West Africa Love

Peace Corps Volunteer Experience in Mali and Guinea


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Things I Will Miss & Things I Won’t Miss

When I was leaving Dakar, Senegal after a semester abroad, I made a list of “Things I’m not going to miss about Dakar”.  I remember feeling really excited to be going home and not having to live with a host family anymore.  And then I got back and  I was hating everything  and all I wanted to do was leave the US again. Despite my list, I over romanticized my experience and it took me awhile to appreciate living in California.  So as my months in Guinea started winding down I decided to list out the positive and negative aspects to help me remember what my life was like during these past 19 months.  I’m also including one of my favorite journal entries from this past month.

Things I’m going to Miss:

  • Washing laundry at the river- I had a GORGEOUS river at my site. It was hard to find bread and phone credit sometimes but the river made up for some of that =)20170729_132602
  • Feeling of accomplishment after I’ve finished laundry at the river
  • THE MUSIC!! West African music is the best music in the world. I feel like happiness is bubbling up inside me when I hear it.
  • Happy relief and gratefulness when I get a car to Labe- my regional capital that is an hour away. Hitchhiking was the fastest way to get there. Hitchhiking is pretty normal in Guinea and I never felt unsafe doing it.
  • Chaos of the market- I feel ambivalent about this. Sometimes I liked it and sometimes I couldn’t handle it.
  • Hassatou and Jeynabu playing with my hair
  • Cooking with Lamarana (my 17 yr old boy neighbor )
  • Discovering someone made my favorite sauce when they invite me to eat
  • Having dinner with Mariama Dalandah, her sister and her mom20170625_185252
  • Learning new words in Pulaar
  • Harvesting honey
  • Eating leaf sauce with neighbors
  • Biking in the bush
  • Having an active lifestyle (I used my bike A LOT, around 5 days a week) and not having to worry about working out.

Things I’m not going to Miss

  • Kids and adults calling out “Porto” (white person). This may sound very innocent and it is, people generally don’t say it in a mean way, but it is something that gets under your skin and annoys you so much after a few months of having people say it. People will call out as if  they’ll win some game for spotting you and calling it out first.
  • Waiting up to 5 hours at the taxi station for the taxi to fill up so we could leave. See post  Transportation in Guinea: Pushing the Limits on How Much You Can Fit In and On a Car
  • Boredom. It was important for me to plan out what I was going to do each day beforehand. Otherwise I ran the risk of getting bored and then getting upset and having to get myself out of that funk.  The following phrase sums it up.  #1 goal as a Peace Corps Extension (Health or Agroforestry) Volunteer: Stay busy so that you don’t get bored because boredom can lead to depression and when you’re depressed you don’t want to do anything. So do what makes you happy to ward of depression because if you’re unhappy it’s unlikely you’ll be doing anything productive.  You can be happy and unproductive but you can’t be productive when you’re unhappy. 
  • People asking me “why don’t you want to get married here?” Or “Let me find a husband for you”.
  • A neldi lan?- “Did you bring me something?”. This is a common Guinean joke but one that I’ve never found all that funny. . Anytime you come back from traveling somewhere or sometimes if you’ve just gone to the market town people will ask you this. Sometimes you’d say no and people would drop it but other times they’d ask “Why?”
  • People in the village asking me A defi? A gagni defuude? (“Have you cooked? Have you finished cooking?).  I always wondered if male volunteers had to deal with these questions or not.
  • Feet getting dirty with dust or in puddles- no matter what season I was always getting my feet dirty.
  • My work partner saying he’s going to meet me somewhere or come to my house and knowing he’s not going to do it even before I hang up the phone. He was very reliable in the beginning but he really disappointed me the last few months before my departure. I considered him one of my best friends but sadly I lost a lot of respect for him towards the end. =/  Sometimes people disappoint you. That’s life.
  • Washing my sheets. It was such a pain to wash sheets. I had to slap the sheets against rocks at the river. I was lucky I could wash them at the river versus in a bucket but they were still so much work!

Journal Entry

Friday, July 7, 2017

Last night was one of the nights that you realize Okay between all the boredom and complaining about being bored there are really nice moments in Peace Corps. Mariama Dalandah called me to go have dinner. She mentioned that her fasting [for Ramadan] was over. [Women have to make up days that the didn’t fast due to their period].  I said “thank God” and that got us on the subject of pregnant women fasting. I told them Kani was fasting and that I was not happy to hear about it.  [Pregnant and breastfeeding women do not need to  fast but they believe they will have to make it up later and it’s harder fasting by yourself than when everyone else is doing it].  They didn’t realize she was 6 months along.  I told them that her stomach wasn’t very big but her boobs were. Then I asked what women here preferred and Fatoumata said “it depends”. I asked what do men prefer and she “it depends”. And then I explained how we like bigger boobs and how we do plastic surgery if we want them enough. That was crazy to them.

