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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Artsy Fartsy Africa

One rule about Peace Corps service is that you truly never know what you’ll do during your time as a volunteer; case and point: I helped to organize and run a classy art show. Though I’ve never really thought myself much of an art aficionado, I’ve always enjoyed going to galleries and taking in the sights, but putting myself in any position close to “an authority” on art, never. The truth is I was mostly brought on to the planning team of this art exhibition as a consultant. I’m the closest volunteer to Conakry and in the best position to help with the leg work. Also, I guess I can be a bit artsy at times, at least I pretend like I am. 

The months leading up to the exhibition had been periodically interrupted by meetings for the preparation of our grand opening. One piece of this artfully designed (more art puns to come) project was to make a promotional video showing interviews of three different artists with three different forms of art. Our first interview was with an artist who is a close friend to all the volunteers in Guinea. His name is James Bucher, but most would know him by his trade name, Batik James. Batik is a traditionally African form of painting using colored waxes on cloths. James provided wonderful footage of the surprisingly simple process as well as an impressive back story. No matter who you meet, if you take the time to hear their back story, you’re guaranteed to be surprised. James’ roots in art go deep. He learned much of his craft while living and studying in Tanzania. He, like many others, made his way to Guinea when the fighting began in Liberia. He took his wife and some other family members and began a new life in Conakry, where he now lives in a small compound hidden through some back streets. His work is always beautiful and, god bless him, cheap. I’ve already made a few gifts out of the works he’s talked me into buying. James’ story is very rich and I do enjoy visiting with him whenever I get a chance.

Gibril Bangura
Our second interviewee was another painter by the name of Gibril Bangura. Another close friend to many volunteers, Gibril not only participated in our little video project but also helped to organize all the artists for the show. He was a great contact to the very connected community of artists in Conakry. The other artists readily trusted him thanks to his first profession of being a pastor. It was nice to see that throughout the entire weekend of showings they all called him Father, regardless if they were Christian or not. Like James, Gibril is a refugee and has been living in Conakry for some time pastoring and painting to support his family. He too has a rich back story that could inspire a Lifetime movie. I’ve never interviewed anyone until these two and I found out how intimate of a process it truly is. I was very happy and humbled to hear such personal stories from both of the above artists.

Sekou Oumar Thiam
The final feature of our promo-video was a younger sculptor named Thiam. I have a very personal connection to Thiam because he was one of my first friends in Guinea. Thiam was my host-brother during my training in Dubreka. He really impressed all the volunteers with his creative style for carving words into wood in such a way that makes it look abstract while 5 minutes of observation will make the theme of the piece quite clear. I knew he’d be a good friend to keep around when, early on, he asked me about American music artists (a standard question here) but instead of asking about Rihanna and Chris Brown, he asked me if I knew Chris Issac and Brian Adams. Despite one of those artists being Canadian and not American, I was impressed he knew their names at all. I was happy to bring him into the art show as well as interview him to better understand where he’s come from and what obstacles he’s faced to get to where he is today.

So there’s my personal interest story for the month. The event itself went by with much less fuss than the lead up. Before the weekend got going, we gave the artists a training on client relations and self-marketing. We planned on them using that training the very same weekend as they were visited by many members of the ex-pat community here in Conakry. Sitting down during a calm Sunday afternoon I thought to myself, how nice it was to see a project up and running. Being a teacher will definitely have a product at the end of the year but this was tangible differences made in a weekend. When all was said and done, the 35 artists had sold close to $5000 worth of art. It was also nice to see how many gifts I got from thankful artists.

I hope to organize another art show, with the help of some fellow volunteers, before I leave Guinea. It was a nice way to help the art community of Conakry but there was much room left for improvement. If we do go for it a second time, keep an eye out for things you liked and I could pick up some nice souvenirs!

PS: For more photos of works from James, Gibril, Thiam and more artists, check my facebook albums.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Same Place. Same Job.

This is near where we had the meeting, not The Lord of the Rings
After almost two straight months of traveling, I’ve finally made it back to what I’ve come to know as normal life in Guinea: teaching most mornings, Coyah in the afternoon, and all the reoccurring characters who’ve stealthily taken important roles in my service. My return to Wonkifong was quite unceremonious. Seeing village friends who I hadn’t seen or called in two months were polite enough to show a whole minute of excitement before going back to normal. It was a calm transition which was probably the best way. The habits of my daily life conformed quickly the village life I’d started a whole year earlier.

That’s really all that October had for me. I got to spend some extra time in Conakry to help plan an art exhibition. Time in Conakry most always leads to more time with other volunteers. I had just as much work as play mind you, it’s just that fun in Conakry with friends beats a Fanta and the BBC for a Saturday night.

