i´ve left the rim, so the fatou thing doesn´t really apply anymore. i´m also fed up with livejournal. if, for whatever reason, you would like to keep tabs on what i´m doing post- peace corps, here´s my new one: http://nilcia.blogspot.com
It’s 7:30 in the morning and I’m knocking on my neighbor’s door, getting ready to have the same conversation I’ve already had five times this week.
“There’s no water.”
The girl’s head is poking over the door, all chubby face and vacant eyes.
“Yes. There’s no water.”
She looks back over her shoulder.
“Is the pump on?” I push. The day before yesterday she’d given me the same excuse, then it turned out the pump bringing the water upstairs was not turned on. They had forgotten. Now the metal door swings open to show the girl’s mother, a Wolof woman in a housedress. The pump isn’t on, she explains, because there is no water in the cistern; to run the pump when there is no water will burn out the motor.
“Right. Well, could we find some water, maybe?”
The obvious solution is obviously not that simple. The wife and daughter belong to a doctor, an old wilting French doctor who rents the downstairs apartment and is responsible for getting water for all three apartments: his, mine upstairs, and the Lebanese landlord’s, next to mine. The Frenchman left town and didn’t leave enough money to buy a charge of water. The poor man, his wife starts, explaining how he pays for all of the water himself.
That’s not exactly true. He pays for it, then he or the landlord comes to collect.
“I’ve paid for water,” I explain.
Did you pay the landlord? the woman starts. He’s a thief. He takes the money and never gives any to the doctor. She puts her hands on her hips and waits for my reply.
It’s too early for this. And I know the whole story anyway: my landlord regularly describes the people downstairs as bastards, and the people downstairs feel roughly the same way about him.
“How much is a charge of water?” I ask, thinking maybe I will just buy my way out of the problem. But it turns out to fill the cistern is almost $80 and will last about five days. Water is scarce in Nouakchott. Even if you have the money it can take a day or two to find a truck to deliver. Ruling the $80 option out, I promise to go talk to the landlord, again, even though I am not excited about the prospect of calling the guy a liar. He likes teenage Pulaar girls a little much for my taste, but other than that he’s a nice person.
This isn’t a very good story because it has no ending. There are still dirty dishes in my sink, and it pains me since I’m one of those people that washes them right away. I went to a friend’s house to shower last night. There’s enough water in the filter to drink for a few more days, and in the meantime I guess I will hunt down the landlord, or hope the doctor returns. I think about how water outages in America are big news, how I might be forced to drive my car to the grocery store and stock up on gallons of distilled water. This morning… I’m going to work.
Many ministries in the Mauritanian government have an open-door policy. The door is literally open. Last Wednesday I was in a meeting with a director of programs at the women’s ministry when an old man in a dirty boubou walked into the small office and held out his hand, mumbling. Rooting through my purse for change, I took a cue from the other women in the room and put a few coins in his palm. After he had moved on our meeting continued and I flashed back to another visit to this same office a few months back. A guy hawking baby clothes had walked in, raising his eyebrows and shaking a little pair of pants. That time, the directrice actually stood up and chased him outside, demanding that God shorten his life.
the door was open during the girls' conference, too
How can you get any work done in a place like this? The people-off-the-street problem is only number one. Then there is the fact that everyone who passes by in the hall must stop and greet whoever has come by on business, so a meeting that should take 20 minutes can drag on past the hour mark. At least there is tea. There is not a guard at the front door, or a receptionist, but someone thought it necessary to hire a tea boy, who makes rounds at the office distributing glasses.
The conversation we are having is in Hassaniya, because the directrice does not speak French. Nevermind that French is the second official language, and if you pick someone off the street there is a good chance they will speak three, four or even five languages in addition to French. This woman must have been chosen based on some other qualifications. Since I speak only French, my colleague fills me in on the conversation that stops and begins again, between phone calls and greetings from the hallway. My attention focuses on other things—the binders full of statistics that this woman will never read, the black flat-screen monitor under a layer of dust. Across the hall a woman seated at a desk rests her head on folded arms. There are two stacks of paper on either side of the desk, but that’s all. Two stacks of paper and her head, eyes about to close.
It’s no wonder that nothing works in the interior of the country. At the very top, someone filled the posts but forgot to train the workers. In the year I’ve lived in Nouakchott I’ve seen the government change twice. Each time the ministries have been shaken up, not bringing in new blood so much as changing the pecking order. Each time there is a sense of complete disorientation, as well-connected people with little or no experience suddenly find themselves in a top spot. Those who deserve the promotions bicker about being overlooked, and those who may have just figured out how to do their last job now grapple with a new job description.
The first time I came to this building—actually the Secretariat d’Etat à la Condition Féminine—it was to discuss the program of the upcoming Annual Girls’ Education Conference. I was alone at this particular meeting, and the director had arrived over an hour late. I explained how things would work, asking for their assistance with the opening ceremony and a discussion on women’s rights. For ten minutes she looked right through me, and nothing I said registered. Was my French this bad? Finally she introduced me to someone she said would help, and I thanked her for her time. A few hours after our meeting, my boss Bagga called. The CF had gone through some changes that morning, he said. It turns out that when we spoke, the director had just come from a meeting in which she had been demoted to the point of insult. A few days later, I was back in the same office, giving the same talk to someone else.
Another round of changes came about a week ago as the result of presidential elections last month. It will take a couple of months for everything to get settled enough to the point where work can actually be done. I’m optimistic that this will be the last sudden change for awhile. But it will take months for the management to begin to reverse years of neglect. It took the CF about three months last fall just to assemble the names and numbers of its current regional representatives, of which there are 12. As a seriously under-funded “Secretariat d’Etat,” the CF could pay a bare minimum to these representatives, many of whom had no idea what they were supposed to be doing (and so did nothing). From Nouakchott, they were only vaguely supervised. Now a real ministry, the CF might use its new funding to actually pay its employees and train them to help the women in this country, who have it pretty bad (According to unreliable statistics, about 2/3 are illiterate). Then again, the CF might follow the example of other ministries, buying a lot of cars to allow officials to go make irrelevant observations during costly, week-long “missions” to the interior… You never know.
At the very least, they ought to be able to hire a guard.
Seven hours north of the capital, our car had slowed and stopped when a woman carrying a plate of snails walked past the window. Black and slimy and as big as my fist, they were for sale, of course. So was everything in the parade going past our car: steamed meat dumplings wrapped in leaves, meat pies, bananas and peeled oranges cut at the top where you suck out the juice. One guy passed holding two animals by the tail—one furry, like a thin long fox, the other fat and scaled and very much alive. This overgrown lizard/dragon squirmed and its captor raised his eyebrows—Wanna buy?
sales on the shoulder
This construction project on Ghana’s road north must be a boon to the economies of the villages en-route. With traffic stopped for miles, passengers stretched outside of cars. As a bus unloaded, someone handed a baby through a window. Sales on the shoulder, meanwhile, were high. For my 2,000 cedis (about 20 cents) a lady pulled a cob of boiled corn from the stack and tore of the husk, handing me a sticky bill for change.
Eventually the last of the cars passed going the other direction. We jumped back in the cars—baby back through the window—and drivers jockeyed for position, passing each other three across on the two-land road. But every second we won was lost in traffic later, crawling through the city of Kumasi on our way north to Mole National Park. It was past midnight when we arrived at the hotel, picked beds and collapsed.
Fourteen hours earlier, we had just cleared Accra and crossed the hills north of the city when everything became lush. (At one point we had pulled over to pee and a guy walking along the road chopped through the brush with his machete, first making a path and then clearing a spot for me and Sarah.) It stayed green as we wound through curves and over hills, passing villages and uniformed kids walking home from school. The kids actually match the paint jobs of the school (example: brown on the bottom, tan on top. Amazing). By the time the sun set the landscape had changed, but I couldn’t tell how much until I woke up the next morning.
the watering hole
The hotel sits at the top of a plateau, and there is a platform from which you can look out over miles and miles of tree tops. You can also watch the activity at the watering hole, and at around 8 o’clock in the morning a small herd of elephants had surfaced in the water. Elephants had been key in determining the worthiness of the 15-hour drive north, so it was nice to see them so early. After grabbing a bite Matt and I joined Sarah and Katrina to charter a drive around the park with one of the rangers. Right away we saw bush bucks and a few warthogs, and our ranger DK stopped to show us an aardvark hole. Informative, if not thrilling. Then, ten minutes later, we saw something gray moving through the trees. We jumped out of the truck and followed the same elephants we’d seen bathing as they moved away from the watering hole. DK kept motioning us closer until we were only some 50 yards away. We had to walk fast to keep up with the elephants’ huge steps, even at their lumbering pace. The ranger reminded us of their speed, and pointed out the uprooted trees they had turned over to snack on the branches. Finally the male of the group turned to face us and spread his ears wide. “He’s telling us that’s close enough,” DK informed us, although elephant body language is pretty clear. We let them move on and walked over to a lake, where I saw ripples in the water as a crocodile slid beneath the surface. I was still looking for crocodiles when DK pulled us over to check out the coiled snake under sticks next to the water—a python. We viewed the animals at a safer distance before going back to the hotel for $1 beers. Before we left the next day, we saw baboons behind the hotel, hanging on the balcony.
at mole national park
We filled up at an antique gas pump before continuing south to the Baobeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary. The name implies some kind of protected park, but in fact the sanctuary is the woods between the two villages. A guide named Jonas led us into the forest, briefing us on monkey species and naming the tall trees that towered at least 100 feet over our heads. Colobus monkeys lounged in these high branches, only their long white tails giving them away. Closer to ground-level, Mona monkeys were unconcerned by our presence. Monkeys are sacred in the villages, Jonas explained as we looked over a cemetery where at least ten monkeys had been interred, each one buried in a coffin. Two fetish priests had been buried next to the monkeys in the 1970s—a priestess’s gravestone said she had lived 120 years. In the woods we climbed the hollow inside of a Fiscus tree which had grown around another tree, choking off its nutrients until it died. That evening we followed the path back to Fiema, where Mona monkeys were wreaking their nightly havoc on the village. One would crouch behind a corner, then spring out to steal a corncob left laying out. Some kids threw shoes. The particular monkeys we saw were mothers who had left their babies in a nearby bush while they went off to thieve… A whole set of baby monkeys swung and jumped, squeaking, grabbing each other by the tail, or climbing up the dangling tail of a bigger monkey. It was fantastic, and we took about 80 pictures.
...see the monkeys?
“Lights out” is what you don’t want to hear in Ghana, especially when you are checking into a budget hotel with no generator and no breeze. “Lights out” refers to the 12-hour blackouts in different spots around the country every five days or so. Different stories explain the power shortage: two of four turbines at the power plant are broken, or the water is just low. A taxi driver smirked at the banners marking the year-long celebration of Ghana’s 50th Anniversary, suggesting that the money could have been used to keep people’s lights on. Our first night in Kumasi, lights out meant flashlights and a ceiling fan that couldn’t move the still, humid air. A very long night which contributed to my overall bad impression of Kumasi: hot, crowded, full of traffic.
