POPULATION: 6–7 million, another 2 million living abroad
LANGUAGE: French; Pulaar (Fulfulde); Susu; thirty African languages
RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; traditional religions
People have lived in the land now known as Guinea since the Stone Age. The Malinkes of Upper Guinea trace their ancestry to the founders of the great Mali Empire (AD 1200–1350).
Guinea's modern political boundaries were drawn by European colonists, especially the French, during the 1880s. In 1993, the first presidential elections in Guinea's history involving more than one party were held. However, the widespread evidence of cheating raised questions about the winner's right to rule.
Guinea is somewhat smaller than the state of Oregon. It shares borders with Guinea-Bissau and Senegal to the north, with Mali and Côte d'Ivoire to the east, and with Liberia and Sierra Leone to the south. Guinea's population is young—44 percent of its people are fourteen years old or younger—but it is growing more slowly than that of most African countries. Estimates place the total population between six and seven million. Another two million Guineans live outside the country. The population density is highest in the capital, Conakry.
To the east live the Fulani (also known as the Peul), who, with 36 percent of the total population, are considered the largest ethnic group in the country. The second largest group, the Malinke, live in eastern Guinea. The third largest group, the Susu, are concentrated in the west and along the coast in the areas around Conakry.
The peoples of Guinea speak thirty languages, including the colonial language, French. French is used widely in government and is the language of instruction in high schools and universities. Other than French, the language in widest use is Pulaar (Fulfulde), which is spoken by the largest ethnic group, the Fulani. Susu is gaining speakers because it is the main language of the capital city.
Each ethnic group has its own myths, legends, and folktales.
The greatest number of Guineans (80 percent) are Muslims (followers of Islam). Christians, mainly Catholics, make up 10 percent of the population. Followers of traditional religions make up the rest. Many Guineans rely on their traditional spirit beliefs and rely on marabouts (dervishes believed to have supernatural powers) and fetishes (superstitious objects) in times of trouble. The region that is least Islamic is the Forest Region, where men continue to practice secret rituals in the "sacred forest." The coastal region has the largest number of Christians. Missionary work has been strongest in that region since the nineteenth century.
Besides the month-long Ramadan fast, one of the most important holidays in the country is the Muslim feast of Tabaski . It celebrates the story of God's sparing Abraham's son, Isaac. He was saved when God provided a lamb for sacrifice. At the time of this feast, trucks bring thousands of sheep and goats from the country to the capital city for sale. By Islamic custom, butchers must slaughter animals by cutting the throat.
On August 17, people mark the day in 1977 when women protested against the market police and the laws that forbade private business. The head of State Sékou Touré (1922–84) gave in to the demands and abolished the restrictions.
Most Guineans combine Islam with traditional beliefs in everyday life and ceremonies. For example, in both religions, circumcision is a necessary rite. In Islam, it symbolizes purification, while in traditional beliefs it has a supernatural connection.
Rites of passage remain important to Guineans of all ethnic groups and are times for family and community celebration. At baptism, the father whispers the baby's name into its ear so that the child alone knows its name.
Weddings, too, are occasions for celebration. After the ceremony at the mosque, a couple also has a civil ceremony at a government office.
Muslims bury their dead on the day after death and hold eulogy ceremonies forty days after death. At Malinke ceremonies, family and friends gather to pray and recite the Koran (sacred text of Islam). Mourners help the family pay expenses by giving offerings to the prayer leaders. They throw wadded-up paper money into the circle where the prayer reciters sit.
Greetings are an important part of everyday life. Guineans call this custom salaam alekum , meaning offering the "peace of God." In greetings, people ask each other questions about the well-being of their families. People touch their right hand to their heart to show respect, sincerity, and thanks to God. Men and women usually do not shake hands with the opposite sex. Friends who have not seen each other recently place their hands on the other's shoulders and embrace, touching cheeks three times.
In cities and towns, Western-style dating is common. In rural areas, a young man might visit a fiancée at her home. Friends go out together to parties in towns or meet at community gatherings in the villages. Visiting is usually unplanned and it is customary to offer a glass of water to a visitor.
Because health care is not well developed and sanitation (disposal of wastes) is poor, life expectancy at birth is forty-five years. Guinea's infant mortality rate (percentage of babies who die) is extremely high. In 1996, figures showed that about 13 percent of newborn babies would not live to reach their first birthday.
In rural areas, houses usually are made of mud brick in round or rectangular form with thatched roofs. People who can afford sturdier structures build with concrete and iron roofing. Indoor running water is not common, even in the cities. Several city families often share a common standpipe outdoors.
Toilets are usually in the form of a dry pit. In the 1990s, up to one-third of households in Conakry had no toilet facilities. Because garbage collection in the capital is not efficient, enormous trash piles litter the streets. Electricity is available irregularly in Conakry. When electricity is available, city neighborhoods receive it in six-hour shifts beginning at 6:00 PM .
Men may have up to four wives by Muslim law. Among the Peul, it is not unusual to find men aged sixty and over who have wives in their teens. Their wives may be younger than their children–and even their grandchildren. Such families often number well over twenty children, with ages varying by forty or more years. Wives of the same husband usually live in separate houses, apart from each other, or in separate huts within the same compound. Children refer to their "stepmothers" as co-mothers ( co-mères ).
