Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Today the English students at the University of Nouakchott celebrated their graduation. I celebrated with them too! Yesterday my students organized an entire afternoon for me, which included lunch, shopping, and henna. I arrived home just before midnight! It was the big preparation for the ceremony. 

My student picked the latest henna designs for my feet and hands. This one was named after the Mauritanian version of American Idol that is all the rage right now in Nouakchott. Sitting on the floor of the aunt of my student, one women went to work on my hands, while the other one started my feet. 

As the henna designs started to dry, the women added lemon juice to help the color soak in. They constantly added the mix, which they referred to as "sauce." After my both hands and feet were being painted, I had to lay down. For the next four hours, I was like a baby, requiring constant attention and care. My student poured cups of mint tea down my throat every hour, along with big gulps of water.

When the work was finished, my hands and feet were wrapped in toilet paper and a plastic bag was tied around it. Keeping my hands and feet raised in the air, stuffed in plastic for many hours was not as uncomfortable as I imagined. Maybe that is because I was well taken care of and I had great company.

That night I couldn't touch any water at all. I washed my face by pouring soap on it and holding it under the sink. It seemed to work well enough. 

I woke up the next day to dark red hands and feet, covered with intricate patterns. It is beautiful. When I arrived at my students' graduation, my students kidnapped me again. This time they brought me to a room and covered me in a Mauritanian dress and dark eye make-up. By the time I arrived at the ceremony no one even recognized me. My colleagues and students stared at me as if I was a complete stranger. I could not stop laughing. The students who gave me this amazing gift were all smiles throughout the evening. So this is what happens if you become close to your students in Mauritania! You start to become Mauritanian!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Come with me and escape

Maybe it's because that I grew up in landlocked, flat Minnesota that I find mountains, ocean and desert to be so intriguing. Looking out over something so much larger and more permanent than myself reminds me that I am just a small, transient part of the earth. Time is precious and I need to make the most of each day. 

On a recent trip up north, I visited Chinguetti. It is a small, ancient trading town on the edge of the Sahara. My first sight of the endless dunes was indescribable. I just kept thinking about how I could follow the dunes all the way to the Sudan. I feel so fortunate to be able to live in Mauritania, where it's ocean is stunning, it's mountains are awe-inspiring, and it's desert is incredible. 

We visited an oasis to spend the day drinking tea and eating dates and then returned to the town on a camel. I named her Sandy. 

After a few minutes, I began to feel the sting of the unfamiliar saddle but eventually I became comfortable enough to actually be sad when the journey came to an end. I felt so happy with my feet dangling above Sandy's back, watching my reflection in the sand and taking in the amazing views in all directions. 

I still understood why most often the caravan doesn't actually ride the camels but uses them to carry their supplies and materials. 

Many people who live in the town spend months each year out in nomadic camps. Living in the desert is an essential part of life here. 

It is exceptionally hot in Chinguetti during this time of year. We were lucky enough to have rain on our first day there. The cool wind lasted throughout much of our second day as well. The combination of the rain and dunes made me think of the Pina Colada song and I couldn't help singing it the entire weekend.

Our friend who was kind enough to let us stay with his family also wanted to learn the words. It became our soundtrack. The next time I visit Chinguetti, I think I will need to think of a new theme song. Maybe I will be inspired enough to write my own!

Sunday, July 11, 2010


I just returned from a trip to the north of Mauritania to visit the historic sites and learn more about desert life. We decided to go now because it is the getna, which means the harvest season. 

This is the time of year when the dates ripen on their stems and begin to fall off the tree. People come home from all over the country during this season to collect their harvest of red and yellow dates. When the color becomes darker and the texture becomes soft, the dates are ready to be picked. The flavor is rich and creamy. 

In addition to the getna, Chinguetti has much to offer visitors. This ancient trading town is part of living history, where cell phones ring inside of libraries filled with books written in the 13th century. 

Walking through the old part of town, it seemed like the stone walls were practically indestructible. Encroaching sand is threatening to bury the city but no winds could destroy the solid construction built centuries ago. 

The getna is part of the ancient traditions of the town. I can see why after sitting under the trees, drinking tea, and enjoying fresh dates all day! This is living! I will definitely be back next year!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Time and Traditions

"In Africa, when an old man dies, it's a library burning." 

-Amadou Hampate Ba

During a recent village to a small village in Mauritania I was introduced to a dear friend of my friend in the United States. This man was returning from another village, walking on foot, and carrying a plastic bag filled with small strips of woven cloth. Intrigued, I asked if he made them. When he said yes, I asked if I could visit his house the following day to learn more about his work. His name is Amadou Diaw.

When I visited his house the next day, Amadou was apologetic. He didn't have time to set up the loom to show me and he didn't have much time to talk. He had much work to do and although he was welcoming and generous with his time, I knew that I was taking him away from all of the other tasks waiting for him. Amadou rolled out a large mat and invited me to sit. He brought out four large rice bags filled with his life's work- pieces of his loom, rolls of thread, and stacks of woven cloth already completed.

Amadou told me that he learned how to weave from his father. Amadou is the only one in the entire area who has mastered this skill. He explained that this cloth is worn for weddings. The bride wraps it around her shoulders and covers her head. The traditional colors are orange, black, and white but sometimes other colors are used as well.

There are not enough weddings to enable Amadou to earn enough money to put food on the table and send his children to school. Amadou's love for his craft does not come before his responsibilities as the head of a large family. He must work all day to plant and harvest his crops, keep an eye on his herds of animals, as well as do everything else needed to make the household run smoothly. 

