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POPULATION: 10.2 million
LANGUAGE: French, Pulaar (Fulfulde), Susu, 30 African languages
RELIGION: Islam, Christianity, traditional religions
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Fulani; Malinke


People have inhabited the territory now known as Guinea since the stone age. Ancestors of the coastal and forest peoples lived in Guinea before the birth of Christ. They hunted and gathered or grew rice in small communities. Early peoples of the savannah and central plateau were part of larger empires and kingdoms. The Malinkes of Upper Guinea trace their ancestry to the founders of the great Mali Empire (ad 1200–1350). Song-hay rulers transformed Mali into a still greater empire which flourished into the 16th century. Ancestors of the Peuhl group began migrating to the central plateau in ad 600.

Portuguese explorers first visited the Guinean coast in the 15th century, but sustained European contact came from slave traders. In the early 1800s the French moved south from Senegal to establish trading posts along the coastal estuaries. These inlets and estuaries offered hiding places for slavers, allowing trade to continue until the end of the American civil war. European powers fixed Guinea's modern political boundaries during the scramble for Africa in the 1880s. From 1850–1900, the Peul and the Malinke fought a series of battles with the French. Eventually, Samory Touré, now a national hero, surrendered to the French in 1898. For the next 60 years, the French ruled Guinea through canton chiefs who collected taxes, maintained order, and raised armies for the colonizer.

Guinea set a precedent for many African countries when it rejected President DeGaulle's offer in 1958 to become part of a greater French world community. Led by Sékou Touré, the Guinean “revolution” deteriorated into totalitarian rule and dictatorship. A period of isolation and persecution reigned during which two million Guineans fled their country for personal safety and economic survival. In 1984, Sékou Touré died during heart surgery in Cleveland. A 10-year period of free market liberalization and democratic change led by General Lansana Conté followed.

In 1993 General Conté entered civilian life and won Guinea's first multi-party presidential elections. However, widespread manipulation and vote-rigging occurred, raising questions of Conté's legitimacy. Flawed presidential elections in 1998 and again in 2003 (which were boycotted) consolidated his power even if they did not legitimate it in the eyes of his opposition. A contentious national referendum in 2003 cleared the way for Conté to run for a third consecutive term, removing age restraints on the presidency, and essentially making him “president for life.” But an attempt on his life in 2005 signaled his widespread unpopularity.

In 2006–7, national strikes led by trade union and civil society activists turned violent, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. However, the protests forced major political concessions, including one that reestablished the post of prime minister with extensive powers, and the right of civil society to approve the designee to that position.


Guinea is somewhat smaller than the state of Oregon. It shares borders with Guinea-Bissau and Senegal to the north; with Mali and Cote d'Ivoire to the east; and with Liberia and Sierra Leone to the south. In all, Guinea spans 450 miles from east to west, and about 350 miles from north to south, curving southeast from the Atlantic. Guinea's population is young—44% is 14 years old or younger—but it is growing slower than most African countries at just under 2%. Estimates place the total population over 10 million. Another 2 million Guineans live abroad having fled persecution under Sékou Touré. Density is highest in the capital of Conakry, in parts of the Fouta Djallon plateau, and in areas of the Forest Region.

Guinea has four distinct geographical regions: Maritime Guinea, Middle Guinea, Upper Guinea, and the Forest Region. Each of these regions is home to one of four major ethnic groups. On the monsoonal coastal plain live the Susu (15%). This region receives up to 4 meters of rain yearly, two-thirds of it in July and August. During those months it rains hard nearly every night and sometimes for days on end. Brackish estuaries reaching many miles inland make rich fishing grounds. The region produces rice and many fruits, including pineapples.

To the east on the Fouta Djallon plateau live the Peul (36%). Also called Fulani, these people make their livelihoods herding cattle on the sandy highlands and farming in the fertile valleys that wind far below. This picturesque region includes buttes, escarpments, waterfalls, and rock faces 2,000–5,000 feet in elevation. Some forested portions are home to antelopes and monkeys. Further east and southeast lies the western frontier of a great savannah, which spreads eastward at 1,000 feet in elevation into the Ivory Coast and Mali. This is the home of the Malinke (23%) and the headwaters of the Niger River. The region is sparsely wooded and interrupted by rocky spurs. Farmers grow wet rice, fonio, peanuts, and sweet potatoes in the river valleys, and herders raise cattle on the high plains.

