Friday, December 18, 2009

Getting Around in Mauritania

I take a taxi to work every day. I get anywhere in Nouakchott for about one dollar. If I want to share my taxis with other passengers, it is half of that. I have met a few reliable taxi drivers and I call them on their cell phones whenever I need to go somewhere. If they are busy, my house is only a few steps away from a busy street where I can get a taxi within one minute. Taking taxis here is extremely convenient.

I am always amazed by the state of the taxis I see. Yesterday I saw a car that had so many holes in it that I could see straight through it. If it weren't for the four passengers in the backseat, it would have been invisible. You couldn't pay me $100 to step inside that car.

When I first arrived in Benin as a Peace Corps volunteer, one of the staff came to give us a safety lecture. She told us it was Peace Corps policy that all volunteers must fasten their seat belts in taxis. Apparently she had never taken a taxi in Benin because if she did she would have known that none of the taxis have seat belts! I think of her well-intentioned advice often. It was the same in Ethiopia working for the IRC. Most of the seat belts were broken there as well. Here in Mauritania it is the same but I always check just in case. I feel much safer traveling in a country without traffic laws when I am wearing a seat belt.

I don't like taking taxis in the night time. So if I am out late, I usually get rides with my friends. Last week my friend came to pick me up in this car. It had some serious problems! He put a jerry can inside to make it run and miraculously it worked. I refused to take a ride in this one though! Some times it is safer to take a taxi...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Expect the Unexpected

Students crack me up. Yesterday in class we were playing a round of the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” First I gave mine:   

  1.  I worked for the circus.
  2.  I know how to surf.
  3.  I once flew a plane. 

The students guessed at which one was the lie and I fooled them all! I then instructed the students to write down their two truths and a lie. After exchanging their information with partners, I called on a few volunteers to share theirs. I did this for three classes in a row and the activity went well. The students’ lies included false marriages, number of brothers and sisters, favorite sports, etc. During the last class most of the students wanted to share their lists. After completing the activity, one student begged to read his and I approved. He read his paper with a booming voice:

  1. I am proud to be a travesty.
  2. I know how to drive.
  3. I play football. 

The class looked puzzled. I asked him to clarify the first one again and he declared, “ I am proud to be a travesty, a gay.” Ohhhhhhhh. His classmates looked confused and everyone’s faces were blank. This rowdy, rambunctious group was instantly silent. Then, I explained to the class the difference between being a transvestite and being gay. I also assured the students that we were NOT discussing our personal perspectives about what we thought about gay people or transvestites, just explaining the definition of the terms. One student raised her hand and said, “A gay person is someone who likes people of the same race.” If that was the case, most of the world would be gay!

I moved on with the lesson as quickly as possible. This was NOT the English class vocabulary I had planned on covering.  I am learning that Mauritanian students, like students everywhere, are anything but predictable.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Breaks

This week my classes are going better and the students are really growing on me. One student always comes to class early and writes an agenda for the day on the board. Yesterday he almost had it perfect! The class is only a few minutes away from burning out an entire candle, the result of not speaking any other language besides English in class. I am beyond thrilled. They are very proud too and motivated to keep trying.

Right now the students are researching about teaching strategies and creating student-centered lesson plans. I am learning to simplify things and break down as many concepts as possible. There is so much information to cover in such a short amount of time! Each week we have a new vocabulary word. This week was “rubric.” The students are overwhelmed but that is not always bad. Maybe that will force them to work even harder! Being a good teacher demands working hard, so they better get started now!

I gave the students my phone number for emergencies only and thankfully none have called yet. I gave them strict instructions not to call me to say hello or after 10:00 pm. They must only call for class related problems or concerns. My phone’s silence over the weekend is a good indicator that they understood! 

One student professed his love for me after class. I told him that if he respects me he would never say that again. I also told him that all students must show me respect as their professor. He walked away looking defeated. Those are the breaks! Kurtis Blow, take it away for me:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bonne Fete!

Greetings from my weekend of celebrations! Thursday was Thanksgiving, Friday was Tabaski, and today is Mauritanian Independence Day. During the holidays people here sport their finest ensembles, eat a lot, and visit as many friends as possible. I have had a very social weekend. 

During the Tabaski celebration every family (who has the means) slaughter a goat and then spend the rest of the day eating it and sharing it with their friends and families. They ask for forgiveness to everyone for any wrongs they may have committed. I wanted to write an email to all of you asking for forgiveness but I thought that might be overdoing it. 

