Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ebola and the 'Temporary Removal' of Volunteers from Guinea

On the evening of July 29, all 340 Volunteers between the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea simultaneously received a text message from their country's respective administration, directing them to check their email for information about the temporary removal of Volunteers and Trainees from the region. Each of us reacted to the news differently, but how my friend and I at the Conakry house reacted is a good paradigm for many of us: shock and denial. Sitting on the roof of the house, finishing up dinner, my friend relayed the message to me, as my phone was unavailable. Despite the very clear language of the message, which I can no longer recall, we agreed that it had to be a mistake, a miscommunication or some other such reality-defying error.

 After about 15 minutes had passed, I went downstairs to get my phone and casually called another friend to confirm that this was indeed a mistake. When he answered with “Are you reading this?”, I immediately knew that it was I who had been mistaken. We hurriedly moved from the house over to the room called 'the IRC,' where we have three computers for Volunteer use. Sure enough, the email was there for each of us, and provided us with the core details of the 'temporary removal' of Volunteers from the three countries. Shocked, confused, and upset, having the company of other Volunteers at that time was an invaluable comfort.

We received the message on Tuesday evening, and Volunteers began leaving Guinea on Friday. We departed in waves, with the final group leaving on Monday. Most of us had very little time to say confusing and tearful goodbyes to our communities. There was no opportunity to have closure, for most of us, no way of knowing whether we definitely would need it, and not enough time to know how or what to pack. Aside from our personal difficulties and having to abruptly say goodbye to one another, I think that most would agree that by far the most difficult part was having to tell our communities that we must leave because their country is not safe enough for us. For these people, our friends, neighbors, families, students, colleagues, this is home; they don't have the option of picking up and leaving when disaster strikes. We do, and the ugly juxtaposition that this reality forced us to confront is unpleasant to the point of being nearly unbearable. None of us wanted to leave, but as with so many things in Guinea, it was out of our hands.

 One can find various descriptions of the current state of the outbreak in all three countries through numerous news outlets. Some of them are sensational; others are not. I can speak best of course only to the situation in my village and to a lesser extent, Conakry. (It's worth mentioning that the Fouta Djallon, where my village is located, has been fortunate to remain relatively unscathed thus far during the outbreak, with the notable exception of cases in Télimélé.) The situation in Tougué was, and is, according to my good friend Thiako, not at all an emergency. This is probably the case for much of Guinea, but the fact is that in some areas the outbreak is clearly very dangerous, and as such Peace Corps made the only decision it could to ensure the health and safety of its Volunteers.

We are all deeply saddened, each of us in our own way, to have to be removed from our communities while Guineans stay there battling the Ebola outbreak. It's not just, it's not fair, it's not right, but it's what happened. The people of Guinea will survive; they'll continue to be some of the toughest people in the world; and they'll continue to display their incredible generosity to friends and strangers alike. If we're lucky, we will have the privilege to return to Guinea within the coming weeks, so that we can continue to learn, teach, and work alongside them.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The World Cup in Guinea

Guineans love football. They play it all the time, in the streets, on rocky fields, even without shoes. It should come as no surprise then that World Cup mania has been sweeping over Guinea for the last several weeks. In African solidarity, Guineans tend to heartily support the five African teams that qualified for the tournament, but of course there's no shortage of love for Ronaldo and Messi. On the whole, Guineans seem ambivalent about supporting the French squad: some do, some don't. In any event, inch'Allah, in 2018 Guineans won't have to worry about that, as the national team, Le Syli, is improving. Le Syli failed to qualify for the tournament this time around, losing a touch match to Egypt in the qualifier, but they came in a respectable second in their qualifying group.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Updates on Ebola

For a time, all was calm. It seemed like all cases had been contained and the number of new cases were dropping off. Peace Corps Volunteers were allowed to re-enter their health centers and continue their work. Conakry, and the richer enclaves up country (for example, the banks) became more lax in their initial surge towards preventative hand-washing. Travel became less of a scary prospect, and everyone simply adjusted to the idea that Ebola is in country, but is extremely hard to catch and is going to affect a very, very small number of extremely unfortunate individuals.

