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.