Tell me, crystal ball, will I get to Guinea?
December 30, 2002

“If I were the superstitious kind, I might think that I were destined for Guinea," I wrote in my journal. But that was before everything started going wrong.

It was my last day in San Francisco before going to the East Coast to visit family. Hopefully it was my final stop before heading to the motherland. I decided to go to an African dance class, one of the inspirations for my trip-in-the-making. Maybe one of my teachers, handsome Senegalese twins, knew some dance masters in Conakry, Guinea, where I was trying to line up a job. Instead, Ibrahima, a dread-locked African I had never seen at the dance studio before, was substituting.

I approached Ibrahima after class: "I'm going to be taking this job... I mean, if I get it... Where are you from?"

"Guinay," he replied with pride, his accent that lovely Franco-African blend.

"That's where I'm going! I mean, I think I am... In Conakry..."
Ibrahima's face lit up. "My brudda is in Conakry! He's a great dancer. I have a camp there. Oh, this is great! I give you all my information."

He took me down to his car, gave me a copy of his new African-rap CD, $20 for his mom, convoluted directions to his family's home, and a photo of his brother to show people in case I got lost.

"Oh yes," Ibrahima said, "you are going to Guinea!"

Mind you, until I started hunting for opportunities abroad, I didn't even know where Guinea was. I had my eyes on nearby Senegal and Mali. There I had found programs to immerse myself in everything from community development and environmental volunteer work to bird watching and batik making. Guinea, whose distinctions include the rainiest capital city, the most corrupt government and nearly the worst economy in the world, was not even on my list of destinations.

As a freelance journalist, I had traveled around the world over the previous eight years, writing travel articles to fund my trips. My freelance business, which I ran out of my small, shared apartment in San Francisco, had been successful enough, and I got to write about issues I found both interesting and important. I covered earth-friendly houses and fair-trade campaigns, published interviews with environmental activists and spiritual leaders, wrote humorous essays on my travels and tribulations.

I had a life enviable to many of my 9-to-5 friends: I was able to travel on a whim, work from home, meet interesting people and get free "research" vacations. But I was tired of writing about others doing heroic, innovative things; I wanted to be the one doing them. I didn't have the experience to get a job outside the media, as writing was all I knew. I didn't even know exactly what
I wanted to do, for that matter; the choices were too overwhelming and the causes too many. Work for renewable energy or equitable commerce? Help small farmers or street kids?

I had been paralyzed by this indecision for the past few years -- far too long. I decided to volunteer in West Africa, where I could learn dance on the side. What cause to work for didn't really matter; I was certain I would know from there what direction to take. The important thing, my restless spirit told me, was to just get moving.

Looking for work, I emailed a woman in the UN's West Africa coordination office. She tipped me off that the UN's World Food Program in Guinea desperately needed staff - including a reporting officer. I was eminently qualified for the position. I promptly sent her my resume; she reviewed it with equal promptness and told me their region public information director had tentatively approved me for the job. There would just be some bureaucratic hurdles, including a phone interview and medical exam, to overcome before I could begin.

The job would be a demanding one she warned, often working weekends and nights. There would be trips to the field, but most of my work would be in their country office in Conakry, the capital. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to handle it -- a boss, a schedule, a cubicle? Did I want to settle for a reporting job when writing was what I was trying to take a break from? Yet I knew I would never get off the treadmill of indecision if I didn't just give it a try.

Whatever hoops and hurdles the bureaucrats at UN Volunteer headquarters in Bonn put in front of me -- recommendation letters, photos, triplicate forms -- I quickly jumped. Meanwhile, Mirabella, my recruiter and WFP-Guinea's country director, who supposedly needed me yesterday, completely disappeared from cyberspace. I got nary a reply to any of my emails, whose tenor mounted in anxiety, despair, and frustration with each passing week.

Second-guessing my decision to give up the liberating beat of the drums that had steered me to Africa to spend my weekends in an office, I jokingly sought guidance from the stars. My friend Joyce, an amateur astrologer, steered me to, where I found free charts that Joyce promised to interpret.

My friend Charli and I looked at ours together. Charli's hapazard meridian lines fell in places like the Arctic Circle and the middle of the Indian Ocean, whereas mine had several passing through West Africa. One went straight through Guinea, in fact, and its zenith hovered directly over Conakry. "That is no ordinary meridian line, but a Venus one," Joyce emailed me back. "You're probably going to be there longer than six months. Love, success, and creativity will flourish there -- you might even meet your soulmate. Wow!"

