The Fast(ish) and the Furious: Driving in Conakry

A typical Conakry traffic situation with cars going every which way however they want. I am just trying to go straight out of a roundabout…

I used to think traffic in Malawi was, hmmmm, how do I say? Interesting? My daughter learned all the bad words from sitting in the back seat while I drove around Lilongwe. Traffic in Malawi, my friends, was nothing compared to Conakry. I laugh now thinking back to it. How did I think Lilongwe was challenging? I have certainly been in locations where there was similarly interesting traffic – Hanoi, Delhi, Mombasa come to mind – but I was not a driver in those locations. Conakry really tested me. The State Department’s required Foreign Affairs/Counter Threat (FACT) course, lovingly referred to as “Crash and Bang” for its defensive driving and shooting components (though over the years the weapons familiarization portion has gradually been reduced), really came in handy in Conakry.

Conakry has more roads in general and more wider, two-lane roads than Lilongwe. But Conakry is also more chaotic. There are more vehicles: more large trucks, more taxis (there really were not taxis in Lilongwe, but in Conakry there are a plethora of these distinctive sedans painted in the red, yellow, and green colors of the Guinean flag), and motorcycles. So. Many. Motorcycles.

Just a wee road obstacle. Do not worry about this five foot deep ditch on the side of the road with no barriers that can swallow your car. Not a problem….

Any city might struggle with the volume of vehicles in Conakry. But a city with poor infrastructure, where the majority of two-lane roads have no lane markings, no shoulders, no crosswalks, no sidewalks, few traffic lights, and all kinds of obstructions on the road, it really struggles with this. Add in drivers that seem to do whatever they want… If you want to stop suddenly in the middle of the road to let out or pick up passengers or just wait, go right ahead. Too tired to go up to the next roundabout to turn around? Just drive down the road against traffic, no problem! Basically, too many vehicles, haphazard traffic conditions, and a lack of road etiquette spells very challenging driving conditions.

I am sure accidents like this, right outside my residence, happen frequently. I am just surprised I have not seen more of them.

For instance, when I depart out of my residential compound when there is significant traffic (a very regular occurrence) there are guards who stop traffic to let us out. Though the guard may stop one lane of traffic, inevitably the car behind that one, or the one behind the second one, immediately decides this is BS waiting and pulls around the stopped vehicle. The guard usually then stops this car, but back in the line someone else has decided they don’t want to wait in lane one or lane two and then tries to go around both cars. This road is about four lanes wide. Well, it would be if there were any lane markings, which there are not. But at times cars will build up to four across in one direction as each person tries to get ahead of everyone else. This then, naturally, causes difficulties for the traffic going in the other direction. On very bad days this can lead to a standstill. I called one of my colleagues once who informed me she had been sitting in her car “one minute from the Embassy” for approximately 30 minutes, barely inching forward. On another day my colleague and I were heading to the grand opening of an event and it took us one hour to move three kilometers. Something that should have taken five minutes. When we finally reached the end we could see no reason for the back-up. It was just one of those special Conakry traffic days. (Luckily though things often start late in Conakry and we were mostly on time)

Photo of a Conakry road. You might think I took this photo from the side of the road, but you would be wrong. I am in a vehicle, also on the road.

In the U.S., some drivers facing a similar predicament, might just drive on to the shoulder and skirt around those blocking the lane. Except there are often no shoulders. Or the auxiliary lane is cut off from the rest of the road by a two foot wide, five foot deep cement ditch with zero protective barriers to stop a car from driving into them. There are some areas where the road is paved between the two to allow drivers to get onto that side road, but you may end up driving for awhile before you can get back on. These ditches are so deep that informal mechanics use these to conduct under carriage work – having a car carefully use a paved crossing to maneuver their car so that tires are on either side of the drainage ditch and the mechanic gets into the ditch to work on the underside of the car.

