Du Courage

Anyone who has spent any time immersed in Guinean culture will be able to confirm the ubiquitous nature of the phrase “du courage”. You’re sick? Du courage. You can’t find work? Du courage. You’re having a fight with your wife? Du courage.

The phrase roughly translates to stay brave and in area of the world where luck and chance play a large role in daily life, it is excellent advice.

The national motto of Guinea is “Work, Justice, Solidarity.” Here in the United Sates, we are quite familiar with work and justice. In 2010, when unemployment rates soared to 10% we considered it a national crisis – compare that to the latent 60% rate of unemployment faced in Guinea. And the United States is famed for its justice system, which although flawed, unfortunately functions at a rate incomparable to most other countries around the world. But solidarity, the feeling of unity between people who have the same interests and goals, is an area in which we lack.

Guinea's coat of arms.

In the Guinean context, solidarity is seen on a daily basis. It can be a young woman preparing meals for the surrounding elderly neighbors and single males because they have no one who will prepare for them. It can be a mother giving her hard-earned money to another mother who needs it more than she does. It is seen when a young man helps out his neighbor in the rice field while knowing he will not be compensated. Or perhaps when a community pools funds to help celebrate the marriage ceremony of a young man and woman.

A recently married man and woman at their ceremony.

A recently married man and woman at their ceremony.

Guineans are united, and in my short time in Guinea I began to feel a part of something. Now, when I call my friends and host-family back in Guinea, we ask about each other’s health, the health of loved ones, how business is going – the typical Guinean salutation is much more in depth than “How are you? Fine”. And when we get through asking about Great Aunt Fatou’s health, the conversation inevitably turns to the current situation – “When are you coming back? I don’t know” and it always ends with “du courage”.

When uttered, “du courage” signifies a level of solidarity between companions. It says, “You are down, but I am here to tell you to be brave and that we are together and we will pass through this hardship together.”

When first in Guinea, I thought it was silly for people to advise me to stay brave while I was stooping over the latrine all day. How will bravery help me fight diarrhea? What I need is medicine and rehydration!

Oral rehydration salts, also known as the best friend of every volunteer who has ever had diarrhea. They are also being used as supportive care for Ebola patients.

Oral rehydration salts, also known as the best friend of every volunteer who has ever had diarrhea. They are also being used as supportive care for Ebola patients.

But let’s return again to the context of Guinea (taken from the WHO country profile):

The under-five mortality rate is 101 per 1000 live births, compared to a global average of 48 per 1000. Life expectancy at birth is 58, compared to a global average of 70. Prevalance of tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV are all significantly higher than the global average. The maternal mortality rate is 3 time shigher than the global average. Only 20% of the population has accessed to improved sanitation conditions. The country has an average of 2.6 physicians per 10,000 citizens.

When access to resources is so difficult chutzpah, bravery, and a certain oomph are needed to survive on a daily basis. People fight tooth and nail just to live in Guinea, but they fight together. You are never alone — extended families open their arms and their hearts to feed even the most remote relative. Care is communal. Strength is found in numbers. People stick together.

So, to all my friends in Guinea — du courage. To all our neighbors in Liberia and Sierra Leone — du courage. To the doctors working in the field — du courage. To all those involved in combating Ebola — du courage. To all those who have lost a friend or family member due to Ebola — du courage. To all those who have been misplaced from their home due to Ebola — du courage.

You are down, but I am here to tell you to be brave and that we are together and we will pass through this hardship together. We will fight this — together.

Please consider donating to one of the following organizations who are continuing to work to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

  • MAP international is providing protective suits for health workers treating Ebola patients.
  • Unicef is providing protective equipment for health workers and supportive medication for patients.
  • Doctors Without Borders, those working on the ground to treat Ebola patients, claim to be fully funded for the outbreak but are always in need of more money and will likely still be working in West Africa once the outbreak passes to deal with the fallout of the healthcare infrastructure.

And please read this Time Magazine article written by the President of Doctor’s Without Borders  to get an accurate sense of the desperation on the ground. More people are needed.

