Stacy Hess wrote of her time in the Peace Corps while she was on a later adventure, sailing around the world. She begins by describing how standing watch at 3 AM leads her to reflect on her past in Mamou, Guinea.
I scan the horizon again for dolphins; even though it is so dark I can barely make out the shape of the sails that are propelling us through the Caribbean Sea. When I hear a splash in the water I pretend it is a group of these beautiful animals swimming and jumping just to show off their strength and grace. My adrenalin surges at the thought of one of these liquid gray mammals playing within inches of our boat. Each time I have the opportunity to observe a dolphin I screech with excitement and then become mesmerized by their capacity to be so completely carefree.
About a year ago my husband, Dave, and I formulated a plan with two of our friends, Jo and Laurie. The main objective of this plan was to find adventure. Jo and Dave are both sailors, and they also liked to get together for a few beers after a long workday. This combination seemed to be the correct catalyst for a dream. The dream was to sail around the world. Luckily Laurie and I were adventurous enough to agree to see the world by boat. Five months ago we bought the most seaworthy catamaran that our budget would allow. This dream is now reality, and the four of us are permanently living on board. Currently we are in the process of moving our boat, Ladybug, from the British Virgin Islands down to Trinidad. Trinidad will provide shelter for Ladybug for the next 6 months of hurricane season. As we island hop south towards Trinidad we are working on outfitting Ladybug and adjusting to life aboard.
Today we left Martinique to sail to Grenada. It is 3 AM, and I am half way through my second watch. It is very overcast and there are no stars in the sky. The only lights that I can see are the red compass light and the bioluminescent sparkles in our wake. There are no billboards in the middle of the ocean, and Ladybug does not have a TV or a phone. Therefore this environment lacks many of the interruptions and distractions that so often allow us to move from day to day without any personal reflection.
As I sail through the night my mind begins to shift from my current adventure to reflection of my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mamou, Guinea. Quitting my job and spending 2 years of my life in West Africa away from my boyfriend, my friends and my family was a difficult decision. The hope of finding fun and adventure while helping people less fortunate than I motivated me to take the chance and grab this opportunity of living and working abroad, making new friends and learning a new language. The experience turned out to be all I hoped for and much more!
Memories of the people that touched my life during that period are flooding my mind as I look out into the dark sea. My sailing efforts become automated, and I find myself concentrating on my friends from Guinea. There were the people that took care of me when I was sick, the people I partied with, and the people that taught me the language and the culture. Especially strong are the memories of the people that changed my life. While I was in Guinea to teach mathematics to high school students, the people I met taught me even more. They taught me lessons on the subject of life. Some of the most important lessons came during the most difficult times. This is why the memories of Sylla, baby Niang, and Aminata’s Grandmother are forever burned into my mind.
A young girl, about 11 years old, suddenly appeared on my porch while I was washing my laundry. I lived next door to a grade school, so I did not think much of it. But this girl was not laughing at my white skin, my unusual hair, or the way I washed my laundry (which I was not used to doing by hand). Instead she spoke to me using the French she had learned at school and introduced herself as Sylla. My name was difficult for her to pronounce and ‘Stacy’ quickly became ‘Cici’. We talked for a few moments, and she left as quietly as she had come.
I figured I had probably satisfied Sylla’s curiosity and that I wouldn’t see her again. To my surprise she appeared again a couple days later and soon after she became a regular visitor coming to see me several times a week. Sometimes she only had time to say hello, and sometimes she would stay and help me with my chores such as washing dishes or hauling water from the pump. Each visit made us more comfortable together and over time our conversations became quite lively. Eventually Sylla invited me to visit her compound and have lunch with her family. I declined the invitation with the excuse that I was very busy with my work.
The actions of Sylla confused me. Why did she keep visiting me? Why did she want a complete stranger to visit her family? She wasn’t from the elementary school next door and she didn’t live close by. None of my friends knew her or knew of her family. She did not even have any siblings that went to my school. What did she want from me? Every day I expected her to ask for school supplies or money. It even occurred to me that she might think I would be a good wife for one of her brothers.
