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.

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.

Conakry: Living the High Life

Conakry’s Kakimbo Towers stand out

Housing at overseas post is crucial. Where you live can really make or break an assignment. If one’s place is isolated from most or all of the Embassy/Consulate community, or makes for a long commute to the Embassy/Consulate or the school, or the place is especially dark or a myriad of repairs are necessary, these could all make one’s tour more challenging. I believe that at more difficult posts, the housing is even more important.

I have had pretty good luck with my housing. Though I have not always been assigned my first choice from the housing questionnaire and there were certainly times I experienced some housing envy (I am especially looking at you Jakarta), each of my government assigned homes have been very good. In Conakry, we hit the proverbial lottery and were placed in the capital’s most exclusive address: the Kakimbo Residences.

Also known as the les tours jumelles de Kakimbo or the Twin Towers of Kakimbo, the four-year old building stands 100 meters (328 feet) tall with 27 floors. It is the tallest building in Guinea by a long shot and is one of the tallest in West Africa. In my not very scientific online research I found only three other countries in the region with taller buildings – Nigeria, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire – and only 20 countries on the African continent with a taller structure. Guinea may be one of the poorest countries in the world (despite its vast and mostly untapped natural resources), but it has put itself on the map with the Kakimbo Towers.

A bird’s eye view of the Bambeto area of Conarky; the green field just before the sea is the airport; mangroves to the back left

We do not live on the 27th floor, but we are close to the top. We have tremendous views across both sides of the peninsula. From one side we can see the runway of the Ahmed Sekou Toure International Airport, a mere three kilometers away, and watch the few planes take off and land. We can see the blue waters of the sea and the seemingly empty green mangroves that border the packed city.

Though Conakry is not known to have a lot of green space, from our height we can see a surprising amount of trees. In the neighborhood directly behind our building we watch life go on down below. We watch school kids in uniform walking down the dusty streets. We see games of soccer on those same roads — the players just pick up the ball when cars pass by and then resume the game as the vehicle passes. We see laundry being hung to dry.

The Bambeto traffic circle is often a bottleneck. The three kilometers to the airport can take an hour or more to drive. That was before the construction began to turn that traffic circle into an overpass; Now it is even worse. Before heading to the supermarket or the Embassy I can get an idea of how backed up the traffic is with a quick glance out the window.

On protest days, we watch as the crowds of youth surge from the side streets on to the main Rue Le Prince. There we can watch the demonstration play out in real time but in miniature. Youth advancing and throwing. Then the trucks of the police and gendarmerie advancing; tear gas canisters emitting smoke. The protestors running to the side streets. Then youth slinking back out to challenge the law enforcement again. Makeshift barriers of tires set alight. Back and forth.

It can feel odd observing all of these goings on from on high.

A 180 degree view from my balcony toward the northern part of the Kaloum peninsula

On the other side of the apartment the views are no less spectacular. My legs always feel a wee bit jelly-like as I step out on our balcony. It is a long way down! Looking out though one can see so much greenery – a massive, verdant ravine stands between the Kakimbo property and that of the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To our right we can watch dawn break over the distant hills where the peninsula broadens and meets Kindia prefecture and to the left see the setting sun swiftly sink into the sea in a bed of cotton candy pink clouds. From high above we can also see the deep red of Guinea’s soil that produces so much in the way of the fruits and vegetables we see in roadside markets. Much of the exposed earth near Kakimbo though is obviously being cleared for plots where government buildings will be moving from the crowded historic heart of downtown Conakry. In just four months I have watched two new roads through these areas be prepared, graded, paved, and opened.

From our apartment I feel I can see Conakry’s potential spread out before me. From that height, most everything looks beautiful, innocuous, possible.

View through the clouds – just some of the ravine, some shapes of buildings with early morning lights, and the tip of the radio tower are visible.

We are often in the clouds. I have looked out more than once and seen wet streets below but no precipitation, and assumed any rain had stopped, only to go downstairs and find it is pouring. As we were above the clouds, we didn’t see the rain.

