Conakry, Guinea Report of what it's like to live there - 06/05/21
Personal Experiences from Conakry, Guinea
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I've also lived in Honduras, Colombia, Benin, Spain, and France.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Chicago is an 8 or 10 hour flight to Paris, then another 8 or 10 hour flight to Conakry. There are also flights through Casablanca, Lisbon, Brussels, and Istanbul, to name a few. All of them are the same basic setup: transatlantic flight from the US, then another Europe to Africa flight of about the same duration. With layovers and all, travel time can reach beyond 24 hours in some directions, which sounds brutal, but isn't that bad once you're used to it. And I'm doing it with three kids of preschool and grammar school age. It's doable.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
Almost three years out of a four-year tour, extended from an original 2 year tour because we've enjoyed Guinea so much.
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Expat housing seems to be either luxury-ish apartments or single family houses, the latter sometimes in a compound setting with other such expat housing. In most cases it's much bigger than you probably need (maybe 1000sf or more for a single person, 3000sf interior space for a family?), often with big open areas outside. Usually these tend more towards paving stones as opposed to lawns, but kids still enjoy playing on them. And if you're into gardening, there are usually at least some patches of landscape plants, as well as food plants like bananas, mango, etc. Your expat house will have either a water distiller or an office-style cooler, so you’ll have plenty of purified drinking water. You can shower, wash dishes, even brush your teeth with the tap water. It seems like you build up resistance to whatever bothers you after the first few bouts of stomach problems. You will likely get diarrhea a few times during your stay, no matter what you do to avoid it, so I think it’s easier to just do it and get it over with, as opposed to religiously avoiding tapwater and never building up resistance to whatever minor bugs are in it.
Houses are solid concrete construction, often with shoddy finish details (tiles out of whack or mismatched, poorly caulked kitchen sink, maybe plumbing improperly trapped or vented), but pretty comfortable. There will be maintenance problems initially, but if you are a handy person, you can detect and point these out preemptively to your landlord/diplomatic employer, and that way you'll fix them before a flooding crisis or whatever. Over time your proactive maintenance will pay off, as problems will become less and less frequent. This works better if you're a man, since the maintenance guys are more likely to actually listen to what you're telling them. I have personally been in situations where workers or landlords (male or female) will be right in front of the problem you're indicating (a door hanging off its hinges, for instance), and argue to your female face that the problem doesn't exist, that you don't know what you're talking about!
US diplomatic corps seems to be focused around midtown (Kipe and Nongo), which is where the Embassy is, while European Embassies and housing tend to be more downtown. African Embassies are a bit scattered, though my sense is that African diplomat housing tends to be downtown. If you're in the same general part of the city as your work (which most diplomats thankfully are), it's maybe a 20 minute car or bike commute. The trouble is if you work across town from where you live, in which case it's an hour-plus Calvary every morning and afternoon in solid traffic jams.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can get everything you need here, from the basic to the fanciful. Processed and imported goods will cost more, but you can find them. It helps if you're flexible in terms of insisting on the content but not necessarily the presentation that you're used to. There is locally-made peanut butter; in fact you can get it straight from the woman who grows and grinds the peanuts. But Jif or Skippy will either cost a lot or you won't find them at all. I love the local beer, Guiluxe, but if you absolutely must have Bud Light or Fat Tire or whatever, that will be a problem.
We get our fresh groceries at local markets or roadside stands (disinfect produce in chlorine water after you get home), packaged or processed stuff at the Euro style supermarkets (which used to be rare, but now seem to be popping up in almost every neighborhood), and if there's a caprice we absolutely must have, a la Milano cookies or something, we'll order online through our diplomatic post office service.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Not much. Liquid hand soap is hard to find in bulk, and it drives me crazy to buy a little dispenser every time, so we order that online. But pretty much everything else we've found locally. We've even found a young entrepreneur who makes all-purpose detergent in 5-gallon jugs that we now use for clothes, dishes, and floors!
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
We're not big restaurant people, but we have tried Chinese, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, both haute and plebeian West African, pizza, ice cream, burgers, and been pleased with all of them. There are hotels with decent food, and a number of downtown restaurants. The Noom hotel's Sunday buffet is delightful, with pool access included.
Just to put it out there: Guineans eat A LOT of rice. In Conakry most rice is imported, but in the rest of Guinea it’s produced and parboiled on-farm. You probably won’t want to eat rice three times a day, but do take advantage of being in Guinea to find a reliable, sand-free source of local rice, and eat as much as you can stand. It’s a healthy and practical thing to always have on-hand if you’re living here, and your Guinean employees and guests will appreciate your integrating the local staple into your rotation.
