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Volunteer Teaching in Guinea-Bissau: Q&A with Marit Snow Sawyer
Written by: Marit Snow Sawyer
Last Updated: January 5, 2021
What is your citizenship and where are you from?
American citizen - Lander, Wyoming, USA.
How old are you?
What is your educational background?
What sparked your interested in teaching English abroad?
I taught refugees some English and loved it. After a surprise divorce I was totally lost and an opportunity to teach English in Africa fell in my lap. I needed a major change and jolt in my life, I had some savings, so I went for it!
What were some of your concerns before teaching English abroad?
My age (would I be respected?), safety (the U.S. said Guinea- Bissau was "dangerous"), and whether I'd enjoy it.
What did your friends and family think about you moving and teaching abroad?
They thought I was crazy but they were not surprised as I am pretty adventurous. We discussed it a bunch before I made my final decision.
Why did you decide to get TEFL certified and choose International TEFL Academy?
ITA had good reviews. The website suggested a well-organized school that provided good post-certification support. The price was equivalent to other well-known institutions. It was USA based, so I was confident things would be presented in a way that made sense to my American-educated brain.
How did you like the course?
The course was great! I learned a lot. I am a good writer and knowledgeable of grammar intuitively, so it was helpful to de- construct that with the grammar book and lessons. My instructor, Kenny Odiase-Capps provided useful feedback.
How has your TEFL training helped you in your current teaching position?
I teach a lot of adults, who love to know the rules of grammar, so I was glad I was grilled on that. Learning how to create a lesson plan and using that to pace myself in the classroom has been very helpful.
Where did you decide to teach English?
I taught English in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau in 2018 and 2019. I stayed a total of 8 months over 2 semesters and went back to visit a third time. I plan to return in the summer of 2021 after I (hopefully) get a Covid-19 vaccine.
Why did you decide to teach English in this location?
The opportunity fell in my lap. Note that this job was for room and board in exchange for learning about an amazing and largely traditional African culture while teaching English.
What was the name of the school you taught at in Guinea-Bissau and during which months do they typically hire?
Macote Entrepreneur Center - they hire year-round.
Did you secure your position in advance of arriving?
How did you interview for this position?
Email, text, reference from another teacher.
What kind of visa did you enter on and what was the process?
I believe there is only one kind of visa. I sent a copy of my passport and some other basic information and the school headmaster procured my visa for me. It was waiting for me at the airport when I arrived (DHL is the only "mail carrier" in Guinea-Bissau. Sending the visa would have been cost prohibitive).
What are the qualifications your school requires for teachers?
Native English speaker, some college experience, interest in serving in a poor country.
What is the best way to apply?
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell us about your volunteer English-teaching job!
I worked about 20-hours per week the second year and 40 hours per week the first year. I worked for room and board. The other American and I taught Levels 1 through 4. We taught adults just barely able to pay, lawyers, national politicians and civil servants, and unionized dock workers (there is a "big" seaport there). I got to know many students who very happily took me on trips around the country (it would be hard to travel alone unless you knew the local Portuguese Criole) and taught me about the many cultures and traditions there. The Bijagos Islands are a must-see. Tropical, mostly undisturbed, with open beaches, funky carts to ride around the islands, inexpensive hotels from basic to fancy resorts. Great sea fishing. On my second trip I got to know more people and was able to travel to Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Conakry. I hope to travel to Sierra Leone and Mali next trip.
How did you find somewhere to live and what is it like? Do you have roommates?
Lodging and food were provided. I lived with one other American in a 3-bedroom apartment in a traditional "compound" (extended family housing within a fenced area) that was "middle class" - that is, the walls were solid, the floor was cement (not dirt), there were comfy chairs and foam mattresses on beds, there was a fridge, a gas stove and a sink, and an indoor bathroom. The indoor plumbing meant we had running water from 1 am to 5 am that we collected in a huge bucket and then distributed as needed. There was a working western-style toilet, a bath and kitchen sink, drains, and electricity. Most of the time these amenities worked! When they didn't someone would collect water for us from a nearby well, and we used candles and flashlights at night. My housemate and I got to know the family members who cooked and cleaned for us, as well as MANY kids and neighbors.
Tell us about Guinea-Bissau!
