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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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

Life Through Photos

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