Thursday, May 31, 2012

Next steps - Guinea!

After evacuation from Mali was announced, I knew that no matter what happened I wasn't done with Peace Corps, and Peace Corps wasn't done with me. I applied for a new position, this time as a Peace Corps Response volunteer, which is somewhat different from being a Volunteer. As described on the Peace Corps website,
Peace Corps Response offers seasoned professionals the opportunity to undertake short-term, high-impact assignments in various programs around the world. Positions average six months in length and are designed to address development needs as identified by the host country.
Volunteers who have completed two years of service are also invited to apply for Response positions, and in fact until recently only returned volunteers were eligible for Response. After a intensive yet rushed application process, I was invited to serve as Malaria Program Coordinator for Peace Corps Guinea, with a departure date of June 4th, 2012. While I complain jokingly about the length of the process (five weeks from start to finish for Response), the equivalent process to get my invitation to Mali took ten months.

So, Guinea. Where exactly is that again? It's been a popular question recently. A fun game I like to play is "name the Guineas!" Pinpoint as many as you can on the map:
  • Papua New Guinea 
  • New Guinea
  • Equatorial Guinea 
  • The Gulf of Guinea
  • Guinea Bissau
  • Guinea
A little confused? So was I at first. Here's the answer key:
  • Papua New Guinea is a country that lies on the island of New Guinea (two in one, how about that?) just north of Australia. The west half of the island of New Guinea consists of two Indonesian provinces.
  • Equatorial Guinea lies on the coast of central Africa, and was cohost of the African Cup of Nations this year, a continent-wide soccer tournament.
  • The Gulf of Guinea is found on the western coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. Countries with coasts on the Gulf of Guinea include Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and, of course, Equatorial Guinea.
  • Guinea-Bissau is a relatively small country located in West Africa, bordering Senegal and Guinea.
That leaves ... Guinea. Also known as the Republic of Guinea, this country of approximately 10 million people (about the population of the states of Michigan or Georgia) is located in West Africa. It borders Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Mali to the north, Côte d'Ivoire to the east, and Liberia and Sierra Leone to the south. The capital city, Conakry, lies on the coast and is home to 2.3 million people (a fifth of the population), and will also be my home for the next nine to twelve months. It's about 600 miles (1000 kilometers) from Bamako.

I'll write a longer post about Guinea and in particular its malaria outlook, but here are a few basic facts to start off. According to the World Bank, Guinea is among the poorest countries in the world, with over 43% of the population living under $1.25 (PPP)* per day. In comparison, Mali is even poorer, with over 50% living below the same level. About 85% of Guineans are Muslim, and about 10% are Christian, numbers that aren't too different from its neighbors Mali and Senegal.  Bauxite is the country's major export, but almost a third of the world's known supply of this essential component of aluminum are found within Guinea's borders.

Coming off of my experience of political strife and conflict in Mali, I was interested to look at the current situation in Guinea. Could Guinea experience a coup in the next few months or other unrest worthy of an evacuation? After reading my previous posts about the evolution of events in Mali, I wouldn't be surprised if you were asking the same question too. At the risk of seeming paranoid or pessimistic, here are some of the things that struck me in my readings on Guinea.

After a half century of dictatorship, Guinea still has a lot of work to do and that's to be expected. The current president, Alpha Condé, is the first democratically elected head of state since independence from France in 1958. Several weeks ago, there were violent clashes between civilians and security forces in Conakry as protesters accused President Condé of stalling in front of legislative elections and planning to rig them, which saw at least 40 people injured. On Tuesday, News24 reported that opponents of Condé allege 60 or more protesters are still being detained by the government. In addition, last July, nine months before the coup in Mali, there was a coup attempt in Guinea during which the the president's residence was shelled. President Condé himself was unharmed.

Peace Corps has struggled with the question of stability in Guinea. Volunteers have been evacuated from the country twice in recent years, first in 2007 following civil unrest. The program reopened shortly after and operated until September 2009, when security forces massacred over 150 protesters. International condemnation was swift but volunteer security was in question, so they were evacuated and the program was temporarily suspended. According to Peace Corps Wiki, Response volunteers returned to Guinea in December 2010, and the first stage since reopening the program was 22 education volunteers who arrived in July 2011.  Ironically, during the 2009 evacuation, Guinea volunteers were sent to the Peace Corps Mali training center outside of Bamako, where we Mali volunteer spent our last days before evacuation.

It sounds like Peace Corps Guinea is still rebuilding its capacity following the most recent evacuation as there are relatively few volunteers in country at the moment, at least not compared to the 180 in Mali. At this point in time, I see some warning signs that should be heeded but no reason why Guinea would be more likely to go down the road of conflict than many of its neighbors. Protests don't always snowball into coups or conflicts. Looking around, despite hot conflicts in a number of neighboring countries in past decades, Guinea has remained relatively calm. At this point in time, the challenges it faces in consolidating its democracy are not necessarily greater than those of other countries in West Africa.

So, on to Guinea! I have heard wonderful things about the country and its people. We were all told that if we went to another country with Peace Corps we should try not to compare it too much to Mali at the risk of being disappointed. So I'm excited to step into Guinea with an open heart and mind, ready to embrace its own uniqueness.

*PPP, short for Purchasing Power Parity, is a statistical tool which allows for the direct comparison of the cost of identical products and services between countries by accounting for exchange rates. More in-depth definitions of PPD, which are commonly used in analysis of poverty levels, can be found on the websites of the UN and the OECD.