I guess one positive of Conakry traffic is it is hard to get up any real speed. With so many cars jostling for space on the road, pedestrians darting across at any location, speed bumps, dips, and random obstacles on the road, when most accidents occur they are generally scrapes and fender benders. When my daughter and I were returning from tennis at her school one day, we got caught in a traffic jam that turned the 6.6 kilometer (4.1 mile), 15 minute drive into an over an hour ordeal. Inching along and jockeying to keep ahead of cars and motorbikes that take any hesitation as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to pull ahead, it was maddening. Due to some road construction we were diverted onto a makeshift road, though one better than 90% of the roads in Conakry. Although the state of the road was good, there were simply too many cars on it trying to get out a narrow opening to another road. A driver in a taxi next to my car decided that he was going to forge ahead and cut me off. Instead he scraped against my car and got stuck. Traffic police, who I had not noticed at all before, suddenly appeared and tried to get the driver to back up. That only led to more scraping against my vehicle. The police tried to get me to back up, but I was completely hemmed in by the taxi and a horde of motorcyclists right on my bumper. I had a few inches to my right alongside a barrier and the police directed me to slightly turn that way. This gave the taxi the chance to get off my bumper and he sped away. The police pushed in my bumper and gave me the thumbs up sign. And here is the amazing bit: I didn’t yell. I didn’t say one bad word. I just returned the thumbs up sign and drove home. It was all just so inevitable.

Creative driving in Conakry. On the left: the guy hanging outside the back of the truck and furniture for sale placed directly on the roadside; on the right: I have to get this large ungainly wooden thing home so I will just strap it to the top of my taxi.

There is a lot of creativity to driving in Conakry. I have got to hand it to some folks for their ingenuity, but some things just are just downright dangerous. See the guy hanging out the back of the panel van? I cannot say he is the only person I have seen doing this. And the large piece of furniture strapped haphazardly to the top of that taxi? Yawn, so commonplace. And I 100% know that these kinds of innovative means of transporting goods and people is not, by any stretch of the imagination, limited to Guinea. There just seems an extra layer of hutzpah added here. For example, when I lived in Indonesia in 2007, I watched a father place his slightly sized son, maybe 10 years old?, on the back of a motorcycle holding on to newly bought large television set, still in its box, and then motor off. I feared for the kid who could barely wrap his skinny arms around the box. One speed bump would surely knock him backwards as his little bum sat on the very back of the seat and he was not anchored to his father in any way, just holding on to the unwieldy box. However, one day in Conakry, at a particularly messed up under-construction intersection, I saw a motorcycle swerve between my car and the one in front of us. The passenger, a middle aged woman wearing a bright orange patterned west African style dress, perched on the back of the bike clutching a large unboxed television. As another car roared into the fray, trying to maneuver in front of me, the motorcycle swerved again and the woman nearly lost her balance on the bike and her grip on the television. As she grabbed for the television she let forth a string of curses aimed at the car, gesticulating angrily with her head and a few fingers of one hand. Hutzpah.

For some reason the city has opted to start construction on many of the roads in Conakry all at the same time. This is not just my complaint, I have heard it from expats and Guineans alike. No doubt the roads could use a facelift, it just does not make much sense to do it all at the same time, that only contributes more to the gridlock. Much of the construction is on the main roads forcing drivers to take to the side streets, which are often in worse shape. Side roads are often unpaved. They are generally more narrow and are hemmed in by pedestrians, businesses or homes, pop-up markets, and random piles of stuff. The stuff could be mud, garbage, construction materials (not for roads, but for buildings), whatever. There are often more speed bumps (or what is left of speed bumps), more potholes (some that could swallow up cars), just more life and obstacles in general.

On my first drives in Conakry, the GPS led me down a side street that may have once been two lanes but was at the time in the throes of a busy market with hundreds of hawkers and customers milling around and motorcycles zipping everywhere they wanted. It had easily become a single lane. The road ended in a T-junction that I needed to turn on to, except the majority of the end of the road was blocked by a three to four foot pile of garbage. Motorcycles were easily getting by, but for me to squeeze through I needed half my car to go up and over. This was my introduction to Conakry driving. Wowsers.

Some roads are just dirt, but not just dirt. They are rocky strewn hills. Seriously, I think the Guinean government could make a pretty penny having Ford and Chevy film their tough truck commercials making their way down Conakry side streets.

Burning tire barricade ahead means a protest is starting

In addition to just the every day fun on Conakry roads and the construction, there are also the protests that can throw a spanner in the works of a commute. On many protest day we had advance warning and telework was an option. With protests often happening in and around the Bambeto traffic circle, I had a bird’s eye view of the demonstrators and police doing their delicate dance of throwing rocks then running and the thumbs and smoke plumes of tear gas or the cracks of firearms. But sometimes protests are a bit more spontaneous. Driving home twice from my daughter’s school, myself and all my fellow drivers heading in a certain direction were confronted by the sight, smell, and burning taste of black smoke from a burning tire barricade blocking our way to Bambeto. I watched as vehicle after vehicle made u-turns (often in the middle of the street without looking, thanks guys!), but I actually needed to continue forward to get into my residential complex. The route is also the most direct to the airport and to one of Conakry’s major thoroughfares, the Rue Le Prince.

