Time to Come Clean: Curtailing from Conakry

There is no one path in the Foreign Service. Generalists like myself and specialists, who may work as IT, office management, medical, or security experts, will have naturally have different jobs and pathways (for example security personnel have more domestic assignments that are in more places around the U.S.) and there are differences between the generalists cones (Political, Economic, Management, Public Affairs, and Consular), yet even within a cone there is a wide difference from one person’s career to the next. There are those who may spend the majority of their career overseas, rarely spending time in Washington. I know at least one person that I can point to that in a 20+ year career has done only one two year tour in Washington. Others may spend more time in DC. Some prefer hardship posts – going from Monrovia to Haiti to Caracas and Tegucigalpa. Others somehow end up in majority “garden” posts: from Costa Rica to Taiwan to Iceland and Latvia. Still others like to alternate their hardship and plum postings.

One of Conakry’s many, many billboards. This is reportedly part of the country’s rebranding as the government attempts to attract tourists and investment

I have mostly pursued postings in locations often considered more challenging (though any post, even in the most developed and beautiful of locations can have its challenges). I also wanted to experience different aspects of the Foreign Service life. I have been at both Embassies (Lilongwe and Conakry and even Jakarta in my Defense Department days) and Consulates (Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai). Also large posts (Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai) and small (Lilongwe and Conakry). I went to a post with danger pay (Ciudad Juarez had 15% danger pay at the time). I went to posts with language requirements (Ciudad Juarez, Shanghai, and Conakry) and without (Lilongwe). I went to posts that allowed for a consumable allowance to bring in additional food stuffs and other disposable goods (Lilongwe and Conakry). I went to posts with paid for Rest & Relaxation tickets (Shanghai, Lilongwe, Conakry). I extended at one post (Lilongwe) which resulted in doing a mid-tour home leave. And now, I have added another foreign service experience : curtailing from a post.

A curtailment is the cutting short of a tour of duty. So, surprise! C and I have left Guinea.

I never before thought I would curtail from a tour. I knew Guinea would not be a walk in the park, that it would have challenges, of course. Honestly, for me, that was part of the appeal. But Guinea proved much harder than I expected.

I will miss views like this from our 23rd floor Kakimbo Towers apartment. Sun near us as rain clouds gather over the mangrove forests to Conakry’s southeast. Also the view into the Peul neighborhood behind Kakimbo, Rue de Prince, and the Bambeto traffic circle.

It is difficult to pinpoint any one thing that led to the decision as it was a combination of so many things. First and foremost: I did not arrive at this tough assignment 100%. Like many people, the COVID-19 pandemic wore me down. I pushed through the first 16 months of it in Lilongwe. Not that it was easy, but it started off novel, even oddly exciting, and we were in a country and me in a job where we had already been for over 2 1/2 years before the pandemic. Then it was back to the U.S. for Home Leave and 9 1/2 months of training on Zoom as the pandemic continued. The French language training had not been good for me. Perhaps it was the combination of online training, teachers whose style did not work for me, and pandemic fatigue, but when I headed to Conakry at the end of June 2022, I was mentally drained.

Timing is an important factor in life and I now believe that arriving at the beginning of summer was an unfortunate one for us. After this experience, I do not think I would want to do that at any post, though in a hardship, difficult to staff post like Conakry, I think it was all the worse. I arrived to a gutted Embassy. The summer transfer season was already in full swing with many positions gapped as predecessors had departed and their successor not yet arrived. This included my own section. The previous Political/Economic Chief had departed in early April; her successor would not arrive until mid-August. The Economic Officer was on a two week holiday my first two weeks. One of our locally employed staff political assistants was in DC on training. Another was sick my first week. A eligible family member hire left a few days after my arrival with no replacement lined up. Basically, in my normally seven person section there were two of us, and I was brand new.

I liked this painted advertisement mural and am a bit sad I never did get to try Guini Cola.

