Saturday, December 29, 2007

Greetings from Forecariah!

via snail mail arrived 12/27/2007

Dear family, friends, family friends, friends of friends, etc.,

Greetings from Forécariah, Guinea! I have been here in the village for a little over a week now. [Editor's note: this is Andrew's first snail mail, transcribed by his mom, so it was written before the last e-mail you received. Thus some of this may sound a bit familiar… are you confused yet?]

[By the way, a friend here in Ohio has created a blog for Andrew, with some cool links about Guinea and all his e-mails as they arrive, so feel free to check it out and/or pass it on to others who might be interested: Now back to Andrew's letter…]

I am proud to report that I am entirely integrated, adapted to the local culture and customs, a master of my Public Health field, and a whiz at building proverbial bridges across ethnolinguistic divides. I am almost convinced that I don't need the rest of my Peace Corps training. There are only a few telltale signs that I may be mistaken (no big deal in my book J)…


Every time I walk ANYWHERE here in Forécariah, I am generally the center of attention. I am frequently greeted or followed by hordes of children chanting "Fooo-té, Fooo-té!" ("White person, white person!") as I cheerily say "Bonjour" and try and herd them away from the road (and, thus, the insane motorcycle drivers).

I know about .00001% of the Susu language, the mother tongue and lingua franca of the vast majority of people here. I know just enough (basic greetings, salutations, etc.) to get groups of people to smile and laugh at me, and provoke long sessions of impromptu Susu lessons that usually go like this:

Andrew: Tana ma feñen. ("How are you" in Susu)
Susu person: Non, non, c'est "tana mu feñen.
A: Tana my feñen.
SP: Non! "Tana mu feñen!"
A: C'est ça que j'ai dit (That's what I said.)
SP: Non, tu as dit "Tana my feñen."
A: Balls. This is a hard language.

And so on and so forth. You get the idea.

I have been given a Guinean name – Aboubacar Touré (pretty sweet, huh – "Bouba" for short) – but am still having trouble responding to it. I tell most everyone to call me André, and have gotten used to that, but when people say "Aboubacar," I just keep walking like a tool.

I happen to think Guinea is the hottest, sweatiest place on earth, contrary to what most Guineans think. Do they not know that it is abnormal to produce a liter of sweat while writing a letter to one's girlfriend? Do they not find this unnatural? Clearly it is up to me to enlighten them.

All in all, these telltale signs might indicate that my cultural adjustment is not quite complete (give it a few more days probably), but I am confident that in a few weeks' time I will be mistaken for a native Guinean very easily. Very easily.

Or maybe not. In all seriousness, my time thus far in Forécariah has been wonderful and trying at the same time. My host family, the Tourés, are hospitable and kind, yet the first day or two I had a hard time eating the food and threw up a couple times. Since then, however, I've managed to keep all the food down and have really enjoyed chatting with Guineans of all sorts. They are very curious about me and my country – the possibilities for good conversation seem limitless. I have already had several requests for English lessons, which are always a good time.

Andrew: "Tu vas à l'école." (You're going to school.)
Sèkou #1: I am the school.
Sèkou #2: No! I going is the school.
Djenab: No. You're both wrong. I am going the school.
Andrew: *sigh* OK, good effort, guys…

(There are about five male names in common circulation here in Guinea: Sékou, Alasan, Mohamed, Ousmane, and Amadou. Thus, I frequently have found myself in a room with several people who have the same name. As a remedy, I just add numbers on the end, i.e. Sékou #1 and Sékou #2. It works. J

I am enjoying my language and technical classes, and have been playing lots of soccer and basketball, fotés (white people) vs. forés (black people), in the afternoons. (Don't worry, no racial tension here – just easy team recognition.) I feel pretty good about my soccer game, but basketball is leaving a bit to be desired. Still, every game we play ends up having like 50 spectators, and the joy that comes with good clean competition is priceless. I anticipate getting in fabulous shape over the next few months.

Well guys, there's so, so, so much more I could write (trying to think about how to describe all this is nearly overwhelming), but I will leave this here, until the next time. If the letter gets through the sketchy ol' Guinea mail system…

Take care and God bless,

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Joyeux Noel!