If you hire a cook, or if you cook yourself, it's a great chance to dive into Guinean food, but on your own terms, so you can include the stuff you like but filter out any ingredients you don’t. We've been introduced to fonio, millet and sorghum and corn porridge, sour milk (like kefir), amazing seafood, leaf sauce, spicy paste, peanut sauce, meat pies, taro pepper soup, booto and other new fruits. We are not crazy about slimy okra, or super smoky smoked fish, or stinky fermented nere seeds. We enjoy red palm oil in moderation, now that we're used to the strong smell. The bottom line is that there is lots of good stuff to discover in Guinean cuisine, but because a few of the ingredients are alien and overpowering in smell or flavor, you're probably not going to get things to your taste in a restaurant. Better to experiment at home, on your own terms. Lots of expats are turned off initially from Guinean food, and they end up missing out because they avoid it their whole time in country. There’s lots of really good stuff to try and add to your diet.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Nothing outside of the normal level in the humid tropics. Some sugar ants, termites occasionally, roaches if you leave food out, mosquitoes outside at a certain hour of the evening. But nothing too weird or overwhelming.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
US diplomatic post office is reliable, though due to the distances and multiple handoffs involved, things can take two to four weeks in either direction, and boxes sometimes get beat up at the Guinea airport. We've had a few things go through the Guinean postal service, but this service is pretty anemic and administratively cumbersome, with in-person pickups downtown.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
A full time salary for household staff runs about 3.5M Guinean francs per month, so maybe US$350. You can also get tutors, teachers, yoga instructors, masseuses, any kind of professional, for maybe US$15/hr (this is generous on the local market, but hell, you're getting an in-home professional for a tenth of the price you'd pay in the States).
There are plenty of people in Conakry who are looking for a job, and will gladly accept work even in something they are not particularly good at. It is best when you find someone that's worked before with other people from your national community (for instance in the classifieds at your Embassy), so that they'll start out with a better idea of what kinds of things you might care about as priorities. Even if you do find someone that's a bit more attuned to your expat preferences, there are bound to be some missteps and misunderstandings. As a sincere way of showing their dedication, your household employee may spend 3 hours a day assiduously sweeping your patio or burning all the leaves from your garden, or devote an entire hour to lovingly grinding some hot peppers in a pestle, or eagerly share the latest Youtube videos on their phone with your 2 year old, when all you want is for them to leave the mulch on your soil, or Cuisinart the damn peppers for 30 seconds, or stick to a strict no-screen policy. These are honest mistakes, at least the first two or three times. Keep the lines of communication open; be straightforward, respectful, and unintimidating in explaining what you want, and work to gain your employees' confidence (and let your own walls down to confide in them) so they can honestly explain why they might not agree with or understand the way you want things done, and it will greatly improve everyone's work quality and general attitude.
This may seem like more effort than most of us would desire. Can't people just do what you ask them to? (forgetting for a moment that in most of our home countries there'd be no one available at an affordable rate to do any of our work for us, other than ourselves). But frankly I don't see any other way to do things than just to be open and honest and patient. No one can read your mind, and you'll just be miserable if you spend all your time dwelling on what isn't done exactly your way as opposed to appreciating that someone else has left your house looking decent and clean and with a pretty good meal waiting for you.
I have to admit that there is a stubborn, confrontational streak in Conakrika culture; I think it's seen as a sign of weakness or something if a person doesn't try at least one or two times to do the opposite of what they've been asked, or if you don’t try to take advantage of the other person in some small, symbolic way. This is admittedly exhausting, and it is even worse if you're a woman, because people give you five times more flak, and it takes five times as much insisting on a basic fact before the other person will acknowledge that you're right. It happens pretty much everywhere you go; in the person who tries to sell you something that's broken, or who cuts in line, or whatever, but it comes most to a head with your domestic employees, since they're in your house and you're trying to get them to do what you want. It is not a pleasant part of Conakry life, but if it gets unbearable, and your employees are draining more energy from you than they're saving, don't feel bad to look for someone else to replace them. There are fairly strong labor laws in Guinea, at least on the books, and it's the legal and the ethical thing to do to give someone their advance notice, their months of severance, etc. But don't feel bad about them losing the job if they're not the right person for it. There are thousands of other people out there that could use that job, and the person you happened to stumble upon first has no more right to it than any of them, if that first person is not willing or able to do what you need them to. That said, don’t expect that the next person will not also need lots of guidance and occasional arguing from your end, just like the prior one did. On this note, it's a good idea to do a probationary 3 month contract or something initially so you and the putative employee can test one another out and see if it's a fruitful work relationship.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are gyms at many Embassies and some apartment towers, pools in lots of residences (if there's not one at your house, you can go to one of your expat colleagues' places). I think there are some private gyms downtown, and you could probably work out a deal with a hotel to pay for monthly access to their gym or hotel. What I have been most struck by though is that there are Conakrika exercising in almost every available public space. There aren't many parks to speak of, so people will congregate in certain places, for instance where there are big concrete blocks or stairs or other makeshift obstacles/equipment, and jog or roller skate or do calisthenics or parkour routines individually or collectively. This applies to both men and women. If you want a taste of real local culture, this is a cool option, to just go and work out where you see everyone else doing it. You're sure to make lots of interesting acquaintances, and to challenge yourself in every sense: physically, socially, linguistically, etc. Idem if you're into soccer; just find a pitch and join in.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Conakry is largely a cash economy, which is inconvenient, since the largest bill is worth only US$2. So be prepared to carry big bricks of cash around in a manila envelope if you have a big purchase. This is annoying for its inconvenience, but luckily Conakry is a very safe place, so you don't have to worry much about getting mugged. Hotels and supermarkets accept credit cards, and there are ATMs you'll get to know in specific spots of the city. These ATMs sometimes don't work or run out of cash, though they'll never straightup steal your money. Many Embassies offer check cashing to employees, which is your best bet for big sums. You can then use the cash to do a local Orange money transfer (or you can even electronic transfers from your home country bank) for things like paying your household staff without their risking losing their cash in the taxi or something.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Not sure about this. French language services abound for Christians of all stripes, though there seem to be a fair number of Protestant (and at least one Catholic downtown) services catering to either non-African expats or the Liberians and Sierra Leoneans that are a big population in Conakry. Muslim services are of course in Arabic, with sermons in French or local languages.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get around very well if you speak passable French. If you don't, you can probably gesticulate to buy stuff or whatever, but it will be frustrating to try to deal with any adverse circumstance like a cop hitting you up for a bribe. Sosoxui is really the lingua franca though of Conakry, and it’s fun and relatively easy to learn if you’re up for it.
