Monday, November 12, 2012

Chapato doesn't know chapati

Last spring I made friends with a wonderful Burundian woman in Nouakchott. She invited me over to her house and cooked chai and chapati for me. When I asked her grown sons if they love their mom's chapati as much as I did, they didn't know what I was talking about. My friend laughed and said, "Chapato doesn't know chapati." Moorish people are called "chapato" in Pulaar, and since her son's father is Moorish, she was having fun with words. I told her sons that they were missing out. East African chapati is one of my favorite foods! 

I was pleasantly surprised last week to discover a Moroccan version of chapati, called msimn, at a Nouakchott cafe. It was a little tough, square, and needed more salt but it was close enough to the real deal. It is freshly made by a woman every evening and served warm. It is served with Moroccan soup (harira) and the waiters only knew it as "the bread that comes with soup." I passed on the soup, preferring instead to eat mine with a nice cup of espresso. I will definitely be going back for more soon.

Maybe chapato do know chapati after all!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Birdhouse in My Soul

My downstairs neighbor had a beautiful garden in his front courtyard. I was always envious  of this luxurious green space in a sandy city. I have no balcony, courtyard, or roof. I have only small windows and an even smaller view of the trees around my apartment. 

Last spring I woke up one morning to a ray of sunshine coming in through my front window for the first time. I looked down and saw a young man madly chopping down anything green in sight. My neighbor had just gotten married and in an effort to please his new bride, he cut every living thing in his yard. Evidently she was not fond of the mosquitos hiding in the dark spaces.

However, my window was still covered in dead tree branches, caught between in the bars. I asked him to please remove the branches and he said he didn't have a ladder. He pushed a stick through my screen and I then begged him to stop. 

When I came back this fall, I found that some birds had decided to make good use of these branches. They made a nest in my screen. They destroyed the screen further, forcing me to close the glass or face the consequences: Feathers and twigs flying into my house! 

I don't plan on staying here long enough to evict my newest neighbors. I like their singing and maybe I will have a little family coming soon. 

Every time I look outside I think of this song: 

Saturday, November 10, 2012


I am back in Mauritania! 

My contract was due to end last summer. In fact, it DID end. I threw myself an enormous goodbye party, hired a dj, and danced with all my best friends until 2:00 am. I visited all my friends in the villages and said tearful goodbyes. I gave away everything I owned and packed my most sentimental belongings in two suitcases.

I left Nouakchott on July 24, arrived in Minnesota on July 25, went to sleep and woke up July 26, with a job offer to return to the same position. I spent three months at home with my family and then came back. 

This country has a hold on me! 


I took a long break from writing. I needed to be alone in my head for a few months. I am coming back to the rest of the world, slowly walking back to my life before everything changed. The day my dad fell and hit his head, suffered from a stroke that caused serious damage to forty-percent of the right side of his brain. Putting it in writing makes it real- a reality that has been difficult to comes to terms with.

I spent over four months in the hospital between in March and October. That stale, sterile, sour hospital smell still lingers in my nose. The smell that served as a daily reminder of the assault on my family: My father's struggle to live without pain or suffering. Arriving to my dad's room and seeing him crunched into a ball, not knowing if I would find my exceptionally kind and laughing, "dream dad", or difficult and irritable, "brain-damaged dad." Regardless of his state of mind, visiting my dad every day in the hospital provided precious quality time, something we never really had before. Despite the difficulty of witnessing my father face the  biggest battle of his life, I treasured the chance to listen to his stories, jokes, and political perspectives. I savored the time to simply hold his hand and tell him what an incredibly inspiring and genuinely kind human being he is. Maybe I never told my dad enough before how much I truly admire and respect him.  

Sitting in the hospital day after day helped to gave me a balanced perspective. Although I felt isolated by my grief, I was never alone. Every room was occupied by a patient and a family rallying to provide love and support. Tragedy surrounded us. Some of the patients were doing much better than my dad, and I eyed their progress with envy. However, there were also patients doing worse, and I felt intense empathy because I knew that it could be my dad in their places. It could be me, for that matter. There is so much to be thankful for, so many reasons to be grateful. 

This week, after nearly nine months of hospitalization, my dad is coming home. I wish I could be there to see him smile, as I know he will be, to see his precious kitties (hellions Ray Ray and Bon Bon) and be back in his element. I hope beyond hope that this homecoming is the best  medicine. 