I always knew it was Sylla when I heard a familiar voice calling “Cici, Cici!” Her visits were a nice diversion from my daily work, but she started to insist more strongly that I owed her and her family a visit. She really wanted me to meet her family. Her strong will reminded me of myself and I began to realize two things about this perseverant girl. First of all, she wasn’t going to give up until I went to her house to meet her family. Secondly I realized what she wanted from me, my friendship.
I finally broke down and we made a lunch date for the next afternoon. Her younger sisters came at noon to fetch me. We hiked in the heat of the day up the largest hill in Mamou to her family compound on the other side of town. I wondered why Sylla had not fetched me herself. When I arrived I found out that she was busy preparing my meal. I met Sylla’s mom who smiled and hugged me a lot, but did not speak a word of French.
Women usually eat family style out of a common bowl with the children, and the men eat out of a separate bowl. Out of respect a separate plate is usually prepared for a visitor. Sylla’s mother seated me in a room with blank cement walls, one chair and a table. I waited quietly until Sylla served me salad and my favorite sauce with rice. Sylla’s family did not have a lot to spare, the compound was simple and the food was simple. But the lunch was made excellent by the enthusiasm of this little girl and her family. I was treated like royalty, in spite of the family’s lack of money.
My relationship with Sylla continued after the lunch date. Sylla would visit me often and every couple of weeks I would hike up the huge hill to the compound to greet her family and have lunch. This ritual went on for months. I was sure of it now, she was truly my friend and her family took good care of me.
One day Sylla’s sisters came to tell me that Sylla was ill. I was not too alarmed, because I assumed that she had malaria. Malaria for the locals was common and not nearly as serious as it would have been for me. A mild fever and a headache were the symptoms of malaria for a local, and the treatment was often aspirin and rest. I went to visit her and found that she was complaining of pain in her feet and legs instead of malaria symptoms like I expected. I went back in several days only to find that her symptoms persisted. Her feet were beginning to swell. This was clearly not malaria, and I became very concerned.
In a matter of weeks Sylla was in the hospital. Her feet and legs had swollen to three times their normal size. There was no longer a distinction between her foot and leg, where her ankle used to be. I knew from experience that the local hospital was not capable of treating much. The nurses made her take pills and gave her injections on a daily basis, yet nobody could tell me what she was being treated for. I wondered how I could help my friend. I doubted the hospital in Conakry would be able to do anything more for her. She was already too sick to be moved, and she needed to have her family close to her. Her hair stuck straight out from her head in every direction possible. She looked like a crazy person, I’m not even sure she could recognize me. At times she would yell at every one in sight, especially the nurses. On one of my visits she tried to run away from the hospital and the awful treatment. She only made it about twenty feet and didn’t have the strength to go any further.
A few days later her sisters came with the news that she had passed away during the night. I felt sad, but relieved as I knew she had been suffering very much in the end. I asked a close friend to come with me to the funeral for emotional support and to help me understand the customs. The funeral was a real nightmare. Lots of people were there. The women were wailing. Someone asked me if I wanted to view the body. I hesitated then finally agreed. She was wrapped in strips of white cloth, like a mummy. Several flowers lay on top of her body. The casket was very rustic looking as it was just made of old wood and nailed together. Again I did not know how to help. My friend assured me that I had done enough, just by being her friend and coming to the funeral. Sylla’s sisters held my hands a lot that day.
Baby Niang was less than a year old when I first met him. He was the youngest son of Fatimata and Monsieur Niang. Baby Niang had one older brother, Baba, and one older sister, Aissatou. Fatimata was my adopted mother and best friend. She cooked for me, helped me fetch water, and advised me in all matters. Fatimata already had 3 children at the young age of 23. She had mother and wife responsibilities that I knew nothing about. These responsibilities prevented her from going out dancing at night with me, even though her husband went to the nightclub most nights of the week. Fatimata was very intelligent and had learned French well in spite of her lack of formal education. She was always very honest with me. I trusted her with the key to my house and the details of my personal life.
Fatimata prepared food, cooked, washed dishes, washed clothing and napped in the outside area between my house and her house. There was a papaya tree that afforded her much shade for these activities. Her house consisted of two separate rooms. The first room had a table, some chairs and a bed for the kids. The second room had a few dressers and another bed for Fatimata and her husband. There was no crib so the baby slept with Fatimata. It was simple, but by local standards they were not poor.
