Mama Africa

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Not long before I departed Guinea, I had, quite by chance, the opportunity to visit with a women’s gardening cooperative located deep “en brousse” (in the bush).  This co-op had received seed funding several years ago from the World Food Programme to create and sustain a garden whose vegetables could contribute to the school lunch program for the village elementary school, helping to ensure the kids got a nutritious meal.  WFP had sponsored initiatives like this in numerous villages across the country, and while they worked well while funding was being provided, the vast majority were ultimately not able to be maintained independently when the monies dried up.

But not these ladies.  Three years post-WFP initial funding, their gardening co-op is thriving.  Their garden was one of the lushest and greenest things I had seen in months – keep in mind Haute Guinee is dry and dusty by nature, and we were in the full-on dry season.  I was visiting with some French ex-pats who had been hired to conduct an external evaluation of WFP’s prior initiatives, and we fully expected just to briefly meet with the president of the co-op.  Instead, woman after woman showed up, greeting us with smiles, songs, and immense pride.  The majority of the women in the group were illiterate, as most Guinean women are, yet they explained the business workings of their co-op in such impressive detail that would rival any small business owner here in the US.  The co-op provides much-needed income for these women so that they are able to contribute to their family’s needs in addition to having some personal income for themselves (a rare thing for women in Guinea).  And the co-op continues to provide fresh veggies for the school, allowing the women to give back to their community in a critical way.

So why am I sharing all of this today?  Because while I am immensely grateful for the mothers in my life, I want the world (or at least my small cadre of followers!) to know just a little bit of why African women are my heroes.  The sheer physical toll of what they do each day with no modern conveniences, let alone electricity or running water, is beyond words.  And they take care of their households, their kids, their extended families, and their community typically with little recognition or encouragement in what are patriarchal societies that firmly believe that women are never, ever, ever equal to men.

If you’ve ever wondered why I sometimes use the hashtag “Mama Africa” in social media posts, hopefully this will help clarify.  African women are raising a continent, and I am in awe.  Happy Mother’s Day to you.

~ Caroline

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On est ensemble

me and mme presidenteI’m writing this on the eve of my departure from Guinea. I am leaving a bit earlier than originally planned – all is fine, and I’d rather not waste this precious space talking about the why (happy to discuss offline) but rather use it to focus on all that is running through my head as the last 24 hours wind down.

In Henry IV, Shakespeare wrote, “I speak of Africa and golden joys.” Amen to that, I say, amen. My time here in Guinea has challenged, overwhelmed, inspired, and humbled me. This country is a place of extremes. The soil is rich and natural resources abound, yet the majority of the country lives in poverty. Cell phone communication, as I have written about before, is a way of life, yet basic infrastructure such as decent roads, electricity, and access to clean water are woefully lacking. More and more, parents here are understanding the importance of education for their children, but I have lost count of the number of college-educated young people I have met who cannot find gainful employment due to lack of jobs.

But the joys, oh the joys! The sound of the evening Muslim call to prayer at dusk, followed later by the melodic call and response of my nearby mosque filled to the brim with devout believers. Waking up early in the morning to countless nearby roosters crowing and women pounding corn in their giant mortars and pestles. The never-ending – and I do mean never-ending! – children’s shouts of “Tubabu! Ça va? Ça va bien?” as I pass by on my bicycle. The sweet slow smile of a seller at the market when I greet her in local language or offer a benediction for a good day of sales. The countless soccer games that take place each evening, with feet that move so furiously fast, the ball disappears in cloud of red-clay dust. Fresh bananas, the juiciest oranges, and gorgeous pineapples for sale on the roadside. How amazing a simple cold beverage tastes at the end of a long, hot, dusty day.

But I think one of the biggest joys has been witnessing the sense of community that Guineans possess. A very common expression here is “On est ensemble,” which is French for “We are together.” Over the past four months, I probably heard this at least once per day – at work, at church, in the market, or even encountering a stranger on the street. One day I was biking through Kankan, and foolishly, my long skirt got caught in the rear brake. I’m stopped mid-pedal on the side of the road, stuck and trying not to rip my skirt, looking like quite the spectacle when a man appears and gingerly weaves the fabric out of the brake. When I sheepishly thank him, he just smiles and says, “On est ensemble.”

