Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My new friend, and other tidbits.

Happy holidays everyone! On Christmas Eve, I had a lovely night sitting on the beach with fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, toes in the sand, listening to some latin music, and watching the sun set and some hookers dance. It was lovely and a little surreal, especially knowing it’s the last time I intend to spend Christmas abroad in random surroundings for a while. I am already looking forward to celebrating Christmas next year… somewhere cold!! (Yes, Louisiana counts as cold!)

Election updates!
So here are the updates from Guinea. We had presidential elections! When the initial election results were announced, the losing candidate’s supporters protested. When the police came out to quell the protests, it often got violent. The government declared a nation-wide state of emergency and imposed a 6 pm curfew—any vehicles on the roads after that time were stopped by police. Some of the worst violence was directly in the neighborhood of the Peace Corps compound, so we stayed hunkered down in the Peace Corps house for a few days. I was allowed to venture out as far as crossing the street to get my bean sandwich for breakfast, but even that was after making sure no gunshots had been heard recently. Fortunately, that only lasted for a few days, but it did cause casualties. You can read more on that here.

Some interesting photos:

My host brother from when I lived in Dubreka somehow got his hands on this sample election ballot. I think it’s well designed in that it takes into account that only about 30% of the country is literate—making the photos and colors necessary for the average voter! (That statistic courtesy the CIA World Factbook.).

Here’s one of the typical campaign billboards. I find it interesting and telling that there is a woman as part of Alpha Condé’s “rainbow coalition.” (The other candidate, Cellou Dalein Diallo, had no women in his campaign posse.)

Alpha Conde, the winner, was inaugurated on Tuesday, December 21. Heads of state from 13 African nations attended! In his speech as Guinea’s outgoing leader, General Sekouba Konaté rebuked other African leaders who have performed poorly in implementing transparent and fair elections. I thought this was great—taking the opportunity to shed light on the abuses of power that are glossed over in so many of these countries. We, the developed nations, often turn a blind eye because we would rather keep a place like Guinea stable so we can extract its oil/iron/aluminum ore, ignoring the shady internal politics as long as the man in charge gives us what we want. It was, in fact, my Guinean colleagues who disagreed with me on the subject of Konaté’s speech, saying that the inauguration was not the time to reprimand other leaders for their non-democratic performances; that this was a time to celebrate. I tend to think that any time is a good time to call out a lack of transparency. Right on, Sekouba.

Some good articles on the inauguration and our new man in charge, Mr. Conde, are here, here, or here.

And lastly, I have to share a joke that one of my Guinean co-workers at CAFODEC told me the other day:

A Chinese, an American and a Guinean are sitting around talking about elections. “In my country,” the Chinese man boasts, “we are able to know the results of an election within 24 hours after voting.”
“That’s nothing!” says the American. “In my country, we can know the results that very night.” The Guinean leans back and smiles.
“Well in my country,” he says, “our systems are so advanced that we know the results of the elections before they even happen.”

Microfinance fun
A small tidbit of good news is that although we still haven’t been allowed to go to our posts, I was allowed out of Conakry long enough to attend a national microfinance conference. It was interesting to watch, as Guinea’s microfinance sector is in such an early stage of development. The leaders here are really looking to surrounding countries—Benin, Senegal, Mali—for inspiration and guidance. There is currently SO much demand that goes unmet mainly due the microfinance institutions’ lack of loan capital. At the conference, we heard from a few women beneficiaries of micro-loans. One woman joined one of Guinea’s first microfinance establishments almost twenty years ago, when it was still just a project of the US Agency for International Development. She’s taken progressively larger loans, which have allowed her to buy land to farm and to start her own small business dying cloth, which supports her family. When she first told her story, it was in Soussou, one of the local languages. I couldn’t understand a thing, but she was so confident and expressive in her speech that I was totally captivated. She asked the new government to pay attention to Guinea’s microfinance sector and to support it so that other women can have the same opportunities she did.

My friend…
In other, much less politically charged or professional news, I have a friend! Let’s just say I am diversifying my overall friendship repertoire. I was walking to work one morning, and a young woman sitting on a bench on the side of the road enthusiastically called out a greeting to me. I was in a good mood, and greeted her back. She motioned me over, informed me that her name is Aminata, and that we should be friends. Cool, I thought! By friends, I assumed she meant we’d occasionally drink tea together on her bench on the side of the road and talk about the neighborhood happenings. That seemed just fine by me. She told me she’d known many of the past Peace Corps volunteers so I figured she’d be like a comfortable old buddy. I am sure hard up for friends here in Conakry—being in the Peace Corps house under a state of emergency is not so conducive to making friends. So I was open to and grateful for the opportunity to meet some neighbors!

About a week later, I get a call from Aminata. She said that she was at the bar on the little stretch of beach right behind the Peace Corps compound with friends, and that I should join them. I wasn’t feeling up to it that day, and so told her maybe next time.

The next weekend, I headed to the beach bar with a few other PCVs. We were planning to meet up with an American friend we hadn’t seen in some time, and I was very much looking forward to catching up with him. We were having a pleasant conversation, when Aminata comes up, crying out “Naboooouuuu!!! (my Guinean name) I was going to call you! I was looking for phone credit to call you!” Before I have a chance to say anything, she pulls up a chair at our table and introduces herself to my fellow PCVs. She simultaneously rubs the back of my neck in an odd, over-friendly sort of greeting. Then she tells the other PCVs how close she and I are, that I am her favorite friend, that we are the best of friends, and holds up her fingers crossed tight, indicating the unshakable bonds of our friendship. I believe Aminata and I had greeted each other in the street about three times at this point.

