I have seen several references to Nouadhibou as "the financial capital
of Mauritania." I have never been to one of the countries that makes a distinction between its administrative and
financial capitals, but the term calls to mind gleaming skyscrapers,
impressive bank buildings, and fat cats rolling around town in expensive
cars. None of these is the case for Nouadhibou.
city is situated on the northernmost coast of the country, at the top of a
peninsula with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and a bay to the east.
Technically, the portion of land that touches the Atlantic is not even
Mauritania. If you look on a map, you will see it referred to (depending on
how old your map is) as Spanish Sahara (for the oldest maps), Western
Sahara, or Morocco (for the newest maps).
the paucity of gleaming architecture and flaunting of obvious wealth,
Nouadhibou takes its "financial capital" distinction by being the
point where the country's two large money-makers converge: fishing and iron
ore. Because the city is situated on the coast, the fishing resource is an
obvious one. There are boats and crews from all over the world that pay for
permission to fish along the coastline, as well as many smaller operators
of local crafts.
The iron ore is brought in on what has been described as "the longest
train in the world," bringing the natural resource on its twelve-hour
voyage so that it can be refined at a factory on the coast. Some of the
train is composed of passenger cars, but most of it is large bins of the
raw black stuff dug from the earth. Several PCVs have made the trip sitting
or lying atop the cars, arriving in Nouadhibou black as the ore itself.
It's an overnight trip, uncomfortably sitting on the hard ore, bitter cold
at night, and dirty - not my idea of a good time!
I wouldn't use the word "cosmopolitan" to describe the population
of Nouadhibou, but there are people from many different countries, thanks
mostly to the fishing industry there. The advantage in that for a foreigner
like me means that it was possible to walk around without all the residents
being bug-eyed upon seeing such a strange-looking fellow.
My friend and hostess
Lisa is an outstanding cook. During my stay with her, she made a Thai
vegetable dish, an Indian lentil curry, brownies, bread, and cranberry
muffins. The gal takes her cooking and baking seriously. She is one of the
few PCVs who has an oven, and she makes excellent
use of it.
Having just returned from Las Palmas, the Canary Islands, she had just done
some food shopping at the supermarcado of
El Corte Ingles, a wonderful Spanish department store that has a
supermarket on the premises in most of its buildings. She also brought me
some soy milk, a welcome treat to have on hand.
My main mission in Nouadhibou was to work with Julie and the other five
English teachers at her school to give them a briefing about the new text
that I helped to write last year.
began by observing Julie in two classes - students in their fourth and
fifth years of English. The fifth-year class has been through school in the
bilingual (French and Arabic) track, and they have made excellent progress
so far. There were about twenty-five of them who were continually engaged
in what Julie was teaching, and she kept the class going at a lively pace.
fourth-years have had all their instruction in Arabic, hence the reference
to this group as arabisant. There are
several challenges in arabisant classes, mostly stemming from the fact that
English is their first experience with the Roman alphabet, as well as
reading and writing from left to right, instead of the other way around.
There are also very few cognates between English and Arabic. On the other
hand, English and French share many root words, so students who know French
have a good head start with English.
the beginning of the fourth-year class, Julie asked me to introduce myself.
I stood in the front of the room and told the class I would tell them about
myself when it was quiet. It never was. I just sat down and Julie went on
teaching the more than fifty students, usually having to speak over their
constant chatter. I told her when the class was over that if I were the one
teaching the class I would have to end it with two
extra-strength Excedrin and a nap. She, on the other hand, took it
in stride and was obviously in her element, which is always a joy to
the second class, I met with the English teachers, going over the main
components of the textbook and giving them one of the draft copies for
their use. They wanted to know when they would have the finished product in
their hands. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to that question.
Monday evening I was
invited to Ahmedou's house to meet his family and
break the fast with them. He is living with extended family, as his parents
are currently in Nouakchott. The family is what we refer to here as white
Moor, the Arab-Berber descendents.
was very welcoming to me. When Ahmedou originally
invited me to the dinner, a few days prior, I told him that I could go, but
I would also wait to see if my vegetarian diet would pose any sort of
inconvenience for his aunt, who would be preparing the meal.
is typical, the first thing eaten when fast is broken is dates; there is
usually some cream for dipping the dates. Then there was a milk-based drink
called zrig. Sometimes everyone drinks the
zrig from a communal bowl that is passed
around; that is the most common method I have observed. This time, the zrig stayed in the big bowl and people passed
around a cup that was dipped into the mixture and then passed around. There
were also the ever-present Mauritanian tea and a bowl of soup cereal made
of an unrecognizable grey grain.
the main course, they served Ahmedou and me
separately in a second salon - the room that had the television. The salad
of lettuce, tomatoes, beets, beans, hard-boiled eggs was delicious.
rooms were carpeted with rugs that had obviously not been cleaned or swept
in quite some time. Paying no attention to what we might consider to be
ordinary regard for common sanitary practice, the loaves of bread were
placed directly on the filthy and hair-laden carpeting.
as a stark contrast was a late-model large-screen television that was
attached to a satellite dish bringing in 179 channels to this house with
peeling paint, dirty carpeting, and shabby upholstery.
On Tuesday afternoon Lisa and I got picked up by Javier, who works at the
Spanish consulate in Nouadhibou. Javier has one of those
drive-over-anything vehicles, and it was a good thing because there were
lots of dunes, rocks, and hills on our way down to the southern end of the
peninsula. The terrain and coastline were rugged. Technically we were in
Western Sahara most of the time. There is no border crossing, though.
three PCVs in Noudhibou. We gave Lisa the night
off from cooking duties and I went to dinner with them at a Chinese
restaurant on Tuesday night. Following that, we returned to Lisa's place
where I went to sleep, leaving the others to following election coverage on
the radio - which they did all night.
I woke up, Lisa was asleep so I had to wait awhile to hear the discouraging
news that 59 million of my fellow Americans had been duped into believing
that we in the United States, and the world in general, would be better off
with the same idiot and his conniving cronies continuing to hold forth in
Washington for four more years. I was so looking forward to seeing the
removal of his smirking goony face from the Peace Corps bureau before I
friend Carl forwarded a well-written column
by Michael Ventura of the Austin Chronicle. I hope you
appreciate it as much as I did.