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.