is picking up at my American Civilization class. In the last
three weeks we have increased attendance from 4 to 14 to 26
students. This week, one of the students said that there is
probably only one of their classmates who will never show up
to class. I also found out that this session is the only one
that they have on Thursday, so it puts a bit of pressure on
me to be able to offer them something they think will be valuable,
if they are going to make the trip to campus, which is not conveniently
located, when they could just as easily annex Thursday to their
weekend and forget about the whole thing.
week, with about ten students showing up for the first time, we recapped a bit
of what we had discussed previously from Guns, Germs, and Steel.
The retention of information from those students who had attended the prior
week was excellent. They also have a good enough grasp of English so that we
can have class discussions.
all the talk about the “cargo” (as Yali refers to all the inventions in the
book) that have come from “Western Civilization,” I was curious to see what
the students themselves thought to be advantages brought to them from Europe/USA
and what they considered to be disadvantages.
small group discussions, they produced a list of advantages that included democracy,
development, education, food, health care/medicine, technology (specifically
Internet and mass media), transportation, and weaponry.
Disadvantages that showed
up and on their resulting lists were the absence of spiritual values, African
division, alcohol, arrogance, civil war, food cloning (genetically modified
foods), colonialism, demagogy, dictatorship, double standard, drugs, exploitation,
fornication, individualism to the extreme, misuse of women, pollution, protection
of dictators, slavery, smoking, and weaponry (nuclear, bombs).
For the time being, I thought it best to bypass any discussions concerning the
fact that the phenomena of civil war, fornication, misuse of women, pollution,
slavery, and smoking are not in the exclusive domain of “Western Civilization.”
We’ll leave that for a later time. But I did recognize that it was important
for me to make a reference that the dividing line between the haves and the
have-nots, and the limitations on access to advancement are not only playing
themselves out on an international scale among continents with different resources.
I suggested that they also think about this dynamic as it exists right here
in Mauritania, from one ethnic group to another.
Fortunately, many of the students nodded their heads in response, indicating
to me that they realize that, on a smaller scale and in their own country, divisions
between racial groups are responsible for keeping some people in positions of
power and access, while others are struggling to get by.
We also had a lively discussion that began when one of the half-dozen women
expressed her opinion that it is “natural” for some people to be stronger than
others and, therefore, take power over others. It seemed to me that because
she is a white Moor, and therefore a member of the most influential social
class in Mauritania, that some of the others – especially those from the black
ethnic groups sitting right there in the classroom – were understanding her
to mean that certain groups of people have something on the order of a “divine
right” to leadership positions.
she cleared up the misunderstand, as we ultimately determined that she had been
referring to people with regard to their personalities rather than their
racial background. It struck me that this sort of confusion and ensuing
discussion was partly the result of people engaging in such a sophisticated
discussion in English, which for them is their third, fourth, or fifth language,
and their degrees of fluency vary from one student to the next.
UNICEF has been
partnering with the Ministry of Health to vaccinate children against polio here.
The previous campaign was in 2002. This year, there have been two rounds of
door-to-door visits throughout Mauritania, with the intention of reaching every
household in the country. I wasn’t able to participate in the first one, in
October, because it coincided with my trip to Tunisia. But I was happy to sign
up for the November round. I have enthusiastically supported UNICEF and its
work since I was a kid doing the Trick-or-Treat-for-UNICEF routine.
the first of the four-day campaign, but I could not participate because of the
class I taught in the morning. We were told to meet at 8:00 AM on Friday morning
at the Sebkha Health Center. If Nouakchott had railroad tracks running through
it, this neighborhood would be referred to as being on “the other side” of them.
We got rounded up and taken – by ambulance! – to our starting point. All of
us gringos were paired with Mauritanians, which was a necessity in order to
facilitate the critical communication with family members in the local languages.
My partner was Sy (pronounced “see”), an employee of the health center. He was
the one who dealt with the vials of oral vaccine, transported in their refrigerated
box with the slogan Bouter la Poliomyelite Hors d’Afrique (Kick Polio
out of Africa), showing a soccer player imposed over a map of the continent,
kicking a soccer ball toward the Indian Ocean.
There was also
participation from the Croissant Rouge, which is not a pastry smeared with strawberry
jam, but the Islamic counterpart of the Red Cross, which uses the Islamic crescent
instead of the cross that is widely interpreted here to signify Christianity.
Each pair of us went door-to-door
asking for kids under the age of five, so that we could give them oral vaccine
and Vitamin A. I was left with the record-keeping and administering the vitamins.
