Saturday, October 18, 2008

Christmastime in Aleg

Sometime after despair faded a bit—when just a bit of confidence had dawned that I can be happy in this country and that I might just be better off for having lived here, Christmas came. Now, keep in mind, there are two calendars in this country, and I can’t really say which calendar we were functioning on today, but today was the first delivery of packages from Nouakchott since moving to Aleg, seven weeks ago. It was Christmas.

While folks back home relayed doubt and exhaust after the length of time it took for packages to arrive, I tried to convince my loved ones that yes, indeed, the packages would eventually come. Well—I was more or less begging them not to lose faith in the postal system, because I would obviously be at a loss for receiving packages if they stopped trying to send them. In truth, I wasn’t too sure the packages would make any short or direct trip to Nouakchott or Aleg, even though I was assured by volunteers that packages always came. Well, they come eventually.

We originally had been expecting packages yesterday. After finding out that they would be delayed until today, this morning nearly every volunteer in the Brakna region (and a few visitors from afar) sat, anxiously waiting the Peace Corps van—coming at noon, coming at noon, coming at noon. We all joked that it was Christmas in Brakna, but I talked with another volunteer after the gift-opening, and we agreed that it was just a little bit better than Christmas—everything in the boxes was a bit more touching, everything everyone else received was that much more exciting, and no gift was too small or strange. I got a sonogram of my niece, who’s now long-since born, and a drawing from my nephew, which pretty much broke my heart. French textbooks that will help me and a few of the others who don’t have golden, fluent Fran├žais. Mashed potatoes and jerky and any number of munchables and sanity savers. What I really mean to say is thank you Christa and Mom, thank you, everyone—

Friday, October 3, 2008

A thousand serious moves

Every now and then, in my compulsive “working through” books of poetry, I’ll come across a poem which will inspire me to sabotage my bookmark so that I can read the poem again the next time I sit with the book… I was struck last night by this poem from Hafiz, a 14th century Persian poet.

Tripping Over Joy

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?


The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,

I am afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.

—Hafiz, transl. Daniel Ladinsky in I Heard God Laughing.

ͨ iid sa ͨ iid! Ramadan is over! The streets in Mauritania have a different quality of silence during the fast. Everywhere, there is bustle and activity, but the fast creates a demeanor of silence that is pretty hard to put one’s finger on—impatience mingles with perseverance the closer the sun comes to the western horizon and the evening prayer call. People reference the “crankiness” of people during the fast—I didn’t notice that so much as the marked return of the jovial spirit and hospitality of local folks when they break fast. Sweet cool drinks and tasty tajeens are served up early in the night and even in the middle of the night you can hear soccer games and music in the streets, which is a bit strange during a 2 AM run to the toilet. I hear the last meal is at four in the morning or so, but with my health on a see-saw, I decided to sleep through the night and eat in the day. The celebration is still strong on the third day of the Eid, and I almost don’t know what to expect when “life as usual” resumes on Sunday—I’ve never really experienced life as usual in Aleg!

I spent about half of the month sick as a dog and the other half appreciating solid food and solid stool more than ever. I can read and write Arabic now, which is funny because my Hassaniya is mangled and my French mediocre. Eating with an extremely generous and welcoming Pulaar family, I stare at Al-Jazeera for thirty minutes, and occasionally exclaim when I figure out a word that has been flashing on screen every couple minutes—no one is impressed when I laugh, “Hey, that says ‘the News’!”

The bugs run this town. A couple weeks ago, a huge sandstorm turned the afternoon sky the color of burnt sienna. I think a swarm of locusts rode in on that storm, as they have been *everywhere* since. Though I hear they are tasty when fried in butter. I’ll make sure to let you know.

There’s a bug light at a friend’s house which traps a hundred June beetles every night but that, combined with the bright fluorescent lights of the house, attract so many insects that they come to this house directly every night. We also have a burgeoning frog population, since it’s the end of the rainy season and the frogs eat all the insects. Since the frogs are more intelligent than the beetles, when we turn on the bug lamp, the frogs are the first to arrive, waiting for their dinner to be drawn in. A lot of the beetles are huge and so many of the frogs are barely past being tadpoles so, for the most part, they aren’t eating a lot of the beetle and grasshopper population. I sighed last night as I packed up my things—“I don’t mind the frogs much, I just wish they ate more.”

