Double-take: What’s in a Photograph?

I remember quite clearly how these two photos came to be. I had pulled my camera out, which always led to a flurry of excitement. Every child screaming at me to have their picture taken — a sort of reverse paparazzi. If I wanted to take a picture of something or someone, I had to prepare for a 30 minute riot with the whole family demanding another pose.

So, I had wanted a photograph of one thing or another and my camera was out. The kids were circling. These photos were taken at the beginning of my training so my French was limited and my Susu non-existant. I managed to explain to them through a combination of movement, basic words, and guttural noises to group together and smile and stay still long enough for me to get a good photograph. Immediately after hearing the shutter click they would run towards me and demand to see it.


I saw the first photograph on my camera screen — dissatisfaction. I changed a setting, turned the flash on, hounded the kids back together and made them pose for another one. I glanced at the screen again — satisfied. I had finally gotten them to hold still which, to be honest, was quite a monumental task.

We passed the camera around, everyone happy to see their face on the tiny LCD screen. They demanded more photographs, I obliged, and eventually the camera was put to bed for the evening. We went on with our night and our lives. I completed training, I moved out of this family’s house and into my village, I lived there for six months, I was evacuated, and now I have been home for almost 3 full months.

Now when I look at these two photographs they are incomparable. The first photograph, the one that seemed flawed at the time, the one I almost deleted immediately but by some chance left on my memory card, this photograph is the one that now calls to me. Don’t get me wrong — the children look beautiful in the second photograph. It brings a smile to my face to see their happiness and recall the time we spent together. But the first photograph?

It shows the motion and joy of their lives. The constant movement, laughter, and play. It shows the glee budding on Alia’s tiny face. It shows Fati mid-giggle. I feel Bountu’s amusement in this photograph. I sense my playmates running around me, pulling on my hair, begging for me to pick them up and spin them around in the air. There is feeling and life in this photograph.

It takes me right back.

Updates on Ebola Relief Fund

I won’t go in depth in this post about the severity of the Ebola outbreak.

It’s all over the news.

What is disturbing me is not the U.S. cases of Ebola, but the shift of focus in media coverage.

Our nation has been enveloped in a cloud of paranoia, blinding us of the realities. African communities in the U.S. are being shunned, sent home from work, stigmatized. Groups of people are stock-piling face masks, preparing for an end of all ends. Calls to cease flights in and out of the affected countries are gaining more traction. And all the while, people continue to die in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Source: Andre Carrilho

Source: Andre Carrilho

Let us not forget the reality of the on-going outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.


Let us step up to help end the suffering of humans, because we are humans and that is what we do.

Several weeks ago I introduced you all to the National Peace Corp Association’s Ebola relief fund. I am a member of the fund steering committee and have spent the past few weeks connecting with non-governmental organizations in Guinea to encourage their applications. We have received 32 project requests from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — 16 from Guinea alone! And they are still coming in! These project requests all combat Ebola and directly-related issues.

Today, I get to announce the release of a microsite that I have been working on for the past two weeks along with the staff at NPCA. Please check it out and pass it along!

Since the launch of the fund last month we have passed the $10,000 mark in contributions, which continue to come in steadily. But demand for project funding is far outstripping the amount we’ve raised.  The 32 requests already received have a need totaling close to $95,000. We have planned to distribute available funding by November 1st.


Source: John Moore/Getty Images

Ebola isn’t waiting, so why are you? Every day, every moment, this gets worse.

“The people who come help: we need them yesterday. So let them come tomorrow!” – President Ernest Bai Koroma, Republic of Sierra Leone

Can you help? Donate today.

Les Roberts – “Day 7: Brutal Triage”

Difficult report and thoughts from on-the-ground in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

“If you think about it a few steps removed from West Africa, this is freakin’ wild. We are primarily trying to facilitate people to die without infecting others….We are about to assist thousands and thousands of people to die an excruciating death at home without even the most mild of pain relief. We are going to set up treatment facilities in hundreds of villages for one of the most deadly of diseases to be largely run by volunteers who will be lucky to get 3 days of training. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them will die.

Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University

Les Roberts – Freetown, Sierra Leone – October 11th, 2014

Day 7: Brutal Triage

The prediction landscape is looking bad.   The official numbers reported are laboratory confirmed cases.   Typically, we think people need 7-10ish days to become symptomatic. Typically people have symptoms for 7 days before they get into a health facility. A month ago, it was one day, now it typically takes 4 days from when a patient is sampled to when the patient is told the result of their test (and lots get lost and mislabeled….).   Thus, the numbers that you hear about new cases today reflect the transmission dynamics from over 2 weeks ago…..and we thought the doubling time of the outbreak was 30 days, it seems to be less than that here.   We knew the ~350 confirmed cases last week were an undercount….we now think there are 7-900 in reality.   The need for hospital beds…

View original post 805 more words

On Being Hungry

I don’t consider myself devoutly religious in any sense, but I do believe I am in a very limited pool of people who have celebrated both Yom Kippur and Ramadan in the same year. I was raised in a Jewish household and have always fasted for Yom Kippur but I chose to celebrate Ramadan with my village to learn more about the holiday and Islam.

Both holidays require fasting – no food, no water, no sex. Yom Kippur lasts 25 hours, from sunset to sunset. Ramadan lasts 30 days, fasting from sunrise to sunset.

sunset Santa Barbara

During the month of Ramadan my alarm always jerked me too quickly from the respite of sleep. I would groggily pull back my mosquito net, stumble out of bed, aluminate my flashlight and waddle to my desk. It’s 4:00am – ready for breakfast? Half a baguette, sliced open, slathered with mayonnaise, topped with sardines. Even now I can taste that delicious medley. Enough time, enough fasting, enough of a protein deficiency and anything can become gourmet. I would inhale my daily bread, pray with my family, and go back to bed. No food, no water – not a drop — not until 7:30pm.

This morning, this Yom Kippur 5775, I awoke at 8:30am neither full nor hungry, just pleasantly prepared for the day. There was no rush out of the bed; I’d opted to sleep as long as possible to avoid thoughts of food. I threw on my outfit and was out the door to services by 8:50am. The last drop of drink and morsel of food had hit my tongue the prior evening at a local Chinese restaurant. I would have to wait until sundown at 7:00pm for the next meal.


The atmospheres of the two holidays are very different. Yom Kippur goes out as quickly as it comes in. This year it fell on a Saturday, but Jews around the world always take off work and spend the majority of the holiday in synagogue praying. The day is devoted to thinking of all the sins and wrongs you committed in the past year, reflecting on the changes you need to make in the upcoming year, and praying for the strength to be a better person.

The best thing about Yom Kippur is that it only lasts one day. In this way, it’s truly incomparable. Yom Kippur requires 25 hours of fasting; Ramadan requires 435.

The month of Ramadan transforms an entire village, an entire nation. Women who make their living selling rice on the street have to go without for 30 days. Girls who walk up and down the road advertising their delicious fried goods are suddenly absent, gone without a trace. Street food is a thing of the past. It’s seen as incredibly rude to eat in public or in front of another if you are not fasting. Unlike its 1-day cousin, Ramadan doesn’t provide a month-free of work; you must still plow your fields, go into the office, drive your taxi.ramadan

Both holidays claim to bring people closer to God. Both holidays are an exercise in self-control and will. Both holidays lead to compassion, a greater understanding of world hunger. Both holidays offer the religious a relief from their past sins.

The thirst, the hunger grumbling in to greet you mid-day, the anticipation of the nighttime meal, the physical enjoyment and savoring of whatever it is you break the fast with, and the likely fate that you’ll eat too much and go to bed with an extended belly – these, too, are shared.

Allahu akbarElohim gadol – God is great


Ramadan was perhaps one of the most difficult things I’ve ever attempted to do. The first day or two of no food is painful but the body quickly adjusts. More difficult is no water in 110 degree, 100% humidity weather – when you have to bike 5 miles to work and your work is outside. In comparison, Yom Kippur was a breeze. It’s a chilly autumn, I didn’t have to bike anywhere, and to nap and not work was encouraged. It was the first year in a very long time that I actually did not cheat – not a drop of water, not a mint, not a cup of black coffee.

