If you’re just tuning in, I’ve spent the past 6 weeks living in Kankan, Guinea–staying with a family and doing some teaching. I should be in Guinea for roughly 10 weeks in total: it’s one of my “stops” for the trip. In the previous post, I gave a bit of an introduction, painting the picture of both a bad and good day in this crazy West African nation. In this post, I give you more.
Let’s get right into it. Tell us more about Guinea, Will!
What am I doing here?
A few months ago, I was emailing Penn State professors for contacts in Senegal, as I was hoping to do some farm work there, or something of the sort. Instead, I was put in touch with an ex-Schreyer employee, who did a Fullbright here in Kankan.
“Senegal is nice, but if you want a real adventure, go to Guinea,” she said. “I have some contacts that would love to host you, and have you help to teach some classes.”
I took it as a challenge, and quickly accepted; she set the whole thing up from there. A million thanks again, Dr. Bauchspies!
So, for the past 6 weeks, I’ve been teaching: I teach Spanish to university students, and Physics (its basic “science,” really) to 7th graders–both in French. My classes are Monday to Thursday, 4 hours per day.
What’s your family like?
For the past 6 weeks, I’ve been living with a family. There’s the father, Mory, age 28; the mother, Awa, age 22; Mory’s sister, Fadima, age 22; Awa’s sister, also Awa, age 17; Awa’s brother, “Lo,” age 10; and finally, the young son, Adama, nickname “Papa,” age 14 months.
The family is very friendly, and treats me well. When I first arrived, I volunteered to buy them a few sacks of rice; I purchased 3–enough for the whole family for my 2-month stay–equivalent to roughly $105. In exchange, I have my own bedroom, queen-sized straw mattress, daily breakfast and dinner (they’d feed me lunch too, but I’m always in town), laundry once a week, and a hot bucket shower as the sun goes down. Aside from the mother’s cooking, which I’ll get to in a minute, I’m kind of living the dream.
As it seems in most of Guinea, the family is very patriarchal: the man has, without question, almost all the power. The women cook, clean, and wash, and the man earns the money. In my family, both sisters and the mother attend school as well, which I would assume puts them in the minority–especially in the case of the mother. Regardless, as our pen of squawking chickens wakes us up around 6:30am every morning, the women can always be found outside, getting a head start on the day’s chores.
Our house has no running water, nor electricity. However, we do have a generator, which the father turns on for about two hours every night. During that time, we watch TV–usually this terrifically awful narrative about a kid named Ishmael, or some equally awful music videos–and chat. The father and I often have what I call “chez vous, est-ce que..” conversations, where he asks me things about the United States. This is my favorite part. His questions are sometimes outrageous (“when foreigners come to visit, are they allowed to leave the house, and walk around the city?”).
The baby, Adama, is adorable. He’s really taken a liking to me lately as well.
What are Guineans like?
Guineans are oppressively nice. When I walk into school, I am greeted by every single passer by. They smile, widely–almost as if we’re being filmed as part of a movie. They wave enthusiastically–they draw out long hellos with inscrutable genuineness. Guineans are some of the most polite people I’ve ever met. It’s lovely, for the most part. However, coming from a culture where one of most private experiences you can have is walking down a crowded city street, if can be a bit exhausting at times.
What are your classes like?
My Spanish class is great. The kids are respectful, attentive, and really want to learn. I have fun with them–I tell them that Spanish is a language spoken with confidence and energy. I make them applaud each other when they speak in front of the class, and I playfully bang on and kick the wall when their applause falters.
Usually, I’ll have about 12 kids in a class. We’re supposed to start at 8am, but most people shuffle in in the 8:17am range. Some days, an entire class just decides to not show up, in unison. It’s rather amateurish, and mostly out of my hands.
My 7th grade physics class, however, is a nightmare. The kids are so loud, so energetic, and near-impossible to deal with. They respect me–as they do all teachers–but getting their full attention is no easy task. As I observed of my host dad in my first few days in Kankan, you really have to assume the loud-voice authority figure to have control of a classroom.
So that’s what I do. I yell. I kick kids out, where they go to get whacked with a tire rubber by the principal. I don’t have a choice. That’s how you control the younger kids. That’s what they’re programmed to respond to.
How’s the weather?
It’s hot. The days are about 95F, while the nights sit at around 70F. The hot season is fast approaching, which will add about 15F to each of these figures.
