Life in Conakry
February 22, 2003

Conakry is not what you call pictoresque -- remove its few street signs and you could be in most any third-world country: little stalls offering green-skinned bananas and tiny bags of roasted peanuts, dirty rubble where a sidewalk would be, noisy taxis honking for riders, telecom centers for phone and internet rubbing shoulders with ramshackle houses with tattered cloth for doors.

But I write to you from princess digs, my boss's apartment at the Residence Deux Mille. Though in one of the world's poorest countries, I am living richer here than I do in the U.S. This place is an oasis of money and manicured lawns, a complex of new seven-story high-rises overlooking Conakry's nicest section of sea (the rest is drowned in sewage and garbage). I share a huge living room with funky modern-tribal-artsy decor, sparkling tiled floors (thanks to the twice-a-week maid), full kitchen with Italian stove and well stocked liquor cabinet, washing machine, three each of balconies, bedrooms and bathrooms. The place is buffeted by one of the city's only parks, green with banyans and palms, its delipidated playground a contrast to our gushing fountain, rose bushes, Olympic pool, and air-conditioned weight room. My boss actually lives with her boyfriend in the Novotel, but has kept this place for friends and newcomers like me until February, at which time I'll seek out my own modest place, as my salary is pratically equal to the rent here, $1400 a month.

I share the place with an American photographer has been working with WFP, UNICEF and other agencies for the past year. We get acquainted over falafel at a nearby Lebanese restaurant before joining my camp compadres at a disco, where music of Senegal and Guinea mixed with American and Latino pop, and we Fotes (white folk) mixed it up on the tiny, crowded dance floor with the locals.

It's hard not to give into such vice in this devil-may-care country. I've taken to guzzling Cokes, drinking Nescafe and puffing on Cosmos, leaving behind all my well cultivated habits. It's too muggy and dirty to jog here, I haven't find the time to find fresh veggies, and rather than walking, I'm often shuttled around in one of the office's white landcruisers. Between the cars and junk food, my lifestyle in Conakry is more American than mine is at home, though the comparison certainly ends there. I'm having to even get used to throwing trash on the ground, as there is not a real system for garbase disposal, let alone recycling.

And did I mention the other slight change in my lifestyle, holding down a J-O-B for the first time in seven lucky years? My first reaction to my job description is horror, comparing its tedium to the more creative projects I've steadily worked in recent years. Basically it's a lot of consolidating information: local offices send me reports which I compile into a national report. There are biweekly, monthly, quarterly, annual and special reports... a treadmill of paperwork. But much to my relief, I'll soon enough be launched in the field to do more interesting stuff.

Amazing how much coordination and staffing involved in just getting food to people -- and WFP doesn't even serve it; that's done by its partners. Some 80% of its aid (gifts from various countries, the largest chunk coming from the US, either as food or funding) goes to emergency feeding. Right now the focus is on N'Zerekore southwestern Guinea, where Ivorians, Guineans and Liberians are fleeing the armed conflict in the Cote d'Ivoire. One of the more interesting of my tasks thus far has been to get a grasp on this disheartening situation.

The rest of the aid goes to more hopeful projects to move the country forward, such as school feeding projects that ensure that students have enough food for thought and also encourage parents to send their kids (especially girls, as they are the ones that more often get left at home) to school. They also do food for work and training programs, where people are given food so they can save other rice for planting and invest their savings in small businesses.

After two days on the job, my boss (with whom I've spent scarcely 10 minutes, as she is so busy and overworked) sends me in the field. Kofi Annan is sending his envoy McAskie from the Ivory Coast here for a special visit, and we need a report flaunting all that WFP is doing here to feed the people fleeing that country.

I spend half the day in security briefings to get me up to speed on the situation there -- rebels have taken the north after a failed coup d'etat, and as foreigners are being blamed for some of the country's troubles, and nationalism is on the rise, those in the south are leaving for other parts, Guinea being the closest safe haven. Most of the refugees are Liberians, having taking refuge in the once-peaceful Cote d'Ivoire fleeing armed conflicts in their homeland and having to again find a home, now in Guinea. The rebels want nothing less than to take the government over, and aren't particularly willing to share the power, so there's not much room for peace or compromise.

