An Unexpected Ending

After three weeks of being evacuated in Mali, I am back in Boston. I arrived on Wednesday night to dinner with my old roommates and the reality that my Peace Corps service is done.

On October 20th, we were given the news that Peace Corps Guinea was being suspended; this meant that all 93 volunteers needed to make a decision given the options to close our service, or "COS," just as I would have in July, or transfer to a new country. After analyzing the choices and probably stressing myself out too much while focusing on the decision, I came to the conclusion that I was going to COS; as of October 25th, I was officially done with my service. I came to Peace Corps in hopes of understanding education in the developing world a little better; I definitely achieved that goal. I gained so much more than I imagined I would from the past 16 months and am grateful for all I experienced. Transferring to another country just was not for me at this point. Ten of my fellow education volunteers are all going to Liberia together in January and I am excited to hear their stories and adventures.

After making the decision, my travel companions and I planned a trip to Ghana. A few hours after dropping off my passport to the Ghana embassy, I learned about a job as a classroom teacher at a Catholic high school in Boston. I had been applying to non-teaching jobs and substitute teaching in Cleveland and Boston with the reality that finding a full-time classroom job in November was going to be nearly impossible. Throughout the past three weeks of question and stress, I kept asking God for a sign of what to do, and seeing the email with this teaching opportunity made everything fall into place for me. There were no more questions. The Ghana trip would have to wait, and before I knew it I was flying across the Atlantic once again. I begin teaching on November 4th.

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer has been a gift. In many ways, it was what I expected - teaching math to a group of students in a situation that couldn't be more different than life in Boston and living a simple life in the middle of nowhere are two of the elements that met my expectations. Learning a new language, starting to understand a new culture, living with a warm, kind family in a small African village has opened my eyes in ways no other experience possibly could have. I am so grateful for all of it. I do regret our abrupt departure from Guinea; I feel like I was just getting started in my work and used to the village life; my French was finally making some progress. However, I can only look forward to my next group of students and experiences as a teacher, and appreciate those past journeys that brought me here.

So this is my last "math in africa" blog post; I'm not in Africa anymore! Thank you, merci beaucoup, on jaaraama nani - for coming along with me on this adventure. Your support, prayers, letters, care packages, and phone calls have most certainly contributed to my success in Kourou. I am truly blessed to have students, friends, and family like you in my life. Please continue to pray for the people of Guinea as they continue to struggle and hope for leadership in their country.


Mali Update

Since arriving in Mali last weekend, I have no "official" news about my status as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea. However, the signs are not looking good in terms of our re-instatement. The Guinean military seems to still lack control, French and American citizens were told to leave, and President Camara has yet to declare he or any member of his party, the CNDD, will not run in the upcoming election. The African Union gave a deadline of midnight, September 17th, to sign a notice that he would not run for president, however he announced that he has postponed this decision:


There are several Peace Corps personnel here from Washington DC who have been extremely helpful in figuring out what our options will be if we get official word that the Guinea program is to be suspended or closed. They seem to believe we'll know whether or not we're going back this week; after that we have about a week to decide on our next step and move out of Mali and on to our next job or position. There may be opportunities to transfer to other Peace Corps positions.

For me, in the midst of this, I often forget what is truly important and tragic in all of this - the fate of Guineans. My host family, students, friends, or Peace Corps employees - they have a long road to recovery. I am hopeful for them in that Guinea is finally on the map of the international community; in reality, the rule of Dadis is not that different than the previous leaders of Guinea; the tragedy of September 28th has shed light on a country that has been suffering for their 51 years of independence. This is the tragedy. As for me, I will move on to a new country or job back in the States without much difficulty; I never appreciated mobility before but being among those without it makes me realize what a gift it truly is.