To the south is the humid Forest Region, which ranges from 1,500 to over 4,000 feet. Mt. Nimba, Guinea's tallest point (5,748 feet) lies in the extreme southeast. The rainfall is more balanced, and the highlands produce rice, maize, cassava, kola, oil palms, bananas, and coffee. The major ethnic groups are the Guérzé, Kissi, Toma, and Mano. They also have members living in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). These groups share some cultural characteristics and together make up 15% of the national population.


The peoples of Guinea speak 30 languages, including the colonial language, French. French is used widely in government and is the language of instruction in high schools and universities. Aside from French, the languages in widest use are Pulaar (Fulfulde), which is spoken by the largest ethnic group, the Peul. Susu is gaining converts because it is the lingua franca (common language) of the capital.


Each ethnic group has its own myths, legends, and folktales. Of these, the Sundiata epic of the Malinke group has had a great impact on Malinke cultural, social, and political identity. It also has gained international literary fame as an epic poem. In 1960, a history professor published the poem in written form for the first time. The epic tells the story of a crippled boy, Sundiata, who rises to lead armies and saves his people from an evil warrior-king, Soumaro Kanté. Sundiata wins the Battle of Karina in ad 1206 and establishes the Mali Empire. Historically, we know that the battle occurred and that the victors drew up a charter to govern the kingdoms of the new empire. The charter has codified behavior and social relations for 800 years.


The vast majority of Guineans (80%) profess Islam. Christians, mainly Catholic, make up 10% of the population. Traditional indigenous African religion overlays these outside faiths and accounts for the rest. Islam came into West Africa via North African Muslim traders beginning in the 8th century ad. By ad 1000 ruling groups had adopted it as their faith too. The Peul established Islam in Guinea through a series of jihads (holy wars), notably that of El Hadj Oumar around 1850. Samory Touré, an anticolonial warrior and empire ruler, also imposed Islam by jihad around 1880 in Upper Guinea. Islam sustained itself because of its compatibility with traditional customs and family structure. It also allowed former slaves or their descendants in the Fouta Djallon to improve their social and economic standing in Peul society. The Friday work day ends at 1:00 pm so that Guineans may pray at the mosque.

Guineans rely strongly upon their traditional spirit beliefs and resort to marabouts (dervishes believed to have supernatural powers) and fetishers in times of trouble. The least Islamicized region is the Forest Region, where males continue to practice secret rites in the “sacred forest.” The Coastal Region has the largest number of Christians, where the missionary presence since the 19th century was strongest.


Besides the month-long Ramadan fast, one of the most celebrated holidays in the country is the Muslim feast of Tabaski. Tabaski celebrates the sparing of Abraham's son, who was saved when God provided a lamb for sacrifice. Trucks bring thousands of sheep and goats from upcountry to the capital for sale. By Islamic custom, butchers must slaughter animals by cutting the throat and allowing the blood to flow. On the morning of the feast, people colorfully dressed in their new clothes fill the streets and carry their prayer mats to mosque. The remainder of the day is spent greeting friends and feasting with the family.

On August 17, people remember the day in 1977 when women protested the market police and the laws that forbade private trade. Sékou Touré gave in to the demands and abolished the restrictions. Nowadays, everybody celebrates the day as a national holiday. Government officials honor women in ceremonies throughout the week. On the morning of the holiday, women sweep the streets of the capital.


Whatever their commitment to Islam, most Guineans still hold to some traditional beliefs and combine the two in everyday life and ritual. One example is circumcision. In both religions circumcision is a necessary rite. In Islam it suggests purification, while in traditional beliefs it has a supernatural quality. Islam advises that circumcision take place on the seventh day, the fortieth day, or when a child reaches the age of seven. Mystery cults and secret societies that worship animal or nature spirits initiate new members at puberty. In both cases, circumcision takes place and satisfies both religions.

