09 September 2009


Q: How many modes of transport can you find in this picture?**

On our last night in Mauritania - maybe for good, at the very least, for a long time - I can't help but notice a strange coincidence. We are spending our last night in NDB in the same place (the very same room in fact) as our first night.

It's very odd to think of all the circumstances that had to occur to make that happen. I won't go into all the minute, butterfly-effect details that brought us to our current position, but I will relate about a common thread between pretty much all of our adventures here: taxis. Taxis are an ever present fixture of our Mauritanian life.

In this last week alone a taxi has been instrumental in closing our affairs:
- a taxi took us to break fast with 4 different families 6 times
- a taxi took me from one end of the city to the other far end (over 20 km) to say a sad and short goodbye to many friends
- a taxi drove me to the Mauritel office to pay a bill and consequently led me to have my most awkward Mauritania conversation in French (saying a lot) about erectile dysfunction (ask me when I get home)
- a taxi drove us away from our host family for the last time as we both cried and waved from the backseat long after they could hope to see us (also quite awkward, for the taxi man no doubt)
- tomorrow a taxi will deliver us to Morocco on the onset of the longest over-land voyage I have ever undergone

So it is taxis that are the subject of my last PROM, number 9

NDB taxis: 80UM as long as you stay on the main road
100 UM if you turn
100 UM to Cansado
Double the price after midnight
3500 UM to NKT
11500 UM to Dakhla
And except the Dakhla trip, it's always 4 in the back, 2 in the front passenger seat, and the driver in a late 90s model Mercedes; sometimes a Peugoet station wagon in which 9 people are crammed.

Katie and I were riding in the back of a taxi once with a rather large white moor woman. Every time the taxi took a sharp turn or stopped short or drove off the road etc. etc., a knocking noise would come from the trunk. Often, it would carry on much too long to be the shuffling of luggage.
Periodically, this knocking noise would be accompanied by what seemed to be indecipherable speech. "What is going on here?" I kept thinking.
Finally, one block from our house, a goat head suddenly popped through the speaker hole in the back seat of this taxi not 6 inches from my own shocked cranium. It looked around and then gave a nonchalant bleat with its thin protruding tongue.
Noticing my baffled interest and acting as if nothing in the slightest was out of place, the moor woman proceeded to ask me how much I would pay for the goat. Not wanting to offend, I simply replied that my closet at home was filled to the brim with goats as it was and I just did not have room for her fine specimen.

Just one small memory from a taxi. However, my strange cannot outdo the disgusting of a fellow volunteer. Similar scenario: taxi + goat = good story. This friend was making the long trek from NKT back to site. On this long journey he fell asleep in that all to common head-cocked-back, mouth-open position. Goats (notice the 's', plural) were tied to the roof of the Mercedes. I think you can see where this is going. Let's just say nature called for the animals, and my friend had a window seat, an open-window seat. Ba-boom, ching!

**A: 67. There are 67 modes of transport. Oh...you forgot the bucket didn't you? What?
You've never traveled by bucket before?

25 August 2009

Yep. I'm pretty sure this picture sums up what many PC RIM Volunteers are feeling and have been feeling for the past month. (Thanks Steve. These pictures made me laugh louder than anything these past 15 months)

So, if you haven't heard, PC RIM has been shut down for security reasons. All volunteers have the option of waiting out the indefinite suspension of the program, re-enrolling in another country, a direct transfer to other anxious programs, or to close their service (COS). Katie and I have decided to COS.

I wanted that 2nd year. We all did. It offers a volunteer a real chance to build on his or her experiences. I remember when I started the application process and thought to myself, 'Man, 27 months? Why don't they have a 1-year option?' Now I know. And honestly, for me, a second year in another country would deprive me of the main reasons I would want a second year: friendships at site, a knowledge of the education system backed by a year of experience, and just building off of what I now know. I'm sure much of it could be applicable in another country, but it just didn't seem like the right decision. I don't know. It's still all sinking in.

We're not sure exactly of immediate plans (next 3-4 months) but we will update when we can.

19 July 2009

Everyday it seems, is something new.

In the past month alone, it is as if some current event strikes suddenly (or protracted like the elections/campaign) on a daily basis, which is in sharp contrast to my increasingly sedentary work schedule.

Let's start there. Work. One month ago to the day, I was enjoying the end of an exhausting 3-day English camp here in Nouadhibou. I decided to organize this a little last-minute, but the unfortunate postponement and later, cancellation of the new class of volunteers freed up some help from a few other vols who would not be helping with the training of this new class. Also, Katie was indispensable in her maticulous organizing.

It was also the first project I led where I actually felt productive and able to meet an important Peace Corps goal - sustainability. Ah, sustainability. The word alone I'm sure strikes cringes in my fellow volunteers spines as they think of this "buzz-word" from training. You see, as an English teacher, I spend a lot of time in the classroom, crazy huh? Even the English Club consisted of my own students. So after 2 years, I leave and then what? A new volunteer must take my place? Or do my work and projects simply lapse? Well, in theory, with sustainability, a Mauritanian "counterpart" could continue with a project, a class, or simply an idea that has been tested between you, them, and the community.

The English Camp was simply three days of English classes for bright students. We did descriptive writing, essay writing, music, and preparation for two important exams (one for ~6th graders and one for ~seniors). What will make this sustainable, inshallah, is that we had help from 8 Mauritanian Enlgish teachers. So we were able to work together and if we do this again next year, maybe a trend will develop and the Nouadhibou English Camp can continue with less and less Peace Corps involvement. (Or at least with continued Mauritanian involvement.)

The following week, I finished regular classes on June 25 and my final Enlish Club was June 23. I ended up teaching so much later because a week after my directeur des etudes told me classes were over, my director came around with a paper for all teachers to sign saying they would continue to the 25 for test preparation. I wasn't swamped with students, but I did have a steady stream all month as well as additional classes I taught because of the early departure of other English teachers. It was a busy month.

