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Friday, December 30, 2011

Gotta Get Down on Friday!

CEDs hanging out on the terrace. A typical use of downtime.
Things are gearing up and getting serious here. Next week we head east to Mamou, where we’ll meet our counterparts! Our first few months at site we’re not expected to really start any projects, but rather to focus on assessing our organization and the resources in the community. This workshop is to get us acquainted with our counterparts, and also to clarify our expectations for these coming months. Once we’ve been at site for 3 months they’ll ship us all back to Mamou again for In-Service Training, where we’ll learn more site- and job-specific skills. 

Barack Obama sent us an email for Christmas, and then bought us flowers!
Speaking of sites! I'll be working right on the waterfront, down in a little city/ big village called Koba. I'll be working with a savings and credit association of fishermen, which means I'll get to learn everything from motor maintenance to how to smoke a fish. I already eat fishy rice nearly every night of the week here - it was a little scary at first thinking that fish would be my main diet for the next 2 years, but I've figured out how to put it in perspective. Everyone else may get sick of the fishy rice, but I'm going to master it so well that everyone else is going to be jealous of my mad tasty meals. Add that to my beach, my ability to go swimming any time I want, and the fresh eggs from the chickens I'm going to invariably raise, and I'm going to have a better setup than I ever had at home. Minus electricity and running water, though.

Bro Kenny. He has a lot of things that other volunteers don't.
 We’ve been getting a lot of statistics this week about Guinea. There’s a 45% literacy rate. Genital excision occurs to 98% of the women. 85% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. It can be overwhelming to see how much work there is to be done. Peace Corps has four cross-sector issues that all volunteers are encouraged to address: HIV/AIDS awareness, Information/Communcations Technology, Gender & Development, and Youth Development. We made a list of all the possible activities we can do to address these issues, and while it’s easy to let your brain blue-screen when faced with so much work, it’s also heartening to see that there are so many options and methods to approach the issue.

Medical training!

And as usual, our summer camp mentality of planning too many activities for every day is still going strong. One of the trainees here is the gung-ho runner type, and wants to set up a 5k run for our volunteer group. When we head to Mamou he’ll scope out the route, then make up a workout schedule. The idea is that we’ll do our runs independently, and then when we head back to Mamou in April/May for our In-Service Training, we can hold the official G21 5k!

The early stages of dirty feet during our Christmas Dance Party in Conakry.

Speaking of running, it’s one of the things I love to do most around here. With the heat and humidity, it’s definitely not the easiest activity. (Give me a misty Pacific Northwest jog, please!) But it’s hands-down the most spiritually reaffirming and mind-clearing activity I do. It’s refreshing to turn off my brain for a while and focus on getting through the physical challenge. There’s a dirt path that goes out between the rice paddies, and it’s just wide enough for 2 or 3 people to jog abreast. No people or houses around, just you and the African bush. On clear days you can even see the two giant mountains that hover over the town, perched right over the rice and just to the side of the setting sun.

Creepy Uncle Shane sometimes drinks too much wine at Christmas and makes everyone uncomfortable.

Let’s talk about food! It’s a huge thing around here. We love food. Between food and gossiping about other volunteers and their love lives, we never run out of things to talk about. We’re all so stressed about language skills and the realities of our jobs that in our off-time, we all drop down to the lowest IQ levels possible. Anyway. Food! There’s something here called keke that I cannot get enough of. It’s a type of fluffy manioc/cassava – think extra soft and fluffy couscous. I usually buy it in a plastic bag, and the market lady will put some flavored oil, hot sauce, bullion cube powder, onions, and cucumber on top. (I could get half a dried fish too but I usually decline.) All for 3,000 GF! We get 8,000 GF for our daily food stipend, so then I’ll augment my lunch with 3 oranges for 1,000, a sugar cookie for 500, and a cup of tea or Turkish coffee from one of the “cafes” for another 500. 

My Christmas dinner! There was even an entire roasted goat!

