Monday, October 5, 2009

Gone but not forgotten

I have been in America for exactly 49 days. The most surprising thing to me is how not surprising the whole experience has been. For hours upon hours, we Peace Corps Volunteers had sat around in Mauritania and described in great detail all the American foods we missed. I was sure that the first time I entered a supermarket or Wal-Mart again, I would probably pass out from over-stimulation.

But truth be told, things haven't been that weird. In fact, it's disturbing to me how difficult it actually is to remember that that other whole WORLD really exists -- still, and always. I'm wandering the grocery store, and Fati is walking to the produce market. I'm eating on-demand pizzas and Chinese food and ice cream, and Aicha is preparing rice with fish, again. I'm surfing YouTube on my MacBook, and Abdoul is dancing while his sister keeps the beat by banging on a plastic cup.

How is that possible?

Two weeks after getting home, I ended up in Atlantic City for the first time in my life. It was OVERWHELMING. I didn't want to be a drag on any of my friends, but I absolutely could not enjoy myself. I stood on a balcony and looked out at the crashing ocean waves and tried to comprehend that those same waters touch the shores of Mauritania. I looked up at the full moon, and all it meant to me was that Ramadan was half over. I stumbled in a daze through the casinos because I couldn't make my eyes focus on anything. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. I saw a happy African-American family hustling back to their hotel room, and I actually thought, Do you know what your life could have been? Is it even appropriate to have thoughts like that?

But America's great. Of course it is. Do I love electricity, hot showers, air conditioning, endless endless endless food, online shopping, driving, jeans, my piano, my cat? Sure. Those things are awesome. But I guess now I just know that that's not all there is, and that it's pretty possible to live without them -- though admittedly very, very different.

I had been planning a three-week trip to America to participate in two weddings and reenergize a bit before the new school year in Mauritania. Because of the circumstances in which we left Africa, it turned out that I got to be here for a total of seven weeks. All things considered, I am glad that it ended up that way -- because somehow even with twice as much time I feel like I've had barely any free time. America is BUSY! I don't even know where the time goes! But I saw countless familiar faces and ate countless amazing meals (and oh, desserts!) and went to a Red Sox game and reunited with some Mauritania friends in Ohio and drove from Texas to New Jersey and -- and so I guess that's where the time goes. It's been a blast.

That being said, I'm ready to go now. Running all over the country to play with friends and be part of beautiful weddings and spend money I don't have is probably not real life, and certainly not sustainable. So I'm looking forward to returning to Africa, in a big way. I'm glad that I had this buffer period to process my emotions and mentally say goodbye to Mauritania, and now it's time for the next chapter.

I am super psyched about Rwanda. I've been doing my homework, and the verdict is that there is a lot of exciting stuff going on there right now. Every other day I find another article online lauding all the progress Rwanda has made in recent years. Stuff is happening, and they want English teachers to be a part of it. That's pretty cool. I fly out this Wednesday.

So, with this entry I will end my blog on Peace Corps Mauritania. Thanks to all you faithful readers, and I invite you to continue following me in my future home. I have set up a new blog site with a new look. Farewell to austere desert; on to green and gorillas. Find me here:
(My improvements include an option to sign up to receive
an email each time I update with a new entry, if you're interested.)

Perhaps the saddest part of leaving Mauritania was that I have so few pictures of my family and friends and life in Dar El Barka. In fact, I have more from my six weeks living at the training site in PK7. I had planned to take a bunch of photos right before I went back to America. You never know. So my beloved Jobalel -- the family patriarch who was known as "Baaba," but whom in my mind I always called "Old Man Winter" -- will be remembered solely in my mind, and journal entries. But I guess it's fine because he will always be something different to me than anything you could get from looking at a photo.

Here is a smorgasbord of memories. Goodbye, Mauritania. (I'd write that in Pulaar, but of course there is no word for goodbye.)

(View album here)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Moving forward

On Monday, August 10th, I was told that the Peace Corps would be suspending its program in Mauritania, and I could not return to my village to collect my belongings or say my goodbyes.

