ahhh, the life of a diplomatic princess . . .

Archive for the category “Guinea”

By Way of Explanation, or Why Africa is Personal for Me

I’m feeling rather feisty today, more so than usual. Maybe it’s because I’m fighting off a cold/flu so I’m kind of in a mood. Maybe it’s because our foster kittens are battling their second round of coccidia and I’m freaked out (though, knock wood, we seem to have turned a corner). Maybe it’s because I’m feeling overwhelmed by the outrageous need I see every time I go to the back room of our vet’s clinic–animal after animal after animal dumped on her primarily because of someone else’s negligence and irresponsible behavior. There’s a blog in there about animals, it needs to percolate. But, for now, I’m kind of in the mood to sound off about something else that is tied in to “need” and touches a very personal nerve. Africa. Weird, maybe, but it is what it is.

Most people who know me know that we lived in Guinea, it was our first overseas post, baptism by fire we like to call it. Most people also know that we were evacuated from Guinea when the country erupted in civil unrest and violence. I’ve blogged about Guinea before (here, here, and here) and I’ve often thought I’d left Guinea in the past but I’m learning that will never happen and that’s not a bad thing. Certain places get under your skin and Guinea got under mine. I have no desire to live there again, though I would love to visit, so it’s not that I am missing it or pining for it. It’s just that I feel a loyalty towards it, towards the Guinean people, and towards Africa in general. I guess that will happen when your middle child went through a time in her life answering “I’m from Guinea!” when people asked her where her home is. I guess that will happen when you feel shell shocked moving to a new, very different, country and the thing that finally breaks through the shell shock and pulls you out of yourself is the kindness and the joy of the people who live there. And I guess that will happen when you see those same people suffer every single day from lack of water, electricity, proper nutrition, proper infrastructure, medical care, the list goes on, and it all results in otherwise healthy, vibrant people dying slowly and painfully.

I get frustrated because I feel like too few people pay attention to most of Africa, I guess South Africa is the exception to that rule. Africa is just this place that exists totally outside the frame of reference most people have. Guinea? Where’s that? So when someone has made it a life’s focus to draw attention to Africa, to the epidemics and poverty that exist there, and also to the profound spirit and vibrancy that runs parallel to those things, I feel loyalty to that person as well. My feisty rant today is rooted in some ragging on Bono that happened on my FB page. It honestly doesn’t bother me how people personally feel about him, or what they think about him, people are entitled to their opinions. I get that he has a massive ego, that he’s had tax issues, that he loves to run his mouth. I also get that he deserves a whole lot of credit for drawing attention to, and doing a lot of good for, a continent that most people don’t give a flying fuck about.  So no matter what his other faults are, what else he’s done, I kind of don’t care. What I DO care about is that there are people who are much better off because of him, that AIDS/HIV are weaker because of him, that people who have gone their whole lives without clean water have it because of him. And, granted, he’s not remotely the only one, and he hasn’t done this alone, but he has shown a tremendous amount of leadership, he’s used that big mouth of his to do a whole lot of good, and he has been a bridge between people who might not otherwise think about Africa and the African continent, her people, and her struggles.

I’m sure I’m garnering some eye rolling here, and I’m sure I feel so strongly about this because of my personal experience, but I think it’s important to acknowledge how much good is done by good people–regardless of their faults (and people are only human so they’re bound to have a whole lot of baggage). When things started really falling apart in Guinea our families were hard pressed to find news about it. People–children, ffs!– were being shot in the street for protesting peacefully and few people in the Western world were saying boo about it. After we left, and the civil unrest continued, there was a massive and peaceful march to the national stadium that turned into a horror show of people being shot, women being raped with the barrels of guns, civil society activists being taken by gun point. It was difficult to find out a lot of info on it in the mainstream media. Why? The ONLY conclusion I can draw is that people don’t care that much about Africa.

