Finding the Beauty Amongst the Ugliness

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Guinea can be ugly. I’m not even talking the trash everywhere and open sewer system in the city. Life here is harsh and can corrode your soul if you let it. Last week, the chef de classe (the leader of the students) of my 12th graders passed away. He was bright, positive, funny, and motivated. He died in a motorcycle accident. Almost 100% of the girls here are excised. Potential futures are robbed daily by malnutrition, lack of employment, and lack of opportunity.

But I see the beauty. I see Ismael, a 19 year old orphan who reads novels in English and wants to be a doctor. I see Saliou, a 12th grader who will spend his summer not on vacation but instead running a small boutique. I see the Guineans who participated in our recent “Youth Entrepreneurship Training Program” Training of Trainers, who are jumping at the bit to get back to their homes and start teaching their fellow citizens business skills. I see the students at the high school, who flock around me begging to work with them on their English skills so they can be more employable. I see my host sister kissing her daughter and teaching her how to cook rice. I see the fat, giggling cheeks of the baby I sit next to in the taxi ride to Conakry. I see the entire community joyously dancing and singing at a baptism. I see friends and family members unite and help each other in any time of need. I see the beaches, the palm trees, the rolling mountains, the flat deserts.

Life here is harsh, but that doesn’t negate happiness.

Beauty and happiness are everywhere, if you only open your eyes.

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You’re Official Now, Kid: In-Service Training is Finished

Well – it’s official. I’m done my in-service training. I’m an “official” volunteer now, ready to start projects and make a difference in my community. But, I thought I became “official” after pre-service training? And didn’t someone tell me I was “official” when I stepped off the plane in Guinea? Didn’t they say we were “official” when we met for staging in Philadelphia? When does one become an “official” volunteer? Better yet, what is an “official” volunteer?

My group of 32 stellar folks has finished our 3 months of site evaluation and 2 weeks of training. We’re now trained in grants, monitoring and evaluation, project design and management and a variety of technical skills. We’re supposed to hit the ground running and ~save the world~, right?

Well, sort of.

For the rest of our time here in Guinea, everything we do is in our hands. We’ve got no boss breathing down our backs to get the report turned in by the deadline. Imagine yourself in our shoes for a second –foreign, grappling with language, working with minimum resources. Everything around you is different. Many people don’t believe you can accomplish anything. Maybe you don’t even believe in yourself.

The problems sometimes seem awfully big, while we seem awfully small.

But we persist. To me, an official Peace Corps volunteer is someone who has committed. We have chosen to be here and we actively choose to remain here. Although our days may pass slowly and we may not always seem busy (in the American workforce sense), we are working 24/7. Peace Corps has three goals within it’s mission:

  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

Living with a host family, making friends with people of all ages, walking through the market and talking to the women selling – viola! Goal 2! This blog post? Letters back home? Facebook interactions? Phone calls? Viola! Goal 3! And as for Goal 1? We work within the context we have been given. Some of us visit gardening collectives, some of us visit health centers, some of us teach in schools. When we gather for events we share our successes and failures and we think of ways to adapt them for our sites. We google for new ideas. We read dozens of text books. We try our hardest; we work with what we know and we learn what we do not. That is what an official Peace Corps volunteer does.

The Shocking Differences Seen In a Country the Size of Oregon

This morning I left my site by bush taxi to get to Conakry. With all of our baggage strapped to the roof, we were a packed car. Our chaffeur and a little girl took the driver’s seat, two grown men sat in the passenger’s seat and 4 adults and 3 children snuggled up in the backseat. And a live cow in the trunk. A normal day in Guinea transport.

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Later that same night I visited members of my host-family who had left Koba and moved to Conakry. They turned on the generator for me and we sat under fans on a leather sofa and watched hip hop music videos on a TV nicer than my own back home. Their smart phones and iron charged while we chatted over the hum of the generator and the fans.Image 

Africa is funny.

World Malaria Day Soccer Match in Fria

Last weekend was World Malaria Day. 18 volunteers from the Basse Cote region headed to Fria — a large mining town north of Conakry. A 2nd year education volunteer stationed in Fria organized our malaria education filled weekend. Friday we would be hitting the field and, to much amusement, play in a soccer game pitting American volunteers against Guinean high school students. Saturday we would spend at the town’s youth center holding a malaria fair.

