Friday, December 19, 2008

More Peace Corps!

If you've been following my blog, you know what an amazing, important experience Peace Corps has been for me so far, and any effort to make that experience possible for more Americans is definitely something I can get behind. Check out this website to learn more about the More Peace Corps effort, then sign the petition in support of expanding Peace Corps under President Obama (I love saying that...:)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Self-Proclaimed Slacker

I know I've been terrible at updating my blog recently, and it probably won't get better for a while. I've been running all over the country since Thanksgiving, and I'll only be doing more of that for Christmas/New Years/some Peace Corps training. Major events in the recent past:

1. Went to Boghe (city down south very close to the border with Senegal), hung out with a boy, ate something resembling real food, realized this country is not as stuffy as the north makes you feel like it is
2. Found a house of my own to move into!
3. Went to Akjoujt (city a couple hours south of Atar) for a birthday, ate something resembling real food (actually, yeah, it was real food), drank wine, sang karaoke, had a dance party

Currently, I'm in Atar for a day or two to take care of some loose ends (including this blog post). Major events of the near future:

1. Going back to Ain the 19th to make sure repairs get done on my new house, teach some English classes, say good-bye to people
2. Going to Akjoujt the 22nd for the first holiday party of the season, will probably eat something resembling real food (basically every event from here on out involves real food, which is something I'm extremely excited about but I'll stop saying it)
3. Going to Nouakchott for Christmas! Aside from the real food I just said I wouldn't mention, I will also be staying in a real hotel with real beds and real running water
4. Going somewhere down south to kill a couple of days between Christmas and New Years, when I'll be...
5. Going to St. Louis! Yeah, that's in Senegal. They have beaches. And bars. And did I mention real food?
6. Going back to Nouakchott for early-term reconnect (ETR) and in-service training (IST). Yay PC acronyms! That basically just means we'll all be hanging out in Nouakchott (see above) for an extra week. Sweet!

So yeah, that's my life right now, in a nut shell. I'll probably move into my new place when I get back from IST, assuming all the repairs are made. I love my family, but it's gonna be nice having my own space.

Anyway, just wanted to keep you all updated. I promise to post something other than a numbered chronological list of my physical locations as soon as possible :)

Friday, November 28, 2008

Turkey Day Bliss

Literally all I've been doing for the past 48 hours is eating, drinking, and cooking more food. Glorious. Breakfast this morning consisted of cold pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes, followed by warm pancakes and something vaguely resembling syrup. Yum.

I really wanted to post a good update on how work is going, but obviously I've been distracted, ha. My proposal was approved, and apparently I'm getting computers on the first of the month. I have no idea what to do with them, which is one reason why I didn't see the point in rushing to get my proposal off to begin with. The room isn't ready for me to start setting anything up. I'm still waiting on the Mayor to verify that I can have the room I want, and it still needs to have electricity installed (also the responsibility of the Mayor). Hopefully all that will get resolved at a meeting on the 30th.

I have managed to start signing up teachers to mentor, and I should be able to find one or two women from the local co-ops to teach things like sewing and dying. Finding mentors is probably the hardest part of this job. Volunteerism isn't a big part of Mauritanian culture. People generally expect some sort of compensation for their time, even if it's in the form of English or computer lessons. Which I have no problem doing, but I'm only one person and this job is already pretty demanding.

Still, I'd rather have too much to do than not enough. My next moves are going to be making sure I have a core group of committed mentors and planning out a schedule. Once the room is ready, I'll be working on purchasing furniture and other supplies in Atar, shipping them out to Ain and getting it all set up.

I've got some other ideas that have been germinating the past couple of months. I want to run a gender in education workshop for my mentors before they start teaching at the GMC. I also want to set up a program during the week for young women who either already finished or dropped out of school. At this point, the basics of getting the GMC up and running are dominating my time, but hopefully once things settle down after Christmas, I'll be able to start thinking more about these smaller projects. What with Thanksgiving, a trip down south, Christmas, New Years and training right afterwards, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or so.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Solar Powered Oven

I forgot, how cool is this, my mom is sending me a solar powered oven! I'm pretty stoked; I've been missing being able to bake. Now I feel like I'm going to be baking non-stop. Maybe this will help me win over some Mauritanians to American cooking, ha. I'm also thinking about maybe starting a project involving these ovens. It's just an idea at the moment, and what with the center, I don't have a whole lot of time for secondary projects at the moment, but I definitely see some potential here. I can probably tie it into the GMC program pretty easily. Thanks, Mom!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a quick note: Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I'm in town for a couple of days, just for the big day tomorrow, then I'm heading back to site cause I have to teach on Saturday. But I got in this morning, and already it's getting pretty crowded at the house. We're expecting somewhere around 25 people for tomorrow, all PCVs from the region and nearby. It's been awesome catching up with people, and the food tomorrow should be delicious! Chicken and mashed potatoes and PIES! So exicted. :)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Aaaaaaaand I'm Back!

Some of you may be aware that my Google account was recently hijacked by some company, since said company was sending out spam from my address. I wasn't able to access my account at all, and I thought this blog was lost forever, but I contacted Google yesterday and they restored everything (so it seems) in record time. Props to Google for proving once again how awesome they are. And sorry to those of you who thought they had gotten a nice email from yours truly and opened some nasty spam instead.

I was just looking back at my last post and thinking, if I thought the end of October was madness, I don't know what to call the past couple of weeks. Busy, to say the very least. Stressful also, but it feels good to be doing work. Last week I held three needs assessment meetings with different groups from the community: college (middle school) girls, co-op women, and teachers. Basically, these meetings are a chance for me to formally introduce the GMC concept (I now have an awesome DVD that explains in all in Arabic!), to interview people about how the program can address specific community needs, and to (hopefully) recruit mentors and other community members to help get the GMC open and keep it running.

I came into Atar a few days ago to work on my proposal. GMCs and other gender-related projects are funded by Gender and Development (GAD) grants, which come from USAID and World Education (an international NGO). I have to request money for every item I want in my GMC (tables, chairs, floor mats, computers, water jugs, get the picture) and send it to Nouakchott for Peace Corps to approve. So I've been working on putting that together the past few days. My APCD (the Mauritanian woman who coordinates all GEE activities) arrived in Atar the other day to make sure all the GEE volunteers in the region are doing alright. She's coming out to site with me tomorrow.

The last couple of weeks have given me the chance to really start developing a concrete idea of what my GMC program should look like. It's a good feeling. Of course, I won't have the whole thing planned out until I have a set of committed Mauritanians, even just a few, to sit down with me and plan out the particulars. Unfortunately, there's a lot of pressure to just open the thing and get it over with. We were lectured incessantly during training about the need for sustainability in whatever projects we implement, so I was surprised to get some of this pressure from the same direction those lectures came from. Creating a sustainable program takes time, getting acquainted with your community, gathering the language skills and cultural knowledge to develop an appropriate project. In all honestly, I still don't have the skills to do that to the best of my abilities, but I'm only going to be here for two years and I'm here, after all, to work. Like I said in my last post, it's been trial by fire, but it's a great learning experience.

Also, I may end up with internet at site! I'm not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, my life will be a lot easier in terms of work. I'll be able to get in touch with people whenever I want and unrestricted access to information for planning lessons, etc. On the other hand, I'm going to be tempted to use it all the time. And everyone in the village is going to want in on it, and I don't know how I'm doing to handle that.

On another note, my birthday was last week! I was at site, and while I didn't make a fuss about it, I had a great day. The happy birthday wishes were overwhelming. I wish I could put into words just how much it means to have such wonderful people in my life! Thank you, all. Mauritanians included, even though you probably will never read this. Memorable moments from my birthday: teaching the Happy Birthday song to my english class, being swamped at the wedding I went to immediately afterwards, and trying (unsuccessfully) to make birthday pancakes for myself and a few Mauritanian friends. They were unimpressed with my cooking abilities, which is unfortunate cause I'm trying to promote good nutrition. Oh well. I thought they were good, though decidedly unpancake-like.

I'm not sure what my next couple of weeks will look like. I'll be in Ain tomorrow but may end up coming back up to Atar with the Peace Corps cars to finish my proposal. I still have some things to price, and I'll need to email it to Nouakchott. My APCD wants it in by the weekend so it can be approved by Tuesday's meeting. Not that it really matters, since my GMC probably won't be open for another three months. But anyway, then it'll be Thanksgiving! We're planning a feast here in Atar, should be a good time. :)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Halloween/The Madness that was the End of October

So can you believe I've been at site for two whole months? Crazy. And I've been in Mauritania now for...drum roll, please...five months! I have no idea where the time is going.

I came into Atar a few days ago for Halloween. About ten of us were here, and we had a pretty sweet little holiday bash. We got costumes at the dead toubab store. My outfit: neon blue spandex pants, a light blue, super sparkly collared shirt and a pink sash. I wouldn't say I dressed up as something specific; it was just generally ridiculous. Good times. :) A bunch of people went to a big party down south. Kinda wish I could have gone, but us newbies are not allowed to travel for another month!