These cafes are not at all cafes in the American sense. They’re usually wood shacks with aluminum siding, with a covered terrace/porch full of low benches and tables. It’s a national pastime for Guinean men to hang out and drink tea, but they’re happy to make room for the fote crew when we show up. It’s a great place to hang out and socialize, and we’ve been taught that drinking tea is a legit tool for getting to know our community at site. I’m all for it! The other day I even found out that one of the regulars at the cafe is my uncle! (Though whether he’s my mom’s older or younger brother is up for debate – they both insist that they’re the older sibling.) 

Medical training activities are always a hoot

On a more personal note: in case you’re worrying about me, don’t! Other people here have had little mental breakdowns, but I’m running on a steady jet of high-octane enthusiasm for everything I do here. There are moments where I feel overwhelmed and under-qualified and unprepared, sure. But even when I wake up at 3am to run to the latrine, there’s no question that this is exactly where I want to be. 

These are all good people.
And finally, I'll close with a quote from a book I've been reading:

"Try to keep a lively sense of humor about it. That way lies grace - and maybe even glory."
Merry Christmas from the CED program in Guinea!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Week 3

Note to the reader: This post is written as if it’s still Sunday, but you should know that I actually did most of it at 5:00am Monday morning. First I forgot to turn my light off before going to sleep (who cares if the light switch is on if there’s no electricity?) so when it came on at 4am I was, needless to say, a little confused. Then the mosque started its call to prayer, but when the electricity stayed on, they decided to keep going! A full hour of singing and chanting and announcements through the loudspeaker! Thanks guys. So much for finishing my episode of Mifloquine Nights*.

On location at Mifloquine Nights!
Last Wednesday we had our site placement interviews with Kristine, the CED Director here in Guinea. She gave us some information to go over a few days before the interview, and it required us to rate things based on our job experience, our personal interests, and what sort of amenities we want the most. On the back were examples of actual projects we could be placed in, and we had to rank the ones we were most vs. least interested in. Of all the other CED trainees, I think I’m one of the least experienced/ least interested in doing actual business-type work. A lot of my friends here brought serious business attire and look forward to working in an office environment. Meanwhile, I told Kristine in our interview that if I could switch over to the Agroforestry program, I would do it in a heartbeat**. I’m willing to ride my bike everywhere, I don’t really need electricity (but would prefer to have it a few days a week), and as long as there are fresh fruits and veggies available, I’m good. Ideally there’d also be another volunteer somewhat near me that I could collaborate on projects with.

Other volunteers!
We find out where our actual sites are and what projects we’ll be working on this Thursday! Then in Week 5 (Monday is the start of Week 3) we’ll all go out to our sites, meet our counterparts, and get to see our homes for the next 2 years! The first three months at site are focused on getting us settled and integrated into our communities. Most of the tools we learn in training are geared toward how to assess the community. There’s another training session in April or May where we’ll learn more technical/ site-specific skills.

Honestly the scope of my work here is overwhelming. Luckily I’m so busy most of the time that I rarely think beyond what I’m doing a few hours ahead; at most I’ll be looking a few days forward. It still feels like I’m in summer camp, though admittedly in drastically different conditions than I ever had at Camp Gilead. Everyone is banding together to fill every moment of free time with activities. Today (Sunday)’s schedule, for example:

7:00 - 9:00am Do laundry (by hand, with a washboard and a couple buckets of water)
10:30am - 2:30pm Get hair braided by another trainee’s host sister. The three of us are all named Aminata (It’s the African equivalent of Megan or Brittney)
4:00 - 5:00 Salsa Lesson taught by one of the other trainees
5:00 - sundown: Ultimate Frisbee match between the trainees and our local Guinean friends

I look like a bald baby now.
It’s not all games, of course. This Tuesday we’ll be directing an activity with some local youths. My group will be making a Daily Activity Schedule, in which we split the students up into male and female groups and ask them to chart out a daily schedule, both for themselves and for what they think the other gender does. It’s one of 4 activities that are part of PACA: Participatory Analysis for Community Action. The other three are making maps of the community, making a seasonal calendar, and ranking priorities. It’s an analysis tool that we’ll use when we first get to site, and for how simple it seems, it’s crazy useful. Do you want me to list the reasons why it’s supposed to work? Of course you do! Here goes:

-It’s sustainable. You’re looking for existing resources and skills the community has, and finding ways to augment them.

