Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Au revoir, la Guinée

Greetings all,

It was classic Guinea. Our battered, sputtering excuse for a taxi
chugged to a halt, spewing exhaust and a wave of noxious fumes. I
groaned, looking at my watch and wondering why, oh why, the bush taxi gods loved toying with ex-Volunteers like me.

I was on my last leg of the long bush taxi trip from Bamako, Mali, to
my village and home of two years-- Boulliwel. The Peace Corps had
evacuated Guinea and I, having processed all my paperwork and tied up
my administrative loose ends, had decided to return to the country to
say goodbye to my friends and neighbors and get some closure on my experience there. I had been hoping to have a painless, mechanically-sound trip back in, but alas, it was not to be.

The driver, a teenage boy named Abdoulaye, opened the hood and began tinkering with some of the wires surrounding the grime-covered

"Hey-- Barry." He gestured to his apprentice, another teenage boy.
"Grab those jugs and go get some water from the stream."

My Pular proficiency allowed me to understand many things now--
sometimes, though, I had a hard time believing my ears.

"He's going to get water from the stream?!" I asked Abdoulaye, incredulous.

"Yup!" Abdoulaye said, tightening a nut and stepping back to take a
better look at the engine. "The tubes get really hot. He'll get some
water and pour it on here and we'll be good to go."

I was terrified.

You'd think two years of service in a country like Guinea-- including
regular, weekly bush taxi rides-- would have desensitized me to the
lunacy of public transportation in Africa. Yet here I was, stuck on
the side of the road in the misting rain, watching two boys mess with
the bird's nest of wires and tubes under the hood of their Opal
junker, and I was--once again-- terrified.

Barry brought back a couple jugs of water, which Abdoulaye carefully
poured down a steaming black tube. The water spurted out a hole in
the other end-- apparently this was normal. After about five minutes
of this, Abdoulaye stood up, looked at me, and gestured me to get back
into the car.

"We're good!" He slammed the hood and climbed in the driver's side.
I opened the passenger door gingerly, muttering prayers.

We got going, chugging up the hill away from the stream, and
eventually rattled into Boulliwel 30 minutes later, amazingly,
inexplicably, in one piece. Thank the Lord!

This was the price-- a very reasonable one, all things considered-- of
getting to see my Boulliwel friends again before leaving the country.
What a joyful reunion it was! I arrived after dark, trudging up to
the Diallos' porch after a long day in the car, and was received with
warm embraces and a few scattered "bisous," those awkward French
cheek-kisses that never quite seem as firm or satisfying as a good
solid handshake.

It was wonderful to see everyone again, to sit and reconnect, to make
the rounds and greet the neighbors. All in all, I spent four days
back in Boulliwel, drinking tea, gathering up my stuff, handing out
presents, and inevitably talking about the situation the country is

Things up-country are calm, if troubled. Everyone denounced the
military junta, calling them bandits and criminals, yet there was the
general feeling as well that there was little they could do to change
the way things were. It hurt me to know that while I had a plane
ticket home in my bag, these folks WERE home. They had nowhere to go if things got worse.

People seemed to understand, however, our reasons for leaving. I got
many pats on the shoulder and words of encouragement: "You're right--
head home 'til it gets better. It's not good for you here now."

Tears were shed. Saying goodbye was hard, in some cases. I had a
final dinner with the missionaries in Dalaba, who I've become very
close to, and promised to keep in touch. One old man, Elhadj
Ibrahima, who I found sick in bed, started crying while clutching my
hand, telling me to come back when the country becomes more peaceful.
Kids small and tall came knocking at all hours, some looking for
"porto" handouts and others wanting my address and phone number so we
can keep in touch. Apparently Mom has already started getting random
calls-- "Allo- André? André?"

In all, it was a really great trip. Things seem calm outside of
Conakry, but we will all continue to watch the situation with great
care. I hope to keep in as good touch as I can considering the

In the meantime, I'm currently in Casablanca, Morocco, visiting some
old friends from camp who teach at a school here. Morocco-- fabulous
place-- has treated me well. I've ridden camels in the Sahara, hiked
in the Atlas mountains, and eaten heaping mounds of delicious couscous
and tajine.

I plan on heading home on Thursday, the 19th-- well in time for
Thanksgiving turkey and the Lions on tv;). From there, I'll be in the
Boston area for a few weeks until heading down to Greensboro, NC, to
be closer to my fiançée, René. More on this soon.