November brought a few more noteworthy weekends. The first being a meeting for education volunteers. We got together to edit a new training manual another volunteer had recently produced. It was a motivating weekend during a school year that looks pretty bleak, so far as educational system goes. That same weekend was the weekend of cousin Daniella’s wedding to a great guy. I was sad I couldn’t be there for her big day but they understood the circumstances. So here’s my public congratulations to them!
A student just happened to pass my house with a monkey!
The second major highlight of November would be the holiest of all American holidays, Thanksgiving. Last year’s turkey day was quite impressive with a large spread of western food. This year’s Thanksgiving involved much of the same, I even made another lasagna, but then was topped by adding the second must-have of Thanksgiving: football. I mentioned offhandedly to my director that I’d be ducking out of dinner early to try and catch some of the UofM vs. OSU game. She then feels it’s the right time to inform us that she’s recently been connected to American TV programs like FOX, ABC and dieu merci, ESPN. Meaning, in a Thanksgiving Day miracle, I got to watch, in real time, a great UofM/OSU game. I would have enjoyed a better ending but I can only ask for so much on one day.

That’s October and November. Normally a time for fall trips and bon fires. I got to spend one more autumn watching rain fall incessantly instead of leaves and watching my students play futbol instead of UM play football. I’ve already made the promise to my mother that I’ll be home in time for next year’s Thanksgiving so I’m glad I made the most of this autumn in Guinea.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A New Kind of Boot Camp

When getting ready to leave for the Peace Corps over a year ago, I found myself talking with service men and women pretty often. It was always pretty awkward for me to hear a military veteran compare his/her service to what I was planning to do. Then, in a twist I never saw coming, I can say that during my service I've been through Boot Camp....I guess the serviceman's analogy wasn't too far off.

So as not to confuse anyone, I'll give some back story. If you've diligently read my blogs so far, in April I wrote that the largest health concern in Guinea, by far and away, is malaria. Guinea is not alone in this battle; throughout the entire continent, malaria weighs a heavy burden on men, women and children alike. One of the first goals that the Peace Corps was founded on was the fight against malaria, but it's only in the past few years that this fight has found a great new weapon. Peace Corps service takes many forms but a new program is creating a new type of volunteer. Through continent-wide trainings of selected volunteers, Stomp Out Malaria, an initiative-based program, is helping PCV's collaborate and synchronize their public health efforts. They reason that many small separate events are a nice effort and lightly effective but more large scale events connected by a common brand and message create a movement.

And thus, I'm now in on the movement. I'm hooked. I'm motivated. I'm encouraged. I'm empowered. All thanks to Stomp Out Malaria's Boot Camp. Two weeks in Thies, Senegal with a group of 32 PCV's has entirely refocused my service and maybe even my career path.

I was selected to attend the Malaria Boot Camp after a brief application process in June/July. I had heard great stories from other volunteers who had already been, so I was really excited to be apart of the team. My flight leaving Guinea was a bit in question due to the upcoming elections, so I arrived at the airport at 4PM for a 9PM flight. After 4 hours waiting in the lobby, I found out my flight was delayed to 1AM which then became 3:30AM. Great start.

I landed in Senegal around 5AM and got my finger prints taken for the biometric VISA. The poor chauffeur waiting for me woke up from his cozy front sear sleep and brought me to a hotel where I promptly passed out. Waking up a few short hours later was tough but I didn't want to the “that” guy who missed the bus. Imagine my sleep-deprived stupor being broken by the sight of an old college friend! I couldn't believe my luck finding a friend in a hotel in Dakar, not to mention he was going to the same training! My morning was saved and I handed decision powers over Dan. The ride to Thies, Senegal seemed quite familiar. Despite being in a new country with people I had just met, boarding a large bus, identical to the one we use in Guinea, packed in with bags and other visiting volunteers just felt like normal Peace Corps.

Sleep under your nets kids.
The following two weeks were some of the best of my service so far. The training, in general, was so well run that I forgot it was a Peace Corps training. That is to say that, an air-conditioned conference room equipped with Wi-Fi strong enough to Skype the U.S. from a Mac with a wireless keyboard, doesn't come standard for most PC functions. We talked about malaria, public health, and development from all angles giving me a full view of the global malaria situation. I could go on for much longer explaining the actually intriguing sessions on mosquitoes or the fun and active sessions using soccer to teach people about malaria, but I'll save you the time and say it was impressive.

Wherever you go, GO BLUE!
Outside of the training itself, the PCV's there with me made this training stand out. We chalk it up to the environment, affectionately called the Peace Corps Effect, but after just 3 days together, we all felt like longtime friends. Three days Peace Corps time is like 6 months back home. I got to meet PCV's from all over Africa, from South Africa to Ethiopia to Senegal. This also means I've been schemeing to find a way to visit a lot more countries. Anyone want to meet me in Malawi? Cameroon? Kenya? Madagascar? Benin? Liberia? I've already mentioned that I saw a fellow Wolverine but 4 Wolverines in the same place in West Africa....amazing!