What else is going on...since the last time I wrote, I went down to Akjoujt. Spent an awesome couple of days hanging out, eating good food (fried chicken! pork chops! BEER!), sang some karaoke, you know, the usual. And I got to pick Hayley's brain about starting up a GMC. Her situation was very different from mine. She's in a regional capital, with lots of resources (human resources, most importantly) that I don't have. Still, it was a good opportunity to see what I want to do with my situation, and what I need to do to really get the ball rolling.

In terms of work, I've had a rough couple of weeks. I've been trying to get some English classes started as a secondary project, just so I'll have something to do while I get the GMC up and running. And everyone wants them, so why not? What I thought would be a relatively simple process turned into a huge ordeal. Figuring out who to give lessons to (I obviously can't teach the whole village) and who to involve in that decision was complicated enough. On top of that, I had some issues with my counterpart, who was charging money for books and other supplies without me realizing it. And to complicate matters even more, I found out that the two people I work the most with are barely on speaking terms. Kind of sad that it took me two months to figure that one out, but it's not like anyone explained the situation to me. Everything here is very hidden, covert, almost. Relationships are masked by protocol and the necessity of formalities and respect for elders/gender differences/familial/tribal ties/etc. Needless to say, it's going to take me a while to learn the politics of my village and to figure out how to navigate them. Trying to get this English project off the ground made me realize just how ignorant I am of it all and how difficult that process is going to be. Trial by fire!

Anyway, I ended up having a big meeting with as many of the interested parties as I could round up and started signing girls up. When I get back to Ain, I'll finish that process (just need to hit up the local college - that's the equivalent of middle school) and get started!

I'm off to site tomorrow. I was supposed to go back yesterday but got a little held up, mostly because my best friend in region is in town and she only gets to come into Atar every once in a while cause its really expensive for her. I was going to go back today but had some issues at the bank, so tomorrow, finally, I will be back at site. Sorry this isn't a more substantive post; things have been pretty hectic and I've been more than a little stressed. I've been relaxing since I got in and haven't really had the brain power to write much. Also, my power strip out at site busted, so I wasn't able to type up any posts while I was there, but I bought a new one so I will get back on that.

Miss you guys!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Praise Allah for the Federal Write-In Ballot

A Peace Corps car came up to Atar this weekend with ballots for all of us procrastinators who didn't get our absentee ballots worked out in time. Which was most of us, actually. The paperwork for those things is ridiculous. Luckily it all worked out, and I have just submitted my first presidential election ballot!

A few thoughts on the election: not only is this my first time voting in a presidential election, it's the first time I've been so personally invested in the outcome, and I'm getting really excited! I can't imagine what it's like at home now; the energy has got to be crazy. Literally every Mauritanian I've talked to has been pro-Obama, which makes me feel like we have a real chance to make up for the last few years if he pulls this one out. Here's hoping!

Ok, that's it for now. I'll be hitching a free ride with the Peace Corps car down to Akjoujt tomorrow morning. I've been back and forth a lot this month, and while I feel like I haven't been spending enough time at site, I seem to be getting things done. Hooray for being busy! I'll be in Akjoujt for a few days, then back to site until just before Halloween. Hope you all are doing well!

Day in the Life

from 10/16

Things have picked up significantly since Ramadan ended. Suddenly, I feel like I’m incredibly busy, and while I’m definitely getting work done, I don’t know where half of my time goes. Whole days will pass, and I’ll realize that I spent a total of maybe two hours on actual work but had no free time because even socializing feels like work. It’s fun, but it’s usually exhausting, with the language barrier and all, and mostly consists of sitting around perfecting the art of not being bored. Most of my socializing is work anyway, at the heart of it, since I can only be friends with so many people, and it just makes more sense to cultivate relationships with people who can help me. So I guess its networking Mauritanian style, more than anything else.

Take today, for example: I woke up this morning expecting a relatively low-key day. I planned on visiting a local women’s co-op, drinking some tea, making some friends, then heading home for lunch, some prep work, and a nap. I head to the co-op around 10, wind up learning how to basket-weave, teaching a brief English lesson, learning the complete family trees of at least three different women, and walking home with a purse made of dates. As soon as I get back, the man from the mayor’s office I’ve been working with, Waled, calls and tells me that the mayor is in town and invites me to the equivalent of town hall to greet him. I stop on the way to chat with a new teacher friend of mine about some computer lessons I’ll be giving him and two girls he wants to recommend for my GMC.

When I got to the town hall, Waled led me straight past a group of police and national guard officers and what I assume were some lesser regional officials into a room where the town mayor, the regional governor and prefect (a.k.a. the Wali and the Hakim), the regional chiefs of the national guard and police, and a number of other important (read: incredibly old) looking men were sitting. Waled went back outside to join the other group for tajiin and tea, leaving me to be waited on with the big shots by men from the mayor’s office (who I had always seen as my superiors). Of course, I’m the only woman to be seen in the place. Even the women in the kitchen stay out of sight.

After greeting and small talking in French, they bring out what looks like half a goat, basically the best tajiin I’ve ever had. We eat, tea is served, and the next thing I know, the oldest, most wrinkly guy starts speaking in Hassaniye. Everyone’s listening intently. Nobody moves. When I showed up, I thought I was just supposed to meet the mayor, greet everyone and peace out. So I’m sitting there, having no idea what the guy is saying or whether its even appropriate for me to stay, but it seems like it’d be even more inappropriate for me to get up in the middle of him talking, which continues for a good thirty minutes. I decide to wait for an break in the talking, but as soon as he finishes, the next oldest guy starts talking. This repeats cycle repeats itself five or six times before I turn to the Wali and ask him in a whisper whether or not I should leave, since it seems like they’re conducting official business. He tells me to stay. So I stay, a little more sure of myself, and talk business with the mayor after all the speech giving. He’s got some pretty grandiose ideas about my program, but at least he’s enthusiastic.

The whole situation was a little surreal. Here I am, this random, 22 year old girl with a development project in girls’ education rubbing elbows with the decision makers of the region as if I mattered. Every aspect of official life here is very deliberate. The group of people you eat with, the order in which the tea is served, who gets to talk when. The fact that I was eating with this group of men when those who basically run the village were either outside with the group of less important men, or serving us, just blows my mind. It has to do with status here, which is often established by birth or position rather than your achievements. And while it makes me more than a little uncomfortable, I’m a white westerner, and that seems to override even the fact that I’m a woman, and a young one, at that.

After that, I planned to head home to rest a bit before meeting up with the big shots again to receive a visiting minister from Nouakchott. I stumble across a wedding on my way home. Hopefully this gives you an idea of what I meant in my last entry, about the male and female spheres. I have to fit into both, and the transition from one to the other is often very abrupt. Now its time for me to sit around with the women. I eat (again), listen to some music, then decide I really have to get home if I’m going to be able to function later.

Ten minutes after I settle onto my matela in my room for a nap, Rouqaya and a group of about twenty other women get home from the wedding and plop down in the courtyard about ten yards from my door. Groups of women here are loud. The scream and laugh and sing and smack each other (and each other’s kids). It’s a circus, and it’s a little overwhelming. Needless to say, I didn’t get any sleep.

Half an hour later, I’m up again for a bucket bath, then I head out to the party that’s being thrown for the visiting minister. I hike from one end of the village to the other at least three times, trying to figure out where the house is. I find it, only to be surrounded by a screaming group of children growing exponentially by the second. My friend Fatimetou rescues me, whisking me away to her house across the street. I give her a quick lesson in French and English. Two hours after his scheduled arrival, the minister shows up with an entourage of at least twenty people (including a truckload of armed soldiers and two random white people working on a nutrition project in Nouakchott; totally unrelated to his work from what I can tell, but they’re white, so why not?). They all walk into the courtyard, a huge crowd gathers around them, the women clap and sing, a cameraman films something at the center of the crowd, and barely five minutes later, they’re all piling back into their Land Rovers and peeling out into the darkness of the desert.

I get home around 8 o’clock, ready to relax after a long day. Rouqaya shows up at my door with this kid who’s been trying to do my laundry, to explain to me why he’s been sending me phone credit (cell phones here are pay as you go, and you can transfer credit from one phone to another through text messaging). This conversation takes about half an hour. I’m still not exactly sure what was going on there: something to do with a woman I bought soap from.

It’s 9:30 now, almost time for dinner. I’ll spend the next half an hour watching Al Jazeera with my family, eat some couscous, and then collapse onto my matela in the courtyard to sleep under the stars.


from 10/15

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mauritanian women lately. In Moorish culture, life can be seen as consisting of a male sphere and a female sphere. The two overlap, of course, but women generally spend their time with other women. Since the women here speak no French whatsoever, its been hard for me to break into the female sphere. I hang out with them, but only recently have I been able to talk about anything other than where I’m from, what I’m doing here (in extremely basic terms), and whether or not I’m married. Also, there’s the fact that, on a personal level, I can relate more with the men. Luckily, I’m kind of an honorary man here, but it makes it even harder to figure out how I should behave in certain situations.