Back in Dulles

I'm writing from Washington DC's international airport today, enjoying one last round of sushi before heading back to West Africa. Almost 2 weeks ago, I was packed and ready to return for another school year in Guinea but instead was told by Peace Corps to stay in Cleveland until they had news about whether or not Peace Corps volunteers will be staying in Guinea. On Monday, September 28th, 157 people were killed in Conakry, Guinea, by the military trying to break up a political protest against current president. Peace Corps made a decision last Saturday to move all volunteers out of Guinea to a neighboring West African Country to wait and see how the people and military of Guinea would react to all of this. Above all, we need to be safe and able to move in and out of Conakry; right now, that isn't possible. The other 90 or so volunteers of Guinea have already arrived to the site; everyone arrived safely. I will meet them there tomorrow and am anxious to see everyone again.

For now, we're not sure what is going to happen next. Return to Guinea? We all hope so, but we're not sure if that is going to happen. If we don't, we'll be presented with options of continuing with Peace Corps. I'm not even sure what those options will be; I just have to wait. Lots of waiting.

From what I hear from my friends already at the site, it seems very nice, but spirits are low. Many people were not in their villages when this all happened and did not get a chance to say goodbye to their families. This is true for me; I'm hopeful that one of my neighbors took a bike ride over to my village to explain all of this.

For now, here are a few of the latest articles about the situation.


Concerning when Dadis owns up to nothing and has no fear for the American:


He give an interview from his bed. He is the president of a country, in a situation where all eyes are on him. And he is in bed.


Keep us in your prayers!


Another Devastating Day for Guinea

Yesterday, I got a chance to go back to my alma mater, Elyria Catholic High School. I spent the school day speaking with junior and senior theology classes about my experiences in Guinea. I met some incredible young men and women, all curious about many elements of life in West Africa. It was a fun reunion with many of the teachers who were so formative in my own education.

While were were in the classroom in Elyria, back in Conakry, over 50,000 people came together to protest against the president of Guinea, Moussa Dadis Camara. When the Camara took over the presidency at Christmas, he stated that he would not run in the upcoming election. However, it is believed that he will run in the election set to happen early 2010. The military broke up the protest and in doing so, killed 150 people. All Peace Corps members are safe up in their villages; from the sounds of it, only Conakry has any opposition. Up country is the same as always. You can read about it on the BBC:


I was set to return to Guinea today after spending three weeks home in Cleveland, however after talking to Peace Corps in Guinea, I am now waiting until Sunday. The people of Guinea are anxious about what the reaction to all of this will be. Hopefully by Sunday everyone will have a better sense of what is happening. So for now, all I can do is pray for those in Guinea and the families who are mourning.


School Starts October 5th

First off, thanks for checking back in on mssamek; it has been too long. The past three months have been spent training the newest education volunteers - I have been teaching a group of 17 fantastic men and women how to be an effective teacher (or so I hope.) It has been a really fun experience for me; they swear in as official volunteers on Friday. Some of the perks of the job included working with some of my fellow volunteers as they came in for two-week periods, a trip to the waterfalls with the trainees, and a visit to Guinea's national museum. The best part of it all was getting to watch the trainees as they began practice school; their enthusiasm, work ethic, and ambition is what is going to make all of them excellent teachers.

The training began in July and after the second week of August, the trainees went off to visit their future villages for a week. While they were off seeing their future homes and meeting their new neighbors, I took a vacation from training and spent a week in Mali. Mali is another West African country that borders Guinea to the north. Mali is significantly more developed than Guinea and Larc, Carolina, and I all enjoyed the benefits of paved roads and 24-hour electricity. (Larc and Carolina are two fellow education volunteers in Guinea.) Our trip began in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Bamako is also the capital of West African music; we heard live music one night at a small outside venue.

The highlight of the trip was a three-day hike/trip to Dogon Country. Dogon Country is a region of Mali about 500km from Bamako. It is an area that stretches 150 miles along a sandstone cliff called the Bandiagara Escarpment. The Dogon people originally came to this area to escape the conversion to Islam. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen; the homes are made of mud and the villages are beautifully decorated with carvings. In some of my photos, you can see settlements that are no longer inhabited; these were the homes of the Telem people - they were pygmy people and you can see their little homes in the cliffs of the Bandiagara. Most of the other villages are still occupied and people go about their daily lives as tourists from all over the worlds visit. People were incredibly friendly as just about everyone I have met in West Africa has been. There is a new photo album of this trip posted - be sure to check it out.

