Monday, December 20, 2010

Universal Love for Toys

Recently I was lucky to be able to help distribute some toys to an orphanage in Nouakchott. This orphanage is not a sad, broken place. It is a house overflowing with love and happiness.

This was especially true when the box of gifts was opened to reveal wooden cars with wheels big enough to roll over some seriously rough terrain; baby dolls complete with hand-knitted hats and blankets, lovingly tied with a ribbon; jumpropes; and hand-sewn "footballs" made with cotton fabric and filling, perfect for toddlers to juggle, toss, or use for an extremely micro-sized pillow fight.

The care and thoughtfulness invested in each toy truly impressed me. I could never have imagined a more perfect assortment of toys for children here- each one with a hand-made element and definitely rugged enough to last a long time. Also, even though the toys were sent from the United States, most of them were made with materials that could be found here. I love how anything destroyed could easily be reproduced or repaired locally. 

I hope that the kids won't mind that I took a few toys for myself! I plan on sharing the joy with the children in a village near the Senegal river where I will visit soon. I can't wait to see their faces when the next box is opened. 

I am starting to believe in Santa after all!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sugar Plum Fairies

My friend asked me to download the Nutcracker for her because for some confusing reason I can download iTunes in Mauritania while she can not. I was happy to be of help. 

Once I downloaded the songs and started listening to them I was transported to my youth when my grandmother took me to the ballet. We would always go to the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. I would wear my best dress and hope that I would be a classy enough date. We always went to Annie's restaurant before the performance for milk shakes, french fries, and cheeseburgers. 

We continued the dinner and Nutcracker tradition as I grew up and went to college. I believe that my sister and aunt have continued to carry on this annual family outing. It has been a long time since I have been able to participate because of my extended stays far from home. 

My favorite part of the Nutcracker is when the Prince dances with the Sugar Plum Fairy. The music captures the magic of this time of year. Lately I haven't felt very much in a holiday mood, which is easy to understand in an environment as unlike winter as Mauritania. Yet in an instant, this piece brings back all of my memories of the holidays in Minnesota. It makes me miss my family and treasure all of the time we spent together. I am sure I will watch it many times before leaving Nouakchott for my winter travels.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nouakchott Night Life

I live in a pretty quiet, sleepy city. It is not often that Nouakchott has a big concert... but when there is I always try to be there! Of course, the concerts always start after one a.m.! Needless to say, my yawns instantly disappeared when Baaba Maal entered the stage!

This time, I was in the audience with some of my students... and for most of them it was the first time they had ever seen Baaba in concert! It was a night to remember. I wish all weekends in Nouakchott could be so exciting! I will have to wait until the next time!

Finding Fieldtrips

Last week in class we were discussing teaching strategies and one of the books had a list of strategies connected to class field trips. He called me to his desk and asked how these could be adapted to Mauritania. Indeed, next year my students will be sent all over the country to remote villages to teach. The schools where they will teach will likely have four walls, a simple corrugated iron ceiling, desks that will cram together four students, and a worn-out chalkboard. The school building will be a long cement structure, with little around it in terms of inspiration. There probably won’t be a school garden or any other possible “attractions” nearby.

Fieldtrips are a privilege, even in America, where schools often have so much bureaucracy and red tape to get through that teachers decide not to even bother. Not to mention the lack of funding or resources available for such important experiences. Yet everyday, all over the world, teachers make the effort to bring their students to see performances, art exhibits or places of natural beauty because of the inherent value in removing students from the four walls of the classroom and sharing in a new experience together.

I tried to brainstorm with my teacher-trainees what some alternatives could be. We decided that we could turn our classrooms into “museums” by asking our students to bring in objects from home, the outdoors, and create artwork themselves. This seems to be the most simple solution in these challenging circumstances. I also suggested to my students that perhaps a fieldtrip site could also be set up outside, under a tree, or in some other easily accessible location within the school compound. I keep trying to show my students that there is always another path to reach any goal. An isolated school environment is definitely difficult but does not mean that creativity must be kept outside of the classroom.

Then I had a realization. Our school (teacher training college) is also a research site for an important national project documenting the native plants of Mauritania. This project has many international donors, including the Natural History Museum of Paris. I asked the class how many of the students were aware of this research conducted on our very campus? The class drew a blank. No one knew. Often, we aren’t even aware of the opportunities around us. Every day there are hundreds of potential “fieldtrips” to take.

