Until now updates to this blog have not been happening. The internet at the Peace Corps office in the training city of Dubreka was depressingly slow and WordPress didn’t load well enough to post regular updates. I kept my family and friends in the loop with email updates. Those updates were more detailed than what you are seeing here; I’ve gone through and copied the most relevant parts of those emails. The following posts are some o the highlights from my first few months in Guinea. The last two posts are the full versions of my most recent updates. Enjoy 🙂
November 29, 2011
Our travels started in Philadelphia where we boarded a bus bound for JFK in New York. This two hour drive extended to three-plus hours because the bridge we needed was closed and so we drove through all of Brooklyn, where we stopped for a half-hour as we were checked for bombs by the transit authority. We made it to JFK with time to spare and waited around for our flight to Brussels.
The flight to Belgium was great, for me at least. I had a window seat and an empty seat next to me. I slept for all but an hour. Our layover in Brussels was uneventful until we all boarded and found out that two of the girls’ tickets had either been cancelled or never paid for. With empty seats on the plane and it being clear thirty-four of us were travelling together I anticipated the airline to let them on anyway. They didn’t. Those two had to stay in Brussels as the rest of us headed off to Guinea. They were able to get ahold of the necessary people and arrived only a day late. I would imagine the girls were really stressed, but one of them knows French pretty well and they made it here alright.
We landed in Conakry and were met by the Country Director (CD) and the Safety and Security Coordinator (SSD). We loaded the PC cars full of our baggage and boarded a bus build for far fewer than our thirty-two (remember, we lost two!) and headed to the PC compound.
November 30, 2011
The group I’ll be training with is made up of thirty-four young men and women. We are a young set of Peace Corps Trainees (PSTs) with the oldest at 27-years-old with the majority of us 22 to 24. Most training groups have retired PSTs and some even middle-aged, married couples. Our average age is low due to Guinea being one of the Peace Corps countries where service still resembles what most expect when they hear Peace Corps. There are many health issues that arise here as well as a requirement to be physically active; we’ll be riding PC-issued mountain bikes over rocky and dirt roads.
We have people from all over the country. There are five of us from California (Monterey, Palo Alto, 2 from LA, and myself), three of us are from the Twin Cities area, a few are from PA and a couple from NC. Georgia is represented with a couple PSTs from Atlanta and one from the Athens area. We have a UF Gator and a VT Hokie. Chicago, Seattle, Buffalo, Montreal and Boston all have PSTs here. Hawaii is in the picture, as are Tennessee and Wisconsin. G21 really is a nation-wide effort.
December 2, 2011
Yesterday we celebrated the first birthday in our training group! After a day of training and a delicious dinner (all the food has been amazing, more on this in a future post) the majority of us decided to head to the beach bar. There are always a ton of local Guineans at the beach playing soccer, dancing and generally filling time.
There was music playing at the bar and we sat down in plastic chairs on the beach. Not long after we ordered our beers a small man in workout clothes started dancing not too far from us. Some of the more outgoing of us started to dance with him and soon all but a few of the PSTs were dancing in a circle with a dozen local Guineans! More locals joined us (even the waitresses!) and we took turns dancing in the center of the circle as the rest kept the beat by clapping. The energetic, small man spent the most time in the circle and pulled many of us in to dance. He was particularly fond of the tall, blonde-haired Minnesotan, who was called to dance half a dozen times.
My Host Family
December, 9, 2011
We’ve been with our host families for nearly a week now. My French is already progressing, no surprise there since there’s a necessity for me to learn it in order to communicate with my family (when I talk about my family from here out it means my Guinean family). There are a lot of them. My dad’s name is Momo, mom is Rama. I have eight brother and sisters: Odad, Djenab, Fatoumata, Salimatou, Mariama, Aminata, Aboubacar and Abass. The family name is Damba and they’ve given me a Guinean name. My name is Mohamed Damba. As this is primarily a Muslim nation Mohamed is a very popular name. In fact, my nephews name is Mohamed. Sometimes he is being called and I turn around also.
My brother Odad speaks the best French so I spend most of my time talking with him. My mom and dad both know a good amount of French but I don’t think either is literate. Odad is a student at the university and studying cultural administration. I’m not sure what that means. I still don’t know what my dad does for a living but I only see him in the morning and at night. Pretty much I say good morning and goodnight to him. My host mom loves to feed me, but I am their 7th volunteer so they are good about not pushing me to the point of bursting. They are also great about giving me my privacy.
