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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Spanish Interlude

We were learning together.
When I made the vocal agreement to serve in the Peace Corps, I knew that to some extent I was agreeing to be super isolated, at least as far as my contact with the Western world goes. What I did not account for is my random encounters with other travelers. It was ignorant for me to think that I’d see no one besides Peace Corps volunteers because in the grand scheme of things, I’m not that isolated, but my point of view from the States was just that, ignorant. I’m still surprised, and probably overly excited, when I do run into the occasional foreigner in my little area. I’m the only volunteer in my prefecture (think county) and thus I’m not accustomed to seeing others in my area but at the same time, my village is off the road between Conakry and Freetown, the capitals of Guinea and Sierra Leone, respectively.
Alya. This man kills it on the balafon (instrument in front of him)
The most recent encounter I’ve had with other Westerners was by far the most extraordinary. Normally, if I do pass by the occasional tourist, it’s in Coyah, a big suburb near my village. This last visit was special because not only did I run into two very nice musicians but they were staying in MY VILLAGE! I couldn’t believe it. For a week before hand, I had noticed the addition of drumming disturbing the normally quiet ambiance of my village. So one day I decided to investigate. It’s pretty standard practice for anyone just to wander wherever he or she likes in Guinea. Many of the neighborhoods consist of houses pushed close together without too many specific routes in and out, thus passing by someone’s house is never perceived as intrusive. Using that and my special treatment as the village white guy, I walked straight to the source of the drumming.

The dancers of the group. They're really good!
When I turned the last corner of a house I found a small group of musicians and dancers. Two of which, I quickly identified as foreigners. Turns out that Hector, a Spaniard, and his wife from Mexico, Najeli, were taking some time to learn traditional Guinean dance and drum from one of the most talented artists I’ve come across here in Guinea. His name is Alya and the man is a boss in front of a balafon, a naturally made xylophone with a beautiful hollow sound.  Along with his friends, the group was practicing multiple hours a day, which if you’ve seen Guinean dance and felt a true djembe, a Guinean bongo-esque drum, you will understand how impressive that is. I did not attempt to join in on the dancing, it is a very athletic style and mostly left to women (at least the style they were practicing was). So to be part of the team, I tried my hand at drumming. I found out quickly that my hand is way too soft for drumming. Throughout my entire life I’ve shook the hands of masons (my uncles and cousins normally) and known how rough they are, but frankly, the hands of a Guinean drummer make them feel Downy soft. Shaking Alya’s tremendously callused hand was like grabbing a mitten that’s covered in sand paper. Knowing I wouldn’t last long on the drum, I was happy to take a break when they asked if I would film them. I obliged quickly and put on my best impression of a professional cameraman. It ended up being a lucky job on my part because now I have 35 minutes of true Guinean dance and drum in HD quality!

The fun didn’t stop there. When Hector heard that I lived nearby and that I have the basics of a Western kitchen, he insisted on cooking some Spanish cuisine for me and the group, if I would host. Since getting back to Guinea after my trip home in August, I’ve lost all motivation for creative meals and have contented myself to a routine of peanut butter/banana sandwiches and hard-boiled egg sandwiches. It follows that I was super pumped to have someone cook a good meal for me. Despite his ambitions, Hector only achieved something close to cuisine (due to the lack of ingredients) and, at the request of Alya, he added spaghetti into the mix where it clearly didn’t belong. Overall, it wasn’t Spanish cuisine, but it was good.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mr. Issiaga is the "Cool" Teacher

During my two years of teaching in Guinea, I’ve attempted in many ways, through conversations and analogies, to convey our different approach to education in the States but I can’t help feeling that they never quite grasp what I’m talking about. In the same way, I don’t assume that anyone back home will really get a true image of my school without seeing it for themselves. With this in mind, I was happy to participate in bringing the American tradition of Spelling Bees to my school. A group of education volunteers took it upon themselves to organize a country-wide Spelling Bee via our already existing volunteer network. I had no reason not to join in and I knew that it would be a good way to get kids more excited about education.

I held three individual competitions for the 8th, 9th, and 10th grades. The top two winners of the 10th grade competition (clearly the strongest spellers) were also chosen to attend the Regional Competition in Kindia. My two winners were Mariama Abdoulaye Bangoura and Mohamed M’Mah Camara. I was happy to see that Mariama came out on top, because we always try to keep things equal between the boys and girls but fairness for fairness sake isn’t always just—if you don’t know what I mean by that, ask. Circumventing that thought entirely, Mariama won and Mohamed got second place so off to Kindia we went. ----I need to add here, to clarify who these students are, that 10th graders here are normally 16-20 years old. Both of my two representatives are 18. Mariama even has a three year old, named Mafoudia, a cute little girl who surprisingly wasn’t afraid of me and instead attached herself to my hip. Before leaving, I had to clear the trip with the student’s families, as well as Mariama’s husband/fiancĂ©/baby daddy.

It was a weekend affair for my students and I, being as Kindia isn’t too far. I have made this journey more times than I can recall at this point and thus its novelty was lost on me, but it made quite the impression on my students. I forget that despite how much smaller Guinea is than the US, Guineans do not travel too often and many have never left their native villages. I enjoyed answering my students as they asked endless questions with wide eyes gazing out the windows. It was in the middle of this ride when, Mariama, in between questions, told me how “cool” I was for taking her to Kindia and for knowing so much about Guinea. I smiled, humbled by my student’s awe, and laughed at myself for officially reaching the status of “the cool” teacher.

The competition took half the day to wind down but unfortunately it ended quite early on for my two representatives. Mariama and Mohamed lost during the second round. My heart went out to them and did my best to show them that I was still very proud of their efforts. Mariama even texted me from her seat as the competition continued, “Monsieur, I’m disappointed.” Comforting a student from the role of a chaperone is a bit tricky in the Guinean context, mostly because they don’t hug often here, at least not in the same situations that we do back home. So I told her how proud she should be for making it this far and for being the only girl to make it to the regional competition. The additional events of the afternoon helped her to forget the loss and enjoy the experience.

The rest of the weekend was a bit of a struggle for me as a stomach flu fatigued my whole Saturday. Sharing bowls of rice with small children will almost guarantee that. In the end, both of my students really enjoyed getting the opportunity to travel, to meet other students, and to meet other volunteers. Personally, I’m glad that I got a chance to hang with two of my better students and get to know their personalities a little better. School uniforms stifle my chance to see what kind of style they have but seeing them outside of school was a good way to see their true selves for once. I may not have gone home with a trophy but I was quite proud of my two competitors. I guess chaperoning isn’t too bad.