mardi 28 octobre 2008

A Tour of Nouakchott

The tallest building in Nouakchott is a ten story office and hotel in the center of the city. One the first floor, there's a Swatch watch kiosk, like you'd find in a mall in the States and a small electronic store with incredibly expensive HP computers and a few massive flat screen televisions. There's two thin escalators, which I've never seen working, leading up to and down from the second floor, where you find a small cafe and a shoe store, neither of which are ever open, and my barber, who washes and shampoos my hair before, after and sometimes during the cut.

An elevator takes you to another café/conference room on the tenth floor. It's surrounded by balconies on all sides so you can take in all of Nouakchott. A Mauritanian friend kept telling me how amazing it was up there, that at night, “the lights go on forever,” but coming from Sears Tower country, ten story views weren't a priority for me. When I finally made it up there I was really surprised. The best view is probably towards the Saudi Mosque, which stands at a nearby corner.

The mosque is the largest in the city, with two huge minarets. Five times a day, the huge speakers at the top of the towers sound the call to prayer and a river of people dressed in their flowing white and blue boubous converge on the mosque from all directions. It's a sandy brown building with an attractive green tile roof. I believe it was built and paid for by Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Much of the decorative trim has fallen apart, so I'm a little suspicious of the build quality. It'd be nice if the Saudis offered to renovate it eventually.
From the opposite balcony, you can follow Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the Champs Elysees of Nouakchott, south towards the Mosque Moroccan, the next largest in the city and, in my opinion, the most impressive. It's entirely white with one large tower and dark green tiling on the roof. It looks like it's in better condition than the Mosque Saudi, but it's also a little newer. Unfortunately, it's surrounded by the dried fish, used tires, and metal rebar market—a ramshackle collection of scrap metal lean to's which can be visually and olfactory a little distracting.

Beyond this you'll find Marché Cinquième, perhaps the largest of the city's many markets. The others that I know of are Marché Capitale, Marché Sixieme, and Marché Socim. They are all south of the city center and sort of blend into each other, creating one massive super market selling a huge variety of the same things. For no real specific reason, I like Socim for vegetables, Capitale for fruit, Cinquième for clothes and gifts. Cinquième is the most fun to get lost in, with thousands of stands creating a maze of open air and covered markets filled with colorful beads, bright fabrics, jewelry, traditional medicines, like bird skulls and bunches of roots and grasses, home appliances, second hand clothing from the States, books, music, food, drinks, cell phones, kitchenware and at least one of everything that is currently being produced in China.

Following Charles de Gaulle north of the city center takes you into the quartier of Tevragh Zeina. This is where you'll find the wealthiest Mauritanians as well as the ex pats and the embassies, the hospitals, the better schools, running water and more reliable electricity. But for almost every mansion here, there is an adjacent shack of wood, metal, plastic, and fabric. On Charles de Gaulle, as well as any other road, you'll see donkey carts slowly leading a line of cars, herds of goats picking through the trash and packs of wild dogs, too tired to notice you stepping over them during the hottest part of the day. This mix is part of what makes Nouakchott charming—whatever the circumstances are now, this is still a land of herders, farmers, and desert traders.

North of Tevragh Zeina, the paved roads end and you pass through Las Palmas, a quartier of mansions and SUVs. Continue on a few more kilometers and, as is always the case in Nouakchott, the buildings disappear and the desert begins.

The Rainy Season

The rainy season passed with four or five real storms, followed by two wickedly hot, dry months. In the last few weeks, it's been cold enough at night to sleep under one or two sheets. Sometimes I'll even turn off the fan, but the flies usually start buzzing around my face, so it goes back on, which helps to chase them away. For the next six months, the temperatures in Nouakchott won't be too bad. Most afternoons will briefly peak in the low nineties before it starts to cool off again in the evening. The problem now is that the strong winds kick up constant dust and sand storms which make some afternoons feel like your walking through smoke. The dust gets into everything, your nose, your ears, your eyes and even inside the house, with all the doors and windows shut, making spring cleanings a twice weekly necessity.

The cold season here seems to last much longer than in the interior of the country. In February and March, I'll hear volunteers in the interior start complaining about the temperatures, but here in Nouakchott it actually gets cooler in those months. The hot air covering the interior sucks the cold ocean air up, directly through Nouakchott. The wind shifts from the east and the air becomes noticeably moist, with thick blankets of fog some mornings.

mercredi 6 août 2008

Three Stories

Here's three stories inspired by the wildlife of Mauritania. (And no, they have nothing do with this morning's the Coup d'Etat.)

