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!!

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