Babah and Ismail


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 in person.

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 system.

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 routes.

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 inconvenience yet.

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 yet.

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 uncomfortable.

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 have subsided.

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 fraying.

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 government ministries.

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.