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Friday, January 31, 2014

WOFA comes to Wonkifong


Through this blog I’ve done my best to show friends and family back home a little bit of what I see everyday living in my little village, Wonkifong. If you’ve read any of my blogs there is almost always one or two references to someone’s surprise, shock, or disbelief at seeing a white American guy wander through their village. The reactions vary from levels of “check this out” all the way to “NO EFFING WAY! THAT’S A WHITE GUY! SERIOUSLY GUYS, EVERYONE COME LOOK!” I want to stress that this is my experiences but it’s also a within reason generalization for a villager’s reaction to one, only one, foreigner. Now take those reactions and multiply them by a group of 15! That’s what I got to see this year when a group of high school students from Massachusetts came to stop by.
                

Wofa and my students!

For about 6 months prior to the planned visit, I had been in contact with one of Wofa’s lead chaperone. She had put up a post on a PC Guinea facebook group, explaining that her group was planning a trip to Guinea and would love to meet some students around the same age. I loved the idea of setting up pen-pals for my students and then the amazing opportunity for them to meet their pen-pals! That would have been enough for me to get on board but then the group sweetened the deal when I found out that they were not your average group of Guinea-enthused high schoolers (everyone knows that group right?) but a group of dancers and drummers who specialize in Guinean traditional music. I couldn’t believe it. If you know me at all, you know my passion for dance and this helped to push me to make something amazing happen with this incredible group.
                
As Wofa’s impending visit got closer, I did what I could to facilitate the letter exchange between the two groups of students separated by an ocean and a language barrier. Before the group even landed in Conakry, my students all had the names of their assigned pen-pal memorized, well they knew how to write their names, pronunciation was still a work in progress. In their defense, I don’t know many French speakers who would pronounce Wyatt, Iris or even Ryan in the American way, at least clearly. Despite these, and many other, linguistic problems, my students were very excited to receive their pen-pals in their own village.
                

Improvised drums!

Wofa got to my village in the late afternoon where a decent crowd of students was mixed with other interested village neighbors waiting in the community center. The group stopped by my house first to prep as best they could after their morning travels. They ended up using my empty buckets and bidons (big water container) as improvised drums and the dancers started to stretch out the cramps of the bus ride over. The students and their chaperones were a bit nervous upon arriving but all worries subsided as they entered the community center amidst the claps and cheers of a sizable audience. The group wasted no time and got the performance started right away. After a shortened version of their full show, the mic was passed off to Wofa’s leader, Alpha Bisko Kaba. Once I met Bisko, I understood the group’s origins much better. I admit Guinean dance is complex and beautiful but I couldn’t understand how a dance troupe from suburban Massachusetts picked it up for their focus. Bisko is originally from Guinea and leads the group of dancers at a local arts-focused high school.  
               
The event ended with the two groups of pen-pals meeting on stage. Everyone involved played along like good sports despite the language barrier between the two groups. Inspired by the initial performance, my students insisted on dancing for their new American friends. They all clapped and laughed along as a few key students took the spotlight for a few minutes. To end the day, my students told me they wanted to sing for the group as well. So without needing more than the go-ahead from me, my student’s busted out the one English song they all knew: Nas’ “I Can.”  Wofa was clearly shocked to hear the opening phrases of a dated hip-hop song come from my students with confidence.

“I know, I can
Be what I want to be,
If I work hard at it,
I’ll be where I want to be!”
-Nas “I Can”

Even though the group had to rush back to Conakry before losing the daylight, I got to see Wofa once more the next week at a special performance at the American Ambassador’s house. I was pretty shocked to get such a special invite, but also I was happy that I’d get to pass off the newest batch of letters in person. After watching their set for a second time, I got a chance to chat with Wofa a little more. I spent the better part of the evening talking with the group and the one thing I could not get out of my head was the realization that I was nowhere near this cool when I was in high school. I definitely did not have the guts to fly off to Africa let alone dance, sing, and drum while interpreting hand signals accompanied by phrases in Sussu. I was quite impressed.

I never got a great opportunity to thank Wofa for their willingness and courage to visit a random Peace Corps volunteer. Thanks Wofa, you’ve truly made memories for my students, for my village and most of all for me. I nu wali.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

It Doesn’t Look Like Christmas Part 2: New Year’s Glory

 Though our little traveling group had already crossed the entire country over a three day span, the journey continued. The second leg of our adventure took us from the southernmost point of Guinea to almost the northernmost. Much like our trip down, the trip up looked daunting but went for the “Band-Aid” technique and tried to get it done as fast as possible. It started with an 18 hour drive from Lola to Mamou. Once again, we bought out the entire taxi so we sat comfortably and I even watched a movie as all my friends slept. It was a nice moment, reminiscent of long car rides with my family – everyone sleeps except for the driver and me who occasionally exchange glances of “whew, almost there…”

La Dame de Mali
Part of the reason for our rush up country was to make it in time for a fun New Year’s Eve party. Coincidentally, I was spending New Year’s 2014 in the same place as 2013: Labé. The crowd was a bit different but a great time was had. If only for a few hours, we felt very American while playing beer pong and other drinking games after having pizza for dinner. I realize I just drew a sad picture of American life but that’s what I miss sometimes.