-The community becomes self-actualized. I’m not coming in and telling them their problems or how to fix them – rather, I’ll be facilitating them into organizing themselves and giving them the tools to make their own conclusions. They ultimately decide their priorities and plan of action; all the benefits of their efforts go directly to them.

-By performing each PACA tool with different groups, it’s both a source of integrating the subgroups (youth/elderly, men/women, famers/vendors, etc) and letting the groups have a space to voice their specific needs.

-For me, it helps me to identify the key leaders and resources in the community. It’ll give me something to do when I arrive so I don’t panic about not having the same jam-packed schedule. It’s just a starting point, but it makes me a visible figure in the community, and will start the process of building relationships and making me accessible. It could be a source of finding secondary projects, which obviously, with my love of the agro program, are going to quickly take up all my downtime.

Building relationships
Oh boy. I’ve been drinking the Peace Corps Kool-Aid something fierce, haven’t I? The secret ingredient is unfiltered pump water – you don’t have time to question things when you’re spending all day in a latrine or trying to rehydrate yourself with disgusting ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts!) Luckily I brought a thing of pink lemonade mix, probably one of the most useful extras I brought from home. Lemonade is supposed to be tangy, and the pink flavoring makes it just sugary enough that I don’t notice the ORS. They’re absolutely horrid on their own. Gagging-after-looking-down-the-latrine disgusting. 

ORS or Skol?
You see how that worked? I started to become aware and immediately got sidetracked onto health issues. My mental programming comes straight out of a dystopian novel. Not that I have any criticisms! I’m a happy cult member, feeling like I’ve found a safe haven of like-minded people that will support and love me unconditionally. There’s a purpose to my life that I didn’t have before, and it’s incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. For all that I’m terrified of getting in front of that class in Tuesday, I’m thrilled to take this first step toward using the skills I’ve been taught.
Controlled burning.

* Pretty sure I’ve nailed Kristen Stewart’s next movie role: Sleeping Beauty. Girl passes out due to an evil sorcerer; Handsome Prince enters Dreamland to save her. Involves shit like running down corridors that change at each new hallway, grotesque wolf-like creatures following their scent and snuffle at closed doors, and facing riddles and quizzes from people whose personalities have been drained. And somehow all of this was just real fun, and not at all creepy.

** I got a look at the AGFO manual and it’s impressive. They work on projects like making jam, grafting trees, and planting cash crops with heartier crops to decrease soil erosion. There was an entire section on the debate about introducing foreign plant species. Plus they’re always doing things like collecting plastic bags to grow seedlings in, or shoveling up bird poo to use as fertilizer in their community garden. So cool! My Bellingham hippie self is in love with everything AGFO does. Ideally I’ll be placed near one of them so we can collaborate on projects.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Things I've Learned About Malaria

The symptoms for malaria include getting chills – so basically, if I’m ever feeling comfortably cool in Guinea, chances are I’ve got malaria and need to test myself. (The testing application looks eerily like a pregnancy test.)

Though two years is plenty of time to build up a malaria immunity, it’s not an option. The drugs we’re taking kill the malaria spores as soon as they enter our body – POW! But taking malaria pills is like placating an angry dog sitting in the same room. It will turn on you the second you drop your guard. Don’t challenge malaria! 

Also, this particular malaria drug's side effects include really vivid and strange dreams. In a world without television, my weekly malaria pill dreams are something to look forward to!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The End of Week One

Even if I were to sit here for 3 hours and type type type away, I still couldn't cover everything from this past week. It's a shame, then, that the Internet access is a little shaky here in Dubreka and only lasts an hour every evening!