On Monday, August 17th, I was at my mom's house in Kennett Square, PA.

Really weird.

All last week was a whirlwind, to say the least. Paperwork upon paperwork, medical screenings and blood draws and skin tests, psychiatric counseling, all the while trying to relish my very last moments with the other RIM PCVs who have come to mean so much to me over the last 14 months. And then the question of the future: where to go? What to do? The Peace Corps Washington staff presented a lot of options to us...

I could direct-transfer to another country (most likely West Africa, they said) immediately, and I'd be there in the next week. I could go home to collect myself a bit and re-enroll in a new country within the next 12 months, although there'd be no guarantee that I could get a contract for only one more year -- I might have to start a new full term of 27 months. I could participate in a short-term commitment abroad called Peace Corps Response. I could use my status as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) for non-competitive eligibility for federal positions, like working at Peace Corps Headquarters or with the Civil or Foreign Service. Or I could just call it a day and start grad school apps.

Oh, and please make this decision in the next 48 hours max, thanks.

It was tough. But I am very, very happy to announce to you that I will be continuing my Peace Corps service as an English teacher in Rwanda.

Immediately I feel the need to defend my decision, because I know what thoughts it inevitably invokes in most people's minds: she's been evacuated from a place with a growing presence of al-Qaeda -- and now this is what she's chosen as her next step? Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

I would like to cite Fareed Zakaria, respected author and current editor of Newsweek International. Just a month ago, he was interviewed by CNN and spoke of why Rwanda is "Africa's biggest success story." He says:

You remember what happened in there just 15 years ago -- over a period of 100 days 800,000 men, women, and children were killed -- most of them slaughtered with knives, machetes, and axes by their neighbors. It is perhaps the most brutal genocide in modern history. By the time it ended, one tenth of the country's population was dead. Most people assumed that Rwanda was broken and, like Somalia, another country wracked by violence, would become a poster child for Africa's failed states. It's now a poster child for success.

President Paul Kagame wants to make Rwanda into the "Singapore of Africa." In recent days he has made incredible reforms and is ramping up a huge push towards science and technology. He plans to make the entire country WiFi-ready in the next few years. He has outlawed plastic bags.

Additionally, President Kagame nixed the colonial French as an official language and declared that all instruction (beginning in primary school) would be henceforth conducted in English. Slight problem: shortage of qualified English teachers.

Enter the Peace Corps, which reopened its Rwanda program in January of this year after suspending it in 1993. On October 5th, I will be leaving with at least 12 of my fellow RIM PCVs, including some of my closest friends: Ryan, Mark, Matt, Scott, Ashley, Megan, Colleen, Brandon, Michele, Lindsay, Austin, and Marta.

It's crazy! It's fast! It's, yes I know, RWANDA! But I assure you that it is a safe place for us to be (U.S. News and World Report agrees), and I am so unbelievably excited about the coming year. We will be arriving alongside some brand-new PCVs and going through the language training to learn Kinyarwanda. The other RIM PCVs and I will be helping to conduct the technical training (Model School, etc.) for the new class, since Rwanda is a new program and does not have any veteran volunteers to offer assistance.

I will continue to blog and will inform you when I have the new site set up and ready. In the meantime, I intend to post a few final photos/videos on this blog as I say farewell to my time in Mauritania.

It's surprisingly hard to be back. For months and months we had all dreamed of being in that far-away, magical place called America. I had always thought I would be bursting with joy when my feet hit the ground, but when I stepped off the plane in Dulles I felt overwhelmed and empty and confused. Where am I? How did I get here? Is this real? I was so out of practice with flying that I forgot to put my precious Leatherman knife/multitool in my checked luggage and had it confiscated.

I forced my feet to shuffle through the airport, and I spotted a popular Peace Corps advertisement. Perhaps you've seen it:

And I almost stopped in my tracks. It's not true, I wanted to tell everyone around me! That's not a promise! I joined the Peace Corps, and there's still so much I "should've" done. I should've given my clothes to my sisters, I should've taken a video of my little brother singing and dancing, I should've emptied my local bank account and distributed it among all my friends in the village...