You can easily find French classes and tutors. Pulaar, Sosoxui, and Malinke are widely spoken, though not usually formally taught. But as with many things in Guinea, if you're really interested, you can make it happen. Everyone in Conakry speaks at least one and possibly all of the three major Guinean languages. Most people in Conakry need cash. Put the two together, and you'll find plenty of people who are willing to teach you their language; it's just a question of discerning who actually has the teaching ability and patience to help you actually learn instead of wasting your time. This “who” could even end up being the guards that are posted (somewhat extraneously, given the general lack of crime in Conakry) at your diplomatic housing. They’re sitting around for hours each day, and welcome the break in monotony represented by a foreigner asking them about their language and culture. Some of the drum and dance schools would be a good place to start if you want to find more formal lessons in Guinean languages. You can also check out the excellent books “Parlons Soso”, “Parlons Poular”, and “Parlons Malinke” from Harmattan Press, or the free online Peace Corps language courses for all three of these.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Few sidewalks, lots of garbage, debris, open drainage canals, and potholes. Scarce elevators.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
US Embassies almost always discourage you from using local public transport, and in most countries this can be overkill paranoia, but in Guinea I have to concede them the point. Drivers are often new to the endeavor, and possibly have never formally studied driving. They can be reckless, distracted, unaware of certain codes (like what you mean when you turn on your turn signal). So don't use taxis or motorcycles for hire.
In your own driving, be defensive and alert. Really you don't need to do anything in Guinea that you shouldn't do when you're driving anywhere. Constantly check all your mirrors, don't make sudden moves, anticipate what's happening in front of and behind you. This is what we all learned in drivers’ ed when we were 15 years old. It's just that, whereas we can often get away with that errant glance at our cellphone on a highly ordered expressway in Middle America somewhere, you can't do that if you've got a preteen zooming a motorcycle by your right side as you're swerving to avoid a deep pothole in Conakry.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
High-clearance is a must, 4WD is nice if you go upcountry. Toyota, Nissan, Kia all seem to be common brands that you'll find mechanics and parts for. Renault is the taxi par excellence. Make sure you keep your car in good shape, and you'll avoid breakdowns at inopportune moments. Carjacking is a total non-issue as far as I know.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
I am a devoted booster for Conakry, but I have to admit that this is a weak point. If you can't live without high-speed internet, this is just not a great place for you. We've tried two or three home internet services, plus my highspeed, high data phone hotspot, and all of them just fall dead at least a few times a day, if not most of the day. Things seem to have gotten worse in 2021.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Lots of EFM jobs at the US Embassy. You should have no problem finding one. I don't know about other Embassies.
Outside of embassies, the formal job market is not great. There are however a lot of volunteer opportunities if your family members feel like it.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
This is perhaps the strong point of Conakry for EFMs. There is so much valuable work that can be done and is being done. You can hook up with any of the local NGOs or small enterprises that are taking on sticky problems like corruption, environmental destruction, food security, women's empowerment, whatever. If someone isn't doing it already, you can suggest it, either by creating your own business or NGO, or again by teaming up with an existing organization and offering your ideas and your effort. We have colleagues who are active in their parish, or their mosque, or just working with their local group of market women.
Often I hear expats complain about the lack of things to do in Conakry, but in the next breath they're ranting about all the garbage in the streets, the poverty, the hopelessness, the stray dogs, whatever. There's plenty to do! Each of the above-cited problems is “something to do”. You just need to make it happen yourself. There are small businesses trying to turn plastic waste into paving stones, process fresh fruit into juice or dried snacks, nonprofit groups doing sex ed for teenagers, apprentice programs for out-of-school youth. Get involved if you’re looking to keep busy and learn a lot in the process.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
A really cool mix of standard business casual (and sometimes formal suits if you're doing a high-level Ministerial meeting or something) and West African styles. From hand dyed cloths to collared shirts, as long as you're clearly making an effort to look presentable, just about anything goes! If you like West African fabrics, this is a great place to have tailors make your clothes. They may not get it exactly how you want the first try, but they’re willing to revisit and adjust until it’s precisely bespoke.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Conakry is objectively the safest place I've ever lived, including my hometown in the US (and probably your hometown, if you’re from any major city in the States)! Street crime is uncommon, and foreigners are afforded particular deference.