The next day we packed into a tro-tro headed south for Cape Coast. Tro-tros are the principle means of public transport, and not at all bad. Where Senegal and Mauritania’s prison vans are rested things with cut-out windows, the majority of Ghana’s tro-tros are newish Nissan vans. At $3 for a three-hour trip, not a bad deal at all. Our first day in Cape Coast happened to be Palm Sunday. It was clear and bright as we walked through the town, past open doors where, inside, churchgoers praised Jesus. Outside, speakers blared gospel-style hymns. The more reserved Presbyterians, meanwhile, fraternized on the steps of the steepled church on a steep hill. Ghana’s Christian majority is impossible to miss in Cape Coast, where houses of worship might outnumber hotels. Even when kids are marching through the streets with palms, it’s hard to forget when business owners pay tribute by naming their shops “By God’s Grace Hair Salon” and “Holy Innocent’s Tire Repair,” among others.
exhibit A: Lion of Judah Fitting Shop
The same Sunday we ran into a large tent and chairs blocking most of a downtown street. All day people came and went, some dressed in black fabric unique to Ghana (a few men wearing it traditionally, wrapped like a toga and draped over one shoulder). We didn’t know then that this was a funeral. A totally public affair, a funeral takes place up to a few months after a death (the body is kept on ice, we were told). The delay allows everyone time to travel in order to attend (not to mention time for a family to collect money to offset the cost of a city-wide party). A color poster stuck to a wall advertised the death of a woman in February, noting the time, place and dress code for the funeral. It was actually being held at our hotel the following day…
sunday outside of the castle
Cape Coast Castle is gleaming white, and neither its name nor its appearance owe up to its history as a holding point for slaves. It’s quite beautiful in fact. It wasn’t until we joined a tour group to walk into the dungeons—lit only by a small square window high on the wall—that it seemed possible. It was chilling, even with the flash bulbs of our fellow tourists. We stepped through a gate labeled ominously “The Door of No Return” that led out to the water, where boats would have waited. But today the feeling was far from sober—kids splashed in the water and teenagers hung out, enjoying the day off school.
the rope walk at Kakum
North of Cape Coast, Kakum National Park was ranked high on my list—and apparently everyone else’s. Two groups of school kids waited by the entrance, and a university group from Togo led our group hike. I’ve never seen such stylish hiking attire. At the end of the rocky trail we waited to cross the ropewalk—actually a series of seven rope bridges suspended a few hundred feet above the forest floor. Each bridge consisted of a plank with netting on either side. A solid construction that just bounced a little under our weight, it was a fun vantage point to check out the rainforest. It was almost as entertaining to watch a grandma tackle the first bridge (and back)…. For lunch we stopped at the oddly-named Hans Cottage Botel, a restaurant built over a pond, famous for its crocodiles. As promised, crocodile eyes poked out of the water as we ate… Later our waitress returned from the kitchen with a skewer and a plate of chicken parts. Sticking a bit of chicken to the end, she waved it in the noses of the waiting crocodiles, eventually luring a few out of the water. They moved faster than I would have preferred.
Before going back to Accra we spent a day on the beach, eating German food from a legitimate German lady at her hotel restaurant. She fretted about the state of Ghana’s affairs, having witnessed the last 30 years of them. It seemed to me that Ghana was leaps and bounds ahead of other West African countries—functioning transportation, apparently good schools, billboards advertising a national health care initiative(!)… I hated to turn in my leftover Cedis at the ForEx and get on the plane. Five hours later, our plane could not land in Dakar because something was obstructing the landing strip. We landed in the Gambia instead, waited on the plane while someone apparently rummaged through our checked bags, and an hour later ended our trip in Dakar, where someone had managed to clear the airport’s single runway.
Today is Election Day, and from where I am sitting, the streets look empty. Even the headquarters of RFD, the party of one of the frontrunners, looks deserted. Coming from America, where every vote is considered up for grabs until it is cast, this isn’t what I expected. Campaigning officially ended a day or two ago, and all that’s left of the last two weeks are tents lining the major streets around the capital, posters tacked onto the edges blowing in the wind.
Mauritanians mark elections the same way they mark all major occasions. Marriage, baptism, presidential race? Find a tent and a stereo. Last week we went out to dinner at a Lebanese restaurant that happens to be across the street from a line of huge tents sponsored by the parties of most of the 19 candidates. Each tent blared its own music, though only ten feet away from the next tent blaring something else. This starts around and can last for hours, every night. The restaurant owner had circles under his eyes as he handed us the menus.
A campaign tent in downtown Nouakchott
Although the tents are the most obvious sign that it’s election time, there are other clues. Pictures of presidential hopefuls are plastered to walls, poles, and even cars. Yesterday I saw a man in a kaftan with a candidate’s face printed from head to toe. T-shirts are the less fanatic alternative. The weekly tabloids are doing their best to keep up, providing profiles and interviews with all 19 candidates. Publicity cars drive through town broadcasting candidates’ messages through static-y megaphones.
Publicity cars get the word out...
Billboards that are blank the majority of the year are now home to postured candidates uncomfortable in stiff poses: Sidi’s right hand is either waving or taking an oath. Maouloud stands in a black suit, his tie a little crooked. I can imagine a campaign strategist weighing the options: smiling or serious? Turban or tie? Is our message “value tradition” or “a new tomorrow?” Can we do both?
During the legislative elections back in November, a party rented billboards on opposite sides of an intersection. On one corner, the candidate is straight faced, decked out in the standard white boubou. Across the street, the same guy is now wearing a white suit and black shirt, smirking like a local news anchor.
Posters for presidential candidates
So what is the message? What are the platforms? After reading a handful of the local newspapers, along with Jeune Afrique, the French-language weekly magazine, I’m still not totally sure. “National unity” comes up a lot, as well as “restoring the trust between the government and the governed.” This makes some sense, since nothing was really resolved after the near-civil war in 1989. But how about the totally ineffective education system, the pathetic state of health care, the impossible roads?
Not every candidate is overlooking these things. It’s just not clear what the strategy is, exactly. Next to the national hospital, where a woman died a couple of weeks ago after giving birth because there was no room for her to be admitted, yet another billboard offers a vision. A candidate in a suit stands next to a futuristic city vaguely resembling Nouakchott. In the middle of the picture, a huge new stadium is right there next to a hospital and airport. …A new stadium?
Maybe the message here is one of prosperity, of general optimism. If the average voter’s mindset is that the future is in God’s hands, what’s the point of selling a plan?
Voters in the village Tachott look for their names on the list of registered voters
On the bright side, any one of these 19 guys has to be better than Maaouiya, the de-facto dictator who controlled Mauritania for the last 20 years. Since the coup, the country’s been run by (full title as listed on TV Mauritania) the head of the Military Council for Democracy and Justice, Colonel Ely ould Mohamed Vall. The transition has been smooth so far, with local and legislative elections successfully held in November and February. Early on Vall vowed not to run for president himself; he is not a candidate, although rumor has it he is supporting one of the two frontrunners. We’ll see what happens. Today’s election will likely narrow the pool; a run-off in two weeks will bring the final results.
If things go well, this will be the first time power will be handed over through election. A few hundred observers are here from the European Union, the African Union, and the UN among others. They’ve designed a ballot that is impossible to copy, showing the name, photo and symbol of each party (the symbol for the benefit of the many illiterate voters). Rather than a check next to a candidate’s name, voters will fill in the box with an Arabic B for “bismillah”: In the name of God.
Arranging buses to ferry 80 something people to Dakar was meant to ease travel frustrations. Generally it works well because we can put all of our passport info together ahead of time to cut down on the time at the border crossing, plus time haggling over taxi prices, etc. This year we had a giant bus and a smaller, 30-seat one. Everything started off well enough: at 5:20 a.m. we were driving south toward the border at Rosso. Although it may be Mauritania’s most-traveled, this is still a two-lane road and requires a certain amount of attention to avoid kids, goats, barely moving cars and other hazards. A couple hours in, it became clear that the driver of the larger bus—who was about 70 years old to begin with—was also half blind: he had a habit of swerving the giant bus to avoid things in the road, after which it would sway and those following in the short bus would hold our breath.
We were stopped at a police post for a couple of minutes and lost sight of the bus. When we found it, the bus had plowed into a small sand dune along the side of the row. The reason? A roadcrew had put a black wheelbarrow in the road to force people to either a) swerve around them or b) hit the wheelbarrow. Our bus did both. Long story short, there was a lot of digging and pushing and two towing attempts before it got out.
this didn't work, actually
Somehow we made it onto the last ferry before the three-hour lunch break (when the ferry does not run) thanks to magic orchestrated by PC's Cheikh Gueye, who always wears a shirt, tie and pointy alligator shoes, even on road trips. We pulled onto the ferry aftera herd of about 200 camels were driven off. I was outside of the bus just then with my back turned, and actually jumped out of the way. Camels are big, tall, and move faster than you would think.
the ferry from senegal, loaded down with camels
On the other side of the river, the border cops decided they wanted all 80 volunteers' birthdays and place of birth, which were not listed with the passport numbers on the sheet Cheikh had made up. So that was two hours. Meanwhile, the short bus had developed a problem with the alternator just as we'd driven onto the ferry. This meant that a guy who worked for the ferry actually had his hand in the engine (which was located inside the bus) holding something together while we drove on. Apparently it was really hot. Even after our passports were okayed, the alternator problem had still not been resolved, so we drove back and forth up the two-lane road, doing precarious three-point turns (raised road, no shoulder) while they tried to fix it.
Leaving St. Louis after a quick lunch break, a mere four hours or so behind schedule, some people in the front seat tried to show our driver knew where exactly he should drop us off in Dakar. First he refused to look at the map, saying that he would rather we just explain it along the way. Then he changed his story and claimed to have been to Dakar so many times that he didn't even need a map, and was actually insulted to be shown one. So we drove. And it seemed like this was not the road to Dakar, seeing as it was all twisty-turny and there were no other cars. Are you sure this is the right road? Of couse. He asked a herder guy along the road where Dakar was, and like all herder guys, he vaguely motioned behind him (not really indicating any particular route) and said "that way." See? I told you, the driver said.
Fifteen minutes later, the pavement stops. Both buses pull into a tiny village on the water, all cute little houses and palm trees. The men in the village confirm that this is not Dakar. The short bus driver nods, then, instead of backing up, pulls the bus forward into deep sand to try to circle around. Tires sink. The wheels spin. Stop doing that! we yell. The men in the village laugh and acknowledge that despite his being Mauritanian, our driver does not understand sand. We all get out and inspect the damage. The entire village has come out by this point, and the trip to this point has been so bad that it's actually funny, so we all hang out while there is more digging and pushing. The village men are nice enough, but then someone decides that they shouldn’t help unless we pay them, so pushing is 100 percent volunteer. The bus is out, again. The kids walk us back to the buses and we're out of there. On the way back, we saw monkeys.
the village at the end of the road
The road is two lane most of the way to Dakar, until you get into the city and it's a four-lane boulevard, jammed with traffic, with people crossing and the occasional horse cart. We made it to the club at 10:30 pm, where we got picked up by our hosts... The rest of WAIST is history—there was RIM Pirate softball, affordable beer, and a first-place trophy for the third consecutive year. Alhamdulilaaargh.
In a small, barely furnished first-floor apartment in southern Pennsylvania, my aunt is watching daytime television with her neighbor down the hall. They are friends, but they’ve never spoken to each other in a language both understand.
“Where is the table?” my aunt asks, in clear English that is louder than it needs to be. She is motioning toward the coffee table, which she tells me in an aside, has replaced a larger one since her last visit. From the opposite chair, my aunt’s friend somehow understands this question. She reaches out to about waist-level, indicating the stature of a child. Then she moves her hands close to her chest, as if she were holding a baby over her shoulder. Finally, she points from the living room over to the door. My aunt smiles, nodding, and interprets: “Her granddaughter and kids were here and must have taken it. I bet they brought her this table to replace it.”
It’s impressive that she can infer all of that from a few hand signals, and I am fairly practiced in communication with limited vocabulary. Living with a host family in West Africa for over a year, I developed a whole range of stupid faces and signs to convey ideas to my four-year-old brother when I didn’t know the Pulaar word. Actually, living in Africa is how I’ve ended up next to my aunt on the couch in this apartment.
“There’s a lady your Aunt Ebb wants you to meet. She’s from Africa. Ebb wants you to talk to her.” My mom mentioned this after I’d been home in the States for a few of days. There are a couple thousand tribal languages in Africa, of which I speak pieces of only two: Hassaniya and Pulaar. The odds aren’t looking good. Mom agreed, but it didn’t seem an argument worth making to a very determined 94-year-old. Evelyn, or Ebb, is my mom’s aunt, my Pappy’s oldest sister. She was born and made her life in Waynesboro, a smallish town in southern Pennsylvania. Eventually, practicality demanded that she leave her second-story home and move into a sort of apartment complex for old people—those who haven’t yet run into serious health problems, but who need a little less space, who move a little slower.
