Sunday, December 28, 2008

Give to Guinea!

sent via e-mail by Andrew on 12/28/2008
Hello friends,

Joyeux Noel to everyone reading! My plane touched down in New York on Tuesday and I received my first long-anticipated greeting on U.S. soil:

"C'mon, people-- hurry up. Step up to the line. Next." The man behind the desk at customs looked harassed.

Tempted to greet the guy in Pular, I shuffle up to the counter and resort to a simple "how are you."

The man brushes off my pleasantries: "Vacation?" he mutters without looking up.

"Yes, sir!" I respond cheerfully. "I'm coming home for the first time in---"

"OK, keep moving," he cuts me off. "Next!" The customs man slaps my passport on the counter and waves me through.

"Ah, welcome home," I think. "Welcome home."

I've been home for several days now, getting beaten by my big brother at Risk and gorging myself on pasta salad. Oh, the US is sweet.

In other news, many of you have asked how you can help contribute in some way to the work that Peace Corps is doing in Guinea. So glad you asked!

Early in my service, a local community elder named ElHadj Mamoudou approached me and asked me to help him find funding to help the local Non-Governmental Organization he's a part of. Many people have approached me with all manner of requests for money or aid, and I usually tell them that the Peace Corps is not a "bailleur de fonds" (investor of money) and that I can't simply produce thousands of dollars with my porto magic. ElHadj Mamoudou, however, was not just any old person, and, knowing that the Peace Corps does give Volunteers the opportunity to undertake certain funded projects, I offered to listen to his proposal and work with him to see what I could do.

ElHadj Mamoudou is a kind old fellow whose eye-crinkles are well developed after years of grins and friendly handshakes. I had been touched by his friendliness with children and his willingness to freely house and provide for local schoolteachers, many of whom come from far away and teach on a barely-livable wage. He sat down with Dr. Diallo, my official counterpart, and me and explained what he had in mind for this project.

The local Boulliwel NGO, a municipal development organization called APIB, or "The Association for the Promotion of Local Development Initiatives," needed money to finish the construction of their headquarters, located in the center of the village. After years of productive partnership with an international American NGO (World Education Guinea), in which they had helped build several schools and health posts in surrounding communities, they had bought a parcel of land and begun construction of an office intended to be their permanent headquarters. This headquarters would have given the NGO a central location in which to have meetings, hold trainings and sensitizations, keep records, and receive interested partners. The construction of the building was not completed, however, due to insufficient funds, and thus today a foundation and some walls stand waiting for help to come so they can play their proper part in housing the office of APIB.

Enter the Peace Corps Volunteer! ElHadj, after getting to know me, asked if there were any way I could help the NGO to find some money to complete the office. I told him that I would do what I could, because of my appreciation of the work that the NGO does and because of my respect for him and other members of the NGO executive board, many of whom I know quite well. I met with the NGO and talked through the details of the project, and after discussing all the angles, determined to help in whatever way I could.

As I mentioned before, the Peace Corps is not an investor like the World Bank or the IMF, and doesn't have a wealth of funds to finance development projects like this one. However, Volunteers have the option of seeking funding for micro-projects through something called Peace Corps Partnership Program. PCPP allows Volunteers who see a need in their communities to draft a proposal and seek funding for these projects through family, friends, organizations, and personal connections. The community must contribute a minimum of 25% of the total budget and the Volunteer goes to his or her own personal contacts to raise the rest.

This was the option I took to help ElHadj Mamoudou and the Boulliwel NGO finish the construction of their office. I've met with the NGO six different times to discuss aspects of the project, write the budget, work on the community contribution, and adapt the proposal to fit PCPP guidelines. After months of revision, the project has been approved and sent to Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington to search for funding.

Enter you guys! Many of you have expressed interest in being more involved with serving the poor in Guinea, and here is a great opportunity. We need to raise approximately 5,500 dollars to complete the headquarters and give APIB a home from which to conduct their work. I am encouraged by the idea that if 550 people each decide to chip in 10 dollars, we will have raised all the money needed to really help the community of Boulliwel meet their needs for educated children and effective health care.

There is, by no means, any pressure whatsoever to donate money. I know that the economy is struggling and money is tight. Yet for those of you who are interested in giving, please go to, click "Donate to Volunteer Projects," and find the Guinea project under the name "A.Haile." All donations are anonymous. The money, once raised, will be handled directly by me and two members of the NGO. The utmost care will be taken to ensure that the funds are used according to the detailed budget and project action plan. Thank you in advance for your concern and for supporting me and the community of Boulliwel.

In other news, there are a number of alternative ways besides giving to the PCPP project that you can contribute to the development and well-being of the people of Guinea. If anyone has the following items and is looking to find them a home where they will do some real good, please consider sending them my way while I'm home so I can take them back with me to Guinea:

-- old, outdated laptops (as long as they can use either word processing, or connect to the internet, or hey, even turn on, they can be found a home and be used as an income-generating activity in computer-starved Guinea)
-- used French books or French/English dictionaries of any level or any kind (children's books especially!)
-- old soccer balls
-- pens and notebooks
-- stuffed animals and other small children's toys

Guinea, as I've mentioned before, is a beautiful country that suffers from a heart-breaking lack of resources on every level. If you've got any of the above items just lying around, feel free to send them to me and I will find a responsible way to get them in the hands of people that really need them.

Thanks again for everything and have a great holiday!

Much love,

Thanks so much!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Political buzz and a prayer for Obama

sent via e-mail 11-27-08

Hello everyone,

For those of you back in the chilly USA, I'm sure the country is buzzing with the anticipation of a change of president and political administration. Classrooms and coffeeshops are no doubt full of dialogue and debate; people are ready for change and everyone seems eager to weigh in on what our new President-Elect ought to do first.

Let me assure you: We Americans are not the only ones excited and ready for change.

Here in Guinea, Barack Obama has achieved, in a matter of mere months, mythical, almost deified status. In rice bars and buvettes, salon de coiffures and taxi cabseverywhere I go people only want to talk about one thing: Obama, Obama, Obama. Some enterprising Guinean has started printing laminated "ID cards" with a picture of Obama and the White House on it. The card reads:

"M. Barack Obama. The First Black Prsident in the Maison Blanche."

Somebody's gotta tell that guy to pick a language and stick with it. Still, our bilingual entrepreneur has hit it big: Everyone, from high school students to local butchers to ladies selling onions in the marketplace, seems to have an Obama card clipped to their shirt or pants. Local politicians have even started promoting their own campaigns with messages like:

"Barack Obama and Idrissa Diallo: Both young. Both leaders. Both with the same goal: change."

I hope Mr. Obama knows he's got a kindred spirit way over here in Guinea ;). You bring that change, Idrissa.

The day after the elections, I sat down and spilled some thoughts into my journal, reflecting on the history that had been made in my country and the ripple effect this history-making would have on places like Guinea.

Let me share these thoughtsuneditedwith you now:

11/6/08 Salon de la maison

Wellit's official: Barack Obama is the President-Elect of the United States! Unbelievable. On Tuesday at about 16h30 I grabbed my bike and rode up to Dalaba to join Katy, John, Marg (other PCVs), and the Campbells (the missionary couple) to watch the returns together at Katy's host family's house.

We chatted and dozed and ate popcorn, watching Wolf Blitzer and the gang make their "CNN Projections" and analyze exit polls (ah, the beauty of satellite TV ;). By 3am here it was clear Obama was going to win, having taken Pennsylvania and Ohio, but we wanted to wait to watch the various speeches, which we did. McCain's speech was classy and gracious, which really impressed me, and Obama's was good as well, although there weren't any history-making lines.

Manwhat a moment for America and the world! A black man as president of the US. Incredible. I got back from Dalaba yesterday morning and greeted the folks hanging out at M. Diallo's, and we all shook hands and cheered and Mme Diallo showed off the Obama bracelet I gave her. Everywhere I go in the village people are buzzing, talking about Obama and the changements he's going to bring to the world. M.Sow: "Maintenant Obama va arranger le probleme de visa, n'est-ce pas?" Now Obama's gonna fix the visa problem, right? (read: visas for everyone! Especially Guineans like me!)

Sitting on the Diallo's porch last night chatting about all this, Elhadj Khalil made an interesting point: if things aren't going well in the US, they aren't going well in the world; if things go well in the US, it's like a door is opened to allow the world to function better. I'm inclined to agreeand I'm also excited to respond to the next person who calls the US layli portoland of white peopleby saying president amen ko o baleejoour president is black! What an amazing thing.

Despite the excitement, of course, I am sobered by the huge problems in the world right now and the reality that Jesus, not the American government, is the force that can really bring lasting, true change in the world.

I pray for Obama and the people around him, for his new cabinet, the new Senate, all the changes taking place at the highest levels of government. Lord, I pray that you would use these authorities and powerswho have their power because you have let them have it to bring relief and aid to the suffering people of the world, to help the poorest of the poor, to bring peace in the war-torn regions of the world, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, to bring an end to US-sponsored torture, to bring concrete, visionary legislation on climate change and solid steps forward in changing the way we Americans think about resources and our hallowed consumerist "way of life."

I know that your Kingdom does not work like the Kingdoms of the world, least of all like the "American Empire" which dominates right now. Yet, Lord, good can come out of government, and presidents, and policies, and I pray, for the sake of rich and poor, black and white, American and Iraqi and Guinean and Chinese, that the folks in those high-level positions would truly seek you and seek to have America bless you, and not necessarily the other way around.

In the meantime, here I am in Boulliwel, eating rice, shaking lots of hands, trying to spread love and kindness and relevant health teaching. I wonder what kind of an impact a new president would have on a place like Boulliwel, if any, and I'll be interested to see if, between now and Feb. 2010, the new administration makes any realistic, concrete changes to the Peace Corps.

Whether or not it does, I want to continue seeking you, Jesusto honor you with my service here in Boulliwel and open my heart, mind, and body to you to be used by you. This is the greatest privilege in the world that I could possibly think of. Live through me today as I hang out with kids, finish my analysis of my health survey, and chat with the folks in the community.


Well, guys thanks for reading, once again, if you've got this far. No matter who you voted for or where you stand on the political spectrum, I encourage you to join me in praying for our leaders and the world during this time.