I often passed the early evening hours talking with Fatimata after the dinner dishes were washed. I remember one evening in particular when I suddenly realized all of the cultural and language barriers had disappeared between us. I was hanging out with an old friend, and no longer trying to search for a French word to express myself… in fact I even forgot I was speaking French! We laughed a lot together and she became a very good friend to me for the 2 years that I lived in Mamou.
Aissatou and Baba did not bother the baby too much. They were too busy torturing each other. Aissatou was still a toddler and Baba was school age. Both children were holy terrors. Sometimes I believed there was actually fire behind their eyes and if I looked deep enough I would be able to see it. I often had to remind myself that they were just kids acting like kids.
Baby Niang was a beautiful baby. I didn’t believe he would grow up to be a holy terror like his big brother and sister were. He was too sweet and innocent. But I did believe that his innocence would give him the strength he needed to battle the persistent cough that he had acquired. Fatimata gave him medicine in syrup form around the clock. She kept insisting that he would improve any day. I soon learned that he had been diagnosed with bronchitis. Baby Niang’s condition went on for weeks. As time went on his cough became worse and his breathing became labored. Fatimata insisted she was doing all that she could, I believed her and I believed the syrup would eventually make him better.
Everyday when I got home from school I checked on the baby and asked Fatimata how long until lunch was ready. It was a quiet day, and we went inside to check on him together. He had been sleeping in the middle of the big bed in the second room for most of the day she told me. When we got inside she picked him up and suddenly realized that he was not breathing. Fatimata laid the baby back down and wailed loudly with intense pain. We went back outside, and found that people had already begun to gather in the grassy area between our two houses. I did not know what to do or say. I disappeared quickly and quietly into the safety of my house to collect my emotions. I was too shocked and confused to cry. I did not open any doors or shutters; I just stood in my bedroom and listened. I could hear everything perfectly, as my bedroom window was only a few feet from all of the commotion. Somebody sent for Monsieur Niang and he was there in minutes.
I remained in my house for a while longer trying to figure out how I should react. A group of women were now wailing loudly. The moaning was very high pitched and mournful. I was not accustomed to the sound of wailing and I thought an attempt to imitate the sound would only embarrass me and possibly insult the women. I finally realized that I needed to be with my friend and I pulled together enough strength to leave my refuge. I figured I would just do what ever came naturally. I went out my front door and walked directly to Fatimata’s house. I found her sitting on the bed in the first room with several women. The women moved apart so I could sit next to Fatimata. She understood my intentions even though I couldn’t think of the right words to console her. I gave her a hug, held her hand and cried along with the women. By now many women were wailing and Monsieur Niang had the baby wrapped in a cloth and was heading for the cemetery on the hill.
Fatimata had known a lot of responsibility and sorrow at a very young age. I had a lot of respect for her. I was proud to have her as my adopted mother and best friend.
Aminata’s Grandmother lived a full life, which was evident through her large and prosperous family. Aminata’s grandmother was very thin, and was too old to help with much in the compound. She always had on a traditional head wrap and a huge smile for me. Aminata’s Grandmother and mother did not speak any French. I knew the greetings well in Pular so I used these during my frequent visits to Aminata’s compound. I could only communicate with her Grandmother and Mother on a very simple level and this was enough to make everyone happy. I could see it in their smiling eyes.
Aminata’s father was a well-educated man and a leader in the mosque. He was handsome and always well dressed. I liked to see him leave the house at prayer time with his beautifully embroidered boboo. The traditional clothing made him look royal and powerful. Aminata’s father was the type of man that knew a lot about the western world, but did not wear western clothing. He often entertained me by showing off the English that he knew. I would attempt to teach him English words and he always tried to teach me new words in Pular. I enjoyed the company of Aminata’s father.
Sometimes I would visit the compound and Aminata would not be at home. On these occasions one of the children would fetch a stool for me to sit on and I would pass time with her mother while she prepared food. We would smile a lot each other. Aminata’s mother would try to ask me questions in Pular but I would just shrug my shoulders and she knew I didn’t understand. Eventually I would indicate that I was going back home. Aminata’s mother would always beg me to stay for dinner and usually I would. On my frequent visits to the family compound I ate many wonderful meals prepared by Aminata’s mother.
