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Main » Articles » ISSUE #3

New Guinea

Finding myself in Guinea for the first time, although it wasn’t the first African country I travelled to, I made my own discoveries every now and then. Not at first sight but I fell in love with this country learning something about it every day, getting astonished again and again

First thing that you notice as a newcomer and you are convinced of if you stay in this country for some time is Guinean hospitality, their friendliness, positive way of thinking (attitude) and desire to help. So to say you do feel welcome. If you ask the way, the whole village gathers round, and everyone tries to look into your situation, you are given a personal guide - that means you’ll never be lost in Guinea. If you drop into somebody’s yard, they’ll definitely fetch a chair for you and offer to have a sit. Once utterly absorbed by a telephone call I happened to drop into a  patio of a small African hotel. I didn’t even got in - I was just standing at the entrance explaining something to the caller. I woman came out of the building, waved inviting me to come in and then disappeared leaving a plastic chair outside. I saw the same situation many times later on. I happened to be in different homes. And I was mostly touched visting poor ones - their inhabitants don’t even have something to treat a guest to, but it doesn’t make them feel awkward about being hospitable at the same time. People here are realy interested in you. And Guineans, as probably every nation, feel pleased when you take an interest in their lives - they enjoy answering your amazing questions concerning their daily routine and customs. And laugh when you get surprised at something new. I caught myself at the feeling that I was treated like a baby - as if I understood nothing in this life. But that was with no superiority and arrogance - they just  like the way you get surprised by their living.

Another thing that doesn’t even surprise, but astounds,the thing that I’m still trying to understand, but I guess, I fail to is the African sense of rhythm. Guineans, as all Africans, are an extremelly musical nation. Music can be heard here from everywhere: either you walk along the street, come to the market place or a small shop or the hairdresser’s, not to mention the bars - wherever you go African rhythms follow your way. But Africans - and I had to look narrowly before I understood this - they hear and feel the  music differently, for example, not like Europeans do. In order to see the difference one can go to a night club and watch people dancing. Europeans need space, territory , so to say. At the first sight Africans don’t even move - while dancing they need no space, they don’t even leave the patch they stand on. But, have a close look and you’ll see how delicately they feel the rhythm, and especially the rhythm. The most surprising thing I’ve ever seen is dancing when seated. It’s beyond the limits of our traditional understanding but I really mean seated, and I really mean dancing! I was sitting in a tiny bar with my friends - the bar was so tiny that it was hardly possible to squeeze yourself through among a few tables standing there. There were people around me - some with beer, some with a can of Coke (many people here, both young and old, don’t drink alcohol  - don’t forget it’s a Muslim country). And many customers were dancing seated - swinging, doing some almost unnoticeable movements by their shoulders, feet or knees -  to the music playing in  the bar. It’s difficult to describe, it should be seen. I think the issue of this difference between races lies deep in genes  - they are just "coded” like this!

And I was also amazed by colours! Once you see this bright crowd wearing traditional clothes, your start feeling the same - happy and elated. Yes, you really do! I did love Fridays because on Fridays all women from the factory so to say "dolled up”. When for the first time I saw them dressed up like this I asked: "Is it a holiday today?”. They laughed in response: "Today’s Friday, madam!” That’s the tradition. And it has nothing to do with religion, not at all. It’s a rule here to wear their best clothes at work  on Friday. When they pour out from the bus that brings them to work on Friday morning, from afar it looks like spilt vibrant multicolour beads. It’s a splendid view! Bright rich colours, elaborate styles. The one I liked the most is "fishtail” - a tight-fitting dress turning into a full-circle skirt in its lower part. So in a few words Guinean clothes is a carnival that lasts the whole year. I was happy to see that national clothes are popular here. It goes without saying that young people wear jeans and tops and everything that’s in fashion in the world, but these flamboyant clothes all in all take significant part and young ladies enjoy wearing them. And no wonder they do - this vivid carnival matches their skin colour very much!

You can spend hours telling about Guinea but the story won’t be complete if you forget to mention the thing that has a special meaning in the culture of this country. It’s rastafarians. I got to know rastafarian culture on the Room Island and fell in love both with this island and everything that was going on there at the fist "step”. Room is a rastafarians’ island, an island of musicians - as they call it themselves. You can get to this island form the port of Conacry. Forty minutes on a shaky pirogue cleaving the air and  you find yourself on a small picturesque island with palms and huts, unspoilt by tourists. The ocean wind, the sun, the waves, clear sand crunching under your feet and the sounds of tom-tom reign here.

 It’s a rastafarian world. In the evenings musicians gather here and organize breathtaking shows with a tom-tom playing its leading role.  People here - vivid characters wearing dreadlocks, fabulous outfits, cowry bracelets and elaborate hairdos, again with cowries plaited into them. But the main thing here, of course is rastafarian music and dances. Here, on the island, people from Europe and America come to learn how to play tom-tom and to dance traditional dances. Shows themselves I’ve had a chance to see are something fantastic. The sounds and images take you so far back to the ancient times that it scares to think about. Add to all this the scenery that’s a background to everything that takes place here: bright African night sky with millions of stars in it, the sound of ocean waves, the dance floor right on the sand - and you get nothing but a fairy-tale.

I guess I can speak endlessly about Guinea - uncovering layer after layer, remembering new details, peculiarities that excited and delighted me in this country but there is one thing, perhaps even the key one without which everything would create a bit different impression. I wasn’t conscious of it at first, actually it wasn’t even me who defined it. My friend, Lebanese by birth, who was born and brought up in Dakar, and  lives and works in Western Africa and the last years in Conacry in particular, made this feeling come through. She studied in Paris, travelled the world a lot: to South America, Asia and of course Europe.

