A Typical Day
- Africa, Guinea
Every day, whether I want to or not, I wake up when the rooster crows at dawn. As I climb out of the mosquito net that hangs over my bamboo bed, I hear swish-swish sounds outside my mud hut—the women have already begun sweeping leaves from the courtyard. After wrapping a tie-dyed pagna (a long rectangular piece of cloth) around my waist as a skirt, I head to the communal water pump. On the way, I greet my neighbor, who is lighting wood for a fire in order to heat up last night's leftover rice?breakfast for her family of 10. I shoo the chickens out of my way as I awkwardly carry the heavy bucket of cold water back to my house, trying not to splash it all over myself. (Unfortunately, I still haven't mastered balancing it on my head, as all the local people do so skillfully.) When I return to my hut, I boil water for my daily cup of tea, and turn on the shortwave radio to catch the BBC's World News Report. As the British reporter tells me all about my homeland, I quickly wash myself by dumping water over my head with a plastic cup. By the time I've finished my "bucket bath" and gotten dressed, the water is boiling. I put the freshly dried tea leaves into the mug and pour the rest of the hot water into a thermos for later use. While the kenkeliba (tea) is steeping, I leave my hut and walk down the dirt path to where a bunch of women are sitting in a circle, selling warm bread, fresh milk, and rice porridge. After greeting them in their native language, Malinke, and buying a bowl of porridge for 100 francs (less than 20 cents), I return home to eat the porridge, drink my tea, and write in my journal.
At 7:30 a.m., I load my bag with my teaching materials, hop on my bike, and head to the high school, which is on the other side of town, two kilometers away. During the rainy season, it feels like I'm riding through an obstacle course?hundreds of small puddles are scattered along the road. During the dry season, it feels like I'm riding through the desert?the sun is unbearably hot, the ground is sandy, and there's no shade.
At one point, the road to the school dips down at a steep angle, then curves back up a long hill. To make it up the hill, I try to gain as much speed as possible as I descend the first hill. The problem is that the road is full of middle school and high school students, all wearing blue and white uniforms, and I must do all I can to avoid running into them!
"Miss Kim, l'americaine!" they yell out, as I fly by them. Arriving at the school, I lock up my bike under a large mango tree, next to the other bicycles, motorcycles, and scooters belonging to the other teachers. The high school consists of six rectangular brick buildings that have doorways and openings for windows, but no doors, glass windows, or shutters have ever been installed. Most of the classrooms are built on dirt floors. Each room has long wooden benches with attached desks on which students must sit, elbow-to-elbow, for three two-hour-long classes a day, Monday through Saturday.
I teach English to four different classes, a total of 20 hours a week. Two of my classes have only 10 to12 students, but the other two have 45 to 60 kids. No students in Guinea have dictionaries or English textbooks, so they must spend half of each class copying words, grammar rules, and texts that I write on the blackboard. On special days we play Simon Says, practice Tongue Twisters, or translate American songs. English is becoming more and more important to the Guineans, as they consider it the "business language" of the world. English is also necessary in order to understand the instructions that accompany their American-made radios, the warnings on imported medicine bottles, and even the logos on Nike T-shirts. Furthermore, many English-speaking refugees from neighboring countries are immigrating to Guinea in order to escape from the wars in their native lands. Because of this increased interest in speaking English, I offer many one-on-one tutoring sessions in my home to students and adults in the community.
On the way home from work each day, I stop in the outdoor market to get some bread and vegetables for lunch. When purchasing products in the market, there is rarely a set price for anything, so I barter to get a good price. This is where speaking the local language does wonders! As soon as you greet the banana vendor, he'll offer you a price on his bananas. If you're a white person, the first price he tells you will most likely be relatively expensive because most Africans believe that all white people are very rich. But once you speak to him in his native language and prove to him that you aren't a wealthy tourist, he'll charge you less for the bananas. If you return the next day, he'll lower the price even more. And if you continually greet him by his first name and ask him how his family is (in his native language, of course), the price will go down even more, and he'll even give you a couple of extra bananas as a gift.
It usually takes me almost an hour to get home, simply because I have to stop and say "Hello" to so many people. In Guinea, salutations are the key to good relationships. In addition to stopping to greet everyone I know, I go out of my way to greet the elders, for they are the wise, most respected members of the community. There is even a special way of shaking their hands to show respect and humility. After I greet them, they will call out a whole list of benedictions in which they ask God to bless me, to protect me, to secure my health, to bring me happiness, and to give me luck. After every blessing, I must call out "Amina," which is their equivalent of "Amen."
By the time I arrive back home, I'm hot and exhausted. Sometimes I take a nap before preparing my lesson plans for the next day. Later in the day, I often visit friends and, together, we make tea, go for walks, joke around, and eat dinner.
On Wednesdays, my friend Koulako teaches me a traditional recipe. We go to the market to buy our ingredients?rice, spices, grains, and a live chicken, which we kill, pluck, and gut as soon as we arrive home. Using a mortar and pestle, we grind up our spices. Next, we cut wood and light a small fire between three basketball-sized rocks. We then cook rice, chicken, and sauce in a kettle over the fire.
I share this meal with Koulako and her entire family of 12. We all eat with our hands (no silverware) from big bowls. All of the men share one big bowl, the women eat from another, and the kids from another. Koulako's family is large, which is typical, partly because the Muslim religion permits a man to have up to four wives. Koulako's husband has three wives, each of whom has at least three children. Sometimes I notice jealousy among these women and tension between the children. But Koulako doesn't mind having co-wives because they take turns cooking and doing housework. Cooking with wood, washing clothes and dishes by hand, and collecting water from a well is extremely tiring and time-consuming. I myself can testify to that!
I have to admit that the washing machine is the appliance that I miss the most. Washing clothes by hand takes hours and I can never seem to get those white shirts completely clean! Not having phones that work regularly nor constant electricity was difficult at first, but with time I got used to it. When it gets dark, I simply light my paraffin lamp as well as a few candles. During the full moon, the natural light is so bright that flashlights aren't even needed outside. And instead of using e-mail or telephones, I mail handwritten letters that take about a month to arrive in the United States. It requires patience, flexibility, and a good sense of humor. When things get tough, I try to step back and laugh. The Peace Corps is definitely an adventure!