But in this life, you never know. All I can do is move forward.

A final enormous _THANK YOU_ to all of you who have contacted me in the wake of this. Your support has been humbling and amazingly sustaining, and I appreciate it, more than you know.

So long, PCRIM.

Leaving Atlanta -- June 20, 2008

Goodbye dinner in Dakar -- August 12, 2009

Monday, August 10, 2009

Not what I had planned

All of Peace Corps Mauritania arrived to the Senegal training center in Thiès on July 28. For a few days, we had some legitimate professional development sessions. But then we kind of started running out of things to do... It's no fun to live in limbo, and I for one was really wishing there was any kind of timeline for how soon we would receive the verdict on Peace Corps Washington's security check of our country. I cannot be ungrateful for all the nice amenities available to us at the center, but we were getting a little antsy.

It was like one big summer camp, as we tried to fill our time as much as possible. We had two big volleyball tournaments. A Senegalese drum troupe came and performed for us, and I tried my hand (and feet) at a little African dancing. We visited a famous tapestry museum/factory, where they reproduce beautiful local paintings onto large-scale wall hangings (to the tune of about $6,000 USD apiece). Several of us attended mass at the Keur Moussa monastery, which has artwork of biblical scenes depicted in an African style while the monks sing in native languages with traditional instruments. We went to the Lac Rose, a lake that appears pink in color due to the high salt concentration of the water. And then we went down to a beach town called Popenguine, where we rented out a gorgeous ocean-front house for two nights. We even bought a live pig and had a roast!

We returned from the beach to Thiès on Saturday evening. Dinner was served, and then staff announced that we'd have a quick meeting. At 9 PM? We joked to each other that it was probably just a meeting to tell us we were having another meeting tomorrow. What could be sooo important that it couldn't just wait 12 hours?

Well, this: we were informed that two hours ago, a suicide bomber had blown himself up in front of the French embassy in Nouakchott. [Very informative video on France 24]

My chest seized up. Everyone's faces were shock, only shock. There were a few palpable moments of silence, just the rain continuing to fall, and fall; just the thunder.

And in my mind? Game. Over.

I had held such hope up to this point -- and not falsely, I felt. We had talked about the "possibility" of not returning to RIM, but I had not really thought this would happen. If anything, I predicted that Washington would recommend we close the far northern and eastern regions of the country and consolidate us to the Senegal River (where there is no history or evidence of any extremist trouble). But this was a whole new story. A punch in the gut. You don't shake this off, dust it over. In that one sentence, my hope plummeted to 0%. That night I couldn't even sleep. My head swam.

Today we moved from the training center to Dakar, because Senegal's new training class arrives in a few days and they needed to prepare the space. We arrived to a luxurious hotel, and with my poolside room and more high-speed wireless internet, it seemed this strange "vacation" would continue at least a few more days.

We were to have a briefing at 5:30 PM, so we all gathered. When we walked in the conference room, there were Cheez-Its and Double Stuf Oreos waiting on a table for us. Odd as it may sound, that's when I knew it was all over. That stuff doesn't exist in West Africa, and the fact that it was here was not a good sign.

Then out walk about eight white people we've never seen before. Not a good sign. One is introduced as Jody Olsen -- the national director of the entire Peace Corps.

Not a good sign.

Ms. Olsen begins by telling us how much she loves Mauritania and how dear it is to her heart. She personally traveled around there two years ago, and she speaks fondly and enthusiastically of it often. (This is not lip-service; I know this to be true.) She goes on: "That is why it makes it all the more difficult for me to tell you that you are not going to go back there."

I knew it was coming -- we all knew, really -- but hearing those words was unpredictably paralyzing. It's like having many of your friends die AND your house burn down, all at once. What do you do? Tears spilled down my face. And wouldn't stop. Even our country director was crying, and hugging everyone after the meeting.

