My Market Crawl

5 Feb

I have a new friend here in town, I’ll call her Elvira (but that is not her name). Elvira came to Guinea about a year ago to marry Ousmane (not his real name, either). Somehow they met online, and got to know each other over hours and hours of Skyping and other even more contemporary platforms that I cannot fathom. Anyway, Elvira has moved solidly into Guinean culture, in a way few other Westerners do unless they are in the Peace Corps. By that, I mean, she really lives locally.

Like many Guineans, Ousmane lives on a compound with his parents, grown brothers and sisters, various spouses and children. Every nuclear family has its own wing or quarters or at least a room situated around a courtyard. Elvira now lives there, as part of an extended Susu* family.

Because even public school has mild expenses, a uniform, books, paper, and pencils, some families (rather many, actually*) cannot afford to send their children to school. Ousmane’s mother, Mama, long ago, started a school in the family compound, educating the kids of the neighborhood who were too poor to attend school. Today, though Mama no longer runs this school, there are still neighborhood kids who show up every day for activities, sports, a snack, and now, a media lesson. Elvira is baking bread and cakes and teaching kids how to make movies. She is a graduate of Howard University’s prestigious film program, and she is on a mission!

Elvira and Ousmane invited me for a meal last Sunday. My driver had the day off, so I ventured there myself, with Google Maps talking to me, telling me “At the roundabout take the second exit…in 200 meters, make a slight left…” With no traffic signs, no streets with names, with no stoplights, you just start to drive, using all three mirrors, downshifting from second to first as you approach homemade speed bumps (concrete dollops dropped onto the road) or inch through enormous potholes. The open trenches along the roads are not marked, there are no sidewalks, everyone is doing business along the streets, mothers and babies and young man are dashing across the highways…Here is a picture of what can happen if you are distracted or make a bad decision:


I think this guy tried to pass on the right.


Bet he never does that again!

Anyway, I let Google Maps tell me where to go, and it led me to a street that, granted, is a major one on the map. What Google didn’t know is it was the market street. Hundreds of vendors and twice as many shoppers were negotiating for dried fish and eggplant and SIM cards and fabric and hair products, wall to wall shoppers, and here I plowed my way through.


I’m comin’ through!

After 20 feet of snail-pace forcing, obliging grandmothers to scoot back and move their tomatoes, nudging children with pitchers of water on their heads to step back and let me pass, I sheepishly rolled down my window to ask “Is this really a road? Can I go through?”

And the man who heard me simply said, “Yes.”

Not one “You idiot!” They all just moved out of my way. Unbelievable. 500 feet of street devoted to market, and I just plowed through with nary a dirty look or angry word.

Got to Elvira’s and Ousmane’s, and with Jean-Jacques, another invited guest, enjoyed a feast on the porch of fish, crab, and riz gras by Mama, and cornbread by Elvira. After our meal, we went on a tour of the neighborhood; at the mosque, Jean-Jacques and I were introduced to the Imam and all the children gathering there. Jean-Jacques’s treats for the kids of the neighborhood, individual packets of potato chips, were met with obvious delight.

We then took a walk through the very market I had driven through. Here are some sights:


Goods for sale on top of the head, and child on the back.



Selling fabric.

And then we returned home for our dessert of fresh pineapple. At that point, the Imam arrived with gifts for Jean-Jacques and me: a few hundred thousand Guinea Francs and kola nuts. It was, I was told, an honor to receive us and he wanted to return the honor with these gifts.

The next day, I asked one of the school employees, one of the maintenance crew, what I should do with the kola nuts. She said I could eat them or I could save them in a dish at home, just to keep, or I could give them on to someone else. I asked her to show me how to eat one, so we took one, broke it into pieces and then chewed on it. It’s very bitter. She doesn’t like them, either. And then she told me the best thing of all: She said when she loses the back of her earring, a piece of kola nut is a perfect replacement.

* (Susu is one of the three largest ethnic groups in Guinea, the others being Fulani and Mandingo…or if you prefer French nomenclature, Peul and Malinke).

