Thanksgiving coincided with the
end of Ramadan, a feast that is called id el fitr (EED
el fitter). We have a very generous and welcoming APCD who opens
his house to PCVs for many occasions. One of the other Volunteers
and I accompanied him on a shopping spree the Monday before
the big day. The concern was to get as much shopping out of
the way as early as possible because the stores would be closed
soon - not for Thanksgiving, of course, but for id el fitr.
There are six grocery stores in
town that cater to foreigners. These are the places where we
can find the elusive items that are otherwise not generally
available at the boutiques where the locals shop: brown sugar,
cheeses, ground coffees, and the like.
On our shopping trip, we hit all
six of the stores! Four of them are concentrated in one part
of town - not far, in fact, from where I live. One of the stores
has just now emerged from its makeover, leading an out-of-town
Volunteer to refer to it as "Trader Joe's."
By the end of our circuit, the
only items on the list that we were not able to find anywhere
were turkeys and pumpkin pie filling.
In one of the stores - unfortunately,
the one furthest from my house - I found, and happily bought,
some whole wheat spaghetti! That was a delightful discovery.
But the "Trader Joe" store, which is actually named
Rali, is now an extravaganza encouraging excellent eating. It
was there that I found other whole wheat pastas, brown rice,
non-meat bullions, and soy milk. (I am guessing that it is only
my vegetarian and vegan friends reading this who would be able
to understand my enthusiasm.)
At Rali, I was able to get some
ingredients for a new soup recipe that my friend Patti e-mailed
me. I got four potatoes, three onions, a cabbage, and a bulb
of garlic for 300 ouguiya, about $1. People say that
prices are higher at this place, but I was pleased to be able
to get these items at that reasonable price at a store that
is also close to home. Had I paid less, I would have had to
go a long way out of my way to the open air market.
Rali also offers the option of
credit - but not credit cards. When I opened my account, all
I had to do was give my name, phone number, and a sample of
my signature. They never asked for any form of identification!
The shopper can make purchases on credit all month, and then
pay in full at the end of the month. I thought that this would
be an especially good option for me so that I could avoid the
regular hassles of making change.
There is only one place in town,
a restaurant and bakery called La Palmeraie, where it is possible
to buy fresh-baked whole wheat bread. All the other bread in
Nouakchott is made with bleached flour and costs 40 ouguiya
(about 13 cents) per baguette. The whole wheat bread, on
the other hand, may be two and a half times the price, at 100
ouguiya, but even at that, we are only talking about 33 cents.
La Palmeraie is not on any of my usual well-traveled paths,
but it is not that far off, either, so it will be worth making
the trip. Yesterday, just to see how it would work out, I bought
three baguettes, tore them in half, and put two-thirds of the
bread in the freezer. I'll see if thawing it out regularly diminishes
the taste; if so, I will just have to make more trips over there.
These food discoveries came at
a time when I have been taking a hard look at my diet, especially
in light of where I have been living and what is locally available.
The big push toward this fresh perspective came as a result
of a new book that I just read and will tell you about in greater
detail next week.
Coincidental to this being the week of Thanksgiving, I have
been spending considerable time pondering the very subject of
giving. If you have any response to what I am writing here on
this subject, I invite you to share your thoughts with me.
I have a fundamental belief that
each of us has an obligation to be giving and loving to the
people in our lives, to the best of our resources and abilities.
How we do this, though, is subject to broad interpretation.
The first goal of the Peace Corps
is to transfer skills to the women and men of the countries
where we are invited to serve. This is, of course, a valuable
form of giving.
Peace Corps Volunteers work in
countries that are alternatively described as "Third World,"
"developing," and "small-scale societies."
By the very nature of these countries being what they are, and
by virtue of our being Americans, we are very rich by comparison.
I don't hesitate to add that "being
very rich" includes those Volunteers who come here under
the heavy burden of student loans or with no money in the bank.