The Call of the Donkey

Why does the donkey bray? Because the donkey remembers a time when he had no master. In packs a thousand strong, donkey roamed the land alongside his cousin, horse. Horse was faster over short distances, but donkey was smaller, stronger, and braver and could go farther than any other creature. Donkey explored the mountains, the desert, and the forests and found a home everywhere he went.

Man came to the lower steppes and all the creatures moved away from their loud, foul smelling village. Donkey moved too, but donkey was brave and curious, so when a creature that was like a wolf but not a wolf came to donkey with his tongue hanging out, donkey didn't run but listened to all the noise he made.

“I live with my master! He feeds me everyday! He gives me the best food from his table, my master does! We go everywhere together, master and me!”

“Where is your master now?” Donkey asked.

“Oh, master had a bad day and was angry, so I left. But I must go back now, it's nearly dinner time and there will be food for me!”

After dog left, donkey talked about him and said he was a silly creature, with his tongue hanging out and making so much noise. But some donkeys were curious about dog’s master, who gave him food twice a day. Some donkeys didn't like running across the deserts, over the mountains, and through forests. Some days were long and difficult and no food was to be found. And in the winter it was cold and in the summer it was hot and sometimes there was no water and sometimes there was only ice and they were thirsty when night came.

One donkey said they should leave man to their village and follow the other creatures. “We don't need a master to feed us; we can go further than all other creatures and we always find what we need.” This donkey was nearly as big as a horse and just as fast, so some donkeys listened to him -- but not many.

"You’re just scared of man. Real donkeys are always brave,” said another donkey.

The next day, most of the donkeys went down to visit man. They walked through his village and peered into his houses, and man hid under their blankets because the donkeys were big and strong. But all the dogs came out and made lots of noise. There were many dogs in the village, more dogs than men, and they circled the donkeys and barked at them.

Hearing their dogs outside, man crawled out from under his blankets and joined them. The donkeys thought they were very funny and they rubbed their noses over man and let them scratch their backs like they did to the dogs. Man gave the donkeys carrots and apples and grass, and the donkeys ate them all until they were fat and round and tired and happy. Right there, in the middle of the village, they lay down and slept on the ground, which they had never done before.

In the morning they woke up to the roosters’ calls and found that a fence had been built around them and that ropes had been tied over their necks. They kicked and screamed, but could not escape. Soon they were tired and thirsty, because man did not feed them when they fought.

They were given kitchen scraps which made them fat and round and tired and slow. And man favored the smallest donkeys, who were slower, but could go farther and carry more weight and rarely ever fought with them. And in time, the village donkeys became timid shadows of the creatures they had once been.

Many winters passed until the donkeys that had stayed away from man returned to the high steppes and peered down on their captured brothers. The village donkeys saw them high on the ridge and remembered how it felt to run across the fields and over the mountains and through the forests and they kicked and screamed and even broke their fences to escape. But man had ropes around their feet and necks and quickly brought the donkeys back.

Man had seen the great donkeys on the ridge and knew that they would cause problems. Each time they came, the village donkeys went mad with the desire to escape, so man decided to capture the last of the great donkeys.

They tried to chase them on their village donkeys, who were much too slow now. Man remembered the giant horses they'd seen long before who were faster than donkeys over short distances. They agreed, “That's what we'll need to capture these bothersome donkeys.”

Man hunted horses for many days and while his donkey was much slower, it could keep going, all day and all night, until the horses couldn’t run any further. Man tied ropes around the horses’ necks, gave them nothing to eat or drink, and when they were almost too weak to stand, slowly dragged the horses back to their village.

When the great donkeys returned to the high steppes, the village donkeys kicked and screamed and tried to warn them to run away. But man heard the commotion, climbed on his horses, and chased the donkeys across the high steppes. He knew the great donkeys were almost as fast as the horses and could go much further, so he made a plan to surround them, like he'd seen the dogs do to the village donkeys long before.

Some men rode towards the mountains, others towards the forests and the deserts, and then they turned in towards each other and closed their giant circle on the great donkeys. In this way, the great donkeys were caught. Even the horse, which is a very arrogant creature, was amazed at the strength and beauty of the great donkey, with his thick, striped hair and his rich, brown eyes; he was so unlike the dull, tired, lifeless creatures they saw in the village.