Storms have a way of magnifying around Kakimbo. In Shanghai, we lived on the 19th floor of a 30 story building, but there were similarly tall buildings all around us. Here though, Kakimbo stands solitary. Nothing else is as tall for miles. When the wind really whips up, the clouds fly past the windows, and drafts send high pitched whistles through the apartment. The air pressure pops panels in the ceiling of the bathrooms. In our early months, in the height of the rainy season, I could not sleep through the night for all the odd creaks and groans and whistles.

Despite the height, it is not all that quiet. Sounds float up easily. Conakry is a real city. It is a busy, chaotic place. In Lilongwe, our single story ranch style home not far from the city center, was often quiet in the evenings. The noises were that of nature, of night birds singing, bats flying, the whirl of termites in the early months of the rainy season. Cars were rare in the evenings. Here, however, the traffic seems non-stop. Certainly weekdays and daytime hours are the busiest, but I can look out at any time of the night and find a steady stream of vehicles on the roads below. Their tinny, angry beeps reaching my ears at all hours.

Dawn sweeps across Conakry

There are pleasant sounds too. Roosters crowing, when far enough away, have a lovely ring. There must be many roosters in the neighborhood behind Kakimbo. Also goats, as I regularly hear their soft bleating, usually on weekends as I putter around my kitchen making breakfast. Guinea is a majority Muslim country and the competing calls to prayer of nearby mosques drift and linger in the air. I have not always had a warm relationship with the adhan. I recall in particular being brusquely woken at 4 am by a pre-recorded muezzin call broadcast loudly on a scratchy megaphone in the mosque next to my cheap accommodation in western Java. But here, with the height, it is euphonious.

There is also a commuter train, the “Conakry Express,” which transports folks from the Conakry suburbs to the tip of the Kaloum peninsula. There is a stop at the western end of the ravine and the train’s whistle as it approaches and leaves the station is audible from my apartment. I have lived near trains before – in Georgia and Japan – and just the right amount of distance can turn the drawn-out “toot-toot” into something soothing.

Our swimming pool with water features and the authentic Thai massage room

The amenities of the Kakimbo are without match in Conakry. There are two restaurants; one stand alone at the entrance to the grounds where weddings, happy hours, and other events are regularly held and another on the 27th floor of the East Tower. There is a large pool divided one part into swimming lanes and the other graced with water features – from submerged chaise lounges with massaging jets to power showers. Next to the pool is a sauna and a hammam. Below the pool are the tennis courts, basketball court, and sand volleyball court.

On the first basement floor there is a gym, squash court, karaoke room, and a yoga/dance room. For games there are pool tables, ping pong tables, foosball, and those basketball games you find in arcades where you have to sink as many baskets within a certain amount of time. But here the coins are included, thus unlimited games are free. I have spent quite a bit of time down there perfecting my arcade free throw. I plan to sweep the tickets next time I am at a Dave & Busters. There is also a Thai massage room with actual masseuses from Thailand here on one year working visas. And on the first floor there is a mini mart. Shopping is time consuming with the traffic and the need to go to two or three stores to get maybe half of what you need for at least three times the price it would be at home. To be able to get the basics from salt to soy sauce, bread to bottled water, or toilet paper and shampoo, milk and eggs just downstairs makes life in Conakry a wee bit easier.

Living in Kakimbo has many advantages, though disadvantages too. Not all is rosy here. The electricity goes out about once a day for example. Twice all the outlets on one side of the apartment stopped working. There are those wild winds whipping around the building during storms and sometimes stray bullets from police actions against protests. One is in Conakry and yet oddly removed. Though I freely acknowledge this I am also quite sure that living here was the best decision for C and I.

Three Months in Conakry

Our nanny AD sitting with goats her family will donate to the needy for Tabaski

A friend of mine asked me just today how I was finding living in Conakry. I did not have a great answer. I said it has been ok. And it has been. Really. It has also been challenging. There have been days when I thought I would hit this milestone, three months here, and say “Three months down, only thirty-three to go!” The truth is I have not yet formed an opinion. I am only beginning to get into the swing of things.