Starting tomorrow, we have a four-day "transition conference" led by the aforementioned white people, most of whom flew in from Washington to assist us. There are a lot of logistics to figure out, and many options for us to choose from. We can go home, or we can direct-transfer immediately to another country, or we can take the middle road and go home but re-apply for a new country, essentially jumping the queue of current applicants. Whatever we choose, we will all be done with Peace Corps Mauritania by this Friday. I still have a lot to process and think about.

No goodbyes. My host family in Dar El Barka (all 20+ members, many of whom I don't have so much as a photo -- you don't take pictures of the day-to-day living). The mayor, who was so kind to me. My coworkers at school. My students, my precious precious students. My neighbor, who I was teaching English. Our tailor. Our landlord. My Boghé driver. My Pulaar teacher. My host family from training in PK7.

This is the last photo I took in Dar El:

They're just living life. Fatimata is braiding Thillo's hair, while Thillo separates the hair extensions in her lap. Mariam's baby Samba sits and amuses himself nearby, probably with some trash he picked up. Fati Sidi sits in the middle, next to her mosquito net-covered "bassinet" of sorts. It holds her newborn Kadia Moussa, born July 3rd. Molel, on the left, has just given toddler Papa the communal cup of water. When he's through, she will replace it on the clay pot serving basin, and head back to the kitchen hut to check on lunch's progress.

I know that they performed variations of this scene today, and they will do it tomorrow, and the next day, and next month. But I will never again be there for it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Just when you thought...

It was all going so well. Our interrupted-service folks cleared out of Mauritania, and while it was quite sad, we were all moving forward. Those of us who had chosen to stay were renewed with energy to face the tough year ahead, albeit with reduced numbers. The worst was behind us... or so we thought.

It is true that Mauritania has been making international headlines as of late for less than desirable events. The biggest controversy surrounds the shooting and killing last month of an American citizen in Nouakchott. I didn't mention it on this blog because quite frankly I feel that, while lamentable, it was not any direct challenge to my personal safety. The individual in question was known for Christian "proselytizing," an illegal act in an Islamic republic. (Foreigners in Mauritania have every right to their own religion, but they are prohibited from trying to convert others.)

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of media hoopla in the wake of the murder, and whenever the name "al-Qaeda" starts to be thrown around, people (perhaps rightly, perhaps not) tend to get anxious. Peace Corps Washington are among this lot. Two weeks ago, unbeknownst to us, our country director got a call saying that Washington wanted to shut down our program here. He protested on our behalf, and the agreement reached was that PC Washington would send a team over to do a countrywide safety and security check. The catch? They wanted all PCVs to be out of our sites while this investigation takes place.

Cut to me, in Boghé, last Thursday afternoon. I'm preparing to head to Bababé, a town 30 km to the southeast, to help with a three-day Eco-Health Camp. About 50 girls and their chaperones from all over Mauritania would be in attendance. I cannot take any credit for the planning of this camp, but many PCVs -- in particular, Zach Swank -- spent hours and hours coordinating the logistics. He had collected matelas (sleeping pads) and mosquito nets, had spent several full days digging holes for tree-planting, and had ordered 5,000 beignets (small donuts) and 200 balbastiques (frozen juice in a bag) to be prepared. Everything was ready to go.

Then we all get word: the camp is cancelled. All of Peace Corps Mauritania is going to Senegal, for an undetermined amount of time but "a minimum of 10 days." Be in Nouakchott by Monday. Oh yeah, and also, we are going to "test" our Emergency Action Plan, so pack up all your belongings "as if" you are never coming back.


Needless to say, we were all pretty surprised and confused. A friend in Boghé graciously gave me and another PCV a ride out to our sites on Saturday so that we could gather our things. I had explained the situation to my host family as best I could in Pulaar, but they still didn't quite understand. "Can't you at least stay for lunch?" they asked. Sorry, not today. "You will be back, inshallah," everyone agreed. Inshallah, I repeated to myself. I snapped a few photos with the kids, and we were on our way back to Boghé.