Man wanted to capture the great donkeys, since they were even better than the horses, but the great donkeys would not stop fighting. Man said “We cannot capture these creatures, they're much too strong; but we cannot let them go free, they make our donkeys angry and then our donkeys fight with us.” So man lifted his spears and brought the last of the great donkeys down. And far away, the village donkeys heard their brother's final screams and took this call as their own.

Fish Bones

I will tell you why the fish has so many bones, but first you must know why the fish floats to the surface when he dies. That story begins long ago, when polar bears left the sea and became alligators and alligators left the land and became butterflies and there was much confusion in who was who and what was what and whether one creature was your brother or your cousin and another was your sister or your aunt. Because of these strange and complicated relations, an unspoken law existed that everyone, even the most vicious creatures, would control their baser instincts and avoid eating anything but eggplane and cabbage, which had been carried to earth on solar winds from another galaxy and were not members of anyone’s family. At this time, fish had not a single bone in his body and his flesh was white and tender from silvery tip to tail.

On the banks of the primordial sea where creatures were daily dragging themselves out of the water or sinking back in, a sandy-colored creature called man was having a hard time deciding whether to stay on the shore or return to the water. The sea was always a pleasant temperature and filled with eggplant and cabbage, which was certainly not the case on land, where it was hot all day, cold all night, and one often had to eat sand.

The problem was that man was very forgetful and he had forgotten how to breathe underwater. He would dive into the primordial sea, fill his lungs with water, and begin to splash around and make all sorts of noise, which could be heard for many miles in the sea.

Fish took pity on man, who, he was embarrassed to admit, was a not-so-distant cousin. He wanted to help man remember how to swim and maybe stop drawing so much attention to himself. So, when man made another attempt at returning to the water, fish swam beside him and whispered in his ear.

“Watch me, it’s easy!

“Just move your tail back and forth!”

Soon man was moving through the water in an awkward fashion. But he kept his head high and tried not to sink below the surface.

“That will never do,” said fish, “you have to go under and breathe!”

Man did as he was told. The rich, salty water washed over his head, stung his eyes, and pressed deep into his ears. He exhaled his last breath and bravely sucked water into his lungs -- as much as he could possibly hold. For a moment, he remembered dashing back and forth in endless schools of extended relatives, spinning in the ocean spray and crashing back into the sea, diving so deep the cabbage glowed in the dark and the eggplant was blind.

Then he started to drown. He thrashed and coughed and clawed for the surface. Fish tried to calm him down. “Breathe! It's okay.” But man wouldn't listen.

Man woke up in the surf. He coughed and coughed, until all the water left his lungs.

“Man,” fish asked, “why do you want to return to the sea? Is it so bad there on land?”

“Oh, it's terrible. It's always too hot or too cold and there's so little to eat, some days I have to fill myself with sand to stop the pain.”
Fish had an idea. “Man, when I die, I have no need for this body. I will fill myself with air and float to the surface and the sea will wash me to the shore. You can take of my flesh and feed yourself as easily as I fill myself with eggplant and cabbage.”

Man thanked his distant cousin and in the days to come he would find many fish washed up on the shore. And fish was so good man could eat it whole, straight from the sea, and he thought he would never be hungry again.

Man is a forgetful creature. He stared at the dull, sunken eyes of a fish washed up on the shore. He poked the soft, mushy flesh. He smelled the putrid remains before him and thought, “Dead fish is better than sand, but not by much.” Man forgot everything fish had done for him. Man wanted fresh fish.
Man waded into the sea and splashed around in his efforts to stay afloat. Fish swam to his side and whispered in his ear, “You still want to come back to the sea?”

“Fish, the water here is too deep. Come closer to the shore and teach me how to swim.”

Fish followed man and gave him all the advice he could. Many hours passed before fish realized the tides had shifted and he was flopping around in a small puddle in the sand. “Man, take me back to the sea. It's too hot here on land and I can't breathe!”

Man lifted the firm-fleshed fish and stared at his bright, shining eyes. Fish smelled so fresh. Fresh fish must taste so good.

“Yikes! What are you doing?” screamed fish.

Man couldn't respond—his mouth was full of tender white meat.

“You tricked me after everything I did for you!” Fish closed his eyes and focused on his soft, supple flesh. He thought of the great coral reefs and deep stone spires. He thought of the alligators teeth and polar bears claws. “You'll regret this, man. I promise you that.”

