Sunday, June 15, 2014

The dirt road continues!

To all of you who followed my journey; the ups and downs, fun and laughter, hardship and challenges. I wanted to continue my story, let you know where I am and what I’ve found myself doing. Since coming home from Guinea I tried to immerse myself in activities to keep me busy. Partly to ease the transition and mostly because I knew sitting at home would be the most unfulfilling thing I could do. When I got back I decided to get involved with various volunteer activities. It was a great way to continue the type of work I was doing in my community in Guinea. Working in a community garden, helping with a hunger ministry and staying involved with my friends and family in Guinea. I knew that I wouldn’t just leave everything behind in Guinea. I still remain involved with a couple projects and talk with other volunteers and Guineans quite frequently. But I knew that I wouldn’t be able to continue with just volunteering so I searched for ways to get a paying gig while remaining in a job that was fulfilling and purposeful.

With my experience in Guinea I knew I wanted to remain in a position to work with youth and I also wanted to be able to take the next summer off so that I’d be able to go back to Guinea for a couple months to bring closure and visit all of my friends one last time. Through a true chain of serendipitous events I began substitute teaching at Community School of Davidson. I couldn’t have found a more perfect place to spend time working between now and next summer. Although teaching Math is not something I would have imagined; it’s exactly where I’ve found myself. It’s truly remarkable to look back and follow my journey that lead me to the classroom; one that absolutely could not be predicted or fathomed. But, true to the world as we know it, here I stand in front of 104 bright, promising, wonderful minds with the chance to influence them into becoming wonderful world citizens.

The original plan consisted of me making just enough money substituting to pay for a ticket back to Guinea. Not a big deal, just a consistent income doing something purposeful. But then I fell in love. The school, administration, kids, parents, community and colleagues. All of the forces that I hear so many of my teaching friends complain about are exactly what kept me coming back to work each day. My principal is amazing; a workhorse that couldn’t see more clearly the benefit of a well-rounded education for a child. Parents that take time to check-in on their children; at times an overwhelming thought to have a hundred adults questioning you on your intentions with their child’s education but, honestly, a welcome reality to the alternative that most schools face. Colleagues that experience the highest of the highs and lowest of lows together with me; and kids that, while moody and sometimes unappreciative, are forever warm, funny and always worth it.

The most surprising turn of events came when I met with my principal in late 2012; I thought everything was going fairly well. I was definitely trying my hardest to make sure the kids were successful; often going home frustrated with the thought that, “I could’ve done that a little different” or “If only I’d known that before I taught the lesson.” Quite frankly, the more days that pass, the more often I have those thoughts, probably because I’ve always been the type to reach just a little bit further. But, we met together to talk about my future. What did I want to do? Was teaching something that I was interested in? Did I enjoy the challenge of education? All questions I asked myself; none that I had honestly answered. I took a couple weeks to think about it. I went back and forth; I had already prepared my family that I would probably move abroad for a few years to work in a developing country. I was young, had no obligations and was searching for adventure. Did I really want to be a teacher? I prayed, talked with lots of people, and rationalized each opportunity. Ultimately, I decided that as a teacher I would have summers off and I would be given the opportunity to teach social studies. I was given the opportunity to teach a subject that I always loved in a school that centered its curriculum around that topic.

Last year I had a very fulfilling time teaching about African and Asian culture. I had a great group of kids that I was genuinely sad to leave for the summer. One of the most rewarding experiences was watching them advocate for ideas and issues they believed in. We spent every Friday learning about global issues which lead up to a project where the kids created a museum to show other students, community members and parents the issues that billions of people face and the solutions that we can be a part of. They blew me away with their knowledge and depth of understanding. It was sensational. A perfect way to close out the year.

Next year I find myself in yet another role at CSD. Through another rather serendipitous sequence of events I have been given the opportunity to move up with my kids to 8th grade. Not only that (which is rewarding enough) I am going to lead the practicum program, too. I will be responsible for organizing service opportunities for my students to get them out into the community and allow hands on experience in an industry or organization that they may be interested in. This position marries almost all of my passions: kids, service and exploration. I'm very excited and a bit anxious to get started.

