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, March 27, 2009

Dinner Mauritanian style

I have been in Mauritania for 9 (count’em) months. After that much time eating rice for lunch and cous-cous for dinner I feel that a description of a typical Mauritanian meal is in order. This process is almost exactly the same everywhere in the country (at least among Hassiniya speakers) and in almost every household. Note that I am describing the meal from the mans perspective and that a women’s perspective would undoubtedly be different and include a lot more work.

Before the meal, the men wait in the nicest room in the house usually watching television or talking or just lying there. Nobody has any idea when the meal will come you just sit and wait. It feels like the meal is just going to fall out of the sky rather than from the work of the lady folk. Before the meal does fall out of the sky you have a couple of warning signs. First about 5 minutes before the meal is ready a little kid will bring over a mat like thing which the plate of food will later be placed on. Then they will bring out the handwashing apparatus. This consists of a plastic item called a “makeresh.” The makeresh looks like a plastic teapot and is used to pour the water for the handwashing. Hands are washed over a plastic catchbasin witch usually matches in color and size the makeresh. The makeresh is used before and after every meal and the odds of having soap included in this equation go up exponentially after the meal. Then all of the men sit around a big bowl of food. In America everyone has their own individual plate. Not so, In Mauritania everyone site in a circle around the same big plate. The meal consists of a starch base and meat or beans or if you are lucky some vegetables piled on top of the rice or cous-cous. Rice is almost always the starch for lunch and cous-cous is almost always the starch for dinner. Once everyone has washed their hands and has gathered around the table it is time to dig in. You eat the starch from your section and compete with everyone else for the goodies that are piled in the middle. You eat by rolling the cous-cous or rice into balls and then placing the meat, or vegetables into the middle of the ball. Note that this is all done with the right hand as the left is used for other purposes. If you are a guest, not just an American but any guest, you will be clearly instructed to “ewkel” or eat. This is not a request. At first I would just keep eating but now I am learning to say such pleasantries as “I ate” or “I am full” or “I ate so much that I can not eat any more,” which usually satisfy the hosts. When you are done eating you look the cous-cous off of your hand to indicate that you are finished. After everyone is done eating we all wash our hands and lean back on our mattresses and get ready to drink some tea.

On a completely unrelated note, the other day I told a Mauritanian that the number 13 was unlucky in America. He asked me why and I said that there was no reason. He seemed absolutely and utterly perplexed that the number 13 would be unlucky for no reason just as I have been absolutely and utterly perplexed at many Mauritanian beliefs.
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Saturday, March 7, 2009

A tragic defeat

I apologize to my country and to anyone I have ever played volleyball with for what was probably the most embarrassing athletic defeat in a lifetime of embarrassing athletic defeats. In the first ever volleyball game in the history of Gnimlane (small village outside my site of Tdjikja) the American team lost to the Mauritanian team 3 games to 1. At the request of the Gnimlane’s physical education teacher we played this game so his students could watch and see how the game of volleyball was meant to be played. It turns out that we got the lesson in front of a crowd of probably around 100 people.

Just 25 kilometers (15 miles) away Gnimlane is a very different place than Tdjikja. I think one of the things that make it the most different is that most people in Tdjikja have television or at least the opportunity to watch television semi-regularly. In the absence of computers and newspapers, TV is an significant window to the world. The average Tdjikja high school student follows international soccer and can name the starting 11 for most major European clubs. In Gnimlane the teacher, introducing physical education, asked his students if they could name any professional soccer players. They all said Ronaldinho and that they knew him because he was on the back of some of their friends jerseys by virtue of the second-hand clothes market which makes up a good portion of a young Mauritanians wardrobe. He asked them where Ronaldinho was from and they said Brazil. He asked where Brazil was and they all thought it was a neighborhood in Mauritania.

In other culinary news, lunch the other day included goat eyes and brain and so now I can say that I am a person who has eaten both goat eyes and goat brain. The brain tasted like tuna. They told me that eating the brain would make me smarter. I am not sure about that but I do know that something gave me diarrhea. I am also not sure if they were implying that a goat was smarter than me and that if I ate the brain I might catch up.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I am back in Tdjikja, after a brief vacation in the promised land (Senegal), for a softball tournament and I have to say that I really enjoy being back at site. While, I have faith that work will continue to be slow, I am starting to feel established in the community and everyday Tdjikja becomes more like home.