December, 11, 2011
Now that I am living with a Guinean family I no longer have the luxury of a shower. I’m already pretty darn good at bucket baths (toot toot!). I get about two baths out of a single bucket. There is a small concrete building with a tin roof outside the main house where we take turns bathing. I prefer bathing at night before bed, while most of the family prefers washing in the morning. It’s been working out well that I don’t have to wait to use the bathing room. The first few times I took a bucket bath it took me quite a while to feel clean. Now I’m in and out in about ten minutes. I have a system all worked out. If you need to know how to bucket bathe, I’m the guy you’ll want to talk to! Not having warm water hasn’t been an issue because it’s so damn hot and humid that all I do is sweat. I love the cold baths before climbing in bed.
Shaving has been a bit of a hassle since arriving here in Guinea. I’ve decided to beard it up for a while (sorry, Brendan). It’s much easier to maintain a beard than to stay clean shaven. A few of the other volunteers have decided the same thing.
Difficult Cultural Differences
December 16, 2011
There is a large gender gap here. Imagine classical gender roles and then balloon those tenfold. Women do ALL the housework: laundry, dishes, food preparation, cleaning. The men spend most the day sitting around arguing about the recent Real Madrid/Barcelona soccer match. Some girls are lucky to go to school but the boys get first priority. My family is pretty well off and all the kids attend school. My sister is studying math at the local university, my brother is studying art, and another is in high school still. The vendors at the markets who are selling food and produce are all women, while the men sell finished goods and electronics.
Everyone is late. Always. It may even me a national mandate that you may never be on time. As a very punctual person I’ve been having a hard time with this. I don’t mind the waiting. What gets to me is that I’m used to considering tardiness as disrespecting my time. That’s not the case here, people are just late. It has nothing to do with the people involved. I’m slowly getting used to it. I carry a book with me now.
December 23, 2011
Yesterday was site and organization announcements. I know where I’m going to be living the next two years! The town… DABOLA!! The organization… CAFODEC !!
Dabola is a medium-sized city (about 18,500 people) and is considered a “cross-roads city.” Dabola is in the exact center of the country and the largest highway in the country runs along it’s outskirts. I’m about nine hours away from the capital and four hours from the next major city. There is a dam near the town and so I’ll get somewhat regular electricity and rumor has it that there is an internet café. The next closest volunteers are both education volunteers and one CED volunteer; all are one to two hours away. There is a “national park” just north of the city and a large river to the south. Apparently there is also a waterfall nearby!!
CAFODEC is a microfinance and development institution that is in the process of a major transition. It will be my job to help facilitate the transition. There is a youth house in the city that I’ll have the chance to work with. And there is an agricultural co-op that is looking to work with a volunteer as well. I’ll have a lot of options for things to do and projects to start.
December 24, 2011
It’s Christmas Eve. What?! It doesn’t feel anything like Christmas. I haven’t been cold for weeks and I haven’t felt a drop of rain since leaving Davis (though there have been ashes falling because people burn their trash here). This isn’t the sort of winter I’m used to. Winter— what a foreign concept at the moment! Guinea doesn’t have a winter. There are two seasons: the rainy and the dry, and it’s hot all the damn time.
For Christmas all the trainees are in Conakry for the weekend. We are pooling money and coming up with a pretty impressive feast. White elephant gifting will ensue. I found some amazing home-made, shortbread cookies at the market today that I will be putting in as my gift.
Though not a scrooge, I’ve never been especially excited about Christmas. Now that it’s not surrounding me, I find myself missing it. My thoughts turn to the people back home and I’m imagining everyone in the States gearing up for tomorrow. I don’t miss the stands of light or the indoor trees. I don’t miss the music or the mistletoe. I miss the people. I miss my friends getting excited about it. My indifference for the holiday itself was always apparent, how much I enjoy others enjoying it wasn’t. I guess that’s my little bit of Christmas: happiness in the happiness of others. I never thought coming to Africa would give me a new appreciation for Christmas; it has.