This journey has been interesting, to say the least. I've learned that hardship can bring great opportunity. One of my favorite college professors said, "never have more than a two year plan." Well, at this rate, I've never had more than a nine month plan! Onward, upper, higher and higher. Shane

Monday, August 13, 2012

A long, dirt road home

I never anticipated this abrupt turn of events.  I regret that I'm even making these key strokes which ultimately took me back to America.  Everything is happened so quickly and life is changing once again -- twice in less than a year have I picked up and moved on to the next story, the next chapter in my life.  Would you believe that a wrong answer to a yes-or-no question is what put me on a plane again back home?  It's a lot more than that, of course, but if I would have just said 'no' then I wouldn't be in this situation.  I'm sure most would just want to know why I'm coming home.  The answer would stun some people, others would say 'serves you right' and others would think I was joking.  My youthful immortality stepped out in front of me the other day.  As a blanket rule, Peace Corps says that under no circumstances shall a volunteer ride a motorcycle in country unless given specific, explicit authorization.  But it was the only way to get to where we wanted to go - a quick 10km ride down a deserted dirt road to a farm.  We wouldn't get caught, we'd go slow, and it wasn't even a busy road; what's the big deal?  We found ourselves in a position where we were staring down a dirt road and figured we had two choices: hop on a moto for a harmless ride to a farm where we were going to be helping a gentleman develop his plans for an eco-touristic/work-share farm or turn around a walk away -- go back home and not meet with this ambitious Guinean man.  Of course, those weren't our only two options, but in the short time that we reflected it seemed obvious that we were going to hop on a motorcycle and head out to work for a couple days.  What made the decision easier for us was that riding motorcycles was well within the cultural and societal norms of Guinea; it is far and away the most used and preferred method of public transit in the country.  I didn't even weigh the costs of my decision before hopping on the back of the moto.  Unfortunately, now, I'm stuck with a swarth of consequences.  I put the country director in a tough position.  I was a good volunteer; I had a portfolio of current and promising projects, was well integrated into my community, a part of the Volunteer Advisory Committee, Food Security Task Force and a Regional Coordinator for the Stomp Out Malaria initiative.  Now all of that is left behind.  I'll move past the work and projects that I left behind, but I will never get over how I had to leave my community.  Timbi Tounni invested in me, me in them, and now I sit in America thousands of kilometers away.  I didn't get to say proper goodbyes or insure continuation with any of my projects. It's hard, something only another PCV can fully understand -- I said goodbye to friends and family that I'm not sure if I'll ever see again.  People say to not live life with regrets, to see the positive side of everything, or that all things happen for a reason.  I believe those things, I really do, but this situation has made them more than words; it's been tough to come to terms with all this.  But it's not the end.

I don't know where my life's trail is headed next; I'd love nothing more then to go right back to Guinea and continue with everything I left behind.  But, I'm not going to run; I'm going to take it one step at a time.  This won't be the end of Africa for me; it's my heart and my passion -- it's where I feel at peace and satisfied.  I definitely learned my lesson; sometimes there are no second chances in life.  It was 8.5 months of adventure, learning, grassroots development and self-reflection.  It changed my life and I have a new perspective.  It was an incomplete experience that left me hungry for more; now I'm going to be patient to see where I'm lead to next.

For all who were following my adventures -- this isn't the end!  This was a learning opportunity (and boy did I learn my lesson), but not a dead end.  Thanks for all your continued support! Merci beaucoup. On jaraama naani.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Top 10 Reasons You Know You're in Guinea.

10. you can't remember the last time you pooped solid.
9. you no longer speak any languages fluently.
8. you can't tell the differences between tan lines and dirt lines.
7. if you haven't eaten rice, you haven't eaten.
6. you think running water, indoor plumbing, electricity and windows are a luxury and unnecessary.
5. the sun goes down so it's time to go to bed.
4. when a collared shirt is business attire.
3. when roads turn into rivers during the rainy season.
2. when children see you and immediately burst into tears.

and the number 1 reason...