Embedded in this belief of community is a deep sense of family. Family is everything here, and as I have been preparing to leave, I have had to fight back tears on more than one occasion as friends have said, “Please greet our mother for us.” Here in Guinea, if you and I are friends, then family is an extension of that relationship – my mom is your mom, and your mom is my mom. Guess what, Vivien Chambre? Your offspring just got a whole lot bigger!

As I write this, I am reminded of an exchange that happened some months ago at the local Catholic church I attended in Kankan. The visiting bishop engaged in a question and answer session following his sermon. One young man raised his hand and explained he had seen a special on TV featuring Pope Francis, and he heard the Pope say, “The poor are our passport to heaven.” The young man said, “Well, we are all poor here in Africa, so I am really confused – I not sure who the Pope is referring to. Can you tell me who are the poor here in Africa? Because I would like to make sure I am helping them and that my ‘passport’ is ready when the time comes.” The whole congregation laughed, and so did the bishop. He then replied that this was an excellent question. Yes, people in Africa are poor, he said. The vast majority don’t have running water, electricity, cars, or basic houses – so yes, Africans are materially very poor. But, he continued, that is not who the Pope is talking about. So he challenged the congregation. “Tell me – who are the poor in Africa?” No one answered at first, and there was a nervous energy in the crowd. The bishop just kept repeating, “Qui sont les pauvres en Afrique? Dites- moi, qui?” People were looking at each other as if this was an absurd question – of course, everyone in Guinea is poor, their faces seemed to be saying.  Finally, the bishop proclaimed, “I’ll give a prize to whomever can answer this question” and threw down 20000 francs on the podium. Now, this got people’s attention! One brave soul finally raised his hand and said, “The poor are those who don’t know God.” The bishop responded that there are plenty of rich people who don’t know God. He put down another 20000 francs. Someone else offered, “The poor are those who don’t share what they have.” The bishop shook his head – and more money was added to the pile. Responses kept coming, everything from, “The poor are those who don’t take the initiative, who don’t do anything with their time” to “The poor are those who are different from us” to “The poor are those who are unkind.” This went on and on as the bishop kept upping the ante – the congregation became very animated, and I actually couldn’t understand all the responses after awhile because everyone was so worked up. Finally, the bishop said, “Ok, enough. These are all good answers, but let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a white man and an African man. The white man came to Africa, looked around, saw oh-so-many people without water, electricity, cars, and good houses, and he said to himself, ‘Oh these poor souls, look how they live – they live in such poverty. They have nothing. Oh my, it’s so sad.’ Yet meanwhile the African man went to the white man’s country, looked around, and saw many people sleeping in the street – sick, old, even young – no one talked to them, they were ignored and seemed forgotten. And there were many others who had a place to live, yet seemed lonely and alone. The African man said to himself, ‘Oh these poor souls, they are treated like they are garbage. So many people alone. Look at how they live in such poverty. It is so sad.’ The bishop was quiet for a moment, and then he asked, “So, tell me – who do you think was right? Who are the poor in this story?” There was no silence this time – the entire congregation responded in unison. The bishop continued, “Here in Guinea, we may be materially poor, but we are not the poor to whom the Pope is referring. The poor are those who are cast aside, who are forgotten. They are the people who are alone, who have rejected their families or who have been rejected by their families. The people who are isolated. That is who the Pope is calling us to help. Most of us here are rich – yes, brothers and sisters, we are rich! Why? Because we have community, that is our culture. Those who are living in solitude – well, that is poverty. Here in Guinea, don’t ever forget that community is our richesse.”