I have my own house now, which is pretty wonderful. I have a stand up shower, which is amazing, but since it drips a little bit, I have a medium sized frog living there. When I start the shower, he usually hits the road, so it’s not a big problem. Last week, when I came into the shower, there was a fat momma frog with whom I was less comfortable. I tried chasing her out of the shower with the bottom of my sandal, but she hopped straight past the open door into the corner of the shower. To my surprise, she hit an ant hill that I wasn’t aware of and a swarm of the medium sized biting ants came out. At first I thought “Shit, now I have two problems…” But as the ants came out, defending the hill, the frog started twitching and throwing limbs. I have nothing but sympathy for her—those ant bites really suck. I laughed and resigned to turning on the shower, letting the fauna sort out its’ own problems.

A Pulaar boy who I don’t know walked by as I was going over to another PCV’s home yesterday. He bellowed, “Vock yooou.” And then, unsure of his consonants, tried “Juck yooou.” I smiled and said “Nte ish gilt? / What’d you say?” He said something in Pulaar. I smiled as I ignored him and came up to knock on the other volunteer’s gate. To my surprise, this boy and his friend kept close behind me. “What are you doing? What do you want?” The door opened and I was about to step in, but they came closer, like they would follow me in. “Are you looking for someone?” I don’t speak a word of Pulaar and these boys didn’t speak Hassaniya or French. Still, they got the gist—“Khaalig kelb menvga ͨ honne. Il a le mal comportement. / There’s an angry dog here. He has (the!) bad behavior.” Luckily Bella, another PCV’s dog who doesn’t really do much other than sleep and vie for loving attention, was sitting in the front yard. On cue, she raises her head and starts growling. The two boys looked at each other and darted.

With the end of Ramadan, school should be starting in the next couple weeks, which means work and (*gasp*) activity. As teachers return from the countryside, we may be able to hire a good Hassaniya/Arabic tutor. Since everyone is eating again, we are being welcomed for three cups of tea and lunch again—life’s not too bad.

I am more than inspired by thoughts of travel—Istanbul and Lagos, hopefully—and now that I can eat again, I sit, slouched over a stashed bag of Trader Joe’s trail mix, giddy at the thought of more-on-the-way. I’ll keep studying Arabic for now, and be ever-ready for change as the pace of work (and life) speeds up again.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

How to Speak Hassaniya

Besim halla yitkellem klaam il Beedhan (How to speak Hassaniya)

Concerned at the lack of quality learning materials for the Hassaniya language, I have decided to arrange some phrases for future students of the language.

Sean's Hassaniya Lesson (Audio)

1) Aana nirgid ivzer lim ͨ iiz.

I think it took the better part of three weeks to figure out that the only place for me to sleep comfortably was next to the goat house. If I slept under the roof, there was no breeze and I had to be fully dressed. If I slept in my room, I could strip down to my boxers, but it was the only place in Africa that had less breeze than sleeping under just the roof. Finally, I realized that if I was next to the goat cage, the open sky got enough breeze into my mosquito net to cool me down, even when I dressed in the socially acceptable shoulders-to-ankles fashion.

I got pretty attached to this goat, one of the two young ones that would greet me in the morning as I filled my bath bucket. When I started sleeping next to the goat cage, one of them started randomly bucking heads with the metal door to the goat house, which is, to my estimation, not the best way to wake up in the morning. This goat was, to my dismay, taken from the goat house a day or two after I took this picture, and thrown in a bag as he screamed, terrified. My inner vegetarian was pretty much ready to vomit… why did they take the cute one?

2) Aana n ͨ uud menvga ͨ ileyn maa nistraah ͨ aagib leqda.

I thought it a bit strange when the trainers first told us that Mauritanians may be offended if you leave before drinking three cups of tea, but it’s also quite normal to fall asleep between rounds. One of the nicest parts of life in Mauritania is that, since the mid-day is pretty universally recognized as unbearable, every afternoon is highlighted with a mid-day nap. I hear that current volunteers complained about the hectic schedule when they came to Rosso to help with training—there just isn’t enough time for afternoon naps. That’s understandable.

My training family’s home has the wonderful feature of a hangar, or “limbhar.” Hangar’s are pretty ingenious—they enable nap-taking in otherwise open areas, such as neighborhood streets. The breeze is pretty great, but one day was outright windy, and street trash blew on me during my nap. That also made me irritable.

