I have just had a very
good weekend and can report that I am very much feeling back to normal -
"normal" being a relative word, when you consider who this is
Last Wednesday morning,
while I was walking to work, my phone rang. It was Molly, one of our
village Volunteers, on her way to Nouakchott, asking if she could stay with
me. It had been a few weeks since anyone had stayed at Château Jay, so I
was happy to say yes. And, as they say on United Airlines, "We are
aware that you have many choices. We are pleased that you have chosen
I was only partially
through my weekly vat of soup, so that provided several dinners and lunches
for us. It's been fun having Molly around, and I'm not saying that only
because I know that her parents read my weekly posts. (Hi, Brian and Kim!)
By the way, it was Brian and Kim who sent me the copy of Sarah Erdman's
Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, which I wrote about in a previous post.
Molly's first night,
shortly after dinner, we had some impromptu guests: Mamadou L, with his
friends Babah and Ismail. (I'm using the "L" to distinguish this Mamadou
from the others coming up later in the post.). I have written at length
concerning the custom of drop-in visitors. I have made a new discovery
about this aspect of the culture: I don't mind drop-ins when there is
already somebody else visiting; it's my solitude that I covet. Since I was
already entertaining, I didn't have any problem with additional visitors.
We had an enjoyable
evening socializing, during which Ismael declared his eternal love for
Molly. She's used to that by now, though, so it didn't faze her.
The next afternoon, before I left for the English Conversation Club at the
Nouakchott English Center, Will, one of the Nouakchott Volunteers, came by
to hang out with us. I left Molly in his care and then went off to the NEC.
During the class session, I received two calls from Mamadou L. I didn't
take the calls because I was teaching, but I did glance at the phone
because the students were reading a selection at the time.
At the end of the
class, while on my way home, I returned Mamadou's calls; he said he was
walking down the street. As I was talking to him, he said, "I can see
you." He was within a block of me, coming in my direction, and had
Babah and Ismail with him. They had just been to my house and told me that
they had left gifts for us. I found out later that they were flowers for
Molly and cake for me.
They were now on their way to Ismail's house and they invited me to come
along. Okay, then, I thought. Here is my chance to practice being "in
the moment." I went. Ismail rents a room in a family's home. He has a
few matalas, a boom box for playing music, and a stand on which he
keeps his personal care items. He also has something I have rarely seen in
Mauritanian homes: a closet! There is a door that leads to a small private
shower and sink (no toilet).
Mostly we sat there and
listened to music - lots of disco from the Seventies, if you can believe
that. At one point, I started bouncing to the beat, and Babah asked me if I
wanted to dance. It's hard for me to sit still when I hear Barry White
singing, "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe." Within a few
seconds we were all dancing.
It was certainly not a
scene that I would expect to happen in the USA - three guys in their
twenties being interested in socializing and dancing with a 56-year-old!
During my time at
Ismail's, I got a phone call from Salif, who is the brother-in-law of my
Mauritanian friend Ibrahima, who lives in San Francisco with his RPCV wife
Julie. (They met during her service in Mauritania.) Salif called to inform
me that his wife, Aïcha, had had a baby the previous Saturday, so the baptême
would be held this coming Saturday and I was invited.
It was a good thing I
had my French lesson coming up, as I could use the occasion to ask Ali
about the customs I would need to know before I went to the baptême.
Ali helped me to understand what I needed to know concerning the gift to
bring with me and what to wear. It is traditional for men to bring money,
placed in an envelope, and given to the father shortly before leaving. Women
usually bring soap or baby clothes. It is traditional for men to wear
either a boubou or a kaftan.
Despite the fact that this French word is a direct translation of
"baptism," it carries none of those Christian religious meanings;
the word used is simply a vestige of French colonialism. The Arabic word is
aqiqah and the Moors here call the event issim. It is very
much a part of the Muslim tradition.
When the baby is born,
the mother or father whispers the call to prayer in her or his ear. One week
following the baby's birth, on the same day of the week as the birth - in
this case, Saturday - the baptême is held. In the morning, there is
a religious ritual in the home, which only the family attends. The baby's
head is shaved. This is the day that the baby's name is revealed to the
public, as nobody knows it until now.
I arrived at the
family's house shortly after noon. The courtyard that takes up the area
between the house itself and the walls that front onto the street were a
hubub of activity that centered around the preparation of tea and food for
the lunch that would be coming in the early afternoon.
