I’m writing this on the eve of my departure from Guinea. I am leaving a bit earlier than originally planned – all is fine, and I’d rather not waste this precious space talking about the why (happy to discuss offline) but rather use it to focus on all that is running through my head as the last 24 hours wind down.
In Henry IV, Shakespeare wrote, “I speak of Africa and golden joys.” Amen to that, I say, amen. My time here in Guinea has challenged, overwhelmed, inspired, and humbled me. This country is a place of extremes. The soil is rich and natural resources abound, yet the majority of the country lives in poverty. Cell phone communication, as I have written about before, is a way of life, yet basic infrastructure such as decent roads, electricity, and access to clean water are woefully lacking. More and more, parents here are understanding the importance of education for their children, but I have lost count of the number of college-educated young people I have met who cannot find gainful employment due to lack of jobs.
But the joys, oh the joys! The sound of the evening Muslim call to prayer at dusk, followed later by the melodic call and response of my nearby mosque filled to the brim with devout believers. Waking up early in the morning to countless nearby roosters crowing and women pounding corn in their giant mortars and pestles. The never-ending – and I do mean never-ending! – children’s shouts of “Tubabu! Ça va? Ça va bien?” as I pass by on my bicycle. The sweet slow smile of a seller at the market when I greet her in local language or offer a benediction for a good day of sales. The countless soccer games that take place each evening, with feet that move so furiously fast, the ball disappears in cloud of red-clay dust. Fresh bananas, the juiciest oranges, and gorgeous pineapples for sale on the roadside. How amazing a simple cold beverage tastes at the end of a long, hot, dusty day.
But I think one of the biggest joys has been witnessing the sense of community that Guineans possess. A very common expression here is “On est ensemble,” which is French for “We are together.” Over the past four months, I probably heard this at least once per day – at work, at church, in the market, or even encountering a stranger on the street. One day I was biking through Kankan, and foolishly, my long skirt got caught in the rear brake. I’m stopped mid-pedal on the side of the road, stuck and trying not to rip my skirt, looking like quite the spectacle when a man appears and gingerly weaves the fabric out of the brake. When I sheepishly thank him, he just smiles and says, “On est ensemble.”
Embedded in this belief of community is a deep sense of family. Family is everything here, and as I have been preparing to leave, I have had to fight back tears on more than one occasion as friends have said, “Please greet our mother for us.” Here in Guinea, if you and I are friends, then family is an extension of that relationship – my mom is your mom, and your mom is my mom. Guess what, Vivien Chambre? Your offspring just got a whole lot bigger!
As I write this, I am reminded of an exchange that happened some months ago at the local Catholic church I attended in Kankan. The visiting bishop engaged in a question and answer session following his sermon. One young man raised his hand and explained he had seen a special on TV featuring Pope Francis, and he heard the Pope say, “The poor are our passport to heaven.” The young man said, “Well, we are all poor here in Africa, so I am really confused – I not sure who the Pope is referring to. Can you tell me who are the poor here in Africa? Because I would like to make sure I am helping them and that my ‘passport’ is ready when the time comes.” The whole congregation laughed, and so did the bishop. He then replied that this was an excellent question. Yes, people in Africa are poor, he said. The vast majority don’t have running water, electricity, cars, or basic houses – so yes, Africans are materially very poor. But, he continued, that is not who the Pope is talking about. So he challenged the congregation. “Tell me – who are the poor in Africa?” No one answered at first, and there was a nervous energy in the crowd. The bishop just kept repeating, “Qui sont les pauvres en Afrique? Dites- moi, qui?” People were looking at each other as if this was an absurd question – of course, everyone in Guinea is poor, their faces seemed to be saying. Finally, the bishop proclaimed, “I’ll give a prize to whomever can answer this question” and threw down 20000 francs on the podium. Now, this got people’s attention! One brave soul finally raised his hand and said, “The poor are those who don’t know God.” The bishop responded that there are plenty of rich people who don’t know God. He put down another 20000 francs. Someone else offered, “The poor are those who don’t share what they have.” The bishop shook his head – and more money was added to the pile. Responses kept coming, everything from, “The poor are those who don’t take the initiative, who don’t do anything with their time” to “The poor are those who are different from us” to “The poor are those who are unkind.” This went on and on as the bishop kept upping the ante – the congregation became very animated, and I actually couldn’t understand all the responses after awhile because everyone was so worked up. Finally, the bishop said, “Ok, enough. These are all good answers, but let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a white man and an African man. The white man came to Africa, looked around, saw oh-so-many people without water, electricity, cars, and good houses, and he said to himself, ‘Oh these poor souls, look how they live – they live in such poverty. They have nothing. Oh my, it’s so sad.’ Yet meanwhile the African man went to the white man’s country, looked around, and saw many people sleeping in the street – sick, old, even young – no one talked to them, they were ignored and seemed forgotten. And there were many others who had a place to live, yet seemed lonely and alone. The African man said to himself, ‘Oh these poor souls, they are treated like they are garbage. So many people alone. Look at how they live in such poverty. It is so sad.’ The bishop was quiet for a moment, and then he asked, “So, tell me – who do you think was right? Who are the poor in this story?” There was no silence this time – the entire congregation responded in unison. The bishop continued, “Here in Guinea, we may be materially poor, but we are not the poor to whom the Pope is referring. The poor are those who are cast aside, who are forgotten. They are the people who are alone, who have rejected their families or who have been rejected by their families. The people who are isolated. That is who the Pope is calling us to help. Most of us here are rich – yes, brothers and sisters, we are rich! Why? Because we have community, that is our culture. Those who are living in solitude – well, that is poverty. Here in Guinea, don’t ever forget that community is our richesse.”
I have tried through these blog posts to paint an accurate portrayal of life and my experiences here. That means not romanticizing poverty or painting people as simply good or bad. We are all complex beings, and I would by lying if I didn’t say that Guineans have qualities that sometimes tested my limits of cross-cultural understanding or there weren’t days that tried my patience. But ultimately, as I wrote long ago in a different farewell to West Africa, the beauty – the golden joy! – of being here is the gentle reminder that we go through life, with its good days and bad, and ultimately, it is our relationships with each other that make all the difference.
Thank you, merci, a ni ce to you, chère Guinée, for reinforcing this lesson, for welcoming me with open arms, for letting me be “that girl” again, and for so much more. My heart is full. On est ensemble.
Clockwise from top right: With my Guinean mom, Fanta Condé (back in the day, she was in the first class of Guinean police women – a trailblazer!); my beautiful friend Mabinty; talented Tuareg artisan Aboubacar; Moussa who always sold me delicious fresh goat meat; a giggle with Aisha at the coffeeshop; my adopted son Mohamed; with my fun co-worker Fofana; me and the always-stylish Sayo; and last, with Ibrahim, Bah, and Bangaly, the great guys who guarded my house, chased my mice, and were there for me on the toughest days.