Saying goodbye to the English Club was probably the hardest thing. Time will tell, but I may not see many of these students again. They were all in the final year of school (some for the second or third time) and may not even be in NDB next year. I will definitely have a club next year. Here's a picture of our last day. We took 3. I told them to pose normal for one, cool for one, and crazy for the last. Most of them got it. Ismail, in the middle, didn't understand my explanation until after the picture; seeing his classmates. Then it donned on him what I had said - oh! crazy! I love Ousman with his hat. I can't help but smile every time I see him. The ladies up front maintained their tranquil demeanor, although Fatimata's smile is among the best ever in all the world. And Diop, oh Diop, he wore his suit just for the occasion. Love these kids.

from left to right; back row: Mike, Taleb, Ahmed, Ousman, Mohamed ould Fah (obstructed), Alioune, Mamadou; middle row: Abdulai Diop, Mohamed ould Sidne, Ismail, Eslama, Alpha; front row: Emaya, Khadije, Ramata, Fatimata

Since this picture, there have been one postponed election, another election with participation from the opposition, numerous days of campaigning, the cancellation or PC RIM 2011, the closing of service for PC RIM 2009, 2 shootings, and interrupted service was offered to our class. I'm not going to go in detail about all of this. Scour our friends' blogs for more information. Rest assured, we are safe. We have many friends in our community. Pick up today's paper. Find a crime on the front page of the local news. Read it. Now ask yourself: "Am I going to move 4000 miles away?"

Over-simplification aside, we like what we are doing. We'll be traveling to the South for a couple weeks and then off to Morocco and Spain to meet up with my parents. Can't wait. Mike out.

18 July 2009


An excerpt from my journal this morning:

It is election day. I awoke early without any real hope of returning to sleep. My eyes were still tired but my thoughts alive with anticipation. It is dark and calm outside. The morning prayer call not yet having broken the stillness. I flip on a light and cringe at the assault to my senses. My action alerts a fly to my presence which buzzes angrily in my ear. Its persistence is irritating.

The melody of the call to prayer begins distantly, still foreign to my ears, but comforting and reassuring. Having lived a full year in Mauritania, the sound no longer grabs my attention like it once did, an audible reminder of the great distance between my current home and my family.

The single melody is joined by a second, even more distant prayer. The unsynchronized sounds, despite their independant tones and cadences, complement rather than compete. I find them meditative, peaceful, and can already feel a pang of the remorse that will come in full force when we must return home next year.

If everything goes as expected today, we will have an answer by the end of tomorrow, or at least a clue to the resolution that we all hope for after almost a year of military leadership since the coup.

A new prayer call, closer and more earnest, breaks out across the sky. It seems to echo my desire for a peaceful resolution to this conflict. At the same time I hear sea birds adding their calls to the morning, and can feel the city starting to stir.

Our apartment is situated right next to an école primaire. During the year I would enjoy listening to the sounds of the children in their classrooms, singing in unison at the instruction of their teacher. Today the school will become a polling place for the election. The proximity does not put me at ease, but the reasonable side of my brain reminds me that Mauritanians are unnaturally calm in response to political upheaval.

That is why we are still here, still living in a nation that is currently fighting a slow path back toward democracy after a sharp departure from it last August. The apathy with which Mauritanians view life is exceedingly frustrating when it comes to our work, but I often realize that this complacency is also the key to our security.

The prayer calls have ended and the birds have moved elsewhere, but somewhere outside a car engine has rumbled to life and waits patiently for a driver. The sun has yet to begin its ascent as it nears six o'clock. The air is still cool, salty, pleasant.

I begin to think about the day, the tasks that should be accomplished, which I have been neglecting. My brain begins making a list, prioritizing my needs: packing for our trips, planning meals, doing laundry (ugh). My stomach rumbles a reminder, becoming more insistant as time passes. The sky is lightening noticibly now, and I plead with my stomach to be patient so that I can watch the sun peak over the horizen.

It's not my habit to watch the sun rise, but today it feels necessary. My eyes peer out the window to the bay, haze prevents a clear view of the water but I know it is there. I can smell it, taste it, feel the cool breeze coming off it. An owl hoots, a rooster crows, and I can hear men calling instructions to each other in some unknown task far in the distance. I consider going up to the roof to watch the unfolding sunrise more clearly, but realize that my uncovered hair and sleeping attire (shorts and a t-shirt) would likely draw unwanted attention if someone were to pass by.

I open another window to peer out at the school and feel my body tense in surprise as I see more than 30, possibly 50 people already gathering inside the courtyard. A group of men, tall & thin, skin dark against their deep green uniforms are gathered in a corner discussing their security strategy. Others stand quietly in a line and appear almost as if they are praying, although they are not facing east and I know the time for praying has already passed. They are waiting to cast their vote.

I was surprised at their presence primarily because of the eerie lack of noise. No one seems to be talking, just waiting, perhaps still half asleep. Some squat down to the ground to rest their legs. More gendarmes arrive, these wearing riot gear - helmets with visors to cover their faces, carrying batons & packs on their backs. I do not notice a single female among the crowd, only the blue and white traditional male bou-bous in abundance.

The gendarmes seem unnecessarily over-dressed among the quiet crowd, but I understand that their preparation is for what 'could be' rather than what 'is'. By now the sky is light and my stomach reminds me again with more urgency of the need for food. As I walk to the kitchen, I pray silently that the election goes smoothly, that the power struggle will cease, and the strong personalities involved will surrender calmly to the will of the Mauritanian people. Inshallah.

Please keep Mauritania in your thoughts and prayers today.

Links for more information from news outlets regarding the election:

08 July 2009

News & Updates

Just a quick post to let everyone know about some current issues in Mauritania:

1. Our computer is currently on the fritz and we need our Windows Vista reinstallation CD to fix the problem. Only issue there is that the CD is somewhere in the basement of Mike's parents' house in Kansas City...darn. How does this impact you? Probably not a lot except that we might not be able to respond to emails as quickly or post on our blog as regularly for the foreseeable future. Also, MagicJack and Skype aren't likely for a while.