Kids through the age of eleven months got a smaller dosage of vaccine than those
who were from one year through five years. Those younger than six months didn’t
get any Vitamin A, while those from six to eleven months got the contents of
a blue capsule and those from one to five years got a red capsule, a higher
When we arrived at the first house, I could see what a juggling act it was going
to be: managing the sheet on which I was keeping statistics, the pen, the red
and the blue vitamin capsules, and then finding a way to get the vitamin capsules
opened efficiently. There was a little nipple on the tip of each capsule, which
needed to be broken off in order for the liquid inside to flow into the child’s
eagerly (or frequently not-so-eagerly) waiting open mouth. Instructions that
we received by e-mail beforehand mentioned cutting the capsule open with the
scissors that were provided, but there were no scissors provided. We passed
the capsules around to four adults in the household, and nobody could pinch
off the tip! Eventually, one of the men in the household bit it off and then
put the capsule into the child’s mouth. Call me crazy, but that kind of a move
seemed counterproductive to me – taking something from one person’s mouth to
put into another’s – especially on a health campaign!
Just as we were leaving that family’s compound, one of the men in the family
noticed that a toddler was playing with a pair of scissors. (Children do not
play with jagged lids still attached to tin cans until they are at least
five, and they have to wait until they are seven or so to be allowed to play
with discarded double-edge razor blades.) The man took the scissors from the
child and handed them to me, giving me two more objects to juggle: not only
the scissors, but a tissue that I needed constantly, so that I could continually
wipe up the oily Vitamin A that dripped out when the capsule was cut open.
There was no clipboard on which to affix the data sheet, and there was a bit
of a breeze that day, so it was not possible just to lay the sheet down because
it could fly away – as it did several times during the day. Add to that the
shoulder bag in which I kept my snack, lunch, water, sunglasses, hat, and moist
washcloth. It was an ongoing balancing act all day.
I remember back to the time when the Salk vaccine was introduced; I must have
been about seven or eight years old. There I was with my classmates lined up
against the wall in the basement hallway of P. S. 64, the Bronx, and each of
us in turn got the injection into our arms. My memory does not include any screaming
kids afraid of the needle, although there must have been some. One would think
that the medical advancement of an oral vaccine would have brought tremendous
relief to today’s kids. Remarkably enough, though, some were amazingly resistant
to having a White Devil squeeze a little capsule into their mouths! We had to
contend with a fair amount of criers, screamers, and kids that had to be held
down (some by as many as three adults!) so that the vaccine and vitamins could
be put into their mouths
The word of the day was tangaal, which is Pulaar for “candy,” and was
the lie we told for both the vitamin and the oral vaccine, the equivalent of,
“This won’t hurt a bit” when referring to a needle. To their credit, the older
kids in the household were very helpful to us, coaxing their little brothers,
sisters, and cousins to open their mouths, singing, “Tangaal! Tangaal!”
But the little ones know their tangaal when they have it in their mouths,
and some of them were not buying our story. Judging by the appearance of some
of their teeth, a lot of them kids have more than just a passing knowledge of
On the streets and in the homes, our reception from the adults was always cordial,
and there was a wide range of reactions from the children. As we made our way,
it didn’t escape anyone’s notice that there was a bona fide alien in their midst.
I could hear the voices even when I didn’t see the bodies from which they emanated,
as they called out, “Toubab” or its equally prevalent and charming alternative,
“Toubock.” There were as many smiles and kids coming up to shake our
hands as there were terror-stricken tykes, holding their hands to the sides
of their faces, mouths agape, reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
The name of the neighborhood was Basara (BAHS-rah), a word that is ironically
just one letter different from the Spanish for “garbage.” And we did
find lots of garbage laying about in the streets, since there is no system for
its collection. Flies were everywhere, and they especially took a liking to
the residue of the Vitamin A capsules. Upon opening the front door, most homes
consisted of an open courtyard area which had several small buildings, many
of them of only one room, with all doors that opened onto it. Multiple members
of extended families share the space, which means several adult men and women,
as well as all of their children, with the occasional granny or gramps on the
The flies were horrendous – hovering over unwashed pots and plates, the outdoor
mats, the animal turds. It made me appreciate even more my own fly-free home,
where one of my first chores after I moved in was to cover all the windows (which
are open 100% of the time, except for occasions when we have high winds and
sand storms) with new screening. Thanks to my superior skills in that regard,
I only get the occasional fly when somebody lets one in, upon entering or leaving.
At one point we had a pack of eleven kids following us, ranging in age from
about three to more than ten years old. The older ones who were not in the know
wanted tangaal, too, and they were a bit miffed that we could not squeeze
any into their mouths. When Sy shouted at them angrily, obviously telling them
in their language that they should stop following us, they stood quietly while
he spoke, and then, as soon as we moved on, they continued to follow us, which
continued until our traveling theatrical show became old news.
