Saturday, December 23, 2006

Still in the Suitcase

Thursday 21 December 2006

Tonight the family drummed plastic water containers and clapped, once voice sang and while the others responded- call and response.

I brought a tape recorder.
I better unpack.

The Giving Dilemma

Thursday 21 December 2006

Tonight I ate half a chicken. It was prepared by the 11 year old daughter and her mother, one of the 3 wives of my concession.

Who got the rest? Did the mother? Did the daughter? Did the other two wives? Did any of the other 10 children? Did the father eat as well as I tonight?

How do I repay the labor and cost of each evening’s meal?

Money? How much?

Goods? I gave a 50 kg bag of rice (twenty-two dollars) about a fourth of my monthly living allowance. I buy produce and give it to the family.

As a giver, I want to just give and give, to go to Labe and get twenty dollars worth of oil for the family.

I need to find a balance though, a fair exchange. Just because I can give and give doesn’t mean I should. My income will not be contributing to this family for a lifetime. I’m leaving in a year and a half. I don’t want them to become dependent on a second breadwinner.

The problem is givers keep giving and giving. Givers also downplay their value, and sometimes even feel guilty or uncomfortable accepting an exchange.

My tailor made a beautiful skirt and blouse for me. He charged a dollar for his labor.

The daughter and mother who plucked and prepared the chicken probably only got to taste the chicken juice in the delicious soup not asking for anything for their labor.

I have a sense of guilt. I feel like a taker sitting in my house packing to go to Labe for Christmas, waiting for my dinner to be served.

How do I find a balance giving and taking in this giving culture along with my own nature to give?

Should I go back to cooking my own meals? Should I calculate the cost of the labor and of the meal and pay that in money or goods?

It is hard for me to feel a sense of satisfaction contributing to a family by giving money or goods; therefore, I have a tendency to just keep giving and giving. I want to partake in the labor, but it is hard to know how to. Today, I had 9 little kids trying to help me wash a sock. Is there a way to contribute other than by an exchange of money or goods, when the labor is split amongst so many?

Volunteers often give a 50 kg sac of rice every 2-3 months for their meals.

I didn’t even ask the wives if the mind cooking for one more.

When I first arrived, he father sat on my porch and explained that whatever I need, the family is there for me. I just have to ask.

The family gives. I give and now we have a giving dilemma.

A Balancing Act

Wednesday 20 December

We pushed our bikes up the mile long hill with the natural made speed bumps to the main road which was only a little better. At least it was flat.

We straddled our bikes- two in their sarongs, their knees showing and me in my hippie dress, a petticoat, and capri pants, my knees not showing. Off we went for the 5 km ride back to my village.

One carried my backpack full of eggs, peanuts, oranges, grapefruit, cassava, guava and potatoes. The other had two on one handlebar and one on the other. I had one on each, hanging upside down tied by their feet, a total of five chickens. Our skirts safely flowed in the wind and we arrived dusty to my house.

Today I spent 3 hours eating freshly plucked fruit, walking in a neighboring village where at least 10 of my students commute from to attend school.

The generosity of the village was tremendous, even helping me carry all of my gifts home, circumventing what would have been a true balancing act.

Is giving good?

Monday 18 December 2006

The hospitality of many Guineans is tremendous.

Pleasure is derived from feeding you well and giving you whatever they have.

People here often ask for gifts from us “rich” Americans. We often perceive it in a negative way. I often have to check my first response, my attitude of “Why the hell are you asking me for gifts? You think just because I am a rich American I have bikes, computers, and 100 francs to give you? No, I am not going to give you anything.”

I have to learn to adjust my reaction. I hate being called a patron by strangers who don’t know my name. The thing is I am rich. I don’t have three wives and 10-15 kids to feed. By American standards though I am not rich, but I am not in America. Yet, still when someone says, “Patron buy some lettuce,” my silent, irritated response is, “I’m not a patron. I’m a volunteer.”

The thing is Guineans give. Rich Guineans get asked for gifts just like us Americans. They are well off. I am well off. We are all seen as such. If you have, you give in his country. This is not an American philosophy. Ours is sometimes more- I got mine. Why can’t you? I worked had. You can too. Don’t try to mooch off me.

I remember my host sister in Foreicarriah once saying that visiting relatives in Labe was extremely expensive because she would not only have to have the couple of 100,000 GF for transportation but a couple hundred more for gifts. She could not visit without giving gifts.

Even if you have nothing you give in this country. Farmers who live from hand to mouth give to this well-off teacher just because I can give their children something they can not, an education. They are happy, pleased, energized by giving.

Is it easy to take advantage of people who derive pleasure from giving, to take advantage of people who are more concerned for others’ well-being than their own?

I am at times a giver, someone who puts aside her wants, needs, desires for a partner. This becomes a problem when the generosity is neither acknowledged nor reciprocated. I can easily be taken advantage of by takers.

Is Guinea the same way?

Latrine: A Study by Headlamp

Monday December 18, 2006

Cockroaches are so cool.
Their antennas are longer
than their bodies.

Walking in their Shoes

Monday 18 December 2006

Some of my students are not as lucky as I. My home is right across from the school. I can leave my house at 7:44 am and be there on time for the 7:45 am national anthem and flag raising.

My students come from all directions. Some live off the main dusty road and can ride their bikes. Others live near the big Mosque, a mile or so from the school.

Today I hiked on a rocky non-bikable path up and over two hills, crossed two creeks, chasing after my 3 students who were almost running. In the hot noon sun surrounded by yellow tall grass, pulling up my long Guinean skirt that limited my stride, I walked an hour and half to the furthest village that my students come from.

The village welcomed me with great big smiles, enthusiastic handshakes, and fed me oranges and fonio with sauce until I was stuffed. Then they loaded me from their plentiful gardens, fruit from their trees containing hundreds of rotting and sweet oranges, grapefruit, cassava, peanuts, taro, fonio, sweet potatoes, and a live chicken. Thank goodness I brought my backpack.

The sun was setting as I tried to hurry home. Two students accompanied me part of the journey and then sent me on my way having no doubt I could make it carrying all of my heavy gifts, oranges and peanuts on my back, edible roots in one hand, and a live chicken in the other. One nice assumption Guineans have is that women are not assumed to be physically weak.

I have four truly dedicated students who walk 14 km (8-9 miles) round trip, 6 days a week to receive an education. I have a new respect for them walking in their shoes today.

What Makes Me Laugh au Village

Thursday 12 December 2006

Sitting in the outdoor kitchen with my family, having a short-haired, goat looking sheep come into view running for its life, a half naked little boy in swift pursuit, of that gobbling manioch-leaf eating, nanny berry leaving pest, makes me laugh.

Having six little kids copying my every move as I dance, do the hokey poky, jump and hop on one foot, as I twirl, do somersaults, handstands, and cartwheels, high kicks in the air, pushups, and situps, makes me laugh.

Having crayons, sheets of paper, and kids scattered all over my porch shouting with glee as I say draw a flower, a car, a tree, a motorcycle, your family, feeling their eagerness to please, watching their shaking smiles at the impossibility of drawing a person makes me laugh.

Laughter, what a feeling for my well-being.

Females: A Strength in Guinea

Thursday 7 December 2006

A tree limb as thick as my forearm with a length of 15-20 feet long was carried balanced upon her head to the outdoor kitchen and then she took an axe almost as tall as her and split the limb into firewood. This eight year old smiled each time I would watch her lift the axe above her head hitting her target right on mark. It made me scared to watch her as we would make eye contact before her swing downwards. She was happily on stage though with her sole admirer. She never did miss.

I thought I was a tough, physically, aggressive, strong female. Playing football with some girls in Foreicarriah gave me a taste of the physically strong females of this country, but it was today as I sat with the family of my concession watching them cook that I really began to understand.

I was given a live chicken by one of my top student's family. My family offered to cook it for me. Women are not allowed to kill chickens. A man slit its throat while saying a prayer.

I sat outside in the middle of a ton of bustle. Four fires were going. One of the three mothers was preparing my chicken. The other two mothers were still at the market. The busyness was caused by 6 girls between the ages of 5 and 12 plus 2 babies.

Remember making mud pies, collecting leaves and flowers for yummy meals in our play kitchens? Well the 3 five-year olds had their fire roaring cooking a pot of collected scraps and peels that the other girls were leaving behind as they prepared the family meals.

The older girls, ages 7-12, were hacking away at a squash with a dull knife, sorting rice from rocks, washing the rice and cooking it in boiling water, chopping firewood, getting condiments for their mother, pounding cassava leaves with a pestle taller than they, and bring big buckets of water from the pump closer to my house than theirs (30-40 yards).