I wrote a little before about the female preoccupation with marriage, but I oversimplified it. It’s not just a question of money, of course. When I wrote that, I assumed that women here would want to pursue other life paths if given the opportunity. I was trying to understand Mauritanian culture through the lens of my experience as an American woman who values independence and self-sufficiency. Mauritanian values are dictated by religion, and here, it seems, marriage is a value in and of itself. I was talking (through a male teacher who was translating for us) with a female teacher about the goals of my program. I explained that I want to encourage girls to complete their education and to provide them with the ideas and skills to make more informed decisions about their futures. Of course, marriage came up, as it’s one of the major reasons why girls drop out of school. The woman wasn’t married, and I was thinking, great, here is a woman who sees the value in pursuing a life independent of a man and a family. Wrong. Even she thinks marriage is more important than being able to support herself (which she probably sees as a burden).

I’m going to have to adjust my motivations for working in the GEE sector. It’s going to be difficult (if not impossible) to change this mentality. This is a society that doesn’t believe in birth control because however many children they wind up having is god’s will (as is pretty much everything else that happens here, which explains the apathy to the political situation). I know there are a few women who do practice birth control, but its very secretive. It’s going to take a while before I have the cultural knowledge to be able to advocate things like family planning. In terms of encouraging girls to become active in the public sphere (to the extent that it exists, which is very little, outside of the bigger cities), I have to accept that marriage and family take priority over everything else. Basically, I have to reconcile my goals (and western ideals) with the Mauritanian system of values. Which I always knew I was going to have to do, I’m just starting to realize exactly how that’s going to affect my agenda.

For a while, at least, I’m going to have to focus on things that can improve their quality of life as it is, like health precautions (hygiene, nutrition, vaccinations) and general education. I get frustrated when people push me for lessons in English and computers, when, really, those things aren’t going to have much of an impact. Who cares if a handful of women in a village of a thousand people 40 kilometers from a city that is minimally connected to the world at large can speak some basic phrases in English? Most of them will never leave Ain, and if they do, more than likely it’ll be because they marry someone from another village. On the other hand, I value education as a goal in and of itself, and even if I only get through to one girl at a fundamental level, she’ll be able to apply those new values in the way she raises her own family. It’s a painfully slow process, this development thing. And it’s so much more than convincing girls to go to school. The economic and political situation of this country are shaky, at best. Even men with an education can do very little with it here.

Mauritanians realize that they’re without, but they‘re generally happy. I have yet to discover what they think is the cause of their disadvantage. Religion seems to be the under-lying obstacle for my sector, but how can I presume to say that something is fundamentally wrong with the way they’re living their lives? Who’s to say that one system of values is better than another? Children aren’t dying of starvation here. No one is homeless. Gun violence and drug addiction are unheard of. Every society has it’s problems, and the best I can do is help them solve those they perceive in their own society without passing judgment, and hopefully introduce some new ideas along the way.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


For those of you who can't access Facebook, click here for my photos from training. Most of them were posted here at some point, but some weren't.

Also, I know I didn't get to share all of my photos from China, so here are the links to those albums as well:
China 2!
China 3!

A Good Life

Finally updated my posts (see below). Enjoy!

I got into Atar yesterday to pick up some English lesson plans. School is supposedly starting Sunday (the teachers here ended the last school year striking, so we're not really sure what's going to happen - also, school rarely starts on time in general). I'm still working out the details of the night classes I'll be teaching. My Hassaniye is coming along, but it's still a major issue. Also, I discovered that my counterpart and the mayor of my village have some misguided ideas about how money factors into my work. Long story short: the mayor doesn't think he has to pay the electric bill at my GMC and my counterpart thinks she can make money off of my teaching to pay the bill (and probably make a profit as well). My language skills are not quite up to the task of working this situation out, so I have to get in contact with my APCD (supervisor, of sorts) in Nouakchott to explain what is and is not allowed.

Other than that, life is going really well. This past week, I've absolutely loved being in my village. I can't remember the last time I had the feeling of being isolated and adrift I used to get sometimes the first few weeks at site. My work still overwhelms me when I think about it too much (both the extent of it and how effective it will actually be), but I'm just taking it one step at a time.

I've fallen completely in love with my family. My relationship with my family in Rosso was cordial and generally friendly, but a little distant. I realize now that was because they kind of sucked. My mom was polite and I never needed anything, but she didn't put much effort into making me part of the family. She was always yelling at and smacking around the kids, who were always screaming and crying, understandably. It didn't exactly make for a happy home environment. But my family here is totally different, and like I said, they're awesome.

Hadrami is my host father. He's probably about 55 years old, but he looks like he's 90. He owns a boutique on the gadrone, but his kids have been keeping it going recently because he's been sick. I'm not sure if he's going to go back to work at all. He's pretty old school, and since women and men traditionally don't interact casually if they're not in the same family, I think he doesn't really know what to do with me.

Zeinabou, his wife, is the cutest little lady you've ever met. She's the matriarch of the household, and generally oversees the housework (but her daughters do most of it). She's always laughing. She surprises me with random words in English sometimes, so I tease her about how she secretly knows English better than I do. She's incredibly patient with me. She always seems to know how to explain something to me when nobody else can get a point across.

Rouqaya, their oldest daughter, is my counterpart. She's married, but her husband lives and works in Nouakchott. She helps me the most with my Hassaniye. She's surprisingly receptive to my strange American ideas about girls education and nutrition and health. Her daughter, Tikber, is about 6 months old and is adorable. I make faces at her, and she giggles and scrunches up her nose at me. So cute!

Rouqaya has two younger sisters: Fatimetou and Aichetou. Fatimetou is about 14 years old. She's kind of shy and she studies every day, which is almost unheard of here. Especially for a girl. I've told you a little bit about Aichetou. She's married, and sometimes I forget she's only 12 years old. Girls here take on a lot of the household responsibilities at a very young age. But she still gets to act like a little girl from time to time. She's really playful, and totally infatuated with me. She likes to come in my room and just sit and watch whatever I'm doing, which is flattering but a little annoying at times. Still, she's a sweetheart, and we get along well.

I also have a few host brothers, which I didn't discover until recently. One of them, Dahmoud, lives with the family, but he's never around. He seems really nice, and he always smiles and responds when I talk to him, but I think he doesn't really know what to do with me, either. He's maybe 20. I think there are two other brothers, but I'm pretty sure neither one of them lives at home. Still figuring that out. Obviously, I don't know any of them very well yet.

Family time is best when it's just the women. We sit around making fun of each other and bickering and being bored and entertaining each other. Having never had sisters, it's a little foreign to me (ha), but it a good way.

I've been so focused on establishing myself socially, it's hard to switch gears and start thinking about work. Especially since most of the people I've been hanging out with (women), don't do work in the general 9-5 sense. They don't understand when I tell them I can't sit around by the side of the road all day and chat because I actually have things I should be doing. But now the holiday is over and I'm going to start being productive. I can't believe it's already almost half way through October!

“Ead”, which means "holiday", and is not, in fact, the name of the holiday we just celebrated to mark the end of Ramadan

from 9/3

I got back to site (from Atar) the 30th of September, the last day of Ramadan. The day after is a big fete (holiday). Mauritanians dress up in new clothes and go around visiting friends and family and eating yummy food all day. Another volunteer came back with me to see my site but also to experience the holiday. Ramadan begins and ends according to the phases of the moon. Nobody here knows in advance when those are, so they watch the news the find out when the holiday is going to be. They usually don’t know until the night before. Some people won’t celebrate until they see the new moon themselves, which means they end up celebrating a day late.

Aly and I went to bed before we found out when the fete was supposed to be, so we woke up the morning of and had to ask. It was pretty obvious, though; my family was dressed in their best and people were already visiting by the time we went to investigate. The events of the day weren’t that different from any other non-work, pre-Ramadan day, but everyone was just so happy that Ramadan was over, the excitement was contagious.

We started the day with a typical round of tea. Then they brought out dates, which we eat here all the time, but they had made this delicious cheesy, creamy dip. Yum. Then they brought out a special tajiin: a plate full of goat organs. I had heard of volunteers being presented with this dish before, but my experience with organs had been limited to maybe some stomach or a little bit of intestine thrown in with some meat in the middle of a bowl of couscous or rice. This was just a big pile of every organ imaginable. I stayed away from the intestine (on principle), and I haven’t been able to get past the fact that stomach looks like pieces of terry-cloth (and honestly, can stomach even be digested?). The lung was decent (but squishy), and the heart was delicious. I had some other non-descript delicacies. Rouqaya ate the testicles. I couldn’t bring myself to be quite that adventurous. Still, I’ve come a long way since the kidney incident in Strasbourg, haven’t I, Mom? Brains!! :)

The rest of the day consisted of more tea and relaxing with the family and their visitors. Someone was trying to explain to Aly and I that “ead”, which is how everyone was referring to the holiday, was three days. We took this to mean that the holiday we were currently celebrating was three days long, so we thought we had plenty of time to make the rounds and visit everyone. Turns out “ead” just means “holiday”, and they were trying to explain that there are three major holidays every year. We didn’t figure that out until the next day. Oops.

