Wednesday, July 26, 2006

INDUSTRY OR BETRAYAL? Banfelian Termites Remain Active Through Strike (07/24/06)

THE STRIKE-what can I tell you that your comprehensive minute-by-minute BBC coverage has not expertly conveyed? Perhaps that Guinea saw a massive national nine-day strike in June. Teachers and other public officials protested stagnating salaries, and soaring pricing of rice and gas (34% in three months), resulting in student-led protests across the country. Twenty students were killed in Conakry, 4 looters in Labe and Zerekore combined. On day nine, the unions agreed to “suspend the strike” contingent on Government promises of salary increases and a decrease in the price of rice.
The strike in Banfele was quite a different story. Cows mooed, goats bahed, women were marginalized. Men discussed the World Cup and termites feasted on my hut and fence.
We did feel it, though. The price of black market gas soared to over 10 mil a liter, sold in honey colored whisky bottles in wood stands on the side of the road. The Doctor worried how he would complete his vaccination tournee to the villages, and radioed Faranah and Kouroussa daily to check on gas supplies. French-speakers listened religiously to the radio, relying on the BBC, the international news source, for the most accurate information on what was happening in our Capitol (although we listened to the state news as well). It was surreal to hear bulletins like “negotiators for the Guinean Government and Trade Unions have yet to reach an agreement after Monday’s violent protests.” Those remote, repetitious reports of violence and social unrest in Africa were happening in my Capitol, so near, and I was drinking tea and working on a pepiniere in Banfele.
Peace Corps Admin declared a standfast, requiring that all volunteers remain at site, the safest, if loneliest, place during social upheaval. I lived for my 30-minute radio conversations with Annaliese, the kind Health APCD (Asistant Peace Corps Director), who diligently called me on the Haute Guinea Frequency to give status updates every few days (I did not have the Peace Corps Frequency yet). I desperately wanted to mull over the possibility of evacuation with fellow PCV’s and felt my distance acutely.
We are naturally relieved that service has not been truncated and violence has ceased. But there is an ambiguous quality to it, an interlaced sadness; not to suggest that violence is the only or best way to effect social change, but it merits acknowledgement that the same lack of resentment and class consciousness--a certain complacency--that suspends the strike, and allows the Peace Corps to flourish peacefully, perhaps also prevents Guinea from moving forward.

WORLD CUP—World Cup in the Village is a bit like slap bracelets in my middle school (so cool). With the newly installed satellite dish in the community center, fortuitously but not surprisingly procured the day of the first match, functionaries struggle to (and succeed consistently at) fitting daily viewing into their tight schedules and budgets. Even without the incessant BBC updates and despite never attending the viewing, I know what’s happened: When any country whose inhabitants are not black loses, Banfelians walk by me grinning smugly, or outright gloating. Similarly, when a “non-black” team wins, quietly resentful or fullblown vindictive glances give instant insight into the final score. “I really have no feelings for Czechoslovakia one way or another,” I assure Kelema, the Secretaire Communautaire, who is convinced I am grief-stricken by Ghana’s surprise win over this country whose name I can’t spell. “I swear, I am really not here to colonize you,” I say. He laughs.