This is not a staffed nursing home, but there is heightened awareness among residents of their circumstances. To each door is affixed a magnet reading “I’m Okay Today!.” Sometime after moving in, Ebb became a self-appointed hall attendant. In the evening she pushes each magnet to a place higher on the door; as residents wake up in the morning, they push it back down to signal that they are, in fact, okay. So it’s not surprising that in her rounds, my aunt would find a new friend at the end of the hall.
On the morning of our visit, I trail behind slightly as Ebb pushes her walker down the wide hallway. She raps on the last door and a slow minute later, a thin brown-skinned woman pulls it back and smiles. “Hello!” she says. “Hello!” Ebb returns. I chime in, too. While Ebb’s hair is a smooth snow-white bob, her friend’s hair is covered under a dark blue cotton scarf. My aunt begins to explain, (in English of course) that I am her niece. It’s obvious that her friend doesn’t understand, but what she says sounds familiar. I take my chances and throw out “You speak Arabic?” in my own lacking Arabic. Her eyes light up, so we restart the conversation with the more appropriate “Salaam aleykum” greeting, and I tell her that I speak only a little.
Seeming to remember suddenly that guests are still standing in the doorway, she ushers us inside, seating Ebb and I in chairs before disappearing to the kitchen. “She always does that,” Ebb half-whispers. “She’s in the kitchen before I even get through the door.” A minute later her friend—or “The Lady” as Ebb calls her—is back with a tray holding a tin of shortbread cookies and a dish of hard candies. Oh no, Ebb begins, shaking her head. She refers to the lunch Meals on Wheels has just delivered, that she couldn’t eat now. I tell her that African guests always bring their hosts drinks or something to eat, and that the most polite thing she could do is to just eat it, whether she’s hungry or not. “Is that right?” she says. “Well, that explains a lot.” We both accept a cookie.
The Mauritanian dialect Hassaniya is a mix of Arabic and Berber words, and in any case I know only enough to make it through the most basic of conversations. It is enough to confirm, however, that Ebb’s neighbor is from Sudan, to ask how long she’s lived here (two and a half years), and to find out her real name. “Her name is Tahra,” I tell Ebb. “Salla?” “No, Tahra.” “Talla?” “Close enough.” There is a sort of hard-H sound that is making this tricky. Tahra has asked my aunt’s name, so I tell her it’s Evelyn. It feels strange, introducing people who’ve known each other for months.
Am I married? Tahra asks. Am I a Muslim? No and no, I tell her, to which she is not particularly disappointed. For most people where I live, these questions are akin to asking where you are from, and what you do. The inquisitor is not upset to hear “Cleveland” and “accountant,” they just sort of file the information away. I ask about Tahra’s great grandkids, which I know a little about from Ebb. Their mother, Tahra’s granddaughter, comes by often with groceries and brings the kids. Apparently, the granddaughter speaks English and works in town. Once, Ebb tells me, her friend’s granddaughter gave her a lift to church when Ebb’s ride failed to show. I can tell my aunt weighs what other people say about immigrants with what she knows of her neighbor’s family. “They are perfectly nice. Really, no one to be afraid of…”
The kids are five, four and less than a year. I report the exact ages back to Ebb, who nods in agreement. We talk a little more about where I live. I want to ask her more about her region of Sudan, but that’s beyond my ability. So we stick to the basics. How old are you? I ask. She waits a second to make sure I’m paying attention, that slowly claps her hands eight times, next holding up four fingers. 84? “Wa hiya?” She points to my Grammy, who’s joined us from Ebb’s apartment and now sits next to me on the couch. Seven claps, six fingers. “And….?” She motions toward Ebb. I heave a sigh like I’m about to do something strenuous and start clapping.
We trade some phrases: Tahra knows “Thank you” in addition to “Hello,” so we discuss the Arabic equivalents. Grammy and Ebb can say “Shukrun” easily enough, but “Salaam aley-kum” (peace be upon you) is a little heavy. We’ll stick with “Hello.”
It’s nearly one now. Ebb is worrying that her lunch is still sitting on the counter, that we’d better get back home. I stand up and say “aaay-wa,” by which I mean “alright” or “well.” Tahra says we should stay, motions me back to my seat. In Africa, you can spend an entire day at a friend’s house and your host will insist that you stay longer, to drink just one more round of tea… To me the situation is familiar, even if the surroundings are all wrong. I think that this is a taste of what it must be like to know two worlds.
“Shukrun, ma salaam,” I say. “With peace.” Tahra watches from her door as Ebb shuffles and Grammy and I walk back to the room two doors down the hall. “The poor thing,” Ebb says. I know what she means: “The Lady” must feel lonely, away from friends and family, unable to speak English. Still, “poor thing” didn’t seem the right description. Even with guides to culture and language—not to mention a network of friends—adjusting to life in the third world was tough for me. Going from life in Africa to America could only be more bewildering, especially at 80 years old. “Fearless” is the only word I know for someone who could take that on, and at the end still invite strangers in for cookies.
“The Annual Girls Education Conference is in its seventh year, a project of Peace Corps in coordination with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Three members chosen from each of Mauritania’s 14 girls’ mentoring centers attend the conference, accompanied by a volunteer and female mentor from their community. From 11 to 15 September, the girls stay with the families of professional women in Nouakchott, spending five days visiting sites in the capital and engaging in group activities. This year’s theme, “Who will we be tomorrow?” allows us to address everything from educational opportunities to goal setting and money management.”
This is roughly how I summarized the conference in a letter to the embassy’s PR guy, and how the conference was presented in some 40-odd letters to various officials and NGO reps. This year’s September 11th had me totally distracted, tracking girls’ location in the country via text messages and sending off Rachid to check on the status of the big khaima (tent), which had been damaged in a wind storm the week before and, on the morning of the conference, was still being sewn back together.
I am not the first person to organize the conference, obviously, but even with a few pages full of notes, names and numbers to go on I was nervous, and waiting for something to go wrong. The status of the tent I didn’t take as a good sign. Then there was the fact that the bureau’s internet and servers were down, cutting off access to all of my painstakingly prepared lists. Fortunately, by 10 am the server was back up, and I saw Rachid up on the second story balcony, pulling ropes to secure a corner of the repaired tent.
Rachid is the traditional tea maker, arranger, carrier of heavy things and person who knows how all the little things should work. “Can we put out the drinks now?” I asked him at the soiree at the hotel the third night, waiting for music to start and dinner to arrive. No, he told me: you can’t drink before you eat or you’ll be full (common Mauritanian knowledge). Of course. Rachid found me a few weeks before the scheduled conference start date to make sure I hadn’t forgotten his contract. Although he works at the bureau as the gardener, he takes off for the week and brings a second assistant to help—this year a kid named Abdoulaye who didn’t understand a damn word I said, but who solidly carried out his duty as tea maker and assistant mover of heavy things.
So Rachid was the one of the first to meet our girls, serving tea under the tent where each group of participants accumulated after coming in on bush taxi. Meanwhile I skittered back and forth between the front-door security and calls on my cell phone: where were the workbooks promised to be delivered at noon? Is Mohamed the cook getting lunch ready, and can someone make sure everyone eats five to a plate?
Siham, on the other hand, did not skittle. I think she has done this sort of thing before, and she brought an air of calm with her heels and mulafa. A former English teacher just wrapping up a contract with the UNDP in Nouakchott, Siham showed up a few weeks before the conference started. I had known she was being hired—I met her during the Columbia study on girls’ education in the RIM last March—but Bagga forgot to mention when she was starting. The agenda for the conference had been tentatively set, but Siham’s start coincided with the beginning of real planning. She jumped in head-first, finding numbers for various contacts in her fancy cell phone (husband lost the other one). She works like my mom, and prior to the conference we spent 10-hour days together Monday through Friday, sometimes weekends. (The night before the conference started she picked me up with her 3-year-old, Hameda, to get hands and toes hennaed at a boutique).
siham & me
The opening ceremony was at a government training center for women, and girls filed off of three rented transport buses, through a garden, and into the room where TV Mauritania had already set up a couple of cameras. Cameras manned by men who stood up in the middle of the crowd and walked in front of the table of seated ministers and officials, blocking the view of the present audience for the sake of the home viewer (per custom). A Condition Feminine rep named Fatima cautiously MC-ed, while the important people made speeches and the US embassy rep and I stood in the back, clicking snapshots.
In the garden, later on, there were snacks and another Fatima—this one a singer—rocked out for a good hour. Her band included a backup singer, a keyboardist, guitarist, and two drummers, one of whom banged a metal plate with flip-flops. Her little girl danced. I sipped some Fanta, thinking about the other time Siham and I saw them play, at their house, and Fatima forced me to dance.
Everything else unfolded the way it should have, machallah: a university visit the next morning and an informative (though hot and crowded) trip to the office of one of the city’s female mayors. In the next couple of days the girls also were shuttled to a credit union to learn about personal finance management and circled around a long table in the Women’s Ministry to learn about women’s rights. Only during the afternoon at the beach on the fourth day was there drama: one of the mentors’ purses disappeared with jewelry and a phone inside, and the chaperones decided the girls should be searched. The girls did this willingly, until we called it off mid-way through, but the whole episode did not sit well with me…
outside the university of nouakchott
The thing we tried to do differently this year was to make the girls participate more actively than usual: the point is not to parade them around NKT for five days, but to leave them with something to take home (in my opinion). To that effect, between the outings were discussions, group work, and workshops on personal goal-setting and how to present what they had learned to peers. Keith broke the girls into groups for a debate activity where teams had to take sides and defend their position in front of the group. As the Mauritanian woman component of our planning team (with superior French and Hassaniya skills) Siham facilitated most of the other sessions. “We spend too much on clothes!” she said while discussing economic obstacles to girls’ education, asking how many present were wearing the same thing they wore yesterday, raising her hand herself. “In first grade girls go to school without shoes and it doesn’t matter, but as soon as they are 13 or 14 it’s like a fashion show. In Mauritania girls are the mirrors of a family.”
That is true. As she said it I remembered feeling under dressed as a teacher in Selibaby cycling the same four of five outfits all year. But to be honest, I’m guilty of dressing up this past week: I used the conference as an excuse to finally go to a tailor and get several brand new “complets,” including this really disquette tight thing with flowy sleeves and slits to the knee which I wore to the hotel (oh, where did my sense of taste go?). But the “soiree” was worth dressing up for: the hotel set up a posh khaima and mats, we had dates and cream and Moroccan couscous, and hired a Pulaar band complete with a set of pre-teen dancers. They’ve played in France and toured in Mali with Ali Farka Toure. As part of the deal, they wrote a song for our conference (as did Fatima), and sang it in all four languages.
After dinner the threatening rain finally arrived, and as Rachid rushed to take down the banners and collect the Cokes (which had finally been set out), the band unplugged their speakers and moved in to the center of the tent. They continued their set, acoustic, and we danced under the tent while it rained.