3) Eywe, aana vit ͨ ravt il kelma “Chebujin”.

My host Mom is pretty cool. A popular lunch dish here is chebujin, which I’ve heard is Senegalese (the name is Wolof), it’s eaten in different parts of Mauritania, but it’s especially popular here. Throughout training, the daily chebujin progressively got bigger and bigger vegetables in it and increasingly had truly amazing ocean fish. “Cheb” is such an important part of my experience here in Rosso that I’ve been trying to look up restaurants where people might be able to get it in DC. It looks like there may be a few places with “West African” food, but I’m not going to recommend any until their cheb passes the test of my discerning taste buds. The bottom of the next photo has the final product she’s cooking here.


4) Il mula-khareetha ma ͨ luum hatta.

When taking pictures of my Mom and brothers in the house, my Mom insisted that I bring the camera out to the family’s field, where my father works and we often eat lunch so my Dad doesn’t have to walk back and forth. The field is really peaceful, and I can generally get in a pretty sweet nap there. I wasn’t sure what would happen when I took my camera out—I had started to take a picture of my host father before and he refused, seeming to be embarrassed. When I took it out in the fields though, as we sat down to lunch, my Dad yelled “Wait!” I wasn’t sure what was going on. He quickly threw on his bou-bou, the traditional dress for Moor men, grabbed his hoe and put on the farmer’s hat. As I took the picture, he said “Mula-khareetha” which translates to something like “man of the fields.” Mauritanian Gothic. My host father was a pretty key element in making me realize that I was, indeed learning Hassaniya. He was the gracious translator of Sean’s Hassaniya to the family’s Hassaniya; I’m glad to have this tribute to him!

5) Ebdey, aana maani raagid, aana shilt m ͨ a is-sukaar.

I thought I’d be smart and not bring all my Chinese tea to Mauritania. I told Ken, the owner of the tea shop in Bloomington, that I wouldn’t need to bring too much tea since the (Arab?) tradition is to greet people and pass time by having three cups of tea. Little did I realize, having three rounds of tea in Mauritania generally ends with having a constricted feeling in my lungs from the syrupy-sweetness. Sometime in the first month, I started to feel like my teeth were rotting out from the inside. One night, I lay awake, sweating and fidgeting in my mosquito net. It was the last time I drank tea at night. I love the sweet mint tea, but it isn’t always coupled with the repose that I get from other tea.

An extra bonus of having my camera in the fields: my brother didn’t realize I was taking this picture as he made tea—the most artful tea makers will poor the tea from a good height, back and forth between cups, in order to make foam. Someone asked a Mauritanian why they liked foam; the answer was “It looks nice.”

6) Aana nitkellem Hassaniya bi-h illi Samba ‘asbar.

Finally, this is a tribute to Samba, our wonderful language teacher. Coming from a year of graduate school, I was maybe a bit too used to sinking my teeth into what I don’t understand and trying to chew. Samba patiently answered all of my questions, sometimes at the expense of everyone else’s attention span. He’s a pretty great teacher, and an awesome role model—an important thing to find when I didn’t know how to interact with the children calling out at me on the street. Of course, he may have taught us some useful Hassaniya phrases for dealing with children.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Images at l(e)ast

The rice paddies, I think. I’ve been calling these rice paddies based on something my host brother said one of the first days we were at our homestay houses—which is probably not the most reliable information around. As we walked upon the “paddies” he pointed to the field and repeated, “Marro”, the Hassaniya word for rice, though I generally don’t have much of a reason to believe we’re communicating very well.




Rosso is the Senegal-Mauritania border town where we are doing pre-service training. It’s a large city for Mauritania, but it sure doesn’t look like much from about a half kilometer East of town! This shot is taken from more or less the same spot as the rice paddy photo above.


Probably one of the nicest sights I’ve seen in Rosso, there’s a small bridge over this branch of (or tributary to?) the Senegal River, a bit East of the city. I jogged out this way one of my first days in town and knew I had to come back to take some photos. On the way here, I was jogging and started to branch off the road, when a man calmly walks to meet me from his house. He had a rifle in his hand, which convinced me it was a good idea to slow down. I greeted him in Hassaniya and switched to French, not really wanting to make too many miscommunications. “What’s down this way?”

As if there was nothing awkward about the sizable firearm, “Nothing. Nothing’s here, just the river.”

