In Guinea, it is normal to call someone on a regular basis, for no purpose whatsoever other than to say hello (or to “greet” them, as they say here). Here is a typical conversation:
ACQUAINTANCE: Hello, dear, how are you?
RACHEL: Fine, thank you, and how are you, my friend?
ACQUAINTANCE: Fine, fine, thank God, and how is everything?
RACHEL: Everything is fine, and you, how are you?
ACQUAINTANCE: Everything is fine, thanks to God, and how is your family?
RACHEL: Thank God, they are doing well, and how is your family?
ACQUAINTANCE: Everyone is well, thank God.
RACHEL: Ah, that’s good, thank God. Thank you kindly for your greeting. I wish you and your family well. Talk to you soon.
ACQUAINTANCE: OK, thank you. I send my regards to your family. Talk to you soon, Inshallah.
Yes. That’s really how you make small talk here. It’s taken a while, but I’ve figured out the formula: ask someone how they’re doing – at least once – and always ask about their family. When they reply that everyone is fine, you must thank God. And always follow-up “talk to you soon” or “see you later” with Inshallah (“God willing”). Even if you are calling for a specific purpose, you still have to go through this initial “greeting” before you can get to your point. Otherwise, you’re just a rude foreigner.
Side note: A greeting between two people of the Pul tribe can take up to an HOUR, because they ask about each individual member of the other person’s family!
I spend so much of my free time talking to people on the phone and answering texts, Facebook messages, WhatsApp messages, and emails. The reason? Because they have greeted me, and I must reciprocate. It’s exhausting, and from a North American perspective, super annoying. But when I’m tired, annoyed, cranky, or all of the above, I have to remind myself that I chose this. I chose to come to Guinea, to connect with people here, and to help anyone who needs/wants my help.
What exactly did I choose? Let’s take a look:
- I go to school. I stop by the dean’s office to say hello, even if I am late, so as not to be rude to him.
- I go to my classroom; at most, I am 15 minutes late (it always depends on the driver’s punctuality and/or traffic).
- I take out the Kleenex I brought, because the university does not provide erasers for the blackboards.
- I erase the board, because teachers tend to not clean up after themselves.
- I clean off the desks and chairs, because it’s Harmattan* season. (*a dry, dusty wind that blows from the Sahara Desert across West Africa from December to February.)
- I wait for my students to arrive.
- I ask a student to get some chalk from the front office, because it is not kept in the classrooms.
- 30 minutes later, most of my students are there, and I start class.
- The rest of the students roll in at various points throughout the two and a half hours of class time that remain.
- I lecture, I answer questions, and I monitor my students as they work.
- My assistant is there – I have to incorporate him into the class. I ask him to write the lesson on the board; he copies the wrong information. (Example: “Please write the title of this unit and today’s lesson.” He writes the materials: “blackboard, chalk, blank paper, a handout.” Yes, this really happened.)
- I write important information on the board to be used later; my assistant erases it, thinking he is helping me.
- My assistant has prepared a lesson to teach; I allow him to do so, sacrificing valuable (and limited) class time for content that has nothing to do with the present lesson, and which is not always accurate. (Apparently, Abraham Lincoln was the third president of the US. Who knew?)
- We finish class, and almost every student is determined to take their daily selfies with me.
- I go up to my office to rest for a few minutes before my next class.
- I enjoy the air conditioning in my office, for the classrooms do not have it (nor electricity).
- It’s time for class. I go to the assigned classroom. There are students there, but not my students.
- I go from classroom to classroom, looking for my students.
- I find them, but not everyone has arrived.
- I wait 10-20 minutes before I start class, which is now half an hour behind schedule. Students continue to enter throughout the remaining class time.
- After class, I go home, completely caked in brown dust and chalk, which have stuck to me because I spend 8:30am – 3:00pm sweating profusely in the stifling heat of the classrooms.
- On the way home, I respond to messages and calls (greetings) that I missed while teaching.
- When I get home, I am desperate to use the bathroom since the ones at the university are locked, and I have not been given a key.
- I thoroughly wash my hands and face, which I cannot do at the university since there is no running water.
- I change my clothes because I feel like the strong B.O. smell has permeated them (a lot of Guineans don’t use deodorant….)
