Sunday, June 21, 2015

10 Months Later: The Story of PC Guinea's Evacuation

This post has been a loooooong time coming.

Most of the readers here probably already know that at the end of July 2014, Peace Corps was evacuated from Guinea due to the Ebola outbreak.

It has been 10  months since I left Guinea. I don't know why, but I couldn't bring myself to come back to this blog and tell the story of the evacuation. I think, maybe, subconsciously, I wasn't ready to admit that this is how my service ended. Though I was only a month and a half from finishing 3 years of service, I still wasn't ready to leave.

Evacuation, I think, is something that is always on a PCV's mind. No matter in what country you're serving, there always seems to be some possibility that there could be an evacuation. Though it may be on our minds, there is no way that anyone could ever be prepared for it. There were many times in Guinea where I was sure that we would be evacuated - the first being an attempted coup and attempted assassination of the Guinean president only a few weeks after arriving in Guinea. Then there were months of political instability surrounding Guinea's legislative elections, then the US Government shut down, then an Ebola epidemic was discovered. There were countless times when I prepared myself for the worst. But of course, the one time we were actually evacuated, I wasn't suspecting it at all.

I think about it a lot. From the moment that I received notification of our evacuation, up until I arrived home, my memory is crystal clear. It was such an emotional experience (both in good and bad ways)  that I think it will be forever etched into my memory.

The last post I wrote on this blog was actually posted just hours before we were informed of our evacuation. I couldn't believe that I had just updated the world about how happy I was to be back at site and how everything was fine...only hours later to be told that my life would be utterly uprooted immediately.

In any case, the time has come to tell my story. For all those PCVs who have ever been evacuated from your post or have had to leave unexpectedly, wontanara. We are together.

So here is my story.

I had no idea that there was even a possibility that we would be evacuated when I left for the nearby town of Kamsar to upload my blog about traveling in Senegal. I had arrived back from Senegal just a few days earlier and had just celebrated the Fete de Ramadan with my host family.

Members of my host family all dressed of for the Fete de Ramadan

Visiting with community members after the Fete de Ramadan ceremony. I taught this woman how to write her name and she never let me forget it. Every time I saw her, she would say, "Remember me? Mariama Diallo. You taught me how to write my name."

My host mom, Aissatou

At Salikene, the big palm field where the community prayer is held for the Fete de Ramadan

When I arrived home from the internet cafe in late afternoon, I made myself a delicious tomato sandwich on a fresh baguette that I picked up at the market on my way home. I was in the middle of my sandwich when my phone buzzed softly informing me that I had received a text message.

I didn't understand the message. Cryptic with acronyms (the usual for Peace Corps), it said something about someone being evacuated immediately. I could instantly feel my blood pressure and heart rate increase, my muscles I tried to pretend that I didn't understand the text. I immediately called another volunteer to see if she had seen the text. While I called, she was looking at the text and was as surprised, confused and scared as I was. It was clear no one understood what was going on. So I called a PC staff member to get more information.

Our worst fears were true. All of Peace Corps Guinea was evacuating. The Ebola outbreak had "gotten out of hand" in west Africa; Peace Corps Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were all being evacuated immediately.

There were no details yet of how or when we would be evacuated; we only knew it was "immediate." I was told to be ready for the possibility that a car would come to pick me up the next morning.

The first thing I did was say, "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god" over and over again. Many members of my host family were hanging out outside and they saw me panicking. After explaining the situation to them, they started to panic too.

I called my parents and asked if they would be free to pick me up from O'hare in the next few days. They were just as shocked and surprised as I was. I briefly explained what little I knew and then hung up to maximize time with people and place I've called home for the past 3 years.

Since I had no idea when we were being evacuated, my first plan of action was to immediately go to the carrefour (the crossroads of the two paved roads in town, essentially the "downtown" of my village) and say goodbye to everyone I saw. Literally, as I walked past people and people's homes and boutiques I said goodbye. I said goodbye to my bread lady, my keke lady, my rice and sauce lady, my fried plantain lady and my onion lady. I said goodbye to the phone credit guy, the taxi chauffeurs, the battery guy and the vache qui rit guy.