My friend Fatimatou came over in the evening and took us to a friend’s house. One thing that I love about people here is that they meet you once and you’re automatically friends. Fatimatou left, and Aly and I just hung out at her friend’s house, drinking tea and trying to communicate, with typically comical results. People here are so friendly, and they love to joke and tease, even if they just met you. They invited us to a wedding that night. We spent the rest of the evening visiting with Fatimatou’s family, then Aly and I came home to eat dinner before she came over to go to the wedding with us.

Weddings are huge, three-day parties. I have yet to experience the whole affair. They set up in someone’s courtyard or in the street. Everyone sits around on the ground in clumps, and they bring out tom-toms (drums) and the women clap and sing and try to convince each other to get up and dance. Usually they have a real band at least one night. Mostly it’s just a big group of women; the men either loiter around outside or hover on the edges of the group. I think the rules about men and women interacting are a little different depending on whether it’s a black or white Moor wedding.

Anyway, I was a little disappointed after we discovered yesterday that the fete was over. I couldn’t help getting swept up in the excitement of it all, and it was awesome having a visitor for the holiday. I realized how much I enjoy being here. I am amazed by how much I feel like a member of my family and my community. Its little things. This morning, for example, my host mother, who is the cutest little old lady, brought Aly and I a plate of mutton. It was 9 o’clock in the morning, and grilled meat was the last thing on my mind, but it was such a sweet gesture. Or the friends who chase off the obnoxious little kids that inevitably follow me around screaming for cadeaux (presents). They’re just so genuinely concerned about me. And I so genuinely enjoy their company. Obviously, there are times when I get frustrated. That’s unavoidable, with the language barrier. And I definitely struggle with significant aspects of Mauritanian culture (not least of which are the attitude towards women and the blind adherence to religion). But I’m learning that certain human values are universal and that people in this world have more in common than we realize.

I have a kitchen!

from 9/22

Ok, it’s really just a little twin set of burners on the floor of my room hooked up to a gas tank, but it’s one of the best things that’s happened to me since I got here! I’m still going to eat with my family pretty often, but now at least I’ll have the option to do my own thing if I want. I missed being able to decide when (and what) I eat.

Here’s what I have access to regularly: lentils, beans, canned corn, green beans, chick peas, tomatoes, onions, carrots, potatoes, milk, eggs, rice, pasta, tomato paste, garlic, basic spices (bay leaves, black and red pepper, pepper, cumin). Sometimes I can get veggies (bell peppers, cabbage, cucumbers) and fruit (apples, bananas, oranges, mango) in Atar. I have a lot to work with, but the basics are going to get old pretty quick, so any creative recipes would be much appreciated!


from 9/19

For me, this month has been a lot of settling in, getting to know people, and getting used to the idea that this tiny desert village is home. For everyone else, it’s been a month of fasting. My experience of Ramadan hasn’t exactly been the norm because Rouqaya is breast-feeding and doesn’t fast. Most people wake up around 4:30 to pray and eat, then lounge/sleep through the day until 7:00 PM, which is when they break fast with tea, bread, dates, and something resembling cream of wheat called inshe. Everyone’s pretty miserable, especially towards the end of the day, and not much in the way of work gets done. Even with Rouqaya for non-miserable company, it’s been a very slow month.

Generally, I wake up around 7:30 or 8:00 and go for a run. Afterwards, I stop at the gadrone (the road from Nouakchott to Atar that runs through my village) to buy bread. The same women are there everyday, and I’ve gotten to know them, so I usually hang out for a bit. If they had their way, I would spend all morning bullshitting with them. Seriously, one of the girls gets mad when I leave, which bothered me at first, but that’s how it is here. Friends sit around with each other for hours, just doing nothing. It’s hard to get used to. I can’t help feeling like I should be doing something.

After that, I come home, eat, bathe, do laundry, whatever. If I have anything work related to do, I’ll do it in the morning before it gets too hot. I have tea with my family around 11, have lunch around 1 or 2, then lounge around inside until about 4:00 when the sun starts to go down. Then I’ll either lounge around outside or go for a hike.

My host family owns a boutique (a little market) on the gadrone. Rouqaya’s father, Hadrami, works there during the day. At 7:00, Rouqaya goes to relieve him while he breaks fasts and goes to the mosque to pray. Working at the boutique just involves laying around drinking tea and helping the occasional customers that wander in from time to time. Usually, one of her sisters and I will go to help and keep each other company. We close up around 9 or 10, come home and have tajiin. Tajiin is like a first dinner for Mauritanians, but I never make it to real dinner. As far as I can tell, they haven’t been eating real dinner until 11:30 or 12:00, which makes sense since they’re not eating during the day.

I’ve discovered that my twelve year old sister, Aichetou, is married to a 45 year old man who lives in Atar. Early marriage is still relatively common in Mauritania for a number of reasons but mostly money. Women are the responsibility of either their father or their husband, so the easiest way for a father to find relief from any financial trouble is to marry off one of his daughters. He no longer has to provide for her, and if the husband is well off, he’ll help take care of the rest of the family in times of need.

As a result, marriage is the main priority of Mauritanian women, especially in the smaller villages. Their main goal in life is to fulfill their roles as housekeeper and child barer. When I meet a woman for the first time, it’s almost guaranteed she’ll ask me whether or not I’m married within the first three minutes of conversation. My standard explanation for being single is that I want to go back to school when I go back to the States, but mostly they don’t understand why I would forgo marriage for an education. Or any other reason that could possibly keep me from getting married by the ripe old age of 22.

That being said, I’m pretty sure my village is plotting to have me marry a local school teacher, Hamdy. The last PCV to serve here (I think this was around 2000) married a Mauritanian from the village, which makes it a lot harder for me to convince people that I’m not secretly looking for a husband. Hamdy is probably in his early thirties and speaks French. I never thought this day would come, but speaking French is a huge relief for me after going days on end trying to make myself understood in Hassaniye. And he’s super nice. I went to greet him yesterday, and the next thing I knew, I was joining him on a “petite voyage”, which turned out to be a six hour trek. He took me to some farmland about 10 kilometers south of Ain, and we spent the day hanging out with the workers there. First we hiked for a bit, then we sat under a bush and had tea with some guys, then we hiked some more and had lunch under another bush with some other guys, then we followed around a camel for a while. Pretty sweet.

Now, of course, everyone is teasing me about my “habiib” (boyfriend). Luckily, its easy to take as a joke, and I think Hamdy could actually be a good friend. He’s very well respected in the community, and he wouldn’t do anything that could be construed as improper. He even asked Hadrami’s permission before taking me on that little trip, which is a good thing because I’m obviously totally oblivious to the rules.

Case in point: before I went into Atar last weekend, I told Rouqaya that I would be in town for a couple of days. The night before I left, I was eating with Hadrami. It came up that I was going to Atar the next day, and he mentioned that I hadn’t asked his permission. I hadn’t even dawned on me. So, not wanting to seem disrespectful, I asked if it would be alright, and he didn‘t have a problem with it. I ended up staying in Atar longer than I had told him I would, and apparently I was supposed to ask about that, too. I’m not sure what to make of this whole asking permission thing. I know I need to keep up the appearance that he’s in charge. He considers me a member of his household, and as such, I’m his responsibility, like one of his daughters. I think he’d even marry me off (and reap the benefits!) if I chose someone he deemed acceptable. When it comes down to it, though, I’m going to do what I want, so hopefully its just a question of respecting formalities.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

(Not So) Briefly

Hello again! I'm back in Atar for a couple of days, and I have been writing lots of posts at site, but unfortunately, coming into town was a little last minute and I forgot to bring the files in. So, you'll have to wait a little longer for all of the wonderfully random thoughts that have been accumulating over the past few weeks. I just wanted to say hi and give a quick update.

The end of the month marks the end of Ramadan and the end of the routine I have finally established at site. Ramadan is a month of fasting during daylight hours, which effects Mauritanians' entire daily routine. They wake up (and, by default, I wake up) around 4:30 with the first call to prayer. They eat a meal before the sun rises, then go back to sleep. Any work that gets done during this month is done in the morning, before people start to get too cranky and tired. The afternoons are usually spent lounging/napping. At 7:00, they break fast, then stay up for most of the rest of the night, taking advantage of the nighttime to eat good food and enjoy not being hungry. Rinse and repeat.

At the end of Ramadan, there's a huge party. I'll be back in my village, and a friend is coming with me, so it should be a lot of fun. After that, I'll hopefully get to start working in earnest, which will mean a whole new routine for me.

