I am not religious, but if I was I would imagine hell to be a bit like driving into Conakry during rush hour. The city is located at the end of a 30km long peninsula and there is only one main road, the M1, in or out. Enormous piles of rubbish sit smoking by the side of the road. Many of the side streets have disappeared completely beneath a brightly coloured sea of food waste, plastic bags and drinks bottles so deep you would have to wade through it. The smell and the heat is unbelievable. People and cars are everywhere. Around 10km from the city centre the traffic stops completely; 10 then 20 minutes pass and nothing moves. The vehicles are so densely packed there is no chance of us being able to find a route through. I am sweltering in my bike gear, the deafening blare of horns and thick fumes billowing from the surrounding engines does nothing to ease the dizziness I am starting to feel. Children dart between the stationary vehicles selling cold water, biscuits and popcorn. I spot 2 guys in sports gear, clearly out for an evening jog. For reasons I am completely unable to fathom they have decided to jog straight down the middle of the central reservation. I feel like stopping them to ask if they have considered that the amount of pollution they are inhaling must counterbalance any positives of jogging, but decide my French skills aren’t really up to it. Besides I’m busy concentrating on not passing out. Eventually the traffic starts to inch forwards and we immediately spot the reason for the delay. We have reached a busy intersection, it appears that drivers have attempted to force their way out in front of the oncoming traffic and the whole thing has reached gridlock. The police are on hand and are taking an interesting approach to resolving the situation; shouting at drivers and bashing their cars with big sticks. It doesn’t appear to be working. I lock eyes with one unlucky driver who is parked horizontally in front of a lane of oncoming traffic, he is hemmed in, bumper to bumper by other cars but this doesn’t seem to bother the police officer who is pounding on his bonnet and screaming hysterically at him to move. It is complete mayhem. Following another’s lead, we bounce the bike up onto the pavement and somehow manage to find a way through.
There is an air of lawlessness in Conakry. A Spanish guy Leon and Jim met told them about having his phone pickpocketed whilst in the central market a few days ago. One guy took it and passed it to another who immediately disappeared. People around him saw what had happened and a crowd set upon the first guy, beating him to within an inch of his life. In the end it was the Spanish guy who had to intervene to try and stop them. Afterwards he reported the theft to the police. They told him that if he paid 30 euros (for their petrol and other expenses) they would take him on a drive around the market to try and locate the theif. He paid up but unsurprisingly the police had little interest in solving the crime, instead they used the drive as an excuse to steal and extort money; stopping guys who looked nothing like the suspect and ‘confiscating’ their phones and fining ordinary passers by for the crime of wearing camouflage print clothing (apparently they were impersonating the gendarmerie).
In other countries we have passed through, locals respect the police or at least fear them enough to obey them. In Conakry this was not the case. At night the police set up checkpoints all over the city, received wisdom was that it was best to ignore the officers completely and drive straight through. Any tourists who stop (we never did) are asked to show their passports and yellow fever vaccinations and fined heavily if they have forgotten either. Twice in Conakry I saw police officers try and stop cars by standing directly in front of them, only for the driver to keep on going, forcing the officer to leap out of they way. Both times the officer gave chase, hammering on the windows and doors, whilst the driver just pretended not to noice.
In spite of this, or maybe because of it, I actually quite liked Conakry. It was certainly never boring. Unfortunately we were there during Ramadan and so missed out on the live music I have been told is one of the best things about the city. For me, the highlight was discovering Tinawan, West Africa’s first circus. Tucked away in a rusting warehouse behind the central stadium is their school, where they provide lessons in circus and other skills to street kinds, young offenders and other at risk youth. They were quite happy for us to watch their training session and even let me have a go.
In Conakry I also met Bintou, a friend of a friend of my mum’s friend, who despite the somewhat tenuous link welcomed Leon, Jim and I like long lost family. Bintou now lives in Senegal where she teaches samba dance, but is originally from Guinea and was back visiting family in Conakry when we were there. The first time I met her she and her cousin Musa took me to visit some musician friends of theirs. It was the first time I had seen up close how many ordinary people in Conakry live. Her friends were 3 guys who looked to be in their late 20’s, they were Rastafarian’s and each had long dreadlocks down to his waist. One of the guys had been injured in a motorbike accident the year before and no longer had the use of his legs. They all lived together in a single room. It was sparsely decorated, the walls and floor were bare concrete, most of the room was taken over by a double mattress on which all 3 guys slept. It was undeniably a very hard and some may say depressing existence. Within moments of us arriving the guys had grabbed guitars and began to sing. The ebullient, off beat rhythms of reggae filled the small room. The music was good, but by far the most beautiful thing was the expression on each of the guys faces as they sung; a joyful, far away look that was the clearest example I have seen of the transformative power of music, it’s ability to transport people to a different place or a different time and to provide an escape, however temporary from day to day life.
Bintou invited us to stay at her family’s home on the outskirts of Conakry. Like most African families hers was very large and it was difficult to unravel who exactly was related to who and how (especially as everyone is introduced as ‘my mother’ or ‘my sister’ regardless of whether this is biologically the case). The main house was part of a large compound and most people living their seemed to be part of the extended family. They all made us feel wonderfully welcome. The following day Bintou took us on a tour of the area and to meet one of her sister’s who she told us is also a dancer and the only other Rastafarian in the family. We all crammed in to their living room as Bintou and her sister proceeded to have an extremely energetic and impressive dance off. Neither woman had the expected build of a high jumper, but both it turned out could leap improbably high into the air.