Remember carrying baby dolls in strollers and in baby backpacks? Well these girls took turns carrying the babies on their backs while working. The 5 year olds would sometimes take over playing with the babies and carrying them around too also on their backs. I am amazed that babies are not dropped. The only incident was an accidental grazing of a sitting baby, causing it to topple over when the girl brought in the 20 ft long tree limb. Those things are apparently hard to navigate.

It was non-stop hustle and bustle, and I just sat there in the middle of it watching, amazed, thinking, "Ummm... That 8 year old is chopping firewood with a dull axe. I don't think I would want to meet her on a rugby field."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Done with city life

Conakry has been fun.
Unlimited internet access was nice.
Nighttime that feels like daytime was a bit trippy.
That electricity, you know?

My ear problem that brought me to Conakry isn't serious.
My right ear feels like I am on an airplane. It never pops.
Be patient is the diagnosis.

Got a long taxi ride today.
And then tomorrow a long taxi ride along with a long walk, 17 km.
That village kind of hard to get to, you know?

You might hear from me again around December 22.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

I am a Gatherer

For my meals in Conakry I walk the streets of the market scavenging for goodies, carrying a tuperware to fill. Each woman stands by her table, a covered bowl hiding its inner goodies, a pot of oil sitting on a small wood charcoal stove.

For breakfast I found a woman serving black eyed peas mixed with fish and oil spread upon bread. I didn't want the bread. She filled a little plastic baggy full of beans for me. I found another woman serving some brown stuff on a baguette. I got some and then had another fill the bread with meat, mayo, piment, and raw onions. It was good.

For lunch, I ate a pineapple.

For dinner, I found fried potates (not potatoes, sweeter), fried plantains, keke (shredded dried cassava somehow rehydrated), fried banana balls, and meat on a stick. I also bought tomatoes, buillon cubes, onions, garlic, tomato paste, and dried tomato powder so I can fix a spaghetti sauce for breakfast tomorrow.

Tomorrow I am hoping to find fofo, a glutinous mound of gooey manioc, kind of like grits, but thicker, more like playdough. I like it. It is yummy. Many Americans don't like it though.

I also hope to find my favorite, fried cassava balls. They taste like tater tots and this country doesn't have any type of chips. A can of Pringles cost $3.50. There is no way I am spending 20000 FG to fill my desire for salty goodness.

This country is definitely lacking snack food, snack food packaged in plastic that is. This country just doesn't mass produce any of its own goods, except maybe sacs of water and bottled water.

Coming to Conakry, I tend to eat a bit unhealthy. It is okay. At site I eat pretty healthy; although I tend to use a lot of oil. I think I crave calories, crave food that isn't just fresh veggies.

As much as I love eating in Guinea, I do miss sushi, chocolate chip cookies, and ice cream.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

My acting job

Au village
I feel like a monk.
I feel genderless.
I feel asexual.

I feel like an actress with a role in a Guinean play.
I dress the part:
brightly colored skirts with a matching top
I talk the talk:
Did you sleep well? How is your family? How is work?
I eat the food:
all ingredients mashed into a sauce served over rice
I drink the water:
300 mL of water in little sealed baggies
I am hospitable:
give cookies and candies to my fellow taxi passengers
I teach:
lecture and write on the board and am a stern disciplinarian
I deal with daily life:
there is no time for thoughts about philosophy or abstract ideas

My American identity takes a back seat.
I wonder how my American identity will change
as I suppress it for two years.

Conakry is Very Different than Village

Labe to Conakry was 9 hours and five minutes in an uneventful taxi ride: no flat tires, no hit cows, no accidents, no vomiting, no drunk falling asleep chauffeur, no near misses with other cars. We listened to music from all over West Africa and even listened to some American music. We stopped at vulture city where we bought street food for lunch. I had a baguette with unidentified meat. We stopped at 14 h at a mosque so everyone could pray. We got through the various checkpoints without much hassle.

The exciting part of the trip was being left in the middle of Conakry to find my way to the Peace Corps house. People are helpful though and directed me to the various four door squish four in the back and two in the front taxis that are like buses letting people out and picking people up.

The Conakry house was quiet. I arrived just as everyone, about 40 volunteers who came down for Thanksgiving, left. That was nice. At least I got a bed, a clean living area, and quiet conversations in the living room with the few people who were in Conakry for various reasons, sickness or work.

Today I spent ALL day at the bank and in downtown Conakry. We get paid every three months and have to go to the bank to get our money.

I feel like I am in a different century. The lines are long. All transactions need to be processed by at least 3-4 people. You go to one counter to get your account balance. Our accounts were empty. The night before we had heard that the check had been sent to the bank. The money just hadn't been distributed to our personal accounts. Come back in an hour was their response.

We went across the street and had an expensive pastry that cost a buck. Bucks go a long long way in this country, to splurge a buck on a pastry is a luxurious thing to do. But it sure was tasty! It had raisins. Raisins. Do I even remember what they taste like?

When we returned to the bank, our money was still not available. We waited. We went to a back office where a man with a powerful signature finally told us we had money. Well everyone had money except me. I was a complicated situation. More on that later.

The next step is to stand in line at one of the two tellers. She types some things in a computer and then tells you to wait. Paperwork is sent to the man with the powerful signature. Then someone else runs the paper somewhere and you sit waiting and waiting till the huge stacks of bills finally come out. People took out 2 million Guinean francs and were given it in bills of 5000 Guinean Francs. We need book bags and suitcases to carry out our money!

We had gotten there at 9 am and it took till 13 h to get any money.

It took me even longer. I had several months ago closed my Conakry account and moved it to Labe thinking I was never going to Conakry. Well that decision has made my ability to get money complicated. I was told to come back at 15 h.

What did I do for two hours in the middle of the city? I went and had an expensive Chinese meal, fried rice and green beans, with watermelon for dessert. It cost $3.66. You may think wow that is cheap, but it is not. I can get a meal of rice and sauce or a taxi ride for $0.33. You can get a nice tailored made outfit for $3 that includes the labor and the fabric or shoes for $1. So $3 thrown away for a meal is not cheap. I live on $5 a week au village.

After eating, I wandered the city trying not to be bothered by the constant attention of vendors trying to get my attention to buy worthless sunglasses, books on Guinea, watches, perfume, asking if I am married.

I ate some ice cream. I am definitely living the rich life, gelatto, three flavors for a buck.

I spent 3 hours at the bank waiting for the money that was deposited in my Conakry account- which I had supposedly closed- to be transferred to my Labe account. The paperwork had to go through 4 different hands. The man with the powerful signature was very nice though and made sure, double checked that my money had made it into the Labe account.

Today's task was to get money, and it was a full day's work.

The next adventure was figuring out how to get back to the Peace Corps house which is about 15 miles from downtown.

I stood on a corner with a bunch of other people. Everyone was waving their hands in various ways, some with one finger, another with a thumb, another with a hand, others with a peace sign. Taxis drivers were waving their hands in various ways too. No nice lighted signs telling you were each taxis was going. Lucky for me some guys helped me out and told me to get into that cab. I hopped in and off were were to Tayouh hopefully, picking up and letting out passengers all along the way. It was a long ride, but I recognized various landmarks so I knew I was going in the right direction and finally ended up back in my neighborhood.

I bought watermelon and pineapple. I will have a sweet breakfast tomorrow.

Life in the city is definitely way different than life au village!

Tonight if I want, I can even watch a movie in the Peace Corps house or bake cookies in the gas oven or do internet all night if I want.

Send me a question and I might blog about it or send you a personal response.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The World is Super Small or Maybe it is just the Peace Corps World

I went to grad school with a Peace Corps Guinea Volunteer's sister. Her brother handed me the phone so I got to say hello to her yesterday.

I recognized a Peace Corps Guinea Volunteer who attended the University of Washington while I was there. We just can't figure out where we ran into each other.

I had met a Peace Corps Guinea Volunteer on the rugby field when her team from Dartmouth played our Seattle team a couple of years ago.

Isn't that amazing? Three people somehow connected to me and we all end up meeting again in Guinea, West Africa.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Practice Makes an Easy Habit

My first few days in Guinea, I was always missing the target never knowing just how to position myself, not having the muscles to comfortably finish my business.

I am reminded of my grandfather who for the longest time refused the indoor plumbing always going to the outside door with the crescent moon.

I prefer squatting than sitting. Plumbing for porcelain just doesn't seem to work very well in this country.

Plus who enjoys sitting on a moving broken seat? They are all broken at the hinges in this country.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Riding a taxi in Guinea is like playing rugby.

We are a team of 20 plus 5 up top.

The ride is jarring and bruising as my head bangs against the hard metal, my knees knocking into the seat's protruding nails.

Our bottom bottoms out in all of the ravines called potholes.