And it’s not just the violence, it’s the disease. Maybe Bono’s work in Africa touches me on a deeper level because I’ve lived in a country in Africa where diseases that have been pretty much eradicated in the Western world  are still killing people, where otherwise healthy, strong people are struck down by diseases that should no longer be strong enough to do that kind of damage. Malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, internal parasites that cause deadly diarrhea, the list goes on and on. It’s not right, IMO, that when something as simple as a bed net can prevent death, and someone makes it their mission to do things like raise money and awareness about the simplicity of solutions to very serious problems, that we focus on that person’s faults rather than on the profound good they’ve done. I am honestly not calling out anyone in particular because this is pretty widespread, it seems like every time I mention Bono someone around me rolls their eyes. I get not liking the man but why focus on that rather than the tremendous amount of good he’s done? Why can’t people just say “I think he’s an egotistical ass but, man, he’s done some damn good things for a place not many people notice.” Former President Bush isn’t exactly my favorite person in the world, I disagree pretty much with 99.9 % of his policies and I think he’s beyond vapid, but his policies towards Africa were relatively progressive and they did good and, for that, I will give his administration a lot of credit and a great big “thank you!”

I guess this goes along with my own struggle to focus on the positive, to push away cynicism, and to nurture those things in our kids as well. I found myself, for quite some time, drained by the negativity of focusing on less than perfect political policies, politicians, advocates, whatever, and ignoring the slow slog of good that less than perfect policies and people can do. So I decided to switch my focus, that’s just me, personally. But I kind of think it’s more important to focus on the awesome good that people put into this world than on the imperfections they– we– have. I’m not saying we shouldn’t call people out for being assholes, I just think that folks like Bono have balanced the scales a lot further towards good than towards evil and it’s nice to focus on that, and to acknowledge all the concrete and very tangible good he’s put into a continent far too many people ignore.

Also, I know from personal experience, he gives nice cheek kisses 🙂 And, for now, I will climb off my soapbox …

This was pretty cool

This was pretty cool

Living in the Past, Present, and Future–and how that fits into our Foreign Service life

First day back to school for my kiddos and, while I love them dearly, as they raced around excitedly and noisily getting their day started, I was definitely looking forward to a bit of silence. When I got home from dropping them at school the dogs looked at me as if to say “didn’t you forget something?” Our lab mix even went so far as to pop her head out the door before I closed it, glance around, look at me, glance around and look confused. “No, my four-legged lovelies, I didn’t forget anything!” I hummed as I skipped through my house, smiling at the silence. I made my way out to the terrace, unrolled my yoga mat, plopped myself down and let out an ahhhhhhh … before starting my warm up for sun salutation. I felt how tight my muscles were, and how warm and loose they became as I settled into the routine. In perfect silence, ahhhhhh …

As I sat in prayer position, focusing on the Buddha I have on a table for exactly that purpose, I found my mind drifting to a sunny Dublin morning, one of many where I made my way to City Center after dropping the kids at school, sometimes for errands and, on days when I had time, sometimes for whatever struck my fancy. I saw myself wandering the rooms of The Chester Beatty Library, full of ancient artifacts and texts. This is a museum that is an introvert’s paradise–while you will often find many people moving through its rooms everyone is silent, immersed in their own thoughts as they absorb history. Each time I went there I found myself standing in front of various Buddhas, lost in their curves and the tranquility they brought me. I sat in front of my own small, seated Buddha and appreciated being taken back to those peaceful strolls through one of my favorite museums; I breathed deeply again, feeling quite centered somewhere between the present and fond memories of the past.

I went downstairs to shower, thinking about what to do with the children once they got home, standing under the hot water I thought about the possibilities–ice cream at the mall, swimming in our pool, a walk with the dogs–and found myself again lost in memory, this time the memory of picking our two youngest up from their school in Dublin. Often we would take a stroll with Terry, my closest friend in Ireland and my very favorite Aussie, and her daughter, who was my daughter’s BFF. We would all walk to the Starbucks near the school for hot chocolate and a treat, Terry and I would chat while the children giggled over pastries, and we would giggle as we watched them sprout a heavier mustache with each sip of chocolate. Then we’d make our way back to our cars, still parked in front of the school, and hug goodbye. Each time, Terry would say “We’ll see you tomorrow, my darlings!” Thinking of her voice, and how she’s the only one who calls me darling besides my grandmother, made me smile. I thought about that walk, which I could probably do with my eyes closed, saw myself strolling those wide sidewalks and turn towards the gym where the kids took swim lessons …

I found myself sitting in the gym watching my two youngest children learn to become the strong swimmers they are today, glancing to my right when my oldest, fresh off the rugby pitch and covered in mud, sometimes battered, always content, walked through the door of the pool room to grab his suit from me and get cleaned up for his lesson. Which led me to another memory of me texting my husband in Iraq, where he spent the last year we lived in Dublin, each time a large man in a tiny speedo sauntered past me, typing out “holy crap, it’s another one! Stop this madness …”

The thought of speedos brought my mind to a quiet, breezy room on an island off the coast of Conakry, the capitol of Guinea, Africa, where I and a handful of others were immersed in the movements of sun salutation when we heard wild laughter coming from the beach, so loud and joyful we couldn’t help but move to the open door to peek. Snaking its way down the beach was a conga line of giggling Guinean children, led by a heavy Russian man carrying a bottle of vodka and wearing a tiny speedo. We stared in disbelief before we all burst into laughter at the surreal sight of the drunk man leading the children in an early morning conga line.

