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February 09, 2009

Inauguration Day from Guinea

Welcome to Conakry's Café Obama.
Photo: Irwin Arieff

by Irwin Arieff

So, big deal, a few million people went to Washington on January 20. Myself, I headed for Guinea, in West Africa, where my daughter Alexis is studying, to celebrate President Obama's inauguration from a respectful distance. I think we had the better view.

While Guinea is a country of great poverty and political turmoil, its citizens are deeply inspired by our new president and the idea that similar change could be on the way to Africa. Everywhere we went, people saw the Barack Obama pin on Alexis's purse and yelled out to us, "Obama! Obama!" They pumped our hands in congratulation, bubbling with pride that easily matched our own. We passed the Barack Obama Restaurant, then the Barack Obama Café. Obama T-shirts were draped on bodies of all shapes and sizes. Many shopkeepers pinned big posters of the new president next to their front counters. Taxi drivers stuck small pictures of Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and Barack on their dashboards.

Luckily for us, Alexis's apartment in the Camayenne neighborhood of Conakry, the Guinean capital, had electricity on January 20. By about 4 p.m. local time (Guinea is five hours ahead of Washington), friends began arriving at her place to watch the proceedings on CNN International. By zero hour--noon EST--we were 11 strong: five Americans, three Guineans, a Tanzanian, a French diplomat, and a British think-tanker. All the Americans cried as Aretha Franklin sang "My Country 'tis of Thee," and we were all crying by the time Obama took the oath. We toasted the new president with Fanta, milk, and one guest's donation of Hungarian champagne.

During a trip to the Guinean interior that began the next day, we found that each of the towns we visited had held big bashes to mark Obama's "Investiture." (Except that officials in Dalaba, apparently not too familiar with that word, had invited one and all to a party marking the president's "Investigation.")

In the bustling marketplace in Kindia, we discovered a neighborhood of modest "movie theaters"--windowless wood and tin shacks, each maybe 12 feet by 15, showing DVDs of various popular films for a small fee, with the help of a generator. Fully six days after January 20, the next showing of the inauguration on video was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. that afternoon.

Then there was the Café 22 Janvier in the low-key town of Pita, which we visited on January 23. One of its clients, who turned out to be a philosophy teacher at the local high school, confirmed that the cafe had been named after the January 22, 2007, labor strikes that had mushroomed into Guinea's first anti-government protest movement. Responding to the protests, soldiers had opened fire on demonstrators in Conakry, killing more than 100 people. In January 2008, the café had commemorated the events of 2007, he said. But this year, the date had been "Barack-Obamanized"--transformed into a salute to the new American president, he said, shaking our hands as he offered his solemn congratulations.

In 2007, after several weeks of protests, then-President Lansana Conté had reached out to labor unions and other civic groups by agreeing to name a new reform-minded prime minister. (A month before my arrival in Guinea, Conté died and the military seized control.) One of the things the new prime minister did was to install solar-powered street lamps along a few major streets in parts of the capital that had no electricity. As I left Conakry, headed to the airport on the evening of January 28, I was admiring the new street lamps from my taxi window when I noticed, to the right of the pavement, a few hundred people seated on the ground on a concrete slab surrounding a giant gas station.

What, I asked the driver, was going on there?

"Well, you know, sir, the children have to do their homework, and this is the only place in the neighborhood where there is enough light," he said.

May all of us see better days in the years ahead.

Irwin Arieff is a New York writer and editor who served for 23 years as a correspondent for the Reuters news agency in Washington, Paris, and the United Nations before leaving daily journalism in 2007. He loves to travel and has a particular fondness for Africa after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal and Mauritania in 1969-71.


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