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.