My daughter and I did make it home but many others were stranded in massive traffic jams. Three people from the Embassy were stuck in traffic for SIX hours. Two people missed their flights out of the country.

Every drive in Conakry is an adventure. Getting behind the wheel is not for the faint of heart. But you know what? I am so glad that I did it. I found there were many expats who opted not to drive at all. And I throw no shade, none, I get it. I just did not want to be at the mercy of the Embassy motorpool schedule or needing to hire some driver. I am not afraid to drive in Conakry. There were some white knuckle moments for sure. I was often annoyed. But there were also days I found a great sense of satisfaction for getting myself from Point A to Point B by driving my own car. I can say that sometimes I even enjoyed myself.


Adventures in Conakry Grocery Shopping

Heading to the local supermarkets can tell you something about a place – the prices, the availability or scarcity of certain products, and unexpected items. The first time to the supermarkets in a new country is eye-opening. Having previously written about grocery shopping in Shanghai and Malawi, I knew I would want to write about my food acquisition adventures in Conakry.

First things first: Guinean currency. When nice and crisp, the bills are beautiful and colorful. They also have lots and lots and lots of zeroes. One US dollar is equal to about 8600 Guinean francs, so you find yourself carrying around a lot of cash. The coupon holder I used to carry my large stacks of Malawian kwacha once again made its appearance as my wallet. Although there are more denominations of Guinean francs than Malawian kwacha, the smaller bills are few and far between. In my experience most people use only the 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 franc bills. If what you owe is between those, it usually just gets rounded up or down.

Even after six months, I am constantly getting confused about the currency. I advertised something for sale on an expat site listing it for 20,000 francs and the response was overwhelming. Well, no wonder. Here I was selling a brand new, never opened digital scale for a little over $2. I had meant to advertise it for 200,000!

On my first ever grocery trip my tally came to 3,029,725 francs! That is $350 and it made sense for a first time shopping trip to get everything from cleaning supplies to condiments and spices to fruits, veggies, and meat, but wow, looking at all those numbers kind of threw me.

I find grocery shopping in Conakry both a tedious exercise and a bit of a scavenger hunt game. Due to the traffic, I generally only go out to the store once a week on Saturday mornings, unless it is “Sanitation Saturday” — that is the first Saturday of the month when, by order of the government, the roads are supposed to be clear of traffic so the city can conduct street cleaning. Each week I go to at least two supermarkets – the A to Z Express and the Coccinelle on Rue de Donka – because I cannot everything I want at one place. Similar to in Malawi, the supermarkets I frequent are run by Lebanese and Indian proprietors. I find A to Z Express to be better for meat and cheeses, frozen foods, and fresh baked bread. I go to A to Z Express first (pass the North Korean Embassy, then take the first exit on the roundabout, then take a U turn at the first opportunity, then skirt into the A to Z Express parking lot). After A to Z Express I head back up the Rue de Donka towards home, take the second exit from the roundabout, past the Shell station, and then into the Coccinelle parking lot. Coccinelle is better for fruits and vegetables. The selection is often limited, but this is the place to get imported favorites like broccoli and berries.

For these imported goodies one does pay a very pretty penny.

There are locally grown fruits and vegetables that are plentiful in Conakry’s roadside markets. One can easily find potatoes, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, carrots and lettuce, and oranges, avocados, apples, pears, grapes, pineapples, bananas, mangos, and watermelon. I have been pleasantly surprised and impressed with the quality and variety to be found alongside Conakry’s streets. My nanny/housekeeper volunteered, nay, insisted, that she could get these fruits and vegetables for me. This seemed easiest at first, but sometimes I would forget to ask her. After awhile I decided I could stop at these stands myself whenever I saw them and had a yearning for fresh produce. But I bought a pineapple at one that was not so great and my housekeeper used that to point out that if I wanted the good stuff at the best prices, then I should send her. Most of the time I do, but every so often I cannot seem to help myself as I pass a makeshift stand with some delicious looking fruit and figure — I can drive around Conakry all by myself, surely I can buy some fruit, right?

