December 2022-January 2023, Guinea Conakry
Background to the story
Famoro Dioubate was born and raised in the griot tradition, or jeli, to a Malinké family in Guinea Conakry. He started playing his instrument, the balafon at seven years old. Very early on, he proved to be a gifted player. By the age of 18, Famoro's expertise on the balafon earned him a position in the Ensemble National de Guinea. A few years later he was taken on tour to Australia, France, Fiji, and the United States, where he finally made his home in 1999.
For many years Famoro tried to get legal papers to stay in the United States, unsuccessfully. It wasn't until his American-born daughter, Sona Dioubate, turned 21 that Famoro's network of American friends and family could support him to get his Green Card.
Meanwhile, while living in the United States, Famoro left behind a large family in Guinea. He left his first born daughter, Fatumata (or Timé) when she was only three years old. While he was abroad, his father, his brother Sourakata, and several other family members past away. His mother and his daughter eagerly awaited his return, along with many family members, some of whom were small children or not yet born when Famoro left. His mom often pleaded that she wanted to see her son before she died. She wasn't sure it would happen.
Guinea is situated in West Africa. The country gained independence from French colonization in 1958. Guinea is among the poorest nations in the world according to the World Bank. Over 80% of the people live on less than $5 per day. Famoro was fortunate to find a good apartment in New York City and an extensive network of American friends and fellow musicians who supported him to stay in America until his legal papers were obtained. He created the band Kakande during this time, and offered his cultural and musical gifts to the American people in prestigious places such as the MET museum, Carnegie Hall, and more. Still, the US government had no category or status in which he could find legality. Famoro struggled to earn a living, but still he was able to further his music career, and send home $50-$100 a month to feed his extended family.
Despite the distance, Famoro stayed in close touch with his family in Guinea, speaking by phone, Whatsapp, and Messenger, with even the youngest children who never met him in person. His return was full of tears, joy, and song.
Lisa Feder, Manding Grooves co-founder and one of Famoro's dear American friends, vowed to return with Famoro and film it for the rest of the world. The story is still under development. Plus, a 15 minute documentary short is due for release in March 2023. If you'd like to stay tuned as this story develops, send Lisa a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Story Begins
Famoro took AirFrance from JFK to Paris where I met him in Charles de Gaulle airport. We landed in Guinea Conakry at 9 pm on December 11, 2022. Sekouba Kandia Kouyate, the current director of the Ensemble National of Guinea, was waiting for us. He and Famoro grew up together in Matam, Conakry.
Sekouba drove us from the airport to Famoro's family's home where his mother was waiting. Before leaving New York, Famoro told his mother to count 10 days. "Before the ten days is finished, you are going to see me," he promised. But he didn't tell her he was leaving the next day. Only Sekouba knew. When we got our luggage into the car, Sekouba called Hadja, Famoro's mother. It was nearly 10 pm.
It is common for West Africans to not tell anyone of their precise travel plans. They don't want any bad juju to affect their travel. When we pulled up to the family compound, Famoro was almost lifted out of the car by his younger brothers. Among them were Siara and Abdoulaye. Abdoulaye, who we call by his nickname, Colonel, stayed next to us for the following weeks, taking care of our every need. You can see him when Famoro is hugging his mom and a spotlight shines on them. Abdoulaye is in the background. I don't know how we would have survived without Abdoulaye. He is loyal and respectful to Famoro as his elder brother. In this video you can also see that Hadja, Famoro's mom is just in shock, and Timé, his daughter, as well as his sisters, are just overcome with emotion.
This is Abdoulaye "Colonel" Dambakaté, returning from Friday prayer at the mosque.
Sick in Conakry- what its really like when your African friend says he needs money to help
Famoro told me several times this past year while still in New York that his mom was sick and he needed to send money. I heard, but it did not process as loudly as my inner voice saying, yes, but I'm not going to give you money. I've already given you so much over the years. So I didn't. And it didn't really affect me. Eventually Famoro's friend Demba gave him $100 for mom. But that money and the medicine it bought was long gone by the time we got there. Over the course of the first week, I saw that she was suffering. She coughed deeply, and it was exhausting her. Her face was tired and drooping. The doctor told us it was asthma, intensified by the wood-burning fire for the daily meal, and the pollution of Conakry. I'd never seen asthma to this degree! There was no escape. She didn't have an air conditioner, an expense to dear to save up for when you need to feed a family. Sitting inside her room, away from the smoke, would be unbearable during the heat of the day.
The young, neighborhood doctor came and prescribed an oxygen treatment that would cost $100 and several medicines including one for asthma, but three others that I found largely speculative. I sent word back to my friends in the States.
We gave that doctor $100 for the treatment, which did not seem to work at all. I did a small fundraising campaign (some of you might have donated and for that, we thank you!). It was enough to buy and install an air conditioner in mom's room where she could sleep, free of pollution at night. It was also largely enough to buy the medicine the doctor prescribed. The family just assumed we had to buy all four prescriptions, a costly endeavor, and give them all to her. I suggested we take the asthma medicine (she couldn't use the inhaler I had brought her- she couldn't coordinate pushing the pump and inhaling the vapor. The liquid variety was unavailable for awhile but came back in stock. $7. I bought that, and I opted for the antihistimine. But I told Colonel, don't give her the antihistimine after day 2. See if just the asthma medicine works alone. It did. She went from an 80 year old on the brink of death to a charming, smiling, youthful elder.