We are thus nearing the end of our "Andrew in Africa" emails! Thanks
for reading and for being interested in what's happening halfway
across the world.

Much love,

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Peace Corps Guinea Program Suspended

Greetings friends,

There's no quick and easy way to put this, so I'll be simple and direct: The Peace Corps Guinea program was suspended over the weekend. PC/Washington administration met to discuss the situation and decided to suspend the program indefinitely due to the lack of security in the country. This was announced to us yesterday morning and since then we have all been thrust forcefully into scramble-mode as we fill out paperwork, take medical tests, complete language and technical interviews, figure out our next life steps (transfer, go home and re-enroll later, travel, stay in Mali, etc), and try and find some closure in the midst of the confusion.

My bare-bones personal itinerary is starting to look like this:
Next week: try to smuggle my way back to Guinea to say goodbye to my village and get my stuff.
Two weeks from now: Bush taxi back to Bamako and fly to Morocco to get a taste of N. Africa (anybody have info on Roland and Beth Lefebvre's whereabouts?)
Three weeks from now (ish): Head back to the States to be home for Thanksgiving.

Sorry if that's scatter-brained but I feel scatter-brained right now... I am comforted by the thought of returning to my village to say goodbyes and get some personal closure, so that has softened the emotional blow. Thanks for keeping up with what's happening and keep Guinea in your thoughts and prayers.

Thanks, much love,

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Guinea update: More tension and the waiting game

Hello all,

Sitting here typing in the sweltering heat of a sticky Malian evening is all the reminder I need that I am NOT in Guinea anymore.

Many of you have asked about the continuing situation in Guinea and what exactly all of us Peace Corps Volunteers are doing now that the program has been evacuated.

For the moment, we are playing the waiting game. Peace Corps Guinea-- 93 Volunteers and dozens of Guinean support staff-- left the country last week in a "consolidation" movement that went smoothly. As I wrote in my last email, I was in Ghana at the time, taking the LSATs and spending time with my fiançée, René. After some wrestling with what exactly to do with us, Peace Corps bought us plane tickets to Mali and flew us here last Friday. I, unfortunately, had to say goodbye to René and cut short our previously-planned trip to Guinea to visit my village and see what my life was like there. Huge bummer.

For the moment, all 93 of us are hanging out here at the PC/Mali training compound outside of Bamako. We are being spoiled-- free meals, toilet paper, running water, and a daily per diem have all been very welcome. Our official stance now is to wait and see how the political situation plays out in Guinea to see whether or not it will be possible for us to return to the country. As many of you may know, the country has been run by an interim military government following a bloodless coup d'etat last December. While initially hopeful for some real political change and an end to the rampant corruption killing the country, the Guinean people have become more and more disillusioned with the interim president, Moussa Dadis Camara.

This came to a head on Sept. 28th, when participants in an opposition rally in the national stadium in Conakry were gunned down by the military and women were raped and abused in broad daylight. These despicable, evil acts have been roundly condemned by the US, the UN, the EU, and ECOWAS, yet Dadis and his entourage have failed to take full responsibility for the actions of the military that they, in theory, command. This is extremely troubling.

Even more troubling is the news that came yesterday that China, despite calls for sanctions and political pressure from the international community, has gone ahead and signed a 7 billion dollar mineral and oil contract in a bid for Guinea's vast untapped natural resources. If indeed Dadis turns out to want to hold on to power and continues his current behavior-- reneging on his promise not to run as a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, continuing to consolidate government power in the hands of a military elite, ranting on national television about the dishonesty of former Guinean leaders and the need for the West to treat him more "respectfully"--this fat Chinese check will give him all the capital he needs to hold on to power regardless of what the international community thinks.

Does China give two figs about human rights or blatantly supporting regimes that commit horrible atrocities? Clearly not. All the hard work and advocacy regarding the tragic situation in Darfur these past few years has been repeatedly foiled by China, who refuses to acknowledge that the Sudanese government is committing systemic genocide and cheerfully continues buying billions of dollars worth of oil from a regime that is one of the worst human rights abusers on earth. 157 people dead in a stadium in Conakry is certainly nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands killed in Darfur over the past four years.

So this is the situation that we are watching. I've called friends from my village, who have assured me that everyone and everything is just fine there. Frustratingly, this is the situation all across Guinea: life continues normally. Conakry certainly is tense yet up country there has been no violence or even major protests. As for us, we are in Bamako for a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of a month before they decide to either suspend the PC/G program or send us back in.

