My first two weeks at site have been conquered. Every day has been interesting and surprisingly busy. I’m still learning who people are, who’s related to who, and who’s in charge of what. I’m afraid that’s going to take a long time to tackle. I’ve also been lost a few times… but the extra bike mileage is bonne pour la sante, ka? I know I’ve halfway described my village before, but let me try again.
Koba is not quite a city and not quite a village — it’s big enough to have a nice road and mostly everything I could want, but not so big that it feels cold and fast-paced like cities tend to. We’re real Basse Guinea out here — low, flat plains lining the coast. Humid, tropical climate with the ocean breeze cutting the heat. Palm trees everywhere you look. Overwhelmingly green surroundings — and this is during the dry season. Koba proper is 35 kilometers long and is separated into districts and small villages. Koba Bassengue, where I call home, is 5 kilometers from the port that marks the end of Koba. The port is a bustling center of commerce. Boutiques line the road offering all sorts of services — telecharging, hair cuts, odds and ends, rice and sauce. A swarm of young men and motocycles constantly circle the area searching for someone to taxi off. Cars drive in and out filled to the brim with people, animals, and goods heading to various destinations… maybe a far off district of Koba, maybe the next biggest town where they will find another taxi to continue their destination. At the mouth of the water, boats come and go, loading and unloading their haul. A line of men can constantly be seen picking through fish nets, collecting the catch and sending it off to either the market or the large buildings where fish are dried. And through this all children are running around, friends and family members are greeting one another, and I stand out like a sore thumb as people wonder just who I am and why I am here.
As I said, these two weeks have been busy. My counterpart is extremely motivated and has created a full schedule for me. I’ve been given an office in the Commune Rural, which is kind of like a town hall. For example, my office is right next to the Mayor’s. It’s really flattering and telling of the respect my town already has for me. The office is about a 10 minute bike ride from my house. Every morning, I leave my house at 8:30am and greet every person I see along the way. At the office, Mangue (my counterpart) has been working on a detailed map of Koba for me and the distances between all the sectors. He is a trained architect and his skills are showing — the map is stunningly detailed and well made. While he works on that, I translate sentences I’d like to ask people from English to French and have Mangue check them over. I need corrections less and less!
We have been going around to meet the various important members of Koba. Because Koba is so big, there’s a lot of ’em. Sometimes people come to the Commune Rural for meetings but mostly Mangue and I go out to them — him on his moto and me huffing along on the bike. I have visited gardening collectives, fish drying collectives, imams, the Sous-Prefet, and the Mayor. These morning excursions are usually finished by 12:00pm. I bike home in the full severity of the West African sun, search for the key that I always seem to lose, peel off my sweat-covered clothes, and proceed to lay on my floor. Sometimes I take a nap, sometimes I read. When my body temperature has returned to normal I head outside and hang out with my host family. To both kill the time and butter them up, I help with practically everything — preparing food, washing clothes, fetching water. Do you know how to tell when palm fruits are ripe? When they fall out of the pod without much effort. How about kola nuts? When they are covered with a fine reddish brown powder. Just how many bidons can you carry back home from the well? 2; farmer walk with clenched abs. How do you wash a child? Forcefully. These are the things you learn in Koba down time.
At 5:00pm, I go to work at Mangue’s garden. He’s got a vast family-run operation back there. And “there” really refers to a slice of Paradise. As I walk through the beds, the rich black soil oozes between my toes, egrets watch me from a far, childen climb trees and laugh and I see the true beauty of the world. He mainly grows peppers, tomato, and corn but we just planted the seeds I was mailed from USA (shout-out to my awesome step-dad, Mike!) and some I took from the Peace Corps seed bank in Boke. In total — broccoli, basil, lettuce, spinach, cilantro, oregano, thyme and chives. They were all planted on 15/2 and as of 20/2 the broccoli, spinach, and thyme have sprouted. God willing, I will get to eat broccoli out in the bush. Mangue is extremely excited to get a taste of USA and said we will name the vegetable that comes “M’mah Camara”. We work hard in the garden. Every night I fall to bed, exhausted, by 9:00pm. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding. There is a lot of space and we hope to create irrigation canals so we can use all of the land come rainy season when it usually floods. We also have plans to create more beds to grow watermelon, various squash species, and pineapple. This is all very exciting to me because the only vegetable offerings here are pepper, onion, eggplant, corn, and tomato. I’m hoping to introduce some variety here. The soil and climate is extremely rich so I think we may have some luck. On va voir.
Next week I am going to start going to the gardening collectives during their assigned days of work and helping out. I am supposed to spend my first three months at Koba performing a community needs assessment. That really boils down to getting to know everyone, figuring out what the hell is going on, and how I can attempt to improve it. The only way to properaly accomplish all that is to get out there and get dirty. People are slowly starting to recognize me, but it’s a full-time job convincing the kids of Koba that my name isn’t Fote (foreigner), Salimatou (the towns 1st PCV), Aminata (the towns 2nd PCV), or Kadiatou (my site mate). I’m sure that’ll be a long struggle because all Fote’s look the same (that’s a blague). I have been hearing a few M’mah Camara’s, which warms the soul and is warranted considering I greet (a 5-6 phrase process in Susu) literally everyone I see on the streets. I’m going to come back to America frendlier than ever.
I’m settling in well. I love meeting new people and I’m having fun exploring. Its absolutely beautiful here. Yesterday I biked back the long way from a meeting at a garden — instead of taking the main paved road through the town, I biked across the rice fields to the beach and took a dirt path along the ocean home. Everywhere I look is a new slice of beauty waiting to be discovered. I’m happy, stronger mentally and physically than I’ve ever been, and really flourishing. I also feel more spiritually connected to the world than I ever have. I have plans to explore the beach, the nearby island town, the palm plantations, my neighboring sectors — it all! I’m working on unpacking, thinking about buying paint for murals inside my house, and constantly bugging the local carpenter to finish the shelves I ordered.
If anyone has any inkling of a desire to visit and my descriptions weren’t enough to draw you in, I should mention there’s a lakefront resort waiting for you here. Did I mention I live in Paradise?
A la prochaine. Thinking of you all often.