Monday, April 30, 2012

Welcome to Guinea

Nna and me, I nou cené!
I drag down my carry-on from the overhead compartment and roll my way to the nearly empty  customs line.  I hand my passport and customs card to the man behind the window and he opens my passport, flips through the thin, light-blue pages and lands upon my bright blue Guinean visa - recently issued in Bamako, Mali.  He looks down at the visa, looks up at me, picks up his stamp and as the stamp meets the paper says “Welcome to Guinea!”

I pull my suitcases off the luggage conveyor belt and groan my way through security and up an inclined, twisting ramp to get to the parking lot where Abdoulaye is waiting for me.  A family in front of me gets close to the end of the ramp and a woman from the other side breaks through security to hug her daughter.  The daughter's white husband and two children with skin the color of café-au-lait stand somewhat awkwardly to the side while the mom squeals and squeezes her daughter tighter to her.  As I approach, the mom remembers the other members of the family and releases her daughter to pull in her grandchildren.  As they disperse to their car and I spot Abdoulaye in the sea of faces, I wonder how long it has been since they have seen their grandmother?

As I slip by, as much as you can slip anywhere with two suitcases and sizable carry-ons, I see Abdoulaye standing with three, beaming friends.  We shove my luggage into the car and pile inside.    Abdoulaye hands me a bottle of water and I drink deeply as I look out the window.  Night is falling and street vendors are lighting candles in plastic variations of hurricane lamps and setting them in the middle of their tables.  The traffic is bad and cars honk all around us.  As we drive by, I try and recognize things from my trip to Guinea in 2009 though I am unsure what I am looking for.  People?  Food?  Places?  We only spent a day or two in Conakry but I am grasping for familiarity.  Abdoulaye says something and brings me back inside the car.  I realize I don't need to grasp for familiarity when I have him sitting next to me.

We turn right onto an unpaved, rocky road.  Oumar, one of Abdoulaye's closest friends, is sitting in the front seat with one of my suitcases weighing on his lap.  He points out his boutique where he sells sodas, soaps, and snacks and I say I am so sorry for how heavy my suitcase is.  He smiles and says, “Don't worry, you'll pay me back with English lessons!”

And then, we are there.  Abdoulaye opens the door and I scoot out of the car on his side.  His dad, Baba,'s compound is bordered by a row of shops along the road and inside surrounded by three single-family homes around his own house for his family.  Women stand in the courtyard, their heads slightly cocked and with smiles on their faces as they appraise me.  Little girls whose names I do not know run up to me and hug my legs.  Abdoulaye's mom, who he calls Nna, stands up on the porch and throws her arms open.  “I nou cené!” she shouts.  Welcome to Guinea.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Welcome to America

I've been back in Virginia Beach all of about 72 hours and they've been filled to the brim.  After Mom picked me up from the Amtrak bus station at 19th and Pacific (so convenient!), I met Dad, Sheri, and Uncle Jimmie at All American Frozen Yogurt, a shop my brother Michael and sister Lindsay manage.  Saturday I headed to The Exchange Party at Camp Pendleton followed by a charity dinner for Horizons held at the Norfolk Marriot.  Welcome back to America!

Today we got dim sum for lunch and visited Sheri's dad before heading to the Commodore to see The Hunger Games (which I only knew about from Taylor Swift's song :).  I got the sweetest treat of the day when I met Jackie and Taylor, two dear friends in Virginia Beach for the weekend, for dinner at my Dad and Sheri's house.  Lucky me!  Trying to keep my momentum going - a busy week ahead!
There was an 80's cover band at The Exchange Party - the Deloreans.  They were so much fun!

Friday, April 27, 2012

A glimpse of Guinea

On our way to Room, an island off the coast of Conakry
12 days in Guinea with Abdoulaye (can't believe it's been three years since I went to Guinea and Sierra Leone with Cassie, Ashley, & Joe!).  Here's a glimpse of Guinea from this trip - more to come next week including some stories and a few more of my favorites from the trip.