I will keep you posted with future details.

In the meantime, we're all fine-- I'm tying up some loose ends work-wise, honing my resumé in anticipation of a future job search, and getting some much needed work on my Scrabble game. Thanks to everyone who's written or dropped a facebook message with their concerns. You could keep Guinea in your prayers.

Thanks again!
Much love,

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Peace Corps Guinea Evacuates (But we're all fine)

Hello all,

So many of you may have been following the news on Guinea the last week or so. For those who haven't, there has been a spate of violence in the capital, Conakry, surrounding a scheduled rally from the political opposition last Monday. Rioters were shot by the military and there were a number of other abuses, including stories of rape at gunpoint and other brutalization of women. Terrible stuff, and deeply disturbing considering the precarious nature of the political situation during this interim government period.

I've been in Ghana since Friday, taking the LSAT and meeting up with my fiancee, Rene as well as spending time with some other Peace Corps friends. It's been a great week-- beaches, hammocks, great seafood, and a real movie in a real movie theater have all been highlights. I heard the news about Guinea Tuesday night as I was waiting to pick Rene up from the airport. Getting back to the hostel that night, we made some phone calls and heard about the violence-- over 150 dead. Pretty shocking. From there, we've been in touch with Peace Corps and with Guinean friends back in-country.

Peace Corps, in coordination with the US embassy, has decided to evacuate all Volunteers as a precautionary measure. The country is ostensibly calm: the violence hasn't spread outside of Conakry although tensions are apparently high. However, the situation with the military and the interim government looks extremely grim-- the men who ought to be maintaining order and justice are instead murdering and brutalizing civilians.

Despite this, Boulliwel is of course entirely unchanged. When I called M. Diallo the other day he confirmed the reports that we had heard through the grapevine but assured me that everything would get better and that they'd have us back in Guinea soon enough. Apparently Blaise Campaore, the President of Burkina Faso, and a high-up American State Dept official are being dispatched to Conakry to "mediate." So we'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, it looks like the Guinea Volunteers that I'm here with in Ghana and I will be heading to Bamako, Mali this week, for a minimum of two weeks (and potentially more) to watch and see if the situation cools down. This is a huge bummer for me, because it means that Rene won't get to come see Guinea. She and I had planned to head back to Guinea on Tuesday and now it looks like she may head back to the States instead. We are exploring the option of her coming to Bamako for a few days to prolong the visit but it looks unlikely. And Boulliwel had been so excited to get to meet her after all these months! A real shame.

Please keep Guinea in your thoughts and prayers. All the Volunteers will be leaving Guinea for Mali on Thursday-- we might be there as soon as Wednesday (waiting on PC/Ghana for word on that one) to meet up with the rest of the crew. Bamako may not know what hit it! But we have all been shocked by the news and are hoping for a swift and peaceful resolution to the conflict and a just, orderly organization of the presidential elections scheduled for January.

Take care,
Much love,

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Polio au village

Hello all,

The latest Guinea installment:


I make a knocking motion on the door of the hut in front of me. “Is anyone here?” I grab the strap of the vaccination cooler and hike it higher up on my shoulder.

The wooden door opens slowly, revealing a young woman in a blue pagne, a baby perched on her hip. Seeing a white man, she straightens her shirt self-consciously and stares at the ground.

I do my best to put her at ease, smiling wide and speaking slowly and clearly. My Pular shpiel has been perfected over the past three days’ worth of work. This is the 19th village we’ve hit in the 3rd round of the National Polio Vaccination Campaign, and our mission is to vaccinate every child under five years old in the Sous-Prefecture of Boulliwel.

I put the cooler on the ground and fire off the standard salutations. On djaraama! Tana alaa ton? I introduce myself and my vaccinating partner, Diouhairatou, and launch into my explanation:

“We’re here from the health center in Boulliwel. We’ve come to give your children medicine against a disease that kills people’s legs when they get older.” The name polio is unknown amongst most villagers in my area. “If your kids receive this medicine three times, then God will help protect them from this disease in the future.” In this culture, even the firmest scientific facts are always couched within the worldview of an almighty God who gives and takes away. To say with certainty that a child will never get polio is almost heretical-- only God knows that. “Can we give your children the medicine? All they need to do is swallow two drops of liquid—no needles!” I smile ingratiatingly, hoping my shpiel has been convincing.