Other staff at the Embassy basically fell into three categories: short timers who had little time to talk with me as they were leaving post the next day, the next week, or two weeks later; those about to leave on long summer vacations; and those frazzled individuals covering two or more positions due to the vacancies. No one seemed to have time for us. Now for myself, I had my job. A job that I was struggling to work out as issues immediately cropped up and I had little or no information to go on and few people to ask, but still, I had something to focus on. My daughter; however, arrived at the beginning of a long summer holiday knowing no one. Twelve school aged children in the Embassy community had just departed; only C had arrived. The remaining Embassy kids all departed on six week holidays within two weeks of our arrival. Every last one of them. Other Guinean and expat kids in our building also took off on long holidays. I felt bad leaving my daughter at home with a brand new nanny who spoke little English, while C spoke little French.

Once school began in late August and the vacationing kids returned, C quickly began to make friends, but that rough beginning had already colored our experience. But it was only part of the issues.

There were also the protests. We had demonstrations in Malawi too. There were several marches against corruption starting in 2018 and then many protests against the flawed elections of May 2019. In my experience though there were two big differences between the Malawi protests and those we saw in Guinea: In Malawi, the demonstrations tended to occur in the old town area, on the other side of town, or in the newer part of the capital where Parliament and government ministries were located (as well as the U.S. Embassy), i.e. away from our residences; the ones in Guinea, however, were more violent and much closer to home.

Police set fire to makeshift shelters in the ravine in front of Kakimbo after forcibly removing the squatters. The acrid smoke lingered for hours.

Just a week after arriving, protests erupted around the Bambeto traffic circle over the sudden arrests of several opposition leaders. Bambeto is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Embassy and Kakimbo Towers. From our apartment we could watch the scenes unfold down below as young protestors played a game of cat and mouse with Guinean security forces. As we heard gunfire, we received Embassy notifications that Kakimbo residents should stay away from the windows. C’s bedroom, with its floor to ceiling windows, faced that direction.

One might think that on the 23rd floor we would be just fine, and maybe so, but four weeks after our arrival, there were more protests around Bambeto with bullets piercing windows on the 15th and 17th floors. All in all, in our first four months in Conakry there were 11 protests that left at least 11 dead, hundreds injured, and more arrested. There was a time when a protest began on a Friday afternoon and I was downtown at a work event. Due to traffic avoiding the main thoroughfare Rue de Prince, auxiliary roads became parking lots. It took my colleague and I nearly 2.5 hours to travel the nine miles from the Justice Ministry to the Embassy. All the while I was wondering about my daughter and nanny and if I would be able to get home. One protest day we were asked to stay away from the windows on both sides of the apartment as on one side police action involved firearms against demonstrations and on the other side police were setting fire to squatter homes in the nearby ravine.

C and I were also twice nearly blocked from entering the Kakimbo compound gates when protests erupted while we were out at school functions. We could also look down into the neighborhood behind us and, on one particularly vivid occasion, we watched the security forces in riot gear methodically moving through the winding streets, searching homes, launching tear gas, occasionally shots to the air, while we could also see persons, including children, fleeing. While I found the protests both disturbing and politically fascinating, I grew concerned with how C had become inured to the sound of small arms fire.

There was also the traffic. Oh, the traffic. It affected everything. It made shopping and work meetings held outside the Embassy or travel anywhere in or out of the city all the longer. Nearly every blog post I have written about Guinea includes a traffic induced delay anecdote. Sometimes I found it amusing, but always I found it exhausting.

C was also struggling with some aspects of school. I had hoped the small American international school would be able to give her the individual attention she needed, but her mathematics skills, not strong to begin with and only eroded during the pandemic, were apparently too far behind for her to catch up.

It was a privilege to work on the issues that allowed me to attend the opening of the historic September 28 Massacre trial and the opening of the country’s first official shelter for trafficking victims.

