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.


Sam Diener said...

Hey - I am giving you some link cred. You are going to probably get a lot of hits.

Anonymous said...

haha...your post is interesting, and i think this butt-washing business happens in all Islamic countries. I think the procedure varies, with some first of all hosing down and then wiping off and finally washing their hands

Anonymous said...

In Iran in the out in the country side away from homes or buildings, if there is no water to wash their left hand they will often lick it off, and some have become to like the taste.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Guinea coments..

Iran commenter: You Stupid, In Iran, they rub their bottoms on the ground or sand to wipe as much as possible not lick it like you do.