Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The (Worst) Trip of a Lifetime

Sometimes when I’m in a situation in Guinea that is extremely frustrating, stressful, physically painful, dangerous or outright ridiculous, I often console myself by thinking of how it will make a great story later. I’ve amassed so many of these moments that I often joke with my mom that I could write a whole book one day. Maybe I will.

The following will be an excerpt from my future book
I had spent a wonderful week visiting neighboring Senegal (for reasons which constitute an entirely new blog).  I had planned to travel by car, but due to visa difficulties for Americans at the land border, I had to fly. The new “biometric visa” (read: fingerprints) is apparently too sophisticated for the land border folk, so I had to acquire the visa in the Dakar airport. To travel back to Guinea, though, I could go by road. I was excited to see the different landscape of Senegal – arid, sandy desert. I’d even heard tell of camels. I was lucky enough to be traveling back to Guinea with another PCV, so I felt it was going to be a great adventure.

Great adventure it was.

Arrival at the bustling taxi station in Dakar, tons of men were trying to grab our bags and get us to get into their cars, never mind if they were going to the right destination or not. We successfully fought them off until we got into the heart of the station and found the Conakry cars. We had bought our tickets in advance, so there were no worries about not getting a seat (in what I thought was going to be a car). Finding the man who sold my ticket, he promptly informs me that my friend and I won’t be traveling together because she bought her ticket from some other guy. It seemed like a simple exchange of tickets could arrange the situation, but he would have none of it. He grabbed me by the arm and showed me my seat…which was on a giant bus…which was being loaded with about 8000 pounds of luggage on top.

My friend was actually on the same bus, but her seat was about ten rows behind me, so not likely that we would be able to chat. The bus might at one point have been nice, but now it was dilapidated and falling apart, and the last-minute welding of things under the hood didn’t seem like a good sign. There used to be an aisle on the bus, but now there were fold-out seats which had been attached to every row, making it virtually impossible for anyone in the middle to get in our out without climbing over people. I mostly milled around the bus waiting for it to fill up…for two hours. All the while, though, I was still excited for this adventure.

The only picture I bothered to take

It dawned on me, as I reflected on this trip, that I actually had no idea where this bus was taking us, how long it would take to get wherever we were going, and if the bus stopped for bathroom breaks. It was a curious thought. I decided not to drink any more water as a precaution. 

At about 8:30pm it seemed that we might be on our way. Many of us had been sitting on the bus for quite some time and there were no open windows. Stuffy and hot would be an understatement. I was thankful that at least I was sitting in the front row and the front door to the bus was open (and would remain wide open the entire trip). There were at least 60 people on the bus and more seemed to be filling up every last square inch of space. A fight broke out in the middle of the bus over who reserved which seat and it started to get pretty heated.  A guy in the back complained to the driver, “For the love of God, it’s hot in here, buy us some water.” People’s luggage was being handed-off in every direction, looking for spaces in overhead compartments, under seats, on laps…The top half of an oscillating fan was handed our way. It seemed that this ride was going to be a bit rough, but as I always do, I tried to look at things on the bright side, “at least I’m at the front of the bus and there aren’t any fights up here.”

When I turned back to look at the front of the bus I noticed that the space was quickly filling with hawkers selling their wares. As they turned one way and another I had to duck as their backpacks, shoulder bags, hand bags and trash bags overflowing with merchandise would swing towards my head. They squished infinitely closer and closer to my face as they shouted and reached towards the back of the bus trying to sell flashlights, condensed milk, key chains, sugar, watches, phone chargers, cookies, flip-flops, bananas, hats and other assorted products. Why on Earth would anyone urgently need condensed milk for this bus trip…I have no idea.  And what could you possibly do with a phone charger unless it could harness the power of our collective B.O.?

By far the worst hawker was the perfume salesman who, in an attempt to allure prospective buyers, sprayed a sample on any exposed part of skin he saw, namely, in the front row. The front row quickly became the front lines of defense against the attacking merchandise. I expertly dodged the perfume spray, crouching over my arms to cover them. Just when I thought I was clear, another perfume salesman was aiming at a different angle and I dodged again; perfume was coming at all angles. At this moment I thought of my mom, who utterly despises perfume and essentially anything scented. In order to keep thinking positively, I thought, “At least I’m not my mom.” Though I was successful in escaping the perfume bombardment, I later found out that my backpack had gotten caught in the crossfire, as it smelled of pungent flowery chemicals for a week.

