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!