Tolerance is something I’ve been thinking about lately.
As an American, to be observing the actions of Trump and his supporters from afar has been nothing short of gut-wrenching. The levels of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and bigotry that they demonstrate is actually quite remarkable for a country that is supposedly the world’s leading example of a “melting pot.” Some argue that immigrants do not assimilate into American culture and society while, at the same time, making them feel unwelcome and even going as far as to mock, demean, or even display verbal and physical aggression towards them. So, why would immigrants choose to “melt” into a society that does everything in its power to prevent them from doing so? How can I, a U.S. Department of State English Language Fellow and representative of the American people in this part of the world, explain to Guineans that the country they idolize is not really a melting pot, but a salad in which the ingredients remain separate?
Some say that we need to teach home-grown Americans to be tolerant of others. While I agree with this, I believe the word choice is flawed. What we should be instilling in our children, students, friends, family members, and neighbors is not tolerance, but indifference. That is something I have learned during my time here in Guinea.
For the last six months, I’ve been fully immersed in Guinean culture. Not once have I witnessed, or even heard of, any hate crimes or any incidents of hostility between two different groups of people. In Conakry, one can observe a woman in a full burqa walking down the street next to a woman in short shorts and a tank top. A man in his Muslim garb can stop to greet and shake hands with his Christian neighbor. While many Westerners view Islam as a religion that promotes terrorism and oppression, Guinea, an 85% Muslim-majority country, is proof of the contrary. In Guinea, there is no need for discussions surrounding religious tolerance. It is not that Guineans tolerate different religions; it is that they are indifferent to their differences.
Sure, there are certain “rivalries” among the various tribes of Guinea (for example, the Susu view the Fulani as their rival). But such rivalries do not manifest in the form of hostility or violence, they do so in the form of mild stereotyping and joking. In North America, we have jokes about blondes and stereotypes about loud Italians. It is no different among the tribes of Guinea. Respect for one another is instinctive; it does not have to be taught.
One day, I was teaching nationalities to one of my General English classes (they are a beginner-level class). It is a class of more than 100 students. After discussing nationalities, I asked students about their ethnicity. I counted 16 different ethnicities among my students. None of them having the same ethnicity were sitting together; they were all dispersed throughout the classroom, sitting next to those of different ethnicities and religions. Some of the girls wear a full burqa. Some of the boys leave for 15 minutes during every class to go pray in the mosque downstairs. No one raises an eyebrow; no one smirks; there are no snide remarks. They are all different, and nobody cares.
Two weeks ago, I went to Dakar (the capital of Senegal) for a conference. It was the mid-year conference for the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Program’s participants in African countries. It was not only wonderful to see my colleagues again and to visit someplace new, but it was very interesting to observe the differences between Senegalese and Guinean people. The Senegalese are patriotic, much more so than Guineans. They take pride in their national language, Wolof, which is one of the indigenous languages of the region (though French is the official language of the country). Being in Dakar was like being in Europe; the city is much cleaner, orderly, more modern, and more beautiful than Conakry (sorry, Conakry, but you are an eyesore!). Being less impoverished than Guinea, the Senegalese have access to good healthcare and nutrition, so they are much taller and more robust than Guineans. In Guinea, I am taller than most women and even some men. In Senegal, I am an elf.
Obesity is rare in both Guinea and Senegal. Before you jump to the typical Western conclusion that all Africans are poor and starving, know that Africans have healthy diets of fish, vegetables, and rice; sweets are rare in their cuisines. They are also much more active than Westerners. Sure, it’s great that we have computers and washing machines and all kinds of technology that make our lives easier, but we also suffer from back problems, knee problems, poor posture, obesity, diabetes, and other issues related to lack of physical activity and diets of processed foods. Guineans walk a lot, fetch water every day, wash clothes by hand, carry heavy loads balanced on their heads, women carry babies on their backs, and perform a plethora of labors on a daily basis. It is not an easy life, but they are physically healthy. The difference between “us” and “them” is that, in general, we are sick and diseased but stay alive by injecting Western medicine into our bodies, while Guineans are healthy but do not have access to medicine should they fall ill. It is why I lost a student to sickle-cell anemia and a colleague to diabetes.
The Senegalese are patriotic because they have chosen certain cultural elements with which to identify them as Senegalese: their national language, Wolof; their cuisine, maafe and yassa (among others) and their own kind of delicious coffee, “touba”; and their own sport, Senegalese wrestling. These elements of Senegalese culture have come to symbolize and represent Senegal and its people. This is what Guinea lacks. Perhaps that is why there is no sense of pride or patriotism among Guineans and why I see more American flags than Guinean flags in Conakry.
Things run a lot smoother in Senegal. While I was in Dakar, demonstrations raged on in Conakry. Because public-school teachers in Guinea had not been paid since November, they went on strike and classes were halted. When the government tried solving the situation by just hiring new teachers, announced that classes would resume, and then no teachers showed up to the schools the following morning, the students took to the streets and rioted. During those three weeks of demonstrations, roads were blocked, cars were attacked, things were burned in the streets, and gunfire took the lives of six people in Conakry. When it was at its worst, I was stranded in Dakar due to the cancellation of my return flight. Sometimes things work out for the best; I would not have been able to go back to my apartment even if I had returned to Conakry, so instead, I got an extra two-day vacation in Dakar. The day I returned, the demonstrations were already subsiding and I reached my apartment without any trouble (my driver knows all the back roads). After my two days off in Dakar, I came back to having the rest of the week off as the schools waited out the strike.
Today is the first day of March. This week was supposed to be the last week of the semester. My classes have met 5, 7, 8, 11, or 13 times. I was told to speed up the classes by adding more class meetings and assigning huge projects for the students to work on while cutting class hours. So, for the next two weeks, I’ll be teaching a double load and working on my days off.
This is Guinea! This is Africa! I have to tolerate such disorder because I am not used to it. Guineans are indifferent to it.
We have not had consistent power or water since December. It is getting worse. Some days we have no power or water at all. Some days we have 20 minutes of power and water for part of the day. I’m at the point where, when the power is on for longer than half an hour and our water is working, I become suspicious that something is wrong.
(I can’t speak for the rest of Senegal, but things actually work in Dakar – and they work well. It’s sad that my idea of “vacation” has come to mean having reliable power and water for a whole week. From that standpoint alone, my week in Dakar was absolutely glorious!)
It is only my immediate community that suffers so harshly from power and water cuts. Up the road from us is a community that almost never experiences these cuts. They had been in the same situation for a long time, but got fed up and blocked the road when the President was coming through one day. Magically, since then, their power has not been cut. My neighborhood is a different story. We have one of the main markets in Conakry, and blocking the roads would mean that the vendors don’t get customers and can’t earn money for the day. That is why the people living here never protest when our power is off, and that is why we almost never have electricity. It gets so hot at night that I can barely sleep. Sleeping in the nude would mean mosquito bites in more places than just my arms and feet. I can only tolerate so many bites.