As Amadou showed me how he makes the cloth, I began to understand the immense amount of time that it takes to produce one strip. It takes seven strips to make one two-meter piece. I selected two stacks of cloth to buy. When I asked him the price, he told me $12.00 for each one. I gave him extra but it still made me sad to pay so little for something so valuable. 

I asked Amadou who else in the village knows how to weave. He paused, shook his head, and said "no one.” None of his sons have taken an interest in the trade, preferring instead to leave the village and look for employment in Nouakchott or traveling abroad. No one else has come forward as an apprentice. Amadou continues working on the weavings during his free time, which is hard to come by this time of year. 

It makes my heartbreak to think about the next generation. What will happen to this trade if no one continues to learn it? Where will the village find the woven cloth needed for a proper wedding?

As I was leaving I begged Amadou to take on some apprentices so that this tradition will stay alive in the village. He quietly told me that he doesn't have the time to teach them. 

Children's Games

Although children in Mauritania work exceptionally hard to help complete all of the household work (carrying water, doing the laundry, washing dishes, cooking meals, and cleaning the house), there is always still time for fun. I love learning about life for children all over the world. I am fascinated to see their handmade dolls and I learn their games. I was surprised to see many familiar games being played in Mauritania. It seems that playing is universal! 

Kids can make a fun game out of practically anything. A handful of rocks can become a fun catch game called tenga, which is a lot like jacks!

A patch of sand is perfect for the local version of hop scotch, it is called laka...

A piece of rope is all the kids needed to play jumprope, known as ina tire!

This little cutie took an old water jug to make a cart!

I met this little fella who made a car out of wire:

And these cool kids made a drum and who knows what else out of an old barrel...

I had a lot of fun joining in their games. If I would have had more time, I am sure I could have learned much more! I feel so fortunate that these kids welcomed me into their world. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

What is in a name?

Deliya is a popular song in Mauritania and every time I tell people my name they start singing it. Even my taxi driver this morning started busting it out! People always ask me my "real" name because they can not believe that Delia is also a name in the United States.

Coincidentally, I was named after a different Delia song. This one was recorded by Blind Willie McTell many years ago. My parents liked the name and I have also learned love it. I am thankful for this gift from my parents. As a kid growing up, there were no other Delia's and I always felt like my different name made me different too. I am proud to have a different name but at the same time for the first time I am now enjoying having a name that is known and appreciated by everyone around me. It makes me feel like I belong here. 

In the village where I visited last week the children sang the Deliya song all the time. It became my soundtrack. The words say, "Deliya, my Deliya." The name Deliya is a Fulani fable, a sort of cinderella story. I have asked many people to recite the story for me and it is always told almost the exact same way, from villages far and wide across Fouta Toro (the region of Senegal and Mauritania). 

Listening to these little cuties singing the Deliya song is one of my happiest memories of my time in Mauritania. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010


One of my favorite things about Africa is the fabric. I especially love Mauritanian fabric, hand dyed with vibrant hues and intricate designs. I just love it. After spending a week with women who love fabric as much as I do, I learned the names of all the fabrics available in Mauritania. There are many types every woman knows the various qualities and costs. 

During this visit, I was given with one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received. My friend presented me with her traditional wedding dress. It is painted/printed by hand and it is gorgeous. As she passed it into my hands, she and her mother whispered, "don't wash it," because the print is delicate and could wash off. As tears fell from my eyes I also worried that they would damage the dress. I couldn't stop them from coming because this gift was so thoughtful and beyond generous. My friends are exceptionally kind people, who have very little and share it without a moment's hesitation. I know I will never be able to repay their kindness.

Now I have a new dress to wear to ceremonies and important events. The kids insisted that we also have a little fun with the dress, staging my own "wedding" in the village. The pictures they took with my camera became a sensation and everyone kept asking me about my jombaajo (wedding). I told them that my husband never arrived!

I will treasure this dress for the rest of my life. I know that this gift will always make me think of everyone in the village and especially my amazing hosts. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

Pulaar Lessons

In a village where most people speak only Pulaar, there are many potential teachers. In my experience, children are the best teachers. That is one of the many reasons I spent as much time with kids as possible during my recent visit to a village near the Senegal river.  

I learned so many new words during my visit and my many teachers were not afraid to correct my frequent mistakes. They also never got tired of my endless questions or short memory. For the first time, I found myself forming simple sentences and expressing myself, although my limited skills in grammar prevented myself from effectively communicating everything I wanted to say. Hopefully I made some progress throughout the week. Here are some of my favorite words in the Pulaar language:

hetchi hanki = the day before yesterday
tigi rigi = real/true
ina buubi = it is cold
yidii = like/love
hol sababu = why?

Pulaar is a rich and beautiful language. It doesn't flow from my tongue as easily as I would like but with more patience and hard work I think that I can learn enough to be able to hold a conversation over the course of the next year, especially if I find more teachers as good as the ones I just left behind.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dust Storm

For many years I have heard about dust storms. I have tried to imagine what it feels like to be inside one. Well I finally had that opportunity during my visit last week to a small village. The rainy season started and I was warned that the rain is always preceded by "wind." I had no idea what that meant. I found out pretty quickly when I looked at the sky!

A mountain of dust coming right towards us. 

Everyone collecting their things and running out of the way of the storm!

Getting closer!



Here! Inside the storm. The sky changed from orange, dark red, and then pitch black! 

When the storm was almost passed we snuck out to take a picture!

As fascinating as it was, I am not sure I would look forward to another experience like this. The good news was that the dust storm was following by refreshing rain. The 120 degree temperatures cooled and I slept better than I had all week! I went to the doctor today to get my eyes checked because they have been all itchy ever since. She said not to worry, that they were just "irritated." Sometimes having a camera is a curse!