 

I had lots of ideas for this blog which I didn’t follow through on but I may be continuing some posts that I had in mind now that I have more reliable internet.  In the least I’m going to make a playlist of some of my favorite West African songs =)

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Foods of the Fouta

This post is long overdue. I wrote this post a while ago but got caught up in trying to get pictures and the correct ingredients for all the sauces mentioned that I kept putting it off.  Need to remember to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

When I went home after being evacuated from Mali I volunteered to go talk to my high school French teacher’s class. I wanted to share my experience in Mali and let them know that there are many countries other than France where they could use French.  I hadn’t realized this until my sophomore year in college when I was exploring study abroad options.

As I described daily life in Mali we got on the topic of food and I tried as best I could to describe the gelatinous consistency of toh and the sliminess of the okra sauce it was usually paired with. I mentioned some of the other dishes I had there but my lack of enthusiasm was apparent because one student asked “So did you like the food?” I hesitated. No the cuisine was not my favorite.  I remember we would often have a spicy tomato sauce with fish in it and the fish were so small that I wondered if the meat I was getting was even worth the trouble of sorting through the bones.  But I didn’t want to dismiss an entire country’s cuisine by saying “They don’t have good food”. The best possible answer to that question came later when I was talking to someone who had traveled around West Africa. He said something along the lines of “You don’t go to Mali for the food”.  That being said, I would still highly recommend Mali for the adventurous traveler.

Here in the Fouta however I have been pleasantly surprised by the variety of dishes. It is still rice and sauce but at least they change up the sauces more.  I may get tired of eating a particular sauce too much but there has not yet been a dish I have not liked.

Cassava Leaf Sauce (Mafe Hako Bantara)

My Personal Favorite especially when you put lime on top. Made by grinding cassava leaves.  You boil the leaves first, then add peanut butter, then you grind up onion+  Maggi + dried fish and add to the mix.   Add palm oil or peanut oil. Serve with rice.

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Sweet Potato Leaf Sauce (Mafe Hako Pute)

These leaves are gathered in a bunch and then you start cutting them from the stems until you have a bunch of little strips of sweet potato leaves.  Then you boil them in water. Add onion, salt, Maggi and palm oil. Serve with rice.

Soupou Sauce

This sauce is made of tomato, onions, tomato paste, Maggi, and dried fish.  If meat or chicken is available people will usually make this sauce but it can also be made without meat. The vegetarian version is called “Soupu Samakala” which means “Joke Soupou Sauce”. You can also add potatoes, and cabbage and pumpkin if they are available.

Fouti

This sauce is made with cooked eggplant, okra and peppers mashed together. It is then served on top of rice and drizzled with red palm oil plus a sprinkling of traditional seasoning pronounced OG.

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Eggplant Sauce (Mafe Kobo Kobo/ Ma ganji)

Dice up eggplants. Heat up some peanut oil and throw this in. Let them cook for a while until they’re mushy before adding mashed onions, Maggi and dried fish. Add some tomato paste. Serve with rice.  Pictured left.

 

 

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May not look super appetizing but I’ve grown to like it alot.

Torry

 

Toh is eaten here as well but I don’t see it as often here as I did in Mali.  It is paired with a peanut sauce and served in small balls.

 

 

 

 

The following dishes are eaten during holidays and ceremonies.

20160818_110233Lachiri with Kosan

Lachiri is corn cous cous that is served with yogurt sauce. It’s a pretty long process to make the corn cous cous so this dish is reserved for baptisms and weddings. You have to steam corn flour and then break it up and repeat the process until it gets the right consistency. The kosan (yogurt sauce) is made with powdered milk.

Riz gras

Riz gras (“fried rice”) is popular at ceremonies in various West African countries. It can be served with fish, cooked vegetables and tamarind sauce.

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Bon Appetit!


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Overlanding to Dakar, Senegal from Guinea and Back

Traveling to Dakar from Middle Guinea took 1.5 days but I made it in one piece (albeit pretty dirty)  and with some good stories.

It can be stressful trying to figure things out because you’ll hear something different depending on who you ask.  When I was asked about cars going to Dakar I heard cars leave every day from the regional capital (Labe) while others said you should really try to leave Monday.   I was worried because the people I was asking said “Well you can find a car on other days… but it’s harder to find passengers”.. and here in Guinea not finding passengers means the car doesn’t leave.  I decided to take a chance anyways and leave Wednesday.   I made it to the taxi station at 8:30 am and we left by 11 am so I was feeling good.  The road north of Labe is pretty amazing, which is not the case for almost all other roads in Guinea. When you’re traveling on a decent road you’re thinking “Wow! Traveling doesn’t have to be so horrible =D”.   There was only one stretch of dirt road and it was more or less paved and another area where they’ve put a bunch of rocks so you can cross a lake or river.  After that it was smooth sailing until we got close to the border and had to show our papers.

