Friday, June 12, 2009

iii - Mathalon = Success Squared

When Louise Bedichek, a retired Foreign Services worker, spoke at G16's IST in January about creating interscholastic sports leagues in Guinea, she was met with a room full of skeptical education volunteers. Had she ever been to a school in the bush? Had she considered the logistics involved? The funding needed? It simply wouldn't happen.

A few months later, though, Alison and I began talking about ways to motivate our students for the upcoming Brevet and the conversation turned to Ms. Bedichek: why not stage a math competition between our schools? After all, nothing fuels motivation better than a little healthy competition.

Over the spring holiday, we mapped out a plan and a budget. Including transport to and from one village to another for eight students and one of us, and a meal with soda for each competitor, we needed 250.000FG. An e-mail and phone call with Ms. Bedichek found the funding and Mathalon was born.

With the competition set for Sunday, May 17th, we had several weeks left to prepare our students. Both Alison and I regularly held reviews, tryouts and practices, ultimately selecting two teams of four, with at least one girl on each team, for both schools. Prior to the conception of the competition, I held three reviews a week with, on a lucky day, five students in attendance. Upon the announcement of the match, however, more and more students arrived every day and I saw quiz scores skyrocket. Even before its day had come to pass, Mathalon had already proven itself a success.

The weekend before, Alison and I met for a question-writing session. Since there would be and A team match and a B team match, there would be two sets of questions, one set slightly more challenging than the other. The questions were to be written on the board, one at a time, and the teams would have five minutes to derive a response, at which point we'd collect the answers and commence with the next question. At the end of the ten, we would review the answers, award points and determine the winner. In the case of a tie, we prepared an 11th question for a sudden death round.

May 17th arrived and things could not have gone any better. My students came early and helped clean the classroom, set up the tables, and decorate the chalkboard with a big BISSIKRIMA and CISSELA on either side. Alison had prearranged a taxi deplacement and they showed up with plenty of time to spare. The students were pumped. Her students were so pumped, in fact, that several students who hadn't even made the teams hopped on their own motos and travelled the 50km between Bissikrima and Cissela on their own dime, just to watch the match.

At precisely 10am, we started. The B teams fought fiercely and, at the end of 50 minutes, the Bissikrimans proved the victors by a mark of 8 points to 6. Following a brief intermission to reset the board, the battle of the A teams took off. Going into the sixth question, Cissela commanded a strong lead, 5 to 2.5. But then they faltered. A few missed questions on their part and a few correct answers from the other team meant Bissikrima had tied it up on the penultimate question. It all came down to question #10, a word problem:

Le triple d'un nombre augmente de quatre est egal a huit fois ce nombre diminue de six. Trouvez ce nombre.
(Three times a number, increased by four, is equal to eight times this number, decreased by six. Find the number.)

Bissikrima answered 2; Cissela 2,5. The correct response: 2. Once again, Bissikrima rose to the occasion, although this time by only the closest of margins - a single point.

To the victors went the spoils - new sets of Academy geometry kits. To the rest went... the most dejected looks I've ever seen on Guinean faces. In all the preparation leading up to Mathalon, the one thing I'd never stopped to consider was the harrowing effect of defeat. Photos were taken. I stood with a big smile, my arms wrapped around students who refused to look up from the floor.

And then we ate! Once again, we had prearranged for a bowl of rice and sauce for each student and purchased cold sodas from the gas station. The students mingled and Alison and I basked in the glow of our success.

Although my students seemed down and out over their loss, it was only a day before the were back in school practicing, begging for another crack at Bissikrima. We're going to give it to them, although this time it'll be bigger and better, bringing in teams from Dabola and Dialakoro as well.

So thanks, Ms. Bedicheck, for helping me get my students to my reviews, and for helping give these kids something to look forward to.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

ii - Where are the cows?

Let's face it: I don't speak a lot of Malinké. In fact, if you were to scan through this blog and pick out all the various Malinké words I've thrown in, you'd know the language about as well as I do.

I arrived in a Malinké village four months ago, previously having lived in a Dialonké village and, prior to that, a small Susu town. When I got here, I could say, "i ni ké" (hello/thank you). Not a whole lot has changed since then. Unlike in Sandenia, where I had over a month of integration into village life before teaching, in Cisséla I reported to the school the day after moving in. Having expected to take over somebody else's classes already in progress, it's not surprising I was rather taken aback when I learned I'd be picking up my programs from the very beginning of the school year. Basically, I had less than half a school year to cram a year of knowledge into the students' heads. Needless to say, my hands were full. Learning a new language was the last thing on my mind.

