May 17, 2008

Presenting... Guinea!

The Peace Corps has three goals that form the basis for all of the work the organization does around the world:

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

In the interest of the third goal and to give everyone a better understanding of what my life will be like while I serve, I’m going to give a little information about Guinea and what I will be doing there. Most of my info is coming from the Peace Corps welcome pack, the CIA factbook, or Wikipedia (yay Wikipedia!).

Guinea is a country in West Africa. In 1958 it became the first French African colony to gain its independence at which point Sekou Touré became Guinea’s first president. Following the death of Touré in 1984 General Lansana Conté took over as head of the Guinean state via a military coup. Conté has served as president of Guinea since 1993 when the country held its first democratic elections.

In recent history there have been various protests and strikes against the policies of Conté and his government. These strikes have been spurred by many issues such as government firings, appointees, and the rising cost of living due to increased fuel and food costs. At the beginning of 2007, in response to protest related violence, Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers from Guinea for a period of six months. Things seem to have calmed down considerably since then but there is still ongoing talk of strikes and government protests.

Roughly the size of Oregon, Guinea has a population of about ten million people, two million of which live in the capital city, Conakry. The officially language is French but many other local languages are spoken in the country such as Malinke, Susu, and Pular. 85% of the population is Muslim, 8% is Christian, and 7% practice indigenous beliefs.

Guinea is a notoriously wet country. The Niger river, the third longest river in Africa and the principal river in West Africa, originates in the Guinean highlands. The country’s terrain is pretty varied. It includes four distinct regions of coastline, mountains, savannahs, and rainforest/jungle. There are two seasons in Guinea, a rainy season from June to November and a dry season from December to May.

One of the poorest nations in the world, Guinea has a GDP per capita of $2,100 which places it 209th out of the 229 countries listed in the CIA factbook. 47% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line.

Guinea’s economy is mostly centered around agriculture and mining. The main export of Guinea is bauxite, accounting for about 80% of its international trade. Bauxite is a general term referring to a rock composed of hydrated aluminum oxides. 99% of metallic aluminum is produced from bauxite which makes the ore a practical prerequisite for anyone trying to manufacture aluminum. Guinea contains about ½ of the world’s bauxite reserves. Other leading exports include coffee, bananas, palm kernels, and pineapples.

While Guinea has a much lower occurrence of HIV/AIDS than a number of other African countries the World Health Organization declared in 2005 that Guinea was facing a generalized epidemic. 1.7% of the population is HIV positive. In the U.S. only 0.3% of the population is HIV positive.

I will be serving in Guinea teaching math to students between 7th and 10th grade. I’ll be teaching any number of the following subjects: algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. My class sizes can range from 25 to 100 students with the average class size being 40. I will be assigned to a school located in a village or small town. I won’t find out where until I begin training and the Peace Corps staff can determine where they want to place me.

I’m leaving for orientation in Philadelphia on July 7th and will be arriving in Guinea on July 10th. July 10th through September 27th consists of pre-service training which covers things like technical, language, health, and cultural training. During PST I’ll be living with a Guinean host family. Housing at my site is provided by the local community and is different from site to site. It could be anything from a one room hut, to a communal living arrangement, to my own house. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Ok well that was a lot of information but at least now you guys have some idea of where I’ll be for two years. After all that, I’ll leave you with two facts I stole from my friend, Lecesse’s, blog which I thought were pretty interesting.

The Peace Corps uses less money a year than the U.S. government spends on coffee for the army. Also, the Peace Corps uses less money a year than the cost of half of one day of war in Iraq. Obviously the military and the Peace Corps are two completely different organizations and it doesn’t really make sense to directly compare their expenditures but I still think it’s worth mentioning. War is expensive and there are many better things we can spend our money on.


May 5, 2008

Why Peace Corps?

