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!