Thank you to everyone who has helped me during this difficult time. I feel your love and I am appreciative beyond words. Thank you. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Deep in the Fouta

We took a taxi from Nouakchott to Maghama. After Lexieba there is no road, just tracks to follow in the dried dirt. After an hour of driving off-road, the car stopped. I thought we had a flat tire. I looked at the setting sun and pictured a long night. To my surprise, a man got out from the front seat of the car, collected his baggage and started walking. I looked closely in the direction he was going and saw the outline of distant houses. I stared at him until he disappeared into the horizon. How did he know he had arrived? We drove for another two hours and never saw another person, animal, or village. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Paintin' Up a Storm

My third year in Mauritania has turned out to be about doing all the things I have wanted to do since I arrived but couldn't accomplish during the first two years. I went to Ouadane, bought a taxi, recorded audio files and created a mural with my students. I am so happy that I have been able to finally cross off so many things from my long list of things to do. I have six more weeks and want to keep finishing all these great initiatives my students and I have started. 

One of the projects I am the most excited about is creating murals! I worked with my teacher-trainees in Nouakchott for the first one and then I took the two most experienced painters and we traveled to Maghama to work with the students of the English Club there to create another mural. 

For most of the students it was the first time to hold a paint brush. It is so important to let them try in order to learn from experience that they can do it on their own. It has been a really fun project! I had no previous experience painting but I discovered that I am not too bad! My role the last two times has been as a toucher-upper for the students' work, after they have finished with their part. I clean the lines and make things more correct. 

I have enough paint for at least two more murals and need to work on deciding where to paint them. I think I will do one in Nouakchott and one somewhere else, maybe Rosso. I want my teacher-trainees to take a leadership role in deciding where, when, and with who! More on this topic soon!

Three Days in Tergit

I just returned from three days in Tergit with thirty-eight teacher-trainees. I organized the retreat with my first and second year students so we could learn and share ideas outside of the classroom environment. This year I was lucky to have two amazing groups of students and so it was really important for me to be able to provide an opportunity for them to spend time together. The students organized and facilitated all of the activities for the entire weekend, including 10 mini-workshops, a football match, egg-spoon race, tug-of-peace, sack race, and evening entertainment. One student summarized the weekeend perfectly, he said, "One College, one team, one group, one dream, peace love and harmony here we are at the ENS where we are brothers, where we shared activities, traveled together, ate and prayed together, holding the rope of hope and friendship."

I organized a meeting on the first day and asked the students what they think the goals for the weekend should be. I was so proud when they mentioned many important and introspective ideas. One of the most interesting discussions was about how the weekend could provide the opportunity for the group to learn about other cultures and form bonds with students from different ethnic backgrounds. One student commented that the English department represents all Mauritanians, as opposed to the Arabic and French departments, which tend to be less diverse. In the past, most students from the South only studied in French, where as the East and North only studied in Arabic. This means that the two languages divide the country and in return, the population. However, English is a third  (or fourth) language for everyone in Mauritania and in that sense, is studied throughout the country (for only two hours a week in secondary school). 

I am proud of my students for realizing the importance of cross-cultural exchange and for being open-minded enough to be able form lasting friendships across this divide. This adds another element of importance to the classes I teach, where as always, teaching is about so much more than just the content itself- values, beliefs, and ways of thinking are also part of the curriculum. 

The retreat was wonderful- we spent three days together learning, teaching, singing, clapping, dancing, swimming, hiking, napping, rapping, playing football, running, skipping, and laughing. One student wrote to say, "Colurful, wonderful and beautiful three days in TERGIT! I will never ever forget these days in which harmony, unity, sympathy and empathy were key concepts. I got no words that can express how happy I feel about Tergit . If there is a word that is more valuable than thanks I would say it."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Learning to Clap

When I first came to Mauritania, I went to a party and everyone was clapping along with the music. Their hands made a very loud boom and it seemed impossible to me that all that racket came from just the palm of their hands. When I clapped, only a pathetic noise emerged. I looked at my hands as though they had failed me. I was 33 years old, why couldn't I clap? 

I decided to start trying to make the walls shake with my clap. I asked for help and my friend showed me how to cup my hands together so that there is a space when the palms hit. This air pocket can create an earth-shattering volume. With all my force, I slapped my hands together, resulting in very red palms and a loud bang! 

One time at the beach another American began tease me when I started to clap. While others were effortlessly clapping along, I had to use all my concentration to be as loud as possible. It is hard to look effortless at something that requires so much effort.

Last night I went to a Tuareg concert and there was a lot of clapping. I was happy to be able to clap along. My lack of rhythm is another problem but that might be a hopeless cause! While I was watching the women, I noticed that they had different ways of clapping too. My friends and I tried to copy them so we could master their techniques. 

I know it sounds ridiculous, but I am proud of myself for finally learning how to clap. Better late than never....

Nouakchott's 5me Market

One of my favorite places in Nouakchott is the market in the "fifth neighborhood" (5me). I could, and often do, spend hours there just wandering around, greeting the vendors, and finding some reason to strike up a conversation with anyone who wants to talk. I always learn something new and get a stomachache from laughing too much. I have many friends in 5me! 

Some of my favorite things to look at are the displays of golden Fula earrings, beads and various braided hair pieces special for weddings. 

