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?