2 Weeks in Koba

My first two weeks at site have been conquered. Every day has been interesting and surprisingly busy. I’m still learning who people are, who’s related to who, and who’s in charge of what. I’m afraid that’s going to take a long time to tackle. I’ve also been lost a few times… but the extra bike mileage is bonne pour la sante, ka? I know I’ve halfway described my village before, but let me try again.

Koba is not quite a city and not quite a village — it’s big enough to have a nice road and mostly everything I could want, but not so big that it feels cold and fast-paced like cities tend to. We’re real Basse Guinea out here — low, flat plains lining the coast. Humid, tropical climate with the ocean breeze cutting the heat. Palm trees everywhere you look. Overwhelmingly green surroundings — and this is during the dry season. Koba proper is 35 kilometers long and is separated into districts and small villages. Koba Bassengue, where I call home, is 5 kilometers from the port that marks the end of Koba. The port is a bustling center of commerce. Boutiques line the road offering all sorts of services — telecharging, hair cuts, odds and ends, rice and sauce. A swarm of young men and motocycles constantly circle the area searching for someone to taxi off. Cars drive in and out filled to the brim with people, animals, and goods heading to various destinations… maybe a far off district of Koba, maybe the next biggest town where they will find another taxi to continue their destination. At the mouth of the water, boats come and go, loading and unloading their haul. A line of men can constantly be seen picking through fish nets, collecting the catch and sending it off to either the market or the large buildings where fish are dried. And through this all children are running around, friends and family members are greeting one another, and I stand out like a sore thumb as people wonder just who I am and why I am here.

As I said, these two weeks have been busy. My counterpart is extremely motivated and has created a full schedule for me. I’ve been given an office in the Commune Rural, which is kind of like a town hall. For example, my office is right next to the Mayor’s. It’s really flattering and telling of the respect my town already has for me. The office is about a 10 minute bike ride from my house. Every morning, I leave my house at 8:30am and greet every person I see along the way. At the office, Mangue (my counterpart) has been working on a detailed map of Koba for me and the distances between all the sectors. He is a trained architect and his skills are showing — the map is stunningly detailed and well made. While he works on that, I translate sentences I’d like to ask people from English to French and have Mangue check them over. I need corrections less and less!

We have been going around to meet the various important members of Koba. Because Koba is so big, there’s a lot of ’em. Sometimes people come to the Commune Rural for meetings but mostly Mangue and I go out to them — him on his moto and me huffing along on the bike. I have visited gardening collectives, fish drying collectives, imams, the Sous-Prefet, and the Mayor. These morning excursions are usually finished by 12:00pm. I bike home in the full severity of the West African sun, search for the key that I always seem to lose, peel off my sweat-covered clothes, and proceed to lay on my floor. Sometimes I take a nap, sometimes I read. When my body temperature has returned to normal I head outside and hang out with my host family. To both kill the time and butter them up, I help with practically everything — preparing food, washing clothes, fetching water. Do you know how to tell when palm fruits are ripe? When they fall out of the pod without much effort. How about kola nuts? When they are covered with a fine reddish brown powder. Just how many bidons can you carry back home from the well? 2; farmer walk with clenched abs. How do you wash a child? Forcefully. These are the things you learn in Koba down time.

At 5:00pm, I go to work at Mangue’s garden. He’s got a vast family-run operation back there. And “there” really refers to a slice of Paradise. As I walk through the beds, the rich black soil oozes between my toes, egrets watch me from a far, childen climb trees and laugh and I see the true beauty of the world. He mainly grows peppers, tomato, and corn but we just planted the seeds I was mailed from USA (shout-out to my awesome step-dad, Mike!) and some I took from the Peace Corps seed bank in Boke. In total — broccoli, basil, lettuce, spinach, cilantro, oregano, thyme and chives. They were all planted on 15/2 and as of 20/2 the broccoli, spinach, and thyme have sprouted. God willing, I will get to eat broccoli out in the bush. Mangue is extremely excited to get a taste of USA and said we will name the vegetable that comes “M’mah Camara”. We work hard in the garden. Every night I fall to bed, exhausted, by 9:00pm. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding. There is a lot of space and we hope to create irrigation canals so we can use all of the land come rainy season when it usually floods. We also have plans to create more beds to grow watermelon, various squash species, and pineapple. This is all very exciting to me because the only vegetable offerings here are pepper, onion, eggplant, corn, and tomato. I’m hoping to introduce some variety here. The soil and climate is extremely rich so I think we may have some luck. On va voir.

