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! 

Party Like It's 1999

I celebrated Tabaski for the first time in Mombasa, Kenya in January 1999. On the first day of my new internship at a safe house for street children, we all went to a street festival in the heart of old town Mombasa. 

It was my first time to meet the kids. I was nervous because I had only heard bad things about street children, such as, "they are violent," "they throw faeces," and "they are unpredictable because of all the drugs they take."

During the first part of the evening, I stuck close to my new co-workers sides. We walked past the games and rides and watched the kids running through the park, eating candy and donuts, and talking together. I still remember the feeling of a little hand grabbing mine and holding on tightly. Surprised, I looked down and saw one of youngest boys smiling up at me. I found my first friend. A few minutes later, I had another little hand entwined in mine. By the end of the night, I had a little pack of legs twisting around mine, so that it made it difficult for me to walk. I remember feeling a sense of relief that I had managed to make friends so quickly. These little cuties seemed to accept me based exclusively on my willingness to hold their hands.

While we were waiting for the bus to arrive to pick us up I was sitting alone, observing the older kids (who still had not approached me yet). I was sitting a little bit apart from the group and two strangers walking by decided to try to talk to me. They asked me questions in kiswahili and I tried to politely explain that I didn't know the language and wasn't interested in talking to them. One of the men came close to me to present me with his business card. Before I could respond I heard a lion's roar behind me, "Haa taki!" (she doesn't want it). The men turned and ran. Shocked by this chorus of anger, I turned around and saw all of the older street children lined up in a fighting position. 

In one night, I earned the friendship of all of the street children. Without a single word, they were already my protectors and bodyguards. I was amazed. These kids were charming, funny, sweet, smart, and energetic.

I spent the next seven months with the kids. I worked seven days a week, ten hours a day. I learned a tremendous about their lives and struggles. Their successes and weaknesses. I fell in love with them and became broken hearted when I realized that I could never "save" them. They could only save themselves. 

Over the past twelve years, I have thought about these children often. I know that my experiences working with them changed my life forever. They introduced me to Islam and taught me important lessons about trust, patience, and solidarity.

In 2007 I had the chance to visit the shelter again. I was reunited with four of my co-workers who filled me in with all the news of the boys I had known. They told me about the boys who remained in the streets and the boys who had married and become responsible community members. 

The same day I visited the center, I decided to take a walk around the old fort. In one of the narrow, winding streets I was approached by a small boy who asked me for money, food, or sandals. I carefully explained that I knew he could get help and all of these things if he would agree to go to the center. He persisted and I kindly told him that I used to work with children and became good friends with many of the boys, including KaBuda and others. 

He replied by informing me that KaBuda was sitting nearby. I asked him to take me there immediately. Passersby watched closely as the small, dirty boy led me by the hand down the street. He stopped in front of a tree where two boys were sitting and pointed. 

One of the boys was standing against a tree. I walked close to him and stood less than a foot away from his face. I stared into his eyes. He didn't blink. I studied his skin and tried to read his expression. He wasn't smiling or ready to fight me. I was in his space. The air was tense. Finally, I spoke, "Is it true you are KaBuda?" He nodded. I asked him, "Do you know my name?" He nodded. Slowly, confidently, he said, "You are Delia." 

I burst into tears. Shaking, I grabbed his shoulders. I hugged him. I held him in my arms and  saw tears in his eyes. He mumbled, "You came back."

After our initial greetings, we sat down on a tree trunk and exchanged stories. KaBuda told me about our friends who were now in prison or passed away (sadly including our mutual friend KaJuma, RIP). We were sad but happy to see each other again after so many years. KaBuda's mother passed away and he was living with a girlfriend in a slum. I remember one day when I asked KaBuda where grew up. He answered, "Barclays." I replied, "I don't know that town. In which region of the country is it?" He looked down at the ground and explained, "the bank in town." KaBuda was born into a life in the streets. The other kids called him, "chokora damu," meaning that street life was in his blood. They eventually all started calling me that too.

KaBuda's voice was deep from his long career of cigarette smoking. His eyes were dark yellow from a lifetime of sniffing glue. Malnutrition stunted his growth so he was much smaller than most people. He was missing half a finger. He had lost everyone he loved. He had seen things that no one should have to. He was entirely alone in the world. He was a "survivor" (the street kids' name for themselves) who had overcome enormous obstacles and he was alive to prove it. Yet despite these hardships, KaBuda hugged me and laughed and smiled as we reminisced about the old days and the first time I saw him. 

I have a clear picture in my mind of a miniature KaBuda, skipping down the street, and carrying a gigantic lollypop.  His round cheeks and big smile revealed a set of perfectly white teeth. He was the cutest kid I had ever seen in my life. Tourists loved him and he made a ton of money. No longer cute, I surmised that he had become a sort of gang leader for the younger street children. KaBuda was eleven when I first met him and when I saw him again, he was nineteen going on fifty. 

