Last visit to Kaédi

 

          I began last week with a final visit to Kaédi so that I could say good-bye to my host family there. The visit coincided with the workshop of pre-training for the facilitators who will be working at the Pre-Service Training. They call that “training of the trainers." All of the PST facilitators and coordinators made their way to Kaédi on Monday, too – lots of vehicles heading in that direction.

          I knew I would be going one of these days soon; it was just a matter of scheduling the time and making the trip. My decision to go was rather late, though, so I didn’t think I could depend on a Peace Corps ride. As luck would have it, there was an NGO car going to Selibaby and it was taking two PCVs there, so they were willing to drop me off in Kaédi on the way. We made the trip in four and a half hours, which is probably the best time I’ve ever had on this route.

          My host family kids were waiting in front of the house when the car drove up, and they clamored around as I got out of. Oddly enough, most of the kids look about the same. I didn’t see any of the obvious signs of aging or maturing on any but the smallest one, Aïsha, who had been born a few months before I met her in 2003.

          I was there for less than an hour when the school-age kids had to go back to school for the afternoon session (4:00 to 6:00). That gave me time to go to the lycée, where the Peace Corps has begun taking up residency in preparation for PST. This afforded me the chance to work on the cross-culture manual in the air conditioned room where the computers are kept.

          In going over the manual with Margaret, the PCV who will be this year’s cross-culture coordinator, it became evident to me that one area in which I could expand the text would be the inclusion of physical and mental health issues. In order to round out the section, it will also include information about the way Mauritanians receive their health care.

          I had two dinners and a lunch with my host family. The kids are still as charming, fun-loving, helpful, and enjoyable as ever. For dinners, Abou, the father, was disappointed that I was not eating much. I didn’t have any appetite, what with the heat. There’s nothing a Mauritanian likes to see more than a guest overeating!

          The heat in Kaédi was overwhelming. I now have an increased admiration for the Volunteers who have done their service in hot places such as Kaédi for the last two years. During the day, the sun bakes down and everything radiates heat, as if we were in a microwave oven. Then, to make matters worse, when there was a breeze, it wasn’t a cool one: more like a hair dryer blowing inside a microwave.

          Most deceptive are the nights. Just at a time when I start to think, Ah, the evening is here and everything will cool down, the concrete and sand start to throw off all the heat that they had been collecting during the day. On Monday night, as I settled down to try to sleep on the roof, it was 94 degrees. By morning, the breeze felt good, and I woke up to 86 degrees. At about midnight, there were a few sprinkles of rain, so I got off the roof and headed downstairs. When more rain didn’t materialize, I went back upstairs, where I was the only one sleeping on the roof.

          Since Kaédi is the regional capital for that area, it is something of a crossroads, with PCVs coming and going through all the time. Tuesday night the temperature was about the same on the roof. There were four others up there with me, though.

          At 3:45 in the morning, I was not sleeping soundly, and woke up to a terrific wind, which reminded me of the tumultuous sandstorms that I had experienced in Kaédi two years ago. There was no sand, though. I heard Tarn say, “It smells like rain.” He ought to know, being a farmer from western Washington.

          No sooner had Justin answered Tarn, “Do you think it will?” than it did. All five of us grabbed our things and scrambled down to the house, with most people heading to some enclosed rooms, while Maggie and I stayed on the enclosed and breezier porch. I thought I would never get back to sleep, but I did manage, waking with the light at about 6:00 AM, as usual.

          At dinner on Tuesday night, Abou told me that he was going to Nouakchott the next day, as was I. I had tried to get a Peace Corps ride – always a good choice for the reasons of safety, speed, and finances – but the director of PST told me that there were no cars going to Nouakchott until Thursday. I decided that I couldn’t wait for Thursday because I had to get back to teach a class on Wednesday night.

          I know that we Americans may be overly conscientious about our work, especially compared to Mauritanians. But the way I look at it, these are the only two scheduled work hours that I have all week, so it made sense for me to make the effort to be there to teach the class.

          Besides, I am still working with material from the cross-culture manual with this English class, so I the information that I get in the form of response from these students is something that I can put to good use.

