Before I launch into the events
of the most recent week, I have a few follow-up comments about last week’s post.
First of all, I have had the opportunity to think about relationships and
friendships in general. By and large, I recognize my pattern here in
Mauritania is reflective of the one at home: I don’t
have an abundance of deep friendships; rather I am selective about the few
people whom I “let in.” I have lots of acquaintances and I tend to be
cautious about using the word “friend,” as it has a great deal of
significance for me, so I don’t use it casually.
As for being placed in a city, where life tends to be more anonymous than
in villages, I have fully realized that the Peace Corps gave me exactly
what I asked for! I didn’t want village life in
Mauritania and was never attracted to small town living in the USA. My
relationships here reflect the setting where I have chosen to live.
I appreciate that several friends and family members read the post from
last week and wrote to inquire how I was doing now. Thanks to my brother
Bob, cousin Rick, and friends Bob, Carl, Dotty, Jill, Marian, and Patti.
Rick had a particularly short-and-sweet analysis of the situation, telling
me, “You appear to be a well oiled cog in a broken wheel.”
It’s wonderful to have such understanding and
support from my “home team.” My stay here is significantly enhanced by
On Monday, Daouda, our Peace Corps language
coordinator asked me to take an active part in PST 2005 for the incoming
group of trainees this summer. I never got to find out exactly what he had
in mind because I told him that I will be leaving early in the summer, so I
would not be on hand to participate in the training. He said he didn’t realize that my service would be over so soon. (That’s okay. I did!)
Later in the day, I spoke to my APCD to solidify the possible mission I
could take as early as this week, visiting some areas where I had never
been before, to present explanations about the new textbook that Kristen
and I wrote and also about Lesson Plans that Work, a manual created
by four PCVs who taught here from 2002-2004. It looks like the trip is on!
Monday night Babah came to visit unannounced at 9:30 PM. I could see fairly
early in the visit that he was agitated about something, and that he needed
to talk. He began to explain that he was having trouble with the owners of
the store where he works. He is scheduled for a shift that begins at 9:00
in the morning and goes until 9:00 in the evening. In addition to those
twelve hours, they usually ask him to stay until as late as 11:00 at night
or even until 1:00 in the morning. During January, he worked this punishing
schedule with one day off during the entire month.
There is no such thing as overtime. For his long hours he is earning what
is considered to be good wages in Mauritania, in that he is earning 50,000
to 60,000 ouguiya a month. While this is equivalent in American
money to only about $200, it is about twice what the average teacher earns.
He had told his employer that he wants to continue working at the store,
but that he cannot continue working such long hours. They told him that
they need him those hours, and they will not diminish them. He told them
that he would have to quit, which he had just done.
He sat there in tears, explaining the situation to me. His income is
significant for the siblings with whom he lives. In the hodgepodge of both
full and half-siblings that makes up his life, he is with the ones closer
to his age from the marriage of their father to his mother, as well as a
few from the marriage that preceded the one with his mother. All siblings –
more than a dozen of them in all – have laid claim to their share of the
house where this group is living, even the ones who live in other parts of
the country. The Nouakchott group is frantically trying to raise the money
necessary so that they can buy out the others. Considering the
circumstances, Babah’s income represents a major
contribution to the finances.
Babah was confident that the boss would come around to his way of thinking,
since he was such a good worker, and that the boss would be calling him
within a few days, asking him to come back to work on his (Babah’s) terms. He said that there are several
employees who are not related to the owners, and all of them are working
long hours, whereas the family members get shorter hours, coming and going
more or less as they please.
During the next few days, though, no call came from the employer. The only
satisfaction that Babah seemed to get from the situation was that a few of
his friends at the store (not relatives of the boss) quit in sympathy with
On Tuesday, I tried to make myself as useful as possible to Mohamed and
Ahmed, the students who got the Fulbright scholarships to study in the USA.
Mohamed expressed concern that he is unfamiliar with computers, and I tried
to impress upon him the need to improve his computer skills because it will
most assuredly be an integral part of university life. I offered to take
them to the government sponsored Internet center and purchased memberships
Ahmed is more technically advanced than Mohamed, so they were able to work
together for a while. That evening, when I was talking about their
situation with Jessica, she told me about a computer class that was going
to be taught at a private school where she takes Arabic lessons. She spoke
with somebody at the school and then called me with some terrific news: a
Mauritanian woman who speaks English and teaches computers at the school is
volunteering to teach Mohamed and Ahmed two hours a day, five days a week
for an entire month of classes. The only cost will be 2,000 ouguiya
($6) for the textbook!