So much change in such a short period of time! It's been a good month, considering. Obviously, I've had my ups and downs, but I've settled in, both materially and mentally. These first few months are supposedly the toughest for a new volunteer. While I can't say I've been consistently happy since I got to site, I've never been unhappy, and I've definitely never regretted my decision to do this. And I've been making friends, which make a world of difference. For the toughest month of service, that's not bad!

I know this post is a little vague and obviously not the insight into Mauritanian life I promised a couple of weeks ago, but like I said, you'll get lots of fun details next time I come into town.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Back to Site

I'm leaving for site today, so this is my last post for a couple of weeks, inshallah. Just a few notes:

Here's Julie's blog for those of you who were interested. She's been in Peace Corps Philippines for about a month now.

I have a new mailing address for Atar:

Elise Szabo
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 24
Atar, Mauritania
West Africa

I should mention the title change. "Nasrani" is the Hassaniye equivalent of "Toubab". I only ever heard "toubab" in Rosso, even from the Moorish kids, and I don't get "nasrani" here nearly as much as I got "toubab" down there. Still, for authenticity's sake, I figured I go ahead and change it.

I'm showing my counterpart the GMC here in Atar today before I go back to site, which is why I ended up staying so long. My trips into town will usually only be for the weekend (Friday and Saturday). I had been wanting to show Rouqaya the GMC to give her a better idea of what I'm trying to do, and she was having some trouble working it into her schedule so this was the perfect opportunity. I'm hoping she'll also be able to meet with the regional official from the Condition Feminine (government ministry for women's promotion). If all goes according to plan, I'll have taken some huge steps towards getting real work done.

Hope everything is well in all your various corners of the world. I've gotten spoiled the last few days, being able to get in touch with everyone! Love and miss you lots.

"The Technologies of Peace"

Someone recently sent around this article on Peace Corps in the Harvard International Review and it got me thinking. It addresses two separate but related issues: the need for a better funded PC and the role of increased access to technology in the PC mission.

A better funded PC could be an invaluable tool in improving the US image and our ability to project soft power abroad. Slabbert's Niger example (PC wanting to give training to recently elected local officials in that country) would have been a fabulous opportunity to demonstrate a genuine American committment to democracy, and a much more effective one than our current misguided attempts. The refusal to allocate $200,000 to the project attests to the current administration's bizarre definition of democracy (not to mention its disregard for other "US core national values"). I hope the next administration has a better appreciation for the value of Peace Corps's work and its potential for contributing to a constructive foreign policy.

On the second issue, I'm not sure that giving PCVs unrestricted access to technology would have the sort of magical benefits the article suggests. The access to information would be helpful, but the skillsets of the people we work with don't necessarily lend themselves to being "plugged in". Training in information technology can be instrumental in improving quality of life under certain circumstances, but the human element is so much more important to our effectiveness. The money it would take to equip us all and maintain that equiptment would be better spent expanding PC operations (I especially like Carter's idea of PC being politically neutral, within the bounds of security).

We have relatively regular access to the outside world, obviously, with the technology currently available to us. That being said, I wouldn't mind an upgrade. :) I'm just skeptical of technology being touted as the next revolution in development. Additionally, the image of the US abroad won't be improved by plopping someone down in front of a computer. That requires human interaction, cultural exchange, and a sincere interest in improving the lives of those we serve.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Play by Play: Jolly Ranchers and Kansas

Right now, I'm eating massive amounts of candy and jamming to classic rock hits with Brandon. In air conditioning. Oh, joy.


Back to Reality?

I can't believe it hasn't even been two weeks since I left for site! Time moves very slowly here. To be more precise, the days go by very slowly. Weeks and months seem to fly by.

Anyway, I'm in Atar right now for a little decompression time. Here's some of my initial thoughts on life so far as a PCV:

Moving to site has been easier than I thought it would be in some ways and exactly what I thought it would be in others. Living with a family hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be. They’re pretty good at giving me space, and it’s been a lot easier to socialize and get acquainted with the community because of them. My counterpart, Rouqaya, specifically. At first I wasn’t sure whether she would get involved in my work other than introducing me to people, but lately she’s been explaining why I’m here and discussing my possible roles with the community, which makes my life a lot easier. For one, my language skills are limited at best, and my ability to assess what the community wants from me is equally limited. Rouqaya only speaks Hassaniye, but she’s patient with me, and she knows what words to use so that I’ll understand.

The language barrier is probably the most frustrating thing for me right now. Last night, for example, I was invited to attend a meeting on development in Ain. All the community leaders were there, and I’m sure some really interesting things were said, but it was all in Hassaniye, so who knows. At the very least, it was a good networking opportunity. If I can’t do anything else in Hassaniye, at least I know how to greet people. :) I’m definitely learning, though, so hopefully in a few months I’ll be able to have a substantive conversation.

Things I miss about home: not waking up in a pool of my own sweat, looking pretty, the red line, book stores, happy hour (specifically, that little martini place by the Adams Morgan metro with the awesome Friday night special), burgers, burritos, Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, iced tea, cold beer, washing machines, live music, speaking English, tall trees, bagels and cream cheese, coffee, newspapers, bacon (apparently, breakfast in general), bodies of water, wearing pants, showers, grilling, football season

Things I don’t miss about home: having to look pretty, bras, my job, commuting to my job, being plugged in 24/7, CNN, alarm clocks

I thought that second list would be a little longer, but there’s a lot I like about being here that has nothing to do with not being at home: Mauritanian hospitality, the fact that life doesn’t revolve around work, the focus on family, the sense of community, not rushing around all the time, being able to read all those books I never got around to at home. On the other hand, the constant focus on people and being together can feel smothering at times.

I feel like I haven't done a very good job conveying what life in this country is like. I'm going to try to remedy that over my next few posts.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Moving on Out

No time to write, but I'm officially a PCV now! I'm in Atar until this afternoon. The past few days have been nuts, and I just had my first real cultural gaffe which will probably have a lasting impact on my relationship with the person. Crap. I still don't have the new phone yet, but I'm trying to buy it today. Let you all know the number when I can. Got some awesome packages. You all are the best. I miss you and love you and I'm thinking about you lots right now.

Monday, August 25, 2008

To Hell with Good Intentions

So right after I wrote that last post, I had to read this speech by Ivan Illich for a cross-cultural session and write a little bit about it. It touches on some of the concerns I have about my service here, which I mentioned in "Development" (particularly the need to consider and incorporate local culture in development), but Illich is much more condemnatory. He views the American international development mission as not only culturally insensitive but just plain disrespectful. He feels that on no level can the middle-class American volunteer relate to the poor and/or underprivileged that (s)he claims to serve. Most provocatively, he suggests that the American interest in international development (as promoted by the U.S. government through Peace Corps, for example) is to stimulate the development of a consumer class abroad.

Illich was speaking in 1968, and his views reflect the cynicism of Latin Americans toward the U.S. at the time. His speech was also made to a group of volunteers who had only committed to serve for a few weeks or months, which I think makes a huge difference. You can't do much in two months, whereas two years gives you time to learn about and appreciate the culture.

Anyway, I have plenty to say about this subject, but I'm really interested to read everyone's thoughts, so please comment!


We’re leaving for our sites in less than a week, and I’ve been thinking more and more about what exactly I’m going to be doing for the next two years. I’m supposed to be training local Mauritanians, women in particular, to encourage and facilitate the education and empowerment of girls in their community. Peace Corps’ buzz word is “sustainability”, which means we’re technically not supposed to be doing the educating and empowering ourselves. The idea is to train host country nationals to do that, so that when we leave the process will continue. Basically, we’re working to make ourselves obsolete. Definitely an idea I can get behind, but I’m not sure how often that actually happens. If all the PCVs left Mauritania today, I have no idea which projects would continue in their absence, how effective they would be, and for how long. I’ll probably get a better feel for this once I actually start working, but its interesting to think about.

On another level, our work is supposed to impact general mentalities and social norms. All the sectors (Girls’ Education and Empowerment, Health, Environmental Education, English Education, Agro-forestry, and Small Enterprise Development) obviously target these to some extent, but I think GEE has more to do with culture than any of the others. The hard part of my job is going to be reaching across that cultural divide. I’m thinking that one of my most powerful assets as a GEE volunteer will be the example I set as a woman with a college degree, working on her own in a foreign country. On the other hand, it might be easy for girls to look at that and think, well, she can do that because she’s American, she’s not one of us.

As a foreigner, I’m definitely exempt from certain social and cultural norms. Taking advantage of those exemptions (consciously, not when I’m just being a silly, oblivious toubab) is something I’m going to have to think about, since it differentiates me from the girls I’m supposed to be mentoring.

I’m rambling at this point, and I have a lot more I’ve been thinking about, but I‘ll get into all this in another post: how the culture stands in direct opposition in certain respects to our idea of development, and whether or not it’s worth changing or losing parts of that culture (or even possible) in the name of development. Also, focusing on something like girl’s education when they’re not even getting enough nutritional value out of their food to grow hair, for example.

