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,