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A Smile Speaks Louder than Words
Sung Wook SHIN | 승인 2018.09.17 08:55

It had been my dream since I was a child to volunteer overseas. In the vast continent of Africa, I wanted to hang out with the natives, volunteer together, and become and unforgettable friend. When I was able to fulfill this dream through Good News Corps, the title “One of the top 10 world’s poorest countries, Guinea” captured me. Thinking “Since I’m going to volunteer, let’s go to a difficult country!”, I boarded on the flight to Guinea.
After spending 24 hours on the airplane, I arrived Guinea. There, it was the stifling atmosphere that welcomed me first, rather than the natives. Because of the sticky, hot and humid air, I was soaked with sweat in less than five minutes.


“This Isn’t the Volunteer I Imagined“
Life in Guinea was much more arduous than I thought. The Good News Corps Guinea branch was in the capital Konakri. Despite being the capital, electricity comes in about six hours a day, and there were many times when it was not even supplied. Because of power outage all the time, it was not once or twice I was baffled. While washing my head with the light turned on in the evening, when I open my eyes to the sound of “tick,” all I could see was pitch-darkness. Each time, I would look for my towel feeling my way, and missed Korea where I lived without worrying about electricity. I was troubled not only because of electricity, but also because of water. Guinea is called “the kingdom of water,” but because the government controls water, it comes out for only six hours a day. So every day I wondered “How can I save water?”

However, it was language that made me difficult more than anything. Guinea uses French language. The natives taught French through French really hard to me, who had never learned French in my life. It felt so pathetic and frustrating to see myself unable to speak more than four to five years old children. Surely, I came here because I wanted to make unforgettable memories with the natives and be a friend who shares heart, but I can’t talk to them . . . It felt as if language ruined my overseas volunteer life.


Y-Shirt Is Feminine, Blouse Is Masculine?
Even if I changed my heart and tried to learn, I felt dizzy whenever I opened a book full of French words with gender for each word.
“Why on earth is Y-shirt feminine and Blouse, masculine? How can I memorize all this…? I give up!”

Even as time glided on, all I could say was “Hello, I’m hungry, I’m hot, thank you.” I could adapt to and live a life without electricity, or fetch water from afar, but language was simply not a problem I could solve. Then one day, I went to Nzerekore in the countryside to do mind education. While it takes five or six hours at most to travel to other cities in Korea, transportation in Guinea was entirely different from that of Korea. Nzerekore was a place where 10 people, including two drivers in a taxi (sedan), had to run for 24 hours without resting. When I arrived at Nzerekore after being cramped in a car for the entire day, the first thing I saw was the eyes of the villagers looking at us amazed and saying we were white. Unlike the capital state, Konakri, which has many foreigners, Nzerekore welcomed us with a look of genuine interest.


The Guy I Met at Nzerekore, Ange
Nzerekore was so rural, that there was nothing in the place we were to live in. The electricity which was at least given for six hours did not exist and there was no wagon to carry the water pitcher. In the morning, I would go to a house which had a well with a bucket on my head. During lunchtime, I went out to the streets to promote mind education. There were many people who couldn’t speak French language in Nzerekore. Instead they used their tribal language “gersear.” I began to get depressed because I thought “French is difficult, but local language…. Even after coming all the way to this remote country, I’m going to leave without being able to do anything.”

The next morning, one native followed me as I was carrying a bucket to fetch water with other members. He was a youth who lived in the IYF branch of Nzerekore, called Ange. Ange smiled brightly and said to me “on va puise de l’eau (let’s go fetch water).” From then on, Ange continuously talked to me. He kept talking to me even when I was fetching water or resting. When I ate, he always sat next to me, explained about the food saying “Isn’t this delicious? This is my favorite food,” and told me a lot of stories. And even though I spoke while searching dictionary hard and stammering, he always smiled, waited and tried to understand. My heart gradually opened as I saw such appearances of Ange. After lunch, I memorized only the words I needed necessary to promote the mind lecture and began to talk to the people passing by. Whenever I did that, the people tried to listen to my bad pronunciation and grammar, and they liked my effort to try and have a conversation.


I took picture with friends who were happy that I became a real African when I made a reggae hair.