* Primary school net enrollment ratio (%) 2008-2011*: 83.5% UNESCO/UIS (UNESCO Institute of Statistics) and from national household survey reports of attendance at primary school.



Pas de problème, Madame.

30 Sep

Security of the school compound and the precious clients we have, our students, is of utmost importance. In fact, we have three guards on campus at all times, 24/7. They don’t let anyone inside the school gates without an appointment. And they are essential in helping us get the kids into the waiting cars when school is over.

School is out at 4 p.m. and cars start to line up outside the gates at about 2:30. (Most of the cars have drivers employed by the students’ families.)

When we open the gate the first car in line drives up, and our guards, who know every car, every license plate, the name of every driver, recognize which child belongs into that car. They shout out “Alessane, Sidi, Safiatou!” and now the teachers inside the compound round up the called-for children. For a kid, the best part of the day (maybe) is when you are waiting for the car to pick you up, and you get to run around, free, stealing some time when no teacher, no parent, no timetable is telling you what to do. When that call comes, it is time to dawdle.

When we finally round up the right children and make sure they have their book bag, their water bottle, their little sister, the guards allow them to climb into the waiting car, which makes a U and drives back down the narrow drive to take its charges home. And the next car in line moves up. This process takes about 20 minutes every day.

I had the bright idea of more efficiently matching the kids to cars (and being director of the school, I can put my ideas into action without having to pass them by anyone).

So I went to tell the head guard, Mr. Gambari, that starting the next day, I wanted him to take a clipboard and 20 minutes before 4 p.m. pickup, go outside and simply write down which cars were in which order, come back in and give the list to us inside the compound so we could round up the kids and “line them up” so to speak. We’d cut down on a lot of yelling, a lot of hunting down at the last minute. We’d efficiently anticipate which car was up next, and have the kids ready to climb in. “Presto!  We’ll cut the time in half!” I was thinking.

So I said, “Mr. Gambari. Tomorrow, I would like you to get a clipboard and go outside…”

“Pas de problème, Madame, pas de problème.”

“No, wait, I’m not finished. I’d like you to take a clipboard and about 20 minutes before we open the gates…”

“Pas de problème, Madame, pas de problème,”  he said, nodding.

“No, wait, listen to me, I’m trying to tell you something…”

“Pas de problème, Madame.”

“…Okay, good, pas de problème. So… I want you to pass down the row of cars and just write the name of the child who belongs in that car so that you can then give…”

“Pas de problème, Madame.”

“…so you write down the name of the student, and can then give that list to a teacher, and we can round up the kids here, have them ready for the cars in order.”

“Pas de problème, Madame.”

“Okay, good. We’ll try it.”

The next day, I go out at 3:50 to see how it is going to go, to watch my brilliant idea in action, to see my teachers helping line up kids in a matching parallel universe that reflects the lineup of cars outside.

But everyone is milling around, the kids are playing wildly and the guards are huddled next to the gate.

I walk over and there is Mr. Gambari flipping back and forth through ten pages on his clipboard.  I look closely at it, and I see he has painstakingly, in beautiful handwriting (I’m not kidding, the guy should letter signs for a living), written a chart on ten pieces of paper, listing every child in one column, with the make of the family car in a second column, and the license plate number in a third column.

At 3:40, he had gone outside and walked down the line, like I asked, and noticed the first car in line was for Ibrahima Bah…so he leafed through his clipboard and found Ibrahima Bah’s name on the 6th page, 7th name down…and he wrote a “1” next to his name.

Gemma Sintra’s car was next…and flipping through his pages, found her on page 3, 2nd from the top…

And now he was trying to figure out a way to communicate to the teachers the line-up of the 20 cars, and was flipping through his list, page after page, back and forth…

It took 40 minutes to get the kids into the right cars that day. And I got emails from several parents complaining about the long wait. I agonized over how to apologize and explain. What I really wanted to say was “Pas de problème, pas de problème.”