Nearing the end of the training I got a message telling me I had a choice to make: leave in the next 10 minutes or stay in Dakar for an extra week and a half. This dilemma caught me off guard but was caused by the mounting tensions in Conakry over the impending elections. Not wanting to miss any of the training, I chose the long-stay option. And thus, I prepared to spend another week in Dakar. The last night before everyone else left we went out for a nice dinner and some dancing. Then, for the first day of my extended stay, I sat on the beach all afternoon. Rough. My luck continued when I found out my COS'ed friends from Guinea, who I thought I had said goodbye to already, were still in Dakar. The next week was looking pretty great now. Unfortunately, I found out early the next morning that I'd be taking the a flight that evening. It was bittersweet news because it meant that things were calm in Guinea but it also meant that I wouldn't be spending my birthday in Dakar at a bowling alley. So I went downtown, had some Korean food, ate some ice cream, saw my friends then ran off to the airport.
Surprise last visit with Shane and Syd!

I've now been to Senegal twice. Both times were amazing and unforgettable adventures. Going to Malaria Boot Camp had a large impact on my professional and personal life. I don't know how, but I hope the rest of my second year will be this a guy can dream, can't he?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dante est retourné!

For the non-french readers, the above title means “Dante has returned”. It seems an odd statement to use for a title but it works in context. The current president of Guinea, Alpha Conde, ran using the slogan “Guinée is back”, just like English. Not sure what campaign manager told him to use English but hey he's president isn't he?! As educational as this tangent is, I'll continue.

I'm back! Back in Guinea, back to “la vie volontaire”, back to constant (and terrible) Franglais, back to daily fishy rice, back to sitting 2 in the front and 4 in the back. That last one is in no way a euphemism and instead refers to the real packing strategy that is public transportation in Guinea. Throughout my entire trip back home all my concerned friends and family would test my staying power and constantly ask the question “are you ready to go back?”, or something to that effect. I described in my last post the odd feeling of boarding the plane and how the feeling was so different. It was like that arriving too. For as different as my two worlds are, it was entirely natural to get back into Guinea life. I didn't show up expecting that Guinea had magically installed electricity and super markets while I was gone. I got off the plane and saw just what I expected. Things were the same and that much was comforting.

I spent most of my first day back in bed catching up on the sleep that I neglected in favor of watching movies on the plane. Power-napping my way through jet-lag was a necessary step if I was going to make it through the next month. August was a jam packed month with travel, vacation and fun, but now I was looking at September which was just as packed but with travel, work and fun. I went straight from Conakry to Dubreka, the location of my training, a whole year beforehand. This time I was going to Dubreka as a trainer and not as a trainee. Being in Dubreka is a bit of a flashback each time I go back. I see my old host family and walk around where I spent my first three months of my Guinean life. The new group of PCV's arrived in July but this would be the first time that I was going to see them as a trainer. 
Helping out at Practice School.

Being as the trainees were nearing the end of PST, they were already in the middle of practice school by the time I got there. It was really cool to see how far they all had come already. Helping out with practice school was really easy and the trainees were looking really strong. The best part of being a trainer is the chance to meet all the new volunteers, which was awesome. Thankfully, I've now been joined by another fellow Michigan Wolverine. Needless to say, we were fast friends.

That weekend was the planned trip for G24 to go shopping in Conakry, so as quick as I left I was headed back. There really wasn't much work to do that weekend besides playing tour guide for Conakry and drawing the occasional treasure map to finding the hidden gems of pseudo-American products. It was a lucky weekend to be in Conakry because of all the other unexpected guests. A good friend who was weeks away from the end of his service was there and thus, the celebration weekend began. We took full advantage of our last party together in Guinea and pulled out all the stops: decent beer, Jameson, live-streaming the U of M game, and cigars on the roof at 4 AM (after the U of M victory!). It was honestly the best way I could send off a good friend and the end of his time being a Peace Corps Volunteer and a damn good one at that.

Village skies seem bigger.
The last full week of training is pretty light, mostly filled with surveys, tests and ceremonies. I enjoyed the week hanging out with some old friends from my stage and making new friends in the new stage. I was sitting around talking with the Training Manager one afternoon when he mentioned he was in my village recently. I wasn't too surprised since Ousmane knows just about everyone in Guinea but I was a bit disconcerted when he told me he was there for a funeral. He then told me that an old man in village passed away. I immediately knew which old man it was. It was the man who would smile and wave at me every morning on my walk to school. I can honestly say he saw me 97% of the days, I've lived in Wonkifong. He was a staple to me. It hit me pretty hard that I wasn't there to say goodbye and made me realize how much I miss my village. For as much as I complain about them on the whole, there are certain people in my village that I have a true fondness for. We may not sit down and chat about life for hours on end, but we talk everyday and I like that. I'll miss that old man every time I walk by his house and remember his impressively long, white beard and genuine smile as he squeaked out a “Bonjour!” I moved on with the rest of my week and made sure to stop by the village one afternoon, if only for a few hours.