Thus, yesterday the 50-strong legion of Mauritania PCVs descended on the Peace Corps training center in Thiès, Senegal. With a population of 300,000, this place dwarfs any Mauritanian towns but the capital. And the training center here is essentially a tropical oasis. We were near drooling as we breathed it all in after our 13 hours on the bus ("shouldn't" have been quite that long, but unsurprisingly we broke down once or twice). For this indefinite stay here we are blessed with a plethora of amenities not offered at our own center in Mauritania: high-speed wireless internet, actual mattresses (not foam pads) on wooden beds, private rooms, air-conditioning AND ceiling fans, Western flush toilets with toilet paper, showers -- and oh, these green, green trees! (I am reminded of a García Lorca line from a Spanish lit class in college: Verde que te quiero verde -- Green, how I love you, green!)

As for the presidential election in Mauritania, victory went to General Aziz, who led the coup last August. Being an employee of the U.S. government, I am advised not to voice a position on local political issues. Instead I will let you form your own judgment of this man, with the following Wall Street Journal excerpt published just prior to the voting here:

A small, mustachioed man portrayed on posters wearing mirrored sunglasses and banker suits, Gen. Aziz has turned the breakup with Israel -- a popular move here -- into a centerpiece of his campaign. At one recent rally, the general said he is "honored" to be considered a "foe of the Jewry." In speech after speech, he has accused challengers of plotting with American Jews against the Mauritanian state.

"If I win the election, I will give them plane tickets so they'd go to that Zionist state that they love so much," the general thundered last weekend. At the entrance to the shuttered Israeli Embassy, Gen. Aziz's campaign has planted a tent festooned with his portraits next to a crossed-out Star of David.

(Wall Street Journal, 17 July 2009)

His personal beliefs aside, the important thing about Aziz's election is that the U.S. now accepts this government as legitimate, which means sanctions will be lifted, which means Americans should begin to be issued visas again. U.S. Ambassador Mark Boulware had a Q&A session with us in Nouakchott before we left, and he is optimistic about the future of U.S.-Mauritania relations. Aziz is supposed to swear in August 5th, so after a bit of lag time, our diplomatic relations ought to be back to status quo before the coup d'état.

In conclusion, I'm just hangin' and livin' the good life in Senegal until Peace Corps Washington decides whether Mauritania is a safe place to be. Our director feels certain that our country is not dangerous with regard to, for example, Islamic extremists (and certainly not more dangerous than some of our neighbors like Mali and Niger). And I can honestly say I have never felt unsafe -- I was more at risk walking the streets of Boston or Austin than Boghé or Dar El Barka. But we shall see what the final word is from on high.

Got my per diem and I'm good to go. Welcome to Senegal...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Picking up the pieces

Unexpectedly, it has been a very busy couple of weeks. A total of 20 PCVs from the 71 in my class decided to "interrupt" their service and head home, and in their wake I've been all over the place helping to pick up the pieces. We each came to this country with an 80-pound luggage limit -- but you wouldn't believe how much stuff one can accumulate in a year!

I went overnight with Yates to her village Olo Ologo (only 17 km from mine) to give a hand with her things there. The one passenger vehicle that services that area didn't get us in until 7:30pm, so most of our laboring was done by the light of one flashlight hanging overhead. We made piles: stuff to leave with her host family, stuff that needed to go back to Peace Corps in Nouakchott, stuff to donate to the other PCVs in Boghé, stuff that I claimed for myself (ah, the few bittersweet perks), and just one duffel bag of things that Yates wanted to take home to America. While we sorted, her work partner sat with us and made conversation. "Maybe once the elections are over, and things are more peaceful, then you can come back here, right? You'll come back here to live?" We shook our heads; it's not that easy, we repeated. Then her host father came over to talk with me and expounded on all the virtues of Koumba Demba (Yates's Pulaar name). "All this time she has lived with us, and I never once saw her get upset, I never once saw her get frustrated. She is so good to us." I know, I said. I wanted to cry. "Please come back and visit us," they all insisted to me. "Because if we see you, it's almost like seeing Koumba Demba."

