March 30, 2004: Headlines: COS - Mauritania: Personal Web Site: Peace Corps Volunteer Jay Davidson in Mauritania

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Mauritania: Peace Corps Mauritania : The Peace Corps in Mauritania: March 30, 2004: Headlines: COS - Mauritania: Personal Web Site: Peace Corps Volunteer Jay Davidson in Mauritania

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Peace Corps Volunteer Jay Davidson in Mauritania

Peace Corps Volunteer Jay Davidson in Mauritania

Peace Corps Volunteer Jay Davidson in Mauritania


We begin this week's installment with two new Peace Corps abbreviations for you: ETR is for Early Term Reconnect and IST is for In-Service Training. They are pertinent because they happened during the last week. (My explanation of PCVRC comes at the end of this entry.)

ETR takes place after a new group of Volunteers is in country for six months; we have just passed that mark. The entire group participates as a whole. The official events of ETR lasted Saturday evening and all day Sunday.

Everyone got individual pizzas for dinner on Saturday. There is a tremendous amount of attention paid to food at ETR. As our Country Director told me, if the food is good, then the evaluations for ETR are good. This is especially important for the Volunteers who have limited choices for food in their villages - no restaurants, very few fruits and vegetables in their local markets, only a few canned foods available, and the same host family meals for weeks on end. When they arrive in the "big city," they enjoy eating things that they would not have otherwise eaten in their villages.

After pizza we had our first presentation. A Mauritanian professor who is a human rights activist spoke about various issues that are currently of interest in the country. As he sees it, the crises that Mauritania is now experiencing are environmental (drought, deforestation), political (corruption with impunity), and economic (based chiefly on the worldwide drop in iron prices).

He also talked about the human rights violations practiced here. For one thing, he gave us an explanation of - though not an excuse for - the slavery as it has existed in Mauritania. Officially, slavery has been abolished in the RIM. This country has a history of a caste system, in which each generation of a family inherits its station in life. One of the problems here in completely eliminating slavery has been that the families of former slaves continue to be economically dependent on the families for whom they have worked during previous generations. As a result, while they are free to go, they see themselves as having no other place to go because they do not have the economic means to do so. As a result, they stay with the same families for whom their ancestors have worked and with whom they have lived. It's a complex issue and I hope to understand more of it as my time here increases.

The professor had some help with his presentation from the political officer of the US embassy. The latter talked about the "unwritten checks and balances" that are currently at work here. This was brought on by somebody's question concerning the enforcement of anti-homosexuality laws. According to the political officer, these laws are not enforced by the government. He feels that if the government were pressured to enforce the anti-slavery laws, that a side-effect would be a crackdown against the gay people who have historically not be harassed in Mauritania. In fact, the professor told us that it is widely known which jobs are traditionally held by homosexuals, and that they are generally respected for the work that they do. Griots are musicians who have inherited their stations in life; many of the drummer griots are gay, according to this professor.

On Sunday morning, our Country Director addressed us. In her remarks, she noted that all 46 of us who swore in as Volunteers in September are still here - a fact that she noted was "unprecedented." She continues to be impressed by the dedication and skills of our group.

The remainder of the day was engaging, for the most part. Particularly pertinent was our cross-culture session, in which we touched upon the dynamics of relationships that each of us is facing, both in the workplace and on the personal level. This was a good opportunity for everyone to learn more about such topics as hierarchy in the work place; gaining acceptance in a culture where only Islam is seen as a true religion; how to strike a balance in friendships so that we get the personal time that we need; the concepts of material possessions and gift-giving; and dating. Each of these topics had some lengthy explanations and we all had opportunities to ask questions. It was the most valuable segment of the day for me.

We then had an opportunity to hear about funding opportunities for projects that we would like to develop. Among the programs in which the Peace Corps participates are the Small Project Assistance (SPA grants) and Peace Corps Partnership Program. After we heard about those, we met representatives from various Non-Governmental Organizations that have offices in Nouakchott.

