I recently returned from Guinea. It is one of the nine poorest countries in the world, and it only takes about two seconds to see why.
At first glance, life for most people in this country unfolds like a photo essay in National Geographic. The environmental catastrophe is profound, with mountains of trash everywhere and the air black with burning coal. The country is still recovering from the fight against Ebola, and yet health care is inaccessible to most. The government is lax with infrastructure and basic resources including safe roads, sanitation, and education. Life in the countryside, and in the villages, can be easier, but there is an ongoing exodus to the city.
When we were in the seaside capital of Conakry, my friend and I lived for a few weeks in a very poor but dynamic neighbourhood in a district called Kaloum. There was a herd of goats living at the bottom of the street and chickens in the communal courtyards. Each morning, the roosters began to crow on cue with the muezzins’ call to prayer. The shacks and houses were made of concrete and corrugated tin roofs and each was infested with mice and cockroaches. We were lucky to have an air conditioning unit where we slept, but the electricity and water cut out randomly every day, and we never knew when or for how long. Our hosts owned two spoons, three knives, and a small plastic box to keep sugar, bread and bananas safe from the vermin and ants. Food was scarce. But it was here on this street that my friend and I felt most at home in Guinea, and where we came to understand the intimate link between survival, resilience and community.
I do not want to overemphasize the poverty or wax poetic about the challenges facing our neighbours. I do not want to make postcards out of their poverty because, in fact, there is nothing poor or underdeveloped about this culture. Instead, I want to remember how each person I met in Guinea shook my hand and asked me how I was; how children showered me with grins and cuddles; how I was offered precious soap and water by a neighbour when I wanted to clean my hands before tending to Bouba’s wound; and, how, when Husseinatou braided my hair one night, three neighbours and their children came to help. Whenever we sat down to eat, or read, or go on an errand, someone was always eager to keep us company.
These are the names of the children in Kaloum who were our best friends: Buntu, Moussa, Sekou, Mabinti, Fatou, Mohammed, Maya, Mentané, Eliza, Princesse, Katy, Jeanne and Bouba.
Little Mohammed was our protector. Moussa was our translator. Princesse was the ringleader. Buntu and Mentané taught us Susu and clapping games. Katy and Jeanne were twins. And Bouba became my son. For two weeks, I cleaned and bandaged a stubborn wound on his tiny leg, and he wanted nothing more than to be carried by me all the time. I sang him lullabies in French and cradled him in my arms. The afternoon we drove to the airport, he tried twice to climb into the taxi.
At one end of the street was the shack where a young man cooked us omelette sandwiches with mayonnaise and ketchup and made us extra-strong Nescafés-au-lait. Each time we ate our breakfast, we spoke to the imam whose mosque was next door. He rode a motorcycle and lived nearby. I told him I was Jewish and we talked about Abraham/Ibrahim, Sarah/Saran, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael.
He said God made us all the same, and that every religion values peace. But it is greed that leads to strife and war. It is greed that is responsible for all problems. When we are generous and kind, like Ibrahim and Saran who opened wide their tent to strangers, there will be peace on our planet.
“Inshallah,” I replied.
“Inshallah,” he echoed.
The night before we left, as she presented me with a beautiful bracelet, a neighbour made me promise not to forget our friends on the street. How could I? Their kindness, generosity and courage have a place in my heart.
In Susu, there are two ways to say welcome. You can simply say, “I ndu sene,” or you can say, “I kely i khongni, i fa i khongni (you have left your house to come here, but you are at home here now).”