Then my mind was back to the present and my brain that was no further along in figuring out what to do with the children but had gone on quite a journey, from Dublin to a tiny island in Africa, each experience linked by one thing or another. We are in the middle of bidding right now, which means doing all the things we need to do in order to figure out where we will land next. Since we don’t find out for a while, and it’s completely out of my control anyway, I try not to be preoccupied by it but it’s hard not to think about. The other night my hubby and I were discussing the possibilities, things he’d heard from various people who make decisions, ways we can push harder for our top choices. In a moment of silence I looked at him and said “we live a weird life,” he laughed and said “yes, we do!”

It seems like so much of what we do is somewhere between the past, the present, and the future, which I’m sure is true for many people in many different ways. We say goodbye to one home, settle in another, then after two years, with one year to go, prepare for the next country. There is always the challenge of not losing the present to the past or the future but, at the same time, there’s the warmth of so many full and beautiful memories and the excitement of new experiences in a new country.

There are a good handful of things about life in the Foreign Service that frustrate me but I think my husband and I have learned that we are, in our hearts, nomads and at least two of our children are as well. So we float, somewhere between the past, the present, and the future, trying to savor all of them while never shortchanging one for the other. Which leads me back to today, hugging each of my children before they raced off to play at school, smiling at the laughter coming from the yard, marveling at all the possibilities that are open for our family, and for our kids, marveling about everything their past, present, and future means to them and holds for them.

“We’ll be safe when we get to the embassy …”

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been out of sorts the past few days, aside from the obvious. Something was banging around in my brain, just below my line of conscious thought, but I could not figure out what it was. So much has gone ass over tea kettle, it was hard to know where to start …

First, there was the heinous attack on our Consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed four of our own. Then it was like watching a landslide–anti-American protests at our embassies all over the Middle East, in North Africa, India, Indonesia, on and on. Every day there were more, still they continue. I knew I was very upset because of the deaths, that was something beyond articulation; I knew I was upset because of our flags being ripped down and destroyed, because members of our State Department family (both American and local staff) were/are in harm’s way, because it’s unsettling to watch angry mobs chant hateful things about a country you love. But, honestly, I’d seen much of that before and, while it upset me, I could tell there was something else getting to me, something concrete I couldn’t put my finger on. Then I had my moment of clarity, after my thoughts and feelings had been given time to bubble around in my brain, and I knew what was eating at me.

In our nearly eight years with the Department we’ve experienced a whole lot of changes, but one of the things that always stays the same is how I feel when I walk into an embassy, safe and at home. When my son, our driver, and I found ourselves tripping into a clash between protesters and police during the civil unrest in Guinea I knew if we could just get to the embassy we would be safe. We weren’t supposed to leave our house but our son, then six, was sick and needed to see the embassy nurse, so I’d made an executive decision to take a chance. We were five minutes from the embassy when Ousman slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing having our car pummeled by a large rock that pounded the road in front of us. Then came the gun shots. I reached into the back, where our son sat buckled into his car seat, and tried to push his head down between his knees while Ousman threw the car into reverse, driving like a bat out of hell, away from the flying rocks and gunfire. As we tore through bumpy side streets I radioed the Marine on duty at the embassy and told him what was happening, the calm with which he conducted himself helped ease my nerves and I reassured our son, “we’ll be safe when we get to the embassy.” We wound our way along dirt roads and, somehow (thanks to Ousman) found our way around the violence and to the embassy. I walked our son past the local guards, up to the Marine I’d spoken with, he was visibly relieved to see us, he greeted me with a smile and “It’s good to see you, ma’am.” I breathed a sign of relief, we were safe in the embassy.