As I’m dodging perfume spritzes, oscillating fans, merchandise, elbows, babies, and backpacks from all angles, the girl sitting next to me gets into a heated discussion with one of the salespeople. It quickly escalates and, dumping her bag in my lap, she attempts to climb over the railing in front of our seats to fight him. The whole thing took place in Wolof, so I had no idea what was going on, I just tried not to get punched.

It was nearing 9:30pm and, mind you, the bus still hadn’t moved. My legs were already tired from sitting in the cramped seat. I was sweaty and thirsty, but dared not drink.  I finally gave up and admitted to myself the realities of my situation, “this is going to be the worst trip ever.”

But, the bus did eventually move, and bit by bit, the hawkers jumped off the moving bus. I felt a sweet relief as the wind blew in from the wide open door – I just had to be careful my bag didn’t roll out. We weren’t yet completely outside of the city, so we hit a few traffic jams, which, with our wide open door, invited in more hawkers. Thankfully no more perfume salesmen. People were constantly jumping on and off our moving bus; I’m pretty sure that some weren’t actually selling anything but were just hitchhiking.

I quickly made an alliance with the two women sitting on either side of me, including the one who almost got in a fight. We agreed to look after each other’s bags, to let each other sleep on each other’s shoulders, and to share our possessions: bananas, bread, fish and toothpaste. Between one of the women and me was the seat reserved for the bus apprentice – a teenage kid who would jump out of the bus to help maneuver in traffic, negotiate at police checkpoints, and locate missing passengers. Since he was out of his seat a lot, it made for the only empty seat on the bus – the most prized possession any Senegalese bus passenger can dream of. The women next to the seat, the man behind the seat and I all claimed a small portion to stretch our legs out, even if only a few extra inches.

We did end up making a few bathroom stops, during which I would literally run out of the bus, find the nearest hole in the ground, or sometimes bush, and pee as quickly as I could, fearing that the bus would leave me behind. And in fact, people did get left behind at almost every stop. Usually the driver would rev the engine letting people know that they needed to be on the bus, then he would start moving slowly so people would have to jump on. As we would get going, someone in the back would inevitable say, “Um…there’s an empty seat next to me…” at which point the driver would stop and the apprentice would jump out and run back to find the missing person.

Unfortunately, because it was pitch black outside, I actually didn’t get to see any of the Senegalese countryside (reminder: the whole point of driving instead of flying). The bus continued through the night and morning. At about 7am, we stopped for a bathroom break, where I attempted to do the only thing that could make me feel less like an animal: brush my teeth. This was actually the highlight of my trip. We continued on, until about 11am when the bus arrived at a taxi station a few kilometers north of the Guinean border. The 8000 pounds of luggage on top of the bus were unloaded and subsequently repacked on the tops of about seven different Peugeot taxis for the next leg of the trip. In the meantime, I was able to catch up with my friend, eat a picnic lunch with my alliance ladies, and try to reduce the swelling in my feet.

By noon, our taxi was ready to go. I got a spot in the back with two other people and my feet on the wheel hump. The roof was too low, so I had to tilt my head sideways for the remainder of the trip. We went about 100ft when the driver informed us that, actually, his car was broken, so we were stopping at a mechanic. He assured us that it was good, that it means the car will be in good enough shape to handle the roads in Guinea – which are not at all like the roads in Senegal. So, we waited for 45 minutes for the repairs and then continued on our way. Once again, we drove another 100ft and the driver decides that actually, he can’t take us. He reassured us that he’s called his friend to come pick us up and take us the rest of the way. We clamber back out of the car and wait on the side of the road, not actually believing that anyone is coming for us. Meanwhile, the rest of the taxis filled with bus passengers zoom by us, pitying us and secretly thanking God that they didn’t get stuck in our taxi. The hour spent on the side of the road however did offer us some quality bonding time during which we each took turns complaining about how terrible our chauffeur was.