The epidemic will not be contained without a massive deployment on the ground. WHO in particular must step up to the challenge. And governments with the necessary medical and logistical resources must go beyond funding pledges and immediately dispatch infectious disease experts and disaster relief assets to the region.

For my U.S. readers, please consider writing a letter to your representative.

 

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On Being Evacuated: It’s every volunteer’s worst nightmare.

Today volunteers in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia received the information that we will be sent home for an undetermined amount of time as a cautionary move against the rising risk of Ebola.

Electron micrograph image of the Ebola virus.

Electron micrograph image of the Ebola virus.

Friends and family back home are overjoyed at the news, but volunteers in-country are stumbling around in a state of shock. Projects that have taken months of sweet-talking the authorities, grueling grant applications, planning every step of the way have to be left now – postponed indefinitely. Bags must be packed. Close of Service dates for volunteers preparing to leave will be moved up. Pre-service training has been stopped dead in its tracks for the recently arrived group of volunteers. Somehow, we must all find the words to explain to our friends and host-families the harsh truth that we are leaving and don’t know when we will be back.

The Ebola outbreak began in the Forest Region of Guinea in February 2014 and was quite a shock. The word “ebola” conjured up images of bleeding, vomiting, dying and astronaut-style HAZMAT suits.

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But, looking around my village I saw that nothing had changed. Ebola was here now, but it seemed too far away to be dangerous to me and my village. It was more likely, and still is, that people in Guinea would die of malaria or malnutrition than a deadly viral hemorrhagic fever. I remember calling my mother to dispel her fears. She’s a reasonable woman but even she imagined that I was living through some sort of ‘zombie apocalypse’ with infected patients roaming the streets looking to pass on their contagion.

“No, Mom. I’m OK. Everything will be fine as long as I don’t touch dead bodies and stay away from severely ill people, which I tend to do anyways.”

Sunset and thunderstorm skies in Koba are beautiful

Sunset and thunderstorm skies in Koba are beautiful

Over the course of the past five months, Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMO’s) have taught us how the disease is spread, instructed us to avoid ill people and funerals, and placed a ban on working in local health centers. Once Ebola became a daily used word in my Peace Corps vocabulary, the initial shock wore off and I spent more time dealing with worrying friends and family members back home than worrying about my own health and safety. I’ve been carefully following the outbreak, receiving updates from PCMO’s on new confirmed and suspected cases, and have felt safe the entire time. Other more anxious volunteers posed the question lurking in the back of all of our minds – “Could we be sent home for this?” I always assumed that the answer was a resounding NO. Day to day life at my site has hardly been affected, save for new radio spots educating the public on how to avoid contracting the virus and the occasional news report that more cases have been confirmed. I’ve taken every opportunity to educate people in my village about the seriousness of the illness and how to minimize risk of contracting it, but as time has gone on so has life and the outbreak seemed more and more distant to us in Koba.

 


But it has lurked, continued, spread, and grown. As of today, 1,201 cases have been confirmed in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia and 672 of those patients have died. That’s a 56% mortality rate. Still, living through this Ebola outbreak has proven to be less scary than it must be for all those back home in the States, being bombarded these types of headlines daily:

“The Curse of Ebola” 
“Ebola Outbreak: Could it spread to the US?”
“Death Toll Rises In ‘Totally Out Of Control’ Ebola Outbreak” 

ebola

Unfortunately, this outbreak has been severely mismanaged on two ends. Primarily, the Guinean government is not equipped to handle it but more tragically the Western world has chosen to feed the fire with sensationalized media instead of what we really need here in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – medical assistance, man-power, education, and funding. In a recent New York Times piece Ken Isaacs, the Vice President of Programs and Government Relations for international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, penned a plea to the world to wake up to what’s happening in West Africa:

“Doctors Without Borders is the only non-governmental organization working against Ebola in Sierra Leone and Guinea. The organization I work for, Samaritan’s Purse, has collaborated with the group in Liberia, but this outbreak is too much for us to take on by ourselves. We desperately need others to join this fight…. I call on the international community and the donor governments of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, to step in and recognize the very limited capacities of the ministries of health in West Africa and to help them contain this disease. I urge all organizations with capacity in medical, public health, social mobilization and water/sanitation to help in this fight. A disaster has descended upon West Africa, and it deserves the full attention of the international community. The world’s deadliest and most contagious disease is on a collision course with millions in major population centers. The situation is urgent. There is no time to wait.