2. All Mauritanian Peace Corps Volunteers were offered the option of "Interrupted Service." Basically this means that we could choose to leave early without completing the entire 2 year committment and still get all the benefits of having competed our service. The reasons behind this offer are complicated and not worth the time to explain here because Mike and I have decided we are sticking it out for another year. (If you want more information, check out the link to other PC RIM blogs as many other volunteers have been blogging about it.)

3. Mauritanian elections are coming up very quickly and the campaigning is once again in high gear. The first round of elections will be held on July 18 with a run-off election (if necessary) on August 1. Please pray that everything goes smoothly and elections proceed without any major upheaval.

Okay, that's all for now. Sorry if we are out of contact for a while. We still have Internet access from our Peace Corps office in NDB and can check email there though, so we won't be completely out of touch. Also, we still have our mobile phones if anyone needs to reach us right away.

27 June 2009

PROM 8: Ouguiya

Okay, okay, okay. Not exactly a product. But ouguiya (oo-ghee-uh), the local currency, are the means to the PROMs. So as an ode to the old monetary system of bartering, trade, and commodity-backed currency (yes, Katie makes me listen to the same podcasts) - which is very much alive here in the RIM- I give you PROM 8: Ouguiya (UM for short, unit Mauritanian I think?) ~ 260UM = $1.00

(insert motivational arena rock music, i.e. "Eye of the Tiger")

-Leading off, the fierce "we never have change for" 2000UM note. The highest in its class. (Approximately $7.70)

-Next up, the dominant "donnez-moi mille ouguiya" 1000UM note. The most common for large transactions (Approximately uh, $3, no, minus the 7, divide 70...approximately half of $7.70)

-Third, the elusive "greenback" 500UM note.

-Batting clean-up, the plucky "2 taxi trips" 200UM note.

-Coming in 5th, the ever present, ever dirty "big baguette buyer" 100UM note.

-Representing coinage, we have the 20 "pas de pieces" UM, the 10 "old man" UM, the useless 5 "Why am I here?" UM, and the now phased-out 1 "Why did I ever exist?" UM.
There was also a 1/5 UM coin called a khoum. If ouguiya is like a dollar, a khoum is like a cent. But it was so small and now is never used.

As far as the Peace Corps goes, we get a monthly living allowance of ouguiya that is deposited in local banks on a quarterly basis. This is a trip in itself. I have heard that in smaller regional capitals, banking is fairly simple because people are always curious about and willing to help the 'toubabs'. However, here in Nouadhibou, I find the process quite awkward and cold. (It should be noted here that I do not expect any sympathy from my fellow volunteers. The combination of being married and in an urban environment gives us access to more amenities and a higher stipend, I am only communicating my routines and experiences with the ouguiya). I always greet people at the bank, try to put on a happy face, but usually it is just business as usual and you can spend the entire day waiting if you are not pro-active or even a little pushy.

For example, not long ago, I spent the better part of a morning waiting at the bank. Fortunately, this was not entirely due to my normally passive disposition. Apparently, the bank was out of money. Since being in the RIM, we've seen food shortages, gas shortages, rational thought shortages, but this was a first. So I proceeded to wait. For 2 hours. Lines, if you can believe it, steadily began to form. I was pretty close to the front but not in the line of men along the wall. Apparently, I was in the women's line...AGAIN! (See my blog on the gas) But this time it formed around me. So I grudgingly went to the back of the men's line.

Finally, just before my will for waiting was shattered, a man arrived with a huge cardboard box filled with ouguiya. And slowly, the line deteriorated. Men who came in after me were trying to get ahead of me, so I just began elbowing my way up front just like everyone else. During this melee, I witnessed a young white moor enter the bank in a Nike jogging outfit. He looked at the line, scoffed, and went behind the counter to yell at one of the tellers. The bank manager came out and ushered this man into a back room. Moments later the manager came to the one window distributing funds, grabbed what must have been half a million in UM and went into the same back room. Soon after this the "jogger" leaves the bank with a conspicuous ouguiya shaped bulge in his pocket. Oh, just a small insignificant example of corruption in the RIM. But at the time, all I could think was, "This is the greatest injustice ever to befall man!"

Throughout the entire process, other customers would routinely butt back into line once they were done to exchange bills that didn't pass their critical inspection. That's right, these men would go off in a corner and begin looking over all the bills. Now granted, sometimes bills can be in very bad shape. I've seen ripped, mangled, taped, stapled, nearly unidentifiable notes. And it's almost like a national game not to be the person who gets stuck with these lousy bills. But these men were returning bills with a pen mark on them or a slight tear.

People are always on the look-out for an unsuspecting person to whom they can pass one of these bills. Katie and I learned this early on and have managed to avoid them, but here's one we've been stuck with for some time. No one has taken it yet. It is actually three bills taped together. The pieces are actually in pretty good shape...not the worst I've seen...not by a long shot...I have grown to love him. His name is Oogy McPatcherson. Oh the adventures Oogy and I have had. He is one crazy UMOB.

-Oogy McP.

Well, eventually, I made my transaction and departed the bank (through the back alley because they locked their doors either because the work day was long past over at 12:30, or they ran out of money again, I couldn't tell).

P.S. - thanks for all the birthday messages. It's always good to hear from someone back home.
P.P.S. - I'm on the look-out for a 1UM coin for my coin collection back home. If anyone has one that they would be willing to part with, please let me know.
Mike out

11 June 2009

Money Matters

Well, like most Americans, I am currently very interested in learning more about economics and LOVE LOVE LOVE the "Planet Money" podcast by NPR. However, I also recently came across a great article (from Money Magazine) that profiles three American families of different religious faiths and the role their religion plays in financial decision-making.

Particularly interesting to me, given my current living situation, is the article about the Saroya family, a Muslim family living in Minnesota. It explains some of the rules related to money that exist within Islam and highlights some of the difficulties that may result when trying to apply those rules to a typical American economic situation.

