A journey at your own risk
Sharing their experiences are two volunteers Eva and Lenka that met us for the first time in Guinea.
Obstacles along a dream journey to Africa
Where to begin? Maybe by saying that no one really supported our dream journey to Guinea that we had been planning. On the contrary, everyone discouraged us from our “volunteering adventure”, including the majority of our friends and family. But to no avail! Relentlessly, we persisted answering many questions, such as: why Guinea? Why do we want to go there? And what will we do there? And so on.
We continued to object that we want to experience a different culture, mentality and above all, we want to try and help someone. Now that we had decided to go to Africa, then at least we wanted to make it worthwhile. We were both determined to resist the pressure and go, even though from the very beginning, we were faced with many challenges.
The first challenge we had to face was when dealing with the travel agency through which we booked our flight to Conakry. We planned our journey with the company Air Royal Maroc, as the deal they offered us seemed the most convenient. On this note, we do not recommend that anyone who wishes to fly to Conakry take this airline. Next time, we’d prefer to pay a little bit extra. We flew from London, changed planes in Morocco, Casablanca, and then to Conakry.
Our travel agency had terrible customer services, and where not at all accommodating to our needs. Nonetheless, within the space of two weeks, we managed to sort everything out. Feeling emboldened and braced from this experience, we headed out towards our next big challenge – which appeared shortly. This time however, it took the form of an escalating political situation in Guinea. As the country was getting ready for the second round of presidential elections, it descended into violent clashes between the citizens and the local forces. These were to be the first democratic elections since the country’s declaration of independence in 1958. In consequence, tuition was interrupted and schools were shut down, as worried parents preferred to send their children on holiday further inland. Of course, we understood this situation and later on, through out or stay in this beautiful African country, we became even more empathetic. Nonetheless, our volunteering at this point was jeopardised.
After several long phone calls with Tana and endless hours of discussions between us two girls, we decided that we won’t be swayed by the political situation, especially as it had calmed down by then. We would travel at our own risk.
Vlada, an adoptive parent, and the children
A warm welcome right after landing
As D-Day arrived we set of for a perilous journey, spending a large amount of the time sitting and waiting at airports. But we coped and eventually arrived at Conakry, where Zainoul, one of the coordinators, awaited our arrival. Our greeting with Zainoul was a pleasantly surprising, as even though we had only just met, Zianoul embraced us as if we’ve known each other a lifetime. And the rest of our stay carried on in such friendly sentiments. Zainoul took us to the little house that was to become our temporary home. Tana, the directing coordinator of the project, and Vlada, another volunteer, were already waiting for us there.
Meeting the kids from Kindia
Our first journey took us to Kindia, where Wontanara works with many children as part of the long-distance children adoption programme. This turned out to be a short insight into what your job here would actually entail. We had no idea that we would also be utilized as models. In Kindia the only coordinator in charge of the children was Madina – an amazing caring woman that, in all honesty, deserves a medal for her patience and care of the children. Our job in Guinea consisted of documenting the children partaking in the long-distance adoption programme for the potential adoptive parents. This included photographing the children, possibly with the letters from their adoptive parents, as well as taking another photo with us, the models.
Eva meets the children
After the children got their photographs taken, they drew pictures and wrote short letters for their adoptive parents in the Czech Republic. It was amazing; the kids were so natural and we really enjoyed their company. We were as fascinating for them, as they were for us. Our first day was over and with excitement we awaited many more similar days to come.
The next day we set out for the village Menyi. Here we encountered the most amazing welcoming from some very grateful parents. Everyone sung, danced and cheered, and we couldn’t but relish it.
This was followed by the children’s documentation, which was yet another great experience, as the children were so easy-going and affable. Before our journey back to Kindia, each of us had several children hanging on to them, unable to shake them off!
A pleasant refresher in the Dubreca waterfall
After our return to Kindia, we had planned a trip to Dubreca, where we would document further children and review the land designated for future school building. Accompanying us were two project coordinators, Lamine and Ouri. The schools we visited reminded a sauna. The children from outside that came to take a look at the pasty foreigners – “fote”, hang in the windows, and the parents crowded in the doorway, thereby blocking the flow of any kind of air in and out of the classroom where we were taking photos. We were all pretty tired by the time we had photographed everyone, and we still had to go and inspect the new school land, which wasn’t located anywhere close by. It was quite the trek! We got an excursion through the local natural environment and an account of all the vegetation planted here.
Lenka and Ouri Salim / coordinator
We successfully arrived at the spot and explored the area where one of the new schools is supposed to be built. It was a beautifully situated location surrounded by mountains. By the time we got to the car, we were extremely tired, but we got a reward in the form of bathing under waterfalls. No one resisted and jumped right into the water. Soon enough, the entire village came to watch us bathe. Most likely, the entire scenario seemed as entertaining and memorable for them, as it was for us.
Bathing under the waterfalls
Presidential elections thwart circumstances not just for us
Another one of the schools we set out to was Aboubacara and Zainoul, whose students and teachers prepared yet another beautiful welcome for us. The children were assembled in the yard from shortest to tallest and as we entered broke out in song. After we exchanged our greetings, we commenced in the work we came there for – photographing and documenting the children. With excellent organisation this task went smoothly.