1. you see another white person and think: WHO IS THAT AND DO I KNOW THEM?

For all her misgivings, she's a wonderful lady.  She's nice, gentle, outgoing and humble.  Her children are happy with the little they have and thankful for all they're given.  She'll show you the most magnificent waterfalls and forests; things you only ever imagined in your dreams.  She's full of heartbreak, but hope; poverty, but resilience; pause, but progress.  She's beautiful, she's kind, she's everything you want in someone when you start this adventure of a lifetime. She's Guinea.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

As I type this I'm closing in on my third day of Ramadan.  I decided I would fast with my family to see what it was like; this might be the only time in my life that I'm in a situation where everyone is participating in a fast.  I must say, though, I'm coming at this from a different angle.  It's obviously not obligatory for me and by no means would I be looked down upon if I chose not to fast.  What's been neat is being part of that sense of close knit community that exists when everyone is going through the same pains, physically and mentally.  It's been an interesting line to tote trying not to make a mockery of their holy month, considering I'm not a Muslim.  At first there were people who insisted that I pray with them; of course I prayed, but I was insistent that it was the way I prayed.  Even sharing this part of their faith with them has made me realize that we're all praying to the same God.  Aunt Amy gave me a really great book that has been like a bridge between two religions -- Muslims, Christians and Jesus.  In it the author makes a lot of fascinating links between the religions and has opened my eyes to all the similarities we share.  After all, Muslim means "to submit fully to God" (not a bad mantra for Christians to follow) and Allah is just the arabic word for God (the God we share).  There is a line of other volunteers waiting for me to pass the book off to them (great find, Aunt Amy!).

The experience thus far has been exciting.  I went to bed the night before Ramadan with the same sort of feeling that I had when I was younger on Christmas Eve or before leaving for a big vacation.  My stomach was turning and I was anticipating the great unknown.  Anyone who knows me could tell you that I've never missed a meal and would never in my right mind go 15 hours without eating -- unless it really had purpose.  Before going any farther I must admit that part of my motivation to fast was driven by the constant barrage from my friends in the village telling me that I couldn't do it, Ramadan was too long, or I wasn't strong enough.  Well if any of that was true, them telling me that definitely buried it deeper inside of me and fueled my desire to fast with them.

Day one started at 4am.  I set my alarm to get up so that I could eat breakfast before the sunrise and start the fast -- the fast is sunrise to sunset (roughly 4:30am - 7:30pm).  Per usual, my morning grogginess and burning desire to continue my dreams overrode my anticipation of not being able to eat until 7:30 that evening.  So I started the first day off on a 22 hour fast.  Instead of going in to the health center I decided to hang around with my family to truly take in what a day was like -- I knew it wouldn't be too different; there were too many things to be done around the house for my host mom to just sit around and watch the clock.

Around 10 o'clock we gathered the dried manioc to begin pounding it into a powder.  I took the pestle and pounded away.  The manioc powder is used to make Tow [sic] which the best description I can give is giant snot balls wading in gravy.  I've come to move past the look and texture of food and Tow is actually quite tasty.

That afternoon involved the general household chores for much of the family.  Prayers are at 6am, 2pm, 4pm, 7:30pm and 8:30pm.  The women in my family mostly occupied themselves with laundry, dishes, preparing food for the sundown feast, and cleaning house.  I spent time playing kick with the soccer ball, entertaining my little brothers and sister, sitting and talking, and, perhaps most importantly, napped.

That evening at 7:30pm a group of men came over to the house for the sundown prayer.  After the prayer we broke the fast with Bui (Bwee), which is sort of like a rice porridge, and the Tow.  It a very satisfying time and a chance to relish in the fact that you made it 15 hours without eating.

The rest of the night is when the fun starts -- they plan meals every 2-3 hours to make up for all that they missed during the day.  Supposedly people gain weight throughout the month instead of losing it.  