I have tried through these blog posts to paint an accurate portrayal of life and my experiences here. That means not romanticizing poverty or painting people as simply good or bad. We are all complex beings, and I would by lying if I didn’t say that Guineans have qualities that sometimes tested my limits of cross-cultural understanding or there weren’t days that tried my patience. But ultimately, as I wrote long ago in a different farewell to West Africa, the beauty – the golden joy! – of being here is the gentle reminder that we go through life, with its good days and bad, and ultimately, it is our relationships with each other that make all the difference.

Thank you, merci, a ni ce to you, chère Guinée, for reinforcing this lesson, for welcoming me with open arms, for letting me be “that girl” again, and for so much more. My heart is full. On est ensemble.

~ Caroline

 

Clockwise from top right: With my Guinean mom, Fanta Condé (back in the day, she was in the first class of Guinean police women – a trailblazer!); my beautiful friend Mabinty; talented Tuareg artisan Aboubacar; Moussa who always sold me delicious fresh goat meat; a giggle with Aisha at the coffeeshop; my adopted son Mohamed; with my fun co-worker Fofana; me and the always-stylish Sayo; and last, with Ibrahim, Bah, and Bangaly, the great guys who guarded my house, chased my mice, and were there for me on the toughest days.

 

You Say Tomato…

tomato baby

So I’ve written before about the commonalities of “real life” here in Guinea, and I continue to find that true on a daily basis. However, I would not be painting an accurate picture if I didn’t also describe some of the differences that also exist. Sure, there are the obvious differences of language, living conditions, diet, religion, and much more. But the ones that stand out to me the most these days – the ones that alternatively make me laugh and cry – are cross-cultural in nature.

Take telephone calls, for example. Telecommunications have taken Guinea by storm, and everyone seems to have a cell phone. While I live in a large town, my visits to rural communities bear this observation out as well. Even if it’s a very basic “dumb” phone, as Americans would call them, the devices get the job done and are ubiquitous. And Guineans are savvy about using telecommunications for more than just phone calls – one can send money in minutes to a family member across the country or pay a vendor in town simply by tapping a few commands into the phone. (I will admit that I still have never done this myself, and this morning I got a call from a friend in Kankan about a purchase he was going to make for me. I am currently in the capital for a few days, and foolishly I asked how I would get him the money. His response was a patient but pointed, “Caroline, you use your phone!” Riiight.)

But my biggest observation – and I’ll admit it, pet peeve – about cell phones here is that there is no such thing as NOT answering the phone. Whether it is in the midst of a ceremony or a staff meeting, a Guinean will always, always answer the phone. (And yes, the phone will audibly ring – putting it on silent is not a cultural norm either!) The often funnier part (depending on my mood) is what follows. After answering said phone call, say, in the middle of a staff meeting, the person will respond in a hushed whisper, “Je suis en réunion(I’m in a meeting). Ten times out of ten, the caller will not have heard or understood, so invariably the person will repeat, still whispering but now louder, “I said, I’m in a meeting!” Often, this still does not do the trick, and by the third time, the person has either cupped their hand over the mouthpiece while repeating their predicament in a regular tone of voice, or my personal favorite, they are now what I call whisper-shouting, “REUNION! REUNION! Je suis en réunion!” into the phone. Recently, my office was in the midst of a workshop with a trainer who had come from out of town, and not only did the above scenario transpire numerous times, but at one point, the woman sitting next to me – I am not making this up – had somehow twisted her body pretzel-like to get her head UNDER the conference room table, whisper-shouting into her phone “IN A MEETING! IN A MEETING!” The person leading the workshop clearly noticed but never said a word. (I’ll confess the manager in me would not have been so accommodating.) And yes, in case you were wondering, phones here do have voicemail – but to leave a voicemail message is unthinkable and to let a call go to voicemail is equally unheard of.

Does this mean that Guineans value human connection more than Americans do? Or is just rude? Welcome to cross-cultural exchange 101.

