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.