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Aminetou's Escapades in Aioun
 
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Below are the 12 most recent journal entries recorded in madmaddy123's LiveJournal:

Friday, September 23rd, 2005
12:02 pm
To Catch a Thief
A week ago, I was reading over at the main house just before dinner. My host mom came up to me and said my younger brother Brahim had heard a lot of noise coming from my room and I should go check it out. She thought perhaps I had left the door open and the wind was causing it to blow around. I was pretty sure I had locked it, but I went for a look. My room is separated from the main house by about 30 meters and a cement wall (in addition to it being dark), so I couldn’t really see until I reached the door. Lo and behold a teenage kid flew out and ran away, tripping over the metal fence and losing a shoe on the way. I shouted “Hey! Stop!” and tried to chase him for a minute, but he was long gone. (Obviously, if I had grown up running around in sand too, then I would easily have been able to catch him.) I went back to my room where the whole family had come over to see what the commotion was. We surveyed the damage – one broken wooden door, one broken padlock, 10,000 ougiyas (about $35) missing from my bag. I called Obie who said I should go to the police right away, but since all the kid had taken was money the chances of finding him were pretty low. Little did Obie know I live in a family of supersleuths.

While I was talking to Obie, my family used the kid’s lost shoe to follow his path through the sand. Initially I thought this was laughable, but they made it as far as finding his second shoe and then to our neighbor’s house who said a kid had run by 10 minutes earlier, shielding his face from view, and hadn’t responded properly to their greeting. As they always told us during training, greetings are VERY important in Mauritanian culture; they even help catch thieves.

One of the things I love most about this country is what a small place it is, and everybody knows everyone’s business. From the neighbor’s vague description (black, high school age, black t-shirt) that fit with what I had noticed, my brother Brahim remembered a kid coming to the house a few days before and asking about the white girl and where her room is located. While this seems strange in retrospect, at least several people a day ask me about living with the Wanes and where my room is and if I eat meals with them. That the Wanes have a white girl at their house is a big scandal about town. And I am sure people ask the whole family about it as well. So it struck Brahim that this kid could fit the description and that his questions may have been a bit less innocent than he thought. Brahim knew the kid’s name (Idrissa), where he lived (squatting in an abandoned house), and that he had heard about me through the Koranic school grapevine (my cousin Maysur goes to religious school and knew Idrissa).

The number of times my family cracked me up and that I realized for the 1000th time how amazing they all are made this entire adventure worthwhile. I watched my 10 brothers and sisters acting like a bunch of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews as they tracked Idrissa’s footprints across the neighborhood and questioned the neighbors. My host father was the chief investigator, reviewing the evidence and telling our little gumshoes what a good job they had done. As we were walking into town to the police station, my host dad stopped to tell every person he saw what had happened. He made sure to include every time that I had been at the main house, READING. (He went to vet school and likes to encourage good study habits.) My mom asked me at least a dozen times if he had taken anything other than money. When the policeman was there an hour later and asked the same question, she snapped “She can’t know THAT! It’s too dark in there! What kind of question is that?!?”

But I think my favorite part about the entire experience happened a couple of nights later. I naturally had to replace the door, and the new door – a lovely, heavy metal door, with multiple locks – had been delivered that day. We were waiting for the electrical current to be strong enough one day to handle the welding work to attach it. Moustafa, my welder friend, had propped the door up in the doorway so that it at least looked like there was a door in place. I had to move it when I got home to drop off my bag and didn’t bother to move it back, as I would have to go back in to the room at some point that night. Did I mention it’s heavy? So about an hour later the kids are playing outside, I am sitting with my oldest sister and host parents, it’s almost dinnertime, and suddenly we hear a war cry similar to the noise the Algonquins must have made when they were on the attack. Thinking “not again”, I ran with my host dad over to my room and found my ten brothers and sisters, armed with rocks and sticks, ready to attack the most recent intruder and protect the honor of my room. 9-year old Coumbis, a little tomboy, was saying “If anyone tries to break in, I’ll hit him, Madi, like THAT . . . and THAT!!” Even tiny 5-year old Hawa was trying to heave a stick twice her size onto her shoulder. I don’t think I could possibly love all of them more than I did at that moment. Although they were all a little bit too disappointed to discover it had been I who had moved the door.

All is good now. I have a lovely new door, finally cemented in place. And if I water the cement (???) for three days every morning and evening, then Moustafa says it should stay in place. The police found Idrissa at the garage, having bought a ticket to escape to the nearest town. They gave me all of my money back. I had to pass by the police station a couple of times and Idrissa asked for my forgiveness, which I gave as I have nothing against the kid. In fact I had to go by the station so many times, I ended up feeling rather bad for him. He obviously needed the money quite desperately, and he couldn’t look me in the eyes. When I went to his “trial”, I thought about speaking up on his behalf, but never did during the 5-minute procedure. I guess maybe some part of me didn’t forgive him after all.
Friday, August 12th, 2005
8:39 am
So it's been awhile. Sorry about that. Been travellin'. And workin'. I did the Welcome Committee and met the newbies, did Eco-Camp and learned how to make a mud stove, did the Girls' Conference and almost had a nervous breakdown (see adriana's page for that description).