I also love to browse the displays of the wax, bazin, and hand-dyed fabrics. I recently met a Malian vendor who sells shea butter, plantains, gari, coconuts, and other imported food items. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Five days with taxis

Taxis in Nouakchott are an excellent way to meet all kinds of people. The drivers cruise around town and pick up passengers wherever they can. I have met taxi drivers from many countries, from Mali to Senegal, Niger to Togo, Nigeria and Ghana. The list goes on and on. I love talking to taxi drivers and hearing their stories and the passengers can be equally entertaining. Here is a summary of the taxis I took this week:
  1. Man with Spanish military hat on his dashboard, purchased in Nouakchott from the second-hand clothing market and gets him waved through all military check-points... (the military assume he is a high ranking official with his faux hat!)
  2. The driver of a Swahili-speaking woman from Burundi with three of the cutest kids I have ever seen in my life (Burundi-Mauritania-Pakistan heritage) who were all in the car with me. She showed me her house and invited me in for tea and chapati. She has called me and greeted me every day since. Charming new friends!
  3. Mauritanian anti-terrorism police officer who lived in D.C. for three years and spoke perfect English. He said he finishes work at 14:00 and uses his car as a taxi after that! 
  4. Intellectual Malian/Mauritanian international traveler who has lived in over 15 countries and spoke as many languages! He also has another day job, at an Embassy somewhere?
  5. Ivoirien taxi who always appears out of the blue and gives me free rides (superhero?)

Classroom Note

I found a piece of paper in my library today. It had Arabic text handwritten on one side and a list of words in English on the other. Evidently the new vocabulary was learned from the film we watched last night, the Interrupters. I am secretly happy it was left it behind so that whoever it was won’t memorize these words:
  • Press
  • Substance abuse
  • Haircut
  • Fucking problem
  • Defensive
  • Affiliated
  • Harassed
  • Immerse yourself
  • Butcher knife
  • Gangster
  • He tumbled over
  • Soft spot
  • Conceived
  • Lieutenant
  • Fuck the man
  • Retaliation
  • My honeycomb
  • Decent time
  • The interrupters
  • Grievance
  • Punk
Hopefully the students took away other lessons from the film besides this list of the worst possible words.

Friday, April 20, 2012

My brief experience as a taxi owner

For the past two and a half years I have had a very reliable and trustworthy taxi driver. He takes me to class each day and helps me run every variety of errands. I starting calling a taxi driver instead of just walking to the street to find one because there are many people who offer me rides who are not in fact taxi drivers and it made me nervous to get in the cars of random strangers who could turn out to be unfriendly. 

I became very good friends with my taxi driver and so this year, my last in Nouakchott, I decided to take a risk to help him. I bought a 1990 Mercedes and became his boss. We wrote up a contract in which he would bring me $17 each day. This money would be put into an account and when these funds equalled the value of the car, the car would be his. The idea is simple but the outcome could be truly life-changing. If the taxi driver had his own car, he could work hard and eventually buy a second car with the extra income earned. He could have someone working for him and then use his time to go back to school or do any number of things. He could be his own boss, free to go where ever he wanted...

Unfortunately, my taxi driver proved to be unreliable. As soon as I bought the car, I noticed a change in his attitude. For the first time, he arrived late to pick me up and forgot appointments. That was the start of the disappointments. He would always tell me the car was running fine and then tell other Americans that the car was in the shop for repairs. When I confronted him about this, and insisted on total honesty, he promised to change. A couple of months later, he stopped bringing me the money each day and made up millions of  excuses and justifications. We had countless talks. I made deadlines and asked him to start providing documentation for every expense. When we spoke, he nodded and said that he agreed to the terms we set but then afterwards nothing changed. 

When I went home to the U.S. for five weeks, he refused to bring a single Ougiiya to the friend in charge of the project during my absence. The taxi driver still insists that he didn't make any income during this time. It is possible but since he won't provide any details or documentation of expenses, I have no idea if this is true. I do know that he was working and that he could earn about $30 per day, under normal circumstances.

When I returned to Nouakchott, the car was fine but the next day it was in the garage for repairs. It has been there for nearly three weeks and finally he called me yesterday to tell me that the engine can not be repaired. I parked the car in my friend's garage and want to forget I ever bought it. I will sell it as soon as possible. This disastrous project has caused me to lose a lot of money. Even worse than the money, I lost a friend. 

When I talked about this project with my friends, many of them told me that taxi drivers are not to be trusted and that I will definitely lose in the end. I truly believed that my taxi driver would not let me down. Unfortunately, he proved to be immature, irresponsible, and dishonest. I really wanted my taxi driver to prove all these cynics that they are wrong but instead he justified their apprehensions.