In spit of my complete lack of skill in her native tongue, my neighbor is always thrilled when I correctly answer her questions in Malinké.

She asks the same four questions every day. I give her the same four answers every day. And every day, the result is the same: she appears absolutely floored by my apparently bottomless vat of knowledge in the mandinka-kan dialect. She claps her hands, shouts "Uh-huhhhh!" in approval, and flashes a smile big enough to be seen from a place where they might speak something I can actually understand.

Always a fan of praise and congratulations, I decided it was finally time to give my Malinké comprehension a boost. So one day, while walking back from one of our runs, I asked my friend, Bangaly, to teach me a new phrase. He taught me to say, "I just went running."

"Nanta bori diya," I repeated over and over, committing the phrase to memory. When I got back to my hut, I was going to say this to my neighbor and it was going to BLOW-HER-MIND.

I got back to my hut.

I said it to her.

She nodded and walked away.


Hold the phone... what had just happened? Talk about anticlimactic! I'd practiced it so many times with Bangaly, I must have said it correctly...

The next day, I said it again. This time, I managed to earn a verbal response. "I don't speak French," she told me in Malinké. As she said this, Bangaly's father chimed in to say it wasn't French, that I was, in fact, speaking Malinké. She looked at me again.

"Nanta bori diya?" I offered, though with a bit more timidity this time around.

"Nanta bori diya! Nanta bori diya! [something something something] nanta bori diya!" she cried. She'd lost it - clapping, smiling, laughing, telling the other neighbors. She could not have been more pleased.

The next day, I had Bangaly teach me a new phrase.

"i la nisii alu fandjon?" I asked my neighbor - "where are the cows?"

She regarded me as though I'd just asked if the sky was blue. "They're up on the hill, eating," said said, as she shook her head and walked away.


I dunno.

i - How to Talk Donkey

"Ba! Ba! Ba!" goes the cry of three little boys flying past me as I make my way down the narrow dirt path to school. The oys, the oldest of which is probably no more than six, the youngest barely old enough to mouth the "Ba!" command of the other two, are riding on a two-wheeled cart harnessed to a donkey. Her offspring trots alongside in the brush. The cart hits a bump and its payload, a sack of mangoes, takes flight. The middle child sprawls out across the back, rescuing the fruit before it topples over the edge and is gone forever. A moment later, the cart rounds a bend and they're gone.

My morning commute to the collège in Cisséla could not be any more different from the two blocks I used to walk down Mt. Vernon Drive every day to get to school as a child. Approaching an aged patch of sidewalk, I would take special steps to avoid "stepping on a crack"; these days, special steps are taken to avoid unreasonably large piles of cow manure. I used to wait at the stoplight on Tremont Ave until it was safe to cross Tates Creek Road; now, I wait as I give a moto the right of way to cross the rickety wooden bridge spanning a dried-out ravine - I'm not overly confident in its ability to support the both of use at once. Just before I reach the school, I cross the only bit of asphalt within miles and miles of my village - it's the First National Road, running all the way from Conakry to Kankan, and it sees less traffic in a day than does the intersection of Tremont and Tates Creek from 8:00 to 8:05 in the morning.

The walk from my hut to the school is about a mile and a quarter (or roughly two kilometers for those progressive, metric-minded types), the first bit of which takes me through my compound and the heart of the village. The salutations commence as I remove the key from my front door and only taper off as I ascend the hill on the far side of the village. The women in my quarter are greeted with the standard Malinké, "i ni sooma," the men with the French, "Bonjour, vous avez bien dormi?" The village elder receives my handshake and occasionally allows me to carry his chair to the shady spot across the street as he slowly shuffles along behind.

As I mount the hill and leave the village, Woodland Terrace (or so I've dubbed it), the newest Cissélan suburb, comes into view. Previously devoid of inhabitants, this fertile stretch of land has sprouted ten new, thatched-roof, mud huts in the last month. Next on the builders' docket are a Chili's and a Starbucks, respectively. Only kidding. Probably just some more mud huts. From time to time, the brick makers and roof weavers will be out working and we'll exchange pleasantries as I pass through.

A few minutes further along the trail, I arrive at the aforementioned bridge which, upon arrival of the heavy rains, hopefully won't be washed away. Without the benefit of the bridge, the next closest route to the school is nearly three times as long. Also - don't ask me how the three little boys, two donkeys, and cart managed to negotiate the bridge. My best guess? Magic.