At about 9:30pm is the first meal which is generally rice and sauce.  The meal is followed by us all sitting around in the living room while a couple of the guys my age make tea and everyone just chats.  It's really neat to see how this month really brings a family together.  There are no other distractions for them -- they simply spend time with each other while they replenish what they missed throughout the day.  The first night I stayed up until the second meal at 12:45am.  It was rice with the choice of two sauces -- so I mixed mine together.  After that we all cashed out and hit the sack.  I stayed with my family so that it was easier to make the 4am breakfast.

At about 4:15am my sister, Ramatoulaye, woke me up so that we could take breakfast.  It was by far my favorite meal.  Egg and onion sandwiches with tea and milk (warm).  There's not much for talking during tho meal, it came off to me as a bit more ceremonial or obligatory.  Get in, get out and get back in bed for a couple more hours of sleep; and I was fine by that!

The morning didn't come as roughly as I'd thought.  I got up at 8am and headed out to the health center like normal, just to do it all over again on day 2.

If there are some things I took away from the first day it was that fasting is an awesome way to center yourself.  There were times when my stomach was begging me to put something in it, but instead of turning to a plate of rice I got down on my knees and asked for the strength to keep pushing.  It also helped that one of the other volunteers told me that humans can go up to 30 days with nothing but water and survive -- 15 hours wouldn't kill me.  Also the neat sense of community and family that exists during this period.  Guineans already have a much closer knit family clan than most Americans do (it was so bizarre to them when I told them my brother and sister didn't live with, or right next to, my parents).  But during this time, that trait is heightened.  Whether or not I take back the tradition of fasting (whether it's during Easter or Ramadan) I hope I leave with the side effects that come with it. En On Tuma. (see you next time).

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The rain is finally upon us. Goodbye sweltering heat, lifeless plains and water shortages.  Hello mangos (by the bucket-full), green foliage and bugs, insects and mosquitoes.  I’m happy to say I survived the hottest month of the year and even happier to bid it farewell.
I can’t believe it’s already been 5 months since I left North Carolina. 5 months!  I often feel like the days pass slowly, but the time passes fast.  A weird feeling, but in the moment I find myself saying ‘’It’s only 11 o’clock!?” but looking back and thinking where the heck has time gone and what do I have to show for it.

This past month has been quite fun.  I got in contact with a former US Olympian who is doing humanitarian work in Guinea and he agreed to sponsor both of my sports teams.  Ron Freeman:  gold and bronze medalist in track and field and a really nice guy.  I’ve also been regularly teaching English which has given me an appreciation for what my mom spent her life doing.  It’s not easy preparing a lesson, keeping children engaged and having high energy; but it’s fun.  The children are intrigued by my accent and seem to enjoy the games and activities we do.  I’m sure some of you could imagine my teaching style (quite different from rudimentary style found in most Guinean classrooms).  Most classes I break into song and dance and am always floating around the class trying to get students to participate (not always successfully).  Needless to say, teaching is exhausting.

After our last monthly regional visit one of the other volunteers came back for a brief visit of my village.  A couple of my friends agreed to take us to one of the local waterfalls and barrages that they Chinese built.  It doubles as a hydroelectric plant that sends power to some of the local towns and villages (not mine).  The fall was magnificent – and it was during dry season.  Two rivers converge at the top of the fall.  On one end the river crashes down huge, displaced boulders sunk down between two giant rock walls.  The other side is much calmer with a small 4 meter waterfall in the distance and the water slowly snakes its way to the fall weaving between rocks.  Because it was dry season we actually walked on part of the waterfall – the pool at the top shrank to the size of a small creek.  The fall itself is about a football field high and we actually got to lay over the edge to look down into the pool at the bottom.

The trip, however, wasn’t all sunshine and roses.  Before we even got into the village where the waterfall is we stopped at a police checkpoint(which is in and of itself normal).  When we stopped, we were greeted by a shirtless ‘policeman’ wobbling towards us with a near-empty bottle of whiskey.  He wanted us to pay in order to enter which was ridiculous considering he was just going to pocket the money.  We sat and argued with him for the better half of 10 minutes (in which I surprised myself at how well I can argue in French).  Finally, I resorted to calling the Peace Corps security coordinator who laid down the law and we finally passed (for free).  I joked with my buddy that we should have just blown past the dude and not think twice since he was probably too drunk to fire a gun.  Obviously we didn’t want to test my theory which is why we argued with him for what seemed like forever.

