Airport’s light guides students

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CONAKRY, Guinea

The sun has set in one of the world’s poorest nations, and as the floodlights come on at G’bessi International Airport, the parking lot begins filling with children.

The long stretch of pavement has the feel of a hushed library, each student sitting quietly, some moving their lips as their eyes traverse their French-language notes.

It’s exam season in Guinea, ranked 160th out of 177 countries on the United Nations’ development index, and schoolchildren flock to the airport every night because it’s among the only places where they’ll always find the lights on.

Groups of elementary and high-school students 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 walk for more than an hour to get there.

The lot is teeming with girls and boys by the time Air France Flight 767 rounds the Gulf of Guinea at 10:30 p.m. They hardly look up from their notes as the Boeing jet begins its descent over the dark city, or as the newly arrived passengers come out, shoving luggage carts over the cracked pavement.

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

Only about a fifth of Guinea’s 10 million people have access to electricity, and even those that do experience frequent power cuts. 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. Even young children are allowed to stay out late under the fluorescent bulbs, so long as they return in groups.

“My parents don’t worry about me because they know I’m here to seek my future,” says 10-year-old Ali Mara, who was busy studying a diagram of the cephalothorax, the front body section of some insects.

They sit by age group, with 7- 8- and 9-year-olds on a curb in a traffic island and teenagers on the concrete pilings flanking the national and international terminals. There are few cars to disturb their studies.

Most are working on memorizing their notes, struggling to commit to memory entire paragraphs dictated by their teachers on the history of Marxism or the unraveling of colonial Africa or the geology of Siberia. Tests are largely feats of memorization, a relic from Guinea’s French colonial rulers.

According to U.N. data, the average Guinean consumes 89 kilowatt-hours per year — the equivalent to keeping a 60-watt light bulb burning for two months — while the typical American burns up about 158 times that much.

The students at the airport consider themselves lucky. Those living farther away study at gas stations and come home smelling of gasoline.

Others sit on the curbs outside the homes of affluent families, picking up the crumbs of light falling out of their illuminated living rooms.

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