Return to Kaédi


           In June, all of us in the Education Program received an e-mail from our APCD, asking us to choose from among a list of dates during which we would be able to participate and assist in the training in Kaédi this summer. As I looked over the topics to be discussed - mostly issues such as classroom management, giving tests, grading, and dealing with school hierarchy - I didn't think that I would be able to be of much assistance, considering that I had not taught in a Mauritanian high school.

          I went to our APCD and explained that I didn't think I had anything worthy of contributing to the new trainees. This little fact, however, did not deter him from assigning me to a panel. And that is how I came to earn what I like to think of as my all-expenses-paid trip to Kaédi, truly one of the hot spots of Mauritania.

           On Sunday, the day before we left, the driver informed me that we were going to be departing on time. Under other circumstances, if I were told that we were leaving at 7:00 AM, I would leave my house at 7:30, so that when I arrived by 7:45, I would only have to wait an hour before departure. But this time, there was a sound of urgency in the driver's voice, probably due to the fact that there would be three APCDs in the car, with one of them insisting that we be in Kaédi by noon, necessitating a prompt 6:30 departure.

           PCV Jessica stopped by my house at a little after 6:00, and we were at the bureau by a little after 6:30. This didn't mean that we actually left on time, but we didn't leave too late. We picked up three people on our way out of town, leaving Nouakchott at 7:22.

          We had a flat tire en route, which led to the occasion of my observing a curious scene. As we pulled up on the shoulder of the road to fix the flat, two teenage boys were walking by. When everyone piled out to stretch our legs, they sauntered over to speak to my APCD. They approached and spoke quietly for a few minutes with an air of familiarity, and then continued on their way. I asked my APCD afterward if he knew them. He said yes, that they were his cousins, and it had been several months since they had seen each other. What was astonishing to me is that none of the parties expressed any surprise at running into each other that way - nothing like, "Gee, Cousin Moctar, imagine meeting you here on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere," accompanied by embraces, slaps on the back, and raised voices. No, they encountered each other like next-door neighbors running into each other at the Safeway, having seen each other only an hour ago while they were watering their lawns. As one of the other PCVs said, when I mentioned the incident, "There's only two and a half million of them, Jay. They've gotta run into each other eventually."

           We also encountered the locusts. I had read that the swarm can move at the rate of sixty miles a day. Since the vehicle was moving faster than they were, it would be more accurate to say that they ran into us. The vehicle became a locust deflector, as they splattered all over the windshield. When we arrived in Kaédi and the driver untied our baggage that had been strapped to the roof with a net made of rope, I took my bag and noticed that, since it had been at the front of the pile, it had caught quite a few of the little buggers all over it: some splattered, a few whole and dead, and a couple of live ones that were now able to fly to freedom.

          We arrived in Kaédi at 1:30, just at the time that lunch was being served. There are a few vegetarians in this group of trainees, so there is a communal platter prepared for them for each lunch and dinner. As I washed my hands and dug in with the others, this meal served as another reminder that I like for my meals to be more than just free and meatless. Fortunately, I foresaw this situation. My friend Barb in Palo Alto had sent me a package, including several Tasty Bite Indian meals; I brought some of them with me to heat up in the kitchen at the home where I was staying with some other PCVs who were also there to help out.

           At 5:00 PM, Jessica, Kristen, and I were on the panel for a session about peer coaching and overcoming cultural differences when working with Mauritanians. I gave examples of the way that Mauritanians and Americans view and use time differently, relating some of the situations that I have worked through while here. After the hour, that was it for my official responsibilities. We now had plenty of time to sit around and talk with the facilitators and PCTs.

           The Trainees are doing a fine job hanging in there. All twelve in the Education Program are still in-country. Only one Trainee from this entire group has voluntarily left, so they are still forty strong.

           It was good to see my host family in Kaédi. I was their first PCT, and they now have another, a young woman named Adriana. She is enjoying her time with them. During the week prior to my visit, I was in touch with Adriana because I wanted to bring a gift to the household and didn't know what they could use. She suggested sugar cubes, as they once had had these, and liked them a lot.