In response to the question of our Peace Corps RIM generation (we are small but with a big impact), "where were you when you heard about the coup?" I was teaching computer class at the lycée that morning. My sister, Djenaba, supposedly learning Excel but actually clicking around unwittingly on Spider Solitaire, was there. Aissita Dia, after 14 hours of computer class, was still having difficulty understanding how the mouse moves. My star student and future IT professionel (inshallah) Mohamed got a cell phone call from a friend in Nouakchott and clued us brousse-people into the news that there was a coup. I continued teaching, assuming naturally that this was an attempt like all the others. They all stared at me and Djenaba pipes up with an exasperated, "Madi, we can't keep having class! There's a coup!" Oh silly me. So we cancel class and go home and watch the news. That was my coup experience. For one day Aioun was no longer a ghost town, as everybody had to see and be seen in their best boubous and let it be known all that they heard from Nouakchott.

One day later you wouldn't have even known that anything had happened. Although people are holding parades in various regional capitals for Colonel Fall and his Military Council. It is amusing to see how many times the Mauritania news can mention the words "Military Council for Justice and Democracy" and "courageous" and "brave" and "3rd August 2005". About once a minute for a 30 minute program every night for the past week.

The newbies are coming in less than a week! Jarad and I are finding it hard to live up to the welcome that Hector and Gen gave us. How can Jarad and I prepare something like stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, and flan for a welcoming party?!? (That was my first meal in Aioun after 2.5 months of Stage food. It left an impression.) We have settled on hamburgers, potato salad, and chocolate pudding. And another night lentil soup and some other stuff. A teacher in Aioun, an agfo and a health in Kobenni and maybe one other one. So exciting and still so much to be done.
Monday, June 27th, 2005
8:16 am
How Still We Think Thee Lie
How Still We Think Thee Lie

In a few short weeks, my little town has become a ghost town. It happens every year. The Moors go “en brousse”. That means they spend the 3 months of the rainy season in the middle of nowhere in a tent in the Sahara desert with their animals, drinking fresh camel milk all the time and eating rice and couscous. To them, it’s something akin to utopia, a symbolic return to their nomadic roots. I’ve received several invitations to go visit friends and GMC girls’ families in some of the places within 30 or so kilometers from Aioun. I hope I’ll be able to do it at some point. It’s clearly something you have to experience to fully understand the euphoria on their faces when they spoke about packing up to go en brousse in May and June.

The Pulaars, the other big ethnic group here, go home to the southern cities and villages of Mauritania. None of them are from Aioun. They are affectated to work here by the government or they go to the teacher’s training school. My family is one of the few staying in Aioun. Four of my sisters, however, enthusiastic women that have been going to the teacher’s school have finished and are leaving for Boghé in a few days. They aren’t actually sisters, but they are Pulaar and they eat meals with us, so it amounts to the same thing. For the past year, they have rented the room next to mine in the building about 20 meters away from the family’s main house. We have had endless dance parties and rounds of tea on our quaint little veranda. I’m going to miss them, but I will be seeing them again in Boghé in a couple of weeks when I go there for the girls’ eco-camp.

But I digress. Aioun is so quiet lately. All the people who know how to make Cereamine have left. The GMC girls going to the girls’ education conference in July have left. I can only hope that they are making marks in the sand to count off the days, so they remember when to come back to Aioun and we can go to Nouakchott. Hector and Genny, the best chefs ever to grace Aioun, left 2 days ago.

I am one to talk. This afternoon I am headed once again to NKT. I was at site for 4 months, and now I find myself going to NKT for the 2nd time in three weeks. It’s not that I don’t want to be constantly smothered by the unrelenting heat or that I want to escape to the cool coastal breezes of our fair capital city. And I love spending time in my solar oven room listening to the sweet melodies of termites eating my beloved wooden chairs. It’s not that I mind going to sleep to the sound of my sisters killing a scorpion or waking up at 4 a.m. to see a hubba-hubba (think a cross between a spider and a scorpion, only not as cute) crawling across my foot. Really. It’s just that I love pizza. And there’s not a whole lot to be done in Aioun right now. And the new volunteers are arriving on the 2nd, and as regional coordinator, I get to help organize the Welcome Weekend.

Given the number of scorpion and hubba-hubba sightings in the past few days, I think I might take to sleeping over at the main house when I get back. Since my older sisters will be gone, I . . . um, wouldn’t want the rest of the family to worry about me getting bitten during the night and all. (cough, cough)

We just had a kickass party to celebrate a multitude of things, from Bastille Day to birthdays. We had 4 regions represented with ourselves, the Assaba present in full force (minus Luke), South Brakna and the Trarza. I think it’s safe to say Aioun won the regional dance competition. But realistically, is there anyone who could take us on? I think not. Although our region is down to just 2 members at least until the new volunteers arrive. Hint: we are vulnerable. So if any other regions think they can take us on, bring it. But I warn you, with Jarad’s sense of rhythm and choreography and my vast experience in the world of competitive dance, all efforts will be in vain. We would enjoy a good laugh though.
Friday, May 27th, 2005
11:19 am
If it hurts, that means it's working
Of all the ways in the world to waste time, having henna applied has to be one of the worst. A couple of nights ago, my friend Aichetou mint Mburu (yes, that does mean Aichetou, daughter of Bread, we call her Tanti) called me and invited to over to her house the following day for lunch. She said we would do henna. So into town I went the following day. I visited people, talked about Cereamine, distributed a few samples of Cereamine to friends, and worked at the bureau for a bit. And around 11 headed over chez Tanti.