It was all of this and more – the lack of domestic travel opportunities and expense of international trips (i.e. the $1400 I had to pay to change our flights to Belgium in August due to protests potentially blocking access to the airport), the lack of families in the Embassy community and the isolation that brought in general and more so as a single parent, the difficulty in finding activities outside school for C, including facing the strong likelihood of her spending several long, lonely summers, and, let me be frank, difficulties I faced in trying to keep up with all the aspects of my own portfolio of human rights and politics during a particularly fraught political period in Guinea. I had the opportunity to work on some truly fascinating issues and my little political officer heart hummed happily, but my stress levels and mental exhaustion were high. I worked extra hours in the evenings and on weekends and had trouble sleeping. The situation was untenable.

Though it was a dark time for me when this came to a head, I am glad that I reached out to folks and I found a lot of support. Although curtailment is not talked about often, and almost seems like a dirty word, it is not uncommon. Someone in a position to know told me that there is on average a curtailment by someone, somewhere every single week. And when I shared my news with friends, I found that I knew at least a dozen people who had also curtailed at some point in their careers. Every single one of them told me that it was the right decision for them.

I do not regret C and I going to Conakry. I was able to see some amazing progress on some key issues in a country that is on the cusp of great possibilities. It remains to be seen whether the government and the people can surmount the current problems and emerge better on the other side, but the opportunities are there. For years the country has promised but not delivered a trial to hold accountable those responsible for a September 28, 2009 stadium massacre and yet on the 13th anniversary of the event the government did just that. I spent a lot of time on this issue. Trafficking in persons is also a major issue for political officers and I was able to meet with many government officials and civil society working to counter this. I also worked with a great team on the professionalization and capacity building of the country’s police force. The Guinean staff in the Political/Economic section were absolutely amazing, though I found wonderful Guineans throughout our Embassy working alongside us to improve their country. We made some great friends and, despite the short time, got out to enjoy some of the culture and beauty of Guinea.

At the end of the year, C’s school held a “winter” concert and a craft fair. As I perused the craft tables, I came across this beautiful wood carving of the Nimba, the symbol of Guinea. Versions of this goddess can be found around the capital, from a roundabout in the old town to statues in lobbies of hotels or at the airport. The Nimba is a symbol from the Baga people of coastal West Africa, with a large concentration in present-day Guinea. The Nimba represents the mother of fertility, who is a protector of pregnant women and who presides over agricultural ceremonies. The Nimba represents the joy of living and the promise of an abundant harvest.

Knowing that we would soon leave Conakry, I bought it — my sole souvenir from Guinea. It is very fitting that I carry this symbol of Guinea with me. It is a symbol of joy and promise and new beginnings. I hope for both Guinea and for me and C.


Out and About in Conakry

One of Conakry’s many roundabout decorations

I must be honest up front: Conakry is not an easy city to get out and about in. There are the challenging road conditions – unpaved and/or unlined roads, too many vehicles that lead to major traffic jams, loose interpretations of road rules, and confusing street layouts (initially I thought illogical, but then perhaps the road system is completely logical to some?), and a dearth of activities one might find in major capitals. This is not to say there is nothing to do in Conakry — I am sure there are things going on that I have not had the chance to pursue. For instance, Conakry is known for its music and probably has a really awesome music scene. My French isn’t very good, driving at night in Conakry scares the sh*t out of me, and parking in Conakry is atrocious (i.e. usually only maybe 5% of actually needed parking – a figure I just made up right now). I am generally more into pursuits like visiting museums, strolling in parks or along avenues lined with buildings with beautiful architecture, or sightseeing. None of which are in particular abundance in Conakry. And I knew that before going there. Yep, I did.