Ramadan has ended which means school will begin soon! October 5th is the day we're set to go back, inchallah (God willing.) Teacher are still waiting to be paid from last year, but I'm hopeful it will all get worked out in time.

August 10, 2009

August 10, 2009

President Obama recently spoke to the Ghanaian Parliament; as I read through, certain parts resonated with me as I begin my second year in Guinea. The following are just a few of my thoughts on some points of his speech.

We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans…As for America and the West, our commitment must be measured by more than just the dollars we spend. I’ve pledged substantial increases in our foreign assistance, which is in Africa’s interests and America’s interests. But the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by – it’s whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.

Being an American in Guinea – and not just any American but an American here with a primary goal of sustainability, this statement spoke very clearly to me. This idea is not always so transparent to many of the Guineans that myself and other Peace Corps volunteers work with; the way they see it, money comes from an endless source sitting high on the throne in the land called America. A strength of Peace Corps is the training they provide to volunteers and to Guinean counterparts that help all parties understand how a project is funded and evaluates the sustainability of the project. If a project is not one that will continue to support the community after the volunteer leaves, it is not a project we’re here to support. Teach a man to fish – that’s Peace Corps’ style although our projects are very small scale. Our greater objective which is often not understood is that we’re here for a cultural exchange; I envision many of the people I’m working with here in Guinea as volunteers to do big, great things someday with the knowledge they’ve gained and can only be gained by what work we’re doing here. Give a man a fish is so easy and undoubtedly so many have benefited from this philosophy in times of crisis; refugee situations would not be able to sustain without it. But Mr. Obama makes a necessary point about building capacity and I hope to continue to see strong programs that support this. Seeing all that I have in this year, I realize that it takes people with expertise to commit to these types of programs and that type of commitment is impressive for those who make it; those I’ve met working with water-related infrastructure projects or those working on AIDS or malaria research – that is commitment.

…each nation gives life to democracy in its own way, and in line with its own traditions. But history offers a clear verdict: Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves – or if police can be bought off by the drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top – or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy’ that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end.

Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.

Captain Moussa Dadis Camara…are you listening? Mr. Obama’s points here are exactly the types of things that cripple Guinea presently or historically. These remarks came on July 11th ; on July 8th Major Moussa Keita, a permanent secretary of the CNDD (the CNDD is the National Council for Democracy and Development and Dadis’ political party), made these following remarks at a rally to express support for the CNDD:

They want to impose Western-type of democracy on Guinea, a type of democracy that they had developed for two to three centuries now. They want to impose that type of democracy upon us in a year or even in six months. These are Machiavellian plans. They want to prevent Guineans from really moving into the direction of happiness for our nation. These is no other democracy than referring to the people. In whatever Dadis does, he refers to the people. But according to these people, democracy means giving power to those who had distanced themselves from the state or those who have been prepared mentally by the former colonial masters…We want to put in place all the necessary conditions for the economic takeoff of our country. That is our priority but some people keep telling us to hold the elections because it is Dadis who is in power. Is he not a Guinean citizen? Is he not a valiant and competent citizen? Therefore, Dadis or death! (‘Dadis or death’ was changed over and over.)

Clearly, not a statement made by a political party ready to surrender the presidency to a free and fair election. If you ask anyone here on any given day what the status of the election is, you will get responses from Dadis is going to step down for December elections to people beginning to embrace another 26 years of tyranny.

Now, we all have many identities – of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has not place in the 21st century. Africa’s diversity should be a source of strength, not a cause for division. We are all God’s children. We all shared common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to access education and opportunity; to love our families and our communities and our faith. That is our common humanity.