More pictures of the week--and some other new pics-- are at http://cailin.smugmug.com/gallery/2083227/4/107410184
Ten minutes after the conclusion of Sunday’s World Cup final, Mauritanians piled into cars could be seen speeding down Nouakchott streets, mulafas in the wind, celebrating the fact that someone had won. Sort of like a contingent of homescoolers getting excited about a homecoming football game in a neighboring state. Where is the connection ? At least pick a side. But honking and yelling has been elevated to an event in itself. It happens after marriages, and after the coup d’etat, footage of Excited People in Cars rolled non-stop on TV Mauritanie. We walked to a restaurant after the match—jumping out of the way at least once as cars veered offroad around stopped traffic. Upstairs, it was still noisy but possible to listen to French commentators giving their take, the whole time replaying the most awesome part of the game—which is, for everyone in America who did not watch the game because they had important things to do, like laundry—this French player Zidane turned around and headbutted the Italian player smack in the sternum, and bam—he was on the ground, and Mr. Zidane was ejected from the game with a carte rouge. (If Americans had known there would be fighting, ratings stateside would have been way higher.) This highlight of the game was reshown approximately 86 times on the big screen TV, and at which point I had finished my cafe au lait and we had to brave the scary street. It had calmed down a little (except for the car with six teenage boys hanging onto the roof) and we started to walk home... In the back of a pickup someone held a big flag, and from a parked car a pair of guys yelled « Italy ! » Then, realizing the third stripe was blue and not green, « France ! »
My shoe broke this afternoon and I’m considering giving it a Mauritanian farewell by taking it out and leaving it in the street. That is where broken shoes go. Snapped heels and ripped soles, bleached by sun and half-eaten by a goat. For all the single shoes I see I would expect to see more single-shoed people, hopping around, asking for help or something. But I don’t. The other option would be the shoe-repair guys, the ones set up on the side of the street behind a low table, re-sewing the straps of those shoes whose owners did not orphan them to the sand. I could take my broken shoe here and see what happens to it… It might not be pretty but it will give it some character. Besides, slowly all the things I have leftover from the states have been getting some Mauritanian addition or replacement part: last week this guy demba made me a new leather watchband from scratch. I just commissioned the silversmiths to make a new bar for my ear after I lost the bit that screws in the end. So the shoe could be the next thing on the list… Hmmm.
The fact that I’m even spending time thinking about this, seriously considering the origins and resting places of shoes manufactured in China and worn by Africans, and what happens to things in general when they break or wear out—this is an indication of how slowly time is passing. I have five weeks and one day until teaching is over, five weeks and one day until exams are over, and five weeks three days, let’s say, until all my grades are in and je ne suis plus professeur. Today, I have roughly an hour and forty-five minutes of daylight left, then maybe another two hours before dinner, and one more hour, if I can stretch it, to not fall asleep before Alassane, the four-year old.
I slept in until 6:33 this morning. I thought it was late because it was already bright and people were moving around. 6:33 on a Sunday morning. I got up and went for a run, because by running I know that I am moving, even if time is not. It (time) has always passed a little bit, maybe an hour and a half, although I feel like my watch should read at least an hour later. Soon it’s hot. It’s hot by local standards now. People wilt. I pick up the same book I’ve been reading for a week and read two pages before I fall asleep. It’s a book in French by a Moroccan author, the story of a boatload of illegal immigrants who never make it to where they’re going, and how they die, and how they are found on the beach. It’s a depressing book, and at this rate they are never going to get it over with. My lethargy is prolonging the death of fictional characters. I feel sort of guilty.
Six weeks until I’m no longer a Selibaby volunteer! That doesn’t mean I’m closer to coming home… for whoever missed that announcement, I’ve decided to stay another year. But it will be in another city (Nouakchott), in a different job (gender & development-related), and so I’ll have the pleasure of figuring out a new situation this summer. Write a new routine, quoi. Here are a few things I will miss about life in the Guidimakha: bucket baths right before dark, hanging out in the teachers’ room/fighting for chalk, and being assailed for not coming to visit someone’s family in a week (“They’ve been asking for you…”)
The first thing will be replaced by a shower.. the apartment I am set to rent comes with plumbing, and a water heater. (Mooovin on up…) As far as the second thing, the new job description does not include belittling oneself in front of 15-year-olds on a daily basis. (Alhamdulillah). And the last part—well—that will probably only be absent for awhile. The wonderful thing about a country with a third of its population concentrated in the capital is that everyone knows someone there. All of my friends in Selibaby have promised to set me up with their aunt or brother or friend’s brother’s aunt’s family, even offering for me to stay with them there. (No no no. How can I convey how much the possibility of a shower means to me? I can’t. I had better just say thank you.) But see, I can’t start thinking about this stuff now. Because that doesn’t make my watch tick faster… I love those last two days when you’re in a place, when you forget how much and how long you’ve been ready to move on, and you get all heart-sick and promise you’ll miss it forever. Only five weeks and a day til I’m there.
During my vacation I was in the Paris-Dakar rally. From Bamako to Kayes, front row, next to the driver… racing to shut the window quicky enough each time a new little blue or red shiny thing showed up and then left us—quite seriously—in the dust. The race vehicles, mostly 4x4s and boxy-looking trucks with huge wheels strapped on the back, come out of nowhere when the bus’s mirrors are bent at unusable angles… from our seat behind the driver, through the glass we would catch just a glimpse of something foreign: did that say ‘Volkswagen’? And over there, pulled over along the side… is that a white guy wearing shorts? What’s going on?
Quietly, I suffered an identity crisis along these lines: I’m with them, right?—I grew up in cars! I know what all those logos on the side mean! Hell, I can drive! But did I just pay about $14 to spend ten hours in this seat of the bus, rumbling over the unpaved stretch west of Bamako, going back home… to Selibaby? Hmm. Yes. I certainly did.
Leaving Mali was cheap; getting there cost a little more. My introduction to the country came through the transport hub that is the Bamako airport, arriving on one of the middle-of-the-night flights. Half awake, descending the stairs of the plane at 4 am and standing for a few minutes in the puddle of people that gathered at the bottom, sleepy and waiting for direction. 100-plus passengers in either elaborate boubous (Africans) or khaki outdoor-wear (Europeans/Americans) eventually locate the glowing entrance to the airport and—as a unit—cross the runway and try to fit through the narrow door at the same time. Whereas American airports are sprawling, difficult to navigate and require endurance and GPS, African ones are too compact, built too long ago, and require only extreme varieties of patience. Inside we cut each other in line for passport control, and borrow pens (no one ever has pens; a continental problem) to fill out the customs cards that always ask too much information for “tourism purposes.” Then it’s to the luggage claim, then squeezing through those still rooting for bags in order to get your own scanned one last time before exiting, and then verified as yours... Not such a bad system, except that one looping baggage claim, one scanning machine, one luggage verifier and one exit door (and couple hundred people) all share a space that rivals that of an elementary school cafeteria. (Talk too loudly and they’ll hear you at the table across the room.) Admittance outside feels like it should come with a certificate; instead I changed money in the parking lot and spent twenty minutes bargaining with a taxi driver for a near-normal price for a ride into town. Arrival at Bamako Peace Corps house: 5:45ish.
After eight hours of sleep I woke up and Julian—another Mauritanian I had planned to meet—had left a note on my things saying he’d gone to breakfast. The plan was to leave for Dogon Country the following day, so today we would just kill walking around Bamako. There is nothing particularly capital-like about Bamako: no big green spaces, no monuments that I came across and only a normal amount of solidly-constructed government buildings, French-colonial leftovers. There is (almost) everything typically West African: taxis about to die, sheep about to die (four days and counting to Tabaski), and no place to walk. Items for sale displayed above the door, next to the door, seeming to fall out of the store, through the door, running into the people selling things in the street… (possible marketing motivation: if they can’t get around it, maybe they will buy it). There’s a van with a milk advertisement on the side, six inches to my left, and I wonder how exactly it would feel to have a tire run over my foot, what bones would break exactly, and how I would ever get through the crowd to hail one of those busted taxis to take me to the hospital. Dramatic, okay, but not entirely unrealistic. The milk van shimmies through, slides by a couple of donkey carts, crushing no toes, at least not mine. Bamako has all the fruits and vegetables I’ve ever seen in Mauritania or Senegal, all the brands of tea, all the noise, all the everything. It also has open sewers: I can’t decide whether it’s better or worse than the Mauritanian situation of no sewers at all. They smell; to sidestep the traffic sometimes means jumping a few feet over one of them. And all those Mopeds! Don’t the Moped drivers ever worry? I like the Mopeds. I see girls steering stylish models, skirts pushed up to the knee, and in one case, a guy rides on the back. Is he holding her purse? Bamako is busy: what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in action… there are bars and concerts and people everywhere.
The next morning, people pack into our bus going east. A bit after leaving, already sold-out, it picks up more passengers; they sit in the aisles. It’s cool to have seats. I don’t know why Mauritania has no buses. It’s ten hours to Dogon Country; we’ve met a former Malian Peace Corps volunteer back to do some research for his graduate degree, and he helps us figure things out. He sits in the row behind me and Julian, speaks some Bambara with a surprised seatmate… I work out those stupid Sudoku puzzles while the speaker over our heads plays loud Malian pop. When the bus stops, girls climb the stairs and hawk whatever they’re selling in single-serving plastic bags, 100 CFA for some little muffin things or a bag of yogurt.
“Le Pays Dogon” is a set of villages that follow an escarpment in the east of Mali. Some are just on the edge of the cliff, others are set back on the plateau or sit just in the shadow of the cliff. To get there, you take the bus to Severey and arrange with a guide to take you the last hour or so to the first villages. And from there you hike. We hoped to do four days with our guide… We managed to find a guy who was willing to take us out the next morning in spite of our late arrival. So after bread and tea at Aly’s house (the wall decorated at equal intervals with African masks, a headlamp and a hamburger grill) we drive the last hour, the second half-hour or so unpaved. He lets us off at the top of the cliff for the descent. Easy walk down the hill? Hell no. Climbing. Worried about entire bodies plunging off the rock, nevermind squished toes now. But it was beautiful—all rocky with lots of trees. No one died. At the bottom the ground was sandy, baobabs spotted around… We walked to the first village, which boasted mud houses with thatched roofs. Wait a second. Sand, baobabs and mud… this sounds familiar.
What Dogon has that the Guidimakha lacks? Stunning landscape, cool pointy roofs on the mud huts, and Christians. Oooh yea. Christians. By day two we were familiar with Aly’s speech. He introduced every village with the same (monotone) line: “This village is divided into three parts…” Muslim, Christian and Animist. That morning we’d climbed the cliff (what Aly lacked in enthusiasm he made up for in speed). We reached the village at the top to hear singing and drumming (a wedding? a baptism?). Aly said we could go. Go? Go where? To this wedding? They don’t mind, he assured us. Then we realized where it was coming from—a little box of a mud building with a crucifix above the open door. No… thanks, though. It got weirder. We’d recovered from the climb enough for a tour of the village just as the service was letting out, so we stopped and said hello. A guy introduced himself as Daniel. Did my mouth just hang open? Daniel? I’ve never met any African Christians. Only a hint of an identity crisis in this case (I identify more strongly with the “American” label than the “Christian” one, I guess). After that I made it a point to restrict “machallahs” and “alhamdulillahs” in greetings; you never know. This particular village was my favorite one, I think, this village divided into “trois parties.” Our schedule usually included hiking in the morning and again in the late afternoon; the rest of the time we were free to run around while Aly assembled lunch. The whole village sits on rock, and if you look away you can see the flat sandy Sahel for a few miles. Back toward the village, from this particular boulder you can see down into maybe fifty compounds—close enough to feel a little voyeuristic, far enough to feel that you could maybe pick the whole place up and shake everyone out: animals, huts, plastic buckets; Muslims, Christians, Animists.
Julian and I edged around the rock to look down into a little gorge we’d hiked through: a shallow stream sat in the middle, next to the trail, and a few farmers and kids were carrying water from it to the plots on either side. In the walls that rose up on either side, Aly had said, pygmies buried their dead in the crevices… We split and I walked over to the Animist side of town and hung out with some little kids, because kids you don’t live with are so much more cute and fun. These kids are used to tourists; some of their moms and dads are the ones that manage the mud auberges where we stayed. That night before dinner one of the kids I’d met earlier, Vincent, reappeared. He asked me for some paper, so I gave him the back page of the Sudoku book, and with the precision of a 10-year-old he drew what he said was a Dogon warrior. (To me, it looked like a robot with a broom on his head). When he finished he flipped back through the puzzle book. I explained it to him, then he explained it to a couple of his friends… Julian and I—who had by this point wasted many labored minutes working these things out on the bus—figured he’d get it, no problem. It would figure… “Sudoku puzzle craze hits disadvantaged African children.”