But I lived in Malawi for four years, and its capital, Lilongwe, was not rich in my favorite free-time pursuits either. And I still really enjoyed my time there. Like in Lilongwe, I needed to find those things that did make Conakry interesting. First I saw the many differences between it and Lilongwe. Conakry’s population is about twice that of Lilongwe – packed into a narrow peninsula. It is a lot more developed than Lilongwe as well. I do not have the actual stats but I would say there are more streets in Conakry, particularly wider ones with center strips with street lights. There is just way more light in general. While in Lilongwe after the sun goes down, the city is fairly dark; in Conakry its lit up like a Christmas tree at night. I can stand on my 23rd floor balcony and see the lights dotting the peninsula. It’s a lovely view and another thing that makes Conakry different from Lilongwe. In Malawi’s capital there are few buildings more than two stories tall. Though Kakimbo Towers, where I live, is by far the tallest building in Conakry (and in all of Guinea, and in most of West Africa), it is by no means the only high rise. Apartment buildings of six, eight, or ten stories abound across the city. They are not all in good shape, some are only partially finished though people still live there, but they are there in greater numbers than Lilongwe.

Billboards with the President of the Transition are commonplace throughout the capital

Signs. I kind of have a thing with signs. I wrote about them in Malawi, where there were some, but they were nowhere near in abundance as they are in Conakry. There are billboards all over the city advertising products, upcoming events, and political slogans. The most ubiquitous signs are those that feature the President of the Transition, Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya, who led the overthrow of the previous president in September 2021. His visage stares out from the biggest billboards in the most prominent locations — sometimes even draped over the Palace of the People, where the country’s legislative body meets — as a constant reminder to the populace that he and his ruling government are keeping the country and its people in mind. Unlike in Malawi where political billboards seems to hang in place for months or even years until they weathered away, these featuring the current president are replaced every few weeks.

Just a small example of the incredible shop and service paintings

My favorite signs in Conakry though were the hand-painted ones. Many times they came without any text, which made me think the depictions were for those who could not read. The illiteracy rate of Guinea is quite high – according to several indices it ranks among the lowest ten literate populations in the world with only around 45% of those above the age of 15 able to read. I only realized after arriving in Guinea that my nanny/housekeeper was illiterate when she only sent me voice messages and did not respond to messages I wrote. There were often hand-painted signs outside barber and beauty salons showing several hair styles. Most police stations had painted signs of police officers (though usually they seemed to be portrayed with guns or wearing riot gear, so I do not know how that would help a citizen feel confident about going to the police). There were sometimes signs outside restaurants with paintings of some of the available dishes. There was a chair store with a painting of a chair — very helpful, I think! I wish I had been able to get more photos. I often planned to spend a day doing so, but many were on the sides of buildings that had little space to stop a car. I suppose I could have done it the Guinean way – just stop my car in the middle of the road and if it blocked traffic, then so be it – but I just did not feel comfortable with that.

The stunning Grand Mosque of Conakry. My photos could not really do it justice.

There were a few places to see in the capital. With the end of the rainy season, I really wanted to get out more. When a visitor for Washington came to Conakry and one of our locally employed staff offered to take him on out for some Saturday sightseeing, I asked if my daughter and I could go along. C and I were thrilled to have a chance to visit the Conakry Grand Mosque, the fourth largest mosque on the continent and the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. The mosque can accommodate as many as 25,000 worshippers at a time. Although the mosque was officially closed for renovations, my local staff member had an in — his father is actually a high ranking official at the mosque.

OK. Honestly, C was a little less enthused about our outing that day. As we drove up she perked up a bit, but as can be expected from a 10-year-old asked, “How long will we be here?” But once inside her tune changed. She could not quite believe the size. And though the outside of the mosque is lovely, it is the inside space that is truly breathtaking. Although the Grand Imam himself was not in residence, several of his staff were and they gave us a brief audience and a personal tour. That made the visit even mor special.

