Guinea: No ebola here
I never got around to really diving into my trip to Guinea. A few days before I left Dakar, new cases of Ebola were confirmed and some of my coworkers wondered if I would even make the trip. After an easy hour flight, I landed in the humid hot—and green—land of Guinea. Bocar met me at the airport…slipped a guard some Guinean francs to let him in and wait for me. In a matter of minutes, I met his two elder brothers. We squeezed into the car and made our way onto the busy streets of Conakry. I was sleepy, overly excited, and eager to peer out around me. The sight of trees on our descent made me so eager—and so happy to get out of the urban jungle of Dakar. That evening, I met the whole family, sat next to his mom, and wished I could say something other than the basic Pulaar greetings and Mi weltike buuy! I’m so happy.
We spent the days exploring, as Bocar had not seen his family in about 7 years…leaving Guinea in search of better, more stable work, as the beautiful resource rich country has money that’s virtually worthless and an international perception occupied with Ebola. I brought up the virus in the first car ride and immediately got the sense of it was not something to talk about regularly…that locals themselves feel it’s a big government conspiracy based on money…that they’ve never seen or heard of anyone with the virus in the capital city. Needless to say, I observed and kept my thoughts to myself (especially seeing huge signs relating to Ebola prevention…even hand washing stations outside of petrol stations). Guinea should not be synonymous with ebola. The popular artist, Black M, Guinean-born, but now a habitant of France, returned to his country to send a message to the world:
Je viens d’un endroit où on ne connait pas les dollars, y-yeah
J’ai vu qu’ils ont peur de moi comme si j’étais Ebola, y-yeah
Je suis á l’ouest.
I come from a place where we do not know the “dollar”
I’ve seen people be afraid as if I were Ebola.
I am the West.
We traveled to another region, Kindia, in a cramped taxi that twisted and turned on the windiest road I have ever been on—more turns than some of the roads I’ve been on in California. We climbed and climbed and looking out the windows, you could see endless greenery. No wonder why so much fruit from Senegal comes from Guinea. After about 3 hours in the car, we hopped on motorcycles and road the red dusty roads to Bocar’s uncle’s house. I interacted with one cousin as we walked around the vast hilly land and fetched water at the local borehole. On our way back to the house, we carried so many mangoes—all of which Bocar managed to eat. That night, I ate my first mango stew—boiled mangoes (almost like sweet-potatoes) and a mango sauce. I’ve never tasted something so rich. After, they brought out rice. If I knew rice was coming, I probably wouldn’t have eaten so many mangoes.
Back in Conakry, I spent the days with the women of the house—Maimouna and Sirbinta—as well as Bocar’s nieces (his older brother was blessed with 3 daughters). Luckily, it was their school holidays, so we spent every waking hour together. The sounds of Pulaar and Sousou filled the air, such sing-songy features to them, such wonderful sounds to wake up to and experience every day. I was immediately called tanté and taught how to make the traditional hauko putti dish—a fishy-rice dish made with cassava leaves. Eventually, I picked up some Pulaar words (yo soda kembo—go buy charcoa) as well as some joking insults thanks to hanging out with kids under 13 years old all day. One of the nieces, Mbuddi (also the name for money because when she was born, she was thought to bring a lot of luck to the family), was the most chaud out of all of the kids—stubborn, but confident and joyful. Bocar would find something to drum on or music to play as the three sisters would come together and dance. When I took out my notebook, they were eager to get their hands on it and teach me—and even practice their French. Bocar’s mother would leave around 6 am every morning to go to the market. You could tell it was a good day when she came back with a smile on her face—sometimes she would even dance. Her French is limited, so we used a lot of hand gestures—one of which I mistook for her going to the market, not praying.
And it was instant connection. His family opened their doors to me, a complete stranger, a stranger who doesn’t speak their language, and took me in as one of their own (not to mention fed me extremely well). My last day was filled with a few teary eyed faces and a too fast of a drop-off at the airport when I held on to Bocar’s mother’s hand and thanked her, thanked her so much.
This is what life is about, having these connections with people who don’t speak your language, who don’t come from your world, yet who stick out their hand for you. Hold tight to them.
Humans as sponges
Sometimes I think about identities and how sponge-like they can be. I think about my own identity as an American living here in Dakar, yet I feel less American and more something-other-than-American. Of course, living with different peoples and cultures and speaking different languages, I feel like my identity sponge has shaped into something else—something I feel confident about, something that makes me me. I suppose that can be, theoretically, attributed to the ideas of flows and how by living in particular spaces, we assume particular characteristics from those spaces. I feel grateful to have had the opportunities that I’ve had and faithful that more will come my way, but I also feel more grateful to be on this planet and to be forming my own identity on a planet plentiful with identities.
I’m at a point in my life where I am constantly questioning my steps. Is this the road to take? Is this what it means to live? Am I doing this ‘life’ this right? Being in a place and trying to make it a ‘home’ teaches you a lot about yourself—about your values, your goals/dreams, your culture. You learn more about yourself through the lens of others than through your own lens. There are days when I question “who am I” and wonder, what does my culture value?
