PILGRIMS jostle outside the Islamic Centre in Conakry. A stressed-looking official barks at them to queue in single file. Rain pours down the sides of a dilapidated portico. Hawkers hover, flogging plastic sandals and kola nuts.
These men and women have travelled to the capital from all corners of Guinea to apply for a “pilgrimage package” that will take them to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on the Haj in September. All Muslims are supposed to visit the holy city at least once in a lifetime. Guinea has been allotted 7,200 places this year by the Saudi authorities. Some pilgrims have been saving all their lives for this opportunity. Everyone is anxious that their papers are processed in time.
However, trying to organise a foreign trip for thousands of people—most of whom have never left the country—is no easy task. Complicating matters is pent-up demand. Pilgrims from Guinea were banned from taking part in the Haj for two years because of the Ebola virus, which killed more than 2,500 of their compatriots. Saudi Arabia only lifted the ban at the end of June, so officials have had little time to prepare.
“Some of those applying are not able to read or write and when they come to the centre they can’t manage the paperwork,” says Oumar Diallo, a local journalist. Many find that their passports are no longer valid and must be replaced with new biometric ones.
That has left the passport office in Conakry flooded by impatient applicants. They occupy every chair and every inch of floor space. The office cannot cope: people have been forced to spend up to a week in the waiting room before being seen.
This is but one of the many sacrifices demanded of the faithful. In a country where the average per capita income is $1.80 a day, it is not easy to raise $4,470 for the pilgrimage package (which includes flights, hotels, food, injections and visas). It is especially hard so soon after Ebola, which badly damaged so many people’s livelihoods. By one estimate, economic growth fell from 4.5% to 2.4% during the outbreak.
Mariama Conté says she has been planning to go on the Haj ever since she started her clothes business back in 1984. “I saved up enough money and was ready to leave the year that Ebola hit. That time was very bad. Often I was not selling anything, but I didn’t give up,” she says. “It is this year that God has called me to Mecca.”
Guinea sits near the bottom of the UN human development index, at 182nd out of 188. Corruption, poverty and disease are endemic, leaving religion the only source of hope for many. Battered yellow taxis with “God will provide” and “Allah is one” painted on their bumpers crawl through Conakry.
When asked about the pre-Haj chaos, the vice-minister of religious affairs, Karamo Diawara, said: “It has not been easy, but by the grace of God we are overcoming the difficulties.” It is a common refrain in Guinea.
Source - economist