Donka, we visited a political prison and torture block called the Camp Boiro. It is the former barracks of the Republican guards in Donka. This is where political dissidents and armies unfaithful to the regime of Guinean political leader and first President Ahmed Sekou Toure (1922-1984) got tortured, imprisoned, and eventually executed. The prison cells are now empty and abandoned since Toure’s death in 1984. Most of the inscriptions written by prisoners on its walls were done in blood or charcoal. It was horrifying as a translator and former prisoner explains to us what they wrote in their own blood, most of the messages were patriotic and about messages to their families waiting for their return. Mr. Dianio, a former prisoner and now a high school principal tearfully recounts how he was arrested inside his school in 1961, the grueling tortures he went thru (fatal forced hunger), and his days of imprisonment without undergoing any trial or judicial process on his case. He serves as the voice for the 50 thousand others who perished during that ruthless era. He said up to this day mass graves can still be found around Guinea. Today only the walls stand and serve as a grim reminder of a horrible regime of a dictator that is abusive of its people.
Later that afternoon, we visited the Palais des Nations, originally intended to be the venue for the Organization of African Unity Conference in 1984, but were cancelled because of then President Ahmed Sekou Toure’s death. It once served as the president’s office until being destroyed in the February 1996 rebellion. The building still stands in ruins. Near the palace are 50 Moorish – style houses, it was constructed for African heads of state but it is now used more for government bureaus.
Then we head out to an interesting shop called the Oppo Atelier, a corporation of welders, who use scrap metal to make funky sculptures. They make statues, of large and small size, and they also accept custom work. We enjoyed watching a musical in Palais du Peuple; it is where most cultural events are held. A group of young Guinean locals were performing with their balafons (xylophone), drums, and kora (a harp like instrument) while young women dance along. After that we head on to Patisserie Central for a spicy shawarma and pizza before heading back to our hotel.
My wife taught the little kids how to read, I taught the men about hydro phonic farming. I was able to witness how Guineans unite and move together. Before we left, I know we made a big difference in their lives.