December 21, 2007

Bonjour a tous,

Merry Christmas from Guinea! I woke up early this morning in a Peace Corps trainee-packed room in the Conakry HQ transit house, stepped outside the air-conditioned room, and was greeted with a blast of hot African air. Man, this is like no other Christmas I've ever experienced.

It's been a few weeks since I've had internet access, and so much has happened. It's tough to package it all into a pretty email, but I will do my best. Here are the nuts and bolts:

I've spent the last two weeks in Forecariah, a decent-sized town about 2 hrs drive south of Conakry. I've been living with a host family, the Toures (Tour-ays), and have been given a Guinean name.... Aboubacar Toure! Bouba for short, thanks. Actually, I just tell most people to call me Andre (Ahnd-DRAY), which seems to work out. I've been immersed in Peace Corps stuff 5 days a week... Mostly French classes and Health technical training. Every day after classes get out, I go home, change, and head over to the "terrain" to play either soccer (glorious!) or basketball (significantly less glorious but I'm getting better...) (most Guineans stink so I'm in good company;).

Everybody in Forecariah seems to just love us. I wonder if my life these past two weeks has been something like what celebrities go through regularly. Every time I walk through town, I am greeted, either with stares, smiles, chants of "Fote, Fote!" (white person, white person!), or perhaps salutations from people who know my actual name (a good number of kids seem to already). Thus far the scrutiny has been welcome and somewhat novel; I hope it continues to be that way!

Forecariah seems to be, in some ways, your stereotypical African town. There is a big, noisy, crowded "marche" (market) where hundreds of people sell all kinds of stuff. Imagine squeezing through small alleyways packed with people, having your senses bombarded with sights, smells (all kinds-- good, bad, and weeeird), sounds, and-- if you get some bananas or a baguette from someone--tastes. Everybody seems to want a piece of the Fote, either because they are simply curious as to who this random white person is in their marche, or because they have learned a mental equation that goes something like this: Fote=money. I can't blame them for thinking that way: the Peace Corps walk-around allowance that they've given us is a pittance by US standards (100,000 or so Guinean Francs) (so maybe 25$ for two weeks), yet by Guinean estimation we are quite well off. I haven't even found places or things to spend all that money on, and we got more last night.

Stuff is dirt cheap here: I can go to a movie at the "cinema" (read: large room with a B-grade Bollywood DVD projected on the wall, packed with Guineans sitting on uncomfortable wooden benches, all talking loudly on their cell phones or to each other during the movie, getting up and walking in front of the projector, cheering at random times during the movie... etc.) (awful;) here for 500 francs, or like 15 cents. I can buy a whole thing of bananas for 1,000 francs (30ish cents), or a 1.5 liter bottle of purified water for 1,500 francs (you do the math :). Yay for cheap Guinea!

At the same time, people here are also dirt poor. Many families pack 8 or 10 people into small houses (grandparents, uncles, cousins, neighbors, etc.) (in a community-centric place like Guinea, to not have a big ole family like that is considered bizarre), and maybe 50-75% actually have electricity that works (when the power's on, of course) (I'd say it's on maybe 60% of the time). It is very, very common to have children or mothers die in childberth, and already there have been two deaths of people in my quartier (who I didn't know). Death is far more commonplace here, and seems accepted as God's will, etc. I was a little surprised at first when people asked me if my father was alive. I told them, "bien sur," (of course) and they said, "oh Dieu merci." (thanks be to God) What is normal for us in the States is remarkably different for people here. By Guinean standards, both my parents at the robust age of 52 are over the average Guinean life expectancy: 50.

There is much, much more to tell and a long line building up for the computers. Please, please know that I am thinking about all of you family and friends back home and I miss you dearly. I will do my best to keep in touch-- I've already sent a "mass email letter" to my mom to type up and send out to you guys when it reaches home. I've tried not to have too much overlapping info here.

Til the next time, enjoy a wonderful Christmas and New Year and don't be shy: send me snail mail! Shameless plug, it's terrible.