We slow to a stop and the front seat goes up, blowing off steam from the boiling radiator.

We chug with the thoughts, "I think I can. I think I can," up the hills.

A bag of oranges fly through the window (surprise) into my lap as a foot jumps up on the windowsill catching a ride in our moving vehicle.

It is a physical ride.

Covered head to toe with red dust, it is a dirty ride.

It is a ride of endurance, 5 hours of being in a tight scrum.

Yet we made it, and now I can shower, rub the soreness out of my muscles, and fall exhausted to sleep.

Friday, November 17, 2006

I'm Dr. Jen, but what happens when I fall sick au village?

Thursday 16 November

A volunteer almost finished with her 2 year service advised, "Never make a decision about terminating your service early (ET) when you are sick."

Guinea is a petri dish full of the most nutritious media, with the most ideal environment for all those things that make us sick.

My mosquito bites heal slowly and often get infected. My skin is covered with microscopic aliens that want to take over my body to do experiments on it. My body is weakened by 60-70 km bike rides, stress of teaching, stress of travel.

What do you do when you are bed ridden for 4 days due to a painful sinus infection leading to a horrible earache?

Go see a doctor.
My doctor is a 10 hour taxi ride from Labe if I can get out of my non-car containing village.

Call him.
We have no telephones.

Radio him.
The radio is 5 km away. I didn't even attempt to. It was the weekend, a very difficult time to find access to the radio, very difficult to get an answer on the other end.

It is under such conditions that self-made decisions, self-reliance, self-understanding, self peace and calm become extremely important. Panic is not the answer. Being able to meditate through pain and suffering to come to a good decision is.

My medical handbook says ear infections may need the treatment of antibiotics. Consult the Peace Corps Medical Officer before consuming antibiotics.

In 15 days I knew the doctor would be in Mamou where I would be for teacher's conference. I taught a week's worth of class, left a message for the unavailable doctor via the Peace Corps mailrun radio that came in the beginning of November, talked to the doctor via cell phone in Labe on my way to teacher's conference, all deaf in one ear.

Luckily I had made an early decision to do something about the pain. My only problem was I couldn't hear. Did I just have a wax buildup or was it a sign of something else?

When the doctor finally saw my ear (15 days of deafness), I was given more antibiotics, several different eardrops, and a suggestion to drink hot water. If things didn't improve I would go to Conakry.

Medical treatment is slow because of where we are, because of transportation, because of communication, because of the lack of clinics in good condition. However the human body is strong. It is the human spirit, the ability of it to suffer that is sometimes not so strong. Waiting to find out whey you are in such miserable pain, waiting for medications and treatments, waiting for a name to be given to your illness weakens your spirit, weakens your hear to endure, weakens your tears to fall.

What are some coping mechanisms to use under such psychological and physical distress?

Lucky for me I was not suffering, but I hear the stories, see the sad faces, hear the angry frustrated voices of those whose pain is unnamed, waiting to discover treatment.

In this country, we must be proactive, self-medicating, self-diagnostic. We cannot let pain cloud our judgements. We also cannot just let things go. We must wash our hands with soap and keep clean! We must have patience and understanding in this country prone to illness that takes time to diagnosis.

There is a sensitive balance though. When is one's pain and suffering an emergency? When is it just something that needs to be endured for the long duration of time it takes to be diagnosed and treated? When is it over-reacting or under-reacting? How long do you wait till you start screaming for immediate attention? How long do you wait before you leave your village and head to Conakry?

I have not been suffering. I have been deaf in one ear for 17 days now. Maybe I shouldn't have waited so long. It worked out though. I am going back to village, not Conakry. My inner an outer ear infection is improving. During my taste of being an old woman with a hearing loss, did I make good decisions about my health though?

Teacher's Conference

Tuesday 14 November

I have been at a 2 day teacher's conference organized by Peace Corps volunteers. It was a conference with about 20 American teachers and 20 Guinean teachers. We had day-long sessions discussing many thing: problems and different teaching methods.

Here are some of the issues we exchanged ideas on:

Class size
When you have 100 students crammed into a small classroom how do you maintain order? How do you make sure students are understanding the lesson with comprehensive checks? How do you test such a big class and prevent cheating?

What are ways students cheat? How do you prevent cheating and what are the consequences for Guinea if we as teachers let cheating continue?

Life lessons
How do you include lessons on problems in Guinea like AIDS/HIV, gender equality, deforestation and the environment, the health of children, corruption, etc... during lessons in math, chemistry, physics, French, and history?

How would you answer these questions?

We as Americans have a lot of creative answers. It was extremely interesting exchanging ideas with Guinean teachers who have experience in this school system. The differences between a Francophone educational system and an Anglophone educational system are really different. France definitely left a lasting impression on the Guinean educational system.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Students' Rebellion

9 November 2006

After my trip to Labe, I returned to a full class on Monday. The 300 student school was finally starting to fill after a poor attendance the previous week during the fete, the end of Ramadan. A one day holiday turned into a week of skipping school.

Tuesday I was ready to teach masse volumique, having the kids measure the density of the red rocks, bauxite, found everywhere.

We teachers however stood in a completely deserted schoolyard. No one to raise the flag. No one to sing the national anthem.

Let us dance or we won't go to school was the cry. The students were on strike.

What? cried the parents and the elders of the village. What type of rebellion is that? Dance or no school?

Why has the dance club and the movie house both run on generators been shut down? Do I really live in such a conservative village that dance has been banned due to its sinfulness?

May 11 is the key to this mystery. Last May the governor of the region banned all celebrations to the dead musician. The kids in my village built a stage and invited the village rasta to speak. An elder tore down the stage. The kids tore down the elder's goat hut. The police came. Kids were chased and dancing has ever since been banned. Bob Marley part of the cause.

Wednesday I taught a 2 hour English class to the 30 7th-10th graders who were accompanied to school by their parents, while the parents and the elders had a meeting under the tree of the schoolyard. After my class, everyone gathered. Speeches were made. A representative from each grade was commanded to say something. Everything was in Pular, in one ear and out the other.

As the week went by more and more kids started trickling in. Apparently some people were blocking the road to school. Was it the owner of the dance club who lost his business of 1500 GF (25 cents) per dancer? Was it a disgruntle student who took only one composition last year and was held back?

I found the strike amusing probably because I was not really involved, just an outside observer who didn't feel like teaching that week anyways, bed bound due to a painful earache.

60-70 km

Bike: village to Labe 5.5 hrs
Bike: Labe to village 4.5 hrs
Taxi: village to Labe 4.5 hrs
11000 GF poorer
just as tired
Do the math

A declaration of love

5 November 2006

Oh how I love you with your daily habitual idiosyncrasies:

In the mornings you smell the sweetest, and during the heating direct sunlight of the day you come alive.

The fragile wispy winged things sit unmoving upon your walls. Our pet spider, your interior decorator greets me by the inner latch as I enter and lock your door.

Hello it says. How do you like how I have adorned her today. We'll get rid of her bug problem, one day.

In the afternoon's hottest sun one large lizard the length of my forearm with its partner the length of my hand makes it scurrying daily appearance upon the wall as I approach for my after school visit.

It is when the sun just sets, that I avoid her. She becomes loud with the buzzing of mosquitoes who attack my headlamp lighted face. Our 3 resident cockroaches come out for the cool evening air. She is most unpleasant and I prefer her dark than bright, but maybe not really. I can hear all the unseen moving things.

It is in the middle of the night that I again approach her only if I can see the face in the moon, night turned to daylight leaving the door wide in the sleeping village.

Oh how I do really love you.
You are more interesting more alive than any American born flushing one.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Weekend Before Labe

Sunday October 22

Last weekend was full of community building. I sat at the primary school for a whole morning waiting for the AED officer and then went to the mosque. And then last Sunday I invited myself to a funeral.

I had started doing my laundry bright and early but thankfully there was no water to finish rinsing my clothes. So I went to the town center to see if a cow was being butchered. No, but I learned that every man and woman were hiking over to the neighboring hillside to attend a funeral of an old wise man, a man who when he prayed God would listen. I hurried home, changed, grabbed a shawl and wrapped up my hair. I sat in the town center waiting to follow anyone who was going. A group of about 10 men led by the president of the village started on their way and I followed them for an hour until we reached the wise man's village. Hundreds had gathered, men separated from women. I was lost but went along shaking hands as all the others were doing. Thankfully a woman led me to one of the principal's wives who took care of me. My village was extremely pleased that I attended. I would never have learned about the funeral if the water had been running that day.

Last weekend was full of social interaction and community building. I felt like I wanted a vacation, so this weekend I went on 40 km bike rides getting prepared for my 60 km bike ride to Labe. Saturday I taught a class of 5 out of 40 students (everyone was skipping because Ramaden was soon to be over), having them solve word problems comparing the wage and cost of living between the US and Guinea, problems similar to the type we were doing in physics just with a different context. I think took off in the noon sun for a neighboring village, an hour and a half away.

