If you were to judge a city by its outskirts you would have turned round a long time before getting even half way into Conakry and called in a tactical nuclear strike. Lurching at crawling speed over the 4×4 test track, which is the main road into the city, along with far too many road users than it was designed for, you are surrounded by the clanking of improvised industry amongst clouds of dust and smouldering heaps of plastic and rubbish, adding their noxious fumes to the hellish glow of the day’s fading light. Every driver, as inconsiderate as the next barges into any spare centimetre in the eternal traffic jam, with moped riders, oblivious to their vulnerability, attempting to compete with gear crunching, fume vomiting trucks and demented, dented taxis. The occasional crunch of cheap Chinese metal and plastic testimony to their utter folly and a scream testimony to its consequences.
An hour passes and you still seem no closer to the centre.
Should you ever reach the centre you may well still be convinced by the nuclear strike option but aside from the niggling ethical issues of such action I urge you to at least hold off til Sunday, because it’s only then that the soul of the city reveals itself.
But first, the rest of the week.
No African city holds part of its soul in its buildings, like New York or Paris, it’s the job of the people to do that. In the chaos and clamour of the working week everyone is too preoccupied with just trying to get by and for many this is a gruelling slog with meagre hope of any great reward. Clusters of the disabled finding their only comfort in sharing a rubbish strewn living space out in the open with the similarly disadvantaged.
The numerous sufferers of mental health issues form three main contingents: the blank starers; unintelligible talkers and happy chucklers, with some cross fertilisation of genres. Men seem to form much of the first two groups and women the last. The starers often appear too distant to help but a gift of food to the women almost always raises a grateful smile or a little chuckle. The men, at least with the more serious cases, as is typical of the region are clothed in grime encrusted tatters. Africans place much store in personal appearance, us westerners looking decidedly bedraggled in comparison to even many relatively poor people, so a truly grimy appearance outside the demands of work is a sure indication of real problems. It has to be said that all of them come over as totally harmless, whatever oddities are going on in their heads. I have encountered such people in every country I have been to in Africa and never once felt in the least bit threatened.
A trait echoed in Conakry itself: despite its grim disfuntionality and chaos it is reasonably safe and hassle free, its people as welcoming as the rest of the country. Once again Islam proves itself as the religion of welcome to strangers. The two exceptions being the suburbs which tourists should avoid at night and of course taxi drivers.
I only need relate one example of their complete disregard for all reasonable behaviour. To avoid the traffic jam back to the centre of town late one afternoon we hurtled the wrong way down a three lane highway, in the face of oncoming traffic for well over 1km, horn blaring in the absurd notion that it may somehow impart some special dispensation. Any sane legal system would sanction immediate lynching without trial for these cretins but in Guinea a modest bribe to a police officer is the worst punishment available. Every taxi journey requires abuse hurled at other drivers performing unwarranted manoeuvres only for the same man to launch his battered vehicle into some even more life endangering lunacy two minutes later, incredulous that other road users are critical of his actions.
And so to Sunday. Traffic thins right down, even some of the rubbish has been swept up and the streets fill with people. Mini goal posts are set up and dozens of games of football go on throughout the day: from kids in flip-flops somehow performing fancy footwork in a knockabout with their mates, to fully formed league matches with players in complete kit. Boundary definitions would appear to be open to interpretation, though no one seemed to quibble if the ball was out of play or not. Certain random elements had to be allowed for, such as livestock wandering onto the pitch or pick ups full of soldiers deciding they needed to zoom through the game, unannounced. Given the tendency for balls to roll through the copious quantities of sewage found on many streets, the prospect of American football or rugby taking off look decidedly remote.
Soundsystems are wheeled out onto the street, some to celebrate weddings, others for the hell of it but always an opportunity for the women to get their boogie shoes on. I joined in on one occasion and as you can imagine the ladies were mightily impressed by my booty bumping dance moves. Alas my performance was videoed which means that someone probably made money selling the clip to Guinea TV and right now a load of Africans are huddled around their tv sets or Youtube screens wetting themselves with laughter.
Against all the odds Conakry can still put a smile on your face.