Then McAskie changes her plans to come this weekend, and I'm asked to stay here and work on the briefing. Then again, at 4 pm, I'm told that all has changed again -- McAskie will come the following weekend -- I will fly to N'Zerekore in the morning to work with the local staff on the briefing, and, as it turns out, pass some quality time in the disco. This, I'll quickly learn, is the way this place works -- give up any semblance of control over your life, or give up your sanity.

The situation is compounded by the poor infrastructure here -- it's nearly impossible to get out even a local phone call in the office, unless I use the expensive satellite phone. Infrastructure is even poorer in the interior -- in the hotel I will stay in N'Zerekore there is only electricity from 7:00 to midnight, cell phones are useless, and email is pretty impossible unless you have the patience of the Dalai Lama. ****

WFP's 12-seater plane, piloted by Bulgarians, sweeps over lush green countryside wetted by wide rivers to arrive in N'Zerekore, in the thick of southwestern forested Guinea. A chauffeur is waiting to take me on the skinny, bumpy road that cuts through thick green bush and palms. Villagers carrying firewood on bikes and heavy bundles on their heads stop and step into the bush to let us by, hands over their mouths to keep out the red-gold dust that blankets the tops of trees.

The town of N'Zerekore thrives with small, simple shops, bars and pharmacies, faded signs for international humanitarian agencies posted along the so-called highway. WFP's office here is small and calm, compared to the bustling 5-floor Conakry office, with a nice reception area with wicker couches covered with batik cloth bearing the WFP logo.

A colleague says his work is his wife, and that goes for most people here, who breathe, dream, and eat their jobs -- working 8 to 8 isn't unusual, and sometimes with just some eggs and peanuts to sustain us in between. I still feel very much like an outsider, not convinced of the ultimate importance of my job, and also not knowing quite what I'm doing either. Between not knowing the language, politics, my job, my colleagues -- I feel somewhat lost and timid and exasperated, an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position for me, especially as I often can't contribute to the conversations held in machine-fire French.

Soon we're taking off for visits to the field, see-sawing and zig-zagging on the poor, bumpy dirt roads while one of the field monitors plotted our course on GPS systems and documented our mission with digital camera.

Our first stop is Thuo, a town straddling the Liberian, Ivorian and Guinean borders. Thousands of people have landed here since the Ivory Coast crisis began in September, many after walking days through the bush with their children. A bunch of Liberian refugees and their luggage were gathered under a big banyan tree by the police station. The last truck for the night had left, so they were here for the night basically without food or lodging, sleeping uneasily in the open air. One of the kids cried seeing me -- her first close encounter with the white kind. Surprised to find how calm it all was, the police playing a game on what looked like the world's largest checkerboard, homemade -- not exactly the war zone I was somehow expecting.

Our next stop was Bossou, a transit camp mainly filled with Liberians with whom I could chat in English. Catching the end of lunch time, where local ladies wearing flimsy Croix-Rouge (Red Cross) shirts over shirts ladles out maize, blughur, and sauce from huge black cauldrons set up on rocks. Rather than being grateful for our food, many of them complained about the food (milled corn and bulghur, which they say is pig's food that gives them diarrhea). There are not enough mats to sleep on and the toilets are dirty but mainly people's minds are on where they will go next, and whether they will be able to reunite with their families, as people often sent their children or wives or mothers in advance, leaving to God that they would be able to find each other later.

We check on supplies, numbers of refugees here, when they will be transferred. Getting information often requires field visits like this, as the information one gets would otherwise be inaccurate or unavailable. Boxes of biscuits to be handed out to young kids and pregnant moms are labeled "Gift from Denmark..." The words international community never really seemed tangible until now, but on the scene, I have a sense of hope that we can and are working together, in spite of all the political bullshit.

On I was supposed to go on mission the next day, checking on a group of Liberian refugees stuck near the border, but I got left behind at the hotel with a dead radio, waiting hours for news or a ride out.

