Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

Mandatory Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or people, the Mauritanian government or people, or the Peace Corps.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Two watermelons and an eggplant

Given my current state of relative unemployment, one day this week I pulled a page out of my father’s book and got up at the crack of dawn and went for a walk with no particular destination in mind. I dragged myself out of bed because despite the beauty of the desert under the intense glow of the incandescent sun, the mid-day heat is often oppressive. I chose a path parallel to the water runoff channels and not coincidentally parallel to the row of palmeries that dot the side of the channels and used the water from the channels for some irrigation. I swang by the local bread maker and picked up a veritable feast of two big pieces of the Mauritanian bread that is rapidly becoming my favourite and most frequently consumed piece of Mauritanian cuisine. I walked for about a mile outside of town on a path marked by the track of donkey carts, greeting and chatting briefly with everyone that I passed by and then I stopped under a tree for a snack and a rest. As I resumed my walk I returned to the path just as someone was walking past. We walked together for a while and then he invited me to his palmery. I watched as he used an electric motor for flood irrigation of his garden from a well and also observed his displeasure upon seeing how low the water level was from the wall. After sitting, and watching him work for a while, I’m not really allowed to touch anything in this country, he offered to give me some of the tea leaves that were growing in the garden under the shade of the big date palm trees. I politely (by American standards) refused, saying that I didn’t make tea and then he handed me two watermelons and an eggplant. The watermelons were subpar in size, compared to their American cousins, more like cucumbers but still delicious. After that we walked home together and I spent a little time with his family. This story might seem a little sketchy but I am realizing that what is and isn’t awkward is different based on the culture and in that situation my new friend was just a good chap and did what any Mauritanian would do and there was nothing awkward about it.

Another day this week I was visiting a neighbour and found an interesting juxtaposition of levels of religious tolerance. The family had a son in high school, who had a friend also in high school also visiting. Our conversation filled the typical pattern, first they asked if Tdjikja is good, then we discussed American pop culture with me trying to guess what on earth they were talking about as they made sounds that probably somewhat resembled American celebrities such as Usher, Jackie Chan, or the Backstreet Boyz. Next they asked, as usual if I was fasting and I said that as a non- muslim I was not. This time however the visiting friend persisted asking why I wasn’t Muslim and if I know God. We all quickly agreed that we all worshipped the same God with the only difference being different prophets and different practices. This wasn’t enough for the visiting friend who kept persisting that Mohammed was the true prophet and that I should convert, and that I should be studying the Qu’ran instead of Hassiniya. My hosting friend countered that Muslim’s and non-Muslim’s could live together in the same house “no problem,” and defended my position as many other Mauritanians also have. This wasn’t the first unpleasant religious conversation I have had, it certainly won’t be the last, and it wasn’t even close to the most intense but it was significant because of the contrasting reactions. These two friends probably spent their entire lives within 5 blocks of each other and probably studied religion from the same wooden tablets yet their reaction to a situation was completely different based on their personal interpretations of the same text. It just goes to show how much of religious disagreements and debates are based on personal interpretations rather than technical readings of important texts. I should also note that I have had a number of interesting conversations with Mauritanians about religion, that this conversation was not the norm, and that often when someone even slightly presses me on religion Mauritanians will jump in and defend me.

Also because Mauritania is never boring. This happenned:

Don't worry this has about as much affect on my life as it does on yours.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

My little house in the desert

So I found a house. I wanted to live with a family, both for the chance to practice my language, as an introduction into the community and for the opportunity to live with a Mauritanian family. For a few reasons, living with a family didn’t work out, so I found a place on my own. I have two rooms, basically square cement blocks, a li-mbar which is a tent-like structure, for lounging and sleeping, a decent size yard, although I would certainly prefer grass to sand, but as a wise man once said, PCV’s in Mauritania can’t be choosers, in addition to a bathroom and cooking area. The place, which I have to myself, is significantly bigger than my entire family’s residence in Rosso.

Since, I am not living with a family and I don’t have any formal work to do until October...ish, I have to look for ways to practice my Hassiniya and integrate into the community. With that in mind, I have been going house to house in my neighborhood introducing myself in much the same manner as a Meghan’s Law offender. During Ramadan people are the least miserable in the morning, so I have been walking around in the mornings stopping at each house, saying “salaam aleey-kum (may peace be upon you),” and reciting the same few Hassiniya sentences every time: I will be living here for two years, I am working on environmental education, I am from America blah blah blah. After my Hassiniya conversational material is exhausted we sit and stare at each for a while and then I move onto the next house. My other language learning strategy is to go to the market, find a person who is intrigued enough by my pale skin or inability to properly wear a boubou to want to talk to me. The conversations go something like this:
I say something as distinctive and original as I can, something to the effect of “that shovel is brown,” then the guy I am talking to, always a guy at least this month, says something ridiculously fast that on a good day I can understand half of. I smile and nod. Rinse and repeat until I get too hot and/or tired and retreat back to my new house.

