The biggest news of the past week
is the arrival of the new trainees (we call them stagiaires, using
the French). They arrived without incident on Tuesday, which recalled the
same grueling trip that we had taken only the year before.
Several of us in my training
class felt that the group of Volunteers who preceded and welcomed us had
not done what they could have in order to smooth the way for our arrival.
(Somebody referred to our welcome as "lame.") In response to
this, we made the unspoken group decision to bend over backwards to make
our new stagiaires feel welcome, included, and informed. Our planning
sessions paid off well, eliciting from our Country Director a comment that
this was the smoothest arrival that he has ever seen.
Forty-two stagiaires arrived.
One didn't make it to Philadelphia and one who had made it to Philadelphia
didn't come to Mauritania. Perhaps part of the calmness upon arrival had to
do with sheer numbers, with this group being 75% the size of ours. Fourteen
additional people made things more crowded and boisterous last year.
On the whole, the group itself
seems to be calm, mature, and easy-going. They spent only one night in
Nouakchott, as compared to our two last year. In fewer than twenty-four
hours, they were whisked off to Kaédi for the formal beginning of their
I wrote a new poem for the
occasion. It is at the end of this post, with a column on the right to
explain some terms you may need help with.
Mauritanian sense of humor has taken a bit of getting used to. It is very
common for people to put each other down and make each other the butt of
their jokes. It's not a behavior that comes naturally to me, especially
after all my years of teaching and working on building the self-esteem of
so many young people.
But here, these put-downs are
acceptable, expected and help to bond people to each other. I have three
examples for you.
One of the custodians at the
Peace Corps bureau is named Thiam (pronounced "chom"). With all
the dust and sand that blows around here, he has a constant job, especially
when there is a lot of wind. One morning, when I arrived, I saw him
sweeping up sand and said, "Enfin tu travails!" (Finally, you are
Since then, he greets me with,
"Enfin tu arrives." (Finally, you are here.) Alternatively, we
simply greet each other not with the equivalent of, "Good
morning," but with, "Enfin!" To him, this is hysterical.
My second example took place at
the place where I found the colored paper. After I paid for it, I told the
owner of the shop that I had other errands to run and didn't want to carry
around the ream of paper with me. I asked if it would be all right for me
to leave it there and pick it up later. He said yes, and showed me that one
of the employees would hold it for me until later.
I replied by saying that I
didn't trust these guys - which is ludicrous since we didn't even know each
other. But, for some reason, everyone thought that was terribly funny, and
responded by patting each other on the back and shaking my hand.
The third anecdote happened
last week when I went to the bank to withdraw money from the ATM. After I
got my receipt, the screen displayed a message that there was a problem
with the machine, which necessitated my going into the bank for help.
At the customer service desk,
the person who was able to help me made a phone call. While he was waiting
for a reply on the phone, somebody came in to make what was obviously a
personal transaction, in that the young lad on my side of the counter took
money out of his pocket to give to the bank employee. During their
exchange, I saw that the employee had a huge wad of bills in his pocket,
which is not surprising since the largest note here, 1,000 ouguiya,
is worth less than $4.
When he got off the phone and
accompanied me to the ATM, I told him that now I knew where my money was -
he had it in his pocket! This caused him to laugh, pat me on the back, and
shake my hand.
The evening before the new
stagiaires arrived, Kristen's counterpart invited us to a ceremony
celebrating the end of the school year; it was held at the Ancienne Maison
des Jeunes (direct translation: "former house of the young,"
which appears to be not much more than an auditorium).
The hall looked like a
1950's-era school auditorium, complete with linoleum floor, aqua paint, and
wooden chairs with seats that fold up - many of which were missing either
the backs or the seats.
A master of ceremonies held a
microphone in his hand as he paced around the stage. I am not sure what he
was saying, as he spoke to the crowd in Hassaniya. And it was evident that
the crowd didn't know what he was saying either, largely because they
ignored him. Throughout the audience, people spoke to each other, joked,
and circulated around the room as if there were nothing happening on stage.
Minus the spitballs and paper
airplanes, it was the audience that every junior high school principal has
threatened with the admonishment, "Now if you boys and girls cannot
settle down and show respect to the people onstage, we will not be able to
have these wonderful assemblies any more."
I had been looking forward to the
event so that I could get a glimpse into another facet of Mauritanian
culture. I think I did, even though it was not what I had originally had in
On Saturday afternoon, one
of my students from the English Conversation Club invited me to spend the
afternoon with his family at his home. Selme works for the Ministry of
Rural Development and the Environment, in the ozone office. During several
discussions in class, he has brought up issues related to the environment.
He lives with his family in the
Dar Naïm neighborhood (translation: "house of happiness"). Dar
Naïm is on the outskirts of town, an area that Selme described as
"new," but I haven't been here long enough to be able to discern
the difference between this and any other neighborhood. In a city that has
been settled only forty years ago, "new" is a relative word.
