When you think about Africa, which countries come to mind? Maybe its Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa (all great places for a safari!).
What about Guinea-Bissau?
When I tell people I work in Guinea-Bissau, I either get a look that says, “Please don’t ask me if I know where that is!” – or they say something like: “Oh yeah, my cousin is a Peace Corps volunteer there!”
The problem is, the Peace Corps hasn’t operated in Guinea-Bissau since 1998.
It’s easy to see why Guinea-Bissau gets mixed up with other countries. There’s Papua New Guinea, which is in the South Pacific. Then there’s Guyana in South America. There’s even two other countries in Africa called Guinea and Equatorial Guinea – neither of which are Guinea-Bissau.
Confusing, I know.
Iceland, The Bahamas, and Fiji all have populations smaller than Guinea-Bissau – but most Americans at least know those countries exist.
One reason Guinea-Bissau is so under-the-radar for Americans is that hardly any of us have ever been there. At last count, the State Department tallied 17 U.S. citizens living in Guinea-Bissau. It’s no surprise then, that it’s one of the few countries in Africa without a U.S. embassy.
Guinea-Bissau is home to 2 million people and most of them live on less than $2 a day. Even though global aid and development organizations say they want to focus their work on the “most fragile” countries – those in poverty and conflict – few have set foot in Guinea-Bissau. Household names like World Vision, Compassion International, and USAID (the U.S. government’s aid agency) don’t have a presence in Guinea-Bissau.
A U.S. State Department employee once told me, “if you saw our budget for Guinea-Bissau, you’d cry!”
In fact, there are only two countries in Africa (a continent with 54 countries) that don’t have any of the organizations I’ve mentioned working in them: Guinea-Bissau and Libya. (There’s one word that explains why there’s no U.S. presence in Libya: Benghazi). The other 52 countries have at least one of those agencies.
The point I’m trying to make isn’t that we need more aid or more charity for tiny countries like Guinea-Bissau. Aid – especially the kind that gives things away for free – often does more harm than good. But it would be nice if Guinea-Bissau was at least a part of the world we knew about (a good place to start is here).
Sneak preview: Guinea-Bissau one of the world’s largest exporters of cashews, it has 90 beautiful islands run by a matriarchical tribe, and it’s a paradise for those who love fresh mangoes.
And if you want to help give young people in Guinea-Bissau the opportunity to work for a brighter future, you can join a group of people who help cover the costs of job skills training at the schools run by our organization, West African Vocational Schools. We don’t give handouts; instead, we give opportunity. You can learn more here.