To make henna you mix henna powder with a little bit of water. You then put the mixture in a small plastic bag, poke a tiny hole in the bottom, and paint designs on your hands and feet the same way you would apply icing to a cake. Let it set for a couple of hours, take off the henna mixture, and volia. You have hands with an orangy-brown die to them. I had had henna applied once before at my house the day before the Tabaski fete. Khetel and Bebe, my 14 and 11 year old sisters, had started playing around with henna powder. They didn’t really care all that much how it turned out and neither did I, so we were a good team.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Aminetou lives in a patrony white Moor neighborhood. That means these women have nothing to do and plenty of time to do it. Henna is an art form to express Mauritanian culture. Indeed, I discovered it gives them an excuse to sit around and do absolutely nothing all day. Once I arrived at Tanti’s, I chatted for awhile with the 10 or so women hanging around the house. We ate meat and potatoes and drank zrig. Until Tanti’s neighbor’s evil sister, Tehaya, decided enough was enough. The women gathered around me and pushed on my shoulders. I took this to mean I was to recline, and as it was only females around, I assumed it would be alright. How wrong I was. When I tried to recline, all 10 women gasped in horror and once over their shock, as quickly as possible rolled me over so that I was lying on my stomach. (Lying on your back is seen as suggestive, especially in the more conservative circles.)

So for the next 4 hours, there I lay not allowed to move a muscle literally. If I dared to try, evil sister Tehaya and her counterpart Myriam—the artistic directors of this project—would snap at me in Hassaniya. Although I didn’t know exactly what they were saying, the message was clear. I could only lie spread-eagle on my stomach and stare at the tisse of Lalla’s mulahfa (who was working on my right hand) or examine the soles of Khadi’s feet (who was working on my left). I did try and hold a short lesson in biology by showing Lalla and Khadi that if they started turning my arm to the left, at some point they must turn it to the right. To just keep rotating my arm in one direction won’t work indefinitely. During this time, neither my hands or feet could touch anything, as the henna pattern might have been destroyed. Tanti held my tea glass up to my mouth for me to sip my 3 caisses of tea. After they were done, my hands and feet were wrapped in toilet paper (I knew there had to be a practical reason why the boutiques would sell toilet paper) and plastic sacks and left to set for 2 hours. At this point, I could move as long as my hands and feet did not touch anything. If you are going to tell me I can't move for six hours, the least you could do is not give me a NEED to move. Yet still I was given many glasses of zrig, water and tea.

Considering that I had a woman working on each limb and each limb took 4 hours, I knew this was bound to be an intricate pattern. And I must say, my hands and feet are works of art and they did an amazing job. As my sisters said, I am "ready either for a trip to NKT or marriage." I choose (a) the trip to NKT, leaving June 5, alhumdulillah. I had helped Tanti make up a health survey for her NGO to be distributed to the schools and she wanted to thank me. Since that time (3 weeks ago), she has broken off from the NGO because “the people in NKT never gave me any money” and formed her own NGO. She is now crusading the fight against AIDS.

I find the hype about AIDS in Mauritania very ironic. It’s not a huge problem here the way it is for some areas around the globe. While I agree prevention is the best medicine, nobody here talks about how to avoid contracting AIDS because it’s not appropriate to talk of such things. They know if you have it, it’s bad, probably involves illness and death, but as to how not to get it, nada. So everyone has an NGO to fight a disease that they can’t talk about. They talk about how important it is, ask for money for sensibilizations, put up signs, etc., but they won’t actually talk about the disease itself.

Right now work is mostly finishing up with the GMC for this year and doing Céréamine trainings and promations. Céréamine is a nutritious flour, made from mixing roasted millet, corn, beans, rice, and peanuts together and grinding it all up. It’s a good project because Mauritanians know how to use it; they make a kind of porridge by boiling it and adding milk and sugar, but it’s just a more nutriotious, better-tasting version of what they usually use. And it’s local. Brock got a grant to do 20 trainings on how to make it, and a few of them are being done in Aioun. People are really excited about it. I was in friend’s boutique one day giving her a sample and her friend exclaimed “But I thought they were missionaries!” So the benefits are endless for all parties involved. Peace Corps has two girls’ conferences in July, in Boghe and NKT. I will be attending with girls from Aioun for each one, so I have been getting all of their permission slips and spending time with their families, so their mothers won’t think that their daughter is being sent off with the white girl for corruption and brain-washing. I am bringing Djenaba along as a “chaperone” to ensure the girls’ virtue, funny because the only difference between the two of us is she was born in Mauritania.
Friday, April 29th, 2005
10:23 am
Random other stuff
It's so hot here that the wind has become a blowdryer. The sand burns my feet. I can feel the heat from the ground coming through my matela. It's hitting 115 in the shade these days, and even the night doesn't seem to bring much relief anymore. The wind has started to pick up the dust a lot, indicating that sandstorms are fast approaching. Any clothes are soaked with sweat and dirty at the end of each day. The most pleasant 3 minutes of my day are the three minutes following my shower, while I am soaking wet and the wind is blowing.

