I am decidedly not a beach person – too much sun, too much sand, and too much ocean that I never learned how to swim in. But I was invited to visit the Los Islands yesterday, so I went. Islands! A boat ride! Out of the city!
You hop on a pirogue (a long, narrow boat) that has a small motor. The sea was choppy, and we got hit several times in the face by small waves, making my heavily applied sunscreen run into my eyes. I wish I could have taken more pictures from the boat, but I didn't want to lose my phone.
When there, there's some ruins, but we really just laid around (me in the shade mostly) and enjoyed the quiet and the cleanliness of the beaches. Boat ride and lunch together cost me about $20.
The trip home by taxi is a different story. I dropped off my friend and continued to a roundabout just outside of the city center. From there, it's down the same road about 12 miles (20 km), so I take a shared taxi to save money – and because otherwise would save very little time. There aren't technically any private taxis in Conakry; you just pay "déplacement," or buying out all of the seats of the taxi to make it private.
I didn't know the hand signal to stop a taxi headed in my direction, so a 20-ish-year-old guy showed me how to wag my index finger like I'm pointing outward. He said he was also going that way, so when the next taxi came by, we both shoved in the front passenger seat – four women and a baby were already in the back – and went on our way. After a minute, this guy pulled a tuber from his backpack and asked if I wanted to try the manioc, or cassava. No, thank you, I've already tried it. You could take it for later, he suggested. I prefer my manioc processed and fermented in atteike, but thank you for the offer. The tuber was tucked away.
A few minutes later, a police officer on a motobike stopped the taxi in a large roundabout that has an informal market at the center. A woman in the back seat patted my shoulder and told me to stay calm, which I totally still was from my day at the beach. People stopped to both see what the argument was about and to wonder at the white woman in the shared taxi.
After a few minutes, I gathered that having two people in the front passenger seat is illegal, though many drivers do it on Sundays especially because police aren't working. So for the police to stop us means that he just wants money. He was telling the taxi driver, but in a way to make sure that I heard, that he knows people in Italy and in France, and they definitely don’t do things like this, that this is not European behavior. I said to the woman behind me that trying to get a bribe is also not European behavior, and everyone in the back, including the baby, just nodded wearily. The young man sitting next to me kept making sure I was okay, not scared.
Eventually, the taxi driver leaned in and pulled 10,000 Guinean francs (about $1.25) from his wad of bills, and after a little more yelling (and presumably an exchange of the money), we were on our way.
More than when I went to Senegal, my first time in West Africa, or when I went to Côte dʼIvoire, where I was to live for nearly a year, I felt like I more or less knew what to expect in Guinea. I was used to the food and regional culture, my language skills were far improved, and I had a place to stay for the first few days. This was all true.
Yet what really surprised me was how the level of development is so much lower than other countries I have visited in the region. Friends in Abidjan had warned me of the trash situation; I thought that was because they had been there for a week or so, only in the city center, while I would be staying in a somewhat well-off area on the outskirts. Oh no. Trash is everywhere.
My water comes from a cistern that has been recently dug and then goes into a tank next to the house. I don't think we've had consistent electricity for 24 hours, often going out for hours during the middle of the day, though we do have a generator when necessary (mostly to watch the end of a Real Madrid match).
But aside from a real lack of infrastructure, Conakry and Guineans have been lovely. Because the city's on a peninsula, the hot afternoons are relieved by a decent breeze. West African good humor is evident, especially directed toward me, and people have been incredibly kind both personally and in my research work.
I guess I pride myself on finding fun or joy or interest in the little things when some of the big things (electricity, tacos) are lacking. Evidence:
This post was previously published on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant.
In October 2015, The New York Times published an article titled “The Chains of Mental Illness in West Africa.” The author, Benedict Carey, provides insight into prayer camps in Togo, which were established for families with few other resources to house and ostensibly treat those with mental illness (and possibly intellectual or developmental disabilities).
While Carey does write that “Every society struggles to care for people with mental illness” and acknowledges that people with mental illness are bound in the United States and other places as well, he solely focuses on what he sees as the barbarity of the practice in West Africa. The article sets up a dichotomy between “real” approaches to alleviating or ameliorating mental illness and non-proven practices like prayer and traditional healing.
What is missing from his article is that both restraint and non-medical approaches to mental illness are also prevalent in the United States and that the differences in approach between Togo and the United States is one of magnitude, not of kind, likely attributable to the money allocated to mental illness in each country.
In the United States, patients with mental illness or other behavioral issues are not technically chained but are instead restrained – at times forcibly so with straps or sedating chemicals – in psychiatric institutions or in prisons, the latter of which was never intended to help those with mental illness. The U.S. criminal justice system has become the de facto method of dealing with mental illness in face of the lack of social structures to help. About 15 percent of state prisoners and 24 percent of jail inmates report symptoms that meet the criteria for a psychiatric disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and more than 10 times the number of mentally ill patients are in prisons and jails than in state psychiatric hospitals, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Carey’s article reports that “most countries in Africa, if they have a dedicated budget for mental health care at all, devote an average of less than 1 percent of their health spending to the problem, compared with 6 to 12 percent in the wealthy countries of the West.” In fact, the United States is on the low end, spending about 5.6 percent of its national health-care budget on mental health treatment, more than a quarter of which goes toward prescription drugs.
In any culture, mental illness is difficult for families, with the tension between the dignity and autonomy of the individual while families attend to their medical care and protecting them from themselves and others. An article from IRIN News points out that victims, former combatants, and their families in the Democratic Republic of Congo are allocated few provisions for mental health in North Kivu but that private clinics are working together with NGOs and communities to train mental health professionals, as well as pastors and traditional healers. They spread messages on the radio, in churches, and among state authorities to educate about mental illness and the available treatments, even if those treatments remain limited.
By only focusing on one aspect of mental health treatment in a foreign place while neglecting to mention how the United States similarly treats much of its population or that many of the treatments described are part of a larger treatment effort, The New York Times piece sadly overlooks the holistic approach that is vital to treating mental health issues – including mental, physical, and spiritual aspects.
This post was previously published on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant.
For a number of years, reports of corruption in Liberia’s education system, reaching all the way to the Ministry of Education, have been numerous, and the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has called for a reform of the education system.
But now, the Liberian government has decided to outsource its entire primary and early childhood education programs to a private company, Bridge Academies, which has been backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. As reported in The News of Liberia, Kishore Singh, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, stated, “This is unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations."
The company already runs education projects in Kenya and Uganda, where lessons are provided on mobile phones, reports Front Page Africa, so that “the teacher does not have to be sophisticated to teach.” Following on previous posts on The CIHA Blog discussing “effective altruism,” paternalistic interventions in education, and attempts to innovate out of poverty, this is yet another example of how problems on the local and national levels in many African countries can set the stage for philanthrocapitalist innovations/interventions that do not address the root causes of the problems.
“Don’t Outsource Primary Education System”
The News of Liberia
“Education Minister Negotiates Public–Private Partnership Deal”
Front Page Africa
“An Africa first! Liberia outsources entire education system to a private American firm. Why all should pay attention”
by Christine Mungai for Mail & Guardian Africa
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.