Wednesday, March 5, 2014

For Binta

I was biking somewhat fast, though the rain-induced craters in the tiny dirt path were keeping my speed in check. I wasn't really in a hurry, but at the same time I wanted to be there as soon as possible. It was a long bike, through the dry brush, on increasingly tiny dirt paths. In between the nothingness there were a spattering of tiny villages – were I stopped and asked for directions to my destination, assuring that I hadn't missed a turn off. I could tell I was getting closer as I started passing large groups of students who were making their way there by foot. I knew I was approaching the house when I saw tons of bikes and motorcycles parked along the dirt path and hundreds of people, many of them students.

 I parked my bike and said hi to my students, then went on to greet the elderly men seated in front of the house. I made my way to the backyard where I found the women – hundreds of them – ancient, middle-aged, and young. I was directed to the mother who was seated among her friends. I knelt down and took her hand and gave her my condolences. She started crying and wailing the way women do when they are grieving. It is a terrible sound, yet I was glad to be among these women to share in our collective grief.

It all started just a few weeks ago. The school administration informed all the students that one of their classmates was sick, and students contributed money to give to the family to help pay for medical bills. I was surprised to hear who the student was – a girl in Terminale, who I had taught the past two years in 11th and 12th grade. She was one of the best students in her class and was even elected “Minister of Health” in our student government. When I prompted my principal for more information he told me that the student had “gone crazy.” Apparently she had started speaking incoherently, lost her memory and would tear her clothes off or have other strange behaviors. The school administration shrugged it off, saying that it was a case of sorcery – someone had put a spell on her. They didn't seem too worried about her. A week or so later some students went out to her village to visit her and said she was doing much better, talking normally and was able to recognize her friends. That was the last thing I heard until two weeks later another student told me there had been a death of a student. I was utterly shocked and in disbelief.

The next day at school, the school administration informed the students of the death and cancelled school so that everyone could attend her funeral. On talking more with some other teachers and students the only other information I could get about her sickness was that she had been having headaches for many months, had lost some weight and wasn't participating in school activities as much as before (due to her extreme headaches). One friend who had visited her said only that she had a fever. Apparently after momentarily being better she got worse again and had stopped eating and talking. Her family brought her to traditional doctors (aka witch doctors) but to no avail. They then brought her to two regional hospitals both of which apparently said they couldn't treat her. It was on her way to Conakry to the best public hospital in Guinea that she died.

As I sat among my female students in the backyard of this student’s house, I heard her friends reminisce fondly of her. I, too shared my experiences. She was one of the best students I have had, and participated not only in class but in extra-curricular activities. Last year we had worked together to plan a huge ceremony for our school, and I had traveled to a neighboring city with her to get materials for the ceremony. 

In sitting with the students I also overheard their gossip. No one seemed interested in what sickness she had, but rather who had put the spell on her. As a scientist of course it miffs me that we’ll never know what she actually died of, but as my students reminded me, “this is Africa,” implying that the only cause of death was sorcery.

As we waited, more and more people came – elementary, middle and high school students flooded the yard in their school uniforms. Once the body had arrived from Conakry they brought it to the Mosque next door. The other students and I went over and took our shoes off and briefly entered the mosque to see the body. I've been to many funerals, but I had never done this before. There, lying peacefully and covered from head to toe, almost embalmed, in white cloth, was my student. We said our goodbyes and went into the mosque courtyard to pray.

Then, one of the most powerful and sad things I have ever seen happened. The prayer was finished and the men were ready to move the body to the cemetery for burial. In honor of their friend, their classmate, it was the guys from her class that asked to carry the body. I stood watching as my former students carried the dead body of their classmate to her grave. All of the students started crying and screaming at this site, knowing it would be the last time we would ever see our friend, Binta Sy.

