Renter blues


          Last Monday and Tuesday mornings I attended Mike’s workshops at the Nouakchott English Center. All the teachers were invited to hear about various aspects of teaching English as a foreign language. The Monday topic had to do with increasing conversation in the classroom. There were plenty of good ideas and also lots of eager participation on the part of those teachers in attendance. On Tuesday we learned about new trends in ESL. I was fascinated to find out that in China alone, there are more people learning English than there are native speakers of it in the United States!


          Abdellahi, the guardian and manager of my apartment building, has been haranguing me almost daily to pay him an unspecified amount of money. He says that this request comes from the owner of the property. As he sees it, there is a problem with my leaving at the end of June. He says – and is correct – that the contract I signed says that I am renting the apartment through the end of August.

          What he is not recognizing, though, is the escape clause that is built into all rental contracts here: with thirty days’ notice, a renter can leave at any time, regardless of what it says in the contract. Similarly, even with such a contract, an owner can give thirty days’ notice and ask a renter to move out.

          My first plan of defense was to explain to him that, first of all, we already have a renter who will be taking over my apartment when I leave, so the owner will not lose so much as one ouguiya of rent. Not only that, but the rent is increasing by 10,000 ouguiya per month, which means that if I did conform to the terms of the contract, the owner would be earning less money, not more.

          As with many other aspects of life here, my logic does not apply.

          Erwin, the new renter, came to view the apartment with Abdellahi. They had a walkthrough similar to the one I had when I first saw the place. During that time, Erwin identified some things that he wanted to be fixed or changed before he moved in: painting for the whole apartment, painting the small panes of glass at the bottoms of the windows, loose floor tiles that needed to be secured, separate hot and cold water faucets that he wanted replaced so that water could be mixed and come out warm instead of all hot or all cold – things like that.

          This came to a head on Thursday. I arrived at the Peace Corps bureau in the morning to find that Abdellahi was waiting outside to speak to our Volunteer Support Officer, the much-beloved Cheikh, who probably knows half the people in Nouakchott, if not all of Mauritania. Cheikh was not there, though, since he was at the airport checking out new possibilities for PCVs to ship property back to the USA when our service is completed.

          A few hours later, I was working in the PCV computer room when I got a call to come to Cheikh’s office. He was in there with Abdellahi and Maciré, the Peace Corps chief of security.

          Moushkillah! That’s Hassaniya for “problem,” and since I like to mix words from different languages, this is what I would call in a mélange of Hassaniya and Spanish a moushkillah grande.

          Abdellahi maintains that the Peace Corps must pay to repaint my apartment, as well as make repairs such as the small floor tiles that have been coming up since I moved in.

          Eventually, the conversation led to the decision that everyone had to see my apartment so they could understand exactly what Abdellahi was talking about. We needed to make him understand that anything that had to be repaired was under the category of normal wear and tear. Not only that, but I have paid for improvements and repairs out of my own pocket: an additional lock on the front door, three replacement electrical outlets, a new light fixture, three severe leaks, a new bathtub faucet and spray nozzle, a new water meter, a water suppressor, and eleven window screens. When I moved in, the floors were filthy and it was I who paid Abdellahi and a friend of his to clean them for me – there is no such thing as an apartment being offered in pristine condition for a new renter.

          One thing that Abdellahi never mentioned was that I am not required to pay anything in advance. Yet every month, sometimes as early as the fifth day of the month, he asks me to pay some rent in advance. He always has some sort of financial need – holiday expenses, sick brother-in-law, food for the kids – and asks me for anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the following month’s rent in advance so he could help pay for them. I have always complied. I guess my goodwill in that area is to go unrecognized and unappreciated.

          Once in the apartment, Cheikh and Maciré could see that any “damage” Abdellahi was talking about was well within the normal range for a stay of almost two years. They agree that such expenses as painting and repairing the floor tiles are the price that a property owner has to pay as part of his cost of doing business.

          Everyone spoke in heated tones, mostly Hassaniya, though I was not surprised to hear that French was occasionally thrown in for ideas that are harder to express in Hassaniya. At one point, I was flattered to hear Cheikh wave his hand in my direction and refer to me, in the middle of a Hassaniya sentence, in French as “notre meilleur volontaire” (our best volunteer).