I rested at the market before heading home and felt very self-conscious in my sweaty dirty pants and tank top. this is what peer pressure must feel like as I was surrounded by skirt wearing market ladies, explaining that I was a middle school teacher with the Peace Corps.

Today I washed dishes from last night's rice and peanut sauce dinner, talked a bit with a visitor who wants to practice English, made a bracelet, bought some eggplant and bananas at the tiny Sunday market, and then took off for a neighboring Peace Corps volunteer's village, about 20 km away. The hills are huge though and the sun is hot. I did a lot of bike pushing.

I hunt out for several hours and then headed home under ominous clouds. At the next village, 3 women pointed to the sky and beckoned me to come sit with them as a huge ball of lightening struck a tree 100 yards down the road, and the crack of thunder made us cover our ears.

It was already 15:30, 3 hours left of daylight and I had at least an hour left on my ride. I sat there and the women pointed to a bed inviting me to spend the night. I worried that my village would worry though.

Rain never lasts long during this time of the year and I was off again on the isolated rocky paths. There is adventure in having to survive on your own. If anything goes wrong, I have only myself, my will, my knowledge, my ingenuity to rely on. This is what is exciting. This is what makes me smile.

I arrived home safe with enough daylight to cook spaghetti, hopefully stronger for miles of hills to Labe.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Nightmare

Sunday 22 October

I woke with a start and threw it somewhere. It had weight. It was big. I had not idea what it was and it was stuck in my bed trapped by the mosquito net that obviously had an opening to allow such a creepy crawly in to walk across my face.

My room is like a coffin and with such a rude 1 am alarm awakening, I was totally disoriented finding myself trapped unable to find my way out. I sat in silence understanding the advice of veteran Peace Corps volunteers who said sleep with your headlamp.

Taking a few deep breaths, I oriented myself and found the opening escaping from a second encounter.

I was tired and tried to fall asleep on the prayer mat but the concrete floor wouldn't allow me to get comfortable.

Fine! I thought to myself. I am going to trap that thing and remove it from my bed.

My torch lit up the shadow into a wall filling monster as it hung on the white netting. It was huge probably 6 inches long, a segmented black body with at least 100 legs. It moved super fast but I was able to bat it from my bed with a notebook where it escaped to who knows where.

Tucking my mosquito net tightly around my mattress, I fell asleep snuggled to my headlamp. It was a pretty scary experience, but for some reason I was calm.

Anyone know what insect I had an encounter with? Was it poisonous?

The second week in the village

Friday October 13

Thursdays are market days, but I have to teach chemistry to 37 7th graders first.

The day before was a frustrating 7th grade class of 2 hours of talking and laughing while they were suppose to be listening and copying down their physics lesson on the states of matter. I had to get stern with a loud, unsmiling, "Taisez-vous."

I got to spend half a day at the primary school today (Friday) observing the type of classroom atmospheres my secondary students experienced from 1st-6 th grade.

In the first grade class, a girl of 8 or 9 with a stern voice would say, "Du silence," and then proceed to whack kids with a 1/2 inch thick rubber strap. When peanut shells were thrown out the window, the teacher came in with switches cut from a tree. The kids react with a certain rebellion, a certain hardness, a certain attitude of you are not going to scare me into doing what you want. I will not be beat into submission.

My stern "Taisez-vous" is not the answer to discipline issues. I don't know why I forgot the 3 weeks of practice school and the lessons I learned there. They thankfully came back to me and I changed my teaching strategy for the Thursday 7th grade chemistry class. I lectured, wrote on the board, and got the kids to tell me about farming in the village and what materials are needed to build a house as we learned about chemistry in every day life. Then for the next 40 minutes, I had the kids write examples of chemistry in their lives and find examples of chemistry in pictures of old Newsweeks. (Thanks to the previous volunteer who left them.) It was a much better, more fun class than the previous day.

Thursdays are market days, so after the 7th grade chemistry class, I changed out of my African clothes into pants and a skirt for a 5 km bike ride. I bought 6 dollars worth of supplies, a 25 lb sac that was strapped to the back of my bike, a sac filled with oranges, 5 lbs of peanut butter, soap, a towel, eggplant, onions, okra, tomatoes, 3 different types of white bread, candles, and freshly made fish meatballs. I gave them tot he kids in my concession because I didn't like them.

The market was fun. I am not scared of leaving my house like last week. Well this seems to be the case at least for this week. At the market, I sat on an office porch people watching while talking to the kids who gathered around me, kids with dreams of going to the US to make money, kids who thought we could drive a car to the US, taking them along with me.

Fridays are my day off form teaching, but not my day off from being a Peace Corps Volunteer. I went to the primary school bright and early to meet the program officer for West African Francophone Girls' Education, an AED (Academy for Educational Development, Washington DC) program. The program in this village provides school supplies as well as a push to tutor primary school girls in the evenings with the hopes of having a higher retention rate of girls in school. In the lower grades it is a 1:! ratio of boys to girls. By sixth grade, it is 5 boys for every 3 girls, by 7th grade it is 3 boys to 1 girls and by 10th grade the ratio is 11 boys to 2 girls.

Friday was a good community building day. I sat with the gathered men and women of the community practicing my Pular, observing primary school classes, talking to the teachers as we waited for 3 hours for the arrival of the committee from America. Then I went to the Mosque and sat there for another 3 hours observing, being a silent but seen presence. It was a long day of community building and I retired from social interactions to my home to rest, to read, and to cook.

5 lbs of peanut butter is a lot of peanut butter. It filled my Nalgene bottle and there is still a lot in a plastic sac, way too much for peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Tonight I tired my first African dish, a peanut sauce dedicated to Andre who always said he would make me some but never did.

I never liked the heavy sauce you could get slathered over rice and spinach at Thai restaurants. I preferred the light spicy noodle soup. But in this meat deprived diet, a peanut sauce is a very healthy, tasty yummy substitute.

The ingredients are oil, onion, eggplant, sliced okra, potatoes, salt, a bullion cube, 2 cups of peanut butter, 2 cups of water, and piment (Guinean chili pepper). In a pot fry up the onions in oil, add some water and cook the potatoes and eggplant. Remove the soften eggplant and pound with piment and an onion. Add the pounded mixture along with all the other ingredients to the cooking potatoes. Simmer until the peanut butter smell goes away and a layer of oil forms (1 hour or so). Stir often because it sticks to the bottom of the pot. If the sauce is too thick add water.

I still haven't learned how to cook for one. My first attempt was pretty good, awesome in fact and I felt confident enough to give half the sauce to the family in my concession. It probably could have been spicier, but it was tasty over my pasta. I still haven't bought rice. It would have been better over rice.

My second week in the village, a week of teaching, cooking, and community building has left me well, happy, and peaceful.

An Unexpected Improvement

Saturday 7 October

The one thing I never expected out of my experience of living in Guinea was becoming a better cook. This lentil, potato, tomato soup I prepared tonight was awesome. Or maybe my taste buds have really been changing such that I can't differentiate between good and bad flavors.

In the US where we can buy any cuisine we want, we forget that we ourselves could prepare the tasty lentil soup that we were served in the Indian restaurant. I always use the excuse, I am just too busy. It is so much easier going to a restaurant. They do all the work.

In Guinea where all I have is time, time to shop, to shop, to simmer all the yummy flavors out of the fresh ingredients, and to clean, I discover the pleasures of preparing an awesome meal.

Cooking a meal is not a chores like it is in the US. Even if I had all the time in the world back in the US, it would not be the same. Life in the US is such a shore: driving to the super market protected in our rolling metal cans, walled away from the beauty of nature, the heat and the wind, to rush into the air conditioned store to barely make eye-contact with the strangers, to attack rush hour traffic only to arrive home exhausted preferring to pop in the frozen pizza to slaving over a hot stove. You don't even have to use a plate. Throw the cardboard in the trash and clean-up is done.

It is hard to find leisure time, to enjoy shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Cars have taken something away from us, the ability to pause and enjoy a minute. We think cars give us so much more time in our day, what a lie.


This particular blog makes it sound like I never enjoyed cooking in the US. This is false. There were plenty of times when leisure time was given to cooking and cleaning, when time was spent enjoying a moment, a minute, a peaceful pleasure.

There were hot cocoas and beautifully sliced pieces of fruit. There were meatballs in a leafy green soup and salt-covered fish. There were barely stir-fried Chinese meals and huge Thanksgiving dinners. And who could forget the Gazpacho melange of raw veggies? Plus chocolate chip cookies and biscuits baked with my father. There were my first pork and ground beef spaghetti sauces. There were avocado bacon and turkey sandwiches, garlic mashed potatoes, and mac and cheese made from scratch. And what about broccoli and TVP chili's? There were my first pie crusts, turned into pecan delights.

