Last Monday I was able to meet up
with the international running group the Hash House Harriers.
I had run with them only once - during a visit to Hong Kong
in 1996 - and this was the second "hash" that occurred
since I have been in Nouakchott, but I had to forego the first
one because my little toe was still healing at that time.
The Hash House Harriers has groups
in cities all over the world. The most striking comparison between
the Hashers and the members of my usual running club, the FrontRunners,
is in the choice of post-run beverage: whereas most FrontRunner
outings are in the morning, everyone goes for coffee afterwards.
But hashes are in the late afternoon to early evening, which
means that the beverage of choice is beer.
Udo, the local hash organizer,
calls himself "a drinker with a running problem."
That fairly well sums it up, not only for him, but the rest
of the group as well.
I gave up running six years ago
because of my knees. But I decided to come out of retirement
for this. On Monday, we started with a group of twelve: two
from the German embassy, one from the Israeli, and nine PCVs.
During the run, a Brit and another German joined us.
If you have never seen or heard
of Hash House Harriers or their runs, I will do my best to paint
a picture for you.
Before getting to the HHH, though,
the first - and possibly most important thing - to understand,
is the usual manner of attire here in Mauritania. Streetwear
is very conservative. Only children wear shorts in public. There
is a general dispensation granted for the very small number
of people who jog on the streets in shorts, so Mauritanians
do understand, but a bunch of half-naked running toubabs
does manage to attract attention. That's just for starters.
Each time the group gathers, the
route of the hash is different. Somebody plots the course and
measures the distance beforehand. That same person is usually
with the hashers, so he can redirect everyone in case we need
Before starting, the person who
plotted the course shows us what color the arrows are. He has
pre-marked the course with arrows showing locations where we
need to continue going forward, turn left, or turn right. Occasionally,
there is not an arrow, but a circle. The circle means that everyone
waits for all the hashers to assemble at that point, so that
nobody is lost, and then we have to send out scouts to find
the next arrow, because it could be in any direction (360 degrees,
hence the circle) from that point.
All during the hash, when somebody
spots an arrow, s/he calls out, "On, on," to let everyone
know. Then, the next person who hears "On, on," continues
the chant, until everyone passes this verbal baton down the
Imagine, then, a dozen jogging
toubabs, many of them men in shorts, but two of the women
who have lost bets during the previous days, and, as a result,
one is wearing a SCUBA outfit and the other is wearing a chiffon
mother-of-the-bride dress the color of orange sherbet, accessorized
with flip-flops; the constant calls of "On, on," and
the echoing "On, on" chants of the children who are
now lining the streets and standing in front of their homes,
gaping at us as if we are floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving
The route took us to the outskirts
of Nouakchott, where the city meets the desert, and the crisscrossing
of dunes, toubabs breathlessly trying to maintain traction as
we scrambled up, then balance as we slid down in our own avalanches
of sand. That was the only portion of the hash when we did not
have a roadside audience.
Once we left the desert, it was
starting to get dark. It was already dark by the time we got
to the first house. This was called an "A to B" hash,
which meant that we started at Point A and ended at Point B;
B was fairly close to A, though. It just meant drinking beer
in two houses rather than one.
There seems to be more emphasis
on the drinking than the running; certainly, there was more
time devoted to the former. We did a rigorous 8K run, which
lasted just less than an hour, but the drinking went on much
longer than that. I stayed around for some dancing, but the
music got very loud, and the smoke was unbearable by the time
I left. (Smokers are very rare - almost unthinkable - at FrontRunners,
where the focus is predominantly on walking and running for
health. But it is a different story with the hashers, evidently.)
Because of the heat, I have been leaving my windows open; the
apartment would be even hotter if I had them closed. The downside
to doing this is that dust and sand get in. Sweeping and wiping
things down can be a daily job. After cleaning up, it takes
only a day or two before the floors and everything else are
coated with a layer of pale terra cotta-colored dust.
I gave the matter considerable
thought, and finally decided that it made most sense to hire
somebody to clean for me regularly. One of my fellow Volunteers
referred me to a woman she knows, Awa, who started cleaning
and doing laundry last week.
When I moved in, the mirror above
the sink in my bathroom had a jagged bottom edge and was precariously
being held in place by two small fasteners screwed into the
wall: one on the bottom and one on the left side. Since there
was no glue adhering it to the wall, it was easy to move it
around, and I had decided that I would not only replace it,
but get a larger mirror that would better fill in the space.
On Awa's first visit, unfamiliar
with its tenuous positioning, she accidentally broke the mirror.
I came home to find the pieces neatly stacked up on the floor.
When I stopped by to speak to her and her husband Eric about
it, Eric suggested that I let one of them buy the new mirror
for me, as they would be able to get it for a better price.
