More English after English Class!

My third week in Conakry felt like it vanished before my eyes! All of my projects are in full swing now, and the days are equal parts busy, exciting and fulfilling.

Mr. Doumboya’s English Class

The children spent three days here at the centre this week for the MindLeaps program: English lessons, followed by dance class. I have loved watching and taking part in the English classes, practicing with the kids and letting them demonstrate to me their enthusiasm for everything they have learned and accomplished. The MindLeaps’ English teacher, Mr. Doumboya, is charismatic and wonderful with the kids, and one of my best decisions in Conakry was taking him on as my own French teacher. He and I usually set to work on my curriculum of useful phrases and conversational skills once the kids have finished with their English lesson, and I’ve found it to be extremely helpful in how I’m able to get around and immerse myself in life in Guinea.

MindLeaps’ female students

I also take every chance I possibly can to dance alongside the kids in their daily dance classes and become infected by their contagious energy. A few experiences I had this week in particular reminded me that I myself am still capable of learning so much through dance. When I got nervous about improvising and dancing on my own in front of the whole group, for example, I was reminded of the ways in which dance has always challenged me to embrace and take ownership of my own creativity. Suffice it to say, it is certainly not just the kids who are benefitting from the MindLeaps curriculum! In terms of both French language and the continual ways I can stretch my limits, the days when the program is happening here are incredibly rich in learning opportunities.

Art and imagination

If I end up with any free time with the kids before or in between their classes, one of my favourite things to do is bring out some art supplies and encourage them to get creative. I was overjoyed by the initial response I received when I first asked them all to draw me a picture, and totally wow-ed by the skill and artistry that emerged on paper when everyone – from the youngest children to the 18-year-old boys – sat down in a circle and put pen to paper to express their ideas. Through this process, I’ve learned that the kids all think my name is spelled “Zulia”.  And, it is a heart – not a maple leaf – at the centre of the Canadian flag. These discoveries were particularly endearing. I have also been extremely impressed to see the expertise with which the kids are able to draw complex and interesting ideas – including an anatomically accurate diagram of the human digestive tract! It is so fascinating to see how these kids express themselves when given the chance to channel their knowledge and imagination in this way.

When I was not directly involved in the kids’ classes, Ansou (the Country Director) and I were also able to finish up our intake assessments with this group of kids. Working through the questions we have prepared with each child, we are continually learning through in-depth conversations about their unique stories and challenging circumstances. In doing so, we are also continually collecting information on how well each draft of this questionnaire is actually working. It is totally mind-boggling to me how fast this tool has evolved and improved during the time I have been here!

Conakry’s “ships”

Waterfalls of Dubreka

The other aspect of my research work took a big leap forward this week when I went on a day trip to Dubreka to visit the American Peace Corps office for some qualitative interviews. Dubreka is the closest separate town to Conakry and is, by comparison, a leafy jungle paradise. I was super lucky to enjoy a swim in the stunning Soumba waterfalls to beat the muggy afternoon heat as well, but the main purpose of my trip was to continue the qualitative data collection that has helped inform our understanding of childhood vulnerability in Guinea and behaviours and attributes that contribute to school success.

Julia’s cooking lesson

The American Peace Corps was a goldmine of expertise and insight on those matters, and I had the huge privilege to interview four different educational experts: an American volunteer teacher, a female physics professor from Conakry, a French language teacher-trainer for the Peace Corps, and an official from Guinea’s Ministry of Education. I was overwhelmed by the wealth of ideas I took away from these four diverse perspectives, and continued to collaborate with the director of this research about the interesting themes that are emerging. The importance for children of learning how to think critically, for example, has come out of almost every interview we’ve done so far as being important for Guinea’s young generations to learn and face their futures effectively. It was very satisfying to come home at the end of that day and be greeted by the kids at the centre – the exact type of kids this research will hopefully contribute to helping! I really love how every aspect of what I am doing in Guinea is interconnected in such meaningful ways.

The island of Kassa

Finally, when I haven’t been dancing, learning French, getting to know the kids or conducting qualitative interviews, I’ve been falling ever more in love with Guinea! Highlights this week were a trip to the island of Kassa on Sunday for a glorious beach escape, and learning from one of MindLeaps’ staff members how to make a traditional mango and fish stew. From the sights of beautiful palm-lined beaches to Guinea’s unique culinary flavours and the loud, rhythmic music that fills the centre every day, my senses are constantly overloaded with the vibrance of this country and culture. I can’t believe it will be time to say goodbye in just one week!

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.