Recently, though, it seems like Ebola has made a resurgence. Many new cases have sprung up (according to the WHO, 37 between May 29th & June 1st), in a range of locations. New cases in Boke, Boffa, & Telimele, with alerts in Dubreka, show that containment wasn't entirely successful in the Basse Cote. Fortunately, new cases have been linked to old ones- this thing is still following the routine and understood mechanisms of transfer. There aren't any cases of new animal to human infection. In light of these events, Volunteers have once again been told to stay away from their medical centers, one of the few places where they could come into contact with the extremely ill (again, Ebola is rarely contagious until patients become extremely ill).

In general, Volunteers feel pretty safe. Some Volunteers continue to deal with the extremely disconcerting fact that Ebola is not only present in their region, but sometimes in their very village. Others deal with the difficulties of educating the populace about Ebola. Many Guineans feel that Ebola is a conspiracy, perhaps made up by President Alpha Conde to delay certain political processes, or introduced (or fabricated) by the West to tamper with Guinea (in the same vein as the prevalent Guinean myth that condoms actually contain HIV in the packaging). I myself was informed by a fellow teacher that Ebola did not exist, and then that it perhaps did exist but could be cured by eating frogs (proven by the fact that this teacher himself ate frogs and did not, indeed, have Ebola).

The message to take home is that the crisis isn't over, but it is still under control. Peace Corps responded rapidly and appropriately to the evolving situation. Our staff in Conakry are more than capable of keeping Volunteers safe. Send your thoughts and prayers instead to the rare and unfortunate few who will have to suffer through this horrible disease.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Technology in Guinea

I've been surprised a number of times, for better and worse, by the state of technology in Guinea. In some areas, inexpensive technology has transformed Guinean society, but there remains much to be desired in other areas. I've been in Guinea for 10 months now, and here are some of my observations thus far.

The power grid: The PCV house in Conakry has power 24/7. It's powered mostly by city power, but most of the city gets no electricity. The guards run a generator to pick up the city's slack. The Labe house, in the Fouta, gets city power most nights for variable amounts of time, which we supplement pretty well with solar power. On a sunny day we can collect enough energy to power the lights and house computers for several hours. There's one ethernet cord to be shared between the computers, and there is wi-fi, but it works for only select machines.

Cell phones: In order to get a better picture of the cell phone situation for Guineans, I asked some questions of Mr. Barry, a sixth grade teacher in my village. (Mr. Barry comes to my house for weekly English lessons. He is conversational in English despite having never studied it in school; everything he learned is from PCVs.) Mr. Barry tells me that he bought his phone in 2008, but some Guineans had them as early as the early 2000s. At first, the major network provider in Guinea was Sotelgui, but now Orange is dominant. The other major service providers are Cellcom and Areeba. In polling my classes, on a random day in Tounkourouma, I found the following numbers: 80/145 students (55%) had a phone. Not bad for a college en brousse. As for Volunteers, as far as I know every current Volunteer has a cell phone, which can be used to make domestic or international calls. Some Volunteers have even begun to invest in smart phones, which can be used to access the internet anywhere that cell service exists, which brings me to my next topic.

PCs/Internet: Most Guineans au village don't have computers, but I've met a few who do and I myself will be purchasing computers for two Guinean friends while on vacation this summer. The easiest and most common way to connect to the internet is via smart phones, which range from 100,000 GNF to several million for the newest, fanciest phones. From there, the web can be accessed regularly for a small fee. USB internet keys are also rapidly becoming popular for those with a PC, and in fact Peace Corps is providing one now to every new incoming Volunteer. An Orange key currently costs 300,000 GNF, and like a smart phone, works with a SIM card and therefore gets service wherever there is cell service. In summary, cheap cell phones, service providers, and web access have become readily available in Guinea, which makes communicating and coordinating much more efficient. However, there remain substantial obstacles to be done before most of the country has regular power, and for a country that has yet to connect all of its major cities with paved roads, that may not yet be top priority.