I always get a little nervous when crossing borders because I don’t know if the guards are going to try to ask me for bribes and if I’m not going to figure it out fast enough- they don’t generally do it in a straightforward way.  Instead they’ll find an issue with one of your papers or ask you a lot of questions until you decide to offer them money so they’ll let you go sooner.  Crossing the Senegalese border was pretty laidback (in Sierra Leone they were really serious and told us we had better not overstay our visas) but he hassled some of the other passengers in my car. He told one of them that he had a fake ID card and then wouldn’t give it back to him. Another man brought a paper showing his old ID card had expired, signed and stamped by the police, and the guy said “I can’t accept this”.  I was marveled by how the Guineans reacted to this. At first they were a little defensive and then as if realizing ok I just need to stroke his ego they started asking for forgiveness and saying he was right.  I felt like I was in the 1960’s South and the police/government workers were just making bogus rules to hassle black people.  They started offering money and the guy wasn’t accepting but somehow once I left the area they resolved the issue somehow so maybe he was just waiting for me to leave.

We made it to the border by 7 pm which seemed like a good time but turns out they close it at 6 pm. Some guy said “we’re going to have to sleep here” and I thought he was joking but turned out he was serious.  If I were anywhere in the United States this would have made me nervous but I was not worried. Worst case scenario we’d stay up all night.  I thought maybe there’d be a place for all of us to stay since I’m sure this happens a lot but it seemed like people just rely on the hospitality of that border town’s inhabitants.  I stayed close to my fellow passengers and another woman and I were offered a mat and a space on someone’s porch. The other members were sleeping there too so it wasn’t as if they offered us to sleep outside while they all stayed inside. Luckily it did not get cold. I was just worried a mouse was going to come and get into the tortilla chips I was traveling with.   In the morning I saw that some of the passengers in a big truck that also didn’t get through in time had laid out a mat and slept under their truck.

One of the passengers in our car was asking me about the US.  The majority of people here will tell you that they dream of going to the States.  I explained that it’s nice but it’s very different.  You would never knock on someone’s door and ask to stay with them (at least not in my state).  And you would also never hitchhike the way people do here in Guinea because people don’t trust each other enough.  He was really surprised to hear that.

At 7 am they told us we could get going. We did a few more checks. One guard looked at my passport and said “You’re pretty in this picture but you’re not pretty right now.” , to which I responded “I’m in Africa”. Not that people can’t manage to look fabulous here but don’t expect that from me when I’m traveling during dusty dry season and just had to spend the night at the border.   He got a little pissed at that and said what is that supposed to mean. Then he started speaking Pular and proceeded to advise that I learn Pular. I responded in Pular “You don’t know if I understand Pular. You didn’t ask me”. He laughed at that and let me go.  They’re pretty laidback here but I probably would have to cut the sass any other place.

Once in Senegal I started seeing a lot more donkeys, horses and baobob trees.  It was also really hot! When they stopped to pray, I went to find some rice.  There were a lot of flies so I was eating spoonfuls of hot rice all the while swatting and wiping my sweaty forehead.

We made it to the outskirts of Dakar that evening.

The next night I flew out to meet my family in Rome. After a few days in Rome, we then did a week in 3 different cities in Spain: Barcelona, Seville, and Madrid before ending in Dakar. It was way too much moving around but I’m glad we got to see Seville.  Definitely planning to go back there.  This time of year the sun doesn’t go down until around 9 pm!! It was throwing me off but I liked it.  We went to a Flamenco show there and were all amazed at how intense the dancers get.

After being with my family for 2 weeks it was hard saying goodbye at the airport. I’ve been in West Africa by myself for a while but for some reason after leaving them I felt really lonely heading back to Guinea. But once I was in a taxi surrounded by Pular speakers I felt ok again.  As soon as I got in the car someone said “You’re going to Guinea?  So are these two people so you guys will go together.”  My fellow companions were a brother and his sister with her baby. He had come to help her get her papers fixed to reunite with her husband in the US. I felt super grateful at that moment. When you’re traveling you’re in a super vulnerable state and when people offer to help you feel so overwhelmingly grateful.  Seriously where else would this happen? That people see someone traveling by themselves and offer to help so willingly?  As I was sitting in the car I was thinking how much I wanted to be able to be able to pay this hospitality forward to all the immigrants in the US.

We left Dakar around 8:30 am and got to Manda around 5:30. As soon as our car pulled into the station it was rushed by at least 10 guys trying to get passengers.  There are always a lot of young men at taxi station- not all of them are drivers but they’ll hang out and help and they’ll get some money from whoever they help.  Someone asked me where I was going and I said Labe and then an argument ensued between two guys over whose passenger I would be. “I asked her first!” said one of the guys.  It was funny and scary at the same time but luckily my fellow passenger helped out there. This rushing of the car happened every time a car pulled in.

