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Peace Corps Volunteer Grant Hale in Mauritania
Peace Corps Volunteer Grant Hale in Mauritania
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This is the last letter we'll receive from Grant in Mauritania as he is now on his way home. We plan to pick him up in New York on August 15th. This letter is a reflection upon his experiences of the last two plus years and the impact it has had upon him. Received 8.3.02
Dear Mom and Dad, Saturday, July 20th, 2002
Itís fitting to begin with a story, because there have been so many over the past two years. The following is the most recent and worthy of retelling. This may also be the last time I put a pen to paper on my makeshift desk in my mud hut to recount a unique experience in Mauritania.
Back when Ousmane was young boy, studying the Koran with several orphans under the tutelage of his father, he became good friends with another student named Ahmedou. They spent their childhood together studying and playing in Ousmaneís compound in Kobeni. After they grew up, Ousmane took over the role of Imam when his father died and Ahmedou went out into the world in search of work. He lived in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, Bamako, and everywhere in between. He found work in ďbiscuit commerceĒ (buying and selling small packets of cookies), ďretailĒ (selling used clothes donated by western nations), and he even joined the Mauritanian military for a while and was put in prison during the 1989 war with Senegal by White Moors accusing him of being a Senegalese sympathizer because heís black.
Ahmedou has been all over Mauritania and has seen many things, but no matter where he went, he never failed to come back and visit Kobeni every now and then. I met him once last year when he was on his way to Mali to sell some cookies. Then about a week ago, he showed up again at Ousmaneís after he heard of Oulieís death. It was only the second time I met him, but this time he said heís here for good. Heís almost forty years old now and heís tired of struggling to make it in a world where only corrupt governments or military regimes succeed. Itís known as African Capitalism. The system is not compatible with an honest, intelligent, hard-working individual like Ahmedou. In all his time and effort throughout his life, heís only been able to barely break even.
Now heís back in Kobeni to settle down. He brought with him the small amount of money he had and plans to live with Ousmane until he can get married and establish himself in the village. This is how I came to know Ahmedou, an honest, caring, yet defeated man with a bushy black beard, ready to accept his fate as a poor Mauritanian peasant. This is where the story gets good.
Three nights ago, Ahmedou, Ousmane and I traveled 30km east of Kobeni by bush taxi to a little Pulaar village called Boughandouze. The reason we went was for Ahmedou to ďcheck outĒ a village girl after her father, the chief, put out the word that she had recently become "ripe" for marriage. Once Ahmedou heard this, we took the first bush taxi to Boughandouze so Ahmedou could inspect the goods and the girlís family could size him up as well. It took us about an hour to get there since the road is only used by donkey carts and camels and is therefore a bit rough. We set out around sundown.
When we arrived, there was the usual astonishment/fear/incomprehension about a white guy being in the village who knows the local languages. But once my novelty wore off, it was time for Ahmedou to get down to business. The night was cloudless and the moon was waxing just past the first quarter, providing decent light. Even so, I brought my flashlight along and gave it to Ahmedou for his detailed inspection of the girl.
We sat down with the men and elders of the village, drank tea and talked while all the women were supposedly somewhere getting ready. Our arrival caused quite a stir in the little village, but it was as if they had been expecting our surprise visit. Eventually, after the incessant greetings, we sat down and began to relax a little bit. Ahmedou was getting playfully angry with me when I kept asking him, in a raised voice, ďSo how long exactly did you spend in prison?Ē He knew I was kidding, but after a while he said he was getting worried about something else. The women were taking way too long and Ahmedou was getting uneasy. After 10 or 15 minutes, an uncomfortable silence fell over the villagers. Ousmane took the chief aside and asked what the problem was. The chief said he thought we would have come earlier. Ousmane said we tried, but the first bush taxi didnít come through until tonight. The chief said that another suitor and his entourage came the night before, trying to win the favor of his daughter. He said that his daughter preferred that guy, and didnít feel like going through the formalities of courtship with Ahmedou. The chief was sorry, but thatís what his daughter wanted. In other words, Ahmedou got dissed hard.
Ousmane came back to us and relayed what the chief told him. When I heard, I couldnít help but let out a heartfelt laugh. And Ahmedou, although in a rather undignified position, admitted the situation was quite humorous. He never even got to see the girl. I added to the moment by making Ahmedou give me back my flashlight and telling him he should chase after women a little closer to Kobeni next time. It was almost 11:00 p.m. when we left Boughandouze. We didnít get back to Kobeni until after midnight (I think thatís about the latest Iíve ever stayed up in Kobeni.) The ride back was hard, but our spirits were high after Ahmedouís comically humbling experience. In the car, I wasnít bothered by how late it was or how the bumps are magnified exponentially in the back of an old pick-up truck traveling at high speeds off road. I thought instead about what a great experience I just had, a quintessential Peace Corps experience that will be with me as long as I live.