I didn’t want to be impolite to Aminata, but I really just wanted to catch up with the friend we hadn't seen recently. At particularly inopportune moments of our friend’s stories, Aminata would enthusiastically jump in, ask me something irrelevant, and I’d miss the point of the story. I even explained to her that we hadn’t seen this guy in a while, so I wanted to hear his stories. But by this time, she’s signaled over two more of her friends to join our table. “We should speak in French!” she says, “or you can teach me English!” Not exactly what I had in mind for the afternoon…

As time wears on, my fellow volunteers are giving me looks that say, “Hmmm, your friend here is persistent, non?” At one point when Aminata got up to visit with some other friends, the waitress took her chair away, to use at another table. Undaunted, Aminata quickly came back and procured a new one. All of our social signals and clues that in America say, “We’d really just like to catch up with each other today!” have gone completely over her head, as they often do when two very different cultures try to communicate. Aminata goes on to tell us how close she was with certain volunteers who were previously in Guinea. One of my PCV friends in our group had also previously been in Guinea, and she knows the fellows with whom Aminata kept company. “Oh yes,” my PCV friend notes, “those were the boys who got kicked out. And they slept with prostitutes.” I look over at Aminata, chain smoking proudly, and it all starts to come together. Prostitutes, and only prostitutes, would ever smoke in a bar in Guinea. Wellllll.

My new friend/prostitute faithfully remains at our table for the rest of our time there, waiting… until we all make our pleasant good-byes and head home. Aminata is friendly and outgoing, characteristics I appreciate, and I can’t tell if she wants to be my friend to hang out with me… or my fellow PCV friends of the opposite gender…

The next day, I was talking with another fellow volunteer who had previously served in Guinea. “Oh yes,” he confirms, “Aminata? She’s definitely a prostitute. Actually, she’s the one in charge, the Madam.” So, my first friend in Guinea—quite the entrepreneur! Gotta start somewhere, right? It’s going to be a beautiful friendship.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I’m named! (Mostly.)

Earlier this week a fellow volunteer, the gentleman who had served here as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 60’s, asked if any of us wanted to go exploring and find an old bar he used to frequent back in the day. I was ready for a little adventure and happy to see a bit more of Conakry.

The bar, called La Paillotte, or The Grass Hut, was still there and as alive as ever. A few things had changed since the 60’s. (Namely, there used to be a pit of alligators right outside the dance floor. How combining drunken dancing people with large-toothed reptiles was a good idea, I have not yet deciphered. Alas, the alligators are no more; the pit is cemented over.) There are probably a few more plastic flowers strewn around the bar than in the 60s. I’m not sure if plastic flowers were as prolific in Guinea then as they are now, but fake flowers are the answer to every decorating question.

Equally interesting was that in the 60’s, Guinea was at the height of its communist days. East Germans diplomats and spies frequented the bar in a day when tourists weren’t even allowed into the country! (Why they let Peace Corps in, who knows, but my friend and his crew did get the boot only halfway through their service, escorted out of the country by the military in ’67, when Guinea decided it had had enough of foreigners.)

My volunteer friend told folks about his young heady days of the 60s, and they were thrilled that the older wiser man had come back to pay a visit. I just got to ride along on his coattails and get free beer. But I got a few other freebies that night, and it was my first encounter with the epic Guinean generosity I’ve heard so much about.

The original bar owner had passed away only recently, but his replacement sat us down to chat, and immediately asked what she could give us to drink, on the house. The new owner is a lovely woman, Mrs. Ganaba Sylla Touré. She’s well dressed and made-up, and speaks articulate French. I’m impressed that she’s at the head of this establishment. As we talked, I learn that she’s from Dabola, my future post! She was very excited to learn this, and immediately proceeded to write down the phone numbers of her entire family so I can call them once I arrive.

As our conversations continue, it comes up that I don’t yet have a Guinean name. “Well, you’ll take my name! Ganaba!” Hmmm, I ponder that. Several folks have offered me names already, and I usually waffle, not liking the sound of it. I’m picky! I want my new name to be just right, not too common or boring, but also not too far out. The name Ganaba, she tells me, is apparently somehow interchangeable with other variants: Zaïnab, Nabou—it’s all the same name. Ganaba seems a little heavy on my tongue, Zaïnab sounds so foreign, but Nabou, I like. Pronounced nah-BOO, it reminds me of one of my mother’s many nicknames for me, Boo. The familiarity feels comfortable. I render my verdict on Nabou, happily accepting my new name.

Content with my newfound identity, I lean back and sip my beer. “You know who else has our name?” Ganaba asks me. I stop to think.
“No, who?”
“The Prophet’s daughter!”
I almost spit out my beer. The original Zaïnab was certainly not sipping beer when she got baptized. I feel sacrilegious, and subconsciously hide my beer under the table, out of sight of Islam and out of respect for my honorable namesake. Woops!