Life has given me so many gifts. The chance to see KaBuda again has been one of them. If I ever get to see him again I will try to do more to help him. I have a big debt to pay. KaBuda and his friends were my teachers. They were my friends. They were my introduction to development work. They taught me how to dance to ndombolo! I will never be the same.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tabaski in Kaolack

This year for my third year of celebrating Tabaski since arriving in Mauritania, I decided to travel to Senegal to join in the festivities there. I visited my best friend Aissata, a former student from Brooklyn. She always make me feel like one of the family. I love the happy feeling in the family, where kids are always ready to sing a song and there is always time for funny stories. 

Tabaski is the biggest holiday in the year for Muslims. Unfortunately, Senegal celebrated the holiday one day later than Mauritania (and the rest of the world) and when I realized this I called Aissata and told her that I would not be able to come. She firmly informed me, "We are waiting for you. You will come and miss just one day of classes. Get here as soon as possible! We are all waiting!" So that settled the matter. I had to travel to Kaolack!

I am so happy that Aissata set me straight. I had the most amazing visit and celebrating the holiday with friends really put things into perspective. I got to see all of the preparations and take part in every aspect of the holiday.... although I did opt out of watching the sheep slaughter! 

The first day I was there we drove to edge of town to visit the Sheep Market. Many Mauritanians travel all the way to Kaolack to sell their sheep there, where they get a higher price than in Mauritania.

We walked around the entire market. Aissata inspected the sheep and debated the prices with each vendor. She then discussed all that she had seen with her team (all men) and then returned to the second vendor we visited and selected the two sheep she had seen previously. She handed over the cold cash and we left with our sheep in tow. 

With the sheep purchased, the remaining planning could be done. The market, which Lonely Planet claimed is the "largest covered market in West Africa," was completely overflowing with people, as vendors set up stands in all of the public roads and spaces (the mayor charged 3,000 CFA for each vendor). It was nearly impossible to walk anywhere. While trying to get to Aissata's stand (where she sells household goods) a surge of people pushed me onto a pile of onions. which thankfully made for a soft landing!

At the market, women were busy buying new curtains, upholstery fabric, sheets, serving plates and other new things for their homes. They also bought fabric to bring to tailors who then will work their magic to make beautiful embroidered ensembles. In the weeks building up the holiday, they return to the market many times to shop for the perfect accessories for their outfits, including purses, shoes, and jewelry. 

The night before Tabaski is an enormous party in the market, where nearly every single person in the town comes to shop and visit with friends all night long! There is music blasting from speakers everywhere and there is excitement in the air. The boys in my friend's family didn't return home until 5:00 am! 

On the day of Tabaski, all of the men go to the mosque to pray at 8:30 am. When they return, everyone eats breakfast and then the cooking and cleaning commence! The men slaughtered the sheep while the women cut enormous piles of onions and potatoes. 

After all of the gritty work is done, plates of food are brought to the neighbors and then the eating begins! It is a mutton bonanza for the rest of the day! 

The last part of the celebration is mostly for the young, who spend the entire night laughing and talking with friends. It was a parade of the best dressed women I have ever seen! 

I definitely have a lot to learn about fashion from these gorgeous women! I hope that one day I can celebrate Tabaski in Kaolack again. 

When I started thinking about the day, it seemed that the way that Tabaski was celebrated in Senegal is much the same as the way that my family celebrates Thanksgiving. The morning is spent working, the afternoon is spent eating, and the evening is spent visiting friends and family. The more time I spend with people the less different they seem. There are always common threads that tie us all together, although sometimes it can take a little bit longer to find them. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Friends in High Places

I decided to spend the weekend in Chinguetti & Ouadane. I asked my friend Sidi, who is from Chinguetti and also happens to be a tour guide, if he would mind taking me. I paid for the gas, car rental & food. I grabbed Sisay, one of my best friends in Nouakchott, and we made our way north. 

After nearly 8 hours of driving we finally reached the top of the mountain range. We stopped at the first house we came upon to ask if we could borrow their air pump. A man politely told us that he had loaned the pump to the nearest neighbors, who lived another two kilometers down the road. We drove to the house and asked if the pump was available. A little boy came running to the car with the pump in hand. 

A man came out a few minutes later carrying a bowl of sweet milk (called "zrig") to share. After few minutes, he returned again, this time carrying three cups of tea (called "attaya"). As I took the cup to drink, he looked at me and spoke in Arabic to Sidi. I didn't understand what he was saying until I heard the word, "ENS," the place where I teach. Sidi looked at me incredulously and said, "you're famous! This man knows who you are!" Evidently the man is friends with one of my students at ENS and saw the photos from our trip to Tergit last June. In Mauritania the world can seem very, very small! No place is too remote to find familiar faces, not even the top of a mountain.

I love the close relationships that Mauritanians build and the interconnected web between people here. I love Mauritanian hospitality and friendship. I love traveling and escaping the "city" life in Nouakchott. I had an amazing trip to the North and I can't wait to visit again!