We found out that we’d be staying at the station that night and leaving early the next morning.  At that point I could’ve gone to a hotel but I was really tired and didn’t want to deal with having to figure things out the next morning.  There was no porch to sleep on this time but the chauffeur had a nice car so me and one of the women I was traveling with stayed there.  We didn’t leave the next at 6 am as promised but we made really good time and got in at 4 pm.

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I was feeling really happy to be back in Guinea again but adjusting to the village again has been a little rough. During the day I’d be fine but the first few days I’d wake up confused about where I was and I’d feel really lonely. Also I felt like my body was not so willing to do what it used to.  I’d gotten used to biking here a lot, at least 4 days a week, but when I got back I was thinking “How did you do this before???” It’s getting better now but it hasn’t helped that April seems to be the hottest month here. The Fouta doesn’t get as hot as other parts of Guinea but the sun can be pretty intense midday.  Rainy season is sounding really nice right now. I’m gonna wanna dance in the rain once those first rains come.

Below are some tips for people traveling from Dakar to Labe:

  • Get a taxi to Gare Beau Marachere in Pikine
    • This should cost you no more than 5000 CFA. I paid 4000 CFA.
  • A seat in a taxi to Manda will cost 12,000 CFA. Bags are 1000, Suitcases are 2000 CFA
  • Getting to Tambacounda takes between 8-10 hours. It was 9 hours for us but we stopped to eat for an hour.
  • Best to stay at a hotel in Tambacounda and get a ride to Manda early the next day because the border closes at 6 pm.
  • Manda to Labe costs around 225,000 Guinean francs. You can also pay in CFA.
  • From Manda to the last Guinean checkpoint it is about 2.5 hours.

 


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Meet My Work Partner: A Peace Corps Work Love Story

Last year I was reminded that Valentine’s Day is not just for lovers, it’s also for friends! So this Valentine’s day I wanted to recognize someone who I consider to be one of my closest friends here in Guinea and someone who has greatly impacted my service for the better.

That person is my work partner/counterpart Yagouba. Yagouba is a farmer. That in itself makes him an anomaly here in my village.  Not only because most men his age are working in larger towns, capitols or abroad and sending money home versus but also because he is in the village while his wife and 4 sons are in Conakry.  In my experience, it’s generally women and children who stay in the village.*   He prefers them to stay in Conakry because his sons can get a better education there. He has been farming for the last 5 years. Before that he was selling pharmaceutical products in Conakry.

The first time I met Yagouba I was attending a meeting for various cooperatives. It was all in Pular so I didn’t understand any of it, but I remember Yagouba saying something and everyone agreeing with him.  I made a mental note and planned to talk to him after the meeting but he left before it was over and being the busy guy that he is, it took a while for me to track him down after that.

When I finally saw him again I asked him if I could see the area where he farmed. I can’t remember if I asked several times but he later told me that he accepted to show me because I had been very persistent about visiting.  He hadn’t introduced himself earlier because he was worried my original work partners would be bothered.**

And so our friendship/work partnership began.

In the short time I’ve known him I’ve seen a little of how difficult farming can be.  Not the labor part of it but all the things that can go wrong and ruin your crop that season.  This past season, he had a problem with birds eating his crops, and then monkeys. After that some cows trespassed and really messed things up. I had a single chicken trespassing into my garden and messing up my beds and eating the leaves from my eggplant plants and I was pretty upset about that.  There were not even any vegetables yet but I was still angry and annoyed so I can only imagine if that were my livelihood.

Most recently, the hut next to his field which he used as a storage room/nap room burned down.  Some bush fires are intentional and others result from embers that reignite. We don’t know exactly what happened but the place where the fire started wasn’t near a road or trail so he believes it may have been someone doing it intentionally.  When someone starts doing well here, other people sometimes get jealous and wish bad on them.

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The remains after the fire. The melted metal fragments in the wheelbarrow were sprinklers.

It was really sad when he called me to tell me about it. I was in Conakry at the time and when I came back a week later I could tell he had lost a decent amount of weight. He said it “How could I not have lost weight with that shock?”

I wasn’t sure if or how he’d recover from that but he didn’t let it get the best of him.  He was back to working on his farm pretty quickly.  He said he planned on building a house to keep watchdogs. He also asked me to get him some information on fish farming. Usually people here (and probably everywhere else) will mention something that they’re interested in but it will take a while before they actually take steps to doing it. Not Yagouba.  When I brought him the information on fish farming he had already started digging the fish pond! He doesn’t play around. And it’s thanks to him that I started working with the gardening cooperative I’m doing my primary project with now. More on that later.

