As compared to my arrival in Ghana’s very modern airport a couple weeks before, arriving in Guinea felt, to me, like arriving in Africa – but I suppose I should say, “my memory of Africa.” Stepping off the plane and directly into the warm (very warm), welcoming African air; riding a bus from the tarmac to the airport itself; small and warm and simple inside, and not without its share of chaos as we were herded through Customs… this was all so much more like it had been at the old airport in Ghana. And after a fairly crazy day of travel with the African airline that had been my only option for air travel between Ghana and Guinea – a day full of last-minute changes and re-routing and some nearly serious mishaps (as in, winding up on the wrong plane – despite multiple employees having checked my ticket!), this familiarity now felt so very comforting. I was also extremely relieved to find that all signs were not only in French but in English as well, so it was easy to find my way out to the “Meeting Point,” where I happily found Alisco waiting for me, with his entourage of nephews. And then I was in their care. And I knew Alisco would take good care of me. And he did.
His first thought as we drove out of the airport was to stock up on fruit for me, and so we soon pulled off to the side of the road at a roadside market, where, as if at a fast-food drive-through, we stayed in the car as Alisco called an order out the window, my eyes meanwhile boggling at the absolutely immense amount of fruit piled up there – I don’t think I had ever seen so much fruit gathered into one spot. Then we headed straight to Dubreka, Alisco’s younger nephew, Youssouf, doing an amazing job of keeping his calm, sweet demeanor as he drove through some of the worst traffic I can ever recall experiencing. The traffic in West Africa is made so much worse than any I have experienced in the Western world by the lack of emissions controls in these countries, as well as the predominantly diesel engines, and the air quality as we inched along reached (not surprisingly) a new height in my scale of awful. We drove and stopped, and drove and stopped, and drove and stopped, and sitting in the backseat with one of the nephews, whose name I had already forgotten but whom I would soon come to know (and love) as Sekou, I pulled out a handkerchief to put over my nose. Still, though, burning nostrils that night…
I knew – had heard from friends who had been here – that to study dance in Guinea, to dance every day as my old dream had gone, generally involved being in Conakry, as that was where you could find the teachers, where all the “ballets” (performance groups) had their rehearsals. And Alisco now told me that Youssouf Koumbassa, one of my favorite master dance teachers (who has been based in the States for a very long time), whose camp in Conakry had already begun, was teaching some dance classes that were open to everyone – not just the students in his camp. But I couldn’t see going through that traffic again to get there. The pollution was far too much for me, and I definitely felt no desire to go through it all again until I absolutely had to, to return to the airport; to me, nothing seemed worth breathing in that much pollution.
Well outside of Conakry ages later, now moving along clearer roads, a refreshing breeze suddenly blew through the car, and the air felt about twenty degrees cooler as we approached Dubreka. After eventually passing through the town’s busy market center, we went slower and slower as the roads became increasingly rough, and my mind turned to what sort of living situation I might have in store for me. I had had no idea what to expect as far as this went, and now I felt a bit of relief as, though the roads still turned ever more haphazard, the houses lining them became increasingly substantial.
Finally we stopped before the gate in a tall cement wall surrounding what could only be a nice house inside. We walked through a concrete courtyard, so dark that I could barely make out the structures around its perimeter (which I would later discover to be an outhouse, a storage shed, and the living quarters for one or two young men who seemed to come with the house), and then, after stepping up some stairs, along a porch, and finally into the house – all of which were also fashioned from concrete, I was a bit bedazzled by how nice it indeed was. With its tile floors and its fancy ceilings imprinted with moldings, it felt grand and impressive in a way, a style, that was very different from any of the homes I had ever been inside in Ghana, and coming from Ghana, it felt very… foreign. The house was spacious, and perhaps appeared even more-so due to the fact that it was almost entirely empty: its big living room held only a handful of stacked-up plastic chairs, its four bedrooms only a standing electric fan in each. Although the heat here was intense – far hotter during the day, I would soon discover, than what I had just gotten used to right on the coast in Ghana (though also much cooler at night), the fans, as it turned out, were more to deflect the mosquitoes than the heat, as we generally only had electricity at night. Alisco’s nephews and son also now brought a brand new mattress and set of pillows into the room Alisco decided should be mine (and I, a pillow-free floor-sleeper for decades now, promptly took it all out within a couple days). This room, along with one other, had its own bathroom, complete with a sink, toilet, and shower – but no water. Water was brought from a well in buckets and jerry cans, and after the novelty of using a functioning shower at my AirBnB in Ghana, here I was happy to enjoy a return to good-old-fashioned bucket baths. (The toilet with no running water, however, proved to be a much less enjoyable affair…)
Alisco was just now seeing this house for the first time as well, as he had just arrived in Guinea a couple nights before me and had been staying at his family’s house in Conakry. He was having a house of his own built here in Dubreka, but as it was far from being finished, he had rented this house nearby for us to use. After sitting and catching up for a while (which was the only time that big living room would be used for anything besides storage, as the courtyard was always the hangout place from then on – day or night once the electricity to the outside of the house was set up in the next day or two), he went back to his house in Conakry for the night, but I had two of his nephews, Mohammed (from Dubreka) and Sekou (from Conakry), neither of whom spoke any English, to look after me.
