Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

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Sunday, July 19, 2009


July 18th 2009 was the date of Mauritania’s most recent round of elections. If you spend 5 minutes doing a google news search about Mauritania you can be better informed than I am about the parties and candidates. Additionally Peace Corps prohibits me from taking a political stance However it was exciting to see the similarities and differences between American and Mauritanian campaigns as well as to be around for a (I hope) transition from a military dictatorship to a peaceful democratic government.

Every weeknight before the elections most of the major candidates held parties in Tidjikja. This meant that they set up big tents and blasted music (including one place directly in front of my house) until late in the night in a manner very similar to the party part of a Mauritanian wedding. Many of my friends would just go to the parties for candidates they did not even support just as a place to hang out for the evening. Also each candidate opened up as many voting offices as they could which again secured places for Mauritanians to drink tea.

The elections were originally scheduled to be held June 6th, but were moved to July 18th to allow more candidates to run legitimate campaigns. This strategy worked as before June 6th only one candidate had a visible campaign or was talked about. This time around before July 18th there are about a dozen candidates and several of them seem to be serious contenders. School closed early this year to make room for the July 6th elections and with the change to July18th I didn’t hear anyone talking about adding more school days.

Last month I spent some time working in rural Senegal, Mauritania’s southern neighbor on the project “one laptop per child.” It was an interesting experience seeing the stark differences between two countries who share a border, several languages and a common colonial legacy.

The divide between the Wolof speaking groups in Senegal and Southern Mauritania and the Arabic/Hassaniya speakers is vast. While everyone in Mauritania is Muslim and most people in Senegal are Muslim as well Mauritania and Senegal are at the frontier of the divide between the Arab world and the African world. The Senegal River is the political boundary between Senegal and Mauritania. African’s (people who speak the languages of Wolof, Soninke and Pulaar) live on both sides of the Senegal River while northern Mauritania, where I live, is home to Arabic speaking people. Both groups are in constant contact with each other with Arabic speaking shopkeepers throughout Senegal and African, artisans, cab drivers, and teachers throughout Mauritania.

The relationship between the two groups is not friendly although as an outsider who has spent some time with both groups I think that both sides have more in common culturally than either group would care to admit. Their commonalities range from cultural similarities, to making similar jokes, to similar styles of eating, drinking and just living their lives. Both groups tend to regard me as an innocent and empathetic outsider so neither group hesitates in telling me about their dislike for the other.

Whenever I told Senegalese people that I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania they looked at me with horror and without fail said to me, “How can you live with the Nar.” Nar is a pejorative word in the Wolof language for Mauritanians. After expressing their horror at my living in Mauritania, then offering to have me live with them in Senegal they would speak to me about the events of 1989. In 1989 this divide between African and Arab culture erupted in a huge outbreak of violence and leaves with it a lingering tension that is rarely talked about in Mauritania (although people are certainly not shy about their contempt for “Africans”) but was brought up without hesitation in Senegal.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Update by numbers

So a lot has happened since the last time I updated this blog. I guess it makes sense that a lot would happen in the past two months or so since this last post given my glacial writing pace. Anyway a brief run-down of major events is probably in order.

1- With the organization “one laptop per child” and the local Tidjikja school district last april-may we had planned a distribution of 100 child size laptops in Tidjikja for this summer. That plan was foiled by the Mauritanian government who denied visas to the two people who were actually going to implement the project one of which was my brother Eli.
2- Thus the project was moved to a small town in Senegal where the teachers were happy but also surprised to have this project fall into their lap. I spent a couple weeks in Mboro Senegal helping out with the project mostly by showing teachers informally how to use the computers. I also got to visit with my brother in Senegal as he suffered from the hardships of life in Africa including cold beer brought to the school every afternoon, eating heaping plates of chebbougin (the delicious Senegalise rice and fish dish) as well as eating freshly caught fish on the beach.
3- Since the Mauritanian Government stopped giving visas to Americans the incoming class of Peace Corps trainees was cancelled. Usually every June there is a new class of 60-70 new volunteers so losing an entire class was a huge emotional and logistical blow to the Peace Corps Mauritania program.
4- And then to top it all off an American was killed in the capital city of Nouakchott prompting Peace Corps to offer all of the remaining volunteers “interrupted service.” This means that if any of us were worried about our security we could leave the Peace Corps and receive the full benefits (there aren’t too many) of returned Peace Corps volunteers. Out of the 70 or so people in our class about 20 decided to leave. When the class who is about down with their two years of service leaves Mauritania, Peace Corps Mauritania will have about 50 volunteers down from over 120 during the past year.
5- This all may have been a blessing in disguise as for the 50 of us that are choosing to stay we were all forced to take mental stock of our service and make a decision to stay meaning that we are all excited to be here for the next year and ready for the challenges that await us.
6- After making the decision to spend another year in Mauritania, I went to Kankossa a village in Southern Mauritania to help out with an environmental health camp. Girls came from all over Mauritania to spend three days in Kankossa, doing health and environmental lessons, planting trees, playing sports and making friends from all over the country. I think everyone, the girls, their chaperones and the volunteers all had a great time and hopefully learned a thing or two.
7- Now is the “geytna” or date harvest in Tidjikja. Moors have basically two traditional food sources their animals for meat and milk and dates so the date harvest is something that they take very seriously. Many families in the Tidjikja area have their own personal palmeries. Many native Tidjikjans who have moved on to bigger an better things (like say driving taxi’s in Nouackchott) come back to Tidjikja to spend time with their families and/or sit around and eat dates. So for now I am back in Tidjikja sitting around eating dates doing the occasional computer or English Lesson and waiting around for the next school year to start in October.