HOME MAINTENANCE--The rains here are not that odd relic of the power of nature, that makes your morning drive to work a little more annoying. The winds bluster thru the tallest mango trees, women quickly pull laundry off fences and place tin buckets in their yards for water collection (and the pump line is mercifully short the next day). The mosquitos cower somewhere pleasantly far from your ankles and a dark bulbous purple cloud or a grey sheet visibly approaches the town. A couple potent droplets fall and everyone runs inside to grab umbrellas, inappropriately warm “dead tubabu” sweatshirts and coats, and I am gleefully liberated from Guinea for the rest of the day. And then something falls down.
After one night of impressive winds and rain, I emerged at 4 AM to a typically silent dry morning in my typically scanty sleeping attire to pee. As in one of those deliberately farfetched finales to a comic movie, I am blinking in the half light, toilet paper in hand, and what used to be my highly functional eastern-themed bamboo enclosure—that surrounded my tree nursery and my hut—is gone, a post-hurricane pile of debri. Just behind it is Banfele, and unexpectedly close, there’s my neighbor’s hut, with smoke rising above it. “So Mamadi’s second wife starts breakfast before 5 o’clock prayer, I had no idea,” I think as it also occurs to me how ABSURD it is to be standing naked in the middle of a Guinean village with toilet paper at 4 AM.
Since this fateful night, the groupment has helped me to temporarily re-erect the embattled fence, but each morning I wisely quell the urge to pee just long enough to don a tee shirt.
Home maintenance woes do not stop there. As I listened to a particularly morally noxious Bush White house move on the BBC—I think the suicides of three Guantanamo inmates were being described as a “PR stunt” by a top staffer—I suddenly found myself possessed of the strength and will to completely eliminate the terror--, err, termites that prey on certain innocent American civilians. I lit into one of my old war zones in the wall, and as sweat dripped to the floor in the pre-rain humidity, I reached an exciting never-before-seen inner core of the termite mound. Bright and white, it looked quite a bit like daylight flooding through a hole in the wall of a particularly retarded Peace Corps volunteer who had just dug a hole in her mud hut in prime rainy season.
“I just put a hole in my wall trying to get rid of a termite mound, what should I do?” I cried to potentially interested local government officials and groupements members. They smile, as if to say, “that was dumb,” and mention something about the World Cup. Finally someone says something about cement. “Cement sounds great!” I say, realizing that rainy season work demands combined with Guinean motivation levels might make “adding a new vent” a better option. I have fully expected the termites, with their stellar history of industry in my neighborhood, will have it patched up first. (Since I wrote this, my awesome motivated, now-departed Peuhl friend borrowed a dowel, some stones, and some cement from the Center-de-sante builders and we patched it up).
My sense of neglect in Banfele was heightened by a poorly timed trip to Wassaya to learn about Beekeeping (project started by a supervolunteer back when the Peace Corps gave out funding). Visiting Wassaya, the old Peace Corps site between me and Kouroussa, was a little like running into an old boyfriend when your marriage is falling apart: I stayed in a large hut directly within a family’s compound, furnished with THREE shelves, a functioning STOVE, a RUG, and, envy of all envies, a COVERED LATINE complete with foot stones and cover!! I received heated bath water and hot meals three times a day! The family corrected my Malinke! Does the Bellagio offer its VIP clients such treatment?
Wassaya is also half the distance to a city. But the biggest benefit is Mamadi Conde, a miraculously motivated, knowledgeable, French-speaking Counterpart who, while threatening to charge me five mil per question, patiently answered all of my questions about Apiculture, Agroforestry, and Peace Corps service. Downsides are many--leaving work I’ve started, dealing with a community accustomed to big ticket Peace Corps projects, and loss of privacy. Still I am thinking about switching sites.

WAR AND PEACE--Like many prison inmates and Peace Corps Volunteers, I have taken up War and Peace. Thoroughly put out with characters in OTHER novels who consistently DESERT me after several weeks of “conaissance”, I figured no matter who I became acquainted with in War and Peace, they would be in for the long haul. So far that has proved true, and “la lecture” is surprisingly like gossiping about a group of beautiful wealthy superficial people with someone far more erudite…sort of a cross between a dictionary and a People magazine. Patronize your libraries! Men will betray you, characters in Big Russian Novels will not!!

SOLAR DRYER-Wood for my sechoir has been peaking out at me from under my bed for some time now. “It is too late in the season,” I said, noting my frizzy rainy-season hairdo, ”I shall wait til next year.” But in keeping with my new anti-fear-of-failure motto, “Staying-busy-is-a-legitimate-goal-cuz-lord-knows-I-can’t-read-anymore-War-and-Peace,”and also because I kept hitting my foot against it at night, I pulled out the six beams, plastic sheeting, nails, and rice sack. I broke a quality Guinean hammer—luckily not over the head of the Kind Forestiere Carpenter who, like me, hadn’t a clue where to attach the rubber cords—and in two days time, was the proud owner of an odd sort of sarcophagus-thing, fit for any cult worshipping its mummified leader.
I sent some kids who should have been in school to get mangos and pealed them til I swore I’d never touch another mango sorbet (not that this is a big issue in Guinea). Amid puzzled glances and laughter, I set the contraption up in the hospital cloture on a sunny morning, with strict instructions to keep children, goats and invalids away, using rocks if necessary (some volunteers have surmised that the main role of goats here is as something to throw rocks at, athough they’re reprotedly for sacrifices).
Passing through the soccer game that evening, I eagerly approached the result of my first public development effort: a swarm of flies hovering above a small grouping of fermented mango slices sprawled across a slackened length of rice sack. Goats had gained entrance to the Hospital yard, jumped up in my sechoir, and eaten the mangoes that apparently would not have dried anyway. There were maybe two dried mangoes among the remains, and despite lengthy coaxing, no Banfelian would taste them (I’ll pull out my friend’s expertly dried mangos during the “saison de manqué” and give it another shot. Show your support by boycotting Mango Sorbet thru August).