Once again, I'm coming home for Christmas, from 12/23-1/14. My folks have moved to north of Boston so I'll be with them for most of the time. I'm planning on taking a quick trip up to Middlebury and maybe a trip to the Brookwoods Winter Reunion, so I'd love to see any and all folks who are around!

In the meantime,
Much love,

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving! They sent us a turkey way up here in Labecan't wait to mange! ;)

Thursday, October 30, 2008


sent via e-mail 10/30/08

Hello everyone,
Because of the explosive content of this email, I have to put the following disclaimer before I continue:


That said: Since the beginning of September, I've been doing a public health survey in three villages around Boulliwel. These villages' names can perhaps tell us something about their accessibility (or lack thereof): Bhawo Fello (which means "Behind Mountain" in Pular), Aind Fello ("Side of Mountain"), and Hor Fello ("On top of Mountain"). The Guinean Highlands are certainly beautiful, and offer pretty views and a relatively cooler climate compared to the rest of Guinea, yet if the names of these villages give you any idea, many Highland areas are hard to get to.

Needless to say, over the several weeks I was doing the survey, my bike and I bonded heartily over kilometer after kilometer of rocky grades, muddy puddles, and cows who refuse to leave the middle of the path until you throw things: sticks, rocks, bike helmets, etc. I came back from one muddy ride in the bush to a group of kids who started chanting, "Boubacar woni baleejo, Boubacar woni baleejo!"Boubacar's turned black.
I guess I was pretty dirty. The wet season sure has made me miss those sleek, modern, boxes of luxurywhat do you call them again? Oh yeahwashing machines.
But I'm getting off topic. The health survey. I want to tell you a story of the time I went to Aind Fello and met a guy named Abdoul Karim.

Aind Fello's a sleepy little village of mud huts and rice farmers. We picked it for the survey pretty much randomlyI certainly hadn't been there before. Thus, the "Aind Fello" day of the survey, I woke up, ate breakfast, asked M. Diallo for directions, grabbed my bike, and rode off down the road without really knowing what I was getting myself into. This happens a lot here. Me not knowing what I'm getting myself into, I mean.

Anyway, I rode down the main road a ways and stopped a few km up at a clearing where M. Diallo said I had to leave my bike and walk down the mountain to get to the village. As I've said, I wasn't exactly sure where I was going so I was pleased to meet some villagers at the clearing who were from Aind Fello. One of them, Abdoul Karim, was hiking down to the village and offered to show me the way. So I stashed my bike in the bushes and followed him down the mountain path.

In chatting with Abdoul Karim, I quickly learned a few things about him: He was a subsistence farmer who had grown up in Aind Fello; He had a wife and a couple young children at the house; He liked hunting (clearly a true statement: he was carrying an old rifle with him just in case he saw something worth shooting); and he hadn't had much educationa couple years at an cole Franco-Arabe, one of the numerous Saudi-financed schools where kids supposedly learn French and Arabic and where the curriculum combines both secular and religious teaching. He didn't speak French, however, and thus we conversed in Pular. He was kind, polite, and seemed eager to help.

We hiked down to the village and went first to meet the local authorities. Abdoul Karim introduced me, told them what I had come for (which, surprisingly, he had understood after my meandering, mistake-filled explanation in Pular), and then we all sat and exchanged pleasantries. I could tell already that Abdoul Karim had taken a liking to me and was going to be an asset in accomplishing the survey. I had taken a liking to him as well.
The chef du secteur (like the local chief or mayor) explained that most of the people of Aind Fello were at their fields right now, and thus to do my door-to-door question-asking I needed to wait until Fanaa, the 2pm prayer. So we ended up sitting around for awhile. This happens a lot here. Sitting around doing nothing, I mean.

So we sat around, chatting about the weather and the harvest (my basic Pular didn't allow me much conversational profundity), killing time before the farmers got back. There was a lull in the conversation, and I decided to stare at an avocado tree until somebody spoke up again. This time it was Abdoul Karim.

"And, Bin Laden," he said nonchalantly, as if he was asking about my wife or kids. He didn't say anything more, but the way he said what he said was as if he added, "what do you think about him?"

I took my eyes off the avocado tree and stared at him, surprised.
"The terrorist?" I asked, needing clarification.
"YeahOsama Bin Laden," he said, and others in the circle nodded knowingly. "He doesn't like Americans, does he."
"Nope, he sure doesn't," I said, still a little stunned by this conversational twist. "He's not a good man." I would have used stronger language, but my limited Pular vocabulary wouldn't let me.
"He's the one who wrecked your towers," another man chimed in. This wasn't really a question, more of a commentperhaps a proof of Bin Laden's distaste for Americans.
"Yeah, I know," I said. "I remember." I didn't really know what else to say so I just repeated what I said about him being bad.
"You haven't caught him yet, have you?" asked another man.
"No, not yet," I said. "How do you guys know about Bin Laden?" I asked. These were, after all, a group of illiterate peasant farmers.
Abdoul Karim piped up again. "We saw a video of his once in Boulliwel." Nods from others.
"In Boulliwel?! Really?" I asked, incredulously. This was the first time I'd heard of anything like this since I'd been in Guinea.
"Yeah, in Boulliwel," Abdoul Karim said.

I continued asking questions, curious and somewhat disturbed. What was an Osama Bin Laden video doing way out here in Guinea? People here aren't terroristsmost are just friendly, simple African villagers. Besides, Muslims here practice JV Islam, anywaywomen wear tank-tops and breast-feed in public! Boulliwel has a night-club and a bar! Heinous. I know more about Islam than most practicing Muslims here. The idea of terrorist Wahhabism infiltrating my village just didn't compute for me.

I asked them to elaborate, which they did: They had seen a video and heard various messages of propaganda, yet at the same time they agreed that Bin Laden was a "bad man," and that terrorism was bad. Abdoul Karim was one of the most outspoken denouncers of Bin Laden's violent ways and tended to nod and grunt vociferously when others said similar things. We continued in this vein of conversation for awhile, until we had all sort of agreed Bin Laden was bad, and there was nothing left to say, really. There was a pause for a little while and then somebody changed the topic. On the whole, it was a weird, out-of-place kind of conversation.
Soon the men started coming back from the fields. I was about to start my door-to-door interviews when the sky, which had been threatening all morning, opened up on us. Abdoul Karim grabbed my bad for me and told me to follow him, and we scurried to shelter on his porch. We both agreed to wait there for awhile until the rain subsided, yet 45 minutes in it didn't look like any subsiding was going to happen anytime soon. My gracious host asked me if I wanted to lie down until the rain stopped and I, being a fan of naps anytime, anywhere, gratefully acceded.
Abdoul Karim opened the door to his house and ushered me in whenWHAM!the first thing I noticed was:

Osama Bin Laden's bearded face staring at me.
It jarred me. On the wall across from the door were two large posters, each bearing sizable pictures of the terrorist in question. Arranged around each of these photos were more pictures of Bin Laden, pictures of airplanes and the twin towers, and Arabic script which I, unfortunately, haven't yet learned to read.

I just stared, not really knowing what to do. Abdoul Karim, however, didn't seem fazedhe just pointed at the posters and said, nonchalantly, "there's Bin Laden."
No kidding, chief.

Completely ignorant to my emotional and intellectual perturbation, Abdoul Karim took my arm and led me to his room to lie down. After asking me if I needed anything else, he closed the door and left me staring at the ceiling, perplexed.

Here was this Guinean farmer, virtually uneducated, living in an isolated village in the Highland bush. What in the world was he doing with two huge posters of Osama Bin Laden hanging on the wall of his living room? Was he a terrorist-in-training? Did he have any idea what al-Qaeda was all about? Or was he just ignorant, and somebody gave him some poster stuff of Bin laden so he put it up in his house? As I said before, none of this computed with my previous experience of Islam in Guinea, which had all seemed pretty harmless, if foreign. Yet pictures of American skyscrapers exploding were another thing entirely.

Abdoul Karim's story has no flashy ending. I napped for awhile, the rain stopped, and with my host's willing help, I went door to door and asked my questions about vaccinations and potable water. Abdoul Karim continued to be gracious and supportive, in the fine tradition of African hospitality. He even lent me his family's only umbrella to take with me on the trek back up to the road. I finished the survey, hiked out, grabbed my bike, rode back to Boulliwel, ate rice and sauce with the Diallos, and crashed. I haven't seen Abdoul Karim since, and haven't yet gone back to Aind Fello to do my sensitization. Yet the whole encounter has raised some provocative questions that I can't seem to ignore.

This was my first brush with what my government would call our great enemy in the much-heralded "War on Terror." The way the Bush administration tells the story, we are in an ideological strugglefreedom versus oppression, democracy versus totalitarianism, "Muslim" extremism versus "Christian" influence in economics and politics. The battleground, I imagine they would say, is in the hearts and minds of people like Abdoul Karim.
Bush and Bin Laden have squared offfor better or for worseeach in competition over Abdoul Karim's worldview.

In a way, then, Abdoul Karim has been met, head on, by each side's ideological salvo. Bin Laden has spread his tapes and his teaching throughout the Muslim world, seeking to win converts to his violent, extremist dogma. Bush, on the other hand, has dispatched mea 23-yr. old WASP filled with high notions of justice and peacemaking, to live in Abdoul Karim's community and learn his language.

These two forces clashed that rainy day in Aind Fello, and now I am forced to ask the question: Who won? Or who is winning? And what is the bigger picture anyway?
Over the next year and four months of service, I hope to continue building relationships with folks like Abdoul Karim. I hope to bring public health messages in a spirit of compassion that will help villagers maintain healthier living habits and protect themselves and their children from preventable diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. I recognize that any trainings or teachings I do must be reinforced by kindness and openness on a personal, relational levelI must show these folks that I care about them.

If, at the end of my service, Abdoul Karim is still attracted to the idea of violence against Americans, I will have done a very poor job as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Osama Bin Laden may have enticing propaganda backed up with religious justification, yet he is still just a face on a TV screen or a poster. America, on the other hand, has hiked with Abdoul Karim, slept in his bed, and eaten with him out of the same bowl. To Abdoul Karim, America has a real face, and it needs a shave before it goes home for Christmas;).

