Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Long time!

So it has been a pretty long time now since my last post... I've been living in Forecariah with a host family for PST (pre-service training). The training itself is pretty exhausting... 8am - 5m, Monday through Friday, usually plus something for a little while on Saturday. I've gotten to know just about everyone in my group and am very happy to say that we break the stereotype of the boring education volunteers. With all the crap we put up with (cock roaches in the toilet, bed bugs, strange food, mosquito bites that look like leprosy, never ending "Ca va? Et la journee ? Et la famille ? Et le travail ? etc etc etc), I think we earned that Guiluxe before Cafe Francais.

An average day for me begins around 5:30am when I wake up with the prayer call (it sounds like a whiny voice chanting "Allah Akbar" over a scratchy loudspeaker somewhere far in the distance; it doesn't always wake me up, but I've subconsciously started listening for it, especially after having weird dreams, which has been every night since I've been in Africa). I usually fall back to sleep or listen to my iPod or something until 6:15-6:30ish when the rooster crows and the family gets up. I've never actually witnessed their morning routine, but I hear them get up and fill water buckets, get the fire started, and sweep and mop the floors. If I'm lucky, a new bucket of bath water is waiting for me next to the drain where I take my bucket baths along with a full bucket of rain water to flush the toilet (it's a regular looking toilet - albeit ancient by American standards - that you have to pour a fast stream of water down to flush). The shower bucket I can fill myself, but the toilet bucket is bigger and much heavier, so naturally I rely on the little girls in my house ("petites" as they are fondly called) to fetch this water for me. That's right, tiny African kids fetch water and do a multitude of other physically demanding tasks in this culture. Even the skinniest little girl can lift a water bucket, put it on her head, and walk as far as she wants without missing a beat and without a single complaint. Meanwhile, I struggle, cursing under my breath as I drag my bucket across the house. Despite my efforts to not spill anything, I always do. The girls chez moi are as strong as they are unbelievably gorgeous and always thrilled to help. Any time they catch me sweeping my room (using pieces of straw tied together - basically a broom without the long handle) they burst out laughing and say "Heyyyyyy Maimouna" and snatch it away from me to finish the job. They're great. Oh by the way, my name is Maimouna Soumah now. Having an African name is a great way to start a conversation with someone because people's last names are a huge symbol of both camaraderie and rivalry in Guinean culture. For example, if your last name was Bah, you might say that a Diallo is a thief or something like that. Soumah generally means that I am everyone's master (yes, many jokes are made about slavery and no one gives a shit about being PC).

So anyway, I hope out of bed and tuck my mosquito net into the mattress as quickly as possible and walk down the hall to the bathroom to take my bucket bath (i.e. taking a bucket of water and a cup and pouring it over myself). Then I go to the dining room to eat breakfast alone in the nicest table in the house. Everyone else eats outside from a communal bowl. This is how I eat all my meals... sometimes it's kind of sad, especially on nights when there's no electricity and I'm sitting alone in the dark with a flashlight over my food, which is probably an entire fish staring me in the face, laughing because I can't eat it because of all the bones. (Side story before I forget: one eveningg my host mother made fish spaghetti with an entire fish on top, which I couldn't eat because of all the tiny bones. She came in and noticed I hadn't touched the fish, so she picked it up with her bare hands and ate the thing whole, bones and all WTF). Breakfast can range from an egg with onions and way too much oil, to spaghetti, to rice and sauce, beans, avocado salad, always accompanied by a baguette. What I would do for a bowl of cereal and orange juice.... :)

So then I have training all day until 5pm. Lunch is our responsibility - usually an omelet sandwich or baguette with peanut butter for me. I can't deal with hot rice & sauce when it feels like I'm trapped in a sauna. Our main classes are language (French & local language; I learn Susu since I already had French), technical traning (TEFL for me, physics, chemistry, and math for others), cross-cultural, and medical (all the gross diseases we can get in Guinea and how to deal with them). Susu has been a big challenge for me because I get so tired during the day that I barely have time to study/it sounds unlike any language I've ever heard before. Any time I say anything in Susu everyone goes crazy, it's hilarious. But for all real communication I always speak French.

MY SITE : I'm going to be teaching English at Geology & Mining University in Tamakene, 5km from Boke, the regional capital of the Basse Cote region. I'll be the only volunteer teaching at the university level and I just found out today that I will be the only woman professor at the university... it will be a great challenge that I'm looking forward to facing. Whether or not the Guineans themselves can admit it, Guinean culture basically requires men to be sexist. It's hard enough for women to gain respect in the university system in the US, and Guinea is decades behind the developing world in the realm of women's rights. I saw the university itself today.. it was all overgrown because it's vacation, but they assured me that doing the school year, everything looks different and well-maintained. We'll see! I'm excited to live on campus in my own house, I think it will be a lively environment and provide me with many opportunities to meet people here and understand the nuances of the culture here. Plus I'm pretty sure I'lll have electricity and maybe even running water -- WOW!!

I know this isn't the most interesting blog post, but it's because I'm exhausted and looking at this screen is making me hallucinate. Bon voyage mes amies, this weekend going to Martha's Vineyard without me... don't have too much fun without me you skanks.wah. I love you. Send me letters! And peanut butter!! xxx :)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

In Conakry !!