Me, Yates, and Teresa with the Peace Corps security guards at Christmas

We awoke before sunrise, and the car taking us to Boghé pulled right into Yates's compound so we could load up her baggage. A small crowd gathered around us. No one likes goodbyes, of course, but in Mauritania it's a whole new level of awkward for me. To start, it doesn't help that the word "goodbye" literally does not exist in Pulaar. Everyone just keeps saying, "Thank you, thank you," and if they're feeling especially emotional, they will ask you to greet people on their behalf -- greet your parents, please, greet your family, greet every person in America (yes, that one gets used). On top of this, Mauritanian culture shuns physical affection, so there are no hugs. Most people don't touch you at all, but if you're close with them they will shake your hand and hold it a few seconds. So I shook my share of hands and promised, yes, to greet every person in America. Then we climbed onto the big white van, and we left Olo behind.

Unfortunately, that morning I came down with giardia, a fun little parasite that seems to afflict almost all PCVs at one point or another. Truthfully, the biggest surprise is that this is the first time it's gotten me. So during my last precious moments with Yates, I was curled up in a fetal position, moving only to run yet again to the bathroom -- which, I remind you, is just a hole in the ground. Without being too graphic, I'll just tell you that I graced that hole with my presence 19 times in 24 hours. But Peace Corps is really great about getting us the prescriptions we need, so once I took my round of meds and a healthy portion of Gatorade, I was back on my feet. And probably a few pounds lighter.

Since then life has been a hurricane of cleaning and sorting, packing and unloading, organizing and trashing. Everyone who went home (Interrupted Service folks as well as the 60-ish PCVs who are now finishing their two years) left behind loads of goodies. As I consolidated their bequeathals, I also did a grand, two-day clean-up/clean-out of the Boghé house. There are only a few options for trash disposal here: burning, burying, or throwing it over the wall to be cherished by street children. I used all three methods, though I will say that burning is the most satisfying. I personally inherited a wealth of treasures: all kinds of clothing (American and Mauritanian both, including a fancy outfit for the next big holiday), all kinds of precious care-package food, really nice toiletries, two battery-powered handheld fans (such luxury!), 10,000 francs CFA (about $20 USD), and... drum roll... many, many buckets.

(Aside: now, I realize that as a Westerner in a developed country, you probably do not get all jacked up about buckets. I don't blame you. But oh, the humble bucket! You may ask what cause one has for a bucket, but the question is more what can't you do?! They come with and without lids, in many colors and sizes, each serving a different purpose. Take today as an example. I did the dishes, with four buckets as usual: one with the dirty things, one with soapy water for washing, one with clean water for rinsing, and one to set the finished things in to dry. Next I did my laundry, using two buckets -- wash and rinse. For both of these activities, I got my laundry detergent out of a sealed bucket. I hung the clothes on the line, and when they were dry, I collected them in a clean bucket. Then I got some food and spices for lunch out of a few ant-proof/mouse-proof buckets, which I sorted through while sitting on another bucket.)

My region has gone from 12 PCVs last year to 6 for the coming year. As we start this new chapter, Mauritania too looks toward the future. The presidential election will, inshallah, take place this Saturday, July 18th. This excerpt from a good article paints an accurate portrait of the palpable fever over here:

[The] electoral battle, a novelty in a ramshackle capital which is more used to coups, has enthused its residents, as much as anyone can be enthused in temperatures of 43 degrees centigrade. Its streets, where sand drifts across the tarmac, are plastered with posters, and nomadic-style tents have been erected in every suburb. Blaring loudspeakers praise the rival candidates at such volume that passing camels and donkeys pulling carts are sent into a panic. With six days to go, diplomats consider the race too close to call.

(from The Telegraph, 12 July 2009)

Should be very interesting. Thank you, everyone, for your support during this tough time of rebuilding! Peace Corps Mauritania: the few, the ostensibly insane.