One night I went with Thierno Hassane (my best friend in country whom people say we look alike because we’re together so much) to watch one of our buddies fire the bricks.  In Guinea, if you want to build a brick house that means someone has to make the bricks.  In order to do this you need a good source of clay mud – preferably close to a water source.  Mix the clay with water, slop it into a wooden brick mold then set it in the sun to dry.  After the sun bakes it for days (and they’ve made all the bricks) they stack them into what looks like 4 chimneys connected together.  At the base are openings to slide in wood and they light a fire to finish off the process.  The bricks go for about a dime each.

That same night after I left at about 12:30am I headed back to my house in a light drizzle.  I was pretty tired and looking forward to hitting the sack.  When I walked up to the door that lets us in to our courtyard it wouldn’t open.  I thought to myself that this was odd – we never latch the door closed because we never know if there is someone not back for the night yet.  Anyways, I tried for a couple minutes to try and reach through a small hole to slide the latch over but couldn’t quite get it.  I surveyed my options and figured climbing over wasn’t an option.  I probably would have taken down part of the wall considering how big I am and the fact that dilute the cement mix with sand here.  I knocked, called, banged, threw rocks and yelled at my neighbor’s window, but no such luck.  All I could do was laugh.  I knew it wasn’t on purpose and getting upset would just make the situation worse.  Luckily I had just left Thierno Hassane so I called him up and said I needed to crash at his place.  And so it was – my first Guinean sleep over.

Oh yeah, I finally saw my first snake and scorpion. In the same week!

Peace be with all. Shane

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Walking through the village these days makes me look like I got a cheap fake spray on tan.  The government came through to re-drag our road which left a lot of loose dirt on the ground to be kicked up by motorcycles and cars.  It seems like you can't even roll a pebble down the road without it creating a dust storm.

I started a basketball and volleyball team in my village which has been quite fun.  I have about 15 guys and 19 girls who regularly come.  I essentially just showed up to the court one day with a basketball and a group of guys showed up.  I've been very surprised at how far they've come in a month's time.  They didn't know how to dribble, what the violations were, how to shoot or even do basic basketball skills.  Now they show up and immediately start the warm-ups, call fouls on each other and know when they've traveled or double-dribbled.  I'm hoping to find some funding so that we can repair the court that we're playing on and repair one of the baskets; it's by far one of the nicest village courts I've seen, but one of the rims is hanging down and the paint all wore off.  I asked each kid to invest 5000 francs into the team and that I would find the rest of the money.  Let's hope I can find some somewhere!

For Easter we all came to the regional capital to all get together and celebrate.  As with all times here, it's a time to re-charge and be around some other Americans.  It's kind of dangerous for me to come because we eat so good and tears my stomach up.  It's like a shock to my system to have a variety of food.  We found a church to go to for Easter service which was quite nice.  It was in French and Pular and only lasted 3 hours so it was quite a treat in this Muslim country.

I really feel at home in my village, I have guys that I would call legitimate friends (the other coach of my team).  I'm currently going around to the tourist sites close to my village and they are gorgeous.  Right now it's the dry season so the rivers and waterfalls aren't a wall of water like they will be come July, but it's still amazing.  I hope I get some visitors to show off this country too; let me know if you wanna come!

