Julia helps a MindLeaps’ student with her new shoes

Just 10 days into my time in Guinea, I am reeling from the huge diversity of fascinating experiences I have had being in Conakry with MindLeaps. Guinea is truly like no other country I have ever been to before, in terms of both its difficult political history and challenging levels of development, as well as its vibrant and multi-faceted culture. While there have already been many bumps in the road, from power outages to miscommunication to broken laptops and getting lost, none of these things have deterred in the slightest from the warmth of my welcome here or the important lessons I am beginning to learn.

My first and perhaps most pivotal experience so far was a visit to Cité de Solidarité, a government-run compound for 300 of Conakry’s most vulnerable families. These families were originally gathered from the area surrounding the Grande Mosquee, where they had previously turned to begging for income due, primarily, to disability and stigma (ie. parents suffering from blindness, missing limbs, albinism).

Children playing in Cite de Solidarite

The first cohort of 22 children who enter MindLeaps’ dance program while I am here come from Cité de Solidarité.  They live with as many as 15 people to a single room in pretty shocking conditions. I feel that this visit was extremely important in contributing to my understanding of the circumstances these children come from, and allowing me to contemplate how important MindLeaps’ programs and access to education are to families with this background of desperation, begging and poverty. In a meeting with the parents of these children in the Cité, a one-legged father turned to me on his crutches and explained, with tears in his cataract-clouded eyes, that “the best way you can invest in a man is to invest in the education of his children.” It was a powerful and moving way to start my time here, to be so poignantly reminded of the value of education and the hope these children represent for their entire community.

As a volunteer with MindLeaps, one of my main aims during this month is to help explore – through a series of interviews with experts in the field – the factors contributing to childhood vulnerability and school success in a Guinea-specific cultural context. Digging into this project, I am immensely grateful for the opportunities it is giving me to learn more about both the MindLeaps curriculum and the foundational ideas that underpin it, as well as about cultural and socioeconomic factors that influence children growing up in Guinea. Every single day brings something fascinating and new!

To that end, this week has brought three different interviews: with an education director from the American Peace Corps, the founder of a nearby orphanage, and a government official in Child Protection. I absolutely love learning from these different perspectives and watching how themes emerge from the information we are gathering.

As a newcomer to Guinea, it is really fascinating for me to engage in discussions on the conditions here that leave children vulnerable and out of school (like poverty, loss of parents, emotional trauma) and some of the particular aptitudes and attitudes (like confidence, communication skills, curiosity) that can give them the courage and ability to succeed in school under these circumstances. I can’t wait to see what more comes from this process and continue to learn about how MindLeaps’ dance program facilitates this process – from vulnerability to education and success.

Children joining the MindLeaps’ program receive much needed shoes from Ruben’s Shoes, a Canadian NGO.

This week, I also had the chance to take part in a distribution of shoes from the NGO “Ruben’s Shoes,” and learn about how MindLeaps collaborates with other organizations in Guinea to continue broadening its impact. Outside of those experiences, I have been taking every chance I can get to explore Conakry and my own little corner of it. Not being able to speak French has been a challenge for me in navigating and communicating, but not so big a challenge as to hinder me from sniffing out some amazing local meals and the biggest, juiciest mangos sold on the roadside! I am extremely excited to see what the next few weeks hold for learning, dancing, and immersing myself in this fascinating country.

Julia Sawatzky, originally from Edmonton, Canada, is a medical student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  She is volunteering with MindLeaps Guinea in June-July 2017 as part of a university scholarship program.