By the light of the arrivals gate

Guinea's electricity crisis is a metaphor for the country's postcolonial maladies

Still from Black Out.

For more than a decade, night-time arrivals at Gbessia International Airport in Conakry, Guinea, were greeted by dozens and sometimes hundreds of secondary school students studying in the parking lot. A foreign visitor’s bemusement would quickly evaporate, however, as they noticed that beyond the bright lights of the partially French-owned and operated airport, block after block of the city of two million people was completely dark. Without electricity at home and needing to study page upon page of handwritten lecture notes, many young Guineans made nightly pilgrimages to public spaces, such as the airport or hotel parking lots and gas stations where costly diesel generators kept the lights on.

Witnessing this phenomenon inspired film-maker Eva Weber’s documentary Black Out, shot in mid-2011 and released in November 2012 to international acclaim. The film is concise and artfully composed. As a former Conakry resident, I appreciated Weber’s beautiful portrait of this complex city, and that the entire story is told by Guineans, with the sole foreign voices coming from occasional audio clips of news broadcasts.

Beyond simply a “look at this sad situation” documentary, the story of students driven to succeed in the face of adversity is the starting point from which Weber subtly explores political and economic dynamics in Guinea.

It is certainly refreshing in a documentary on the challenges of an African country to not have the a westerner presenting the narrative. Black Out opens with clips of English-language news broadcasts contextualizing the state of Guinea in early 2011 – having just experienced its first democratic presidential election and struggling to manage competing foreign claims for its vast mineral wealth.

Moving forward, an unobtrusive and serious musical score weaves together interviews and accounts of Guinean secondary students, a teacher, and a worker at Conakry’s main power plant, Tombo, as they discuss their hopes and frustrations about their country’s development. Footage of everyday life in the roundabouts, neighborhoods, and markets of Conakry conveys the city’s bustling commercial atmosphere, which persists despite the challenges of weak infrastructure. This is neither war-torn hellscape nor poverty-stricken desperation, but rather capable, intelligent and ambitious people who feel they are being held back by forces out of their control.

“How does one prepare lessons without light?” the teacher asks, and I feel his pain, having spent many a night in Conakry straining my eyes as I graded papers or planned lessons by the light of a battery-powered lantern. Students read from their notes on topics from microbiology to Carthaginian history, information that must be memorized to pass their French-style school exams, but the terrible inconvenience and danger of staying out until 3am to study is only the beginning. The chronic lack of electricity in Guinea is a symptom of a much larger issue – an economy that struggles to produce formal employment and offers few career opportunities for high-school or university-educated Guineans.

Weber’s critiques the neocolonial economic situation. Train-loads of Guinea’s rust-colored bauxite is shown rolling through the city to the coastal port, where it will be shipped off and turned into aluminum for the profit of foreign-owned companies. “All Guineans understand that Guinea is rich,” the power-plant worker explains, and he is right. The students in Conakry lament that their country’s bauxite, iron-ore, diamond, gold and uranium resources are all being exploited by foreigners, and that poorly negotiated terms by unstable governments have thus far left the Guinean people with nothing to show for it. It is infuriating to hear young men and women proclaim that their best chances for success would be to leave Guinea. Or to hear the school teacher say that he didn’t have a chance to be a respected intellectual because he stayed in Guinea. The unfulfilled promises of politicians are lamented and highlight how domestic and international policy failures reverberate into every aspect of a citizen’s life.

Still from Black Out.

This commentary is what gives Black Out staying power. Conakry’s airport parking lot hasn’t been much of a study hall lately, as a new hydroelectric dam about two hours north of the city has tripled Guinea’s electricity output since 2015. The Kaléta dam cost USD446 million, 75 percent of which was paid for by China International Water and Electric Corporation (CWE), with the state covering the remaining 25 percent. While it has not been a panacea for Guinea’s power problems, there is now electricity in most of Conakry, most of the time, and CWE is now in negotiations with the Guinean government to build another, bigger hydroelectric dam.

The Chinese were not moved by the plight of Conakry’s students to help light-up Guinea, which faced a major economic downturn in 2014 due to the Ebola epidemic and is still struggling to achieve political stability. Chinese banks and corporations have been drastically increasing their investment in Guinea’s bauxite and iron-ore mining operations, including a take-over of Rio Tinto’s massive Simandou project last year..

Black Out aired for the first time on American public television recently. Although and the premise of the film no longer exists, the themes continue to be valid. Most students in Conakry can now study at home, but unless growth in the mining sectors fosters more diverse economic development, or the government of newly appointed African Union chair President Alpha Condé can implement policies that create much-needed jobs, Guineans will remain frustrated.

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