Rites of passage remain important to Guineans of all ethnic groups and are cause for family and community celebration or observance. At baptisms, the father whispers the baby's name into its ear so that the child alone knows its name. Names tell about the family, its caste, and ancestors. Weddings, too, are cause for celebration. After the ceremony at the mosque, couples are married civilly at a government office. When the magistrate asks if anyone objects to the marriage, a friend accuses the couple in jest of having broken their vows. The accusation lightens the ceremony with humor and amusement. Then the groom offers a symbolic sum of about 50 cents to the magistrate. In the evening, the family closes off the street where the reception of music and dancing take place. Women come up to the musicians in small groups, waving the equivalent of $5 and $10 bills high above their heads and putting these on the musicians' heads.

Muslims bury their dead on the day after death and hold eulogy ceremonies 40 days after death. At Malinke ceremonies, family and friends gather to pray and recite the Quran. Mourners help the family pay expenses by giving offerings to the prayer leaders. They throw wadded up bills into the circle where the reciters are sitting. A praise-singer and his assistant, masters of ceremony, mention by name those who contribute and the amount they give.


Greetings are an important part of everyday life. Guineans call this custom salaam alekum, meaning offering the “peace of God.” People would consider it rude not to greet their friends, officemates, or co-workers first before assuming the tasks of the day. Greetings involve asking each other questions about the well-being of the family. 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 touch cheeks three times.

In urban settings, Western-style dating is common. In rural areas, a young man might come to 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 spontaneous, and it is customary to offer a glass of water to the visitor.


Nearly half of the population lives below the official poverty line, but living standards are gradually improving. Since the 1990s, life expectancy at birth has increased from 45 to 50 years, and the infant mortality rate declined from 13.4 (1996) to 8.7 babies out of 100 (2008 est.) that did not live to reach their first birthday.

Houses typically are made of mud brick with thatched roofs in round or rectangular form. Those who can afford more durable structures build with concrete and galvanized iron roofing. Running water is uncommon, even in the cities, where several families might share a common stand pipe. Latrines are usually dry pits, but as many as one-third of households in Conakry lack toilet facilities. Inadequate garbage collection in the capital allows enormous trash piles to litter the streets. Despite the construction of two major dams on the Konkouré River, electricity remains sporadic in the capital, with neighborhoods taking turns to receive power under “load-shedding” arrangements.

To compensate for poor landline telephones, most urban-ites use cell phones while in rural areas messages are still commonly sent via friends and family by word of mouth. People are used to walking great distances, whether in the country or city. In the cities, most people commute to work and travel to market in crowded minivans. The fare costs about 10 cents. Conakry also has many taxis, usually worn-out Toyotas that fit two passengers up front and squeeze four into the back.


If they have the means, men may take up to four wives by Muslim law. Among the Peul, it is not unusual to find men aged 60 and above who have wives in their teens. Their wives may be younger than their children and even their grandchildren. Such families often number well over 20 children, with ages varying 40 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 “step mothers” as co-mothers (co-mères). Women play important income-generating roles in some families by trading, selling at the market, and working small businesses.

Among some groups, endogamy is widespread, meaning that individuals marry within their own clan. In these cases, family members may be related in two or three ways, as cousins and as nieces or nephews, or aunts and uncles simultaneously.


Guineans have made an artform of boubous, which they slip over their heads and wear over matching pants. Their color and quality speak about the owner's wealth. Tailors make stylish boubous from bazin cloth, which has intricate designs in the weave. Women's outfits may be white or a single bright color, upon which tailors sew elaborate embroidered designs. The embroidery thread comes in all colors. If a tailor is unfamiliar with a design, Guineans bring a picture or a model to copy. Both men and women's boubous are open at the side for style and to allow air circulation in hot and humid climates. Women generally wear matching turbans or head scarves, while men often wear a Muslim skull cap or stylish white or blue wool cap. Guineans usually reserve these for special occasions or Friday prayers, as the complete outfit costs a few hundred dollars. Cheaper versions feature simpler designs and less expensive cloth for use at home and work. The Peul are famous for their indigo dyes and batik patterns. Women, especially of the Forest and Coastal regions, also wear African-style wraparounds (pagnes) with matching blouses or European blouses. European shirts and trousers are popular too, but it is less common to see men in Western suits and ties.