I wish the picture were simple and relational like this. I wish that, after 9/11, Bush and his advisors had met and decided to send out the best, brightest Americans to all Muslim countries to build schools, hospitals, and soccer fields, to learn Arabic (or Pashtun or Farsi or Pular;), build relationships and get to work at the difficult business of reconciliation and peacemaking. I wish they had quadrupled the size and budget of the Peace Corps and sent out recruiters to all corners of our country to encourage young people to sign up. I wish they had looked at the big picture and decided to tackle the root causes of Muslim extremismnamely poverty and ignorance due to lack of a balanced education. I wish they had responded to horrific violence with a message of love and forgiveness.

Sadly, this was not our country's response. Two wars, hundreds of billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of dead Afghans, Americans, and Iraqis later, we are still battling these same ideological forces and the world seems more dangerous than ever.
You would think, at the very least, we would have expanded and fully supported the Peace Corps, right? Again, sadly, this was not our country's response. This fiscal year the budget for Peace Corps, an agency employing close to 8000 American Volunteers and countless host country nationals, serving in 74 countries all over the world in areas such as agro-forestry, education, and health, is 343 million dollars. This may sound like a lot at first, yet when you compare it to our nation's defense budget of over 500 billion dollars, it's pennies. According to the National Priorities Project, one day in Iraq costs 341 million dollars. One Volunteer claims that the military spends more on coffee for its servicemen than on all of Peace Corps (I just hope it's good coffee, after all ;).

Here in Guinea, we've started to feel the crunch. Already, three of our top Guinean administrators have left the Peace Corps to work for mining companies elsewhere in country. These were highly-qualified, experienced program coordinators, all of whom had studied in the US and then came back to help their country develop. Yet, the offer of significantly higher salaries working in the private sector was too much to turn down, and now we are left scrambling to fill the gaping holes they've left behind. Every meeting we have together with the administration, we hear talk of budget cuts, of lack of funding, of "sorrys" and "we just have to deal." Which we will. Yet it seems a sad reflection of our country's priorities to think that they could take just one multi- million dollar smart bomb, and not buy it, and have enough funds to greatly reinforce every Peace Corps offices' capacity and expand into several new countries who have asked for Volunteers but have been told to wait.

But that's enough of that ramble. This is surely, as I said in the beginning, a biased, nearsighted view of the situation, and certainly not intended to offend anyone (least of all my awesome brother who's serving as a Lieutenant in the Navy in San Diego :). Yet these are realities that are hard to ignore being a salaried employee of the US government right now. I think we all look forward to the pending change in administration with hope and expectancy for a foreign policy that is more humble, thoughtful, and compassionate.

In the meantime,
Yours from Guinea,

P.S. As you may have noticed if you read closely, I'm coming home for Christmas! Thanks to the generosity of my family, both nuclear and extended (the extent of said generosity still needs to be, ahem, worked out, of course), I'll be flying home on Dec. 22nd and staying in the States til Jan. 12th. I'd love to hang out with people if you're around!
P.P.S. I'm working on a funded project right now and will have more details to you guys all soon if you are interested in contributing in some way.
P.P.P.S. If you'd like a little more info about the Peace Corps budget situation, check out this article by the LA Times:,0,3857618.story

Monday, August 11, 2008

Estrogen and the crazy porto conference

Sent via e-mail 8/10/08
Dearest friends and family,

Next time work seems long and boring, a stack of exorbitant bills arrives in your mailbox, and you get stuck next to a smelly hill-billy named Icharus on your 30 minute subway ride to work, just remember: you are NOT a woman in Guinea. It could be worse.

As I've mentioned in previous emails, so, so many women in Guinea lead a tragically difficult and underappreciated existence. Women are expected to do 90% of the manual labor in a country whose infrastructure resembles that of mid-19th century America: They wake up at dawn, scrub the house clean, get water from the well, do the day's laundry with buckets and a washboard, cook lunch over an open fire in a pot resting on three rocks, serve lunch, clean up after lunch, wash the dishes, cook dinner, serve dinner, clean up dinner, turn in and get ready to do it all over again the next day. Many women also have fields and crops to tend to, or small "boutiques" (read: tables with some piles of onions, tomatoes, or dried fish) where they sell goods to help support their families. Almost all the middle-aged women I've seen have a host of children to look after (like cooking and cleaning, taking care of children is viewed as the travail des femmes, or women's work; NOT men's); many perform all the above tasks while pregnant or with babies tied to their backs.

As a thank-you for all their hard work around the house, women are oftentimes treated as second-class citizens. Polygamy, as I've mentioned, is a widespread practice: Most respectable men in Bouliwel have at least two wives (of course it could never work the other way—a wife having many husbands, I mean) (I asked about that the other night and was answered with a host of clucks and chuckles, even from the women).

A friend of mine, an employee at the health center, just married for a second time. When I asked him what his first wife thought about it, he said he never asked her. When I pressed him, he said, "It doesn't matter what she thinks. It's not her business whether or not I want to take a deuxieme femme." Sad but true. Ah, Guinea.

With an outlook for most women as bleak as this, you can imagine the many hurdles that girls must face on their path to womanhood. Education is largely the domain of men; Boys are expected to study, girls are expected to stay home and do chores. This year's 9th grade class at the Bouliwel middle school (we don't have a high school) consisted of 33 boys and 6 girls; the 10th grade, 15 and 2. Girls are often given in marriage at age 14 or 15 to men twice their age. Imagine if, for your sweet 16th, you were kicked out of your house and sent to live with a man of 35 who already had two wives, both of whom resented your presence in "their" foyer? One volunteer calls the practice of underage marriage—pardon the term—institutionalized rape.

It is in the middle of this culture that we Volunteers are thrust; they give us a bicycle and a local language notebook and tell us to have a positive impact. In light of the difficulties faced by women in Africa and all over the developing world, Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide make empowering women a top priority. Here in Guinea, we organize an annual Conference des Jeunes Filles, or Girls Conference, a three-day seminar where every Volunteer invites a girl from their village to learn about a whole range of issues, from women's rights, to excision, to gender roles, and public speaking.

We just had this year's conference last week!

Imagine this: Your name is Fatoumata Binta Sow. You are a 15-year old girl from a small village named Tountouroun, in the Fouta Djallon north of Labe. You are one of seven children, the oldest child your mother has had and the oldest girl in the family. You have left your village only twice in your lifetime, both times to go to larger towns for family reasons. You are very bright—indeed, you have the second highest grades in the 7th grade in your village middle school. When many of your girlfriends are out dancing, you light up the family's one kerosene lamp and study biology or French.

One day a random white girl shows up in your village! Nothing quite this exciting has happened in Tountouroun since before you can remember. Everything this porto does is exotic and funny and strange. She wears pants and lives by herself (she says she's 24 and she's not married yet!) and frequently travels in a shiny white Land Rover. She (allegedly) even wipes her butt with paper!

Slowly but surely, you introduce yourself and get to know her. She is really nice, and even though she does stuff that most women NEVER do, like eat with the men and smoke cigarettes, you grow to like her and look up to her quite a bit.

One day the porto girl invites you to go all the way to Mamou, five hours by bush taxi, to participate in something she calls a "Conference des Jeunes Filles." This seems like something you might dismiss as a "strange porto thing," but she seems serious. She even talks to the village authorities and worse, your dad, who tells you that you have to go. Yikes.

Turns out this "conference" is crazier than you thought. You show up in Mamou—your first visit to the "big city"—and are taken to a forestry school where they have electricity, cold cokes, and these metal tubes sticking out of the wall in the bathroom. All you have to do is turn a knob and water comes out! Insane. There's a lot of other girls here from all over Guinea—places like Boke, and Kankan, and Siguiri. You only know Pular and some French, but a lot of these girls speak languages you've only heard of, like Susu, and Kissi, and Malinke. One girl apparently spent 7 years in Liberia and even speaks English! Every girl has a porto with them as well, although none of them are quite as cool as yours. You've never seen so many white people in one place at one time. Heck, you've never seen this many white people in your whole life.

The next few days they talk to you about all sorts of things, like education (they all keep saying it's really important, so you're glad you're trying really hard!), and HIV/AIDS (you definitely don't want that!), and how to say no to boys (silly garcons). The third day a bunch of what the portos call "professional women" come and tell you all their stories about how they grew up and became educated and found jobs and stuff. They all speak really good French, which was kind of intimidating, but then when you got to talk to them after, they were really nice! You want to be just like one—her name's Odette—and work for the Peace Corps when you grow up.

By the end of the conference you've made 23 new best friends and got all the numbers of the cute porto guys. You are determined to finish middle school, to go to high school, maybe even try to go to the University in Conakry like Odette did! You are ready to tell your parents you don't want to get married until you're done with school, and you even want to start a Girl's Club in Tountouroun to encourage other girls to take their studies seriously. You cry when the Peace Corps car comes to take you back to your village but you're excited to go back and tell everybody what happened! You are going to talk about the Conference des Jeunes Filles for years!

This, my friends, should hopefully give you an idea of what happened here in Mamou this past week. To sum it up in a few words: Lots of portos, lots of deer-in-the-headlights Guinean girls, lots of silly skits (I played a Guinean woman twice), lots of estrogen. Good times!*

Thank you for reading, and please, keep the plight of Guinean women in your thoughts and prayers.

Much love,

* Yes, I've changed, Karina Arrue. I think estrogen is cool now. Sorta.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Zoomy and the Forestiers

Sent via e-mail 7/30/08
Hello dearest friends and family,

A number of you have asked if I've been able to find a church to go to regularly here in Guinea. The answer, after long last, is yes. Yet the experience of finding a solid church (or any church ;) and attending a solid church is so hilariously different here that it makes me chuckle out loud just thinking about it (making the girl working on the computer to my left shoot me a strange glance and shuffle uncomfortably in her seat) (I shall compose myself).

Please let me explain.

