Dirt at Work: Words and Meanings
By Jheri St. James
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.”
these definitions come from the land in the republic whose
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.
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.
Day in the River, Stephanie Chasteen
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.”
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
Chasteen on a vine bridge in Guinea
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.”
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.
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 http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/CountryGuineaEN.html.
“Reading Women Writers and African Literatures”
“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).
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.