The bills for
electricity and water come every other month. When they arrive, the date
for payment due is less than one week from the time of the bills' arrivals.
Since there is no home mail delivery in Mauritania, the bills are delivered
by SOMELEC to each customer; mine are left with the building guardian, who
passes them along to me. There is no option for either paying by check or
mailing the payment to SOMELEC, which means a scramble to get the cash from
the bank (usually about the equivalent of $60 for the two months) and then
a visit to the office, conveniently located near my house, to pay the bill
I have been led to
believe (and don't want to find out if it is true) that being even one day
late with the payment means that service will be cut off, along with extra
fees to reinstall it.
This time, I went to
the office the day before the electricity bill was due; the water bill
wasn't payable until two more days hence. I handed the bills and money to
the clerk, whereupon he returned the water bill to me. He informed me that
these departments have now been separated, which meant that I had to go to
a different place to pay the water bill.
That, of course, led to
the next problem because there is nothing here that resembles what we know
of as street addresses. A few of the principle streets are named (one after
Charles de Gaulle, one after John F. Kennedy), but despite this, the
typical Mauritanian does not know the names of these streets. All of the
streets are numbered with five digits, depending on neighborhood, such as
42-003; once again, the average person doesn't pay any attention to this
As a result, when I
asked where I had to go to pay the water bill, you can be assured that I
was not told anything like "545 Market Street." I was just given
a complicated succession of landmarks to follow, including "the road
that goes by the French embassy," which is one of the more well-known
The search was on.
Shortly after I passed the French embassy, I began asking questions. Nobody
knew the place where I needed to go. When I mentioned SOMELEC, they
understood that, and tried to direct me to the nearest SOMELEC office, but
I had to explain that that would do no good. Evidently, this split in bill
payment is new enough so that most people have not had to experience the
Eventually, I reached
the town hall for the neighborhood, and a helpful employee took me by the
arm to show me where I needed to go - only two blocks away, but I would
have had to know where to turn off the street to find the proper building.
Our first work deadline came during the last week. By the first of March,
we were to have handed in the first third of the students' and teachers'
books for the first year of English study. We did the students' book and
have finished our first draft of the teachers' guide, but still need to
have every member of the group look through the work, make corrections, and
be sure that we agree with the final form. That last step is not completed
By the same token,
nobody is breathing down our necks to demand that the work be handed in,
and none of the Mauritanians on the team seems anxious in any way that we
have not finished by the deadline. There has been no overtime, no work
during the weekend, and no demands that we had better get to work to get
the job done.
On Wednesday night, the wind picked up in a way that I have not experienced
it until now. During the summer, there were a few sandstorms that came upon
us quickly, with high winds and low visibility. They lasted less than an
hour, after which all was calm again. This time, the winds were sustained
until Saturday. The visibility was not as good as it usually is, but the
particles in the air are finer and were not as noticeable as they were
during the quick sandstorms of the summertime.
When I was preparing to
go to work on Thursday morning, I had a thought concerning the weather
conditions, based on my experience during Model School, when it rained and
the kids didn't come. So I wondered, With the wind blowing as it is, will
people be going to work today? I didn't want to get there and then find out
that I was the only one who had shown up.
I called Kristen, who
said that she was pretty sure that everyone would be there, though she has
not seen winds like this during her time here, so she was not sure.
During the morning,
everyone who was supposed to be at work showed up at some point. Later in
the day, I had my French lesson with Ali. I told him that I didn't know if
I should expect everyone to be at work, considering the response to the
rain in Kaédi last summer. His reply made sense: "We're not used to
the rain. We live in the desert, so we are used to the sand."
This week, the French
lesson was at my house. Ali couldn't help but notice the fine layer of dust
all over the place. He asked me why I kept the windows open, which let in
the dust. I told him that I had one of two choices, neither of which I
liked: either (1) leave the windows open, which gives me some fresh air,
even though it also admits the dust or (2) close the windows, which avoids
much of the dust but also means that the air inside is stifling and
The dust is fine and
powdery, the color of terra cotta flowerpots, and is distributed all over
the inside of the house. On Saturday, Ami came to clean and brought her
sister along with her. As a result, everything is back to normal. The winds
The story we read at Nouakchott English Center this week was about a couple
who met in New York in 1947, lost contact with each other, and then ran
into each other the following summer in Paris. Not only did we talk about
the vocabulary in the story, but we also had a discussion about the
differences in dating culture in the United States and Mauritania.
