Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Guinean Homecoming, Part Trois: Getting back to Senegal

My taxi ride back to Dakar was of course, an adventure. The first leg went fairly smoothly and I befriended a traditional doctor. We slept at the border where a creep-o went into my pocket while I was sleeping and stole my cell phone! But I was using my purse as a pillow (and completely passed out) and am happy that the phone was there to get stolen and not my purse, which had my camera/money/passport, etc. I consider myself lucky- and what is a guy going to do with a busted-ass cellphone with 1000 GNF (20 cents) on it? Knock yourself out. When we arrived to the town to transfer taxis, the traditional doctor offered me a ride in his SUV with his chauffer. HELL YES I accepted- but should’ve forseen the consequences. We went back to his hut to shower, then I had to meet the family, eat the fonio, package traditional medicines. And Senegal is HOT … like disgustingly so. But it was kind of cool to spend several hours in a Senegalese village and speak the Pular and eat the food and 'gain pharmaceutical experience.' I had this bizarre open wound on my arm that had been bothering me since the plane ride from Botswana but the doctor put on this blue paste and it healed within hours. I swear. We eventually left the village but the SUV was so old and ghetto we were crawling at like, 30 mph. And had to stop to sell medicine. And had to pick up a possessed woman. (I will never forget: "Kiki, I know you want to get back, but we have to get this woman. She is very, very sick. She needs to go to the capital city. She needs good doctors. You see ... she is possessed by the devil.") But the doc was so nice, bought all my foods, bought me some cold medicine, and didn’t let me chip in for gas. So he saved me a lot of money, which I then used to buy skinny jeans in Dakar (NO zippers this time, folks.) Dakar is a fun city- beautiful beaches and nice hotels and all the Peuls are really nice. While bargaining for a tshirt the Pular came out, and word spread though this giant city that an American girl was speaking Pular and this Guinean guy found me and brought me to this factory filled with Peuls who were making clothes/bags/wallets/all sorts of crafts! And he took me around to On Jaramaa EVERYONE and it was another ridiculous episode in the series. Hilarious … and I was happy to be getting all the Pular out of me for the next year or so. I just seriously love the Peuls. They are the greatest ethnic group on the face of the planet, in my opinion. Time and time again, outside of Mamou when I met a group of them, they took me in as family and cared for me and made sure no harm would come to me. I think I appreciated this on a new level after having been in Shoshong where, although people nice enough (like America) the hospitality and warmth of this ENTIRE subset of people is mind-boggling.


Alright folks, that is the official conclusion of the Guinean homecoming. The first Guinean homecoming, but certainly not the last.

Guinean Homecoming, Part Deux

here we go (from the same letter written to friends):

My two weeks in Mamou were a blur. The first thing we did after I showered and was acceptable to walk around town was get shown the World Map that ESM did. AND OH MY GOD- I have never been so proud. It is BEAUTIFUL. Like the Guineans who painted my bathroom dripped paint on the door, floors, everywhere- so I was naturally nervous about seeing a detailed map go up on the side of a school. But this thing is perfect! And the colors are incredible! They even hired a calligrapher to stencil our name/logo/contact information up top. The association is SO proud of this first project- Jake and I had given a combined 100,000 GNF to do it, but costs were wayyy more than that, and they even raised money on their own! They had written and distributed fundraising letters, and I conveniently was there just in time for the map’s inaugural ceremony (I wonder if there have been other World Map Inauguration Ceremonies?). But government authorities had been invited, chairs rented, DJs hired and professional rappers solicited. The inaugural ceremony was on my last day and all the meetings and preparations for it were stressful- I forgot how much work I had put into this association. To do anything takes so much time and energy, and I don’t know how these kids haven’t gotten exhausted by it all. After two weeks I was SPENT. The ceremony got rushed along because of a storm blowing in, but authorities came, rappers rapped, and even an HIV/AIDS group did standup comedy that segued into a sensibilisation. So anyways, going back to Mamou and seeing the project I poured all my effort into not only surviving, but thriving, was just a really cool experience. Now that the first project is officially completed, part of their "plan d’action" is to enter the Youth Association scene where they compete for international projects with all the NGOs who come specifically to Mamou to look for groups to train/fund. I don’t know how it all works, and wish I was there to support them, but the leadership of this group is strong and they have built an established network who can help them get their game to the next level. Inch-ALLAH. (I could gush about ESM for hours, so I’ll stop here for now. But our one year anniversary is June 10th!!)