MORINGA-If Moringa were Avon, I would have a Pink Puegot and really big blond hair. This fast-growing, hardy tree has highly nutritious leaves (loads of calcium, vitamin A, B, C, protein, iron), good for sauce or as a dietary supplement, and has a long tap root (instead of spreading roots), which makes it perfect for live fences or alleycropping (its also nitrogen fixing, which means it improves the soil). I have made it my mission to plant this tree widely and, when it’s grown, “sensitize” widely on its awesomeness (such an easy way to equip these kids immune systems to better fight malaria, which claims an unsettling number of youngsters chez moi). I have direct seeded it at the hospital, planted a live fence for a neighbor, sowed it in sachets in my nursery, and made an intensive production bed. I have given seeds out on vaccination tournees in conjunction with parasite medicine and vitamin A, and am planning to name my firstborn “Moringa Alper.” Not Hyphenated. Expected next January.

PEANUT BRITTLE-Barring clean water, electricity, education, what do Banfelians need most? If you guessed Peanut brittle, then you should probably not go into development work, but you’re right! A supermotivated Education volunteer taught me how to make it in Kankan, and I excitedly brought baking powder and butter (available but expensive in the village) to Bana, the groupement president. Wild gesticulations, minor skin burns, and useless orders in English aside, the sugar and peanuts bubbled up in her wok and my dream of buying peanut brittle in the marche each week, er I mean, providing a viable business option to a motivated cook, bubbled along side.
While Banfelians eagerly purchased our tasty creations, and my newly exposed domesticity briefly increased the number marriage proposals I received (always good to have options), Bana only earned about mil franc per tray (when I had purchased the expensive ingredients), selling at the going “bon-bon” rate of 100 franc a pop. If she just sold her peanuts raw, she would make 3 mil. Capitalism shmapitalism. The invisible hand is like, totally invisible in Guinea.
(While I admit I have gone to bed at 7 pm nights after some of my more stinging failures, or drowned my sorrows via classy behaviors like licking fallen hot chocolate powder off my cement floor, in general I have stayed pretty motivated (knock on the remains of my bamboo fence). Malinkes are famoulsy forgiving, I disentangle my ego frome each venture by making my base goals “staying busy” and “learning”, and frankly have s@#t else to do. )
MISCELLANY: Am being sent Amaranth seeds by Mexican NGO Puente a la Salud to sow here, starting a humor Magazine “The Water Method”, member of peer listening group JET, editing the Agfo Manual, fundraising for Girls Camp, teaching an Agfo cross-sectoral session for Education training in September, trying to start a milk coop, utterly giving up on growing things.

SIGUIRI-Siguiri is a hot dusty little oasis of wealth smag dab in the harsh haute brush and the most brutal malinke poverty. Despite communal Giardia after the July Fourth hamburgers proved unamerican and unsanitary, a group of us ventured the 130 k north from Kankan to “faire le tourism” and grace the latrines of Northern Haute Guinea with our ailments. Overlooking the city from atop the posh airport hill, Siguiri looks almost like a new souless working class agricultural town in Utah or Kansas. The sun shines brightly on clean new tin roofed cement houses, so uncharacteristic of the huts that proliferate throughout the region and even in Kankan (cement structures with tin roofs are mostly in the cool prosperous Fouta region). Centre ville, pleasantly removed from one of the nicest highways in Guinea and situated beside the broad unexquisite Niger river, feels a bit like the old west, with porches and some stone buildings. While all foods brown do proliferate (tasty beans, rice and nuances in dough balls more pleasant than expected), the comparatively clean, brightly colored market features avocados. How does a region where Industrious Rob can’t get one Papaya tree to grow, and where Amy must douse herself in “Paradise Powder” (menthalated baby powder), to sleep with the heat manage to offer imported avocados? The prosperity comes from SAG, a Ghanian-South African Gold mine located 30 K outside the city, whose alleged .4% contribution to the Sous-prefecture (15% to the Feds, the rest for the company) still makes the city stand out as a rare example of Haute Affluence, a place where volunteers buy silver jewelry and patronize the SAG pool and first world grocery store. So hard to remain unbendingly anti-mining—despite the horribly destructive environmental practices involved in gold extraction--when you witness a refreshing touch of affluence in the Haute.