Can you find the memory of you in a dish?

In the hustle and bustle of life in the US, it is important to relish a meal with a friend. Free up an afternoon, an evening. Clear your schedule of any stress or time constraints. Taste the pleasures of time I am finding in Guinea.

A Forgotten Treasure

Saturday 7 October 2006

It is funny how sugar coated peanuts are so simple to make and I would never have made them back in the US. Because I can buy gummy bears and doughnuts. I can even buy sugar coated peanuts in a can.

In a world of abundance, of commerce, of making a buck, the experience of the simple sugar coated peanut has been forgotten. Yeah, in the mall we can stop at the German nut counter and buy some hot freshly prepared sweet nuts for 4 dollars, packaged in a cute paper funnel that we carry as we browse the store windows barely noticing the stuff we are chewing. Where is pleasure found eating peanuts in a mall?

Today I bought grilled peanuts from the woman down the road, still warm, a source of income for working the land. I stood at my stove stirring the simple mixture of sugar, water, and peanuts, as children peered through my window saying hello every 5 minutes. Now I have a bag full of organic candy, treats to hand out to the children, treats for my sweet tooth.

There is something so much more pleasant about this experience than buying peanuts in the mall. Who would have thought peanuts could be so special?

We have lost something in America with our fast-food, super stores, car culture, and it is dying with our grandparents. Is convenience and an easy life worth losing the ability to recognize contentment, pace, and happiness in a well prepared meal, in a freshly peeled orange, in the smile of a young child gobbling sweet peanuts?

After a full day's work, eating a hamburger, stopping for a rental movie, and then driving home, are you happy?

Where is your pleasure derived from?

The first week in the village

Friday 06 October 2006

It has been a week since the Peace Corps vehicle dropped me, my 3 bags, a metal trunk, a gas tank, and my bike upon the Veranda of my locked home. I sat there in the noon heat waiting for the keyholder, the principal of my school to return from the nearby market (5 km). I sat upon my concrete porch cushioned by a plastic prayer mat. My already patient nature and enjoyment of just being of just waiting has grown even more peaceful since coming to Africa. I sat in the disappearing shade, putting together my water filter, taking a few naps, meeting the 6 children living in my concession exchanging songs and games practicing Poular with the non-French speaking children.

I had full confidence as the minutes turned into hours that my village would take care of me. One of the mothers of the concession brought me bananas even though it was the month of Ramadam, the month of fasting. And when it became dusk as I lit a candle, the principal arrived opening my dark home.

The darkness was a blessing and a curse. It hid the cobwebs, the bat droppings, the dust, the layers of dirt of a house that has been sitting dormant for months, yet my imagination of the things unseen played with me. I debated whether or not to sleep on my prayer mat on the unswept concrete floor or on a foam mattress that I could not tell whether or not it was moldy or full of bugs. I fell asleep surprisingly fast cushioned by the foam separated from the horrors of what might be by the mat, a security blanket at least mentally.

Waking bright and early, I started cleaning everything. It was an all day job cleaning the two room plus shower room concrete-floored, metal roof house. The previous volunteer who I am replacing left the home well-furnished with exactly the right amount of housewares, not too much, and not too little fitting perfectly into my non-cluttered lifestyle. It was still a lot to clean though.

My house is spacious with lots of empty space. In the bedroom there is a queen size bed surrounded by a canopy of mosquito netting, hanging from the rafters and a table which I use as a dresser. In the main living space, I have a huge desk and a 3 tier table that is my kitchen, holding all of my cookware, food, and 2 burner gas stove. There is a hallway where I keep my bike and a room with a tiled floor with a drainage pipe where I can take bucket baths. Outside a slingshot away, there is pump water and a pit latrine.

The only bad things it that the porch gets the afternoon sunlight and there are no trees for shade. Luckily inside the house it stays cool.

Listening to the advice and wisdom of 4 expedienced volunteers, I force myself to leave the house daily inviting myself over for dinner, going to the tailor's, visiting a fellow professor, visiting the healthcenter, going to the big tree in the center of town to sit and talk, taking a hike over one of the hills to see what I can see. I do not know why I feel so safe hiding behind the walls of my house. I like my community. I like talking to people. Why is it so hard to get up, to lock my door, and to go out the gate?

What am I scared of? Maybe it is the judging eyes of the uncertainty of how to act in this culture or how to speak the local language. Yet I know how important it is for my mental health as well as my integration into this community for me to leave the confines of my home.

With time I will start to feel confident. I just have to get through this walking on eggshell phase. I have to relearn some of my reactions to social situations. it is okay to just sit in silence with a family. Being a wallflower is not bad.

My principal keeps me well-fed sending children over with rice and sauce, eggs, bananas, and oranges. I rode my bike over rocky terrain to the big market buying eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes. My spaghetti sauce is getting better each night as I experiment with Guinean peppers, little packets of red powder (crushed dried tomato?), bullion cubes, red palm oil, and peanut oil. I am stuffing myself. I have got to learn to cook for one. Powdered milk with sugar, bananas and oatmeal is very tasty in the mornings. I will not starve; although, I often crave for something sweet like a Cliff bar or a granola bar. With time that will fade though. I think my taste buds are changing. I was never a big fan of eggplant, but my oh my fried eggplant is so tasty now!

School has not started yet. Monday is the first day of classes. School is Monday through Saturday 8 am-13 h. I will be teaching 14 hours a week for 5 days a week: 7th-10th grade chemistry and 7th-8th grade physics.

I have spent the week preparing lesson plans. This in itself can be very frustrating. Often I will sit inactive staring into space frustrated at my inability to understand the book, frustrated at not knowing how to teach concepts that have no relevance to these kids' lives. Eventually though a lesson plan gets written. Maybe I just need quiet time to absorb all of the new French I just learned.

Do you know what the most difficult thing is about living alone in the village? It is easy to be lazy and to do nothing. There is no boss pushing you to work. You have to be extremely motivated or you have the potential of becoming depressed at your lack of accomplishment. The activation energy to do anything is high. It is kind of worse than graduate school.

But you know what? I have learned how to make to do lists and to feel a sense of accomplishment with the little things. Reading a book is not wasting time. Sweeping and mopping the floor, good job Peace Corps volunteer. Going to the tailor to have a 60's hippie dress made which is all the rage here in Guinea is a check mark for a job well done. The spaghetti sauce, my compliments to the chef.

It is funny. I don't realize I am in Africa until I leave my village and ride the dirt paths surrounded by fields of fonio and rolling hills of green dotted with huts and low-growing trees. In the solitude of relaxing into the bumpy road, feeling my back tires twist in the red gravel, I realize wow, I am in Africa. I am happy, peacefully content.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

How am I?

I am healthy both mentally and physically.

I have not had any health problems except my mosquito bites often become infected wounds that eventually heal. I enjoy the physical work of pounding garlic and peppers, of cooking over wood-burning fires, of sweating as I shop. I do need to start exercising though. Once I get to my new home and become familiar with my surroundings I will feel safer to go on a hike, a jog, or a bike ride.

My diet is probably not the healthiest at the moment. I eat a lot of white bread, rice, and cassava. The sauces often contain a lot of red palm oil, some eggplant, MSG, peanut butter, leaves of the cassava plant, or the potate (not potatoes) plant. Plus I love snacking on boiled peanuts and fried cassava balls (Guinea tater tots). Once I get to village though I hope to do a lot of stir-fries with plenty of veggies. I need to find a healthy grain though.

Mentally I am at a very low stress level. I tend to feel uncomfortable and sad if someone is mad at me or if someone asks me for something that I will not and cannot give, but the nice thing is Guineans quickly forget any emotional conflicts that they may have with you and quickly become your smiling friend again. I have not felt lonely like my first year in Seattle; although, this may change as I move to my little village.

I think my biggest challenge so far is keeping the mosquitoes from biting me and trying my best not to scratch my bites when those beautiful black and blue insects have a nice Jennifer snack. Sometimes I don't smack them as the line up at the blood bar. They just look so pretty.

The Labe Market

The 8 hour car ride from Conakry to Labe was full of beautiful green hillsides with little villages scattered throughout. I got to sit in the front seat which made traveling a lot easier. I did not even get a hint of car sickness even though the roads were narrow and curvy. Thank goodness!

The past couple of days have been filled with errands.