There are occasional street manifestations that can turn violent, but these are always announced well beforehand both by the organizers and by your Embassy, so you know where not to go.
Transit is the most dangerous aspect of life here. People can be reckless, and crashes are frequent. Thankfully, poor road conditions, poor vehicle conditions, frequent speed bumps, and traffic jams all conspire to keep speed pretty low, so you won't be at risk of many fatal accidents in your car. Motorcyclists are a different story, as they go faster and are less protected. Don't ride motorcycles in Conakry!
Do not share your telephone number with unknown people. They are not going to hurt you or scam you or even ask for money, but they are going to call you a lot of times, just to say hi, check in to see how you’re doing, make a marriage proposal, etc.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria is endemic, so take your pills. Be up to date on your shots, and don't pet the sweet little stray doggies and kitties.
Health care is fine for most basic stuff. You can get your cholesterol meds or antibiotics or whatever you're prescribed. My kids have had teeth pulled and an appendix removed in local facilities, with no problem. For more complex or serious stuff (like administering anesthesia to a minor), you might get/want to get Medevaced.
Hospital and health centers have qualified professionals, but even the most fancy places have very different standards that what you know from the States, especially on the aesthetic front.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Check Airnow.gov for hourly air quality updates for the US Embassy in Conakry. Most of the year the air is fine, objectively better than in most other developing countries. There are moments though in the height of the harmattan season when Sahara dust blows in, and it's really bad for a few days or even weeks at a time. In general the later dry season (Jan to May or so) is the worst air quality, while the rainy season cleans the air nicely. But again, with the exception of a week of Sahara dust now and again, maybe 4 weeks total in the year, air quality is never really that bad.
You will have neighbors that sometimes burn garbage upwind from you, and this is unpleasant. You can talk to them (really, I know we don't do that in the States, but you can actually talk to another human being and come to agreement in a tense situation), and over time they'll be embarrassed enough to either burn in a different spot where the smoke doesn't go towards you, or to pony up the $20 a month for garbage pickup service, which is increasingly common now in Conakry. Your Guinean and expat neighbors will also support you on this, and gradually you’ll all pressure that problem neighbor into doing the right thing.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Food allergies are difficult, since most things have hot pepper, smoked fish, and possibly peanut in them, and people won't do exactly what you ask them to as far as your food needs. They may be convinced that a little peanut is in fact good for you, despite what you tell them, or they may be offended at the prospect of a meal with no spice whatsoever. If you’ve got anaphylactic issues, I think you’ll have to avoid most restaurants.
Short of actual medical issues, I have to say that this is a great post for kids (and adults!) to get over picky eating habits. There are still some dishes my kids don’t relish, but after a year or so of harping on them about being grateful and honoring whatever food is served them, as well as seeing how other kids ravenously scarf down the food they can get, our guys now just buck up and eat what they’re given without complaint.
Seasonal allergies can be bad, especially at the beginning of the rainy season in May, when all the dormant spores hatch and some plants start to release pollen. Year round though there is dust, some pollen, and mold, so if you're especially sensitive this is a challenge. Probably no worse than any other humid tropical post, but still.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Lots of sunshine, though things do get gloomy when it rains nonstop for an entire day or days. I'd say the biggest problem is morale, especially since expats often get together and just complain and talk ugly about things because they think that's what everyone is expected to do. The net effect is a real downer.
Others have commented on how stressful life is here in Conakry. I can relate to this, especially if you're someone who likes to feel in control of things. To be at peace in Conakry you need to get rid of any pretense of total control. It is an “in-your-face” place; the poverty is visible, the garbage is out on the streets and clogging the creeks, the sexism and patriarchy are palpable. This can be overwhelming, and if you're sensitive to these sorts of environmental downers (like if they can trigger a full blown depressive episode), this is probably not the place for you.
That said, I've found that the rawness and vitality of daily life here has actually made me a less-stressed, more well-rounded person, and improved the way I see and live life. Seeing garbage everywhere in Conakry reminds me that the average European or American actually generates like ten times the garbage of a Guinean, but that we hide it in a landfill or send it to Asia to be thrown into their seas. I have seen kids in my neighborhood almost die of preventable things like measles or malaria, and I've also seen the whole neighborhood come together to succor these kids and help their parents pay for the hospital bill and transport. Death and privation are very present here; perhaps they're present everywhere, but in Conakry they're not disguised or pushed under the rug, and this constant proximity of real suffering and possibly death makes you live each moment more consciously, more exuberantly. It works in reverse too; if you live bravely, you’ll inspire your Guinean acquaintances to do things they hadn’t thought of before. The learning goes in both directions.