The length of the IST, which started on Monday, varied for the different program sectors. For Education, we were supposed to have our own two-day IST, but a change in plans meant that we were asked to attend the Small Enterprise Development (SED) group IST instead. This two-day workshop was focused on the planning and implementation of projects. The SED people were attending with their counterparts - the Mauritanians with whom they work at their sites. It was much more pertinent to SED because they have a wide range of project possibilities, as compared to the teachers who already have their "projects" developed: namely, teaching.

One by one, as our Education volunteers saw how boring and useless this was for us, we left the presentation and retreated to the PCV lounge. Eventually, our APCD tracked us down. He appeared at the door of the lounge, told us, "You are supposed to be downstairs," and then left. Nobody moved and he didn't come back to insist that we go there.

During lunch, the teachers finally got some of the help that they needed. Our APCD arranged for us to eat together to discuss issues and concerns that the teachers have been having. This was probably the most useful aspect for them.

On Tuesday, the second day of IST, I woke up at 6:20 to the sound of water flowing. The sun was about forty minutes away from rising. My first thought was that Cheikh, the new night guardian at my apartment building, was up early to water the plants. It was his first night on the job and I thought, Wow, he sure is conscientious!

When I went to the kitchen to start putting my breakfast together, I suddenly realized that the sound of water was not outside and downstairs, but right there in my apartment. The water was gushing out from underneath the bathroom sink. As I turned the lights on, I could see that it had begun its flow into the hallway, the living room, and one of the bedrooms, soaking the carpeting in its path. I was able to get the matalas off the living room rug before they got wet, too.

I felt like a dog trying to chase four rabbits at the same time - didn't know where to go first. I quickly went downstairs and summoned the guardian to come upstairs with me. I had to show him what was wrong because he does not speak French, as the others have. He came to see it, but was as helpless as I was to deal with the situation. Evidently, his job training manual didn't have any information about how to turn off the water at its source, so I had to stay there and figure out what to do to stem the tide.

My only other recourse was to call Abdullahi, the day guardian, who is also something of the superintendent and owner's representative for the building. As a stroke of good fortune, I was able to reach him. (The cell phone network is notoriously unreliable.)

While I was waiting for Abdullahi to arrive, I got a big wash basin and put it in front of the spray. With the situation handled on this front, I was able to turn my attention to mopping up water. All I had were a mop, a long-handled squeegee, and two buckets. Squeezing out the mop got rid of some water, but there was so much water to deal with that it was impossible to see the difference.

In the interim, the big wash basin filled to the brim, and then the water suddenly stopped. I was able to pour it into the drain of the stall shower to get rid of it. Shortly after the empty basin was back in place, the water started gushing again. It continued this way for several rounds, just filling to the top, then stopping for long enough to empty it out.

Abdullahi was helpful. He went right to the source of water for the building, and turned it off. This left us with the mopping up to do. Cheikh and Abdullahi dragged the half-soaked carpets downstairs and draped them over the walls to dry during the day. (Just my luck, it was not a very sunny day, but it turned out to be warm enough so that the rugs dried in time for me to get them back upstairs and have my place ready for me to host a dinner for six that evening.)

Abdullahi laughed when he saw me mopping up water, saying that the mop was "trop petit" (too small) for the job I was trying to accomplish. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and tell him that was all I had. Then I was amazed to see how he decided to accomplish the same task: he took a small throw rug to sop up water and wrung out the contents into the newly-available wash basin. With all that water to mop up, he did his work very quickly.

Between us, we finished soaking up the rest of the water. With the full wash basins of water, Abdullahi suggested that we just empty them out onto the stairs and let gravity do its work on cleaning them as the water flowed to the front door.

By the time we were finished, it was about 8:30 and I had called my APCD to let him know that I had a problem at home and wouldn't be able to attend the second thrilling day of IST with SED. With the water mopped up and the rugs out to dry, all we had to do was get leak fixed. Or, at least I thought it was "we," but Abdullahi wasted no time in cluing me in that there was no "we" about it - it was I who would have to arrange and pay for the repair.

