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...

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