This project was a failure. I may have helped the driver make a lot of money for a few months, but he likely didn't save anything. Now he is back to where he was when I met him, working hard for someone else to get a little extra income each day. Nonetheless, I don't have any regrets. Life is about taking risks to help others even if those risks don't always pan out the way we want them to. The biggest lesson I will take from this experience is the importance of effort. I will never stop trying although I do think this is my first and last time to own a taxi.

Facebook Poetry

I created a "Facebook Group" for the library at the school where I teach and it has taken a life of it's own. We now boast 344 members including English teachers, trainees, and students. Each day the members post various topics and have lively discussions. It has been very fun to moderate this group and I am excited about it's potential. Our teacher's association has only been moderately successful in creating a space for teachers to meet and exchange ideas. Through this group, we have the potential to reach a much wider audience and include teachers working throughout the country (in places where there is electricity...). 

I wanted to share some collaborative poems that the participants have written without meaning to:

April 11, 2012:

We are teachers
Chalk eaters, 
Freedom givers,
Voices of the forgotten corners,
Explorers who dare to spend 9 months in Adelbagrou,
Yes, we are soldiers,
Ladders people use to go up,
Donkeys people use to get to their destinations,
Teachers should be provided the most comfortable life
Thinking only of how they could make the students get the message
Teachers can not be more than what they are

April 19, 2012:

Teaching is...
Great task
Holy Mission

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Wandering Warzones

Last night I watched the movie The Interrupters. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. It brought back a flood of memories from my experience teaching in Chicago in 2005. I was just back from Peace Corps and I wanted to apply everything I had learned in grad school to help underprivileged American youth. I had spent three years teaching in Africa and felt that I could make more of an impact teaching in my own country where I shared the same language and culture. I turned down a position coordinating a program to help demobilized child soldiers in the DR Congo and accepted a position at an innovative new charter school in South West Chicago.

The school was a total disaster with poor leadership and a dramatically changing agenda every week. The other two teachers had never taught before and they created no lesson plans or curricula. When I looked across the hall I saw students braiding hair and playing basketball. When I questioned these practices to the Director she told me that it was a new approach to teaching. I closed my classroom door and tried every trick I could think of to get my students to focus on their studies instead of what they could be doing across the hall.

The school was literally crumbling around me. One of the inexperienced teachers pushed a student against the wall and punched him. This student's father was one of the biggest gang leaders in the area. The teacher was fired and forced to apologize (while crying) to the student. Then I had the privilege of teaching both classes. The other teacher quit a week later, leaving me to teach all three groups of students. The students from the classes with hair braiding and basketball playing did not like my classes at all. The Director’s innovative solution? Take all three classes bowling! By January, the school was closed and I was out of a job. 

I went to work as a "permanent substitute" teacher at a school on the West Side for the rest of the school year. It was the most insane school I had ever seen. The students practically did no work at all. The English classroom had no books, the French teacher spoke no French, and the students pulled the most wild stunts they could maneuver, from throwing chairs at each other, to throwing all the History textbooks out of 3rd floor windows, to rolling up their Biology assignments like cigarettes and lighting them on fire. One day in class a loud roar in the back of the class was followed by a student bursting through the paper thin walls, leaving a cartoon-like hole in the wall the shape of the outline of his body with his arms in the air. The best teacher in the school handed out dollar bills for every completed assignment. Regardless of how I felt about her methods, I at least had to respect the results: The students did do the work!

Throughout all of the crazy antics I observed at these schools, I felt a deep pain for my students. There was never any doubt in my mind that they were the victims of a vicious cycle of poverty and a system that didn’t care. It would have been nearly impossible to leave these schools with the skills needed to compete in today’s job market. The students were intelligent and they knew that there was very little chance of escaping the circumstances around them. Nearly every day the students said, "we aint goin' to college." When I asked why, they rolled their eyes and looked around the room. I looked around too and then tried to give some encouraging words about rising up like a phoenix from the fire. 

One day I saw students exchanging papers among themselves. I heard one student saying, “I got two uncles, three brothers, my momma and my poppa.” When I approached them, they put the papers in under the desks. When I asked to see the papers, one student reluctantly showed it to me. It was a page printed from the Illinois State Penitentiary website. It contained a picture of a prisoner, along with the “stats” of his sentence. The students were trading these papers like baseball cards. Many of my students expressed their beliefs that no one could get through life without serving time.

My heart broke every day for countless reasons. Classrooms full of seniors who couldn't even write complete sentences. Students filled with so much rage they couldn't even spend an hour in the school without attacking someone. A list of suspended students pages and pages long. Only three students arriving for a class that should have 30 students. A generation of students raised by their grandparents because their parents just weren’t able to be there. And yet, there was always one or two students sitting in the front of the class trying to piece what they could out of their broken education. One time I asked one of these students how he manages to focus amidst the chaos and he said, "I just learned to block it all out." I wished that he could have given classes on this skill, as it could definitely save lives. my students taught me a lifetime of lessons in twelve months.  