Conakry can also make you more humble, less self-righteous (or it can cement you in your intolerance for human foibles, if that’s how you roll). Coming face to face with such intractable problems, even with the daily traffic jam, reminds you that this is not just someone else's problem, or even someone else's fault. You are dodging the same pothole as everyone else, which in turn makes you block the other lane of traffic, which perpetuates the traffic jam, just like everyone else in your lane is doing before and after you have to do it. You realize that your education or your wealth or even your full awareness and critical reading of that particular problem, none of these things necessarily make you better-equipped to solve it. And it also dawns on you that perhaps the Guinean masses suffering stoically through all these daily indignities aren’t just unconscious of them or accepting them as what should be; they’re dealing with life as it is, while not necessarily accepting these indignities as “normal” or desirable. They’re picking their battles just like you are, in an environment where affronts to dignity abound. Such reflections will bring you to the recognition that the problems in Conakry, and the way people deal with them, aren’t so inherently different from what people deal with in the rest of the world. It’s often a question of degree, and whether the place you happened to be born has more or less of these enervating problems to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
All this has made me have more sympathy for those people (which is to say all of us) who unwittingly contribute to big problems because they don't have other avenues open to them. Ultimately each individual person (whether Guinean or expat) reacts similarly to, and is affected similarly by, a given problem. This makes it clear to me that there is no such thing as “someone else's problem”. There are problems that affect a given person more or less directly, and problems that each person is more or less well-placed to help solve. I mean, I guess a pothole in Bangkok, or a failing COVID response in India, may directly affect me less than it affects the people in those places, but I now know that, were I in those situations myself, I probably would react pretty similarly to how the people there react to the problem. For me it's no longer possible to scorn or get annoyed by problems suffered by an average Conakry resident that is no more or less individually responsible for the genesis of the problem than I myself am. It’s like when you step into a poorly air-conditioned waiting room and are hit by the overpowering stench of body odor. Initially you think, “Man, everyone here smells terrible. They should do something about that.” When you get out of that room and back into air conditioning, sometimes you’ll get a whiff of your own armpit, and realize that you were right: “everyone” did smell terrible, including you! And the “something” that “they” should do about it, which ultimately would be to install air conditioning in that waiting room, is no more within your power than it was for any of the other people suffering through the same situation.
If I ever manage to project this understanding onto a global scale and live my life more coherently as a result, it will be thanks to my having lived and learned here in Conakry.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Heavy monsoon climate. December to May without a drop of rain, then ten feet of rain (literally, like 4000mm, which is four or five times the yearly precipitation in Chicago or New York) falling from May to November or so. Temperature never gets much above 90F (33C), but sun and humidity make it feel a lot hotter at times, or rain and clouds make it feel downright chilly at some rare moments.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Main ones I know of are the American International School of Conakry (AISC), Albert Camus French school, and Tom Pouce (also in French). Also the Maarif Turkish schools seem interesting, though I don't know much about them.
Many francophones send their kids to AISC to be in an English environment, and a fair number of US Embassy folks send their kids to the French schools for the same reason.
My kids go to AISC, and we love it. Tight knit community, school focus on solidarity and intellectual curiosity, small class sizes that allow teachers to cater to both faster and slower learners. Despite being an English-medium school, they also have a strong French program, so your kids will learn how to speak French too if they’re there for a few years. My kids have learned a lot about West African culture and history that they wouldn't have received in the US. Special classes at AISC include African dance, chess, double dutch, swimming, martial arts, piano, track, STEAM, depending on the year. Student body is maybe 20% American, 50% Guinean, and the rest from other nationalities, especially African expats from other countries. Very cosmopolitan, pan African environment.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I don't think most schools are set up to do individual learning plans like we’d desire in the US, but the small size does allow schools and teachers to work with parents and kids to try to meet their needs. I think there is a lot of willingness there, though the official training for special needs education may be lacking.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
The international schools I know of don't start until pre-K. There are lots of standalone preschools though, and new ones cropping up all the time. There are some that are very academic, with little guys sitting at desks or using computers, others that are more play-based, others that involve kids just sort of sitting around and hitting each other or watching TV without a whole lot of stimulation. All this is to say that, out of all the options, you should be able to find something that aligns with your priorities, though it may take some searching and asking around. We have enjoyed Les Fleurons, which offers a nice mix of letting little kids just be little kids, but with engagement and reading and organized activities from the teachers too.
Childrearing in general is a bit different here, in that our US idea of early stimulation isn't as central, and once a kid can walk on their own they're sort of left to their own devices a lot of the day. At the same time, hired help may have an exaggerated idea of the attention foreigners lavish on their kids, so they may think that they need to spoil the kid in their care. So whether it's at a preschool or with a babysitter, it's a learning process on both ends as you try to communicate what you value (for us in the US, often this means speaking, interacting, playing, etc.), and you in turn adopt the useful local practices. It's fun to see the West African habits your child will develop. Our baby loves to be tied to his babysitter's back to help him go to sleep, and his main food is rice with Guinean leaf sauce. His first words have been a mix of the different languages spoken in our household--Susu, Spanish, French, English.