When I contacted Mohamed and Ahmed, they were overjoyed and jumped at the
chance to take the class, which began yesterday.
I spent some time scrambling to get a substitute for the classes I would
miss while I am away this week. Jessica gladly agreed to teach the English
Conversation Club. At ISERI, it won’t be
necessary to have a substitute, since Bedine will
be in the computer lab. Since the ENS students are student teaching, I won’t miss anything there.
My only other concern was that I was expecting a visit from an American
member of the Hospitality Club. Jake was coming overland from Morocco, so
it was difficult to tell exactly when he would be arriving in Nouakchott.
Jessica and her husband Scott agreed to host him if he arrived while I was
out of town.
Fortunately, he called from Nouadhibou on Tuesday evening, so he was on
schedule to arrive on Wednesday. I invited Jess and Scott to dinner so that
they could meet him. We all had an enjoyable dinner together, and Jake
stayed at my place that night. The next morning, Scott came by to get him,
and they left for Jess and Scott’s place as I was
leaving to get a taxi to the Aleg garage.
On Thursday morning, I began my ten-day/nine-night mission into the
southeastern portion of the country. There are several ways to travel in
this country: Peace Corps vehicle, airplane, private cars, and taxi brousse (bush taxi). I had considered flying to or
from the furthest point on this trip, but all flights to and from Aioun
have been cancelled. I am doing this entire trip via taxi brousse, the first such solo journey that I am
taking in this manner.
The timing of the mission is good, in that it coincides with cooler weather
in what is usually a very hot part of the country, and I am finally getting
to see some places where I have not yet traveled – something that I may not
otherwise do in my remaining five months.
I took a Nouakchott taxi to the garage from which cars leave to go to Aleg.
In Nouakchott, there are garages all over town, depending not only on your
destination, but the type of vehicle that you are taking to get there. If
you are going to Kiffa in a Mercedes, for example, you go to a different
garage in a different part of town than if you are going in a pickup truck
or in a Peugeot.
This is a good time to point out that even though the Mercedes is
considered to be a luxury automobile by most people likely to be reading
this, it is not necessarily the case in Mauritania and in other developing
countries. Here, it is very possibly a vehicle that had been stolen in
Europe, shipped here, and then made to ply the roads as a shadow of its
former luxurious self.
Before I got to the Mercedes garage for Aleg-bound cars, I made several
decisions that would have an impact on my attitude during this trip. First
of all, after I ask the driver how much the trip costs, I was determined to
ask no further questions. Not, When are we leaving? Not, How
long will it take? Not, Why are we stopping? Not, What’s wrong now? Not, Is it possible
that you are so stupid because somebody dropped you on your head when you
were a baby? No…as tempted as I might be to
ask any of these questions, I would simply take events as they came.
Secondly, I vowed not to complain about anything that happens, either on
the road or in the homes of the PCVs who will host me each night. Everything
would be fine as I encountered it – no problems, no complaints. The food? It’s fine. The matela for
sleeping on? It’s great! The weather? It’s terrific! The car? Very comfortable! Nothing to
gripe about, no matter what the toilets, bathing conditions, or any other
variables might come my way.
As a result of making these two decisions, I have come to think of this as
the “No Questions/No Complaints” Tour (NQ/NC Tour for short).
But that is not all. In order to improve my level of comfort on the road,
my goal was to purchase two seats in each vehicle in which I travel, as a
means of compensating for the way that vehicles are usually over-crowded.
That means if I sit in the front, next to the driver, there will be only me
(in a seat constructed for one person, but the common practice here is to
put two people in that space. My college physics teacher, Professor Bryant,
would be happy to know that I still remember something he taught us: that two objects cannot take up a space at the same
time. Professor Bryant had not been to Mauritania when he taught me that in
1968. If all of physics had been that easy and logical, I probably would
have done better than that “D” he gave me.) If I purchase two places in the
back seat, there will be “only” three of us instead of the four who are
usually crammed in there.
Finally, I decided to break up the trip into as many smaller stages as
possible. My furthest destination is Aioun. There have been PCVs traveling
between Nouakchott and Aioun in taxi brousse
journeys that have taken more than twenty-four hours. I’m
not a masochist; I am not going to travel that way!