I hope you have a chance to read the article, and let me know if there's anything that strikes you as particularly interesting.

More updates:
- New volunteers coming to RIM were postponed due to difficulties in obtaining their visas. They are hoping to secure visas for the new group by August, after the political situation in Mauritania has stabilized a bit. Inshallah!
- Mike's 29th birthday is coming up next week and he is very busy preparing for a city-wide English camp that he is organizing. Maybe we can teach all the kids to sing "Happy Birthday" to him in English?

06 June 2009

A New Beginning

"Obama...Egypt...Zayne!" said our taxi driver with a big toothy grin the day after Obama's speech on American-Muslim relations in Cairo, Egypt.

("Zayne" is the Hassaniya word for "good")

Yes, I agree. And yet, there is still a long way to go. Al Jazeera reports that a recent survey showed only 20% of Americans have a positive view of the Muslim world, with 46% holding a negative view.

Many Mauritanians I know do not understand this, because in their eyes, violent extremist Muslims are very different from who they are. They do not understand why Americans lump them all together into one group.

However, for many Americans who don't have daily contact with Muslims, it's difficult to see beyond the news coverage and atrocities carried out by extremist groups. So...that's why I'm here to offer another perspective.

My current coworkers, teachers, students and friends here in Mauritania are all Muslim. They help me. They protect me. They laugh with me. They teach me. They learn from me. They share with me. They are gentle, kind, peaceful, funny, serious, reverent, and just like you and me in many, many ways.

03 June 2009

Stop SIDA Tabac

Hello everyone! Sorry for my long absence from blogging. I guess that is a good sign that I have been keeping busy, right? Well, here is a little update on the work I've been doing. My main projects so far have been visits to the prenatal clinic, classes at the girls mentoring center, and health sensibilisations in the community on a variety of topics. In addition to this I have recently begun work with a non-governmental organization (NGO) called "Stop SIDA Tabac" (SST). SIDA is the French acronym for AIDS and tabac, as you could probably guess, is French for tabacco.

SST is a great organization run by Mauritanians. They do presentations for school children and the community about the harmful effects of smoking. They advocate for national laws related to smoking, such as making it illegal for a 4-year-old child to buy cigarettes, limiting smoking in public locations, and putting warnings on tobacco packaging in languages other than French with pictures for those who are unable to read. They also hold 5-day smoking cessation clinics each month where they assist smokers in quitting by providing them with information and social support.

The month of May is the international month for smoking cessation, therefore SST had many activities throughout the month, including a poster contest, a poetry contest, and a football tournament. These activities were in addition to the sensibilisations and cessation program that they do every month.

My involvement with the NGO so far has been observation of their activities, taking pictures for them to put on their website and in their informational leaflets, and assisting them as needed. I am also on the lookout for other opportunities to help them gain more exposure and recruit more participants for their cessation programs, as well as help them to develop more activities for AIDS awareness and education.

There are many pictures posted of SST and their activities in our online photo album if you are interested in seeing more.

Other news in Mauritania:
- Elections, originally scheduled for June 6, have been delayed until July 18.
- New RIM PC trainees will be arriving later this month! Inshallah!
- June 21st will be the one year mark for our time in Mauritania.
- My counterpart's sister Hawa had a baby on May 8! I made her a baby blanket...my first ever crochet project (thanks for the yarn and crochet hooks Dad & Lisa!).

Hope you are all doing well! We always appreciate hearing how things are going for you all by email, letter, phone call, etc, so don't be shy. Also, big thanks to everyone who continues to send us care packages! You are so incredibly thoughtful, and we really appreciate it! We miss you!

23 May 2009

School's out for summa...school's out 4-ev-a...

...school is out, I think.  Officially, the last tests weren't even supposed to start until the end of next week.  But in true Mauritanian fashion, my administrators decided to bump up the exam dates and give an economical one day notice of the change.  The last test was 2 days ago.  Luckily, I have managed to finish the syllabus for most of my classes.  Most.  

I will continue two of my Monday classes through June, I am still teaching my English club, and I'm taking on another English teacher's class so he can go be with his pregnant wife in Nouakchott.  Plus, the college entrance exam is at the end of June and English might (?) get chosen as a subject so students might (?) mob the lycee looking for some last minute English lessons.  And the presidential elections are supposed to happen in early June which will cause even more confusion.  I'm just not sure what to expect.  What I do know is that I have finished the last exam required at the lycee that I had to write, proctor, and correct.  

Oh, proctoring.  Is there anything better?  No lesson preparation, all the teachers seem friendlier knowing a break is fast approaching, and I get to hone my classroom management skills.  Okay, that last one makes me sound like a dork, but my new hobby is busting cheaters.  I love it.  

Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but put yourself in my shoes: teaching seniors in high school a subject they don't care about, that they know is not worth very much for their final grade.  So what happens?  Several students in every class don't even come except on test days, because they have deemed the only worthwhile use of their time is to attempt to cheat three days out of the year (each trimester ends with a test in all subjects).  And many teachers turn a blind eye to the practice, resulting in some pretty pathetic attempts.  

(I started this blog on May 20, now it is May 31, just in case my timeline makes no sense)

For example, penmanship is very important to many students.  Several times throughout a test, students will ask, "Double feuille?" (doo-bluh fay?).  Meaning, they made a mistake and they want to start anew with a double sheet of blank paper that is so commonly found in all copybooks
Mauritanian.  If allowed, some students will use this sheet to rewrite some answers and pass them to a friend.  Unfortuneately, they often not only rewrite the answers but their name and class number as well.  I know many of the students by name and I can easily read 2 different class numbers on the same desk...busted.  Others will use phones to text message friends.  Easy to spot...busted.  But for every cheater I find, I'm sure there are many others that go unnoticed.  It's so rampant.  