During the discussion, I waited
for one of them to offer to pay for the mirror, since Awa had
broken it. In the end, I decided not to make an issue out of
it because it was something I was going to replace anyway, and
it was not totally Awa's fault that it broke, since it was not
I agreed that it made sense to
have one of them buy the mirror because I would pay less than
if I ordered and paid for it myself. I gave them the dimensions
of the new mirror I wanted: 62 cm by 46.5 cm. Later in the week,
Eric called to tell me that they had my new mirror, and I could
pick it up if I wanted to. When I arrived at their house, I
asked, Are these the measurements I gave you?, and Awa said
I happily took it home and looked
forward to my little home improvement project of putting up
the new mirror. This time I was going to put some glue on the
back to hold it in place better. But as I fit the mirror into
the space, I could see that it was too small. Had I measured
wrong or was the mirror the wrong size?
I took out my tape measure and
saw that the new mirror measured 50 cm by 40 cm. Instantly,
I understood what had happened: Awa had purchased a ready-made
mirror of a standard size, rather than having one cut to fit
the measurements I had given her. There was no way that she
could have asked for the dimensions I had requested, and then
received this. The cost was 4,000 ougiya.
Now, how was I going to deal with
this? I couldn't think of an easy way. If I just took what she
had given me, then I was a patsy, having given one set of dimensions
and accepted the wrong mirror. I didn't want them to think that
I was either stupid or easily fooled. On the other hand, if
I got upset about it, then I was a demanding and arrogant toubab,
making a big deal out of a little mirror.
In the end, I decided that I would
have to find a way to come up with an approach that let them
know I knew I was not getting what I had asked for, yet not
be upset about the result. I took the mirror to their house
and told Awa that the measurements were wrong. "Really?"
she asked. "That man fooled me."
Yes, I said. That is what must
have happened. He fooled you. She said she would take it back
to the market and get the right size.
The next day, while I was at work,
Awa came to clean. During the day, I stopped at a hardware store
to see how much it would cost me to have a mirror cut to the
size I wanted; I found out it was 7,000 ougiya. When
I got home, I wasn't expecting to see the mirror in my bathroom,
but there it was - the original smaller one that Awa had purchased,
firmly fastened with two new screws going into the tiles.
Okay, okay, the deed was done.
I went to Awa and Eric's to find out how it was that the wrong
mirror was put up. Awa said that when she went back to get the
custom-made size, she found out that it was much too expensive,
thought that I would not want to pay that much, and so she kept
this one in order to save me money.
On Tuesday evening, I went to the French Cultural Center to
see a performance by Souffles, a troupe of dancers from Burkina
Faso. What an amazing show it was! The all-male group of nine
dancers and two percussionists kept going for well over an hour
with hardly any break. At times, they moved in perfect synchronicity.
The things that they could do with their bodies were incredible;
my favorite moves were the times that, from a standing still
position, they propelled themselves backward and did a flip,
returning to their original upright stance!
On occasion, they sang as they
moved, their blended voices in rich and haunting harmonies that
sounded as if there were dozens of them on stage.
I have written in glowing terms about the other Volunteers with
whom I have trained. They are well-educated, articulate, and
unusually well-traveled, considering that so many of them are
in their twenties. Many of them have already traveled for extensive
periods in Africa, which means that the unusual qualities of
this continent have not thrown them off.
The Volunteers in the two groups
that preceded us have left Mauritania in large numbers. For
example, the group before ours started with 46, swore in 33,
and is now down to 18. By contrast, we started with 56 and swore
in 46. (Of course, we have only been here for four months so
far, so time will tell if our group has greater longevity.)
The high retention rate so far
prompted me to wonder if perhaps our Country Director may have
had some very stern communications with the Peace Corps headquarters
in Washington, telling them that she wanted them to send her
stronger and better-qualified trainees - people who would make
it through training and then stay in-country. That was my fantasy,
anyway, and I thought that one of these days I would come right
out and ask her if this was true.
At the end of last week, I had
my chance to speak with her about this. I was the only Volunteer
in the PCV lounge when she came in. It was only the second time
I ever saw her in there.
Once I gave her the information
she was looking for, I took the opportunity to ask her my question.
Yes, she told me, it was true. She needed to let them know in
Washington that this program needed stronger applicants, they
sent us to Mauritania, and she is extremely pleased with the
The weather is finally cooling down. After two months of temperatures
in the triple digits (for you Fahrenheit fans; over 38 for the
Celsius crowd), the weather has begun to cool down, as it is
supposed to do. More importantly, the Nouakchott breeze is picking
up, which helps considerably. Last week, I was able to sleep
for the first time without my fan going. There had been times
when it was greater than 90F/32C. Now, when I go to sleep it
is usually less than 85F/30C, and in the mornings it is sometimes
as low as 77F/25C.