Because of the different vitamins and vaccine dosages, and because the vaccines
were only to be given to children younger than five, we had to ask people how
old their kids were, which yielded some of the most imprecise information we
gathered all day, as parents could say that the child was un an et quelque,
meaning “a year and something.” Nobody’s age was exact. Most kids’ ages were
given in a range: “He’s five or six,” “She’s two or three.” It’s a country where
birthdays are rarely noted or remembered, and never celebrated. In cases where
the family had been to some sort of clinic, there was a little booklet for each
child, and we were able to find a date of birth. Otherwise, we just erred on
the side of precaution and, when in doubt, gave the vaccine.
The “streets” were not in any kind of orderly grid formation. Nor are there
street names or traditional house numbers. As we wandered, I began to wonder,
If I lived here, how would I explain to somebody how to find my house?
There must be landmarks that locals use: next to Sidi’s boutique or Dia’s coiffure
or the video shop. It reminded me of a conversation I had had with my friend
Mamouni, as I extolled the virtues of named streets and numbers affixed to buildings:
It’s so easy to find places! Everyone has an address! Unimpressed, he
translated a saying from the Hassaniya: “A person with a tongue doesn’t get
lost.” And that is just the way it is: you ask around while you are looking
for whoever it is you want to find and, somewhere along the line, people manage
to help get you where you need to go.
Our work on Friday lasted until about 5:00 PM. The weather was wonderfully cooperative:
overcast most of the day, which made it easier to be outside, and that nice
breeze. In contrast, I could see from the start on Saturday morning that we
were going to be in for problems, as we had full sun from the beginning of the
What did make the process easier on Saturday, though, was that since I knew
what to expect, I was able to call on my Boy Scout heritage in order to “Be
Prepared.” First of all, I fashioned myself a clipboard substitute; in lieu
of the real thing, I used the sturdy front cover of what had been a loose-leaf
binder. I kept the data sheet in place with two clothespins on the top and two
on the bottom, and was able to keep a pen clipped to it as well. It had the
weight I needed so that it would not fly away on the occasions that I needed
to lay it down.
I ditched the shoulder bag, which had gotten progressively heavier during the
previous day, and opted for a fanny pack, which meant that everything I was
carrying was able to be wrapped around my waist, which was also a more convenient
place for the vitamins, scissors, tissues, and much less food. Instead of carrying
water, I opted to buy it from boutiques as I needed it – more expensive, but
less to carry.
One of the important aspects of the campaign was the marking of each house,
so there was a visible record as to whether or not anyone had been there to
administer the vaccine. As we left each residence, I filled in the data sheet
and Sy used chalk to write a fraction on an area next to the front door: the
numerator indicating how many children were vaccinated, and the denominator
showing how many children in our target age range lived in the household. When
we saw that somebody had already chalked “3/3,” “5/5,” or “0/0,” we knew that
we didn’t have to go, but would continue to look for another house where either
(a) nobody had yet visited or (b) there was a fraction such as 4/6, indicating
that two children had been missed on a previous visit.
By 11:00 AM, we ran out of houses in the neighborhood where we had been deposited.
In every direction, all the houses had been marked. While I was participating
as a volunteer, it turned out that Sy and the other Mauritanians were being
paid for their work. This meant that he wasn’t as motivated as I was to get
back to the health center, hand in the remaining materials, and go home – no
work, no pay! He said that his grandfather lived nearby and we could go rest
there for a while.
I sat in a small room typical of most Mauritanians’ homes that I have visited:
worn carpeting, faded and peeling paint, thin and uncomfortable matalas
on the floor, pillows filled with straw, and a television set connected to a
satellite dish. Sy left me there for about twenty minutes or so, giving me pause
to sit, stretch, and think. As I took it all in, I remarked that most Americans
would be appalled to have to live in a room such as this – and I also realized
that there must be millions of people in the world, if not a billion,
for whom this would be considered a vast improvement, a dream-come-true of palatial
proportions: closed off from the elements, with electricity, primative plumbing,
and running water on the premises!
After half an hour of rest, Sy decided we should move on, making our way slowly
to the health center, and that he would get his hair cut along the way. When
we reached the barber shop, I offered to give him all my material to hand in
for me, but he insisted that I wait for him. I though, Oh, all right.
I was just happy to be sitting and in the shade.
When we got back to the health center, the chief of the operation, seeing that
it was only noon, said that he would be sending us out again, to a different
neighborhood. While we waited for the new assignment I ate my lunch – bread,
a hard-boiled egg, and some raisins and peanuts that I had brought with me.
we were driven to a neighborhood where the campaign had already visited, so
it was our job to do back-up, checking for kids who had been missed during previous
visits. Over time during our wandering through the streets, we managed to find
a few. Additionally, when people saw Sy carrying his distinctive box of refrigerated
vaccine, some of them recognized what we were doing and led us to their homes
in order to vaccinate children who had been missed previously.