Frustration and disappointment prevented me from staying in Chicago. In addition, I felt a growing awareness that I belonged to a global community. I am American but I am also an open-minded person who can make a positive difference in the lives of people around me no matter where I go. I have skills and experiences that will enable me to be effective in Africa, even though I am not and will never be African. In many ways, I feel just as much like a foreigner here in Mauritania as in the South Side of Chicago but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be equally effective in either place. 

When I tell people about my work in Africa with refugees and street children, many respond by saying, “Oh it must have been so sad.” Yet at no time in my life have I felt more helpless and powerless by the injustice around me than I did in Chicago. No where have I felt more defeated and defenseless to change the circumstances that these children faced every day. I left a part of myself behind those schools and I will never forget the loneliness, despair, resilience, perseverance, and courage of the students I met. I will always remember Bobby, Durell, James, Maribel, Tatiana, Tiara, Robert, Jeff, Eduardo, Vashtie, Kim, and so many others. I still cry for them often and hope that they made it out of that jungle alive. I witnessed  the war waged against these children and I believe it was just as much real as the one I avoided when I turned down the job in the DR Congo. 

I have a deep respect for the teachers in Chicago who continue to fight for their students and work each day to improve the conditions in the communities where they teach. Most of my friends in Chicago are teachers and their dedication, creativity, and perseverance has made them my heroes. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

ICU = International Community of Unity

When the ambulance came to my parent's house they knew right away that my father had suffered a stroke. They drove as fast as they could to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the HCMC hospital, located in downtown Minneapolis. This facility is known as one of the best in the country for stroke victims.

The ICU was located on the top floor and was it's own world, far away from the rest of the hospital. The "family room" for the families of patients was equipped with lockers, a TV, a computer with Internet, a refrigerator, microwave, and unlimited free coffee. We practically moved in and had someone (usually a large group) with my dad 24-hours a day. 

I admit to being more than a little surprised and proud that the ICU had such an international population. My father's room was between a Palestinian family next door to the right and a Native American family to the left. There was a Somali family across the hall and a Latino family at the end of the corridor. The refrigerator in the family room reflected this diversity with tortillas stacked on top of pita bread and cilantro-infused chicken leaning next to grilled lamb. During meal times the room overflowed with large families eating together and I was reminded of middle-school field trips to the "Festival of Nations," where food carts offered specialties from over 100 different countries.

One day the Native American family performed a healing ceremony and burned sage in their room. The nurses came let us know so we would know the source of that distinct smell as it wafted throughout the hallways. I was hoping that it would drift into my dad's room and help him too.

Not only were the neighbors multi-cultural but so was our own room. It was was filled with prayers from around the world. One of my dad's co-workers asked if he could bring an Israeli prayer cloth and we welcomed this gift. Tibetan prayer flags, hands of Fatima, and statues of Ganesha adorned the walls. My dad received messages and cards from around the world, from Norway, Malta, France, and my students in Mauritania. We read the letters to my dad and told him about all of the prayers around the world. Although my family is not very religious, this immense out-pour of love helped us get through those long days in the hospital. I am certain that showing my dad how much people love him from all corners of the globe helped him stay focused on getting better too. 

We felt that our neighbors genuinely cared about my dad's progress. We compared notes with all the families, asking questions such as, "is your father still on the vent?" "Did your mother pass the swallow test?" "Did your brother speak yet?" "Is your sister able to sit in a chair?" Small victories were celebrated together by everyone on the floor. The ICU became a large family of brothers and sisters and the doctors acted as parents. 

We cried when our neighbors cried and smiled collectively when there was good news. One by one, our neighbors left the ICU. We usually didn't get to say goodbye when the patients either passed away or healed enough to move to a room downstairs. We did our best to welcome the new arrivals. We watched the contents of the refrigerator shift. We waited for our turn to leave, praying it would be to a room downstairs and not upstairs. 

When we did leave the ICU to head for the 4th floor we were relieved to see the Palestinian, Somali, and Native American families. We mourned the missing Latino family and imagined that they had been released home. The 4th floor lacked a family room and it was open to patients from many other wards. The magic spell of the ICU that tied us together was broken and we were all left to our quiet privacy. I will never forget the unlimited kindness of everyone in the ICU and I still think about our old neighbors and send them wishes of health and recovery.  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Whole Lot of Love

The past seven weeks have been heart-breaking. My father's stroke and recovery process has been long and difficult. Every single prognosis the doctors have provided has taken much longer than they estimated; days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and months turn into years. The most recent estimate is that it will most likely take about one year for my dad to recover (with some remaining deficits) and at least 6 months in the hospital. Of course, anything can happen with brain injuries and my dad's prognosis could change dramatically in either a positive or a negative direction. There is a lot of patience involved. I am sure that no matter how difficult this has been for us, the family, it has been 1,000 times more difficult for my dad. 