As the evening wore on, Ganaba took off one of her many bracelets and just gave it to me—cadeau. As 8pm approached, my fellow volunteer and I had to head back to the Peace Corps house to beat our curfew, which is in place as long as we’re in Conakry waiting for election results. We prepared to call a cab, but Ganaba would have none of it. She summoned her personal driver and before we knew it, we were off in her shiny black sedan. In the space of a couple hours, I had acquired a new name, a bracelet, a free ride home, a pleasant buzz, and most memorably, a first insight into Guinean generosity. And all this from a woman I’d only just met! When it’s that easy to become homonymes and friends, I get excited and anxious to meet more Guineans, to get out of the bubble of the Peace Corps house, and to see this country. Now there’s just one thing left—deciding my Guinean last name!

Election update: As of late Monday night results are IN from the November 7 Presidential run-off!! As the results were announced, an unexpectedly late storm pounded Conakry, rain washing the streets clean. Symbolic? We can only hope. The Electoral Committee cleverly released the results on the eve of the Fête de Mouton, or Eid al-Adha, one of the largest Muslim holidays of the year, when people are expected to be visiting friends and family, eating sheep (in memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, before the sheep handily stepped in), and generally, not violently protesting. Most folks seemed to stay close to home yesterday, celebrating the Fête on a scaled-down level. Guinea’s Supreme Court now has eight days to confirm the election results. Once things are calm, we’ll head to our posts. It’s true that there has been unrest in Conakry, I can hear the gunshots, but I’m happily hunkered down in the Peace Corps house with plenty of reading material and a very large stash of yogurt (although no sheep). Hopefully, the supporters of the losing candidate, Diallo, who have been quoted as saying “Victory or Death!” will take another look at that stance… I’m encouraged to know that the roughly 2,000 election observers from the Carter Center, the European Union, and local groups did not find the “massive fraud at all levels” that Diallo has accused. I’m equally curious to see if Condé, the winning candidate, will make good on the pledge both candidates made prior to elections to include the other in a unity government, and if extending the olive branch would quiet the street riots. I’ll limit my public commentary on elections for now since it’s a sensitive, political subject likely to get me into trouble, and I’m here to serve all factions as an apolitical volunteer. You can read more here, or feel free to send me an e-mail or a comment on the blog if you’re curious to know more.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I don’t cook. Cause I’d rather shock you.

My homestay family was always trying to coerce me into the kitchen. “Ma will teach you how to prepare crabs this weekend!” or, “We’ll show you how to make the sauce with manioc leaves!” They seemed genuinely keen to impart their culinary knowledge on me. It’s equally typical that I’ll be sitting around a table with a variety of African colleagues, enjoying a good meal, when somebody drops the cooking bomb. “Oh, toi, tu peux preparer comme ça, non?” Oh you, you can cook like this, right? I can never tell if they’re just pulling my chain, egging me on, or if they’re truly curious. So I usually just smile and make a blanket statement of, “No, I don’t like to cook.” The Africans recoil in horror. “You don’t like to cook??” The kitchen is not only the woman’s domain, but her pride! I don’t know even one married African male who cooks—that is what wives here are for—it is part of how she contributes to the family.

I like to take the opportunity of these awkward dinner-time conversations to blow a few minds. So I launch into my spiel. It goes something along the lines of, “You know, I’m actually not a very good cook. I’m better at finance. That’s why I work in the bank. I have more to offer doing math stuff in the bank than I do in the kitchen. So I’ll keep putting my time and efforts into the bank job, and then use that salary to hire a cook. See? Bonus! Job created!” (Some Africans I’ve met actually reproach the relatively wealthy foreigners who do not hire household staff. If the wealthy have enough money to employ people, then, according to this line of thinking, they should be giving jobs to those who need them.)

These ideas surprise my African friends because it’s in our womanly genes to be in the kitchen, isn’t it? I think my reasoning is sometimes misunderstood here as scoffing at all the culinary efforts and talents of so many other woman, and I come off looking too big for my britches, too uppity to do the most basic and necessary of tasks—cook. But my point is simply to raise the question of where a woman has value. It could be in the kitchen, as is typically the case in Africa. But it could additionally be in a bank. Or a hospital. Or a courtroom, classroom, boardroom, etc. Dropping the “I don’t like to cook” bomb is one way of planting a little food for thought.

I just finished reading the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which got me thinking. That is a man who likes to cook, likes to eat, and likes to think about where all of his food comes from! (I recommend it, but I think if I had actually read it while living in America and eating American-grown food I would have my undies in a bundle. There is enough in there to unsettle one’s stomach. Ignorance can be bliss. But, I recommend it anyway!)

In reading this book (in addition to getting alternatively disgusted and hungry) I’ve realized to what extent I distance myself from cooking in Africa so as to distance myself from my prescribed gender role here. In America, I’ve equally detached myself from a kitchen just to avoid any possible chance that some man would expect me to be stirring a pot every evening, or try to subjugate me, apron-clad, into a kitchen corner.