Alex becomes a Republican and her listserv readership miraculously descends to “0” (5/29/06)

First off I want to apologize for my last email—editing, I realize, is a good thing, like iced tea on a hot summer day, like a sentence with only two clauses. I know you're tempted to minimize that outlook screen with the cumbersome email from the increasingly unpopular friend/niece/ex-girlfriend/fpreferred electrolocist, and turn to more product pursuits like beating your score at Snood, but bear with me. I will not disappoint.

I write you from Conakry where I have been sent on a top secret mission to dance the dundunbah for a visiting Washington peace corps official. When I got the invitation via radio, I was quite sure they were looking for another Desmond-Tutu-esque speech, and my employment at the state department would soon follow. Such is my disappointment, but can you imagine what it must be like for the official? Thirteen hours in a plane to Africa to watch WHITE women dance the Dundunbah? He will surely sever ties with Guinea.

This month, I have accepted neither desiring nor being capable of being a Guinean villager. While it is unfair that I am so unaccustomed to hardship that I reject it, I can neither feel guilty nor superior for this being the nature of things--i must accept it. Yes, its snobby and privileged, but damn it, I am too smart to spend two hours a day knocking termite mounds off the wall, as I delude myself that I am stimulating my brain by listening to the BBC, which offers to following degree of brain food: "The UN Security Commission decided today……at least 50 dead and many wounded although…the latest reports of bird flu in Africa indicate that…"

I thought it angrily at the end of last month as hay dust fell in my mouth from the very heavy bail I carried on my head to someone else's field, as wide eyed villagers gawked: "this may be authentic, I may want to be authentic, but screw it, i could go for a really inauthentic pedicure about now."

At the same time, and somewhat hypocritically, one of the American cultural traits I am most determined to communicate is our comparative dislike of privilege. Take chairs and pumps: As a "patrony" white person, I get ceremoniously shuffled from chair to chair during house calls, irrespective of whether the repetitive squatting exercise is far more of a pain in the a@# (bad pun) than remaining on the initial stool, a stool that is inevitably a full 6 inches lower than the mini chair I now occupy, after having dislocated half the family, several goats, a few chickens, the occasional cow, and a village elder. Earnestly desiring to avoid special treatment, I firmly insist on the crappier chair, which seems to tickle my groupement. I pat myself on the back at this sensibilization on the justice of equality (but who is self important).

Conversely, when it comes to the pump, I guiltily assert my colonial privilege--I glance at the long "line"--line being a euphemism for bickering swarm of barefoot women with 5-8 plastic liter containers, three wash basins, and notably gi-normous biceps--and I think, "sit here for two hours while women grab my breasts, ask me how many children I have, why I have no husband, and tell me its cuz I can't cook, or make like Pizarro and cut in line?" I usually cut, guiltily balancing my bedon next to the water spout and pump furiously amid the awed gasps (seeing white women working is still quite a coup), while I berate myself for being so hegemonic. But damn it, I am American and while part of "the American Way" (at least in theory, and at least compared to Guinea) is anti-privilege and pro-equality, my American standard of living makes me anti-waiting in lines for two hours each day for something that should come out of a faucet…

Another uncomfortable realm of privilege is stuff I own—until present, I have felt guilty about having a Peace Corps multi-speed bike, that can get a she-man like myself up hills that way stronger Guineans must dismount to tackle—but I'm as "unresponsible" for being lucky enough to have a Bike as Mamadi--who asks me for one almost daily--is for not being able to have one. Its not always easy, though. One day I was going to the field with a real bad open blister. Warned by the Peace Corps to steer clear of becoming a village medicine dispenser, I wondered if I should wear the sorely-needed but frankly opulent bandaid. "What is the point of having first world medical supplies if you're not going to use them," I said, thinking of a U.S. friend (we'll call him Shmarvin) who's "Beemer" is so nice he refuses to drive it out after 7. I wore it, and hauling well water all morning, I needed it. But sure enough, a few days later, Mamadi, who has helped me pummel cow dung with a bat for my pepiniere for several hours, holds out his calloused hand and points to a sizable open cut. Then he points to my bandaid, asking for one. What can I do? He knows I have them, he's injured himself by helping me all day. On the other hand what will I say when his cousin Herb Mamadi the fourth comes over with a scraped knee tomorrow and wants? I decide to give one to Mamadi, and enter my house to find it, shutting the door as I do habitually to prevent my visitor from seeing my belongings. Then I lie the next time he asks for one that I'm all out.