I spent a whole morning getting a bank account. We had to get photocopies of our ID's, get two photos taken, and then wait our turn for the one bank employer who opens new accounts to help us. One must have a lot of patience for life in Guinea as well as a friendly smile. Thankfully I brought a book Nickle and Dimed (I recommend this book. It is exactly what I went through working at the bakery in Seattle and the temp agency in Alabama.) and brought a friendly patient attitude that made us a new friend as we learned that the bank employer was from Foricarriah, the place where we did our Peace Corps training.

I have spent two days in the amazing market full of wonderful things and wonderful people. It is a narrow maze of fresh produce, housewares, colorful fabric, hardware, school supplies. Once you find your way out you are once again a bit lost but finding the HUGE mosque up on the hill gives you back your bearings.

We carry our backpacks in front like we are pregnant women. We are easy to spot targets for those who would love to lighten our loads.

The exchange rate is 6000 GF to 1 US dollar. I will be given approximately 100 US dollars a month which is enough to feed and cloth me in Guinea. Plus we got about 150 US dollars for move in expenses.

What did I buy?

spaghetti 3,000 GF
spam 7,000 GF
powdered milk 16,000 GF
oats 12,000 GF
spreadable soft cheese 7,000 GF
chocolate wafer cookies 5,000 GF
French baguette 1,000 GF
5 oranges 1,000 GF
soy sauce 10,000 GF
white beans (2 kg) 6,000 GF
lentils (2 kg) 6,000 GF
yellow split peas (2 kg) 6,000 GF
50 kg rice 125,000 GF

tie dyed bedsheets 55,000 GF
3 locks 30,000 GF
3 beads 200 GF
nylon string 7,500 GF
gas tank 350,000 GF
10 candles 2,300 GF
school supplies 93,000 GF
bar of laundry soap 800 GF
4 meters of soft cloth 20,000 GF
prayer mat 48,000 GF
metal trunk 45,000 GF

The Labe market is nice because there are no cars inside. The problem is the outside of the market where cars and motorcycles threaten your safety at all times.

I like this market. People are friendly and are always willing to help. They always love it when you speak Pular. It gives me a great incentive to learn the local language.

I will soon be in my village where the once a week market in the 5 km away city will be my new shopping grounds. Fresh produce and freshly prepared rice and sauce will keep me healhty along with the bike ride up and down the hills between my village and the market.

I won't be back in the big city of Labe for a while. School starts soon and I'll leave my site maybe once a month. Look for a blog update after Halloween.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Communal Living

For the past three nights, I have been participating in preparing group meals for over 30 people. We all chip in about $1.75 for dinner and dessert. We have groups of contributors: team shop, team chop, team drink, team cook, team clean-up, and team collect payment.

Evening one: Spaghetti, salad, garlic bread and flan
Evening two: Pancakes, hash browns, eggs, fruit salad,
and chocolate mousse
Evening three: Three different types of rice, beans, guacamole, salsa, a corn tomato salad, tortillas, brownies, chocolate cake, and fudge.

I have always been interested in community living and in living in a communal type of lifestyle.

However these three nights of cooking have taught me some interesting lessons about communal living.

In theory if everyone contributed to the whole, to the meal, to the project there would be an overall feeling of accomplishment and success amongst the group, but in practice things are very different.

People are under-appreciated.

During Peace Corps training, there are so many people who contribute to our learning and who contribute to helping us move into our new homes. This whole weekend in Conakry has been a group effort: community dinners, organizing the purchase of 29 stoves, tanks of gas, and trunks, showing us how to shop and move around in this city with public taxis, buying bulk herbs to divide, buying mosquito mesh for everyone, collecting and photocopying all of the chemistry lesson plans we did during practice school and distributing them, and living under one roof.

We all have a common goal of getting prepared and ready to move to site, to move to our villages. It is easier to accomplish this if we work as a team, if we divi up the work and spread the responsibilities.

It is a group effort and at the end of it one would hope that we would all feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of appreciation for our fellow volunteers.

However there are several problematic issues with communal living, a few issues with a group effort trying to accomplish something:

1. Negativity overpowers any positivity. It breeds fast. One voice of negativity is amplified 100 fold and the positive voice is completely lost.

Negativity can be manifested with resentment towards others for how little they contributed or with negative gossip. The negativity doesn't always even have to manifest itself publicly but often starts internally leading to an overall unhappy ending.

2. Judging the value of one's work is another issue.

If the community was made up for positive hard-working people would communal living work? In other words, if the community was made up of Jennifers would it lead to success? *teasing grin*

Today I did some shopping for the desserts we were preparing for the house. I kept the cook company as he mixed up some frosted brownies and fudge. I washed a few dishes. I chopped many many items tonight for our feast of Latin food. And in the middle of chopping I went outside and helped load up all of the baggage for the Fouta region into Peace Corps cars. (I like lifting.) I contributed to tonight's meal. I contributed to our goal of moving to our villages. I do not feel like I need a thank you or an acknowledgement because I know that I contributed to tonight's meal, to our departure and feel good about what I contributed. I deserved to eat because I worked hard for it.

But what if there was another Jennifer who felt the exact same way but only cut one tomato yet felt good about her contribution felt like she deserved to eat because she too worked hard for it. She contributed less but in her belief system feels she is equally deserving.

Here lies the dilemma. Once we start putting value on each other's work communal living goes to pot. Both problematic issues feed off each other. Judging each other's work leads to negativity.

What has your experience been with communal living and are there ways around these issues?

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Weekday in the Life of a Peace Corps Stagiere (Trainee)

I am a morning person so I typically woke up with Prayer Call which starts around 5 am. A man wanders the neighborhood crying out or if you live by a mosque an electronic prayer call is one’s morning alarm clock.

However I wouldn’t get out of bed until maybe 6-6:30 am.

Morning salutations to all 9-10 members of the family starting with the father, then the mother, and then the brothers and sisters ranging in age from 9 years old to 22 years old. My 14 year old brother would always go out and buy me some fresh bread. I would sit out on the Veranda just chilling, eating bread with butter, peanut butter, avocado with sugar, or honey until it was time to leave for school.

It was a good 15 minute walk to the high school dotted with kids yelling out Fote, Fote (white person, white person) or salutations in the local languages as I would walk through people’s yards.

From 8 am till 5 pm Monday through Friday I was in training.

During practice school the morning was spent teaching and observing classes. In the afternoon, I had language class (local language Pular) as well as numerous other sessions.

We have had sessions on safety and security. Do not walk in Conakary at night. Take a taxi. Integrate into your community when you get to site. They are your best protectors.

We had sessions on health. Don’t eat shit.

We had diversity and cultural sessions. Be aware of the heirarchrial structure of your school. Go through the right channels or else you will not be able to get anything done.

We had teaching sessions on classroom management, lesson planning, how to say chemistry words in French.

We had a few community development sessions: how to give a sensiblization on hand washing or brushing your teeth or how to go about determining the needs of a community.

Twice a week, we ate lunch at the Peace Corps office. They fed us well: meat, beans, fruit, rice and sauce.

The rest of the week I would walk the 20 minutes into the town center where I would eat rice and sauce or an omelet sandwich. A few times I ate a bean sauce with bush meat. Don’t ask me what type. I am not sure.

By 5 pm, I was drained and ready for home.

I would often buy a deep fried cassava root or some little fried manioc balls or some boiled peanuts, my Guinean fast food for the walk home.

As soon as I got home, my 19-year-old host sister would bring out a plate of rice covered with fish and red sauce or a green leaf sauce. I would eat but I would try not to eat too much because I knew I would be fed again at 8 pm.

The family would sit outside until nightfall. Sometimes I would help the brothers fill the 20 water containers. They would pull water out of the courtyard well and then I would use a funnel and a cup to fill the bidons. My host mother didn’t want me to pull water out of the well even though I really wanted to (good workout, you know?), too dangerous? In Guinea it is typically the girls who get water; however, my family was progressive. Boys cleaned the house and did the water. However the traditional role of cooking still went to my 19-year-old sister; although, a few meals were cooked by my brothers which was a HUGE deal. At the market, you never see males shopping and you rarely, rarely ever hear of males cooking.

By nightfall, if we had electricity, we would go into the hot house and eat. My family would eat rice and sauce, but they always had something different and special for me like a cucumber, potato salad or spaghetti with oil sometimes with fish meatballs, or black eyed peas.

Then my family would watch TV. There is a different local language night. Since there are 3 major local languages in Guinea, Monday night might be Sous-Sous night. News and stuff was in French though and there were lots of soap operas dubbed in French. My family loved watching African music videos.

I always preferred the nights when we didn’t have electricity. Then we would sit outside and talk and sing. Those were some beautiful moments especially when darkness was lit up like a stage with the moon as the spotlight. It was like daylight during those evenings. We would talk about so many things like religion, the differences between America and Guinea (there is a generalization here that white people and black people in the US dislike each other and people keep asking why and if it is true), what school is like, ghosts, snakes, and many other topics.

