Guinea In The Time Of Ebola

Kris Fricke

On June 27th, 2014, in the Republic of Guinea in West Africa, there were 168,620 beehives, and 3,748 recent cases of Ebola (about 500 of which were still alive)—an accelerating and out-of-control epidemic—and there was me, trying to stuff 2.8 million francs into a refrigerator. You may be confused. I understand. After all, there is Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Papua New Guinea, and several current and former Guyanas and the country simply known as the Republic of Guinea.  “Why so many guineas,” I hear you asking, “and do they have anything do with guinea pigs?”

European explorers venturing down the West African coast in their precarious caravels of the 15th century would have noticed that south of the Senegal River, the local people’s physiology dramatically changed. The lighter-skinned Berbers of the north African deserts give way to a darker-skinned people, whom the Berbers called Ghinawen.  The Portuguese adopted this word for these people, and after a Rennaissance-era game of ocean-going telephone, it reached the English as “Guinea.”  As English boats became better and enabled them to reach ever further places, with the cultural sensitivity they are known for, they applied this word to any place they felt had notably dark-skinned people for which they couldn’t think of a better name.

Guinea is about the same size as Oregon but with three times the population, about one million percent more people named Mamadou, and 0% as many guinea pigs because they have none. 

My first sight of Guinea was an endless expanse of wetlands below the plane, a tangled criss-cross of rivers, until suddenly the long narrow capital of Conakry, jutting out on a peninsula into the ocean, appeared below seconds before landing.  Stepping out of the airport, I find shanties across the street and sewage running in the gutters. The Organization’s assistant country director, Mamadou Thiam, greets me, and we get into the white land cruiser.  

“There won’t be any banks up-country, so you’ll need to have all the project funds with you,” he says as we drive. His accent is perfectly American; he only recently relocated back to his homeland for this job. He begins handing me several bricks of rubber-banded bills. “So this is the $414 in Guinean francs.”
“Haha, what? How many francs is this?” I ask, ogling at the amount of money.
“2.8 million. The largest bill we have is the 10,000 franc note, which is a dollar forty-eight.”
We swerve around a car that has tipped so far into a water-filled pot-hole that three of its wheels have lost contact with the ground, leaving it helpless like an overturned beetle.

Soon I’m in my hotel room looking around for a place to temporarily store my bricks of millions. The room has no safe!  But then I notice the mini-fridge has a lock on the door, with a key in it. I remove the water bottles and stuff my cash and laptop into the fridge before heading out to look for a restaurant.

Back in the room in the evening, I pull my laptop out of the fridge to write up some notes and receive an un-asked-for science lesson. Almost immediately, the hot, humid air forms great droplets of cool water on the smooth black laptop. The laptop has burst into tears at the absurdity of the situation, and they flow down its sleek sides and plop sadly to the floor. I nervously eye the drops near its vents, threatening to choke it on its own tears. I’ll need to give it some time to collect itself and acclimate before writing any reflections. I unplug the fridge to prevent any further violations of the natural order of fridges and laptops.

“Our regular driver died yesterday,” Mamadou tells me the next morning in the Organization’s office.    “Our other driver Kamera will drive you to the project location, but he will have to leave you there and return. Baro will stay with you, he was the Country Director for Mali, but due to instability there, he is here for now.”

It takes a few hours to get out of the city’s snarled traffic, but then the road winds up broad green valleys, past the occasional cluster of huts steaming in the sun, and little towns of old moss-covered colonial buildings. The further from the capital, the less casual jeans-and-t-shirt attire we see and the more patterned traditional garb and conservative dress, until there is even the occasional burqa.  We drive parallel to the rebuilt train line (purely for export of aluminum ore from the interior, 61% of Guinea’s economy), and further in, parallel to the vine-entwined derelict railroad bridges of the ghost of the former rail network. In 1958 Guinea was the first colony to declare independence from the French empire. When they refused to agree to pay back France for all their “benevolent” development at rates that would have crippled the economy for generations, France tore out all the railroads they had built, as well as factories and other infrastructure.  This entire drive would have been unnecessary if there was still an airfield in Labe, but it remains an empty field a half-century after France demolished it. A short distance beyond Labe, we finally pulled into the small village of Sanpiring.  For the first time, I’d be staying right in a village instead of a hotel in a town.

“We had a Peace Corps volunteer here named David,” they tell me that first day,  “but he died.”

The village consists of small cottages and large round thatched huts connected by paths winding through yards full of corn. We spend our mornings talking about bees under trees in the central square and our afternoons inspecting hives in the surrounding forest.  The village children run through the village like a school of minnows, occasionally the teenage girls in their beautifully patterned dresses flutter by chattering like tropical birds.  Every evening the adults slowly gather on someone’s porch until they’re all there, talking and sipping tea, the only light the orange flickering of a cook fire and the distant flashes of lightning on the horizon.

Guinean huts: Beautiful huts are still in regular usage in the rural villages

We have a radio we listen to learn about the tightening noose of ebola around us.  A few months previously, a two-year-old boy named Emile had playfully entered a hollow tree somewhere in the forests to the south. Deforestation in a neighboring area had displaced some bats into that tree.  Bats that, it turns out, carried the Ebola virus. Young Emile soon died, as did his three-year-old sister, mother, and grandmother, followed by most of his village, an expanding wave of death.  Unlike coronavirus, Ebola requires bodily fluid contact to be transmitted, but that can be as simple as shaking someone’s sweaty hand.  Newspaper commentators Stateside have been confidently saying it’s spreading in West Africa because people don’t wash their hands enough, but they weren’t there. West Africans wash their hands five times a day, before each prayer-time, which makes for a national average of handwashing well above America’s. People usually eat with their hands from communal bowls throughout the country, and I suspect this has been the actual major source of transmission. If one does make that contact, there is an extreme probability of contracting the virus. There was an 80% chance (it’s since been lessened to a mere 66%) that one will then, within the next 21 days, develop a headache, an achy back, a cough, and ultimately die bleeding out of their eyes.

Ebola was not present in the immediate surroundings of Sanpiring at the time, but it was present in much of the country, including the capital.  Would I be able to get back out through the capital or be cut off here surrounded by the rising tide of Ebola?

In the end, we were able to return to the capital, winding back down the long road, passing ebola response convoys (white land cruisers and trucks emblazoned with red crosses) headed to the interior.  I had survived! That wasn’t so bad! And then, after thirty hours in the capital, I woke up one morning with a headache, an achy back, a cough. I lay there listening to the rain serenely patter against the windows and the melodious early morning call to prayer, contemplating the potential ramifications of these symptoms.

Puddle Jumping: Aissatou and Kamara navigate puddles after a rainstorm
Tea time: Karim carefully makes tea by slowly pouring the milky liquid between two vessels repeatedly like a ritual.

BIO: Kris Fricke is an American expatriate beekeeper living amid the eucalyptus of Australia’s southern coast. His work has previously appeared in the American Bee Journal.

Photos by: Kris Fricke

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