May her soul rest in peace

Friday, February 21, 2014



Ca fait longtemps! Sorry it's been so long since I've posted. I've been pretty busy these last months and haven't had the time nor patience to wait hours on end for internet pages to load. Though I did recently buy an "internet key," which is a USB stick with a sim card that can connect wirelessly to internet via local phone service providers, the connection is too slow to update my blog. I have to travel to another city in order to have internet that is "fast" (AKA my email loads in under 10 minutes).

Anyway, enough of my excuses. I'll just do a quick recap of what I've been up to:

1. Spelling Bee! I've been organizing a few spelling bees for middle and high school students. The students had to spell increasingly difficult words in French and the winners won notebooks, pencils, pens and calculators. In coordination with some other PCVs, we're planning a National Spelling Bee in March. The regionals were held a couple of weeks ago in my village. The top three students will advance to the nationals. Support our efforts by donating here:

2. For the past four months I've been training a group of high school girls in journalism and computer skills. Just a few weeks ago we published the 17th edition of Aicha Magazine - a magazine written by and for young Guinean women to encourage and inspire women educationally, professionally and socially. We printed 1000 copies that are being distributed around the country right now. Thanks to everyone who donate to the project!

3. Sports! My girls soccer team just went to the finals in the annual school tournament, after beating teams from Boke and Sangaredi. The girls played great in the finals, though they lost 1-0 to Kamsar. Our school also started a volleyball team which I've been coaching. Our volleyball team recently went up against a group of PCVs in the region. The match was "Guinea vs. America" and Guinea won.

4. My alma mater, UW-Madison was just named number one producer of Peace Corps Volunteers. On Wisconsin!

OK...internet time is up. I know this was a really short post, but I'll write more soon!

Friday, October 25, 2013

How to make Kanya

Guinean cooking 101: Kanya

Kanya is the Guinean equivalent of a peanut butter sugar cookie...almost. It is a tasty treat that is sold on the streets all over Guinea. I recently acquired a few kilograms of shelled peanuts, so my host family and I decided we should use them to make kanya. There are only 3 ingredients: peanut butter, rice flour and sugar. 

Step 1: Grill the peanuts and bring them to the peanut-butter-making machine in the market 
Step 2: Bring some rice to the rice-flour-making machine in the market and mix with the peanut butter and sugar
 Step 3: Pound the mixture in a mortar until it becomes super dense
 Step 4: Flip the mixture out into a bowl and cut it into little squares and voila!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Fete de Tabaski

Earlier this week we celebrated the Fete de Tabaski, which was a day of utter relief from the stress of school and political uncertainty. Tabaski (Eid al Adha) is an annual holiday celebrated by Muslims. In Guinea, people celebrate by going to the big community prayer outdoors, eating a lot, sacrificing a sheep or goat, and relaxing with the family. I celebrated with my friend Alexis and my host family. In the morning Alexis and I got dressed up in our nicest Guinean complets and adorned some head wraps borrowed from my host mom. We headed to the big field behind the village mosque, laid our prayer mat down in the dirt under a palm tree, and greeted all the women and girls from my village.It never ceases to amaze me to see all the people from my community in one place. 

After the prayer, we headed home. My family did not have a goat or sheep to sacrifice, so thankfully we got to skip the killing and butchering and went straight to eating rice! I paid for the ingredients of Riz Gras - the most delicious (and expensive!) rice dish in Guinea. The rest of the day was spent relaxing with the family and digesting the massive amount of food that we ate. 
 Riz gras with Abou
M'mawa and her son Bouba dressed up for the fete

Friday, October 11, 2013

Life in uncertainty

Things around here have been a little rough lately. There’s been a lot of stressful stuff that is all happening at once. I’m not quite sure where to start…

How about the Guinean legislative elections? They’ve been pushed back for years, and finally, after pushing the date back more than a few times this year, they finally happened. The time leading up to the elections was stressful for PCVs because we haven’t been able to leave our sites during this time, but also because many of us feared the worst: election rigging, fighting over results, people taking to the streets…and ultimately the evacuation of Peace Corps.