The menu boards of local Guinean restaurants in towns and cities typically announce three offerings: greens, peanut, and meat stews. Invariably, white rice accompanies the stew. Some coastal people enjoy palm nut stew, which is eaten like soup. Most Guineans eat these sauces for the midday meal between 10:00 and 1:00. 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 poured over a fine grain, called fonio. Families and friends may share this mixture together, each with a soup spoon, reaching into the cala-bash bowl. For supper, the Susu prepare an Ivorian dish called achecké, which is finely graded manioc cooked briefly in oil and eaten with grilled fish or chicken. A popular dish from Senegal is riz gras, literally “fat rice.” People order this dish with fish or meat mixed with cabbage, carrots, squash, and cassava heaped over rice cooked in oil. In the Fouta Djallon, people drink a beverage similar to coffee which comes from the forest and contains antimalarial properties. In the Forest Region, palm wine is a favorite drink. Fruits are abundant in Guinea; citrus, pineapples, bananas, and mangoes are common. Guinea's variable climate allows for oranges the year-round.

Some taboos exist. Certain coastal peoples do not eat monkeys because they believe them to be people who once did not observe Friday prayers. Most Muslims refuse to eat pork, and if strict in their practice, do not drink alcohol or smoke.


Literacy rates are improving, but only 30% of the population over 15 years old is literate in French. Parents want their children to attend school, but high levels of unemployed graduates raise questions about the usefulness of schooling. Many obstacles prevent children from completing primary school. 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 distances up to six miles to attend school. Crowding and low standards are common in public elementary and high schools; therefore, parents with the means usually send their children to private schools. Dropout rates are high, and less than 25% of children go on to high school. In the 1970s the government “Africanized” the textbooks and the curricula to make learning more relevant. The government used civics classes to teach students party propaganda and doctrine.

In the 1970s and 80s, technical schools with low standards graduated thousands of agricultural extension agents, to whom the government guaranteed employment. These guarantees no longer exist leaving most university graduates unemployed and looking for work. Th rough technical assistance, foreign donors help the government build schools, train teachers, develop curricula, and manage education, but enormous challenges remain especially in rural areas.


Guineans have a rich cultural heritage. Performances of music and dance mark special occasions and holidays. Traditionally, music and dance served ritual purposes at birth, initiation, and death, or seasonal cycles of planting and harvesting. People danced on their way to harvest a field. Peul musicians typically play handcrafted flutes, drums, and stringed instruments, and use calabashes to beat out rhythms. Malinke traditional music currently is blending with traditional forms. The men drum and play balafons (xylophones) while women wearing elaborate boubous dance with graceful arm movements, suggesting butterflies. In the Forest, one popular hunter's dance consists of masked dancers in bark, raffia, and animal skin costumes walking swiftly on stilts. Forester drummers are highly accomplished and send messages with their drum beats to neighboring communities. Drumming is a major Guinean art form, and apprentices learn from the masters over a period of years. During Sékou Touré's time, the government supported the arts, and Guineans produced some of Africa's finest theater and folkloric ballets in international competitions.

Guineans excel in literature. Malinke and Peul traditional griots, or praise-singers, are bards who narrate past traditions through story and song, often with musical accompaniment. They are skilled professionals trained in their art by members of their family and profession. Authors such as the Malinke Camara Laye have produced written work 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 the American university classroom in French and literature courses.


The lack of jobs continues to plague the country. Following structural adjustment in 1984, more than 50,000 Guineans lost their civil service jobs, and since then the ranks of university graduates and skilled workers looking for work has continued to swell. Guinea's economy is dependent on bauxite exports for 85% of its foreign earnings, but almost no processing of the ore occurs in the country. Therefore, few Guineans benefit from this major industry, and of the nearly 3.7 million people in the labor force, approximately three out of four work in subsistence or plantation agriculture, which accounts for only 24% of the gross domestic product.