Another thing I loved about going back was I no longer had to pretend I was a poor PCV and hide my money. I mean, yes I’m still poor, but I totally delved into the “vie communutaire” philosophy and shared what I had. So I started spending silly and took everyone to the club one night. It’s one of those things where being students, all my boys are too poor to do ANYTHING, so whatever I want to pay for, I have to pay times seven so we can do it as a group. So clubbing was fabulous at L’OASIS (where Sach and I had lived it up and been celebrities in months past) but I didn’t get any DJ shout-outs this time around. That was a first, but I survived. I also really wanted to go hiking in Doucki (an area renowned for its mountainous hiking), but that of course meant I had to pay for everyone else. So me and my seven hired a taxi with my chauffer friend and set off.

Doucki was incredible. I had been told to “find Hassan” in Doucki, which is “after the town of Pita.” I called, but got no answer- no reception. Hmm … maybe that means he’s in the bush? Which is where we want to go? So we set off in our taxi after I made sure the boys understood that “I have no idea where we’re going and if the guy will be there. We might not have any food. I’m warning you, this could be a disaster.” The boys were down for the adventure though (the taxi driver was definitely not) and several HOURS after Pita aimlessly driving on dirt roads some children see me in the taxi and start screaming for us to pull into their compound. We obeyed, and found Hassan and insane amounts of mangoes. He took us for a hike that afternoon down into the crevices of the earth which turned out to be like rainforests (I didn’t know Guinea had rainforests!) and the boys had a blast swinging from vines and finding monster-sized bugs and snails. We had a great dinner, my boys brought anti-Muslim substances (re: booze) and we stayed up all night just talking and joking and enjoying being together. We really transcended a level of friendship this time around- something about not being there as a PCV but as a friend changed our dynamic and maybe it sounds silly, but we all really felt like genuine family. The next morning we hiked up rocks and down cliffs and played in waterfalls. We followed one waterfall underground into an underground swimming hole- and then the water flowed out to a DIFFERENT waterfall- so we’re swimming underground between two waterfalls. It was awesome! And these boys had the time of their life too- Souleymane is studying tourism in Conakry and he’d never before been a tourist! So while we all had fun, he had this eye-opening experience that meant a ton to him. After playing, hiking and swimming all day we made it back to our taxi, commissioned some petits to fill up the trunk with mangoes, and drove back to Mamou.

The rest of the time there was just spent eating a lot of rice, riding a lot of motos (SO fun) and doing a lot of work with the association. My market lady took me shopping for indigo and then brought me to the tailor and leather-worker to buy 1 complet, 1 dress and 2 pairs of sandals. The whole time she had me hold her 4-year old son’s hand who she had dressed up in an Obama collared shirt with patent leather shoes on. We went back to her house where she had a photographer come over to take family pictures and then we ate rice and she paid for my moto back home. Another day I made peanut sauce with my boss’s wife … after we got into a yelling match about why I wasn’t at her house more often. I was seriously SO angry- I had forgotten how EXHAUSTING my life in Mamou was and busted my ass to the top of the mountain to keep our sauce-making date after running around town to deliver ESM Inauguration Invitations, and this lady starts whining that I don’t spend more time with her. I lost it … but after we both vented and aired out our anger, we hugged it out and went back to being mom/daughter-like and I made some fabulous peanut sauce. I visited my office a lot and joked around with old co-workers (the 52 states of America suddenly became a big topic of discussion) and also went to another mountain to visit my guard’s family. There had been only one noticible change to Mamou since my departure: a keke (favorite african dish: pounded millet-like grain with hot peppers, tomatoes, fish, avocado, you name it!) lady opened up RIGHT NEXT TO MY COMPOUND!! Which was awesome, considering PC had taken my stove. The only downside is if I wanted keke, you have to “invitation” everyone- once I was so hungry and didn’t want to share but did anyways, and I tried shoving a wad of keke down my throat so I could eat something before everyone devoured it all, and started choking. So I spent all my time gagging by the moonlight and everyone was too busy eating to notice and by the time I was able to swallow, almost everything was gone.