          Before Cheikh and Maciré left, they were able to get to the bottom of one aspect of all the heated discussion. Abdellahi explained that it was only because Erwin wanted the place painted and the floor tiles repaired that he and the owner were asking me to pay for these things. Had Erwin not made those requests, I would be absolved from being asked to pay those expenses.

          As we left, Abdellahi and the PC officials arranged for the owner to meet them at the building at 3:30 that afternoon, which was just about an hour away. I left the scene, not wanting to stay for that. When I came back at about 5:30, I found out from Abdellahi that the PC guys had shown up but the owner had not. Then, the owner came after they left.

          When I saw Abdellahi on Friday afternoon, he told me that the owner of the building wanted to meet with me at 10:00 Monday morning. Abdellahi emphasized that the meeting was to be with just me, as it was I who had signed the contract, and not the Peace Corps. I told him that at 10:00 on Monday morning I would be working at the Peace Corps bureau if the owner wanted to come there to talk to me.


          Babah came by on Friday evening and told me that he wanted to show me something the next day. He came by Saturday morning with his friend Nani, and we proceeded to his family’s neighborhood, Toujounine, on the outskirts of town.

          The first thing he wanted to show me was a plot of land on which there was a well and a garden growing mint, one of the essential ingredients used for brewing Mauritanian tea. Babah told me that a few months ago, he purchased this plot of land as an investment. He has given responsibility for cultivating the mint to some of his relatives, allowing them to pick and sell what they need, keeping the money for themselves. “The rest is for me,” he told me proudly.

          And as if that was not enough, he told me that there was yet another plot of land that he wanted me to see. The second one had only a shack on it, and nothing growing. I asked him what he was going to do with that. He told me that he would wait a few years and then sell it for several million ouguiya more than he had paid for it, and then he’d keep the profit.

          It looks like Babah is turning into quite the little businessman! It’s rare to see a Mauritanian with an eye on the future, rather than living only for the moment.

          Babah also showed some other maturity during our conversations that day. He and Nani were having a difference of opinion about the definition of “Mauritanian.” Babah maintains (rightly, in my opinion) that anyone born and living in Mauritania is a Mauritanian, regardless of racial or ethnic heritage.

          Nani, a White Moor, maintains that the only true Mauritanians are Moors (that is “Maurs” as in Mauritania), and that the Soninké, Wolof, and Pulaar people who live here are not Mauritanians. This is part of the racist and anti-Black view that many White Moors here espouse.

          Despite the fact that Nani’s skin is significantly darker than mine, he refers to himself as being “white,” since he is a “White” Moor, being of Berber and Arab origin. He was surprised to hear me tell him that in the United States, there would be no way he would be considered to be “white,” that most people would call him “brown,” “black,” or “a person of color.”

          Babah asked for my help in explaining this to Nani, for which Babah had to translate from French to Hassaniya, since Nani’s French is not very strong. The most compelling argument that I could make is that when a Pulaar person who lives in Mauritania has to get a passport, that passport is issued by the government of Mauritania, the country in which the person lives, rather than some formless Pulaar governmental body that issues passports. There is a difference between a race or ethnicity of people and the country in which they live. The Pulaars (also known as Peul, Halpulaar, and Toucouleur) inhabit a wide swath of countries in West Africa, and in each one, they are citizens of the country in which they live.

          Nani was as surprised and discouraged to hear this as a Southerner in the United States who uses the word “Yankee” as a derogatory or descriptive word to describe people from other parts of the USA, only to be referred to himself as being a “Yankee” (or yanqui), when that word is used interchangeably with “American” by many people outside of the United States. The definition of the term shifts with the geography, to include someone who has intentionally excluded himself in another place.

          Babah argued that Nani needs to expand his horizons and mix with different kinds of people more than he does. Babah went on to cite himself as an example of somebody who is open-minded. As a humorous aside to that, it is humorous now that when Babah asks for a Coca Cola at my house, he wants it served to him in the “European” way: in a glass and with ice. Most Mauritanians will drink right out of the bottle, and they always resist ice. Even water that has been refrigerated is too cold for them.