Listen to Guinea Drumming
Imagine six weeks without running or potable water, a common language, or toilet paper… where rats commonly nibble on children at night… where no one else believes your god exits… where your shower is a bucket and the only bathrooms are public huts over room-sized holes in the ground topped with concrete slabs with four-inch holes in the middle… where a medical ward looks and reeks like a hospital from the Dark Ages… The highway through the capital city is lined four feet high with trash. Sewage trickles in small streams throughout marketplaces and flies eat away at your food in the marketplace for hours or days before it is cooked and served to you. The school system is so broken that the few who get through the eighth grade are usually eighteen to twenty years old; and when they do there are no jobs. Yet Guinea has the third largest river in Africa, a seaport, gold, uranium, coconuts, bananas and more.
Somehow the people not only endure, but they do so with strength of character, and a sense of interconnectedness, boundless beauty, creativity and grace. This was my destination. I was to set out in December of 2009. Guinea was a country immersed in turmoil and political unrest. Almost exactly one year prior to my visit, the ruling dictator died and a new tyrant named himself President. The year of 2008 was one of protests and violence.
Three months before I left there were multiple massacres and two days before I got on the plane, the “President” was shot. I went anyway. I’ve had an odd life. It didn’t faze me to be frequently surrounded by young men wearing bullet straps and carrying assault rifles. The severity of poverty was essentially what I expected to see, heart-wrenching at times but not shocking. There were times I was stunned, overwhelmed, surprised or amazed, but I was most often intrigued.
I never dreamed I would deal with money changers, be a woman at the well toting water on my head, cook in a cauldron on ancient stones while feeding the fire six-foot logs, or be physically cowed by 200 children who both wanted to touch me, and were terrified of me. Having heard of the corrupt police system, I took the precaution of hiring a local cop (who was great) to escort me through the barrage of checkpoints. People spend two to five minutes every time they greet someone asking how each person in the family is, how things have been, how they slept, how the morning is, etc. It’s the only way people in Guinea know how to say “hello.” The community makes nearly everything by hand and can fix anything. A car may have half a frame, no door handles, missing fenders and no stuffing in the seats, but it will corner like it’s on rails.
I watched people make clothes, shoes, jewelry, farm equipment and makeshift car parts. I watched an artisan craft beautiful and perfectly smooth, circular dinner plates from what was probably once a crumpled car door. The clay huts they build using sun-dried hand-made bricks are cool and breezy on the hottest summer day. There are no street or store signs because people do not read or write; they must simply remember correctly what they need to know and where everything is. To travel, people stand on the side of the road shouting their destinations; if that’s where you are going you stop and take them with you.
There are no wheelchairs, no special schools, and people cannot afford special doctors. You either adapt or you don’t. For those who can’t, their families take care of them as best they can. But those who find a way to contribute and participate are full—and I do mean full—members of society. I met a man over 6 feet tall who was extremely well educated; he would collapse himself and somehow fold up his body to walk or climb with his hands and not require assistance for any task. People with Down Syndrome, mental retardation, missing or distorted limbs, and more… no one stared at them, spoke to them any differently, or failed to acknowledge their existence.
For the few there who write, it is a slow, difficult and painstaking process. Yet there was no more shame in being illiterate than there was in being naked. Clothes and reading are both tools; highly useful tools sometimes, but tools. I met a girl about 9 years of age wearing a three-year-old’s dress as a tank top, and a chief of three villages who was wearing a complete woman’s ensemble: pants, blouse, winter coat and granny glasses. Spade blades were common dustpans, fishing nets tied baggage to the tops of cars, and a system of drawn lines instructed exactly when and how many medications to take. Tools didn’t come with rules; use and fit were paired as needed.
NOT “SIMPLE,” IT WAS SENSIBLE
Without cars, cell phones and western underwear, life in Guinea feels like antiquity. Men walk along dusty roads in sandals and long robes; and women nurse babies while sifting chaff from grain. When villagers gather to talk, it is like sitting inside early scriptures or Homeric odysseys: circular and repetitious patterns, rhythmic rise and falls, poetic pacing. I’ve seen great speeches and wonderful storytelling, but this is different. Individual men could talk nonstop for hours and not only keep the people engaged, but keep them hungering and clamoring for more. I couldn’t understand a word, but even I could become enraptured, barely breathing and not wanting the moment to end. Between the sun and the dust, drawing water from the wells, sifting grain, endless walking, flocks of children, and the true power of the spoken word, I have had a glimpse of the life of generations before me, and that has changed me.
I went to Guinea to study drumming. What I brought home was the spirit of the dance. Babies who couldn’t stand without support would dance. Tiny, ancient people would stand to stretch their arms to the sky, smile, and dance. By ones, by twos, by entire villages, they would dance with every ounce for each other, for the heavens, for themselves. These are some of the poorest people in the world, and they have so much joy they have to dance.