By 1:00, Sy told me that we were not too far from a restaurant that some of
his friends owned. “They’ll never find us there,” he explained, displaying his
(lack of) work ethic. I wasn’t hungry because I had just eaten my lunch. I have
been here long enough to know that it’s always best, if I want to eat, to prepare
for it myself, since there is never any knowing if there will be a critter-free
meal. As it turned out, it was one of the many we-only-make-and-serve-one-dish
restaurants with only two tables, and the plat du jour was a national
dish, chubbajin, which is fish and vegetables on rice.
When Sy told me the menu, I explained that I wouldn’t be eating – that I had
already eaten while waiting at the health center. He moved over to the other
table. I teased him, Don’t you love me any more? And he said yes, he
still loved me, but since I wasn’t eating, he would eat at the other table.
When Sy was almost finished, another customer came into the restaurant and sat
at my table. He was puzzled by the scene and asked what we were doing, so Sy
explained the polio vaccination campaign. When I asked Sy if he enjoyed his
meal, I addressed him as chef, French for “boss,” which elicited a remark
from the other customer: “He’s not the boss! You’re the boss!” I explained that
no, I didn’t know anything about polio vaccination, whereas Sy was an employee
of the health center and knew a lot about what we were doing. I was just taking
orders from him. To underscore my point, as we left, I said to Sy, for the benefit
of the other customer, Okay, chef, I follow you wherever you go. Just
tell me what to do and I’ll do it!
After we left, Sy explained – but didn’t have to, as I am perfectly aware of
the racist attitudes held here by many people here and elsewhere: in any group
of people, it could only be the white person who would be in charge –
le chef, le patron, le responsable. It’s obvious that some people
need to have that idea shaken up a bit, so that they can see that their own
people are fully capable of taking leadership positions.
Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town represented to me, at one point,
what my close-of-service trip would be, as I would take nine months or so to
get from top to bottom of the continent before I returned to the USA. I have
changed my mind on the trip since then, but this book by Paul Theroux did not
hold any less appeal because of my decision. Theroux undertakes a voyage that
combines his sense of adventure with a homecoming of sorts. He was a Peace Corps
Volunteer in Malawi in the sixties. During this trip, he returns to Malawi for
the first time in thirty-eight years. Much to his dismay, he finds that not
only haven’t there been significant improvements since he was last there, but
there are considerable situations that have gotten much worse. He ponders and
pontificates concerning why things are the way they are – largely the corruption
and the interference of aid agencies. I had heard before I read the book that
he was of the opinion that it was only Africans who could help to improve the
situation on their continent. Upon hearing a statement like that, and before
reading the book, I thought that it was a mean-spirited thing to say. But upon
reading his words, I can see that he is a compassionate person who is offering
perhaps a minority opinion, but one that is in no way intended to hurt or denigrate
the Africans he has come to respect and care for.
When my friend
Craig told me about Contentment: A Way to True Happiness by Robert
A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl, and sent me a quotation from it, he had recently
read some entries on my website concerning my fixation with living in the future,
rather than appreciating being “in the moment.” I ordered the book and it finally
made its way to me. My biggest act of foolishness regarding the book was that
I was expecting it to be a “how to” book for being in the moment – “Just do
these things and you’re going to be living in the moment in no time at all!”
I couldn’t have been more wrong! Another friend, Beth, once told me, “There
is no new information,” by which she meant that all the knowledge we really
need to have in order to live our lives happily and successfully is already
out there! I found that to be true of this book, which is excellent information
for me, and a reminder that the best ways for me to be content are already inside
of myself, waiting for me to use them.
American Essays 1994, edited by Tracy Kidder is part of The
Best American Series, of which I recently read one of the books
on travel writing. I ruled out the volumes on science fiction, scientific writing,
recipes, and short stories, which left essays and travel writing. For the most
part, this was a disappointing volume for me. Though each piece was well-written
from a technical standpoint, there were not many of them that captured my fancy,
my interest, or imagination.
I’m not the kind
of person who has to run out and get the latest best-seller so that I can be
the first on my block to have read it. I did just read the best American essays
of 1994, after all – something that could not even be described as “keeping
up,” let alone being the first. But ever since I discovered the writing of David
Sedaris, I don’t wait for any of his books to be reviewed by the New York
Times, on the shelf of the library, in paperback, or sold at a discount.
He wrote a new book? I’m getting it – paying full price, hard cover, don’t care
how good or bad anyone else says it is – gotta gotta have it! Dress Your
Family in Corduroy and Denim is his latest, and I was thrilled to have
it mailed to Kristen while she was on home leave, so that she could read it
first and then bring it back to me. My only disappointment was that I was finished
reading it too soon!