It is no secret that Guinea can be a challenging place to live – for Guineans and expatriates alike. The State Department does struggle with getting personnel to serve here; it is what is called a “historically difficult to staff” (HDS) post. To recruit Foreign Service Officers to work in Guinea there are extra financial incentives. There is a high post differential (currently a 30% bump in pay) and also an additional 15% bonus if one agrees to stay a third year at this two-year posting. Even with these extra monetary inducements there are still vacant positions.

I do not know, however, what all has been difficult because it is Guinea or because it is hard to move and to start over in a new job in a new country. I have lived in challenging places before. Each of my tours with the Defense and State Departments has had some difficult aspects from Jakarta (25% post differential; terrible traffic, terrorist attacks, religious and ethnic divides) and Ciudad Juarez (10% post differential , 15% danger pay; gang and narco-trafficking violence, desert dryness, major visa post), to Shanghai (15% post differential; language/cultural differences, lots of crowds, major visa post) and Malawi (25% post differential when I arrived; one of the poorest countries in the world, limited flights in and out, limited entertainment venues in town). Now though I think of all of these places with great fondness. They were all good tours.

I arrived in Conakry at the tail end of June, part of the “summer transfer season” that sweeps embassies and consulates worldwide every year. This past summer seems to have particularly transitional for our embassy in Conakry. I think my experience of it was exacerbated by the timing of my arrival. Many staff were on their way out. I would meet someone and he or she would tell me, “I am leaving tomorrow/next week/next month.” In other cases, the person incumbering the position had already departed and the incoming officer had yet to arrive, leaving gaps. I struggled to complete the Embassy check-in procedures because there was either no one to check in with or the person was soon on their way out. This contributed to the isolating feeling I already had as a newly arrived employee.

At my previous tour, in Malawi, we arrived mid-August. At the end of that week, the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) organized a “sips and snacks” event at a colleague’s house where all Embassy staff and families could join. Just three weeks after arriving, our social sponsor and family took C and I on a weekend trip in the south of the country. Five weeks after arriving, the Ambassador held a welcome picnic at her residence for all the Embassy, new and old, to meet one another. Eight weeks after arriving, C and I joined a CLO-organized safari trip in Zambia over a long weekend. And around three months after arrival, C and I took our first trip to Lake Malawi.

Nothing remotely like any of this has happened yet in Guinea.

The weather forecast for the coming 11 days in Conakry and a photograph I took today when I stopped to buy fruit

Besides my early summer arrival date being likely at least party at fault for the rougher start, there is also the rain. Guinea has two seasons: hot and dry and hot and wet. The wet, rainy season is very, very wet. I recall reading somewhere that Conakry is the fourth rainiest capital in the world. The monsoonal season begins in late May/early June. For context, the annual rainfall for Washington, DC, is 43 inches; for Conakry it is 149 inches. Conakry may see as much rainfall in the month of July as DC gets all year.

That is not to say that there are not nice days. There have been some gloriously bright sunny days. In fact, our first week in country was deceptively rain-free. The accumulation of this amount of rain though also has its affects on soil and infrastructure. I do not know what the roads here might look like when its the dry season. In Malawi at least there were some attempts to fix roads and fill potholes that had eroded during the rains. That may or may not happen here. Right now though many of the capital’s roads are in poor shape and easily flood making the traffic situation and travel more challenging.

My HHE from Malawi (stored in Europe for the past year) arrives in Conakry; the 12 man team that delivered my goods

For me, it feels like it is taking longer to settle here. One reason may be the longer time it has taken to receive my effects. My Household Effects (HHE) arrived a little less than eight weeks after we arrived in Conakry. That is pretty good. However, the unaccompanied baggage (UAB), the smaller air shipment that is supposed to be items you want as soon as possible, that took 11 weeks to get to Conakry. At my other posts, UAB arrived pretty quickly: Ciudad Juarez (it was in my entry when I arrived at my new home!), Shanghai (2.5 weeks after arrival), and Malawi (12 days after arrival). Granted the pandemic and the residual staff shortages and global logistic and supply chain issues have led to longer shipping times. Still, I had not expected to wait so long.

