Saturday, December 31, 2011

Don't go chasing waterfalls...

...Unless you are in Benin!

Holiday Travels

I love traveling. This year for the holiday break I decided to visit Benin again, only this time as a tourist in the North of the country. I never made it there while I lived there from 2002-2004. Every time I tried to travel in Benin I would get a 104 degree fever, call the Peace Corps doctor, and follow his orders to come to his office immediately. This time around, there were no fevers, no doctors, and no worries. 

I had a lovely time meeting new friends and observing the tourist scene. The biggest attraction in the area is the game park, promoted in Benin as the "best game park in West Africa." After a full day of driving around the park I concluded that the lack of animals was disappointing, especially compared to parks in East Africa. However, I found watching the humans to be even more interesting. I liked seeing the tourists cruising around in their 4x4 vehicles, decked out in their safari outfits. 

I reveled in the rivalry between the guides. The highlight was when one vehicle sped past us, covered us in dust (we were in the back of an old pick-up truck), and then later while gazing at the empty watering hole, bragged about seeing three elephants moments before we arrived. Our guide, Francois, looked at the ground and turned to his vehicle. Life is not easy for guides in Park Penjari, where competition for glimpses of elephants, lions, and hippos is fierce. I was proud of Francois for taking the high road and maintaining his professionalism. Back in car, our team was less polite, calling the other guides liars, jerks, and cheats. 

The low point of the day came when our guide stopped at a field station building and told us that there were some cool statues of animals in the back. We declined the offer and bitterly complained that if we didn't see the big animals soon, there would be hell to pay! By the end of the day, we had seen all the animals, except lions. We saw crocodiles, baboons, monkeys, antelopes, gazelles, deer, many birds, elephants and last but not least, hippos. Although the animals were far away, hiding behind trees, and smaller than we imagined them to be, we drove back Nattitangou in high spirits. Our guide did right and we saw the best the park had to offer that day.... 

Back at the hotel, the tourists bragged about their victories and complained about the lack of organization of the park and country in general. The driver of an oversized SUV grumbled that he wasn't able to hunt this expedition, while the others nodded and wished him better luck next time. The attitude of many of the tourists reminded me of colonial times. The safari vests only reinforced the image. In the end, I felt happy to know that I am NOT like most of the tourists we encountered. One day in the park was enough for me!

Friday, December 23, 2011

December Workshopping

I was insanely busy in December coordinating a series of three 5-day workshops, reaching a total of 155 teachers. 

It was a very busy month! Meeting teachers from throughout the country is one of my favorite aspects of my work here. Helping to build teachers' capacities and strengthen their skills is the reason I am here. 
At the end of the month I was exhausted but felt a great sense of achievement. The highlight was seeing many of my former students again. It was wonderful to reconnect with them and hear all about their lives in their villages where they teach. During one of the workshops we wrote haiku poems and at the end of the workshop, one student presented me with a haiku poem that he wrote: 

 The Last Word by deeleeya 

Two other former student shared poems that they wrote for the workshops as well: 
 My Teaching Journey by deeleeya 

 The Poor Teacher by deeleeya 

One teacher wrote this poem as well: 

By Ibrahima Khalidou NDiaye
English Teacher in Oualata

Nancy, Merci!
Day after day
For five days
The courageous Mauritanian English teachers
Have gained from your experience
More than one billion skills
To achieve their proud goal.
But what is sad,
Let me tell you
It’s your hand and ours
Will say bye, bye
Don’t worry about
Of course, you’ve left
But never lost
Because you’ve left most
Which will stay on forever
Nancy, thanks!
Nancy, merci!
Go ahead!
Absolutely useful for Mauritania
Dear colleagues
Try and use
What never wastes the time
Thanks to the Ministry of Education
Hallelujah to the U.S. Embassy

All in all, the workshops provided a meaningful end of a productive year. I hope that I am able to accomplish even more in 2012. I have my work cut out for me!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooking Class: Maro Lidi

I just returned from five days in a village near Kaedi, in the Southwest of Mauritania. The weather was surprisingly nice and I found myself with a lot of energy. I read two books, six national geographic magazines from start to finish, and started cooking classes. My teacher is a very charismatic and charming 15-year-old, the daughter of a good friend in New York. She was a patient teacher. We made rice and fish. 

Here are the directions: 

 Clean and cut the vegetables
 Fan the fire
 Clean & prepare the fish
Grind onion, garlic, black pepper, and hot peppers
 Put mixture inside fish (under skin)

 Fry the fish in oil
 Cook until brown
 Add vegetables to mixture
 Add 2 liters of water to pot
 Add hibiscus flowers
 Cover and cook about twenty minutes
 Keep on high heat
 Wash and clean rice, then add to colander on top of cooking fish & vegetables
 Steam rice about twenty minutes
 Remove fish and vegetables from pot

 Add rice to pot to cook in liquid from rice and vegetables
 After rice is finished cooking, put everything together
 Carry to the table and serve!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bioluminescent Bonfire

One of my favorite people in Nouakchott wanted to have a bonfire on the beach. So last Friday we grabbed our drums, tea set, mats, and music and headed for the sea. 

We danced and sang while drinking tea and watching the crackling wood glowing in the moonless night. We practiced our coupe decaler moves and tasted the perfect balance of green tea and peppermint leaves. We cheered and clapped along with our talented drummer. We laughed and ate cookies until our stomachs ached.

Before departing, we went to visit the sea. When I put my feet in the water I was surprised to see glowing sparks of light. I picked up a handful of sand and watched as the lights flickered and slowly disappeared. I looked at the waves and noticed that they were especially bright, as if there was a black light shining above us. 