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I’m devastated to be leaving. Truthfully, it hasn’t yet hit me. How does one face their family — because that is what my community has become — and tell them that I must leave while they must stay? It is another example of the astounding privilege I have as an American, and perhaps the heaviest blow of them all. I am not any better than these people; I have simply been more blessed in the game of chance we call life. I get to leave while they must stay. My country has decided the risk is worth removing me — but who will be their hero? Who will help Guinea? Sierra Leone? Liberia?

To those outside the affected nations, Ebola is a headline; a scary word, a panicked nightmare that some African may hop on a plane and land on your doorstep with his deadly illness. But these are real people affected and they are scared. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is not growing due to a super-mutation of the virus — it is spreading due to misinformation, fear, and hard-to-change cultural traditions. Doctors working to contain the virus have met serious distrust and even conflict in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, which has been negatively reported in Western media as superstitious and religiously based. But as Susan Rered of Salon writes, 

Distrust of Western medicine may have less to do with superstition than with history: forced sterilizations in Peru; the intentional infection of Guatemalans with gonorrhea and syphilis; marketing campaigns urging mothers in countries lacking safe water supplies to replace breastfeeding with infant formula so that women could work in western-owned factories; the sale in Africa of pharmaceuticals that passed their expiration date for sale in the West; the harvesting of organs in India for transplants to wealthy foreigners.

Yet many continue to blame the disease on Africans who have rejected foreign aid. Rered notes that people have been quick to judge West African citizens and government, thinking that this type of outbreak would not be possible in America. But there are deep-rooted causes contributing to the current situation:

Attention to sorcery rather than the inequalities of globalization obscures the fact that the biggest leaps in life expectancy in the U.S. and Europe came about because of massive government-funded public health measures — sewage systems and clean water supplies – not because we gave up our religious beliefs.

The misinformation, distrust, and lack of education is unfortunate and causing this virus to spread, but it is not the fault of the Guinean people. The rich history of Guinea is pained by colonization, civil discord, military raids, failed communism and struggling democracy and has led to a general distrust of both the Guinean government and the Western world in general. The education system, 70% unemployment rate, and social structure sets people up for failure; there is nothing inherently unintelligent or incapable about Guineans. During my time here I have been constantly amazed at the rich linguistic intelligence I see on a daily basis — people are often fluent in 5 or 6 languages, while Americans struggle through their required 4 years of Spanish or French. Creative solutions and a tenacious energy run freely through villages and cities. Yet I fear that many back home reading about this outbreak imagine an uneducated country with religious zealots refusing to be treated. I imagine that these people cluck their tongues, sigh, and silently think that this would never happen in America. And they go back to their day without a second thought.

UN workers teaching the public about Ebola symptoms and how the virus is spread.

UN workers teaching the public about Ebola symptoms and how the virus is spread.

As always The Onion, a satire news organization, has hit the nail on it’s odd little head with a recent piece entitled “Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away” with a fictional doctor stating that “waiting more than 50 white people for an effective preventative measure was something the world would simply not allow.” As I am now forced to leave, I worry about the world allowing this outbreak to continue and leaving Guinea behind. Leaving West Africa behind.

Now is a time for action. We must step up, we must help. We must contain this outbreak. More doctors are needed. More equipment is needed. More education is needed. More government support and action is needed. We can start by contributing to Doctor’s Without Borders (click to donate) and by remembering that real people are involved, who are very uneducated and scared, and remembering that we also need to educate ourselves before we jump to immediate panicked conclusions and assume that the fault lies at the hands of those suffering from this illness.

I leave you all with this quote from an oustanding article from The Independent I recommend you all read:

Perhaps our obsession with the horrors of Ebola says more about us than anything else. That it kills so rarely, and, for many of us, so far away makes it more nightmarish to contemplate. Absolutely horrific, sure, and yet, could you really argue that stage IV metastatic cancer is any less gruesome? Fearing Ebola is morbid escapism, a way to flirt with the inevitability of our own demise, to ponder the frailty of our own ineffectual meat sacks. Ebola is our macabre fantasy not because it’s likely, but because it isn’t. To many in the West, Ebola matters not because of what it does and how it kills; it matters because of what it represents.