I'm on my way back to Virginia Beach now via an Amtrak train and looking forward to seeing my family and collapsing into bed for some much needed rest.  Anyone have an leads on jobs in international education/communications/education advocacy in the DC/Virginia/Baltimore area?  I'm searching!

If you can't wait for more pictures to come up on the blog, click here to see our album of photos!

With Nna, Abdoulaye's mom, Aicha, Abdoulaye's sister and a friend of Aicha's

(l to r) Nna, me, Aicha, Baba, Massiré (other older sister), Abdoulaye
Baba is cute, n'est-ce pas?
Friends over for a bon voyage dinner party for me the night I left!  What treasures!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Conakry, Guinea - meeting the family!

Image source

Abdoulaye with his newest niece (only 5 days old and so as-yet unnamed)

With two sisters, Bangoura and Hadja, and brother Ibrahim (Bangoura's daughter Aminata) 
cooked mangoes!

sorry they're sideways...internet too slow to go back and try to re-upload but you get the idea! 

At the Foire au Palais du Peuple.  
I made it to Conakry, Guinea from Accra, Ghana on Sunday around 6 pm.  Abdoulaye was at the airport with friends to pick me up and take me home.  What a delight to see him!   I can only imagine how I'll feel when I'm at the airport to pick him up after we go through the fiancé visa process... 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mali on our Minds

Each week as part of my coursework for one of my classes at SIT we are asked to explore a different layer of leadership, service, and management and apply a theoretical framework while referencing our professional work.  The theme the week of the coup d'etat in Mali?  Transformational change.

As I sat in my house on lockdown, I read through articles and tried to push myself to apply what I was reading not to my personal life but to my professional one.  With a constant radio and television stream of information coming across the waves and Abdoulaye calling out evolving developments, needless to say it was a little hard to concentrate.  I read and re-read through reasons why experts in the field have identified change as difficult.  Loss of control, excess uncertainty, the fear of more work, ripple effects.  Check, check, check, check.  I wondered if my professors would accept a more personal angle to the assignment.

In the end, I did complete the assignment as described (see video below).  But I couldn't stop thinking about how it all related to the extreme change going on around me.  And, while I am not prepared to analyze the political situation in Mali, and many others already have, I can offer a small personal testament.

At the end of our transition conference*, the administrative officer for Peace Corps Africa made a speech commending our efforts in Mali.  What stuck with me was when she said how all of us made a choice to come to Mali, which is very true.  However, what I immediately thought of was how none of us were choosing to leave Mali - at least not on our own terms.  Then, since my mind tends to be pretty jumpy (must be following my body) I immediately thought of the choices that lie ahead.

Mike, our Peace Corps country director, asked for one of the Peace Corps Response Volunteers to say a few words about our time in Mali.  While my most recent sejour in Mali was a short one, this July would have marked four years in Mali.  Having been home a few times and having had the incredible opportunity to share Mali with Americans, I decided to talk a little about my experience stateside.  What a unique chance we have, I said, to be the face of Mali.  Just as we were often that one American to many Malians that they met on a bus or in market, we get to be that one person, maybe, who has not only visited Mali - but lived there.  We didn't choose to leave but we can choose to keep Mali on people's minds.

*Peace Corps did such an incredible job working on this transition conference and making our lives easier as we abruptly left Mali.  I can't thank you enough.
See more pictures here from our transition conference held at La Palm Royal Beach Hotel in Accra, Ghana.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Safe and Sound

This is how everyone felt after eating the banana olive oil cake Abdoulaye made (see center) his first cake!!
We're safe and sound and ready for our transition conference to begin.  Hoping Mali will pull through and get on track quickly.  It was hard to leave Mali (for a lot of reasons) but namely because most people in Mali don't see the 'bad' or the potential for it to come since life in Bamako clips along at a normal pace.  Maybe folks (read: expats) are being overly cautious, maybe not. In the meantime, I'm happy to be sharing a hotel room with my bestie Cassie and soaking up some AC.  I am also over the moon about a trip to Guinea next week to meet Abdoulaye's family.  Conakry, here I come!
A last minute dinner party to say bye for now.