Election day I was very anxious, my ears were glued to the radio – my only source of information. The day passed smoothly, but no one knew when the results would be out. Some people said the next day. Some people said within 72 hrs, some people said one week. Well…it has been 13 days since the election and there are still no results…and it would appear that the results will never come out. The election committee was accused of fraud before they even published the results. I have no idea what happens from here, but I have been holding my breath all this time and am getting worn out of this uncertainty. I honestly do not have a clue what is going on; there is a complete lack of information. The election just needs to be over so everyone can go back to living life normally. I would have liked to write more about the details of the election but I have written exactly as much as a I know (almost nothing)…

Literally smack dab in the middle of the most tense time in Guinea (right after the elections) we get a message from Peace Corps informing us about the US Government shutdown…which, for me, was completely out of the blue. I hadn’t been listening to BBC news as I usually do because I was instead listening to Guinean radio. Imagine the shock for me – I was expecting PC to send a message saying the Guinean government had shut down and instead it was the American government! This was just one more stressful thing that I was completely uniformed and confused about. American politics seem just as messed up and uncertain as Guinean politics.

The third stress factor is school. Nationwide, students weren’t planning on coming to school until the elections were over. Since the results were taking a long time to come out it seemed that there would be a delay in the school year. Through some confusion the radio also announced that school was postponed, though a few days later it turned out to be untrue. So, the principal and teachers were ready to teach this week, but still unsure if school was really supposed to start and if students would really come. On top of that, as I explained in my last post, my school has enough of its own problems. The 7th grade building that was being remodeled is still not done – there is no ceiling or roof. No one knows for sure if 12th grade is being eliminated from our school or if they’re staying. No matter what happens the school will have way too many classes this year, each with way too many students. School kind of started but the schedule changes every day. One day I’m told I will be teaching 11th grade biology, so I start preparing lessons for that. The next day I’m told I won’t be teaching 11th grade but 8th grade biology. So I got home and prepare lessons for that. The next day I’m told I won’t be teaching biology at all, but instead Terminale physics. I start preparing for that. This morning I got my (hopefully) final schedule and I am teaching 11th grade and Terminale physics and 7th grade math. So…now I need to go prepare for that! I also need to prepare myself for teaching large classes. Last year my biggest class was 35. This year my smallest class will be 90.

That’s my current life situation in a nutshell. I’m just taking it one day at a time. School will work itself out. I have faith that American politicians will come to their senses. No one can predict Guinean politics, so I’m just not going to worry about that anymore.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Annee Scolaire 2013-2014

This school year should be an interesting one.

I was especially looking forward to this school year because I thought that after 2 years of teaching the same classes I've finally gotten the hang of things. However...this school year will be nothing like last year. For many, many reasons.

Overall, results for the national exams, especially the exam to pass from elementary school (6th grade) to middle school and the BREVET to pass from middle to high school were suspiciously high. This was a nationwide phenomenon and there haven't been any clear expectations for why the passing rate was so high. It's not that I'm against kids passing the national exam. It's just that I know the kids shouldn't have passed and now 7th grade teachers will be stuck with students that don't know how to read and 11th grade teachers (me) will be stuck with students that can't do basic math.

The practice BREVET was administed at my school and was a very legitimate test with little cheating, consistent grading, and correct calculation of grades. 13/400 students passed the practice test. In general, around 60 or so kids pass the BREVET each year. So this year, I estimated that somewhere between 13 and 60 kids would pass the BREVET. However, after coming back from vacation in the states I was informed that 220 kids passed the BREVET...?!?!?! The elementary schools that feed into our middle school usually pass around 400 students. This year 800 students passed. Schools around Guinea had similarly unbelievable results. My theory is that because of the upcoming elections, the tests were graded very loosely. With a lot of students passing, people will be more happy with the governemnt and less likely to strike or cause other problems that would disturb election plans.

