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.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Robin Hood of trees

So peace Corps is supposed to be about failure. Failure to speak properly, failure to not get half of your dinner on the ground, failure to even know how to rest properly (always out of any speck of sun and without at least two pillows propping you up, and even failure to properly put on your clothes. However, one day last week there was an almost inexplicable success. There is an international NGO in town that had been planning a major tree planting for August but due to political complications the trees were never planted. Thus they had a huge tree nursery that they needed to get rid of before the trees go to big. My sitemate met a women’s gardening cooperative that could benefit from a windbreak (a row of trees set up to protect the garden from the formidable Saharan winds). The garden had a good fence, which due to the overabundant goat population is the most important criteria for planting anything in Mauritania, and a good water supply so the NGO was amenable to us taking 100 trees for the co-op. Peace Corps training had prepared me to work with halfhearted, entitled-feeling people but I could not have been more impressed with this co-op. We started digging a few holes and then the gardeners jumped in and finished the job without a hint of lollygagging. We then showed them how to transplant the tree seedlings which is a simple process but is still complex enough that it must be taught. We taught a few people how to transplant and then they promptly showed everyone else and by nightfall the job that we were expecting to take days was done. We picked up the trees from the NGO in 4 shifts and on the last shift there was nobody at the NGO office and after knocking a few times we saw that the gate could easily be opened from the outside so we just let ourselves in and took the last batch of trees. I have no doubt that any of the NGO employees would have been perfectly fine with us picking up the trees and would not have felt bamboozled at all but nonetheless I still felt a little bit like Robin Hood stealing from the rich international organization to give to the poor cooperative.

I was astounded, well I guess actually not all that surprised, to learn that in 1958 when Mauritania was founded there were only 8 (count’em 8) buildings in Mauritanbia’s capital city and the first cabinet meetings after the end of French colonial rule were held under a tent. Today Nouakchott now holds over 1 million people which is more than a third of Mauritania's population and is a moderately thriving metropolis.

We have had a running joke that everyone at the agricultural agency is named Ba because the first three or four people we have met have had that name, which isn’t that surprising in a country where somewhere between 53.7% and 62.4% of the men are named Mohammed. We let a Mauritanian who knew two of the Ba’s in on the joke and he promptly explained to us that we were stupid and that one of the people was named Ba and that one was named Bah a difference that was lost on my imperceptive American ears.

Three cheers to UNICEF for donating all of the books, bags and school supplies to all of the elementary schools in Mauritania. I of course can't compare it to anything before but the teachers seem really happy about the books and it seems to be making something of a difference. Although they could have introduced a little variety as every single student walks around with the same light blue backpack, an interesting color choice in a country where there is more sand than just about anything.

For the record the word Madrassa means school in Arabic, it doesn't mean terrorist training camp it simply means school, as in elementart school. I say the word at least 10 times a day. So the next time you read a sentence that something such as " we need to do everything we can to keep people out of the Madrassas" that sentence says "we need to do everything we can to keep people out of school."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Au contraitre

Joining Peace Corps I was expecting to live in another culture that was totally different from the American Culture l that I grew up with. I expected that I would be exposed to another way of thinking, living and most importantly eating that was outside the realm of anything I had previously experienced. Instead what I have found in Mauritania is a culture that is in many ways completely opposite to the one I grew up in. For example in a stereotypical African Village, in my ignorance I would expect a belief system that even if influenced by modern religions still was based on some traditional elements. I pictured people dancing around a campfire, or animal sacrifices or face painting. These beliefs would be different than what I am used to but not directly contrary to my upbringing. Instead the Moors, who practice a religion which has many customs surprisingly similar to the one I grew up in, believe that my lifestyle is immoral and that I am doomed to an eternity in hell.

Seeing that, I composed an imaginary dialogue between a Mauritanian and an American to illustrate the differences in thinking between Moors and American Peace Corps Volunteers. Note that I don’t think either culture is better or worse than the other American and Mauritanian cultures both have their strengths and weaknesses and what is really important is how people act within their respective cultures. When you read this you will I assume be surprised at some Mauritanian customs and beliefs. Mauritanians have a very similar reaction to many aspects of American culture. For example whenever I tell people that I live alone, something I think relatively normal for a single twenty-something, and not with my site-mates because Peace Corps has a policy against volunteers living together people are inevitably shocked and almost horrified.