“Can I jog down there?” I am jogging in place, which, it occurs to me, probably looks really awkward to a Mauritanian.

“Nothing’s here just the river. It’s pretty that way.” He waves down toward the big road I had been jogging on before.

“Okay then! I’ll go there, maa salaam!”

One trainee was joking, “people at home won’t get why I am sending them photos of water—they won’t realize how special water is in Mauritania.” I know this spot falls into that category of “hey, look, water!”, but I think it’s pretty scenic anyhow.

Passing over that little bridge on a walk with friends, we weren’t entirely sure that we were still in Mauritania. If it was a bridge over the Senegal, than we would, of course, *be* in Senegal. We stopped and ate some breakfast after finding a reassuring sign that boasted something like, “Irrigation Project of Mauritania”. Wanting to walk to the river and get some good photos in, we turned into the area and set on walking “for maybe another 30 minutes”.

We passed a large refugee camp on the way— the UN is working to repatriate many black Africans who were exiled to Senegal. Around 1989, after violence between Moors and Senegalese, lists of Senegalese (and those suspected of being sympathetic to Senegalese causes), were forced from the country. The process is still highly controversial here, and many of the exiled may have been living in Mauritania for generations. As a border town, there are UNHCR refugee camps all over Rosso as the new government works with the UN to improve the situation. On many days, there’s even a camp in front of the Peace Corps training center.

After passing the camp in the middle of the irrigation project, we walked a bit into the fields before seeing this herd of goats. A (somewhat hair-brained) idea popped into my head—“Hey, that shepherd will be taking those goats to the river to get something to drink, let’s just walk that direction and they’ll lead us to the river!”

After a kilometer or so, the road ended at an intersection perpendicular to the direction the goats were headed. Looking in every direction, all we could see was the land of the irrigation project.

All’s well that end’s well: when we probably should have turned around, we decided to walk out toward some kind of light house or minaret that we saw in the distance. We *did* reach a major branch / tributary of the river, but when we reached it, we couldn’t see over the marsh grass! We walked back toward Rosso, along the water, hoping to get a nice view. After a while, we did actually reach a spot with an open view—two of the branches of the river met in an area with no grass. We all whipped out our cameras, but mine refused to take any pictures—no more memory. I deleted a few photos, but the ones I took there weren’t quite as nice as the one of that scenic bridge above.

Once the high of the vista wore off, we realized that the meeting of the two branches effectively boxed us into the land of the irrigation project— three hours into our morning walk, we had to double back the way we came. Two of us were more or less out of water and the noon heat was starting to set in. As I walked, I realized that I had blisters on my feet where the straps of my Chacos were. Dehydrated, a headache, and in a bit of pain, we set back walking…

Walking diagonally across fields to save time, we came to the corner of one field that had a herd of bulls and cows with huge horns. Someone asked—“Should we cross this field?”

Nervous at the thought of being impaled in a stampede, I relented, “I don’t care, I just don’t want to go straight through all those cows.”

“Oh, it’s okay, I see a path!” We creep through the field in single file, dodging thorns and probably walking on an unbroken layer of dung-soil, not really looking at where we were going. The path, unfortunately, went straight through the herd. Slowly, with no quick movements, we slinked in between dozens and dozens of these huge beasts. Someone else admitted that they were completely afraid, which was somehow the most comforting thing for me to hear—that I wasn’t abnormally fearful.

We passed a Mauritanian cow-herder, who watched three educated Americans, probably 8 or 10 kilometers from the city, walk more or less on tip-toes through a field full of cows that he worked with every day. Though I have no idea what he thought of us, I’m glad he didn’t know how afraid we were of walking by a group of cows that were minding their own business, all eating grass.

Needless to say, we made it to the other side of the field, and I couldn’t help but take the obvious joke, “Damn, I could go for a burger right now.” We continued the slightly painful march back toward town, and as we neared the main road, probably still 5 or 6 kilometers from the city, a man stopped and gave us a ride in his pick up truck, even refusing to accept a few ougiyas for the favor.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Just a sand dune....

I read in a travel guide some romantic description of Mauritania. It described rolling sand dunes and an eternal expanse, made timeless under the sun and the blowing wind.

The blog is like that as I write this message; timeless and all "potential"-- this post is just a recognition that there's nothing here yet. It's a sand dune, it might roll along with time. I'll let you know when I there's something here other than sand.

-S