Handy man fixing our fridge!!  

HoBOs strongly represented in this group.  Lucas, Karmen, me, Cassie, and Jake.  Woot!  We all came to Mali together in 2008 and 2012 finds us here all together again! (or found us, rather)

Do you see the heart shape?  San/Bamako/Mali love. 
With Yacouba Koné, my boss when I was an environment volunteer

Happy Easter!  Mom's Easter package arrived just in time - on Easter Sunday the day I left Mali :)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Education in Mali: Here's hoping

As I eagerly wait for twitter updates and Reuter's reports on the constantly shifting and perpetually confusing situations here in Mali, my thoughts become a blur about what is the root of the problem here and what is really going to be done about it.  

Amidst all the craziness that has been the last week and a half of life in Mali, there have been a few constants.  One, of course, is Abdoulaye.  He has kept me calm on days when I have felt crazy and I honestly do not know how many times we have gone over our own contingency plans should I leave Mali earlier than planned.  His patience amazes me and I am thankful for him everyday.  

Another constant is my most wonderfully beautiful group of friends.  From calls to texts to emails and long sessions where we try and talk out what is actually going on around us, it would be impossible to go through this without you.

The last constant is education.  Broad, general, all-encompassing.  For one, I work for an education project and work, at least being present in the office, has gone on (except for the first few days i.e. March 22nd/23rd).  Another kind of education is the formal one in which I am participating at a distance through SIT.  Papers and presentations continue to be due and meetings with other students continue to take place via Skype and emails.  Life cannot be on hold forever.  As I think of all the issues that Mali faces, and even the ones that I do, one thing is clear– the importance of a continued and an improved education.      

Two of my friends, Manzo and Bakary, are proficient English speakers.  Manzo works for World Vision in Koro (he was actually evacuated to Burkina Faso today...) and Bakary is an English and German student in Bamako who I met at Abdoulaye's computer center.  Manzo recently completed an application for the 2013 Fulbright Francophone/Lusophone Junior Staff Development Program (FLJSD).  He is hoping to pursue a Master's degree in international development in the U.S.  Here's a blurb on the FLJSD program from the US Embassy in Mali website:
"funds two years of higher education in the United States, leading to a Master’s degree.  It differs from the FJSD program (described above) in that it requires a TOEFL score of 480-540 and includes intensive English language training prior to the academic program.  For preliminary application purposes, candidates may submit ALIGU scores in lieu of TOEFL.* Upon completion of the English language training program, the candidates will then sit for the GRE  in the United States and must attain required scores."

Bakary was recently selected – one of four Malians! - to participate in a Study of the United States Institutes (SUSI) for Student Leaders forum focused on Social Entrepreneurship to take place this summer.  Get in touch with your local American embassy if you know a student you think would qualify for this scholarship (details found in link).  The process starts in the fall so you can get a head start now and find out more information.

The forum will explore the following topics:
This institute provides participants with an overview of how to employ business techniques and entrepreneurial skills to address social issues. The institute reviews the development, history, challenges and successes of social enterprises and community leaders in the United States and around the world. Students examine topics such as microfinance; organizational development and management; grant writing; innovation; emerging markets and risk analysis; strategic business planning; corporate social responsibility; and women and minorities in entrepreneurship.

I am hopeful that Mali will see the beginning of a resolution to all of the instability it currently faces – and soon.  I am also confident that the answers to Mali's problems, and subsequent - sustainable - solutions, will come from Malians who are implicated and invested in the decision-making process.  People like Manzo and Bakary are inspirations to me and show me the true value of education.  Come on, Mali!

PS - these videos really are great!  I was able to download them - can't wait to see/hear more.

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