          Since Abou and I both needed to get to Nouakchott, he suggested that we go in the same taxi. He proposed his program: I would come over to his house at 7:00 AM on Wednesday morning, we would have breakfast together, go to the home of a friend who was going to Nouakchott with him, then to the taxi garage. After a short wait, we’d be off to Nouakchott.

          To the uninitiated, this seemed like a series of events that may take a total of one hour. But I have been here long enough to realize that such a plan can take up to three hours, which would potentially get us to the garage at 10:00. Then, factoring in waiting at the garage and all the things that could go wrong on the road, it would put me in Nouakchott long after the 5:30 start time of the class.

          I felt the need to account for any possible contingencies, which include flat tires, engine failures, and waiting for replacement passengers who get out en route. There is one place along the way, the town of Boutilimit, where many of the roadside restaurants serve the delicacy known as mishwi, which can be any barbecued meat but is most commonly lamb. Rare is the Mauritanian who can resist stopping for mishwi, so my best strategy was to be sure to have gone further than Boutilimit by lunchtime, which is usually around 1:00 or 2:00.

          I stressed to Abou my need to be in Nouakchott on time, leaving as early as possible, but that if he showed up at the garage while I was waiting there, we would all still be able to go together. I had to keep in mind that during the three months that I lived with the family, I had never seen Abou awake before 7:00 AM. I didn’t have any reason to believe that he would have changed this aspect of his behavior since the last time I had seen him.

          The next morning, when I arrived at Abou’s house at 7:00, he was still in bed. All I could do was say good-bye to everyone and then get to the garage. I bought my two seats at 7:15 and then went to get something to eat. As I was leaving the boutique where I had eaten my bread and drunk my water, a gentleman addressed me and asked if I was going to Nouakchott “in that car over there.” I said I was and asked him if he was, too. He said yes, he was going in that car, that he was the driver.

          The driver introduced himself as Mohamed and then proceeded to play the ever popular game of Where Are You From? He guessed all the usual ones: France, Germany, Holland, and England. Then he got to some of the more implausible ones: Spain, Italy, and Russia. Finally, he gave up, so he asked me to tell him. When I did, he not only took my hand to shake it, but then continued to hold it as we talked.

          Mohamed asked me about my work here. Throughout the rest of the trip, he addressed me as “Monsieur le volontaire.”

          We left the garage with the front seat empty – quite a puzzlement. But that was soon cleared up as we stopped at the Mohamed’s home, where we picked up his wife and daughter. Each of them could have easily filled the front seat herself, but this being Mauritania, they defied the law of physics and both squeezed into it.

          Typically speaking, taxi men are not very pleasant or accommodating. There is a chapter in the cross-culture manual about travel and transport. Its first sentence in the “Passenger rights” section is, “As a passenger, you have no rights!” This is the case more often than not. If the driver wants to keep the windows closed, they stay closed. If he wants to smoke, he smokes. If he wants to stop, he stops. And he usually does not consult with any of the passengers. Usually the driver's only accommodation to passengers is to stop for prayers and side-of-the-road toilet breaks.

          We weren't even on the road for fifteen minutes when my phone rang. It was a Peace Corps employee calling from the lycée to tell me that there was a car going to Nouakchott after all, and that I could go in it if I wanted to. My timing on that was not very good, but the rest of the trip went smoothly.

          As we pulled into Boutilimit around 11:30, Mohamed asked me, “Monsieur le volontaire, do you mind if we stop for a break?” Not only was I surprised, but I told him how unusual it was for a taxi man to consult a passenger about making a stop. He said that it was “normale” for the driver to be concerned about his client, but I assured him that it was not my experience here.

          I was curious to find out how much time he had in mind for the stop. It was still too early for lunch by Mauritanian standards. Mohamed had said it would be about forty-five minutes, but it turned out to be only fifteen. We were in Nouakchott by 2:15, making it a six-hour trip with no problems.

*****

          The rest of the week, I continued working on the revised cross-culture manual. In addition to the new chapter on health, I added several aspects about the Mauritanian government structure and the culture. In all, the document has now increased in size from 33,000 words to 49,000 words. The 2004 version has been on my website since last year, and I will soon replace it with the 2005 edition.

*****

          I had a surprise call on Friday - a German member of Hospitality Club. Andreas said he had e-mailed me, but I hadn't received the message. He will probably be my last Hospitality Club visitor.