The last days of PST were so much fun for me and I was determined to help G24 have a good time too. By that time in PST, you are quite comfortable with your host family, your living arrangement and Dubreka in general so things are really manageable, leaving extra time for fun stuff. So with our free time we took one more trip to the beautiful waterfall near Dubreka. 

In a bittersweet ending to my time as a trainer, I had to run off before the real swearing-in ceremony so I could make it to the second leg of my work/fun filled September: Malaria Boot Camp in Thies, Senegal. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Vacation Back Home

It's only been quite recently that I've understood the relativity of the term: vacation. I've grown up thinking that it's not a break from routine until you drive multiple hours on the highway, usually in a general north direction. This summer was the first time that my vacation took me back home and not farther away. I grew up using summers to get away from home but now I see that in the real world, one uses vacation days to get back there.

Everyone, myself included, was a little nervous about my return to America, land of the plenty, land of running water, land of “HOLY CRAP it smells good here!” Much to my surprise, things were....well oddly natural. It was like I was hyper sensitive to noticing the little luxuries that make a typical day in the States darn near magical. But at the end of the day, it's still my home. It's getting back to normal and that's always easy. Seeing my family wasn't movie epic and I didn't have to reintroduce myself to my friends. I was home, we hugged tight, we fell into old habits. I'd make a pop culture reference (albeit a bit obsolete) and my sister's would roll their eyes and my attempt at wit. I'd make stupid joke (sometimes Africa specific) and my friends would still high five me with sarcastic enthusiasm. Getting home and seeing that things don't change all that dramatically was quite comforting.

Looking back it's a bit remarkable at how much I fit into a 20 day vacation. Starting at home my friend's wasted no time in keeping me up past my bedtime as I staved off jet lag. The arrival of my older sister, her then-soon-to-be-husband, and a large portion of the San Marinese kept the pace moving. The third night was highlighted by an amazing dinner with our best friend family. The next stop on this tour of awesome was my parent's gorgeous cottage and more family time. We took a little time to be real tourists with the visiting family, and I was so happy I got to spend time with my little cousin who I'm convinced could actually grow up to be Spider-Man.
Welcome to the family sir!
It took awhile but we finally got to the real reason for the expensive trip home: my big sister's big day. I know I'm young and I haven't attended too many weddings yet but the bar was set high by this one and the rest can try to keep up. My sister's wedding was so fun and full of love that I'm considering not getting married now. I don't want to handle the pressure of having to follow that up! So many friends and family that came from so far. The whole weekend was just perfect. I couldn't be happier to have a new brother-in-law along with a larger extended family, and I can't wait to see them all again!

The past month has given me a second chance that I'd never really considered: I left for the Peace Corps......again. If you've been following my blog since the beginning, or at least read the first one, you'll know that leaving the first time around was beyond tough and grossly emotional. I unintentionally skipped over that part this time around because I wasn't leaving my mom, dad, and sister at the airport, I just got on the “L” and said goodbye to a good friend where the paths to our terminals diverged. Sitting in the airport waiting to start 16 hours of flying, I thought about how much easier it was than the first time. It's not because my dad's semi-teary eyes weren't there to watch me go, it was easy because I knew where I was going. I left the first time only able to comprehend the next ten steps in front of me. This time I knew where I was going, who waited for my return, what I was going to do, and why I wanted to continue.
This has been going on a long time.

I can't thank you enough. My amazingly, large and supportive family. My best friends who know that 2 years is a drop in the bucket that will get washed away after the first beer. My sister for perfectly timing her wedding (partial credit to her husband of course). From the distance I write this at, I can only hope that these few words can help to express my gratitude for an unforgettable vacation and for all the support.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why Teachers Need a Summer Vacation Too.

Growing up we all remember how sacred of a time that summer meant. It was the highest of holidays for anyone below highschool. The surprisingly similar experience for me has been my first summer vacation from the other side, a teacher's summer vacation. To be fair to educators back home, one's who are a bit more certified than myself, probably won't take to a break like a volunteer does but the intention is the same: I finally had time to do things I wanted to do. Luckily, the Guinean academic calendar is also, shall we say, liberal, than that which I'm accustomed to back home in the States; leaving me with ample time to pursue secondary projects and some "projects" that are just for fun.

Back in May, the school year came to a quiet close as the students gradually stopped showing up. It definitely lacked the end of the year BANG that field days and class parties added (something I'll try to rememdy next year). So with the second half of May I turned my focus to starting secondary projects. The first one I jumped on was a Training of Trainers, ToT, (Peace Corps loves their abbreviations) for a Youth Entrepreneurship Training Program, YETP (see what I mean). It's a volunteer developped program that focuses on the basics of entrepreneurship in a legal and formal (key terms) market. Being business-savvy in the States is something that we see from a very young age and certain aspects are just natural to us at this point but in a country where a large percentage of transactions are informal, business management takes quite the different path. A simple conversation about creativity and the role it plays for an entrepreneur took up an entire 2 hour class for me and my participants who were all educated adults, some with years of business experience. Overall the class took me just under a month and I trained 20 Guineans in the art of "the sell". The course went well so I will most likely give another soon but the real results for me will be whether or not in 6 months my participants have actually started a new business!

