Michael Douglas Lives in Guinea

One of my good friends at site is named Douga. This is his nickname, which comes from his preferred name “Michael Douglass”. Yes, the American actor. I was put into contact with Douga from former PCVs who lived at my site. He’s a young guy, insanely funny, and very smart. He was trained in electrical repairs by a Chinese expat. He speaks multiple languages, draws, and is interested in philosophy.

What do you mean you don't see the resemblance?

What do you mean you don’t see the resemblance?

On a day without any meetings, I would bike down to the phone charging center he worked at and hang out with him and our other friends all day, laughing the hours away and discussing life and politics in Guinea.

Before I left I gave Douga all my stockpiled chocolate. He’s really into Hershey’s. It was only one week home in America until I received a call from him – “Uh, Sara? I ate all the chocolate. When are you going to be back with more?”

Unfortunately, Douga has had to wait on that.

We talk regularly on Facebook. He travels between our village and the capitol frequently, looking for phones and computers to repair for money. As such, he’s got a pretty good hold on what’s going on with the Ebola outbreak. Although our conversations generally center around “How’s the family?” and “Man, I miss you!” I always try and get the on-the-ground perspective from Douga. Today, I was saddened by what he said.

“The city is dirty, the people have no work, there is no money, the health infrastructure is weak, the government has no money, all of this now leads to possible famine.”

He mentioned how happy he was to hear about the 3,000 U.S. troops being sent to West Africa. Unfortunately these troops will be directed to Liberia. Douga hadn’t realized that.

“All the troops are for Liberia? Then that’s another thing. We are screwed, my dear, because Ebola is not forgiving.

You know how it is here. The available time is small, life is short, laziness is vast, and Ebola separates us.

Tell Obama that we, too, want to live very much.”

Hell in the Hot Zone

Vanity Fair has written one of the most moving, detailed, honest reports about how the Ebola outbreak began in Guinea and went unnoticed for three and a half months.

As the Ebola epidemic rages, two questions have emerged: How did the deadly virus escape detection for three months? And why has a massive international effort failed to contain it? Traveling to Meliandou, a remote Guinean village and the likely home of Patient Zero, Jeffrey E. Stern tracks the virus’s path—and the psychological contagion that is still feeding the worst Ebola outbreak in history.

Click to read.

Connections in the Cab

The other day I hailed a cab from my hotel to Union Station. I struck up conversation with my driver, an Ethiopian man named Biruk. When he inevitably asked me what happened to my leg, I began to talk about the Peace Corps and his face lit up. In the 1960’s, Biruk’s 7th grade math and science teacher was a Peace Corps volunteer named Mr. Brown.

As I asked more about his life, I discovered that Biruk was an agriculturalist in Ethiopia and worked with the World Food Program and studied drip irrigation in Israel. He told me of the differences between Latin American coffee and Ethiopian coffee and how his mother cannot get up in the morning unless she inhales the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans. We discussed religion and the extreme factions of Islam that have spread in Ethiopia in the past few decades. He told me about his childhood; how men and women, boys and girls of both Christian and Muslim descent mixed and mingled, intermarried, celebrated each other’s holidays, and lived in peace together. He told me that now, only a short time later, there is fear and distrust growing between the two groups, that the youth are taking up an extreme form of Islam and spreading it through the poor areas like a virus.

He asked me about my time in Guinea — my host-family, my work, the people I teach, how much money I make, what cabs are like there, how I felt about my safety, how I felt living so far away. I told him that in Guinea at least things are still the way he once knew, with Christians and Muslims living in solidarity and unity. We talked about Ebola, my removal, and the guilt and sadness I feel.

Typical Guinean bush taxi

Typical Guinean bush taxi — slightly less space than the American version…

We spent Georgetown to Union Station together, mixing and mingling our two worlds and comparing the Peace Corps of the 60’s to the present. When we pulled up, I didn’t have enough cash to pay him and began to pull out my debit card to use a fancy new swiping system set up on a touchscreen in the back. I briefly paused and tried to imagine paying for a bush taxi in Guinea with a credit card — a funny thought. Biruk put his hand out, stopping my imagination and debit card. He told me the ride was on him.

