It’s funny how things that happened years ago, things you think have been sorted and tucked away, can sneak up on you and feel fresh. The other night my husband and I were talking about Guinea, our first post or, as we call it, our baptism by fire. We were reminiscing about the 2007 civil unrest, which led to embassy families and “non-essential” (I truly hate that term) personnel being evacuated.
Whenever I think of the evacuation I’m always surprised by how vivid the memories are, like a movie playing in my mind. I was in the living room with my family when my husband’s mobile rang, I saw the look on his face as he listened to the person on the other end and I knew that the children and I would be leaving. The possibility of a mandatory evacuation had been looming for weeks so it didn’t come as a surprise when the order arrived. I went straight to packing, no time for tears since we only had 12 hours before we needed to be ready to go. The morning we left I put our cats in the family room and locked them behind the panic doors that protected our upstairs, tears flowing, fearing I would never see them again despite the repeated promises my husband had given me that he would not let anything happen to them (a promise kept, once Air France started flying again he had them on the first flight out). I remember sitting by the front door with our three children–then ages six, four, and four months–thinking of all the ways our lives were about to change, thinking about being separated from my husband, about our sudden and unexpected immersion back into American culture.
While sitting there I thought of a conversation I’d had with Victoria, our housekeeper, just a few weeks before. We’d been talking about the civil unrest, the gunfire, the rock throwing, the future of the country and its people. Something she’d said was looping through my mind as I waited for our caravan– “you and the children can always leave, I cannot.” By her nature Victoria is a positive, joyful person, she’s also realistic and practical; her statement wasn’t an indictment of us, it was just fact. I’d told her that I didn’t want to leave, I felt my place at that time was in Guinea and as long as the children were safe we would stay. Ultimately, of course, that decision was not mine to make.
I looked out the window as a white SUV pulled up in front of our house, “wheels up, kids, let’s go.” The men whose job it was to see us safely to the airport came to our door and helped with the luggage, joked with the children to relax them, told us it would be okay. My most vivid memory is of the people in our neighborhood, the children our children played with, the elders in their colorful boubous, the women with buckets on their heads, the men with radios held to their ears–all stopped in the street to watch us drive slowly away and I felt like a traitor, a deserter. I wanted to roll my window down and tell them it wasn’t my choice, my choice would have been to stay. My choice would have been to wake up tomorrow to the sounds of their chatter as everyone drew water from our well, to be able to watch the boys play soccer with my children, to be able to reach out to the babies and rub their cheeks as I walked past. But I couldn’t tell them any of that, I could only bow my head to avoid their stares–they weren’t angry or hostile stares, just sad to see the Americans leaving. We drove slowly through the empty streets, silently taking in the burned out cars and tires, the shuttered stores, the utter lack of vitality and bustle that were the trademark of Conakry. We arrived at the airport, hoping my husband who was helping to evacuate Americans would make it to the airport in time to say goodbye. We were boarding the plane when I heard him call out to us so, in the end, we had our minute on the tarmac for hugs. We left knowing we’d likely never be back, never have the chance to say goodbye to the people we’d come to care for.
My feelings about Guinea are torn because life there was difficult and more than once I found myself wishing we could just leave. I don’t put the struggles we had on par with those of the majority of people in Guinea, nowhere near it. But life there for us was often emotionally isolating, nutritionally challenging, structurally frustrating, and the health scares were things I don’t like to dwell on. Still, when it came time to leave, I didn’t want to because my home, at least for a little longer, was there. I felt like I was deserting people I’d come to deeply respect, deserting people who had helped make my days brighter, who had reached out to comfort us in a time of grief, who had turned to us in times of need, people who lived their lives with deep dignity and grace, people who, through no fault of their own, lived in a country that had flipped upside down a long time ago and had never been able to right itself. I’m not the kind of person who leaves during tough times and I didn’t like feeling like a fair weather friend.
Despite not wanting to leave when we did, and my love for the people, I swore to my husband I would never look back on the country with the kind of fondness that he does. Miss a place without a park for the children to play in? No way. Miss a place with one stoplight that didn’t work, that, to my knowledge, had never worked? Not happening. Miss a place where hospitals were places you went to die, where what should be a 15 minute drive could take hours, where the list of parasites you could catch outweighed Ulysses? Never.
Still, the Guinean people, and the refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia who had found safety from the wars in their countries, were a saving grace for me. I looked to people like Sekou, our gardener who had escaped the war in Sierra Leone, with admiration for his strength and kindness even in the face of horror. The poverty, history of violent rulers, endemic government corruption, adversity, disease, lack of infrastructure, daily struggle just to get basic needs met–all of it could have been more than enough to crush the spirit of a people ten times over but that hadn’t happened in Guinea. When I remember the sounds of our neighborhood I don’t hear gunfire or yelling, I hear children giggling, women chatting, roosters crowing. I hear French and a handful of tribal languages I never understood but loved to listen to. I think of days like the one where I was driving through Conakry at the end of the dry season and the skies opened up for the first time in months, all the rain that had been waiting at the flood gates breaking free. Ordinarily you’d expect people to run for shelter in a sudden downpour but that’s not what happened. Instead, children danced in quickly forming pools, young men reached their arms out and turned their faces to the sky, women with huge smiles walked arm in arm. Maybe you can chalk it up to practicality–rain means things turn green and grow, means searching for water gets a bit easier, means less dust and dirt to sweep. Except, in the reactions to the storm, I saw the spirit of the people, and the ease with which they handled so much of life. I turned to our driver, Ousman, and saw him smiling, sharing in the delight. At that moment, despite how isolated I often felt in Guinea, I felt part of a joy that I can’t quite articulate but that still, years later, brings a smile to my face.
I do now find myself looking back on it with fondness, not in a romanticized, rose-colored glasses kind of way but in a way that recognizes the hardships but chooses to focus on the joys–the sounds of djembe drums calling to each other, Victoria’s ready smile, Seakou’s playful admonition to a 2-year old Aisleen who was fond of wearing only rain boots (“you are not an African girl, Aisleen, you must wear clothes!”), Ousman’s ultimately pointless attempts to teach me French (he was determined but I was hopeless!), the market women’s good-natured giggles when I stepped in ankle deep muck in my sandals, the time we bought dozens of soccer balls and drove through the city so our kids could toss them to children playing with flat ones, on and on and on. I’m sure I’m not alone in having had a bittersweet post that, upon distance and reflection, had more sweet than I’d thought. Someday I’d like to go back for a visit just to let Guinea know that I did not willingly desert, and that I am forever grateful for the joy and perspective it gave me.