Both before my departure and during my time here as a Volunteer, I've constistently prayed that God would guide me to some sort of Christian community for support and spiritual growth. As I've mentioned many times before, Guinea is a wonderful, beautiful country full of wonderful, beautiful people-- 90% of whom happen to be Muslim. My whole village of Bouliwel is unquestionably Muslim; of course, as with any religion in the world, certain people practice more devoutly than others. This can, as you might imagine, lead to some areas of tension or ill-will. It seems that the older you get in Bouliwel, the more religious you tend to be-- you settle down, you do your prayers, you stop dancing and drinking, etc. My counterpart, M. Diallo, and the other Health Center staff are all by-the-book Muslims and take their faith seriously. As soon as we finish our rice and sauce for lunch, they do their ablutions (washing their hands, feet, and face in order to be clean and respectful before God), roll out the prayer mat, take off their shoes, and recite their prayers, replete with Allahu Akbars ("God is great" in Arabic) and touching-their-heads-to-the-floor. They spend a few minutes bowing, kneeling, and saying "God is great," and then sit and count off 99 times on their rosaries. This is repeated five times a day-- 5am, 2pm, 5pm, 7pm, 8pm-- and is standard practice for any orthodox Muslim anywhere in the world. And Bouliwel, while not exactly what I imagine a place like Saudi Arabia is like, certainly plays home to many orthodox Muslims like Diallo, Sow, and my other friends in the village.

This is the environment into which I have been thrust-- a situation so wildly different from anything I have ever known. I love my village and my Muslim friends and "family" and soak up the opportunities to learn about a new culture and religion, yet it does not come without challenges. My faith in Christ, or I should say Christ himself, has played a huge role in guiding and sustaining me through cultural adjustments, loneliness, isolation, and daily experiences of suffering, some of which I've already relayed to you in previous emails. At the same time it has been exhaustingly difficult at times to pray alone day after day, to have the entire village-- jokingly or otherwise-- tell me I need to become Muslim, or to talk about my faith and receive blank stares or worse-- intolerant rebukes. This may help explain the persistence and consistence of my prayers for Christian community.

To try and find said community, one of the first Sundays during my service in Bouliwel I walked out to the main road, held out my hand, and yelled "Dalaba, Dalaba, Dalaba" as the bush taxis went by.

(Funny side note: I received a letter from a friend yesterday that said, "we'd like to know more about the church you've been going to. Apparently you go by taxi? We weren't aware there were taxis in your village." Um, if you mean taxis like New York City taxis, well, there certainly aren't any of those. But the one paved road in the Fouta Djallon runs right through the middle of Bouliwel and there are frequent occasions to catch a ride in a rusted-out 6-man Peugeout with 9 people in it. Just hold out your hand and hope there aren't too many goats stuffed in the trunk-- it makes for a less smelly ride ;)

Sunday being the market day in Dalaba, it was pretty easy to catch a .75 cent ride into town. Once there, I got out and started asking people "ko honto eglise woni"-- where's the church? They pointed me up the hill, where I discovered a decent-sized Catholic church with a friendly, colorful congregation of Guineans from the Forest region of the country, where Christianity is more widespread. I enjoyed the mass there and met some cool young people who were in Dalaba studying at the Institut du Medicine Veterinaire-- the Vet School in town. I was encouraged to meet other Christians and to experience singing, praying, and worshipping together in a community, and went back for several weeks.

I began to make it a routine of going to Dalaba on Sunday mornings for church, and I appreciated and enjoyed the community that I had found at the Catholic Church. At the same time, I had heard rumors that there was a Protestant Church somewhere in Dalaba but they didn't have a building yet. Apparently it was small but thriving and had several western missionaries involved in it somehow. Being a bit of a protester myself, I was curious and eager to find this church and check it out. I asked some of my Catholic friends but they weren't sure where it was. Hmmmm, I thought. Hmmm.

One week I began to pray in earnest about finding that silly Protestant church. I asked God to help me find it somehow, even though I didn't really know where to start. Earlier I had thought about asking the Priest at the Catholic Church but then I got kinda nervous and didn't. Praying in my house in Bouliwel seemed much safer, I suppose. Anyway, later that week I talked to my girlfriend Rene and lo and behold-- she had run into some missionaries in Nigeria who had some friends who were missionaries in Dalaba of all places! She gave me the name of this guy Bill and told me to look 'im up.

That Sunday I got out of the 15-person van I had ridden up in (me and 24 other people-- nice and cozy ;) and began asking everyone where the eglise protestante was. They all pointed me up the hill to the Catholic church, at which point I stated, slowly and clearly, that that was the catholic church, and where was the protestant one? Blank stares. D'oh. At one point I had a guy who was sure he knew where it was and sent me off walking to the other side of town. I was beginning to think I was on a wild goose chase when all of a sudden, wham! A car drives by me with the words "Eglise Protestante Evangelique de la Guinee" written on the side.

Whoa! I started scurrying, in a dignified kind of way of course, after the car. They would have long left me behind and gone over the hill except that one guy stopped and wanted to buy some chickens. So I caught up, and asked them if they were involved with the eglise protestante. Yup, they said. I asked them if they were going to church that morning. Yup. I asked them if I could go with them. Yup. Sweetness.

So I hopped in their car, shook a few hands, and got shuttled off to the protestant church (which, I might add, was on the totally OPPOSITE side of town from where that one dude was sending me ;). Apparently the guys in the car were the pastors from Labe and Mamou who were in Dalaba for an administrative meeting of some sort. They were gracious and helpful in inviting me to come join them for worship and meet the members of the community there.

The eglise met in the upstairs room of a large house on the hill opposite the marketplace. I was warmly welcomed and given a place upfront next to this one forestier (term denoting a person who is from the forest region of Guinea) (like the Catholic church, most of the people involved with the protestant church were from the forest) (Donnie Stuart thinks that terminology is funny and it makes him think of forest-dwellers or something-- whatever that is) (silly Donald) guy.

I was sitting there chatting him up when this porto walked in, and I was like, "deeeh, what's a white person doing here?" Exactly like that.

Turns out it was Bill-- you know, the guy Rene told me to look up? How cool is that? Bill is this late 50s Canadian-Scottish dude who has lived in Guinea for 11 years. He's a little awkward to talk to at first and his hands are a little shaky but it was so nice to see another Westerner. He invited me over for lunch at his place the next day, which was truly amazing. He and his wife both live in Dalaba long-term along with another older couple and a single woman who are both with his same mission. They hung out with me, sang with me, prayed with me, and encouraged me in my work in Bouliwel. And they gave me amazing food-- I mean, brownies? Insane. And real coffee. Funny the things you really miss when you're stuck in a podunk African village for two years.

Anyway, I was really grateful to make the connections with Bill and the folks from his mission. He and his wife are in Canada right now on home service, but will be back in February and have promised to bring more coffee. Oh, and, you know, be Christians with me.

Oh, and the church? Awesome. Really vibrant. Imagine a decent-sized, kinda drafty room with some wooden benches and a wooden pulpit. Now imagine a few songbooks and a drum. Now imagine that room is filled with noisy Africans singing and dancing and shaking hands and you've got this church. I've been going regularly now and am so thankful for the community and spiritual support that I get there. I've made some solid friends with some of the guys there, many of whom study or work in Dalaba but are really forest-dwellers (Donald).

The one forestier dude's name is Zoomy. Seriously. Last Tuesday Zoomy did the presentation of his memoire (basically his doctoral dissertation at the vet school), and he invited me to go, so I biked up to Dalaba and watched. He talked about parasites and chimpanzees. It was great.

Anyway, all that's to say-- this is absurdly long, again-- but I've found a sweet church and made some great connections there. Thank God. I've also planted a garden full of beans and basil and moringa trees and started to look into doing a couple funded projects. More on that in the future.

'Til next time,
Thanks for reading, Mom and Sophie Aubry. You guys rule.
Much love to all,
From Africa,

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Another Sad One

Sent via e-amil 7/5/08
Hello dear friends and family,

Here's a head's up before you read: I wish I could have all my emails be funny and light-hearted, but it wouldn't be a truthful reflection of the reality of life here. This one recounts some community events that occured last Sunday-- please have a read but I warn you: it's a little heavy.

Last Sunday morning-- my first Sunday back in Bouliwel after being on vacation seeing Rene-- I went through my normal routine, excited to be back in my village after long last. I woke up, made some coffee in my newly purchased French press (glorious.), had some prayer time, took my shower, changed, and headed out the door to get a taxi to Dalaba for church. As I walked up the dirt road towards the main carrefour [intersection], greeting people and shaking hands, a car suddenly roared over the hill heading towards the health center, towing a wake of distressed and screaming women and children in its wake. I had to get out of the way to avoid getting hit, and, puzzled, asked one of the men nearby what was going on.

"Il y avait un accident sur la route la bas," he said frankly. There was an accident on the main road my my village's marketplace.
"Un accident?!" I asked. "Qu'est-ce qui s'est passe?" What happened?
"Une petite fille etait tape par un taxi," he said. A little girl was hit by a taxi.

A wave of goosebumps washed over me as I heard that. Oh no. I pressed him for more information-- how bad was it? What was she doing in the road? Whose fault was it? -- but he didn't seem to know much more than that. I turned and joined the crowd of people heading down the road to the health center where they had taken the girl.

When I got there, there was a huge crowd of people already gathered outside: Men, women, children-- all milling around, some yelling, others crying, still others having heated discussions about the unacceptable practices of Guinean taxi drivers. I pushed my way through and went into the health center.

The little girl was in one of the sick rooms. I walked in, expecting to see her being attended to by the health center staff, yet they were nowhere to be seen (turns out M. Diallo was seeing a patient and M. Sow was in Mamou for the day). When people noticed the porto had appeared in the health center they all turned to me, imploring me to do something to help her.

Oh no, I thought. I'm not a doctor, nor am I qualified or comfortable giving this kind of care. Yet there was nothing else to do, so I approached the girl's bedside and walked through my tried-and-true CPR techniques. Was she coherent? No. She was in a state of shock, unconscious, and coughing up blood. Did she have a pulse? Yes, thank God. Was she breathing? Yes, ragged, bloody gasps. She must have had some kind of internal bleeding.

I called her name several times: Safiatou! Safiatou! Her older brother-- a friend of mine-- was next to me, shaking his head and saying we ought to take her to Mamou, where they have a bigger hospital. I just looked at her and said a prayer: God, please let this girl live.

The next moment a consensus seemed to have been made: take the girl to Mamou. I grabbed the brother and another guy and we lifted her carefully off the bed, out the door and into the waiting taxi. As we brought her out the crowd just gasped and chattered, women crying and children staring wide-eyed. We put her in the taxi and it zoomed off to the regional hospital. I just stared after it, watching it go and praying under my breath.

