What I Learned About Community in Guinea - My Family Travels

I sat cross-legged in the late afternoon sun with a shawl covering my head, quietly entertaining the most bright-eyed little girl. Looking into the distance was an uninhibited view of African scenery, a intense sun preparing to deepen in color and set over the rice fields and mango trees.  Those that surrounded me were Africans and Americans that I had begun to see as a wider extension of my family. In this moment I felt an immense sense of community, both observing it as an outsider and being brought in as a part of it. 


I traveled to Guinea, West Africa with One World Dance; a family company based out of Seattle, Washington that brings dancers and drummers on a cultural and musical immersion trip to Conakry, Guinea for three weeks each winter. Each weekday we had two Guinean dance classes and one Guinean drum class, all taught by local teachers, and accompanied by a half dozen local musicians.  During the weekends we traveled to beautiful destinations in the countryside for sightseeing and relaxation.  We were housed in compound which included a house for us Americans to stay in, another house for the Guinean musicians, a covered patio that we used for our dance and drum classes, and a yard – complete with a pet baboon and sheep.  It was called a ‘compound’ because it was surrounded by a fence to keep out the curious neighborhood kids and souvenir sellers who were interested in meeting us ‘fotes’ (foreigners) at all hours of the day.


As we neared the end of three beautiful, trying, life changing weeks, our group wanted to give the community something to show our gratitude. The highest honor, we were told, would be to buy a goat to sacrifice. Though I was wary about this, as I was generally vegetarian, I wanted to honor the community.  And while I didn’t know what to expect, what occurred after this point was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.


The next evening, a live goat was brought to our compound.  Our drum teacher, Karim asked if anyone wanted to help wash the goat. For the next two hours family, neighborhood kids, and American dancers took turns scrubbing and washing him.  By the end I knew that goat was cleaner that I had been the whole trip!  We then all put our hands on the goat and concentrated on the blessings and intentions we had for the community.  The goat bleated and shifted its weight nervously as it didn’t like being surrounded, but we held it still so our blessings could be transferred to him in this ritual.


At dawn the men in the compound, plus a few women who wanted to witness it, gathered and respectfully sacrificed the goat.  Women were allowed, but not necessarily encouraged to attend the sacrifice, so I decided not to be present for that action.  By the time the sun had fully come up there was a flurry of activity all around.  Half a dozen neighborhood women were standing over fires preparing the meat.  In addition older girls there were in charge of more than a dozen kids who were directing them in cleaning the compound and preparing bowls of vegetables, sauce and Keke (a local dish made of flaked Cassava).  I watched in awe, but kept out of the way because there seemed to be a system of efficiency and I didn’t want to delay the proceedings.


After the preparations were complete, the women and kids left to clean up and change into their best clothes. Groups of men in intricately decorated shirts and caps began showing up; it turns out all of the elders of the Muslim mosque and members of the community had been invited to join in this ceremony.  As the service commenced we women visitors were asked to cover our heads with shawls out of respect. 


We gathered together under the patio, the men on the inside and the women and children in the outer ring, and the elders read from the Koran. A prayer ceremony commenced and the goat was thanked. They spoke blessings and intentions for the community, and thanked us for the goat.  Further blessings and intentions were spoken for us while in Guinea and for our families and lives at home.  This was all conducted in Susu, the language of the Susu ethnic group, so bits and pieces were translated to me by our musicians who knew both Susu and English.  The Guinean kids sprawled and crawling around me also helped guide me on when it was ok to squirm and when it was time to bow your head and be still. 


Once the ceremony was completed the food was brought out. Bowls of Keke, sauce and goat were served to the 100 people there, and more bowls were saved to bring to other members of the community who weren’t in attendance. 


While I hadn’t eaten much meat in the last eight years and was wary about the physical implications this might have on my already travel-weary stomach, I savored this meal.  It was by far one of the most respectful, thoughtful and community-oriented meals I’ve ever participated in. 


By being a part of this ritual and honoring this community I found a profound sense of peace and community connection. The gift we had given them had come back to us all threefold.  This allowed me to experience this community on a deeper level as well as provide a contribution I would not have been able to give had I not taken the opportunity to view life from their perspective.


To experience a trip like this for yourself, visit www.oneworlddance.com


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