My last night in Mamou was one of my biggest worries: I was scared I would have another collapse when it was time to leave and I’d be in the same bad place I was in in October. But it started with an impromptu party in my house when I gave my boys (and my favorite guard!) these badass Lacoste polos I picked up in Shoshong and we started dancing and taking pictures and being all silly in my house. There was so much excitement with the presents (I also handed out mini American flags) and laughter that this thick atmosphere of “JOY” just landed on us. I know, it sounds cheesey, but everyone was so HAPPY and joyful and we were together and were like a family … it really felt like Christmas. That happy/excited/I love life kind of feeling. The party eventually stopped so I could pack (by candlelight- I had lent my headlamp to a friend a few nights prior). Malcolm came over, I quickly gave up packing, and we joined my boys outside my compound. So we were all just hanging out, listening to Takana Zion’s latest album when a rainstorm chased us onto our terrace. MX was sick so didn’t stay long, but me and my boys and my guard just talked all night- who would get married first? Who’d have the most kids? And so on. So then the joyful tone took a serious “what about the future” tone, and I shared my biggest fear: I was afraid to come back to Mamou one day to find that no one lived there anymore, or they were all married and wouldn’t be able to hang out. And then Ama Sara goes “Kiki, when you come back, we’ll all just meet up from wherever we are here in Mamou and bring our wives with us!” And as silly as that sounds- isn’t that what we do in America anyways? Reunions, bring the family- everyone anywhere in this life moves on, but you keep in touch and sometimes you have to travel a little bit but relationships don’t have to end just because, say, Abdourhamane moves to Conakry. So anyways, that I think had been one of the biggest fears gnawing at me- I didn’t want to leave Mamou and have everything disappear. But Ama Sara totally made me see how silly I was being!

One year ago

September 28, 2009: a day that started like any other, but ended up drastically changing the path I thought my life was on.

Last night I woke up at 3:30 am and heard the rain falling outside for the first time in months. I immediately was transported back to my bedroom in Mamou, where I would lay in bed listening to the rain fall on the tin roof for hours. And what used to be a soothing, peaceful experience in Mamou has become a memory-lurching sleep-depriving one here in Charlottesville. I was back in Mamou until my alarm went off at 6:30 am.

And the strangest part?

Today is the anniversary of the killings/rapings that were in Conakry's (Guinea's capital) stadium at a peaceful protest concerning the upcoming elections.

I know it's been months since I've written (I still haven't finished my Guinean homecoming recount) but given to this anniversary's significance, let me just give you the rest of that letter (subsequent post).

On a reflective note, it pains me to acknowledge the fact that Guinea has been having "upcoming" elections for a full year now. I was wearing a t-shirt with a Guinean presidential candidate on it and a janitor asked me whose face was on it. "A candidate for Guinea's upcoming presidential elections" I answered. Great, with 2009 emblazoned across the front.

The excitement and hope surrounding the elections in 2009 was outrageous. Democracy was going to work, we were sure of it. People were registering to vote, election committees from all over the world were helping out. And now- a year later, and to what avail? Sorry, the dictator got shot in the head. Sorry, trucks couldn't get ballots to this part of the country. Sorry, I need more time to get candidates to like me. Sorry, it's Ramadan and we're too hungry to vote. Excuses have run dry, and judging by the tones of my friends back there, it sounds like hope has too. Really, it is amazing that America got it right the first time. It defies so many human-instincts to set up a smoothly functioning democracy, and BAM! Washington held power, turned over power, and walked away.

I love America.