Although I don’t know if it’s accurate to say disadvantaged. Certainly not advantaged, but at least a little more than some other kids. No one seemed ready to say definitively whether the tourism had been a good or a bad thing for the region. On our hikes we passed at least six small elementary schools—all brand new—and Aly would list the benefactor. This one’s the Italians, that one’s the Japanese… I imagined tour groups coming through, seeing there was not a school for one village, and breaking out the checkbooks. On the day before we left Dogon we walked through the streets of Aly’s village Innde and almost every wall was hung with mud cloth for sale. Did Malians buy this stuff? I asked (because we weren’t buying any). Sometimes, he said.
I bought exactly two things in Dogon: a three-inch high brass woman with her hands on her hips and a baby on her back, looking scary, and her husband, only because I felt bad breaking up the family. Although I have never seen a man carrying a spear, I see women with babies on backs everyday (even Al Housseynou Demba Cheik Sow is big enough for that now). At this particular auberge we found ourselves confronted with a veritable army of wooden people, a couple hundred, facing forward in height order, ready to strike if some other wooden army should advance from across the courtyard. It did not. I woke up in the morning to see the proprietor at work polishing every one… a slow process, but he didn’t look pressed for time.
Up on the cliff we’d walked to a village on the very edge: the Animist third, in this case, was separate, and hung onto a not-so-big slab of rock that you climbed down to. You wouldn’t have known it was there, but it was a living village: a withered old man hiked his way past us, up and out (with staff, not spear). This is where sacrifices are made (the sacrifice can sometimes be eaten, but it depends). This is where the village elder lived, who came out only once a year and could otherwise only be consulted with the village chief as intermediary (the last one died; new one not yet appointed). This is the hut where women go to spend the first three days of their periods in isolation. And these are the old houses of people who have died; Animists believe the spirit of the deceased continues to live in the house, so they are abandoned. These shells made up almost a fifth of the town that fit so snugly halfway down the cliff… I asked Aly what they would do when they started running out of space. He shrugged. Build up the rocks?
In the last town before the descent we saw a kid sitting on what looked like the sacrifice mound. A man who could have been his grandfather was spreading some powder on the house of the elder nearby, then breaking pieces of straw in half and holding them to the boy’s mouth for him to taste. And from the side another older guy leaned against the wall, watching… We walked further along before Aly explained: the boy was sick—the man with the straw was giving him traditional medicine, and the stalks of corn by the kid’s feet were the sacrifice.
We came down from the cliff through a crevice, which we first crossed with ladders: five or six thick branches zig-zag cut into stairs. On the far side we followed the trail into the crevice, backed down another log ladder, and climbed down steep rocks, grabbing whatever there was to grab. It was cool and shady, and the rock on either side framed the flatness the opened up at the foot of the cliff—kind of like looking through a window from a dark room to a bright afternoon. Aly, who could have done all this in his sleep, was a silhouette waiting just inside the shadow.
The last day in Dogon coincided with the first day of Tabaski; we spent the last night at an auberge sitting up while one of the non-working guides hung out and played guitar. He decided he wanted to drink—after all, tomorrow’s the fete—so he sent a little kid to the store (who else?) who returned with the gin in a plastic bag (what else?). Aly had admitted to not being “100 percent Muslim”—apparently this guy was not either. But still the next morning everyone from the certain third of town that observed the holiday was wearing their best clothes. Aly insisted we come watch the public prayer, so we did… women dragging little kids by the hand across the fields (running late) while Aly ushered the old people out to the field with his car. People were giddy to be dressed up: from what we saw, everyday clothes are old T-shirts and jeans for guys, wrap skirts for women. Today the women were wearing complete outfits with head scarves and the men new kaftans. Basically, they dressed up like everyday Mauritanians. (I saw only a couple of “grand boubous” that would pass for fete-wear in the RIM). But it was fun to see them so excited. And for all my snobbery I was still wearing the same pair of jeans I’d worn for four days and a dirty T-shirt. Not pretty.
We feted chez Ali: between he and his brothers his family killed four sheep. Four! Impossible to eat it all, the majority of it was smoked in a make-shift smokehouse… meanwhile Ali’s aunts turned millet in a giant pot, resulting in a brown substance like thick oatmeal… capable of being molded into the statues I didn’t see in Bamako… I’m sure they would dry well in the sun. The millet is eaten with what Malian volunteers not-so-affectionately call “snot sauce”—a sort of tasteless goo which owes its texture to too much okra. We ate it, because Americans are polite, if nothing else, and having lived in Africa for awhile we no longer ask questions about food. The meat from the sheep wasn’t bad—but they ate mostly the stomach and other such parts in a greasy sauce. We longed for the mechoui (grilled meat) we get at home.
We left that afternoon, but not before climbing up the cliff one more time—only halfway this time, to a series of connected mud rooms built into the space between the rocks above a village—the spot traditionally used for council meetings, circumcisions and other fun events. We stopped to look out for a minute. There weren’t many other tourists left in the town, and for at least today it kind of seemed like normal Africa. Albeit with Christians right over there.
In Kayes, after the rally cars had moved on, we lined up a pirogue for the last part of the trip, to Gouraye, on the river south of Selibaby. The boat pushed off in the late afternoon only to run ashore directly on the other side of the river, where a passenger disappeared for a half hour getting his luggage. Finally moving down the water, it was dark by the time we got to the underground rocks, but there was a full moon. The “chauffeur” stood at the helm and signaled his flashlight on the water, left and right, sometimes punctuating fierce hand motions with grunts, exasperated that the one steering in the back didn’t respond more quickly. After the rocks, the chauffer stepped down… It got late and the passengers slumped along the side of the boat wrapping up in blankets. Only a few people were talking, a radio pulled in some music, water lapped on the other side of the wood and the motor hummed, still going, but not in a hurry. The next morning found us at the Mali border with Senegal… In a few more hours the boat was drifting along between Senegal and Mauritania. At one point I thought we were being shot at; I didn’t realize until we pulled onto the bank and a guy jumped off and came back with a bird that the shots had come from us. Spreading the injured bird’s wings, the passenger posed for a photo, then sawed off its head. It looked like a heron, much too pretty to eat, I thought, but before long a woman on board was plucking off the feathers and cooking the rice... There are a lot of bird parks around here: could it have been endangered? Who knows. It tasted really good.
* * * * * * *
(A few people who will go unnamed have noted that my vacation schedule seems to be only occasionally interrupted by school. That’s not too far off. This latest trip—about ten days in Mali—is justified by the following: winter vacation, the Muslim holiday Tabaski the tenth through thirteenth… and the week and a half between new year’s and fete day number one when nobody would come back to school anyway, which was officially called off. I’ve been back in class for two weeks now).
The baptism began well before 8 am this morning with about forty men sitting on mats outside my house, or rather, outside our houses… All of them in nice crisp caftans or boubous, emitting a quiet rumble of Pulaar chat. At some point the marabou got everyone’s attention to discuss the matter at hand. I watched this from the other side of the hangar with Khadja, who gave me a pretty succinct commentary: the baby’s name will be El Hussein.
I was literally in the middle of the action when things wrapped up at the house in the evening: Chilo called me over (stepping on and around people) to take a picture of the pile of money. She seemed to be the head of the inner circle of women counting it out—all the money which had been given as a gift would be divvied up between the women attending, which is why I was standing in the middle of about sixty women (with babies), all of whom were seated and relatively calm until bills started to be handed out. I’m not sure if anybody was actually displeased (everyone got something) but bitching about who got how much, times 60, was almost as loud as the music that I always figure deafens the newborn.
this could get messy
A southern Mauritanian bapteme includes: pretty clothes, lots of food, gifts (money and soap) and rock-concert size speakers. The music is supposed to let everyone in the neighborhood know what’s going down: in places with electricity, it’s pretty much required for weddings and baptisms. DJs make a pretty decent living here, I think. Issa (the neighborhood DJ) brought out the standard Senegalese cassette collection all afternoon: Youssou NDour, Viviane, Baaba Maal… and a lot of others that I can hum but can neither name nor sing.
El Hussein is a Wednesday baby, so he got the Wednesday name (Does this explain why everyone has the same name? Yes!: seven for boys, seven for girls). But he also gets a name from his dad (“Demba”) and his mom (“Cheikh”) and anybody else who wants to give him a name. Until “El Hussein” came out—officially—this morning, he’s been known only as “bebe.” Or else “toubak bebe” (by the 3 & 4 year olds at the house, owing to his still-chalky skin tone).
he sleeps with a knife under his head for protection
Chilo had the baby in the middle of the night last week.. by Weather Channel-standard time, early Thursday morning, but since Muslims put the start of the day at the first prayer call—still Wednesday. She delivered at the hospital, so I was oblivious until I woke up and Yaya told me to go inside their house. There I found Chilo with four of five of the women from our compound, beside a smallish lump of fabric on the mat which I took to be the baby. I watched him get his first bath, washed seven times from start to finish by Chilo’s younger sister, then wrapped up in some new wax print fabric. As he went to sleep with a knife beside his tiny little head—for protection—more women from the neighborhood dropped in to say congratulations… As per custom, Chilo stayed in the room for the seven days until the bapteme, going out only to bathe etc. Which is just as well; the baby’s up all night anyway… but it was funny to see her sneaking around.
The same neighborhood women were back last night to start preparing the food for today: cookie-type biscuits, candy, and frozen juice in plastic bags called balbastiques (the best thing in Mauritania). My patrone family gorged THREE sheep, so this morning the women were busy preparing couscous maroccaine in gigantic black pots… pots in which you could cook three to four toddlers and still have room to stir. With the gigantic spoon. I helped a little bit. Mostly I just took pictures and hung out with Chilo in the salon-turned-receiving area—a bright teal room with the nicest foam mats lining the walls… By ten o’clock Chilo had her hair done, new red boubou on and matching scarf scrunched fashionably on her head. I used the occasion to get a new outfit made that happens to make me look *exactly* like a snow angel if I hold out my arms. Nice.
They were taking down the tarp strung up between our roofs when I left a little while ago... Issa packed his speakers up in the late afternoon. I’ve retired the snow angel. The money, I guess, has been sorted out. So now it will be just Yaya, his wives, the kids, and me: minus three sheep, plus one baby and forty pounds of soap.
Today I woke up to the sound of buzzing mosquitoes, as usual. But I was in my mosquito net, of course. It kind of sucks that we still have mosquitoes here this time of the year, and that it’s still pretty warm now, in the middle of the “cold season,” but it’s nice that we can still sleep outside at night. For breakfast, I made bacon and eggs. Not really. I made oatmeal and coffee…again.
Then I cleaned my house up a little. No I didn’t, but I should have, since it’s really dusty. My house is made entirely of mud, but it doesn’t look at all like pictures of mud huts you see in National Geographic, so don’t get the wrong impression (my walls almost look like they were made of concrete – they’re very sturdy – but there’s little bits of hay in them, which gives them away). I have a pretty big house, considering that a lot of volunteers here just get one room to themselves…I have a whole THREE ROOMS. I almost feel like an ex-pat here! Even so, I like to complain about my house because I think it’s overpriced, since the windows are falling off (at least I’ve got windows – a lot of houses in the North don’t even have windows!) and I don’t get my own bathroom and it’s dusty all the time (because it’s made of mud, remember?), but then I remember that I’M IN THE PEACE CORPS AND I’M SUPPOSED TO BE TOUGH. And besides, I’m paying less than $30 a month in rent, and my host family kicks ass!