Last night I called many of my Muslim friends in the U.S. to wish them a happy Tabaski. During the five months I lived in Ethiopia I lost touch with a lot of people and yesterday it was wonderful to catch up with friends I haven't talked to in a long time. One of my friends had exciting news to report! I met him while teaching English in Brooklyn and we became good friends. He had endured many hardships while waiting for his asylum case to be processed. 

He had already been waiting four years and still had not received any updates or communication. This sounded unbelievable to me so I wanted to help see if an American accent could get some answers for him. Together we called USCIS on conference calls many times. Each time, we hung up the phone frustrated by the lack of information provided and the never ending instructions to wait. It seemed so unfair to ask someone to wait four years to see his family and four years to work legally. Yet his attitude was always positive and willing to accept any outcome. He believed that asylum was worth waiting for. Finally, nearly two years since we began calling, he received his green card in the mail last week! So now he is planning his visit home to Senegal and he is looking for a new job. I love happy endings. 

Speaking of happiness, here are a few pictures from my fabulous Tabaski celebration:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Breakfast at Tiffany's

I have spent the last three Thanksgivings in different cities and today will be the fourth (Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, Nouakchott). I love taking advantage of the long weekends to catch up with friends and family. Although I have celebrated with different people each year, I have always been surrounded by people I love. This year will be different since I have not yet made friends with many Americans in Nouakchott. I will celebrate with new friends at the Embassy's Thanksgiving feast. 

Last night when I was feeling homesick I cheered myself up by watching Breakfast at Tiffany's. I love this movie. I love New York City. I love Audrey Hepburn. I decided that I need to find a place in Nouakchott that is my "Tiffany's" - calming, peaceful, and safe. The Embassy pool might be a good choice. So far every time I have been there I was the only one there. I also realized that I need a little more spontaneous fun in my life. I miss the silly antics one can have in a big anonymous city! 

I woke up this morning and made a mix of my favorite songs about NYC. I have been listening to it all day while making my mashed potatoes and jello mold. Just kidding about the last part, but I hope there are red, white, and blue jello molds served at the Thanksgiving feast. Next year I will perfect mine.  The Dead Prez song NYPD actually mentions Brooklyn's Dean and Nostrand, exactly where I lived for almost four years. Up next, a Nouakchott mix! 

  1. Empire State of Mind (feat. Alicia Keys) - Jay-Z
  2. South Bronx Subway Rap - Grandmaster Caz
  3. New York, New York - Grand Master Flash
  4. NYDP - Dead Prez & The Evil Genius DJ Green Lantern
  5. Brooklyn Bomb - Nas
  6. Harlem Streets - Immortal Technique
  7. New York, New York - Frank Sinatra
  8. Take The A Train - Duke Ellington
  9. Moon River - Henry Mancini  
  10. Spanish Harlem - Aretha Franklin
  11. New York City - Tabou Combo
  12. Bright Lights, Big City  - Jimmy Reed
  13. Innner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) - Marvin Gaye
  14. Living For The City - Stevie Wonder
  15. The Ghetto - The Staple Singers
  16. Oooh Child - Five Stair Steps
  17. City Vs. Country - Jonathan Richman
  18. Fairy Tale of New York - The Pogues
  19. New York City - Cub

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Miss Delia is Missing

I was shocked my first day of teaching in Nouakchott. My students (who are pre-service teachers) were so rude during class that I just stared in disbelief. I confiscated two cell phones and forced one student to leave my room and return when he was ready to be respectful. Meanwhile, the students laughed the entire time and appeared to be having a real party. It was total mayhem. 

On the second day of class I read, “Miss Nelson is Missing” to the students. I gave them a writing assignment from the book and an implicit warning: Do you want me to be Miss Nelson or Miss Swamp? But the next week, their behavior was the same as before. They talked while I was giving directions, laughed when I asked them to turn in their assignments, and challenged my every action.

Today I started teaching my third week of classes. Ready for change, I lit a candle and told them their goal was to keep it burning during the entire class. I warned, "One word of Hassaniya (local dialect of Arabic) and I will blow it out." They made it 25 minutes- which is a record for the group for sure. They were even upset with the student who made the mistake! The class begged me to light it again. I told them that each day they will have the opportunity to improve. I wonder how they will do tomorrow?

I collected last week's assignment and had to give three students zeros for trying to complete their assignments during class time. But there were some improvements- I never saw or heard  one cell phone and I was able to speak in a silent room. I introduced a new collaborative-based project that will last the rest of the semester. The students sighed and tried to persuade me to lighten the load. I made the group stay 15 minutes late so we could complete our agenda and so I could give them the theme for their journal entry this week. As the class was leaving, one student remarked, "Miss Nelson is Missing!" and another commented, "You are now Miss Swamp." I smiled. My mission was accomplished.