We talked about the
idea of "kismet," which I knew to be an Arabic word, so the class
understood the concept. I also found out, when one of the people in the
class used the word "b'shert" that this, too, is found in Arabic.
(I had thought it to be Hebrew or Yiddish.)
The biggest news on the food front is that soy milk, which has been off the
shelves for so long, has finally come back to Nouakchott! And it's made
from organic soy beans.
Babah and Ismail, whom I wrote about last week, have invited me to visit
their families. This Saturday I went with Babah to Toujounine, on the
outskirts of Nouakchott, to meet his family. Babah's father is a Bambara
(one of the black tribes) from Mali. His mother, who died in October, was a
white Moor (the ruling class of Mauritania, a result of the intermarriage
between Berbers and Arabs). Babah's mother was his father's fifth wife and
the only one who died; all other marriages ended in divorce.
Babah said that he has
"about twenty" brothers and sisters. The indefiniteness about
such information is common here and it is impolite to ask people how many
children they have, but not impolite to ask people how many siblings they
have. Babah, 23, is the penultimate child.
The house is very close
to the main road that leads out of town in the direction of Kaédi, so I
have passed it six times during the last summer. When first entering the
front gate, there is a haima (tent) in the courtyard, between the
house and the wall that fronts the street.
The front door of the
house opens onto a central hallway with doorways to four rooms on either
side. I sat in the first room with Babah's father; this was the room where
people came to greet me. Babah's sister's children, a four-year-old boy and
three-year-old girl were curious, friendly, and affectionate. They used the
threadbare carpeting as a floor mat for doing a variety of gymnastics and
running around. The walls were unpainted concrete, the matalas thin and
Babah's father fought
in Indochina and Vietnam. Since that time, he has been incapacitated. His
right side is paralyzed and he doesn't speak very clearly. He was happy to
see me, and welcoming. From time to time, he said, "Mahshallah,"
which means "all is as Allah wants it to be."
Babah told me that one
of his sisters wanted a picture of me. I happened to have two little school
portraits with me; I was carrying them to affix to an identification card
at the convention center, where there is high-speed Internet access. When I
gave them to Babah to give to his sister, he put one in his wallet and
another brother kept one for himself.
Before I left, Babah
took me around the house to meet other people in the various rooms -
brothers, sister, children. In the room with the television on, it was
disconcerting to see one sister breast-feeding a child and smoking at the
same time. As we were leaving, Babah told me that he was sorry they didn't
kill a sheep or goat for me, and that it was because of my diet, not
because they didn't want to honor me. I thanked him for not killing
the animal in my honor.
Ismail and Babah have been unemployed. When I asked them what kind of work
they wanted to do, they said, "Anything." Ismail worked for five
years as something like a houseboy for a Frenchman who taught here in
Nouakchott and went back to France a few months ago. I saw his glowing
letter of recommendation, which attested to his good work and honesty.
On a shopping trip to
the market where I get a lot of my food, I asked one of the assistant
managers (who is also the boyfriend of a PCV) if he had any openings for
workers. He said yes, that he needed two.
I told Ismail and Babah
right away, curious to see how they would respond, and how serious they
were about getting jobs. My house is between their place and the market, so
they stopped by the same afternoon and we all walked to the market together
in order for them to meet Adel, the assistant manager. Adel arranged for
them to call or come back to meet the owner.
This afternoon, toward
five o'clock, a very happy Ismail and Babah came by my house, telling me
that they had big news: they had both started jobs today! Babah is working
at the super market. Ismail had gotten a call from a previous lead, where
he is now a chauffeur for somebody who works rather high up at one of the
It's a good thing I make big pots of soup, as Babah and Ismail like my
cooking. I have also introduced them to the whole grain bread that I buy
regularly - an innovation, since the common bread here is made with white
flour. They like the apples and oranges that I always have on hand.