Taking a shower has been an experience lately. Lately, all 20 of us have wanted to take showers daily between 2 and 4 pm. This makes sense: it's the hottest part of the day and the time when we are on a break from work/school. The showering every few days just doesn't work anymore. You get so gross after 24 hours. My family long ago confiscated my buckets for communal use, which is fine since I don't use them that much anyways. Except that the shower bucket handle broke. Now we have one useable shower bucket. And all 20 of us have to pull well water in order to take a shower, as the robinet (faucet) water supply is always cut off during the hot season. I am figuring out the system here. To save time, you pull water into a good bucket, and pour that water into the shower bucket when the previous person has finished. If someone puts a bucket by the door, that person is in line.

For the most exciting news of all, Star will be meeting the Dalai Lama in India in a few weeks. She so deserves it, as she is so absolutely brilliant and hard-working. I am so proud of you, Star! (Sorry to embarrass you, but you deserve the shout-out).

The US Ambassador to Mauritania came through Aioun a couple of days ago. Hector, Genny, and Jared (Kobenni Jared, that is) had already left for Nouakchott. Jarad (Aioun Jarad) and I went to the opening ceremony for a women's health conference that is somehow associated with the Ambassador. By the way, a Mauritanian "atelier" is the social event of the year. I don't know how many people there The next morning Jarad and I had breakfast with the Ambassador LeBaron and his wife Elly. Elly was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey. Every other time I have seen the Ambassador, it was always in a formal setting with lots of people. When it was just the four of us, it was really nice and laid-back, and we just chatted for half an hour or so. And they had butter for the bread, a real treat.

A final note, Jared of Kobeni was one of the 5 volunteers in this region. He was and remains one of the best all-around people I have ever met. Kobeni is about 100 km south of Aioun by way of a paved road. It's a rough place, right on the Malian boarder. Having visited, talked to him, and experienced a couple unpleasant situations myself there over a 2-day period, my opinion is that it is one of the more difficult sites for a volunteer to be. Anyways, Jared decided he needed a change. It's like losing a brother, but I want him to be happy. Tomorrow he will be eating a greasy cheeseburger in Paris and on his way home.
10:07 am
Madi ndefi hirande
For awhile I have been meaning to cook dinner for my family. They tell me occasionally that I should help prepare a meal. Whether this means I am not contributing enough or they just want a good laugh, I don’t know. At any rate, I don’t feel like I contribute to any of the housework, so I figured it was long past my turn to cook. I don’t know that they were expecting me to offer to prepare the whole thing because host mom, Aminetou, was a bit taken back. But nevertheless, they agreed a bit dutifully. I had the sense they thought they would be going to bed hungry.

The project: lentil soup. The ingredients: a couple of kilos of lentils, tomatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and potatoes. Normally this is a super-easy recipe, which is why I can cook it. You toss the stuff in there with the proportional amount of water, and an hour or so later, voila. Also it becomes quite chunky and thick. As we don’t have silverware and eat with our hands, this is essential to any Mauritanian meal. However, cooking for 20+ people (“we never know how many people are going to come, you know. You have to be prepared to feed anyone who comes to visit”) when it is pitch black using only charcoal takes lentil soup to a whole new level of difficulty. Djeynaba and I chopped vegetables in the afternoon, pas de problemes. When it came time to add water, I was a bit more uncertain as I was using only a liter cup when I know the recipe as 4 cups (US measuring size) for every one cup of lentils. And this was 4x the standard recipe. “Too much water!!” My sisters were saying. But I remained cocky. I know my lentils.

About an hour later, with two pots boiling over with water, I began to doubt myself. At first the charcoal was too hot, then too cold, and finally it dwindled and there was not enough charcoal at all. Djeyneba had promised salt and maggi cubes (kind of like a bouillion flavoring), but it turns out she had neither one. Three of my older sisters (the ones about my age) had disappeared to go prepare for their classes; they are finishing teacher training school and part of their training is a model school in the primary school here. Being paranoid, I was convinced that they just didn’t want to try my cooking. My younger sisters (half my age or so) were standing over the pot, mournfully shaking their heads, and repeatedly telling me “too much water”. I couldn’t see as it was pitch black. They must have been born with nightvision. My brothers in high school were walking around laughing, cheering “Madi ndefi hirande! Madi ndefi hirande!” (Madi is cooking dinner) and “Hirande toubaak!!” (white people’s dinner). My youngest sister Hawa, 4 years old and a treasure, was skipping backwards and forwards with a plastic bucket over her head, shouting “Ina welli? Wellani?” (Will it taste good? Or bad?) I swore to myself I would never do this again.