Once she told me: ”People here are much closer to each other than elswhere in the world.” And at this very moment I became aware of what had been that attractive to me in Guinea. Little did I, a savage from concrete jungles of a megapolis, think about really hard-to-get things and natural values. And it turned out to be that easy! Urbanites don’t even notice that day after day, year after year this monster starts swallowing up their lives robbing of any individuality. We rush headlog to meet deadlines and hold to arrangements made, but fail to find the time for something that’s vitally important: for communication, sharing emotions, feelings, impressions. In this very place you understand how much we lack these energy exchanges, how deeply we’ve been robotized.

The easiest way to come up with a vivid image of something is to compare it, to contrast it with another thing we are used to. From this point of view Guinea can support you with inexhaustable supply for creating of such an image.

A white man accustomed to all the blessings of civilization like electricity and hot/cold water at home takes that for granted. No wander he finds fimself in a real fix when he begins to understand that all this is not that trivial - water and light depend on a multitude of reasons: whether there is a power station in that area, what season is now (if dry it means there won’t be enough electricity for everyone),  whether you’ve got a diesel generator even whether you’ve got some solar oil to start up that generator when there’s no power supply in the town at all.

And then you get the whole chain: the air condition system doesn’t work, you’re sweltering to death, you can’t even boil some water for coffee, not to mention cooking  something to eat, your fridge got defrosted and it’s useless to buy food and so on. All in all, for inexperienced expatriates a power cut becomes a nightmare. The same is true about water. While travelling to distant parts of the country I happened to live in some hotels where so-called "shower” was a bucket of water - having the forethought hotel staff left one in a "bathroom”. In Africa you begin to accomodate yourself and to become aware that it’s possible to wash off shampoo with Coke, to finish cleaning your teeth with beer  - since they were at hand  when they cut off the water.

Another thing that astonishes me not less than everyday "features” is a question of religion. Usually coming to another country we clearly understand what kind of country it is from religious point of view. We know that there’s a range of muslim countries that have quite strict limitations both concerning the clothes and alcohol. Guinean peculiarity is that Islam  which came from up North and which is the most well-spread religion here, isn’t the Islam we know. Actually all the religions - there’re  lots of Catholics as well - are touched by local beliefs, mainly by animism. Can you imagine my astonishment when in the middle of a Mass in a catholic church and it seemed to me like everything took its course  - the pastor was reading Scripture and the congregation was in prayer - in the middle of this very Mass a sound of tom-toms rang out and accompanied it almost up till the end.

Maybe it is because they don’t have an organ - as it is appropriate for catholic churces in Europe and around the world. Or maybe sounds of tom-toms that accompanied their lives since birth are closer and clearer to Africans. In any case, that catholic tom-tom gave me quite a great thrill. And Islam  - considering from the point of view of the traditional variant - isn’t Islam at all. Mullahs, teachers of Islam in Koranic schools for children look more like wizards than like men of God. Once I got a chance to visit one of these mullahs - along with beads he manipulated other objects giving me an idea of some witchcraft, not less. Even his Koran seemed suspicious to me - I noticed some pages with pictures and chemes, ones I’ve never seen in translated versions. Magic and anomalous phenomena is a commonplace in Guinea as well as in West Africa, though. 

One more phenomenon I came across in Guinea and which I found quite unusual (especially when it’s considered to be customary for locals) was polygamy. On the one hand, it’s fully justified by the popularity of Islam, but my own impression and observations suggest it’s rooted much deeply, in depths of African history. And even though the youth is growing up with the television and the Internet at hand, gaining new ideas and views on life, polygamy remains quite a widespread thing. And what is more, I was surprised by the attitude of women towards polygamy. Sometimes it seemed to me that jealousy was completely unfamiliar to them. Polygamy partly accounts for demographic situation in modern Guinea - half of the  population of the country are children and teenagers. 

It would be wrong - with all my love to Guinea - to sidestep a question of catastrophical poverty, even penury.  No doubt, it doesnt add any positive features to the whole image, but that’s the reality. Guinea is one of the poorest countries not only in the world, but in Africa, too. And what makes me even more despondent is the fact that this very country is one of the richest in mineral resources: diamonds, gold, iron and other metals, not to mention world-famous bauxite-bearing area. In recent years they began to speak about oil. And along with all this abundance local population lives in urgent poverty, children are starving, streets  of Conacry and other cities are flooded with beggers and cripples. Everything has its clear and simple explanation  - corrupt the powers that be, but it makes no difference when those eyes of the children look in your face not from the TV screen. You do realize that you cannot help - you can feed one child, even some children, but it’s such a tiny drop in the ocean of poverty!.. 

Summing up this excursus to Guines I would like to finish on an uplifting and life-affirming note. And I have this note. Actually, I guess the fact why  I fell in love with this country lies in it - in an unbounded joy of life of these people. Despite anything! Despite poverty, sometimes even despair, hard everyday life and ruins the laugh, they smile, they sing and dance. Guineans always smile - and I didn’t notice that at first. I became aware of that when I came there for the second time, after my trip to Congo. And I told to my friend who accompanied me in our first walk: "Look, they’re gorgeous! How beautiful the Guinean women are! No, Congoleses are different!  There’re a few beautiful women there”. And only two or three days later I got what their secret was. They smile! They just smile to you!

Category: ISSUE #3 | Added by: Guzeliya (24-May-2011) | Author: Olga Pletneva
Views: 1071 | Comments: 15 | Tags: Conacry, New Guinea, Guinean | Rating: 0.0/0
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