"Guinea" Pig

A random collection of thoughts, experiences, and incidents from my time in Guinea.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Au Revoir Guinea!

My last day in Guinea. The day I have been waiting for the last 3 months. Like Christmas morning when you can't sleep the night before because you are so excited about what the next day brings. I had to stop myself from packing 5 days ago. I have made more than 4 trips downtown to buy souvenirs to bring home...painting, masks, statues, cloth. I have gotten together all my uneaten food and unused toiletries and donated them to the Peace Corps volunteers, who proclaimed it really was Christmas!

They had a party for me at work today. I told them I would be coming at noon to say goodbye to everyone, and in true Guinea style, they planned the lunch party for 1:30 and no one told me. So I had to make 2 trips. But they had a great spread for lunch: chicken, fish, fried plantains, french fries, salad, shaved manioc, and pimante sauce. Unfortunately many of the people I spoke with the most in the office were not there because they were out of town. But they said some nice words. And they gave me beautiful statue as a gift. And we took pictures. Sometimes 10 of the same picture because everyone wanted their picture taken, and not many people actually knew how to operate the camera.

So what will I miss most about Guinea? Will I miss the bush taxis where the driver pulls over to the side of the road so he can get out and pee on some fence while I am squished in the back seat with 3 other Guineans waiting? Will I miss the constant interrogations into my marital status from everyone, including bush taxi drivers? Will I miss little kids yelling Fote everytime I pass, as if I wasn't aware that I am a white person? Will I miss the market ladies who grab me by the arm, literally pulling me over to their shops? And the rain, the never ending rain that attempts to wash the city clean, day after day, but only achieves a muddy mess. Will I miss the rain?

Perhaps I won't know what I miss until I actually am gone. I think it may take me awhile to fully process my experience. But I do know that I made it. Three months on my own in a completely foreign experience and I have survived!! And when I get back to the comforts of the States and I can fully appreciate every luxury I have that most take for granted, then I will remember my time in Guinea. And everytime, I will learn a little more about what my time here has meant to me.

Au revoir Guinea.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Tapeworms, Amoebas, and Salmonella...Oh My!

I guess you haven't really lived in a developing country until you come down with some sort of weird tropical ailment. And until a couple weeks ago...I was still a tourist in this strange land. But then I recieved my first parasite...and well, I think my status here in Guinea has climbed the ranks.

Now don't think it was all parties and cocktails for my initiation. Oh no. Getting sick is no picnic. And certainly not in a third-world country. If you think it is a pain when you get sick in the States and have to go to the doctor, then you should really see what it is like getting sick in Guinea.

First off, I didn't have the kind of debilitating illness that keeps me bedridden...in fact, I will reserve the exact nature and details of my sickness, because this is a public blog, and I do not want to gross out anyone! Let's just suffice it to say that after a while, I realized I wasn't getting better on my own, and was finally resigned to see a doctor. Because I don't know where the doctors are, nor how to make and appointment, etc. Someone from work had to accompany me to the clinic and assist me in signing in in French. I was assured that the doctor spoke English and therefore was on my own once I got into his office. Of course, this is Guinea, and the doctor's English was about as good as my French.

So we went back and forth, half speaking English, half French, to try and explain my illness to him. And in about 5 minutes he decides I must have some sort of amoebas or giardia (from bad food and water) and gives me a prescription. But also he says, just in case, I need to have blood work and a stool sample done. So my colleague Mai walks me to the lab where they take blood, and I almost faint (because I am not good as this sort of thing). And then the doctor asks me if I brought my own stool sample. As if I just carry one around in my purse! "Well no," I answer. So he ushers me off to the "bathroom" (and I use this description loosely) to procure a sample. But me, I have never been good at using the bathroom on command, and thus have no luck that day. So instead, I have to come back the next day with a sample from home.

So there we are. Not only did my colleague have to take half of her day to bring me down to the clinic, but now she has to make a special trip with me tomorrow, just so we can bring in my stool sample. And it is no small trip to get all the way downtown either. Can this get any worse? Seriously.

Then the third day, we have to go back again and get the results, which I assume at this point are merely formality since he already gave me a prescription. But apparently not, because I go into the office of the doctor who looks at my lab charts and tells me I have a taenia. Well great...maybe if I was fluent in French I would know what the hell that was. He tries to explain in his best English that I have a tropical worm. "Very hard to kill," he informs me. Fantastic. The one thing I feared most is the one thing I get. A worm (and later at home with my French dictionary I find out this is a tapeworm!) that is living and growing inside of me. Sucking all my nutrients just so it can grown bigger and stronger. Ugh! Ick!