I could see as we were leaving Nouakchott that I had appeared to luck out
with regard to the car: a quick look at the dashboard showed that the clock
worked! The speedometer worked! All the doors could be opened
from both the inside and the outside! All windows rolled down and
up! All rearview mirrors were in place! My seatbelt, when placed into its
receptacle, stayed there! Nobody smoked in the car, and the driver never
turned on the radio or tape player. All right – the odometer didn’t work and there were some cracks on the
windshield, but they were only on the passenger side, and you can’t have everything in life, can you?
We had been on the road for about fifteen minutes, on the outskirts of
town, when the driver pulled into a gas station. After a few minutes, it
became apparent that he had not stopped to fill ‘er
up. Everyone got out of the car and when I gazed at what they were looking
at, I could see that the right rear tire was flat.
Coincidentally, the station was about two blocks away from Babah’s house. Newly freed from the rigors of work, he
was probably home, so I called to tell him where I was and he came over to
spend a few minutes. The driver and somebody else removed all the luggage from the trunk, got to the spare that
had been underneath it all, changed the tire, purchased a new spare, and
then we were off once again. We hadn’t gone more
than the equivalent of one block, still within spitting distance of the
previous stop, when we stopped again. After a few minutes, everyone was out
of the car once again. Now, the newly replaced right rear tire was flat.
Once again, the trunk was emptied and the process was repeated. Finally, we
were off. Everything was going smoothly for about two hours, and we were
probably a hundred kilometers from Aleg when the driver pulled off the
road. There was another flat tire; for the sake of variety, it was
the right front.
We were not near a service station this time, however. Once again, all luggage was removed from the trunk and the driver
changed the tire. There was a covered area across the highway, where I went
to sit for a while. It was not hot, so I was fairly comfortable. It was
very windy, though, and visibility was extremely low – maybe the equivalent
of two blocks because of all the sand that was being blown around. The trip
of 265 kilometers, which should take about three hours, took five and a
I arrived in Aleg at 5:45 and called PCV Julian, who came to meet me on the
highway. Julian and Nina are in the group that came after mine, the first
two PCVs to live in Aleg since 2002; he is a teacher and she is a
small-business development Volunteer. He lives independently and she lives
with a family in another part of town.
When Julian and I got back to his place, Nina was there cooking. We enjoyed
a delicious lentil stew over rice for dinner. Julian does not have
electricity, so we talked for a while in the candlelight, and then walked
On Friday morning, Julian and I ambled around town a bit before I left.
There are two noteworthy buildings that he pointed out. One was the new
taxi garage – spacious, with a building to house the necessary restaurants,
and, probably most importantly, nicely set back from the road, which allows
for loading and discharging passengers with a minimum of disruption to
passing traffic, as is now the case. There is only one small problem: the
drivers refuse to use it, so it sits vacant.
Near the ghost-town taxi garage is a large residence, a mini-palace, being
built so that the president of Mauritania can have someplace to stay when
he is in town – something that happens about once a year, according to
Julian. But now, he will be able to visit and stay more often.
Back at the garage, I bought my tickets for a car going to Kiffa. There was
a bit of a commotion going on around the vehicle. The driver’s
keys were in his door, but he was not able to open the door. What
eventually happened was that he called over somebody who had to break the
door lock, and then replace it. (He should have been able to use whatever
tool was used by the thief who stole the car in the first place.) Once that
was taken care of, we were on our way.
The distance from Aleg to Kiffa is about 335 kilometers. The driver was
doing at least 100 kilometers an hour. Here’s a
math problem that any fourth-grader should be able to work out: “If a car
is traveling at 100 kilometers an hour, how long will it take to go 335
kilometers?” The student will do the math and tell
you that it would take about three hours and twenty-one minutes. While the
child would be mathematically correct, she would have given the wrong
answer. The kid gets an “A” in math and an “F” in
social studies. The correct answer, in the case of this journey, is seven
(not three) and a half hours. I am certain you
want to know the details, and you shall have them.
We stopped in the town of
Maghtaa Lahjar to let off a passenger, who was no
sooner out of the vehicle than he was back in, the driver headed to a “spare
parts” garage (repair shop). Obviously, there was nothing mechanically
wrong with the car, as it continued to make its way from one repair shop to
another. I reminded myself that I was not asking any questions. Maybe I
cheated, though, because I looked at a passenger in the back seat and
scrunched up my face to indicate that I was puzzled. He must have
understood the international sign language in that because he told me that
the trunk lock could not be opened, which had to happen so that the
departing passenger could get his luggage. At the fourth repair shop, the
driver finally found somebody who could do the deed. This left only one
passenger in the back seat, and he wasn’t taking
any chances: before we left town, he took his bag out of the trunk and put
it in the back seat with him.
