In late 2013, as the dust settled on a year of street violence and disputed legislative elections, a two-year-old boy living in a village not far from N'zérékoré was playing with his friends under the shade of a big, hollow tree. A tree which just so happened to be a favourite roosting spot for bats. Two days later the boy fell seriously ill with an illness that at first nobody could identify. Four days later the boy was dead. Within days of his death his sister, mother, grandmother and the nurse who attended them had all been struck down with the same illness. It was the start of the West African Ebola epidemic, and researchers now know that the virus was transmitted to the boy after he came into contact with one of the bats roosting in the tree.
The virus spread with lightning speed and deadly efficiency through many parts of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Across the world, TV screens showed images of dead bodies, sick people in quarantine units and international medical workers in protective suits. The virus caused panic across the planet and the three impacted countries were essentially sealed off from the rest of the world. Airlines cancelled all flights, cross-border road transport was dramatically reduced, international companies repatriated their foreign staff, development projects halted and investment into Guinea trickled away.
By March 2013, shortly after the virus had been identified, the president declared a national health emergency. The number of people infected with the virus peaked in October 2014 and from then on, due to intense efforts to contain and quarantine infected people and areas, the number of cases started to drop. In June 2016 Guinea was finally declared Ebola free, but the epidemic cost at least 2500 Guineans their lives and had a major impact on the country's already weak economy and development.
Today, the international community is slowly returning to the country, development projects that were put on hold during the epidemic are picking up again, and there is a sense on the streets that Guinea may, finally, be about to enter a brighter future.
Music & Culture
Overshadowed on the international stage by neighbouring Mali and Senegal, Guinea still packs a punch when it comes to musical tradition.
Sekou Touré's form of communism may have been an economic disaster, but the government's emphasis on nationalist authenticité in the arts, and state patronage of artistic institutions, was a bonus. Musicians were funded and allowed time to perfect their art, paving the way for the sound most commonly associated with Guinean music – that of the great dance orchestras of the 1960s and '70s. They, in turn, were strongly influenced by the traditions of the Mande griots (West Africa’s hereditary praise singers).
The first orchestra to leap to fame was the Syli National Orchestra, whose guitarist, 'Grand' Papa Diabaté, became one of the greatest stars of Guinea’s music scene. They perfected the Guinean rumba, a fusion of traditional songs and Latin music. Bembeya Jazz would later achieve even greater recognition, thanks, in part, to their guitarist, Sékou 'Diamond Fingers' Diabaté, one of the most talented musicians of his generation.
Legendary South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba lived in exile in Guinea from the late 1960s until the early '80s, recording with and performing alongside some of the top local musicians.
In the early 1980s, Guinea’s economic situation had worsened and large orchestras became difficult to fund, forcing many artists to Abidjan, where 90% of all Guinean releases were recorded. The centre of the pop world soon shifted to Paris, where acclaimed Guinean vocalist and kora player Mory Kanté was based.
Alongside Kanté and Sekouba Diabaté, who joined Bembeya Jazz at the age of 19 before going solo in the 1990s, popular musicians today include Ba Cissoko (a band whose sound has been described as 'West Africa meets Jimi Hendrix'), and kora player and vocalist Djeli Moussa Diawara. Guinea also has a vibrant hip-hop scene, with many young artists using their music to lash out at Guinea’s poor living conditions and political corruption. The best-known name in Guinean hip-hop is Bill de Sam.
Dance is also popular in Guinea. The dance group Les Ballets Africains today remains the 'prototype' of West African ballet troupes, while Circus Baobab mixes trapeze shows and acrobatics with their dance shows.
Camara Laye, author of L'Enfant Noir, is the country's best-known writer.
To pick up some typical arts and crafts, try the indigo and mud-cloth cooperatives in many towns.
Guinea has four distinct zones: a narrow coastal plain, the Fouta Djalon, the northeastern dry lowlands and the Forest Region of the southeast. The Fouta Djalon plateau, rising to some 1500m, is the source of the Gambia and Senegal Rivers and contributes much water to the River Niger (although the actual source of this great river is in the lowlands close to Faranah). Southeastern Guinea is hilly and heavily vegetated, although very little virgin forest remains.
Large animals are rarely sighted, though waterbucks, bongos, buffalo and baboons wander the forests, while crocodiles and hippos swim remote stretches of river. In the past elephants were known to exist in southern forest regions, but recent elephant surveys have recorded no definite sightings, and it's likely that if elephants do still exist in Guinea they are very low in number.
Large primates are doing better; Guinea has the highest chimpanzee population in West Africa and chimps are fairly widespread in forest regions throughout the country. The Fouta Djalon has the highest chimpanzee population, but they're not easy to see due to dense vegetation.
The birdlife in Guinea is superb and species include brown-cheeked hornbills, long-tailed hawks, grey parrots and Nimba flycatchers. Two amphibians of note, both of which live on Mt Nimba, are goliath frogs and Nimba toads, which, unusually, bear live young.
National Parks & Reserves
Guinea has many designated protected areas, although environmental regulations are rarely enforced. The Mt Nimba Nature Reserve in the far southeast is arguably the country's most important protected area and is a Unesco World Heritage Site, on account of its unique ecosystems and wildlife, but this hasn't stopped it from being ravaged by mining for iron ore.
The two main national parks are Parc Transfrontalier Niokolo-Badiar, of which the Guinean part is called Parc Regional du Badiar, near Koundara at the foot of the Fouta Djalon, and Parc National du Haut Niger, northeast of Faranah. Both suffer from serious neglect and tourist infrastructure is very limited (and essentially non-existent in the Parc Regional du Badiar).
Guinea's environmental record is atrocious. Most large animals are rapidly declining in number, while understaffing and underfunding mean that even the protected zones don't provide a safe haven.
The primary concern is deforestation. Logging continues largely unchecked and has proceeded so rapidly in the south that the Forest Region really ought to adopt a new name. On the coast much of the once-rich mangrove forest has been cleared for rice production, and over-fishing is a growing problem.Changing climate patterns are also drying out large pars of lowland interior Guinea and desertification is likely to be an increasing problem in coming years. Finally, general littering is a big problem in urban areas. Conakry could so easily be a beach city par-excellence but unfortunately in order to see any sand on most beaches in and around Conakry you literally have to dig through knee-deep piles of plastic litter.