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.


Tonya said...

Julie Ann,

I feel terrible for all of you, especially since you were the ones that had decided to stay. You will never know just how much your blogs have meant to me and other parent's that have done everything in our power to say please come home, but know this is your path in life. I will miss reading your stories whether it was when you were down and trying to make sense of things, or when you were so high with enthusiasm. I can tell, I will hear your name again somewhere down the road. Good Luck with all of your new journey's. You are amazing!

Thank you,

Brandon Forester's mother

mom said...

Julie Ann,
This is Ashley's mom and I second what Brandon's mom has said. We have really enjoyed your blogs and they have meant much to us as you write so frequently and it had helped us to be more in touch with Ashley through you and your experiences. We can tell from your postings that you are a very compassionate and dedicated woman. This is such a difficult time for all of you and we are sad for all of you as you make this huge transition in your lives. May God hold you and bless you in your decisions and in your futures plans.
Marta and Steve Williamson

Jay Davidson said...

I am so sorry to see this, Julie Ann. I totally agree with you about how genuine Jody Olsen is. I had an opportunity to meet her and she is terrific.

Sorry that you will not be able to go back and say good-bye to the people in Dar El Barka.

My thoughts are with you. Do take care.


MJ Cowell said...

Julie Ann, this brings tears to my eyes as I know how deeply committed you were (are) to the PC. But another door will open, perhaps Benin?? I will you buy you a new tote with the new name, in the Cowell tradition. We will anxiously await for the direction of your next path. MaryJane and Dave Cowell

Brett Heimann said...


I have been following all of you guys blogs and I could not imagine what you guys are going through. You guys seemed like such a great group of people and I was really looking forward to meeting you all. If things ever get hard for me in Togo I will think of all the hardships you guys faced. You all deserve every bit of praise that you receive. Remember to hug the ones you love!

(RIM Reject 2009)

Liz said...

Julie Ann, I'm so sorry to hear about all of this. I've really enjoyed reading about all your amazing experiences, and I appreciate how supportive you and the rest of your cohort were when we were all preparing to join you guys. I'm sorry that we never got to meet. Good luck in whatever steps you take next.

formerly of RIM 2009

mandy said...

sending you love, julie.


Chante' said...

So sorry to hear that. You're blogs have given me the real side of the PC experience, the challenges and you seem to deal with them all so well. I know I would cry too. Lots probably. (lol) but you've down your best and you can only control what you can control. I'll be praying for you all as you make your transitions. Stay strong.

musicditdot said...

I can only imagine how hard it was to hear this sad news. I'll be praying for God's guidance for your next steps in life, wherever they may lead. I'm disappointed that your mom and I won't get to see where you have been working, but I'm certain this disappointment doesn't compare to what you have been working through yourself. It has been soooo fascinating reading your blogs. I will be looking forward to seeing you later this month and hearing more about your adventures. Safe traveling mercies and may you have blessings beyond what you can imagine.
Aunt Dot

Anonymous said...

I saw on the Peace Corps website that Mauritania was closing, and I just wanted to send my good wishes. I was a volunteer in Uzbekistan for six months before our program closed down as well. (2005) I know that it's impossibly hard, but stick it out and take a couple deep breaths, talk with your group, etc. It's a crunch trying to decide what to do in the few hours you get, but whatever decision you make will be the right one.

Take care,