After another hour or so, we were in the town of Sangrafa,
where the man in the back seat got out. At that point – and I say this at
the risk of sounding either like a non-native speaker of English or a
schizophrenic – I was the only passengers left. The driver stopped and
explained that we would wait at a restaurant to see if he could pick up any
I reminded myself that I had no complaints – and, in fact, I didn’t. I had plenty of room for stretching out, we
were in the shade, there was a nice breeze, and it
wasn’t very hot anyway. I had a book and was able
to keep myself busy until such time as we would get some other passengers
in order to continue the journey.
After about an hour or so, two cars stopped so that the passengers and
drivers could eat. A passenger from one of the cars, a young woman carrying
an infant, came right over to sit next to me. It was Saoudatou,
a student who was in my American Civilization class last year at ENS. Her
son Salman was born in October. She was on her
way to Kiffa to begin her teaching career, after having just been on
maternity leave. (She explained to me that there had been no substitute
standing in for her in her classes since the beginning of the school year.)
After about another hour, the driver of my car told me that I would be
continuing the trip to Kiffa in the same car as Saoudatou.
He had sold me to her driver like a bank sells off a second mortgage to
another lender. In any event, we were off, with about 200 kilometers to go.
I arrived in Kiffa at 5:45, none the worse for the wear. Kiffa is the
second largest city in Mauritania and appears to be nothing more than a
typical small town. There is nothing that distinguishes it from any of the
other small towns I have seen – not a large city center with office
buildings, not a market, or other landmark.
PCV Luke had told me that in order to find his house I had to ask for the
World Vision building, and then to ask “any random stranger” in the
neighborhood where he lived. That seemed to work, as the first person I
asked knew exactly who I was looking for and directed me to the house.
Adriana was visiting Luke when I arrived, and she was in the midst of preparing
a delicious lentil stew, with a different mix of vegetables and spices than
Nina’s from the night before.
On Saturday, I observed Adriana teaching a class that she had to make up
because she had missed it during her vacation. She was teaching a lesson
about when to use “in,” “at,” and “on” when
talking about location. Since one of the examples of location that she gave
was “continents,” it reminded me of “The
Continents,” a song that I used to teach to my first-graders.
I passed Adriana a note, asking her if she wanted me to teach the song.
Toward the end of the class session, there was some time, and I did teach
the song, which was fun for all of us.
Later that afternoon, it was off to Kankossa for me. This was the part of
the trip that I was looking forward to with mixed emotions. On the positive
side, I have two dear PCV friends living there, and it is always a pleasure
to see both of them. The journey, however, is known for its bumpy unpaved
road. Though only 85 kilometers from Kiffa (53 miles, roughly the distance
between San Francisco and San Jose, a trip that usually takes only about an
hour if there is not heavy traffic), this is a trip that always takes more
than three bumpy hours. No, Dorothy, you are not in California any more!
Furthermore, cars leave Kiffa for Kankossa (and vice versa) only
late in the day, guaranteeing a night arrival. Why? Why ask why? Our guess
is that it is better to travel later in the day to avoid the heat. Even
though this is not the hot season, the hours are not adjusted.
When I bought my ticket(s) at the garage that morning, the samsar (ticket-seller) told me to be back by
3:30. Luke, who accompanied me, laughed. Right! Be here at 3:30 so that we
can leave promptly at 5:00!?!? We got there at 3:35, at which point
we were told – surprise! – that we would be
leaving at 4:30. At 4:35, the driver said we would be leaving at 5:00. We
finally pulled away from the garage at 5:15.
Fortunately, the trip was uneventful. The mode of transport was a pickup
truck that had two people in the front next to the driver, a seat behind
the driver, where I sat with two other people, and an open bed with
anywhere from three to six people, since the driver stopped periodically to
take on and discharge passengers. Because I had purchased two seats, I
brought my baggage into the cab with me and placed it on the seat next to
me, which turned out to be a good strategy. That provided me with an
armrest, as well as access to the airspace above the bag, and some extra
room for my feet. Had there been another person there instead, I would have
been confined to a much narrower area.
The trip took three hours and fifteen minutes. In all, it was not as
uncomfortable as I had thought it would be, but I was happy that it was
Annika and Molly, my friends in Kankossa, did not know that I was coming. It’s not that I had not tried to tell them, however.
Kankossa has only recently been blessed with telephone service. The fixed
line phones are served by Mauritel, the same company with which I have my cellular
service, but neither of them has a phone at home. Rather, they have
cellular service provided by Mattel. Calling from one company to another
does not work very well most of the time. I had been trying to reach them
regularly for most of the previous week, and was never able to get through.