American: Your country of Mauritania is so weird
Mauritanian: Your country of America is so strange
A: You are so weird that you think dogs are dirty and that goats are a part of your family
M: You are so strange that you think goats are dirty and that dogs are a part of your family
A: It is so weird that you are forbidden from drinking alcohol
M: It is so strange that you have to throw all of your garbage in a can
A: Your country is so weird that you don’t allow men to socialize with women
M: Your country is so strange that you think men and women are exactly the same
A: You are so weird that you think that rotund, large women are attractive
M: You are so crazy that you think sickly looking skinny women are attractive
A: It is so mean that your society forces women to cover up so completely
M: It is strange that you allow your women to prance around and show their skin like whores
A: You hit your kids…That is so cruel
M: You punish your kids by making them sit alone without any company….That is so cruel
A: Your country just had a coup…That is an insult to democracy
M: You actually believe in democracy…That is a silly thing that could never actually mean anything because the powerful will always have control.
A: You are a man and you think that Akon, Justin Timberlake and the Backstreet Boyz are the best music to come out of America.
A:You waste all of your time greeting each other
M:You thank everyone “so much” for every little thing that any person would do for any other.
A: Git’er’done
M: InshAllah (Literally means God willing but is used to express the fact that one never knows what will happen in the future and that all things are uncertain)

On a lighter note. There is a playstation 2 in Tdjikja that the owner lets people play for 25 cents or so a game. They couldn’t figure out how to make Tekken 5 a two-player game so I spent this morning using my magical skills of being able to read English to show them which option led to a 2- player game. This brought me back to a different era of my life because it took over an hour of fiddling with the console to reach the appropriate screen so that I could help them.

Also I got mocked in an unusual way the other day. In my own humble opinion I feel like I have become quite adept at eating with my hands in my time in Mauritania. However the other day I was mocked for eating cous-cous in the same manner that one eats rice.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mauritania is Gorges

This past week, I ventured out of Tdjikja for the first time in a month to visit a region-mate at a rural site called Gnimlane, for the celebration to commemorate the end of Ramadaan and then for a camping trip at a site called Matmata in the Tagant Region.

The Id-Vitter was a lot like Thanksgiving on Steroids. My friend’s counterpart, who essentially hosted us, killed a sheep and we spent the better part of the day eating said sheep. Our first meal of the day was mid-morning and was a plate with nothing on it but meat that was shared between 5 people. That meal would have been a big lunch on it’s own but it was immediately followed by a huge plate of rice and more sheep meat. After that they very considerately gave our vegetarian friend her own special plate with Potatoes, bread, peas and oh more sheep meat. After helping her polish that off I was about as stuffed as I have ever been. The day was then topped off with a huge plate of macaroni and more meat for dinner. I noticed a few cool things about the holiday. Since the holiday is based on the lunar calendar nobody knows the actual date until an announcement the night before proclaiming the holiday over based on if people can actually see the full moon or not. Everybody listens to the radio the night before and waits to hear if the next day is either going to be a huge party or a day of fast. Also everybody donates a big bag of cous-cous, or rice to the poor which is I think a good way of supplying food to people who need it. One depressing conversation occurred while watching a soccer game. I was chatting with a high-school student who spoke excellent French and seemed to actually care about school and other things. I told him that I was doing environmental education and he had no idea what I was talking about. After much discussion he told me that my sector was “agriculture.” If this seemingly excellent student didn’t even know the word for the environment then I certainly have my work cut out for me.

After that all of the volunteers in the region went down to Matmata for a brief camping trip. Matmata is a massive gorge/canyon like structure. Water drains into it after it rains leaving small swimming holes throughout the canyon and making it one of the greener spots in the region. When we got to our camp spot there was an interesting cultural juxtaposition. Next to the Americans with our backpacks and mosquito nets, there were two Mauritanians in our party. They were just staying for the day not camping out. Our driver who brought nothing but a hunting rifle which he used to either look cool or because he thought he had a realistic chance of heating tiny birds 100 meters away, and another volunteers friend who brought with her nothing but a small stove and tea-making supplies. After the car ride and lugging our stuff down to the camp spot in the mid-day heat I have never appreciated the Mauritanian tea-making ritual more. We went for a walk through the canyon and my first impression was that it reminded me of the place in the Lion King where Mufasa is killed rescuing Simba from the stampede of Zebras. On the walk down we found what we thought were wild watermelons but in hindsight our excitement was unfounded as the watermelons actually turned out to be the most disgusting food I have ever tried, and which one region-mate quite accurately described as tasting like our Malaria medicine. If you haven’t tasted Mefloquine that is about the lowest descriptor you could give to a food somewhere in between leftovers from Shoney’s and cow manure. After tricking a few people into trying the unripe fruit and a few tosses of the Frisbee we found a swimming hole which while the water was certainly not potable was decent enough for a little dip. After swimming for a while we looked up and saw the clouds moving into position for one of Mauritanians famous sand storms. Given that we were already in the water about 30-45 minutes from our camp and that staying in the water would minimize our exposure to sand we made the decision to wait out the storm. Let me tell you that playing games of “500” with a Frisbee in a sandstorm is not very effective. Finally as dusk approached it was duly noted that we needed to get back so we walked the half hour back to our camp through the sandstorm.