One interesting side effect of becoming more established and improving my language and the cultural awareness is that now I am more alert to people being mean, either to me or to other people. Insults, conversion attempts, or simply actions that are inappropriate in this culture might have once passed by my naïve eyes in a blur of lightning-fast language. As I live here longer, I am getting better, (although I am still very far from perfect or even stellar), at understanding the insults, following the logic (if you can call it that) of the conversion attempts and generally becoming more aware of when someone is being insulted.

It is difficult to describe the air of jubilation that fills Mauritanian volunteers as we cross the border into Senegal into what feels like another world. We leave behind all of the frustrations of futile work in the middle of desert as we try and squeeze every last drop of fun out of our time in Senegal. This time we were in Dakar, the capital of Senegal and a surprisingly modern city of 8+ Million people, for a softball tournament, fitting titled WAIST (add an ed to the end if you are confused about the reason for the tournament). Peace Corps Volunteers from several West African countries as well as a handful of other random teams compete in the U.S. embassy sponsored tournament. The fields were incredible; the pool was beautiful and after 8 months in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania being able to order a cold beer from the bar was about as much as I could possibly ask for. And to top it all off I got to play a real game of Frisbee. Most of you reading this blog are probably aware of my unhealthy obsession with this sport. Yes I have been able to throw the Frisbee around occasionally here and I have even had some pickup games with other volunteers but never anything resembling an actually game. Between the other volunteers and a couple of American expatriates living in Dakar we were able to get together a decent game. When everyone ran into the center of the field to form a stack I nearly cried. I missed a diving lay-out catch in the end-zone but simply laying out was enough to bring a huge smile to my face.

Traveling in West Africa is certainly different than traveling in say western New York. I will use two examples to illustrate the difference: one example is mishwii and the other is the border crossing between Senegal and Mauritania. After a 5:00 clock departure from our hotel in Dakar we reached the garage in Rosso Senegal by mid-afternoon. Interestingly enough there is a town called Rosso Senegal directly across the Senegal River from Rosso Mauritania. Taxi’s that travel between cities will only drive between the garages of those cities. Think of a garage as a combination, bus stop/ taxi stand/restaurant/market much like a Senegalese Penn Station. We got out of our taxies which was not in walking distance from the river (Yes, Dad I know that anywhere is walking distance if you have the time, but we were tired from the 5:00 am departure). About two dozen Senegalese men surrounded the taxi and just started shouting various languages at us to see what we would respond too. English? Francaise? Espagnol? Pulaar? I chose to speak Hassiniya to gain some local credibility found someone that spoke Hassiniya and negotiated the price for a horse cart to take us to the river crossing. Three of us and an adolescent Senegalese boy climbed into the horse cart throwing our bags on the back of the cart. We held on to our bags with one hand and the cart with the other as we covered the distance to the river. Once we got to the river we hopped into a large canoe with about 30 of our closest Senegalese and Mauritanian friends for the short trip across the Senegalese River back to Mauritania. Travel tip: don’t do border crossings at lunch time. Upon reaching Mauritania we had to wait an hour and a half for the inspector to return from lunch and stamp our passports.

The most delicious part of traveling in Mauritania is Mishwii. On the overnight drive from Nouakchott to Tdjikja one usually stops along the way to eat Mishwii or barbequed meat. The driver usually pays for a plate to feed everyone in the taxi. Mishwii poses no dilemma for this carnivore as there is literally nothing but barbequed meat straight from the goat (you can recognize just about every body part) and a few scraps of bread which most of the men actually turn up their noses at and don’t finish. Someone will just cut the meat off of the bones into bit size pieces and everyone grabs little pieces of meat until everything including the bone marrow is gone, then everyone washes the meat down with the customary three cups of tea and then resumes the rest of the journey slightly more content and with much fuller stomachs.

By the way if any of you are interested in learning a little bit more about my experience there is an excellent book called Feeding Desires by Robin Penenoe (not sure on the spelling). She is an anthropologist who did here research with a group almost exactly like the Moors of Mauritania. Almost all of the words she uses are the same as Hassiniya, and her analysis and descriptions are very insightful.