Monday, April 07, 2014

[FOG News] New Blogger From Guinea

Friends of Guinea,

My name is Shreyan Sen, PCV Guinea '12-'14. I'll be your second new blogger writing live from Guinea. Some background about myself- I'm an Ed Volunteer from the Haute region, stage G22. I'll be COS'ing in September, but until then I hope to shed some light on contemporary Guinea, for old Guinea hands, new invitees, and anyone else who loves this quixotic country.

My beautiful site goes by the name Djelibakoro (cryptically telling us that the griot is below)- it's a new site, but it's also the twin site to older Niandankoro, over on the Niger where Kankan Prefecture turns into Siguiri Prefecture. Years ago the two prefectures were separated by that river, but today Djeliba/Niandan is host to Guinea's largest bridge, connecting the two villages and the shiny, perfect road that passes from Kankan all the way to Bamako.

At site, when I'm not teaching, I like to invest time in my secondary projects, several of which involve my school (WASH-Friendly Schools & School Garden projects). My favorite project by far though is the solar drying project, because mangoes are Allah's apology for hot season, and they're even better during cold season. Food transformation is awesome, am I right?

Writing about Guinea is fun, and it's even better when you can actually answer people's questions and talk about what really interests them. So if curiosity ever calls, leave a comment on the blog detailing what you'd like to know about contemporary Guinea and I'll try to answer. And especially for RPCVs, comment back and tell us what Guinea was like back during your service!

Awa, An Be Koffe!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Ebola: A Volunteer's Perspective

In the past few weeks, the entire world has heard of Guinea’s Ebola outbreak. Ebola, a deadly virus with a death rate of up to 90% (although it’s at around 60% here), is honestly a terrifying neighbor. Many Volunteers found out through friends and family, during concerned calls, texts, and facebook posts. As per usual, Volunteers were out of the loop on the international news side. While Peace Corps had its hands tied (though they did quite a bit to ensure Volunteer safety as we’ll discuss later), it was a bit troubling that PCVs heard about Ebola through their international connections before their local connections.

Volunteers have had outbreaks near or at their sites. Some Volunteers responded to this by barricading themselves at their sites, refusing to travel. Others were told to stay at the regional capitals temporarily while policies were being verified.

Perhaps scarier than the idea of Ebola by itself, is the feeling of distance between Volunteers and their medical support structures. Even with the best PCMO teams out there, the fact remains that Volunteers often live in isolated and remote places, and responses to medical problems are never as certain as calling 911 and expecting an ambulance.

Despite the panic, the reality on the ground is not nearly so precarious. The death rate is holding steady, at around 80 dead in a country of 10 million. The truth is, malaria is still far more likely to kill a Volunteer than Ebola is. The CDC, Doctors Without Borders, the Guinean Government, and other organizations are all working together to quarantine all cases, actual and suspected, of Ebola. Isolation is the best tool we have against a more widespread outbreak. While it’s true that the range of the virus has been troublingly large, much of the spread has been traced to specific families that transported their sick and dead. Those families themselves have been quarantined.

Part of the reason Ebola hasn’t spread that dramatically is due to its high mortality rate- but part of it is also due to the relative difficulty involved in catching the virus. It’s not airborne, and probably won’t be passed through casual contact during the incubation period. Only when the patient is really sick are they highly contagious. Avoiding the extremely ill and the deceased puts Volunteers at low risk of catching the deadly disease. Nonetheless, Peace Corps is closely monitoring the situation, at times instituting travel restrictions and restrictions on health center work (anything that can bring Volunteers into proximity with the sick). The main risk to Volunteers actually comes from hospitals, where proper isolation techniques can be questionable and the disease can actually spread. If a Volunteer falls ill, perhaps unconscious, and is taken to a medical center also hosting an Ebola patient, they are at risk. To ensure a rapid response, an emergency Peace Corps vehicle has been installed near the Volunteers closest to the outbreaks. Peace Corps Guinea also invited the CDC to analyze their Ebola response plan- the CDC recommended no changes. Don’t worry- we’re being taken care of!