The real reason we forced ourselves to drive so far so quickly was to make it to another grand installment of Coup de Pied Contre le Palu (Kick Against Malaria – the same soccer event I hosted in my village back in April 2013). This time the game was being held in the beautiful, but secluded, village of Mali-Yembering, which is home to La Dame de Mali. It’s a would-be tourist attraction that features a cliff side that resembles like a woman looking off in the distance. The folklore comes with sexist undertones of female obedience, but it’s a beautiful natural site by any standard.

The weekend started with a quick trip to La Dame de Mali but she was hardly the main attraction. Our first full day in Zac and Caitie’s village was highlighted by a “friendly” basketball game in the evening. I would not declare myself a basketball player but I would declare myself competitive, sometimes overly, thus I went for it. It was fun to play a different game with Guineans being as it’s almost always futbol.

Victor's wear maize.
The next day we prepped ourselves for the big game. After the loss in my own village I was determined to turn it around for Zac, who was a week away from the end of his service. Getting our matching jerseys pumped us up as we walked over to the big dust bowl that serves as the city’s stadium. With perseverance, luck, and some help from three Guinean ringers, the American team came up with a 3-1 win! I couldn’t believe it but the scoreboard tells no lies. Again for those following at home, that puts the American team at 2 wins and 1 loss thus far; and there are an impressive four more games coming up in the next month!

The game was followed up by a Malaria Fair at the Maison des Jeunes (Youth House) complete with DJ. The night started with a slam poem from the local youth group’s leader who opened for the group’s sketch on malaria. We then lead a crowd of close to 100 teens through an eight booth fair showcasing all the important pieces of malaria prevention. The first stall they all visited featured a "Promise Banner". In signing the banner, the participants were promising to do their part to protect their community by sleeping under their net every night. It seemed like they were having a good time but the fair may have been out-shined by the dance that followed. Overall, we got our message out there and informed lots of teens on vital malaria prevention skills.
Presenting the "Promise Banner"

The next day I started my trek back to Wonkifong, which took a few extra days than normal. I had already agreed to give a malaria session to the newest group of volunteers, thus I passed up my own village to head to Dubreka. After all was said and done I had traveled more in two weeks than most Guineans do in their lives, and I was ready for a vacation from my vacation. I loved every step of that journey but I don’t think that my next vacation will be as active as this one. I’m thinking beaches.


Any who, that was my second, and final, Christmas vacation in Guinea. All I can hope is that my next Christmas will involve snow and, more importantly, my first family. With that said, I’m glad I got to spend such a nice time with my second family - my Peace Corps Family.

Monday, January 6, 2014

It Doesn’t Look Like Christmas Part 1: Guinée Forestière

Once again I took Chevy Chase’s lead and got in the car for another grand Christmas vacation this year. The destination was completely different but I had the comfort of my standard travel companions: Shadassa, Tess, and Caleb. We set a date and, like all super teams, assembled –read: met up at a random hotel in Haute Guinea. It took us three days of driving to get to our first destination, N’Zerékoré, the region capital of the lower forest region of Guinea.

Safe travels!
In an attempt to make the long journey more tolerable we broke up the longest stretch between Mamou and N’Zerékoré (Google these names to get a visual- not a terribly far distance but it’s a terribly made road) by stopping in Kissidougou for one night. To get there we had déplaced (bought out) a taxi to make the trip more comfortable as well. We arrived with daylight to spare and walked around Kissidougou for an afternoon. Despite the fact that the Guineans in Kissidougou speak a very different language and consider themselves very different than say the Sussu, Kissidougou was just another Guinean town – market, road, lots of children, and people calling at me when I walk by. On our way out, we stopped by one of the few Guinean National Museums, conveniently located on our walk to the taxi. We all smiled politely at the curator and it seemed like we were listening intently, but really we were all a bit disappointed that all of the “artifacts” on display were mostly items we see in use daily. I give them points for effort but I know the history of Guinea is much richer than the display suggests. 