The day passed normally after that: Church in Dalaba, hang-time with the Volunteers there, and a trip to the weekly marketplace. That night, back in Bouliwel, the honks of a car announced the bad news: the girl had died.

Two cars came screeching into Bouliwel in front of my house, and soon the wailing began again, this time in unison, declaring the sadness and pain of another loss.

The arrangements were made quickly and efficiently: the burial was done the next morning and all the proper procedures were followed.

Ah, Bouliwel! So much suffering, so much pain. If only people would drive more cautiously, think with more common sense, act with more care!

My heart just aches sometimes for the suffering of this village that I have come to love. If you have read this, thank you showing compassion (suffering alongside) for a few moments.

Much love,

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ten Things I Hate (Love) About Guinea

Sent via e-mail 6/24/08

Hello all,

So there's a popular girl movie, Ten Things I Hate About You. I saw it once, and vaguely remember hoping that the general chick-flickishness of the film would make one of the two girls I went with develop instantaneous crushes on me. While leaving the cinema, I think I may have mentioned that the plot of the movie is taken from a Shakespeare play (it is, n'est-ce pas?). Middle school not being the age when looking knowledgeable about Shakespeare is cool, I fear this may have tanked my hopes.

Needless to say, Ten Things I Hate About You randomly popped into my head today as I was riding in a taxi in downtown Conakry. I was en ville, en route to the bank. This was my first day being in Guinea after a beautiful, heavenly, 10-day vacation visiting my girlfriend Rene Marshall in England and N. Ireland, and thus was making a few mini-adjustments being back-- firmly-- in the heart of the developing world.

As the chauffeur passed me the car's one handle to roll down the window, I shook my head distractedly at a young man earnestly trying to sell me cheap plastic belts and reflected: "What are ten things I hate about Guinea?"

As soon as I thought that, it seemed like a dumb question. A much BETTER question would be, of course (cue an image of Meg McFadden, sitting across the table from you, holding a mug of tea and looking very interested in what you were about to say):

"What are ten things I love about Guinea?"

Having given it a little thought, here are ten things, in no particular order:

1. Big, beautiful, majestic baobab trees. They line the main streets in Conakry and provide shade, serenity, and splendor.

2. Clearing cows off of my yard in order to reach the latrine where I do my business.

3. Being mobbed by a horde of children every time I return to my village after a trip away (looking forward to that tomorrow evening!).

4. Knowing and being known by every single person in my village.

5. Bartering for everything. You walk to the marketplace-- there are no price tags here! 95% of the vendors can't even read. You approach a woman; let's say you want her tomatoes. You don't, of course, simply ask her how much the tomatoes are. First you ask her how her family is, her children, her work. You both laugh as she compliments you on your ragged attempts to speak her native language. You glance at the tomatoes, then, and venture the question: Ko jelu? [how much?] Let the fun begin! She names a price-- you act deeply offended and make disapproving noises with your tongue. You propose a lower price-- she dishes back the 'tude, complete with tongue noises. You do this for a while, faces stony, until you eventually agree on a price. Whoop! That was easy. Smiles return, tomatoes go into the bag held by one of your eager child helpers, you wish one another well, and continue on your way. Just like shopping at the Acme, right? ;)

6. Bike rides, at sunset, in the foothills around my village.

7. Children here are so helpful-- I can grab any child, at any time, and send them off on an errand. Need water from the pump? Hello, Siradjo! Need bread from the marketplace? Bonjour, Alphadjo! This isn't exploitation, this is cultural assimilation! It's just what people do here. And the kids are generally happy to help. Plus they know that the porto [me] gives out good rewards: candy, piggy-back rides, and old Sports Illustrateds.

8. Teaching children silly things like how to shuffle cards the American way (you know, with the waterfall) or sing properly all the words to the chorus of Akon's "Don't Matter."

9. Meeting up with other Peace Corps Volunteers after a long two weeks at site and enjoying the ease with which the English you speak rolls off your tongue. Wow-- I can actually say what I mean and be understood!! Glorious.

10. Eating bucketfuls of juicy, sweet mangoes.

So there you have it. Guinea (and I) enjoyed the presence of Donnie Stuart for 8 days at the beginning of June. Have questions? Comments? Concerns? Please toss them my way (or his!). It is a pleasure to share little slices of my life here in Africa, and I hope and pray that these little emails would encourage others to deepen their vision and understanding for the forgotten countries of the world.

Til the next time,
Love you all!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Andrew, what do you actually do? You know, for a job?"

Sent via e-mial 5/31/2008
Hello everybody,

So as you all will no doubt remember, my last soul-less, industrial mass email kicked off a new series of Andrew's Guinea emails titled: "Answers to random questions you may have about my life here in Guinea."

This week's installment:

"Andrew, what do you actually do? You know, for a job?"

Great question. To answer, I will take you inside the planning, preparation, and execution of my latest health sensitization at the local ecole primaire* [please refer to the appendix at the bottom of the page if necessary] in my village.

As I've mentioned in previous emails, malaria presents an enormous problem here in Guinea. As the primary cause of death in the prefecture* where I live, malaria claims the lives of men, women, and children on an almost daily basis, particularly during the first few months of the rainy season (May, June, July). Although it is heavily over-diagnosed in local health centers (due to poorly-trained staff and/or the oversimplification of symptom diagnosis by the Ministry of Public Health here) and thus the numbers tallying the total of malaria patients are almost always inflated, the disease nonetheless continues to be an serious issue-- one made all the more tragic because of its preventability.

With this in mind, two weeks ago I set to work organizing a series of health sensitizations to be given in the local primary school discussing the topic of malaria: what it is, its symptoms, what to do if you get it, and most importantly for my work, how to prevent it.

The process went through several phases:

Phase # 1: Asking and getting permission
So very little gets accomplished in Guinea outside of the traditional, top-down heirarchical structures that are in place. If someone wants to organize a project in the village, they must first talk with the sous-prefet*, the village sages* and the authorities responsible for the sector in which they want to work (in this case, the directeur de l'ecole primaire*). To not do so would be a significant breach in protocol and cause all sorts of silly problems that would hinder one's progress.
Trying hard to be a good culturally-sensitive volunteer, one day last week I went to the sous-prefet's office and told him I wanted to do some presentations on malaria in the primary schools. Fine. No problem. Then, later that day at a baptism, I tracked down the directeur of the primary school and told him I wanted to do some presentations on malaria in the primary schools. Fine. We'd love to have you. I let M. Diallo, my counterpart know, and he told me to go for it.
Perfect! That was the easy part.

Phase # 2: Preparing visual aids
Yeah, here's the hard part. So as I may have previously mentioned, the illiteracy rate in Guinea must be well over 50%. I think there may be one grown woman in Bouliwel who can read and write a little, if that, and the non-fonctionnaire* men aren't much better.
"Well Andrew," you might say, "surely 5th and 6th grade kids ought to be able to read, right?"
Hm. Well, not necessarily. Education in Bouliwel (and the vast majority of Guinea) really stinks. Classrooms are dirty and ill-kept, teachers are poorly trained and poorly paid, kids are often forced to stay home to do chores or work in the fields, and overall a nasty, oppressive system of rote-learning keeps most kids from learning anything significant. All of which is made even worse when you only go to school for 2 hours a day, 4 days a week and your own parents are inalphabets* (as is the case with most children).
So all this is to say, whenever I want to do a health sensitization, I need to have pretty, pretty pictures and not much writing. (Imagine, for a moment, what life would be like if, every time you looked at writing all you saw were black lines and circles and the occasional dot) Which for me is not easy because I stink at art. Oh Mom, how hard you tried to raise your little children to be artsy, and cultured! And how hard we refused, and decided to play sports instead! If only we had known...
Anyway, I needed to make a bunch of posters with mosquitos and sick people and mosquito nets and stuff on them, and I knew I blew at art, so I grabbed my health manual and copied over a bunch of images* from my paludisme* workbook onto some big flip-chart paper. This took me several mornings of work, but after many painstaking hours of tracing and coloring in the health center ("what is that crazy porto* doing today?" people ask), I finally emerged-- victorious-- with three big beautiful malaria posters. Joy.

Phase # 3: Figuring out what I'm going to say
This part was pretty simple. I just looked over my malaria notes, gathered my thoughts, put myself inside the head of a Guinean 5th grader (what would I want to pay attention to during the half-hour before recess?), and trusted in my tried-and-true motto: Just wing it 'cause if you try and overplan it it's just gonna get screwed up anyway. And if it's really bombing just say something in Pular and they'll all laugh. Great motto.

Phase # 4: Actually giving the thing
So obviously this was the most important step, and I thought it went well. I showed up at the ecole 15 minutes early, greeted the 5th grade teacher, M. Sidibe, taped my posters onto the blackboard, and sat quietly at the back of the class, about as inconspicously as a large tapir charging down a group of small children (My approach to dealing with stares, whispers, and giggles varies: sometimes I just ignore it, sometimes I smile back or say hello, and other times I do something really weird like snort, make faces, or pick my nose (although, in retrospect, picking your nose here isn't weird at all ;) ah Guinea). When the kids got done with their exercise, M. Sidibe called me to the front and let me know that the floor was mine. Suh-weet!
To start, I made them all stand up and then I taught* them "heads, shoulders, knees, and toes," just to lighten the atmosphere and make a complete fool of myself to loosen 'em up a little bit. The salle* officially chauffed*, I then launched into my malaria shpiel, explaining that the illness is caused by a pesky blood parasite transmitted by sonsolis*, that you can only get it by way of mosquitos, and if anybody tells you you can get it from mangoes or the sun (common misconceptions) they are wrooooong. Very wrong.
I speak in slow, basic French with a smattering of Pular, looking to Sidibe during moments of confusion for a more detailed Pular translation. There were about 40 kids in the class.
They seemed mostly attentive, laughing at my occasional manhandling of their native language and responding at all the right intervals. They followed me through my symptoms explanation, facilitated, of course, by my beautiful visual aids (although I had this one picture that was supposed to be of a kid sweating, because that's what happens when you get malaria sometimes, and they all thought he had an outbreak of warts. Ehh). When I got to the Comment Eviter le Palu?* section, they latched onto the visual aids, and seemed to absorb really well the importance of mosquito nets, of long pants and long sleeves at night, of filling in or covering up stagnant water sources (mosquitos reproduce in stagnant water like puddles or wells), and several other key preventative measures. I encouraged them to take the issue seriously, recounting briefly the story of the little girl we lost to malaria two months ago in the health center-- a girl who could have easily been in 5th grade. They nodded and seemed to get it.
After probing a little for questions or confusing material, they all seemed ready for a little Porto tomfoolery, so I performed a hearty rendition of "I'm a little teapot" and called it a day, thanking Sidibe and his class.