The woman shuffles awkwardly, still looking at the floor. My partner Diouhairatou, a lively, smart young woman studying to be a nurse, presses her. “How many kids do you have in your compound that are 0-5 years old?”

The woman responds this time, perhaps less intimated being questioned by another woman. “I just have these two kids.” She moves aside to reveal a little boy who had been hiding behind her leg.

“Can we give them the medicine?” Diouhairatou asks. I open the cooler and pull out the polio dropper to show her.

“My husband isn’t here,” says the woman, looking over her shoulder as if someone was watching her. She looks a little agitated.

I push her a little. “We’ve just come from Thaiel and Woucourde, ma’am, and vaccinated more than 70 children there. Every village in the country is being vaccinated between now and Monday. Our goal is to make it so that this disease doesn’t exist anymore in Guinea.”

She looks left and right and then nods curtly, giving her consent. She holds her baby still as we put two drops in his mouth. He is a trooper—no flailing or crying! Just a very curious look and a hesitant swallow. We give the second boy his vaccination, say our thank yous, and turn to go.

The woman, coming out of her shell a bit, asks us to stay and eat something—Guinean hospitality! We politely decline, as we have dozens of times over the past three days. I mark two children down on the vaccination sheet and ask the woman where her nearest neighbor lives. Having gotten directions, we shoulder our vaccinations and walk out of the compound on the narrow, corn-lined path.

It has been fascinating to participate in a campaign that is so international in scope yet local in its realization. I read in my Economist about UNICEF's efforts to eradicate polio, and read about the various international organizations giving billions to fight these sorts of diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet instead of reading these articles from the comforts of my college dorm room, I now read them knowing that tomorrow morning I am going to get up early and walk 10 km into the bush, a cooler of vaccinations on my shoulder, to knock on hut doors and convince village men and women in a foreign tongue that they should let me give their children this important medicine. I am, if you will, one tiny straw in the global broom that is sweeping across Africa to eradicate a dread disease. I am a part of the front-line fighting force. What I'm doing matters.

This is important knowledge for a Peace Corps Volunteer who often feels ineffective in his work! Yet it is also an inside look in what an international, multi-billion dollar public health campaign looks like on the ground. It feels less glamorous doing it than it does when I'm reading about it in a magazine, certainly. Yet it also gives me unique insight into the challenges faced by vaccinators and village health workers everywhere.

We had many cases of refusal. Most of these refusals came from local Wahhabites, or followers of the more fundamentalist sect of Islam founded by Saudi Abd Al-Wahhab in the 19th century. There has been a recent resurgence in the Guinean practice of this strain of Islam, resulting in more literal applications of the Qu’ran and a shedding of traditional syncretistic African beliefs like maraboutage and spiritism. The most obvious symbol of Wahhabism is the all-black full-body veil, or burka, being worn by more and more women in Boulliwel and throughout the Fouta Djallon. More often than not, in encountering these veiled women—Wahhabites—we were met with refusals to take the vaccinations.

How exactly these folks have gotten it in their heads that vaccinations are a bad thing is unclear. Some tell me that they believe the vaccinations are a western plot to keep the numbers of Muslims down in countries like Guinea and thus the medicine will turn you sterile. Others say that there is simply a unswerving belief that God has your days numbered and nothing you can do will affect his already-determined plan. This kind of fatalism can, of course, be seen elsewhere in Guinea, and not just with Wahhabism. Many people drive like maniacs here—after all, if you’re gonna die today, you’re gonna die today, and nothing you can do will change that. Ask my dad for more on this one;).

Nonetheless, the prevailing ignorance of many villagers with regards to these vaccinations has been frustrating. One village had over 15 cases of refusal, meriting a visit from our local mayor, M. Diallo my counterpart and the local doctor at the Health Center, and two teams of vaccinators. I went with the team to see the local authorities and, in essence, force the local population to accept the medicine. After all, if Boulliwel ends up having one epidemic-causing case of polio, we are to blame! Guinea had 15 cases last year, prompting this national campaign, and we hope to have zero in the year to come.

So join Peace Corps—be a straw in the broom. ;)

Thanks for reading. Ramadan starts today, ushering in a month of morose greetings and dead afternoons followed by lively, food-filled evening fast-breaking celebrations. I plan to do my fair share of fasting while in my village (when in Rome, right?).

