THE BEST WAY TO LEARN a foreign language is to use the words in a practical context. I learned many French words that way in the summer of 2001 during my three month Peace Corps training in the sleepy little town of Dubreka, Guinea.
I learned the word for garbage can, poubelle, when I couldnt locate one in the house where I was living with my Guinean host family. I had to pile my refuse into a corner of my room and occasionally sneak it out to the familys pit latrine. Upon entering my room, my host brothers and sisters would stare in wide-eyed amazement at all the stuff I had brought from America, and all the waste I produced.
I learned the word pagaille, a great word meaning disorder, chaos, confusion, just after I taught my first English class to 70 Guinean high school students. As a result of having too few desks, they had to squeeze three kids onto one uncomfortable wooden bench, and the talking and noise level was so bad that I barely got through half of my lesson.
I quickly learned the word for beautiful, jolie, while sitting on the front porch with my host family in the humid evenings watching awesome lightening storms illuminate the dusk sky in front of towering green, mist-covered cliffs.
Then, on September 11th, the day before my group was to swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers, I learned a word I will never forget, incroyable, unbelievable.
The last day of training began with mixed emotions for me. Like most Volunteers, I was happy that the long, challenging, yet necessary training was finally over, but I was also sad to leave the family I had grown close to over the previous three months. They called me Ishmael Bangoura after the most revered member of the family. They had fed me, taught me a great deal about their language and how to survive on my own in Guinea, nursed me back to health when I had malaria, and played games, danced, and befriended me on some otherwise lonely nights.
In the late morning, the 20 soon-to-be Volunteers held a party for our host families. We couldnt start the party without the proper Guinean authorities and in the two hour interval before they arrived, we taught our host brothers and sisters how to limbo, which got everyone laughing.
After the party, I went for one last bike ride around Dubreka to take some photos of my first home in Guinea. Getting back well after noon, I entered my familys house and was met by my usually jovial host father with a somber look on his face.
Ishmael, he said. You have to come and see this. Something bad has happened to your country.
I went into the living room where the French news was on the television. At first, I really didnt comprehend what I was looking at. I could see images of two smoking towers of the World Trade Center, and my first thought was that this was some new American action movie. Soon I realized, however, that this was the news, but, my French being poor, I couldnt quite catch everything the reporter was saying. I thought that maybe they were replaying footage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing for some reason, but my host father reassured me that this was happening live.
As the towers fell one after another before my eyes, I stood there, transfixed to the news coverage. Incroyable! the reporter kept repeating. Incroyable!
Fifteen minutes later, a Peace Corps car appeared at the front door and spirited me off to the training center, where most of the other Volunteers were already gathered around shortwave radios listening to the raw reports on the BBC. Everyone was clearly in shock with glazed looks on our faces.
Within an hour, the Peace Corps country director arrived to talk to us. Soon after, the local government official came to offer his condolences in a heart warming gesture I would hear repeated by many sincere Guineans in the weeks to come.
Instead of happily spending that last day saying good-bye to our host families, we spent it together at the training center, a confused community of Americans far from home during this horrible tragedy. For the first few hours, no one thought about leaving the training center.
The next day was entirely too rushed. Our bus was leaving early for the capital, and I still had some packing to do that I had neglected from the day before. It wasnt the happy, teary-eyed good-bye that I had imagined having with my family, but rather a somber, teary-eyed good-bye. Du courage, have courage, was all my father could say to me as we parted.
Later that afternoon at the country directors house in Conakry, the U.S. Ambassador swore us in as Peace Corps Volunteers. Just as American policy makers were preparing to launch a war on the Muslim world, I was preparing to go off to a Muslim village in West Africa to teach. I was being given the incredible task of showing these people another side of America so that, hopefully, they would see that we are more than just soldiers and action heroes. I hoped that, like all the words they taught me, I could teach them the meaning of at least one English word: Peace.
Matt Brown has traveled to and lived in over 30 African countries and is currently a freelance writer and photographer based in Northern California. Matt's work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, Travel Africa Magazine, Destinationelsewhere.com, Hackwriters.com, Bootsnall.com, as well as the 2005 International Calendar produced by RPCVs of Wisconsin Madison.
At the moment he is living in Healdsburg, California and dreaming of his next adventure. Contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.