Guinean responses to the outbreak vary. In the villages, little has changed. Ebola hasn’t taken on a menacing reality yet. The government’s texts encouraging hand washing have boosted some PCV hand washing projects- not much else has changed (except for those public health Volunteers who can’t go to work).

In Conakry though, paranoia has taken root. People are washing their hands with pure bleach. I even saw a Guinean using hand sanitizer- I had no idea it existed in Guinea (outside of Volunteer care packages). The high vigilance towards hygiene can’t be a bad thing. Hopefully it will persist after the epidemic passes away, as it will. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Peace Corps Guinea Spelling Bee

Thanks to three very hard-working Volunteers: Geoff Delperdang (G22, Télimélé), Liz Chadwick (G20, Boké), and Hannah Koeppl (G24, Kankan), hundreds of Guinean students had the opportunity to participate in spelling bees at the school, regional, and national levels. Each Education Volunteer (and a few Extension Volunteers) held a school spelling bee at their middle school. The top two students from each school then had the chance to compete in a regional bee, with each region holding two bees. From each of these, the top three students moved on to the final round: the national bee in Mamou. In Mamou, before the competition at the hotel ENATEF, we did a variety of team-building activities and games with the students. They and the Volunteers had a lot of fun, and each of the kids made some new friends. The activities also served to loosen the kids up a bit, so that they would not be performing in front of a crowd of complete strangers. The spelling bee competition represented an excellent opportunity to expand the horizons of our young students. First and foremost, it got them about excited about studying French. Second, dozens of students had the opportunity to get out and experience something different from their village, probably many of them for the first time. Finally, for those lucky enough to reach the final round in Mamou, it was a really beautiful thing to watch kids from all across Guinea, with different backgrounds and languages, work together and compete in a spirit of friendly competition. More than the spelling of difficult French words, we hope that is what our students continue to carry with them after this experience. Ryan Plesh

Friday, March 07, 2014

[FOG News] FOG starts blogging from Guinea

Hello Friends of Guinea! I’m a current Peace Corps Guinea Volunteer, and I’ll be blogging for FOG inch’Allah (ideally) twice a month, ostensibly until my COS (Close of Service) in the fall of 2015. I’m an Education Volunteer from the G24 stage, which arrived in Guinea in the fall of 2013. The current stages in Guinea are G22-G25, and we span the sectors of: Education, Public Health, and Agroforestry. Education Volunteers in Guinea teach primarily math, physics, and chemistry, as well as English. My site is in the mountainous Moyenne Guinée (Middle Guinea) region, locally referred to as the “Fouta Djallon.” Currently Volunteers are distributed throughout Moyenne Guinée, Haute Guinée (Upper Guinea), and the Basse Côte (Low Coast) regions. There are approximately 100 total Volunteers in Guinea, although the number is continually in flux with the coming and going of stages and individuals. Roughly 40% of the current Volunteers are teachers, and the other 60% are divided between the two extension sectors: PH and Agfo. This is an important time for Peace Corps Guinea and for the Republic of Guinea as a whole. Peace Corps service here has unfortunately been interrupted several times in the past due to political unrest, most recently in 2009, but for the first time in its history Guinea has a full democracy complete with democratically elected officials in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of its government. Its situation is far from ideal, but the conditions are set for things to continue to improve here into the future. I feel grateful to be a part of that, and I’m happy to be in a position that allows me to communicate the progress that is being made here to new and old friends of Guinea. Thank you for your support. Best, Ryan Plesh FOG Social Media Chair

Sunday, September 01, 2013

[Guinean news] Bissau cocaine traffickers moving into Conakry

Guinea-Bissau is widely described as Africa's first narco-state. But this article in Mmegi Online is the latest to express the concern that narcotraffickers are increasingly moving south into Conakry and may begin to destabilize Guinea as well.

Friday, August 30, 2013