The next time I saw the Professor (who happens to teach a class at the same time, right across the hallway), I asked him if he would be willing to show my students around the secret garden and research facilities. He said he would be honored.

I met up with Professor Vall and followed as he led my students through the corridor and into the forested garden. He carefully showed my students the trees and plants for aloe vera, jujubes, henna, gum arabic, and many others. He even let my students taste the cactus fruit, which I peeled with my bare hands, as I had stupidly done the first time someone gave me one in Ethiopia. My hands were covered in tiny blond needles for the next 12 hours.

Perhaps the best part of our class “fieldtrip” was the guide. Professor Vall’s pride in his work and achievements was infectious and made him an excellent role model for my students. Even if the place itself wasn’t of strong interest to some of the students, the passion of the presenter certainly made the experience worthwhile.

I am now thinking of more fieldtrips that I can take with my students. I would love to organize a class retreat of some kind. There are too many ideas going around in my head.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Drawing Portraits

At some point, without trying, we all became portraiture artists.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Piecing it Together

Last Spring, I was overjoyed when a local cafe owner contacted me to donate his book and magazine collection. Disappointment set in when I realized that most of the materials were about cooking, not the best subject for teaching because how many pictures of food are really needed? 

Since then, I have tried in vain to get my English teacher colleagues as excited about these "free" resources as I was. I carted boxes around to various meetings only to left alone to cart the boxes back. 

This year, I introduced the idea of a book club in my classroom and brought the magazines along with me to class to use as a source for pictures and decoration for the posters made to present the books.

I showed my students how to cut pictures of strawberries out to make flames when no picture of fire is available. I demonstrated how pictures can be layered and not organized in a linear way. Eventually, I saw my students posters come to life and not only is our classroom now gorgeous, but hopefully my students can share the art of collages with their future students as well!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dunes look like dinosaurs

Saharry Nights

Saharry is a desert nomad. He is two-and-a-half feet tall. He has bright green hair and green eyes. He has six toes on his hands and feet. Stare into the desert and you may see him. He walks with a bounce. He is known to be a trickster. He can steer you away from your destination with a friendly wind but he can also set you straight when you are completely stranded. I can't say that I have seen him but I also can't swear that I have never crossed his path. Can you?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Giving Thanks to the Ancestors

Thanksgiving is a celebration of family and friends. This year I decided to honor my beloved Grandma Marjo by continuing our family tradition of making orange rolls. I used a basic roll recipe from the Internet, which was my biggest mistake. The rest of the recipe I followed from memory. After finishing the first batch, I called my sister in a panic to confirm that I was on the right track. I was proud of myself for not missing a beat. 

Next year I will plan ahead and get the recipe right. This year it didn't matter that the rolls were doughy, burned, or dense, things that my Grandma never would have allowed to happen. It only mattered that my house smelled like hers for this one day. 

On the other side of the globe, my twin brother was making orange rolls for the family dinner. Our family was united in orangey-wonderfulness. I am thankful that I can always feel close to my family just by mixing together some simple ingredients that can be found anywhere. Even though I am far from my family, I always keep them close to my heart.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dada ya Moyo

This month one of my best friends visited me from New York. I was so delighted to show Shannon around this country and do more exploring myself. Most of all, I was just over-the-moon excited to be able to spend time with my sister from another mister and be as silly as can be. 

Our adventure included visiting two national parks, exploring ancient desert trading towns, spending an afternoon in an oasis with hot springs, and living the sweet life in Dakar.  The true highlights were singing ridiculous songs in the back seat, late night dance parties on the dunes on the cape, eating endless batches of popcorn, and seeing an amazing array of wildlife including warthogs, jackals, monkeys, dolphins, tortoises, flamingos and hundreds of other bird species. 

Since my chica chica hopped on the plane back to Brooklyn, I have felt an emptiness. Of course I have an incredible group of friends in Mauritania and I am exceptionally grateful for their friendship. Yet there is nothing comparable to the bond of old friends who know me better than anyone. Shannon and I lived together in two cities and traveled the world as true sisters. 

Today I am thinking about how incredibly lucky I am to have found a huckleberry friend as sweet as this dada ya moyo.  