At the same time, we (and he, since he is very independent) have had to push back on the babysitter to not always have him tied to her back, but neither to just leave him to wander around the yard in the security guard's care while she washes clothes or something. It's a balancing act, but I think that is the case in any new culture as you try to negotiate intermediate points and compromises. It's been a joy for us to watch as both our baby and his babysitter discover one another, gain familiarity, and especially as she has understood that we just want her to play and have fun with him--making the beds or watering the plants can always wait. They've both really grown into their relationship, and that's nice.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
YES! African dance, ballet, circus arts and tumbling, gymnastics, drumming, piano, language tutors, school subject tutors, guitar, swimming, martial arts, soccer, soccer, soccer... Weekend activities like storytelling at the French Cultural Center. These are all great environments for your kids to meet local kids and learn the language. Our kids have greatly benefited from unstructured time playing with neighbors, and much expat housing is on quiet streets that lend themselves to this.
If there's a particular thing you want your kids to learn, you may not find an existing, ready-made class, but you can make it happen yourself. There is guaranteed to be someone out there who knows how to do what you want to learn or your kids to learn, and they're probably in need of cash. Just ask around and you can find something that works for you eventually. For instance, there's no established surf culture that I know of in Guinea, but I'd like to get into surfing with my kids. I'll bring back a few boards next time I go to the States, and then my kids and I can hire a fishing boat for the day any weekend we feel like scouting the coast for surfing spots. As long as I have the money to pay for the boat, the equipment to do my thing (surfboards, in this case), and foresee and take care of any other specific concerns (like getting lifejackets, which the fisherman surely won't have already himself), then I can make this dream happen. Or at least have a great time exploring and trying to make it work, while I spend quality time with the kids.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There are quite a few non-American expats, though the physical location of our lodging in the farther reaches of Conakry, and perhaps the cultural proclivities of us Americans, prevent our fraternizing too much with them. Non-US expats seem to mildly enjoy life in Conakry, while US reactions range from loving it to constantly complaining about it. Morale seems to ebb and flow based on the personalities of the expat cohort that happens to be in Conakry at a given time. Maybe due to COVID, or maybe just by chance, US expat morale seemed pretty low in late 2020/early 2021, though this was somewhat offset by the fact that we enjoyed greater freedom of movement, in-person school, etc. while the rest of the world was still in the throes of COVID restrictions.
I've heard people say that Conakry isn't bad per se, there's just “nothing”. I'd like to challenge this view a bit. Conakry has more than 2 million people, and Guinea about 14 million. So obviously there's not “nothing” here. There are millions of stories and passions and struggles. I guess it just depends on if you're interested in those lives, or not. If you look underneath the surface (which is admittedly pretty opaque and indecipherable to us outsiders, at least initially), there's a lot to discover!
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
People visit one another's houses, especially if you have kids. There are regular events programmed at the French Cultural Center, and each Embassy sets things up for their own community (with others often invited). You can also swim at other people's housing compounds if they have a pool and you don't. The Noom hotel does a mean Sunday buffet with swimming included. There's also a country/athletic club that some people are into (Le Sporting, I think it’s called).
Also for kids, doing locally run classes (soccer, dance, etc.) is a great way to interact with local kids. Also, many neighborhoods where expats live lend themselves to kids just playing outside with the neighbors on tranquil streets, or within shared housing compounds. My kids have learned most of their French just out of necessity, by playing with non-Anglophone kids on our block.
Another common weekend plan is to do a day trip to the nearby Iles de Loos. There are three islands, with daily boat trips to all three; expat communities often plan group trips out there, or you can just go yourself and commune with the Conakry masses on their weekend escape.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Conakry is a great city for families. Guinean society is very family oriented, there are lots of kids everywhere, lots of the expats here are families. Often expat housing has big yards or patios to run around in, so your kids can get lots of the type of unstructured time that is so rare these days in the US. A caveat is that there aren’t many public parks, so outside play is either around your house, or in makeshift public spaces like soccer fields carved out of vacant lots or dead-end streets.
Childless couples obviously won't be into the kids' stuff, but I think they'd have a good time exploring, discovering a new place together, and having an accomplice/confidant to complain to when necessary (and that way the rest of us won't have to listen to one another’s negativity!).
I don't know if I'd be happy as a single here. It might be lonely, and given the initial difficulties of getting to know people in such a different culture (as well as the general family orientation of life here), it could be easy to withdraw into your own little bubble.
There is a very active nightlife though, if you're more adventurous (and if you don't feel self-conscious around a very young crowd). Amazing music, both live and DJed, clubs open at all hours, a culture that's pretty open/accepting of foreigners. That said, the huge income gap between most expats and most Guineans might make for some ambiguous situations where you don't know if you're having a normal interaction based on genuine human interest, or if someone wants money from you. Usually it's not the latter case, but since you never know, it may sometimes be hard at first to initiate a comfortable, genuine friendship. If you keep at it and don't take advantage of others or let them take advantage of you, it'll turn out fine, and hopefully be very enlightening and fulfilling.