I no sooner got there
than I was directed somewhere else, as the family home was the designated
gathering spot for the women. The men were two doors down, at a neighbor's
house, where the courtyard scene was replicated. At events such as this,
all the neighbors pitch in to make it a success, forming groups that take
responsibility for cleaning, preparing tea, slaughtering, butchering and
preparing the sheep, making the rice and vegetables that would complete the
meal, serving, and cleaning up. The women directed the pre-teens and
teenagers to do much of the tea-serving.
Before I entered the
men's gathering place, I could tell by all the shoes outside the door that
it was going to be crowded. Most of the time, there were about thirty of
us, with one small group playing cards, almost everyone else watching
television, and a few quiet discussions going on. I had wondered what it
would be like if I brought a book to such an event, since television
doesn't have much appeal to me, but I didn't. There was somebody sitting
there reading a book, though.
People were wearing
their finery: men in boubous and kaftans, women in headwraps
that matched their complets; a complet is generally a
skirt-like bottom of the same fabric as a blouse-like top. I saw only one
man wearing a western-style sport shirt and trousers.
Lunch was served a
little after two o'clock, but first came the prayers.
Everyone washed first, and then formed three rows in the same salon where
the television was, though the sound had been turned down. We non-Muslims
are not allowed in mosques, so I have not seen a group pray before. But
they did not mind that I sat there quietly. I was the only non-Mauritanian
in attendance. One of the members of the group stood in front, facing the
others, calling in Arabic. The group responded in unison of sound and
vision, standing, kneeling, bending over, foreheads touching the floor in
front of them, and then repeating combinations of movements in a
choreography that they have had memorized for years.
As tradition calls for
it, meals are eaten communally, with five or six people gathered around
large platters of food, circles of men filling the salon. Salif was prepared
for me. He ushered me into a separate room so that I would not have to eat
from one of the platters that had sheep on it. This was the first time I
had experienced such alimentary apartheid, but I was grateful for the
platter of salad vegetables that I got.
It was clear that the
meal was the main draw for most of the attendees. Once the meal was over,
the men washed their hands and then began to file out, leaving only about
half a dozen men in the salon. I sat and talked to a few people for a while,
then prepared to leave. Salif asked if I had my camera with me. I did, even
though I was not sure I would be able to use it. He brought me to his
house, where we were the only men to enter the women's salon, the room
where Aïcha and the baby were. I learned that the baby has been named
Mamadou, which is derived from the name Mohamed. No wonder there are so
many Mamadous around!
The women didn't seem
to mind that two men had entered their domain, especially when they saw
that I was there to take a photo of Salif, Aïcha, and Mamadou.
Molly had left early
Saturday morning, ready for her ten-plus hours on the road. Shortly before
noon, though, she called to say that there had not been a full taxi going
her way, so it meant that if she were to leave in the afternoon, there
would be an overnight stop out in the bush, which she did not want to do.
She came back, and will stay until she can fly out on Tuesday.
Saturday evening, I was expecting two visitors. It's rare to know in advance
that people are coming to visit, but these people live so far away from me
that they have learned to call first, as a means of ensuring that they will
not show up to find that I am not there. This was Mamadou B and his brother
Saidou. They are members of a family that I visited during the feast of
Tabaski earlier in the month.
While Mamadou B and
Saidou were there, Mamadou L, Babah, and Ismail showed up again. Mamadou B
and Saidou had no sooner gone than I got a call from Mamouni, asking me if
he could come by. As one of my teacher friends used to say, "You may
as well play to a full house." And, yes, it is definitely easier to
deal with visitors when I am already in host mode.
Since my last post, I have done a considerable amount of reflection about
my cross-cultural adaptations. In thinking this through, I can see that I
am being very accommodating and understanding about many things here that
are quite different from home: the garbage, the sand, the toilets, the
beeping of car horns and all the other unusual driving conditions, the
early morning prayer calls - the list goes on.
When I see that the
only thing that has really affected me in an adverse way has been the
manner in which people drop in unannounced, I understand that this is not
just a case of cultural maladjustment - it's a matter of my need for
solitude that is not being satisfied. I need to be sure to take care of
myself so that I can be at my best in dealing with people. And to do that,
I need those occasional doses of alone time.
I value equality in my
relationships. Upon further reflection about this issue, I realized that
one of the things bothering me about the drop-ins is the way they upset the
balance of power. Think about it: One person, the visitor, is in a much
more powerful situation than the other, the host. The visitor has groomed
himself, is dressed for the occasion, and because he is out there making
the moves, knows that he is in the frame of mind to visit - otherwise he
would stay home, wouldn't he? This is not necessarily true for the
unsuspecting host, who may be unshaven, unwashed, undressed, out of food
and drink, or working on a personal project: in short, unprepared.