We had been through this before. There has been a leak under the kitchen sink for months. I placed a bucket there to catch the water, and I empty it when it fills. When I showed this to Abdullahi, he informed me that I would have to pay for it, since he gave me an apartment in working order, and any repairs are my responsibility. That seems to be the universal system. I tried to explain to him that when I took the apartment, the water and electricity had not been turned on yet, so it was impossible for me to be sure that everything was in good working order. This argument, though rational, did not move him any closer to fixing that leak. So I have been using the bucket until such time as I could deal with arranging for a plumber to come for it.

Now this. I told Abdullahi I still didn't understand why I had to repair somebody else's faulty building. He told me that if the problem were "grand, grand, grand," like the roof caving in or the walls falling down, then it would be the owner's responsibility. But this was not only very small, but it was also clearly up to me to fix.

When all else fails, one has to accept reality, and that is what I decided to do. More daunting than paying for the repair was arranging it: finding a plumber, explaining the problem, and getting him to do the work, with the possibility of getting ripped off in the process. I said all right, I would pay, but asked him if he could make the arrangements for the repair. He told me that he knew an excellent plumber whom he would call. A bit later, he informed me that the plumber would arrive by 11:00.

The plumber, the newest Mamadou to enter my life, arrived by 11:15 to size up the situation and see what he would need to get the job done. As long as he was looking to make the repair, I had the wherewithal to show him the leak under the kitchen sink. He said he could do both jobs for 2,500 ouguiya (roughly $8.20). I was relieved to see that I wasn't going to get soaked a second time that day, so I said that would be all right, and he went to buy what he needed to do the job.

With that work completed, I showed him the faucet and shower hose fixture in my bathtub. I had been able to get all the water to come out of the faucet, but when I try to divert it to the hose spray, only some of it goes there, and the rest continues through the faucet, resulting in a not-very-powerful trickle. He said that the fixture was "fatiguée," (literally, "tired") and that he could make a replacement, labor included, for 4,000 ouguiya (a little over $13). I thought that it would be worth it for me to pay this so that I could have a much more pleasant shower experience for the next year and a half.

Mamadou came back on Saturday, apologetic for not being able to find the new fixture for the 3,000 ouguiya that he thought he would. In the end, it cost 5,200, but even at the equivalent of $17, I felt that it was worth it to have this done. We all know it would have cost significantly more than that in the USA!

I got back to IST in time for lunch with the Education group. One of my fellow Volunteers, upon hearing why I was late in arriving, responded by saying, "At least you have a house. At least you have a guardian." Yes, my conditions here do contrast sharply not only to those at home, but also to those of my fellow Volunteers who are out in the bush.

One of the Volunteers went to the US for a few weeks and offered to do some shopping for me. One of the things she came back with was a new set of sheets to replace the ones that the Mauritel post office workers stole from the box that I had sent to myself. It is really nice to be able to sleep on a decent set of sheets, as opposed to the plastic one that the Peace Corps provided.

Your final PC abbreviation for today is PCVRC. That stands for Peace Corps Volunteer Regional Coordinator. The country is divided into regions, of which there are ten that have PCVs. In an attempt to keep the administration and Volunteers in good communication with each other, there are quarterly meetings of the Volunteer Advisory Council (VAC). Each region is represented by a PCVRC, whose primary responsibility is to be the contact person to galvanize Volunteers when the Emergency Action Plan has to be set into motion. In addition to that, the PCVRC is responsible for bringing concerns to the administration, as well as keeping ongoing contact.

The PCVRC positions are generally available only to Volunteers who are at least in their second year of service, as these are the ones who have some experience here and some knowledge of the way things work. This year, though, we have a few regions where the only Volunteers are first-years; by default, they are serving as PCVRCs. Here in Nouakchott, we now have only one second-year and one third-year Volunteer, along with my group of six first-years. The more experienced Volunteers didn't want to be the Nouakchott PCVRC, so this fell to our new group to fill in the gap. And that led to my volunteering to do the job.