Love you guys,

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bowel movements and Susu class (read at your own risk)

December 7, 2007

*** Warning: The following email contains grisly details of the sender's late night struggles with local food***
*** Read at your own risk***

Hello dear friends and family,

I have stolen a little more internet time before leaving Conakry and I figured I would try and get off another email to you all before internet becomes less accessible than Contemporary Literary Theory with Cates Baldridge.

Well, today has been, on the whole, pretty miserable. I will get right to it. Last night all the Peace Corps volunteers and a number of the Guinean language instructors went into Conakry for dinner at a restaurant called Trio, right on the water in the downtown district. It was a beautiful place, with a deck looking out over the water and a great view up and down the shoreline of the rest of the city. There we all had a very nice dinner-- beef, fish, hummus, kafta (? I think), some other tasty stuff. I had a great chat with my Susu instructor, Diane (a 50-something man) (his name is pronounced Johnn-ay), and then enjoyed socializing with some of the other volunteers and instructors afterwards. At one point this girl Jess asked me how I felt, physically, as several of the volunteers had been a bit under the weather the past couple of days:

Jess: "So how are you feeling? I mean physically."
Andrew (in a somewhat cocky tone): "Physically?" (waves his hand dismissively) "Psssh. I feel fine. No problems whatsoever."
J: "Yeah, knock on wood I guess."
A: "Yeah, I guess."

I imagine you can guess what's coming. I went to bed last night feeling like I had a bit of an upset stomach, but figured I'd sleep it off and be fine. At 1am however, I snapped out of a restless sleep and felt that sinking, umistakeable feeling: barf coming. I rolled over a bit, hoping it would go away, until suddenly I knew I had to get to the bathroom, and fast. I rushed out of the room, and quickly emptied the contents of my stomach into the toilet... As soon as that was done, I then turned around and emptied my intestines out the other end (I warned you this was graphic!)... It was the first time I'd thrown up or had diarrhea in years.

And as I sat there, miserable, on the toilet seat at 1am, I felt as if there ought to have been a greeting party, a group of Guineans perhaps, to stand there and clap and say, "Andrew my friend: welcome to Guinea."

Needless to say it was a rough night, and a rough day today as well. I think the worst is over, but I sincerely hope that I will wake up tomorrow morning feeling much better, as tomorrow we travel to Forecariah to be placed with our host families!

Apart from bowel movements and sketchy food, the past two days have been full of more training: security briefings, cross-cultural sessions, language interviews, and my personal favorites: Susu classes! I was fortunate enough to have been placed in the "Advanced Low" French class (the highest one) (all that cash sucked up by Middlebury College might have actually done something, Mom and Dad!) (aren't you pleased?), and thus, have been started right away in "Survival Susu," where we learn the basic greetings and things of that nature so that we can greet our host families in their mother tongues.

The country of Guinea can be divided up into three main ethnic groups: Susu, Pulaar, and Malinke. Depending on where we are placed for our service, volunteers are expected to develop functional fluency in one of these three languages, as many villagers speak only minimal French. This is due to a phenomenally underdeveloped education system: less than 50% of Guineans make it to middle school, 17% get secondary education, and between 1-2% go to college. When I heard those numbers, I was just floored. On top of that, class sizes in some areas are huge, resources are very limited, and many teachers will accept bribes from families who want their kids to be moved onto the next grade level despite not actually passing. It is not uncommon to have 15 or 16 year olds in 6th or 7th grade.

Thus, where there is a lack of reliable education, few kids receive proper French training (or any other kind of training, for that matter), and learn only how to speak their mother tongue or another tribal language. Therefore, our acquisition of one of those languages becomes vitally important if we are to do our jobs effectively once we get to site. Just hearing white Americans talk to them in Susu or Malinke makes the Guineans here at the compound break out in huge grins-- all the incentive I need to take my language training seriously.