So around this time, the rest of my family is getting up too. My host father, Madou*, my two host mothers, Mariam and Fatimatou, and the kids, Issa (11), Hawa (4ish), and Alassane (5ish) get up pretty slowly in the mornings – I’m usually off to my first class at 8 before they get up and around. Wife #2, Fatimatou, also has a new baby, born last Thursday. He doesn’t have a name yet – traditionally, mothers wait seven days, until the baptism ceremony, before naming their newborn children. Fatimatou told me that everyone in the family gets to suggest a name for the child before it is born, so I’m going to tell them to name it Matthew in honor of my good friend and fellow hard-working Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in Tidjikja. The baptism will be next Wednesday, and the family has already bought the two sheep that they’ll slaughter for the big meal. The ceremony isn’t all that exciting, but it gives people a reason to “celebrate” by hanging out and eating a lot of meat, and everyone seems to enjoy it. (*Note: I can’t actually remember the names of my host family members, but the ones listed here are close enough to suffice.)
Oh yeah, before I go to class, I wash my feet off because they’re getting pretty gross – I haven’t showered in a couple of days since the water in my family’s compound hasn’t been running for a while. Then I change into my local-style clothing and put my stylish matching headscarf on and take off on my 10-minute walk to class.
Blah blah blah…I teach class. This semester, I’m teaching 14 hours of 3rd and 4th year students – they’ve supposedly been learning Ingrish for a couple of years, but most of them still speak it small small, and most of them aren’t really all that interested in learning, so that is kind of discouraging, but I keep on working hard because I feel like I’m making a difference with some of the students who do want to learn. And that’s what counts!
After morning classes are over, I head back to our Peace Corps office and meet up with Suzanne, another volunteer. She just got back from the Post Office. Several of my regionmates got packages, but not me. I sure wish my parents would send me stuff to show me how much the love me and miss me. I sure do love them and miss them!
I get on the computer to go over a few of the lesson plans that I’ve typed out already for my afternoon classes, then head back to my house for lunch. Lunch today was a really great rice-base meal with lots of vegetables…delicious! I’m really thankful that the food here is so much better than it is in the Northern part of Mauritania! We eat pretty well here, relatively speaking. And we have so much fruit in our market!
After lunch, I have a few more classes with students, and then my Monday class with several of the teachers from the high school, which I am doing out of the bountiful kindness of my heart. Suzanne is taking care of the Girls Mentoring Center today, teaching computer classes, so at least I don’t have to squeeze that into my busy schedule today. Most other days, however, I am in charge of running the center and arranging the tutoring, sports, or other programming for the girls. Speaking of which, I’m also in charge of the massive repairs that are being made to the GMC right now, which takes up a lot of my time, checking in on the work, paying people, arranging contracts, etc. I’m taking on a pretty big responsibility with overseeing the repairs, but I’m a pretty capable girl, so I can handle it.
In whatever spare time I have during the day, I’ll work on the upcoming country-wide GMC conference for Peace Corps volunteers that I’m helping organize for this coming weekend, work on my lessons for class, hang out with other volunteers, play with my host family’s kids, work on stuff for the Nouakchott Notes (the PC publication for Mauritania that I am now in charge of), think about my upcoming vacation for Christmas in Nouakchott, Morocco with my awesome parents, and Mali, or read a book (or more likely, read the People magazine that Molly just got in a care package).
I usually try to get in bed by 10ish – “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a PCV healthy, wealthy, and wise!” And then I’m off into crazy malaria medication-induced dreamland…until my next beautiful day in Selibaby-ville!
*Disclaimer: This post was not written by Cailin, although it appears in first person form and is indeed about her life in Mauritania. Due to her delinquency in posting to her online journal, another volunteer (Matt) decided to help her out by writing this for her. Matt has actually only been to Selibaby once, and he spent less than 24 hours at Cailin’s house, but that was totally enough time to get an accurate picture of how cool Cailin’s life in Selibaby is.
**Addendum by Cailin: I usually drink tea. Next: My host family is great. I know most of their names, because most of them are the same (see following post). I usually bathe regularly, but the water disappeared for awhile, and now I’m a slave to the two-hours-a-day faucet. Plus! it’s really windy. Next item—my kids speak small small, but I have one class that rocks out. It’s a class of eight students who I taught last year as well. They speak Ingrish big big almost, or at least medium. Mom and Dad are wonderful and spend probably as much on phone cards as my sitemates’ relatives do on postage. Except for the friends/relatives of Ariana, that ____-in-Ajar, who gets like nine packages every week. But she’s cool, though, she shares. Fruit: we have bananas and mandarins, which is more than the sand they have in Tidjikja. Adult English class: I heart my colleagues. Some soldiers signed up today. GMC repairs: There could be ten posts related to this subject. It will be shiny and new. Nouakchott Notes: RIP Luke, who left us for a real job in Chad. Molly’s People magazine: I’m sorry I lost the page. Conference in Aioun: I leave tomorrow! It’s 9:44 pm! 10 o’clock bedtime approaching! Whatever, dude, I was really sleepy that night.
By morning we should have been to the coast, but at 6:30 I woke up in my corner of the train car to find we were not moving. Nor were we still attached to anything that could have moved. I vaguely remembered feeling the train stop sometime around three, and thinking that we were going in reverse… but it was pitch black except for the stars, and eight hours into the trip I was trying hard not to wake up. It took too much effort to get to sleep in the first place—it was freezing, and sleeping on rocks (even small rocks) is not comfortable. The situation probably could have been better: Andi and I had been told that it would get cold at night. But in the rush to get a car to Choum—from where the train left—we didn’t get a chance to go by a dead toubab (secondhand clothing) store and pick up sweaters. So when I woke up at three a.m. I was wearing a T-shirt, and curled into the smallest space possible along the front edge of the car, trying to stay warm. At that point I was happy that we’d stopped moving. Less wind.
at sunset, it wasn't cold yet
6:40ish: Andi is awake now, so we assess the situation. We’re not going anywhere, clearly. And we’re dirty. Andi, formerly off-white, is now a shiny bronzy red. My feet, hands and arms are the same shade so I figure I look about the same. There is nothing to do so I admire my new, deep skin tone. It doesn’t rub off. On the ground next to the train some men have started making tea (there is nothing for them to do, either). A guy looks up and howls—we should take a picture, he says: Une pose! Une pose! It’s still cold… a few minutes later they hand up a scruffy thick blanket along with a tasse of tea. So we huddle and watch the sunrise. Alright, so if we stopped around three—we still have about four hours before we get to Nouadhibou. And if it’s seven o’clock now, maybe we can get there by noon. And if nothing comes back for us? We’ve got about a liter of water and most of a kilo of dates. And in the other twenty or so cars, all these lovely people to keep us company.
it was a rough night
8ish: no longer making tea, the people on the ground are all standing over by the tracks, looking west. Those are the tracks we used to be on, the ones that actually go somewhere. They are lying flat on the sand with their ears to the track, then a train’s approaching and their arms are waving. From our piece of train, some bags are thrown down. Hmm. We hesitate… the mulafa-ed woman in our car isn’t moving. But then everyone is yelling us over, and more bags drop down… So we do it too. Andi catches what I lower over the edge, except our gigantic combined bag (we thought it would be a good idea). It probably landed with a thud. I feel responsible for the pack, since it’s actually mine, and shoulder it for the 100 yards to the other track. People are already climbing up onto the cars… and then about ten yards out it starts to move. A guy in a howlie runs over and takes my bag and pushes it up to someone on top of the train. Andi is already being pulled on (she said later a large Moor woman grabbed her by the arm and single-handedly tossed her up). I’ve got a hold on one of the rungs up the side and someone is pushing me up, too. We settle in with a bunch of women and kids toward the rear of the car and watch the people still on the other train watch us going east.
This is the last part of our big trip up north. This is the part where Andi and I leave Atar and catch the iron ore train in Choum—it stops for five minutes, everyone scrambles up, sun sets, gets cold… etc—and take it to Nouadhibou. We did not get to buy sweaters in Atar because we were late getting in from Tirjit, an oasis village an hour outside of the city where we spent the previous night. To be exact we spent the night between several skinny palm trees and a high wall that drips cold water all day and all night. Some of it is caught in a plastic baignoire. You can drink it and it won’t make you sick. Even the French tourists drank from it—we saw earlier in the day; we were watching them from our matelas. That is what there is to do in an oasis: lay on a matelas and drink water. In this particular oasis there is also a small square concrete pool that fills up with water from a source in the rocks, so we swam, too, or sort of shifted from one side to the other (it’s about four feet wide). This place was totally unlike Mauritania—lush, and absolutely beautiful. I miss the sound of water. I could have listened to the water all day.
Since we’d left Nouakchott, until that point, we saw a lot of sand. I’d always figured the desert started just outside of Nouakchott. It does, but not the dramatic movie-backdrop lost-in-the-desert dunes. Instead it’s flat: flat and colorless, with a road that bends roughly five times over the course of six hours. I thought Sy was going to fall asleep—I watched his eyes from the back of the car and thought of random things to say to keep his attention. The scenery didn’t change much until just before Atar—then it’s all rocky mountains. We admired them in the dark, from the side of the road, as Sy changed the first flat tire. We caught a ride the next day from Atar out to my friend Alexis’ site: her tiny Moor village and tiny concrete house and tiny host-grandmother, all in view of the same mountains. Then we picked up Todd and Saman and went to Chinguetti.
camels are moving faster than us...
Chinguetti is where people go if they go to Mauritania. So much so that there are two flights a week from Paris to Atar during the tourist season. We missed the beginning of the season by about two weeks, so the only Frenchies were the ones we first saw in Chinguetti, then again in Tirjit. Chinguetti has two things going for it, basically: first, it has a store of crumbling libraries containing ancient Arabic texts. Secondly, it has the dramatic movie-backdrop lost-in-the-desert dunes. Andi and I checked out both during the four days we camped out at Jeff’s house. The ancient ruin part of town looks remarkably like the rest of it: stone houses, stone walls (and occasional small white satellite dishes). The library we visited is actually about a block behind Jeff’s. A little old guy gave a very professional tour. After running through the history of the town he showed us into the first “library” room, a collection that included relatively recent Arabic, French and English books and magazines. He opened up a French book on Mauritania and asked the French tourists to please read the following: (something about men here liking their women large. Gasp.). Then he had me read this, yes, right there: (something about how in the old days girls used to be forced to drink milk, and their toes would be pinched if they refused). Haha, he said. Of course that doesn’t happen now. (Hmm). The second room was a little more impressive—he showed us examples of the writing and passed around an Ancient Text. Apparently there have been efforts to preserve the books but nothing is happening right now. They are lined up in the mud room, top shelf to bottom shelf, in labeled cardboard magazine holders...
library in chinguetti
Oudane is off the tourist circuit. It’s about four hours (with a good, fast car) from anywhere, through more of what Andi accurately described as “vast nothingness.” Todd and Saman hosted us for lunch at their house then took us for a tour of Oudane’s old city. No offense to Chinguetti. Oudane’s ruins are incredible: they spread out over the hillside all the way down to the palmeries. Climbing through what were once streets is like going through a maze. It helped that our guides have given the tour any number of times, so they knew all the turns—we started at the top and came out at the very bottom, at a well, and then walked up the stairs to the minaret of the ancient (as opposed to the other, “old”) mosque. They pointed out the clear spot in the broken mud walls where kids hold soccer matches… The whole place is a world heritage site.
the old city in oudane
Back in Chinguetti we took Jeff away from important tree planting business to find us some camels. He had some neighbors who dealt with that sort of thing—if we went by and let them know, they could probably come up with some for the next day. How many did we need? (two). If it could be done, they’d meet us at the house at four. They are there the next afternoon: we planned for an overnight, so we strap a few bags onto the saddle. We walk out of town and over a few dunes before our guide tries to convince the camels to let us ride them. He pulls on the rope that is hooked through the camel’s nostril. The camel lets out God-awful noises before relenting—folding first the front set of legs, then the back set. Going up the legs unfold in the reverse order, so you pitch forward before balancing out, six feet off the ground. It’s a nice view. It was nice watching the sun set over the dunes, and watching Jeff and Sam (the Chinguetti volunteers) walk the whole 18 K to the oasis. They said they wanted to walk! So they walked. While Andi and I rode, princess style.
