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When the lights go out, students take off to airport

When the sun has set in one of the world’s poorest nations and the floodlights come on at Gbessia International Airport, the parking lot begins to fill with children.

  • Rukmini Callimachi, Associated Press in Conakry, Guinea

It is exam season in Guinea, ranked 160th out of 177 countries on the United Nations’ development index, and students flock to the airport every night because it is among the only places where they can count on finding the lights on.

Groups begin heading to the airport at dusk, hoping to reserve a coveted spot under the oval light cast by one of a dozen lampposts in the parking lot. Some come from over an hour’s walk away.

“I used to study by candlelight at home but that hurt my eyes. So I prefer to come here. We’re used to it,” said 18-year-old Mohamed Sharif, who sat under the fluorescent beam reviewing notes on Mongolia for the geography portion of his university entrance exam.

Only about a fifth of Guinea’s 10 million people have access to electricity. Those who do experience frequent power cuts.

According to UN data, the average Guinean consumes 89 kilowatt-hours a year – equivalent to running an air conditioner for four minutes a day. The typical American burns up about 158 times that.

With few families able to afford generators, students long ago discovered the airport. Parents require girls to be chaperoned to the airport by an older brother or a trusted male friend and even young children are allowed to stay out late so long as they return in groups.

“My parents don’t worry about me because they know I’m here to seek my future,” said Ali Mara, 10, busy studying a diagram of an insect’s cephalothorax.

They sit by age group with seven-to-nine-year-olds on a curb in a traffic island and teenagers on the concrete pilings flanking the national and international terminals. Few cars disturb their studies.

The students at the airport consider themselves lucky.

Those living farther away study at petrol stations. Others sit outside the homes of affluent families, picking up the crumbs of light falling from their illuminated living rooms.

“We have an edge because we live near the airport,” said Ismael Diallo, 22, a university student.

The lack of electricity is “a geological scandal,” said Michael McGovern, a political anthropologist at Yale University, quoting a phrase first used by a colonial administrator to describe Guinea’s untapped natural wealth.

The country’s rivers, if properly harnessed, could electrify the region, Mr McGovern said. It has gold, diamonds, iron and half the world’s bauxite, the raw material of aluminium.

For 23 years the former French colony has been in the grip of Lansana Conté, a reclusive and temperamental army general who seized the presidency in a 1984 coup. Mass demonstrations this year called for his resignation because of his poor health and the deteriorating economy, but he instead declared martial law.

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