Now I watch as our embassies around the world are under attack and, while we are very safe and sound where we are, something about witnessing all of this, even from halfway across the world, rocks my sense of personal safety. While dropping our kids off at school this morning I was talking to a friend, another mother whose husband is also an FSO. There was a loud bang inside the building and she startled, “what was that?” It was just someone moving a set of flags inside but I saw, then, that I was not the only one on edge. We laughed a little, we know it’s irrational, we know we’re safe here, but still …Today my husband is attending the well publicized docking of a US Naval ship and, because of what he does here, he is always very visible when he goes to those sorts of things. This morning I was seized by a fear that he wouldn’t be safe, I felt a little frantic, the docking was too public, too easy of a target. “Geez, Heather, he made it through a year in Iraq, you’re being totally irrational, you’re in Costa Rica for cripes sake,” but still …

My point in all this rambling is this, our embassies overseas are safe havens, we bring our children there, we gather with our fellow Americans there. I can walk through the doors of any embassy and be greeted by Marines, I can wander the halls and be surrounded by photos not just of our host country but also of home. It may sound kind of silly and sentimental but, despite the fact that our embassies are there for international diplomacy, they’ve always kind of been like a slice of home for me–safe, secure, nothing much changes from one to the next, it’s comforting. Of course they’re still all of that, embassies have been attacked, guard posts have been heavily damaged, entire motor pools have been burnt to the ground, but at each of our embassy compounds the main buildings, the chanceries, have been safe. I know this in the thinking part of my brain, but the primal part is panicking a bit.

This morning I learned that there were anti-American protests scheduled for Guinea, which I found shocking because we’d never seen even a shred of anti-American sentiment there, getting caught in the rock throwing was just a wrong time, wrong place event for us. Thankfully it appears to have ended up being a non-event, which is more in line with what I know about the Guinean people. But still … something had been planned and that felt like one more shard of glass in the armor I build around my family. “We’ll be safe when we get to the embassy,” that’s what I told my child, my child, the day of the rock throwing and gun shots. And we were, then. The uncertainty of tomorrow is what has me worried.

Guinea: A Bittersweet Posting (Which, Upon Reflection, Had More Sweet than Bitter)

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It’s funny how things that happened years ago, things you think have been sorted and tucked away, can sneak up on you and feel fresh. The other night my husband and I were talking about Guinea, our first post or, as we call it, our baptism by fire. We were reminiscing about the 2007 civil unrest, which led to embassy families and “non-essential” (I truly hate that term) personnel being evacuated.

Whenever I think of the evacuation I’m always surprised by how vivid the memories are, like a movie playing in my mind. I was in the living room with my family when my husband’s mobile rang, I saw the look on his face as he listened to the person on the other end and I knew that the children and I would be leaving. The possibility of a mandatory evacuation had been looming for weeks so it didn’t come as a surprise when the order arrived. I went straight to packing, no time for tears since we only had 12 hours before we needed to be ready to go. The morning we left I put our cats in the family room and locked them behind the panic doors that protected our upstairs, tears flowing, fearing I would never see them again despite the repeated promises my husband had given me that he would not let anything happen to them (a promise kept, once Air France started flying again he had them on the first flight out). I remember sitting by the front door with our three children–then ages six, four, and four  months–thinking of all the ways our lives were about to change, thinking about being separated from my husband, about our sudden and unexpected immersion back into American culture.

While sitting there I thought of a conversation I’d had with Victoria, our housekeeper, just a few weeks before. We’d been talking about the civil unrest, the gunfire, the rock throwing, the future of the country and its people. Something she’d said was looping through my mind as I waited for our caravan– “you and the children can always leave, I cannot.” By her nature Victoria is a positive, joyful person, she’s also realistic and practical; her statement wasn’t an indictment of us, it was just fact. I’d told her that I didn’t want to leave, I felt my place at that time was in Guinea and as long as the children were safe we would stay. Ultimately, of course, that decision was not mine to make.