Times like these show me how much Iíll miss them when theyíre gone. Theyíre not quite enough to make me want to live like this forever (or even extend for a third year), but theyíre enough to make me absolutely certain I have no regrets. Iím so glad I came to Mauritania, but donít get me wrong, Iíve never stopped thinking about America. For the past two years, I havenít felt like life has been passing me by or that Iíve been missing out on anything in America, but I sure have missed it. I canít wait to come back home. Although when I do, I know that Iíll have to face some of the inevitable changes both in America and in myself.
A few of these changes have been on my mind for quite some time now. One example I noticed while on the bush taxi ride back from Boughandouze. I realized that I do some of my best, most productive, and worthwhile thinking during long, hard, off-road journeys in the back of an old pick up truck. In the recent past, on rides like that one, Iíve planned well projects, organized latrine constructions, formulated action plans, pondered the future, and reflected on the past. In America, when will I be able to take a long, off-road bush taxi trip? Where will I be able to do any good philosophical pondering or how will I accomplish any task without bush taxis? I know it doesnít sound like that big of a deal, but thereís a strange appeal to the challenge involved in taking my mind off of the physical discomfort by directing all my thoughts to a certain subject. I canít think of any other opportunity to consolidate so much concentration at one time just out of necessity. Itís just one example of something Iíll have to do without.
Another example of something I donít look forward to living without is the time right before I go to sleep. I climb up on my roof with my mat and lie down. My stomach tingles when I look up at the vast, thought-provoking blanket of stars on a moonless night where the distinct outline of the Milky Way is clearly visible. I think about where I am and who Iím with and I find inspiration in Ousmane, the poorest of the poor, always offering what little he has to a less fortunate stranger weary from travel. I try to figure out how to apply that example to my life. Then I tell myself, the next time things donít happen just how I want, or I canít do something exactly when I please, I shouldnít spazz out. I should just relax, be patient and think about what coach Nick always said to complainers (the meaning of which is now so clear to me): ďNo matter how bad you think youíve got it, thereís always somebody, somewhere, whoís got it worse than you.Ē Having seen firsthand those who ďgot it worse than me,Ē and finding inspiration in them every night under the stars before I go to sleep, the motivation necessary to be thankful for all I have comes easily. So in America, with all that smog and cut-throat capitalism, where will I find inspiration without the Milky Way or Ousmane? Even though I probably wonít be able to see the Milky Way like this again, Iíll always be able to think of Ousmaneís example wherever I am when I look up at the night sky.
One other concern I have is: what will happen to my newly acquired passion for learning? Over the past two years, Iíve developed a genuine desire for knowledge (where was that in high school and college?) I loved every minute of learning Hassaniya, Pulaar, reading and writing Arabic, any new language. I loved finishing books and the feeling that comes from knowing what those pages contain. I loved learning about other cultures through experience and meeting new people with different religions and ideologies. Education is knowledge, knowledge is understanding, and understanding means eventually doing the right thing. I learned that from Ousmane. Heís the one who got me started on the ďquest for knowledgeĒ idea. If you asked me right now what I wanted if I could have anything at all, I would say knowledge (but donít ask me that in a few weeks when Iím driving by White Castle or Skyline Chili.) I take true pleasure from discovering something previously unknown to me or figuring out a problem that was, before now, puzzling. So when Iím working full time in America, where will I find time for learning and what will happen to my desire for knowledge?
I hope all this doesnít sound too strange. I donít think Iím going to return home a big freak or weirdo or anything. I donít feel like Iím a different person from when I came here. Has a change taken place? Yes, but itís not like I have a new personality or possess new, radical views on things. Iím still me. But now Iím me with a brand new sweeping realization about the world around me and my place in it. That has an impact on the way I view life but doesnít change who I am. (Although I can think of one definite change: before I spent two years in a small village in Mauritania, I would never have written on an application, under Ďhobbies:í ďThinking in solitude,Ē which Iím sure to do now.) Maybe itís the weather here. Did you know the last time I saw winter was in 1999? Iím looking forward to see how my new worldview works out after a couple months back in the States.