You can imagine what will happen to my school this year. Instead of 4 classes of 7th grade, there will now be 7 classes, each with 120+ students. However, our school doesn't have enough classrooms for all these students so my principal has been left scrambling to figure out how to accomodate everyone. The gov't education officials suggested eliminating 12th grade to make room. His idea was that 12th grade is the smallest class at our school and those kids would just have to leave and go study somewhere else. Obviously my principal and I were very upset about this. We're now looking at a way to rotate classes around during the days to fit everyone in. It will be a logistical nightmare. Not to mention that we need atleast 200 more desks - which some local carpenters are frantically trying to build before the year starts.

For my own classes, I will now have 100+ students in each 11th grade class instead of 30. I've been lucky enough these past 2 years to have such small classes. I have no idea how to manage 100 students in one room. It will be chaos. 12th grade is the class I've always taught most, and if the gov't officials have their way, it might be gone. That would mean that I would be starting from scratch lesson planning and learning the curriculum for another grade. On top of that, the gov't decided that English needs to be taugt in middle school now, so my principal and other teachers are asking if I'd want to do it. I feel vehemently opposed. Middle school students can barely read and write French and our middle school is lacking french, math, physics, and biology teachers. If they wanted me to teach any of those subjects I would be more than happy to - because to me they are much more important than English. I would gladly take on more hours if I felt that I was doing something really important. I sometimes wish I was a middle school math teacher because I think it is one of the most important subjets, along with French.

Speaking of missing teachers, when my principal brought up the issue with gov't officials they asked how many teachers we had. Around 30, my principal said. The gov't officials said that was actually too many and that they would be taking away some of our teachers to give to other schools that were missing teachers.

There is so much confusion about this school year - and to add to it, know one even knows when the school year will start. It always starts after the independance day (Oct 2). This year, though, the gov't said that the vacation was too long (ironically because the gov't cut last school year short because they thought they were having elections in June) and now schools are supposed to be ready to go on Sept 16th. My principal has told all the teachers to come to school ready on the 16th...however there is not a single student that has been informed of this date. Apparently, we're just supposed to show up and be ready to teach should a gov't inspector come, but we all know that there will be no students until October. The legislative elections are scheduled for Sept 24th and if there are any disputes or issues with the election, that will further delay students from coming to school. Long story short, I'll be at my school ready to teach on Monday, but I don't expect any students for at least another month. Ahhhh Guinea.

Last but not least, of all the crazy things princial is worried he might lose his job. He is a member of the opposition party, and the whole 2 years I've been here he's been telling me that they might kick him out of his position, simply because he is not with the ruling party. Since the elections are coming up it's an especially tense time and my principal is worried. He works 7 days a week, hasn't had a break or vacation in many years, is against corruption, runs a very large and high-acheieving school...and the gov't wants to kick him out anyway. My principal is OK with this, he says politics is not his problem and if they want to kick him out, so be it. I'm hopeful that they won't do this though, because I think people know the school would fall apart very quickly without him there, and there's hardly any other Guinean that would work those hours to keep the school running smoothly.

It's a game of wait-and-see. I'm just hanging out in my village waiting to see what happens. I'll be ready to teach on Monday or 4 Mondays from now. I'm ready for 100+ students in a class with 30 desks. Bring it on Guinea!

Thursday, August 8, 2013


This year, 40 creative, bright and determined students will leave my village to continue their education at the university level.

I just found out that 40 Terminale students at my school passed the 2013 BAC - national college entrance exam.

These were the students I taught my first year. 24 of my science students and 16 of my social science students passed. I am so proud of these students who worked so hard for this, who have stayed up late nights to study in candle light their whole lives, who have no text books, no internet and whose parents are most likely illiterate. I'm proud to have played a small part in their success. These students will be the future doctors, engineers, teachers, and leaders of Guinea. They are espoir of Guinea.

And that is why I'm extending my service for a 3rd year.