Guineans have made an art form of boubous , garments which they slip over their heads and wear over matching pants. The color and quality vary according to the owner's wealth. Women's outfits may be white or a single bright color. They are embroidered with thread in all colors.
Both men's and women's boubous are open at the side, both for style and to allow air circulation in hot and humid climates. Women usually wear matching turbans or head scarves, while men often wear Muslim skullcaps or stylish white or blue wool caps. Guineans usually reserve these for special occasions or Friday prayers, as the complete outfit costs a few hundred dollars.
European shirts and pants are popular with women, but it not common to see men in Western suits and ties.
Local Guinean restaurants offer three types of dishes: greens, peanut dishes, and meat stews. White rice almost always accompanies the stew. Some coastal people enjoy palm nut stew, which is eaten like soup. Most Guineans eat these for the midday meal between 10:00 AM and 1:00 PM . At night, families eat leftovers or may have porridge, bread, and tea.
Ethnic groups usually have their own specialties. The Peul, for example, are fond of thick, sour milk served over fine grain called fonio . For supper, the Susu prepare achecké , finely grated manioc cooked briefly in oil and eaten with grilled fish or chicken.
People drink a beverage similar to coffee, which comes from a plentiful forest plant. Palm wine is also a favorite drink. Citrus fruits, pineapples, bananas, and man-goes are common. Guinea's variable climate allows for oranges year-round.
Some food taboos do exist. Certain coastal peoples do not eat meat from monkeys because they believe that monkeys are people who are being punished for not observing Muslim Friday prayers. Most Muslims do not eat pork.
Literacy rates (the percentage of the people who can read and write) are improving, but in the 1990s as much as 80 percent of the population still was illiterate in French. Parents want their children to attend school. But because so many graduates are unemployed, people question the usefulness of schooling.
In the rural areas, parents often need extra help in the fields or with household chores. School fees are high for many families, and sometimes children must walk up to six miles to attend school.
Guineans have a rich cultural heritage. Performances of music and dance mark special occasions and holidays. Peul musicians play handcrafted flutes, drums, and string instruments, and they use calabashes (gourds) to beat out rhythms. In Malinke traditional music, men drum and play balafons (xylo-phones made from wood and gourds). Women wearing elaborate boubous dance with graceful arm movements, suggesting butterflies.
Drumming is a major Guinean art form. Apprentices learn from masters over a period of years. During Sékou Touré's time, the government supported the arts. Guineans produced some of Africa's finest theater and folklore ballets in international competitions.
Guineans produce fine literature. Malinke and Peul traditional griots , or praise-singers, are poets who recite and pass on past traditions through story and song. Authors such as the Malinke Camara Laye have produced writings of international acclaim in French. His novel, The African Child ( L'Enfant Noir ), tells of a child growing up in the Malinke homeland. The child's father is a goldsmith, and he learns about spirits and taboos from his parents. The novel is often used in French and literature classes at American universities.
Since economic reforms began in 1984, more than 50,000 Guineans have lost civil-service (government) jobs. Members of more than ten graduating classes from the university are looking for work. Guinea's economy depends on the mining and exporting of bauxite (aluminum ore) for 85 percent of its foreign earnings. But very little of the ore is processed in the country.
About 80 percent of the population works in subsistence or plantation farming, which accounts for only 24 percent of the gross domestic product.
Guineans are avid players of football (what Americans call soccer). During the 1970s, Guinea produced some of Africa's best teams. In the towns, children and young men play soccer wherever space allows. In Conakry, this means placing four large rocks as goal posts in the street. Since few people own cars, streets make convenient playing fields.
Basketball is also popular, and schools arrange competitions.
Girls play versions of hopscotch.
Few Guineans have television sets, and those who do must cope with failures of electric power. When the power is on, neighbors gather on the sidewalk to watch popular regional theater productions broadcast on Guinea's government TV station.
Guineans also go to the movies and to popular musical performances. The discos play a variety of Guinean, Cuban, Zairian, Senegalese, and American music.
Teenagers in rural areas are no longer shut off from international popular culture. It is becoming more common to find electricacal generators and satellite dishes in distant villages, where a night's entertainment can be had for a small admission fee.
Besides modern art made for tourists, Guineans still produce significant folk art and crafts. Some ethnic groups specialize in painting pottery, masks, house walls, and tombs.
For five hundred years, the Kissi people have been making stone statuettes for ceremonial rituals and for communicating with ancestors.
The Baga people on the coast make wooden busts of females, the Nimba . These have become the national symbol of Guinean art.
After Guinea became an independent nation in 1958, a harsh military government took power. The country's first decades of independence have been characterized by government persecution, torture, and starvation of thousands of political prisoners. Changes in the political system are improving civil and human rights. Still, some abuses continue.
Cattle theft in the Fouta Djallon mountainous region and increased armed burglary in the capital are two types of social problems that disturb Guineans. Many people blame rising crime in the cities on Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees. They accuse them of engaging in illegal trade in drugs and arms.
Guineans must also improve sanitation and health in the cities, ease overcrowding, and create jobs for unemployed people.
Africa on File. New York: Facts on File, 1995.
Nelson, Harold D. et al, ed. Area Handbook for Guinea . Washington, D. C.: American University, 1975.
World Travel Guide. Guinea. [Online] Available http:/www.wtgonline.com/country/gn/gen.html , 1998.