A New Year’s Reflection
December 31, 2011
“The last day of the year.” It’s a foreign thought. This holiday season has been so very different what I’m accustomed to and it hardly seems to be happening. There are two hours left in 2011 and this is the first occasion I’ve put any real thought into all that has happened this past year. It was a defining year for me, and not only because it culminated with me in Africa. I learned many things this year and I was taught even more things. I learned about myself and about others. Aspects of me were illuminated, aspects I don’t like and am working on changing. And I discovered parts of me that I love, parts I hope never to loose. I took strides this year in friendships and relationships that changed me in ways I needed to change. Mistakes were made, debts incurred and time lost. I’m learning from each, taking a bit of good from the moments that slipped away and the people who were hurt. New friendships were forged and old relationships strengthened; chances were taken and opportunities grasped. I said yes more often. It is a fantastic word that leads to so many experiences, both good and bad, which you grow from. 2011 is the year I evolved the most, the year I made the greatest progress toward the person I strive to be. I’m not there yet, but because of many marvelous people (a few in particular) I know where I want to end up and I’m making my way in that direction. I type these thoughts and I’m missing those people, those friends.
There are times when I miss home, times when I’m in bed, with the lights off, watching an episode of Scrubs on my computer and I forget that I’m in Africa. I look up from the screen and see my mosquito net hanging around me, tucked in between the mattress and the bed frame. With the glare from the screen and nothing but darkness beyond the moustiquaire I can’t see much past the net. I can almost pretend that I’m in my bed at home. But the net itself and the people outside speaking a language I don’t understand are reminders that I’m not. My first thought is always one of excitement and disbelief: “I’m in Africa?!” and the second is always a little poignant: “for two years.”
It’s starting to dawn on me what two years means. I’ll miss new music, new movies, new web comics: pop culture limbo. I’ll miss birthdays, celebrations, maybe a wedding or two: social purgatory. But two years is most daunting when I think of the little bits of peoples’ lives I’ll miss, the small moments of triumph and excitement, a midterm passed or a shared frozen yogurt, the tiny moments of fear and apprehension, a nearly avoided accident or a dark walk home. These are the unnoticed pieces of life whose aggregate builds relationships.
You can’t pause a friendship. You can’t pick up where you left off because people aren’t stagnant, we evolve and flow. “We do and do not step into the same river.” I can return to that spot but the waters that ran past yesterday won’t be the same tomorrow. I’ll return two years from now to find that the friends I left are the same and they are different. Two years of experiences will change people, maybe not a lot, but subtly. Recognizing those tiny variations and loving them is what allows a friendship to sustain. I have no doubt I’ll love those changes in my friends, but I will miss being a part of those minute evolutions.
January 15, 2012
We climb in taxis and head to our sites. Taxis are different here. Picture this: a hatch-back designed to comfortably sit five modified to uncomfortably sit ten, not counting the small children that sort of float around the car, taking turns on each person’s lap, strangers included. The only person who isn’t making friends through osmosis is the driver. We traveled on roads that made 101 seem like heaven. Despite the sardine-like taxi and the pothole-filled road, I made it to Dabola safely with nothing more to complain about than half of a numb body. Twenty minutes after limping out of the taxi I was in my room.
Here are some characteristics of ma chambre: tile floor, a bathroom (with sink, western toilet, bathtub and running water), glass windows, regular electricity (except in the mornings), and an A/C unit (which works when I have electricity). I also have a king-size bed. I’ve only ever owned a twin and so I have no idea what to do with all that space. My first night I rolled from one end of the bed to the other and it took me two rolls!
My room is inside the office of CAFODEC. There is a huge common room, complete with couches and chairs and a very large conference table, and there is a small kitchen area with an electric water kettle and PC will give me a gas stove. The employees of CAFODEC are only at the office from 9-4 on weekdays, so I get the whole place to myself at night and all weekend. 🙂
This living situation is far better than I ever dared to hope it might be. I was all set to live in a hut, take bucket baths, and squat to pooh for the next two years. Part of me kind of wishes for that “true Peace Corps experience,” but it’s difficult to hear that part when the rest of me is celebrating and shouting “WOOHOO!! A/C BITCHES!!”