(Minus our whacked-out healthcare system. But that's for another time.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Guinean Homecoming, Part Un: Getting There. PLUS: VIDEO OF A BUSH TAXI RIDE!

I couldn't take the heat I was getting after having stopped writing.
But I'll be honest, sharing my adventures here in America are hard: because the people I'd be writing about would be reading this (and understand English.) I feel like I'd have to censor some parts, be politically correct in others, and I'd loose my flava.

That said, I wrote a letter to friends back in Botswana detailing my return to Guinea and I'd love to share excerpts. In installments, as to preserve your patience. I write a lot.


Getting There: plane to Senegal, 3 days in a taxi, and Day 1 in Guinea.

My 1st week back in America was blissful, I felt like I’d escaped a hell and I was giddy with anticipation of my Mamou trip. I surprised a few of my best friends at their homes/work and went out one night with my sister in College Park. (At the bar I was dancing with a black guy, and Claire informed his posse of friends that I was more African than they were. Love her.) Claire dropped me off at the airport and when I went to check in the guy at the desk told me that I did not have a reservation for the flight to Dakar. WHAT? I showed him my confirmation, and he told me anyone could get a confirmation, but that my credit card had been denied (probably because I hadn’t used it the whole year prior). So I was at the airport with bags for Guinea and no plane ticket. I told him I needed to get on that flight, and he said there were a few seats left (the airport was chaos because of a volcano that erupted and flights all over Europe/Asia were cancelled due to ash)but that the price was something like $1800. I told him that he was crazy and that I wanted the ticket at what I had paid originally. He told me it was impossible, called his superiors, and said that he was sorry, there was nothing he could do. Either I cough up $1800 or go home. Well … I have experience bargaining for tomatoes harder than this, so I gave it my Guinean best. And by the time I pulled out my last move, he made ‘the final call’ to his boss and got me my ticket at my original price.

I almost cried tears of joy when I landed in Dakar (SO close!) and actually did tear up when I touched down into Labe (Guinean soil). And of course tears and cries and shouts and applause and laughter and a million other emotions pulsed through my body when I got out of the taxi at the taxi gare in Mamou and the whole gare (taxi depot) and petit marche (market) erupted into cheers and tears and WOW- it was a welcoming that I will never forget. Ama Sara was the only one who was in on the surprise visit and he’d been so excited he waited over an hour at the gare to pick me up (despite it being a 4 minute walk from home). After hugging every market lady and picking up every baby as I made my way through the market, I composed my tears long enough to walk towards my house when I saw Kanja (my carpenter/café man with missing fingers) who ran out of his café, threw his hands in the air and screamed “am I dreaming?” The hugs and crying recommenced. Eventually I made it onto my street and my worst fear never occurred- all the kids ran up and knee-hugged me screaming “Kiki Barry” and neighbors and On Jaaramas were all over the place! Ama Sara and the other guy carrying my bag dropped everything off at Ama Sara’s before I walked to my compound, where the guard and all the other neighbors had the shock of their lives! They knew I was coming but didn’t know when, and it was SO fun surprising them! I had hidden a key and the moment I unlocked my front door (of my old house) a team of 15 neighbors and petits rushed in and started cleaning EVERYTHING. I didn’t realize what a mess I’d left in the aftermath of the evacuation. But all my furniture was taken out, boxes sorted, even my mosquito net was taken down and washed. I kept trying to pick up a broom or a mop but eventually gave in to everyone yelling at me to go shower. And damn, did I need a shower.