I spend the afternoon instead with one of Guinea's only woman chauffeurs, hearing about her hard life -- five kids from different dads who didn't want to get hitched, other than at the crotch (and apparently didn't want to wear condoms either.) I've been told that girls here are taught not to say no to any advances, rather to use sex to get what they want, whether a better job or better grades. Many parents don't want their girls in schools, for many reasons, really, but the sexual abuse that takes place there is just one more reason to leave them at home with the washing.

We go to the market together, and I was glad to be away from the Humanitarian Aid World that is so international and yet so insulated. Women sat before their puny garlics, tomatoes and eggplants, parceled out in handfuls arranged in neat rows -- she bought a few things, but very carefully, searching for the just-right price, though it was just a few cents' difference. I wanted to pick out cloth to have some clothes made, though dizzy with all the patterns at my purchasing disposal, eventually I settled on a fuschia and indigo print and a batik swirled with grapevines.

Spent my Sunday in repose, the day's highlight being a trip to the hairdresser where a Liberian refugee, a young unmarried woman here with her son, twisted my hair into locks à la Bo Derek in 10. She went to the Côte d'Ivoire in 1990, when she was but a child, learned French and eventually got her own hair salon. Left the troubled town of Danane a few months ago, when gunshots punctured the city's fragile peace, snatching her son out of school. Like most of the rest, she walked the long journey from the border, passing time in the transit camps before landing here.

At the end of my first week, I feel like an official bureaucrat: I can't remember working longer hours to get less done. I suppose I can't expect too much -- it will certainly pick up, as I will soon see. ****

Two weeks later, I finally start feeling settled in Conakry, with the help of a rickety bicycle whose chain broke within five days and whose wobbly wheels don't let the brakes grip it quite right. Still it's good enough to get me the few kilometers from home to work. But just as I start to feel at home, they send me back in the field to report on the country's development programs for an upcoming visit by WFP's executive board. But before then...

I spend much of the first week back in bureaucratic hell, every day at the UN Volunteers coordinator's office, filling out endless paperwork and doing inane medical tests -- bearing my breasts to the x-ray technician (x-rays penetrate cotton and silk, as far as I know), making me touch my nose and feet (I don't think I would have found my way to Africa if I wasn't coordinated enough to do so).

I also spent these last days depressed from isolation -- with the sketchy phone lines here, it's a miracle if I can get a line out, a double-miracle if the number is good, and a triple-miracle if the person happens to be home. So I have given in to the convenience of cell phones at last (00224 25 15 11 if you wanna call).

But it's more than being out of touch, I've had a bit of a crisis of meaning here, wondering if I am doing more harm than good. The good, as I see it, providing information on our decidedly worthwhile activities to important people who need it to make important decisions (hopefully with the outcome of giving us more money), and giving a tiny boost to the local economy with my dollars, and of course the richness of my presence, which can't be quantified :). But compare it to the impact of my presence as just another body to feed, endlessly riding in cars, contributing to the city's mounds of trash... Wondering if I have a more positive impact at home, where I can perhaps influence things more directly and at least live cleanly.

But I know I must think long-term, and perhaps after I get French well under my ceinture I will be able to work on a project I see as more worthwhile and lasting, one that suits my mission of sustainable living and a decent life for all people, one that preserves that diversity of cultures and natural resources we share on Earth. (Ha. A few more weeks in this corrupt country, where the government steals or wastes everything it can before it dribbles down the people, will dash those haughty goals, for sure.)

Some days have been insane -- umpteen projects dropped on my lap at once, with umpteen changes to things I thought were done deals, obliged to attend meetings, though I could hardly understand the French, plus sudden news of more travel -- I have try to grin through gritted teeth at my over-over-worked boss and know it will all come together.

