It has been two weeks since my arrival in Guinea.
What is a typical day in the life of a Fellow? I wish I could tell you, but I don’t know yet. We are still waiting for the government to announce when the first day of school will be (this is Africa…), so in the meantime, I’ve been meeting with colleagues and different teachers’ associations here in Guinea to assess the needs of English programs and teachers throughout the country.
Everywhere I go, I am asked for help. I have already been asked to edit two textbooks written by my colleagues at Barack Obama University. I have been asked to teach courses in General English, Business Studies, Communications, Grammar, and American Studies, among others. I have been asked to train English teachers throughout the country. I have been asked to run English clubs and hold workshops and seminars for teachers and students. I have been asked to edit and help publish articles written by Guinean English teachers. I have been asked to appear on an English radio program that is broadcasted on Saturdays. The list is exhaustive, and I have only 10 months to accomplish everything.
Last week on Wednesday and Thursday, I assisted at the summer English Language Center at Barack Obama University. It’s an English course open to the general public, held during summer break at the university and taught by some of the professors there. By “assisted,” I mean that I showed up on Wednesday and was told, “You’re teaching. Start.” No time to observe the program, methodology, and techniques already in place. No time to assess (or even look at) the materials used or the level of the students. No time to even ask what subject or content is being taught in the class. What I did during those 3 hours is the very definition of what we teachers call “winging it.” Cool – no problem. At least I knew what to expect on Thursday: I would be asked to teach the class again without any preparation or indication of what to teach, so I could at least go home and plan some of my own activities for the next day’s lesson. Right?
Well, Thursday started off that way, but the activities I had actually been able to prepare were soon interrupted by sudden requests from colleagues to follow the textbook. Alright. I was subsequently told throughout the lesson what to teach, and how to teach it. Alright. Both the students and myself were thrown off by the abandonment of the current activity and the discontinuity in the lesson, but alright. Confusing, but alright. Mixed signals, but alright. From proper planning to execution of a lesson, we were violating all of the rules of teaching, but alright.
I find that I am so close to being able to help here, yet so far from understanding how.
Teaching at the language center for two days was only half of the adventure. The other half was getting to and from the university each day, which is only a mile away from my apartment. Just one mile. I thought I was so close, but I discovered how far away I really am.
Back in North America, we have paved roads, traffic signals, and road rules that people (generally) obey. In North America, going one mile, from door to door, would take no more than 5 minutes. But this is not North America. This is Guinea. This is Africa.
First of all, an overview of the physical layout of my immediate surroundings: I live in an apartment on the main road in Conakry. This road, “route Le Prince,” is paved from the tip of the peninsula where Conakry is located all the way up to Sonfonia, which is the neighborhood where my apartment and the university are located. By “paved,” I mean that there is pavement, but that there are frequent potholes, bumps, and other hazards. There are no stoplights. Every major intersection is a traffic circle in which there appear to be no rules in terms of who has the right-of-way; or, rather, the rule is “just go, get into any lane you want, and honk if anyone gets in your way.” There is ALWAYS traffic. There is always gridlock traffic in Sonfonia around the big Sonfonia market (which is one block north of us). Once you reach the market, the road is no longer paved and it suddenly morphs into an obstacle course of potholes (craters) and eternal puddles (lakes).
Past the market and traffic circle is a railroad track, which – I believe – no trains actually run on, seeing as it is perpetually covered in trash, laundry drying in the sun, and people and animals scurrying about. This is where you turn left off the main road and follow the tracks until the “Barack Obama University” sign (7 minutes-ish). At the sign, turn left again and walk down to the main entrance of the university. If you reach the entrance without having stepped in mud, a puddle, or trash, or without having bumped into a running child, a chicken, or a woman balancing a heavy load on her head with a baby strapped to her back, then you can consider your commute an epic success.
But even just getting to the railroad track to start this walk is a separate journey. From my apartment, I have to cross to the other side of the road to catch a taxi going north. Crossing a major road with heavy traffic in a country where traffic laws are not followed is not easy. Nor is finding a taxi that isn’t completely packed with people (I’m talking 7-8 people in a 5-person car). Nor is learning the various hand signals that drivers and passengers exchange to communicate where they’re going, how many people need a ride, and whether or not the driver is taking more passengers at the time. Nor is having to do all of the above in reverse on the way home, too.
By the time I’ve left the apartment, crossed the street, hailed a taxi, survived the traffic and road hazards, and arrived at the tracks, then walked down the tracks and entered the university, it can have taken up to an hour. An hour to go one mile. Same thing in reverse on the way home. So, so close… yet so very far.
One day, traffic was so bad on the way home that my colleague and I decided to walk from where we were. I instantly regretted it as a motorbike nearly ran me over as I stumbled back into a woman selling fruit while simultaneously stepping one foot into a pile of trash and the other into a mud pit. Walking between traffic and the market on the way home required more multi-tasking than I have ever had to do before in my life. I’m not exaggerating.
What a different world I’m in. It’s hard to believe that Guinea is only 4 hours ahead of back home on the East Coast. We are only 4 hours ahead. We are so close, yet we couldn’t be farther away.