Alas, the sauce thickened eventually. Djeynaba borrowed salt and extra charcoal from a neighbor. My brother Brahim bought some bread. And we all sat down and ate lentil soup. They said they really liked it, and they did indeed clean the plates. My 3 sisters came back very late from working at their friend’s house, so they had lentil soup for breakfast. “Ina welli!” It was unanimous. Maybe it will have to become a weekly thing. Or maybe just bi-monthly.
Tuesday, April 12th, 2005
10:22 am
Spring Break ’05 has passed. Due to logistical hurdles, it was impossible to experience such craziness as Spring Break ’02 (if you were there, you remember . . . or maybe you don’t), but I still wanted to use Hector and Genny’s house as a relaxing and rejuvenating Mauritanian hideaway. My sitemates abandoned me: Hector and Genny to the COS conference in Rosso, and Jarad and Jared for the Sahara camel trek. Rescuing me from a week of solitary meditation and language study, Cailin and Suzanne came up from Selibaby to help me in this endeavor. Thanks to Mom, we had the unbelievable luxury of 3 blocks of smoked cheese and decided to convert the house into the Aioun branch of the Cordon Blue Cooking School. Potatoes au gratin, lentil soup, cream of carrot soup, chilled garlic soup (it’s better than it sounds), tomato and basil salad, quesadillas, breakfast burritos, curry dishes – nothing was above us. All local ingredients and all from scratch! Well, except for the cheese. We also spent some time doing our favorite Aiounian activities: hiking on the rocks and watching movies. Once Jarad and Jared rejoined us (looking very tan and limping slightly – turns out riding a camel for a few days makes your butt very sore), we had a hamburger cookout and turned the hanger (big tent) into a home movie theater using the projector from the lycée. We celebrated Cailin’s birthday using a montage of Mardi Gras beads and random Easter decorations. And we played with the baby kitties a lot. Hector and Genny’s cat had 3 baby kittens a few weeks ago, and contrary to all Mauritanian experiences so far, they are still alive and now walking.

After all of that, it was good to go home even if it did mean discovering that my room has a larger ant problem than I originally suspected. I missed my family. Yesterday, I went with my sister Djenaba to a wedding. She said it was very dull because there was no activity and they did not even prepare any drinks except tea. On the way home, she wanted to drink the water from my Nalgene and we had one of those nonsensical Mauritanian conversation that went a little something like this:

Djenaba: Madi, this water is too hot! That’s not good!
Madi: But you said you were thirsty and this is better than nothing, right.
Djenaba: No No! It’s worse! Hot water is not good for your health, especially when it is this hot outside.
Madi: But we just drank 3 rounds of tongue-scalding tea while it was this hot outside. So tea is not good for your health either?
Djenaba: No No! That’s different! Tea is for your head. Water is for the whole body.
Madi: Tea is for your head?
Djenaba: Yes, you know, mental health.

Maybe I am getting wierder by the day, but her argument kind of made sense to me.

By the way, Andrew Daniels is now 9 years old. Happy birthday, Andrew! That makes me feel so old. I remember when he was born.

Work right now is mostly wrapping up activities done before the vacation. Hector and I did another microfinance seminar at the Computer Center. It was a lot more fun the second time around. I want to print certificates for the people who participated. And I did a vegetable preservation activity with the women from the same NGO. I taught them how to can carrots and do a feasibility study. They are going to sell them during the 5 months of the year when vegetables are not available at the market. They were all really excited to learn how to do it and want to try it with other vegetables. For a weekend, Hector and I felt like we were actually being productive and working hard. It was a nice change from the status quo where we are hardly working. Hector, Jarad, and I have decided our mission is to make that ESD the best NGO in all of Mauritania.

April 22 is Earth Day, and I am in charge of planning an activity for the GMC. I think we are going to do a garbage collection and make something out of what we find (Rachel, my experience with the infamous Garbage Wall will finally be of use :). I have a feeling it will turn into one of those nonsensical Mauritanian conversations with the GMC girls. They don’t like trash very much, and touching it even less.

And last but certainly not least: Genny has been accepted to the Marquette University graduate program! She will be getting a full scholarship and a living stipend to get her masters in education. I am so excited for her and this is so perfect for her, as she is such an amazing teacher, even in a coutnry where it is notoriously difficult to be a teacher. My happiness for her is dimmed only by the knowledge that our favorite married couple will now be leaving Aioun even sooner than we thought -- 1 July. We can only hope that the new volunteers we receive are as nice, fun, amazing, and inspiring as Hector and Genny have been. Although I guess since Jarad and I will be 2nd years, it will be our turn to be amazing and inspiring. Eeek, that's scary.
Monday, March 14th, 2005
6:03 pm
By the way . . .
If anyone is sending me anything (no insinutation of obligations whatsoever, but just if you are going to anyways), I have enough Q-tips, towelette wipes, and waterless hand sanitizer to last me through the end of service. Thank you very much to those who sent them; I am well-stocked now. I also take vitamins daily and drink clean water, courtesy of the Med Office.

Always welcome and appreciated are Reeses Pieces, Skittles, KoolAid, Beef Jerky, Lipton Pasta Sides, Ramen noodles, and cheese (no matter how processed, Parmesan would be nice). DVDs are great, as we can watch them on the computer in our regional office. Currently our selection consists of Sniper 2 and George of the Jungle 2. Surely none of you would ever deign to watch such filth, so I will just say that the originals are an abomination to the art of film. Ergo the sequels can only be worse. Whoever figures out how to send me a swimming pool is my hero for life.
Sunday, March 13th, 2005
11:00 am
National and International Women's Day
Yes, Mauritania has a National Women's Day. You just can’t stop progress.