And I felt so very happy and content. I had everything I needed, felt well cared for, already loved the nephews and felt like family. And I think, also, I was just so utterly relieved to have left behind me the disturbance of all that NOISE in Kokrobite, back in Ghana. There was amplified music and the sound of crowds as I was falling asleep, and this would be the case much of the time I was there, but it was never so loud or so nearby that I could not block it out with my earplugs. And it was always much better music than what I had been subjected to in Kokrobite! Dubreka was not quite what I would consider a quiet place, but at least it was an improvement.
I woke to the usual West African village or town sounds of roosters and goats and birds and hordes of children, and for those first few days in Guinea, as I got settled into the house, occupying myself with cleaning and with starting some very basic Susu language lessons with Sekou, I was mainly just thrilled with my change in environment – and with my room. After living alone for so long now, and becoming quite used to enjoying my own mental space, having some sort of space to myself was the one thing I had very much been hoping for here, but had not dared to ask about when planning the trip. Now, settling in for what I thought might be several months, and being a homebody besides, I was delighted to have the opportunity to make this wonderful room just exactly how I wanted it, in my minimalist way – plenty of space (once Sekou helped me remove the unwanted mattress) for my yoga practice. My universe felt simple and small – just the way I liked it, and in those first few quiet days, which were not overly populated with visitors (yet), I felt very content in my little sanctuary of a room…
When I made my last trip to Ghana in the fall of 2000 (from the starting point of Maine, where I had spent the summer working to raise some funds for my future with Koro), it was shortly after hearing the news of Koro’s death, and I was in a very broken state. Back in Ghana, dancing was eventually the one thing that seemed to really bring me back to life, the most healing practice I found – besides perhaps my life-long, tried-and-true and very much-needed writing practice. When I resumed my former dance lessons in the village of Kokrobite, the drums got everything inside me – all the emotion and heartache, black holes and anything else going on in there – moving, as they simply took over and moved not only my body but my whole being. The movement brought change, the change brought growth, and my reality could not help but be transformed. And meanwhile, as this all transpired, I was completely absorbed in feeling the Divine Spark running through me when I was inside the rhythm, enraptured, quite oblivious of all else.
Those drums brought me back to life whether I wanted to be brought back or not; I had no choice in the matter as that Divine element within them, coming through them, connected with that very same Divine element within me, shoring it up and prompting it to kindly toss my ego aside – so as to possess all of me, to shine through every speck of my being as it moved me. At that time, dancing provided me with the most clear experience of the Divine, and that experience of the Divine was all that really mattered to me, was “what it was all about” for me – perhaps now more clearly than ever before, as after losing my husband and my entire future in Ghana with him, I felt that the Divine was all that was left for me, all that remained. Soon dance was the one thing actually making me want to live again – just so that I could keep doing it, so that I could keep feeling myself enveloped in this pure, Divine experience – so that I could simply keep experiencing the Divine. Plus… it brought some sense of joy back into my reality.