Guineans are avid soccer players and during the 1970s produced some of Africa's most competitive teams. Basketball is also popular, and schools arrange competitions. 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. Girls play versions of hopscotch. A less popular game that men play is the French game of “bocci ball.”


Entertainment and recreation revolve mostly around socializing, rites of passage, and sporting events. The few city parks found in Conakry like Ignace Deen and the 2nd of October are not well kept, are unsafe at night, and aside from joggers, are not generally frequented. Conakryites wishing to get away from it all on weekends may spend Sundays at small resorts outside of town such as the Chien qui Fume, named for its rock formations resembling Snoopy the Dog lying on his doghouse smoking his pipe. Marriages often are held on weekends and the wedding parties provide entertainment and recreation at hotels or in the street.

Few Guineans can afford televisions or satellite dishes, and those who do must cope with electrical outages. When the power is on, neighbors gather round on the sidewalk to watch popular regional theatrical productions broadcast on Guinea's government station. Similar to American serials, these plays in the local languages are about daily life and teach about human foibles, solving community problems, and coping with social challenges.

Guineans also go to the movies and to musical performances featuring musicians from around Africa. Miriam Make-ba, who once was married to the late Kwamé Touré (Stokely Carmichael), lived in Guinea and gives performances on her return visits. The discos play a variety of Guinean, Cuban, Zairian, Senegalese, and American music. In rural areas, teenagers are no longer shut off from international popular culture. It is becoming more common to find generators, solar panels, and satellite dishes in remote villages where a night's entertainment can be had for a small admission fee.


Besides modern tourist art, Guineans still produce significant folk art and crafts. Some ethnic groups excel in painting pottery, masks, house walls, and tombs. The Kissi people have made stone sculpture statuettes for 500 years for rituals and to communicate with ancestors. The Baga people on the coast make wooden busts of females, the Nimba. These fecund images have become the national symbol of art.

Guineans are reviving their handicrafts industries. For example, the Peul make leather sandals of very high quality, and women weave decorative raffia place mats and baskets. In cooperatives, women dye fabric for making clothing, tablecloths, and napkins. Local weavers still produce cloth strips for traditional garments, and tailoring and embroidery have remarkable artistic merit.


Guinea has not fully recovered from the persecutions, tortures, and starvation of thousands of political prisoners in the 1960s and 70s. Reforms in the political system have improved civil and human rights, but the government remains highly intolerant of dissent. In 1985, 50 Malinke officers were shot after an alleged coup attempt, and more than 100 people died in ethnic-related conflict during the 1993 elections. In 2006–07, nationwide strikes and protests over depressed wages, the lack of jobs, and a growing discontent with pace of political reform turned violent and resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of youths. In Guinea, people aged 15–40 are considered to be the youth of the country. It is this group that is becoming especially impatient with the lack of services, poor governance, and few work opportunities. Corruption is seemingly everywhere and has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots.


Gender presents a paradox in Guinea. On the one hand women are strong and assertive, but on the other they are subject to societal discrimination, prostitution, and female genital mutilation. In 1977 it was a women's march that forced Sékou Touré to abandon his failed economic policies. Yet in 2008 women are weakly represented in politics with 20 of 114 parliamentary seats, 1 governor and 2 prefects, 3 cabinet members, and 5 of 26 Supreme Court justices. Though the Ministry of Social Affairs and Women's and Children's Issues has created greater awareness of gender discrimination, in general women have fewer rights than men, are easily divorced under Muslim law, are disadvantaged by inheritance laws, and in rural areas are subject to the heavy demands of childbearing, childrearing, and subsistence farming. There is a national women's empowerment plan (2007–11), but it is slow to get off the ground.


Africa South of the Sahara 2007. “Guinea.” London: Europa Publishers, 2008.

Kaplan, Robert. “The Coming Anarchy.” The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994.

Nelson, Harold D. et al, ed. Area Handbook for Guinea. Washington, D. C.: American University, 1975.

—by R. Groelsema

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