After four days in Dabola, being paraded around as the lone white dude in town, I made my way to the regional capital of Kankan (the second largest city in Guinea, je pense). At each of the three regional Peace Corps capitals there is a Volunteer House where we stay when visiting the city. All of the volunteers and trainees who live or will be living in Haute Guinea (Upper Guinea, the western part of the country) met at the house in Kankan and relaxed for three days. Those three days were filled with little bits of home: I drank a cold Sprite (!), ate a hamburger (!!) and devoured some ice cream (!!!). We made fries one night and had a toga party the next. I was able to get a run in; I ran along the Niger River!
End of Training
January 25, 2012
A week from now training will be over. We’ll say good-bye to our host families, we’ll dawn the outfits we had made from traditional fabric, the guys will all trim our mustaches (that’s right, mustaches for Sweating In), and we’ll be sworn in as volunteers. This couldn’t have come at a better time. All of the trainees have been struggling through this past week of training. We’ve had so much information pass through our brains in the past two months: French, local language, cultural awareness, business analysis, community assessments, feasibility studies, more French, income generating activities, economic overviews, value chain assessments, agribusiness, savings and loans, safety and security, (inhale), health, AIDS/HIV, Malaria, some more French, a different local language, Peace Corps Policy, emergency action plans, code words, code phrases, code texts?, youth and women development, volunteerism, food security and more (I feel like an infomercial). I’ve been given enough manuals to fill a dump truck.
February 25, 2012
Friends, thank you for your patience as you sleeplessly awaited my next update. You can give that refresh button a rest and return to your normal sleep habits. Here it is, a medley of jumbled topics:
I’m awesome. The proof: everyone in Dabola wants to be my friend. Yes, this could be because I’m the only white dude in town but I maintain it’s a consequence of my awesometude. I eat lunch in town each day and in doing so I make new friends. There are dozens of hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Dabola as is a “crossroads” town. It’s halfway to and from anywhere in Guinea and so it evolved to have many places to sit and gobble some grub. I’ve visited many of the restaurants and I have my favorites. There’s a lady who makes a killer peanut sauce, and there’s a guy who makes beans more addictive than cocaine.
The other day I was enjoying a cold Sprite (found it!) and I met a man (Alkaly Tall) who runs an NGO here in Dabola that makes a concentrated chlorine solution used to purify water for bathing and drinking and washing food (it’s used like bleach). He invited me to visit their office to see the process. The next morning I was in the office watching him make two huge bins of the stuff. They mix quantities of pump water (cleaner than the well water) and cooking salt then run electric current through the mixture with a special electrode. Some chemical reaction ensues, the specifics of which I have about as curious to know as who batted second for the losing team in the 1982 NL Championship. After four hours of shock therapy the solution is tested for the correct concentration, some stabilizer is added, and then it’s bottled to be sold. The NGO is funded by UNICEF and PSI and so they are able to sell the solution at a loss. The lack of safe drinking water is a huge issue in Guinea and this group is doing good work to improve the situation. I look forward to working with them.
The visit to the NGO provided me another fun story. I rode my bike to their office and parked it in the shade under a lovely tree. How was I to know that the tree was harboring African Killer Bees?! Within minutes my bike was swarming with the devils. They clustered up around the handles, seat and helmet. Alkaly told me it’s because they smell my pheromones (luckily, it’s the same word in French) on those areas. We rushed inside and Nounké (the assistant) donned a bee suit (apparently they knew the hive was there, though they didn’t find it convenient to pass that information on). He lit some jeans on fire (why jeans? Je ne sais pas) to smoke them away. After they left he grabbed the bike and removed it from under the deceiving tree. During the fiasco I learned from Alkaly that bees don’t cause a problem when it’s cool out, but once it gets warm they become aggressive. That’s a good thing to know if I ever find myself stranded and craving some honey.
Being the only white guy has its perks. I have lots of friends. I’m safe; everyone watches me so if anything were to happen there would be a dozen and a half witnesses. Once in a while I get free tea or a free meal if I stop and chat with the shop owner for a bit. They’ll call me over and I’ll mosey up and say hi. The conversation usually consists of them asking me how I’m doing, me asking them how they are doing, them asking me how work is, me asking them how work is, them asking me how my health is, me asking them how their health is, them asking me how my family is, me asking them… you understand. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?