Maybe tomorrow I will be able to be Miss Delia again.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Better Late than Never

Hooray for care packages! When you are far from home there is nothing that compares to the joy of receiving care packages! This week I received FIVE packages (you know who you are amazingly thoughtful friends). 

One of these packages embarked on a long five month journey around the world! My friend sent me a box on June 30th when I was still in Ethiopia. I was so sad to tell her that I never received it and I asked my friends in Addis to be on the look-out for it. They sent me discouraging reports. It seemed that it had disappeared. 

Miraculously, the box reappeared on her doorstep in October. Thank you for guarding my care package Ethiopian postal system! My friend was happy to forward the box to the other side of the continent. The contents were a little worse for the wear but everything was in tact! Inside I found an assortment of gems, including vintage postcards, sunscreen, candy, and a pair of barber scissors. These were intended for one of the refugees in the camp who was attending cosmetology school. Now, I will have to return the good deed and find a needy Mauritanian aspiring barber! 

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Living for the Weekend

We have weekends on Fridays and Saturdays here. Yes, the work week is Sunday-Thursday. Didn't I mention that I live in an Islamic Republic?

Yesterday my friend took me I to the big produce market in Nouakchott. I have no idea why I never went there before. It is an entire market devoted only to fruit and vegetables- my kind of place! The variety was pretty impressive and the prices were cheap, cheap, cheap. One of my favorite items for sale was a bag of beautiful rocks. When I asked my friend what it is used for he said it was called gum arabic and used as a drink! I didn’t buy it but I was really tempted. Maybe next time!!!

My friend kept pointing to things and asking me, “do you like this?” when I said yes, he bought a little bag of it. He collected a bunch of little bags and then asked me “ok. What will me make with all of this?” I had no idea but I liked the challenge of it, like the Iron Chef. Secret ingredients? Beets, onions, garlic, manioc, pumpkin, carrots, green beans, okra, and lettuce! I had no idea what to do with this combination and either did he. When we got to his house and he presented it to his wife, he said “This is Delia’s lunch.” I was quickly summoned into the kitchen. They both looked at me. Hmmmm…. salad and stew? So we did just that. We grated the beets, carrots, and lettuce for the salad. Then we chopped the manioc, okra, pumpkin, and beans for the stew. Mashed the garlic in the mortar and threw it all in a big pot. Prognosis? Delicious! I was skeptical but it was so tasty that even the children loved it. My friends have three very precious girls and a little man so cute he'll break your heart. They are a very silly family. They love laughing and dancing and I just love visiting them.

See the cuteness for yourself:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Riding in Style

Last week when my friends were driving me back to my apartment we saw a man riding in the trunk of the car in front of us. Luckily, I had my camera. Unfortunately, it was night time. Try to see the guy in the photo. He was even talking on the phone for most of the ride. He is very brave. People in Nouakchott drive like maniacs! 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Technological Times

I wanted to give an overview of how I am living here. Because all of my other experiences living in Africa have been in villages or with families, I have been learning a lot about how to take care of business myself!

I live in an apartment without an address. There aren’t really street names or numbers here, just landmarks. My apartment is near a big hotel so the hotel is sort of my address, “the apartment across the street from….” It is funny to always have these reference points without any proper names.

To get electricity, I had to go to the electricity company many times, wait in a hallway for hours, and bring with me a bunch of documents, such as my lease and contract. While I was at the office, I noticed a big stack of mattresses in the corner. In amazement, I watched as customers grabbed the mattresses and laid down on them. They were apparently in for the long haul. A man came with a tray of tiny cups for tea break. The electric company knows how to create a relaxing environment for the endless waiting! Fortunately, I was able to avoid most of the waiting. With these friends in high places, I was able to get connected in only three days. Otherwise it could take months. I might still be sitting on that mattress now!

It was the same process for the water. I only had to go one time though, thanks again to the inside connections. While I was waiting in the long line every one in the line moved out of the way. They informed me that women don’t wait in line in Mauritania. Reluctantly, I went to the front of the line and soon another woman stood behind me, and then another. The women formed an alternative line next to the main line. The women were all served first. Sometimes it is good to be a woman in Mauritania!