Well guys, there is so much more I could say. In my few days here in Guinea, the country already strikes me as beautiful and somewhat sad. Take the beach for instance: it is a absolutely gorgeous place-- the sun, the sand, the waves, the children playing soccer with smiles on their faces... Stunningly beautiful. Yet at the same time the beach is by far the filthiest I have ever seen. There is trash all over the place, in and out of the water. The water itself is disgusting, oily, grimy, and polluted. I remember just staring at a boy holding a piece of driftwood with rusty nails sticking out of it-- where did he pick that up? And what's he going to do with it? And how easy would it be for any one of the hundreds of kids running around to step on that? And if they do, would they have access to safe and effective health care? My heart just bursts with joy seeing kids run and play and laugh, yet at the same time, it is sad to see them play in such filth, and sad that I cannot join in their swimming (one volunteer got her assignment and was so happy about it that she jumped in the water, cut her foot, and was sent home a week later with a spreading staph infection) (now we aren't allowed to swim, even if we wanted to). I know I am new to this place and I do not understand it nor its people yet, but if the feelings I've had in the last few days are any indication, my time in Guinea is going to be one of both joy and heartbreak, beauty and ugliness.

So that should just about wrap it up. Tomorrow morning we head down to Forecariah where we will be introduced to our host families! This is very exciting and a little scary-- many of the fathers will have multiple wives, all of us will have to use pit latrines, there are dozens of cultural issues to keep in mind as we try to integrate, and some of the families may not speak much French (let alone English!). Please keep us in your prayers as we head south. I will try to be in touch when I can.

Much love,

Guinea at last!

December 5, 2007

Bonjour a tous,

Well, I'm finally here. Yesterday I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at the airport at 6pm in Conakry, the capital of the small country of Guinea in French West Africa, and was immediately greeted with a blast of hot, humid air. My Peace Corps group ("G-15"), comprised of 36 other Americans, mostly 20-somethings but with a smattering of other folks (including a 64 year old dude named Jim who was my roommate in Philly), all milled around, starstruck, for a few minutes before a shuttle pulled up and we all piled on to head over to the terminal.

The terminal was unlike any airport I have ever seen. It is tiny, with basically three large rooms-- a room to check in, a room for customs, and a room for baggage claim. After being greeted by Ousmane, our Guinean Security Director, and close to a dozen other Peace Corps staff, who collected our passports and WHO forms, we then moved into the baggage claim room where a hundred Guineans who were on our flight were busily crowding around the one conveyor belt that held our luggage. It was a wild, surreal scene-- tons of noise, no real order, Guineans everywhere. Most were dressed in Western clothing, yet there were some men who wore bubus, traditional long almost dress-like things, and many women who wore long colorful dresses with headscarves.

Great news-- all our luggage arrived! I was shocked to hear it, yet pleasantly surprised. We grabbed our stuff, piled it onto carts, and peddled it out into the parking lot, where several white Peace Corps vehicles awaited us. It was also just wild. Guinean men just stood around, some chatting, others only staring at this strange group of white people who just crashed their capital.

We piled into a couple of PC buses, each of us just wide-eyed, taking it all in (no one in my group had been to Guinea before) (many to Africa, but none to Guinea). We pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main highway in Guinea (a wide two-lane road), and rode 20 minutes to the Peace Corps compound. I don't know how exactly to describe it all, to tell the truth. It was dark at this point, which made all this unfamiliar stuff seem a bit scarier and more surreal. My first glimpse of Conakry left me speechless. People, people, people were all over the place, standing around, sitting in front of their homes, talking, running, walking in the streets. Conakry has decent power--the best in the country by far-- yet I would say only half the homes I saw seemed to have electricity. Most of the buildings lining each side of the road would, by American standards, be considered shacks-- concrete buildings, probably one or two rooms, with one naked light bulb shedding a little light (if that). I saw dozens of people sitting at tables lit by kerosene lamps, just chilling, really. No one seemed to be in much of a hurry, that's for sure. I saw dozens of men and boys wearing soccer jerseys (Ronaldinho, Zidane, Eto'o seemed to be popular), and not a few women carrying bowls on their heads (it really does happen). The night lended the whole affair an eerie feeling, and more than once I remember thinking how glad I was that we were in Peace Corps buses and not walking around. I didn't see a single white person. Driving through Conakry is something I will never forget.