It’s easy to get dehydrated around here too. Since you can’t buy much in the way of electrolytes, I’ve begun to make my own oral rehydration salts (ORS), which is basically Gatorade without the flavor. One litre of water, six teaspoons of sugar, and a half teaspoon of salt. I eyeball the measurements, and pour them into my metal blue water bottle with a hand-rolled paper funnel. The Peace Corps gave me the idea.
Do Guineans like white people? What about Americans?
When you walk down the street, you feel like a mild celebrity. Nobody too famous, but someone everyone knows, admires, and appreciates. People will stare with intrigued, rigid faces, almost like their eyes are smiling while their mouth awaits confirmation, until I say “hi,” to which they respond with an energy and comradery that says we’ve been next-door neighbors for twenty years, while kids will jump up and down shouting toubab, or toubabuhnee, which is the diminutive version (hey there little toubab!).
Guinea really doesn’t see much tourism at all (I can’t imagine more than 1,000 white people come through per month, and I’d actually be surprised if it were that many in the first place), so I am mostly viewed as a highly respected visitor, instead of an object of money. Every day, I am at least once beckoned to come eat, or to come drink, by strangers on the side of the road. In short, Guineans love white people.
But I’m not just any white person. I’m American, baby–a living, breathing extension of the golden nation, where Barack Obama personally delivers bags of cash to our doorstep, just before handily disposing of the bad guys who try to f*ck with our shit. And when Guineans find out I’m American, the dial on that initial oven of toubab warmth turns all the way up, their smile reaching their ears, as they proceed to tell me how blessed I am to come from the greatest country on earth. Guineans love white people, and they really love Americans.
What’s the food like?
The food is mostly garbage. It’s lots of rice, with lots of sauce, liberally seasoned with peppers and a dire lack of variety.
The market here is beautiful, and packed with great stuff. But for some reason, Guinean food just clings on for dear, diarrheal life to the utmost basics. Rice with peanut sauce, rice with green sauce, rice with spicy red sauce, and the occasional fish. Here in Kankan, the food is almost inescapable: if you really want, you can pay six times the normal price of a dinner, and get a full chicken at the hotel that the President stays at when he comes into town. I haven’t yet obliged.
Instead, my days go something like this: I eat a baguette with fake cheese every morning–the best meal of the day; meat skewers, rice with fish at the Ivorian restaurant, or many bags of yogurt and grains for lunch; and for dinner, I stomache one of my host mother’s three dinner choices–rice with peanut sauce, rice with green sauce, or rice with spicy red sauce. It’s really a battle to keep it down. Just now, as I write, I left half the dinner in the bowl, and the mothers and sisters finally, for the first time, got the gist that dinner usually brings me to the ceramic latrine brim of vomit. We all had a good laugh.
Lastly, I note that my host father eats really well. The mother prepares elaborate dishes for him–rice, fish, vegetables, etc–while I eat what the children eat. But hey–at least they give me a spoon.
What language is spoken?
In this region of Guinea, Haute Guinea, everyone is of Malinke origin. I’m not too precise on the history just yet, but I do believe that the Malinke’s and the Malians (people from Mali) all come from the same place. As such, the language spoken by all is Malinke, of which I speak roughly three words.
Additionally, almost everyone speaks French–the “national” language. In other parts of Guinea, the regional languages are Susu, Pular, and I believe one more, but across the board, most people speak French, so as to have a common tongue.
The thing that’s weird about this–the reason I put “national” in quotations–is that French is only learned in school. My host dad is from Côte d’Ivoire, so he really speaks French, and even he doesn’t speak much of it at home (except with me); he just lets his kids learn in it school. The reason that this is so bizarre to me, is that to have any real power or place in Guinean society, or West African society, you have to speak French, and you have to speak it well, as many people do. However, with Adama (the baby) as an example, he would be able to speak perfect French by the age of 4, if his father just spoke with him, and would therefore have a huge edge in life. However, he’ll just wait to learn in school as well.
Furthermore, all Guinean news is in French. So, as we watch at night as we sometimes do, I wonder: “what would it feel like to watch the news in my country, in “my” language, and not fully understand what’s being said? How bizarre would this be?”
What’s Kankan like?
Kankan is great. The town itself is the product of overlap of many villages and many tribes, many hundreds of years ago, which all morphed into one big city. It’s all very orange, really, with antiqued architecture that seems to radiate spirituality. Most everyone is Muslim, so Kankan has many a mosque as well. The sunsets are beautiful, and always identical.
In addition, compared to the rest of Guinea (save the capital), you can kind of get stuff in Kankan. “I love Kankan–there’s ice cream, cheese balls, and Snickers bars there!,” said my Peace Corps friend Betsy, as we first drove up here 6 weeks ago.
