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.