I felt spiritually connected as I prayed before the break-the-fast meal with a group of 70 year old Guinean women; as the Arabic chanting filled the tiny mosque, the sunset backlit the evening, and we kneeled up and down silently thanking God for another day. Just as I felt spiritually connected as my entire synagogue sang a heart-wrenching rendition of Avinu Malkeinu, holding the draped-in-white torahs and looking up to God for forgiveness. Both holidays brought me closer to my own personal religion.

I’m not sure I’ll fast again for Ramadan – perhaps if I find myself living in a Muslim community next calendar year I will try again. It was a painful experience, but also very rewarding. And for any Jews who have always had trouble making it the 25 hour fast, Ramadan is a sure-fire cure – you’ll be fasting like Abraham in no time.


People plan and God laughs

I close my eyes and instantly I can see it. It’s 5:00am and the sounds of the morning stir me; the long, unwavering chant of the call to prayer, the never-tiring rooster announcing his daily intentions, the gentle swish of broom meeting ground. I lay still in my morning sweat, half-drifting in and out of dreamworld until the noise of my family prods me out of bed. A quick splash of cool water on my face and I slip into today’s outfit. I unlock my heavy, metal door with three loud affirmations that I am ready for a new day in Guinea.

Click. Click. Click.


But I open my eyes and it is 9:30am. I am in my room at my family’s house in Maryland. I have overslept.

This is the post that I never intended to write. The post that I never believed I’d have to write.

Things have been unfolding in slow motion for the past two months. Today it’s as if time has caught on to the trick it played on us and apologetically warped us back into reality; only the reality is horrid, is a smack on the face, is the full force of an explosion offered up to you in the words of an e-mail.

It’s with a heavy heart that we regret to inform you that sadly you will unfortunately not be returning.

I left Guinea with every intention of returning, every belief that my goodbye truly was temporary. We were removed from the Ebola outbreak at a time when it hardly seemed reason to go. Ebola hadn’t reached our villages, hadn’t affected our lives. Ebola hadn’t ravaged a region, sparked an international public health crisis, and defied all predictions of what Ebola might do.

I created this blog almost immediately after receiving my invitation to serve in Guinea (what can I say? I was very excited). The name “Guinean Dreams” seemed sophisticated and romantic to me. I had scoured dozens of blogs for information on life in Guinea and as I laid in bed, my dreams filled with the words of others. I was anxious. Ready to go, ready to serve, ready to learn.

People plan and God laughs.


I served eight months in Guinea, a far cry from my planned 27. I learned more than I’ll ever be able to express, but I wanted more. I had not even begun to think about My Future, and now I find myself faced with it daily. Every night I dream of the Guinea I left behind.

I have a running list of things I should have done that now will never get ticked off. People I didn’t hug tightly enough, didn’t thank loudly and often enough. Work I wasn’t able to complete. Money I wasn’t able to give. People I couldn’t help.

Thinking about the what-if’s and the unfinished’s is a heartbreaking game to play. It’s up to me to begin this healing process by focusing on the things I did accomplish.


I learned and spoke French and Susu every day. I lived with two beautiful families who took me into their lives and gave me love. I became a part of a close-knit community of people. I washed my clothes by hand. I fetched water from the well and carried it back on my head. I cooked rice and sauce, cleaned fish and chicken, and pounded rice into powder. I taught women how to make soap. I taught women how to cook more nutritious meals. I taught children English. I planted edible, nutritious trees all over my village. I implemented organic gardening techniques. I fasted for Ramadan and learned the 5 daily prayers of Islam. I became good friends with toddlers, teenagers, 20-somethings, and old men and women. I learned the importance of giving and sharing. I learned how to live with next to nothing. I rode a tiny, wooden canoe to an island with white beaches. I took bushtaxis through the lush, mountainous country side. I stared at the uncountable stars in the sky and prayed to God. I rode my bike up and down a jungle paradise and called it a normal day. I found more happiness and purpose and joy in my life than I’ve ever known.

I will, one day, return.


For now, I’m working on getting money to local NGOs in the Ebola affected countries. I may be done with my Peace Corps service in Guinea, but I’m not done dreaming of her.

If you would like to donate, please click here.

Guinea will always be a part of me.