In January 2019, I made my fifth trip to Guinea. Beyond an opportunity to delve deeper into the music and dance traditions that I have been studying for nearly 25 years, I had some wonderful reconnections with people and place over the nearly three weeks.
In the early hours of December 31, I was met at the airport by my collaborator and dear friend, Namory Keita, as well as a group of eight people from Poland. Once we got through baggage claim and introductions, Namory drove us to the compound that would serve as a base for much of the time in Guinea in Petit Simbaya, a neighborhood in Conakry. (Blue dot on the map below). Shara, a friend of Namory’s and mine from Thursday night classes in Kittery, joined us in Conakry a few days later.
Though it had been nearly ten years since my last visit to Guinea, all the sights, sounds, and smells were immediately familiar. I don’t know if I was surprised, but I was very saddened to see that there have been few (if any) improvements in infrastructure. Many roads, even in the capital, are nearly impassible. Traffic is worse in Conakry than I could imagine. Water is still challenging to come by. Many homes have faucets that work intermittently if at all. Instead they get their water from dug wells. Electricity, even in Conakry, isn’t constant. For much of the time we had electricity during the day, but not at night. If there was a schedule, I didn’t see a pattern during the time that we were there. When electricity would come on, we would all run to charge our phones and portable chargers to get us through the times of no electricity. The absence of electricity and water was only a minor inconvenience for us over a short visit, but the fact that so many people in Guinea are without either or both, is a harsh reality.
The first full day there, we attempted to buy a SIM card for my phone. The hassles associated with that transaction (which took a day and a half) reminded me that the some of the simplest tasks that I take for granted when I’m at home, may be comically or frustratingly complicated in Guinea.
One set of changes that was very apparent was the widespread availability of data through phone companies. Rather than monthly plans that many of us subscribe to here, many people in Guinea pay as they go. With rather small amounts of money, you can get basic cell coverage, data, or a combination of the two. What this meant for me was that for better and for worse, I was connected back home the entire trip. (except for a couple of days on a coastal island, where there was only cell reception on one side of the island). The last time I was in Guinea, I was able to chat on the phone with friends back home, but had to visit an internet cafe in order to connect by email or social media.
On New Year’s Day, drum and dance classes started. What a treat! For three days we had two drum and two dance classes each day – drum with Namory and dance with Seny Daffe, our good friend who lives in Burlington, VT. Though I’m still a beginner drummer, I sure loved working on improving. Mostly we played djembe, but we also had dundun, sangban, and kenkeni classes.
I was reminded rather quickly that things happen when they happen not when we are told they will happen. Being attached to a timetable or schedule just brings disappointment. That said, some things do happen on time and what a happy delight that is!! A group of four of us, Namory, Shara, a drummer from Sangabaralla, Kekoro, and I planned to leave for Namory’s village in Sangbaralla at 5:00 am and we left at 5:03! (This was after watching our friends from Poland who planned to leave at 8:00 pm actually leave sometime after midnight.)
The long journey to Sangbaralla was interesting at every twist, turn, and bump in the road. Though the distance was about 565 kilometers or 350 miles (a rough equivalent would be the distance from Kittery to Philadelphia), it was a thirteen hour drive. Besides stops for meals, bathroom breaks, buying fresh fruit at market stands along the way, the length of the drive was caused by the less than optimal condition of the roads.
I didn’t get nearly as much photo documentation during the drive as I’d like, but we had to stop for dozens upon dozens of cows, goats, and sheep crossing the road. We saw a few overturned vehicles, which perhaps wasn’t all that surprising given how high things would get packed on the roofs of vehicles. We also saw people selling anything you could imagine from the tiniest villages all along the way. There were some incredible mountains, lots and lots of savanna, beautiful rivers, tiny villages, and large cities. All of it fascinating.
Finding bathrooms along the way was an interesting endeavor. A couple of times this meant asking strangers whose homes we happened upon if Shara and I could use their facilities. (an outside enclosed building with a simple squat toilet – a hole in the ground – and a teakettle filled with water). At one of the stops we bought a giant bag filled with pineapples and papayas. At another stop, we asked the family if we could pick some of their avocados and oranges. Sure! No problem! We left with a bag of fruit and another fun connection.
Sangbaralla is a small village just outside of Kouroussa in Haute Guinea, in the Hamana region. It’s a community of around 2000 people along the Niger River, which is also called the Djoliba River. Sangbaralla is a center of Malinke culture and is also the home of grand master drummer Famoudou Konate.
We spent several days in Sangbaralla, where we swam in the river, toured the village, watched a dundunba in the village center, a series of mask dances in Namory’s compound, and a set of performances at another drum and dance center, played with local children, ate terrific food, bought freshly prepared shea butter, learned Malinke rhythms and dances, and enjoyed some time without cars – and their exhaust – constantly coming and going.
In Sangbaralla, we had drum classes with Namory, traditional Malinke drummers, and Namory’s uncle Grand Famoudou Konate. We had dance classes with a young woman and young girl who taught us parts of Mendiani. And we learned some of Konkoba and a dundunba dance from Namory’s cousin Fasely Keita. So fun!
We returned to Conakry for a couple of days and then went out to Roume on the Iles de Los just off Conakry for another break from the smog, congestion, and bustle of the capital city. We had drum and dance classes on Roume, swam in the warm Atlantic at least twice a day, and enjoyed a different pace of life.
When we went back to Conakry, we had just a couple of days before returning home to the US. Our last day was filled with lots of goodbyes. We essentially had a day-long send-off of singing, drumming, and dancing. Our teacher and friend, Seny Daffe, came to visit with a few other drummer and dancer friends who danced and made us dance, too. In the evening we were serenaded for hours by our “adopted family” (Fatim – the woman who cooked for us and Fode and Kekoro – two young drummers from Sangbaralla) before we were accompanied to the airport. One of the many things that I love about hospitality in Guinea is that even for the middle of the night arrivals and departures, you’ll be sure to be welcomed and sent off by a group of people.
As we left, and even now, nearly two weeks after being back, I still can’t find the words to say how much this trip meant to me. It’s going to take a long time to digest it all. But what I do know is that I’m already planning the next trip to Guinea. Want to join us in January 2021?