Within the first few days of my arrival back in Maine – after that last trip to Ghana in the fall of 2000, my good friend Becky, whose family I had been living with over the summer, was randomly gifted two tickets to a West African drum and dance performance in Portland. (Side note: I had actually met Becky on my first ever trip to Ghana, while we were in college, and by now she had pretty well saved my life twice, both times Ghana-related – good friend indeed.) The group, we discovered once we were in the theater, was from Guinea, and I was absolutely blown away by what I witnessed in that show: the dance was so much more intense – so much MORE – than what I had been doing in Ghana. Eyes wide open, I turned to Becky and told her that this was what I wanted to do, that I wanted to go to Guinea and do this kind of dance.
And so the idea of going to Guinea, arising on the heels of losing the future I had envisioned for myself in Ghana, was tacked onto the return trip to Ghana that I always felt coming in my not-too-distant future. I still just wanted to live in Africa – saw no real future for myself anywhere else, and while I had just seen another prospect emerge for me with a friend back in Ghana… all I really wanted to do now was dance – so that I could keep experiencing this blissfully divine state into which it brought me. In Kokrobite, I had been taking daily dance lessons, and now I just wanted, again, to simply be in a place, preferably in Africa, where I could dance every day; and once I saw this style of dance, I thought, “why not Guinea?”
Back at my mom’s home in the suburbs of Chicago that winter, I began to dance with teachers from Senegal and Guinea. And over the years to come, when I began to study with particular teachers from Guinea, many of whom took students on trips home with them most winters, going there eventually started to look not so much like a dream but like a possibility. …Except that, by the time I was actually anywhere near ready to go… realistically… my lifestyle by this point being a bit… particular, and entailing a certain standard of healthy environment (relatively clean air at the very least – meaning no highly-polluted African cities), and also preferably a flexibility of schedule (hello three-hour-a-day yoga practice)… finding the right teacher with whom to travel was a bit of a challenge, as most of the teachers base their “camps” – consisting of a full schedule of classes – in or around the highly-polluted city of Conakry. I knew staying in Conakry was simply not an option for me, as my generally light, fruit-and-juice-based diet makes me extremely sensitive to air quality (among other things) – and at this point, I know I need to stay within that diet in order to feel fully healthy – a necessary piece of the puzzle for a return to Africa, as I would not risk getting malaria again. (After coming far too close to death-from-malaria back in 2000 – two blood transfusions and some heavy medication required to keep me in this life, a desire to be in Africa without getting sick was actually what first drew me into an increasingly cleansing diet, back in 2001 when I began to learn much more about the connection between diet and health.)
When I started to drum again, after many years away from it, I felt I had finally hit upon the right teacher with whom to travel. Alisco, my favorite drum teacher and a trusted elder in our community, took his students not to Conakry but to Dubreka, a supposedly much quieter, smaller place, about an hour outside of the city. As I have known the cities in West Africa to be extremely polluted (I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous posts, for one thing, the lack of emissions controls over there), I planned to spend absolutely no time in either Conakry or Accra, other than on my way in and out through the airports there; and Alisco assured me that with him I could do this. Besides the big issue of air quality, living in a quiet, peaceful place was a necessity for me if I planned to stay for any length of time. And with Alisco, I could stay for months, not weeks, as he went home to Guinea less often but for longer stretches than the dance teachers I knew – and I felt that when I finally made it back to Africa, I would probably want to stay a while. His trip also seemed much more laid-back than the others – less structured, meaning that it wouldn’t be a struggle to try to fit in my long yoga practice.
Alisco knew me well enough to know about my yoga and my diet, and it also helped that I loved him dearly and had always felt very comfortable with him. He had always felt like family to me, ever since I had met him in Chicago many years before I began studying with him in California, when I was introduced to him by a friend who was also my first ever West African drum teacher. I trusted Alisco and felt safe with him. And… drumming with Alisco generally felt like pure magic: beyond feeling that divine element of Connection running deep, it often felt as if he was downloading rhythms into my mental and physical bodies as meanwhile my spirit soared. So yes, for so very many reasons, Alisco seemed like the perfect person with whom to travel to Guinea…
Aharona Shackman has used writing as her primary practice for connecting with the Self pretty much since she learned to write. With the commencement of this blog, she is now beginning to practice the sharing of some of her writing...