Phase # 5: The follow-up
Yeah, so this guy seems a little less structured, and in fact, I'm still figuring out how to do it. For now, I mostly corner small children around the village and interrogate them: Can you get malaria by being out in the sun too long? Will you ask your dad to put screens on your house windows? Arrgh. Stuff like that. I am going to continue my series of malaria sensitizations with the other grade levels in Bouliwel-centre and hopefully get out to the primary schools in the districts as well. I'm also working closely with M. Diallo to monitor the number of malaria patients we see at the Health Center on a weekly basis. And, in conjunction with my Health Director and some other Health Volunteers, we're looking for ways to make mosquito nets cheaper and more accessible to everyone who needs one. As they say here in Guinea, "little by little, the bird makes his nest." Good stuff.

That's all for now! Donnie Stuart and his studly pectoral muscles are flying into Conakry on Monday night to visit for a few days, and after that I am taking a brief vacation in N. Ireland to see my beautiful girlfriend, Rene Marshall! Your prayers are much appreciated as Conakry has seen a few issues with some disgruntled military officers recently.

Love you all!

*primary school (grades 1-6)
*like a region or state
*the guy who's in charge of the village and all the districts in the local county
*all the gnarled old men who walk around in big boubous and who command lots of respect
*you can figure this one out guys
*fonctionnaires are the state-assigned skilled workers in the village-- usually teachers, health workers, civil servants, and others. Bouliwel-centre has around 20 (there are many more when you take into account all the outlyign districts). My counterpart, M. Diallo, is a fonctionnaire, for example
*illiterate people
*you can figure this one out too, I'm pretty sure
*white person in Pular
*when I say "taught," I mean I sang and told them to repeat after me, which went something like this: "OK kids, 'heads, shoulders, knees, and toes, knees and toes.'" (beckon for them to repeat) "Haads, blah blah giggles blah blah giggles." Good times.
*warmed up
*mosquito in Pular
*How to avoid getting malaria

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What the heck I eat

Sent via e-mail 4/26/08
Hello loved ones,

So many of you have asked me questions about my experiences here in the Peace Corps--"What's Africa like?" "Do you have electricity or running water?" "What's it like seeing poverty everywhere?" "Do you play soccer a lot?" "Do you really go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground?"

My responses are as follows: Friendly. Yes, No. Hard, but not in the ways I expected it. Yes, but not as much as Forecariah. Yes.

Hope that clears up a few things.

I may spend the next few emails trying to respond to some of these in a little more depth, however. Today's question is this:

"What the heck do you eat?"

I eat rice and sauce usually about 10-12 meals a week. Picture this typical evening scenario:

The sun is setting over Bouliwel. I am riding my bike, careening through the backroads in the hills over the village, relishing in the speed of the bike and the cool breeze that dries the sweat on my forehead and chest. I stop in Hoore Lopi, the small village two km outside of Bouliwel, greeting the Peuhl women sitting by the side of the road on their stools and mats. Each is selling fruit-- papayas, oranges, mangoes, bananas-- arranged in little piles on the ground or on low wooden tables. I need some bananas for my peanut butter-and-banana baguette (PB&BB) tomorrow morning.
"On djaraama, neene! Tana alaa gaa?" Good evening, mama! Are there no problems here?
I smile winningly and enjoy their titters and exchanged glances-- the porto's speaking Pular, after all. That's hilarious.
"Banaanas, ko jelu?" I ask the price.
"Jowi mille francs," the woman responds, gesturing to a bunch of fat green ones. Five for 1,000 francs (1,000 francs= 25 cents). It's a good price, so I hand her the money and put the bananas in my pack, mounting my bike with a word of thanks: "Albarka nani!"
I turn to go, smiling inwardly at the snippets of Pular I pick up from the women chatting behind me ("he speaks Pular!?" "his name's Boubacar Barry, he lives in Bouliwel"). So the Pular studying is starting to pay off a little.
The descent into Bouliwel is the best part of the ride: straight down hill on the paved road. The wind rushes by me as I wave to some kids at the water pump ("Andre! Ca va?!").
Pulling up at my house at last, I greet Mme Diallo, the wife of my official counterpart, the doctor at the health center. Slapping hands with the kids who crowd around me ("Andre, ca va bien?!"), I unlock my door and put away my bike. I strip off my sweaty clothes, grab my towel and my shower sandals and head out back to the well.
"Andre, ko honto yahataa?" the kids ask. Where are you going?
"Mido yahude lootagol." I'm going to wash myself.
I grab my bucket, open the hatch to the well, and lower the rope and bucket down. One bucketful usually does it for an evening bucket bath-- amazing when you think of how much water I used to use taking showers in the States.
Water obtained, I walk over to my douche, a tiny little stall with a wimpy supply of smelly-girly things: A bottle of shampoo, razor, gel, and a bar of soap. I usually deal with lots of smelliness, not much girliness.
I close the door and pick up my goblet, a small cup that facilitates the bathing operation. I dip it into the water and count to three. On three I dump the water over my head. The initial shock is a little jarring, but the three minutes after that have to be the most refreshing of the day. I lather up and rinse.
Having finished my "shower," I head back inside and get dressed. I turn on my little shortwave radio and tune it to the BBC World Service (oh, what a life saver!)-- turns out Zimbabwe is imploding, Barack and Hillary are neck and neck, and a Brasilian priest has accidentally drowned by attaching himself to 1,000 ballons and floating out to sea.
I walk next door and greet Mme Diallo again. M. Diallo, M. Sow, M. Kamano the principal of the Bouliwel school district, and Ousmane the stagiaire are all at the mosque saying their final prayers of the day. I sit next Thierno Mariama, M. Diallo's 8- yr old girl, and shoot the breeze in my broken Pular. She's in the fourth grade and still can't write her name, so of course, conversing in French is not possible. We play the game where one person holds their hands out palms down over the other person's hands palms up and person #2 tries to slap person #1's hands. You know what I'm talking about. This lasts for a few minutes until the men come back.
"Bonsoir, Aboubacar," says M. Diallo warmly. "Comment allez-vous? Vous avez bien peloter?" Did you have a good bike ride?
"Tres bien, merci." Very good, thanks. In fact, it was amazing.
The other men and I exchange greetings and M. Diallo calls everybody inside to eat.
"Aru namen!" Come, let's eat!
We all go inside, taking off our sandals, and pull up stools on the floor. M. Camara, the Sous-Prefet Adjoint, or Vice Mayor, pokes his head in and is immediately invited to come join us.
M. Diallo grabs the large metal platter and sets it in the middle of all of us. We are eight: Mme Diallo, Thierno Mariama, M. Camara, M. Sow, Principal, Ousmane, M. Diallo, and me. Every night it's like that-- meals are very communal. I love that.
M. Diallo empties the pot of rice onto the platter and pours the sauce over it, making sure to get every corner covered-- nobody wants to be shafted with a spoonful of plain rice. Tonight it's fish sauce with potatoes, and when we say fish, we mean whole fish. None of this removing-the-head-and-bones business.
When the sauce is applied, everyone digs in, the men with spoons and Mme Diallo and Mariama with their hands (by choice-- not discrimination). There is little talking while eating. Everyone holds to their little wedge of the platter-- to reach across and take some potato out of someone else's corner would be a major faux pas.
In five minutes the platter is mostly picked clean. I am usually one of the last ones to get up, either because I'm a fat American or because, as M. Diallo says, I'm a "child" and need to eat more than "old farts" like him and Sow.
I spoon up the last bits of the rice and thank Mme Diallo for her good home cooking: "Albarka!" Thank you and God's blessings.
"Barka Alla," she replies. Thanks be to God.

Rice and sauce twice a day is surprisingly enjoyable-- it's easy, it's quick, and it fills you up. Cooking here can be a huge pain; There's no ovens, there's no refrigerators... If you want meat you have to kill something, which can be fun, but is mostly just a huge hassle. So I stick to my PB&BB in the matin and eat rice and sauce for lunch and dinner. When I really do feel like a change, I'll whip up some spaghetti or ramen that I picked up at the Lebanese store in Conakry. Wild, I know.

And that's pretty much it. Very long answer to a very short question, but I figured I'd try and paint a picture to let you see what it's like.

And with that, this is the end of installment number "I'm not sure" of Andrew's Guinea/ Peace Corps chronicles. Thanks to everybody who's responded to these emails in the past and for all who've written. You guys are awesome! And a special shout-out to CMOB and Aunt Debbie for the packages last month. I've taught the kids in my neighborhood Pass the Pigs and been officially commissioned to teach Bouliwel how to make girl scout cookies. Not sure if that's gonna be possible... But you never know ;)

Love you guys!

P.S. Check out my pictures too if you get a chance. Alrighty.
Blog poster note: You can also check out the Wiki which has a link to all past messages from Andrew at

Friday, April 11, 2008

Hard-core kids and cleaning things (and a little barf)

Sent via e-mail on 4/10/08

Hi everybody!
So I'm currently in Labe for my monthly visit and I figured I would profit and hop onto the internet to give you an update on my wild African existence.

I went hiking in a gorgeous canyon near a little village called Douki yesterday with a couple other Peace Corps friends. It was stunning-- truly impressive-- and we enjoyed a pretty solid hike down into the canyon and back up a trail called chutes and ladders , named such because of its waterfalls ( chutes in French) and its system of ladders (tree branches held together by vines that some dudes had put together).
It was amazing, and not a little scary, as we often had to climb 15-20 ft on these rickety wooden ladders to get up this steep ravine. We all felt pretty hard-core after getting up the steepest section, until we ran into these two kids on the trail.

They couldn't have been more than 7-8 years old, yet each was carrying a huge bag full of mangoes on their heads. They had come up the same way we had and were planning on selling the mangoes in Douki and then heading back to their huts on the valley floor that evening. Each was wearing flip flops (not hiking boots like us rogue mountaineers) and possessed the uncanny balance that most Africans (especially women) seem to possess when carrying extremely large objects on their heads. My fellow volunteer Erich and I both decided to give the kids a little break so we relieved them of their burden for a while and tried the old carry-ridiculously-heavy-stuff-on-your-head-over-mountanious-terrain method.

