One day, as I was sitting through another painful ordeal of getting my hair braided, a strange man shuffled by, muttering to himself. Mariama, my hairdresser, shook her head. "Life is like that," she said, tugging at another chunk of my hair. "Like what?" I asked. Her reply: "There are a lot of crazy people in life."

If you run into a person sleeping in the streets in Guinea, more often than not that person is a fou. (In French, 'fou' litteraly means 'crazy person.) Now, the 'Fou' situation here is probably about as hard for Americans to understand as the homeless situation in the states is for Guineans to get. The 'fou' term in Guinea encompasses a multitude of psychological conditions, from mental retardation to schizophrenia to slightly eccentric individuals. Being a 'fou' offsets you from society- not only because you are different, but because of the many deep-rooted beliefs about spirits and curses that cause these abnormalities. I've heard stories about ill-fated individuals who have been cursed by their relatives- relatives who travel all the way to places like Guinea Bissau to consult with witch doctors.

Because there are no institutions or programs that reach out to help these people, Guineans lump the diverse range of mental problems all into one category : fous. Fous are a part of life. Every village has its fous, fous appear in fables and fairy tales, and fous provide local children with endless hours of fright and fascination.

Every volunteer in Guinea has his or her own fou stories- encounters that range from the horrific to the hilarious.

Fous can be scary. Volunteers have been tackled, grabbed, and robbed by fous. I was accosted by a 'fou' once in Labe as I came of out a gas station with a treasure in my hand: a cold Capri Sun. When the crazy man wouldn't let go of my arm as he demand I give him a 1000 francs, I shoved my freshly opened drink towards him. He took it and left, and I stood feeling shaken and stupid. I should have just given him 1000 francs. The Capri Sun had cost me 3000. And it was cold.

But, fous can also be funny. Every volunteer has at least one fou story that leaves you wiping away tears of laughter by the end. I've seen zombie-like fous, been in a taxi when a fou bombed us with rotten avocados when the window was down, and tried to dodge naked fous in Labe. There is a man in my village who is constantly laughing at every object or person that he passes, and for a while, I thought I was missing out on some amazing joke each time we crossed paths. Turned out, everything in the world is funny to him.

One of the more permanent fixtures in my village is the Ambassador. When I first arrived, I thought the Ambassador was just a goofy old man with no teeth who got angry when I didn't greet him the right way in Pular. Now that I can give the proper salutations, the Ambassador is quite cordial, and goes about his business doing odd jobs like chopping wood in the village, after I greet him. The Ambassador is known as an ambassador because he goes around Lafou telling people so. "I am the Ambassador of Guinea-Conakry!" He'll mutter to himself in a gruff voice, "I am the Ambassador. They're building my villa now... not a palace, that's for presidents. I need a villa. I am the Ambassador!"

Madame Safiatou, a midget who sports a blue head scarf and a sly smile, is another local fou (or 'folle' in the case of a woman). Sometimes I wonder, with that smile, if she's just playing a big joke on us all so she can get away with stealing peanuts from the ladies with their food trays lined up on the side of the road. It also took me a few months to learn that Mme. Safiatou was 'crazy'. One day, while I was hanging out with my neighbors, she came wandering by the health center. One of the principal's kids pointed her out to me. "That's Madame Safiatou," she said. "She's a small person...and she's a fou... and..." she lowered her voice, "She's NOT MARRIED!" As if this, of all Safiatou's abnormalities, was the worst of the three.

There's a few fous who follow the market circuit and walk from village to village as the weekly markets appear, and I've come to recognize some of the regulars. There is a fou who comes and proposes to me at school, which, I suppose, isn't that odd, as I've also been proposed to at school by men who aren't crazy. There's a man without an arm who always lurks around the Bisap juice ladies, and who makes me feel so guilty when I buy juice for myself that I end up paying for one for him too. There's even a tall man who carries a radio and listens only to the English BBC station. He swears he was kidnapped by the Americans and was taken to the Pentagon where experiments were performed on him, and then he was dumped back in Sierra Leone. Then, he says, he walked to Guinea. I'm tempted to believe him on occasion, as I don't know many Guineans who actually know what the Pentagon is.

I go back to the time I was having my braids done with Mariama, and think about how she said there were just a lot crazy people in life. It's true, I suppose. And now I feel prepared. Whatever life has in store for me, one thing is for certain- I'll be sure to run into lots of fous.