November 26, 2008

America, exotic disease, and goats

Well, another month gone by and here I am again. The month's been a bit up and down for me. At the beginning I was having a good time just being back at site after my last trip to Kankan. When I tried to come back after last month's trip I ended up not being able to get a ride and was stuck in the city for a few days. Being stuck like that with nothing to do made me antsy to leave and it was a really nice feeling coming back to site after being gone. My village definitely feels like home now.

On top of that I got a bit of a hero's welcome on my return because everyone in my village was celebrating Obama's win. There was much tea drinking and it was generally agreed that the U.S. is the greatest democracy in the world. It's funny, I often get the feeling that Guineans love my country more than I do. Although I must admit that I'm getting more in the patriotic spirit with Obama taking the reigns. It'll be interesting to see how he fares in the face of such overwhelming (and probably impossibly high) expectations. It's quite a time to be an American abroad, especially in Africa.

As I said though the month wasn't all good and towards the end I started getting a bit down. It was mainly due to a bought of some flu-like illness that left me incapacitated in my hut for a week with a fever and severe fatigue. To make matters worse I felt guilty the entire time because I was missing so much school and I'd already missed some this month when I was stuck in Kankan sans ride. Although when I voiced my concerns to the principal he just laughed it off saying "Don't worry, health above all!"

With me out of the running the school was pretty low on teachers. Before the school year started the principal held a meeting with us to voice his concern over the lack of teachers at our school this year. Although there were 6 different classes at the school at that moment we only had 5 teachers. He had appealed to the head of education for our region to send more teachers and he told us that soon we'd hopefully be getting some more.

Well, as it turns out, they didn't exactly heed his call. In fact the only course of action they took was to transfer the only other math teacher away from our school. After the principal made an attempt to deal with that by teaching some classes himself we had some more bad news.

A few weeks ago I was sitting around with my family at dusk when somebody ran into our courtyard to tell us that something had happened to the French teacher and we should come quick to the health center. All I was able to catch was that it was something serious involving a gun. When we got there I found that the staff was removing the remnants of pieces of a revolver that had exploded while he was out hunting and lodged itself in his right hand. I saw all of this as I walked up to the health center since the staff were doing all of this basically with his hand hanging out the front window. It was the only part of the center at that hour that had enough light falling on it to do the procedure. Although I can assure you that the man was suitably vocal about his discomfort to have alerted me to what was going on had I not seen it.

Although he'll be ok with a lot of rest and recuperation it still left our school down another teacher for the moment. So already by the time I got sick we were operating with only 3 teachers and the principal meaning that each period there were two classes of students who were left to entertain themselves without supervision. As far as I can tell their favorite past time during this free time is congregating outside my classroom having contests of who can yell louder. Let me just say there are a lot of strong contestants. I can only imagine the chaos that must have been ensuing at the school in my absence with half the students free to do as they pleased at any given time. But hey, health above all.

Being cooped up in my hut all week worrying about the state of affairs at the school was, to say the least a bit of a downer. Especially lacking the energy to go for a stroll and collect my thoughts. Usually, in my free time I like to walk around my village thinking or talking with friends. It's nice to just take in the sites and everyone's always happy to see me and greet me as I walk by. Apparently this constant aimless strolling is a bit unusual as far as Guineans are concerned.

My behavior has caused one guy that I often walk past to give me a nickname reflective of my new found hobby, Sofé bah. It means the wandering goat (bah being the rather logical name for goat in Malinké). There's a constant stream of goats that roam the streets here eating whatever is in the path, earning their share of thrown rocks and shouting as they get into people's dinners. I've been fortunate to avoid the rocks and angry outbursts so far but apparently my habitual walking is more goat like than human in this neck of the woods and the name seems to have stuck for the time being. Although only with a few guys, most people I pass on my walks still prefer to call me by the nickname I've had since I got here, white man.


November 1, 2008

How Da Business? Fine Fine.

Happy belated Halloween everyone!

I’m in Kan Kan for a few days to relax with some of the other volunteers so I’ve got some time to post here. Sorry for the lack of updates but I’ve been at site for the last month and obviously there’s no internet there. Get used to it, I live in an African village. C’est la vie.

It’s been quite a month. My village is really remote, even by Guinean standards. So I haven’t had any contact with other Americans for the entire month. As you can imagine, that can be quite a plateful at times.

The actual day to day happenings of life are pretty uneventful for the moment. School only started 3 days ago so I’ve spent the majority of the month just trying to get to know my community. Almost nobody there speaks French so I’m having to start all over again with the language learning process, this time with Malinke which is a local language spoken here. There’s no lack of people who want to help me practice, which is great, but there are definitely times when I just want someone who will speak to me in French so I can have a real conversation.

When I’m not wandering around my village trying to blunder my way through a usually nonsensical interaction in Malinke I’m usually spending time reading or with my host family. Activities with them involve eating toh (corn paste served with dipping sauce), teaching me Malinke, eating more toh, and asking me if the things we have here can be found in the U.S. (yes we do have the moon and stars back home). Did I mention we eat a lot of toh?

Tea drinking is also a huge pastime here. Wherever you go in the village you find tons of groups of men sitting around with little charcoal stoves boiling tea. The process of making/drinking the tea takes hours and it’s really more of a way for people to socialize than anything else. The socialization aspect of it is nice but I’m still getting used to the tea itself. It’s made with a really bitter green tea which they then load up with an unbelievable amount of sugar. The result is quite, umm…. sweet, to say the least. As the honorary guest at any gathering I always get the first and biggest cup of tea. Lucky me.

Slowly, the more I get used to my community and venture around further I’m starting to find the little secrets that I missed when I first got here. The market lady who makes awesome peanut butter cookies. Or the goat meat salesmen at night who grills delicious kabobs on an old oil barrel. Or the perfect time to show up at the bakery to get the fresh baked baguettes right out of the brick oven, mmmmm. I’ve also started to explore the surrounding area. There are plenty of paths and hills around here to check out. It’s a good place to go for a hike. Although you always have to be wary of snakes and scorpions.

So I guess you could say I’m slowly figuring out my new life here. The language, the people, the customs. Little by little it’s coming to me. It’s not always easy (in fact I’d say it’s pretty much never easy) but it’s definitely been interesting so far.

I’ll leave you with a little story from one of my first weeks at site, before everyone there knew there was a white guy in town. I was lying under the mango tree in the middle of my family’s concession one night when a man walked through on his way home. In the dark, only sensing that there was someone there and not knowing who I was he gave me a polite “I ni wura” (good evening) and kept going. When I responded in my obvious American accent he stopped, did a double take, and came up to me. “Eh! Tubabu! (White person.)” he said excitedly. “What’s the matter? Are you lost?”

I sat up and looked around at the rows of huts and my African family sitting with me. I listened to the drumming coming from the shortwave radio. I thought of the fact that the closest American was 5 hours away and that it was pretty much impossible for anyone I know to contact me. I shrugged, “I guess so.” He smiled and told me over his shoulder as he walked away “Have courage.” As he disappeared down the path I settled back down against the tree. Have courage indeed.