No matter where one lives, having a place to come home to that is safe and comfortable and reflects your interests is key. In a tougher place like Guinea, that is arguably even more important. Now, though I am beginning to make this house more our home, there are also still quick a few boxes and piles of items around. We are still awaiting the supplemental HHE, the secondary shipment of items from the US. There will be more to unpack, sort through, and organize.

In the Foreign Service, the conventional wisdom is that it really takes six months before one can begin to truly feel at home in a new place. By that measure, I still have time to ease into the life here. Guinea and I are still trying to get to know one another.

Arrival in Guinea: The First Four Weeks

It has been topsy-turvy since we arrived in Conakry, Guinea a little more than four weeks ago. Though I am fairly used to uprooting myself frequently (it is something I have done my entire adult life and with the U.S. government for 13 years), it never seems to get easier. I am beginning to sense it is getting harder the older I get. I had forgotten how it is to be the new employee, the person who knows nothing about the office procedures, where things are located, exactly who to ask, or the local issues. I know the mechanics of the job of course, this is not the same as the steeper learning curve I faced when I first arrived in Malawi, yet it is daunting nonetheless. My Malawi arrival was five years ago!

Surprisingly, I have seen more than a few school buses that seem American plying (ore more often haphazardly parked on) the streets of Conakry

Naturally, it is not just work that is new, it is everything. It is a lot to take in all at once. It’s a new job in a new city, in a new country, in a new region, living in new housing, driving a new (to me) car, sending C to a new school, and so on. But it is more than those things. I have to rely on other Embassy folks to help me with me with some fairly basic things. It makes me crazy not to know how to do these things, like how to set up the Internet or to get gas for the car or where to buy groceries. On our first night in our new apartment, I had to call another person from the Embassy to ask how to operate my stove! I am still a bit unsure with the oven; there is a thick instruction pamphlet on its usage, most of it is in German. Good thing I am not much of a cook!? I sure do miss knowing what is going on.

As a first impression, Conakry is a cacophony of sights and sounds and smells that assault the senses. It is lush, crowded, busy. I cannot help but compare Conakry to Lilongwe. I had hoped that nearly a year in America would curb that tendency, but while it isn’t fair, it is natural. Lilongwe is just my most recent reference point.

There seem to be few precautions for COVID-19 left here, but this billboard remains.

Conakry is bigger than Lilongwe, about double the size in population with Conakry over 2 million to Lilongwe’s 1 million. Though both cities had mostly single story or two storied buildings, there are many more taller buildings in Conakry. It’s no New York, Shanghai, or Dubai, but I have found this to be an aspect that stands out to me. Many of these buildings though leave a lot to be desired. Some are unfinished with bare cement sidings and gaping holes where balconies or windows ought to be, others still have the scaffolding, and yet they are clearly inhabited.

There are two main roads in Conakry – the Autoroute Fidel Castro and the Rue Le Prince – running more or less parallel to one another on either side of the narrow peninsula where the capital is situated. Both are two to three lanes in each direction, and the Autoroute, which was built in the 1960s, has an overpass or two. Lilongwe opened its first four lane road with overpass in early 2021, just a few months before my departure. There seems to be few rules to driving. Most roads do not have lane designations and there are almost no traffic lights. Some traffic organization is attempted with roundabouts, but the rules of them seem somewhat optional. We share the road with pedestrians, who walk on the road and cross freely as there are no sidewalks or crosswalks, and motorcycles, which are in far more abundance than in Malawi. Bicycles still were frequent in Malawi, even in Lilongwe, but I cannot say I have seen bicyclists here, and I would be rather worried for them if I did.