Man ignored fish and took another bite of his flesh. Maybe, if he hadn't been so hungry, he would have noticed something different But he bit, chewed, and swallowed without a second thought.

Then he started to drown. He thrashed and coughed and clawed for air.

“Now I have thousands of bones and every time you eat me you they will lodge in your throat and choke you and you will drown on land just as if you were in the sea.”

The Beautiful Cockroach

I once met the most beautiful cockroach in the world. Among her kind, her beauty was a legend, and even I was amazed, for I swore she was a cricket or a beetle, and I couldn’t believe she was the cockroach she claimed to be.

“You are unlike any roach I have seen before. How are you so beautiful?” I asked.

“It is true, I am the most beautiful cockroach in the world,” she said. “And my story is the saddest you will ever hear—but my life has always been one of extremes. My father was the richest and most powerful king the world has ever seen. And I was his most beautiful daughter, the most beautiful princess in the world. No man was worthy of my hand and my father feared that someday one of his enemies might come for me, his most precious treasure, so he kept me hidden away in my tent, under robes and veils.

“My father had more slaves than could be counted in a lifetime. They did everything for me, so that I never had to lift a finger. Every slave had only one task to do and every hair on my head had its own slave. They were fat and well fed; their lives were not difficult. But in return for this, they had to do everything perfectly. Any mistake was cause for death.

“All my slaves were woman but one: a Boy, whom my father did not fear, because he was terribly ugly. He was the smallest creature you have ever seen, bent nearly double with a camel's hump on his back. He could not walk, but crawled on his hands and knees. He was always covered in a black shroud that hid his ugliness. But I did not know this then. I had to hide behind a curtain when he came in and all I knew of him was his voice. His task was the hardest of all—he had to tell me what I wanted to hear.

“What I wanted to hear were stories about beautiful princesses free to leave their tents and see the world. Boy was perfect; he made no mistakes. His stories stretched from before time began until long after the universe ended. He knew every planet circling every star swirling in every galaxy. And he knew every princess that ever was or would be and every single amazing thing they did. Boy's mind was a map of this universe and countless others.

“And his voice... his voice was the perfect instrument.”

“For all his riches, my father was a fool. Could he not hear this instrument? Could he have been so deaf? How could he not see what would happen to a lonely girl, locked away with such a beautiful sound. Yes, I was in love and I had a plan.

“'Boy, tell me the story of a princess, locked away in her tent, under robe and veil. Tell me how she escapes and finds her love.'

“Boy was quiet for a long time. Finally he spoke, ‘That is a story that ends in a dark place. Are you sure you want to hear it Princess?’

“Perhaps I was a fool too, but I was in love. 'Boy, I've told you what I want to hear. If you don't tell me, my father will kill you.'

“‘As you wish. This princess, the richest and most beautiful in the world, was also the poorest, for she had never seen anything but the patterns of her tent and the eyes of her many slaves. But she had fallen in love with a slave she had never seen. And a girl in love thinks nothing of danger.

‘This beautiful Princess devised a plan to escape her father's watchful eye and run away into the desert with her love. She told her slave to cover himself in one of her many robes and veils. He did as he was told. She then came out from behind her curtain and covered herself in his simple black shroud. “I am going to find the witch in the desert that lives beneath the sun; she hates my father and will help me to escape. Wait here, slave. My father will come to see me and when he finds you he will threaten to kill you. Tell him you were following my orders but you know where I am. Tell him I am in the desert near the ancient well. He will take you there, but when he cannot find me, he will tie you up and leave you there to die of heat, thirst, and madness. Do not worry, I will come at sunset and untie your ropes, and you and I shall runaway together. I love you, slave, and wish to be yours as much as you are already mine.’

‘Slave did as he was told. Soon the king entered his daughter's tent. He loved to remove her veil and stare into the eyes of his greatest treasure. But all he found was the face of a poor slave! The king did just as Princess had said he would. They rode to the ancient well and his soldiers searched the land for the Princess.

“Slave,” said the King, “you will die a terrible death out here.” A rope was found, and slave was tied up by his arms. The king lowered him into the well and left him hanging there so that he would live longer and endure even greater pain.

‘Princess found the home of the desert witch, a frightfully old woman she'd heard of in stories all her life. The witch sat in the darkest corner of her hut, chewing on sticks and bones. She had just the slightest wisps of gray hair left on her head, which would sometimes slip into her mouth and rest there until her dark gums had chewed through them.