To be honest, I havenít put a lot of thought into the details when I come back. Hopefully they will take care of themselves. In general, Iíd like to secure a future thatís not static. A great accomplishment for me would be to live a life where Iím constantly assured of never-ending exploration and change. If I could blend traveling, discovery, and adventure with long, comfortable, intermittent stretches of stability, I think I would be all right. Life in the Peace Corps entails many of those elements, but I canít be a PCV forever (thank God.) I was inspired reading about the adventurous lives of Dineson, Hemingway, Bowles, Turnbull, and others. (I must admit that the Peace Corps takes ďadventureĒ in this sense to another level. These authors do well in describing the people and places around them, but they are considered (with the exception of Turnbull) former colonizers, tourists, or wealthy foreigners, living among the local population and culture. With Peace Corps, I had the chance to be one of the local population. Speaking the language and understanding the customs, I was able to really feel the culture of the people, setting me apart from the adventurous, voyaging authors I have admired. Thank you Peace Corps.) Therefore I wonder, is a life of adventure and exploration, both physical and spiritual, too much to ask for? Or should I settle for staring at a computer screen all day long in a cubicle under white tubes of fluorescent light? Is that experiencing life? Can you learn anything from a life like that? (Go watch the movie ďOffice Space.Ē)
Most of my earlier references to other cultures and local populations are referring of course to my interactions with Ousmane and his family. I have learned so much from him in such a short time thanks to his patience and natural gift for teaching. One of his best methods of teaching is to lead by example. If every person of every religion was as true to their faith as Ousmane is to Islam, this world would be a much different place. There would be no lies, deceit, ignorance or hatred, only honesty, peace, humility, understanding and tolerance. I just finished writing him a long thank you note in Hassaniya (using the Arabic script so he can read it) that Julie will give to him after I leave. I tried to convey to him in words all that he has done for me, but it was difficult to do so.
Right now Iím reading (for the second time) ďUnderstanding IslamĒ by Thomas W. Lippman. When I learn something new about the religion, I often test Ousmane to keep him on his toes, which he loves, not only because he always passes but also because religion is his favorite topic of conversation, obviously. The more I learn about Islam, the more I understand about all religions. As I come to have a better personal understanding about faith overall, I begin to see the absurdity of religion in general. Before you brand me a sacrilegious infidel, let me distinguish between religion and the existence of God. Religion is manís interpretation of what God is and what He wants us to do. Mankind is just a mere mortal, politically-orientated, imperfect and driven by history. In my opinion, the existence of God transcends man and all comprehension. Religion is based on society and itís history as well as political-savvy prophets. I donít tell the truth or help other people because any religion tells me to do so, I do it because I believe in the existence of God. God is great, encompasses everything, everywhere, is benevolent, omniscient, and the source of all things. I donít need any religion to make me see the truth in that. If I claim to believe in God and do the right thing in his name and then shut my mouth, who can condemn me?
On the other hand, I will never speak maliciously about any religion. If believers follow their religion according to the ways conducive to peaceful co-existence (a main goal of any religion), the problems will be minimal. But not all people think the same and interpretations vary. With tangential, and eventually divergent interpretations together in a single social sphere, strife is inevitable. One of the most sensible things mortals have ever done was to separate the church and the state. A clear distinction between totally different aspects of life permits at least some progress in problem resolution. Unfortunately, itís not possible to separate religion from anything according to Islam. It reigns over all facets of life and attempts to dictate the proper way one should behave at all times. This can be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, but I think that with factors of society, politics, culture, history, and power all mixed together under the umbrella of religion, simple conclusions are few and far between all the complicated issues. Due to these complications, which exist in any society where religion is present, I prefer to sweep it all under the carpet and claim no religion. If someone asks me what is my religion, I tell them thatís between me and God. (Then I tell them Iím American.)
