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