I would typically take my bucket bath after dinner and be in bed by 9-10 pm especially during practice school. A full day of French was exhausting.

Now though I am going to a new pace of life, village life. What will it be like? I have no clue. Will I cook for myself? Will I find a variety of veggies and fruits? Will I be lonely? Will I make friends?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

September 5, 2006

I sit in the cool shade listening to the blaring music and a loud announcer over a megaphone. No one in my neighborhood can escape from the noise that pierces my heart. It is a party, a celebration. I watch as female guests pass my house on their way home, then silence. Is that a screaming goat or a screaming little girl? The party was for the 3 girls who were having their clitorises cut off today.

In the mornings, I lie in bed listening to screaming children who I assume are being beaten.

I remember in college reading Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and really taking to heart Shylock's words, "If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?"

We are all human. We feel pain, love, joy, anger, and peace; however, this does not make us the same.

My body cringes when I hear the hysterical children, when I hear a screaming that I can't differentiate between a goat or a girl. My being feels their pain and my heart screams, "Stop. It is wrong. You are abusing children."

Do the Guineans feel the same sensations that are tearing up my soul? If they did wouldn't they stop? I wonder what would have to happen in order for a Guinean to feel what I feel when I hear the daily screaming neighbor children.

We are all human with various emotions, but what makes my heart twinges with angst doesn't effect everyone the same. Lots of kids here get beat and flogged. It tears me apart.

I fear that maybe I will become desensitized if I stay in this country.

I could rationalize because I feel horrible when I hear a children being beaten, it is wrong; however, the Guineans don't feel the same things I do. So is it wrong for them? In the USA we spank our children too and don't feel horrible.

When is the line crossed? When do we say, "It is universally wrong? It is inhumane?" When do we start imposing our moral judgements upon another culture?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Packing for West Africa: Guinea

Things I should have brought

1. Fast drying, non-wrinkly blouses.
Cotton is cool; however it takes forever to dry.
2. Volleyball
3. My red sandals
4. My messenger bag
5. More conservative workout clothes and
tank tops that don't stretch when you hand wash them.

Things I should have left at home

1. Closed toe shoes
2. Pajamas, Sarongs work great.

August 31, 2006

I am exhausted.

Teaching 2 hour classes straight is incredible! The 2 hours need to be broken up with exercises, activities, games, and experiments. Sometimes the subject is so dry it is hard to find other things to do than straight lecture. For example, I am teaching oxidation and reduction to 10 th graders. We played one came using a ball to demonstrate the loss and gain of oxygen; however, I am straight out of ideas. So tomorrow it is basically straight, boring 2 hour copy from the board lecture.

With my 9th grade class today, we learned about the periodic table, so we re-enacted why atoms are different for various elements. We used flashcards to memorize the elements and then played a game of who can identify the element the fastest. That class felt like it took forever, even though I had several activities planned.

And on top of that, I had to observe a two hour class and then had a 1 hr and 30 minute session on nutrition and dental health in Guinea and then a 1 hour 15 minute class on the local language of Pular.

I went home, took a 20 minute nap, ate rice and cassava leaf sauce then then worked 2 hours on my lesson on moles. Afterwards, I ate some boiled peanuts and had dinner, black eye peas with bread.

I am not exactly stressed. I am just overworked. I have 1 week left of practice school.

What are some of my challenges?

1. Lesson planning and teaching for 2 straight hours
2. Working under headlamp conditions is pretty draining.
3. Buying things in the market is extremely draining: the heat, bargaining, and the constant attention because I am a foreigner.
4. Mosquitoes are eating my feet and ankles up and I might have bedbugs.
5. The mail system is extremely frustrating. I have not received 13 letters, but I did receive 2 packages which cost 30 dollars a piece. I find it ridiculous. Even though I appreciate the sent packages, it is ridiculous that it takes such an enormous amount of money for me to get some words of love from my friends and family. If you wish to send some words, try to send a 5 dollar letter, making it look very official, with religious symbols or write in red. It might get through.

What are some of my joys?

1. Being in a place of beauty
2. My host family especially the two girls, the 9 year old and the 19 year old
3. Soccer, running, and biking
4. Fixing my hair
5. Candles

August 27: I hate chemistry

except it is a lot more interesting and fun when I have to teach it in French to 7th-10th graders.

Lesson planning sucks though. I spend hours reading in French and then reading a 9th grade American textbook that my uncle gave me to get teaching ideas as well as to get more clear and simple explanations. I spend most of my time reading and am left with empty pages that need to be filled with notes that the students will copy from the board as well as scriptings of what I am going to say.

Last week during practice school I taught 30 7th graders about the composition of air and 25 9th graders about the electrochemistry of copper sulfate. the 7th graders didn't understand fractions or percentages or even French and the 9th graders didn't know 18-20=-2. I clocked in 10 hours of teaching and probably over 20 hours of lesson planning.

This upcoming week instead of 1 hour chemistry classes, I will be teaching the typical 2 hour chemistry classes. Can you imagine a room full of 14 year olds for 2 hours learning chemistry? I definitely need to brainstorm up activities.

As I have only recently experienced teaching sciecne to kids who will never see a lab, who will likely never have a science job, who will never have a need for the periodic table, I have learned that my teaching philosophy is to teach kids how to think, how to problem solve, and how to use brain power. Kids here just regurgitate memorized facts.

In theory this philosophy sounds great. In reality it is going to take a lot of work. In a culture with an oral tradition and with a collective based society rather than an individualistic society, I have to find news ways to teach and new ways to test.

In the educational system that the French left, reading is what leads you to success. My students copy from the blackboard letter by letter. My highly educated host family looks at the pictures of the French magazines and comic books I brought. I spend evenings in the dark with my family exchanging stories about snakes and about our past injuries. My students cheat freely on exams with the subconscious ingrained ideal that helping your neighbor is more important than your individualistic grade. It is more important to look after the well-being of the community rather than each individual's success.

I have watched my host brothers study past 10 pm under kerosene light, a group of them huddled around each other helping everyone understand. There is definitely a desire to learn. Yet there are huge gaps between everyone's reading and math levels especially between boys and girls.

What can I do to bridge the need for teaching the basics with creating a challenging learning environment for the others?

What teaching and testing styles can I use to facilitate learning in an oral and collective based culture?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Mixed feelings

August 13, 2006

For those who know me, am I an extrovert or an introvert? Do I get energized or drained from social interactions with more than one person like party atmospheres?

It is almost midnight and the music is still playing.

This morning I woke at 5:30 am to start my 2 weeks of laundry. Because of travelling for a week I got behind. It took my 19 year old sister and I at least 2 hours to finish. I try my best to conserve outfits, wearing 2 good outfits a week for school and then changing into a stay at home skirt and tank top. Three outfits a week plus dance and workout clothes. It adds up when you are washing by hand. Do I even remember the days where I would wear something once and then wash it?

I do love the simplicity of not having to pick out an outfit daily. I always wanted to wear the same outfit each day even if it meant having 7 identical outfits in my closet.

After laundry, there was shopping. It was hot. We had to walk at least 2 miles round trip and we had a lot to buy: cucumbers, eggs, seasonings, meat, flour, sugar, and onions. We had to go back to the market to buy mayo. Going to the market is hard work, heavy work, socially draining work.

At home, 5 women were in the outdoor kitchen preparing a western style feast of beef and chicken pasta with a cucumber, egg, and onion salad, using wood burning fires. Who were they preparing for? The five of them?

I walked so much today, to and from the market taking detours to hand out invitations to my evening birthday party. The next thing I knew I was sitting at a store front listening to my sister bargain in Sous-Sous with a vague French word here and there: essence (gas) 6,000 Francs. What were they talking about? Money was exchanged. We walked home. Later all of the family boys and I walked back. Each kid took a piece: a generator, 2 speakers bigger than me, a boombox, and a megaphone.

The invitations said 18 h, but luckily I was told things run two hours late. I warned the Americans. Yet we were still the first to arrive and the most tired after a weeks worth of travelling. As the Guineans were arriving, the Americans were ready to go to bed.

In this city of uncertain electricity, my 29th birthday was lit up with lights, with music blaring, with a spotlight following a video camera, 1 Liter of gas ($1).

It was a huge fete! At least 150 people. Everyone was given a plate of pasta, meat, and salad. A 3 tier cake was decorated with frosting and candles. There was a lot of dancing. A photographer was hired. My family gave me $20 worth of fabric to make clothes from. People were happy. It was a very unique and extravagant birthday especially for people who only make $100 a month.

It was enjoyable, but I was left with a lot of inner struggles.

Can you guess what they may be?