Whilst giving the YETP class was the only formal project I accomplished during my summer so far, I've been quite busy with other ideas. Since April, I've been working on what I hope will be my "lasting effect" project. It all started when I wrote a small theater piece to perform in front of middle schoolers about malaria. It's since then grown to a highly edited version of the same piece but for a children's book. I've already found a local illustrator for the book and the pictures are amazing. I'm really excited about this project and the next, and biggest, step is to find a publisher who's willing to work at a volunteer level or close to it. My malaria projects will be one of my main focuses for the second half of my service and I hope that this book will be the highlight.

Outside of real work I've been doing a lot of traveling and seeing other volunteers. Time in the regional capitals and an amazing 4th of July celebration where a friend and I built a brick grill were a great way to pass the sometimes slow moving summer. But really the best trip is just about to start as I'm sitting in Conakry before flying back home! It's a really weird feeling knowing that I'll be home so soon, nothing's changed right? So prepare for a celebration because I can't wait to see everyone!

Across the world...for now,


Friday, April 19, 2013

STOMP the Yard....

...or at least that patchy, dirt looking area near my house. This month actually does come with a lot of  "stomping" on my part. For Peace Corps Volunteers across Africa, this month is Malaria Month and we're picking up the pace on our "Stomping Out Malaria in Africa" initiative. Now, I know many people reading this are wondering why the Peace Corps is so off target with the disease battlefront, but actually for many countries in Africa malaria, not AIDS, is causing the greatest societal burden. So, me being the bandwagon fan that I am, jumped on board to show malaria who's boss, if you know what I'm saying?

*Disclaimer: Yes, I know that I said I would do my best to write all my blogs with a somewhat positive spin, but I'll forewarn you, it'll be tough to do with this topic. Malaria is a really serious problem here and I can only begin to shed some light on the havoc it can cause to a Guinean family. So please, bear with me and I promise my next post will be all flowers, rainbows, and highlights of how I singlehandedly saved a baby from a burning building using only a tooth brush and a can of peanut butter. Maybe.

--In 2010, an estimated 655,000 people worldwide died from the disease (most of whome were children under the age of 5)
--90% of these deaths occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa
--100% of Guinea's population lives in a "high transmission area" meaning high risk, always.

These along with many other statistics and information sheets have taught me what kind of impact this disease has on not only Guinea, not just the region, but the continent of Africa. But, no session can compare to seeing the effects up close. The first time I really felt afraid of malaria was when a fellow volunteer called me to say that a little girl from her host family died during the night. The story is short and sad. She was running around playing and laughing in the evening, but then came down with a fever. She passed away as her family drove her to the hospital.

Teaching students about net maintenance

Sadly, this storyline is not at all uncommon. I've seen it play out twice before myself. I lost an 8th grade student of mine unexpectedly. I asked around to the causes and my students cited a pretty similar progression of events that my friend had described. The second time was unfortunately much closer to me. One of my best friends at site, a ninth grade student named Lamine, came over to my porch like he normally does on a boring afternoon and sat down. I could tell something was off and then he told me that his little brother died. Same story, word for word. It was in that moment of shock that I truly felt how helpless the general Guinean population is against malaria. I didn't know what to do. Do I hug him? Do I talk to him? Do I ask about his brother? How do I even begin to console someone who's just lost his little brother in the most unexpected manner? I did what I could, I oiled his bike chain, gave him some water with propel powder in it, and let him sit at my house until he was ready to leave.

Yes, it's sad. It's horrible, terrible, awful and unjust. How can a disease that is mostly shrugged off by those in developed countries be so rampant here? In addition to all of those feelings and questions I felt something start. I knew I had to spend whatever extra time/energy that I have during my service to aid in the fight against this entirely curable disease.

This past month or so has been filled with malaria activities, plans, meetings and events. To start the month off, I channeled some of my former director's talent to write an educational theater sketch about malaria. Theater is a really great way to reach a lot of people in the community, but next I gotta translate it into the local languages! During the second week of April I had the pleasure to host three of my good friends here in my humble abode in Wonkifong. My friends, being much more "Livestrong" than I am, rode their bikes 250 km to see me. Along the way, they stopped in some smaller villages to give sensibilizations to community members. I got to join in for the last two villages closest to my house.

Malaria dance class!