- CULTURE: People live in extended families and family is everything. From what I saw, not many people drink much alcohol (too poor), but some folks do, and there are some clubs downtown but I never went there. I was really focused on teaching and getting to know people, who were all poor. The coqueira ferra (coconut market) has lots of traditional goods: tie dye, batik, wood carving, jewelry. The carracol ferra has food and Papel weavings. The bandim ferra has everything. Everyone has a religion: Christianity, Islam, or Animist (Pagan). They aren't "in your face" about it and they all get along really well. It's really cool.
- TRANSPORT: There are taxis everywhere and they are really cheap. There is a (mostly) set rate. You can sit in the front seat and chat with the driver if you speak Criole. There are also Toca-tocas, vans that stuff people in and are on set routes. These are even cheaper. You can rent a car but you ought to rent a driver too, the roads are heinous.
- NIGHTLIFE/SOCIAL: I went to a few big concerts at the national soccer stadium, which featured many bands playing regional African-infused music from salsa-like local "gumbe", to jazz to hip-hop. Lots of amazing drums. Impossible not to dance. I was always one of about 5 white faces in a crowd of 20,000, but I'd go with others from my compound and felt really safe. The stadium was within walking distance. Many folks hang out at night talking and drinking sweet tea (warga) outside their compounds. They love to talk! I tried to go to some clubs to catch a certain musician but never got the right venue. They looked like somewhat seedy nightclubs in any other third-world country.
- FOOD: There are a few big markets. There is a lot of fish, rice, and common vegetables, coconuts, mangos, and oranges. Food is simple. People will invite you to eat with them in communal bowls. This is normal. They may or may not want a little money for what you eat. There are many small open air restaurants. There are some tourist hotels that have wonderful food spreads with all sorts of tropical and European dishes, if you need a break from the standard Guinean diet.
- EXPATS: The UN is there and a few NGOS, though there is no American Embassy! Most companies are run by Guineans. I saw Very Few non-African people over 8 months of living there. Basically, you are on your own adventure there!
- DATING: As a white woman - even an older one - many men are interested in dating, but be careful to pick the honest ones. This country has lower rates of AIDS than some other African nations, but consider that. There are many wonderful men and women there who would be interested in long or short term relationships.
- TRAVEL: The first year I hired a guide and car to explore the country. Super expensive but super cool to see the country. Took 8 hours to go 100 miles. The second year I had a boyfriend and we traveled to Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Conakry and it was also awesome. Unless you are really fluent in Criole plus French and a couple local languages (depending on where you want to go), I would not travel alone in Guinea-Bissau unless I was a man or with a man. With French you could maybe get around in surrounding countries, but many folks only speak the local language.
- GENERAL: Must-see places are the Bijagos Islands in Guinea-Bissau and the Futa- djallon region of Guinea. Dakar, Senegal is also very vibrant and cosmopolitan.
What were your monthly expenses?
Rent and food - free. If you had to pay, I'd say about $400 for living. Weekend trips would cost $100 to $300 because we would help pay for our friends who acted as guides. You could spend more if you wanted to stay at European tourist hotels. I got Airbnb's for $25 to $55 per night from Dakar, Senegal to Conakry, Guinea, depending on location. Food is kind of expensive in Guinea-Bissau because they import a lot (chicken, onion, even some rice).
How would you describe your standard of living there?
I was "middle class" for Guinea-Bissau, but lower class by American standards. Still, the bed was comfy, I had plenty to eat, and people were kind and happy and extremely appreciative I was there and cared about their little county that no one in America seems to know about.
In your opinion, how much does someone need to earn in order to live comfortably?
Plan on spending $700/month so that you have enough to travel, eat out sometimes, and buy cool stuff for friends and family.
What advice would you give someone planning or considering teaching abroad?
If you want to go to an off-the-beaten-track place, be incredibly appreciated for any teaching efforts you make, learn about hidden cultures you've never heard about, be the only non-African person around, see some wild country, drive on crazy-awful roads and live on the "wild side", then Guinea-Bissau is a place for you!
Marit Snow Sawyer has had a full career as a mine inspector, environmental consultant, adventure sports instructor, and now as an ESL teacher. She has a degree in natural resource management and a TEFL certificate, which she acquired in 2008 after teaching adults English in West Africa and loving it. She's been teaching ESL to adults and children online and in classrooms ever since.
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