Okay, here's what's going on: 

We arrived in Guinea late Tuesday night. Along the way we lost two trainees in Brussels, not because they panicked and quit, but because the company in charge of our travel itinerary canceled their plane tickets due to a name typo. Peace Corps took care of them and they joined us in the capital, Conakry, about 48 hours later. The first three days were an adjustment period for everyone to get used to the idea of living abroad in a developing country for 2 years. The Transition House & PC HQ is like summer camp - a fenced-in compound with a lush garden full of spiders and their giant webs to run through when you're trying to catch a frisbee, bunk beds draped in mosquito nets, tile-floor bathrooms that stay hot and humid 24 hours a day, and all meals are eaten buffet-style in a kitchen full of plastic picnic tables and chairs. We had just enough time to get accommodated to the living arrangements and start to think that living in Africa wouldn’t be so bad before we had to pack up our bags and head off to Dubreka!

Dubreka is my official home for the next eight weeks. Here I’m known as Aminata Gita Touré, and I have 2 brothers, a nephew, a mom, and such a huge extended family that I can’t even begin to name the rest. Each morning I wake up at 6am to the call to prayer from the mosque competing with roosters crowing. I’ll spend about 30 minutes either on the phone or just chilling out, waiting for the sun to rise, before I start getting ready for the day. School starts “promptly” at 8am, and this first week has been heavy on the French, with about 6 hours of language lessons a day plus homework that takes the majority of the evening. (And wow, homework is tres hard without electricity!)

Any time I go out, small children run up to me shouting “Fote! Fote!” and try to either shake my hand or fist bump. (By the way, how cool is it that knucks are universal?!) Everything comes with rice – fish sauce and rice, peanut sauce and rice, rice and pasta – you name it, it will be mixed with rice! There’s a market down the street from the school that I go to for lunch; some highlights of the food you can find there include freshly made peanut butter, still-warm bread, boiled eggs, watermelons, and fishy rice.

I’ve started running in the evenings, and there’s a dirt trail that leads away from town and out through the rice fields that is magnificent in the evening light. Of course, the scenery becomes less impressive as the jog goes on and all I can think of is the heat and the dust in the air and how stupidly tired I am after only 20 minutes. As with anything here, there’s an adjustment period before things start to feel normal.
There are times when I stop and surprise myself that I’m here, in Africa, living and breathing and learning and being the same self I’ve always been. I was getting a little desperate back home, and within 48 hours of arriving in the country I had a clear head again. I miss home, I miss my friends and my family, but this is definitely the right place for me to be. And things aren't so drastically different as you'd think. Sure, electricity turns on and off without warning, internet is crazy slow, I take bucket baths instead of showers, and I'm constantly drenched in sweat. But I'm also going out for drinks with my colleagues this evening, and we've bartered the beer price down from 9 to 8,000 francs!

PS I have a phone now! Feel free to contact me, I’d love to hear your voice! +224 62 84 54 15

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Acronyms I Have Known, Part 1

Welcome to Peace Corps Guinea (PCG)! There's an almost overwhelming amount of new sights and smells and tastes and people and information to take in. (And the mifloquine dreams at night really add to the experience!) Here in the Peace Corps, we like to turn phrases into acronyms so we can move through the information as quickly as possible. Here are a few to get you started!

PCV - Peace Corps Volunteer
PCT - Peace Corps Trainee
PST - Pre-Service Training
IST - In-Service Training
CBT - Community Based Training
TDA - Trainee Directed Activity
SDL - Self Directed Learning
PH - Public Health
AGFO - Agroforestry
CED - Community Economic Development (pronounced "said")
LCF - Language & Culture Facilitator
LPI - Language Proficiency Interview (I'm a Novice-Low at french, and no one is surprised!)
COTE - Calendar of Training Events
KSA - Knowledge, Skills & Attitudes

Study up and we'll cover a new batch tomorrow!