For this latest test, I saw a student who was obviously cheating.  Normally, he's a good kid, but not without fault.  He's also not the brightest student in class, but he usually tries.  So instead of immediately kicking him out, I moved him to a different spot.  Two rounds of the class later I noticed he had moved to a third seat when I wasn't looking to look off of another student's paper.  Now, I'm sure many of my fellow ED. PCVs would have kicked him out right then and there, and normally, I would have.  He even stood up and handed me his paper when I pointed out his unapproved relocation.  But, I didn't want to give up even if he did.  I took his test, told him to sit down, and start over.   I don't think he really knew what to do.  I think he wanted to leave.  But when he realized he was going to have to stay, he sat down and began to write.  Or so I thought.  

He was near the back of class, I was in the front at the time, and I noticed that he would write, look up, write, look up, write, look up, over and over.  And each time he looked up, he looked right at me.  Also, I noticed his pen markings were way too long and fluid for the maticulous, equation-laden scribbles necessary for this math test.  Wait a minute, is he? Can he be?  I think he's drawing a picture of me!  I walked over to him, and he never once flinched or tried to hide it.  I told him it was good, but he should really work on the test.  For the next hour, he did.  When he left, he gave me his test and his artwork.  So, without further ado, I give you "Mike" through the eyes of an 18-year-old Mauritanian:

A little pudgy from the nose down, and I didn't know I was such a mouth-breather.  But otherwise, a decent rendering.  Too bad they don't have art class.  

And now, it is May 31, I teach again tomorrow, and I've heard English was chosen for the bac.  I still need to verify that, but that should mean I can expect...oh...about 300 in class tomorrow all expecting in turn some last minute English revision.  What would they do if I just drew their pictures for 2 hours? 


03 May 2009

Adrar Vacation...part deux

I know this post is long over due, but we've had problems with electricity lately.  Broken machines, cut wires, the donkeys got tired in their giant wheel generators, I'm not really sure.  When asking any of several Mauritanian friends, the response is a very ambiguous: the machine is broken.  I can never tell if these broad answers are to cover one's ignorance of a subject or to get his point across to someone with bad language skills (me!).  Anyhoo, vacation...

...So we reach Atar after an exhausting 12 hour train ride (on which I was repeatedly woken up between 1 and 6 a.m. to the sounds of a 12 year old arguing about the price of a glass of tea for which he just paid around 15 cents) and a beautiful 3 hour truck ride (through some truly spectacular, hilly terrain).  Atar is known as one of the biggest tourist destinations of Mauritania.  Every year, many foreigners travel here, and to neighboring Chinguetti, to partake of historical expeditions, camel treks, and oasis visits, just to name a few options.  

Unfortuneately, for Mauritania, certain incidents have kept many tourists at bay for the last couple of years.  Therefore, Katie and I found Atar to be much less active than a normal day in Nouadhibou, which was a great change of pace: few cars, friendly people, good food.  If you're ever in Atar, Mauritania, I recommend 'the sauce lady'.  

While in Atar, we stayed with fellow married couple Sam and Kerri in their beautiful compound complete with garden, hammock and spotless terrace perfect for outdoor sleeping.  After a day or two of much needed relaxing, we caught a taxi ride through the mini-mountain pass to Chinguetti for a camel trek.  Big thanks to our friend Carl for organizing that.  You'll have to take a closer look at our pictures from the trip to see both of us on camels, sand boarding (eat your hearts out Adam and Andy!), the dune that sings, etc.  It was an amazing trip.  Two short stories to pique the curiosity: 

1. One camel was bitten in the foot by a snake and we got to watch our guides drain the wound. This is why I am walking for some of the pictures.  We shared camels, mine was the white one named Balthazaar, or Barry for short. 

2. The singing dune basically makes a lot of noise as you slide down on your rump.  In the moment it reminded me of the glorious chorus of low end brass from the mother ship in that kick-ass scene of "Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind" but in reality (watch the video) it was more like an 8th grader playing his tuba during an asthma attack.  Compare the videos and tell me what you think.  

After our Chinguetti trek, we got a ride back to Atar.  We spent the next 3 days relaxing, getting to know the city, and we even ventured to a (disappointingly dry) oasis.  One of my tasks during these last 3 days in Atar was to find old clothes at the "dead toubab" stores for the ride back on the train.  Riding with the iron ore gets very dirty.  We opted for howlies (turbans), 2 big winter coats, and corduroy pants.  There are also these great big soft blankets for sale at all of the markets.  We decided to get one for what would surely be a cold train ride through the Sahara in the middle of the night.  PROM #7: 

4000 UM ($16).  I know this might seem a little pricey, but c'mon, SUPER Luxury!  I've never even had normal luxury before!  The guy who sold it to me must have thought it was one of those Super-Mega-Ultra blankets because he started out at 9000UM and I had to bargain with him for about 20 minutes (no joke).  This is pretty common in Mauritania and you can really get taken for a ride if you don't know the correct price of items.  This is why I was sure to ask my fellow volunteers before venturing into the market.  On my way, a man approached me and tried to get me to buy these wall tapestries.  I kept saying I wasn't a tourist and I didn't need a tapestry but a blanket.  He finally understood and he proceeded to 'guide' me to the best place for this (probably his cousins shop).  He grabbed my hand and led me into this cool covered market area hidden from the main roads.  This was the same man I eventually bargained with.  Here's how the conversation basically progressed:

