Nouakchott to Kaédi and back


My last Saturday night in Nouakchott, I got to witness a gathering at my host family's home. One by one, beautifully dressed women arrived and made themselves comfortable in the salon. Fatou, the host mom, had a ledger book with her. Each person gave her 1,500 ougiya (1,500 UM, worth about $5 US right now) and she kept track of it in her book.

I found out later that this is a social group of friends who meet once a month, usually during the first weekend of the month, and each person pays the 1,500 UM into the treasury. This money is pooled and then used, as needed, to help pay for necessities in the event of weddings, baptisms, funerals, illness, or other times when communal help is needed.

Our last afternoon in Nouakchott, we were supposed to have French class from 4:00 to 6:00 PM. When our teachers arrived, instead of starting class, they told us that we had to go to our houses and pack for the trip the next morning and have our luggage ready for a 5:00 PM pick-up. We asked why we had to pack then, instead of packing that evening at our leisure and having full use of all our belongings until the next morning. (Notice that we did not complain about missing French class.)

That's when we found out that there would be only one vehicle available to get us back to Kaédi the next day. And since there were ten people to fit in the van, there would be no room for any luggage inside it. Most of the PC vehicles have luggage racks on top of them, but this vehicle did not. What would happen to our luggage? It would be sent to us in Kaédi the day after we got there.

This was just the latest of the logistical blunders in which things have either not been thoroughly thought out, or there was a last-minute change to the schedule. Oddly enough, we are becoming habituated to it, so we just shrug our shoulders and move along.

The van had seating along the sides, so four of us sat sideways on each side. Since the benches were only about eight inches off the floor, our knees were higher than our laps. And there was barely enough room for us. We had to space our legs and knees so that we wouldn't be knocking into each other. Fortunately, we are a friendly group.

We usually stop for a rest at a town called Boutilimit (properly pronounced BOO-tee-lee-mee, but we have fun saying "Booty limit"). I had been so uncomfortable in the back of the van with the seven others that I needed to change seats with one of the two people sitting in the front with the driver. There were two choices up there: right next to the driver, which meant no legroom because the gearshifts were there, or next to the door.

Aly, my French teacher, and I were the two who would sit in the front. As we approached the seat, he signaled for me to get in first. I smiled and signaled for him to get in. Somebody had to give in. Then I said to him, Respectez les vieux ("Respect your elders"), to which he said yes, and then got in.

This was the fastest time in which we made this trip: 5 hours and 13 minutes, which included a 40-minute stop in Boutilimit.

Many of our Trainees are doing their CBT (Community Based Training) right there in Kaédi, and some are in villages or towns nearby. In any event, we were all to be staying at the school that serves as our training center, and the four days there are referred to as Center Days. It's time for us to have "tech sessions" in our program groups and to get training in the whole group on cross-cultural, health, and safety topics. It's also enjoyable to get to see everyone again. I enjoy the members of our training class for their high spirits and good humor, so it is always fun to be together again.

The only thing that is not fun is that Kaédi is extremely hot. After the first night's sleep, I woke up, showered, had breakfast, and then started to feel sick. I went to the infirmary to see what could be wrong. My temperature and blood pressure normal; the nurse and physician assistant thought I just had some gas. But by late morning, I felt worse. When Gallat, the nurse, took my temperature this time, it was very high (39,5 C/103.1 F), so she admitted me. Fortunately, whatever was wrong did not last very long, as my temperature was normal by the late afternoon. I did get to spend the night there, though, in air conditioned comfort, and was out by 3:00 the next afternoon, just in time for a tech session with my fellow Education Trainees.

I have been fine ever since, which is very lucky indeed, inasmuch as some of the Trainees have been continually sick with one thing or another for weeks on end.

In fact, our various illnesses were highlighted in the skits of our third Town Meeting in as many Center Days. Everyone, by now, is really sick of having diarrhea. I can only imagine how awful that is, since I was lucky enough to be afflicted for only two days. But diarrhea-related humor tends to weave throughout the Town Meeting in both song and skit. My favorite of the evening was led by Karl, who did a shout-and-response with us. He called out, "Who controls the doo-doo?," to which our response was, "You do! You do!"

Kateri, our Country Director, came to Center Days this time, and started the process of interviewing all the Trainees individually; she will have spoken with each of us privately by the time training is over. My interview was not during this phase, but I did get to speak to her during breakfast the day after I was sick.

She asked me how I was doing and I told her that all was going well. Since I had her attention, and since we were eating breakfast, I thought I would bring up the topic of breakfast foods. I asked her if it would ever be possible, perhaps for our next Center Days, to have either yogurt or hard-boiled eggs available for breakfast. Somebody nearby wanted to know if there could be fruit. Lyn, our temporary physician assistant, chimed in that the yogurt or eggs would be excellent sources of protein in the morning.

Kateri told me and the others sitting nearby that this wasn't so much a logistical or financial problem as it was what she called a "concept problem." In the minds of the kitchen staff, we are receiving the finest breakfast available: fresh bread with various spreads, tea, and coffee. If there were very important people dining with us, there might be corn flakes. How could they do better than that? Yogurt, fruit, or hard-boiled eggs would be unheard of. That being said, though, the bread is quite wonderful - not only fresh, but usually warm from the oven, shaped like French baguettes.

Center Days flew by. Before we knew it, the four days were over and it was time to move to the eight days known as Site Visit, during which everyone gets a chance to see the community in which they will be doing their PC work for the next two years, Inshallah. Excitement was running high on the morning of our departure. Every available PC vehicle was being used, as well as some commercial taxis rented for the occasion.

Our breakfast, usually from 7:00 to 8:00, was started at 6:30 this morning, to allow for a 7:30 departure. The day got off to a good start, as, much to everyone's surprise, there were hard-boiled eggs AND yogurt. I have never seen so many people as happy as they were to see any food as these Trainees were to see that yogurt!

Six of us piled into a station wagon taxi for the return ride to Nouakchott. It was not as fast as the PC vehicles, and we had only a five-minute stop in Boutilimit. This trip took 6 hours and 15 minutes for the roughly 400-kilometer trip.

A couple of people asked me questions this week, so I will answer them here.

Haruko in Japan wanted to know what the major industries are in Mauritania. They are iron ore mining and fishing. The iron ore is mostly in the north, and it has led to the running of what Mauritanians call the longest train in the world to transport it. (One of our Trainees, a Kansan, said that she has seen longer trains in Kansas.)

Haruko also wanted to know how the political situations in other West African nations are affecting us here. There are reports on the television news, of course, but there is no political unrest. Most people just cluck their tongues and "tsk-tsk" when they see the fighting in other countries.

Andrew in San Francisco asked me what I was feeling and how I was doing on the inside. Good question. I am doing very well, especially considering the huge change in environment. I am with good people and getting myself ready to be helpful to others. I have been able to identify some events and situations that help me maintain a good attitude and frame of mind:

· having a good e-mail day! I feel really good when I can get a reasonable Internet connection and be in touch with family and friends.

· being physically comfortable. If I can sit comfortably when I need to (resting, eating, in class, in cars), I feel good, and that makes me happy.

· having time to myself. The downside of host family homes is that there are always people around, which is great for practicing language and learning culture, but doesn't offer the alone time that helps me to feel refreshed.

· having a shower and then putting on clean clothes. I have come to realize that sure, everything will soon be dirty again. But starting off fresh feels good.