The 50 Cents Given to a Nonsensical Teacher
Around the time I began to get confidence in conversations with the natives, the branch manager said “Seong-wook, try the Korean Academy from tomorrow.” I was surprised and said “I’ve only just been able to start up a conversation and you want me to do what? Teach Korean Language?” That evening, I had to bite the bullet and prepare for the Korean Language Academy. Throughout the preparation, I thought “Would people who don’t even know French well come to learn Korean language? And no matter how people come, how can I explain it to them!”

The next day, I was surprised when I arrived at the Academy venue. About 30 to 40 people were sitting and waiting for me to learn Korean Language. Their eyes were full of the will to learn something. I stammered saying “now, repeat after me” as I had prepared the other day, and afterwards, I spoke only in Korean without any explanation in French. Even though it was a very bad class, the people did not care about it and listened to the class by following hard after me. And after class, they always came to me and greeted saying “merci beaucoup, professeur! (Thank you very much teacher!)”

It wasn’t until a day or two later that I was able to realize one fact. A fluent French explanation did not matter to them. What was important was that someone taught them something and that they were learning something. I was so ashamed of myself for having given up on learning French because they taught me French through French language contrary to their attitude. Then the pressure I had on language disappeared from my heart.
And I no more cared whether people understood me or not, but I taught with what I wanted to say. There was a little child whom I got close to when I was so excited with promoting. We didn't make sense to each other because the child could only speak gersear, but he was always following me, smiling when I smiled, smiling shyly when I talked to him, and laughed out loud when he saw me explaining things to others, though I didn’t know what was so funny. I loved the child’s bright smile. The laughter was literally pure and clean with nothing to worry about in the world.

On the last day of the academy, I explained to the child who came to me with hand and body gestures, " I'm going back home today. " The child, who seemed to interpret the meaning while staring at me, suddenly ran away. A moment later, as I was preparing for the mind lecture, the child came up to me and put something in my hand. Then he smiled at me, waved, and rushed off. I stared absent-mindedly at his back and opened my hand. I had a crumpled 50 cents in my hand. Knowing how big 50 cents was for children here, I could feel that the 50 cents I received was the best gift the child could express. I thought for a long time. “Am I such a good person for this child? We did not know each other's names, did not understand each other, and all I ever did was laugh together….”


The Guinea students pose naturally with a bright smile, whenever they see a camera.

Nzerekore, I Will Be back!
On the day the mind lecture ended, as I was busy organizing the equipment to return to Konakri, Ange approached me. Seeing him from a distance running to greet me alone showed me that he was very sad to hear that I was leaving.
“Come to Nzerekore again, Seong-wook! Thank you so much for everything.”

What did I ever do for him to thank me when all I ever did was fetch water with him, and occasionally smiled bashfully at him…. "I didn't do anything for you, but you're so sad to see me go". I told Ange “I will definitely come back to Nzerekore, and I’m more grateful.” Ange stood looking at me in the car until I was out of sight. Inside the car, I recalled the time in Nzerekore, where I felt like I was dreaming while looking at the photos I took with Ange, the notes I had prepared for the Korean Language Academy and the crumpled 50 cents. Nzerekore, which totally changed my misapprehension that I cannot share my heart when language isn’t understood. Thinking about the time there, the bitter 24 hours in the car felt short.

Now, I have many friends here in Konakri. Bazim, Gamy, Temga, Augustin, Rodrique, BK…. “Language isn’t understood” is no longer an excuse for me. Even now, phone calls from Ange occasionally comes. He says “A few days ago, our branch office moved nearer to a well, so come back since you don’t have to go far to fetch water.” It sounds like a joke, but because I know the heart ofAnge in his words, I sincerely answer that I will go someday.

What I felt while attending school, going to the army, and doing part time jobs in Korea was that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” When someone comes up to me, I lived my life thinking “Why is he good to me? Should I do something? I’m sure he wants something.” So I always stayed at a reasonable distance from people. But the people I met at Nzerekore approached me and accepted me the way I am, regardless of whether I was good or bad, whether I was lacking or not. Guinea, which always embraced me with so much love, and the friends I met in Guinea. It hasn’t been a week since I returned to Korea, and I already miss Guinea.


Seong-wook Shin
He went to Guinea for volunteer activities as the 16th Good News Corps. And he says he cannot forget the party his local friends held on the eve of his return, as they told him to come back to Guinea. He gained the dream to work and live for the youths in Guinea, the hometown of his heart. He took a picture while drawing water with his friend Ange.

Sung Wook SHIN  kimkija@itomorrow.kr

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