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.


Clara said...

love you!! see you soon =D

Mike G. said...

i had no idea of the value of buckets...

Chante' said...

I like buckets lol. storage yes lol. But very interesting once again. Crazy that this is really real ya know? the people seem really sweet.

Yates Moon said...

Your blog was inspiring (and made me cry), so I will once again become a follower as I now watch you create miracles from the other side of the pond. Miss you and hope to see you soon. Lots of Love and deepest admiration.