If anything positive can be said to have risen from this crisis it is the knowledge that my dad  - and entire family - has a lot of love & support. There are thousands of fans and friends sending him get well wishes every day. The outpour of love has been overwhelming. The first month in the hospital were filled with countless goodwill gestures from friends, dinners, lunches, snacks, music, concerts, flowers, lattes, rides, and everything in between. Then one of my dad's friends organized a fundraiser and the immediate response was incredible. He raised $10,000 within three days. This immense support was amazing and helped us all get through those toughest moments in the beginning. I can never repay this kindness and I know that I have a debt to repay. 

I heard about an English teacher in Nouakchott who has been sick. I asked about him last week and a group of teachers told me that he had a stroke. I called him this morning and he told me that the left side of his body is paralyzed (like my dad's). I made a plan to see him on Tuesday. I hope that I can help give him some support and maybe my experience in watching my dad's recovery process can be of help. 

Friday, March 30, 2012


On Sunday, February 19, 2012 I received the phone call I have dreaded since my first trip to Africa in 1998. I came home from a busy and productive day to find a series of frantic messages on Skype from my family saying, "call us as soon as you get this message." When I called the numbers back it was to a hospital information line. Of course none of my family members had working cell-phones and no one was at home. Finally, my sister's husband answered their landline. He said, "He is ok. He is in the ICU." "Who?" I demanded. "Oh, you haven't heard yet... your father had a stroke this morning." In the blink of an eye, my entire world changed. 

I was able to call the hospital and speak to my mom a few minutes later. I spoke to my dad later in the day and he assured me that he was fine and was going to go home the next day. No one realized how bad the stroke was until the next day, when the brain started swelling and my dad couldn't speak or open his eyes anymore.

I followed the updates each day and informed everyone I work with about the situation at home. I decided to try to wait two weeks and go home during my spring break, unless things got worse. I asked my family to please let me know if there was any further decline in my dad's health.

I spent the next three days in a daze. I couldn't stop crying, except to go to class where I gave my best effort to be strong and professional. I sobbed night and day and felt absolutely helpless. I shopped online for gifts for my mom and ordered three pounds of her favorite coffee. During times of crisis it is so difficult to live far from family, it is a time when my decisions to live on another continent seem so selfish and pointless; When my entire life seems called into question.

On 10:00 pm on Wednesday I received another call from my sister. My dad's brain had started to swell and the doctors had tried everything to stop it. Finally, they decided to perform an emergency operation to remove the bone surrounding the right side of my dad's brain. The doctors explained to the family that if this surgery didn't work, my dad may not survive. By midnight my ticket was purchased and at 4:00 am I left my house for the airport. 

I arrived home 24 hours later. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my father in the ICU. Connected to every machine imaginable, his chest moved up and down mechanically like a robot. His head was swollen to the degree that he was barely recognizable. His legs looked so thin. His eyes were closed, his mouth and nose were filled with tubes. 

I went to hold his right hand and he grasped tightly. I cried and he moved his thumb against mine. He was trying to reassure me that he was ok. I tried to gather all the strength I had so that I could be strong for him too. I wiped away my tears and told him that he was the most courageous person I had ever met. 

My family had someone at the hospital 24 hours a day as long as my dad was in critical condition. It was difficult to leave him at night and even though I knew my brother was there I had difficulty sleeping. I lived in fear of another phone call, even though I was now only 20 minutes away from the hospital door. 

As time progressed, my dad's condition has improved. He opened his eyes for the first time after one month. He began speaking a few days later, with the help of a valve for the tracheostomy (necessary to help him "protect his airways"). The road to recovery for my dad will take many months, maybe even years, but we hold on to the small improvements each day and we know that the future will be better than the present. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Disappearing Act

Many people ask me about my diet in Mauritania. I think that I live a pretty comfortable life here and I can eat most of the things I want to eat. Somethings are expensive to buy but surprisingly most things are available if you are willing to pay the price (the other day I even saw Ben & Jerry's ice cream!)

My biggest challenge to eating healthy is myself. I can't explain why but I suffer from a lack of appetite here. I just don't feel hungry. It is not because I am busy, lazy or a lack of variety of food. I just don't have an appetite most of the time. When I am hungry, I tend to eat a lot of fresh produce and I am amazed at the huge amount of food I can buy at the green grocer for just a few dollars. Who doesn't love salads with chickpeas, tahini, cucumber, parsley and carrots? 