Do everyone a favor though, stay away from casual sex. It's just too easy for you as an expat to do something ugly, maybe without even realizing it. Given all the cultural barriers and possibilities for misunderstandings, make sure that you actually know someone and are on the same page before you get intimate.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Hard question. Expats of all colors do fine here. The Chinese population is huge here, and there's not much resentment toward foreigners, so Asian- and Euro-descended people (who are also incidentally referred to as “chinois”) won't be singled out or bothered. Afro-diaspora people also are at home here, and again are neither excessively lauded nor derided for being “different” from other foreigners or “similar” to locals. People kind of take you as you are, perhaps with some preconceived notions initially, but they pretty quickly come to judge you based on your own merit as a person (or lack thereof).
I think local people will usually be open to friendship, but there are also certain deeply held values or ways of doing things that a non-Guinean might never bridge. Guineans are often fine with this, and willing to accept outsiders as friends or colleagues, without expecting to share all the same frames of reference as their foreign friends. The question is how comfortable you as an expat are to share space and time with people who may profoundly differ from you in certain ideas. I personally find it exhilarating to come into contact with such diverse conceptions of how to be human, while also seeing surprising commonalities amidst all this difference.
But it may not be for everyone. For instance, the idea of universal human values or equality is not necessarily held by most Guineans. People accept differences in caste, and stereotypes about ethnic groups, without much critical thought. And the supposed inferiority of women is so ingrained that, when an outsider calls attention to it, sometimes the Guinean interlocutor doesn't even quite understand what you're getting at. People automatically register social differences in day-to-day interactions, and accordingly treat others in vastly different ways, ranging from aggressive displays of disdain towards working women, to almost servile scraping when dealing with an imam or a local authority figure. And they regard such different treatment as normal and self-evident, not at all contradictory or incoherent. This can obviously be grating to those of us brought up to believe in the essential equal worth of all humans. But I guess we're the ones whose cops can't stop shooting unarmed black folks, so go figure.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I have known a few same-sex couples that love it in Conakry. They tend to have diplomatic status though. I don't know if I'd brave the ambiguous legal situation for LGBT people in Guinea though if I were not a diplomat. As far as I know, the Constitution here doesn't outright ban homosexuality, but there are enough cultural and legal precedents so that LGBT Guineans have to live in secrecy, and can get arrested or lynched if they don't.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
See previous question.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The highlights of our time here might be just gradually watching my children grow into decent human beings. Hopefully they would have done this anyway, but being in Guinea has added a few valuable nuances to the people they're becoming. The culture here is unpretentious, unself-conscious, so that my kids no longer have some of the hangups or shyness that they naturally tend toward, and that might be amplified if we lived in a more rigid, bourgeois setting. They are generous and patient with differences, as other people are accepting with them despite their differences. My brood sees other kids taking care of siblings, being respectful to parents and elders in general, eating without pickiness, helping with family chores, and making their own entertainment, and my kids have followed suit. They are getting better at seeing beyond the surface to the content of people and places, such that they're not turned off by a trash-strewn beach if there's at least one clean patch they can use for their purposes, or reluctant to play with another kid due to age or class differences. Sometimes my spouse and I will be pouting about a hotel or something that's not up to our standards, and they're the ones who comment that it's actually not that bad!
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
In Conakry, we have seen marvelous drum performances, traditional storytelling, circus rehearsals. Religious services are amazing displays of musical virtuosity that you'd have to pay to see anywhere else. Upcountry you can see old slaving sites near Boffa; rural tourism at Koba or Maferenya; Miriam Makeba's house in Dalaba; waterfalls just outside of Dubreka, Kindia, and just about every other major town. You can stay at a convent in Friguiagbe, lounge on the beach on the islands that are a 20 minute boat trip from Conakry. If you're willing to drive for a day or two each way, you can get to the Haut Niger or Moyen Bafing national parks to see chimps and other wildlife, fishing festivals on ponds of the inland Niger Delta, elephants or tool-using chimpanzees in the Forest Region. If you drive 30 hours or so to Niagassola, you can see the 13th century xylophone at the origin of the legend of the founding of the Mali Empire.
Bottom line is that there are maybe only 3 or 4 possible short trips (two to three hours of driving apiece), and beyond that you have to do a lot of driving each way, so it's not ideal for kids. If you're willing to drive, the logical choice is to go nextdoor to Sierra Leone, where 7 to 10 hours' driving from Conakry (on much better roads than Guinea has) can take you to world class beaches, surfing classes, masked devil dances, canoe trips down rivers where miners pan for diamonds, traditional village stays, a sanctuary for chimps rescued from captivity, even pygmy hippos on a jungle island!