He is a very motivated individual.  And the amazing thing is he’s generally on time to things!  So he’s pushing me to be more like him in that respect because he gets really mad if I’m late. One time I was a little late and he said “Now you’re the Guinean and I’m Canadian”.  Insulting to his own culture but also somewhat true since people don’t rush to be on time here.  I think our short tempers somehow make us get along well.  He has a short temper like me so sometimes one of us will be mad about something and then the other person will get madder about it and that will somehow calm down the person who was initially mad.

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Very lucky to have found such a motivated work partner and friend and I wish the best to volunteers who have a rough road with their assigned work partners. My original work partners were always very busy but I got lucky and found someone with time and motivation.  If you can’t find someone in your village, try the next village or town.  It’s not easy but it’s possible.  As Tim Gunn from Project Runway says “Make it Work”.  That’s the real slogan for the Peace Corps during your service.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

*It may sound weird that his wife and kids are away from him but it’s not uncommon for husbands and wives to be separated for extended periods of time.  For example, my tailor’s husband works in Angola and he is gone for a year at a time. I’ve heard of other couples/families where the husband works in amother country.

**Peace Corps assigns you a community host and sometimes a partner organization so that you have someone who will introduce you to everyone in the village when you first get there.  But for one reason or another, these people may not be available, or you may find other people that you work better with.


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Transportation in Guinea: Pushing the Limits on How Much You Can Fit In and On a Car

Disclaimer: This post may be err on the negative side because transport in Guinea is a source of frustration and puzzlement for me.   There are many things I have come to love and appreciate about Guinea but their transportation system (or lack of one) is not one of them.  It makes no sense to me because other West African countries have managed to figure out better systems with schedules and buses.  Maybe the buses or cars won’t leave on time but there is at least an effort to allow people to plan ahead when traveling.

Traveling long distances in Guinea will test your patience, to say the least.  Luckily for Peace Corps volunteers we are reimbursed for 3 seats when we travel so we can travel without being so cramped or have to wait more time for the last few seats to be bought up.  But for the rest of the population this is what it’s like.

There are no bus companies in Guinea.  Instead there are 6 or 9 place taxis that leave as soon as they fill up.  This wouldn’t be so bad if you could go the day before or earlier that day and put your name down for a car leaving at an approximate time but here are no scheduled times when vehicles leave.  Sometimes you will get lucky and the car will leave within an hour or you may end up waiting 4 hours. The way people deal with this lack of organization is to try to get to the gare ( taxi station) at 7 am so they can be on one of the first vehicles to leave.  If you have to do some errands before you leave however and go to the gare around 9 or 10 am you may be waiting 3-5 hours.

A 6 place, a car meant to comfortably transport 5 people (4 passengers + driver) will be filled with 7 people (6 passengers + driver).   This translates into the driver and 2 people in the passenger seat and 4 people in the back. Small children and babies are not counted as taking a place.  They will generally be in their mother’s or father’s laps or standing between their legs. 9 places are station wagons meant for 7 passengers. In this case there is a 2,4, 3 formation with passengers.

One of the craziest things I’ve seen is 4 people in the front. The 4th person will sit in the same seat as the driver and the driver will reach over to use the stick. I’ve heard they only do this when someone else will be getting dropped off soon.  They won’t drive long distances like this but they obviously shouldn’t be doing it at all.

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Chickens hanging out on the back window.

As for the outside.  The cars are generally loaded with heavy loads composed of sacks filled with rice or vegetables, luggage, mattresses, wood, charcoal, and sometimes live chickens, sheep or goats. The poor chickens have it the worst since they get attached to the load upside down.  You may also see as many as 5 young men riding on top of these loads.  As far as I can recall this is the only West African country where I have seen people doing that.

Once you’re finally on the road you still can’t be sure exactly when you’ll get there.  Even when you ask people there is some hesitation to give you an exact time.  People seem to prefer to give you a distance.  This is understandable since the duration of the trip is highly variable, dependent on how good the car is, how fast the driver drives, whenever or not you get a flat tire, etc.  There are stops at prayer times and food stops.  I’m grateful for these stops since they allow much needed stretching breaks & I understand it will be about 10 minutes.  However there unexplained stops where you’re wondering Why on earth are we stopping again?? We just stopped 20 minutes ago.

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This is about a third of the usual load. Also that guy’s outfit got dirty really fast that day.

On long trips I often find myself reciting Hail Mary’s under my breath or doing the sign of the cross.  You are traveling on two lane highways, oftentimes on narrow mountain roads.   If you get stuck behind a big truck you’re going to have to chance it and go around it.  When there are curves in the road and people can’t see oncoming traffic they will honk their horn to warn oncoming cars.  Even if there aren’t big trucks there are potholes that will force you to drive outside of your lane.