Arab Street Salesman:  This is the best blanket in all of Mauritania.  For you, 9000UM.
Me: 9000UM!  That is too much.  Please diminish the price.
A.S.S.: I can't.  This is premier quality!
Me: I don't need top quality.  I'm using it to stay warm on the train.
A.S.S.: You are taking the train? With the iron ore?  You are white, buy a ticket for a seat!
Me: I don't want to do that.  
A.S.S.: Are you French?
Me: No I am an American working in Nouadhibou at a school.
A.S.S.: My grandfather used to live in America.  I know Amercians.  You are very nice people. 8000UM.
Me: The price is 4000UM.  My friend in Atar just bought a blanket like this for 4000.
A.S.S.: 4000UM!! No way.  Your friend bought a different blanket, 2nd or 3rd quality.  This is first quality.
Me: The quality is not important.  It will just get dirty on the train.
A.S.S.: That is no problem, this is what you do.  After the train, take some water, do you know water?, take some soap, do you know soap?, and wash like this [rubbing hands together], then you have a great Mauritanian souvenir!  
Me: I'll look elsewhere [Threatening to leave the shop is a great tactic to get them to lower prices]
A.S.S.: Okay, Okay.  7000UM, because my grandfather likes Americans.  He knew a man named John from California.  Do you know this man?
Me: No and no.  The price is 4000UM.
A.S.S.: I have lowered the price.  You must raise yours.  That is how this works.  What is the highest you would pay?
Me: Okay, okay.  4000UM.
A.S.S.: [Dumfounded look]
Me: Thank you, I'll look elsewhere.
A.S.S.:  Wait, hold on, hold on.  You win, 5000UM.
Me: Goodbye.
A.S.S.:  I can-
Me: 4000UM
A.S.S.: You must-
Me: 4000UM
A.S.S.: It -
Me: 4000UM
A.S.S.: Give me the money.

And that was it.  Bargaining in Mauritania, fantastic.  We got our clothes and blanket.  We hopped the train (after another raucous encounter with the street kids of Choum - another story involving thrown rocks, a song directed at us entitled "You'll never get married" [an insult I suppose], French/Hassaniya cursing, chasing/grabbing/shaking/spanking kids all in view of the Choum community that must have been more entertaining than anything on TV that night) and made our way home. 

Story's over?  No way.  Upon arriving home, with 5 guests, after an exhausting 15 hour ride (the train slowed to a crawl for the last 3 hours/50 kilometers) we discovered the power was out at our house and with it, the pump that gives us water.  No water to drink, no showers for the 7 iron ore covered travelers!!  Needless to say, I was not happy.  Especially since this was not the first time Somalec, the power company, had cut our power.  

I stormed the offices at 2:00 (they usually close at around 2:30).  I was wearing soot covered pants, shirt, cheap flip flops, I was sweaty, and my face was filthy.  I reached the counter and slammed my fist on it (resembling my pops in his hey-day of stickin it to the man).  I gave a less than friendly "Isalama aley-kum!" and proceeded to say, in French:  "Look at my face!  What do I need?  I need water.  You cut the electricity, and that cuts the #@!$%# WATER!"  I couldn't tell if the lady behind the counter was scared or entertained, probably both.  A young technician approached me and said how this was no problem and for a mere 3000UM he would turn it on again in a flash.  I was livid.  After some time and the arrival of my landlord we figured it all out and got the power turned back on...bribe-free.  Ugh.  Fin.  Mike à l'exterieur. 

16 April 2009

Adrar Vacation...part one

Mauritanians take a spring break from school at the end of their second trimester. This year the break fell on the week of March 29th. Interestingly, many Mauritanians call this break "les vacances de Pâques," which means "Easter vacation." This is probably a remenant of French colonialism since Mauritanians more or less adopted the French school system. However, our Mauritanian friends didn't really seem to understand why we found this name odd in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, even after we explained that Easter falls on April 12th this year.

Since Mike and I have never been away from the Mauritanian coast, we decided it was about time we explored some of the inland terrain. We also wanted to visit our good friends living in Atar and Chinguetti. There are a couple ways one can travel from NDB to the Adrar region. We decided to take the more interesting and direct route by way of the train to Choum. 

The train is operated by the Mauritanian mining company, SNIM, that extracts iron ore from mines near a town called Zouarate in northeastern Mauritania. They transmit the iron ore via train to Nouadhibou, where it is loaded onto boats and exported to foreign buyers. It was once the longest train in the world. 

The train is also a common route of travel to the inner northern regions of Mauritania. There are a few options for those wanting to ride the train. You can pay to ride in the passenger cars or ride for free in the iron ore wagons. For the trip to Atar, we chose to ride in the passenger car as opposed to the empty iron ore wagons, because we planned to ride in the wagons with the iron ore on our way back home to NDB.

The trip by passenger car was less than desirable as it was very crowded and uncomfortable. However, after a long 12-hour journey we reached Choum and got off the train to find a truck that would take us the remaining three hours to Atar. We arrived safely in Atar and were glad to be welcomed into the beautiful home of our PCV friends, Sam and Kerri.

Mike wants to share in the story-telling for our vacation, so I will let him continue the story from there. If you're interested in seeing pictures and videos from our vacation, go to the Our Photos link in the right hand column. Hope everyone is doing well!  

24 March 2009

Froc and roll

Taking advice from my sister, I'm introducing this PROM with a 'guess what it is' idea I'm sure she stole from World magazine.  As a child, she got that cool subscription while I was stuck with Highlights.  Yeah, thanks mom and dad.  I'm only 1 year behind Gina; not a perpetual 4 year old!  Those pictures where you had to find the missing objects, hmm...I'm pretty sure that guy's head is missing.  Anyway, I'm just venting.  Highlights, give me a break.  Here's the photo: 


Some of you may know straight away or have a pretty good idea, especially if you are another volunteer.  This is the embroidery on a traditional Pulaar outfit for males called a Froc.  PROM #6: My new Froc (material: 5,000 UM, tailoring: 3,000 UM)

Hopefully it is obvious, but I had our gifted tailor sew a guitar into the already cool design.  We met this tailor, Bala, through a mutual friend (Katie's counterpart, Mariam).  He did a great job and I'm looking forward to wearing it during the next fete.  I want to save this outfit for a special occasion, it's not for everyday "around the house" wear.   

Clothes are an important part of the Mauritanian culture in many ways.  There are different styles for different ethnic groups, people buy new clothes for special occasions, clothes are often used as status symbols (I've heard stories about people spending upwards of 50,000 UM or more on a tradtional Hassaniya Bou-bou [similar to a poncho]), and the making of these traditional clothes can be a beneficial source of income for your family.  For instance, El Hussein, my host-brother, is Bala's apprentice.  One day, he will become a tailor and this will provide a good source of income for his family.