Most of produce that we get here comes from Morocco. Some things are fabulously cheap, like pomegranates and clementines. Avocados are expensive but I allow myself to splurge whenever I see them. The sudden appearance of dill or spinach is always a sweet surprise. Today I found a huge bin of crisp, red radishes! Yum! 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fist-fight with the Director

Last Sunday I took a day off from my student-teaching supervision duties because I lost my voice and needed to rest. I ran into my students yesterday and I asked them how their classes went. 

Ahmed (three out of five group members are named Ahmed) told me that he was in the middle of giving directions to the students for an exam when men appeared at the door of his classroom. The men tried to enter the room and Ahmed told them to leave immediately. The men refused to leave and started ordering all of the students to evacuate the room. Ahmed started yelling at the men and then he looked outside and saw a huge crowd of men, all ordering the students to leave.

Then he realized that it was students from the University of Nouakchott who had entered the school compound and forced all of the high school students to go on strike with them. The students, of course, had no say in the matter. Ahmed, and the rest of the teachers, had no say in the matter, either. It was at that point that Ahmed said that he glanced to his right and saw the Director yelling at a group of students. Before the University students could start a fist-fight with the Director, a group of teachers and school staff were able to separate them. 

The University of Nouakchott is located about one kilometer from the high school. Their campus is closed until March 25th and it has been described as a "police state" by some of my students who have tried to go there this week. The University students are on strike because they want an increase in their monthly scholarships, as well as increasing the number of students who get scholarships to include all students. They have many other demands but those seem to be the primary concern. 

I do not know enough about the situation at the University to make a comment. However, I do think that it is wrong for the University students to threaten high school students and prevent them from studying. 

My student-teacher trainees are in the battle field. If they can survive teaching in Nouakchott they will excel anywhere else they go!    

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentines Day

I wanted to do a silly, fun activity in my class for Valentines Day. In the last 15 minutes of class, I cut out paper hearts and and distributed markers to each table. I told my students to write a message on the card for a classmate, focusing on writing something they appreciate in a classmate (not about love), such as always having a positive attitude. I asked them to write a card to someone that they don't know very well (I should have asked the students to write a card for the person sitting next to them). I thought it would be a good opportunity for community-building by showing our appreciation for each other.

At the end of class, I was left with a huge pile of valentines day cards for myself! It was thoughtful and nice but not exactly the activity that I had in mind. I hung the cards up on the door of the library and I have to say it makes me smile when I look at all these sweet cards. Next time I will have to give clearer instructions!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Why did the dinosaur cross the railroad tracks?

To pose for a picture with his lovely, red hot lady friends, of course! 

They were waiting with knives

I believe in the importance of creating community spaces. I have been lucky enough to take a leading role in the development of one at the teacher-training college where I teach (thanks to the amazing support of the U.S. Embassy in Mauritania). Today I was reminded of the importance of centers like this one when it provided a much needed opportunity for a group of teachers to share experiences.

The teachers came to the library to check their email, meet with me, or borrow a book but ended up talking to each other about their busy lives at school. Amadou, who teaches far from Nouakchott, starting telling the group about his English club at his school and the annual "English camp" he organizes with his colleagues. The other teachers were intrigued and pressed him for details. They congratulated him and took down his contact information.

A teacher in Nouakchott, Mariam, told the group about the club at her school that she has run for the past nine years. She said that this year she has been having a difficult time organizing meetings because of a group of "bad boys" who disturb her students. Another teacher interrupted her to say that it is not good to label students as "bad boys" and that all students had a right to learn. This led to a discussion about "bad boys" who roam empty classes and cause trouble. I think these are the same "bad boys" who graffitti'd "fuck the teachers" in one of the classrooms I visited last week.

Mariam explained that the "bad boys" were not students at her school but just a group of kids who came to the school to cause trouble. The other teachers nodded along with her story, it resonated with them as well. Now I understand why class attendance is so low! Kids leave class to go to other schools where they can be anonymous and stir up trouble. Last year one of my trainees nearly got expelled from my school for punching one of these "bad boys" while on school property.

Mariam further explained that the boys search for girls to talk to. They even interrupt classes to sit next to girls and refuse to leave. Mariam explained that the teachers need to protect the female students from these boys but that it was not always easy. She gave an example of an Arabic teacher who refused to let a group of boys to enter his classroom. After school, the boys were waiting for him around the corner from the school. They threatened him with knives and stole all the money he had, which was fortunately only about $2.00. He was not injured.

The teachers in the room roared with laughter at the Arabic teacher's misfortune. It was not malicious, but just an unexpected and dramatic twist to the story. This sort of violence is practically unheard of outside Nouakchott. The teachers were sympathetic with the Arabic teacher and Mariem's dilemma. How can she meet with her students after school when she knows the students (particularly females) will be harassed by these boys? Mariam needs to be able to create a safe meeting place or she can not hold meetings at all.

Mariam told everyone about how she avoided the knives by offering bread and other gifts to the boys and the teachers encouraged her to continue doing so. Mamadou said, "Yes, make them your friends and lead them back to the right path." All of the teachers nodded in agreement.