Another cultural norm here is that people tend to be brutally honest about ailments or medical conditions. As part of daily greetings which are critically important and valued, going beyond a mere “how are you?,” it is traditional to ask or be asked, “And how is your health?” One morning last week as I was making the usual rounds of greeting my colleagues, I posed this question to my co-worker Abdoulaye. Without missing a beat, he responded, “I’m very constipated today. It’s really a problem.” Why yes, yes it is, I thought in my head, trying to maintain a poker face and to adequately convey concern about his situation at the same time. (I was instantly reminded of a similar memory many years ago from Burkina Faso, where I’ll never forget asking after the health of a friend only to be told point-blank, “Well I have really bad hemorrhoids. But other than that, I’m great!” 😀) Later in the week, Abdoulaye proudly informed me that he had increased his water intake, and “la constipation” was a thing of the past, praise Allah!

On a more serious note, one of the more challenging cross-cultural differences for me here is the common practice of men hitting women (and similarly, adults – including teachers – hitting children). I had not been in Guinea very long when I started hearing the expression “Il l’a corrigé bien!” being used to describe a husband having physically disciplined his wife (my rough translation of this phrase is “Oh, he corrected her, all right!”) In the spirit of cross-cultural exchange, I have not been shy about sharing my belief with friends and coworkers that physical abuse is never appropriate, no matter the situation or the context. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine that I’ll call Ousmane for the sake of privacy arrived at my house and asked if we could speak. Ousmane later explained to me how he shares a concession – basically a group of living accommodations grouped together – with a local family. The father has gone out of town to seek work in one of the local bauxite mines, and he put Ousmane in charge of the household, which includes a teenage daughter. As Ousmane explained it, the girl has been caught many times sneaking out at night with young men. The mother is aware but unable to get her daughter to stop. Ousmane – who is only 25 and less than a decade older than the girl – has talked to her repeatedly, warning her of the dishonor she could bring to her family, let alone the danger she is putting herself in. He has taken away her cell phone. The mother has stopped giving her spending money. Finally Ousmane said, “She went out again last night, and I caught her sneaking back in this morning. I don’t know how to make her understand so, je l’ai corrigé bien. If I don’t hit her, she will not take me seriously. I agree with you that this is not a good practice – but tell me, what else can I do?” I’ll confess I was not as much help as I would have liked in what is certainly a challenging situation – we had a long talk about negative reinforcement, carrot versus stick approach, and consequences. Despite my feelings of inadequacy, I consider it a teeny-tiny win in the cross-cultural exchange department that Ousmane felt comfortable enough approaching me to discuss and wanting to seek out alternatives. But it also makes me sad because this mentality is typically not the norm here.

The former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.” I would add that the challenge of cross-cultural exchange is keeping mind and spirit open, even when the situation before you – whether it be silly or somber – flies in the face of your own norms and belief system.  And some days rising to that challenge can be easier than others.

~ Caroline

Photo above: On a trip to the market to buy veggies, the tomato seller had to put down her baby to make change for me.  He looked up at me right as I snapped this picture.  This image has nothing to do with this post other than…well, tomatoes! (Plus, I just love this photo!)

 

 

 

The List!

IMG_4782I was surprised by the number of people who asked to see Noelle Smith’s list for Peace Corps volunteers of the top 10 ways of making it through the tough times. With big thanks and all credit to Noelle, here you go:

10) Make personal boundaries.
9) Take small bites of time – mark milestones.
8) Listen to your mother: “This, too, shall pass.”
7) Remember it’s just real life here too.
6) Take care of yourself.
5) Do YOUR best.
4) Make friends. See and be seen. Get out of your house!
3) Don’t just do something – stand there. Make friends with boredom.
2) “String your own beads” – keep moments of happiness and contentment close to heart. Remember why you are here.
1) Never forget: you are a freak show! (In other words, you are always going to stand out – just accept it!)

The pictures accompanying this post are not exactly the “tough times,” but I thought it fitting to show that my life here is not just moments on the beach or dance parties in the street. Above, me doing my laundry, African-style. (God, I miss my washing machine!) Below, during the FOURTEEN hour car-ride back from Conakry, the roof rack broke after one too many massive potholes on these terrible Guinean roads, so we had to pull over to unload everything – including twenty 25 kg bags of salt, a TV monitor, printer cartridges, luggage, and yes, an array of hearty pineapples bought from a roadside vendor. And lastly, an emergency repair session: the Chaco’s I wear everyday are sadly coming apart, and this is my attempt to fix with 10 cent crazy glue and my trusty Leatherman.