So he gives me different medicine, with instructions to take it once the next day, and once again 2 weeks later. And then a month later get retested to make sure its gone. And then I go home, well actually back to work. Mortified and nof eeling worse than ever because I can't stop thinking about the living being inhabiting my intestines! But nevertheless, I decide it is better to know than not know. And I even become a good sport and name my worm, Basil, because it's easier to focus on despising and killing something when you know who you are dealing with. And I take my medicine. Which makes me even sicker because of the side effects, and I wait...expecting it to just magically desintegrate and for me to forget I ever had a problem!

But that's not how it happens. That would be too easy. And that would be very unGuinean-like. Because really, I don't get better. In fact, I just gradually get worse and worse. So I decide that perhaps a second opinion is needed. And preferably one I can understand. Therefore I decide to use my connections and go speak with the Peace Corps doctor who speaks English very well. Legally he is not allowed to treat me, because I am not a volunteer, but he has consulted with me in the past and can give me good advice.

So I go to him and explain my symptoms and my medicine. And he tells me that tapeworms are in fact asymptomatic, and that even if I had one, I probably also have something else to be making me so sick. And he suggests going to a different clinic and getting more bloodwork and stool tests done. Ok then. Back for my fourth trip to the clinic in Guinea. And this time I am prepared. I bring my own stool sample from home! It's the only way to travel really.

And the next day the new lab technician calls the peace corps doctor with my results. Lo and behold, I do not have a tapeworm. At least not one they have found. But I do apparently have ameobas and salmonella. Both surprisingly more comforting than a tapeworm. And then the doctor recommends more medicine for me, an antibiotic and antiparasitic drug. He also tells me that the medicine I took before for the tapeworm was in fact prescribed wrong, and that normally that medicine has such bad side effects that you should take it with an anti-nausea medication as well. But of course my first Guinean doctor was wrong on all counts and just giving false diagnoses and improper medicine, with ill-informed instructions. Too bad malpractice doesn't even exist here!

So two weeks of missed work, and over $130US (for doctor visit's, lab work, and medicine) later, I am finally feeling back to normal. It's really unfortunate though. Because the first clinic I went to is supposedly reputable in Conakry, and obviously very expensive. I am a white NGO worker here, and the doctor visit and lab work alone ($60) costs me more than I spend in a month just on food and incidentals. Not only that, but had I not had the peace corps doctor to consult for a second opinion, they may never had figured out what was wrong with me. And I can't imagine how many other people spend their month's wages just to come to the doctor and get diagnosed improperly and never even get better. At least I could afford to go to another clinic to have more tests done. Other people may not be so lucky. And this is in the capital city, Conakry! The villages are far worse and you are lucky if there is even one medical center per community with one doctor who may, or may not, be qualified.

It is a wonder that there is not a national health pandemic here! And really, I guess if you check out the UN development stats on the country, you might interpret that it really is that serious.

Monday, August 07, 2006


So here I was thinking I was living a life of luxury in Guinea, when it all started falling apart around me. Literally! Piece by piece, I began losing every amenity I enjoyed. But it is rainy season here in Conakry, and crazy things do happen...

First, it was the dryer that broke down. Not a big deal...I still have a washer, I can still use the dryer at the volunteer house...or yet still, I could actually hang dry my clothes like the rest of the country! Not something to complain about.

Then, when my friend and her parents were visiting from Sierra Leone, we had an electricity surge. Now electricity in Guinea is very unpredictable, not only for when city power is available, but also how much power is available. On this particular day, the city electricity surged up to 350V, from 250V which is normal. The guards for my house, who are responsible for changing electricity over to the generator when city power is not available, were apparently either not paying attention, or did not recognize this surge as a threat. So for over 5 minutes, every light in the house went up to super intensity, the transformers were making horrible buzzing noises as they fought to control the current, and we in the house stood there in shock, feeling as if we were in some Sci-Fi thriller.

After a minute all the surge protectors in Guinea couldn't ward off the impending electric brigade. First, the computer cord caved, going down in a flurry of smoke, and I retaliated by rushing to rip all the plugs out of the outlets. Then the popping noises... Like gunfire, appliances all over the house began breaking under their own power. I rushed out to the yard, yelling at the guards to turn off the electricity...well, mostly make wild arm motions since I had no idea how to say that in French.

When it was all over we had lost three air conditioning units (including the large ones in the living room), the microwave, and my friend's computer cord, which began oozing some unidentifiable goo.

In the next couple of days it also became evident that the pool pump was no longer working either. But it cannot be determined if this happened during the great electricity surge of August 2006, or whether it was simply another victim of the rainy season. Nevertheless, in two days time it turned completely green, and I was ready to fill it with Koi and lily pads so that we would have our very own fish pond.

In addition to complete breakdowns, there have also been various difficulties with water shortages and the cleaning man has failed to regularly keep up with his duties. But the mechanics have come, and are in the process of fixing everything...most likely in time for the owner to return! And through it all I have maintained use of the internet and cable tv...really the things I came to to Guinea for to begin with...so I can't say its been completely awful:)