Billboard in Conakry regarding the transitional government, in place since the September 5 coup

My commute from home to the office is only three minutes! Short commutes seem so far to be my specialty. In Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, I was only a 10-15 minute walk from home to office, and in Malawi and Conakry I have had drives of ten minutes or less. I am glad for the short distance as I had (still have) some serious doubts about being able to drive on these roads. The only way to get to used to it though is to get out there and do it. On my first few drives I white-knuckled my way, praying the GPS was working and I would not get lost. And still I ended up on some side streets I had not intended.

Last weekend, C and I headed out on our Saturday supermarket run. Wanting a bit of a lie in, I put off leaving until the afternoon. I think that was a mistake. The roads were more congested than the week before, and within minutes we were inching along in bumper to bumper traffic. Without lane markings, people just make whatever lanes they want, and thus what is intended to be a two or three lane road can become a three or four lane road, leaving much less room to maneuver. Taxis stop when and where they want. Sometimes they get over toward the far side, sometimes not so much. A large truck also disgorged several passengers in the middle of the road – some jumping out from the cab while others came out of the back. Ahead, part of the main road was closed with a manned, makeshift blockade. Motorcycles were getting through, but no cars. There seemed no discernable reason for it. Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I started to come alive sitting there in traffic. After days in the office feeling like a fifth wheel, here were C and I OUT and ABOUT in Conakry! I have no doubt that a traffic jam like that will frustrate me to no end, but that day it let me take in life happening roadside.

My successful tool-about-town (which lasted three and a half hours for a shopping trip — I have learned that shopping here is very time consuming), I found the next day I really wanted to take a walk, and to get a little bit outside my comfort zone outside of the walls of my residential compound. Not knowing what to expect, I left C at home, and ventured up the street to the busy roundabout to check out the roadside market. I brought my camera too, in case I might see something worth capturing on film.

Colorful kola nuts for sale at the roadside market

Right off the bat I felt self conscious. I saw no other obvious foreigners taking a stroll and it did feel as if all eyes were on me. Curious, not menacing, but definitely watching. I had made sure to wear long pants and long sleeves and covered my hair, but there was no way to hide that I was not from here. There was no sidewalk so I walked along the edge of the road, careful not to get too close to the massive six foot deep drainage ditches while also keeping an ear out for traffic alongside. It being a Sunday the traffic was not too intense though the market vendors, whose stands spill on to the road, were out and had large stocks of their goods. I was not interested in the large piles of flip flops or mechanical parts, but I was glad to see the small fruit stands with good selections of pineapples, mangoes, apples, oranges, and avocado.

Woman and child at the market

But the woman at the first fruit stand, selling bananas, oranges, and surprisingly small plastic bags of popped popcorn, refused to have her photo taken. I could take one of her wares, but she would only hid behind it. And the next stand, two Muslim men, an older and a younger, dressed in traditional clothing, had an attractive display of kola nut for sale. Again, I could take a photo of the goods, but not the people. A guy wearing his wares of bright stainless steel spatulas and stirring spoons and tongs on his head also refused to be photographed. I was disappointed, but respected their wishes. A few, however, did allow. A young man working at a butcher’s was proud to stand in front of the hanging carcasses surrounded by buzzing flies while his older boss refused. And when I did a double take at a beautiful woman with her baby I fully expected a no to my ask for a photo, but she smiled shyly and said yes. Her husband also delighted that I took an interest as he proudly told me, “That’s my wife! That’s my baby!”

It was gritty. There was garbage on the streets, overflowing from bins, and clogging the drainage ditches. The detritus ranged from plastic bags and food wrappers to old clothing or tires. Just about anything turned into a waste mush by rain and time in the elements. Chickens and dogs rooted among the piles. The traffic was loud, disorderly, and often too close. And again, though some of it was shocking and sad, there was also life and activity, and I felt myself transported back to past times I walked through markets in foreign countries, mostly in my pre-State Department days. As the call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, I particularly felt the tug of a memory from a walk through the streets of Jakarta near the Sunda Kelapa harbor. I smiled.

This is but a snapshot of my first few weeks in Conakry. It has been hard to capture it all because there is just so much that it is new, and I can only take in so much. I will not lie; it has not been easy. It may never be easy. But I think it will get easier.