Yup, it’s real life here too. Bon week-end à tous!

~ Caroline

Morning surprise

IMG_4760I already posted this picture on Facebook, but I love it so much that I am sharing here too. I was in the capital Conakry this past week for a workshop at the World Food Programme country office. After months in the SUPER dry and dusty region of Haute Guinée (we are in the full-on dry season – I haven’t and likely won’t see rain the entire duration of my stay), it was wonderful to feel and smell the salty ocean air along Conakry’s coast. On Thursday morning, I arrived about 30 minutes early, so I decided to quickly go put my toes in the sand since the beach is a stone’s throw from the WFP office. Not only was this part of the beach super clean – a rarity as most of Conakry’s beaches are sadly covered with trash – but it was also the practice “ring” for a Guinean wrestling team. At first, I was watching from afar, wanting to be respectful of their training. But once they noticed me, they kept waving me over and immediately asked if I wanted to film them. I am no big wrestling fan, but their skill and focus was impressive, not to mention the fact they were practicing on hot sand, not a wrestling mat! I was enthusiastically invited to their big match at a Conakry stadium in a few weeks. The above picture was taken just as I was heading off. While it looks a bit cozier than it really was (the guy in the middle grabbed my hands at the last minute – nothing to worry about, Rob Hammock!), I adore this photo as it exemplifies the every day friendliness and joy that Guineans possess. And I love it even more after one of my friends on Facebook described it as a kind of “reverse Baywatch.” Eat your heart out, David Hasslehoff. 😃

~ Caroline

 

It’s real life here too

IMG_4644When I was in training to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso in 2002, my group had the good fortune of having a wise woman named Noelle Smith as our training coordinator. Having served in the Peace Corps in Niger (what many would call “hard core Peace Corps”) as well as a training coordinator for many years, Noelle certainly understood the highs and lows that were ahead of us. Just before we were sworn into service, she shared with us her “Top 10 Ways for Making It through the Tough Times,” something I wrote in my journal and referred to often. Here in Guinea, I have to say that her sage advice still holds. My personal favorite of Noelle’s top 10 list remains: “Always remember: you are a freak show!” – in other words, you are always going to stand out, you will always be the center of attention. Just accept it! I used to say in my little village in Burkina that I couldn’t sneeze without everyone knowing about it – all eyes were constantly on me. It is not that much different here in Kankan, where I hear “Tubabu!” pretty much from dawn until dusk, and my most mundane activities, from buying produce to riding my bike to eating lunch, are met with enormous curiosity.

But it is actually another one of the top 10 that has been ringing through my head recently. As Noelle would say, “Remember, it’s just real life here too.” While there are still things that happen or things I experience which keenly remind me that, as Dorothy told her little dog, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” I’m actually more struck by the occurrences that have nothing to do with the exotic and have everything to do with the human experience. For example, I was walking down the road today and passed a child crying loudly in his family’s yard because his mom was bathing him and inadvertently got soap into his eyes (ok, granted, in the US, we don’t bathe our children outside! But we’ve all been that kid – or parent – at some point). Also, I have started doing English conversation lessons with some of the female students at the local university and have gotten to know a lovely young woman named Djeneba. She was describing her family and became emotional when talking about her father; she went on to explain that she is the first child in her family to attend university and how worried she is that she will disappoint her dad if she doesn’t get good grades or a good job upon graduation. Another example – one that had to chuckle at – happened one evening this week when the youth that lives across the way came over to seek some advice from my gardiens. After a very animated conversation in local language, it was then explained to me in French that Sidiki has his eye on a certain young lady at school but isn’t quite sure how to ask her out; the other guys were teasing him and giving him some romance advice. (I am fairly certain I missed the “locker room” version of this discussion when they were speaking in Malinke!) And, on a more serious note, one of the gardiens fell ill this week, and with each passing day, he was clearly getting worse. When I told him that he needed to stay home and rest, he looked me – sweating with a high fever and glassy-eyed – and simply said, “Madame, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. And if I don’t get paid, I don’t eat.” All of a sudden, I wasn’t in West Africa anymore – I was in the US, reminded of those who don’t have paid sick leave or health insurance.