Next to the Grand Mosque is the Botanical Garden, established in 1897 by the French botanist Auguste Chevalier. Though our guide told us that the garden is at least half its original size, with space cleared for the Grand Mosque and a cemetery, but it is still rather incredible that the garden still exists in the jam-packed chaotic narrow Kaloum peninsula. It is an oasis of greenery. At the front there was still some construction related to renovations, with a pile of framed glass windows and wooden beams leaning against a large steel dumpster. Playing among all that were two monkeys. Wild monkeys in the center of Conakry! Our guide led us away from the entrance along a dirt pathway. Unlike other botanical gardens I have visited, there were no flowers, just trees (though happen to be a huge fan of trees). The whole place had a very untamed vibe. Not entirely uncared for, but minimally so. Though in a way, that was part of the charm. It was like being in a real forest and a little unbelievable as the area is hemmed in by busy roads. Yet, even in the center of the garden, the tall trees and thick underbrush made one feel far from the disorder just outside its walls.

On another occasion, C and I went to see acrobats in the Keita Fodeba Center for the Acrobatic Arts at work. Guinea has become a country where the circus arts are well known. I read that in the late 80s a French cinematographer wanted to make a movie about an African circus and upon finding there were none he helped to found one in Conakry and then filmed a documentary (Circus Baobab, 2001). Circus Baobab became a success, touring the globe, and has spawned other Guinean circuses. One of them, Amoukanama, performed on America’s Got Talent in 2022. The Keita Fodeba Acrobatic center has been recruiting and training street children and youth to train in acrobatics since 1998. The graduates of these Guinean circuses are able to work with major circuses, like Cirque du Soleil, around the world.

A month or so before the Community Liaison Officer at the Embassy had arranged for an Embassy outing to the Center, but C and I were unavailable that weekend. I asked a local friend when the troupe practiced and he gave me the information. On a Saturday morning C and I set out in our car for the 28th of September Stadium. I knew and could see on the map the training center was located very close to the stadium grounds. Getting there turned out to be another matter completely.

Given the regularity of chaos on Conakry’s streets, it is perhaps no surprise that Google Maps is not the most accurate. It is amazing it works at all, but often times the roads it sends one on may be closed for construction or aren’t really much of a road at all. We circled around and around the vicinity but I struggled to actually get there. We were to be there at at 10:30 am and we had left home around 10, giving us a good half an hour to drive the 5 miles from our apartment complex to the stadium. 10:30 came and went, as did 11, as I drove in circles nearby. We ended up on a narrow road — it would be two lanes except one side was basically parking. A two way street with only enough space for one way. This led to some creative driving. We were blocked at one point with an oncoming driver choosing to force his way through. He signaled for me to just pull over to the right a little – of course the right had a one foot wide, one foot deep drainage ditch. After getting out of that mess with the help of some bystanders (who thought the other driver in the wrong – a small win!), we came to a T-junction where the two way road was also narrowed to one with the presence of a busy market and hundreds of pedestrians. Lucky for me there was a traffic cop there who assisted my successful push through there. Though at this point I could see were were very close to the stadium, Google Maps said we would have to go around again. No way! I saw a government with parking and banking on my diplomatic license plates, I asked and was granted the permission to park there. A random person in the parking lot agreed to take C and I on foot the rest of the way.

Only a small simple sign indicates inside this building are where some of Guinea’s next best acrobats train

We crossed an expansive and dusty parking area around the stadium to a non-descript concrete building with a large steel garage-like door. We had arrived at the Center. Our guide took his leave and C and I stepped inside. There were a few cheap plastic chairs set up to the side of a large faded, well worn mat. A few other foreigners were seated in some of the chairs. C and I sat in some empty ones. An older gentleman approached us to ask if we were from the Embassy and I said we were. Apparently they had been waiting for our arrival to begin rehearsals! Some musicians took their seats at the back and began a drum beat while other performers stood to their right to dance and chant. Then the acrobats began to take to the mat. We saw displays of tumbling, cartwheels and flips, the corde lisse or aerial rope, juggling, contortionism, and more. There was no air conditioning and no fancy equipment and that which they did have had most certainly seen better days. Yet the performers obviously put a lot of time and passion into their practice to become some of the best acrobats in the world. It was a stunning performance.

C and I tried to make the most of our time out and about in Conakry. It was certainly frustrating at times (perhaps an understatement), but generally worth it.