Once the electricity and water were all set up, I was able to move in to my fabulous apartment. Here's how the water works: I have a hole outside of my house filled with water. I have a pump next to the hole that brings the water up into my apartment. It that makes a lot of noise when ever I turn my faucet on but since most of my apartment is in that back of the building, I don’t really hear it running. I nearly cried when the neighbors recently installed a new pump outside my living room window. It is like a power drill constantly bzzzzzzzzzzing. I guess they use a LOT of water.

My water pump broke after living here for only one week. I called the landlord the following morning and he hung up on me. I learned the hard way that landlords don’t fix anything here. They just collect the rent each month. If anything goes wrong, it is all on me. I had to pay a plumber to come here and buy a new pump. $100 later, I have water again, as long as the power doesn’t go off. I have a big bucket of water in the bathroom for those times. There are frequent power cuts but they don't usually last long. 

I also have a hot water heater! It was broken before I moved in but the landlord would not fix it. I paid a plumber to buy a new thermometer and now I can take hot showers every morning! This is especially luxurious because the mornings are a little cool during this time of year.

Every month a man comes by to bring a bill connected to my water counter and I have to go to the water company office to pay the bill. Same for the electricity and DSL Internet line. I am so overjoyed at having this technology in my home, I will never complain about running all over the city to pay the bills each month. At least being a woman I don't have to wait in long lines! All in all, living here is pretty easy with all of this technology. I am thanking my lucky stars!!!!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Opening Doors

This week in Nouakchott I have focused on getting settled in my new place. I am feeling more at home here now that I have transformed an apartment that nearly brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it because of it’s dark and dirty interior. Now it is bright, colorful, and all mine.

My first task when I moved in was scrubbing every inch of the place with soap and water. I worked for five days straight cleaning until every room sparkled. But I am learning the challenges of living in the desert. After one day, the wind came and brought with it mountains of sand that covered every surface. So I am back to square one. It is like the movie, Woman in the Dunes. At least I have finally unlocked the mystery of the reasoning behind putting only one tiny window in every room. Windows are portals to the desert surrounding us. To keep a tidy home, most Mauritanians keep all windows closed and ALL expats install air-conditioning. I love the fresh air (and I am too cheap to pay for aircon) so for now I am committing myself to sweeping and mopping all of my floors every day. If this gets old, I will join the masses with their closed windows. Did I mention that my windows are tinted grey? Strange but true.

Decorating the apartment has filled many hours of my days and it has become a great project in itself. At the market, I bargained hard to find the perfect sheer mulafa fabric for the perfect price. From the spoils of one outing I was able to make eleven curtains (for $30)! They are so gorgeous and I have a lot of fabric to spare. After I finished bargaining for the fabric, an older moor woman wearing tons of dark eyeliner called me into her little shop. She seated me on the floor and brought me many things, her eyes lighting up each time. “Ancient,” she kept saying over and over (maybe the only French word she knew) as she displayed another treasure. It was heaven. Strands of red clay beads, carved wooden bowls, tiny hand-tied woven mats, stunning fabrics, and painted incense burners. I was entranced. When she tried to sell me an ordinary shell for 1,000 Ouguiya ($4) I snapped out of her spell and had to draw the line! But then she wrapped it in my fingers, winked, and gave it to me for free.

As for the rest of my furnishings, I had a carpenter make some essentials, but with mixed results. First, they made the desk VERY tall. I had to go back to get two extra-tall chairs made! It was ridiculous. Then I had a bookshelf, armoire, and kitchen shelf made. The carpenter couldn’t resist the temptation to add little carved designs (think country) at the top, which was very generous but I specifically asked for no details: Straight lines, simple design. I suppose I can live with a little country in my life.

The other big news here, besides my fabulous apartment, is that I started teaching! The colleges are finally opening their doors and so I opened mine too. I teach 26 second-year pre-service teachers and I see them four hours a week for speaking and writing classes. I will add 30 more first-year students in a few weeks for the same classes. I will fill up the rest of my time with a hodge-podge of activities, from teaching at the University, to coordinating teachers association meetings and leading in-service teacher trainings.

Above and beyond all of this, the absolutely best thing that has happened to me since my arrival is becoming part of the extended community here. My Mauritanian friends in New York have all sent me to visit their families. They have told their families so many kind words about me that I am welcomed in every home with sincere warmth and genuine hospitality. It is truly incredible to visit a country where I have never been, meet people I have never seen before, and be taken in immediately as family. It is beautiful to live among people whose family ties are strong enough to withstand extended years and uncountable miles of separation. I am exceptionally grateful to everyone in New York and Nouakchott for ensuring that I feel welcome and taken care of here.