Boulliwel sends their greetings.
Until the next time,
Much love,

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Guns in Guinea

Dear friends,

Last month I caught a ride to Mamou with a military man named M. Diaby. When you are a car-less Peace Corps Volunteer in the middle of rural Guinea, catching rides to go places is kind of like signing up for classes on the Middlebury College online course registration system, Bannerweb: you always end up waiting longer than you want to, and you are never quite satisfied with what you get.

Here in Boulliwel, if I need to get someplace that is outside the radius of personal bike-assisted locomotion, I walk out to the main road that bisects my village, stop, and put my arm out. All manner of transportation passes through Boulliwel: motorcycles, trucks, bush taxis, NGO land rovers, large cows, and the occasional German tourist doing a pan-african bike tour. I usually spend about an hour waiting for a car that a) has room for me (a rarity here in Guinea: you don't see too many empty cars here) and b) is going the same place I am, be that Mamou, Dalaba, or Conkary. When I do finally stumble upon that perfect match, and they stop, I am left to haggle the price of both my seat and whatever baggage I have with me. These tasks accomplished, I then squeeze in next to goats, chickens, breast-feeding mothers, and/or puking children, grit my teeth, and pass the time in the taxi by calculating complex physics equations in my head:

If Vehicle A, a 1989 Peugeot station wagon, carrying 12 people weighing a total of 1700 pounds and baggage weighing a total of 600 pounds, takes a 130 degree turn at 65 mph, what are the odds that the front axle will snap and send Vehicle A and all its contents careening over Cliff B and flipping end-over-end until finally coming to a stop in the potato fields of Village C?

Tough question.

Yet back to M. Diaby, the military man. The day I caught a ride with him, the bush taxi gods seemed to have aligned the planets in my favor: I walked out to the road, held out my arm, and presto! 30 seconds later a car had stopped and I was haggling with the owner of the car, a large man in army fatigues. We settled on a reasonable price and I climbed into the back seat, which, to my surprise, was completely empty. What luxury! We left Boulliwel and I stretched my legs, pleased with my spacious accomodations.

I struck up conversation with the driver and the man in army fatigues, who introduced himself as M. Diaby. M. Diaby struck me as your classic G.I. Joe sort of fellow-- thick, well-built, deep-voiced, proudly moustached. He was also, I noticed, toting a large pistol that was hooked, holsterless, through his belt. He fingered it idly.

I continued my casual conversation and didn't think much more of the gun until we rounded a corner and almost hit a sizable brown baboon. Upon seeing the car, the baboon started and scampered across the road towards the bushes. M. Diaby, seeing a potential kill, whipped out that pistol of his and rolled down the window, trying to get a clear shot.

"What a shockingly dangerous thing to do," I thought, gritting my teeth in expectation of a bang.

Thankfully, the monkey got away, disappearing into the brush. M. Diaby muttered a few words of disappointment to himself and turned around to look at me.

"Almost got him," he said, shaking his head.

I nodded, shell-shocked.

"Here-- look at my gun," he said, handing me the pistol.

I took it gingerly, wondering if the bush taxi gods had indeed been smiling on me when I got into the car with M. Diaby. The gun was heavier than I expected.

"It's made in America," Diaby said proudly. "Take a look."

I looked at the words engraved on the handle.

Manufactured in: Hartford, CT USA, it read.

Hartford, CT: the city of my birth. Sure enough, it was made in America. I shook my head ruefully.

"Americans make the best guns," Diaby continued cheerfully. "Everyone knows that."

"We make good guns, huh?" I muttered.

"The best!" Diaby pointed his finger in the air. "All of us militaires know that."

I handed the gun back to him, speechless and ashamed. Diaby thrust the pistol back in his belt and started talking with his driver, leaving me to stare out the window in silence, and think.

That our country makes the world's best guns-- perhaps I already knew that. Our military is, of course, the best-equipped in the world, and the majority of our weapons suppliers are American. The arms industry in the US is enormous, due largely to steady contracts from its top client, the US government, which spends more on our military than the next 14 countries combined. These were familiar facts.

Yet, sitting in the back of DIaby's car in the middle of French West Africa, I burned with shame. Of all the things my country makes and makes well, this was what found its way to Guinea, into the hands of careless military officers? Is the reputation of making the world's best guns something to be proud of?

