Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saved by a donkey cart

If there is one lesson that one will learn in Mauritania it is that if something can go wrong it will. Or to modify it to my weekend, “as soon as you have finished planting 100 trees the water will go out.” After an astonishingly successful morning of guiding the students of “école jdide” through the tree planting, disaster struck. It is also interesting to note that “école” is the French word for “school”, and that “jdide” is the Hassiniya word for “new,” which gives you an idea of the mixed up nature of the school system. Anyway, with a few exceptions the morning went very well, as we taught the students how to transplant the trees and supervised as they did the work. Given the stress of transplantion, we knew that if we didn’t water the plants most of them would not make it through the brutal heat of the Mauritanian afternoon. The schools one water faucet had cut out for the day early in the morning and since we did not have access to a car there was only one option to transport enough water to the school, which happened to be located on the outskirts of town: donkey cart. But first, we needed water, and something to carry water in. Most people have yellow plastic containers called “bedoons” that they use to store water. They hold about 20 liters of water. We needed to beg, borrow or steal about 8 bedoons in order to get enough water for all of the trees. We started in the market and asked about half a dozen people until we were able to find enough bedoons. Explaining to people why I needed to borrow their bedoons in Hassiniya was one of the most difficult language tasks I have had so far and drew some pretty strange looks, but eventually we got the bedoons, through them on a donkey cart, the most common, cheapest and easiest way to transport goods within town, and got to the school. Serendipitously, there were a few kids hanging out around the school to help with the watering and everything ended up working out fine in the end for this one quixotic Peace Corps project.

With Obama’s victory last week, news reports ubiquitously mention the overwhelmingly positive global reaction to Obama. Unfortunately I can’t corroborate those reports. The general response here has been indifference. While a few people have congratulated me enthusiastically, the vast majority of people have told me that whoever is President of the United States does not really matter or that they preferred McCain. Without getting in to a lengthy discussion of Mauritanian ethnicities, it is interesting to see how the reaction has differed along ethnic lines. Most of the people who congratulated me are affectated professionals from Southern Mauritania, mainly Pulaar-speaking, who are in Tdjikja teaching French or working for a Government ministry. The vast majority of the population here is “Moor,” and most of the Moors expressed indifference or even disapproval towards Obama.

I have been helping a friend’s son with introductory English. In between exercises like “My name is Ahmed, I live in Tdjikja,” and explanations of the script and manuscript alphabet, I stumbled on a cultural note. Apparently, and I quote, “Hi and Hello are interchangeable greeting that can be said at any time of day and greetings are typically short as people say “hi” or “hello” quickly and then continue walking.” After constantly reading and learning about Mauritanian culture it was interesting and instructive to get the reverse perspective on my own culture.