Kankossa is a small enough town so that many people know both Molly and
Annika. Molly works at the clinic and Annika teaches at the lycée, so
there are plenty of people who know both of them. I thought that I would
just keep asking around and then go to whichever house a local person knew
I didn’t have a clue about Molly’s
whereabouts, but I knew that Annika lived across the street from her
school, which turned out to be the key information needed to find her. A
student brought me to the house, which was dark. I knew, though, that
Annika often ate with the family next door. I called out for her, and that
is exactly where she was! She was certainly surprised to see me.
Kankossa has no electricity, so we talked for a while by candlelight, and
then went to sleep. That night it was cold enough that I had to wear my
fleece jacket. After the heat of last year, I have never enjoyed being cold
as much as I have been recently!
After I washed up with my morning bucket bath, Molly stopped by to visit
Annika on her way to work. She, too, was surprised to see me. They had
heard that I would be visiting Kiffa, but didn’t
know I would make it all the way to Kankossa.
That morning, Annika and I accompanied Molly to the health center where she
works. It’s amazing to me how unhealthy
the health centers are in this country – dirty environments
with broken-down equipment where people come to be treated. A person could
get sick while trying to get well!
Later in the day, I paid a visit to Annika’s
school, where I observed her teaching a lesson. Toward sunset we took a
walk to the nearby lake, one of the scenic areas in town. Walking in
Kankossa presents a bit of a challenge, as the sand is filled with little
pea-sized sticker balls. I didn’t have shoes with
me – only sandals and some socks. The socks did provide some protection, but
when I walked around without socks, it was very uncomfortable.
That evening, Molly came by for a dinner of pasta with pesto sauce and… a
sleepover. We enjoyed each other’s company, and I
was happy to spend time with them on their turf, after their many visits to
me in Nouakchott.
The next morning, while Annika taught and Molly went to work, I took
another walk to the lake. Around noontime, Molly came by to get me and take
me to her host family’s house for lunch. I had
previously met the father of the family, Yahya Traoré, in Nouakchott. He has hosted PCVs for many
years, and has a collection of photos of all of them, as well as postcards
and greeting cards that many of them have sent to him over the years.
Molly’s house is something of a Peace Corps
relic, a place where many Volunteers have lived during the last ten years
or so. Each person has added something artistic to the walls inside. It is
filled with drawings, illustrations, and paintings. A quotation by Paul
Bowles was one that caught my eye, as it well describes travel in Africa: “What
can go wrong is always more interesting than what goes right.”
Molly was going to Kiffa that evening, so we made the trip together,
sitting in the back seat of a vehicle that had two passengers in the front,
three of us with my bag in our seat, and about six others in a small
enclosed area behind us.
After more than two hours on the road, when it was fully dark outside, the
vehicle had a flat tire. I had seen two spare tires on top of the roof,
underneath all the luggage that had been piled up
there. Waiting for the tire to get changed was delightful: the air was
pleasantly cool, the stars shone brilliantly through clear skies, and it
was nice to get out and stretch a little. While we were gazing, Molly and I
saw a shooting star.
Soon after the tire was changed, Molly pointed out a red light in the
distance. It is on top of a telephone tower in Kiffa. She introduced me to
a tradition among the Assaba PCVs (Assaba being the name of the region
where Kiffa and Kankossa are located). When they get to the part of the
trip where they can see this red light, they each sing a song that has the
word “light” in it. Molly’s song is “There’s a Light Over at the Frankenstein Place,” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had
heard of but never seen that movie, so was unfamiliar with the song. She
asked me to pick a song with the word “light” in it. The first one I could
think of was, “This Little Light of Mine.”
“That’s the finale,” she
told me. “Pick another one.” I asked her what other songs had already been
taken. Annika’s song is “I Can Almost See the
Light of the City,” a church song; Adriana’s is “Roxanne,”
sung by a group called The Police; Luke isn’t
totally sure of the title of his song, but thinks it may be “Last Time,” by
Eric Clapton. I finally came up with “I’m
Beginning to See the Light,” which has been sung
by Ella Fitzgerald, as well as many others.
For those of you who don’t know the words of this
song, composed in the 1940’s by Harry James, Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges,
and Don George, I will provide you with the first stanza:
I never cared much for moonlit skies,
I never wink back at fireflies,
But now that the stars are in your eyes
I’m beginning to see the light.