On the far side of the bridge, I'm treated to a walk through a wild mango grove before reaching the road and, finally, the school. The mango tree, one of the largest in the region, towers over its scrubby counterparts. In the offseason, it has the semblance of a soft, pillowy cloud. Upon arrival of the fruit at the end of the dry season, however, it shows its true willowy self: the mangoes droop from stems two and three feet long, giving the tree a sad (or should I go French on you and say... tree-ste?), weeping appearance. But look out! Those "tears" will drop and when those puppies are falling from 100ft (or 30m) at an acceleration of 32.2 feet per second per second (or 9,8 meters per second per second)... well, you don't have to do the math to know that'll leave a mark.

Having successfully traversed the mango mine field, I safely arrive at school. If the day is not yet screamingly hot, I can breath a sigh of relief, knowing the heavy sweating won't start until the walk home. But if it is already screamingly hot and I am already sweating profusely, well... who am I kidding? This is Africa! And that's exactly what happens every day. So I roll up my sleeves, wipe off my forehead, and move on with the day. Ba! Hunter, Ba!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Jumpkicks and Barracuda in Sierra Leone

After nearly nine months of service in Guinea, 7 friends and I finally made our escape, in the form of a nine day vacation to Sierra Leone. Talk about a different world! Just crossing the 100 feet of no man's land between Guinea and Sierra Leone made all the difference. On one side, there was a lady selling rice with a fishy, bony, leaf sauce; on the other, a lady selling fried chicken and cold beverages. Guess which one wasn't Guinea!

The trip started out with a bit of a hitch (shown below). Although Alison, Jesse and I had negotiated for the taxi the day before, striking a deal to deplace the taxi (meaning we'd have it all to ourselves), the driver arrived the next morning with another man in tow. Apparently, the other man was the owner of the vehicle and was determined to get a free ride out of us. After vehemently declaring we would cut the price of the ride by one ninth, the man squeezed into the middle seat next to me and we commenced the 400ish kilometer ride to Freetown, four men abreast in the middle seat. As you can see, we were quite happy with the situation ;)
Between the two West African capitals lay 20 or so barrages, or military/police "checkpoints", five of which were in Guinea, the remainder in Sierra Leone. At the Guinean barrages, we were harrassed over and over again, pestered for bribes in spite of the fact that we're living alongside these militaires in the country, working to try to make it a better place. Every Sierra Leonian official, upon learning who we were, shook our hands, smiled and told us to have a good trip. Unfortunately, they weren't quite as friendly to our paperless companion. As a consequence of a complete lack of official papers, the car owner had to get out and bribe each and every official, the whole way to Freetown, resulting in a total trip time of 13 hours and 13 minutes. Yeah, it was a pretty long trip. But worth it!

Freetown seemed to have everything Conakry lacks: sidewalks, trash collection and Faygo Diet Rootbeer. Believe it. Faygo Diet Rootbeer is sold on the streets. In a country which, only a decade ago, was torn apart by civil war, it was impossible to understand how it could appear so much more developed than it's Guinean brother to the north. At dinner the first night, I feasted on mozzarella sticks, shrimp cocktail and a bacon cheeseburger. Can't beat that.
The following day, we went into Freetown and did a tour of sorts: when we saw something interesting, we'd go check it out! Sites visited include the Cotton Tree, some 500 years old, where they used to hold the slave market, King Germaine's Wharf, where the slaves were brought in/sent out, and the National Museum of Freetown, a one room deal exhibiting old warrior masks and snake skins.
After sating our capital cultural curiosity, we hopped down the coast about an hour to the No.2 River beach. Talk about gorgeous! Mountains. Beach. Water. The next week comprised not much more than swimming, sleeping, throwing the frisbee, and sitting around bonfires. For a guy looking to unwind from the stresses of village life, this hit the spot.
Did I mention we went crocodiling nearly every day?? That's right - crocodiling. A lagoon ran behind the beach, growing as the tide came in, shrinking as the tide went out. At just the right time, the lagoon would be anywhere from 8 inches to a few feet deep: perfect depths for a crocodile. We would get in the water, crouch down, and, only moments later, transform into the terrifying, prehistoric crocodiles we all have pent up inside. As the tide went out, we would be drawn along the length of the lagoon, in our own lazy river of sorts, a team of crocodiles 5 or 6 strong, making our way to the beckoning waves of the ocean.
PICTURE INTERLUDE! Enjoy some photos of our sojourn:

The Sierra Leone flag at the border.

This little guy was always hanging around. Why not let him try on a pair of sweet shades?