Earlier today, a fabulously interesting American lady co-worker invited me over for lunch. I happily stuffed myself with a variety of her delicious foods, and was feeling spoiled, satisfied, and appreciative. We were talking about the gender roles in the kitchen—in Africa, in America—and she exclaimed, “But I LIKE to cook! I’m happy to do it!” And it dawned on me that I kind of do, too. Chopping things is stress-relieving! And experimenting with weird ingredients is fun—wondering if my dishes will actually come out edible! I’ve just been too busy trying to prove a point to admit it. I’m not great at cooking, but I sure do like to eat, and it’s fun to make other people happy with the thought and effort that goes into making a tasty meal. In the same way women’s lib has become all about having the choice to stay at home with kids if that’s what a lady wants, I’m realizing that stretches into the kitchen as well. I don’t ever want a man who’s dependant on me for his next feeding, but I do want to know how to make a satisfying meal from time to time. Even better to make that sweet meal with a nice man. :) Plus, food fights are hot.

So, it’s not the deepest of revelations, but I appreciate what dawns on me with the clash of American literature and African culture. I think in my future African dinner conversations I’ll try to be a little more open to the possibility of sharing a cooking lesson. I’ll just have to work in my value-of-a-woman discussion somewhere between chopping and stirring.

PS—Election update. Things are smooth here! The Electoral Commission is announcing results gradually, as they come in, since last Sunday’s elections. Hopefully we’ll know the next Guinean president by this weekend! For the curious, a brief update here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Weddings, elections, and your mother.

Here’s what I’ve been up to!

One of our language trainers, Tidiane, got married and we were all invited to the wedding! The ceremony took place in the family compound. Tidiane told us we’d probably rather skip out on the lengthy section of Koranic readings. We obliged. We showed up for the civil ceremony and… the food. :)

The inevitable flock of kids

As many people as we Americans photographed, the Guineans were practically lined up taking pictures of us! I guess it’s not everyday a flock of white people shows up at the village wedding.

Women folk cuttin up.

(This was a Muslim wedding in the strict Wahhabi tradition. At one point someone from the groom’s family attempted to put some music on, but that quickly got nixed!)

This one isn’t a fabulous picture, but I love how it captures the backdrop to the wedding scene. Tidiane is in the gray boubou, and his soon-to-be wife is in all white.

Everyone crowds around the table as the couple says their vows. The official government representative threw on the appropriate red, gold, and green Guinean sash. And baseball cap.

After the ceremony, we ate some delicious food, including a typical Peul dish called lacchiri e kosan. You serve yourself a big pile of corn flour. On top of that, scoop yourself a helping of sour milk (kind of like yogurt.) Add some sugar, mix it all up, and enjoy! Tidiane was so happy for us to be there, but I think we were really the ones who benefited—my first Guinean wedding!

Sunday November 7—election day is today! If all goes well, then results will come in within about a week, they won’t be too heavily contested, and then all of us PCVs will go to our sites! In the meantime, I’m fortunate in that I’m getting to work in Conakry with my host organization CAFODEC, as well as several other microfinance organizations. It’s been really interesting to learn about the microfinance sector here as a whole, and to get to meet with the big dogs and ask them all my questions!

Your Mother.
Finally, here’s a really cool trick from Niger, courtesy one of my fellow Response volunteers who served his two years there. Apparently, the terrible insult you give somebody in Niger is… drumroll… The Shegiya. To Shegiya somebody, you thrust your five fingers towards them, palm out. You can make an angry face with that, too, if you’d like. It’s like flipping the bird in America, but cooler, becaaaaauuuse shegiya comes from the Hausa word shegintaka, meaning in English, bastard. The five angry fingers mean, “The night you were conceived, your mama slept with FIVE men and she doesn’t even know who your daddy is! Bastard.” It’s a low blow. My friend said folks in Niger will do this to each other in traffic, in an argument and he’s even seen mothers do it to their own kids! How odd!

That’s the scoop from Guinea!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Politics and the fam life

Re-bonjour de Guinée!

So, here’s a brief update on the situation. We are all hoping that “Our Malian Hero,” the recently appointed president of Guinea’s electoral commission will be able to make the promised presidential elections happen. They were scheduled for yesterday, Sunday October 24. Friday night we found out that elections will be postponed indefinitely. And so we continue to wait and hope.

As for me, I’m currently in limbo. I’m eager to get to my post and begin the job I signed up to do, but that won't be possible until after the elections have passed. Given the uncertainty I’m examining all my options: wait indefinitely for the potential to do good work here in Guinea, transfer to another country where Peace Corps can offer me equally viable short-term work, start looking for a job elsewhere... For so long I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity in Guinea that it would be difficult to let it slip away. Mentally, I’m not quite ready to come back to America and settle in to the day to day routine that ultimately awaits me. Not that the settled American life is a bad thing, and I do look forward to it, eventually. I was just banking on my six more months of doing fulfilling work in Africa. I’ve found it’s hard to tear myself away from here.

The home life.
So in the interim, I’ll tell you a little about what I’m up to! I’m staying with a Guinean family. (That was a surprise when I got off the plane! Washington had told me that I’d be working at my site within about four days of my arrival, after a quick orientation in Conakry.) So, it’s taken a little adapting, but I appreciate the fam. My Ma feeds me well, and I love that she’s always laughing. Not in a creepy way, the way some people laugh at completely inappropriate moments, but in a way that puts everyone at ease because she’s just generally a happy and amused old woman. My brother’s name is Mohamed Sowpith Camara, but everyone calls him Ally. And he is a good ally indeed. He keeps me informed of all the current news, shares my dinners with me, and shows me around town. They’re part of a polygamous family. The father, now deceased, had three wives and nineteen children. There are so many kids running around my compound that there’s no way I can keep them all straight! My Ma speaks some French, and her children are well educated; several have been to college, which is rare and surprising here.