this was the view for most of the trip
We spent the night in an oasis under a full moon. Highlights: Our guide baked bread in the sand under the fire. He also tried to assemble a sauce with the random canned goods we bought at the boutique. That didn’t work as well (we neglected to bring any of the staples of Mauritanian cooking: oil, onion, Maggi cube)… The next morning, on the way back to Chinguetti, we started up a particularly steep dune. Preoccupied with documenting the entire trip I pulled out my trusty Canon to get a good picture of this. At which point my camel’s feet start to slip. And the saddle slides back. The camel is moaning, the guide is urging it the rest of the way up the dune; meanwhile I’m holding on with my one free hand, the right one waving around in the air clutching the camera. Obviously we made it. I did not get crushed, the camera did not get pitched into the Sahara (the pictures will one day be on Smugmug) and the camel probably doesn’t hate me any more than it already did.
i'm back in kaedi reliving last year's training with the advantage of being a Second Year in capital letters (officially as of 9 sept). rather than being on the receiving end of two-hour long training sessions that begin with the all important "Objectives" i'm on the giving end. well, i helped present one or two of these sessions. mostly i stayed in the back of the classroom during the first week of model school, observing and writing Helpful Things on a sheet of paper to discuss with the teachers-in-training, all of whom want to kill themselves on the first day. did i ever get to describe model school last year? it's kind of like teacher boot camp, with emotional trauma only. in the last month of training, english ed volunteers find themselves in front of real live mauritanian students who they are supposed to motivate and control and... teach. it's scary but effective. and honestly it's a pretty gentle introduction: the kids who enroll sign up voluntarily, and for most of them the material is a review of what they learned in class the year before. these ones are the good kids.
i really liked it because i got to be reminded of how strange and enthusiastic we americans are, how we like to do wacky shit in front of people we don't know. i must be so entertaining for my students to watch... a product of the american ed system where good teachers are engaging, make facial expressions and bring in stuff like it's show and tell. (flashback to my second-year class where, early in the year, i brought in four or five boutique-bought items for the sake of vocabulary and an exericise. a bag of sugar? whoa, havoc.) ...observing it all made me realize i learned how to teach in the last year, which is reassuring. i also liked model school because i got to sit in the back row and doodle, make lists and elaborately fold notes. oh, good times.
clearly, nothing much is happening right now. no trips, no coups or armed rebellions, nothing good on TV... (not that i have one, although i hear the theme song to the argentinian soap opera and wonder how much i've missed since i've been away from site). we are just trying not to move in the kaedi heat and watching the sky for a sign of rain, which would at least provoke some relocation indoors and maybe allow us to breathe again. i haven't listened to the radio or used the internet much in days. it's a self-imposed news-free zone. the anniversary of 11 sept came and went almost without mention; it sounds like new orleans is still a loss, but i don't know. i get most of my news lately from emailed articles and the bi-weekly phone calls to mom/dad/meg, during which time we update each other on a)natural disastors b)work c)pregnancies/ family scandals/ things of interest and d)news of mom/dad/meg, because everyone is so busy over there it's hard to stay in touch. good thing i'm not busy. school will start in a few weeks and with it the 844 things i plan to do that i've detailed so carefully on all these lists, inshAllah. i think it might be raining by now.
everything in casablanca needs to be painted. if the rest of moroccan cities are immaculately maintained (on the beach in essouira, workers wear bright yellow vests with smiley faces on the back), casa's glass block walls don't appear to have been bothered with since the 1940s... and this is the "nouvelle ville." maybe it was the eight-hour overnight bus trip, or maybe i just don't want to leave morocco. whatever, i'm grumpy, and casablanca looks a little dirty.
jen and i touched down here ten days ago at about the same time that mauritania's military in-charge staged a coup that overthrew the country's long-time leader, maaouiya (aside: why do so many dictators have mustaches?). the air maroc flight from NKTT to Casablanca left at 3:30 a.m.; the airport was taken over and closed by about eight. it came up in conversation with a guy on the train to fes, sometime in the afternoon. bbc didn't have much to say about it. in our cell-like room in the medina of fes, i watched jen chainsmoke while we made long distance calls and noted all information in a little black book. i entertained some disastor scenarios, or at least the idea of never going back to mauritania, but everything is turning out to be alright, at least at this point. suzanne, reporting from selibaby, said everyone there is thrilled. the US state department is slowly coming around (coups are bad, yes... but maaouiya is not exactly a champion of democracy. note the mustache).
assuming the US stays out of it, i think my future there will not be affected. people like us! right? obie, the RIM country director, thinks so. he told us to have a good vacation, pending any change in the situation. anti-climactic.
jen and i set out on the streets of fes and unwound with some ice cream sundaes from a place called "Cremerie Disney Channel" (i have no idea), then got nominally lost in the windy roads of the walled medina. fes is the oldest city in morocco, and the medina--the old city--is the oldest of the old. the stones on the streets are so smooth they are almost slick. the lanes are too narrow for cars, so a horse loaded down with bottles is used for Coke deliveries. outside the city walls a big empty plaza fills up at sunset with vendors and carnival games. a grey-haired man put on a show centering around a monkey on a wooden box and scared little kids. you can people-watch for hours.
it's a similar set-up in marrakech, but instead of a few hundred people wandering around the plaza, it's a few thousand. stainless-steel carts sell cheap street food: brochettes, tagine and moroccan tomato salad sculpted high on a plate. you can get sheep head, too, but we opted for the snails. oh, and the pastaella... the offerings are pretty standard, so each cart has a guy out front working the crowd: "bon soir les gazelles, excuse me... look here for just one minute...just to look at the menu; good food, good price... air conditioned!" by the fourth of fifth guy you relent and let yourself be directed to the long skinny tables and benches. the food comes fast, too. i can't believe such good food is available in a country so close to mauritania. it's depressing.
the food stands are lit up like a football field, and smoke from the grills drifts over the rest of the plaza like a fog. streetlights don't do much. dancers, acrobats, "snake charmers" and the like bring their own spotlights, and moving between the circled crowds is sometimes like navigating a very crowded, dark theater. the plaza in the daytime is totally different--although there are still men with snakes, and women under umbrellas drawing henna designs on tourists. the main draw are the 70 or so orange juice stands, where you stand next to the cart and drink your glass. i stopped at least twice a day. marrakech is hot like mauritania, but brick holds heat more than sand. it was better to tour the old palaces, or stay in the covered markets. more fun, too... i went to the ATM twice.
jen saw a picture of this big waterfall in a brochure, so on the third day of our stay in marrakech we arranged for a mini-bus tour north to ouzaud. at 8 am we climbed in the front seat next to the driver, omar, who said it was his first trip there. this may have been a miscommunication--he seemed totally comfortable going 60 around the mountain curves... but then we did get there two hours late. so i'm not sure. omar spoke parts of french and english, and jen and i contributed pieces of our limited arabic, but there were holes. omar compensated with physical comedy, which was great except that, you know, he could have paid a little more attention to the road. we head-bopped to berber pop and annonymous west coast rap. then, when he was switching a tape, he offered up this: "ahh makshi bons, yeki ti biya." it sounded vaguely familiar. "ahh makshi bons?" we replied. he sang it again. jen wins the prize here. oooh, she says. "all that she wants... is another baby." yes! omar almost drives off the road. the german-looking goth kids in the seat behind us are not as excited about Ace of Base, but later a pair of British girls take the lead trying to correct the lyrics.
we go through flat olive fields and then those curvy parts in some atlas foothills. we pass several hundred bikes and mopeds (a family of four rides with dad in the seat, toddler in front, mom on the rear, baby in her lap). in the hills we pass lots mud brick houses and boys on donkeys--more like the africa i am familiar with. still, morocco is more on the developed side: the roads are well maintained (with crosswalks!) and even monitored for speeding violations. morocco also knows how to handle tourists. we arrive at the falls and are waved into a gravel parking lot. our falls guide, ahmed, takes over for omar and leads us over a few bamboo mini-bridges to the top of the falls. straight down, no guard rails. we pose for pictures and i am nervous, but it's amazing.
the mini-bus tour turns out to be more than we bargained for. ahmed leads us--followed by the british girls, the goth kids and a stand-offish spanish couple--on a two hour hike away from the falls and down a gorge further downstream. i was wearing flipflops. ahmed does this hike five times a week and takes it somewhat fast. jenny and i stay up with him and, a tiny bit out of breath, badger him with questions anyway. he grew up here; it's been a tourist site since the 40s for europeans; with the first gulf war visits from westerners trailed off and the government started selling the falls to moroccans. on the sunday afternoon we are there we see only a handful of other westerners. at the base of the falls it looks like a waterpark, every pool packed with little kids and paddle boats, parents looking on from cafe tables, sipping fanta. but we are a twenty-minute hike away from the big falls when we finally finish the switchbacks, and the pool where we are going to swim is empty. it's freezing cold but clear. the spaniards only get in to their knees but the rest of us jump in and swim against the current to the rocks under a small waterfall. we sit in our bikinis on the rocks and the female half of the goth couple makes the observation that we are sprawled out like mermaids. maybe. very cold mermaids.
on the beach in essouira i didn't get in the water. it was cold too, and without the enticement of a waterfall... i read a magazine and watched kids play in the sand instead. we spent our last two full days of real vacation there (casablanca does not count). it's on the coast, another walled city with beautiful buildings and more stuff that i wanted to buy. highlights: an impromptu camel ride on the beach (very short) and practicing English conversation with a high school student named Khalid. he overheard our american accents and asked if we would mind practicing with him... we were so impressed (topics included direct and indirect causes of the first world war; 25 points for the correct use of "autonomous.") that we agreed to meet him back there the next night. he brought his textbook and showed us some of his photos; we tried to explain halloween. he passed his BAC, the big post-high school test that allows you to go on to university, and will be studying english in the fall. jen and i wished we could take him home. another reason i hate to be leaving morocco.
from the passenger seat of a peace corps pickup truck i watch three pairs of minarets coming closer. they're backlit by hazy rainy-season sunset. sy abdoul bocar has a cassette of some early 90s british band in the tape deck (the english is for my benefit), but i can’t really hear it; the windows are down, and since it is flat and dry, we are going maybe 100 km/hour over the dirt, at least until we brake for a few hundred goats. that night I stay with sy’s family in mbout, a small-ish city about halfway to kaedi. my handful of greeting phrases get good mileage—sy’s family greet more profusely than any family I have ever met. these mostly innocuous questions inquire about how people are doing with absolutely anything (and the kids? the animals? the wind?) and are often repeated, so you can, you know, ask about somebody’s health like five times. at sy’s house the greetings just never quit, and are used to avoid ANY silence. presumably other conversation is only sandwiched in between inquiries about fatigue/work/family etc. or not.
my inability to speak pulaar sort of worked out. aside from my pet phrases I wasn’t able to participate in the conversation and could instead watch the stars guilt free… and drink those four glasses of milk…yum. let’s see…I got to the capital Saturday. then there was the party on the beach, and this morning jen and I finally purchased tickets for Casablanca… oh, being a teacher in the summertime is a good thing. I did spend a few days in selibaby before taking off with the free-ride-with-seatbelt monthly p.c. shuttle. Yaya and Chilo (my host parents) are fine, and I’m happy to report that my new straw roof totally held up to rainstorms that lasted several days. There is a river now about 50 m from my house, so no more shortcut through the riverbed. Not that I need to get to school anyway—everything finished up by mid june, and will not reopen until october or november. I found selibaby a little creepy in its tranquility, actually: all the kids that come in from villages to go to school are gone, and half the students that come from selibaby are on vacation somewhere. it feels like a college town in july.
