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.