My prayers are with all Guineans, Sierra Leonians, and Liberians. May God help these people and grant a quick end to this devastating outbreak. Please keep them in your prayers and thoughts.

My heart is with the village of Koba and will remain there until I can safely return.

Updates to follow as they come.

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.

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.

Technology Without Electricity

I came to Guinea with a lot of “ideas” or maybe “ideals”. Things I thought I’d do, ways I thought I’d act, feelings I thought I’d have — you try your hardest to come in with no expectations, but let’s face it. You’ve been applying for a year. You’ve had many days and nights to ponder on your future. Well, after four months in country that mental infrastructure is slowly being disassembled and rebuilt from the ground up. One of my grand idea(l)s was living “off the grid”. Cutting off the itch to pull out my iPhone, open up the Facebook app, scroll through the nonsense. Stop all desires for SnapChat, Instagram, and Candy Crush right in their tracks. I came to Guinea without a computer — I was that committed. “In a country without electricity, why would I need the Internet?”, she thought. “How would that even possibly be accessible?”

I clearly underestimated human ingenuity and the universal love / addiction of social media. 

It didn’t take me long to realize how important the Internet is, especially for someone like me who is comfortable manipulating it and can use it to it’s full potential *dusts off my e-shoulders*. Peace Corps sends us e-mails. We are required to fill out forms online. Even in the Bush, we’re expected to be connected. So I used a (large) chunk of my settling-in allowance and purchased a Techno P5. It’s an amazing smartphone — thanks China! And for 2,000 FG I can connect to the Internet for one hour. It’s slow, but it works. The flaw in my plan was revealed when I realized for only 25,000 FG I could go online anytime I wanted, all month. My image of an off the grid, stoic lifestyle quickly disintegrated with that purchase.

Old habits, more truthfully dubbed old addictions, die hard.

Instead of forgetting Facebook even exists I find myself captured more than ever by the tiny, red notifications. 113 of you liked my newest profile picture, as of last frantic check. At home, I’d feel vaguely flattered and remark internally about how fucking awesome I am. Some vain passing thought as I went about my day and flipped my weave in the mirror (Wait — I’m getting my two worlds mixed up). But here? Every notification, like, comment, message, blog view, e-mail — it goes straight to my heart. It comes across as evidence that I’m being thought of by those I’ve moved away from. 113 people say my face and thought of me and even clicked “like”! They still like me! You like me! You remember me!

Yes, it sounds desperate but loneliness will do that to you.

I underestimated my need for that connection. When I pull out my fancy phone, turn on my data, and load Facebook that small conversation with my best friend from college is much more to me than simply about her 2nd grade student whose pinecone drawing looked remarkably phallic — it’s keeping a connection, despite the differences and distance between us. And for only 25,000 FG — that’s about $3.50 a month folks. Who can really deny slipping back into the cushy smartphone life at that price? I may have pictured my life here differently, but you know what they say about people who make assumptions…

And I’m not the online one aboard the tech train in Guinea. I frequently find myself sitting around with a group of Guineans, staring at them all as they stare at their phones, entrenched in some intricate text message conversation with one or several unnamed third parties. I yell at them in French. Parlez avec votre bouche, pas votre main! But they laugh, continue, and probably tell this third party about the crazy American across from them. And we all return to our technologically-induced silence. Unfortunately this cellular obsession is universal. Here we are, in a country where the majority live on less than $1 a day and there is no electricity in most areas. 

Yet everyone has a cell phone, you can buy phone credit nearly anywhere, and phone charging centers (powered by gas generators) are among the best entrepreneurial opportunities in-country right now.