Just today I had one of the best times I've had in country so far! I gave a hip-hop dance class to a youth group in one of the regional capitals and turned it into a malaria dance to get them pumped up about the work they'll be doing in the next few months for the mosquito net distribution campaign that's scheduled for later this year. The malaria events continue tomorrow when I go to a middle school with a group of volunteers to talk about malaria and steps to prevent it. I wrote a small presentation piece for this event in the form of a Dr. Seuss-esque story about a student who goals get set aside when she gets sick!

To keep the ball rolling (hehe), there is also a HUGE soccer game (see what I did there) later this month. This event is my baby. I've been working with my community and it's leadership to make sure that everything will be prepped and ready to go when 25 volunteers come in to give sensitizations to the village as well as play a game of soccer. The spectacle of non-African, non-athletic volunteers playing against Guineans who are pretty much born with a soccer ball juggling effortlessly at their feet, is sure to pull a decent crowd. I may even have some big name chameos appearances in the audience but I don't want to jinx it so if all it goes as planned I'll update everyone. I plan to use this grand audience to our advantage and give an over-the-top sensitization that will knock their socks (and mosquito bites) off.
So as I continue to feel like I'm planning a school dance for high school student council, my sister said something that made me feel good "Dante, you're doing, like, real work over there!" I guess that I can only hope that my normally well-spoken sister was right and that my work will help my community to better fight malaria. I've biked, danced, and kicked to end malaria in Guinea, but it's all just a small step in the effort to STOMP OUT MALARIA in Africa. How will you Stomp Out Malaria in 2013?

April has come and went. Malaria is still out there but now, thanks to PCV's, our Guinean communities are a bit more prepared to handle the task. Both the soccer events went very well. In my village alone we reached out to over 500 Guineans! Also the novelty of a soccer game has not worn off for them yet. I still get commentary from the game, now two months past. Which, given the theme, was the point! I'm very happy with my malaria work in April and have already started planning for longer impact projects like a children's book! Stay tuned, stay healthy.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Spring Break 2013: Heights, Hassan, Huts, and Hikes

Out to see the sites!

As surprised as I was, I’m glad Guinea observes the ever holiest of holidays: spring break. I’m pretty sure it’s a something leftover from the French influence but they have a weeklong break every year around the time of Easter. This year that week started on a Wednesday and ended on a Thursday, meaning that the students would take the entirety of both weeks as break because who would want a half week of school, right?

So in taking advantage of the moral loophole that is my teaching schedule, I headed out to the Fouta for a hiking adventure with a group of friends. There is a small village in Guinea named Douki (yes pronounce that like dooki) and in this small village is the oddest little Guinean man I’ve had the pleasure to meet thus far in my service. The owner of the location we stayed at was named Hassan and he can only be described as a man of many talents. A five and a half foot, chain smoker (those things may be related) who speaks not only the local languages of Guinea, French, and English but he also has a quick tongue in Spanish! Hassan always had a funny comment to add or some random skill (handstands, juggling, etc) to show us throughout our time with him.

I would definitely pay to just hang with Hassan, but the real reason we were out in the brush was for the hiking. Hassan’s place is a bit famous amongst Peace Corps volunteers and we wanted to see what was out there. The first night we arrived we took a shortened hike to the top of a mountain. It was short because we were already highly elevated. The real hike was the next day, with what Hassan named “Chutes and Ladders”. The 9-hour hike started with 4 hours of walking down a mountainside. We walked next to cliffs, next to waterfalls and inside crevices, the views were gorgeous. We even got to stop a few times to see some monkeys from a distance! So we started with the descent and we were all a bit wary about the ascent, but the trail was true to its name and the 4 hours of chutes were followed by 5 hours of ladders! Home-made ladders led us up countless levels of a massive crevice in the mountain range with a light waterfall on the side. The “ladders” were actually just bundles of branches tied together with vines, but if it works, it works.  Looking up from the back end, our group looked like they were in some kind of real life Donkey Kong, except thankfully there were no flaming barrels to trip us up.

We left Hassan after just two nights but a volunteer’s salary will force decisions like that. Next up we stopped by the Labe regional house for a night. We took advantage of being together in standard American fashion once again: beer pong. Good to see I still got it, ask Caleb for proof.

I made Labe a quick pit stop, as I headed back home to Wonkifong the next morning. I had to leave earlier than the others because I was expected visitors the next day! Two of the volunteers, Ben and Geoff, who had not been on the Douki trip were instead taking a bike trip. They started in their village of Telimele (telly-melly) and then, over three days, made their way to my village. A total distance of around 250 km!

Those two along with Caleb, who arrived by taxi the next day, spent a few days with me in Wonkifong. We spent Monday doing malaria projects (hanging mosquito nets and giving sensitizations) with general goofing around mingled in there. We managed to find some cheap wine and some cards for euchre making for a pretty good night. The next day we went to Forecariah (featured in the movie Blood Diamond) just to see some place new, plus they have a super market! That’s right friends and family, my vacation plans now hinge on the presence of a super market. Wednesday, we went back to work and did some more malaria sensitizations. Although whenever the four of us are together things are exactly like work anyways. To add a bit of spice to the day, we went swimming in a random spot in a river with a decent jump off a rock. That week overall was just amazingly fun and ridiculous. Those same guys are headed down towards me again near the end of the month and I’m worried we won’t be able to top it, but we’ll sure try!

