Adventures in banking

When we arrived in Nouakchott in September and went to the bank to open our accounts, I asked about the existence of ATMs. The woman helping us said that the bank's very first ATMs would open, "In October, Inshallah."

Our monthly living allowance is transferred directly into our accounts, probably in some form of electronic banking, which is a big advance for these parts. Getting that money, though, is a hassle, because it means first writing oneself a check and then jostling for position at the teller windows.

There is no signs politely advising bank patrons to "Wait here for the next available teller" or "Please wait behind the line so that the customer ahead of you has privacy." People mob the tellers, and there is always somebody on either side to observe what is going on.

However many people are in the mob, it is customary that women are allowed to go right to the front; the teller will handle the transaction of a newly-arrived woman before that of a man who has been waiting for an hour.

Once at the window, there are usually several customers trying to get the teller to take their paperwork. And when the transaction is completed, there is no receipt, which means that we have neither a record of the completed transaction nor an accounting of the remaining account balance.

Our bank has a window for US Embassy employees, and we PCVs are entitled to use that, but it only makes the process marginally better, as there are many Mauritanians who evidently consider themselves eligible for using this window, and no identification is needed.

Confusing and chaotic scenes like this make the ATM seem like an attractive option, don't you think? In anticipation of the October opening (Inshallah) of the ATM, I went into the bank a few weeks ago to inquire. I was very fortunate in that the person whom I asked turned out not only to be very familiar with the Peace Corps, but the brother of the doctor who performed the surgery on my toe last month.

The bank employee gave me the proper paperwork to fill out and told me that my card would be ready in a week. I went in to pick it up on Sunday, and he had the card, but didn't have my assigned PIN yet, so I had to go back on Monday for that. He informed me that the ATM would be opening for business on Tuesday morning at 8:00.

I arrived at the bank on Tuesday morning shortly after 9:00 and found two employees posted next to the ATMs, just to be helpful to those clients who may never have used one before. I am happy to report that the card worked, and I was able to withdraw money without going through the aggravation of previous bank visits.

Surprisingly, though, the receipt issued by the ATM did not indicate the balance in my account, so I still have to rely on my own math for that.

I had one of those wish-I-had-my-camera-with-me moments last week. It would have been a terrific shot of the twenty-first century meeting the nineteenth: a donkey pulling a cart that was hauling a satellite dish on the dirt road!
Getting organized at home has been a challenge, since there are no closets, shelves, or cabinets in my apartment. I have come up with two ways to be able to give myself some shelf space, though, and each of them requires purchasing wooden boards.

There are two markets that have boards: Mauritania's answer to the Home Depot. I went to the more convenient of the two markets and tried to buy the boards I need, but didn't have any luck.

Most of the places have boards that are 22 cm in width, which would do for the shelf I want to put up in my kitchen. In fact, that is usually the only width available in those lumber stores. But the people who work in these stores are unwilling to (1) sell me only one board or (2) cut a board to the length that I need. From what I could gather, they only sell in wholesale, so it means I will have to speak to a carpenter to get the wood I need.

I stopped at a streetside carpenter near my house, when I saw that he had a lot of boards for a job he was doing. I asked if I could buy one from him. He asked me what length I needed, I told him 1.5 meters, and he told me that he would be able to sell it to me if he had one left over from the job he was doing, so that seems to be my best hope.

As for the wider board, there is apparently nothing wider than 22 cm available in Nouakchott, so getting one of these will mean joining together two narrower pieces.

I have been going to my office, usually bringing with me something to do, because there is still no work for me. Last Monday, my supervisor told me that my Mauritanian counterpart was working on the presidential campaign, so he would not be coming to work until after the elections.

I asked the supervisor, then, what he wanted me to do until then. He asked me if my counterpart had given me work to do. I told him no. He told me that the counterpart had told him that he had left some work for me.

We agreed that since there was no work to do, I would come back after the election, when my counterpart was there.

Ramadan started on Monday, the 27th. I have some information for you concerning Ramadan, which I have gleaned from my copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam.

This is the month that Muslims fast from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. Its purpose is to teach Muslims to control their desires and urges, and to help them to empathize with the poor. After the successful completion of fasting during Ramadan, all sins are forgiven.

Both men and women fast. Children do not fast until they reach puberty.

Last winter, when I was an Invitee to the Peace Corps, one of the recruiters in the PC's San Francisco office put me in touch with Ibrahima, a Mauritanian living in San Francisco with his RPCV wife Julie. We had several dinners at both their home and mine. Before I came here, Ibrahima gave me the phone number of some relatives in Nouakchott. This week, we had an opportunity to meet.

Salif, who is married to Ibrahima's half-sister, greeted and welcomed me like a long-lost relative. He invited me to the family home for dinner on Thursday night. When I accepted the invitation, I had the presence of mind to tell him that I am a vegetarian, and also to say that if it were too much trouble, I could come at another time.

Julie sent me an e-mail saying that Salif's kids are her favorites in the whole world, and I could see why: they are polite and charming. It was a pleasure to be with the family. There is a new kid there, Hawa, whom Ibrahima and Julie have not yet met; she will turn one year old this week. She is not only walking all over the place but dancing when people clap and sing to her. Adorable!

When I was a teacher, Halloween was the most stressful day of the school year. I
had to come up with some sort of costume to wear at school. The kids were hyper and hard to settle down, let alone teach. Every year, despite pledges to a better job from the previous year, the school Halloween parade was a chaotic mess. Once the school day was finished, I went home, happy that Halloween was over!

Mauritania does not have a Halloween celebration. But that does not mean that we didn't do anything about it. Just because we are not in the United States was not enough reason for our PCVs to eliminate their celebration of this holiday.

Oh, no! Now I have to do something about a costume. Fortunately, since the presidential campaign is in full swing, I was able to get one of the posters, cut out the head and shoulders, mount them on cardboard, and hold that in front of me as my "costume."