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


Jan said...

Well, I see this was posted by Donna and yet the picture seems to be of Andrew, so I'm confused.

But whoever, this is a magnificent post. I have been reading Naipal and Thoureax (sp?), two of the best, and this ranks right up there in detail and pacing and voice and characterization. All of which are nothing compared to the content.

And the content suggests--what? That the reason that terrorism might gain a foothold--a greater foothold, for clearly it has some foothold already in this most unlikely place-- has way more to do with the mining going on, that tempted his two senior administrators, than with Andrew's sincere efforts to help.

Our world is split up so strangely. It puts good people on a rack that surely rivals any ever used in medieval times. Why can't there be a third way, where profits, earnings, wages, are subject to the common good? In other words, why can't we mine with the same standards we elevate in the Peace Corps? Maintain private ownership but be ever so much stricter in the implementation? Surely this is part of the reason for the toleration of terrorism? Or is it only that Andrew's villagers and Ossama share the name Muslim?

Charlener said...

Greetings from a fellow Volunteer in Mongolia!

We're having similar issues related to the budget but we haven't lost anyone yet due to a better job elsewhere, thankfully. Mostly it's been pretty hefty training cuts, which worries me due to the the difficulty of the language...

Anywho, some of us Volunteers are advocating for more funding - there's a facebook group/cause as well as this site we've set up. Maybe you'd be interested in participating, too, as it's starting to sound like we're all getting hit pretty hard by these cuts...The site is Fund Peace Corps