‘”Princess,” the witch said in a voice like blowing sand, “you have come to find your love."

‘”Yes, he waits for me at the ancient well.”

‘”He will be yours, child, I will promise you that. But you must promise me that you will always love him completely. Always and forever. He is a special boy, and I will never let anyone hurt him.”

‘”I love him more than the entire world. I love his voice completely, and nothing else matters.”

“I told Boy to stop. I'd heard everything I needed to know. He did as he was told and covered himself in a robe and veil. I came out from behind my curtain and covered myself in his black shroud. I crawled from my tent and went towards the dunes. Hidden by the sand, I walked towards the sun, because the desert witch lives directly beneath it. I found her there and made my promise.

“We found the ancient well, and I took hold of the rope that hung over the side. I looked over the edge of the well and, in the last reflections of the setting sun, I finally saw my love.

“I was the daughter of the king and was no less a fool. I saw my love. I saw his terrible face, his worthless legs, his disfigured back and yes, for a moment, I forgot his voice, I forgot his mind. A moment was all it took.

“The desert witch screamed like a storm rising over the endless dunes, ‘You lied, princess, you know nothing of love. My boy is too good for a beautiful cockroach like you. You will become the lowliest of slaves! You will spend your life cleaning up the skin, the hair, and the filth of man. You will live in the darkest shadows of the dirtiest pits, now and forever!’”

vendredi 13 juin 2008

Book Reviews

I just finished two books on Africa that were really interesting. The first, The Sword and the Cross: Two Men and an Empire of Sand by Fergus Fleming, is a history of the creation of the French colonies in Africa told through the biography of Charles de Foucald and Henri Laperrine. What is most striking about this story is how haphazard the entire thing was. There was almost no control and little support in Paris for the expanding French empire in Africa. The majority of French citizens wanted nothing to do with the vast Saharan desert and the politicians knew they could not afford to control such a huge and desolate wasteland.

Ultimately, the campaigns that created French Saharan Africa were the work of military men too far from Paris to control. Almost every single one of these men had a few strings loose and most were frightening meglomaniacs--think Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

The second book is Sahara Unveiled by William Langewiesche. It recounts the author's overland trip from Algiers to Dakar, mostly via taxi, truck, and bus. It presents a very even handed portrait of good and awful parts of touring northern Africa. Oddly enough, in a book that is basically a list of worst vacation horror stories ever, including a unforeseen episode of gun running into Libya and an attempt on the author's life in the Algerian desert, the brief chapter on Mauritania struck me as the most negative in the entire book. Mr. Langewiesche didn't like anything about Mauritania and felt nothing but pity for the Peace Corps volunteer he stayed with here.

He visited in 1990, just after the les eventements de '89 (a euphemism for racial conflict culminating in attempted genocide) so it was still a pretty tense place. But the book made me think that I'm either one tough as nails soldier of fortune (which is certainly not the case) or this place has improved a lot in the last two decades. In fact, I would like to extend an open invitation to Mr. Langewiesche to return to Nouakchott where he can sleep on my floor, eat a hamburger with an egg on top, and enjoy the more harmonious race relations.


Most of the time I'm pretty comfortable here in Nouakchott. I know where to find the things I want, I know how much they should cost, and if not, I'm more confident in my French, so I can usually work it out. I shut my windows in the morning to keep the apartment cool in the day and open them up at night. I know which restaurants have A/C when the afternoon is unbearable. I can turn down three glasses of tea, gracefully leave a friend's house when I'm ready, and turn down an invitation if I don't want to go. But there are still things I sometimes dread. That includes taking a taxi. It's not just the terrible driving; it's being locked in a car with curious strangers and dealing with the same questions again and again.

1.How can I get a VISA to America? I tried to get a VISA to America. I need to go to America! (Response: Yes, it's very hard right now. I have nothing to do with it. I wish it was easier.)

2.Bush bad! (Response: He is not very popular. He won't be president much longer.) I've heard this less and less lately. Now the conversation usually starts with Obama, who is a superstar. No one knows the name of the other guy.

3.Who will win? / Who will you vote for? / Obama! (Response: I don't know, he could win. He's very popular. We're from the same city!)

4.You don't speak Hassiniya/Pulaar/Wolof/Soninké? (Response: No. I'd like to learn. Languages are very difficult for me.)