Of course, girls’ education is invaluable in terms of women‘s rights, and promoting women in development is one of the most efficient ways of promoting development itself, since educated and empowered women are that much more capable of contributing to society. In reality, though, I’m not under the impression I’m going to be shaking the foundation of gender roles in Mauritanian society over the next two years. The big gain out of this experience is going to be mine, and the biggest impact I’ll have on my village will be the little exposure to another culture my being there will provide.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Family Pics

Had to use my friend's camera, but I managed to get some good ones. I also took an awesome video of my three year old brother dancing like Shakira, but I'm having some problems uploading it. Check back soon; it's totally worth it!

Model GMC

I feel like its been a little while since the last time I posted. I’ve actually been busy! Everyone just moved back to the center. It was a little weird leaving my family, even though I'll probably go back and say good-bye again before I leave for good.

Hm, what have I been doing since I last posted...I taught my first GEE lesson on nutrition with another trainee, Amanda. It went alright; I think we both learned a lot. I gave a second lesson on PowerPoint with Pablo (Semper Reformanda, for those of you who have been checking out his blog) that went a lot better. It was kind of a rush, actually. First of all, I’ve gotten back to my old comfort level with French, which has been super helpful for teaching (even though I’ll probably be doing most of my communication in Hassaniye at site, it’s good to know I can get around basically everywhere else).

Second, watching these girls doing something useful on the computer that they couldn’t do before was great. Luckily, they already had some experience with computers, which made our job a lot easier. Some of the other trainees had to give lessons on how to use a mouse. That might have been better practice for me though, since the girls at my center likely won’t have touched a computer before.

The girls we taught were exceptional. A good chunk of them had finished lycee (high school), some had even passed their BAC and are going to university in Nouakchott. Total rock stars. They don’t even go to the GMC here in Rosso because they’re so busy doing all the things that we’re encouraging girls here to do: getting out of the house, finishing school, going to university and hopefully starting a career.

Model GMC has been over for about a week, and I've mostly been working on my Hassaniye since then. It's been coming along. Something clicked for me this past week, like I just woke up one day and realized I could actually hold a conversation. Very cool. And necessary, since I'm getting tested either tomorrow or Tuesday.

Also, I'm giving a speech in Hassaniye at the swear-in ceremony! Someone from each language (Hassaniya, Pulaar, Wolof, Soninke, and French) is giving the same speech, I guess so that Peace Corps can show that we've actually learned something. It would have been nice if we could have written our own speech, but it's definitely easier this way. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Day in the Life

As per Mom's request, I'm going to give you an idea of what my day to day life is like here.

I wake up around 7:00 for my 8:00 language class. Usually I'll meet up with some other the other five PCTs in my class on the way. We have class until 12:30, and then we head home. I'll hang out with my family for a little bit, maybe practice some Hassaniya or read, then we'll eat lunch around 1:30 or 2:00. Usually we have marru w'il huut, which is basically a big bowl of rice, with some fish and a few cooked veggies in the midddle. Everyone eats out of the same bowl with their right hands (left hands are strictly off limits). I try to nap after lunch, and then I have class again from 4-6:30.

After that, sometimes people head to the local restaurant, which is a little store-front type place with plastic lawn furniture and a TV. They serve "burgers", which are pretty much french baguettes with some chopped up meat, fries, mayo and ketchup. Not my favorite dish, ha. They also do these sort of half fried, half scrambled eggs, which are pretty decent. The owner is really nice; he let's us hang out for as long as we want, and most of the time we don't even buy anything. So sometimes we'll do that, sometimes we'll stop at the internet cafe, sometimes we'll just wander. The nice thing about living in Rosso is that I'm around a lot of other PCTs.

Weekends are usually spent finding new ways to kill time. We do a lot of sitting around trying to read or nap but usually sweating too much to do either. I drink a lot of tea with my family. Do laundry. In the mornings, a bunch of PCTs meet up to play soccer or football or something. I run sometimes. This weekend we're actually organizing a 6 K race out to one of the brousse sites, which should be fun. At the very least, it'll give us something to do, ha. We go on walks outside of town when the temperature drops. Sometimes I'll give an English lesson.

So that's pretty much it. We also have sessions at the center every once in a while. Right now, GEE is in model GMC, which means we get to plan and teach our own lessons to some of the local girls. So GEE trainees do that in the mornings, instead of language class. Model GMC is really good practice, but we're getting tested in Hassaniya in two weeks and I need all the class time I can get, so it's a trade-off. Also, I'm not going to be teaching any classes until I get my GMC set up, which won't be until January at the absolute earliest.

To answer Mom's question about me being on my own at site: that's not going to change. And I'm not the only one who's going to be at site by myself. I'd like to think that they chose us to be on our own for a reason, and that they considered the site itself when deciding whether or not to put more than one volunteer there. Who knows. Either way, I'm very close to Atar. I can travel in region whenever I feel the urge to see another volunteer. Obviously, they want you to spend most of your time at site, but I'm not really that worried about it. I might get bored, and I'm sure there will be times when I wish I had another American there, but in the long run I don't think it's going to be that big a deal. And who knows, maybe next year they'll give me a site mate! In the mean time, I'll do a lot of reading, a lot of sitting, drinking tea, eating dates, gardening, hiking, running, writing, and, of course, educating and empowering Mauritania girls.

Ok, that's it for now. My partner and I are giving our lesson on Friday, so I'll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Post-Coup Mauritania

I'm sure by now most of you have heard that the president was arrested a few days ago and the military has taken control of the government. Life under military rule has been pretty much same old (but it's still crazy to think about). I was on a break from language class when my friend texted me from brousse, "There was a coup d'etat in Nouakchott." I had been aware that people had some issues with the president, but I was caught completely off gaurd. It doesn't help that we're supposed to avoid conversations about politics with Mauritanians, but we asked our facilitator about it and he actually laughed. Apparently, this is the fifth coup he's lived through, so it's old hat at this point.

I did ask some other Mauritanians how they feel about the coup, which has given me some insight into not only the current situation but the political culture in general. But I've had to keep my inquiries pretty neutral. It's almost comical that we can't discuss politics (or religion), since most of us studied poli-sci, international relations, or some other related subject in school. I've definately had to resist responding to some provocative statements.

In terms of my work, I don't think the coup will have much of an impact. Peace Corps isn't going anywhere, and as far as I can tell, the funding that my sector relies on is still flowing. For other development/aid efforts, though, any suspension of international aid will definately be felt throughout the country (UNHCR does a lot of work in this part of the country relocating refugees from Senegal, for example). IRIN has some good information on everything that's been going on here.

Anyway, I'm safe and sound, of course. All the frantic phone calls/emails made me feel really loved, so thanks!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Site Visit

I'm back from site visit! What an awesome week. The day after our sites were announced, we all shipped out. People from the same region traveled together in caravans. I was in a Peace Corps truck, which was air conditioned (woohoo!). Most people were not so lucky and got stuck in taxi brousses, which are basically 20 year old station wagons or pick up trucks that pack as many people as possible and will take you anywhere in the country you need to go. I got to ride one of those on the way home. Not fun.

We left at about 7:30 in the morning, stopped in the capital, Nouakchott, for lunch and a pit stop at the building where the country Peace Corps office is located. That was a trip. Nouakchott is nothing compared to NY or Paris or even DC, but as far as Mauritania goes, the place is heaven. The PC building is the largest in the country (10 whole floors!), and has escalators (which don't seem to actually work, but still!) and bathrooms with toilet paper and everything.It was a little overwhelming, being in an actual city environment again, and I've only been here for a month! I can't imagine what it's going to be like the first time I get back to civilization.

Anyway, we got in around 7:30 that night. Atar is beautiful. The surrounding region is gorgeous (see pictures), and the city itself is well kept since it's a big tourist destination.

Spent the night at a volunteer's house, which was like being on vacation (electricity, running water, shower head, fridge, stove, chocolate pie, illicit substances).

The next day we all did protocol, which is something you have to do in Mauritania to get anything done. You have to get permission for the work you want to do from a number of officials, in order of rank from lowest to highest, unless what you're doing involves large amounts of funding, in which case you're supposed to go from the bottom up. It seems like a huge waste of time cause some officials don't know what the hell you're doing there and some do and just don't care and some don't speak any language you speak, so it can be frustrating. Luckily, everyone I met that day seemed happy to have us and at least willing to give us the time of day, which was encouraging. On the other hand, I'm not going to be working with those guys too often since my site isn't actually Atar. But they still need to know I'm there.