For safety reasons through out the elections, we were forced to spend the next couple of days at home. We decided to use this time to organise and log all the information we had accumulated about the children. This turned out to be quite a chore and we admire those who had to do this before us. In addition, one of us fell ill, which is understandably an inevitable part of travelling to Africa, however this meant that the other one of us had to go out to photograph and document further children on her own.
Next in line was a school close by called Atlantik. This school was managed by Eder and hosted some more children from Zainoul and Aboubacara. Yet again, everything was perfectly organised and so our work was quickly finished. It’s not an easy job to take photos of so many children one after another and so we made notes about who wore what.
At one point this resulted in quite a humorous situation, when two friends decided to share the t-shirt they wanted to be photographed in and then were accidentally considered as one and the same child. When photographing the first boy, we noted: white t-shirt with green wavy line. After another ten or so children, a boy of a similar height with the same white t-shirt with a green wavy line appeared. Confused, we argued that this boy already had his photo taken. Luckily, the situation didn’t take long to resolve and, after the boys admitted that back at their desks they had changed their shirts, we could continue in our work.
The following day we were expected at a school in the quarter Dar es Salam, which was coordinated by Ouri. Same as before, the children were ready for us when we got there, and everything went very smoothly. The only annoyance was the heat and the sun. Several times through out the day, we had to move our makeshift office (a table with two chairs) to wherever the shade moved. Even so, we were sweating profusely, and would thereby like to apologize to the parents for how we look on all those photos. But in our opinion, in these conditions, who could look different!
Finally, the huge restriction imposed during the election time eased off a little and Lamine and us could embark on a several-day trip to Boffa. We were very excited that this would be a different kind of adventure to the previous ones and that we would finally get out of Conakry, that is quite dusty and dirty, and stay over somewhere new. As with the majority of places we had gone to, our means of transport was a ‘taxi’. The journey was quite long and the roads weren’t in great shape. Our biggest surprise however, was the place of our destination.
Bylo to vesnička někde v lese, kde se asi jen málokdy objeví někdo bílý. Nejvíce na nás zapůsobilo zasedání rady starších. Byly připraveny židle pro nás a pro všechny členy koncilu. Lamine představil nás i projekt kvůli kterému jsme přišli a my dostali požehnání od rady, že můžeme pokračovat v práci. Po kratším odpočinku jsme šli do zdejší školy, kde se fotily děti, které ještě nejsou zařazeny do programu. Práce to byla trošku chaotická, protože sem přiváděli snad úplně všechny děti, které našli.
Another part of our job in Boffa was to document all the properties belonging to the organisation for future project use. The council of elders wanted to organise entertainment for us in the form of dancing, but unfortunately this didn’t work out as the village was in mourning. So instead they decided on activating the generator and television. The entire village got together and we were to watch an old film as the culmination of the day.
Between life and death on the way to Kankan
After Boffa we were scheduled to go to Kankan. However our trip to Kankan, where we were to visit Oumar’s school and health centre, didn’t work out according to plan. The journey was to last around twelve hours, but after the first six hours we were forced to take shelter in the village of Timbo. During the first leg of our journey the political situation changed rapidly and we suddenly found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were robbed of all of our belongings, the organisation’s kit and even the adoptive parents’ letters and presents for the children.
We spend the next three days, before the local forces managed to at least locate Oumar’s car, in the only existing hotel in the area, in the same clothes. The best present we could have received at that point was when Oumar brought us a toothbrush and some toothpaste. Oumar was very thoughtful and affectionate. We would like to thank him for remaining so prudent and supportive, even when circumstances became dire.
We got back to our house in Conakry where, after the past couple of highly intensive days, Katka and Radek were already anticipating us. Overflowing with thoughts and emotions from the last few days we engaged in a political debate. After the official elections results were announced, a 6pm curfew was imposed across the country. This again interfered with our plans, but by this time we were used to it. We stayed in our little house in Conakry and most of the time made plans with one of the coordinators, which wasn’t so bad. It was quite nice and relaxing, even we would have preferred a bit more action. Though our finances limited us, we used the free days to go shopping and spend a bit of cash. We also visited the national university in Conakry with one of the coordinators called Madani. The University was quite close to our house so it wasn’t a very long trip, but it was still worth it. Madani who graduated at this University gave us a very good tour and we formed a decent picture of what it’s like to study here. The conditions are definitely much harder. For example, the lecture theatre that fits around 100 students, must accommodate approximately two are three times as many students here. This was one of our last ventures before our departure.
Even this time however, we couldn’t avoid getting into difficulties. Due to the national curfew we arrived at the airport eight hours in advance and then were told that our flight would not be leaving today. Returning back to the house in Conakry was not an option, but luckily Zainoul took us in for the night. Through this we got further insight into the life of a traditional Guinean family and how they spend their evenings. At the end we took off with a 28-hour delay.
In conclusion, we would like to highlight how grateful we are for the opportunity to visit Guinea and meet such amazing people. In all honesty, our first trip to this country was an incredible experience that left a deep impact. Our hearts go out to Guinea. Not even the unpleasant incident in Timbo can overshadow the amount of positive experiences in this poor but beautiful land.
Lenka and Eva, Guinea, November 2010
(Translated by our Volunteer Katie Chlumska)