5. Are you married? You should be married! (Response: No, not yet. That's what my mom says.)

6.You need to find an African wife! (Response: Awkward laugh.)

7.You don't have anything smaller? (Response: No, I told you I would need change.) Now we drive around asking people for change.

8.Give me your phone number! (Response: ummmm. uhhh.)

What else have I been doing?

Everyone says that your time in Peace Corps is what you make of it. There is minimal supervision, you may or may not be placed with a counterpart, and even if you are, it's up to you how much time you dedicate to them, you're allowed to work with almost anyone you like and you are encouraged to create your own projects based on the needs you find in your site. My experience so far has been all over the map, with intensely busy periods followed by breaks of almost no work.

I've been teaching only two or three days a week since arriving in Nouakchott. During the first few months, I spent a lot of time preparing for each class, but that is much less demanding now. I also spent that time working with the United Nations on projects that have the very French goal of sensibilisation. The first of these was the Caravan for the Millennium Development Goals. This involved visiting a number of the poorest quartiers and tent cities surrounding Nouakchott and performing sketches about sanitation, health, poverty, and other life issues. I was really just along for the ride, but it was interesting and a great way to meet people and see the city when I first got here.

The second UN project involved a story writing and drawing contest held at a number of schools throughout the country. I was able to contribute more to this effort and in the end I helped do the layout for a small book about water issues in Mauritania. After this, my contact at the UN returned to Spain and I haven't had a chance to work with them since.

I usually spend a few hours a week helping a small building maintenance and security company improve their computer accounting and invoicing procedures or help the owner draft bid proposals in English. The stated goal of the SED/ICT program in Mauritania is to help those working in the informal sector. I'm not sure this company, or most of the others I've partnered with, fit neatly into that category. But I don't see much need for computers, much less computer support, in truly informal enterprises here either. From my work in the States, I can appreciate how hard it is to turn a small business into a profitable, longterm enterprise, so I'm happy to work with these companies.

Other work includes computer support at the Islamic Law university, teaching computer maintenance to two employees at a private English language school, and, of course, teaching gym class twice a week at a kindergarten.

In May I was placed at a government ministry to help them revamp their website and improve their (nonexistent) office network. About a two weeks after starting, all the ministers were laid off. I was told I'd have to wait until the new minister had approved having a Peace Corps volunteer working in the office before I could come back. That was about a month ago and I'm not sure what's going to happen there. They wanted me in the office nearly 20 hours a week. It might be nice to have something of a regular schedule, but this would made it more difficult to pursue all the various other things I'm involved in, like reading lots of books.

Finally, a lot of time is spent grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and washing laundry by hand. I have language lessons a few times a week. Then there's music and movies at the French Cultural Center, books to read, friends to see, interminably long lunches, three glasses of tea to drink, half hearted attempts to exercise before it's too hot, so that, even with all the free time, I still go to sleep exhausted.

What have I been doing?

Soon after arriving in Nouakchott I began teaching computer classes at a small cybercafe in a neighborhood called Socajim PS. I teach two classes, the first is a bureautique course that covers Windows, Word, Excel, email, and the Internet. In the first half of the course, the students mostly copy completed documents and spreadsheets to learn how to use the features of Microsoft Office programs. I try to get through this as quickly as possible because my goal has been to create more interesting assignments than simply copying someone else's work. I want the students to understand how to use these programs to do their own work in the future, which means starting with a blank page and figuring out how to fill it ones self. My other goal is to teach the students how to do research using the Internet. There are barely any libraries or other sources for written material here so the Internet opens up an huge amount of information to the students.

In the second half of the course I give assignments that include creating a CV in Word, using Wikipedia to research various locales and presenting that information in an Excel spreadsheet, using Google to find the answers to a number of obscure questions, and creating invoices and a cost/benefit analysis in Excel based on the work of imaginary businesses.

The second course I have been teaching is on computer maintenance. I really enjoy this because all the students have been so excited by it. It's very hands on--in the first week we take all the computers apart and put them back together and try moving components around between them. This is something none of them have ever done, even if they have their own computer. This first class always begins with the students nervously huddled around the computers while I urge them to began surgery. After 30 minutes the entrails are spread across the floor and I'm desperately reminding them to work slowly and be gentle.