Connection. A human desire. A love of texting. Social media. I’m certain that there are dissertations out there explaining why it’s so addicting to us as Homo sapiens  but it’s not something I fully understand. I feel it though. When I get a new blog comment, an e-mail from a far-off friend, a Facebook notification. I see it in my English students who ask me to translate the words in random sappy Hallmark photos they received in the middle of class. And I laugh at it, without fail, when I remember that we are in a country that survives without electricity but Allah Forbid you don’t have at least 3 cell-phone numbers to cover your butt when you’re in an area where one service works better than another.

So when you think of me in Africa, erase the lions and giraffes and tribal images. We’ve got goats and chickens here, and I’ve seen my share of iPads. I watched TV on a flat-screen last night and I see kids on a day-to-day basis with more swag than America could even dream of. We fetch our water, we charge our phone batteries off generators, but we’re just like you.

The American Dream is Alive and Well

 

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This is Alison Camara. He is a 21 year old resident of Conakry, Guinea. He is good at soccer and loves Lil Wayne. And he desperately wants to come to America.

Practically everyone I meet in Guinea describes America as their “pays du reves” — Dream Country. The photo of the young man above was taken in front of my house, only after Alison begged me to show it to my American friends in the hopes that one of you has the means to send him to the USA. I have to repeatedly assure him that I do not. I will not marry him. I do not have visas to hand out. This is a very frequent request — and once I deny it, I am immediately asked about my American friends. Do any of them have the means? So, ladies. If you’re in the department for a Guinean husband, have your pick.

I’ve been here for over 3 months now and I’ve done my fair share of describing America. I try to dismantle the fantasy of the red, white and blue. It’s not like a Guinean who moved to USA would suddenly “have it all.” We work, often tirelessly. We have political and social issues. Everything is too expensive and the price of gas is always going up. And comparatively with Guinean culture, we as Americans are kind of cold-hearted, self-centered bastards…to put it bluntly.

Really, I want to shake some sense into the people that look at me with Red, White, and Blue stars in their eyes. “You wouldn’t be happy here!”, I think. “People wouldn’t help you like in Guinea, people would ignore you, you’d be lucky to find a minimum wage job and cheap rent in a shitty area!” I’ve felt this way since I arrived — that they’d honestly not be happy in our cold, capitalist world.

But then the other night happened.

I was sitting in a circle of plastic chairs (high quality furniture here, reserved for the most important members of the group, manufactured and produced here in Guinea!) with a group of about six 20-something’s. All men. Inevitably we talked about America, their desire for an American wife, and I tried to steer them back to ‘sanity’ — you should want to stay here! In Africa! We’re mid-first world problem. I’m describing the poor economy, the difficulty to find a good job, when one of the guys stops me and says, “Moi, je peux couper le fleur bien!” 

Me, I can cut flowers well!

With 100% sincerity and desperation. My thought process slammed to a halt. Have I been thinking about this all wrong? It’s always “Yes, there’s running water and electricity, but…” even writing it now seems silly. When your country has no infrastructure, no running water, no electricity, and little law enforcement, do you give a damn about the “BUT”? 

I imagine a hard immigrant labor position as something bad, but for someone else — like a 21 year old Guinean — it could be a dream come true. In America we have opportunities that cannot be found here. I’m happy here in Guinea, surrounded by the natural and cultural beauty. Every day is an adventure and I feel like my life has true meaning. But I haven”t lived here. I haven’t fetched 21 years of water from the well. I haven’t lived 21 years by candlelight. I haven’t had friends and family die from malnutrition, infection, and disease.

I need to have more pride in America. I need to see the America that Guineans see, and not the petty problems and dissatisfaction I left behind. 

I will end this post with some newly released data from the 2013 United Nations Human Development Indicators:

Guinea

Life expectancy at birth: 54.5 years.

Mean years of schooling: 1.6 years.

Mean total income per year: $941

Rank: 178 / 187

United States of America

Life expectancy at birth: 78.7 years.

Mean years of schooling: 13.3 years.

Mean total income per year: $43,480.

Rank: 3 / 187

There’s a fine line here between recognizing the privilege and opportunity we have in America and also fostering pride in Guinea and promoting change here. I haven’t quite found the proper viewpoint to take but, if anything, 3 months in Guinea has helped me appreciate the country I’ve left behind.

Oh, and if anyone wants to marry Alison, please do let me know.