I tried to find statistics to convey how dangerous the roads seem sometimes but it wasn’t easy to find a comparable reference (Guinea is a little less than the size of Oregon but it has about 3 times the population) so instead I will provide an anecdote.  I met Soulaye in Conkary when attending a wedding with people from my village.  The people in my village are basically all related and they have some family in Conakry.  I was in my village sitting with some of his family members one night when we received a call that Soulaye had gotten into a car accident.  There had been 5 other young men in the car with him.  They had all passed away but by some miracle Soulaye had survived the crash with no serious injuries.

I called him later to see how he was doing and he was surprisingly calm about the whole thing. He said “It was God’s plan”.  Sometimes I wonder how they can dismiss things as “God’s plan” but what alternative is there?  Asking “Why did God allow this?” and agonizing over the details of what occurred bring you back to the same place- we can’t change what happened, we have to accept it and move on.  They opt to skip the confusion and simply accept the outcome.

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Circus acts on the road

Seeing scenes like the one above used to make me shake my head and laugh but now they just make me sad.  Anyone who travels in Guinea, be it a Guinean or foreigner, would tell you the state of the roads and enforcing safety measures should be the top priority for the government.  But instead of prioritizing road safety you’ll see the government installing fiber optic cables to improve internet speed and access even though more Guineans would stand to benefit from better roads than better Internet since only a fraction of people have smartphones or laptops.  To be fair, there have been some improvements in the year since I’ve been here.  One of the major roads in the country, the road from Dabola to Kankan, has now been paved- it was previously a dirt road.  And one of the roads by me is currently being leveled.  It may not seem like a big deal but it makes all the difference to be able to ride smoothly without having to zigzag and watch out for potholes the entire time.  Hopefully these stay in good condition for more than a couple years.

Tips for Dealing with this Transportation System

  • Make a friend at the gares you use often.  I didn’t mean to be strategic in this but I’m very happy with the current arrangement.  I befriended a shop owner by the gare in my regional capital and now whenever I’m getting ready to head back to my site I call him first and ask how full the next car leaving is before I head over.  In return for this service I share videos of the presidential debates/interviews and provide context.   I’ve also shared movies with him since he’s a pretty good English speaker.
  • #1 rule in Africa: Bring a book for whatever periods you may be waiting and you’re not in the mood to chat. I’ve realized I’ve developed a fear of getting stranded somewhere with nothing to entertain me.  I always make sure I have something to read on me before I leave my house.
  • For long trips pack some Dramamine just in case.
  • Last but not least, surrender to the West Africa travel gods!  Everytime I think “woah I’m making good time” it’s  like tempting fate because something will happen that will set us back. You will get to your destination when they want you to get there.


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Evacuation Anniversary

Today marks the anniversary of learning we would be evacuated from Mali.  I never wrote a post about it while it was happening because I was still processing the whole thing and between packing and flying home and seeing family and friends during the holidays before packing and shipping out again there wasn’t a huge amount of down time.

No matter the circumstances, evacuations are hard for everyone.  You’ve envisioned yourself and spending 2 years in a country or in some cases you’ve already spent a year or more there and are ready to start implementing projects and then your time gets cut short.

It’s also hard on Peace Corps staff.  Aside from Peace Corps sometimes being one of the few good jobs in the country, for some of these people Peace Corps is way more than a job.  My program manager had had a Peace Corps volunteer in his village when he was growing up.   He said this volunteer stressed the importance of education to his parents and today he and all his siblings have university degrees.  When I wrote to him after learning that the program in Mali would be closed he said it was like when his mom was in the hospital and knowing that she was not going to return home.

When we got the news we were all together at the training center outside of Bamako.  The day before getting the evacuation news, we had learned that we would no longer be receiving the new group of volunteers we expected in June 2016 because of security concerns.  Less than a week before there had been a terrorist attack at a the Radisson hotel in Bamako where 20 hostages were killed.* I remember looking around at the 25 people I thought I’d be with for the next 2 years and thinking “WELL we’re either going to grow really close or we’re going to get to know each other too well and be sick of each other”. Probably both would have been true.  You develop a sense of sibling love for the people you come in with.  Regardless of the way you feel about them day to day you care about them.   On Thanksgiving day we were called together again right before dinner.  This time they said  “We’re suspending the entire program”.  There’s really no good time to hear that so any day or time is as good as any other.

The news hit me particularly hard because it came a few months after learning about the sudden death of one of my brother’s best friends.  I’ve always been very close to my brother who is a year older and his close friends are like brothers to me.  My good friends had changed from high school to college but my brother had had the same best friends since I was 13.  They were constants- the people you know for sure will be at your wedding, etc.  This event put me in a mindset where “ Anything can happen to anyone at anytime”.  Which is true but it’s a scary thought.  You feel constantly braced for bad news when you have more than 1 missed call from your mom.  Together these events made me feel like I had very little control over my life.

