Dirt at Work: Words and Meanings

By Jheri St. James

The word “guinea” has several definitions in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: 1) “a portion of the west coast of Africa, applied to things derived thence . . . as guinea fowl, guinea hen, guinea pig, guinea worm; 2) the gold coin named guinea was first struck in 1663 ‘in the name and for the use of the Company of Royal Adventurers trading with Africa,’ being intended for the Guinea trade and made of gold from Guinea.”

All of these definitions come from the land in the republic whose borders include the Atlantic Ocean; Guinea-Bissau and Senegal to the north, Mali to the north and north-east, Cote d’Ivoire to the south-east, Liberia to the south, and Sierra Leone, west of the southern tip. Guinea is sometimes called Guinea-Conakry (Conakry being its capital) to differentiate it from the neighboring Guinea-Bissau (whose capital is Bissau). Other differentiations would be Guinea as separate from that Guinea Bissau, and Equitorial Guinea, and Papua New Guinea, from whom we still require soil. Readers, take note.

The Oxford definition raises questions: Who applied the name Guinea to this land? Who named the fowl, the hen, the pig and the worm ‘guinea?’ Whose coinage was struck with the precious gold mined in Guinea? The answers are many as well. Between the Portuguese, the French, the British, the Soviets, and even neighboring Guinea-Bissau, many external winners and losers, and many native slaves have shed blood on Guinea soil, man battling for the riches Mother Earth holds in her treasure chest there. At least half a million refugees have moved to the bosom of Guinea, fleeing warfare in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Laundry Day in the River, Stephanie Chasteen

These are paltry words outlining the history and lives of millions of human beings, the meaning of millions of lives. One word for this 900 C.E. to 2007 A.D. history on the surface of the soil is “change.”

Guinea’s mountains are the source for the Niger, the Gambia and Senegal Rivers, as well as the numerous rivers flowing to the sea on the west side of the range in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. The highest point in Guinea is Mont Nimba at 5,748 ft. Although the Guinean and Ivorian sides of the Nimba Massif are a UNESCO Strict Nature Reserve, the portion of the so-called Guinean Backbone continues into Liberia, where it has been mined for decades. Beneath the soil, Guinea is richly endowed with minerals, possessing perhaps one-half of the world’s reserves of bauxite. In addition the Mother has endowed Guinea with huge deposits of high-grade iron ore, diamond and gold deposits, and uranium. Soil, water and climatic conditions provide opportunities for large-scale farming, agro and fishing sectors.

Stephanie Chasteen on a vine bridge in Guinea

Our collector in Guinea came to us as a referral from Kim Crawford, who received the soil collection package at the U.S. Embassy office in Conakry, Guinea. She wrote, “I have it and have turned it over to the Agriculture specialist to find something suitable. I’m not sure if he has had time to gather anything yet. I’ll let you know.”

That Agriculture specialist was Daniel Sara from the U.S. Embassy in Conakry, from whence the dirt came. “This was the site of some of the strikes that recently happened. These were indicative of the growth of civil society and the people’s yearning for democracy,” he writes, and kindly included this photo of that historic day on the surface of the soil of Guinea. In the research for this journal entry, we learned that the Boké Village in Conakry was part of the slave trade route through Guinea, so this demonstration in that location has deep historical import and meaning. Thank you, Kim and Daniel, for your participation in our project, and for this very moving photo.

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Culture, which gives meaning to all nations, is alive and well in Guinea. Groups like Les Ballets Africains, the Women Master Drummers of Guinea, the Bembeya Jazz Group, guitarist Alpha Yaya Diallo and many women writers call Guinea their home, physically and/or spiritually. Binta Ann, Nadine Bari, Sirah Balde de Labe, Aissatou Barry, Josiane Cointet, Bilquissa Diallo, Koumanthio Zeinab Diallo, Miriama Kesso Diallo, Marie Bernadette Tiendrebeogo, Mariama Barry and Kesso Barry are the names of famous women writers listed on the site “Reading Women Writers and African Literatures” says:
“Although female Guinean writers are still few in number, they have also published several interesting books: the novel D’un Fouta-Djalloo a’ l’autre by Sirah Balde de Labe, one of the first female primary teachers in the old Peul Kingdom of Fouta-Djalloo when the region still was under French rule; two autobiographies, one by Kesso Barry, the daughter of the last Almamy, and the other by Nadine Bari, who husband was assassinated by Sekou Toure; short stories by Marie Bernadette Ouedraogo Tiendrebeogo and publications by Aissatou Berry who was a veterinarian. Also worth mentioning are Le Mariage par colis, a novel published in 2004 by Binta Ann, and a year later, Gilguissa Diallo’s Diasporama, an excellent social portrait of a family living at the intersection of two continents.” Written in French, many people may be unable to read the words, but looking into the eyes of the authors, one can ‘read’ the meaning. (Click on photo for identification by name).

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We began our journal entry with a definition of the word “guinea,” some geographical facts and natural resources statistics—words, all. The cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” comes to mind. The meaning of one word, however, mitigates a thousand pictures, and that word is “peace”, which in Guinea is unknown at this time.
Here is a photo of a regal Guinean midwife, whose face contains worlds of the meaning of life and death.

Thank you to Stephanie Chasteen, a Peace Corps volunteer working in Guinea at the time she took the pictures that make up a large part of the visuals for this entry. Stephanie was a public health and community development volunteer in Wawaya, helping to train village health agents and overseeing construction of a small health post.

Practical mud bricks made from the soil of Guinea. This mud is the foundation of the mountain ranges called the Guinean Backbone of human life, and the humble building materials housing the human beings in the special country known as Guinea. Thanks once more to Stephanie Chasteen for this powerful image of Guinean dirt at work.




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