If I had to choose a religion, I would probably pick Islam, as itís the simplest and puts all people on equal terms before one God. Luckily, since religion is not compulsory, I wonít be making a trip to Mecca any time soon. In my freedom from religion, I can say that I find it hard to believe that prophets were anything more than benevolent, politically adept intellectuals, which would exclude me from most major monotheistic religions. Furthermore, I think the Christian Trinity is polytheistic, God canít have children (we are all Godís children), and worship of saints is idolatrous. There should be nothing between each individual and God, especially not a priest or other mortal. As for Islam, Arabic is only one language, not the language of God, and Mohammadís claim to be the last prophet seems a bit too convenient and fails to convince me that he really did speak the word of God. I donít know enough about any other religion to criticize. Where does all this leave me? Religionless, it appears. Iíll only claim to be striving for righteousness in the eyes of God. Thatís usually enough to gain acceptance in the hearts of believers in the major faiths, but not enough to gain membership in any of their religions. Thatís fine with me. On top of all this, if I say Iím Christian, there is some fanatic somewhere who will hate me because of it. If I say Iím Muslim, someone, somewhere will hate me for it. The same goes with claiming to be Jewish or Buddhist or anything else, but if all I proclaim is that I do good in order to please God, then who can hate me? Having no religion, just a God, makes things a lot easier. All my questions and confusion will be worked out soon enough on that inevitable day when Iím resting in peace.
Even though religion poses many interesting questions for me, I donít like spending too much time inquiring into something no one can answer. (One reason I have enjoyed learning so much about Islam is because I have a great time quoting verses from the Koran and knowing more about Islam than the Muslim fanatics in bush taxis between Aioun and Nouakchott who insist on condemning infidel westerners for their ignorance and lack of religious zeal. Itís also a good example of the pen being mightier than the sword and it shows that knowledge is power because shutting those fools up with a few words is just as sweet as knocking them out with a fist in their mouth, and itís legal.) When it comes to questions about God, I rely on that feeling deep down in my gut that knows thereís something out there. Itís like when you get the feeling that, for some reason, you know everything is going to turn out okay in the end. You donít know why, but all is going to be just fine. By acknowledging the existence of that feeling and putting complete trust in it, Iím satisfied that itís enough to confirm the existence of God.
Iíve told all my thoughts and opinions to Ousmane and at times baffle even him. He responds by telling me that thereís a religion out there for me somewhere. I tell him that maybe it depends on my future wife. If she wants to marry me and is a Muslim from Lebanon (all Lebanese women are incredibly beautiful), then Iíll be a Muslim. If sheís hot and from Israel and wants a Jewish husband, Iíll be Jewish. Or maybe sheíll be a former Swedish nun who needs a green card to start a modeling career in America. Well, praise Jesus. Luckily, Ousmane has a broad sense of humor similar to mine.
No matter what religion, if any at all, I decide to choose, Iíll at least know that I found God first. Just that phrase, ďI found God,Ē makes me sound like a religious nut, but itís actually the opposite. In finding God, I found no necessity to be religious. Religion is social and relies upon definite rules. God is spiritual and hard to define. Idí rather be spiritual, confused, and hard to define than religious, bored, and restricted by rules. I understand that some people may disagree with my opinions but at least my views are harmless. Plus, Ousmane thinks Iím on the right track. (He never pressures me, but I know he would be overjoyed if I embraced Islam and became a Muslim. Unfortunately for him, life without Montgomery Inn and an occasional Budweiser is not on my agenda.)
In just a few short weeks, Iíll be back in America and Iíll have other things to think about as they come along. Kobeni, and my time living with Ousmane will be just memories. Currently, most of the things I do, that Iíve been doing for the past two years, Iím doing for the last time. Last bucket bath, last plate of rice, last time to the well, last bush taxi ride. Itís a bit sad, but Iím happy to be moving on, accepting change and welcoming the excitement of a new horizon. A few days ago, I rode my bike 20km to Gogui, Mali to buy my favorite kind of flip-flops. (They arenít made in Mauritania, real thick plastic.) Itís the last time riding my bike to Mali buying my last pair of flip-flops. I say that with a twinge in my heart, but Iím looking forward to see how they hold up in America.
I just found out that Peace Corps has decided Kobeni is too far from Nouakchott and they wonít put volunteers out here anymore. After Julie leaves in December, Ousmane will have a hard time keeping up on America. Itís good that no one will have the inconvenience of being in such an isolated site, but itís unfortunate that no one else will benefit from the experience of living with Ousmane and learning from him. With no one in Kobeni, it will be very difficult to stay in touch with him since thereís no post office anywhere near the village. Believe me, Iíll try my hardest. I want to somehow send him books in Arabic. After he had his sample of the outside world earlier this year, heís so interested in learning more. The only book he has in Kobeni is the Koran and the Hadith. Help me find a way to send him some books when I get back. Iíll have him make a gris-gris to facilitate the process. Then Iíll get a second one to expedite finding that beautiful, religious wife of mine.
