Finding Thanksgiving: Lexington man discovers his path in Africa

SANDENIA, Guinea — After a year of sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day, browsing patents at a mind-numbing rate of a few thousand an hour, enough was enough. It was time for a change.

What kind of change, though? I wanted something where I'd be outside more, something where there'd be a sense of adventure. I wanted to go somewhere new, see new cultures and learn new languages. More than anything, I wanted to help people. The Peace Corps fit the bill.

So I filled out the application, had the interview, passed the medical screenings, and a year later found myself standing in west Africa's intense July heat on the tarmac of the Conakry airport in Guinea, ready for whatever the country wanted to throw at me — or so I thought.

In anticipation of my service as a volunteer in Guinea, a lot of time was spent contemplating the difficulties of life in a mud hut, survival without electricity and running water. As it turns out, life in a mud hut is, in fact, pretty great, and who needs electricity? Writing by candlelight is so much cooler. Besides, there are other, deeper issues with which I struggle while making my life in the bush.

Almost 78 miles to the next volunteer, 10 miles to a tree on a hill where there might be cell phone reception, and a constant battle with the local language, Yalunka: all elements of an equation adding up to a life in isolation. It's a life where, along with the homesickness and nostalgia, I also find myself dealing with other challenges like staying healthy — a week with malaria was one week too many — and trying to figure out how to teach math to ninth- and 10th-graders who have spent the past 10 years laying their educational foundation in a concrete of rote memorization, a concept foreign to me.

As these hindrances build, I often find myself growing increasingly frustrated, asking the inevitable question, "Why am I here?!"

In the beginning, all problems were solved by solo screaming bouts in the hut where I live, but more and more, I find myself brushing the bad things aside, knocking the dirt off my shoulders, celebrating the small victories, making the most of each new experience.

Every night, I duck out of my hut and gaze skyward, just for a few moments, becoming lost in the heavens above, the Milky Way so thick and close you can taste it, the moon so bright the children play outside until well past my bedtime.

At that moment, I've found my reward for making it through another day.

But that makes each day sound like a chore, like a 9-to-5 desk job, and, though it is tough work, I can't imagine any desk job where I'd get to see 200 students saluting a boy as he clings atop the flagpole, waiting for his classmates to toss up the Guinean colors. Never during my time as a patent examiner did I get to help stuff a half-ton, live bull into the trunk of a dilapidated bush taxi after being told, "We have to pick up some beef."

Heck, on my third day I had my dinner stolen by a sweet, old lady.

On a walk through town I had been ecstatic to find bread for sale, as it's sometimes hard to come by in the bush. I scooped up a loaf and went off in search of some peanut butter. A woman sold me a lump (that's how they sell it here) and I was headed home to a delicious dinner. I figured I'd eat half the loaf tonight and the other half in the morning for breakfast. A nice little sandwich was made with peanut butter, honey and even a few pieces of chocolate I'd gotten in a care package (insert joke about me being in second grade right here).

Sandwich in hand, I sat in front of my hut, taking the first bite as I wrote in my journal. Just as I was about to take the second bite, an elderly woman walked by on the path that passes just a few feet from my front door. She greeted me in Yalunka, I greeted back, and, in an attempt at integrating, said, "Invitation?" — meaning, "Do you want some?" Guineans love this and always say, "Merci, bon appétit!" and go on their way. But she took me up on the offer. She took the sandwich and sat down next to me.

We sat together in silence for at least a minute, her staring off into the distance, me wondering when she was going to take a bite and hand back my dinner. And then suddenly she stood up, said, "Thank you," and walked off, my entire sandwich in tow.

Thank goodness for second halves.

I went back into my hut and made another sandwich, although this time I was sure to eat it behind the cover of a book. About a hundred yards away, I could see the old woman watching me inquisitively, probably wondering what in the world kind of sandwich I had given her.

While each day here presents new challenges, there are so many things for which I'm thankful and make me grateful for this experience. Loving family and friends back home supporting my journey (and sending great care packages); the compassionate missionary family only an hour down the road, ready and happy to share their home and American food; waking up and saying, "Wow! Africa!"; learning new languages; sharing with others; and growing intellectually, culturally and spiritually.

These are the things I remember "when the dog bites, when the bee stings ..."

Well, except the dog probably has rabies, so I'll need to get more shots.

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