Friday, January 26, 2007

where to go from here?

Peace Corps Guinea was evacuated this week. I’ve been anticipating this for a while. It still upsets me. The Volunteers are now in Mali, hanging out, waiting to see if the turmoil will blow over and they can go back to their sites, or if things will get worse and they’ll have had their services yanked out from underneath them. I don‘t know what to expect or hope for. But now that the Volunteers are out of the country, I suspect it’ll be a while before PC goes back. Côte d’Ivoire was evacuated shortly after I ended my service in Guinea; over the previous year, if I recall correctly, there had been a couple of in-country evacuations, i.e., the PCVs gathered in Abidjan. But once they were moved to Accra, Ghana, that marked the end. They haven’t been back since.

Some background: things in Guinea are bad. They weren’t good when I was there, and they have steadily declined since. Inflation and unreliable salaries have made both gasoline (hence transport and travel) and rice (hence eating) almost entirely unattainable. The state of affairs is blamed on President Lansana Conté, who for his part doesn’t seem to have had his country’s best interests in mind. He came to power in 1984 via a military coup following the death of the first president, Sékou Touré. He was officially elected in 1993, under a constitution that was supposed to limit the president to two five-year terms. But I recall November 2001, when a “national referendum” vote removed these term limits, allowing Conté to run again in 2003. I remember hearing the stories of soldiers watching people’s votes, and telling them, if they voted against the proposal to remove the limits, “Are you stupid, or did you just forget what to mark?” (We need to take the problems with voting in the States seriously, but we should also recognize how incredibly fortunate we are to have as reliable a system as we do.) Conté is a diabetic and has been taken to Paris multiple times while in a coma, and I don’t think anyone expected him to live out a third term. Problem is, no one knows who’ll fill the vacuum when he leaves, either by passing away or by finishing out his term.

On January 10, a “general strike” was begun, which as far as I can tell means just about everyone stopped working. No teaching. No bauxite mining (which is Guinea’s primary source of income). No transport. PC admin gathered up the PCVs from up-country, because (as you’ll all be grateful to know) Peace Corps really does make great efforts to care for its Volunteers. But things got bad before that. I found a blog by a current Volunteer, serving in Siguiri, which is one of the towns where I visited some friends during my service. She tells the events of when the street protests reached Siguiri on Tuesday. She reports that two people died in those protests. Many more have died in Conakry. Everyone in the country is suffering and stagnating and scraping by in this awful, awful situation. I taught over 200 students there, some of whom are probably at universities now.

You can find more about the strike, including the reasons for it and the terms to end it which the union leaders published, by looking at the Friends of Guinea blog, linked in the sidebar.

I’d like to say more, but I don’t think there’s anything we ordinary people can do Stateside (or even from here in France, former colonial power in Guinea), except perhaps petition for the president to step down? How on earth would that work? And even though that’s what most of the people of Guinea seem to want, it’s certainly not a good or sufficient solution. But I’m writing about this because the events really upset me and I feel the need to bring them up. I hate the state of affairs across most of sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve said to many people before that it seems somehow the colonizers convinced the entire continent that black people are inferior to white people. And the divisions among tribes and the selfishness of the rulers exacerbate what are already miserable situations. I will vouch that the people of Guinea are generous and rich in culture, but they are also frustrated. They do not see justice, and they do not see progress. The strike is a symptom of a nation deeply troubled, but it is also becoming a new source of destruction. How do we escape from this vortex?

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