I started the week by hanging out with the women's co-ops at the office of the Condition Feminine. (When I type that, it looks like I'm talking about an civil government micro-managing women and their monthly problems, but actually it's just the political cabinet for women's rights here.) I had a few cultural moments when I was sitting around chatting with the women. Lalla (a BIG elderly Moor lady) decided she wanted to play a game with me. Think pick-up sticks with a dash of violence added for kicks. She tosses some wooden sticks on the ground. Which direction they are facing determines the number of times she slaps me. Then she takes the sticks, indicates I should puff out my cheeks and hold my breath, then she slaps my cheeks with the sticks to make me expel the air. After repeating this never-ending fun numerous times, she says, "no no, wrong wrong, me me." So I say "Ok, Ok." Only when it's my turn to do the slapping, she takes a sip of water before puffing out her cheeks. The new addition means that the slapper (me) gets sprayed with water from the slappee (Lalla).

Then Lalla decides she needs to see my breasts. I think it had something to do with when she asked me why I wasn't married, and I said men are only problems. And she said, yes that's true, but you still need one for milk (babies). Hard to argue with that. To prove her point, she pulled out her breast and put it on display in my face. She has a son who needs a wife, she says, and I need a husband, so it's a done deal. But I guess she needed to check the worthiness of my milk-producers. At first this involved a slight tugging on my shirt, but soon it became an all out wrestling match with a woman 5x my age and size. Lalla should be a WWF steroid chick. That woman can get the job done. Quality Mauritanian fun.

It's a good thing I like being silly, because I think I ended up looking a bit silly the whole morning.

For International Women's Day at the Girls Mentoring Center, Genny and I had planned an evening called "Les Femmes au Travail" (Women at Work). We had been taking pictures of professional Mauritanian women in Nouakchott and Aioun. I made the photos into a slideshow presentation in the Computer Center, played to the music of "I'm Coming Out". Mauritanians love photos, so that was a big hit. We had invited 8 professional women from Aioun to come and speak about their work. 3 of them actually showed up, which is a pretty good turnout for us. One of our friends, Badiallo, came to speak about being a teacher. She did that for about 2 seconds before going off on a bit of a diatribe. She said some people in town say that we subvert Islam at the GMC (we already knew this), but it isn't true, we do good work here and we are good people, and all of the girls should come to the GMC. After continuing to extol our virtues for a couple of minutes, she then went to her chair, sat down, and serenely folded her hands. The presentations were all in Hassaniya, so I didn't completely understand until Genny told me when we moved over for the group picture, along with a disclaimer that "I didn't tell her to say that! I didn't!!" We paired a group of girls with one of the women, and they drew a picture of her working and asked questions about her responsibilities at her job. After the girls presented those, we had refreshments. Genny had baked a cake with Nouha, Saida, and Mariem (3 of our GMC girls), so we had a cake presentation. It seemed to all go relatively smoothly and successfully, and Genny and I were pretty pleased. And Genny, Hector, Jarad and I had a good laugh over their discovery of our true intentions for the GMC.
Sunday, March 6th, 2005
10:27 am
The Invasion
So Friday morning I awoke around 7 as usual, went to the salon for my bowl of bouille (porridge), and announced my plan to do laundry. Djenaba wanted to do laundry as well but said I should go ahead as Amineta (my host mom) was coming in from Boghé and she would wait for Amineta’s clothes. It seemed like a calm and lazy Friday for all. I prepared my buckets and started scrubbing away. Amineta called and said she was coming with “several” people and we should be ready. We heard this and knew she was coming with an uncle and her father, but everyone figured it would be a car full of people at most.

Around 10:30, they came. First it was a sedan. Then a van pulled up behind the sedan, and another and another . . . 4 vans total. And people started flooding into the compound. So many people, they were everywhere, spilling out of every room, crammed under the hanger and in every shady spot. We were greeting everybody in a line as they walked in the compound, and I saw Aissita looking at Djenaba like “Did you know about this?” After they finished greeting, all of my sisters started moving at once. Djenaba said we needed my plastic mat, and the first sign that she was a little overwhelmed was when she shouted out “VITE!! VITE!!”

Before I continue, a small explanation of the water situation at my house should be articulated. Aioun has a water system in place, but there is a chronic problem with shortages and lack of pressure, especially during the dry season. As a result, the city turns off the water supply to neighborhoods on a supposedly rotational schedule (i.e. every neighborhood goes without water one day a week). However, since my family lives in a poor neighborhood and poor people don’t need water, the powers-that-be kindly shut off our water supply every day. When it comes back at night, we fill our bidons and buckets. This is normally enough to see to the water needs of the family (about 20-30 people) for the following day. On days when they forget to turn the supply back on at night or we need extra water, we draw it from the well behind our house.

Naturally over 100 people was a bit much for our meager water resources, so our friend El Hadj was in charge of drawing well water. How many buckets he must have drawn that day, I cannot imagine because everyone wanted a shower. And some wanted to wash clothes. My sisters made 2 huge buckets full of zrig (a milk drink) and started dishing it out by the bowl. The younger kids were running over to neighbors’ houses and borrowing teapots, cups, caisses, cooking pots and plates. My brothers slaughtered 2 goats and starting carving them up.

Knowing I should get out of their way and go into town for the day, but much too fascinated to do anything but participate, I insisted on helping and was put to work chopping onions. Onions and I don’t have the best of relationships. I can handle 2 or 3—diced, chopped, sliced, what have you. More than that and they irritate me and make me cry. Aissita put a bowl of 4 kilos of onions in front of me. After the first dozen, I was sobbing. Khetal said I needed a break and told me to take the platters of raw meat and the goats’ heads over to Aissita for cooking.