And since I KNOW my American Mom is going to ask, I’ll tell you what we eat here. :) Out of my deep-seated fear of tripe, liver, and other unidentifiable organs, I told Ma that I don’t like meat. So, lucky me, I eat loads of fish, which I love! It helps being right near the water. Not only that, but one day I was eating an omelet Ma made me for breakfast that I could have sworn had crab in it. Lo and behold. Crabs are everywhere here! Ma mixes them in a dish called “riz gras.” Fat rice. It’s Guinea’s answer to Louisiana’s dirty rice or jambalaya. And randomly, I eat a LOT of pumpkin! It is the chosen vegetable of my household, apparently. Fine by me!

Dubreka, the town where all of us PCVs are staying until after elections, is about 50 km outside Conakry. Dubreka has no water and no power on a regular basis. Indeed, my toilet is a hole in the ground. Cameroon sure spoiled me with those porcelain wonders. If you’re curious, that’s my toilet there. (Stand on the feet, lift up the cement plug, aim.)

And here’s my shower. Before starting, ensure there is enough water, and then cup by cup, wash yourself clean! (The hardest part to rinse is your forearms.) Don’t worry, I never have to shower alone. Plenty of arachnids just line up to keep me company!

The Peace Corps training facility has a generator, so they fire that up for a few hours of electricity a day. I’ve been entertaining myself with lots of reading on microfinance, runs, and bike rides through the jungle-y scenery. It’s at least as brutally humid here as in South Louisiana in the summer, so another of my preferred activities is fanning myself in the dark at night. At least the humidity brings forth lush, beautiful greenery in all directions, which I do appreciate! (Between the drops of sweat that roll down my eyes!)

I’ve had the chance to do and see some neat things here in Dubreka. First, some traditional tea. If I had better internet access, I’d upload the video that accompanies these photos. Abdoulaye, our 17-year-old tea maker extraordinaire, got his hands on another volunteer’s iPod. Apparently, the ubiquitous Cameroonian-man-falsetto singing voice extends throughout West Africa. I have never met an African man who sings in anything other that a squeaky high warble. Here, he’s belting out Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” distinguishable by high-pitched wailing interspersed with the occasional lyrical burst, “Umbrella, brella! Hey! Hey!” His tea is very good.


Really, he could do this with his eyes closed.

They pour it from one cup to another to cool it off, after it’s steeped on the hot coals.

The finished product is really sugary and very strong—like a shot of tea. Sometimes, interestingly, they add peanuts into the tea.

Then, we got in touch with a local organization that teaches kids drumming and dancing. The organization, funded in part by UNICEF, also teaches the kids to read, write, do some basic math, and provides a meal per day.

I saw so surprisingly little drumming and dancing in Cameroon (except when I asked for demonstrations in my own living room, see below) that I was thrilled to see this so soon into my stay in Guinea.

A traditional Mafa dance of Northern Cameroon, as portrayed in my living room.

And lastly, I’ll leave you with a classic concept: the Guinean clothes dryer!

So, please keep your fingers crossed, and if you’re the praying type, say some prayers for Guinea—that these elections will happen and that Guinea can move out of its limbo and forward into something new and good.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Guinean elections.

Les élections les élections.

Either it’s accompanied by a sadly shaking head, or an enthusiastic "Ils vont se passer dans de bonnes conditions!" They’ll happen just fine!

It’s Wednesday. The run-off of Guinea’s first-ever democratic presidential election is scheduled for this Sunday. It’s an exciting time to be in Guinea. It’s a nerve-wracking and uncertain time to be in Guinea.

Early July. Then September 19… October 10… now October 24. The date for the presidential run-off has been repeatedly postponed, thrusting Guinea, and me, into a precarious and potentially explosive waiting game. The day I got on the plane to leave for Guinea I learned that the elections that were to happen two days after my arrival were postponed. We still don’t know if Sunday’s elections will really take place. I have a whole new appreciation of certainty.

A brief review of why these elections are so important. But first I should take a minute to reiterate that in writing this I am merely attempting to summarize that which you, my dear family and friends, would be reading yourself if you were reading the local news in French. Peace Corps' business is strictly non-political. Peace Corps, and I, have no opinion or agenda regarding these elections. I tell you all of the following so that you have an idea of the environment in which I am living and working. On continue. On September 28, 1958, "On a voté non!" We voted no! Guinea was the only one of France’s West African colonies that chose to sever all ties with France. Better to be poor in independence than rich in slavery, proclaimed Sekou Touré, Guinea’s first leader. Guinea turned to the Soviet Union for help until Touré’s death in 1984. Then General Lansana Conté took over the presidency and proceeded to rig elections until his death in 2008.

Up until this point, you could note a few similarities between Cameroon’s and Guinea’s histories. Both countries have had only two authoritarian leaders, ever. When I arrived in Cameroon in 2008, Cameroonian President Paul Biya and Guinean President Conté had been in questionable power for roughly the same amount of time. Only Paul Biya hasn’t died yet…

But in 2008 Guinea took a sharp turn in another direction. President Conté died, and military Captain Dadis Camara took over in a bloodless coup. He promised to step down and allow free elections after two years. Guineans were thrilled. Dadis, as he was known, started to clean house, publicly prosecuting corrupt government officials from Conté’s administration, which was rife with nepotism. The legal proceedings were broadcast on national television. Every night, families gathered excitedly around their TV sets to watch “The Dadis Show,” as they called it, where justice seemingly was served.