The forest region is the farthest from the coast and roads leading into the region capital of N’Zerékoré are long and in varying conditions from perfect highway to filled with potholes deeper than the car. With such an effort needed to get to “The Forest”, I had only heard tales about the towns and the people there. When we arrived in the evening and went straight to the hotel to meet up with two other groups of volunteers. Part of the draw to the Forest is that it is home to most of the Christian population of Guinea. We thought this might lead to a different type of city but finally seeing the fabled city was actually anticlimactic. It was just another Guinean town in a new Guinean region with more Guineans speaking another Guinean language.
After our three days of travel, my group had arrived just in time to celebrate Christmas Eve with our friends. We found a restaurant nearby that we talked into preparing a buffet type of meal for our large group. The cook ended up providing an impressive spread highlighted by pork! Pork is virtually non-existent in the other regions of Guinea due to the strong Islamic influence. We enjoyed the night filled with good food, good friends and passable (but cheap) drinks.

Despite the situation, it was still Christmas and we were determined to make it so! As my first task in the morning, I donned the dirty the Santa hat I found in the Conakry house and went to find some presents. I took my trusty elf side-kick Caleb with me on a grand adventure to a gas station where we bought orange juice and it’s best friend, champagne. Christmas morning normally means family, snow, coffee, and presents, but this year we improvised with mimosas and watching A Muppet Christmas Carol as a Peace Corps family. That’s really how most of our time in N’Zerékoré went by. As I mentioned before, it was just another typical Guinean town, meaning that the amenities were limited and the experiences were predictable. The adventurous part of our Christmas vacation was the next step.

As our second stop, we set our sights high; the highest point of Guinea that is, Mount Nimba. A tolerable (read short) taxi ride took us to a city just outside of N’Zerékoré called Lola. In Lola we found a quaint hotel with rooms stocked with the absolute bare minimum as reflected in the price we paid. Thankfully we weren’t staying in Lola for its tourism as much as a solid home base for our trek up Nimba.

So steep!
A few friends had already scouted the trails and found us guides to take us up the mountain, for a reasonable fee. So when we set out in the morning we knew we wouldn’t waste any precious daylight. The hike started at around 7 AM and our group of 20 was broken up into groups of 5. The group system dissolved fairly quickly but we all ended up in appropriate groups while leaving no one behind. I found myself in the front group with 9 other volunteers and 2 guides. We all noted pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to be an afternoon hike through the pasture. By 10 AM we took a pause and caught our breath as our guide giggled at us between drags on his third cigarette; he’d climbed the mountain 34 times before.

The ridge heading to the summit.
The grueling hike continued, baking us in the hot afternoon sun once we’d left the shelter of tree cover. The worst part was cross over the ridge to get to the summit. We had to climb certain spots that were not only steep to a severe degree but also covered with slippery grasses that provided great camouflage for the treacherous rocks we tried to use for leverage. Progress was slow through these conditions but after 3 more hours we made it to our official lunch spot: a natural spring 100 meters from the summit. We refilled all our water bottles and enjoyed our “SPAM” sandwiches like they were a gourmet meal. The rest, the food, and the shade kept us company as we mentally and physically prepared ourselves for the last ascent.

Leaving all bags behind, we set off lighter than before with greater energy and motivation. Seeing the summit get closer and closer was the only thing on anyone’s mind. With that said, it still took another 45 minutes of exhaustive hiking. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the steep incline, or maybe it was the previous 6 months of limited physical activity, who’s to say? But I struggled and fought to see it through.
First group to make it to the top!
Located at the southern border of Guinea, Nimba’s summit is techinically in Cote D’Ivoire and only a few miles from Liberia as well. So from the top we could see three different countries and had, by legal terms, illegally crossed a border, but damn it was worth it. The view was simply amazing.

As with all hikes, the way back down seemed to go by quicker and with less effort but it actually took around the same amount of time as the ascent. After beginning with the sun rising we got back to our launch point, a small village called Boussou, as the sun was setting. We didn’t make it back to our hotel in Lola until midnight. Unfortunately for us, the hotel was no longer a deserted space of calm but instead was packed with party going Guineans and the air was filled with music from the dance club at the back of the compound.  Even though our group had filled 90% of the rooms in the hotel, the dance club was clearly the weekend hot spot of Lola and our presence was not going to slow it down one bit. Having no energy to deal with Guineans and their endless inquiries of foreigners, we all snuck into our respective rooms and waited for exhaustion to overpower the thumping of the bass beats not 30 yards away.

This is where our group split paths. The next morning some of them started towards Kankan and others towards Mamou. So once again, it was only Tess, Shadassa, Caleb and myself. We deplaced a taxi to take us the entire 18 hours to Mamou. Our Forest adventure had come to a close. I’d like to say I watched in fade away in the distance as we drove off, but in reality, I passed out after 30 minutes and woke up in the next city. I don’t expect I’ll make it back to the Forest before I leave Guinea, but I’m glad I got to see it, especially Mount Nimba, a place that not many Guineans can say they’ve seen, let alone climbed.
Christmas vacation was already a success and a bit over athletic, but that was only part 1.