Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pigs, Coins, Worms...and Countries?

Perhaps the most common reaction after someone hears of my eventual destination is a small smile and gracious nod, “oh, that’s nice….where is that?”

But actually, it is not such an unreasonable question. Did you know there are actually four different countries named Guinea?

First there, is Guinea, a country in West Africa, and formerly the colony of French Guinea.

Then there is Guinea-Bissau, also a country in West Africa, but this one is formerly the colony of Portuguese Guinea.

Next there is the country of Equatorial Guinea, located in Central Africa, formerly the colony of Spanish Guinea.


Finally, there is Papua New Guinea, a country in Oceania just north of Australia. This is my Guinea. It was named after the first Guinea by unimaginative explorers who thought the people looked similar to Africans. Papua New Guinea (or PNG) occupies the eastern half of the island of—I bet you can’t guess the name—New Guinea. Yes, the entire island is called Guinea as well. (Even more confusing is the fact that the western half of the island, a province of Indonesia, used to be called Irian Jaya, but is now simply referred to as West Papua).

 Just to make matters worse, there is also a Gulf of Guinea, various Guinea forests, and even a Guinea that is part of Gloucester County, Virginia, USA. The names of Guyana and French Guiana, countries in South America, may look similar, but they aren’t related to Guinea at all.

Why all these Guineas? No one is entirely sure. Perhaps it they were named for a general region, or perhaps they were derived from words used in reference to the gold trade (found in tropical areas). Regardless of the history, they currently present some very amusing mix-ups when I explain my destination.

But while it is rather understandable to think I’m going to Africa, it is probably best to avoid confusing Papua New Guinea with the other Guineas. You know: guinea pigs (a rodent which some people consider a food and others a pet…), guinea fowl (very noisy creatures that like to scratch for bugs and drove our poor chicken hens crazy), guinea coin (a British currency worth 21 shillings), or a guinea worm (a nasty parasite found in Africa).
After all… no one likes being called a pig. :-)