August 14, 2006

My first bouts of stress and worry in Guinea were due to my own feelings of guilt for being given such an extravagant expensive party. At weddings you bring a gift to offset the cost. But would it offend my family, if I collected a $1 from my 30 American guests who attended?

What only a $1 you may think? But that is actually a lot in Guinea. It costs $1.50 to have a tailor make you a full outfit. People's salaries are low. Food is cheap. We get $25 every two weeks as walk around cash to pay for lunches and other miscellaneous things.

I struggled with how do I repay my family? How do I process the generosity of my family? In this country where during my site visit a couple of people were extremely nice to me but then handed me a letter written in English asking for a computer, how am I suppose to react to kindness?

Thankfully, the cross-cultural coordinator was my guide. He advised me to send a committee of 2 physic/math profs, 2 chem profs, 2 English profs, and 2 trainers to say thank you. Do not give money at this point. Sometime in the future I can do something for the family.

The cross-cultural coordinator also explained to me that Guinean people are extremely generous. They love giving even if they have so little. I understand this because I love to give too. It was just hard for me to be on the receiving end, me the one who has even a hard time accepting offers of generosity to shuttle me back and forth from the Seattle airport.

We expressed our gratitude and I let go of my feelings of guilt and worry. I came to peace with my amazing 29 birthday filled with generosity and cross-cultural exchange.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

My new home

My new home to be is in the Fouta region and it is gorgeous! I am pretty much in the middle of nowhere in a small village that has taxi service to the big city of Labe twice a week. The roads are dirt and pot hole ridden. I likely will not be going the 2 to 5 hours to Labe much (60 km). I have a big once a week market 5 km away and there are a couple of other Americans only 15-20 km away.

Because taxis don't go to my village every day, I took a taxi to a neighboring Peace Corps Volunteer's site. I was packed into a small truck with 16 of us, 10 in the back. It took us 4 hours to go 60 km. The next day another Peace Corps Volunteer and I hiked 14 km to my village.

I will be living in a two room concrete house that has a shower room, an outdoor pit latrine, and outdoor pump water. It is quite luxurious about 600 square feet. The school is right across the road from my place.

There are gardens everywhere. Food is plentiful: rice, cassava, corn, avocados, oranges, eggplant, limes, bananas. We even have fresh baguettes daily.

I am excited about my village. There is a lot of hiking and biking to be done in the beautiful setting of rolling hills, dotted with round hut filled villages, pastures filled with free range goats and cows who are kept out of walled up gardens.

My village is an outdoor person's dream. Getting to my village from Conakry is the hard part. It is a 2 day trip in bad cars packed full of people. If you think you can endure it, there is a slice of paradise waiting for you in West Africa.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Life is work

August 1, 2006

I live a physical life here in Guinea. In this city of about 12,000 people 28 of us Americans are training to become Peace Corps Education Volunteers. It is week 3 of 11 weeks of training.

Our minds are flooded with French, technical French specific for our teaching subject (math, chemistry, physics, English), safety and security, health and cross culture sessions from 8-17h. It is a long day of exhausting brain work that never ends. After school, my next step is home to my bilingual French and Sous Sous speaking family.

I am integrating and adapting well. I spend most of my social time with my family. We talk about divorce, domestic violence, cultural differences. We play games, crochet, make friendship bracelets, dance, tell stories, sing, and laugh a lot.

I rarely feel the heat. It is like Alabama. The evenings and shade are cool.

I love life in Guinea. Life in Guinea is physical. It is work. I sweat. I take bucket baths. I wash clothes by hand. I write by candlelight. I walk to the market to buy food. I talk, sing, and dance as entertainment. I eat freshly prepared meals cooked by wood fires daily. Dishes are washed using well water, the dirt ground as our kitchen counter. Yes this is the life for me, back to the basics, back to the simplicity of activity compared to the easy life of non-activity. Non-activity, yes I am talking about you: electricity, TV, fast food, e-mail, Internet, cars, machines, air condition.

Life is work.

Rarely do I have time to sit and think, to question and ponder the depths of my heart and soul.

Yet something has popped up.

Life is work here, but at what price do I pay for this simplicity?
gender specific roles, patriarchy, and non-equality between the sexes

Is my US Independence worth giving up for the simple Guinean utopia of life is work?

I am taking African dance. I spend an hour soaked through dancing and dancing. I love it!

Teaching chemistry in French at practice school has been fun. I like it a lot better than teaching at the university.

Food is awesome here. I get rice and fish sauce, leaf sauce, peanut sauce. Lots of fresh avocados and French baguettes for breakfast. Try an avocado with sugar. It is like jam.

I rarely have electricity. My Internet and e-mail access is very very limited. I am in Conakry for just one night and then will be off again to the world of non-electricity. I am going to visit my site where I will be living for 2 years then I will be back in training. It is about a 12 hour ride.

I am doing very well. Life has not been stressful yet. I am waiting for a challenge to pop up.

I will try to post again at the end of August.

Best wishes my friends and family.



Saturday, July 01, 2006

Last days

I am scared.

It is funny. I wasn’t scared a few weeks ago nor was I that excited. This stoic unemotional self seemed like an oddity especially since I was preparing to go on a life changing adventure on the opposite side of the world in Guinea, Africa.

I am leaving in less than a week.
Emotions are starting to appear.

Goodbyes were said to family and to Seattle friends.
Now goodbyes are being said in Alabama.

I am finishing up a few projects: registering my car in Alabama, finishing up the picture-illustrated story about my family and being adopted. The story has prompted some interesting conversation about my birthmother. I never knew why she gave me up, but learned that she was an unwed single mother which made it impossible for her to raise a child on her own in the 1970’s in Taiwan. She gave me up for better opportunities in America.

Packing has become a slight headache. Thanks be to Damon who has been helping me streamline the weight.

Do you really need that food packet?
Do you really need those games?
Do you really need that shirt?
Do you really need that many coloring books?
Do you really need that can opener?
Do you really need that many gifts?

Funny how 5 tiny stuffed animals weigh down one’s luggage.

I am at 70 out of the 80 lbs and am now debating about 10 lbs worth of books. My uncle brought me some great science textbooks. Peace Corps veterans say, “Newbies bring TOO many books.” What does that mean? I could just pack the books into my carry-on, but do I want to suffer under the weight?

Some say we bring way too much stuff. Take courage and bring only 50 lbs. Live like the people in Guinea, yet deep down I still feel connected to this US philosophy of you can’t live without stuff. Make use of all the allowed weight to make your life more comfortable. And this is coming from a girl who is always getting rid of stuff so that she can fit all of her possessions into a car.

I wonder, “Have I brought the right stuff?”
There are a lot of wonderings going in my head.
I just need to take a breath, sigh it out and say, “Don’t worry. Be happy. Enjoy these last moments with people you love.”

Monday, May 08, 2006

French my new language

I have started listening to French tapes to start refreshing my tongue since Guinea's official language is French; although, many people don't know French. I will have to learn the local language of the village I will be living in.

The challenge of teaching science in French is daunting. I never majored in French. I don't really write French that well. The reason I know conversational French is because when I was about 12 I attended a French speaking school where I sat not understanding a thing for about half a year. Does that background give me the credentials to teach in French?


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Packing for Guinea

I am numb about the Peace Corps invitation to Guinea, Africa. I am neither excited nor depressed about it. I am indifferent. The application process is a long one kind of like earning a PhD where your final defense is a bit anti-climatic.

I have led a simplistic, anti-materialistic life or so I believe. I do not feel stressed about the thought of how the hell am I going to fit all of my stuff into two bags. That is actually pretty simple. Clothes as they should be will take up the least space. The bigger questions are what comforts of home do I need to pack and what hobbies do I need to bring to occupy my free time?

For the past 7 months, I have been an unemployed nomad so I pretty much know what things are important to me: a pillow, writing and art materials, rubber bands and hair clips, craft materials like hooks, needles, and yarn, books and music. Yet these simple things exist in a place where I can buy anything else I want. I wonder what things will I miss in my new new home. What things do I take for granted? What do I need to pack?

Friday, May 05, 2006


I started the Peace Corps application process at the end of my 6 years of graduate school. It would have been smarter to start it a year before graduation. I would have then had medical insurance to help pay for some of the medical tests for the application process.

For those who are interested in the Peace Corps application timeline, here is mine. Each person's application is unique and my timeline would be different from others.

August 2005 Started online application
September 2005 Submitted online application
November 1, 2005 Interview in Atlanta and was nominated for Francophone Africa as a science teacher
Week later received medical application forms
February 4, 2006 Submitted medical forms
April 11, 2006 Medically cleared
April 24, 2006 Invited to teach secondary science: physics and chemistry in Guinea, Africa leaving July 5, 2006