Blending the line between work and play,

Had to do it. Go Blue.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reunited and it feels so good!

It’s been a long 5 months but finally we got the band back together! Just as it was true for the Partridge family, when a group shares a bus together so often, it creates a bond that you just want to sing about. Ok, the reunion of my stage wasn’t as musically magical as I would have had it but it was great nonetheless.

IST is something that Peace Corps throws in there to check up on you and give you some more information that would have just been confusing without any field experience. Ours was scheduled for the second week of February in Mamou, the same place I’d been in when I first met my counterpart.

To round out my visit to the Fouta region (middle region) of Guinea, I visited some other education volunteers before going to Mamou. I know that I’ve been describing that I live in the middle of nowhere but that was before I saw my friend’s site. If I live in the middle of nowhere, she’s at the edge. Seriously, I took a taxi an hour and a half through a mountain dirt road and then followed that up with a 2 hour bike ride to her village. It’s so far out there the taxi drivers don’t even go there. As one can imagine, when you are that “en brousse” (term we use meaning out in the brush) the views are pretty amazing. I loved stopping during my bike ride just to soak up the sites for a bit, and catch my breath. A nice day in the village of Bodie (boh-djay) and some good friends to catch up with was well worth the long travel.

Once at IST, we all got to spend a week catching up, exchanging stories, complaining about students, complaining about counterparts, complaining about co-workers …..seeing a theme? To get us through the rough spots we indulged in some American traditions like drinking games, Frisbee, and a home-made version of Family Feud (everyone does that right?).

Entering IST I wasn’t doing that great. Work was a struggle, community was a mystery and I couldn’t find a purpose. IST really helped to reignite my passion and light a fire under my ass. I’m only here for two years and as much as I have/will complain, that’s not that long. If I want to hold up my end of the contract I signed with Peace Corps, I better get my shit together and help my community.

Going to work like it’s Detroit,


PS: My can-do attitude also translated into a bit of redecorating. I hung up a bunch of my photos and now see the ones I love back home every day! Send me photos of you so I can think of you too when I want to quit! My pride may falter and tell me to go home but the pride you all have given me when you send me notes, I can’t let that down.

Reflections of a Fote 2: Guinean Look-a-likes

So far in my time in Guinea I have met and seen a lot of people who remind me of someone back home or a celebrity so I'm going to start a doppelganger list. I know I briefly mentioned some look-a-likes in another blog post but I wanted to show off some highlights.
        -In my 8th grade class there is a student who looks just like Seal, the singer. He's got the mild look of scars on his face to complete the look. Scars are actually used as a piece of style in Guinea. From time to time you'll see people with intentional scarring on their face. Actually met a few volunteers who are considering the same for themselves. I don't think I'll ever be that integrated. They do look cool but I'll leave those as the trademark of the real Seal and now my student. Just gotta find a rose for him to take a photo with.
       - Another student of mine in 9th grade has a habit of wearing a wig would pass as a costume wig for Tina Turner. It's curly and frizzed out into an afro style. The creativity and variety of the weaves and wigs that my students wear is always entertaining.
       - The most adorable doppelganger so far has been a little girl around six years old I met at the water pump. She and a friend were working together to push the foot pedal to pump the water. It was the cutest form of teamwork I've ever seen. Two 6 or 7 year old girls, each with one foot on the pump step, jumping in sync and constantly giggling. Her serious tone of Sussu plus the aforementioned scenario was enough to make me smile and giggle along but it wasn't until I realized that she looked exactly like Wanda Sykes that I actually laughed out loud. She's now one of the little kids I see around all the time and we still have chats despite no French on her part and no Sussu past "good morning" from me. She's always so direct with her speaking that I assume she's saying something of high importance.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reflections of a Fote 1: Guinean Equivalents

I've been doing my best to fit things about the Guinean culture and how everything works, looks, or smells around here but really I can't fit in great descriptions in my minute stories about my day so I'm gonna start a little something I'm going to call "Reflections of a Fote". Fote being the word that is used most common in Guinea as it gets yelled and /or chanted at me all the time because it means foreignor or white person. So I'll just throw in some of my random thoughts and observations of the Guinean culture or lifestyle and how it compares to what I know back in the good ol' US of A.