Somehow lunch was prepared in a couple of hours, and my sisters produced 25 platters of rice and meat (and onions!). And after several hundred caisses of tea, the men of Boghé went on their way. They were making a pilgrimage to see a Marabou in Nioro, Mali, and gave Amineta a ride. I got to meet El Hadj’s dad and Khetal’s husband, so it was cool. Even if they are friends and family, I am still impressed. If 100 people unexpectedly showed up on my doorstep at 10:30am expecting hospitality and lunch, I would point them in the direction of the best restaurant in town.

Indulge my overactive imagination for a minute, and let me say that I now have a picture of how a refugee camp operates and how disease spreads so quickly. The people in charge are pressed to see to the immediate needs of thirst and hunger, and they don’t have time to wash the food and clean the water properly. Water sources are insufficient, so people turn to whatever they can find. With everybody in such close quarters, people are constantly touching and douches get backed up and people are going to the bathroom everywhere. The idea of using soap is absurd with so many people. Fawma and I both contracted nasty cases of giardia, so the party continues.

Other than that, mostly I have been working with Genny on preparing International Women’s Day activities at the GMC. The girls painted t-shirts yesterday to wear on Tuesday. The city actually had some events for Women’s Day this weekend, and I was the photographer. A bunch of women’s cooperatives in the area came in to display their wares. Of course, the ceremony itself was a bunch of patron White Moor men under a tent with drinks and food, but at least they tried.

The other day I was thinking about how some qualities are so universal. I was hanging out in Omar's shop and these White Moor chicks were checking out their reflections in the mirror before having their picture taken. And I went home to find my younger sisters jumping rope and chanting a song. My sister Bebe came running out of the house and smoothly started jumping with the rhythm of the chant. The White Moor chicks were wearing mulahfas and my sisters' "jump rope" was the cord used for drawing well water, but the moves looked so familiar that I couldn't help but watch and appreciate being a part of it, while laughing and hugging Hawa (my 4-year old sister).
Sunday, February 6th, 2005
5:51 pm
Change in Attitude
So I was remembering a conversation over dinner chez Genny and Hector way back in September, in the days of codependency. Hectorvieve was either on their way to or from Nouakchott and were talking about how mighty nice those NKT days are. I acted a bit high-and-mighty, saying I didn’t get what the big deal was and I didn’t even want to go to NKT. NKT was too big, too expensive, too taxi-dependant. I much preferred my lil’ rocky oasis. Now I found myself counting the days (currently 5 days, hours TBD upon condition of taxi-brousse ride). Some of this is undoubtedly related to Brock, but I am also dreaming of shwarmas, pizzas, a real bed, and the MBC 2 American movie channel received via satellite. I still prefer my lil’ rocky oasis, but I have to say . . . those NKT days are indeed mighty nice. The official reason for going is Early Term Reconnect (ETR), In-Service Training (IST), and a Gender and Development (GAD) conference for Girls’ Mentoring Center (GMC) volunteers. All of those acronyms are just meetings with admin people to make sure we are still alive/sane/doing our jobs. Then it is on to Dakar for the West African Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST)! At last I will be in a situation where my athletic talents can be fully realized.

With Adriana visiting last week (see her page for more details, I am lazy), Jay arriving tomorrow and Tang in town, Aioun is just hopping with toubabs.

Today I was walking into town with my sister Djanaba who is about my age. She was saying she was very late in going to the market today, how tired she is of going to the market and how she wishes Aminetou would come home. Aminetou is my host mom and has been in Boghe for the past couple of weeks caring for her sick mother. (Incidentally, host mom Aminetou is not the namesake of this journal. My family gave me her name and my host father’s surname, so my Mauritanian name is Aminetou Wane.) I asked why she doesn’t send one of the younger girls or a brother to the market. She said, “No, no! They cannot pick a good tomato!” She has started dragging along 10-year old Brahim to carry the bucket. So the three of us were on our merry way, and somehow the pace kept increasing until we were speed-walking/jogging across the riverbed. Speed-walking in loose sand with a wrap skirt is not easy, but it’s funnier if you know that the concept of rushing anywhere for tardiness is absurd here. The two of us were absurdly tripping over each other and racing across the riverbed with Brahim sprinting to keep up behind us, when Djanaba cries, “Stop! Why are you running? I cannot breathe!” And I naturally reply that it wasn’t me; she is the one who is in a hurry. And she said, “No, no! It is you. You are busy today and not enjoying the sand!” It loses something in my story-telling, but the three of us were falling down laughing on that lovable, enjoyable sand. That is my sister Djanaba. I absolutely adore her.