Well, here I am in Conakry, the capital of Guinea!!
After a looong flight with a few minor delays, we arrived in the Conakry airport. That was my first taste of Africa - the airport was a tiny one-room cement building with sickly yellow lighting and some African drawings at the top of a high ceiling. It was filled beyond capacity the entire time we were there (though I wonder if the concept of "maximum capacity" exists here...)
After a longish crowded line surrounded by Guinean army officials (they're all over the place here), surprisingly we made it through without any problems and were granted access to the other side where the baggage claim is. We had an intense welcome from the current Peace Corps volunteers, which was great in such a chaotic mess of people pushing and yelling in various languages...
The baggage claim was pure chaos -- everyone shouting and pushing, people running around probably trying to steal bags... but all of our baggage arrived and we walked out the long ramp to the PC van awaiting us around 8pm or so.
After waiting forever in traffic to get out of the airport, I got a brief but intense first glimpse of Africa in the dark...
The van ride to the Peace Corps house was down a few roads, some dirt, some kind of like highways, all lined with TONS of people... some walking, some idling, some standing around talking, some looking like they were negotiating... it was veerry dark because most places didn't have electricity. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The road was lined with shacks, most looking like a bad rain storm could blow them over... some were apparently shops, others were residences, some I had no idea. Just people sitting in the dark doing nothing. Quite a strange/eerie sight if you've never been in a third world country!

Today was the next crazy African experience I've had so far. After a day of random "icebreaker" type activities, a current PCV took us to the local market to have a look around and check out the city during daylight. This I don't even think I can describe...
The roads were again lined with people in every possible space, either sitting around, washing clothes in a bucket, cooking something right next to the road on an open fire, doing some kind of metalwork, playing soccer, selling all kinds of things (fruit, vegetables, meat, toiletry items, etc) displayed haphazardly on tables...
The marché itself was a fucking trip. I followed the veteran volunteer inside what looked like just a sketchy storefront into a narrow (REALLY narrow) maze of storefronts selling all kinds of things... every kind of food, vegetable, fruit, textile, shoes (Obama flip-flops lol), wooden bowls & spoons, etc... everything covered in flies and filth. Everywhere you turned someone was right there, pushing through like it was nothing. The road itself was unbelievably uneven and rocky and with enormous crevasses that you could practically fall into. People would often just be sitting in their tables... kind of like the midway in the fair if they were within 4 feet of each other and a lot smaller and weirder. And with no lights.
The streets were filled with families hanging around doing stuff in front of what appeared to me like shacks that were barely standing... cooking, playing games, talking, washing things... all surrounded by unbelievable garbage everywhere. Children sang to us in their local language (translated by current PCVs) "White person!" It was pretty cute. Most people were very friendly and smiled when you smiled at them, despite the initial stare.
The whole market experience was crazy... it truly astounds me that people live their lives like this every day. It's like I landed on a different planet. I love it though; everything is new and exciting, albeit somewhat dirty. Someone described it in an interesting way: "The people here are living their everyday lives despite the government's influence rather than facilitated by the government..." i.e. they have come to expect the government to do them more harm than good. It's interesting. The other PCVs that will be helping us train were saying how strange and alien it seemed to them the first time, but that now it's completely normal... will be a while for me!

Hope everything is great back in the States, I love & miss everyone xxxx

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Night Before...

Well, this is it... that night I knew would sneak up on me: the night before I leave home. Tomorrow I'm taking a flight at 9:30am from Albany to Philadephia for my "Staging" event, which is basically a 2-day orientation/introduction, as well as when we get the necessary vaccinations and whatnot. Not really looking forward to that, but I suppose it's preferable to a case of malaria or yellow fever or some other such tropical disease.
The official flight to Guinea is on July 8th...

I can't really describe how I feel right now. It doesn't seem real. I remember the way I felt before leaving home for college; a mix of excitement and nerves. I would drive around Chatham looking at everything as if I would never see it again; as if it would disappear in my absence or something like that. Going away for a few months seemed overwhelming, and here I am now 5 years later leaving the country for 2 years, and I feel nothing like that. I feel like it's all some kind of dream or something... I have no idea when the reality of what I'm doing will set in. Probably on the plane to Guinea. Maybe tomorrow night when I realize I won't be sleeping in my own bed for a looonng time... maybe it's because there are so many unknowns surrounding my near future that my brain can't process all the speculation. For now I'm just trying to relax and stop worrying that I've packed too much or that I'm going to forget something and not realize it until it's the only thing I want in the universe and it's a million miles away back home. AHH!!!!!

Either way, today was a rough day. Goodbyes are never easy. Riding home on the train from NYC, I had to remind myself several times that I did indeed choose to do this, and that despite that horrible twisted feeling of missing someone you love (my boyfriend Emmanuel), I wouldn't want to be doing anything else with my life right now. This will be the adventure of a lifetime. I've committed myself to putting everything I possibly can into this challenge, and I intend to do just that.

So begins the next chapter of my life...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

One Month Left

Today is June 9, 2009...

One month from today I will be landing in Conakry, Guinea, for 3 months of Peace Corps training before going to my site to begin 2 years as a volunteer.

I have a lot to do still. A translation to finish. Lots of things to buy. Today, I bought bandanas, because obviously those are of paramount importance and I wouldn't want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere in West Africa without enough of those. hehe