Running with the Hash House Harriers



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 help.

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 line.

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 Day Parade.

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 secured well.

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 yes.

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 results.

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!