Fruits and vegetables that are not widely available domestically are imported from Europe and can cost quite a lot more than prices at home. In the photo above I have two capsicums – one red, one yellow – for 94,600 francs ($11), a head of broccoli for 139,750 francs ($16.20), a small container of raspberries or blueberries for 95,000 francs ($11), and a small container of strawberries for 175,000 francs ($20).

Roadside fruit stands in Conakry

Here are some other crazy prices I have paid for imported items:

  • 2 nectarines for 130,350 francs ($15.12)
  • 6 pears for 145,750 ($16.91)
  • 0.19 kg of cherries for 104,500 francs ($12.12)
  • 2 pomegranates 298,750 francs ($34.66)
  • 8 small apricots 243,000 francs ($28.19)
  • 300 g of Philadelphia cream cheese 137,000 francs ($15.89)
  • 1 kg of frozen breaded chicken breast 251,000 francs ($29.12)
  • 4 slices of deli chicken 112,000 francs ($13)
  • 1 pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream 160,000 francs ($18.56)

The upside is that presently U.S. diplomats serving in Conakry receive an additional cost of living adjustment to help defray these costs.

Prices were just one part of the Conakry shopping challenges. Similar to in Malawi, there were a few items that I was so excited to find in town and then after a month or so the items disappeared from the shelves and I never found them again. For instance, I found frozen rosti, sort of like American hash browns. They were so, so good. And then they were no more. More painful to me though was the Diet Coke tease as I may have a wee bit of of hankering for the caffeinated beverage. (I don’t drink coffee) Before arriving in Guinea I had checked in with my social sponsor about the availability of Diet Coke or Coke Light. She told me that I would have no problem finding it. And I didn’t, for the first couple of weeks. Then it was nowhere to be found. I used to be a Diet Coke purist, but things were getting dicey. Luckily I found some Coke Zero, sometimes. And the small Employee Association store at the Embassy sometimes had (and I have no clue why) Spar supermarket brand “American diet cola” and “American cola zero.” Whatever it took. But in the last couple of weeks even those were become scarce. When we first arrived we also found Dr. Pepper, my daughter’s favorite soda, but that too has disappeared from the shelves.

Cheese, glorious cheese – this could be anywhere in Europe, but no, its in downtown Conakry

On occasion I have sought out other shopping locales. Prima Center is basically Conakry’s only mall. It is open air with some small shops, restaurants (including a frozen yogurt place!). It is anchored by a Walmat-ish supermarket that is, at least for me, more miss than hit. I found Diet Coke there back in the early boon days and, very surprisingly, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Prima also has a pretty good selection of cheese. But those were really the only items that drew me to Prima.

I had also heard rumor of and seen on my Google maps the “American Food Store.” One day I decided to stop by, which turned out to be harder than expected. The store is located just off of Rue de Donka but on a side road that is blocked from entry right in front of the store. To reach the store one has to turn off Rue de Donka several blocks before in order to access the side road. When I visited the grille gates were down over the windows and there was a one foot wide and several foot deep ditch directly in front of the store. Frankly, it looked abandoned.

The parking, or I guess what best passed for parking, was a dirt and rock strewn square lot behind the building. Several cars were already haphazardly parked leaving me an overgrown grass area sandwiched between a partially crumbling cement wall and a narrow dirt road. As I struggled to get into the space I considered just giving up and driving off. Yet I am glad I eventually managed and headed into the store.

Looks can be deceiving. The seemingly abandoned American Food Store has surprising goodies inside and the Prima Shopping Center supermarket looks fancy from outside, but the there are often empty shelves.

It was a little slice of Americana inside. Though September, the store was decorated for July 4th. Maybe it is American Independence Day every day at the American Food Store? The shelves were also full of quintessential American brands such as McCormick pure vanilla extract, Domino sugar, A1 steak sauce, and Pillsbury cake mixes and icing. My daughter C was happy to see items like Caprisun juice pouches, Swiss Miss hot cocoa, and Hershey’s syrup. Despite these goodies I only went once. The traffic, having already stopped at two supermarkets, and the parking issue were enough to keep me away.

Ultimately, I found Guinean supermarkets stocked better than expected but shopping still presented many challenged that took quickly took the fun out of the adventure and turned it into a tiresome chore. Thank goodness for the mini mart located in our housing at Kakimbo Towers as it let me quickly pick up staples like milk, cheese, eggs, bread, and the like without having to deal with the traffic or supermarkets. The shopping in Conakry was okay, but not a highlight.