don't worry, though. i haven't been totally free of high schoolers. my first few days back in country provided me lots of quality time with my favorite three 17-year-olds. while I was away suzanne brought these girls from our mentoring center to nouakchott for the annual girls’ conference, a five-day throwdown in the capital for the best girls from all of mauritania’s GMCs. The theme this year was “girls and technology.” the selibaby ladies—fanta, magatt, and khadijetou—at times preferred to interpret the theme as “girls and clubbing,” so suz and I got to hear a lot about their needs/desires to go dancing. we took them out shopping for disquette clothes one night instead. they kind of dropped it. overall they made us proud. i and the other volunteers stood snapping pictures of “our” girls like soccer moms (thus the 67 pics now on smugmug). I was especially pleased when fanta and magatt started giving a reporter hell (politely) about tv mauritania’s lack of french-language programming. With the exception of an evening news report, TVM is arabic-only, all the time. Either that or shots of nature scenes (rivaled only, in my opinion, by TV senegal’s fun animal fact segments). The girls also got a chance to make a cd at a local recording studio, and a lot of them saw the ocean for the first time during an afternoon at the beach. We didn’t have much luck getting them in the water (jellyfish) but some of them got really into shell collecting. Good clean fun, girls, unlike Friday nights at VIP.
to see photos of this—and the entire last year, in fact—go to www.cailin.smugmug.com. The latest are under “girls center."
this afternoon i was walking down the center of a perfectly lined sidewalk with one plastic grocery bag in each hand. behind some trees someone was mowing the grass. a woman walked toward me carrying a beach bag. in front of her were two waist-high kids in bathing suits: a blond girl, a dark-haired boy. their dog was, of course, leashed… i’m so not in mauritania anymore.
home is really nice, if sort of surreal, and surprisingly ordinary. the drama i built into the american dream sort of faded away after the first couple of days, as i stopped getting all big-eyed over traffic lights. but it was exciting getting off the plane in new york. even the trip over was neat: at the airport in dakar everyone actually formed a line when asked. then, onboard, there were the compartmentalized, nutritionally-balanced meals with the tiny silverware and coffee cup. it was a red-eye flight and i wasn’t sleeping, so instead i got filled in on south african corruption cases courtesy of my seatmate, a very polite older lady who also told me this about our direct dakar-to-new york city flight: on that same flight a few weeks before there had been a stowaway. he got crushed by the wheel mechanism probably during takeoff, and when they let the wheels down he fell out. in pieces. into some new yorker’s backyard. geeez.
anyway, 8 a.m. at JFK airport: ny times and some reese’s cups. it felt so nice to spend actual dollars. a guy in line in front of me complained to the cashier that the british art magazine he wanted was not among the 100 or so options lining the shelf. going through a security check to make my connection, a girl who stood no less than a foot and a half above me in her four-inch heels made snide comments about other passengers’ attire. i froze in the air-conditioning, and played with automatic faucets. America, America.
in boston, my sister’s boyfriend, paul, recognized me from pictures and took me home to my meg. she had arranged de-africation beginning early the next day: new contacts, haircut, sorely-needed pedicure (for the first time in my life, actually). we did crazy stuff like going to target. we ate burritos at anna’s taqueria. meg scared me driving in traffic. see? totally normal. the fun part about going to boston was that i got to come home twice. i got in early and managed to sneak up on my parents waiting dutifully at bwi. at this point i also got to see whether my luggage (which included a plastic plaid bag sold at mauritaian markets for less than a dollar) had held up. it had, with only one significant tear. the larger problem was my backpack, which i had been just capable of picking up before i got to boston and added more stuff. so after wrestling it off the belt i tried to pick it up; it took me down. fortunately some nice man helped me, after i picked myself up of course.
my trip home coincided with the fourth, so we went over to waynesboro and set up our lawn chairs somewhere near the cover band. sparklers! ice cream! people who knew me as a toddler! weird. but the holiday wasn’t totally standard issue. earlier in the day i tried to (and eventually did) prepare mafe, the peanut-sauce-and-rice dish that is so damn good and decidedly not american. after only a small incident involving flames (coal stoves and gas stoves are very different things, and should be treated as such) i had mom, dad and meg sit on the floor and go by the rules: right hand only, no drinking til after the meal, etc. they did much better than i expected. the whole deal was close to perfect, with the exception of okra. the produce guy at Martin’s told me i was the third person ever in his career as a Martin’s produce guy to ask for it. i felt obliged to defend myself so i explained that while everyone else in the grocery store was stocking up on chips and hotdogs I was trying to sort out this African recipe. which is how i got to telling him about living in selibaby... he was curious about how many languages people speak, what the cities are like, stuff like that. so he was happy to help me later on in locating mint (for the tea).
You’ve been waiting for it to happen, so here it is. SEND MONEY TO AFRICA. Specifically, to Selibaby. My school administration is trying to put together an end of the year ceremony to give props to the best students. The idea is to put up a big tent and pull out the mats, invite everyone at the school, then honor the top kid from each class with books and school supplies (which is actually a big deal considering a good number of my students seem unable to afford working pens). We will also be honoring the best girl students—and while this doesn’t seem like much, a parent who sees their daughter receiving a prize might be more likely to let them finish high school and put off that marriage until, oh, eighteen. Anyway—if you are able—there is a web site with the information from which you can charge as little as $5. I will try to post the link but if it doesn’t work, just Google “Peace Corps Partnership” and click on whatever comes up. The projects are alphabetical by country and it’s under my name. (Thank you in advance. You are all beautiful people). Otherwise, I have ONE DAY of school left and only 320-ish final exams to grade in the next week. Very happy. Can’t wait to visit home.
I’ve had my eyes on some prime Selibaby real estate for about a month now: This family’s compound is just on this side of the seasonal river (wide open spaces: cooler), close to the lycee (long walks in 3 pm sun to go to class: bad) and seems relatively unpopulated (few kids: less noise: good). I’ve been in casual discussion with the proprietor, Yaya, about the prospects of renting a simple three or four-room mud house. A similar house fell down last year and he’s keen to rebuild in the same spot… but he wanted to finish this other renovation project first, and then the mason was sick, and then… When I stopped by chez Yaya again last week and saw the pile of mud bricks stationary as ever, I deemed it unnecessary to ask about progress. But like any good salesman, he led me to the fixer-upper across the courtyard, an as-good-as-new second choice: “Well it’s got a brand new roof, and I’ll be re-mudding the walls this week. We’ll put some new tin windows and a door on it, get some kids to sweep it out. Under all that dust there is a concrete floor, you bet.” When he added that I would have the option to move into the other house when it is built InshAllah… I was sold. So I’m moving.
Mud sounds quaint, so you should know there are satellite dishes (a “Super Power Dish” at my current house) smack in the middle of many Selibaby courtyards, providing shade for tethered mutton that baaaah through the entire episode of Moesha. And tucked into the long flowing boubous of those watching Moesha are tiny cell phones, some of which can take pictures. I started to get a feel for these contradictions during training, when I would hear stories about other volunteers’ experiences in the village: every night at dinner, members of the family would take turns hitting buttons on the cell phone in order to light up the plate of food on the ground.
In the regional capitals most houses have electricity, but a lot of families have a large hangar, or tent, in place of a house and no amenities to speak of. Besides being located in the only region without paved roads, Selibaby is the last regional capital to be without running water. Malian work crews are now digging trenches—I’ve never seen a Mauritanian work like that—so hopefully by next year each neighborhood will at least have access to clean water. This doesn’t mean sinks in kitchens. Nobody has a kitchen anyway. For those with money, it will mean a faucet in the courtyard—like at my house in Kaedi. For everybody else, it will mean water available in the neighborhood that can be bought for 10 ougiya a tub (about 3 cents) and carried home.
Donkeys and carts vastly outnumber cars and trucks, but I see probably 15 or 20 of the latter on any given day (only the occasional camel, Dad). Big trucks regularly come in from Bamako and Nouakchott piled with food, foam mats and plastic goods made in China. There is one gas station out by the hospital. At the center of town is a wide sandy square that serves as a fruit market/donkey cart parking lot during the day and a truck stop at night: all the drivers spread out mats in the shade of their vehicles in the late afternoon and make tea, then pass the night there as well. In the center of the square there’s a concrete circle with a flag pole. I saw the green and yellow star-and-crescent flag fly there only once, on Mauritanian Independence Day. After dark goats claim this area, sharing it only with the city’s one homeless man. He’s something of an anomaly in a place where an offer of food or housing sometimes comes before any formal introductions… He wears rags. He is very much alone, and probably senile; the other day eight toddlers came running down the street toward me—away from him—crying and screaming. But usually during the day he seems to get lost in the movement of it all…
Walking through the market requires skill. There are animals, carts, rocks on the ground, people to greet, kids with cans, trucks coming through streets so narrow you practically have to duck into a tailor’s shop to get out of the way… In the shops Puul or Soninke men work on old-fashioned sewing machines to make boubous out of dyed or wax print fabric… or assemble complicated, trendy ensembles with puffy sleeves and embroidery (which my students wear). Next door, Moor boutiquiers start you off too high for the Chinese goods—metal bowls and trays and tea pots and glasses. Corner stores in the neighborhoods sell packaged goods: cans of peas and mixed vegetables, sardines, macaroni, cans of Coke and Fanta and plastic bottled water. Nearly everything else comes in small plastic bags: a kilo of sugar, 100 ougiya of powdered milk, etc. The arrival of packaging—and plastic bags—to a city with no garbage collection system in place has not been good. Over near my house, trash gets caught in the plants near the marigot. Back in the market, plastic bags blow around or get buried in the sand, and women on the ground in the square selling mint or mandarins or mangoes refuse to let you leave without a new one.
Just off the square is the Internet Café, which is not a café at all. It’s a 10x20 room with several long folding tables. On these tables are lots of monitors and CPUs and keyboards, some of which actually work and are assembled and connected to a satellite Internet connection. The connection is as dependable as anything else, and on good days works as well as a dial-up at home. On bad days I sometimes have to leave. Or I bring a book along. Opening any graphics-heavy site is painful; I usually rely on shortwave BBC or RFI for news. There’s daily news programming on TV, but without satellite that leaves the Mauritanian station (which makes the work of the Washington High School TV production class look amazing) and the Senegalese station (more on par with WHS). One hour, no commercials, very little editing. If your attention span can make it, RTS of Senegal usually shows some TV5 world news clips at the very end: none of that ‘if it bleeds it leads’ stuff here… If the president shook someone’s hand, or attended an elementary school talent show, it leads.
There are no magazines or “real” newspapers in Selibaby, or anywhere outside of Nouakchott. In Nouakchott, weeks-old copies of Le Monde can be found. Every Peace Corps volunteer gets international editions of Newsweek every month or so… (Yea, it’s that bad). Books are also in short supply, but then the illiteracy rate in the Guidimakha is something like 70 percent… The lycee does not have much of a library. I know there is a room with a few books but it is always locked. Likewise there are also two computers (apart from those at the Girls Mentoring Center)—those are locked in the director’s office. Someone uses it for record keeping, I think. The administration offices of the school most closely resemble a storage room of any American high school: broken windows, mismatched desks and chairs, a wooden filing cabinet leaning against the wall. But there’s a phone and a ceiling fan, and in another building a copy machine that teachers and students alike must pay to use.
Selibaby's best resource is the wonderful new Maison des Livres, or “House of Books” funded by the government and stocked with technical books, novels and textbooks in French and Arabic. Unfortunately it is located on the complete opposite side of town from the lycee, about a 30 or 40 minute walk for any student so motivated. It, too, has a satellite dish… I went to visit one morning and it was empty, except for the caretaker, Mohamed. He showed me the shelves of not-yet-organized books and the stacks of new arrivals on the floor. Then in the media room he turned on BBC, and for a few minutes we watched Jesse Jackson talking about racism in America. I translated a little bit, but Mohamed was more interested in me enjoying the English than in what was being said. Then, of course, we drank tea.