Why do I include them? Because all of us have access to much
more potential wealth than the average Host Country National
(HCN) does. Even the penniless Volunteer will go home with a
readjustment allowance (currently $6,075) that is, according
to the CIA World Factbook, more than three times the
GDP per capita purchasing power parity for Mauritanians ($1,900).
It should not be surprising, then,
that being rich, we are viewed as such by the HCNs that
we meet. This scene is played out in a variety of ways.
Most obvious are the people in
the street who ask us for money. They are concentrated in the
parts of town where we foreigners tend to congregate, such as
the "super marchés" I mentioned earlier.
Their reasoning is impeccable, and along the lines of the old
joke about banks being the object of robberies because that
is where the money is.
When looking inside myself, I saw
that two things have been standing in the way of my being able
to give some coins to these people. The first impediment is
the very shortage of coins. Most of the super marchés
don't even deal with coins; when they make change, they round
up to the nearest 100, in favor of the customer. If I only had
some coins, I tell myself, I would be able to give them away.
Yesterday, I finally found a solution
to this problem: I went to the Banque Centrale de Mauritanie
and asked for coins. I handed over some bills and got a huge
bag of coins. Now I will be able to have some in my pockets
wherever I go.
The second thing that has stopped
me has been the way that people ask for the money or try to
get my attention. There is no such things as "Please,"
"May I please," or "Would you please" in
any of their requests. It is always the straightforward - and
to my way of thinking, rude - demand that starts with, "Give
." Maybe I just taught first grade too long, telling
my students that I would not honor their requests unless they
started with a "May I please" or a "Would you
please." Along with that, the usual way that Mauritanians
try to get people's attention is by making a hissing sound,
which is also annoying.
Strangers asking for money are
one thing. There are also friends and acquaintances - people
who know our names, phone numbers, and where we live. In the
last two weeks, I have been approached by three such people,
some of them more than once.
The first was Awa, who cleans my
apartment. She called to ask if I was home and if she could
see me. I was not, but wanted to know what was up. She explained
that her father was sick in Rosso, a town south of here on the
Senegal border, and she asked if she could get a one-month advance
on her wages.
Fortunately, I had just been to
the ATM and I had some money for her. I found this to be a simple
way to help, and I have to admit to feeling guilty about how
easy it was to give because it didn't cost me anything. All
I did was give her what I was going to give her anyway, just
that some of it was a month early. Knowing and liking Awa and
her husband Eric was a factor, too.
A few days after that, Abdulaye,
the daytime guardian at my building, introduced me to the new
night guardian, Hassan. Hassan lost no time in asking me for
money. That evening, as the sun set and he was going to break
his fast, he hit me up for something so that he could buy tea.
The shock of the suddenness of his request left me fumbling
and without words. In the end, I just said no and went inside.
If it means anything - and it probably
doesn't - I felt bad about saying no to him. At the same time,
I had to balance my decision with the thought that if I said
yes now, giving him money, would that continue? Would he ask
me every week? How do I balance being an "easy target"
(something that I don't want to be) with being a "compassionate
person" (something that I do want to be)? I struggle with
The day after that, Abdulaye had
a request. He needed money to pay a doctor for his son's office
visit. His proposal was that I give him a few thousand ouguiya
that he needed; then, when the rent was due on the first
of December, I could deduct it from that. I thought that that
was a reasonable idea, but having just given Awa her money,
found myself in the position of needing to wait until the next
infusion of my own living allowance from the Peace Corps. There
was that thought as well as the reminder of what I am thinking
of as the "easy touch" syndrome.
The day before the last day of
Ramadan, with the big feast of id el fitr coming, Awa
came to my apartment, this time with a direct request for cash.
She said she wanted to buy some things for the feast. I told
her that I was able to advance her the money, no problem, but
because of that, I didn't have a lot on hand at the moment.
I invited her to come into my kitchen with me and told her that
if there was any food there that she wanted, she could have
it. She declined.
On Friday afternoon, I was leaving
home for my French lesson and saw Hassan in front of the building.