First installment of "Reflections of a Fote": Guinean Equivalents

When it comes to living in Guinea, I've had to make some concessions. Obviously running water, reliable electrcity, and a steady diet have seen the biggest changes, but there are other things where I can find equivalents instead of just not having them:

1. Going out to Eat
Just like in the States there are times when I just don't feel like cooking. Now in Guinea, I can't go to a pizza place or order delivery but I can always find a rice lady or walk to someone's house for a meal. The standard meal anywhere in Guinea is rice and sauce. There are a variety of sauces but really there is about 4 or 5 main choices. It's pretty standard in most markets for there to be few ladies who sell prepped rice and sauce plates. They set up a few benches and BAM, a Guinean restaurant. The village form of this is to just walk to someone's house. I wait til its around meal time, sit down and before you know it they bring a plate of rice and sauce. I frequent a house in my village with a bunch of little kids, who now know my name and its nice being a "usual" there. Since none of the kids speak French past "Ca va?" I ust make faces with them. They've learned how I raise my eyebrows a lot at them and have started mimicking that. So now I have a bunch of 4-6 year olds looking and me and raising their eyebrows giving the effect that they know something I don't or that they trying to make an innuendo.

2. Lunch Ladies
I was a little concerned about how I was going to eat during school days, being as the market is no where near the school and I've lost enough weight as it is. Come to find out, there's lunch ladies. By that I mean just some ladies who show to sell lunch. They show up right before the first class finishes and make a semi-circle at the edge of the school yard.

More to come under the topic of Guinean Equivalents as well as other stuff for Reflections of a Fote like Guinean Look-a-Likes, Guinean clothing style, and Guy Love!

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Finally we have some volunteers newer than me in country! In November, G23, a new extension stage arrived. They are fun, tough, and motivated group. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with all of them and enjoyed even more being the person who answers the questions for once. So in my Peace Corps experience, I’ve moved onto my “sophomore” year, and much like college, it’s better with a little experience under your belt. Also, it’s like high school because you’re still a little peon who has so so much to learn!

In an effort to play welcome wagon to the new stage, I paid them a visit at the training site in Dubreka. It was a really weird experience for me seeing that place again. It’s like going back to your elementary school (I’m clearly a teacher- that’s my third education based analogy) or some place from your past, and when you visit all you can think about how different of a person you are now compared to the naïve lost puppy you were when you were there.

I had fun partying with the new stage and then made plans to help them climb the nearby mountain. Yes, the very same mountain that I climbed twice during my pre-service training, I figured the hat trick was necessary. Unforeseen caveat- the change of season can really change the conditions of the mountain! We got near the top that was mostly water and low plants the first time I was up there and found a full grown forest! We had to hack our way through to the summit with a machete, real bushwhacking! Also, at one point I suffered a slight injury: I got a splinter! This wasn’t a little prick that you pull out on the first try but instead I had my new friends dig at my heel with a pocketknife to remove the piece. Really odd place for a makeshift surgery but we managed, and I’m fine the piece fell out after a week (danced it out actually!). This also means that the Chaco’s commercial that was my service so far has been ruined. They’re great sandals and durable as hell, but not great to defend against stubbed toes and splinters in the feet.

I got to continue the party with G23 when I helped with their swearing-in process. It was again really odd to be on the outside of the process that I’d just gone through a few months prior to. Next thing to look forward to is my in-service training! The ever awaited follow-up to PST, IST will be a wonderful reunion of G22, the best Peace Corps stage I’ve ever been a part of!


Monday, January 21, 2013

Grind it out.

After my vacation to Senegal (Dakar and M'Bour) for Christmas I was feeling super refreshed and ready to attack all the problems that have been plaguing my first three months of service. I really was finally feeling proud of the people around me and seeing the beauty in the small subculture that I live in after comparing it to the other cultures nearby. But just as it is in the states when you return from a long vacation, no matter how much you have changed (perhaps you got your hair braided on a beach in Bahamas or a temporary tattoo in Mexico -not reccommended), once you open that door that's been locked for multiple weeks, everything's back to normal. Everything is exactly where you left it (hopefully) and you pick up you life like you just went to the grocery store not Italy. This experience hit me, and my new found energy, pretty hard and sent me right back to the point I was at before vacation.
I guess the one concellation is that my vacation goes by quick and now I've been here 7 months instead of 6. So no, my life didn't change with a different attitude but I am definitely moving forward. The little problems and annoyances aren't as bad and I know how to deal with them better (the influx of care packages for Christmas helped a lot too!).
Work is I'm getting better at the pacing of a lesson and presenting material but no matter what, these kids do not learn. It's really really frustrating to feel fully confident in the subject and the notes but when these kids are looking for the definition of how ions form so they can memorize it they really aren't learning anything. So again, I'm moving forward but instead of the American sprint pace directly towards progress that I'm used to, it's more like a gentle stroll interupted with lollygagging in the general direction of progress.
Well, for once I won't put on a sugar coat and say things are awesome but I'm not knocked down just a little dazed, if you will. I really can't express my gratitude for all the support I get from you all. Please please PLEASE send me a letter if you find some time and slip a few photos in there too so I can see your beautiful faces! I hope you all are doing great back home! Say hello to the sandwich meat drawer in your fridge for me, I miss it.