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!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Wiping your Butt in Guinea (or why they eat with their right hand)

Hello loved ones,

So there's a Guinean cultural tidbit I would like to share with you all: Most Guineans do not know what toilet paper is. I had a roll of TP in my hand at my host family house (having just finished some business), and my cousin saw it and legitimately had never seen something like it before in his life. I explained, slowly, what one generally does with toilet paper. It was a nice little cultural exchange, to be honest.

Yet of course this leaves you asking the question:
"How do Guineans wipe their butts?"

Or perhaps,
"Do they wipe at all?"

The answer, my friends, is yes. But not with TP, of course. With their left hands.

"What?!" You may interject.


Those were my first reactions as well. But no, it's true: Guineans wipe with their left hands. After that, they pour water on their hands to get off any visible residue. But the problem often arises that nobody uses soap. Some problems, as you might imagine, can arise from this practice. This might be one of the main reasons that so many people get sick here, for instance!

Another side effect of this practice is this: in Guinean culture, the right hand is the public hand. You greet people with the right hand, you touch things with the right hand, you eat with the right hand (straight out of the bowl, usually; no utensils!). The left hand is the private hand. You don't greet people with the left hand, you don't touch things with the left hand, and you definitely, definitely, don't eat with the left hand.

All this leads me to an interesting anecdote. Last night, all the current Peace Corps trainees arrived in Mamou, a decent-sized city in the south of the Fouta Djallon, for our counterpart workshop and the preparation for our upcoming site visits. This is a pretty big deal: this is our first chance to meet the Guineans we will be working closely with for the next two years and on Sunday, our first chance to see where we will be living for 2 years! Woohoo!

Yet I digress. Last night, I was sitting at a table, having just finished a delicious dinenr of meat and potatoes. I was sitting next to my good friend Adam Johnson (aka Sidiki Djoubate), another PC trainee, and several Guineans. A kind man cleared my plate for me, yet soon after that, I realized that there was more food to be eaten and that I still had some room. So of course, not one to turn down food, I started eating, with my hands, off Sidiki's plate. It was great! I laughed and told the Guineans at the table that I was integrating, and eating like Guineans do. I was actually pretty proud of myself.

I ate a couple more potatoes-- with my hand-- and didn't think much of it until I looked up, and noticed that the Guinean woman across from me had a horrified look. I looked down, a little self-conscious, and suddenly it came to me: I was eating with my LEFT HAND. Oh no! In the midst of my self-satisfied feeling of integration, I had unwittingly committed one of the worst cultural faux pas. Balls.

I couldn't help but crack up, to be honest. I have not gotten so integrated as to give up my TP, so I wasn't worried that my food would be infected with poop residue. Yet I quickly made sure to lick my fingers (further horrifying my Guinean tablemate, I imagine) and change hands. Sidiki was dying, in the meantime, yet I wasn't fazed-- there was still meat to be eaten.

Amidst all this you might ask, "Andrew, it's been weeks since we've heard from you-- what the heck is up? What are you up to?" And a million other questions.

Briefly, training is going great. I have been assigned my future site: a village called Bouliwel, located not far from Mamou in the Fouta Djallon. It is a smallish village of around 3000, with a health center where I will be working. I am growing much closer with my PC trainee group and have gotten really close with my host family, the Toures. The facility where we are having our counterpart workshop here in Mamou is really nice, by Guinean standards, and they have a couple computers with internet, so I hopped on and thought I would shoot off a quick email.

I have gotten a bunch of letters, which I am so thankful for! Seriously! Please be patient with me as I try to respond well to all of you. There isn't really a post office in Forecariah, so I really need to either go to Conakry to send out mail or give someone who's going there a letter to mail. I must mention, as well, that it is about 10 times cooler getting letters here than in the States! Any news from home is just devoured by all of us.

Please keep me in your prayers as Sunday I head to Bouliwel for the first time. It is exciting (and of course a little scary) to think I will be seeing my home for the next two years!

There is so, so, so, much more I could write, but the line for the computers is (as expected) out the door, so I will end here. I love all you guys and thank you for all your love and support 8000 miles away.

Much love,
As always,

P.S. I have a cell phone now. My number is 64-53-14-00, and the Guinea country code is 224. (I think) I really can't call home (the price is astronomical), but if you call through Skype the rate is pretty decent: we can talk for and hour for like 10 bucks. So gimme a call! Suh-weet.