In a former life I must have done something terrible to piss off the taxi gods, because I never get a good ride. Our taxi broke down more times

than I can count, I was caked with a THICK layer of dirt and exhausted. The first night I was told to get out of the taxi and spend the night at a town before the final destination I paid for- a guy (who worked

for PC Senegal) helped me find a taxi for Guinea that would leave the next day at 7am and helped me transfer my bags. I had no idea where I was, if this was a good idea, where I would sleep- I was totally at the mercy of the Peuls. Which, if you have to be at the mercy of a subset of strangers, I guess this is where my luck comes in. The man then told me to take my money, leave ALL my bags in the taxi, and we walked about two blocks away to the gendarmerie where he asked if I could spend the night, thinking it would be safer/more comfortable than on the ground next to the taxi. Again, leap of faith leaving the bags- but what can you do? The gendarme let me use his hole in the ground to shower, and my limited Pular got me a towel and water from a nice lady. The next morning I showed up at the taxi to find the greatest group of boys ever- all young Guinean merchants working in Dakar (Senegal). One started off by buying a giant bowl of bouille (pounded rice in sugar) for everyone in our car to share. We started joking around in Pular, sharing a meal- I teared up because this was my first interaction with Guineans and made me so anxious

to get to Mamou to share food and conversation with my boys. The taxi ride through Guinea was

incredible. Yes, it was long and hard. I’ve never been so dirty and eaten more dirt in my life. But it was BEAUTIFUL. Through forests and parks and sand and jungle … the road is actually like a hiking trail with rocks and roots and everything that makes you think “Appalachian Trail” and not “national road.”

After the longest shower ever at Ama Sara’s (washing insane quantities of dirt out of your hair with a cup and bucket of water is NOT efficient) I walked over to his room to find he had made an avacado salad for us, bought bread and even bottled water for me. We shared a meal together and it was honestly one of the h

appiest moments of my life. I had actually arrived and made it to Mamou. And no one could take that away from me at this point.



(Photo One: Mid-taxi ride, broken down in this village for about 5 hours. Note the dirt caked on my shirt. And if you do notice the dirt caked on my face, please realize this is after having washed it once an hour for 32 hours.)
(Photo Two: Our bush taxi broken down.)
(Photo Three: Our bush taxi broken down (no surprise here) with about 9 mechanics, most under the age of 12, trying to fix it.)
(Video: Want to check out what a bush taxi ride is really like? There are 11 people in the car, 2 on top and we did this for 2 nights/3 days.)
video

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Playing Carmen Sandiego.


Alright it’s been a little while since I wrote and there is some clarifying to be done.


Yes, I am finished with Peace Corps.

(HELLZ) No, I am not in Botswana.

Yes, I did sneak back to Guinea for one last party.

And YES … I AM IN AMERICA!!!

 

I finished my time in Botswana shortly after Easter (post-flamingo hunting) and made moves for the capital city, did some medical/dental exams for Peace Corps, and touched down in the US for a few undercover days (I had big plans to surprise my sister ... but when I went to put my luggage in the trunk of the car at the airport she jumped out screaming SURPRISE!) before hopping back on a plane to Senegal where I stayed with the family of an old boss for 48 luxurious hours. After getting back in the swing of eating with my hands and speaking le francais, I hustled my way into a bush taxi and appeared three days later in Mamou, Guinea, filled with absurdly high hopes for the best vacation of my life. My high hopes were exceeded in this city of dreams, and two weeks later I reluctantly made moves across borders and over rivers out of Guinea and back through Senegal in busted taxis and SUVs with traditional doctors and possessed patients. I spent 2 more days with the lovely Diop family in Dakar (and promised to stay longer in the future) and caught flight SA207 back to Washington DC. I’m back in Maryland at the Mulligan household for about three weeks and then I’m off again (but still in the continental US) to Charlottesville, Virginia where I’m starting a Post-bacc Premed Program for the next 12 months. (It’s a program for kids who picked the wrong major in college – like me – that will get me the science classes & skills to get into medical school.)

 

Any questions? Likely. Even I have tons. Like how am I going to pay for school? And when can I get back to Guinea? And where can I get a free TB shot? And when is Obama going to fix our busted healthcare system that has me running from doctor to doctor without any treatment? But those answers will come (inch-ALLAH). In the mean time I’m sticking with basics like relearning how to use a washing machine and order food at a restaurant.

 

I have a few outrageous and heartwarming tales from my time in (and my trek to/from) Guinea that I’ll post soon. But the official announcement needed to be made: I am back.

 

(Old cell phone number is back up and running. As is my more badass number, 425.200.KIKI)