These young men come to the school to meet, not to attend classes. Perhaps they need a "safe space" of their own. If they had one, perhaps Mariam could go back to coordinating her extracurricular activities after school. 

I love hearing about teachers' challenges and I love it even more when I am able to help facilitate a dialogue about how to overcome them. I think that perhaps I need to work on starting a violence prevention program for Nouakchott teachers! I recently ordered the film The Interrupters and as soon it as arrives I will organize a screening in my library. Oh the joys of having a safe space for important conversations like this one! 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Whispering Teacher

I came back from a long weekend in Senegal with a hoarse voice that quickly deteriorated. For the past two days I have had no voice at all. It has been interesting to be in Nouakchott without the ability to speak. My phone rings often and I try to answer but all I hear is the person on the other end of the line saying, "Hello? Hello?" and then hang up. I send messages saying "I lost my voice." I also ask whomever is standing close to me to answer my phone and explain to the person that I am here, but can't talk on the phone. This also causes much confusion. Maybe it would just be better to turn my phone off until I get my voice back! 

I have been reminded of the two other times in my life when I completely lost my voice: In a refugee camp in Ethiopia and while teaching in Chicago. In Ethiopia, I didn't go to class and tried to sleep a lot. I remember waking up in the middle of the afternoon  to a crowd of students and colleagues gathered around my bed. They brought me juice and hot tea. They were very worried about me and I couldn't convince them that I was not really THAT sick, just needed to rest. Their constant "checking in" on me actually prevented me from getting the sleep I really needed but I was so appreciative of their concern and thoughtful care-taking. 

One night our cook came to my room and asked if I wanted to try traditional medicine. I nodded my head affirmatively and a few minutes later she returned with a small stove. She also carried a large blanket, which she placed over my head and told me to lean over the stove. On top of the hot coals she placed many herbs, the only one I recognized was  eucalyptus. After a few minutes of breathing in the smoke, she lifted the blanket and pulled it over my shoulders. She instructed me not to get out of my bed or touch water until morning. I did as I was told. The next day everyone looked more than a little disappointed that I still couldn't utter a word. 

In Chicago, I tried to keep teaching despite the obvious difficulties of teaching in a very challenging environment with no voice. On the first day the students were so sweet and helpful, they read from the board and cooperated with my silent directions. It seemed like nothing short of a miracle. The spell broke on the second day when Durrell, who was usually polite, came to class with a basketball. He walked right up to the front of the room, dribbled the ball dramatically in front of me and said, smiling, "What'chu gonna do, Miss Delia? What... you.... gonna... do?" He knew that I was not going to do anything at all. I let him have his fun and after he got the attention he wanted from the entire class he sat down. The rest of the day was basically the same. The third day I didn't come to class. Fortunately, I was saved by the winter break and had enough time to recover completely before returning to class.

Although my colleagues and students in Mauritania would understand if I missed class,  I really wanted to teach this week. Last week was a shortened week due to a holiday and I felt like we had some important material to cover. I was confident that my students could manage class, even with a quiet teacher. 

I found it more difficult than I predicted. My class has 33 students and they have a lot of energy and it is sometimes challenging to get them to re-focus between activities. I practiced a new style of teaching without talking, where I flailed my arms around, clapped as loud as I could, banged on the desks, and stomped my feet. It was classroom management TPR (total physical response)!

It is amazing how much information can be communicated without words. I wrote directions on the board and pointed to different students to read the text out loud. I whispered what I wanted to say and called on a student to be my translater. In this way, many students practiced giving directions and getting the attention of their peers. Teaching became a community effort. 

Since the second-half of the class was a sort of "review party" we played Jeopardy, drank soda, and ate cookies. I elected a student to be the host of the game. The host was a "bad" student who has missed a lot of classes and his role enabled him to still actively participate, despite being behind on the material covered by the questions.

It was the first time my students had ever played a game like Jeopardy and it was a bit difficult to explain the rules and control the crowd without being able to speak. During the time between questions there was an explosion of excitement with each group yelling at top volume to vie for the attention of the host and take control of the game. Since each group had a different noise to get attention, and all groups chose to make animal noises, the room sounded like a zoo! I fear to think of what my colleagues think of my teaching methods. I had flashbacks to my classroom in Chicago... 

My students were a little bit out of control, but in the best possible way. They got a bit carried away by the competitiveness and chaos of the game. Next time we play the game I can do better to help them respect the students trying to study in the neighboring classrooms. I was amazed at how quickly they understood the game and more importantly, how well they answered all of the questions! It was impressive to see them competing to be the first to yell out the correct answers. I hope that all of our classes in the future can be filled with so much passion, excitement, and enthusiasm, and learning- voice or no voice.