So far, so good. I’m in the airport in Conakry, sitting at my gate. The airport is right on the coast, just like in Boston. I am flying to Dakar, where I will be for 2 days. I am looking at the ocean, and imagining landing in NYC on Monday morning. Yay, ready to come home. Ready to be with my girl, whom I am missing in a way that almost feels like I have the flu. I don’t ever like being apart from her. I don’t at all like being this far away from her if we have to be apart.
It is not raining! Praise be. I smell terrible - not because I didn’t shower, but because of vanity. I put on a very smelly shirt that I thought would look a bit better in our good-bye photos. I know I will treasure these photos. I thought it was worth the stink to be able to look at them and not have a first or second thought be “why do I have to look like such a dirtbag?”
The two people I connected with most in this Conakry household are Haby Thiam and Hadiathou. Haby Thiam is the 23-year-old manager of the household; there are 12-20 people in the house at any given time. I told her she is smart, hard working and gifted at knowing people, and that she could do anything in the world she wanted to do. With the help of Google translate, I think I got in the neighborhood of communicating accurately. I told her I would help her if she needed it.
Hadiathou is 8; she doesn’t know her exact birthdate. I don’t know why this little one captured my heart so completely. Her smile, her shyness, her timid ways of staying close to me and even showing off a little when I was around. I brought Hadiathou and the two other little girls seashells that I found on the beach in Conakry. Hadiathou didn’t know what they were. (You can see the ocean from a hill close to their house.) I hugged her and told her she was my Guinean daughter. I held her close for quite a while before I left.
I see the women here generally being very strong - they shout and direct and tell everyone what to do. Anytime I had a bag or bought something in the market, any man who was with me carried my bags. And that wasn’t because I was white; I saw many men carrying diaper bags, handbags, and walking behind women who were taking charge. But I think the women’s purview is purely domestic. Cooking, cleaning, sewing, deciding who eats what and when, deciding who gets hot water and when.
Socially, men and women mostly are in different spaces. I didn’t perceive there to be hard and fast rules on this, though I might be wrong. There is no question it is the convention. Driving through the streets of Conakry, I would see women and girls grouped on front stoops, braiding each other’s hair, breast-feeding babies, sewing, tending whatever genre of things they were selling as it seemed every front stoop had something: roasted ears of corn, peanuts, hair ties, socks; honestly, it was an amazing array.
In the evening, women would slowly walk together through the streets, stopping into houses of friends and relatives. Haby Thiam and I did this a couple times, walking arm in arm.
A thing I wished I had a photo of is they way people present fruit to sell. Amidst what feels to the Western mind like utter chaos, plates of oranges, lemons and limes would be extremely carefully arranged into very small pyramids, with the last round fruit balancing on top of the top of the pyramid. Colorful spheres of precision , balance, and order. Little bright round trays of it, lining the streets that have no traffic lights, no lanes, lots of holes, wandering chickens and goats, and in which a two-ish lane road with cars going both directions would morph into a 3-ish lane one-way road (2 lanes of cars, 1 of motos) as soon as traffic wasn’t coming from one direction or the other. Then when a car came the other way, the traffic would flow back into a two-way street. Kind of genius, actually.
Here is the best story: I have a visa to be here, but so far, it has been a separate piece of paper and not yet transferred onto a page in my passport. We went to the Security office before we went to Labe to get it taken care of, but the person who did that job wasn’t there that day. So we went back yesterday. There was lots of conversation, one part of which was the policeman telling Ahmadou to tell me that my Passport was wet. Yep, it was. The cover is curling up, and it is damp to the touch. Was this policeman in a different country? It had been raining for almost 24 hours...I thought everything was wet. But somehow this deserved special recognition. Ahmadou confirmed to the man that I was aware that it was wet. Check. He took my passport and said they would call us back when it was complete.
We were told to wait; then we were told to return at 4:30. Then we were called to come early. Then when we arrived the person who needed to sign off on it wasn’t there. Then we waited a bit; then they told us to wait somewhere else (vs standing outside the building) because it might take awhile. So it’s a little after 4, I am scheduled to fly to Dakar the next day, and I don’t have my passport. It is so extremely likely that they will lock the Security office (which is also the national police headquarters) up tight at 5pm. Potentially anxiety provoking. But what was I going to do? I don’t know enough French to get pissed off, and Ahmadou did not seem worried.
He and I go across the street to a little cafe. Well, that might be an elaborate term because they didn’t have coffee. Soda, juice, water. I don’t get anything. Then I ask jokingly if they have beer. People jump into action, telling us there is a place to get beer about 4 “storefronts” down. (They are more than stand-alone kiosks, less than full-fledged stores. Shack isn’t quite right, either. Going with storefront.)
We go, pull chairs outside, and they bring me a cold beer. What?! It was great; we hung out and watched 2 chickens start hassleling each other. A woman from the Security office whom we had met earlier gets into a car that is parked in front of us and waves, wishing us a good day. C’est bon.
Ten minutes later, a young man comes up to Ahmadou holding up his phone asking if Ahmadou is Ahmadou. “Oui, mon frere,” he says. And this young man pulls out my passport and hands it to me, complete with visa.
Just when you think nothing could possibly work here, a dude in the bar, with a flip phone, hands me my passport. Et voila, I am all set.
Some things are hard. Some are mysterious. Some are confusing. Many are beautiful.
I described a lot of the things that were different, but what is actually overwhelming is how much is similar. People greeting each other; families raising children. People shopping for food, preparing food, eating together. People hustling in every imaginable way to make a living. Laughter, gossip, flat tires, hair salons. Boys playing soccer and shooting marbles; girls playing hopscotch and jumping rope. There was so much more that was the same than was different.
“A la prochain” means “until the next (time)”. It is the warm way of saying good bye, because you are saying you will see each other again. I think that will be true.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone and everything that made this whole experience possible. I am swimming in gratitude.
Two days in Dakar, then home!!
Love and light