So, yes, it is “real life” here too. Which is not to say that it isn’t often tempered with just a wee bit of cross-cultural difference. As in Burkina, I don’t even bat an eyelash when someone is talking about his third (or fourth) wife – polygamy is extremely common here. My daily commute to work feels quite normal – parents taking their kids to school, people on cell phones while driving – until I have to dodge a group of goats or wait for cattle to cross in front of me. It gives new meaning to the term “traffic jam”!

Part of real life here is also finally understanding the rhythms and norms of each day. For example, bananas grow abundantly in Guinea and are dirt-cheap. Have them for breakfast, you say? Well, after weeks of never finding them in the morning in roadside stalls, I finally made a comment to someone at work – who then replied very matter-of-factly, “Caroline, why would you look for bananas in the morning? No one eats bananas in the morning. It is bad for your stomach. Bananas are eaten at night.” And voilà  – on my evening bike ride home from work, I finally notice that every street vendor I pass has bananas for sale on their table! Ditto with beans, which are a staple here and – prepared well – pretty yummy. But I could not find them anywhere at lunchtime. Again, a co-worker to the rescue – I now know that beans are purely a breakfast thing (good for digestion, they say), and I have become a morning regular at the bean stall just around the corner from the WFP office. I also now know the good times of day to buy a fresh baguette, the cultural norms around phone calls (no one leaves voicemails, just keep calling until the person picks up), and the fact that I need to bring lots of small currency to a wedding to toss to the bride, the elders, the musicians, and the dancers.

I am grateful to know all of these things – and am keenly aware that I could be here for years and would still have so much to learn. And I am grateful to the Guinean people for sharing their very real life with me. But shh, let’s just not tell them that secretly I am eating bananas for breakfast and beans for lunch, ok? 😃

May there be peace in your day,

Caroline

Some scenes of real life: Top row, left to right – At the coffee shop after church (I am always the only woman there!), my gardien Magassouba making traditional tea, my friend Sali doling out money at a wedding, me with the mother of the groom. Bottom row, left to right – Getting a lesson in welding, with the banana sellers’ association on Guinean Independence Day.

There’s a Laurent around every corner

IMG_3979Several people have asked if being in Africa for Christmas makes me homesick. The truth is that it hardly feels like Christmas here – today’s temperature was in the low 90s, the harmattan (dry, dusty wind) is in full force, and I hear the Muslim call to prayer five times per day. This is not my first Christmas in Africa, and in many ways, I prefer the lack of commercialism and idealized “perfect” Christmas that US society sets us up to expect. Regardless, I did wake up today thinking of my family and friends and wondering if I wouldn’t find myself just a little blue despite myself. Last night, I had attended a small holiday get-together hosted by the local American missionaries (replete with candy canes and Hershey kisses – yay for a taste of home!) followed by attending an exuberant “midnight” (9:30 pm!) Mass that lasted two hours. Those were my only set holiday activities, so today loomed with hours that I was not quite sure how I would fill.

After sleeping in and being fairly lazy most of the morning, around noon I went back by the church to greet people (and discovered that today’s service lasted THREE and a half hours long – for the record, whoever doesn’t think the future of the Catholic Church is in Africa is not paying attention!) Admittedly, I also went to check out the women’s outfits, since last night’s service largely occurred in the dark. I am mesmerized by African couture – the fabrics, the colors, the styles – all are amazing, made even more so by the fact that they are handmade by local tailors on very simple sewing machines and without the use of any formal patterns. After eyeing the fashions, shaking hands with about 100 children, greeting some acquaintances, meeting the visiting bishop, and posing for pictures, I was ready for lunch and decided to treat myself to the Senegalese restaurant in town. For $1.75, I was served a heaping plate of yassa poulet (rice and chicken in a spicy caramelized onion sauce). About halfway through my meal, a group of tubabus showed up, along with what appeared to be two Guinean guides. Seating at the restaurant is communal, and naturally the owner thought all of the white people should sit together, so the group joined me at my table. We began chatting, and I learned that they were Spanish, with two of them living and working in the capital Conakry, and the others visiting from home. As I was getting ready to leave, one of the women turned to me and asked if I would like to join them for an African dance lesson later on in the day. I don’t know why my inner introvert chose this moment to disappear, but I found myself saying, “Sure, why not?”

