Sunday, October 21, 2012


You'll never guess who shook my hand last week.  Go ahead and try... Give up?  It was the President of Guinea!  Yeah, you read that right, the President (as in 'Hail to the Chief') of Guinea (as in Country of).  Isn't that wild?!
I knew something was up when I looked out the window during class and saw guys with guns buzzing around our ship in a little speedboat.  As it happens, President Alpha Conde was touring a great big French Navy Vessel that had been parked behind us on the docks for the last few weeks, and I had caught a glimpse of what amounts to the amphibious wing of the Guinea Secret Service (only not really secret, considering the ginormous guns).  Since he was already in the neighborhood, the President decided to drop by the Africa Mercy as well.  So the announcement was made that if we want to hear the President speak we need to be in the International Lounge at 15:00, wearing our Sunday best, otherwise stay out of sight. Oh, and if you were planning to leave the ship, you can forget it on account of the small army(!) that is now guarding the gangway.  Since I was done teaching, I thought I'd go and hear what he had to say.  As we all waited in the International Lounge for the President and his entourage of ministers and guardians to finish their tour of the hospital, we were prepped on proper President-listening behaviour.  Basically, you stand up when he comes in and wait for someone important to tell you you can sit down again.  Not too complicated, right?  But I don't mind telling you that the longer we waited for him to come, the more nervous I became.  What if I mess it all up somehow?  What if I sneeze in the middle of his speech?  I began to wish I had washed my hair and shaved my legs that morning, or taken an extra fifteen minutes to put on some make-up.  I'm pretty sure I could actually feel my leg hairs growing. 
After what was probably less than the three hours it felt like, he finally came.  Like people at a wedding, we all rose to our feet and watched him process up to his special chair at the front of the room.  Then, we sat down.  Phew!  No international incidents so far.  Donovan Palmer (our Head Guy) gave a very nice presentation on what Mercy Ships does and stuff, and then President Conde rose and gave a speech of his own.  He struck me as a very eloquent and genuine speaker.  He said he was surprised to find that we were an international group (and not just from the United States) and that there were whole families living and working on the ship.  He also shared some of his hopes and aspirations for Guinea, and thanked us for changing the lives of the people we're able to help.  It was a lovely speech, and at the end of it, he said, "I would like to shake each one of you by the hand!"
I'm sure it drove his security guys crazy.  Nevertheless, President Alpha Conde walked up and down each row of seats (a rather squishy affair since there's not much space between rows), looked each one of us in the eye, and with a quiet 'thank you,' shook our hands.
One of my mom's favourite verses to quote is, "For you do not know what a day will bring forth." To which I can only add a hearty Amen.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

To Market

I remember a moment almost exactly twelve years ago when I was walking on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle with my room mate Sarah.  We were freshmen then, just a few weeks into the whole college experience, still aching with homesickness and anxiety.  I think we'd ventured up to Safeway to buy food or something.  Anyway, I distinctly remember noticing that everything suddenly felt normal.  I looked down at my feet plodding away on the sun-soaked sidewalk, and then up at the picturesque houses and trees all crowded together on an impossibly small street, and knew that somehow I could live in this strange new place.  Something inside me stopped fluttering and found a spot to rest.  Well, today it happened again.  A couple friends and I were picking our way along a dusty street in Conakry looking for the market, and suddenly everything became mine again--the rich cacophony of French and Susu (or is it Pulaar?) and broken English as street vendors vie for my attention, the redness of the dirt, the balmy warm breezes, the smell of food and exhaust and people.  It has a hold on me, now.  I belong to it, a little.  I am not making any long range plans or anything. (Don't panic, Dad.)  I just know that right now, I live here.  And it's good.

By the way, the market was AMAZING (and I do not use the caps lock lightly).  I really wish I could have taken some pictures to show you, but it isn't polite here to take pictures of people you don't know without asking permission, and even then it's not a guaranteed affirmative.  A local expat explained it to us this way.  In the West (that means the U.S., Canada, Europe, etc.) when we see something, the image belongs to us, and taking a picture is simply a way of preserving that image.  Here, what we see belongs to the people we're seeing, as it were, and taking a picture of it is a bit like stealing.  Anyway, I don't know enough french to ask permission, so you'll just have to settle for a description.

Imagine a small dirt lane with open stalls all along either side of it.  Clothing hangs along the walls and sandals are piled high on small tables.  In the space of a hundred yards, you can buy daipers, brooms, surge protectors, peanuts, and school supplies, all without leaving the street (which at this point, seems more like and alley).  Suddenly, your guide takes a hard left, darting past people and tables and into a small crevice in the concrete wall.  And while you are mentally preparing yourself for the acute embarassment of bursting into some poor person's living space, you notice two things.  First, what you thought was a concrete hallway is really a hallway-sized tunnel that seems to go on forever, and second, some guy is trying to sell you a nice pair of heels from a niche in the wall that looks for all the world like Ali Baba's cave (if said cave had been six feet deep and full of women's shoes).  And he's not the only one.  As you walk (or sometimes squelch) down the tunnel, you pass dresses, jewelry, cell phone covers, more shoes, and untold treasures of every other kind, all nestled in their own lit-up nooks that shine like merry little lanterns in some sort of enchanted mine.  Eventually, the tunnel opens up into an enourmous warehouse filled with a maze of fruit and vegetable stands.  Lemons, oranges (which are actually green here), potatoes, eggplant, and other produce lie in neat stacks all around you.  In one direction, women are grinding some sort of flour which they will sell to you in plastic bags, while from the other direction, the smell of raw meat signals butchers' stalls.  From a loft on the other side of this great cavern, you hear the industrious buzzing of fifty-odd sewing machines as tailors labor to fashion dresses and shirts and other haberdashery for their clientele.  Another bewildering tunnel (this time the men's department), and you suddenly find yourself blinking in the sunlight--on a different street.  Like I said, it was amazing.

A couple nights ago, I was up on deck 8 (the tippy-top deck) with the ukulele club (nothin' like playing 'I'll Fly Away' with the fellow ukelelists out in the balmy African breeze), and I snapped this picture:

Ain't I a lucky girl?  Yes. Yes I am.