Lemme tell you: Africans redefine hard core. Dang. We went maybe a few tenths of a mile with those bad boys and we were done. Plus I think we bruised the mangoes way more than we should have. Needless to say, my respect for Guinean women and children has continued to rise-- I'd say they're somewhere between George Bowling and Desmond Tutu on the respect-o-meter (and that's saying something ;).

To continue my email, I'd thought I'd share another journal entry from last month about my first planned project in my village. Don't worry, K-money, it's not a tear-jerker!

Salon de ma maison (living room of my house)
So yesterday was an awesome day and I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts to concretize the memory...

So Saturday evening was pretty rough. The whole afternoon I could just feel that sick feeling coming on: gas, burps that taste like puke, excessive tiredness, achiness-- it sucked. Then I went to Aboubacar Bailo's son's baptism and guess what happened? I was told to eat a massive platter of riz gras... Perfect.

I went to bed early hoping I would just sleep it off.
I woke up an hour later, rushed outside and ralphed up all the riz gras I could possibly have eaten, plus some rice from lunch and maybe a little breakfast pain. All this came much to the chagrin of Dr. Diallo (my counterpart and next-door neighbor), who rushed over and mothered me a bit, which I appreciated even if it was a bit overbearing. A little more diarrhea emptied me of everything vilain, and I shortly after hit the hay for good, dreading the next morning's proposed initiative: a grand cleaning of the Health Center with the Association de la Jeunesse [youth association].

Thank you God; the next morning I felt a lot better ( Aboubacar, a diki? ) [you feeling better? in Pular]. I choked down a little bread, threw on some work clothes, grabbed my soap and mops and gloves and headed over to the Health Center.

Sow, Ousmane, Dr. Diallo and I all worked pretty hard for the next couple of hours sweeping, sorting through papers, and tossing out old crappy stuff that no longer had any use. By the time 10am rolled around (the time the youths were supposed to show up), we were all pretty tired, Sow and the Doctor were ready to pack it in, and I found myself saying, well, if nobody shows up, at least we swept some stuff.

And we waited, and waited, and two kids showed up, whom I quickly put to work scrubbing (much to their chagrin-- what's this crazy porto want us to do?) (porto= white person. I hear that one a lot).

And then, just when I was ready to call it a morning (and the grand nettoyage [big cleaning] a bust)? Dr. Diallo calls inside, Aboubacar, regarde! [look!]
I walked out onto the porch and looked down the road. And there, walking in 2 groups (guys and girls), were at least 25 youths; each carrying a bidon full of water. I nearly had tears in my eyes just looking at them, and all I could think of was, thank you Jesus.

They came with tons of energy and liveliness. Guys were flirting with girls, they were laughing and screwing around and hitting each other with brooms-- it was just like an LDP outing to Habitat.
And I loved it. Couldn't stop smiling the whole time.
And then they cleaned the place. Inefficiently, perhaps somewhat haphazardly (c'mon, this is Guinea we're talking about-- nothing is orderly) (George would have had a fit if this was Chibougamau clean-up :), but dang, they cleaned it good. M. Diallo came and told me that in his three years here he had never seen this done before. And all I could think of was, thank you Jesus.

It was a great day.
Anyway, there's another taste of life in Guinea!
Love you all, and thank you so much for all who have sent letters and packages! I'm writing back-- it takes forever and the mail system blows but knock on wood, it'll get there someday.

'Til the next time,
Much love,
Andre/ Aboubacar/ Porto

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rice, toothless men, and malaria (or, my first month in a village in Africa)

Sent via e-mail 3/16/2008

Hello dear friends and family,

So it has been quite awhile since my last email. Sorry. I've been living in a rural African village, pulling up water from the well every morning for my bucket bath, eating rice off the floor twice a day, and going to the bathroom in a hole. Wireless technology hasn't exactly made it's way to this part of the Fouta Djallon...

That said, I am in Labe for the weekend and have taken advantage of the internet cafe to get off an email with some thoughts and experiences from my first full month at site.

This last month has been unlike any other in my entire life. I am truly, truly -- tigi tigi­ as they say in Pular-- the only white person in the whole Sous-Prefecture. I am somewhat of a local celebrity. I often catch grown men and women just staring at me as I sit in the health center studying Pular, or as I buy bread at the marketplace. Most women in town have either offered their daughters or themselves to me in marriage-- offers which I invariably accept, with a grin, and assure them that in my culture, men cook and do dishes all the time. It's like a dream come true, right? Although at this rate, I'm piling up enough wives that people might start to talk, even here in Guinea (after all, the Koran says you're only supposed to have four-- after that you're in trouble). Still, part of me wonders, isn't it weird to be offering a 20-something guy your 5-year old daughter as a wife? Ahhhh, Guinea.

The pace of life in Bouliwel is slower than Shawn Kemp running the fast break in his so-called "pudgy" days as a Cav. Most men spend the day like this:

--get up, pray
--go sit outside your house/ hut
--walk to the market
--sit there for awhile
--walk back to your house/ hut
--eat the food one of your wives prepared
--sit around and talk
--sit around and talk
--sit around
--eat dinner that the other wife prepared
--sit around, maybe listen to the radio
--go to sleep

Even Shawn Kemp might get bored after awhile with that schedule, but most men here don't seem to mind. (Women, on the other hand, work harder in a day than I've ever worked in my life: Cooking, washing the dishes, cleaning the house, getting water from the well, tending to the needs of the men... In Guinea, all men are not created equal, sadly enough-- and no one seems to question it) (except me, who receives laughs or blank stares as responses to the "why don't men get water from the well every now and then?")

There is so much more I could tell you. I taught three guys poker-- texas hold 'em, mostly-- which we play with scrabble tiles as poker chips and biscuits as money. Remember the scene from Ocean's Eleven when Brad Pitt is teaching the teeny-bopper movie stars how to play poker (Joshua Jackson confidently lays down his five cards: "All reds.")? Yeah, it's kinda like that. I got some care packages last week on the mail run (thank you thank you thank you mom and Julia Maxwell and Northfield Presbyterian Church!) and wow, an alien could have beamed down a foreign object of some sort for all the kids in my neighborhood were concerned. Fritos? Cracker Jack? The Atlantic Monthly? The likes of these have never been seen in Bouliwel, ever.

This may give you a tiny glimpse of what life is like here in My Random African Village.

On a more serious note, two weeks ago a little girl died of malaria in the health center. It was an emotional day and took some time to write down some thoughts, which I thought I would share with you here. This will make this email excessively long, for which I apologize. Still, it seems important to communicate the reality of suffering here in Guinea. Anyway, here's my journal entry (edited slightly for brevity), written that night:

2/27/08 Dr. Diallo's Porch
'It has been a crazy past couple of hours and I wanted to get down some thoughts while everything was still fresh. I spent nearly four hours today at the stream washing clothes with Rugiatu and Lazare. It is amazing how long simple stuff like doing laundry takes here! When I came back, I ducked into the Health Center to see what was up there, and I found Dr. Diallo and Mr. Sow tending to a young girl, who was lying on the cot with her mother. She had an IV in her arm and was moaning and moving around. I didn't think much of it for whatever reason-- I may have been more worried about acquitting myself for spending all morning at the river (or perhaps, I was wondering about lunch)-- and I was told to go next door and have my rice. I ate and then went back to the house and laid down for a nap.
When I emerged from the house after an hour and a half with my National Geographic, I noticed a small crowd of men in boubous and women in headscarves gathering outside the Health Center. Sow walked by and told me that the girl who had been in the Health Center had died.
"La petite fille-la est morte," he told me. [the little girl is dead]
"Morte?!" I asked, surprised.
"Oui," he said matter-of-factly. "Palu grave." [serious malaria]
"Oh, wow..." I said, somewhat stunned.
"Tu connais le palu?" he asked. [do you know about malaria?]
"Ouais, ouais," I responded, dazed. Of course I know about malaria.
The next hour and a half or so passed by slowly, crawlingly, confusingly. The whole village seemed to turn out, men lining one side of the dirt road, women on the other. I sat outside the health center for awhile, the young white Westerner dressed in slacks and a button down jostling for position on the bench next to old gray Africans in their boubous and skullcaps.
One of these things is not like the other.
Sitting there, I listened to the women across the way wailing and crying, performing their all-too-familiar ritual to mourn the passing of a child of God. Soon enough I noticed the sages of the village gathering, talking lowly and rapidly and exchanging money, and I immediately went to ask Dr. Diallo if it was appropriate to give some. He said sure and I grabbed a wad from the house-- 50,000 francs-- and went over asking what might be an appropriate amount to give.
"Deux mille. Donne deux mille," he said, [give 2,000 francs] looking at my wad of 5,000s. I wonder what he was thinking, really thinking, at that moment. I gave him 10,000. A little more than two bucks.
Upon delivery of the money, all the old men of the village came up and shook my hand. Maybe I imagined it, but it even seemed that their eyes were wide; In surprise, in thanks, in scrutiny; I couldn't tell.
I received their thanks ungraciously, shaking my head and frowning.
It's nothing.
De rien.
No really. It's nothing. Two measly bucks for a woman who's just lost her ten-year old daughter to malaria--a preventable disease-- when I've got a stack of bills just sitting in a trunk in the house.
And it was probably the largest contribution of the village.
And "I'm not rich."
Je suis pas riche.

