Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

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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.


Blogger Booyataa said...

Amazing giving speeches in those languages after such a short time!

Would any of your Pulaar-speaking friends like free copies of a paper in Pulaar? See

We mail them free of charge if specifically requested.

Thanks, Jane

September 5, 2008 at 9:01 AM  

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