I think about being here where there are eight ethnicities, all with their own languages and traditions, living harmoniously under the nationality “Guinean” and I am filled with joy. This harmony is not common among nations. My hope for Guinea is that among each other they can build the democracy Mr. Obama spoke of and use the harmony they have among each other to their advantage. This is their strength; they do not know to use it. Mr. Obama speaks here about common humanity and I feel Guineans do have a strong sense of this respect. Muslims live side-by-side with Christians; Malankes and Pules can live in the same neighborhood. I know very few Guineans that speak less than French and two local languages. The problem is poor governance; living in peace and security, accessing education and opportunity – the barrier to all of this is the corruption and lack of priority by the government.

Of course I say this with many of the gender equity issues in the back of my mind, but there is a true harmonious feeling that I know is unique and hard to change if a place lacks. No money and foreign aid could have built what they have.

“We are all God’s children” is something Guineans do feel and is evident in the way they treat one another and strangers. I like how Mr. Obama references God in his speech; for Africans, the idea of living your life without a belief in God is absurd, and the longer I am here the more I don’t understand my atheist co-volunteers. Appealing to Africans with a reference to God’s children makes a lot of sense in this context.

…I am particularly speaking to the young people all across Africa…here is what you must know: The world will be what you make of it. You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people. You can serve in your communities, and harness your energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world. You can conquer disease, and end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can – because in this moment, history is on the move. But these things can only be done if all of you take responsibility for your future. And it won’t be easy. It will take time and effort. These will be suffering and setbacks. But I promise you this: America will be with you every step of the way – as a partner, as a friend. Opportunity won’t come from any other place, though. It must come from the decisions that all of you make, the things that you do, the hope that you hold in your heart.

I have a side that enjoys what some may call "cheesy" songs, quotes, or other cliché inspirational tidbits from Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain, or any other often-quoted person. I think it is because I don’t have the words myself, and although the messages are simply stated, I find them necessary when I lose my optimistic spirit about justice, change, and progress. Great men and women have done many remarkable things and their words to me are inspiration. This closing statement by Mr. Obama is my new inspiration. I want to hang it in my classroom for my students back in the village. They love Barack Obama, and here he is speaking directly to them and that is just really cool. I couldn’t agree more with what he is saying, and for the youth of Guinea, it is going to be a long struggle. Their whole lives could be spent fighting for a democracy that will lead to opportunity for their future children. I really love how “America will be with you every step of the way – as a partner, as a friend.” I think about how a Guinean would interpret this word “friend,” and how here love to hold the hands of their friends. I don’t think that’s what Mr. Obama had in mind, but maybe holding the hand of a friend when they need it and knowing when to let go. I feel lucky that for these two years, I have the chance to represent America in this truly unique context. I’ve started the “where will I be a year from now” thought process, and know that no matter what I do or where I go, nothing will offer the chance to live in the village and teach students in this context.


Preparing for the New Volunteers

Since getting back to Guinea in June, I've been working with fellow PCVs on planning sessions for the new volunteers. They will be arriving on Wednesday and we want their summer to be as productive and smooth as possible. All of us education volunteers know what went well last year and what needed work, so everyone has been pitching in ideas on how to improve things.

Last week, a group of us were at the training site and had a chance to really work side-by-side with our Guinean counterparts. Working with Guineans has been a valuable learning experience. Writing objectives, planning lessons, etc. is not new to me, and I want to just type and write and cross each session off the list of things to do - just keep cranking things out, even if it means working later than the usual hours. That's not exactly how Guineans work. But it was good for me to be forced to take time to really discuss as a group about how we are going to do things and gain new perspective on how Guineans view training teachers and their approach to teaching. Slowing down the pace is something I've been getting better at, yet once I was thrown back into the opportunity to write curriculum on my laptop, I just wanted to move as efficiently as possible.

Going back to the training site also meant getting a chance to see my host family from training which was a really wonderful reunion. Everyone is healthy and happy; the two older girls just took their exams to enter University. It was such a joy to see them again and I look forward to having some time with them this summer.