By the end of the course the students have reinstalled Windows multiple times, worked with a number of Windows maintenance tools, edited the registry, deleted computer viruses, learned some basic networking and, most importantly, used the Internet to search for solutions. This course probably covers too much material and gets too advanced, but I'm hoping to peak their interest in working with computers and give them the confidence to try solving computer problems. These skills, as well as those of the bureautique course, are best learned through repetition in real life situations.

mercredi 2 janvier 2008

And the Weekend is...

I went to my friend Youssouf's on Friday afternoon to eat some rice and fish and watch Prisonbreak. During the middle of the third episode he turned to me and said something about Friday and Saturday being the new weekend. We were hanging out, watching TV, getting ready to eat with our hand, so yeah, it was just like the weekend.

Heading home in a taxi the driver said something similar, than I heard it again at a boutique. I figured this must be some Mauritanian proverb I'd either never heard or never been able to understand before.

That evening, I met my friend Angela told me she might have to start teaching on Sundays. Yes, the weekend was now Friday and Saturday. There was talk about this in the Parliament last week, the passed the resolution this week, and announced the news on Friday morning.

Turns out this is the third time they've done this in the last few years. Friday is the Muslim holy day and everything shuts down after the afternoon prayer anyway. What remains to be seen is if anyone actually starts working on Sunday again.

Why I'm So Popular

In America no one was ever impressed that I lived in America but everyday here in Mauritania I impress everyone I meet by the large Made in America tag sewn somewhere on my body. Maybe I'd pull the thing off if I could find it, maybe not. The fact is, the attention is kind of nice and usually good for a free meal.

For awhile I thought all this attention had more to do with the color of my skin, but that's not it. On regular basis, I'll walk into a room full of strangers and be pretty much ignored, until someone realizes I'm not French or Spanish, but American.[1] Then I become the life of the party for as long as my French holds out.

In the first day of a language class I was taking here in Nouakchott, everyone in the room had to introduce themselves. There were about ten Mauritanian's, two lily white Spaniards, and myself. By the end of class, and every class thereafter, I was the most popular kid in school; everyone wanted my number, wanted to speak English, ask questions, learn all about me, have me over for lunch, for dinner, play with their kids, and visit them at work. The poor Spaniards were totally forgotten and after two weeks they quit coming, probably because they were jealous of me.

Yes, American's are rare in Mauritania, the French are French, and the Spanish dress funny but the real reason I'm so popular is much simpler: Prisonbreak, 24, and Desperate Housewives. Hollywood makes some damn good entertainment, even dubbed over in French, and this has done more than all our military might, industrial superiority, and technological marvels to insure our place in the hearts and minds of the world.

[1]This never takes long. I know my French accent is terrible because all I have to say is Bonjour and everyone immediately asks if I'm American.

White Guy in the Right Place

My friends Cissé, Angela, and I went to a fake traditional Pulaar wedding the other day which was followed by a real traditional march to the quartier's final soccer match. There was a huge crowd, which an armed guard immediately escorted us through, past the crowd control fence and directly to the VIP tent. I shook hands with all the grand boubou wearing officials, took a bottle of water, a seat, watched the game, and continued to shake hands with whomever approached. Shaking hands has been my job for the last six months and I do it well.

After the winning team lifted the trophy in the air and the crowd ran onto the field, the officials pulled me aside and said Something something Ambassade something something something and shook my hand some more.

Moments later, the winning team's captain came up to me with the trophy, shook my hand, hugged me, and asked for a photo. I had my camera out and was happy to oblige, but he pulled me under his arm and a newspaper photographer took the photo instead. More hugs, more shaking hands.

With the help of more armed men, we finally extricated ourselves from the field. Cissé was grinning from ear to ear so I asked him what the hell that was all about. Turns out the German Embassy had paid for the trophy, the tent, the shirts, the water, everything to make the final game special. The officials were even happier that a German Ambassador had decided to come and see the game. I think I look pretty young for an Ambassador, but maybe not. I'm not sure if any of the pictures made it into the paper, but I'm positive some are hanging up on Mauritanian walls.


906 million Africans speak over 1000 languages
730 million Europeans speak 35 languages
279 different languages are spoken in Cameroon; in Zaire - 221, Tanzania - 131, Sudan - 132, Tchad - 127

There are three monolingual African nations – Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia
There are five multilingual African nations with one or more dominant languages – Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Zaire
In all the other countries, there is no single dominant language.

