Peace through Chemistry
Chemistry Concepts Were Only One Aspect
of What I Shared through the Peace Corps
BY PHILIP RODENBOUGH
The local high school in Yembering has no chemistry lab. No beakers, no flasks, no chemicals. I suppose you might not find this surpris- ing, given that Yembering uses
well water instead of indoor plumbing, gas-powered generators in place of an electrical
grid, and dirt roads in lieu of paved ones.
Yembering, a typical small village in the
Republic of Guinea in West Africa, is where I
spent much of my term of service as a public
high school chemistry teacher with the U.S.
Peace Corps. I had joined the Peace Corps
because I wanted to help people in need, but
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also looking
for adventure. My time there was filled with
inspiring ups and disheartening downs — but
looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Guinea is a beautiful country with diverse natural regions, from
mountains to savannahs and forests. My first stop in Guinea was
the Peace Corps training town, Forécariah, a small community in
the country’s hot and humid coastal region.
Like all the other incoming volunteers, I lived with a host family, who helped me acclimate to the culture. My particular family
consisted of a man, his two wives, and two children (one by each
of the wives). We ate rice with peanut sauce, potatoes, and the
occasional chicken. The quality and preparation style of the food
took some getting used to: I had to watch out for pebbles in the
rice. Water came from a well, and although there was wired electricity, the town turned it on only sporadically.
During the day, I attended intensive training classes with my
fellow new volunteers, run by Peace Corps staff and experienced
volunteers. Although I had tutored freshman chemistry as a junior
and senior in college, this experience was proving to be relevant
As I would be teaching in French, the national language of
Guinea, I also took some French language lessons. I had previously
studied French, but this was not true of all incoming volunteers.
Complete immersion allowed us all to learn to communicate
effectively. In addition to language skills, I was instructed in how
to teach and how to run a chemistry classroom in Guinea. We all
learned about cross-cultural communication, and generally how to
live and be happy in our new environ-
ment. Toward the end of the 12-week
training session, we conducted a
summer school for the community
of Forécariah, where we eagerly prac-
ticed our new teaching skills.
In a normal Peace Corps experience, after training I would have
settled down in another nearby town, where I would conduct my
two years of service. Instead, Guinea experienced unexpected
political turmoil and violence, so shortly after a program-wide
evacuation, I ended up continuing my service in Burkina Faso, a
landlocked country 200 miles east of Guinea, located just south
of the Sahara Desert. Incoming volunteers generally should not
anticipate such abrupt changes, but the Peace Corps does value
flexibility in its volunteers. Burkina Faso is not far from Guinea,
and also has important cultural similarities (including its national
language of French). I started my real service in a medium-sized
town called Koupéla, and it was always very hot there.
I lived in a small, three-room house made out of concrete. I
shared a courtyard with another identical house, in which lived
an elementary school teacher and his family. Out in the courtyard
was a hole-in-the-ground bathroom and a shower area, each partially enclosed but open to a sky that virtually never rained. Most