Well, hopefully that'll give you a bit of a picture of this city and this country in which I've just landed. It's been an absolute whirlwind couple of days, starting Saturday morning (was it just Saturday I was in Ohio!?!?) when I flew to Philly for pre-departure orientation ("staging"). I met my group there--37 total-- and got about as comprehensive an introduction to the Peace Corps that was humanly possible in two days time. Then, we flew to Conakry, as I've mentioned, by way of JFK, Brussels, and Dakar.

We are all currently staying at the Peace Corps headquarters in Conakry. It is a huge compound: imagine a space of land, probably several acres large, with three pretty large, multi-story buildings. The HQ is pretty posh, to be honest. Much nicer than I expected. There is air conditioning in some of the buildings, computers in most offices, working toilets and showers, and even a pool behind the Guinea director's house. We are here til Saturday, when we go to Forecariah, the town south of here where we will be training for the next 9 weeks.

I don't have time to go into detail about all the training we have received thus far and all we will receive. I will say this-- the Peace Corps seems very professional, and the staff really seem to know what they are doing. Around 50 of the staff are Guinean, with maybe 5 or 6 Americans (including the director, who's American). There are doctors, tranining coorindators, language teachers, cross-cultural training specialists, security guards, housekeepers even, and almost all are Guinean.

I have quickly gotten back into my French-- many Guineans who work here speak some english, but for most, French is the stronger language and so I have gotten the opportunity to talk to almost all of them in French. Tomorrow we have language exams, where we meet with the language teachers and they assess how far along we are in our language skills and what class to put us into. The intensive training will begin Saturday, in Forecariah, where we will also be living with host families (and thus being forced to speak as much French as we can handle!) (and some Susu as well perhaps ;).

I need to wrap this up, but there a few important things I want to mention. Wow-- there is so much more to talk about! I feel wildly inadequate trying to describe this experience, which thus far has been unlike anything else I have ever done. Hopefully the above can at least give you a snapshot of what I've experienced these last few days.

A few important pieces of info:
-- I will not have regular email access virtually ever during my time here. My house in Forecariah will almost certainly have no electricity, and there is not a large PC HQ there like in Conakry. I am told that there will be occasions, from time to time, when I can access the internet, but those times will be few and far between. As a result, I have worked out a deal with my mom where I will write out a mass email to everyone by hand, and send it to her, and she will type it up and send it out to you guys. I really want to be in touch, and feel strongly that communicating to everyone about my experiences here is one of my main purposes of being in Guinea, so I will do my best to write home regularly.
-- That said, the mail system here is not like the US. It is inefficient and often plagued by corrupt officials. I've heard that mail often takes two weeks to arrive from the States, and sometimes doesn't get here. This is rare, I've been told, yet it does happen. A former PC volunteer from Guinea who is here was telling me today that some local mail officials, when they see a nice postcard from the US, will just take it and put it up on their wall! Others will open packages and take what they want, then close it up and send it off to its destination. This rarely happens, again, yet it does happen. Thus, what I want to tell you, is to please number the letters you send. Please send letters--really!-- but number them so I know if one has gone missing. Thanks!

I will try and get off one more email before I leave Conakry, if possible. Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I adjust to life in hot, humid, beautiful, crazy, noisy Guinea.

Much, much love,

P.S. Oh-- check this out. The beach is literally right outside of our compound here, so this afternoon, after our last session, a few other trainees and me went there, and guess what: There were like 9 different soccer games going on! It was crazy, absolutely crazy. The ball would go in the ocean-- play on. Random people would walk right through the middle of the game-- play on. The one big game was grands versus petits-- bigs versus smalls-- and of course, I asked a couple guys if I could play and they said sure. I was the only white dude in the game, and, clutching my camera in my hand because I didn't want to leave it anywhere, I got officially schooled by 9 year olds wearing Ronaldinho jerseys. It was absolutely wild. So fun. Anyway, just thought I'd share that.
P.P.S. Only a few big spiders so far, but they weren't that much bigger than dock spiders in Maine. No tarantulas yet, although I hear they love thatched roof mud huts, one of which I will most likely be living for two years. Fun fun!