He helped me pull my bags out of the trunk, we shook hands, smiled, and thanked each other.

James the Artist

Meet James, the unofficial artist of Peace Corps Guinea. He is pictured below with two other volunteers, saying goodbye at the Peace Corps house in Conakry the night before we were removed.


James is a Liberian refugee living in Conakry, the capitol of Guinea. He grew up with his mother in Tanzania at a Catholic missionary, where he studied at an art school and learned how to make batiks, an art technique using wax and cloth. In 1982 he moved from Tanzania to Liberia and supported himself with his artwork. He lived there peacefully, married, and began a family.

Things changed abruptly. Political upheaval and civil war had been raging in Liberia since 1989. Rebels sought to overthrow Samuel Doe, the Liberian leader who held power for the past decade. Doe was ethnically Khran, and had favored the group politically during his regime. The rebels drew support from other ethnic backgrounds who felt discriminated against by the Doe regime. The Khran people were targeted in violent attacks. James and his family are Khran.

In November 1993 James’s wife and two children were killed while out searching for food. He survived the attack because he had remained at home with his youngest child. They fled the area and hid in the bush for one month before arriving at the border of Guinea and Liberia and entering N’zerekore, in the Forest Region of Guinea, in December 1993.

They would remain in N’zerekore as official refugees until 2000 when Liberian rebels attacked Guinea and refugees became targeted by the authorities of Guinea. James fled the Forest region for the capitol in 2000, and has been living with his son there ever since, paying for rent and his son’s school fees with his artwork. James has long been friends with the Peace Corps and his artwork covers the halls of the Conakry office. He is also featured heavily at the U.S. Embassay in Conakry.

Unfortunately James suffered a stroke on October 25th 2013 and is now paralyzed in his left hand and left foot. His son was forced to drop out of school to help his father with cooking and daily chores. James continues to produce batiks using his one working hand because it his only means of living to provide for himself and his son.

Before I left Guinea I met with James and brought back several of his pieces to sell for him in America. If you are interested in purchasing these, please contact me by e-mail at saralaskowski@gmail.com

How YOU can help fight the Ebola outbreak

In the past two months, this blog has gone from 23 followers to 360+ and many of you have reached out to me asking what you can do to help. The same question has been on my mind ever since I was removed from Guinea.

In a recent Huffington Post piece David Nabarro, a senior U.N. coordinator for the outbreak, said “[it] is advancing ahead of us, it’s accelerating ahead, and we in our control efforts, collectively, are falling behind. Every country in the world needs to be thinking ‘what can we do to help?’ Because if we don’t get on top of this outbreak as a global community then this could effect all of us in unexpected ways.”

I’ve got two suggestions for my readers.

1.  Give money.

Financially, this outbreak has only just in the past few weeks begun to receive the international aid attention it deserves. Still, there’s not enough. Personal protective equipment for health workers, gloves, sanitizing solutions, hydration fluids, pain medications, food — they’re all lacking.

Ella Watson-Stryker, working with the Doctors Without Borders emergency response team in Sierra Leone, has said they are “fighting a forest fire with spray bottles.” She laments,

We’re sorry that we don’t have a medicine proven safe and effective to kill the Ebola virus. We’re sorry that we don’t have a vaccine. We’re sorry that we’ve failed to stop the epidemic. We know we should be doing more but we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the capacity, we don’t have the staff. Some days it feels like it doesn’t matter how hard we work because there aren’t enough of us.

The call for help is there and we have the means to answer. If you are interested in helping financially, the answer isn’t going out to the store and buying $50 of gloves and mailing them to West Africa. Cash donations will have the biggest impact on the relief efforts. I believe that the best organization to donate to is Doctors Without Borders. As an agency, they cannot earmark your donation for the Ebola outbreak — they are an aid organization that responds to the most pressing global medical needs. But right now, that need is in West Africa, and these are the people on the ground.

These are the people teaming up with local health care workers and doctors. These are the people providing support to patients. These are the people risking their lives to save others. These are the heroes.


Donate to them. Encourage your friends to donate to them. Encourage your family members to donate to them. Share this link on your Facebook page.