That's about it for this one.  Pretty cut and dry.  No funny story about getting the material.  No embarrassing anecdote of me doing anything culturally inappropriate.  No froc-induced riots.  Sorry to let you down.  Next time, maybe I'll yell jibberish at Bala when he takes my inseam.  That would make for an interesting blog...
Mike (frocin') out.

23 March 2009

So what's a sensibilisation anyway?

Sensibiliser in French means "to sensitize." Sensibilisation is therefore the word Peace Corps Mauritania uses to describe the frequent educational activities performed by many of its volunteers in the health sector.

So as many of you know (and tease me about endlessly), I like to research. I just get this weird urge to find out as much information as humanly possible when I'm first starting a project. So for the past six months I've been doing a lot of reading and researching about health education, health standards for developing nations, and how to go about evaluating needs and motivating action.

One would think that with a background in nursing I would know quite a bit about health education already...and I do. However, arriving in Africa, I felt completely out of my element. Medications are called by completely different names, health standards here are by no means the equivalent of JCAHO, the entire structure of the health system (who runs hospitals, how health professionals are educated, etc) is completely different, and we're dealing with a whole host of health problems that are rarely, if ever, seen in the United States health system (malaria, nutritional deficiencies, etc.).

Of course, Peace Corps Mauritania does its best to train health volunteers about all these issues during pre-service training, but the spectrum is so broad and our backgrounds so varied that it's very difficult to cover everything. Additionally, culture and language learning are a very high priority early on, and therefore have a tendency to take precedence over sector related training.

So now, after over nine months of living in Mauritania, I feel that I'm finally gaining an understanding of the broader picture, although I still have a LOT to learn. I am now able to give "sensibilisations" in French on a variety of health related topics. I understand the general strengths and weaknesses of the Nouadhibou health system. I also have tons of project possibilities floating around in my head. So hopefully, after all that research, I'll actually be able to turn some of those ideas into realities. Inshallah!

13 March 2009

The English Club of Nouadhibou (E.C.NDB)

English Education volunteers in the RIM (and elsewhere, I'm sure) are expected to produce secondary projects in addition to their hours of teaching at a public school. One such activity that has been popular and successful in the past is an English Club. Basically, an English Club is an extra-curricular class for the more advanced/motivated students. So, after administering the first exam of the year (in December), I used top test grades, good attendance records and homework participation as prerequisites to be invited to said club.
Out of my 7 classes, I chose between 4-5 'advanced' students and 2-3 what I will call 'bubble' students (students who are motivated and work hard but may not know the difference between hot and cold or spell 'she' as 'che' ["oh so your subject is not a pronoun but a militant, Argentinian revolutionary, I see, yeah...Che DOES like tea."{this is just here because I wanted a parenthetical reference inside a parenthetical reference inside a parenthetical reference...what was I saying?}])
Before I go into the details of my club, I thought this an appropriate time to relate yet another story of my recent past in the Bou so you will have a better idea of just what after-school groups are like here.
Okay, first trimester, mid-Decemberish, still getting my feet wet to the routine and just massacring the local languages. After finishing classes one long 6-hour Monday, a student approaches me with a tiny slip of paper. On the slip of paper was nothing but typed Arabic save the handwritten Roman alphabet letters: "Maykee"...my name apparently. After a confusing conversation in which the non-English speaking student switched between Hassaniya, French and even Spanish, I discovered this was an invitation to an after school club. "Cool!" I thought, "People want to invite me places! I'm making connections at my school!"
On Saturday, the day of the monthly club meetings, I finish my classes and head to the meeting. Keep in mind, I have no idea what this club is for AND I've been working in this city for a whopping month. I arrive to the reserved classroom 10 minutes early for the noon meeting and sit near the back. After greeting many students and attempting, unsuccessfully, to discover the nature of this club the meeting begins at around 1:00 with the arrival of 2 other teachers. These teachers, along with me, are ushered to the FRONT of the class and are seated at a table FACING around 100 students. Okay, no big deal. Good seat for watching, right?
One student begins singing a "call to prayer" type chant through a PA system crafted by Thomas Edison and we're off. The first teacher stands to thunderous applause and proceeds to deliver a 20 minute prepared speech in Arabic. I'm sitting right next to the guy and can see his speech papers with the bullet points and everything. He's speaking at somewhere close to the speed of sound because I could swear I heard a sonic boom, no wait that was my heart beating. "Am I supposed to speak here?" I kept thinking. During this man's oral thesis (which receives more applause and laughing, with not at) the other teacher, a friendly, popular man named Mohamed Vall, quietly saunters over to me and whispers something in my ear. "Je ne parle pas Arabique!" I stammer. So he switches to French, and all I think I hear is "introduce yourself...speak...5 minutes...donkey...easy...sports...hassaniya." Without hesitation I just nod and await my impending doom.
Next, Mohamed Vall speaks with more gusto which generates even more applause. Their first meeting of the year is getting off to a raucous albeit flawless start. Two, what must have been, great speeches and now a visitor from America! Let's pass the mic to the white guy, you know, Maykee! I stand up, grab the mic and speak. The mic is dead, almost as if it knew I had no chance of saying anything meaningful. Off the hook? No, they set up another mic, one of those small mics that clip on to your shirt. I of course just hold it and proceed to say, in French, "I'm not sure what this club is, can someone tell me?"
Mohamed Vall pipes up, "I just told you Maykee!"
Then, a student stands up and says, "Just talk about culture and sports!"
"Of course! Why hadn't I thought of that?" I thought.
I said, "En francais?"
To which the student says, "Non, en anglais!" ("let me interject here briefly: Maykee is completely STUNNED that they want him to talk in English," says Maykee's foreign language area of his brain, now with hurt pride)
So I spend the next 5 minutes talking about culture and sports from America in English. Longest 5 minutes of my life. I start ranting about my high school knowledge bowl for god's sake! I don't know what the hell I was saying and I guarantee they sure as hell didn't. Impromptu speeches, awesome. And that was it. A club of 100 students that meet and just listen to speeches of teachers about culture and sports.
After this bizarre experience (and yes I have been invited back to this club, and yes I did go, and yes pretty much the same thing happened again) I started to debate whether an after school group was the greatest idea or not. After receiving some great advice from other volunteers from around the country, I proceeded and am so glad I did. The English Club is just a great way to interact with the better students on a higher academic level and teaching a language makes that level more personal as well, I think.
We've met 4 times. Here's a quick overview of what we did:
Meeting 1: Critical thinking riddles (i.e. Fati is taller than Selma but shorter than Khadija, Sofia is taller than Fati but shorter than Noura...), advanced vocabulary, and nominations of club officers and names for the club (which included ECNDB, the Perfect Class, and Club Obama)
Meeting 2: Election of club officers and name, Adverbs/Adjectives, "build an interesting sentence" exercise
Meeting 3: Syllables, suffixes, lists of rhyming words, how to write poetry: limericks and haikus (thanks Rob for the haiku suggestions, they worked so well!)
Meeting 4: Practice Bac #1 (this is just a practice exam resembling their end-of-year test that determines if they go on to university or not.)
The club has run smoothly so far. All but 4 students showed up the first time and it has slowly ebbed to around 15 or 20 which is expected of any organized activity here.
Another interesting side effect, other students, not many, are trying to improve their performance in regular class to get an invitation to the club. The day I passed out the invitations, you'd have thought I was giving out visas. These kids went ape. It was actually kind of awkward since I had to turn down so many students and so many wanted to come. And most just wanted the slip of paper and nothing more.

