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How She Spent Her Summer Vacation

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
July 11, 2007

Liz Fowler dancing behind her hotel in Guinea

Liz Fowler traveled half way around the world to practice her passion.

The library service supervisor has studied West African dance since 1990 after a troupe from Durham, N.C., got her “completely hooked.” So, of course, when the chance to visit Guinea and dance with the African women there presented itself earlier this summer, she took it.

Guinea is on the coast of West Africa between Guinea-Bissau and Senegal to the north and Sierra Leone and Liberia to the south. Fowler stayed in Conakry, Guinea’s capital. It’s an undeveloped city of 2 million people. In most places, there’s no running water and, during the day, no electricity. The evidence of poverty is everywhere.

Yet the people are curious and generous, Fowler says, and, even though Conakry is not a tourist destination, everyone was very welcoming.

Fowler made the trek to Guinea when her friend, Meaghan Dunn who did a stint there with the Peace Corps, wanted to go back and invited Fowler to join her. Because of her prior connections, Dunn was able to find a dance teacher to give the pair private lessons.

“We paid 35,000 Guinean francs a piece for two hours of private lessons. That’s about $10,” Fowler says. “And people there thought we were paying too much.”

The West African drumming group Ballet Soleil D’Afrique. Fowler said their performance was worth the price of her ticket to Guinea.

The former French colony has been in decline since gaining its independence in 1958. Many of the paved roads are crumbling. There are few cars and the ones they have wouldn’t pass an American inspection, Fowler says. The taxis are old VW Jettas or small French cars.

“It’s implied that you will share a taxi. It’s not full until there are seven or eight people in it; usually four or five in back and two to three up front with the drive,” Fowler says. “I was in many vehicles that had cracked windshields. They might or might not have door panels.”

For the most part, people walk everywhere. The reddish dirt permeates everything so that, in five minutes, clean clothes are dirty. But the African women, dressed in traditional West African garb, look very beautiful, she says.

Fowler and Dunn during a dance lesson

“One of the things that struck me was these people are living hand-to-mouth and yet they are really friendly and curious and happy,” Fowler says.

She admits, however, that her first night in Conakry had her wondering what she had gotten herself into. Their hotel ran out of water that first day. After that, they had to bring it to their rooms in buckets. Sometimes the hotel employees did the hauling and sometimes it was up to her.

“I knew I was going to have to rough it but I didn’t know I’d be roughing it in a building,” she says. “After a couple days, though, it seemed normal.”

Most of the young men don’t have jobs. They spend their days talking, drinking coffee or tea. The cafes are dirty with broken benches; cracked cups with the handles broken off. The women sell food in the markets; mangos, pineapples and avocados are plentiful.

Fowler bought a huge container of mangos for about $15.

The sister of the dance teacher cooked for Fowler and Dunn and her children made the 10-minute walk from their home three times a day to deliver the meals. The women ate out of one dish behind their hotel and would invite people to join them.

“We ate a lot, a lot of rice,” Fowler says. “We had stewed mangos; mangos with spices over rice and sauces made with sweet potato leaves, tomatoes and peanuts. And small amounts of chicken and fish. It was all really delicious.”

There was very little English spoken. Most Guineans speak French. The language of the city is Susu. Many people spoke up to six languages, a feat Fowler calls humbling.

“Being with African people for the 2 ½ weeks seems to have changed my perspective on life,” Fowler says. “It’s such a paradox. There’s such a tremendous sense of community there. In America, we isolate ourselves and have to work so hard to develop community and they just have it.”

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