2. Educate yourself, and then educate others.

Money isn’t the only answer to fighting this outbreak. We’re also fighting an outbreak of misinformation. Educate yourself and when you hear a family member or a friend speaking falsely about the Ebola outbreak, educate them. Remind people that Africa is a vast, diverse, rich continent — that there are greater than one billion humans there beyond the few thousand talked about daily in the US news circuit.

Talking points about Ebola virus and illness transmission 

  • Infection is transmitted through direct contact with blood or secretions of an infected person, or exposure to objects (like needles) contaminated with infected secretions
  • The outbreak has been spreading wildly in West Africa because it has never before occurred in this area and communal care of ill family members is very common
  • The disease also spreads quickly through health care settings, with the nurses and doctors treating the patients often getting infected themselves. Masks, gowns, gloves, and proper sanitation of all nurses, doctors, and health care workers is necessary at all times to avoid contracting the illness. Wearing these outfits in the heat of West Africa is very extreme and can only be tolerated for 1 or 2 hours at a time
  • Symptoms of the illness may appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure
  • The current outbreak has a survival rate of 47%, contrary to previous outbreaks with a mortality rate of up to 90%

What is the risk to me / my family / my country?

  • Low to none!!!
  • Risk to travelers in West Africa is very low in absence of direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person
  • While new studies are pointing out that the risk of Ebola cases popping up in U.S., Europe, and other African countries is increasing with time it is extremely important to note that analysts state that “what we could expect, if there is an importation, would be very small clusters of cases, between one and three.” 
  • There will not be an outbreak of this scale in America because we have high quality health care, health infrastructure, and place trust in our health and government officials

Side effects of the Ebola outbreak

  • USAID reports that the current outbreak is negatively affecting food security and access to livelihoods and basic health care services — people cannot find food, cannot work in their fields, and cannot find doctors for other basic health care needs
  • U.N. World Food Program has declared a Level 3 emergency  — the highest for this organization — in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and is providing food assistance to patients, quarantined communities, and other vulnerable populations
  • UNICEF reports rising food prices in Liberia

Why is this outbreak so serious?

  • First Ebola outbreak to reach West Africa so health workers were not used to the extreme cautionary procedures
  • First Ebola outbreak to leave rural villages and arrive in major, urban capitols with populations in the millions — high risk for spreading to others due to high density population
  • Lack of education about how the virus spreads
  • Misinformation — many people deny that the virus even exists because there are several other illnesses common this time of year with similar symptoms (malaria, dengue fever, lassa fever)
  • Fear — West Africans are very social and communal and to have to be quarantined or quarantine a loved one when they are ill goes against every cultural and religious tradition. Fear of this quarantine has led many people to lie to health officials about their own illness or to hide family members, escape from hospitals, or steal back dead bodies of loved-ones to complete burial rites

Remember the context of these countries. Read the full NPR interview with Lewis Brown, the Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism, from which I’ve taken the following quote (bold added for emphasis):

Our country, Liberia, has come a long way in its development, in its progress. Over the last 10 years [since the civil war ended], we’ve covered a lot of ground — but we would be the first to admit that we’re not where we thought we could be. So our hope is that, as this virus has rightly so exposed many of the weaknesses of our country, that it [does not end up] hurting the country and undermining its stability.


I say that because often if things don’t get put into context, then we lose the full picture. And, as you will find, it’s so easy. And we will continue to encourage, at home and abroad, discordant voices to be heard, in our mind not because they’re right, but because they have a right to say it.


And in exercising that right, especially at this point, we’re hoping that we can focus not just on saving lives but giving people a way of sustaining their livelihood. That is the challenge we face today. And for us, there’s nothing bigger than this. Because we know we will win this fight [against Ebola], we must win this fight or else all of us get consumed by it. We must — there’s no choice here.


Additional Sources of Information:
CDC Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Fact sheet 
USAID Ebola Fact Sheet
Doctors Without Borders Ebola Response Page
WHO Ebola Page

Life Through Photos

I wanted to share some of my favorite photos of my time in Guinea. 

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.