 I guess that's about it. This club is keeping my sanity together through the regular classes, we're almost at the end of the 2nd trimester, and I'm counting down the Mondays (I hate Mondays)
Maykee out.

Our family,
7 children, 2 parents
excellent people


20 February 2009

WAIST 2009

Mike and I spent the past week visiting Dakar, Senegal for the West African Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST). Neither Mike or I actually played softball this year, but we had a great time cheering on our teams from Peace Corps Mauritania and relaxing in this beautiful city.

Peace Corps Mauritania took three teams to the tournament this year. There are apparently two divisions: competitive and social. All three of our teams were in the social division, meaning that teams must be co-ed (and have to follow some other rules too, but I'm not sure what they are).

Our A-team was very impressive, especially considering that there are very few opportunities for them to practice together as a team throughout the year. Peace Corps Mauritania has won the WAIST social division frequently over the past few years, but were beat in 2008 by a local team from Senegal. This year, we played the same team in the final game and WON! Yeah! It was very exciting!

For pictures of our team playing (and winning), check out our pictures on Picasa. For many Mauritanian PCVs, WAIST is a time for crazy haircuts and outfits...so don't be surprised by the silliness you're about to see.

04 February 2009

Pardon, avez-vous tugaduga?

PROM #5: Tuga-duga, gerti maffe, PEANUT BUTTER!
(small sack ~6oz. = 100um, 40 cents)

Okay, apologies first. I know I missed January. But my mom had the great idea of making Katie's post on the new mail box the missing PROM. So PROM #4 - RIM P.O. Box (6,000 um for the year/key). There...I know it's a cop-out, but tuff.

Second, thanks Carl! Our friend from Chinguetti gave us the following recipe for maffe a traditional RIM dish of peanut sauce over rice.

1 cup rice
meat (optional)
1 med. onion
1 small can tomato paste (~6 oz.)
3-4 cloves garlic
~6 oz. peanut butter
2 tblsp jashtini (ground-up okra, good luck with this one in the states)
salt, black and red pepper to taste
1 1/2 cup water

Saute the onion and minced garlic with the meat in large pan. Once onion tender/meat cooked thru, add tomato paste, water, jashtini and some spices. Simmer to a boil. Start rice in separate container (just cook rice the normal way, and when I say normal I mean normal for the RIM people, not you crazy microwave people, if you don't know how to cook rice...sorry). Mix peanut butter with a little water until it turns from a paste into more of a suace, add to pan, reduce heat, add more spices as desired. Put cooked rice on large plate, add sauce on top, bon appetit!

This is probably my favorite local dish, so those of you at home, try it and let me know what you think, or wait 1 1/2 years because I will definitely be cooking it a lot at home. It's a massive shot of protein! The only downside, not being able to ask for tugaduga at your grocery store. I love that word, it is Pulaar. That language is so rhythmic and cool!

Hope all is well.


P.S. - the spices are the salt, black and red pepper and anything else you may want to add, just to taste.  I know there isn't a generic cannister just marked "spice." I learned that lesson long ago...Damn you streetside spice vendors!! I shake my fists in rage at you!

15 January 2009

New Mailing Address!!

We have a new mailing address in Nouadhibou!

Katie & Mike Yunghans
B.P. 1771
Nouadhibou, Mauritania
West Africa
Par Avion

Note: In Mauritania, the numbers one and seven, when handwritten, are often confused with each other. To avoid this problem, draw a dash through the vertical line of the seven (see the picture for an example).

Don't worry if you've sent anything to the old address recently though. We should still be able to get mail from the old box while we're transitioning over to our new one. By now we know the guys who work in the post office really well and they just call us anytime we have a package that needs to be picked up.

Also...we have noticed recently that many of the packages (and envelopes) we've received have already been opened upon arrival (or partially opened). We think it's probably happening more now because of the holidays and the expectation by some that there could be money or valuable electronics inside. To our knowledge, nothing has been missing from any of the packages. However, I would encourage liberal use of packaging tape on all boxes (all seams, corners, etc) and that you reinforce envelope sealing glue with scotch tape.

We also no longer recommend that you draw religious symbols on the outside of care packages or envelopes. Given the current situation in the Middle East, we believe the use of these symbols may draw unnecessary attention to the packages.

For more tips on sending mail or care packages you can go to our Wishlist page. We regularly update the list by adding and removing items as we receive new packages in the mail. Thanks for everything! We love and miss you all!