Along with my embrace of Pizarro and my acceptance of my own privilege, I have revisited the functionaries who I rejected so summarily when I got to site, eager as I was to get to work and clank beer glassed with the proletariat (err, the Muslim proletariat who kicks back by drinking tea or unhomogenized milk). They may smoke too much and feel superior to everyone by the accident that made them literate and fluent in French. But literacy, and the degree of worldiness that inevitably accompanies this, makes them an undeniable ally in this incredibly insular, frankly primitive world.

This became evident when I returned from my she-man-esque bike ride to Kisidougou (more later) with the highly sought after improved pre-germinated Oil Palm seeds from Cote d'Ivorian laboratories. Oil Palm seeds are already like iPods to Banfelians, and this variety, which produces a crop weekly instead of yearly, is well, just a little bit like the Nano (google it, dad), and just as "cher." "How do I give these to my groupements without them thinking I am going to fund them like USAID?" I ask Jaque, the cool Doctor, and Kelema, the kind Secretaire Communitaire. I sought their advice in light of my difficulties explaining the Peace Corps mission: "Unlike other NGO's, I am here to provide "assistance technique" and not funding, although I will look for grants for you." "We understand" says bright, enterprising groupment president X. "So what seeds are you bringing us? Where are the watering cans, the chemical fertilizer? Say those are some nice windmills I've seen on your "Scenes of Vermont Calendar". And Didn't Bush recently give India some nuclear generators?" (I have taken some liberties translating the Malinke, naturally)

"YOU MUST SELL IT TO THEM" both Jaque and Kelema insist to me separately. "Once you start giving, you create an expectation of charity forever, which does more harm than good. You will be expected to give everytime, and everyone will get jealous and demand the same gifts." "But how have I assisted, how am I any different from a vender?" I ask. "You have facilitated the purchase by eliminating the cost of transport to Kisidougou," They say.

Nervous, and feeling like my ancestor Shlomo Goldstein-insky, who sold many a stale loaf of challah to an unsuspecting Guinean Goy, I arranged meetings with the Woroco forestry groupement and the Banfele forestry groupement and tell them of my acquisition and my terms: they were under no obligation to buy, the price was "mil franc" per plant (what I paid, roughly 20 cents but worth a plate of rice here) and they needed to pay me by July 15th. Woroco, a groupement that's formed around my coming and has already lost a member due to the lack of funding, took it well: "We'll collect mil franc from everyone in the groupement every market day," they explained without being asked. My own groupement was a little less warm—the guilt trips were unspoken, but as they grudgingly accepted my terms, I could here them thinking, "we cook for her, built and furnished her house. She is a rich white lady with a bike that's nicer than the sous-prefet's son's, she pays passage to Kankan every month and her flashlight is damn fine. We thought she was here to help us, but look how much she has and yet how unwilling she is to give. May allah smite her with a big goiter and lots of termites!" (the latter came true, will keep you posted on my thyroid, send salt)

Difficult as this interaction was, my eyes have opened to a new almost Republican guilt-free appreciation of sticking it to the poor. I had thought the Peace Corps had it all wrong—what can you accomplish with community trainings and sensibilizations if you don't BUILD the school, BUY the condoms, IMPROVE the roads?…But the reverse is at least as bad—some NGO's here have built schools that sit vacant because they never found or trained teachers, dug pumps without spreading the notion that handwashing is as important to health as good water, etc. Both must go hand in hand, I thought, to make an impact.

But in a country where examples of entrepreneurship are few, where wealth is acquired through personal connections or inheritance, where corruption is rampant, gift giving is the norm, where there is very little formal economy, and where a new class of college graduates compete each year for a few prized NGO jobs (an entire economy based on heavily-funded Non-profits, which have eerily replaced industry), it is very hard, I am finding, to give assistance, and expect bottom-line profitability, to aid without creating dependency. Anne, a third year PCV who works at an NGO in Kankan reports that when her NGO began receiving serious funding, motivation tapered off: now personnel won't attend meetings if there's no per diem. A French Carpentry-Workshop Director with the Catholic Mission in Kisi told me the Church has been looking for a Guinean to replace him in his position for twenty years, but that no Guinean is interested/capable; the Frenchman offers to show the carpenters and apprentices how he keeps books, but no one has ever expressed interest. So much money is poored into this country and so little sustainable development has taken place. I seriously questions whether most Guineans, given their aforementioned cultural milieu, are capable of receiving monetary assistance and simultaneously pursuing market sustainability.

I will heretofore be campaigning for Condeleeza for 2008, and I'll make a dollar donation to the Heritage Foundation for each scathing liberal retort I receive. Keep em comin'.