Kids gather in the airport parking lot, at gas stations or under the windows of wealthy people's homes to study for exams after sunset...

Share story

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 fills with children.

The long stretch of pavement has the feel of a hushed library, each student sitting quietly studying his or her 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 one of a dozen lampposts in the parking lot. Some come from over an hour’s walk away.

The lot is teeming with girls and boys by the time Air France Flight 767 rounds the Gulf of Guinea at an hour-and-a-half before midnight.

“I used to study by candlelight at home but that hurt my eyes. So I prefer to come here,” says 18-year-old Mohamed Sharif, who sat under the light 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 who do experience frequent power cuts. With few families able to afford generators, students long ago discovered the airport.

Parents require girls to be chaperoned by an older brother or a trusted male friend. Even young children are allowed to stay out late as long as they return in groups.

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.

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

It’s an edge in preparing for an exam in a country where unemployment is rampant, inflation has pushed the price of a large bag of rice to $30 and a typical government functionary earns around $60 a month.