The international community, however, was not so entertained. They put huge amounts of pressure on the Guinean government and people to hold free elections. Dadis balked at the pressure, at setting a date, and questioned why he personally could not run for president. He was Guinean, n’est ce pas, and he wanted his chance.

Then September 28, 2009. The fifty-first anniversary of independence. Demonstrators gathered at the stadium of the same name, the September 28th Stadium in the capital city of Conakry. They demonstrated peacefully, calling for the promised elections. Government officials later said that they did not have the right to be in the stadium that day, that they did not have permission. Whatever the case, nothing excuses the violence that ensued, yet still nothing has been done to prosecute those responsible. More information is here, but in sum, over 150 people lost their lives in the massacre, hundreds of women were raped, and hundreds more demonstrators were injured. Reactions among Guinean government officials have ranged from denial to feigned ignorance. As for Dadis himself, although he had given the order that no demonstrations should take place that day, he personally denied any direct involvement in the massacre.

As I’ve been told, what happened next is that Dadis personally went to seek out some of his high-ranking military officials, whom he believed to be responsible for the violence. They were hiding out in the islands off the coast of Conakry. During Dadis’ attempt to bring the accused in, he was shot in the head. He was flown out of the country for medical treatment and has been convalescing in Burkina Faso ever since.

Currently, we’re under an interim government, led by military General Sekouba Konaté. As promised, the first round of the long-awaited presidential elections was pushed through in June of this year. A field of dozens of candidates was narrowed to two. It’s these two that are currently battling it out til the end to be Guinea’s first freely-elected president.

And now, enter the sticky question of ethnicity. Candidate number 1, Mr. Diallo, captured 44% percent of the vote in June, the largest of any candidate, which is roughly indicative of his ethnic group’s predominance in Guinea. Despite being the largest ethnic group in Guinea, Diallo and his Peuls have never held the Presidency.

Candidate number 2 is Alpha Condé, a Malinké who captured about 18% of the first-round vote. In addition to the Malinké and the Peuls, the Sousous are another major ethnic group in Guinea. The Sousou and the Malinké seem to be teaming up to keep the Peuls and their boy Diallo out of office. As you can see, the election is incredibly ethnically charged. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, the town where I will eventually serve is evenly split between the two competing factions, Malinké and Peul. So every question, from what local name I would take to which local language I’ll learn, is ethnically charged.)

So why the interminable delays for the run-off election? Initially, ballots hadn’t arrived from South Africa on time, as they were supposed to. Next, the president of the electoral commission, which ultimately pronounces the election results, died. Then, Alpha Condé accused the first round of elections of being marked with irregularities and voting fraud. Most recently, the newly-appointed head of the electoral committee, replacing the guy who died, has been vehemently disputed.

But lo and behold! Last night, yet another new head of the electoral committee was announced. And he’s not even Guinean!! Thank you other lung of the Malian-Guinean body… he’s a Malian. So far both candidates seem to accept his nomination. But now it’s Thursday, the election is looming in only three days. Nothing has confirmed yet that it will actually happen. As for us Peace Corps Volunteers, we are safely holed up in a little town outside of Conakry, away from the potential hot mess. There has been street violence in Conakry, but life here au village is calm, and we, like the Guineans, will continue to wait. There’s a lot of hope and a lot of excitement in the air. I’ll keep you posted on what could be a huge moment in Guinean history.

He's everywhere.

Oh! It’s the Obama pants! This is the cute kid who lives in my compound. I wish those came in my size.

Mary and Hayden, should I keep my eyes peeled for a pair for Baby Frank? :)

Monday, October 18, 2010

What’s your name?

Bonjour de Guinée! Today makes a week I’ve been in Guinea! So, a few initial observations for you.

It’s hard not to start every other sentence with “In Cameroon, bwa bwa bwa bwaaaaa…” But even when I do, fortunately for me, the other Peace Corps Response volunteers here are in the same boat. There are 17 of us total, and we’ve all previously served in Peace Corps Africa, in Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Uganda, Kenya and Malawi. There’s another volunteer from Cameroon who finished well before I did, but served in just the next province down. One gentleman even served here in Guinea in the sixties, fresh off of independence! My favorite stories are the real bad-ass ones about desert living in Niger—hard core.

I love that being in Guinea keeps me from forgetting about Cameroon. Although I enjoyed every minute of my recent trip to the lactic wonderland that is America, it’s true that Cameroon seemed terribly, painfully far away, as though my time there was all another crazy mef* dream, and in simply waking up, I would lose it—the dream, the experience. Once I got back to America, Cameroon was worlds away—no family or certainty to connect me back there now.

(*Mef is mefloquine, our required malaria prophylaxis that has a sometimes entertaining, sometimes unsettling side effect of really wacked out dreams.)

So coming to Guinea has brought back Cameroon, in its similarities and its differences. But Guinea also brings a whole new edge: West Africa. Guinea is West African in ways that Cameroon never will be: in West Africa’s pervasive Islam, its dance, the French everywhere.