I take solace in the small things here -- a few minutes sweating out the stress in the apartment's gym room before its manager, Abouboucar, glances and sighs impatiently at my watch telling me to get out. The waves and smiles I get on my bike ride to work, guys asking if they can hire me as taxi; the ride home, a breezy blur of soccer fields, mosques, cows, chickens, hairdressers, cigarette and orange vendors -- the staples of Guinean life. The flocks of butterflies that binge on bougainvillea nectar at my lunch stop in N'Zerekore, where I feast on a huge plate of rice with potato leaf or peanut sauce and meatballs or fish for 50 cents. Waking and taking bananas and oatmeal on the patio overlooking Conakry's nicest stretch of sea. The drummers jamming in the park, their rhythms persistently knocking at my bedroom window. Realizing I can understand a conversation in French that I couldn't have just a week ago. Sitting at a "maquis" (small snack stop) drinking triplysweet Nescafe and straining to hear the news on his scratchy radio. Hot, crowded nights in the discos, where I'm handed from partner to partner without pause. My first rain, hammering the office ceiling and instantly cooling the air.

The absolute bright spot of my recent weeks has been finding this young dance/drum group that rehearses next to the office in the "maison de jeunesse," one of the youth centers found all over the city leftover from the country's communist days. I heard the drums, went in and watched, slipped the director a note, he called me up and we set up private classes for me every day after work.

The group voted on a new name for me -- Fatim Camara -- and thus begins my life as a Susu (the local tribe) dancer. My dance teacher, Oumo, is a young, lean honey of a dancer, tough but sweet, not fawning over me but not afraid to hug me like I'm her baby either. At first I am frustrated that she doesn't feed me the movements faster, but then I know she's right because I will learn them better this way. When I see the dancers rehearse on stage, moving like rhythmic fairies and sorcerers, my spirit soars, even if it also drops a bit, feeling like I could never in a lifetime learn to dance like them. (Click here for video.)

Happened to run into Lamine, one of the drummers from the island, and we've become fast but strange friends... He was the one to help me get my bike, a $100 deal after a long wrestling match with the calculator and many crocodile tears. He shows me dance steps in his little bachelor pad, before taking me out to the disco, where I meet his friends, including a wild-eyed bald guy who danced me dizzy, spinning me every which way to a Senegalese salsa tune, my feet barely touching the ground. He would pound on the bar like his hand was a gavel, demanding drinks for us all like he was king of the universe.

The following weekend Lamine kidnaps me to the countryside, vaguely saying something about visiting his family but not telling me we are going to spend the night, nor that his sis lives 40 minutes outside town. It was my first time out of Conakry by road, and a good chance to see just how thickly peopled it is, every kilometer as dense as the one before it, not American-style sprawl with a mammoth yard to each family, but tight, no place to breathe or think or dream. Welcome to Planet Earth, 2002.

Lots of arguing going on with the driver in Susu, they stopped for gas and I was the only one with money to pay for it -- ended up being wasted as the driver left us on the side of the road, refusing to go on the last bumpy road to his sister's house as he said he didn't have proper papers. Instead we walk the potholed roads in the dark, me slipping in sandals never envisioned to be put to such a task. I was fuming, at him for his poor planning and assumptions, and at myself, for not heeding my own intuition to stay home, and now, for not just going with the flow and accepting the situation. Going over rivers, vegetable gardens and through a maze of dirt paths to finally arrive at his sister's large cement-block house, filled with children and spirit and not much else. The kids all leaped on Lamine like monkeys, as his sister, a cute, lean woman, slipped out of bed half-naked, smiling at her surprise guests. Soon we were all sitting around the kitchen table, lit by candlelight, in a deep dialogue with the family's dad about American life, politics, polygamy and more... The rooms surreal, a piece of furniture or two for each large room andn not much else, like it was built for dream possessions more than reality. Slept next to Lamine on a limp mattress, hardly sleeping through the heat and mosquitoes.

In the morning, we eat a breakfast of sugarwater tea and margarined bread before exploring the environs, loads of women washing in the river, kelly-green patches of potato, onion and manioc crops... we stop on Lamine's extended kin, who examine me like I was a beautiful new dress. Getting antsy, knowing tomorrow I must leave for two weeks and have much to do.. he feels guilty and snatches the keys to his brother-in-law's beat-up pick up, asking me to drive as he has no license. After sputtering out several times (the engine is half-dead and I haven't driven stick in years, let alone on a collision course like this), managed to get out of the gate and onto the rocky roads. Made it a few turns before it gave out, we gave up and got a taxi. How do I get myself into these things?


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