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."

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