When you’re in Peace Corps, you’re in a such a different setting and experiencing so many new things that you want to share with loved ones back home, that it’s easy to feel that everything is sortof on pause for you.  At least you expect the big things to stay the same for the most part.  But life in the States continues whether you’re there or not.

I already felt like I didn’t have a “typical experience” 3 months into my service with the news of my brother’s friend but I’ve realized that “atypical services” are not all that atypical. Things happen within a volunteer’s circle of family and friends that force a volunteer to go home unexpectedly or have to finish their service early.  Within a country, there are political upheavals, public health threats, terrorist attacks, etc that can occur.

In my case we were very lucky that our group was so small.  Peace Corps was able to give us transfer options to Benin, the Gambia, Comoros and Guinea.  That’s not always the case.  Volunteers evacuated from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in the summer of 2014 did not get that option because there was simply too many of them to be able to accommodate everyone.

Below is a Facebook post that I posted a few weeks after arriving in Guinea back in January:

“People have asked me if I would have chosen another country had I known that Mali would be evacuated 6 months in. My answer then and now is no. I felt INCREDIBLY lucky to have gotten to serve in Mali, even if it was only for 6 months. To have been welcomed into a community and given so much respect just for coming to the village was insane to me. At the beginning of our training I remember staff telling us that we had come to the best country in Africa, and while in the back of my head I knew every other volunteer in Africa was probably hearing the same thing, part of me was sure I had been placed in the friendliest country. It was a privilege to serve there.
While I’m super grateful to have gotten the chance to complete my Peace Corps service in Guinea, I can’t help but feel like I’m dealing with a breakup. I had really fallen in love with Mali and I feel as if I was made to break up with Mali and date Guinea. Now while Guinea and Mali may have their similarities, they are obviously not the same. There have been no blessings or bean jokes thus far, but Guinea definitely has its charm and I know I will enjoy my time here. It just feels strange to think that I may grow to love this country more than Mali. Part of me doesn’t want it to trump Mali. #confessionsofanevacuee  “

I’ve stopped wondering whether Guinea is going to surpass Mali for me because I’ve realized that I’ve placed it on such a high pedestal that it would be almost impossible for any other country to come close.  I don’t think one is objectively better than the other; its highly dependent on your experience in each country.  There were people evacuated from Guinea who served in Mali afterwards and their first love was Guinea.

On the days when I’m missing Mali or home or just having a hard day as a privileged minority in West Africa (there are downsides) I have to remind myself to be thankful for this opportunity because I know I would have always felt like I missed out on something if it had been any other way.

And inshallah I will be able to visit a more secure Mali in the near future.

If you’re reading this and wondering why I’m so obsessed with Mali this past entry describes some aspects of Malian culture. Life in Mali Thus Far

*I cannot speak for my fellow volunteers but despite these incidents I honestly never felt unsafe in Mali. My experience there, however was limited to the Bamako and Sikasso region.


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Jam no wodi (There is Peace)- Digesting the Results of the Election from Guinea

I woke up the morning of November 9 at 3:30 am.  I hadn’t set an alarm clock I just woke up in the middle of the night and I decided to check in on the elections.  I whatsapped my best friend and siblings “Have they called the election yet????To which the response was “No but its really close. And I am freaking out” I had expected to wake up for 30 minutes and then go back to bed and then celebrate the first woman president in the morning.  Instead I stayed up the rest of the night.  At 5:30 AM, the call to prayer found me doing my own prayer in my bedroom.  Everytime I call my mom she tells me to pray and she had given me a couple of prayer cards before I came to Guinea but until yesterday they had never been used.

At 6 am I walked out to the spot where I have good enough data to read some articles.

As the results appear I had so many thoughts. I thought I would start crying because I felt “ok so the country I live in doesn’t want me to be there”. Then I started thinking “You know I was already thinking of moving to Mexico for awhile even before this so this isn’t so bad”.  That seemed like a good option until I found out the markets crashed and that the peso wasn’t doing so good.

Later, I walked to the intersection in my village and I found one of my work partners there. The look on his face indicated he had been following the news.  He said “J’ai entendu a la radio. Mais comment est-ce ca s’est passe?” ( I heard it on the radio. But how did this happen?).  RFI said  “Les américains ont étonné le monde” ( The Americans shocked the world.)

I went to my other work partner’s house (I have 3 work partners right now) to find Mama Djouma, (one of my work partner’s older brothers and one of my favorite people in the village) wearing his glasses and robe and reading the Koran on a goatskin rug.  It was such a sweet image.  I told him the election happened and he asked “Who won?” and I gave him a pained look. He said “le fou?” (the crazy one?) lol. We both started laughing and that lightened the mood a little.