After protocol, I went out to Ain Eheltaya with Beddih, one of the language facilitators, who luckily speaks French cause my community contact, Rouqaya, only speaks Hassaniya (we all have these people, either community contacts or counterparts, which are supposed to at the very least introduce us to the community and help us integrate, and at best will end up being work partners.) Ain Eheltaya is a pretty cute little village. There are a ton of palm trees (the Adrar region is famous for it's dates), and it's nestled up against the side of this canyon. And it doesn't seem to be too conservative. I think it's primarily a Moorish community, both black and white, and I had thought that Moorish communities are mostly conservative. That may be true compared to the other ethnic groups in Mauritania (Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof), but I think the Moors in the east are more conservative than in the north, which is where I am. I felt totally comfortable running in the mornings and walked around with my head uncovered. Such a relief. If I had to run around in a mulafa for the next two years I'm pretty sure I'd be miserable. I mean, they're pretty, but they never stay on right and they're hot, and when it really comes down to it, the concept of women having to cover up like that doesn't exactly jibe with my sense of morality.

We stayed with Rouqaya for three nights. She lives in a fairly large compound with her three younger sisters (they're probably about 15, 13, and 7, respectively, and she's probably 25), and her 6 month old baby. I don't think she's married, which is fine with me cause I don't have to worry about having a man around. I'm probably going to end up renting a room out of her compound, which her father owns. It's a big room with electricity, and they're going to wall off a section of the compound so I can have my own space, which is essential for me. I originally wanted to live on my own, but there aren't a whole lot of options in my village, and those that are available are pretty crappy (mud huts, no electricity or running water...not something I'm going to deal with if I don't have to). The village has electricity from 7 PM to 2 AM, which is more than enough.

I got to meet some of the village officials and other community members I'll probably end up working with. Everyone seemed really nice and excited that I was there, though I had a tough time explaining exactly what my objectives are. But at least they're enthusiastic. Hopefully the concept of girls' education won't put them off.

So I spent my three days at site meeting people, drinking tea, eating dates, laying around, reading. I'm going to get very good a killing time here. I'm thinking about starting a garden. And I'll be able to go into Atar on the weekends if I want, so I won't go too crazy.

After that I went back to Atar and met up with the other trainees and volunteers. We all went out to a little auberge (hostel type thing) in the brousse (country), which was near an oasis with an awesome watering hole where we got to swim and chill out all day. We spent the night there, but the next morning I got really sick and took a taxi brousse back into town. That was a pretty miserable day. I don't care if there's no humidity, 105 degrees is freaking hot. Luckily I had brought some meds with me and by the end of the day I was exhausted but pretty much better, for the most part. We left the next morning around 6:30, stopped in Nouakchott for pizza and milk shakes (amazing!), and got back into Rosso around 5.

Favorite parts of site visit in no particular order:
- food
- oasis
- getting to know my site mates

My site mates are all awesome, which is good considering that I'll basically be living with them for the next two years. It was kinda sad seeing some good friends being placed in regions far, far away from mine, which means I'll probably only see them every few months, but oh well. Such is life. All in all, a good week. :)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Site Announcements!

I'm going to Ain Eheltaya! We finally had our site announcements this morning. Ain Eheltaya is 40 KM south of Atar, a major regional capital in the north of the country. I'm gonna be the first and only PVC there, so I'll be starting my GMC from scratch!

Most Girl's Education and Empowerment (GEE) volunteers work out of a girl's mentoring center (GMC). GEE as a sector just started a year ago, but a lot of GMCs had been started previously by Education volunteers, so many of the new GEE volunteers were able to continue and expand on the work that was already being done. A few volunteers last year started their own GMCs, and I think there are 6 of us starting new ones this year. Four of those volunteers will be working in pairs as site mates, and another girl and I will be going it alone. Eek! I'm very excited.

Ain Eheltaya is a village of about 5,000 people. From what I can tell, it has running water but no electricity. My info sheet called it a "beautiful and elegant village", and it has palm trees, which is very cool. I'll obviously know more about it after my site visit, which starts tomorrow. It'll probably be a 7 or 8 hour drive, and its on paved roads, so I've heard.

So I'm obviously excited beyond words. Adrenaline is running high all around, and I just seriously can't wait to head out. We've got prep this afternoon, and then a tech session. I'm glad we got all the heavy sessions out of the way before they announced our sites cause I wouldn't have been able to sit still!

I'll probably spend my time in both Ain Eheltaya and Atar, which is where a lot of the volunteers will be and a number of trainees have been placed. It's gonna be awesome to get away for a week and cut loose. Fill you in when I get back!! :)

Saturday, July 19, 2008


As promised, I'm going to jot down some things I've enjoyed so far in Mauritania:

- cool, quiet mornings
- sunset
- the last call to prayer of the day
- showers
- learning Hassaniya
- taking a break from learning Hassaniya
- fresh bread and strawberry jam
- storms
- Biscrem (delicious chocolate-filled cookies)
- fruits/veggies (though these are few and far between)
- Sidi dances: our language facilitator knows how to break it down
- fellow trainees, without whom I would surely have ripped out all my hair by now
- the countless, daily absurdities that, while annoying, do provide comic relief - just another day in Mauritania

Also, I've lost 10 pounds since I've been here, and that's not even dramatic compared to some of the other volunteers. Most people have lost at least that much; some of the guys have dropped more than 20 pounds in the last 4 weeks. Just goes to show what a repetitive diet, constant sweating, chronic dysentary and no booze will do to your body.

Side note: tonight we watched Wall-E on a projector screen! Adorable.

Center Days

Back at the Center now. We spent the day in Mbalal, a brouse site where some of the other GEE trainees are staying. It's gorgeous out there. I'm going to try and post pictures, but the internet is being really slow so check back if they're not up yet.

I don’t think I posted about this at the time, but I dropped my camera in the sand like my second day here. It’s not completely busted, obviously, but I think there’s sand stuck in the lens or something because most of my pictures come out more or less blurry. I try to post the less blurry ones, but they’re still a little off, which sucks.

For anyone trying to send a package, I think I posted the address already, but I wanted to add that you should indicate “West Africa” so that it doesn’t get misplaced and wind up taking a ridiculously long time to get here. Apparently USPS thinks that Mauritania is somewhere in the vicinity of Madagascar or Mauritius. So here’s what the address should look like:

Elise Szabo
Corps de la Paix
B. P. 222
Nouakchott, Mauritania
West Africa

Mail gets distributed from the office in Nouakchott to wherever the volunteer is in country, so you can use that address for as long as I’m here in Mauritania. For those of you who are interested in sending care packages, here’s a list of things I‘ll love you for:

- Gummy bears/Starbursts/any sort of packaged candy that won’t melt too badly (no chocolate), preferably in large quantities
- Dried fruit
- DVDs
- Spices
- Flinstones vitamins

I'll update this list periodically. Thanks guys!


Backlog: 7/18/08

Tomorrow we move back to the center for a few days. They’ll be announcing our permanent sites on Monday, and then we all get shipped off on our site visits for a week! Everyone’s really excited to finally find out where they’re going.

So today was the last weekend day I’ll have to spend with my family for a little while. Not that I don’t like my family, but there’s just nothing to do on the weekends. My language class had an evaluation at 9:00 this morning, and I managed to kill some time afterwards running errands and such. Came home around 11:00, swept my room out (I could throw a frat party with the amount of sand my room collects in a week) and did my laundry (which somehow just ended up dirtier - I really need some practice with the whole doing laundry in a bucket thing). I sat in my room for a few hours before going certifiably stir-crazy, after which I managed to collect some people for a romp in the Sahel.

A storm had come through earlier, so the clouds were moving off in the distance. Once you get a little ways outside the city, the sky just opens up. I can’t even begin to describe it, and these pictures definitely don’t do the scene justice. The sky curves around the flatness of the earth, infinitely far away but just out of reach.

Being out underneath that sky gives me a sense of calmness that usually eludes me here. In the city, I’m constantly on my guard, surrounded by people I don’t completely understand and who are even more baffled by me. Every time I head out to the desert, though, I manage to re-center myself. I don’t even notice it happening.

In other news, I officially confronted my fear of cockroaches tonight by purging my room of one the size of a small cat. I am the man.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Just a quick note, since I just put up plenty of fun reading material: I'm feeling much better now that I finished a round of antibiotics for my Toubab disease. As a side note, I've never be so comfortable discussing my pooping habits.

I wanted to put up pictures, but the upload thingee is being difficult. Next time!

Backlog 7/15: Thoughts

My host mom and I were chatting over dinner tonight. It was a pretty somber conversation. A friend of the family’s died today in a car accident and a number of his friends were injured. Transportation is probably the most dangerous part of living in Mauritania. There are two highways in the country, and by “highway” I mean an unlined, unlit, pockmarked strip of pavement winding through desert. Each highway links the capital with one of two cities: Rosso and some other city who’s name I can’t remember. To get around the rest of the country, people drive on dirt roads which I’m not even sure can accurately be called “roads”, since there’s not much to distinguish them from the rest of the desert floor. Anyway, I’m rambling now, but you get the picture.