I’d also like to rave about one person’s Mauritanian hospitality. He had been friends with the previous volunteers in Tdjikja. He found me and one of my site-mates houses, and while I was being an American princess and holding out for my ideal house with a white picket fence, he insisted that I scoop up my current house before the post-Ramadan influx. After finding the house, he made sure that I got a good price and that everything was in good working order.

The other day I was surprised to see a pair of toubabs (white people) in the market in Tdjikja. I learned that these intrepid travelers were passing through Tdjikja because it is on the way to…well they should really learn how to read a map. They had gone overland from Atar which means that they had just spent three days in a jeep crossing an unfathomably vast, vacant section of the Sahara desert. It was interesting that I was shocked that anyone would come to Mauritania for vacation without a clear purpose or destination, while they were shocked that anyone would willingly live in Mauritania for two years.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The grand transition

Within the past week I have, finished my training, done a final presentation about compost in Hassiniya, swore-in as a volunteer, moved to Tdjikja and begun my adjustment to my new residence. As we speak I am trying to start my new life in Tdjikja, looking for a place to leave, getting to know the city a little bit, practicing my French and Hassiniya, now without the benefit of a teacher and learn about Ramadan the Islamic holy month.

Although it seems insignificant at this moment, I think a brief description of the swear-in ceremony is in order. The ceremony was a lot like graduation, a major milestone in one’s life/ Peace Corps service that comes with a wide range of emotions and an overly dramatic ceremony that can’t possibly do the occasion justice. Due to the Peace Corps budget crisis, as well as the current political situation in Mauritania the ceremony was less pompous than in previous years. We had planed to have the events in one large room at the training center but unfortunately the sewage system in the center decided that the day before the biggest event of the year was the ideal time to spring a leak. This rendered the refactoire unusable and so had to move the ceremony. Nevertheless we all dressed up in our best Mauritanian duds. The best speakers (not me) out of our class in each of the five Mauritanian languages (French, Hassiniya, Soninke, Pulaar and Wolof) gave speeches about something or other. More ceremonial things happened and then we ate an incredible chicken lunch. The American Ambassador to Mauritania attended, ate the chicken dinner with his hands in true Mauritanian style (he ate well spilling less than me) and answered some of our questions about the coup. This was all followed up by a festive gathering that I am happy to describe to anyone interested through another medium.

After that we had a day of recovery, gathered our belongings hopped into a bush taxi and drove from Rosso to Tdjikja to begin our new life. Now I am in the process of settling in looking for a place to stay ( if you know of any lodging in the Tagant Region let me know) working on my language and waiting for school to start in October. To me, one of the most interesting parts of my Peace Corps service is having the opportunity to live in an Islamic society and learn about the Islamic and Mauritanian way of life. Ramadan is an important aspect of Islam. This month, according to the lunar calendar, all of the able-bodied people of Tdjikja are not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. This means that people are generally tired, school won’t start until Ramadan ends and it impossible to do any work that involves the community. For example, I visited my counterpart the other day in the late afternoon and while he was friendly he was clearly exhausted. I will be sure to write more about my perspective as a westerner living through the Muslim holy month.

Last entry I forgot to describe my lesson on compost that I think I will look back upon as an important moment in my service. For our final project every environmental education volunteer had to give a sensibilization (basically as short lesson for the community) on an environmental issue. Given the abundance of animal manure and our training gardens success with using animal manure for compost and the local gardeners use of chemical fertilizer I decided to do my practice sensibilization on compost. Speaking in my extremely limited Hassiniya to a group of about 20 P.K.10 resident and a handful of Peace Corps people I was forced to keep my lesson short and to the point. I briefly discussed the benefits of compost and how to make a compost pit (which almost everyone in the audience already knew). I then showed them our compost which had become good soil after only a month. I picked up an assortment of objects and had the audience tell me whether each object was good or bad for compost. While one lesson certainly won’t change anything (and that was never the point of this lesson) it went amazingly well. A high point for me was a few days later when one of the audience members came over to my families dwelling and discussed my presentation back to me. It was clear that he had understood what I had said.

After giving the presentation I thought about how different it was from my last presentation defending my thesis, audience of American PH.D’s vrs. barely literate Mauritanians, Hassiniya vrs. English and so on and so forth. Then I realized that the biggest commonality was that both presentations dealt with animal fecal matter, either as a detriment to water quality or as a benefit to gardens. I guess some things don’t change.