As we drove past a military checkpoint-- chock full of gun-wielding soldiers taking turns demanding bribes and napping under bamboo lean-tos-- I couldn't help but think of the horrific civil wars that had ripped apart Guinea's neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the latter a mere 25 miles away down a dirt road from Mamou. Surely it is not a stretch to think that the 12 and 13 year old boy soldiers who were taught to rape and kill in these wars might also have wielded guns manufactured in Hartford, CT? Surely it is not unreasonable to assume that, if soldiers like Diaby can get their hands on American weapons, then Leonean, Liberian, or even Sudanese governments, who have all committed unspeakable atrocities against civilians in the name of quelling rebel movements, can also procure similar arms?

How these weapons get to places like Guinea, what shady deals brokered and what sums of money change hands, I don't know. Yet I feel a deep shame when I think of that well-intentioned, blue collar American worker who earns a living making pistols that wind up in the hands of drugged-out, half-starved boy soldiers who have been brainwashed to murder indiscriminately (see Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone for more on this).

This is not that American worker's fault. Nor is it the boys'. There is a problem with the system in two places in the world that could not be more different if they were on different planets. Countries like Sierra Leone face nearly insurmountable challenges: building just, equitable governance, stamping out corruption and putting natural resource revenues to use for the benefit of the people, putting men and women to work, putting children in school, fostering reconciliation between bitter enemies. Organizations like the Peace Corps are working to address these issues.

The US, on the other hand, has a different set of challenges to deal with, challenges which get debated on the evening news and the op-ed columns of the daily paper. One of these challenges, I argue, must be a reform of a system that allows Hartford guns into the hands of Guinean soldiers. Perhaps this means a fundamental rethinking of our military-industrial complex, a vast economy of corporate and political interests spearheaded by US mega-corporations like Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. Our US "defense" budget this year is over 500 billion dollars, with many of these firms receiving the lion's share. These companies literally live off the sale of weapons that wind up, well, who knows where. "More than 150 countries have had arms contracts with US corporations such as Lockheed Martin," writes activist Chris Haw. These are the same corporations that enjoy such a cozy relationship with our government.

That same government, of course, condemns conflicts like those currently raging in Darfur and wages its own wars in the name of freedom and democracy. There are thousands of good American men and women in positions of influence who are genuinely seeking to bring the US's political, economic, and corporate might to bear to address these issues. And yet how cane we, as a country, decry civil wars in which their militants kill one another with our own weapons? "The US is arming 75% of the world, while it tells folks to disarm, which is like handing out guns to kids in our neighborhood and telling them not to shoot one another," writes author-activist Shane Claiborne.

I do not claim to have good answers to these troubling problems, yet I do have daydreams every now and then. What if we put all of Raytheon's or Lockheed Martin's engineers and technicians to work designing and building wind turbines and solar panels instead of high-tech weaponry? Two of our glaring national challenges right now are, of course, energy independence and climate change. Or what if we cut the country's military budget by a mere 10% (equal to over 50 billion dollars, or about China's military expenditures) and poured that funding into the search for a malaria vaccine, one which could save the lives of over a million people a year in villages like Boulliwel? What if, as a nation, we truly prioritized the clamp-down on arms being sold to rogue states or genocidal regimes? What is American citizens like you and me vigorously advocated our leaders to pursue creatively non-violent paths to conflict resolution no matter what the circumstances? What if, one day, Guineans would point to their American-built hospital and boast, "Americans make the best hospitals. Everyone knows that."

These are no doubt the wayward musings of a young idealist who has lived just a little too long in a small African village. While my perspective is limited and these daydreams certainly aren't a Brookings Institution public policy recommendation, the issues addressed remain nonetheless pressing. Thank you for taking the time to read these stories.

Much love,
As always,

P.S. News updates! Peace Corps Guinea needs your help once more! If, by any chance, you had wanted to contribute to my NGO headquarters project but did not get the chance, you now have the chance to give to help the country of Guinea. At the end of this month the Peace Corps Volunteers in the Fouta Djallon are organizing the 11th annual Girls' Conference! This conference, one of the staples of Volunteer activity here in the country, is held to encourage and train young girls from villages and towns all across Guinea in the areas of education, health, leadership, community organizing, and the challenges of life as a woman in Africa. Each Volunteer invites a girl from their locality to participate in a 5 day seminar that for many is the highlight of their adolescence thus far.
This year we need your help! We need to raise a little under 3000$ in the next two weeks in order for the conference to start on time on the 26th of July. If you are interested in giving (every little bit counts!), please go to the Peace Corps site (www.peacecorps.gov), click donate, and find the project under Guinea projects. This link should work as well: www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.donatenow$[eom]
Thanks again!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Breakdowns, Bush Taxis, and the Chief

The latest Guinea installment:

"So, Andrew, what's the word?" My friend Matt Higbie asked, his face showing a remarkable lack of consternation considering the circumstances.