(If you are paying attention, you may wonder why the night guardian
was there during the day instead of the day guardian. All I
can say is that I have stopped trying to understand these inconsistencies
myself; I report 'em, don't explain 'em.) In any event, he asked
me for money. This time he was specific with an amount - 100
ouguiya, about 33 cents, the cost of one of my baguettes
of whole wheat bread. I don't know whether it was the way he
asked, my mood at the time, or it may even have been the fact
that I had already written the first draft of this report; in
any event, I gave it to him.
All of this has left me confused
and up-in-the-air about how to help people with direct payments
like this. I know that being in the Peace Corps is an experience
that changes people, and I also realize that changes are (1)
not easy and (2) not fast. At the same time, having been a San
Franciscan for 34 years, this is not a new topic for me, as
the streets there are famous for having many homeless people
who are in great need.
We are supposed to transfer skills,
not money, though. But how does one determine when is a better
time to give, who is a more deserving person, and how to answer
the call to be a kind and compassionate human being? And how
do I reconcile my concerns that I am eating well, as
I wrote earlier in this report, when there are people who are
not eating at all?
In early January, all the members
of my training class will assemble in Nouakchott for a several-day
event called Early Term Reconnect (ETR). In thinking about that
coming up, I sent an e-mail to our Country Director to ask her
if we could have a forum on the topic of giving, because I can't
be the only one of us who has either been approached or is trying
to figure out how to deal with this.
She answered me right away and
told me that she had had similar concerns when she was a PCV
in Niger. She said that her APCD had told her two things that
were helpful to her: (1) you are only expected to give to your
friends and certain relatives; when you do this, you give what
you can and you ask for what you want from them in return, in
the form of services. She said that because we are the person
of "means and status," we are expected not only to
give but to have the "mundane" done for us. (2) It
is impolite for others to ask for or expect gifts from us. Finally,
she told me that it would certainly be possible to discuss this
Her response helped to put this
in perspective for me, making me realize that I am looking at
the act of giving from my cultural and religious perspective,
while the people here are looking at it from theirs. In addition
to my taking a look at my own approach to this, I need to understand
the culturally appropriate things to do. This is certainly a
If you would like to comment about
what I have written along this line, or are willing to share
with me your own thoughts, I look forward to learning what you
How is all of that for a set-up to tell you about Thanksgiving
in the PC/RIM? I began to receive e-mails from family and friends,
asking what kind of plans we had for the holiday celebration
here. I told them that I would write in detail this week.
I arrived at our host's house
at noon to find preparation in full swing. Most of the women
were in the kitchen and most of the men were in front of the
television set. How unusual is that?
The kitchen is extremely well
equipped. Not only are there a stove and oven - a rarity in
these parts - but there is also every manner of bowl, mixing
apparatus, pot, pan, and spice imaginable. Add to that a variety
of mostly-young and always-exuberant Volunteers, their combined
knowledge of family recipes and traditions, and a huge bucket
of iced sodas and beer. It was a simple recipe for a good time.
When I arrived, Carl and Angus
were putting the finishing touches on a pot of squash soup.
Obie had soaked a bunch of split peas and was starting to cook
them, but was rather vague on their ultimate disposition. Karla
and Racey were making brownies. There were chickens, bread to
be cut up for stuffing, and apples - all of which needed to
be handled in some way. I said I would do anything that didn't
involve handling the chickens.
The television was supposed to
have been hooked up to some sort of satellite that would beam
in the requisite football, though I don't know exactly what
games people were expecting to watch considering the time difference.
(Noon here was 7:00 AM on the East Coast and 4:00 AM on the
West.) I guess their attitude was much like the person who wants
an alcoholic drink, is told to wait until 5:00 PM, and then
responds with a raised glass, saying, "It's 5:00 somewhere
in the world!" For the sports fan, there is always a game
on, I suppose, and it doesn't matter what shape, color, or size
that little ball is, nor if it is supposed to be kicked, bounced,
thrown, or slapped around.