My other story for the week occurred at GMC class Thursday evening. I was leading the “Where’s Aminetou?” project. All of the girls are writing letters, putting together Mauritanian paper dolls, and designing henna handprints. We will be sending them to other high school girls in countries where I have a PCV contact. Our goal (that is, Genny and myself) is to teach the girls a bit of geography and cultural exchange. The funny part is that none of their letters describe Mauritanian culture all that well. I had even written most of the letter; they just had to fill in the blanks. Most girls decided they wanted their doll to be wearing a dress or skirt rather than a mulafa (the veil). They like to eat fruit or fish (which they never do; it just isn’t available in Aioun. When it is available, they don’t buy it either because it is too expensive or they are accustomed to the lack). Then they got to the sentence, “Mauritania has a lot of _____.” This one really puzzled them. What does Mauritania have a lot of? I was imagining the obvious: sand, camels, broken down cars, etc. Then Saida shrieked “Gas! Mauritania has a lot of gas!” I must have had a puzzled look on my face. I know we all have diarrhea, but is that really the first thing she wanted to tell her Ecuadorian friend? Then she jumped up, ran over to the gas tank we use for cooking classes, smiled, and said “You know, gas!” Girls around the world will be getting a very strange idea of Mauritanian culture. It was interesting though to see that when left to their imaginations and knowing their letters were going to other countries (as opposed to being read by their parents/other Mauritanians), the girls chose activities and clothes that they are not usually allowed to do or wear.

In less-than-stellar news, I gave away Rokie. She and my family just did not mesh well. Although they were amazingly tolerant, I did not want it to come to an “it’s us or the dog” discussion. I initially gave her to this sketchy Senegalese guy, but the dog ended up back with her original caretaker. He apparently did not want her back because he gave her to some kids. Knowing what kids did to Hector’s hedgehog, surely this does not bode well for Rokie’s future. My sister Khetel saw the kids tormenting her yesterday and asked where they had gotten her. Today I was passing by that house, Rokie saw me, got really excited and started following me. I told a girl to hold onto her, but Rokie kept escaping and chasing after me. So sad. Obviously the smart thing would have been to not take the dog at all, but whatever, it’s done. Now that I am in this situation, is the right thing to: (a) leave her with current kids/original caretaker knowing it is not great but she seems to be surviving (b) try to find someone else to take her knowing it very well could be worse than present situation (c) take her myself, draining vacation funds on her food/spaying, and necessitating a move away from my family.

Ah, I was supposed to be typing my quarterly report (yes, the one due 1st Jan) and look how I spent my afternoon instead.
Wednesday, February 2nd, 2005
10:53 am
My First Journal Entry
I actually have an online journal. This is truly a landmark day which I never thought would come. I am overwhelmed. Millions of people reading MY words for inspiration. Or not. I was playing with titles trying to figure out something just right. Aminetou's Escapades in Aioun is not it, so the title will be changing. I will probably babble quite a bit (like I am right now but it's the emotion talking, I swear), so I need to hire an editor. Lauren, are you up to the task? ;)

For those of you who haven't heard, I have a puppy. An adorable little puppy named Rokie. Her name comes from a popular Spanish soap opera that my family watches every night (dubbed in French). For all available male pups out there, she likes long walks on the sand (i.e. she follows me everywhere), raw red meat (i.e. meaning intestinal parasites, bacterial infections, and flies everywhere), and hopefully will be fixed soon (i.e. no baby Rokies). That last part is contingent upon my host dad, a veterinarian, overcoming his intense disgust for canines. Welcome to Mauritania. Ai, do you want to fly over here and do the procedure? She also likes to chew. A lot. Foam mattresses are sufficient backups, but human hands are preferred. A man stopped me on the street and gave her to me. My brother Baicha helped me build a dog house from which Rokie continually manages to escape. So as a cage it's a rather useless contraption, but as far as Mauritanian yard art goes, it's not bad. The purpose of it was to stop terrorism. Yes, it exists even in an Islamic Republic (ooh, now my journal will be read by CIA intelligence officials scanning the internet for words of anti-Americanism, pro-Islamic extremism). But I mean terrorism in the sense of Rokie chasing the neighborhood chickens and my very sweet, dogophobic sisters. Also it protects Rokie from the 100+ kids that pass in front of my room several times a day going to and from the primary school and who would love to terrorize her.

Today I was supposed to go observe this woman's co-operative NGO. She is a white Moor with a fancy mulafa and watch. Being completely superficial, I am skeptical that her NGO actually does anything. But I really want to show some women's co-op the carrot preservation idea before carrots disappear from the market until next year. However she just came in and told me she couldn't do it. The whole conversation was conducted in Hassaniya. (Those of you who have heard my Hassaniya will know then that I said yes to something, but I have no idea what it was. The last time this happened it was a marriage proposal, but I got out of it.) I heard she, cannot, today, bediya (countryside), going, you, Bara Bara, inshallah. This is cool because Bara Bara is a tiny village 5 km outside of Aioun, and I have been wanting to visit it for awhile. Before now my experience was limited to squinted views from nearby Crocodile Rock, an excellent hiking rock with a good sunset view and a small lake with crocodiles at the base of it.

Also I have my Pulaar lesson today with Jemila. There are 2 Jemilas: One is a white Moor who "manages" the internet cafe, plays Solitaire and drinks tea. The other is a Pulaar woman who volunteers at the Girls Mentoring Center, helps Genny and myself, is committed to promoting continuing education for high school girls, works as an Arabic teacher at the school, tutors me in Arabic/Pulaar, and is raising 2 young children by herself. Is there any wonder the Moors get a bad reputation?

Ok, I need to go get on with my day. Although with my meeting cancelled, I guess I will just plan my next GMC class. Or wander aimlessly about town. Or visit Omar's music shop for a round of tea.
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