Hey Gals and Guys,
Greetings from Guinea!
Since arriving in Conakry, I’ve become what some may call a “creature of habit”. Every morning I wake up at 5:50 am (10 minutes before my alarm goes off) and stay in bed until 6:45. I use 30 minutes to shower and get ready and about 10 minutes for breakfast. I’m scheduled to be picked up at 7:30 a.m. every morning, but Hassmiou is always there at least 20 minutes early, and he never minds when I’m late. The drive from my hotel to the office takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on two factors: 1) traffic and 2) route.
Traffic in this city is unreal. I’ve been to several countries and I’ve never seen anything like this before. A road designed for two-way traffic, with one lane going in each direction, can easily turn into a four-lane, one-way street in a matter of minutes. Where does the oncoming traffic pass, you ask? The sidewalk! This traffic is not caused by poor roads or a lack of direction by the traffic police. Drivers in Conakry are just impatient. The concept of “right of way” does not apply here. Oh and pedestrian rights is a folklore. Drivers here cross and block each other any chance they get. It doesn’t help that there are no working traffic lights in this city. Road rage is another cause of the crazy traffic here. I’ve witnessed more fist-fights in the middle of the streets here than anywhere else.
Lately, it’s been taking us longer to get to the office, even when traffic isn’t bad. It took me a while to notice, but I’ve caught on. Hassimou takes a longer route to work if we are alone (sometimes we have other passengers in the car). He claims it is the “scenic route” but I’m not buying it. It’s just the longer route and he gets to spend more time with me. I don’t really mind because we still arrive in the office before everyone else.
In the office, I spend some time enjoying my coffee and perusing the headlines on BBC and Joy FM. I usually pick one or two stories to send to my friend Jonta, who is also on an overseas assignment (in Liberia). The African news section on BBC always gives us something to laugh about. For the past couple of weeks we’ve been following Sierra Leone’s vice president saga- First the VP sought asylum in the US embassy in Freetown (he was denied), then he was fired from his position as VP by the president, then he came out of hiding, and now he’s suing the president for firing him. It’s like a soap opera!
By 9:00 am I’m ready to start “work”. Work can be anything, from drafting memos, to reviewing and editing Requests for Proposals, to developing standard operating procedures. I also attend endless meetings to discuss decisions that were made at previous endless meetings. I’m usually buried in my work until around 1 p.m., my favorite time of the day- Lunch! 🙂
Every day, two colleagues and I drive about 10 minutes to Ngor Diarama Senegalese Restaurant. Ngor Diarama is owned by Madam Oumou Gala, a Guinean woman that spent a good chunk of her life in Senegal. When she returned to Guinea, she brought with her a collection of Senegalese recipes and opened a restaurant. She is a minor celebrity in Conakry. Everyone I’ve met here knows her and her food. The menu is very simple and includes the classic West African dishes we all know and love: Poulet Yassa, Goundnut soup, and Rice and Fish Stew, to name a few. I’m sure all of her dishes taste amazing, but I must confess, I’ve only had one dish there. Every afternoon, as I sit down, the waiter places in front of me a hot, steamy plate of Benechin, or Riz Gas as its called here in Guinea. Some of you know Benechin by its slang name: Jollof Rice.
Contrary to popular belief (mainly by Ghanaians and Nigerians), Jollof rice is NOT from Ghana or Nigeria. It originates from the Wolof people of Senegal and Benechin literally means “one pot” in Wolof. The dish has spread across the region and each country has put their spin on it. For the most part, Jollof consists of the same ingredients across countries: rice, tomatoes, onions, pepper and spices. However, there are a couple of differences. In Ghana, we use Jasmine or some other long-grain rice for the dish; it is NOT Jollof unless you use tomato paste to give it a bright orange color; and It is also almost always served with chicken. Nigerians on the other hand always use par-boiled rice and most often do not use tomato paste. Another difference between Ghanaian and Nigerian Jollof is the method of preparation. In Ghana, the rice is cooked IN the tomato sauce and in one pot on a stove. In Nigeria, the rice is boiled separately and then mixed with the sauce and cooked in the oven. Other countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire also make Jollof, but who knows how they make theirs (no offense!).
In Senegal, Benechin or Jollof is cooked with Broken Rice and is traditionally served with cabbage, carrots, garden eggs, sweet potatoes and cassava. I know that combination may seem weird to most people, but trust me- IT WORKS! Benechin is also traditionally served with fish. The fish is usually stuffed with basil, garlic and hot pepper. Its my favorite part of the dish. In Senegal, Jollof can be prepared with or without tomatoes. In Guinea, it’s called Riz Graz Rouge when it has tomatoes and Riz Gras Blanc when it doesn’t. Either way is amazing! When you try Senegalese Benechin, you just know you are eating the original and everything else is an imitation. Hands down, Senegal makes the best Jollof/Benechin/Riz Gras!
After lunch, we have oranges for dessert and then make our way back to the office for three dreadful hours of the “Itis”. Around 2:30 p.m., Hassimou stops by with a snack, usually plantain chips or donuts. He spoils me! I try to stop him from bringing me food, but the ONE day Hassmiou didn’t bring me a snack I started to ask myself what I had done wrong. I think his plan is to fatten me up so my “fiance” leaves me. At this rate, there is no way I leave this country less than 400 lbs!
In the evenings, Hassmiou has his English class and so I take the shuttle back to my hotel. The shuttle is usually full of other visitors that have come to “help” the office here. I usually keep to myself on these rides home, but I can’t help but overhear some of the most annoying and ignorant conversations. When I hear comments like “The worst place I’ve ever been to is Africa”, or “I like working here because the smallest thing makes me a hero” I just want to scream! I get really upset when I hear people make negative comments about Guinea right behind our Guinean driver. Obviously I’m biased. I’m African, and West African at that. But I doubt any of these people would go to New York and say anything bad about New York within an earshot of a New Yorker. IT IS RUDE! That is probably why I haven’t joined any of them for dinner or breakfast or a drink by the pool. I’m not interested.
Back in my room (and away from annoying people), I usually have a drink with a snack and catch up on episodes of my favorite shows on Hulu like Scandal, Empire and Murder. I’ve watched the entire three seasons of the Mindy Project since arriving in Guinea. Next, I plan on watching Season 3 of House of Cards on Netflix (Thank God for Hola Unblocker!). On days I don’t feel like watching TV, I blast my Nigerian music and write to you fine folks.
Around 10 p.m. I take a shower, turn off my lights, and settle in for sweet dreams! Tune in next week for Chronicles of Conakry. I don’t know what I’ll write about, but I started a blog, so I guess I’ll think of something 🙂
P.S. When it comes down to Ghanaian versus Nigerian Jollof Rice, Ghana wins hands down! I mean, who eats par-boiled rice?!?! YUCK! 😦
P.S.S Last weekend I went back to Eco-Delice where Mamadou Barry and his African Groove Band was playing. I brought some music back for you guys. Enjoy!