Ousmaneís contact with Peace Corps wonít end abruptly right after I leave. I wasnít the only one so moved by his character. Do you remember Sherif Ayoub, the Egyptian-born, Small Enterprise Development Volunteer in Aioun from Cleveland? Heís been to Kobeni more than a few times and always stays with me and Ousmane. With money from his own pocket, he has pledged to pay for the construction of a brand new mosque for Ousmane and the people in the neighborhood. As you remember, the mosque is just a sorry pile of mud bricks and logs after the road workers knocked more than half of it to the ground last year. Ousmane is very excited and he canít thank Sherif enough, but who is more deserving than Ousmane?
Itís absolutely unbelievable how lucky I was to live with him in his compound. Fate shined favorably upon me while so many other Volunteers had numerous problems with their host families and either had to move or just quit. Third World (and especially Mauritanian) culture dictates a ďgive me, give meĒ attitude for those who are unfortunately living in the grip of poverty within the borders of underdeveloped nations. I understand the mentality, but every day, having someone ask for something, anything, a hundred times, really tests oneís patience and sympathy. I took refuge from this bombardment of demands whenever I stepped foot in Ousmaneís compound. He asked me only one time for a flashlight from Aioun in November of 2000. I thought that was pretty amazing for two years and I decided to thank him for his understanding. When I told him how comfortable I was living in his compound, not being bothered by constant requests, I asked him why he never asked me for anything like everybody else. Instead of saying that heís more cultured than the common folk or more sensible than other Mauritanians, he responded by saying, ďBecause you were always giving us things before we could ask for them.Ē Until the end, even when I was trying to thank him and piling on the compliments, he remained humble, sincere, and thankful. Just another lesson at Ousmaneís school of life.
Brief yet unforgettable conversations like that make me 100% sure that I made the right decision two years ago to join the Peace Corps and come to Mauritania. I got more out of this experience than I could have ever hoped for. I also feel that I accomplished what I set out to do when I filled out the application. I wanted to do something good for other people, even if just a little bit. Rather than focusing on the quantitative aspect of my work successes (like the number of wells built or children vaccinated), the qualitative work successes are what will remain at the forefront of my memory. The latter variety of success is evident in the hopefully lasting impressions I had on the lives of a few people here. I saw proof of this when Ousmane told me that I helped open his eyes to the far-reaching world beyond the borders of Kobeni. I tried to be a friend, family member, and villager before I was a Peace Corps Health Volunteer. This approach apparently worked because Omar asked me the other day, ďSo when you leave, all I have to remember is to wash my hands with soap before I eat, sleep under a mosquito net in rainy season, filter my water before I drink it, and Iíll be all right?Ē He said that literally word for word (in Hassaniya) and it filled my heart with joy. Right then, I knew all my seemingly insignificant efforts to improve the health of the community were actually worthwhile. It was just a small success, but Omarís and Ousmane's knowledge will likely spread throughout Kobeni and beyond. No matter what type of successes Iíve had, I know for sure that I loved having a job for two years where success isnít measured by how much you get, but by how much you give.
Before I finish, I must tell you, Mom and Dad, one of the main reasons these past two years have been successful fore me is because of you. Without a doubt, I received more mail than any other Volunteer by far. I wouldnít have written one letter if I wasnít incited by your interest and attention. Your letters to me were a source of joy and support that inspired me to always write back. Our correspondence was something I always looked forward to and something I relied on more than I may have let you know in the past. Thank you for providing those letters. Iím sure Ousmane thanks you just the same for keeping me content and my insanity level in check. He just told me (weíre under the tent in his yard right now) to ďgreet you a lotĒ on behalf of himself and the rest of his family. Ahmedou just told me, jokingly, to ask you to send him a mail-order bride, considering his current lack of luck with the women. He said he heard about them when he was in the military.
Iím going to close now, for the last time from Kobeni. Iíll bring back some more good souvenirs for you, Ousmane just unloaded some more goat-skin pillows on me. Iíll also bring with me all the memories and lessons that can fit between my temples. Back home, I know that Iíll always be reassured, in good times and bad, by thinking about the example Ousmane set and by the feeling inside that tells me everything is going to be all right. When life sometimes seems overwhelming, when the future looks grim, or when the severity of the situation seems too much to handle, Iíll think about what it says in the book that is so important to Ousmane, the book upon which he bases his entire life, the Koran, and Iíll believe it with all my heart when it says that ďThe life of this world is but play and a pastime.Ē (57:20) I say goodbye to Kobeni, goodbye to Ousmane and his family, to Mauritania, to Africa, and I say hello and welcome to whatever comes next. See you in a couple weeks.