I looked out the window as a white SUV pulled up in front of our house, “wheels up, kids, let’s go.” The men whose job it was to see us safely to the airport came to our door and helped with the luggage, joked with the children to relax them, told us it would be okay. My most vivid memory is of the people in our neighborhood, the children our children played with, the elders in their colorful boubous, the women with buckets on their heads, the men with radios held to their ears–all stopped in the street to watch us drive slowly away and I felt like a traitor, a deserter. I wanted to roll my window down and tell them it wasn’t my choice, my choice would have been to stay. My choice would have been to wake up tomorrow to the sounds of their chatter as everyone drew water from our well, to be able to watch the boys play soccer with my children, to be able to reach out to the babies and rub their cheeks as I walked past. But I couldn’t tell them any of that, I could only bow my head to avoid their stares–they weren’t angry or hostile stares, just sad to see the Americans leaving. We drove slowly through the empty streets, silently taking in the burned out cars and tires, the shuttered stores, the utter lack of vitality and bustle that were the trademark of Conakry. We arrived at the airport, hoping my husband who was helping to evacuate Americans would make it to the airport in time to say goodbye. We were boarding the plane when I heard him call out to us so, in the end, we had our minute on the tarmac for hugs. We left knowing we’d likely never be back, never have the chance to say goodbye to the people we’d come to care for.

My feelings about Guinea are torn because life there was difficult and more than once I found myself wishing we could just leave. I don’t put the struggles we had on par with those of the majority of people in Guinea, nowhere near it. But life there for us was often emotionally isolating, nutritionally challenging, structurally frustrating, and the health scares were things I don’t like to dwell on. Still, when it came time to leave, I didn’t want to because my home, at least for a little longer, was there. I felt like I was deserting people I’d come to deeply respect, deserting people who had helped make my days brighter, who had reached out to comfort us in a time of grief, who had turned to us in times of need, people who lived their lives with deep dignity and grace, people who, through no fault of their own, lived in a country that had flipped upside down a long time ago and had never been able to right itself. I’m not the kind of person who leaves during tough times and I didn’t like feeling like a fair weather friend.

Despite not wanting to leave when we did, and my love for the people, I swore to my husband I would never look back on the country with the kind of fondness that he does. Miss a place without a park for the children to play in? No way. Miss a place with one stoplight that didn’t work, that, to my knowledge, had never worked? Not happening. Miss a place where hospitals were places you went to die, where what should be a 15 minute drive could take hours, where the list of parasites you could catch outweighed Ulysses? Never.

Still, the Guinean people, and the refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia who had found safety from the wars in their countries, were a saving grace for me. I looked to people like Sekou, our gardener who had escaped the war in Sierra Leone, with admiration for his strength and kindness even in the face of horror. The poverty, history of violent rulers, endemic government corruption, adversity, disease, lack of infrastructure, daily struggle just to get basic needs met–all of it could have been more than enough to crush the spirit of a people ten times over but that hadn’t happened in Guinea. When I remember the sounds of our neighborhood I don’t hear gunfire or yelling, I hear children giggling, women chatting, roosters crowing. I hear French and a handful of tribal languages I never understood but loved to listen to. I think of days like the one where I was driving through Conakry at the end of the dry season and the skies opened up for the first time in months, all the rain that had been waiting at the flood gates breaking free. Ordinarily you’d expect people to run for shelter in a sudden downpour but that’s not what happened. Instead, children danced in quickly forming pools, young men reached their arms out and turned their faces to the sky, women with huge smiles walked arm in arm. Maybe you can chalk it up to practicality–rain means things turn green and grow, means searching for water gets a bit easier, means less dust and dirt to sweep. Except, in the reactions to the storm, I saw the spirit of the people, and the ease with which they handled so much of life. I turned to our driver, Ousman, and saw him smiling, sharing in the delight. At that moment, despite how isolated I often felt in Guinea, I felt part of a joy that I can’t quite articulate but that still, years later, brings a smile to my face.

I do now find myself looking back on it with fondness, not in a romanticized, rose-colored glasses kind of way but in a way that recognizes the hardships but chooses to focus on the joys–the sounds of djembe drums calling to each other, Victoria’s ready smile, Seakou’s playful admonition to a 2-year old Aisleen who was fond of wearing only rain boots (“you are not an African girl, Aisleen, you must wear clothes!”), Ousman’s ultimately pointless attempts to teach me French (he was determined but I was hopeless!), the market women’s good-natured giggles when I stepped in ankle deep muck in my sandals, the time we bought dozens of soccer balls and drove through the city so our kids could toss them to children playing with flat ones, on and on and on. I’m sure I’m not alone in having had a bittersweet post that, upon distance and reflection, had more sweet than I’d thought. Someday I’d like to go back for a visit just to let Guinea know that I did not willingly desert, and that I am forever grateful for the joy and perspective it gave me.

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