Networking, business cards, and omens

5 Sep

Another day DeanMartining it in Guinea.  By that I mean I lead a life of relative luxury juxtaposed with the hard, hard realities of one of the poorest countries in the world.

A new hotel is in town, Noom Hotel located on the ocean and far down the long finger that is Conakry. This hotel has sparse, modern lines, an understated color scheme of taupes and greys with splashes of teal. A luxury bar with low sleek couches and ottomans overlooks the patio with lounge chairs around an infiniScreen Shot 2016-09-05 at 15.28.26ty pool that appears to drop off into the Atlantic Ocean. This is unique.

There are three fine hotels in Guinea; this is the newest, and it shows in its post modern decor, shaming the more ornate, older hotels.

I’ve come here for a coffee on Sunday morning to meet a friend of my business manager. My BM is wonderful networker, and my networking needs, as director of the American International School, are apparent. We have come to meet Asmara (that is not his real name). Asmara is Eritrean, about 60 years old, quite handsome and noble looking, with soft grey curls and a thin straight frame. Think Iman as a man.

Asmara, my BM, and I chat about how they met, about what Asmara is doing here in Guinea (he is a real estate broker), how he escaped the civil war of Ethiopia that created the country of Eritrea, his homeland, how he moved to Germany, then to America. His Eritrean wife and four children live in a lovely home outside of Dallas, where his eldest daughter goes to SMU as a freshman, and his younger children are in various stages of middle and high school. He misses his family, though he Skypes with them several times a day.

While we chat, a well-dressed older gentleman walks through the lobby, and Asmara and he recognize each other. Asmara stands to greet him, and then introduces us. “This is the new director of the American International School,” he says, motioning to me.  I remain seated, but give this gentleman my hand. He speaks to me in good English. “Ah, next year I will be bringing you a new student, my grandson.”

“How nice to hear that,” I say.  “If you ever would like to visit the school before then, please let me know.”  He pulls out his business card and gives it to me, saying, “You should have this so you recognize the name when I do email you.”

“Yes,” I say, taking it with two hands (for I have learned that business card etiquette is very important… in some countries you must take it with two hands, look at it, and put it in an honored place, your wallet or purse, and never in your back pocket.  I think that is especially true in Japan, I’m not sure if that holds for Guinea, but it cannot hurt).  While putting it into my purse, I notice under his name it says “Ancien Premier Ministre.”

I feel ashamed for not having stood up when I met him.

Our morning coffee meeting draws to a close. I am delighted with my new contacts, have had a marvelous morning.  My BM and I make ready to leave, are warmly sent off by the hotel reception, and as we wait for the car in the parking lot I glance at the hospital across the street.

There, perched on the hospital roof top are two vultures. Unmistakable. Vultures.IMG_0690

Fulfilling Family Duty

9 Aug

I have a friend here in Conakry, let me call him Adam.

We were colleagues together doing MBA studies in Paris about three years ago. Adam, already a certified public accountant, and I, an educator at international schools, both thought getting an MBA would be a good idea. I am, I think, exactly twice his age.

Adam has returned to Guinea, his country of birth and ancestry, after working in responsible accounting positions on big construction projects in South Africa and the Congo.  He happens to live with his wife and two-year-old daughter, lo and behold, a few minutes from me.

Adam is my go-to-guy when I wonder about things and seek answers to questions I might hesitate to ask of others. You can’t just ask things about culture, willy nilly, of just anybody, now, can you?

“So, Adam,” I asked: “Is the younger generation of men taking multiple wives as their fathers did? Or are more and more taking only one wife?” (Guinea is 85% Muslim, and the Koran allows a man to have four wives.)

He thoughtfully answered, “You know, at my age, my father only had one wife. Men usually take their second and then third, and then fourth, as they grow older. So it is hard to say if the younger generation is continuing at that pace or not.”

And then he said, ”My brother who died recently had two wives.  The family is now talking together, and I think they are going to ask me to take one of his wives.”

“My wife and I have talked about this, and it worries us.  I will do it if my family asks, but at this point in my career, I would rather not. My family has sacrificed for me, I am educated, and they have been generous to give me these opportunities… I hope they will be willing to sacrifice for me again, but they might decide it is my turn to take on this family responsibility.”