Ramadan is a month long fasting period that ends with a large celebration. This is probably the most important season of the year in any Muslim community. Many people encouraged me to try fasting. Fasting was defined as eating at 4 AM before the sun rose and breaking fast around 8 PM after sunset. This meant no water and no food for 16 hours. I fasted the complete month during my second year in Mamou. Aminata knew I had been fasting and invited me to pray at the mosque with her. Aminata wrapped a pagne around me, and covered my head with a scarf. The long narrow skirt made it difficult to walk. Then she showed me how to take ablution. I washed each foot three times, each hand three times, my face three times, each ear three times and I rinsed my mouth three times. As women we were not allowed to enter the mosque, we remained on the exterior. It was very dark outside and we kneeled on our prayer mats along with the other women. I tried to mimic the words of the Imam along with everyone else.
Partaking in the month of Ramadan was a very rewarding experience. I learned a lot of insight through daily fasting and breaking of fast. By participating I was better able to understand the local customs and my friends. The daily denial of food and water taught me to have more compassion for people who are less fortunate. I also learned that I was capable of exercising a lot of self-control by denying my body the food and water it desired. My final reward was the celebration at the end of the month. Because of my willingness to sacrifice I was able to really experience and enjoy this celebration. I was happy to have the opportunity to experience Ramadan with my friend Aminata and her family.
Aminata was an excellent student at school. Not many girls in Guinea are able to continue their education through High School. Classes were usually about 30 students with about a half dozen girls at the beginning of the school year. But that number always dwindled as each semester wore on. Many of the students became ill and would hope to return with a fresh start the next semester. Also many of the girls were needed at home to help their mothers and were unable to continue their studies. Aminata’s family strongly supported her studies, even though she had a lot of responsibilities other than homework. She often helped out by going to the market, preparing meals, doing laundry, and bathing the children, but she always managed to finish her homework. Aminata’s family understood the importance of her education, and their encouragement was necessary for her to complete High School. Aminata knew she was very lucky to still be at school at age16 and very determined to successfully finish her studies.
I was shocked to hear the news of a funeral at Aminata’s family compound. Her Grandma had not been not been sick and looked quite healthy for what I guess might have been 70 years old. She had passed on peacefully of natural causes. When I arrived at the funeral I was a bit confused. It seemed more like a party than a funeral. There was food everywhere and lots of people dressed well for the occasion. Then I realized that we were celebrating Grandma’s life! With all of the action, people, and food I was very surprised to see Aminata’s father with tears in his eyes. Then I realized, he had lost his mother, he was mourning and celebrating at the same time.
Several hours have passed since I began thinking of my friends in Africa. The light in on the eastern horizon reveals the profile of Grenada and I am brought back fully to the present. Ladybug is moving smoothly towards our destination. Jo plots another position on the chart and then wakes Dave up. Dave clears the sleep from his eyes and takes over my position at the helm.
I retire to my comfortable bunk below and listen to the water flowing past the hull. As I drift off to sleep I take a few more minutes to realize what I learned in Guinea. Prior to my experience in Africa my life had never been touched by the death of a young person, in fact I had never even attended a funeral before. In Africa I attended funerals and learned about mourning with friends that had become my family. I learned a lot about life and death. Children die much more frequently in the third world, and in each case it is a tragedy. In contrast, when an older person dies peacefully, the funeral is an enthusiastic celebration of a life. My memories of these three individuals and their families have helped me to understand and appreciate life more than I ever thought possible.
It is noon when I wake up. Laurie is at the helm and the sun is hot. I am sending out dolphin vibes but all I see are flying fish. These fish gracefully fly several inches above the surface of the water. The flight above the water always comes to an abrupt end with a crash into a wave. I feel slightly guilty, as I believe it is the wake of the boat that threatens these tiny creatures into a flight above the water. The features of the Grenada coast are becoming distinct and I start to think about the people that we will meet at this port. My life is full of adventure. My life is also full of family, friends and love. I could not ask for anything more. If my life ended today, I would hope there would be a celebration for the life that I have enjoyed.