If you can remember your student council days, you will have an idea of what the meetings are like. The only thing missing was the promise to get better food in the cafeteria. In all, our PC administration is very open to the Volunteers and our concerns. There is a lot of attention paid to being sure that lines of communication stay open and are in good working order.

This week is something of a landmark for our training class: 25% of our time in Mauritania is complete!

Racism, Mauritania style

I have just finished reading Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery by Samuel Cotton (who died just a few months ago of brain cancer). Cotton paints a dismal picture of slavery and racism in Mauritania and Sudan. In the book, he pays a visit to Mauritania (in 1995) and writes about his observations firsthand.

Cotton describes the class and race structure of society in Mauritania. The ruling class is known as white Moors, who are descendents of the intermingling of two groups of people: the indigenous Berbers and the Arabs who moved into the territory centuries ago. Historically, the Arabs have always had slaves. Owning other people as property is evidently not a foreign or repulsive concept to them. While this may not be true for every white Moor, they generally look down on black Africans.

This part of Africa has been home to several different racial groups for quite some time. When the colony became independent in 1960, Mauritania was one of nine republics carved out of the area that had been French West Africa. The Senegal River became the border between Mauritania and Senegal. This is an area where the black population was concentrated; those living north of the river became countrymen of the Moors.

The Mauritanian government has officially banned slavery on at least two occasions. Their black slaves had for generations been speaking Arabic or Hassaniya, the local derivation of Arabic. Officially, they are free, and some have been able to live independently. Over the generations, they have lost all vestiges of their black African roots, so that their culture now is the same as their former oppressors. These people are called Haratines or black Moors.

The most visually obvious distinctions made between the white Moors and the black Africans is in the division of labor. Walk into almost any enterprise, and you can see that it is owned and operated by white Moors. Look at anyone doing physical labor and it will always be a black African.

The president of the republic is a white Moor, as are most of the ministers of the various departments. There are some black Africans in these positions, however. Social stratification is built into the society here. People seem complacent about having their places in society.

During the week, I was walking home from work, when a car pulled over to the side of the road. It was our Country Director, who offered me a ride home. When I got into the car, she was just asking the driver, a black, about the racism that he experiences. He agreed that it is very subtle, in that the service he receives in official institutions such as banks is equal to that of the white Moors next to him. But he did say that the racism is there nonetheless.

Last week, when I told Babah and Ismail about the possibility of working at the supermarket, the first thing they wanted to know was whether or not the owners were Mauritanian. I asked why that would matter. They were not very specific, but they did tell me that it was important. His wages, 15,000 UM per month ($50), are comparable to what other workers earn for similar unskilled work.

After Babah's first day of work (8:00 AM to 4:00 PM), he stopped by my house to talk about it. "It's hard," he said. All right, I told him, you are 23 years old and you're just finding out that work is hard. In point of fact, he had some legitimate complaints. First of all, his crew worked their eight hours without any sort of break. Secondly, the management was served a lunchtime meal, eating in front of the staff, while the staff - surrounded as they are all day by food - was not given anything to eat. Babah told me, "The owners are not Mauritanian. A Mauritanian would give his employees food." And then he mixed one of his few English phrases into his French: "Ca, c'est no good."

He has a point there. The owners of the supermarket are Lebanese. There are many Lebanese-owned businesses here in Nouakchott. In talking with one of the other Volunteers, I found out that the reputation that most Lebanese have is that they are very interested in making money, to the point of being exploiting their employees. Then I came to find out that the owners of this store are among the worst offenders. Had I known this earlier, I never would have suggested that Babah work there!

The next morning, I was looking out my kitchen window, preparing oatmeal for breakfast, when I saw Babah walking by on his way to work. I opened the window, called him, and he came up to have some oatmeal, too. Fortunately for him, he was running early so he had some time to eat. Since he didn't have any lunch, I gave him an apple, an orange, a piece of whole-grain bread, and a bottle of water. Of course, he continued to complain about his job. I was starting to see that maybe I was dealing with a 23-year-old teenager.