Continent, % World Population, % World Languages
Africa, 14%, 33%
Europe, 11.3%, 3%
Asia, 60.5%, 30% [1]

Most of these languages are spoken by culturally and, perhaps to a lesser extent, ethnically diverse people. All these numerous tribes and ethnic groups have had complicated relationships, often involving war, subjugation, and slavery. This is illustrated in Mauritania by the Haratins, or Black Moors, the second largest minority after the Hal-Pulaars. They are the descendants of West Africans enslaved by the North African Berbers. Over time, they came to largely share the Moor culture and language while still being seeing as a distinct group.

The borders of Mauritania, as is the case with much of Africa, were drawn from the logic of outsiders—a river here, a mountain range there, longitude, latitude, and treaties with other foreign governments. This ignored the racial and cultural diversity that exists within that arbitrary landmass. Rivers, for example, are rarely borders in traditional societies. Through trade and transportation they connect people together. Although differences may exist along the entire length of a river, the odds are that two villages on directly opposite banks will share the same language and culture. In Mauritania, the south-western border was drawn along the Senegal River, separating the Hal-Pulaar peoples from their cousins in Senegal and giving the country something of a split-personality between the Moorish north and Black African south.

By favoring certain ethnic groups, colonial governments in Africa could take advantage of these relationships to further their own power. This has left a legacy of governments that tend to represent the interests of whomever the colonists worked with. This, combined with numerous languages, uncomfortable borders, and a long history ethnic clashes makes nationalism an especially difficult concept through much of Africa and leads in part to the seemingly endless civil wars in African nations.

[1] I started making all these numbers up, then found them in a recent issue of Aujourd'hui l'Afrique

vendredi 28 septembre 2007


It rained nearly every night during my last two weeks in Boghe. Each morning, the pools of standing water grew, vibrating with newborn mosquitoes, until most homes had malarial lakes where their yards had been. In some homes, rocks, concrete, bricks, and tires were littered through the water as stepping stones, in others, they simply walked through it. Leaving the only raised, paved road, one entered a maze of water and refuse that had to be patiently navigated, but even the most careful efforts usually ended with at least one foot ankle deep in the brown sludge. The rainy season had arrived and rather than bringing relief from the hot season, it simply made it worse—more humid, more mosquitoes, more flies, more trash, and more smells.

The night after Swearing In, we had a party at a small hotel in Kaedi. Earlier that afternoon, a strong storm passed over and dropped water in a biblical way before continuing east, up the Senegal River towards Mali. By the time we reached the hotel, standing pools of water had to be carefully avoided to reach the outside ballroom/dance floor. There was no moon, no lights, no one had thought to bring a flashlight and the ground, wet or dry, looked the same. All night, volunteers were slipping and falling into the foul smelling water. Although the rain had stopped hours ago, the water continued to rise throughout the night, flowing in from the swollen banks of the river. When I left around midnight, I rolled my pants up and sloshed through the water to the SUV waiting on the road, the driver unwilling to risk bringing the vehicle any closer. Passing by the hotel two days later, I noticed the water was even higher, even though it hadn't rained anymore.

This flooding occurs every year during the brief rainy season. Everyone knows it's coming and everyone has ten months to prepare for it—to install pumps, improve drainage, raise land, build retaining walls—but nothing is done. I made this observation to another volunteer, who pointed out that there are so many things standing in the way of such work—no equipment or technical knowledge, no private industry or government support, and, of course, no money. I made the argument that the desire to improve living conditions was what created these missing elements—technical knowledge is gained through trial and error, the investments made build an industry, jobs, and market. It seems most inventions and infrastructure are the result of a desire to make life safer, easier, and more comfortable.

Obviously, I'm simplifying a complicated process. Consider what flood control efforts have done to the Mississippi river—radically changing the river's natural course, leaving the Gulf Coast and huge watersheds vulnerable to storms, and sinking New Orleans ten feet below sea level. None of these consequences were considered, or even imagined, when all the various flood control projects, small and large, local, state, and federal, were put into place all along the length of the river. Each project identified one issue, or a small set of issues, such as seasonal flooding of Missouri farms or navigability for barges along a bend in the river, and successfully resolved those issues. Over time, the unintended consequences of each individual project have combined to create major environmental issues for which there's no simple solution. Perhaps, living with two months of flooding each year isn't such a bad option, at least until we're able to understand problems, solutions, and consequences on a large enough scale, but I'm glad I don't have to live beside the Senegal River until then.