Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Le Onze Septembre
   by Matt Brown (Guinea 2001–03)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

THE BEST WAY TO LEARN a foreign language is to use the words in a practical context. I learnedPrinter friendly version 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 couldn’t 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 family’s 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 couldn’t 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 family’s 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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.
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