The presidential campaign has begun here. The election will
be held on 7 November. The current president, Maaouya ould Sid'Ahmed
Taya (the name is a mouthful; most people refer to him as "Maaouya,"
but I like to think of him as "old Sid"), is running
for re-election against several opponents.
They do one thing here that I
wish we would do in the United States: have a very short campaign
season. Campaigning officially started on 22 October, which
means that it lasts only seventeen days. I would love to see
a US presidential election take that little time! From what
I overhear of some people talking here, the US campaign for
2004 has already begun, hasn't it?
It's a good thing that the Mauritanian
campaign is short, too, because they have some strategies that
are both annoying and puzzling.
First, the annoying. Campaigners
take to the streets in cars and beep their horns until all hours
of the night, sometimes as late as 3:00 AM. Noise is apparently
an important component of the campaign strategy. As if the car
horns were not enough, there are loudspeakers on homes, commercial
buildings, and makeshift tents that have sprung up all over
town. Most of them blare the "music" all day long,
but some specialize in unintelligible (to me) speech. (Not that
I understand the music). One of the loudspeakers within earshot
of my house has only one song that predominates from morning
through the night.
In the case of several supporters
who are located on the same street, they all play different
things at the same time, so that as I walk down the street,
the sounds of one set of speakers play against the next one
as I approach.
I have seen only one outpost for
a candidate running against the president. His supporters have
a Maaouya fan club right next door, which means that the competing
loudspeakers result in a cacophonous nightmare.
Now, the puzzling. There are two
things I can't figure out. One of them has to do with the tents.
They are furnished with carpets or the Mauritanian style of
sofas in them, have the loudspeakers, and campaign posters,
but little else. I have seen very few people gathering there,
and if they do, there does not appear to be anything there for
them. The campaign headquarters is certainly not supplying the
electorate with coffee and Krispy Kremes - or the Mauritanian
equivalent, which would probably be tea and beignets.
Here is the second thing I don't
understand. If I told you that there was no school because there
was a very bad flu epidemic, you would see the relationship
between the two events. Likewise, if I told you that there was
no school because twenty inches of snow fell last night, you
could see how the one could lead to the other. See if you can
make any similar cause-and-effect relationship for this one,
though: school, which was supposed to start on the first of
October, has not started because of the elections that will
take place on the seventh of November.
On the surface of it, this does
not make any sense. After all, we know that there is school
in the United States during elections. In fact, in many American
schools, teachers use elections to discuss the democratic process
with their students. Most of the schools in which I have taught
serve as polling places, with teachers and children passing
by voters throughout the school day. So what would be the problem
with having school during elections?
I have asked several people about
this, and there is not one simple answer to explain the situation.
Following are the factors that contribute to the situation as
it exists with relation to there not being school now:
For starters, when the students
get together during election times, they can be disruptive.
The best way to be sure that they are not disruptive is to be
sure that they are not together, and the best way to be sure
that they are not together is to keep them out of school.
Secondly, there is an official
school holiday around the elections, from the fifth to the tenth
of November. During those days, the teachers are responsible
for working at polling places, which means that they will not
be in school.
Thirdly, even though schools start
on the first of October, most people tend not to show up until
around the fifteenth of the month. That leaves only about two
or three weeks until the elections. Since everyone knows that
there are going to be disruptions during the election time,
it doesn't make sense to them to get everything started for
only two weeks.
There is a fourth factor that
contributes to the third one, and that is the problem of distance
that affects both teachers and students, because many of them
live far from the schools where they teach or attend. Teachers
do not have a choice where they will work. They could live with
their families in one part of the country and be assigned to
teach in a place that is hundreds of kilometers away; I have
met several teachers in this situation. As for the students,
many of them live in villages that have no schools, and the
commute takes several hours. For them, going to school means
that they have to move to a different town during the school
year and live in that town with other people, which may or may
not be members of their extended family.
For both of these groups, the
travel and housing are not only expensive, but the process takes
them away from their families while school is in session. They
want to minimize the expense and the disruption to their family
lives. School that is in session for only a few weeks at a time,
then out, then on again costs money that they do not have.
To Mauritanians, then, it sounds
logical to say, "There is no school because of the elections."
In any event, this is what passes for logic here. The schools
make no provisions for extending the school year at the other
end, so the teachers will just have to cover the material that
they can cover.
At the end of the year, the students
will have to take the same concluding tests to see if they advance
to the next school year. If they do not pass the tests, they
repeat the school year next year.
Put all these factors together,
add an unwillingness to change the system, and you can see how
hard it is to make progress here!