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.


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