Back to "normal"


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 writing.

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 us."

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.