Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Arrival in Conakry

After a six-hour delay in Dakar I arrived in Conakry late Sunday night. I received the royal treatment of a home-cooked meal upon arrival at the volunteer house, which never tastes better than after traveling on meager airplane food. So far my life has been mostly confined to Peace Corps property, trying to get through various administrative tasks in order to formalize my stay here, get my bank account up and running to receive local currency, do laundry, check out my apartment, get a Guinean SIM card for my phone, etc.

More importantly, I've jumped straight into work. Yesterday was an overview of the office, staff, my orientation schedule (including language and cultural training), planning for the new training group that arrives in exactly two weeks, and mapping out the health system in Guinea. Today I did even more running around the office, met again with Public Health technical trainer Madiou Diallo to discuess malaria in Guinea and then we drove out to meet with partners at PSI and the National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP). Although we were not able to meet everyone we wanted to, we started to lay the groundwork for future partnerships and scheduled meetings for the coming weeks. So far most people are extremely receptive and interested in partnering with Peace Corps and Stomping Out Malaria in Africa. To my delight the two women we met with at the NMCP spoke Bambara, so we chatted for about ten minutes in the language I spoke at site in Mali. As always they were impressed with Peace Corp's ability to train its volunteers in local languages. I'm hoping to begin learning Pulaar in a week or so, another language which is very common in the region of West Africa.

I learned yesterday from our Safety and Security Officer that the two recent evacuations in Peace Corps Guinea's history had nothing to do with volunteer safety. Instead the issues were related to politics (evacuation of all US non-essential staff, which includes the Peace Corps Country Director) and logistics (in the midst of serious strikes which shut down the whole country, Peace Corps was unable to maintain support for volunteers). While that may reassure some of you concerned about my well-being, it doesn't do much against the joke that Guinea is "due" for another coup soon.

The Peace Corps Guinea staff is warm and welcoming just like I have found staff all over West Africa to be, and you would never know they'd been through evacuations if you didn't know the history. It will be a pleasure to work in the same office with them for the coming months. Also, it turns out that the office (and my apartment) are just off the beach. I was welcomed my first evening in Conakry by a beautiful sunset over the Atlantic. Life could be harder.

Conakry has a very different feel than other developing capitals I've been in. Thin, winding, dilapidated (yet paved) streets weave around rundown concrete houses in the neighborhood where the office is. At night there is very little electricity, so a lot of people go outside to walk around the marginally better-lit streets. The most striking difference for me is the vegetation and proximity to the ocean. Compared to Bamako and Dakar the city has a distinctly tropical feel. I'm excited to get out of Conakry in the coming weeks to plan pre-service training modules on malaria for the new volunteers, and eventually to visit the sites of current volunteers!

In the news on Guinea, it looks like the country will miss its national economic growth targets because of the slowing pace of bauxite (a major ingredient in aluminum) and diamond mining. Bauxite mining is a huge industry in Guinea since the country owns an estimated third of the world's reserves. The slowdown is partly blamed on workers demanding better pay, who are continuing Guinea's rich history of strikes.

Back in Mali, negotiations between the group Ansar Dine and Burkinabe mediator Blaise Compaore appear to be going well, where thousands of ECOWAS troops are standing by to retake control of northern Mali. However, there is still no progress on UN approval for an intervention so ECOWAS is unlikely to move anytime soon.