We have our in-service training in May and after that I hope to start more intense projects with my village.  For now, I'm content getting to know where I'm living for the next 2 years.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's been a month since I've moved to my village and things have definitely changed as a way of life.  I'm not go, go, go anymore with class from 8-5 and studying shortly there-after.  Instead, I've fallen into the Guinean work week: the health center opens at 8, but I don't go in until 9; otherwise I'd be sitting on the front stoop until everyone else got there.  I sit and observe some of the patient interactions and ask curious questions like "is there any dialog between pregnant women and the nurse about the health of them and their baby?"  The say, "of course." But from my observations the pre-natal visits are treated more like a formality than an actual visit regarding your personal health.  When it gets busy I help with the vaccinations -- this past Saturday we had over 50 infants come in for shots which kept us quite busy, especially considering the nurse who normally does the vaccinations wasn't there.  After I get bored with that I study Pular and some of the women are entertained as I try pronouncing some of the phrases -- there are some funky sounds in that language that my mouth won't make.  We all leave around 2 to find lunch -- I normally fix something at my house which blows the minds of guys because I've taken on the task generally reserved for women.  Some days I wander back to the health center to sit and chat with the doctor; other days I go find a tea bar and chat with the guys my age.  Luckily, I'm coming along in my French so that I can start finding other outlets to keep me busy and engaged in the community.  I finally met the directors of the 5 schools in my village and plan on starting working their soon.  I'm completely content in my village -- there's a group of guys my age that I hang out with which has made it much easier to adjust and integrate.  Now I'm just anxious to start on projects.

Living in a developing country has shown me things that Americans are not used to.  And I don't mean the superficial things like not having electricity or running water -- it's things that our society has, thankfully, overcome.  There are attitudes and ways of life that are accepted here and justified as, "that's just how it goes" and that bothers me.  One of the most noticeable (and irritating) are gender roles.  Don't get me wrong, America has stereotypical societal roles for men, women and children, but it's not generally ridiculed or shamed when someone bucks those.  We have male nurses, stay at home dads, female firefighters, and women governors and CEOs -- in fact we often applaud those who buck the normal and go off the well beaten path.  Here, though, it's often not accepted.  Women cook, clean, raise the children, work in the garden and generally keep the house in order.  Men work, drink tea and hold all the government positions (ok, so not all the government positions, but I'd bet it's 85%).  Often times girls aren't able to continue their schooling because they have to stay home to tend to domestic responsibilities, while the boys were never even considered to stop schooling.  I was even told that if a man is "caught" by his mother helping his wife prepare food that she would disown the wife.  At first I found these things to be interesting and a sort of cultural phenomenon that I would grow to accept, but what I've come to believe is that women in Guinea (and most likely all of the developing world) carry a very heavy and uneven burden in society and often don't get the reciprocal fair say in that government or society.

I broach the topic with guys occasionally, asking their opinions on polygamy and if it's fair to women or why more women can't be mayors or doctors.  It's exciting to hear the younger generation debate these issues -- for some it's the first time they've thought critically about how they feel about the subject as opposed to how someone told them to feel.  It's no doubt that change will come to this country; as the world quickly becomes more integrated across national boundaries through the internet, radio and TV, young people's thoughts will be challenged and people will begin to buck the status-quo.  For my part, as a Peace Corps volunteer I'm supposed to "introduce host country peoples to the culture of America" (or something like that) so most chances I get, I wash my clothes, cook my food, fetch my water and hold little babies (nothing an American would think as noteworthy other than the fact that it's all done without washing machines, gas stoves, water faucets or diapers).  So many of them have such high regard for America that I'm in a unique position to be able to brush of the any of the ridicule or laughs that I get (calling me 'madame' or reminding me that I'm doing women's work) and show some of my friends that when a guy boils water or hangs clothes on the line that he doesn't mysteriously melt into a puddle or spontaneously combust.  I don't want to make the guys sound like they're good for nothing (some of you are thinking 'too late'), because they are often the bread winners for their family if they can find work (try living with a 20+% unemployment rate).  It's just that the hierarchical structure that puts women well below men is holding this country back from reaching it's potential.

It's not because women can't handle the demand put on their shoulders -- Guinean women are some of the strongest human's I've ever met, physically and mentally -- that bothers me about the gender roles.  They cary a baby strapped to their back, 30 pound jugs of water on their head, and food from the market in their hands.  It's amazing to see the power these women have.  They are the one's that are the backbone of this country, they are the one's that keep their families fed, they are ultimately the one's that will pull Guinea to the next level.  After all it's an African proverb that says "If you teach a man, you've taught one person. If you teach a woman, you've taught an entire nation."