The giving of thanks


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 me…." 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 this.

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 at ETR.

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 multidimensional situation.

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 think.

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 set.

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 for creativity?

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 the line.

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."