Poverty and Community in Guinea

Kçbri – money (soso)

I’ve already mentioned that the poverty in Guinea is profound.  The truth is that I have never seen this extreme poverty before.  Guinea is in the thirteenth poorest country in the world.  That’s the macro view. What this looks like on a micro level is a lot of people who are very hungry and in need and very few with the capability to make some money.

Many walk around in clothes that would have been tossed in the trash long ago by somebody in the developed world.  Shirts with a collar but no material at the shoulders, pants that flap in the font and back because the material is long worn away, t-shirts that looks like netting in the back because there are so many holes in them.  Many colors are faded, the clothes having taken on the color and texture of the African dust long ago.

Clothes dry on a line in the hot midday sun
Clothes dry on a line in the hot midday sun

Polygamy is practiced throughout Guinea. While not everybody has multiple wives, it is more common than not.  In many families, a man will take two or more wives and father a myriad of children.  In the family I am staying with, the father has married five women and fathered seventeen children.  Despite that plethora of people, there are only 2 adult males who work and help support the family living in this home. One, a brother of about thirty, is in the Guinean military.  He makes a meager salary, yet sends half home to support his family.

My boyfriend is the main wage earner for the family.  Having made it out of Guinea is seen as a sign of wealth, a friend tells me.  Having made it to America is perceived as a sign of extreme wealth. When we are in the US, he routinely sends money home to pay for schooling of the children and teenagers, food for everybody, and any medical emergencies that come up.  Since we’ve been in town, that expense has grown to include, well, anything and everything.

We arrived laden with suitcases filled with clothes, shoes, soccer balls, and soccer uniforms for everybody – the family, the neighbors, and the local schoolchildren.

Despite coming with so many gifts, there are many family members who did not receive enough.  I have visions of returning to the States to earn money so I can send a shipping container of gifts back to the country…but those are dreams, and this is reality.

Reality is that there are children here who don’t get to eat every day.  Reality is that there are fifteen or more people eating off of the $10 we spend on food daily.  Many are cousins, siblings, their children, and grandparents, and many are neighbors and friends who are visiting.  In Guinea, there is no distinction made between family, friend, and neighbor.  If you’re here and it’s mealtime, you will be offered a place around the pot.

The term neighbor is loose in Guinea.  Guineans refer to each other as garaam, or brother, and with good reason.  Once you leave the main roads here in the city, you’re moving through people’s yards because there are no defined side streets.  With such small division between homes, there is even smaller between families.  Doors are always open, and people come and go in each other’s space as need or desire arises.  In my first week here, I found a beautiful two year old walking down the hall outside my bedroom.  I picked her up, assuming that her mother must be close by.  The child fell asleep in my arms, and a cousin told me that her mother lived a few houses over.  He eventually took the sleeping child home when her mother never came looking.  Small children and toddlers have so much freedom because everyone trusts that their neighbors, siblings, or other family members are watching, and so they are.  Any infraction by a child will be dealt with by whomever is close at hand, which is usually a mixed crowd of women and older children.

Sweet little girl found wandering
Sweet little girl found wandering

Any item that is not too heavy to carry will quickly become communal property.  The kitili, or teapot that holds water, is just as likely to be found in this home as it is the brother’s or neighbor’s house across the way.  Everybody’s pots and pans are piled together in the big house to be washed in the morning, and there is rarely division between somebody claiming something as theirs, not to be used by anybody else.  The family that provides the food today may be eating at their neighbor’s tomorrow.

Even homes are not solely for the use of one family.  I woke up recently and was told to avoid the front room of the house until afternoon.   Some neighbors were celebrating the birth of a baby, and their home was too small to accommodate the crowd.  Thus, they used our front room for the feast and celebration while the family sat in the shade of the house out back cooking the mid-day meal and waiting for the party to finish.  From time to time, guests would peek their heads out to say hello and visit with the family.

This sense of community is what holds society together.  Despite such profound poverty, people survive because they lift each other up.  You can see that there is less of a sense of individual ownership here and a larger focus on the community at large. In this way, society in Guinea embodies the ideal of Sacred Economics or the Gifting Economy, with each giving of what he has to who needs it, and being provided for when he is in need.

This, I believe, is the trend towards which the whole world is moving.  Western society is still entrenched in the idea of grasping and need, but you can glimpse pockets of change if you look closely.

Examples abound, from yoga studios taking donations for classes with no set prices, coffee and sandwich shops offering the option for customers to choose their own prices, and community gardens and community centers offering free classes with people sharing their skills.  I recently read about a charity here in Africa tht chose to give out cash instead of services, guided by the theory that individuals know what will help them better than any outsider could.  Each of these are symptoms that we find ourselves well entrenched into the Aquarian Age, the age where we are guided by communal needs over the individual.  The age in which we each have access to all the information we need and the power to use it to make a difference in the lives of many.  In this age, those who strive to help others will find themselves and those they help lifted up.

In the light of such dire poverty, we’ve opted to not travel further within Africa this year.  We feel it would be irresponsible to spend money on a luxury like travel when the resources we have can be put to a better use right here making sure that children have food in their bellies, sick people can be seen by a doctor and medicated where necessary, and other smaller, yet no less important emergencies can be seen to.

That means diving deeper into the quiet village life.  We’ll see more soccer games and less waterfalls, keep teaching yoga, dance, and drums to the local children here in Kamsar and the nearby village of Koaboui, and continue providing food and day to day support to the people in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood boys
The neighborhood boys



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