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.

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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.