I slumped dejectedly down onto the ground beneath a mango tree. "We're waiting for a mechanic now to bring the fluid that they need."

"How long is that gonna take?" John Voge asked, looking skeptically at our bush taxi, broken down on the side of the road.

"Oh, who knows-- he's gotta come all the way from Conakry, where we just came from. I'd say at least 2 hours, maybe 9." I let out a groan and chucked a rock at a low-lying mango.

We had been waiting on the side of the road for 2 hours after our bush taxi broke down. We would be there another 2 before the "mechanic" (read: teenage dude with a grimy bottle of motor oil) got there, only to discover that it wasn't just motor oil that was going to fix our problem-- we needed to flag down another taxi entirely.

Ah Guinea! I had just picked up Matt and John from the Conakry airport the night before-- their first trip to Africa, uniquely to spend time with me and to see what life in Guinea was like. They joined my friend Ben Dunning, one-time piano mover, Bear counselor, and bearer of trademark curly red locks of hair, who had already been in Guinea visiting for the month of May. Ben and I had spent two weeks in Boulliwel, playing cards with kids and painting a malaria education mural in my health center. We had been co-counselors at Camp Brookwoods in Alton, NH; Matt and John had been our campers. So meeting up in the middle of West Africa was like any old Brookwoods reunion-- just with more bleating farm animals and less "sing-us-a-song" during the evening meal ;).

Needless to say, these guys turned out to be total troopers.

Despite all my well-laid initial plans-- organizing rides to and from the airport, getting pizzas from my boy "Gary" (real name: Mamadou Juma Bah) at the beach bar, changing money in my looks-sketchy-but-works-fine secret upper office place in downtown Conakry-- we had been stymied in traveling up-country this time around by a taxi with a bad engine. Guinea strikes again!

We ended up waiting on the side of the road for over 4 hours until finally, after intense negotation in Pular, French, and Susu, with the help of 15 random guys who had all gathered to chit-chat and hang out with the portos in their plight, we got a guy to take us all the way to Boulliwel for a reasonable price, on the condition that we would be accompanied by the local Chef Secteur of the village we had broken down in. The Chief-- a short, portly fellow with a cool hawaiian shirt-- turned out to be the man, and helped us immensely from start to finish, translating directions to our Susu driver, watching our bags during our "dinner break" (read: bananas and lukewarm cokes by the side of the road), and even the next day bringing back the bag of toilet paper--essential item--we left in the car. What a guy. On our way back down to Conakry on Thursday, we stopped at his house and gave him one of John and Matt's Yankees shirt. I know, I know, Yankees suck, but nobody here knows what a Yankee is anyway ;).

The chief and bad bush taxis aside, B & J & M all had a solid trip. Language barriers were not a problem, as "hitting the rock" (frappe le pierre), throwing the frisbee, and playing hand-clapping games all translate quite easily across cultural lines. Rice and sauce were also not a big problem, although Ben did spend an inordinate time in the latrine after downing some suspect eggs last Wednesday morning. Sorry 'bout that, Ben.

To sum up, we had a solid four days in Boulliwel and a couple days out in the beautiful Guinean bush-- a place called Doucki, with a strange, active little man named Hassan Bah as our tour guide. Doucki was verdant: green hills, sheer, noble cliffs, tumbling waterfalls, and large white-tailed kobokobo monkeys provided a sublime place to explore and play in. More pictures to come.

To Ben, John, and Matt: thank you so much guys, for experiencing the rawness and grit of African life, with all its rough edges. To everyone else: thanks for reading my emails-- Boulliwel's ready and waiting for you to visit! We've got your place saved around the rice and sauce platter.

Until the next time,
Much love,

PROJECT UPDATE: To all my wonderful donors to the PCPP NGO Headquarters project, we've finished all the construction work. Woohoo! The floor has been cemented, the walls, painted, the windows fixed, and the building looks great. What remains is to give it a good sweep, clear out the construction materials, move the furniture in, and have the opening ceremony! Thank you so much for your kind contributions. I will have more pictures and info to come soon. Albarka buy!