The next day, I hatched an idea for Babah. I was wondering if he would be interested in working for me. As it is, I am paying 10,000 UM a month to Ami to clean my house and do laundry. An additional 5,000 would match Babah's current salary. If he personally bought my produce at one of the markets that the Mauritanians use, it would save me more than 5,000 UM per month, which would make it financially reasonable for me to hire him. I asked him if he would like to do that. His eyes brightened as he said yes.

I told him that there were two things I needed to happen before he started to work for me. First of all, Ami's work has been excellent. I would not feel comfortable in firing her for no reason, but if there is a possibility that I could find another person who needs her services, then I would at least be sure that she continues to earn the same income.

Secondly, I am going on vacation for three weeks early in April, during which time I do not need anyone to work for me. So when I get back, if Babah is still employed at the supermarket, I would be willing to consider his working for me, as long as I can find another job for Ami. I emphasized the importance of his hanging in there at the supermarket.

Babah said that that sounded fine. He continued all week to stop by for breakfast, and to pick up a sack lunch. Every Friday, the two teams of workers at the market change their hours, which meant that he switched to the shift that works from 4:00 PM to midnight. Instead of coming by for breakfast, he came by before work to say hello - and his sack lunch became a sack dinner.

Saturday was his second day on the night shift. After I ate dinner and finished reading a book, I decided to go back to the PC bureau to write e-mails. On the way home, I stopped at the supermarket just to say hello to Babah. I walked up and down the aisles and couldn't find him. Adel, who gave him the job, saw me and motioned me into an office.

Babah had just left. He was sitting on a counter next to the cash register, when his immediate supervisor told him to get down. He took offense at this and quit. Adel said that he intervened and wanted to give Babah another chance, but Babah refused that.

Babah is calling this action on the part of his supervisor "racist," saying that the black supervisor had it in for him because he is white Moor. While Babah's mother was a white Moor, his father is black. It has been apparent to me in our conversations that he is much more closely associated with his black Bambara heritage than with that of the white Moor society. This claim on his behalf is puzzling and does not seem to deserve being called racist - rather a young employee not wanting to do what his supervisor told him to do.

There are four Chinese restaurants in Nouakchott. A few years ago, a PCV negotiated a special Peace Corps menu at Qin Huong, which is the closest one to the bureau. The menu is not expensive by typical American standards, but it can be costly for our visiting village Volunteers who receive the lowest living allowances because their cost of living is lower than those of us in the cities or regional capitals.

The PC menu made a meal there a bargain for all. Everyone was happy with the arrangement. Then Shelagh, who arranged the discount, closed service, which prompted the owner of the restaurant to cancel the PC menu. There was widespread disappointment among the ranks of the Volunteers. People stopped going to Qin Huong.

Just before the recent weekend, the owner of the restaurant came to the bureau and dropped off copies of the new PC menu. We were being welcomed back. I got a kick out of the e-mail that one of the Nouakchott Volunteers sent us to tell the news:


Even without the Great Leader, Shelagh, we have managed to topple the ruthless owners of Qin Huong Chinese restaurant and reclaim our discounted menu. Although our choices are not as wide as they once were, and some items are, in fact, not truly "half price," the tasty preparation combined with low prices once again put this establishment within reach of the Peace Corps proletariat. Oh glorious and triumphant day! I look forward to breaking bread with you soon.

Comrade V

I joined "Comrade V" and four others for dinner at Qin Huong on Friday night. Not only had our discount been restored, but there was another innovation: tofu! The owner has started making his own tofu! I asked him if he would be willing to sell me some and he said yes. The next day I stopped by and bought a kilo of it. It is excellent: tasty and firm. Now I have the one food item that I have missed the most while here. Life is good!

(P. S. to my omnivore friends: I can understand your not sharing my ecstasy in this discovery.)

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