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.