Kankan is home to several universities, and many high schools and elementary schools. It’s a youthful, energetic place, where people are far more educated than your average Guinean. There’s music, nightclubs, and several elaborate markets.
Is it expensive?
No. I can buy 12 liters of water for a dollar. An expensive lunch–meat chunks with potato salad–costs two dollars. An hour of internet and a motorbike taxi across town each cost seventy cents. A meat skewer is fourteen cents. I spend about five dollars a day.
Are the police corrupt?
Before coming to Guinea, I heard that the police were about as corrupt as they come. I’d have to carry my passport at all times, and argue my way out of bribes every other day. I heard that the police were ruthless–especially with foreigners.
In my experience with the police in Guinea, the exact opposite has been true. I hang out with the police under mango trees as they feed me bananas. I accidentally run escondido road signs on my bike, and smile as they smile back. On one occasion, as I got stopped for going the wrong way down a one-way street, the policeman said “anything else?” after a particularly friendly conversation–obviously hinting at a bribe. I said no, and pedaled away.
I hope not to jinx myself, but the police have been nothing short of lovely thus far. Like all other Guineans, they love Americans as well.
What’s the clothing like?
Guineans are well dressed. Many women wear these gorgeous, endlessly colorful dresses, which I unfortunately lack the fashion vocabulary to describe. The men either wear what I’ll lightly call “Muslim attire” (I again lack the vocabulary to do much better than that), or clean and stylish Western clothes. Everyone generally looks really good–especially at school.
When I ride my bike out into the country, however, things change. The Western clothing disappears, and the clothing turns into this hilariously ragtag collection of donation-pile giveaways (which are generally purchased in a local market–yes, that’s where your “donations” are going) from the early 1980’s. Nebraska Cornhusker Starter jackets, a Ridge High Bearcats softball sweatshirt (worn by a man, with the name Michaela embroidered on the front), a Trevor Linden jersey tee, and the Johnson Seventh Annual Family Barbecue in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s hysterical.
Are there any weird customs?
For the most part, Guineans are like you and I. However, some weird things do occur.
To start, the upper thigh is viewed as a racy display, while a bare chest is of no significance. So, with legs fully covered, many women walk around the house topless, as my host mother often does. At first, it was shocking, but I’ve gotten used to it.
Guineans seem to have a strong taboo against smelling as well. You can’t sniff your food during a meal–it’s a big no-no.
The weirdest custom, by far, is what men (my host dad, at least) do with spit loogies. “You don’t spit it in your wife’s hand, or her mouth?,” he asked me one night.
No, no we don’t. We go outside and spit on the ground.
Lastly, Guineans seem to have a weird obsession with cleanliness–made further weird by the fact that all trash is just thrown on the ground, as the concept of garbage cans hasn’t quite taken hold. I’ll have a kid come late to class, and before sitting down, he’ll spend 3 minutes wiping dust off of his seat.
“Sit down guy,” I’ll say. “You’re late and you’re disrupting.”
“But Monsieur, the dust! It’s dirty!”
“You’re a grown man. C’est pas la fin du monde. I’ll clean it myself if you like. I’ll take a nap in it.”
That usually does the trick.
If I come to Guinea, what should I bring?
You should bring everything. When I was still in Spain, my West Africa consultant told me the same–to bring all of my cash, batteries, sunscreen, and bug spray for all my time in West Africa. After passing through Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal, I began to think that she was crazy, and that her information was outdated. However, while you can get stuff in the three aforementioned countries, it’s a different story in Guinea.
I haven’t seen a single ATM since arriving. Outside of Kankan, you can barely find toilet paper. If I didn’t bring my sunscreen, I simply wouldn’t have any. I haven’t flossed in 3 weeks, because you can’t find dental floss around here. Guinea is the 13th poorest country in the world, I believe, and in the way of resources and imports, it really does show. You gotta come prepared.
Another scarcity in Guinea is electricity. During the dry season, with no water to power hydroelectric generators, most establishments only have electricity for a few hours a day. Even the biggest university here can go days without having power. Can you imagine Penn State without electricity? Less the implications, but merely the idea? It seems rather insane.
What are children like?
There is a strict age hierarchy in Guinean society, and I’d like to say this is applicable to most of Africa as well. The seven-year-old bosses the five-year-old around. The four-year-old carries the two-year-old. In my family, the baby gets all the attention, and Lo, who’s roughly 10, gets absolutely bullied by everyone else. The girls order him around, the mom orders him around, and he really doesn’t get much love. I suppose it improves when he’s older.