My decision to apply for the Peace Corps probably caught a lot of people by surprise and I’ve gotten tons of questions as to what my motivations for wanting to serve are. It seems like this question always comes up at weird times and I never really know how to answer it. I mean how can I condense my reasons for wanting to spend two years volunteering abroad into a quick blurb that I can tell people at parties? Whenever I’ve tried to do so I’ve just felt disappointed with my inadequacy to accurately explain myself. So for my inaugural blog entry I’ve decided to try and put the speculation to rest and explain my reasons for joining the Peace Corps as best I can. Keep in mind that I doubt I could ever offer a complete understanding of all my reasons for wanting to become a PCV so bare with me and, as always, take what I say with a grain of salt.

It probably comes as no surprise that a main motivation of mine for wanting to serve is a desire to help others. It’s a sad fact that there is an enormous gap in the quality of life enjoyed by the worlds richest and poorest nations. Being lucky enough to live in the U.S. middle class means that I’m never going to have to worry about many of the foremost concerns that accompany life in the developing world.

I’ve been able to get a quality education at very little cost. I have ready access to medical services that allow me to live my life unhindered by illness. I’ll never go hungry. I live in a house equipped with electricity, heat, and running water. It’s no secret that the things I’ve just listed are beyond the reach of many people in the world. It bothers me that we allow this gap between the rich and the poor to exist without giving it much thought.

Our society is built on moving forward. As a people we’re constantly inventing, discovering, and exploring. These things help us improve ourselves and our quality of life. Being mindful of how we can advance our society is obviously important, but in my opinion, paramount to moving forward is ensuring that we leave no one behind. That’s exactly what we’re doing when we stand by while so many people lack so much.

I imagine there was a time when it was acceptable to focus merely on our own problems. When travel was slow and communication was limited it probably made sense to think of the world as a collection of isolated nations who had only to think of themselves. But today this is not the case. Countries can communicate with each other at a moment’s notice and we can be almost anywhere in the world in less than twenty four hours.

As the concept of globalization surfaces again and again in our popular conscience we need to realize that it means more than simply merging the world’s economies or connecting the world’s people. As we continue to become more global we must also begin sharing the world’s problems. Because in a truly global society the world’s problems are our own and by neglecting any part of the world we are neglecting a part of ourselves.

Ok, since I’m beginning to feel the rolling of many eyes through my computer screen I’m going to step down off my ideological soap box now. I’m obviously no saint and my decision to join the Peace Corps was as self motivated as it was otherwise. I hope to get a lot out of this experience and I’ve heard from many people that volunteers often come away from their service feeling like they’ve gotten more from their time abroad than the people they went to help.

In a lot of ways this makes sense to me. My primary assignment is fairly rigid, I’m going to teach math to 7th through 10th graders in Guinea for two years. While I’ll be taking on secondary projects during my time of service my main focus will be on educating my students. It’s a great assignment to have and I’m happy and excited to start working in my future community. However, I expect the things I’ll learn from Guinean culture and the people I interact with will far surpass anything I could teach in the classroom.

There are tangible things that I’ll gain as a PCV such as fluency in a new language or skills as an educator that drew me towards service. Things like this are a plus and they’ll look good on my résumé when I return home, but I think the thing that attracted me most to the Peace Corps won’t fit nicely on a piece of paper. More so than anything else I was seeking out an adventure.

People who knew me well before I decided to serve may not have known I was thinking about joining the Peace Corps, but they certainly knew I didn’t want to graduate and immediately start on a career path. I’ve always tried to be experience driven in my life. I want to go places, I want to meet people, I want to see the world. I find the idea of being tied down to a job directly out of school to be completely antithetical to those goals. Instead, I want an adventure, and Peace Corps is a great way for me to find one.

Well, I think that’s about the best I can do to illuminate my motivations for wanting to be a PCV. Hopefully I’ve made my choice a little clearer to everybody out there. If nothing else I’ve found it helpful to write this. It gave me a chance to reflect on my reasons for serving and to clarify to myself why I was undertaking this entire experience.

Once I get motivated I’ll put up a little information about Guinea (not New Guinea!) to help give everyone an idea of where I’ll be living for twenty seven months. Until then be good and keep checking back for updates.