On our last night, travelling back into Freetown, we encountered the Easter Monday celebration overtaking the streets. Every year, the day after Easter, the various secret societies in Sierra Leone dress up a "devil" and chase it all through the streets, "beating" it out of town. This was still going on when we left at 5:30 the next morning. The photo is taken from the balcony of our hotel on Wilberforce Street.

The Cotton Tree.

Supposedly about a million bats live in the Cotton Tree. These are just a few of 'em.

King Germaine's Wharf. The locals did NOT like it when I made my snap snaps (took pictures). I got out of there pretty quickly.

Pigs eating trash around the wharf, a site uncommon in the Muslim country of Guinea, where pigs are much harder to find.

An Anglican church built in the 1800's. Across the street is a wonderful crafts market, where I bought a hand-woven poncho and a shirt painted with a elephants. One woman really wanted to sell me something, but I really wasn't crazy about her stuff. When she asked what I wanted, I decided to throw her a curveball and said I wanted a lion's tooth. You better believe she sent that curve ball right back -- the lady had a lion's tooth! Too bad the sucker was too expensive or else I'd be rocking a fierce lion's tooth as we speak. We also saw a gnarly streetfight across from the church - one fellow hit the other with a 2x4. The second responded with a jumpkick. The jumpkick failed, he fell to the ground, everybody laughed, and the fight was over.

We got one room at the beach and pitched tents on the sand. Not a bad way to sleep.

We ate dinner on the beach every night - the choices were limited, but delicious: barracuda, shrimp or lobster.

Each night ended with a bonfire on the beach.
... And now I'm back in Guinea! After a wonderful 9 day visit from my friend Katie, tomorrow morning I'm hopping back into a bush taxi and scooting out into the void for six or seven straight weeks of village life. I won't be back online until the 12th of June, but in the meantime I have sent all of my current Africa pictures to my mom on DVD, so perhaps some of those will turn up on my picasa page before too long. Furthermore, I have invited Katie to do a guest-posting, giving you guys an outsiders perspective to this insider's life. I hope she doesn't make it look too grand ;-)
Remember, I'm just a phone call - wait, no - an e-mail - wait, that's not it either... I'm just a hand written letter and 6 weeks away, haha. Take care while I'm away!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Holy Smokes! Look at all 'em pictures!

Welcome! Welcome to another post at Zoobar - the place where wishes are made and dreams come true! Please accept my apologies for such a long absence. In an attempt to make things up to you, I have posted over 100 pictures to chronicle my adventures of the last few months. Sorry about the gray spot in all the shots - the lens is dirty and I can't find a lens cleaner in this country...

To get things started, we have several photos from my bike ride home from Bissikrima back in February. Bissikrima is about 50km (30 miles) from my village and I go there to visit friends, drink cold sodas, and use the telephone. The ride back was done between 7am and 9:45am.

Okay, now for some pictures around my hut and the village. The area surrounding my village is quite beautiful, but photos would not do it justice right now, as the dust in the air really just makes everything look grimy - I'll post a full series of village photos in about a month, once the rain has come and washed the filth out of the air. Here's Banana again - she can sleep anywhere.

Hornets come into my hut WAY too often. They're about the size of my head. I was stung once while on my bike - the stinger went through my shirt and got me on me chest, and it still hurt like a son of a gun. There are more hornet photos further down.
Cows are always just outside my front door.

My new whip:

Props to Laura and Jamie - Connect 4 is a big hit with the neighborhood. They still don't get the rules but man do they love dropping those pieces in the slots!!

A bushrat fell the forty feet down the hole in my backyard, died, and stank to high heaven. I paid a fellow 2000gf (40 cents) to climb down and scoop it out.

They finally poured the concrete for my latrine (and to those curious PTO examiners - they did NOT use a single one of the new-fangled rebar connectors I spent the last two years examining. They connected the rebar with wire.), but they are still yet to move the slab over the hole, so I'm still using the neighbors (disgusting!) latrine. Here comes the third month of privacy-free life!

These next photos were all taken in Kankan. People get upset if you take unsolicited photos, so these were all taken from my hip. Apologies for the skewed/out of focus photos. I think it's artistic.

I wanted to test her sleeping strenght, so I played the balance game. She never even stirred, not even when all the objects came crashing down :-p

This darn cow is always sneaking into my backyard, eating my fence, and keeping me awake at 4 in the morning.

This is Mr. Bah, manager of the local gas station, and my go-to go for electricity. He is the first Guinean I've met to have a computer (granted, it's from 1987), so I teach him Excel on his PC while I charge my iPod. Booya. This is his family:

That's all of the photos for now, but I'll be back tomorrow for a more in-depth update, and back again on the 15th with updates from Sierra Leone!