In addition, many Guinean babies are dirty, although this doesn’t apply to my family (they’re rather well off, if you didn’t gather). Children are pumped out here like there’s no tomorrow, and for the formative years, many run around with snot bubbling out of their noses which no parent cares to wipe away, and clothes that have never seen the heavenly light of soap and water. Few wear shoes either. Then, there’s the older brother, age 18, wearing a checkered flannel shirt, leather shoes, and tight fitting jeans standing just beside. It’s all very strange.
Do faux-pas’ occur often?
In West Africa, faux pas’ are frequent and unavoidable. This is arguably the part of the world least in touch with the West, and with traditions that date back a seriously long way. Humanism, community, and brotherhood are all very paramount. Not saying “hi” to everyone is extremely rude. Shaking hands with elderly women isn’t really done. And apparently, I can’t sniff the green sauce before eating it.
When traveling in West Africa, keep an open mind and an open heart, but as keen as you may be, you’re going to inadvertently insult someone sooner or later. It’s just going to happen.
Is it scary?
People have this great fear of traveling in Africa, I think. When it’s on TV, it’s war and famine. When it’s online, it’s famine and war. Recently, my friend Jeff asked me this question: “is it scary over there?”
My answer came in two parts. The first part is that in all of my experiences in Africa, the transport can be, as much as I may enjoy it, absolutely terrifying. Not one car I’ve ridden in since leaving Spain would pass a safety test in any Western nation. In Guinea, they pack up to 12 people in a car made for 7, and let 12 more sit on the roof. The roads are mostly awful, and a 100km ride can take 12 hours. Your cars will break down often, and your ride will not be comfortable. In the last 6 weeks, I’ve witnessed 3 motorbike collisions with my own eyes. In this regard, Africa is scary.
Apart from that, I truly think Africa is the least scary continent on which to travel, by far. African hospitality is unrivaled by almost anyone (I will make it to Iran one of these days, so the title is still up for grabs); if you have a problem, you will be helped. If you don’t have a place to stay, you will be housed–if you don’t have anything to eat, you will be fed. African people are, plain and simple, some of the warmest and most welcoming you’ll ever find. And for this reason, transport aside, there is absolutely nothing scary about traveling in Africa. It’s like being a baby in a hospital ward–everyone is there to help. With a reasonable amount of confidence, wit, and problem solving skill, there’s just nothing at all to fear around here. And lastly, if things do go down, the locals will keep you safe.
Do you like it?
I do–very much. Guinea has been, by far, the most challenging country I’ve traveled in, with respect to the novelty of culture, total lack of infrastructure, unavailability of basic amenities, and a complete disregard for the notion of time. Like I showed in the last post, I have my good days, and I have my bad ones. But a good day in Africa, where everything goes your way, as you ride your bike home under a cool ruby sunset with a smile on your face and a backpack full of mangoes, well–there’s just nothing like it.
Before finishing, I’d like to clarify why I’ve recently been generalizing some things as “African,” and not as being country-specific. First, however, I will mention that I think it bothers the Africa travelers when people say things like, “I want to go to Africa,” or “Oh, I’ve been to Africa.” Where do you want to go? Africa is a continent, with something like 54 different countries. Where have you been? An afternoon in Tangier, Morocco? Three days in Cairo? Africa is so big, so immense, and to say you’ve “been to Africa” after a 4-day safari in an air conditioned Hummer in Botswana doesn’t really cut it. I think this bothers some people.
However–to my point. One thing I’ve learned since returning to the African continent, echoed strongly by my CouchSurfing host in Dakar, is that Africans have a sense of international brotherhood and continental identity that doesn’t exist anywhere else. A Frenchman and a Slovenian don’t look at each other and feel “yea, we’re brothers, we’re European.” Most Americans don’t look at a Mexican and go: “we’re in this together–we’re North American.” Conversely, most Africans, regardless of nation, seem to have this sense of cohesive togetherness, such that I can make generalizations about the continent without too much inaccuracy, and without angering too many travelers. I can talk about “African hospitality,” even though I’ve only seen 8 African countries–I doubt the rampant kindness differs all that much across borders. I still have many lifetimes worth of learning to do about this incredible continent, but for some things, it does seem fair to lump it all under the umbrella of “Africa.”
Oh, what I would do for a rainy day.
Forgot to stock up on mangoes today,