First-years in Nouakchott en masse


          The night that I got back from my mission, Lisa from Nouadhibou began her stay at the château. She’s always fun to have around. I soaked a pot of beans on Saturday night. During the day on Sunday, she turned it into a yummy curry dish – with enough of it to feed not only the two of us for several days, but some other visitors who came for dinner during the rest of the week!

          It rained all day on Sunday, which is very unusual for this time of year. The sandy unpaved areas haven’t been too much of a problem since the rain filters down through the surface. But the paved streets were excessively muddy for several days. There is no street drainage system in Nouakchott, resulting in large lakes of water at some intersections, long rivers of it along some roads, and the constant need for careful negotiation of walking almost everywhere, in order to avoid being splashed by passing cars or stepping into a deep puddle of mud or muddy water. With no sidewalks to speak of in most places, it has meant gingerly walking the streets while dodging both mud and cars. The drivers are ruthless about their sense of entitlement to supreme domination of the roads, making them especially horn-happy when pedestrians encroach upon their territory. I guess I should look at the bright side: at least they do try to warn us before they mow us down!

          Plastic bags that litter the streets are especially slippery when coated with the mud; on several occasions I stepped on one, temporarily lost my balance, and almost went down into the mud. In some places, the sludge sucked on my shoes so heavily, that it almost pulled them off my feet. Where there wasn’t mud, there was wet sand. People were tracking mud and wet sand into buildings all over town. At home, I usually wait until I get upstairs to take my shoes off, since dry sand falls off shoes readily. But the wet sand situation has been so bad that I have had to take them off immediately at the doorway, or else the whole apartment would be sandy.


          Sunday was the Early Term Reconnect for the first-year Volunteers. The night before, Lisa and I pored over the Volunteer Handbook so that I could create the “quiz” of fifteen multiple choice and true/false questions that I was asked to give during ETR. When I showed up to do my session, there were several Volunteers having lunch with the ambassador and others who were just not there. Fortunately, nobody from the PC administration was in the room at the time, so it was a fairly relaxed and easy-going session.

          Later in the day, we had our VAC meeting. A new APCD has just joined us, taking over the spot that our Country Director vacated when he rose to his current position. The new APCD said that our program in Mauritania is highly regarded in Washington as one that is run efficiently and effectively.

          On Monday, each of the work sectors held its in-services. Kristen and I made a presentation to the education group so that we could give them draft copies of the teachers’ edition of the textbook we co-wrote. It is still in rough form, as the Ministry of Education has no money to print it. The last I heard, the government here is looking around for funding from other countries to support the printing of the text.


          It’s been a few months since Mamadou the Tailor finished his work on sewing together all the fabric I cut out to make the duvet cover I will bring back home with me as a souvenir of my time here. The cover is something like a pocket into which a down comforter is placed in order to protect it. The job that Mamadou did was only one side of it, so I had to figure out how I was going to deal with the other side.

          Originally, I was thinking about getting a solid navy blue sheet once I got home, since all the fabric on the finished side is navy blue and white. Then I realized that I could have the flip side as something that would not only represent Mauritanian craftsmanship, but would render the cover reversible. My friend Marian sent me the plain white sheet that I needed for the second side, and I arranged to have Biri dye it navy blue in a pattern that is called salat, which uses various intensities of the color in an effect reminiscent of the marbling that the Florentines are famous for using on paper.

          Biri’s sister does this kind of work, so I left it to him to make the arrangements. I brought the sheet that Marian sent, another white sheet that I had been using, which would eventually be cut up in order to make matching pillow covers, and a white two-meter howlie, the fabric that men here use to wind into turbans. (The howlie will become a scarf for me to use when I get home.) I also gave Biri some of the fabric that had been used to make the original cover, explaining, This is the color blue that I want.

          Biri recently called to say that the job was done, and we arranged for me to pick it up at his house. When I arrived the sun had just set, so all we had to go by in his house was artificial light. Right away I could see that the color of the sheets and the howlie was not the same as the blue on the sample fabric I had given him. When I remarked to him that the colors looked different, he said, “No, they are the same.” I told him that one looked blue and the other looked purple. He said that he did not see the difference in the two colors. I thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt, since there was no natural light.

          The next day, it was just as clear: the color was definitely purple and markedly different from the navy blue I had given him to match! I sent Biri a telephone text message to see if there was something that could be done. He sent me a message later in the day, after he had spoken to his sister, telling me that she had done her best, and that we evidently had a “divergence in the perception of the colors.” To say the least!

