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.