Before we drove out to the
house, Selme picked up two United Nations employees who were in Nouakchott
for a conference about the environment. There was Bobby from Britain, who
has been living in Barcelona for the last thirty years, and Gabriel from
The houses of the neighborhood
are boxy, predominantly unpainted concrete. Inside Selme's house, we were
ushered into the salon, which was furnished with wall-to-wall turquoise
carpeting and six sectional "sofas" that lined the walls. This is
the type of seating that people have if they choose not to spend all of
their time on the floor.
These seats are hard foam,
shaped like a typical refrigerator box, the side with the largest surface
area resting on the floor. The foam does not give very much in response to
sitting on it, so these seats are only marginally more comfortable than
sitting on a refrigerator itself. The pillows are moveable. In this case of
Selme's salon set, the turquoise of the carpeting was repeated as the
background of the seating and pillows, with gold accents throughout the
Salmon-colored curtains hung on
either side of the windows, with a white lacy section that covered the
windows themselves, allowing light and air to enter. The salmon was
repeated in the two rectangular throw rugs that lay on top of the turquoise
Taking pride of place in the
room was the television. True to form for Mauritania, it was always on.
Selme's wife, Assa, came into
the room to greet us, and I understood right away that she is not a Moor,
in that Moor women do not shake hands with men. Selme explained that he has
a White Moor father and a Black Moor mother. He is from Kiffa, in the
southeast of Mauritania, near the Mali border. He met Assa there; she is
Bambara from Mali.
One of the things we talked
about was the need for Mauritanians to wean themselves from the use of
charcoal for cooking. The government is promoting solar energy and butane
gas. It's difficult for those using charcoal because they can't make the
necessary investment in the equipment they need to make the transition to
The television showed a report
about the current discussion in Spain about gay marriage. Bobby was able to
comment informatively about the way that Spanish people see the issue.
Selme told us, "If my brother were a homosexual, he would have to be
tolerated. You can't attack him without attacking me." Later on in the
conversation he said, referring to gay people, "This person has no
choice to be like that. It is not necessary to be hard with them. Try to
Selme switched liberally among
stations showing news in French, news in English, and music videos. During
one of the music videos to which I was not paying too much attention, I
realized that I heard a familiar melody. A large group of young and
attractive Arabic men and women in Western clothing were marching down
streets, holding signs and banners, singing. I asked Selme to translate for
me. Are they singing, "Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the
sunshine in?" He said they were singing, "Let the freedom
in." Close enough. At the end of the video, amid the Arabic credits,
was the sole line of English: "Let the sunshine in." I've been
humming it ever since.
At about 1:00, Assa came in to
"set the table" for lunch, only it wasn't a table, but the floor.
She had a nice round tablecloth for that purpose, and something that I had
not yet seen here: matching napkins. As the food came out, Assa also
brought out individual plates and cutlery, which are unheard of in most Mauritanian
households. It seemed that the plates had been purchased for the occasion,
in that the residue of the sticky labels was still on the edges.
We had a delicious meal of
salad, beans, sauce, and french fries (The United States may be the origin
of the phrase, "Would you like fries with that?" In Mauritania,
they don't ask. Most places serve them on everything, including
sandwiches: You're getting fries with that.)
After about two more hours, the
tablecloth came out again. Lunch was not over. The main course was one of
the Mauritanian national dishes called tchubbejin (CHUB-a-jin). Assa had
prepared some plain rice and fish-free sauce for me. All was tasty, and we
were exhorted to eat, eat, eat.
Yesterday, I delivered the
document of our first English book to the typist who is putting it together
for the graphic artist. From the office, I went to the ambassador's Fourth
of July party, to which most Americans living in Nouakchott were invited,
along with the PCVs who were in town at the time.
I am usually out of the United
States for this holiday. When I am there, it's not something that I usually
do anything about. I can name only one year - 1988 - that I can remember
what I did for the holiday, because I was visiting my friend Carl in
Washington, D.C. and we went to the National Mall. Here in Mauritania,
though, with not much else to do, I went to the party at the embassy.
The ambassador's house wouldn't
win any architectural awards, but it was nicely furnished and surrounded by
something that we see very rarely in these parts: a lawn and lush
vegetation. Next to the house is a gate leading to his private swimming
pool, which is separate from the "community pool" where everyone
else gets to swim.
The announced hours of the
party were 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM. For the first hour and a half, there were
only beverages. I can't fathom drinking beer and wine before noon, but most
people were not having a problem with that.
When the ambassador announced
that the food had been set up at a room inside the house, and that we
should all help ourselves, I was talking with somebody near the door
leading to that room. I wouldn't have fought my way to the front of the
line, but since I was already there, well, somebody had to be first!
I took my food to a shaded area
on the periphery of the yard. After about ten minutes, who should join me
there but the ambassador himself. His wife is in the USA now, so she
couldn't join us. We had a pleasant chat that ended when he got up to get
At about 2:30, the ambassador
announced that he was going inside but that we were welcome to stay as long
as we wanted. Some of the embassy employees began to move the beer and
other beverages to the other swimming pool. Most of the people left were
the PCVs, along with a few embassy employees.