I walked back out and greeted some more people and when they asked me how everything was going I couldn’t respond with the usual Jam Tun (Peace only) .  I said  Jam alaa  (There is no peace). They started laughing and said “woah hold up you have your health andyour family” so we agreed on Jam no wodi  (There is peace).  You can always count on Guineans to remind you of what you have to be thankful for.  When I was getting updates from other people at 4 am I wished I was in front of a TV in the States but at that moment I was feeling thankful that I was in Guinea and not in the US when receiving this news.

My work partner suggested taking a raincheck on that day’s work plans. He said “Let’s let not worry about work today. We’ll do what we planned today on Friday. I’m not feeling up to it” And I readily agreed since I hadn’t gotten very much sleep the night before.

I was probably still looking upset when I greeted another person in my village. He tried to assuage my worries by telling me “Ca va aller. (It’s going to be ok.) It has to be ok because the US is for the whole world.”

Me: That’s why we wanted someone that realized that.

Him: Les américains ne sont pas comme nous. Ils sont des intellectuelles, des philosophes. Il y a des gens qui vont contrôler.  (“The Americans aren’t like us. They are intellectuals and philosophers. There will be people that will control him”)

That comment made me feel better but it also made me sad because West Africans will often put themselves down when comparing themselves to people from other continents and especially that day I felt we didn’t deserve to be put on a pedestal.  We’re racist, unwelcoming to immigrants.. the list goes on.

I started to think ok there’s checks and balances. It’s going to be ok. Of course I was forgetting a lot of details and just trying to stay calm.  Then I got a call from a more informed volunteer that zapped my naïve optimism.

More Informed Volunteer: Trump may have the opportunity to appoint a bunch of Supreme Court judges and Obamacare is done.

Me: WTH man! Why did you just call me to bring me down in the trenches?? I was finally recovering from the stomach punch of this morning.

It was the longest morning of my life. Pretty much the whole day I was talking to other volunteers about the results. I got to a point where I wasn’t so upset anymore, I was just curious.  Curious as to what these Trump supporters care about.   What do their Facebook newsfeeds look like?  What are their day to day lives like?  Call me idealistic or naïve but I’m going to give most of these people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re not all xenophobes, homophobes, and all the other -phobes.  They felt disenfranchised and he seemed like their best/only advocate.  Just like we were willing to overlook some mistakes Hillary made, (his flaws are WAY WORSE obviously) I feel they were selective in what they chose to care about.  They chose to overlook a LOT of character flaws but I feel like they were willing to do so because they were so fed up and frustrated by their economic situation and no one was addressing their issues.  I think mostly everyone who has entered the job market can relate to how horrible it is not to have a stable or good paying job.  As Americans a lot of us, for better or worse, define ourselves by our jobs.  And when we don’t have a stable or good paying job we feel like failures.  I’ve been there and man was that a rough patch in my early 20’s that I hope I never have to experience for too long ever again.

I want to believe they don’t hate me simply because my parents are immigrants and I want to try to understand where they’re coming from before writing them off as racists and xenophobes.   If I had to boil down what I want to do with my life to one sentence it’s to understand other people and their experiences.  It’s the reason I was drawn to Economics, because I wanted to understand what drives people to make the decisions they make.  And it’s the underlying reason why I chose to do the Peace Corps.  So that if I decide to work in development afterwards I can better understand the motivations of the people I’d be working for/alongside.  So I’m not going to stop doing that even with this demagogue in power.  Peace Corps teaches you to find common ground with people that may seem completely different from you and sometimes it can be harder to do that with fellow Americans because you feel like you know their experience and how can they think or act that way?  But if I’m taking anything from this election result it’s that we have not tried to understand or care about everyone’s experience enough.

Some people asked me “So how are you feeling?” As a minority and a woman I was initially very upset but to be honest it doesn’t change that much.  As a first generation American with a significant amount of family in Mexico that I visit often I often feel like I occupy a liminal space.  I don’t feel like I fully belong in either country.  And after seeing how people voted I realized I KNOW NOTHING about a big portion of the country I was born in.  I have no idea what some of these states are like.  The place I AM familiar with and feel at home in is my home state of California and more specifically the Bay Area.  I’ve lived in California my whole life and ironically it’s when I come to West Africa and meet people from across the country (for study abroad and for PC) that I realize “Oh yeah there are a lot of white people in the rest of the United States”.  Easy to forget when you’ve grown up in a diverse bubble where your high school was composed of whites, blacks, Samoans, Indians, Afghans, Mexicans, Iranians, Poles, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc and then your university was 40% Asian American.  There is another America that I have not been privy to and I will try my best to understand them but I’m not going to let their opinions make me feel any less American than I already have felt in the past.  I consider myself a Californian first, American second.

To make myself feel better I did an inventory of all my snacks. I’ve been hoarding them like a squirrel and now I have a good size rainy day fund to prepare for whatever comes.

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