The Boobies.
First difference, boobs are EVERYwhere here! Although a Northern Cameroonian woman wouldn’t hesitate to whip out a breast to nurse her baby any time, anywhere, she’s otherwise modest, wearing a big pagne top, and usually more pagne draped around her body. Here, it’s the Peace Corps Volunteers who are the most modestly dressed. I’ve seen more boobs in a week in Guinea than in two years in Cameroon! Spaghetti strap tops are normal here—you’d never see that much skin in Northern Cameroon. Orrrrrr, you can opt to wear just your bra. When I left the house today, I noted one of the ladies in my compound wearing her pagne wrap skirt with only her bra. It was maroon with yellow embroidery saying “I LOVE YOU,” on each breast (just in case you missed it on one breast.) Another woman was nursing not one, but TWO babies at the same time, one on each boobie. Impressive. My homestay Ma is a kind woman in her fifties who’s raised six children. Her great boobs are always flapping around and flying out of the sleeves of her huge moomoo.

And one last comment on undergarments in my compound. I am jealous of the small boy who has Obama underwear! He’s about 5, and the underwear is bright yellow with a black, red, and white waistband that says OBAMA OBAMA OBAMA all around his waist. Obama’s popularity does not falter among the youth of Africa.

The lungs.
Another main difference between Cameroon and Guinea is Guinea’s connectedness with its West African neighbors. In Cameroon, everything was blamed on “Those Chadians!” or “Sex-stealing Nigerians!!” Seemingly, nothing good came from beyond our borders. The night I arrived in Guinea, however, while still driving from the airport, the driver told me, “Guinea and Mali are two lungs of the same body.” The two countries have much in common, and since Mali was the first Sub-Saharan African country I ever visited, I’ve got a soft spot for it. The countries’ people have many of the same names: Keita, Touré, Traoré, Diallo. The Malinké language I’ll learn (minimally!) of upper Guinea is very similar to the Bambara spoken in much of Mali. (And lucky me, yes, my new town is split neatly between two languages: the Pulaar similar to what I knew in Northern Cameroon, and Malinké.)

The names.
In both Mali and Guinea, there is a practice I love, non-existent in Cameroon. It’s the joking cousins. The closest parallel I can think of in the States is the example of people in South Louisiana making Aggie jokes—just finding someone different to make fun of. In Guinea, soooooo many people share last names. “Guinea is a family!” I’ve heard it explained. Indeed. You see the same 20 family names all the time. And so it’s customary that some families will always make fun of other families. The Syllas and Contés will always joke with the Camaras. The Diallos are always at it against the Bahs. And in my town of Dabola, it’s the Barrys after the Sows. They’ll say things to each other like, “Oh, you Diallos are thieves!” “Oh, well you Bahs eat cats. Hahahahaha!!!” (If this doesn’t seem very funny to you, that’s ok… African humor is a little different.) But the beautiful thing about this bit of African humor is that it works every time. The joke just never gets old. I think my favorite one is about the Coulibalys in Mali. Apparently, EVERYone gets to make fun of them! And their best line… “Oh, you Coulibalys eat beans! Hahahahaha!!!” (Implied fart joke.) I’ve heard this goes on in levels as high as the Ministers’ cabinets.

One story I’ve already heard a few times is about the Camaras and… the Chinese. Apparently, in some publicly made address, former Guinean President Lansana Conté jokingly told a group of Chinese contractors that they should not hire the Camaras for work on a massive state construction project here in Guinea. Since, as everybody knows, the Camaras are thieves! Weeeelllllllllll, the Chinese didn’t quite get the joke. Imagine that! A hard-working Camara, looking for a job, approaches the office of the Chinese contractors. The Chinese studiously examine the proud Mr. Camara’s application, shake their heads and say, “We are sorry, we can not hire you. You are a Camara.” Woops. It got so bad that enough of the Camaras complained to President Conté, who had to explain the joke to the Chinese.

Sooooo, how does all this affect me? My last name clearly is neither Camara nor Diallo nor Bah. Oh, but it could be!! Equally customary in Guinea is naming foreigners. Guineans LOVE to give you a name that they can pronounce, which shows at least some reflection of where you work in Guinea and with what group of people, since certain names clearly indicate certain tribal affiliations. The Peace Corps Volunteers who previously served in West Africa have already been named, and simply introduce themselves now as Aïcha or Mariama, (for a girl) or Idrissou or Ousmane (for a guy), complete with selected last name. My dear host family (the Camaras) have kindly already suggested that I become Mariatou Camara. I’ll be working with a lot of Diallos though, so that’s an idea too. Just this morning I went to buy some soap at a shop near my house. “What’s your name?” the shop keeper asked. “Fleurange,” I answered. “No, but what’s your name in Guinea?” “Ah, I don’t have one yet!” We will see and I’ll let you know the results of my new baptism. I have to choose carefully!

There’s tons more I could say about Guinea, but ça suffit for now from (for now) Fleurange! My love to all!!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I go to Guinea tomorrow!!