          True, this isn’t the worse thing that could happen to me, and there is no cause to get upset about it. I just need to figure out what I will do now with two sheets that have been tie-dyed purple. I guess it will be back to Plan A, getting the navy blue sheet as the duvet cover backing when I get home.


          Toward the end of the week, Nina came to stay for a few nights and Jordy came for dinner a few times. It’s been enjoyable getting to know them better, as they had also been at two of the places where I had visited on my mission the week before. There are no first-years living in Nouakchott now, so in order to get to know the new group better I either have to visit their sites, they have to come to Nouakchott, or we have to participate in the same activity, such as their ETR.


          Friday morning everyone who had been staying with me left, and I had the place to myself for the first time since before I went on the trip two weeks earlier. At about 4:00 in the afternoon, I got a call from three Senegal PCVs, saying that they were in Atar and had heard that it would be possible to stay with me when they arrived in Nouakchott. I said it would be possible, and told them that when they get into town they should take a local taxi to the Novotel, a prominent landmark that all taxi men know, which has the added convenience of being close to my house. The trip from Atar should take about four hours, but they weren’t ready to leave any time soon because they were having trouble filling up their taxi.

          The only available vehicle for them was a nine-seat Peugeot station wagon. They had purchased four seats for the three of them, but there were still five empty places, so it could be a while before they were in Nouakchott. By 10:30 that night, I had not heard from them again. Almost anything could have happened: they could have broken down in an area with no phone service; they could have still been in Atar; perhaps they simply didn’t call to tell me what was going on. In any event, they had originally called from a public phone, so they needed either another one to call me back or they had to ask a fellow passenger in their vehicle for permission to use her/his phone.

          Tired of waiting, I decided that with the all the uncertainty of their whereabouts, I might as well go to sleep. That night, I dreamed that Kristen had let everyone into my place while I was sleeping. The noise of all the new people traipsing around had awakened me. As I walked around my apartment to meet everyone, I could see that there were more than three people visiting, with even more asking if they could stay, saying that it didn’t matter to them that there were no matelas for them to sleep on. In the dream, the people using the showers were not careful about their use of water, which was flooding all over the apartment!

          When I woke up on Saturday morning, I looked at my phone and saw that somebody had tried to call be five times at 1:49 AM. It must have been they. In any event, they never called back. I guess they were just passing through in one day and did not need to spend another night here.


          Saturday afternoon, the skies started to get cloudy, and that night there was another storm. It continued to rain off and on all day Sunday – that’s now been two Sundays in a row. 

          Late Sunday morning, I got a frantic call from my counterpart. He needed copies of some of the work that we had generated, and could not find any of his own. This has been a recurring theme with him, as he has misplaced – at least once, if not twice – almost every document that I have printed and distributed to the people in our work group. I was at the bureau at the time of his call and looked in my file there to see if I had what he wanted. He was not making himself clear about exactly what it was that he needed, so there was no way to tell whether I had it or not. I told him that I could bring my flash disk to his office the next day and he would be able to copy anything he needed from it.

          But he was insistent that he have these papers immediately, that “the expert” was in town to meet with us and that these documents were mandatory. He then said that they weren’t on the flash disk anyway, that they were handwritten. That tipped me off to what he needed, as Kristen and I had written out a chart referred to in the education field as the scope and sequence, delineating all the material that would be covered in the sequence of all the book’s lessons. Then I knew for sure that what he needed was in a file I had at home.

          I told him that I would be home in about an hour and that I would call him when I had it. When I called he said he would take a taxi to meet me, so I suggested the Novotel. Rather than wait for him in the street in the mud, I told him to call me when he got there and I would be right over.

          We met in front of the hotel and then entered the lobby to look through my papers to see if I had what he needed. I was curious, of course, about what was happening. If Gérard, the consultant with whom we worked, was in town, shouldn’t Kristen and I have known about it? Shouldn’t we be meeting, too? Will we be starting work on the second book?

          He told me that yes, we would soon be working on the second book. As he saw the papers he needed and picked them up, he said he would take them and return them to me when he was finished. I was reluctant to let go of my only copies of this work, considering his track record with papers.

          When he asked me why he couldn’t just have them for a few days, I told him that it was because they were my only copies and he had already lost his. He retorted, “My papers are not lost.” Then there was a long pause, after which he added, “I just can’t find them right now.”

          The only thing I could say as a reply was, Well, sir, that is precisely what “lost” means, isn’t it?

          We walked to a nearby store that had a copy machine and he asked for three copies of each sheet that he needed, gallantly telling me, “I will pay for these.” (As if I had any doubt about that!)