06 July 2010

Midwives abroad

Hello everyone!

This post is to let you know about two U.S. organizations working with midwives in Senegal & Mali (the two countries that are directly south and east of Mauritania). These groups are working to educate and assist midwives and birth attendants working in these two countries. I'm providing links to their websites so you can look at photos and get more information if you would like.

Mali Midwives http://www.malimidwives.org/index.php (or search for Mali Midwives on facebook)

Both groups are currently fundraising for projects that would help women in labor deliver their babies more safely. Currently maternal deaths during childbirth in developing countries are still very common due to lack of information, education, transportation, and sanitation. These groups are saving lives in Senegal & Mali by assisting the local midwives to have the most current education, supplies, and support.

During and immediately following my Peace Corps service, I was in contact with the women who lead these two organizations, one of whom was a Peace Corps volunteer herself. They are very dedicated to their organizations and I hope to continue to work with them in the future. I also would like to learn from them so that perhaps I can start my own organization to assist midwives working in Mauritania in the future.

I know that the economy is rough right now, and many are without the means to donate to additional organizations. But if you are able to spare even just a little for a one time donation, please give to them. Mike and I don't have a lot of extra money right now either since we are both heading back to school this fall, but we are able to find a bit here and there to give. I hope you will be able to as well. These groups didn't ask me to find donors, and you don't have to worry about me following up to see if you've given anything. This is just a one-time message to let you know about these wonderful organizations.

If I had been able to stay in Mauritania, perhaps I would have been able to put together a project that would help the midwives there, and you could have sent a donation to my project. However, because we were evacuated early, I was unable to carry out many of the project ideas I wanted to pursue. Please view this as my project, and if you would have given to me as a Peace Corps volunteer, please give to these groups instead.

Thank you to everyone who supported us during our Peace Corps service by sending cards, emails, thoughts, prayers, care packages, etc. We appreciate all that you have already done for us.
Katie Yunghans

Book Recommendations:
"Half the Sky" by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn
"Monique and the Mango Rains" by Kris Holloway

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 ├ęcole 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