Next week I am going to start going to the gardening collectives during their assigned days of work and helping out. I am supposed to spend my first three months at Koba performing a community needs assessment. That really boils down to getting to know everyone, figuring out what the hell is going on, and how I can attempt to improve it. The only way to properaly accomplish all that is to get out there and get dirty. People are slowly starting to recognize me, but it’s a full-time job convincing the kids of Koba that my name isn’t Fote (foreigner), Salimatou (the towns  1st PCV), Aminata (the towns 2nd PCV), or Kadiatou (my site mate). I’m sure that’ll be a long struggle because all Fote’s look the same (that’s a blague). I have been hearing a few M’mah Camara’s, which warms the soul and is warranted considering I greet (a 5-6 phrase process in Susu) literally everyone I see on the streets. I’m going to come back to America frendlier than ever.

I’m settling in well. I love meeting new people and I’m having fun exploring. Its absolutely beautiful here. Yesterday I biked back the long way from a meeting at a garden — instead of taking the main paved road through the town, I biked across the rice fields to the beach and took a dirt path along the ocean home. Everywhere I look is a new slice of beauty waiting to be discovered. I’m happy, stronger mentally and physically than I’ve ever been, and really flourishing. I also feel more spiritually connected to the world than I ever have. I have plans to explore the beach, the nearby island town, the palm plantations, my neighboring sectors — it all! I’m working on unpacking, thinking about buying paint for murals inside my house, and constantly bugging the local carpenter to finish the shelves I ordered.

If anyone has any inkling of a desire to visit and my descriptions weren’t enough to draw you in, I should mention there’s a lakefront resort waiting for you here. Did I mention I live in Paradise?

A la prochaine. Thinking of you all often.

Site Visit!

So I’m writing from Boke, at the Peace Corps Regional House. I just left Koba, where I spent four days meeting people and checking things out. My counterpart is Mangue TP Sylla, this awesome old dude who is a super patron and is respected by the entire community. I was really busy during site visit — following Mangue around and meeting various people; imams, the halif, the staff at the National Agricultural School, the staff at the Seed Center of Koba, the staff at the Ag Research Center, and so, so, so many others. Koba is a beautiful city — a long stretch of 32km of paved, beautiful road sans pot holes. Houses and boutiques spread outwards from the main road but it is fairly linear in shape. To one side — rice fields and the Atlantic Ocean. To the other — acres and acres of palm plantations and gardens. Koba is spread up into different sectors; my house is officially in Koba-Basengue. The ocean port (fishing!!) is about 1.5 miles down the road, the lake is about ~15km the other direction. The lake has two sides — one for locals to swim, wash clothes, etc and another private area that is actually an expat resort where I sat with my sitemate and drank a (cold!) beer. Life is good in Koba! There are small boutiques near me where I can buy bread, eggs, peanuts, and small food items. I get my water from a foot pump a little ways down the road — I place my bidon on my bike and roll it home. It’s too far for me to walk it and I haven’t mastered the head technique yet.

Mangue TP is really excited for me to work in Koba. He is the president of the union of groupements (organized gardening societies) and has many contacts. During site visit I visited a garden of a groupement and also Mangue’s personal garden. Spent some time transplanting tomatoes and weeding.  I’m going to be biking a lot in Koba, which is good because a diet consistenting entirely of rice isn’t the best for weight loss. I probably biked 20 miles during the visit. I’m really happy with my site and can’t wait to get back and really move in. I’m replacing a Community Economic Development Volunteer, Chelsea, and she is leaving me with SO much stuff. I am eternally grateful to her! Just the fact that I am entering a house with buckets, containers, and mats — you all back at home don’t understand the importance!

Some funny tidbits of Koba life:

– I saw an old man wearing a “Legalize gay” shirt as I biked past the other day. That’s pretty funny because homosexuality is illegal here. Goodwill somehow makes it’s way here and you see all kinds of random t-shirts that at one point had an entirely different life in America.

– A muslim fete happened while I was at site. I was told we would head to the mosque at 8:00pm. I hadn’t eaten dinner but figured I’d eat when I got back — fatal. error. No one told me that for this fete you stay at the mosque all night, until the sun comes up. Imagine this: me sitting under a bamboo tent surrounded by my entire community, in the VIP section with my counterpart and his wife, susu/arab radio blaring, imams on the ground, and my stomach grumbling. And the funniest part is I enjoyed it all, even though I had no idea what was going on. It was a very cool experience and around 12:30am they introduced me to the whole town. I ended up leaving around 1:00am but it was good face time, and I made up for dinner by eating a huge breakfast in the morning.

So, yeah! I’m doing good — healthy and happy. I’m learning a ridiculous amount of susu, which is going to help me immensely at site because most of the people I will be working with on the farms and groupements don’t speak much French. The plan is to spend the weekend here in Boke with some other volunteers and then head back to Dubreka to finish PC training. Our swear-in date is February 7th and then I’ll be an official volunteer! Inshallah, everything will continue to go smoothly.

I think of you all back home often! Communication is hard here, but I will be going to Boke once a month and be able to access the internet. Love, hugs, kisses, and lots of snuggles to you all back home.