Saying goodbye to everyone at the gare (taxi station) at the carrefour

Strong winds as the skies were about to open up

One last look down the dirt road on the way to my school

Stopped by to visit my neighbors

I sent a mass text message to all the students, teachers and soccer players whose numbers I had. I found many students and friends at the carrefour and I told them I was unexpectedly leaving soon and that they needed to spread the word so that I could say goodbye.

This is a picture from the last day of school in May 2015 with some of my high school students

 I continued on to the school, passing teachers and students on the way. I made it to my principal's house where I explained what little I knew. By then it was getting dark out and I had to head home. At this point, I knew only that a car would either come the next morning or the following morning. I prepared for the worst.

The whole night I stayed up packing up my belongings. Tearing down tens of photos and tapestries stuck to my walls, collecting the hundreds of photos and letters sent to me over the years, and organizing my school documents to return to the school. As I cleaned out my house, I set out all of the items I didn't want to bring home and let my host family have whatever they wanted: clothes, shoes, art supplies, soccer balls, frisbees, toiletries, etc...I stayed up throughout the night clearing things out and deciding what to take home. Even late into the night/early into the morning, I was texting with other PCVs; it was clear no one was sleeping.

Early the next morning, many students and friends had already started to stop by to see me. Word had spread that Madame Liz was leaving.

Students came in groups to come visit on my last day - these are some of the girls from my soccer team

Two of my first and favorite students, now both in college studying chemistry

Another two of my best high school students

My amazing neighbor who looked after everyone in the neighborhood, including me

A slightly older picture from a parade that the students organized in honor of me for the last day of school in May

By this point, Peace Corps had communicated with me that a car would be coming not tomorrow, but the following morning to pick me up. I don't think I have ever been more thankful for anything than this extra 24 hours that I was given to be able to close 3 years of service and friendship. I would be among the last few volunteers to be picked up from site. Other PCVs were not as lucky, and had already started to get picked up that morning. This wasn't a typical evacuation, though. Peace Corps said that this was a temporary evacuation and that after the Ebola situation calmed down, Peace Corps would return. However, being only a month and a half away from COS, I knew that myself and handful of other PCVs were permanently leaving.

One last shot of my front yard and all of its mango tree glory

I spent the day partly inside my house cleaning it out and packing my suitcase, and partly outside meeting and taking pictures with students, teachers, neighbors and friends. A lot of the neighborhood kids were loitering outside my house waiting for me to toss some sort of treasure out. There were not treasures, but I did set aside some special gifts for people that had been really important - a nice calculator for one of my best students, soccer jerseys for my soccer girls and some nice books for some of my favorite students. In between bouts of rain and hordes of students, I took my camera and walked through the neighborhood to capture the final images of this place.

Looking east towards Boke from the railroad tracks near my house

A neighbor's hut 

The path from the carrefour towards my house

I also hung out with my homonyme, Adama Elizabeth Keita - the 2 month old baby named after me (well she's over a year old now!). 

7 days after Adama Elizabeth was born - the day of her baptism and naming ceremony (with her mom next to me)

Getting in some last minute love from my homonyme before leaving Guinea

My last day at site flew by. Before I knew it, it was already night. I ate one last meal with my host family. Nothing special, just the usual rice and watery soupe sauce with bits of fish bones. It was great. 

Two of my closest teacher colleagues called me to tell me they were on their way to my house. It was already around 8 or 9 pm. They didn't want me to go to bed before they had a chance to come and say goodbye. When they finally showed up at my doorstep in the pitch-black night, they had brought a beautifully framed certificate of service for me. Apparently they had spent all day in Kamsar trying to make this certificate on short notice for me. I couldn't believe it. 

Another sleepless night. I prepared my water filter, bike and other Peace Corps materials to be returned. I had to label some books and other materials which I hoped Peace Corps would be able to sort through and figure out where everything needed to go.

Very early in the morning I got up and sat on the front porch with some other family members who were out. My suitcase was packed and ready. I knew the Peace Corps Land Cruiser would roll up any minute, just the way it rolled up three years ago to leave me in this place which, at the time, seemed so foreign and intimidating.

The Peace Corps Land Cruiser dropping me off at site in 2011

I got to hold my homonyme for a few last moments. My principal showed up a few minutes before 8:00 in order to see me off. And then, across the soccer field, I saw that iconic white Land Cruiser barreling down the rocky dirt path, already with suitcases strung on top. The car was already partly filled up with a few other Peace Corps Volunteers from the region.