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Digging for Treasure

Yesterday I went to the fabulous market and got a little carried away buying gorgeous printed wax fabrics. Now I need to make a visit to my favorite tailor! This is what happens when classes are cancelled- extra time for shopping! I should be lesson planning but really can you blame me?

Monday, November 1, 2010


Last week was the first week of classes. I genuinely missed my students all summer. I was delighted to issue a book to each one as part of our first assignment: A class book club. 

Six students not only missed the first class but also the chance to get their books to read before class the next week. One student called me to collect a book and I marched to campus on Sunday morning (a work day) at 8:30 am to deliver it to him. The assignment is due tomorrow. Only this evening I received a call from one of my students who politely asked if we had class this week. My first response was a resounding, "YES, of course we have class!!!" Then I remembered. T.I.A.: This is Africa. I retracted my statement, and returned the question to my student. "Do we have class tomorrow?" 

My student then explained that they had all gone to campus this morning and saw a notice announcing that all classes were cancelled due to some reason or another. I thanked my student for this valuable information and told him I would find out and get back to him. I called the head of the department and learned that classes are cancelled. Oh students, I would be lost without you!!! At least in this case, my thoughtful student's courtesy-call saved me time and money.  Our book club will have to wait until next week!

All That Glitters

It started with a drum beat. A small crowd gathered as they watched the car approaching. Finally, a woman in white emerged from the car, led in the arms of two women- her new mother-in-law and her sister. She arrived only yesterday from Gaza. She is eighteen-years-old and came here to start a new chapter in her life.

I am thankful to my friends for inviting me to join their celebration. Since the festivities ended, I keep wondering if life in Nouakchott will be better than life in Gaza. I guess our new bride will soon find out the answer. 

I hope that it will be a resounding YES. With a ceremony overflowing with gold, diamonds, and icing, it seems that things are off to a magnificent start. 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

Amoeba medicine metallic taste + lots of candy + orange juice = Halloween 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Different Colors, One Person

One of my favorite things about living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was sitting out on the stoop and watching the world go by. Eating a double with some sorrel made it even sweeter. The best part was getting all the neighborhood news from my friends around the block.

I haven't exactly found that in Mauritania, but talking to the neighbors' guards, listening to Lucky Dube, and drinking sticky, sweet, and strong cups of hot tea has been a nice substitute.

Tonight's conversation was particularly funny, with my neighbors discussing about whether or not it is good to use skin bleach creams. This is one of my favorite issues to discuss, and I never get tired of explaining the many perils of these products. 

My dear friend, nicknamed the "President," responded that to be White was "not good." He elaborated, exclaiming, "Delia, ah! Delia is never the same color. The Delia you see now is NOT the same Delia you see in the morning!" 

Evidently I am a chameleon. I have been laughing all night about President's perceptive observations. I understood his message to be that we should be proud in the skin we are in. I am so lucky to have funny and honest conversations with my neighbors. I keep thinking about what would come up in conversation in Brooklyn about this issue? It would definitely be equally enlightening. I will fall asleep tonight singing this classic number and thinking about the President's wise words...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beware of Women with Slingshots

I just returned from a long weekend in a small village. Within hours of arriving I was ushered off to the fields so that my proud hosts could show me their intense efforts from the planting season. While they were struggling under the heat of the sun, I was in New York visiting their husbands, fathers, and cousins, the people they need the most to help them during this time of immense work.

As we approached the fields, I heard yelling and shouting. Walking through the maze of millet,  I could hear voices all around me. My guides (an army of children) started grabbing the stalks and eating the inside, which resembled cane sugar. Everyone seemed excited to be in the fields, occupied with munching and looking for additional treats. Finally an old friend appeared from the stalks, in one hand a sling shot and in another a handful of dirt. She welcomed me with a big smile and then showed me how she uses the slingshot to scare away the birds. 

With the millet almost ready for harvest, the birds have arrived uninvited to join in the feast. The women of the village work in shifts to make sure they don't take off with their crop. The birds worked in a group to swoop down on their targets and the women yelled and shouted to stake their claim to their crops. This game lasts all day, from the time the millet starts to mature to the day the last stalk is harvested. The birds know to beware of women with slingshots! 

