When traveling, it’s important to drop your ethnocentricities. You want to be able to look at the culture you find yourself immersed in for what it is, not what it is in comparison to your home culture. Here in Guinea, that means embracing different standards of beauty, understanding that when voices are raised, people are not necessarily angry, and not being offended by constantly being called foti, white person.
I’m finding that the culture in Guinea is very hospitable. Everybody greets each other when they pass, which makes a short walk quite long, as it would be rude to not stop and talk a bit to everybody you know along the way. We stop for the older lady and her daughter on the corner, who are always inviting us to stop by for a dinner or an event. Then we stop to talk to the furniture makers we almost bought our bed from, then the furniture makers we did buy a bed from, then the mechanics who we no longer trust to fix our car, and to all the old friends who are out walking.
When arriving at somebody’s home, they will greet you outside and pull a chair into the shade for you if one is available. If there is not a free chair, then the men who are sitting will rise and offer a chair in the shade to the women. Children will give up their chairs to any adult who walks up. Chairs are usually colored and plastic, although they are just as likely to be very small, short squares of wood which are squatted upon. This makes the wearing of long skirts make a bit more sense than anything shorter than the knees as you’ll often find yourself squatting low to the ground.
After somebody has come to visit, it is customary to walk him or her towards their home. Not all the way, but far enough that they reach a more trafficked road.
Public displays of affection among couples are rare. In fact, I don’t often see couples together in public. Men spend most of their time with other men and women with other women. Display of affection among family and friends is very common. It is normal to see to men walking down the street holding hands or with their arms around each other. This is also a common sight with women. There is no romance associated with these gestures.
When there is a disagreement within the family, there are many raised voices and impassioned tempers flaring as other people get involved. The shouting may go on as long as twenty minutes. Once everybody is calm, a large group gathers in the main room of the home for conflict resolution. Each aggrieved party speaks without interruption, explaining their point of view. People who are not directly involved in the dispute will offer their perspective. The talk continues until is again calm and at ease with each other.
Men tend to keep their hair short and women have their hair braided. During the day, women’s heads are usually wrapped if they are not at home, and in the evening, elaborate wigs are worn and beautiful African dresses donned. One of the sisters here at the house is a preparing to open her own salon soon. As she does not yet have space, the back of the house is frequently a crowd of women in different stages of preparedness, some getting their hair braided, others working on the creation of wigs, and others painting on the finishing touches of a look, arched eyebrows and glitter around the hairline.
When shopping, there is normally a bit of discussion around price, unless you are in a store with marked prices or in a restaurant. It is expected that prices given are a “first price.” I tend to stay out of sight when the boys are negotiating prices, as the presence of a foti will push the cost to astronomical levels.
At mealtimes, plates are brought out to different groups of people. Men, boys, and guests usually gather in the front room, each washing his hands in preparation for the shared meal. In the back of the house, the women usually gather to eat. Each pot or plate may have as many as seven people crowded around, reaching their hands in for scoops of rice, sauce, and fish balls. It is not uncommon to be invited to people’s homes to share meals. Guests of honor will be given their own bowl of food to share with the people in their group.