We arrived in Fria, our team spirit building and our confidence rising. A hodge-podge group of Americans, in less than perfect shape (*ahem* myself), some with no prior soccer experience (does 10th grade gym class count?) — how could we possibly lose against 21 year old Guineans who spend hours every day playing soccer? We got this, right?

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OK, so we knew we were going to lose. We did manage to lose a respectable 4-3.

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But the point of these events is to leverage the crowd that will inevitably be drawn in and shift the attention to malaria education. Throughout the game and during half-time, we dispelled myths about malaria (No, it is not caused by mangoes) and promoted the use of mosquito nets. The next day at the malaria fair, a group of students from Fria performed a play about the importance of sleeping under mosquito nets. My favorite line from the show was a young boy playing an elderly man resistant to changing his ways — “Il faut utiliser une moustiquaire — Mousti-quoi???” We also had people sign a banner to pledge to sleep under their nets, along with trivia, Q&A, and a mosquito net washing and repair station. It was a really successful event. We made asses out of ourselves in the name of a good cause and were able to spread malaria education to 300+ people.

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Malaria affects 100% of Guinea’s population. In 2013, there was a free country-wide distribution of mosquito nets. Since the nets have already been handed out, PCV’s and NGO’s are now focusing on encouraging and determining actual usage. Last week I had the opportunity to go house to house in Koba with members of an NGO working on the reports of net utilization. We went to every house in Mankoura, a small fishing district of Koba located along the ocean. 95% of the houses had the nets set up — very encouraging. Still, there are many Guineans who refuse to sleep under the net because it’s too hot, or they don’t like the way it looks, or they think it will get them sick. Change is hard for humans, but using a bed net is the kind of change that can save lives. The change that can eradicate the very disease that kills so many of our fellow humans.

I’ve been told by several Guineans that Fria is called “Petit Paris” and one weekend there explains it all. There is a large mine located there and the town has excellent infrastructure — roads, sidewalks, streetlights, and even 3 highrise apartment buildings with 24/7 electricity. The mine stopped functioning 2 years ago, and when I mentioned how beautiful Fria was the Guineans in ear-shot scoffed at me and said I should have seen it before. That the town is in decline now. The people of Fria remain hopeful that the mine will reopen. Insh’a allah.

The one bad thing to come out of my time in Fria was a knee sprain. I’ve been known to be… competitive. Perhaps agressively competitive. I was fielding left-mid, going after the ball, pretending like I know how to play soccer, when I slammed into my opposing player and felt a sickening internal pop and dropped to the ground. Unable to walk. It was about in that instant that I decided soccer maybe isn’t for me. Luckily, Fria is one of the few places in Guinea where you can reliably get ice! I picked a good place for a sprain. The past week I’ve been back home in Koba on a strict R.I.C.E. diet — rice, Ibuprofen, compression, elevation. Accompanied by lots of actual rice, of course. 3 meals a day! The Guinean idea of how to treat a sprain involves rapidly jamming things around and forcing the injury into position. I think my family thought I was being lazy because I refused to let them “massage” me (read: jerk my leg around and rub mint oil on it) and instead chose to rest, but after a week of R.I.C.E. (I’m holding back so many rice jokes…) it’s feeling better and the doctor says I’m on the right track to healing.

I’m writing to you all from Conakry. I leave Sunday for 2.5 weeks in Mamou, a large city in the Fouta. We will be staying at a school/hostel there and holding the In-Service Training for my stage. This will be the first time in 3 months we have all been together! We will discuss our sites, our problems and solutions, work on local language, and augment the training we received in Dubreka. Immediately after that I am attending another training at the same location — the West African Wide Youth Entrepreneurship Training Program. I’m excited to reunite with all 31 members of my stage and all of our local staff. I’m excited to escape the heat of Koba — Mamou is in the mountains and is significantly cooler due to the elevation. I’m excited to come back to the rains! Everyone keeps telling me the rainy season begins on May 15…we’ll see how accurate that is. I’m excited to learn from our staff and my fellow PCVs.

5 months in country — done! And it flew by. Here’s to the next 5 passing as smoothly.