- The electricity is out all day and all evening. Sometimes it comes back soon thereafter; sometimes it doesn’t come back until the next day.
- Sometimes we also don’t have water, and I have to use bottled water to wash off the grime.
- My partner feeds me since I’ve gone the whole day without eating and hardly drinking for fear of having to use the bathroom.
On occasion, there are complications in the above routine, such as finding out last-minute that a class has been cancelled, or that my class size has doubled from the previous week, forcing me to reteach last week’s lesson.
On Thursdays, I teach class and then have an hour before I conduct professional development trainings and workshops for my colleagues and other English teachers in Conakry. That means I’m on campus from 8:30am until 6:00pm, during which I hunt down a colleague who has a key to the bathroom so that I don’t explode from holding it all day long. Either way, I still go home dirty, hungry, dehydrated, and utterly exhausted.
I chose this? Really?!
…Yeah. I did.
My schedule in the last two weeks was made even crazier by events sprung on me at the last minute. Two weeks ago was when the first-year students were FINALLY starting class. I had one class with them on Monday, but the second one was cancelled. So was the class on Tuesday. Wednesday night, at 10:00pm, I found out that all classes Thursday – Friday were cancelled due to celebrations of this year’s graduates. I didn’t mind the time off, but I was asked to attend the graduation ceremony on Saturday, which I was less than thrilled about.
Because my university cares more about using me as a marketing tool than anything else, my partner and I were seated in the VIP section of the auditorium; i.e., the very front, next to the stage, where all 2000+ people could see the two white people there. I was asked – nay, commanded – to give a speech – IN FRENCH – up on the stage. Mind you, I was invited there as a GUEST and not been told to prepare a speech, let alone one in French. I refused. I said that I was not comfortable doing so and that I would’ve been happy to do so had I been asked in advance and had time to prepare. They didn’t care. I was called up on the stage anyway, and felt extremely awkward with them calling my name over and over, so I finally gave in and went up there. I winged (wung?) it. I thanked the administration for inviting me and said that I was happy to be there. (I lied.) The worst was yet to come.
Next, I was again commanded to hand a diploma to one of the graduates as he walked across the stage. I refused, saying again that I was uncomfortable with it, and more assertively saying that it made no sense since I hadn’t taught those students and had never even seen them before today. Again, they called me up to the stage, and again, repeated my name until I caved and went up there. Not only did I have to hand a diploma to a student I’d just met for the first time, but I was also required to pose for multiple pictures from parents, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and the media. I felt like a zoo animal on display (“Ooh! Look at the white person! Take a picture!”). I was not happy. I stormed out of there without a word and with my partner following me.
I chose this?!
The following week, I had my second class with the one first-year class I’d had the previous week. The others, I was meeting for the first time. Again, classes were cancelled on Thursday – for a reason I have yet to fully understand – but I came in on Friday to meet, for the first time, one of my first-year classes.
This week on Monday, classes were cancelled for a Muslim holiday. I found out late Sunday night.
- We are now in the 7th week of the semester. Next week I’m giving mid-term exams.
- Monday morning’s first-year class has met twice. (First class: 7 students. Second class: 47 students.)
- Monday afternoon’s first-year class has met once. (60ish students)
- Tuesday morning’s second-year class has met 7 times. (17 students… now 16)
- Tuesday afternoon’s first-year class has met twice. (70ish students)
- Thursday morning’s third-year class has met 5 times. (14 students)
- Friday morning’s first-year class has met once. (50ish students)
- And after next week, we’ll break for the holidays.
Confused yet? Imagine how I feel!
Do I deserve this? Probably. I chose this, after all.
To make matters worse, I can’t use the same lesson plan for my Friday class, because even though it’s the same subject and level as my other first-year classes, Friday’s class meets for only 2 hours while the others meet for 3.
When I’m feeling frustrated or disappointed, I have to remind myself: I chose this.
Yesterday afternoon, I found out that one of my third-year students passed away from a sudden illness. He was an amazing young man and one of the top students in his class.
I didn’t choose this. Nobody chose this.
I don’t know the details of his illness, but I am sure that had he been in a country that actually has healthcare, he would’ve been treated. He didn’t choose this. He didn’t choose Guinea.
But I did. I chose to come here. I chose to help. And now I’m choosing to find the strength to continue on with my duties here. It’s the only choice.