Sierra Leone has a slightly better developed tourist infrastructure than Guinea, but in both countries, tourism is kind of what you make of it. If you want to go camping, you won't find established, official camp sites like you would in a state park in the US. But there are plenty of villages around where you could negotiate a price to have people let you pitch a tent in their yard or their farm field, cook local food for you, show you around the sights, whatever you want. There aren't many marked, organized hiking trails, but you can hire informal or (especially in the Fouta Djallon) professional guides that will take you on wonderful treks. The upside of not having many things set up already for you is that you can sort of set up yourself whatever you desire.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not a mall-type shopping post. But yes, Guinean musical instruments are coveted throughout the region: drums, koras, balafons. You can also get quirky wood carvings, furniture, statuettes. It is also great if you like African fabric (both the made-in-Holland type and handmade Guinean tie-dye), and you can have local tailors make anything you conceive of.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
I would say that Conakry is a good place to go about whatever your normal life is, but transposed onto exotic, interesting surroundings. If you're willing, you'll see and hear from all sorts of people surviving, suffering, and sometimes thriving in a modern African metropolis. Sometimes on my drive to work, which is ostensibly just as boring and tedious as it would be if I were driving down I-66 in northern Virginia, I take a second to look at myself from outside, and be amazed to be weaving through sheep crossing the street, listening on the radio to classic Guinean salsa music from the 1960s Communist regime that subsidized such music, climbing through rugged terrain like you’d see in a Dodge Ram commercial. You’re doing everything you’d do in a middle-class professional life anywhere else in the world, but surrounded by color and bustle.
You have to make your own fun. There aren't a lot of consumer diversions, things where you just pay money and “receive” a good or experience, as you would at a gym or a theme park or a movie theater. But on the other hand, if you want to do something, you can probably find someone who's willing to do it for you, or teach you, or whatever. If you want to learn Spanish in Conakry, you can find an old timer who studied in Cuba during Guinea's Communist regime. If you want to improve your painting, you can surely find an overqualified, underpaid artist willing to give you lessons. If Japanese flower-arranging or Guinean circus contortionism is your thing, I’ll bet you can find someone to mentor you a few hours every week. Idem for pretty much anything else you can think of. Chances are that someone or somewhere in Conakry has it, and they are short on cash, so they'd be happy to share their talents with you.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That it can be grating and aggressive and overwhelming at first, but that it’s constantly fascinating, challenging, enlightening. They say that Guinea doesn’t attract, but it retains. Lots of people come here without high expectations, and then end up deciding to stay longer than they’d ever expected to.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Desire for constant control, your self-righteousness, your pre-established notions of how things should or must be done.
4. But don't forget your:
initiative, entrepreneurial thinking, openness and sense of adventure.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Masks, Minerals, and Music by Brad Posthumus
Allah n'est pas obligé by Ahmadou Kourouma
Les Soleils des Indépendances by Ahmadou Kourouma
Les Écailles du ciel by Thierno Monénembo
Unmasking the State and A Socialist Peace?, both by McGovern
Aube Africaine by Fodeba Keita
The authoritative translation of the Epic of Sundiata, by Guinean historian Djibril Tamsir Niane (who just died this week)
A kids' book on Sundiata Keita by David Wisniewski
Countless Blessings, a book on childbirth and fertility in Niger, but that is illuminating for the Guinean case, too
Negritude and Nihilism, a reflection on daily philosophy in modern urban Africa by Celestin Monga
Contes de la brousse, de la foret, de la savane et de la montagne by Boubacar Diallo (though I think you can buy this in person at Harmattan's Conakry office, too)
L'enfant noire by Camara Laye
Dakan, a movie made in Guinea
AfroLatin via Conakry, a great CD set of the golden age of Guinean popular music. Also check out music historian Graeme Counsel's digital catalogue of music from this classic era, all available online for streaming at the British Library.
Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Fornah. Technically about Sierra Leone, but still a good book to understand the region
Someone Knows my Name by Lawrence Hill
6. Do you have any other comments?
As I said above, don't end your story in Conakry with “there's nothing here”. There's plenty here, if you actually care to look at it.
That said, one of the perks of Conakry is in fact the “nothing”, the things that stand out for their absence.
You'll appreciate the lack of aggression and attention. A foreigner can walk down most streets in most parts of Conakry and not draw much more than an occasional glance. You won't have hordes of kids following you, beggars harassing you, hawkers accosting you. Maybe it's the history of anticolonial defiance, maybe it's the pride (arrogance even?) of a people descended from great West African empires, maybe it's the relative isolation from the rest of the world—for some reason people here maintain a guarded, low-key dignity. They wouldn't abase themselves to make a fuss or a spectacle of a foreigner on the street.
You'll appreciate the lack of violence, the lack of tension rooted in glaring inequality. You will quickly notice that there aren't many “nice” neighborhoods in Conakry; everything looks kind of rundown and midgrade. But think about it a second, and you'll realize that the corollary is that there aren't any desperate slums in Conakry either. The poor and the rich live side by side, in varying degrees of shabbiness or elegance, with the extremes a bit muted. In fact, if you look even more closely, you'll notice that the wealthy houses, those with enough resources to drill a water well of their own, usually place an extra faucet or two on the outside of their wall, so that everyone in the neighborhood can draw from that well. You'll see that those kids rolling about in the oilsoaked ground are in fact apprentices; the local auto mechanic is part of a communitywide effort to teach the kids a trade and provide them some food. If you open your eyes, you'll start to notice both what's lacking in Conakry, especially the ills that are lacking, and you'll start to identify real assets hidden amid seeming squalor. Maybe you'll ask yourself if this odd little place on the globe has some lessons to teach the rest of us about how to face the challenges of economic development and underdevelopment in the 21st century, while maintaining some of our ancestral values in the process.