Meanwhile, the police in Nouakchott have closed down all of the nightclubs in preparation for the big Independence holiday next week. Yet it is almost as if the plankton wanted us to have our own party. They provided a magnificent dance floor and the sky's infinite stars became our disco ball. 

That night we celebrated our own independence. We all felt a serene sense of freedom emerging from the wonder and magic of every day life. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Today I bought a pomegranite at the Moroccan market. I wrote a little poem in my head as I nibbled on the perfectly sweet seeds: 


I want to wear you 
 Long strand of precious rubies
Reflecting the sun 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lest you might lay him under a curse

Today I learned some words of wisdom from the Mauritania 6th year English textbook: 

"In the north, for example, you'd better not strike anyone with a rosary because that may cause him/her to be sterile and barren!"

"In the center, you are not advised to tread on dirt and soil for demons might be there, and therefore they may go off with you!"

"In the North West, never call out somebody's name while he's leaving his house lest you might lay him under a curse."

"In the West, avoid the word "black", especially when you're traveling because you might undergo horrible accidents or much suffering when you mention that word."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Of rocks and camels

I carried a basket in my hands on the first day of school. I asked the students to guess what was in the basket. Of course, they all predicted that it contained sweets and treats. When I revealed the contents, a pile of rocks, they all looked disappointed. Their faces became even more despairing when I described the next task: Pick a rock and explain why you chose this rock and one thing that you and the rock have in common.

I explained to the class that I picked these rocks from my recent travels to the ancient cities of Chinguetti and Ouadane. I selected a rock and shared a story about why this particular rock was important to me. I was subsequently very relieved when each student picked a rock and started talking amongst themselves and bragging about the qualities of their individual rocks (I never know how well students will cooperate with my requests, especially when teaching ADULTS).

One by one, the students came to the front of the class to present their rocks. They each provided powerful examples of how the rocks reminded them of their childhoods. I was surprised to hear the students' strong connections to these rocks, although upon reflection of course I shouldn’t have been. 

One student showed the class how a rock with a reddish tint can be used as a sort of crayon to write on other rocks. He described how he used these same rocks to draw and make pictures. As he was talking, I was thinking about how he probably didn't have access to paper and markers, the way that most kids in the U.S. would have. 

One of my most shy students shared a wonderful story about how as a child he played with small rocks, exactly like the one he selected from the basket, to symbolize camels.  When I asked him to explain how, he showed the class how he lined the rocks in a row and moved them one by one, as in a caravan. 

The rest of the class nodded along and it was clear that many in the room grew up playing  the same game. The imagery was so vivid that suddenly I saw this student as a boy in front of me, playing with his camels. For a few moments, we were all transported to our youths.

Next, a student told us how she used the rocks in a game, similar to the American game of jacks. I made a video of three little girls playing this game during a recent visit to Fouta:

Another student picked a rock that had three colors and then showed us how his skin in the palm of his hand, forearm, and fingernail contained the exact same three colors.

I was surprised to hear that the students from every part of the country (from Atar to Kaedi, Nouadhibou, Kiffa, Ayoun, and Nema) described playing with similar rocks as children. Although my students represent all regions of Mauritania (and all ethnic groups), these rocks represented a commonality between all students.

By the end of the activity, I was speechless. I was so touched that I didn't even remember to explain to the students why I brought these rocks to class in the first place: To share my summer travels with each student (by giving them a very small souvenir to take home), provide a talking point for each student to discuss, and model how, as teachers, they can use anything (something as simple and abundant as rocks) as teaching aids. The students' own responses to the rocks were much more significant than anything I ever imagined.

As always, the students' creativity, imagination, and sincerity surpassed my expectations by leaps and bounds. They transformed what potentially could have been a silly and fun activity (or worse) into a truly meaningful opportunity for sharing and learning more about ourselves and each other. I adore my students and feel honored to know each and every one of them, as different from each other as every unique, beautiful rock. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011


By Ousmane Sembene

Fingers, skillful of scupture
At modeling figures on marble
At translations of thoughts
Fingers that would impress
Fingers of artists
Fingers thick and heavy
That dig and plough the soil
And open it up for sowing
And move us
Fingers that land tillers
A finger holding a trigger
An eye intent on a target finger
Men at the very brink 
Of their lives at the mercy of their finger
The finger that destroys life
The finger of a soldier
Across the rivers and languages
Of Europe and Asia
Of China and Africa
Of India and the Oceans
Let us join our fingers to take away
All the power of their finger
Which keeps humanity in mourning

I came across this poem today while I was helping my students do research for their thesis projects from the University. One student gave a dramatic reading of the poem followed by a nice impromptu discussion about African literature. I love my students!

The University of Nouakchott's English Department's required forty-page thesis is a big obstacle for all students and it is often the only factor that prevents them from receiving their bachelor degrees. I have eight (out of 20) students right now who have finished at the University with everything except their theses. I have been trying to encourage them to focus on getting them finished! I like editing and I also like recommending the students to read my favorite books :) 

Most of all, I just want to help my students because it seems like completing the paper is nearly impossible task in an environment with very little supervision/editing help, few references and resources, and lack of access to computers. Most of all, the students are not prepared with the skills needed for writing such a long research paper. Indeed, the entire process seems doomed to failure. Yet miraculously, students manage to finish each year, giving hope and inspiration to their peers. 

Last year I tried to help seven students but only one was able to complete the paper. This year I am hoping that more can finish! The University is switching systems and they warned the students that this will be the last year for the students to finish their "maitrise" degrees. Ever. 

Last night one student called me upset, evidently his computer crashed and took the only draft of all 20 pages with it. I advised him to stay calm, keep his eyes on the prize and his fingers on the keyboard. 

I need to focus on getting my students to become the kind of teachers who will teach their students to join their fingers together to build a more safe, peaceful, and egalitarian society!