The rational part of me laughed it off as coincidence, but the restless seeker in me, longing for purpose and a sense of home, hoped the reading was on the mark.


While waiting for my Guinean suitors to come back on-line begging for me, I took off for Key West to meet my dad and soon-to-be ex-boyfriend for a few days of balmy sun, sweet breezes and debauchery, a final hurrah and au revoir to carefree days. We snorkeled coral reefs, kayaked mangrove tunnels, drank rum runners and ate conch fritters. We crawled rowdy, overdone Duvall Street with its topless bars and tacky t-shirts, explored quiet alleyways overflowing with jungle-thick foliage, twisted trails of bougainvillea and jumbo flowers the color of melon, papaya and banana, flavors that would end up in one drink or another before the night was over.

By the week's end, there was still no word via email, and we headed up the Gulf coast for a week's visit to my grandmother on geriatric Marco Island. Marco was utterly lacking in soul, substance, culture, grit, and surprise, and believe me, I looked.
Particularly in local watering holes my father introduced me to, like the Snook Inn and the Sand Bar, where drinking was a competitive sport. (As a lightweight "one drink and I'm dancing on the table" kind of girl, I was immediately disqualified.)

Though I checked my email twice and thrice a day, there was still no word from my potential employer. Africa never felt further away. It seemed my so-called destiny had changed courses.

A week later, I was in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia with my mom, stepdad and 13-year-old sister. This was to be our send-off Christmas party for a journey that was supposed to be days away. Originally Mirabella had asked me to be there by November. I told her I had promised to spend Christmas with my family, but would love to be there for New Year's. She promised to throw me a great party if I did. But here it was almost Christmas, and I had yet to hear back from her.

Then, finally an email from UN Volunteer (UNV) headquarters popped into my inbox. I opened it, ecstatic, to find a generic reply saying "Thank you for your interest in the United Nations Volunteer Program. All requests from potential American volunteers are handled through the UNV coordinator in the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC. Upon receipt of their clearance form, we will process your application and let you know when we find a suitable placement."

I called the UNV office in Washington, DC, this being my first knowledge that such a thing existed. This bureaucratic comedy of errors ensued: Dot, the coordinator was snippy at first, later just sympathetically unhelpful. She claimed to know nothing of my application, and informed me that all decisions and coordination for US candidates were handled out of her office.

"How long might all this take?," I asked her, explaining my newly hatched plan to go there and dance while I waited for an answer.
"With the holidays, it could be weeks... Yes, Guinea is a special case... No, I suggest that you not leave the country if you are still interested the job, as there are medical tests you must do that are impossible to complete in Guinea," she said.

I quickly forwarded her six of the umpteen emails that Mirabella had sent me, saying my application had been accepted by their office, that the decision shouldn't take more than a week, and so on. Dot promised to follow up with a woman at headquarters to whom I had sent my application a month ago.

My next reply from Dot was a polite but disheartening email: "Headquarters claims to know nothing about the supposed position in Guinea. They will follow up with Guinea, but with the holidays, it is uncertain when this may occur."

My plan to dance in the new year had come undone. Though the winter solstice had passed, the days in suburbia seemed to be getting longer. I knew I had to get out of my hometown -- my sanity was seriously at stake.

I gave up on the UN job. Better that the bureaucratic breakdown end here, rather than on the side of a dusty backroad in Guinea.
Instead, I quickly I devised a bewildering matrix of possibilities, spending most of my waking hours on-line researching flights, dance camps, other volunteer programs.

My mother threatened to send me to Internet Anonymous, and chastised me for trying to fly away before the family New Year's celebration in Myrtle Beach, now that there was no overseas boss telling me to be there yesterday.

"You know grandma isn't well... If you go off to Africa, who knows when you will see her again?" Mom said.

I knew her worry was more that she wouldn't see me again, that I was going to fall prey to some disease or bandit or worse.

Maybe she had a point. I gave in and got my ticket, leaving for Conakry on January 3rd, 2003. I would study with the company of Fore-Fote, self-proclaimed to be one of the oldest dance and drum camps in West Africa. My new plan was to dance for a few weeks, hike in the Guinean hills, then travel on to Dakar, Senegal, where I would stay with a host family while working through a local organization that pairs volunteers with non-profits in need.

Then, on the eve of my trip, my suitcase already packed and tagged, Mirabella magically re-appeared on email with the news that Bonn had accepted my application and they could contract me as a local hire, doing the medical tests and such on the spot.
Ibrahima was right - I would go to Guinea.



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