After they loaded the body (wrapped in a prayer mat) onto the roof of the bush taxi (5 men sitting on the roof flanking it as they drove off), I went inside and ran into Dr. Diallo.
"Merci." he thanked me. "Vraiment, merci. T'as vu, tous les vieux sont venus pour te saluer." [Did you see, all the old men of the village came over to thank you]
We went into his office; he closed the door.
"Vraiment, c'est gentil." [seriously, it's very nice of you] The man just watched a small girl die in his hands--in his care-- and for some reason he thinks I want to talk about my contribution of two damn dollars.
This is not about me.
"Docteur, vraiment, vraiment, c'est RIEN. C'est deux dollars americain." [it's nothing-- it's two American dollars] I could feel the flood of emotion welling up, the tears beginning to flow. Couldn't help it. After all, I was lying in my bed reading Nat'l Geographic-- reading about oil, and pygmies, and AIDS-- when next door a little girl died of a preventable disease.
"Il faut pas faire ca," he said, [you shouldn't do that] and I couldn't tell if it was with reproach, or compassion, or condescension. Perhaps a little of everything.
"C'est la volonte de Dieu," he went on [it's the will of God], "Il y a beaucoup de gens-- beaucoup-- qui meurt tout le temps du paudisme grave, du malnutrition, des choses comme ca. Personne peut savoir pourquoi Il fait ceci ou cela." [lots of people--lots-- die all the time from malaria, malnutrition, things like that. No one can know why God does what He does.]
Hmmm. It's the will of God that children die of preventable diseases? It's the will of God that here in Africa, people die all the time, whereas back home, in the world of stuff, children get sent to hospitals to get treated by real doctors with real medecine in real facilities. We don't even have malaria there.
Yet it's the volonte de Dieu.
I don't know. Is it God's will? Or was He with weeping with those women, wailing at the injustice, the suffering, the heart-rending normalcy of it all?
Does God dream of something different?
If so, I want to be a part of seeing that Dream come about. God, make manifest your dream here—on earth—as it is in heaven.'

Well, that's the whole entry. A bit emotional, melodramatic perhaps, but it's what I was really thinking and feeling at the time.

And with that, the only people who are left reading this are either my mom or people with way too much time on their hands. But seriously, thank you so much for taking the time to read about life here.

Til the next time,
Much love,

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Boring email (no poop sorry)

Sent via e-mail Saturday 2/9/2008

Bonjour mes amis,

So it's official. I have finally achieved the goal that I came to Africa to realize. All that planning, all the preparation, the arduous application process, the hand-wringing over the country placement, the frequent bowel movements once here, the lack of running water, the lack of electricity, the lack of virtually anything nice: it was all worth it.

I have finally updated my "facebook: where I've been" map, and put it so that now it says I've lived in Africa. It was a big moment for me and the other volunteers in the computer room; if we had had champagne I'm sure we would have toasted the occasion. As it was, I had to settle for a big pat on the back from my friend Astrid. I could have gone for a butt tap, but there were no male PCVs present, and as you know, I am not an equal opportunity butt tapper.

So there's something else that's happened to me that's also somewhat official, but far less momentous and exciting: I am now a bona fide Peace Corps Volunteer. No more of this trainee business. After two+ months of training, numerous language and technical classes, cross-cultural sessions, lots of "francais massacre," many long talks with my cousins and Guinean friends, basketball games (including an "all-star game," fotes vs. fores, to celebrate our time in Fo-cah), soccer matches (including the intra-Peace Corps cup championship won-- sadly-- not by Team Public Health, but by the Guinean language instructors) (it's not fair-- they're African), and a sad farewell ceremony in Forecariah (replete with tears), yesterday we were all sworn in as Volunteers.

The ceremony was amazing, actually. Speeches were made by the Peace Corps Guinea Director, the US Ambassador to Guinea, the Guinean Minister of Public Health, four different trainees (each doing a speech in one of the four languages we've been learning--French, Susu, Pulaar, and Malinke), and this dude Tom Gallagher, a US Consul who was a member of the first Peace Corps group ever, commissioned in 1962 by JFK himself. He served in Ethiopia, and gave an amazing speech. After the speeches we all swore in, raising our hands and pledging to defend the Consitution and serve faithfully as PCVs here in Guinea. Then we all shook a lot of hands, got a lot of "felicitations," and headed for the buffet table, where they had croissants and--get this-- cold orange juice. Amazing.

So there's much much more to tell, of course: I am in Conakry for the weekend and head off to Boulliwel by way of Labe on Tuesday morning. On the 15th I will be officially installed at my village and will begin my service! These next few days are for shopping, R&R, prep for site, and familiarization with our not-so-beautiful capital city. I will try to get out another email in the vein of the last one I sent before I leave on Tuesday. But, more importantly, I am also putting up PICTURES! It takes forever here, but when I get a decent number uploaded I will send them out via snapfish. Then you can finally get to see a little slice of life here in crazy, noisy, smelly, beautiful Guinea.

More coming soon.

Much love,

P.S. When you send letters now, make sure to put Andrew Haile, PCV, not Andrew Haile, PCT. Bully for officiality (word?).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More on wiping and also, picking your nose

Friday 1/25/2008 via e-mail

Hello loved ones,
So I am now in Labe, the regional capital of the Fouta Djallon (time to break out the maps again!) (or, for the first time, as the case may be) (Kyle Closen), and have managed to steal an hour of internet time at a cybercafe here. The keyboard has the French layout and is super sticky, so please forgive any and all typos as I try to put some more coherent and intelligent thoughts together on life in Guinea. As you may have guessed, life here in Guinea daily contains wildly new experiences and cultural exchanges. I am going to attempt to speak briefly about a few important aspects of life here that are completely new to me:*POLYGAMY*So, you may not have heard, but here in Guinea it's totally cool to have more than one wife. In fact, if you are a well-respectedm, fairly well-to-do older Muslim man, and you only have one wife, many people will think there is something wrong with you. This has been a bit hard to swallow at first, as you might imagine. Most of it is linked to the fact that women and men here have much stricter gender roles than in the west... Very few of the women are well educated due to the fact that they often have to marry at 16, 17, 18, and then immediately start popping out babies. How can you go to school when you are married, have to get water from the well several times a day, make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for your husband and family, take care of the children, collect firewood for cooking, clean the house or hut... Right. Not possible. So women here are often treated as second-class citizens, which is at times painful to observe and be around. And one of the side-effects of that is that many men have two or more wives (but not more than four, because that's prohibited in the Koran). Which leads me to....*ISLAM*So there is obviously so much I could say about all this stuff, but Islam is another massively new slice of culture that I run across every day here. RIght now it is Friday afternoon, and thus most everything in Labe is closed because everyone is at the mosque praying. ******* In fact, I was kicked out of the cybercafe and told to come back at 15h30 because all the proprieters went to the mosque for prayer. Friday afternoon in Labe or Forecariah is like Sunday morning in Montgomery or Grensboro: Everyone gets dressed up and goes to there respective weekly communal religious service. As a follower of Christ, I have not encountered one bit of persecution or bigotry: only ignorance, really. Guineans are very tolerant, and very hospitable, and the type of Islam that is praacticed here is a far cry from that practiced in the Middle East, as far as I can tell. People pray five times a day, if they get around to it. But few have actually read the koran-- how could they when 1) many are illiterate and 2) all the koranic schools (which only boys go to, not girls) teach the koran only in arabic? Thus for the vast majority of Guineans, the daily practice of Islam is only another novel piece of cultural routine: they pray five times a day, reciting what their fathers taught them to say in arabic and doing the kneeling and touching-the-head-to-the-ground thing; they send their kids to koranic school because that's what they had to do when they were kids; they say "Alhamdililah" (praise be to Allah) when asked how their day is going because it is a simple way of answering a common greeting. This may be, of course, an oversimplification-- yet in my experience thus far it seems to ring true. I continue to pray, go to church in Forecariah, and openly confess my faith in Christ without anyone really batting an eye. One vivid picture for you: I generally try and read my Bible while eating breakfast, and my host father usually comes in and greets me ("bonjour, mon fils. Ca va? Vous avez bien dormi?") and then does his morning prayer. I read my Bible, he recites the Koran in arabic. Fascinating, and as you can imagine, deeply thought provoking in so many ways. More on this in the weeks to come. *FARM ANIMALS....EVERYWHERE*So on a lighter note, I was in Forecariah last week, and had lain down in my room to take a nap. I was juuuust on the brink of sleep (you know that wonderful feeling) when all of a sudden: BWAAAAAAA! A freaking goat bleated. Right outside my window. I muttered something innappropriate, turned over, and was juuuust about to fall asleep again, when: BWAAAAAAAA! Ahhh, goats. Ahh, Guinea. So there's animals everywhere: Chickens, sheep, goats, cows... You name it. They just wander around, in and out of people's property, but considering there are no real distinctions here as far as property lines, or yards, or things like that, I guess that last comment doesn't make much sense. Anyway, they're everywhere: in houses, in schools, in latrines, etc. I am particularly struck by the utter laziness of the rooster: it seriously does nothing all day but impregnate chickens and crow, VERY VERY LOUDLY, at ALL hours of the day. No, not just at the crack of dawn, and not just once. THat is a myth. Oh that it were true! It would make naps and pular class go much easier. But alas. Anyway, the point is, tons of animals. *SEVERAL ASPECTS OF GUINEAN CULTURE THAT I REALLY ENJOY:*--People pick their noses in public all the time. It's completely normal here to be talking with someone in public, face to face, and BAM!-- they just dig right up in there and pull out a crusty one. It could be a mom, a dad, an old dude, the village Imam: you name it, they pick it. Even in important meetings. So of course, I have joined in with gusto. First time meeting my village mayor? Picked it. Right before shaking hands with my health center director? Picked it. Good stuff. :)--Guinean dudes touch each other a lot. Don't worry, not in any inappropriate ways, but they like to hold hands in public and grab each other's arms and things like that. Of course, me being a touch-friendly person, I have joined in with gusto. Hold my hand, Amadou Alpha Diallo-- go for it. Papa Toure wants to go for a kiss on the cheek? Well,. that one's a little weird but I'll suffer through. I haven't tried the butt-pat on a Guinean yet but i think it;s coming soon. Well guys, that is all I have time for for now. I had a seriously amazing site visit and am excited about the prospect of being a semi-permanent member of the community of Bouliwell. We are leaving Labe to go back to Forecariah for our last two weeks of training tomorrow, and then, after a week of prep in COnakry and Labe, I'll be officially "installed" at my site in Bouliwell on the 15th of February. I promise I will do my absolute best to get some pictures up for you when I have some down time in Conakry. You gotta see it to believe it, for real.
Til the next time,
Lots of love,
P.S. Mom, Dad, and Rene, could we try and have a phone date on Sunday night? This past Sunday I was at site with pas beaucoup de reseau. P.P.S. I was serious about the ole phone dealy: 011-224-64-53-14-00... I should try and keep my phone on in evenings around Forecariah.... Gimme a ring!