But before I do, here is a short list of things I straight-up forgot about cause I hadn’t seen them in more than two years:

• Handicapped bathrooms
• Microwaves
• To-go cups: available in any bar in South Louisiana
• How many white people there are in America
• How to write a check. (I had to ask Mom.)
• Everyone locking their doors all the time!
• Broken bones: does everyone in America break their foot for fun? (I only say this cause I’ve done it 3 times…) I’m seeing those walking casts everywhere! Do Cameroonians break as many bones as we do and just keep on walking or do we have particularly snap-happy bones?
• Saying “bless you” when some one sneezes. No one ever did that in my corner of Cameroon! I was walking in the streets of DC and someone said it to me from across the street!! That’s love.
• Seat belts: No car I rode in in Cameroon had them. Mom had to keep reminding me for about two weeks to buckle up.
• High school options: I went back to my old high school for the ten year reunion. Our mascot was the Mighty Lions. Painted on a huge wall of the school was a lion with a mask and gavel, a lion with a paintbrush, a lion with a football helmet, a lion with swim goggles, a lion with a clarinet. There was probably a lion with a French beret and some cheese, but I missed him. My kinda lion. The point is that I was overwhelmed by all those options. When I taught business classes at my local high school in Cameroon, one of the best schools in the region, we had no electricity. Three thousand students got to choose from about three clubs.

“What on earth is this?” category:
• iPhones
Technology takes over America. I watch in awe. If I want to let on to just how clueless I am, I ask questions. I will learn when I return!

It’s been a fabulous time at home and I’m really grateful to all the people who made efforts to see me, put up with me, hosted me, and fed me! Thank you, I will miss you… but remember, not for long this time!

Sunday, September 19, 2010



I’ve been in the States for a couple of weeks, soaking up cheese, showing skin, and enjoying American culture after 27 months away! I was in Tanzania before coming home. I met up with my friend Shawn there, and then what’s better than one person from Massachusetts… but three?? His parents joined us for a week as well and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with all of them.

Some pitchas.

A viewpoint in the Usambara Mountains, Northeast Tanzania. I don’t know why my belly looks pregnant—it’s not. (Too much African beer, maybe?)

Tanzania’s version of a magnolia! (Louisiana state flower :)

Market scene in the Usambara mountains

Cute girls we ran into along the hike

More cute, this time in a field

Actually, kids not only looked cute, but they mad fun noises too. While we were hiking, I was telling Shawn a story, describing an incident in Cameroon that had really irritated me. I made an appropriate noise of disgruntled angst to describe my frustration. Apparently, at exactly that moment, there were about 15 Tanzanian children lurking in nearby bushes. Apparently, they all thought my sound effects were entertaining and immediately imitated them. So we were bombarded with this ridiculous sound, repeatedly, coming from 15 directions, and choruses of giggles. I couldn’t stop laughing because apparently, I sound a lot like a goat. My goat noise, in Tanzanian surround sound. I’m currently aiming to eliminate that sound from my repertoire..

Post hike, a stop in Tanga on the East coast, overlooking the Indian Ocean.

On the island of Pemba, Shawn contemplates the water and a traditional boat.

From the lighthouse of Pemba. The lighthouse was over 100 years old, built in the colonial heyday. And as you can see from my semi-crazed expression, the elevation was a little intimidating!

Zanzibar, the beautiful island off the east coast of Tanzania, in the Indian Ocean. In Stone Town, the main city, they have a bustling night market where you can buy amazing seafood! (Octopus tentacles, anyone? Not bad! Just a little chewy. And you can see the little suction cups.) Here, a vendor prepares the classic “Zanzibar pizza.”

Zanzibar night market. It's outdoors, in a big open square surrounded by gardens, a royal palace, and the water. Not too shabby.

We went on a space tour: nutmeg straight off the tree.

Cinnamon: the part we eat is just bark scraped off the trunk. That lighter colored patch is where it was just scraped off.

A little less all-natural: Konyagi, my favorite Tanzanian liquor. My grandfather was a sugarcane farmer, what can I say, I like things... beverages... (alcohol) made from sugar!

View from an old sultan’s palace in Zanzibar.

The traditionally constructed doors in Zanzibar are made of carved wood. Me + Shawn, Mama Shawn, and Papa Shawn.

Hey monkey. In the Jozani reserve on Zanzibar.

On to the Serengeti, where we spent a couple days. The giraffe and I got into a staring contest.

Hyenas are ugly. Sorry, hyenas.

The elephant and I had a heart to heart.

More Serengeti friends

Warthogs! I’m the only one who thinks they are cute. In the background, flamingos.

Wildebeest, like hyena = not pretty. Lovable though!

Fat-bottom hippos.

One last animal shot, this one from the Olduvai gorge. Apparently, as we monkey/men evolve, it seems the position of our big toe turns inward. Alas, in the image on the far left the monkey toe sticks straight out to the side. In the middle, the more-evolved human toe turns in, aligned directly with the foot. And what is this third specimen? A new creature of a more evolved state, whose big toe turns yet further inwards, moving further from monkey-dom, and towards some supreme form of human intelligence?! Oh wait. That’s just my ugly crooked foot. I’ll console myself and just pretend I’m more evolved. :)

Standing on the edge of Ngorongoro crater.

Alas, I’ve got a few more weeks in America now before I head to Guinea, where I will return to a healthy diet of leaf sauce and leave Ben, Jerry, and all their amazing ice cream behind. Til then, amigos, watch out for that little funny-dressed kid, either inappropriately trying to use modern technology (iPhone?!!), or standing baffled in a grocery store aisle near you!