A couple hours later, the Guinean guides picked me up, and we drove to a nearby neighborhood. They called to me in the back seat of the car, “This will be a better place than the main road….you know, less traffic.” I was utterly confused and had to ask them to repeat themselves. “For the dancing, Madame. We need a road, but not a road that has too many cars on it.” What? The whole time, I had been imagining that we would be going to a private courtyard or the home of whoever was giving the dance lesson. As the Spaniards pulled up behind us and we all got out of our cars, I watched as the guides went over to a small group of people sitting on the side of the dirt road. They explained that they had arranged for some music and dancing, and would it be ok if we set up in front of them? It would be “ambience” for the neighborhood, they added. Without missing a beat, the neighborhood folks said, “Sure, no problem!” and next thing I knew, more and more people had shown up. My new Spanish friends and I were now standing in the middle of a giant circle (along with two drummers and the instructor) with a crowd of women, men, and children staring back at us. We were then told to take our shoes off so that we could truly experience African dancing to its fullest. And then, standing barefoot on a dirty, dusty, rocky unpaved road, I experienced a Christmas unlike no other. For over an hour, we were led through a series of arm shaking, leg winding, hip gyrating, head twisting moves, all to the primal beat of African drums. Our instructor made it look sooooo easy – and it was most definitely not easy! The crowd seemed to just keep getting bigger around us, with almost everyone taking pictures or filming (I can only guess how many random Facebook pages my bad dance moves are now appearing on!) But the onlookers also seemed to love our efforts and embrace of their culture. When I finally sat down, the man next to me gave me two ‘thumbs up’ and added, “Vous êtes brave!” It was also when I sat down that I noticed my feet – so covered in the dust of the road that I could barely make out my toenail polish!

Today’s impromptu dance lesson embodies what I like to call the “There’s a Laurent around every corner” principle. This harkens back to my training to become a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso in 2002. It was an intense time – I was sick a large part of the training, the climate and the food were overwhelming, the degree of poverty and standard of living left me shell-shocked, and worst of all, my roommate and I had been robbed during our homestay. Not long after this occurred and feeling pretty sorry for ourselves, my roommate and I decided to go for a walk, the whole way bemoaning how unhappy we were, how “crazy” this place was, and how nothing was going right. We somehow ended up at a restaurant that we had never seen before. Off the beaten path, it was hidden behind a large gate, revealing a lovely oasis inside. When we sought out directions on how to get back home, the owner instead offered us a seat and brought us ice cold Coca Colas (which we tried to decline, since most of our money had been stolen – he insisted it was on the house). When we commented how much we liked the music that was playing on the stereo in the background, he said “Oh, I’ll get it for you!” and then proceeded to make us each a cassette copy (music I still have to this day and love). We ended up staying in that restaurant for over two hours. All of a sudden, every negative feeling I had about Burkina went out the window. The owner’s name was Laurent, and he was exactly who I needed to meet in that moment and in that place.

This happens over and over again here in West Africa. It can be the neighbor who brings you a surprise plate of food, somehow knowing you have nothing left to cook at home. It can be the random woman you meet on the street who ends up being your best tailor. I’ll probably never have another Christmas where I am making a fool of myself and dancing like a crazy lady on a dirt road with dozens of sets of eyes on me. But I can’t wait to see what the next unexpected experience brings. Because here in Africa, I am pretty sure there’s a Laurent around every corner.

Happy Christmas!

~ Caroline