Constantly being watched is a double-edged sword; it adds to my safety but subtracts from my freedom. I’ve never had a lesser sense of anonymity. It’s going to take some adjusting to. When I walk down through town I feel like Ren from Footloose. Sometimes I quietly sing to myself “somebody’s eyes are watching/somebody’s eyes are seeing you come and go/somebody’s out there waiting for the show/you’ve got no disguise from somebody’s eyes!” I’m just waiting to be kicked off the wrestling team and fired from the hardware store.
I’ve always enjoyed being on the fringe of ordinary, mildly flamboyant, different but not ostentatious. I like walking that line by balancing social norms with my own personality. I try to avoid the pitfalls of each but occasionally I slip into one of those snares. That is my learning method; that is how I discover who I am and who I want to be. But here I’m different and always will be. It’s a lesson on being the minority. I’m not quite sure what I’ll end up taking away from this, but I’m sure it will be valuable and lasting.
People don’t even try to hide that they are staring at me. I’ll walk by along the road and I’ll wave at people sitting on their porches and they’ll return the gesture quicker than CERN can shoot a proton. I’m having fun with it. I’ve created a game (as of yet unnamed) where, when I sense a group of people watching me, I wave. The first to wave back gets a point. So far there’s no continued tallying of points because I still don’t recognize everyone I see. After I know everyone I’ll start tallying points. Maybe I’ll bring the winner each week a small prize.
I gave myself a prize recently in the form of store-bought cookies. Why? I fixed the leak in my sink. And what did lesson did I take from this manual labor? I’m a man! If you require further evidence, as most of you know, I grew a killer mustache for swearing in. There are pictures on Facebook if you’re curious. Peoples’ reactions were nearly unanimous. Guys loved it (except for the lame few) and girls hated it (except for the awesome few). Here’s my appeal to the ladies: just think, twenty-five years from now, when I’m the father of our teenage girl and she brings a boy home for us to meet, that mustache will pair fabulously with the shotgun I’ll be loading. No. I don’t like guns. A crossbow would have a much more vivid effect anyway. Isn’t that what women look for in a man: the ability to scare potential suitors and medieval weapons?
After crossbows, travelling is the biggest danger to volunteers in Guinea. I understand now why that is: exhaust. The other day I rode my bike on the main road for the first time. Up until this point I had always travelled this road by car and walked along the less busy roads on my way into town. This was my first experience with an open-air ride along the main road. I’m not a hypochondriac but I’m certain I have Black Lung. I’m also certain that not a single vehicle in Guinea has once passed a smog check.
I returned home, soot-covered, from my journey along the smogway to find that I was locked out. The guard had left to pray and had locked the gate into the office compound. Flexibility is the most important characteristic of a PCV and so I decided to go on a bike ride into the hills behind my house. I had been meaning to explore that region and this was the perfect chance.
I knew there was a reason I never became excited about mountain biking: I wanted to have kids one day. Sorry mom, but grandchildren may not be possible from my end; that was a rough trip.
Despite my newfound sterility, the first row seat to the nutcracker did afford me a wonderful view of the show. The hills to the south are magnificent. A runner’s paradise. There is two miles worth of flat land before you reach the first of the rolling hills, soon after it becomes steeper and perfect for hill repeats. But the best part? There is no one out there in the morning! After the first mile there are only fields, trees, a creek, and miles of path. It’s a reprieve from always being watched. It has become my daily bubble of anonymity and independence.
I live in a valley and have only explored a fraction of the area around me. The south I explored by bike and run, but the weekend before last I hiked into the northern hills with a couple other volunteers from a nearby town. We hiked all morning and afternoon. I especially liked the part when we sat down for a water break and the teenagers that we had passed recently came inching back up the path to take a picture. The one charged with the task slowly came closer, and closer, one step at a time, as if he were approaching a rare bird he didn’t want to scare away. After a few minutes we grew tired of waiting and walked toward him, posed, and then continued our hike.
The two volunteers are education volunteers; one teaches physics and the other math, so you would think we would talk science-y stuff. Nope we spent the entire morning and afternoon talking about America. That’s what happens when you get volunteers together. Without fail the conversation slipped back to home. It was nice to talk about the States with people who know it (even if they are from the less awesome parts of the country). Betsy is from Alabama and has a southern drawl that is more noticeable when she is flustered and digging rocks from out of her Chaco’s. Momo is a quiet guy from Nebraska who showed up for the hike in flip-flops and knows disappointingly little about corn.