I gave my homonyme a big hug and kiss goodbye and went in to get my suitcase. I handed the house keys to my oldest host brother and family caretaker. It was all very fast. I hugged my host sisters and host mom goodbye, my principal gave me a left hand shake (symbolic gesture wishing someone good luck, bon voyage and see you later), and before I knew it I was in the car and my suitcase was tied down on top.

I waved goodbye to my life out the back window.

I was greatly comforted by the presence of the other PCVs (and PC staff), as they had just gone through exactly the same thing. In fact, I was really happy to be with them. There is no one on the planet who I would have rather been surrounded by than the people who have become good friends and even family.

As we continued towards the capital, we picked up two more volunteers at their sites and I was witness to the same situation I had just faced. This was an experience that deeply connected all of us.

In the car, we all retold our last day at site, or what we did when we found out about the evacuation. I heard a story of one volunteer in a different region who hadn't received the text message about the evacuation and only found out the next day when she called another PCV about going on a bike ride - only to find out from the other PCV that they were being evacuated and that Peace Corps was already on their way to pick her up in a few hours.

I've read enough Peace Corps blogs to know some of the things that happen during a PC evacuation. One of the things that people always say is that it's a huge bonding experience because it's the only time PCVs from the entire region (or country) are all in the same spot at the same time. Well, they were right.

 For the first time, all PCVs from the Basse-Cote region come together, including Samba, Tamba's dog

We spent a day or day and a half in Conakry, taking care of business (medical records, Close of Service papers, etc...), evacuation details, debriefing, directions about monitoring our temperature and looking out for signs of Ebola, crying, laughing, freaking out, dancing, eating all of the food from care packages that had just arrived, last minute language aptitude tests to see how our local language skills had improved, and going on shopping sprees in the market after emptying our Guinean bank accounts.

Our flights were at different times, and the first group left late on our first night in Conakry. The Peace Corps bus came to gather the group of volunteers going to the airport together. The rest of us all followed outside to give hugs goodbye. We cried, sang and chanted as they boarded the bus. For one last bit of Basse-Cote region pride, we all chanted, "Basse-Cote, Basse-Cote" as we ran after the bus as it drove away in the night with our compatriots. The last time we would ever all be together.

The next evening was our turn.

I guess this is what evacuating PCVs look like outside the airport

The two official RPCVs of the group that was flying out - Geoff and me

Sad PCVs

I believe this is the last picture of me in Guinea (at the airport)

First Peace Corps reunion as an RPCV - Paris airport at 5am

Slowly our group got smaller and smaller. Only the four of us were in the same terminal in Paris. We had coffee and existential breakdowns 

And then there were two. Abe and I ran through the New York airport together trying to catch our connecting flights. 

After all of this, I was in such a daze that I almost missed the last leg of my flight home. I had to duck under a rope and run across the tarmac and up the stairs to the plane as the stewardess closed the door behind me. I got to my seat....and it kind of all hit me at once, that I was alone and that my Peace Corps experience was over. I probably would have started crying on the plane, but a nice man next to me struck up a conversation and it turned out he was French and so I asked if I could speak French with him to make myself feel like I was still in Guinea. We had a great time laughing at my Guinean French accent. 
Finally we landed. I came down the escalator in the O'Hare airport to my family waiting for me, including my new niece Lola who I hadn't seen in a year. I was so happy, so sad, and so tired. 

I momentarily stopped crying so that I could take this picture with my mom

As I'm writing this blog...I feel very emotional. Not just about the evacuation, but about leaving Guinea. I think me not wanting to write this post was because I feared that if I wrote this, it would signify the end. Guinea is such a beautiful place, with such beautiful people and beautiful cultures and my experience there was life changing in so many ways. 

Of course, though, it's not the end. I know that I will be back there someday soon. Not to mention this, which happened two and half months after I got home:

October, 18, 2014

So stay tuned for my next blog which will tell the story of how Abou and I met in Guinea (and secretly dated for two and half years) and the incredible struggles we went through so that he could come to the US. My adventures in Guinea may have ended for the moment, but my adventures with Guineans (well, just one) have only just begun,

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!