Sometime I wonder about giving more of the American life a chance. Go home, find a random job, live the “American dream.” Then I think about going to the USA, amidst the current political climate and painful noise coming out of pseudo-leaders’ mouths and find myself to be ever-so-proud to not live in the states and to not live the so called American dream. For some, I’m still pursuing some sort of adventure on this continent—or other exotic description of life in Africa. Of course, I’m in a hip international city that has everything a Westerner could want, but to most back home, Africa is still this exotic unknown land where everyone speaks a different language. And of course, it’s not a continent but a country.
Sometimes, you can fall into so many social media/societal traps. “Your identity is this so you must do this.” As if life is a syllabus and you have to follow the correct steps. Logging onto Facebook, you see proof that people are in love, going to prestigious grad schools, getting married/having babies, or some other momentous event. If it’s not on the interwebs, it’s not official.
And of course, it’s easy to see all of this, to procrastinate and log onto Facebook or Instagram and see what the rest of your “world” is up to and feel like Hmmm, am I doing this life thing right? Then you throw in Linked In and find out what your college friends are doing with their career lives, not sure whether to be proud, jealous, or mad at yourself for not being so accomplished. It’s easy to doubt, to décourager, and question where one is in life while comparing oneself to others. But at the end of the day, and thanks to your own privilege and power, you (in most instances) have the power to decide and carve out which path you want to make. Ignore what others say or think. It’s your life. Make it how you want. Write your own story. Make mistakes, do things your not sure about, and LIVE. Stop thinking so much. Enjoy the solitude, enjoy the craziness. Exist. I remember my senior year astronomy class where, every class, the professor started out with a Thich Nhat Han mantra:
Breathing in I calm myself
Breathing out I smile
Living in the present moment
This is a wonderful moment.
Yet, we all have our own adventures, we all have our own stories that we’re making…the pages unfold each and every day where we, as humans, try to make sense of one another, of this world, and how we can make different lives come together. And our stories continue. There’s no piece of paper, no visa, no official document that can give you life’s stamp of approval. The point is to live, and to live everything (as the great Rilke put forth).
And that’s one of the reasons I’ve pursued studying Pulaar in my free time. West Africa (and according to some people, Africa in general) is home to the greatest number of Pulaar speaking peoples—with different variations/dialects. By studying a language, another language at that, I’m finding new ways to connect with people. Isn’t that the point of life? To make the most of our human connections and interactions?
Now how can I transfer these ideas in the classroom? I think about my Performance of Living class, probably the class that opened my eyes the widest of my four years at SLU—given the fact that I took it my senior year amidst a mixture of questioning and decision-making. It was centered around the philosophy that the classroom should not be a closed off box—that what we learn in the real world can teach us more than an hour lecture…and that life and experience is more than just grades on a 4 point scale. We, as humans, need to take our experiences and live them, and then learn from them.
I’m surrounded by youth under 18 years old for close to 50 hours a week. I observe them in the classroom, during lunch break, and even on the basketball court/soccer field. I remember being their age, and I remember the stress of school combined with the desire to work hard. I see that in some students now, and in others, I see students waiting for someone to do it for them. Just waiting for life to happen…not realizing that life happens. I’m learning so much each and every day—about myself, about my students, about my environment. This whole year has been one of the most challenging years of my life, mentally and physically. I suppose that’s what every “newbie” teacher says about their first year in the classroom…and it’s taught me to keep on keeping on. Keep climbing.
I had a conversation with an American student who is doing an exchange program here. He’s one of the 12th graders in my AP English class. He has about a month left of his experience and I have had the wonderful opportunity of watching him struggle and grow over the past 10 months. The first few months, he was adjusting to living with younger siblings (he’s an only child). Adjusting to the noise, the busy-ness, coupled with adjusting to a new culture and language. Now, he consistently asks questions, he is critical of his own culture, and he tries to soak up his interactions from students that have lived in more countries than he has traveled to. A few days before taking the AP English Language and Composition exam, he was putting in a lot of time and effort writing practice essays and prepping himself. As much as I, his teacher, want him to do well on his AP exam, I want even more for him to soak up this experience that he has right now—this experience is worth more than a 4 or a 5 on a silly AP test. At the end of our last class, the day before the exam, I told him: Focus more on your time here in Senegal. That’s what you will remember more than staying up late studying for an AP test.
Indeed, the past two/three weeks have been a bit of a zoo in terms of prepping students for AP exams and end of semester exams. Students are trying to balance so much and yet teacher’s are focusing so much on the looming exams—myself included. Some days, I get caught up in that teach-for-the-test mentality…AP exam scores can help students get into good universities, they can help them develop work ethics, they can save their parents money. Then I catch myself and think: That’s not what schools should do. School, education, is supposed to open doors that may seem closed, present students, present youth, with ideas they might not normally be seen on TV, social media, etc. And most importantly, school is meant to open their eyes and allow them to question their surroundings, to question their worlds—a very Western way of thinking. My first year of becoming “Ms. Allison” has consisted of such trying moments in determining my own teaching philosophy: How to get students to live by learning or vice versa, to learn by living.
I walked down the steps of the big house with the little cat and peered out the tiny window that looks over the neighbor’s small space. The young girl, the one who will run with me only to her mom’s fruit stand before she stops while I continue, maybe about 12 years old, looked as though she was playing a game by herself. I take a big breath, think about how she should probably be at school, think well, her teachers are probably striking, sigh, and make my way out the door. Another day awaits.