           I thought it would be fun to bring something new for the kids, and eventually settled on the idea of shirts, all made from the same fabric. Adriana took measurements and sent them to me. I then bought nine yards of a material that has a few shades of blue, with a background of black. The forms include houses and palm trees. I know that the color combination sounds more like a bruise than a fabric, but it looks nice. In addition to the shirts for the kids, there was enough material to make a shirt for me and blouse for Adriana. We took a photo of the two of us with the five children, all wearing the same shirts.

           It didn't take long for all the memories of Kaédi to come flooding back: the heat and sweat, drinking all day without peeing it out, the flies and blister beetles, the greasy food, the regimented hours, the absence of streetlights, the skuzzy matalas, the slo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ow Internet connection, sleeping outside in the still and stifling air.

           My second day there was the event that everyone had been anxiously awaiting: site announcement. The PST staff did it just as it was done last year: by marking out a huge map of Mauritania in the dirt, placing village and town names on papers being held down by rocks, and having each APCD call the names of the Trainees in their program who were going to the various sites. A few people were visibly upset when they found out that they were getting something other than they thought they would. By and large, though, people were relieved. They finally knew where they would be living, if there would be any other PCVs in the same town, and who would be nearby.

           That evening there was a town meeting - the "no-talent" show that marked the final night of Center Days, just as it did last year for us. A few weeks ago, I thought of something that I would be able to contribute, and it turned out to be fun. In the song "My Bonnie," I made two changes: (1) "My Bonnie," became "shaybahni," (the pronunciation of the "Bonnie" part is the same; "shaybahni" is Hassaniya for "old man") and (2) instead of "ocean," we sang "desert." After we sang it through once to get our Mauritanian friends familiar with it, we sang it through with a hand motion. Every time we sang a word with a "b" in it, we raised a hand. Then the next time we sang a word with a "b" in it, we put the hand down. For the third and final time singing the song, instead of lifting the hand when we sang the "b" words, we stood up if we were sitting, and then sat down if we were standing. The gathering started to look like an aerobics class during such lines as, "Bring back, bring back, oh bring back shaybahni to me, to me."

           My APCD told me to be sure to arrive at the training center by 8:00 AM on Wednesday for the return trip to Nouakchott. It promised to be a hectic morning, as everyone was going to their new sites, which meant that all Peace Corps vehicles would be in use, as well as a few taxis rented for the occasion. I got there about ten minutes early, to find that most of the cars had already departed. Good sign. Then the morning dissolved into business as usual, as we heard that we needed to wait "just a few more minutes" for this or that person. We finally pulled out at 10:20.

          On the way back to Nouakchott, I was the only PCV in the car; the others were off to help out with site visits. Our chief of security was in the car with us, and he regaled us with jokes and songs for hours. I was amazed that he hardly stopped to take a breath. Most of the talking was in French this time, and I had a book with me, so I was paying more attention to that than the talking. But one of the jokes ended in this punch line: "Je viens de Pété," which sounds exactly like, "Je viens de péter." The reason that this is so funny is that, "I come from (the town of) Pété (pay-tay)" in French sounds exactly like saying, "I just farted."

          The trip back took seven hours. There was no flat tire this time - just deliveries that had to be made, and a longish stop for lunch in Boutilimit. I found out what Boutilimit means: "tilimit" is a type of desert grass and "bou" means a place. It's the place where the desert grass grows.

           I got out of the car expecting to feel the refreshing cool breeze of Nouakchott, but we were sadly disappointed. Nouakchott was experiencing a heatwave of Kaédi magnitude. For the first two nights back, the temperature in my apartment was 94. Things have cooled down since then, to a nippy 86. Those eight degrees make a difference!

           We had a nice dinner at the home of an embassy official on Friday night - a few different types of chili. And last night was Mediterranean Night at PCV Carl's house: hummos, tabouleh, and falafel. So the eating has been excellent!

           After a week of having the Château to myself, I am back to being a host. It started last night with a PCT in transit back from her site to Kaédi. Tonight, there will be two more, including a first-timer.