Eventually the other driver did come and once again we repacked the rooftop luggage and re-settled into our places. Over the next 30 minutes we got in and out of the car at four different border crossings, all of which caused a huge delay because of my American passport and the need apparently to hand write all of the information from my passport and visa (including my place of birth) in their notebooks. One border crossing guy took five minutes just to find his glasses so that he could read my passport, and another five minutes to locate the notebook in which he was supposed to write.

We continued into Guinea, the landscape transforming beautifully into lush forests and hills. It felt great to be back in Guinea…until my head started banging against the window once the paved road ended. For the next 12 hours, we rode on the muddiest, dustiest, bumpiest road in the world, I’m sure of it. The road was practically corrugated. There are no other words to describe how bad this road is, only the proof given by the bruises on my head and legs which were continually jostled and banged against the bare metal interior of the car.

Either by forced will or perhaps by concussion, I have already forgotten most of this leg of the trip. What I do know is that I did eventually make it to my site in Guinea, at about 3am with an orange dirt layer on my skin that could pass for a bad spray tan. Thirty six hours non-stop. I smelled so bad that I almost wished the perfume salesman had gotten me.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

National Science Camp

Microscopy. Densities. Bottle rockets. Egg Drop. Electrolysis. Fire. Dissections. pH. Math + Origami. Electromagnets. Star gazing. 

Just a few of the things that Guinean students did during the week-long National Scientific Conference held by PCVs in Mamou, Guinea. Thanks to my awesome colleagues who planned and fund-raised for this awesome event, 15 PCVs and 30 middle school students came to the conference. Everyday different PCV science teachers gave presentations and set-up awesome experiments for students to do. 

There are many things I could say about the state of the Guinean education system. In just a few words, I would say that it is deficient at almost every level and is not producing capable or intelligent students. In Guinean schools students are discouraged from being different or creative. They are discouraged from asking too many questions. The complete lack of resources means that few students ever have access to a book or materials for experiments. These observations are what inspired us to hold the first ever PCV-led national science conference. Our conference focused on encouraging students to be creative, to ask important questions, to think critically, to gain hands-on experience in biology, chemistry and physics and most importantly to learn that science is fun (and the conference was SO much fun!)

Looking at different types of cells under the microscope 
Measuring the length of a chicken intestine after dissecting it
Planning for the Egg Drop Competition
Checking to see if the egg survived 
pH scale used for our water quality experiment
Measuring volumes and masses to calculate the densities of different liquides
 Shadassa setting up materials for the electrolysis 
Using different chemicals to make flames of different colors
 Building bottle rockets
Air Guinea
 Launching bottle rockets

Thanks to everyone who made this conference possible, including the PCVs who ran the show and the folks who donated to the project.

Vive l'education guineenne!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Stomping out malaria

Once again, Guinea's Peace Corps Volunteers went all out during the months of April-May in the struggle to stomp out malaria in Africa. Many of us do activities all throughout the year to educate and better inform our communities about the dangers of malaria, but during April and May, we engageg in a fierce competition among regions to see who could educate more people, hang more nets and train more peer-educators.
Malaria is a serious problem in Guinea, as well as many other African countries. It is both easily preventable and treatable if identified quickly. Unfortunately many people have misconceptions about the disease and its transmission. That's where we come in!

We kicked off "Malaria Month" in the Basse-Cote with a soccer game: America V. Guinea in which PCVs from the region got together in Fria to educate the general public about malaria transmission and to promote mosquito net use.
Stomping out malaria: I promise to sleep under my mosquito net
Team America 

Back at my school, I trained over 100 11th and 12th grade students to be community educators. We went out in small groups to visit hundreds of households in my village, armed with hammers, nails and string to hang up mosquito nets. 
There was a country-wide mosquito net distribution done by various NGOs earlier this year and nearly every family received mosquito nets...which they didn't hang up. Our job was to talk to each family about malaria and then convince them to let us hang their mosquito net.

Sometimes we had to get creative. 

Together with my students we hung over 530 mosquito nets!

In our attempts to sweep the victory for Basse-Cote malaria activities, I did a ten-minute radio spot with two other PCVs to talk about malaria prevention. Our radio show was played over and over on the local radio throughout the month. 
Props to all my fellow volunteers who worked so hard during this month to stomp out malaria in Guinea! 

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