“I will find out soon.”

And there was nothing more for me to ask.

Potholes like fishing ponds

23 Jul

Today I had to go to an appointment downtown. That means my driver takes me there and I get to look out the window as we snake down the long peninsula that is Conakry.

Two million people live in this capital city, 16% of the country’s total population of 12 million.

As we drive along passing roadside shacks housing hair salons, grocery stores, and sim card sellers, I think I see all 2 million of them out on the streets. More of them are selling than buying; all the boys, from age six to 25, it seems, are playing soccer on any scrap of land; most men are sitting together doing…nothing; and most women are carrying a basket on their heads with a baby strapped to their backs. Little bands of young children, ages three to nine, roam together…I saw one little girl in such a group, maybe five years old, with an infant strapped to her back. She looked like she was having as much fun as her friends, who, I realized, are probably her siblings.

We rattle along, my driver expertly negotiating potholes as big as houses, I am not kidding, and deep enough, if approached unskillfully, to put a four-wheel drive out of commission.

The roads in Guinea are, I have heard, among the worst in Africa. Five percent of the 27,527 miles of inventoried roads in the country are paved, and I can tell you, all of the five percent are not in Conakry.

We continue along and it starts to rain. I mean buckets of rain—buckets, I say. Nobody runs for cover.

In this torrent, we continue, till the motorcycle in front of us stops suddenly.  Dad, helmeted, has put on the brakes so mom, unhelmeted, can hop off the back, leaving unhelmeted preschooler and dad on the bike while she fishes her child’s dropped flip flop out of a pot hole that would pass for a good fishing pond in Minnesota.

Once she’s back on, off they go. And off we go.

Information from The Logistics Capacity Assessment (LCA) ( and the CIA’s World Factbook (

Swaying in Guinea

9 Jul
Credit photo: Debra Bell: Screening day Conakry - GuineaThis is quite representative of every day dress in Conakry (Picture taken from another blog about Guinea)

Yesterday I was floating in water, the clearest of water, neither cold nor hot–just perfect, with arms outstretched and Dean Martin crooning through my SwimP3:

“When marimba rhythms start to play
Dance with me, make me sway
Like a lazy ocean hugs the shore
Hold me close, sway me more…”

It was my first day in Africa. Balmy weather. In my own pool. Me and Dean.

I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven.

After a 20-hour economy flight that had started in Washington, DC, with plane changes and stops in Paris, then Freetown, finally to arrive in Conakry, Guinea, it was, I thought, appropriate recuperation.

Since touchdown, Dean and I had our tryst, I put in a day’s work at my new school, attended the 4th of July celebration at the U.S. Embassy (the actual fourth day of July was during Ramadan), been interviewed in French for local radio and t.v., then tried to fall asleep at midnight but couldn’t because for me it was only 6 p.m., finally succumbing at 4 a.m., to wake at 8:00 for a shopping trip.

Necessities found on shopping trip today:
Eggs, oil, tomatoes, cheese, shampoo, sponges.

Necessity not found on shopping trip today: clothes hangers–made of plastic, wood, wire, whatever. After two hours of exploring markets in the streets of Conakry, I finally called it quits. Most Guineans, I am told, fold their clothes to store in the cupboard. Those beautiful colorful garments, so crisp and sharp, are packed tightly and ironed afresh every time they are worn.

And this, I think, is what it is going to be like for me here while I am working at the American International School of Conakry.  By that I mean my experience will be extreme. I will experience privilege and frustration, cycling between reward and challenge, every single day.

While writing this Entry No. One of my newly re-named blog, monsoon rains have poured buckets–buckets, I say–of water upon the earth, putting the whole neighborhood into darkness except for me, because I am living on the school compound, and the US State Department-supplied generator kicked in.



How (and Why) Schools Are Different Today

10 Apr

How (and why) schools are different today: Preparing kids for a future we cannot predict.
(3-minute video)


Learning to Learn