In any event, in the blessed absence
of sports, the crowd was ecstatic to gaze at the next best thing:
stupid American movies. In the more than nine hours that I was
there, there was never a time when there wasn't something playing,
and an eager crowd to watch it in a near-comatose stupor.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen,
I looked around for my niche, and eventually found it at the
stove with the split pea soup. I cut up onions and garlic to
fry and add to the pot, along with potatoes and every spice
that was not sweet.
Alden and Kevin set themselves
to working on an apple-based dessert along the lines of a Brown
Betty, only to find that they needed oatmeal for the crust.
They went out in search of oatmeal, and by the time they came
back I was finished with my soup, Carl and Angus had both spilled
and cleaned up their soup, and the crowds in the kitchen, living
room, and front porch were getting even larger
Alden and Kevin used whatever
apples would fit into the available pans and then I decided
I would "do something" with the remaining already-sliced
apples. I put them in a little water and added some dried cranberries,
getting nostalgic - almost misty, even - when I saw the Whole
Foods logo on the container. (I asked around, but never found
out who brought that.) My concoction of chunky apples, when
cooked down for a while, became the sauce that people put on
top of a flan-like dessert.
Marc and Will brought potatoes
and a bucket of home-made yogurt. The yogurt recipe had worked
well a few days earlier, to everyone's enthusiastic thumbs-up,
but something had gone horribly wrong this time, and Will spent
much of his time adding sugar, jam, and anything else he could
find to try to redeem the flavor that everyone had agreed was
in desperate need of redemption.
There were potatoes of several
varieties, beans, and many desserts. Butter and sugar disappeared
into any number of dishes, happily consumed to the delight of
23 PCV's, our APCD host, one person from the US embassy (who
had already had dinner with the ambassador), a group of four
young British volunteers just out of high school, the two step-children
of our Country Director (who was in Niger with her husband),
and the Mauritius-born daughter of an embassy employee.
The scene was joyous and not only
familial, but familiar: a group of people happy to be in each
other's company; the needless execution and baking of winged
creatures; copious consumption of food overladen with calories,
much of it derived from either sugar or animal fat; and a marathon
of catatonic observation of mind-numbing activity on a television
In short, our Thanksgiving
was just like yours! The only two things missing were
the pumpkin pie filling and the one thing our host wanted the
most: a good old-fashioned Jerry Springer-style family fight.
The week ended with my latest culture clash story. I have already
written about items missing from packages received. I am still
waiting for a large envelope that was mailed early in October.
It contained, among other things, my At-a-Glance date book for
2004. There are other ways I could get one if this envelope
never does show up, but I thought I may as well see what is
available on the local market.
The first problem was figuring
out what that little book is called in French. I tried the translations
for "calendar," "little book for writing meetings,"
and "book with the spaces for every day." Finally,
somebody understood, and I found out the word is the same in
both English and French: agenda!
The way that many businesses work
here is that stores with similar merchandise are clustered in
the same area. I can easily walk along what I think of as "Stationery
Row" on my way home from work. I stopped at more than a
dozen of these stores and asked for "agenda 2004."
The most common reaction was smiles or, in some cases, laughter.
No, they don't have them yet.
One man told me they would arrive in December. I reminded him
that tomorrow was December, but that didn't help. One clerk
offered me a copy of the book for 2003, and he was surprised
when I told him that I would not find that useful.
I try to be creative in my life,
and I have been learning to encourage my creativity, but one
clerk came up with a plan that was ingenious beyond anything
I could possibly have devised. He picked up a 2002 book, pointed
to the "2" at the end, and suggested that I cross
it out and put a "4" there. Now how is that
I was so taken aback at how ridiculous
this idea was that I actually started to explain to him why
it would not work. And then I got a grip. What am I doing?
Why am I wasting my time trying to explain to him why his solution
was useless? If he thought that it was a good idea, he certainly
would not understand my objections! So I just said, No thank
you, that would not please me, and went to the next one down
I will leave you this week with two of my favorite quotations
related to gratitude. Both are attributed to Meister Eckhart:
"If the only prayer you ever
learned was 'thank you,' that would be enough."
"When we pay attention to
what we have, we will always have enough. When we pay
attention to what we want, we will never have enough."