There are many crops to protect against the birds. A quick walk revealed:




Black eyed peas

Of course as we moved along we also took some of the treasures we found to take home and eat later! If it is women vs. birds, I would say that this time the women won! Sweet victory!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Economic Exile

Today I spoke with one of my closest friends from Brooklyn. I was lucky enough to visit his family when I traveled to Senegal last summer. I met his new wife and even newer baby, even before he has had the chance to. I met his great aunt and uncle. I grasped the hand of his brother, who looked so much like him I could have sworn it was my friend himself. I clung close to his mother and father. 

I am thinking of my friend now because he just lost his father. Living in Africa is a reminder of how close death follows us. Where there is little access to healthcare, people often wait too long to get help or simply can not afford the life-saving treatment. 

As a woman living far from my family, albeit by choice, I have such empathy for my friends who suffer the loss of losing their parents. Returning home for a funeral is not possible for many, due to economic or political limitations. For many of my friends who don't have legal documents to stay in the U.S., returning home is an impossible dream.

As for my friend in Brooklyn, although he does have documents and desperately wants to go home, he needs to keep working to help pay the medical and burial expenses. He may have to wait even longer to mourn this tremendous loss in the presence of the rest of his family. 

I always question this choice I have made to travel far from home, just as I question my friends' choices. Being among family is a gift. To live and share in the day to day events of life is truly important. Yet in today's world, economic and social factors drive many people away from their homes in search of a better life. At the same time, technology is always inventing new ways for us to stay connected. Life is always about difficult choices and the consequences!!! One of which, unfortunately, is to miss out on the fun times families share (I am missing out on my entire family's trip to Hawaii next week), as well as the solidarity needed during difficult ones.

Today I am thinking about all of all of my friends who live far from their families. I am hoping for health, peace, and happiness!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dolly Parton Made Me Cry

"The singer Dolly Parton made me cry. Its voice and experience were very shaking. God Bless America! I love you!"

-Workshop Participant
Nouakchott, Mauritania

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I have a friend in Mauritania who was exceptionally bright. He completed his studies at the University of Nouakchott and, like many of his classmates, applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States. He passed the TOEFL exam and was waiting for the outcome of his application. In the mean time, he needed cash. He applied for a position at the U.S. Embassy and was hired. 

Immediately after he began his new position, he heard some great news. His application for the Fulbright was accepted! His dream was finally in his grasp; soon he would be on his way to get a Masters degree in the U.S.! Yet no one told him that there were many stipulations to being awarded a Fulbright grant, one of which was that no one employed by the U.S. government was eligible. In one moment, his hopes were dashed. He was left with a job but no hope of fulfilling his dream of studying in the U.S. He could quit his job, wait a year, and reapply for the grant. In the meantime, however, he would have no work and there was no guarantee his application would be successful the next time around.

Rather than being sad, or angry, or frustrated, this remarkable young man took it all in stride and focused on the positive. He waited and researched. He found an opportunity to apply for a grant to study in Japan and seized the moment. He applied, and unsurprisingly, was accepted. 

The night before he left, he presented me with a beautiful hand-carved turtle. It was made by his friend, who carves wood as a hobby. His friend spent many hours polishing and refining this turtle's delicate shell. 

I named this turtle Nintai, which means "patience" in Japanese. I hope it will be a reminder for me to always focus on the positive and keep my eyes on the prize! 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Itsy Bitsy


This little fella moved in my house lately and lives near my desk. He is my protector. 

I think it may have been a spider that bit my knee in Senegal this past August. It is just a guess. A little red bump soon turned into a much bigger problem. It got infected and gave me a very swollen leg. A few hours after arriving home in the U.S. I found myself in urgent care. $400 later, I was left with a prescription for antibiotics and no clearer picture of what caused this infection in the first place. Thankfully, I now have only a small scar as a reminder. I am sure it will go away with time. 

I like to think that my new friend is here to show me that I have nothing to fear anymore. I have a new bodyguard. He is fierce!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beach Bum

This week I was lucky enough to go the beach an incredible three times!!! This may make it my best week in Mauritania so far...

The third time we went the car broke down as soon as we turned off the paved road and onto the sandy beach road. We called our friend who came to pick us up in the only car he could find- the truck used to pick up fish for the weekend lunch crowd. 

We all piled in the back, covered our noses, and watched as the dust turned our hair blonder and blonder. When we finally arrived at the shore, I practically ran to the beach and dove into the warm waves. The beach is the most perfect escape. I am forever grateful to my friends for making space in the backseat for me!