So I’m chatting with my mom about this whole incident, and Muslim funerals, and rising food prices (she was shocked to hear that the Post ran a story on the food crisis in Mauritania), and somehow we ended up on the subject of Meme (my grandmother) being sick. I explain to her that my grandparents have been living in a community exclusively for senior citizens, but now Meme has been placed in a home so she can be taken care of. All that sounds bizarre enough, I’m sure, to someone who’s extended family mostly lives within a five minute walking radius of her house, but then she asks me how my grandparents are paying for it. In my broken French, I try to explain the concept of health insurance, which inevitably leads me to comment on how big a problem insurance is in the States. And then I realize, this woman could very well have never seen a certified doctor, never filled a prescription, never seen the inside of a hospital, and I’m trying to tell her that Americans being uninsured or paying too much for health insurance is a big problem. I was completely humbled by that experience.

The other day I gave her some Neosporin for an infected sore behind my brother’s ear that had refused to heal. It was better in two days. All she needed was Neosporin.

I’ve had two reactions to this: overwhelming appreciation for the life available to me as an American and incredulity at the staggeringly low standard of living here. Americans definitely have our issues, and I’m not saying that the U.S. is the best thing the world’s got going, but it’s exponentially better than a lot of what else is out here. I can drive down the street to the CVS for some Neosporin if my weird skin infections don’t go away. In Mauritania, Neosporin is practically a miracle drug.

Ok, that definitely wasn’t a post about how great Mauritania is, but it does make you realize how badly this country and others like it need attention from the rest of the world. It’s good to know I’m doing something right just by being here.

Backlog 7/14: TTATHOOMIM

I’ve finally contracted the Toubab disease, so I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity to vent about a number of Mauritanian absurdities/annoyances:

1. Toubab disease: a mysterious illness inflicting all (Western) foreigners living in Mauritania at one point or another, usually multiple times, and resulting in such pleasant symptoms as diarrhea and/or vomiting. No one knows the ultimate cause or origin of the Toubab disease.

2. The wildlife: various animals which roam freely through the streets in large numbers, consisting of donkeys, goats, chickens of a wide variety, dogs and cats, roaches, flies, spiders, and the occasional rat.

You have not known fear if you have never been awoken from a deep sleep by a donkey braying outside your bedroom window. This also applies to rooster crows and dog/cat fights. The aforementioned occur regularly, though donkeys tend to suffer conniptions during napping hours whereas dog/cat fights usually take place in the late night and rooster crows at an ungodly hour of the morning.

Armies of flies invade the house when the temperature rises above 85 degrees, which usually occurs at the break of dawn. Little short of a power washer will clear them out until the temperature drops again.

3. The walking circus: by that I mean us, the Toubabs. Whether we are walking, talking, or enjoying a mango in the peace and quiet of our own room, we manage to attract a crowd. Usually involving several dozen small children, these crowds will gather behind you as you walk, around you as you talk, or in your bedroom window as you eat, screaming, “Toubab! Toubab!” or “Bonjour, Madame!” regardless of whether you are, in fact, a woman.

These children are also carriers of what are commonly referred to as “jam hands” by the local Toubabs. Most notably contracted through the very messy eating of bread and jam, jam hands include all small hands covered in a slimy, sticky, often unidentifiable substance. Jam hands are highly contagious, as they are regularly thrust in your direction for a handshake in conjunction with the ritual screaming of, “Bonjour, Madame!”

Stay tuned for regular episodes of “Things That Annoy The Hell Out Of Me In Mauritania” or TTATHOOMIM. This acronym is also likely a word in Hassaniya which I will never manage to correctly pronounce.

There, I feel much better now. :)

In all seriousness though, I do love why I’m here and what I’ll hopefully succeed in doing. So, while there will surely be many more additions to this post, I’m glad I’m here, and I can only hope that a good sense of humor (among a great many other things) will carry me through. And to even things out (and keep Mom from worrying too much), I’ll make sure to post on all the great things about Mauritania soon.

Love you guys!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I finally have some decent pictures of where I am. There will definitely be more to follow, but for now, here's one of me on a hike outside the city. We're in the south, so this isn't really the desert, it's the Sahel. Looks pretty desertish to me, but I haven't been to the north yet. Up there it's all just dunes. Apparently there's sand boarding, which I'm pretty stoked to try.

Then there's the two street shots. The first one is of the main drag here in Rosso. The second is just a side street. The house where my classes are held is actually around the corner.
Just for some context. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 5, 2008


I'm definitely overblogging at this point, but I'll take advantage of it while I can. I just wanted to post a link to the other PC Mauritania blogs: There's more than enough to entertain you there if you're really ridiculously bored. Or if you just have some strange fascination with living in underdeveloped nations in Saharan Africa. I mean, who thinks that's cool...?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Toubab! Toubab! That's what the little kids in the street yell when the see us. By "us" I mean myself and the other 75 Americans wandering around the city. You think they'd get used to us, but we're just as much a spectacle here as we were two weeks ago.

I'm at homestay now, which means I'm living with a family. You can see my room in the picture: my matle, which is what I sleep on, my mosquito net, you can see my water filter in the back lefthand corner. I bought a fan the other day, which was pretty much the best purchase I've ever made, and my house has running water!
All in all, I've been pleasantly surprised by my homestay. My family consists of a mom (Miriame), two boys and two girls. I'm not exactly sure how one of the girls is related to the family, and Miriame keeps talking about her kid's Dad who apparently is in some other city doing who knows what. The two boys are really young and think I'm like the funniest thing ever. The girls are older, probably about 12, and they help me practice my language. (By the way, I'm learning Hassaniya, which is exactly what I wanted!) My mom speaks some French, but she's got a really heavy accent, so I have no idea what's going on half the time. It's cool, though, I just chill.

Here's a day in my life: I wake up around 7:00, get ready for class, and my friend Sia comes by the house to walk with me to class. I have a Hassaniya lesson with four other trainees from 8-12:30, and then we all go home for lunch. I usually hang out with the family for an hour before lunchtime watching TV and practicing whatever fun phrases I learned that morning, such as: "Good morning," and "What work do you do?" I'm pretty sure this is the most entertaining part of the day for the kids. They don't do much cause they're out of school for the summer. The mom is an Arabic teacher, but during the summer she pretty much just lays around. Literally. They don't do furniture in Mauritania, and the women just don't do anything. They lay around on the floor and watch Bollywood or cheesy Spanish soap operas. All day. I don't know how they do it. On the other hand, its too freaking hot to do anything other than lay around between the hours of 11:00 and 4:00 anyway, so I don't blame them.

Back to class at 4:00 until 6, then I'll hang out with some other trainees until 7 or 8, head home, hang with the fam, eat dinner around 9 or 10, and then retire to my sweet room. Seriously, my room may look spartan in the picture, but I've got a fan and my computer and I rock the West Wing in there at night like it's my job. :)

The only thing I can really complain about is the fact that my mom doesn't understand the concept of being full. In Mauritania, fat women are attractive, so girls are encouraged to eat their faces off. And the food here is heavy stuff, soaked in oil. Whenever I stop eating, my mom gives me this evil look and says "Mange! Mange!" which means, "Eat! Eat!" I'm pretty sure she thinks they starve their women in America. I've explained to her that I don't actually want to gain 50 pounds over my 2 month stay with her, and she's grudgingly accepted that. But I'm pretty sure she thinks I'm emaciated.

Other than that, things are really going well. 7 hours of language class a day is a little intense, but it's necessary, and at the very least it gives me something to do during the day. They say training is the toughest part of our 27 months here. I can definitely see why, but at this point its all I know, and it's not nearly as bad as I was preparing myself for.

Hope all is well back home. I miss you all!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I got my first piece of Mauritanian clothing today! It's called a mulafa (see photo) and is usually worn by Moorish women. It's insanely more comfortable than anything I brought to wear cause it's really light weight and we can wear tank tops and capri pants underneath. You don't know how excited I was to wear pants today; legs tend to get really sweaty in this heat under long skirts.

So in the photo is myself obviously, and two other girls I went to the market with to buy our mulafas. I've been walking around town a lot more the last couple days, and it's really interesting. I'll have to take some pictures and post them cause there's no way I'll be able to describe it properly.

Yesterday we had our language exams and I'm pretty sure I placed out of French, which means I'll get to start learning another language immediately. Woohoo! I really want to learn Hassaniya, which is about 70-75% Arabic. I feel like its the language I'll find most useful outside of Mauritania. Unfortunately, I don't get to choose what I learn, but ultimately I'll be happy with whatever I end up with. It's going to be awesome no matter what!

Some PSAs: I'll be heading to my homestay Friday, which is the day after tomorrow. I'll probably be out of touch for a while, at least online, but I do have a cell phone now! Email me if you want the number and you can Skype me whenever you want. Hopefully. It depends on whether or not I get service wherever I am, but at least I have one, right? Also, I would really like to have your all phone numbers so I can get in touch with you. So email me that info too.

If I have time to post tomorrow night, I'll let you know where I'm going to be staying and what language I'm going to be learning (we find out tomorrow). If not, wish me luck (I'm definitely nervous about living with a family), and I'll post again in a few weeks. XOX