Peace Corps Visit to Africa

A recent ad in my International Travel News magazine caught my eye—one huge advertiser was advertising trips to Mauritania with the slogan “New.” I settled in for a memory trip as I paged through the article, wishing I’d written it.

I made a trip to that West African country 25 years ago to visit my Peace Corps son stationed in that almost unknown land.

Then my trip really started as I had watched our school’s French teacher disappear down unlit stairs with three police escorts—because he’d refused to get the required shots before going to this out-of-fame country.  I refrained from saying “I told you so,” but it kept repeating in my mind.  I’d warned him that he needed the shots, but in typical French fashion, he’d waved off my advice.  I didn’t see him again until we were both back in Tulare, CA.

To describe the trip from Senegal’s capital on a small airplane only marked the differences, challenges, and even some concern that I found.  First of all, I had two large suitcases, really large ones, filled with peanut butter, boxes of “add water” meals, son’s clothes he’d asked me to bring, as well as my own possible needs, and anything else I thought I’d need, the names and quantities beyond admitting to now.

Seated next to me on this dangerous-looking airplane was a nice man from the United Nations.  He was to work on a plan to bring needed supplies of varying kinds to the medical facilities that were next-to-absent in Mauritania.  The conversation was interesting, but it didn’t calm my concerns about my ability to adapt to this country for the two weeks I planned to be here.  A few days in my son’s town, then I planned to take him to Senegal for a few days’ R and R, then we’d part there, and he’d fly back to his duties in the small village a long taxi ride from where his site was into Mauritania’s capital city. He’d decided that a trip by “taxi” from Nouakchott to his village would not be very comfortable for me, so he took a few days’ “leave” to join me in the capital.  Right off the bat, the taxi situation was almost funny, but more on that later.

When I climbed down the swaying steps of the wobbly ladder placed against the side of the plane, the wave of heat was almost overwhelming.  Yes, I knew it was summer, but that was the only time I could travel; school duties kept me tied at home.  After a brief hug, we picked up the two heavy suitcases, took a ride on some sort of mechanical vehicle that wouldn’t quite fit the name “car” in order to get to the home where he had stayed when he first came to the country.

It was a comfortable home, but that was probably the last time one would use the word “comfort” in any of its forms for those living here.  Introductions became the byword of any time I was in public.  The most fun was when we visited the family with whom he’d spent most of his time.  Two late-teenage daughters were delighted to check out my clothing, my shoes, my haircut—then we all ran out of things to talk about.

I’d noticed the girls had colored lines on their arms and legs, so I inquired about them.  Thinking that I was “taken” by these, they asked if I wanted them to color my hands and legs, too.  Of course, I agreed; conversation picked up right away.  (Those lines—henna art—remained with me for several weeks, creating considerable conversation at home.)

Mark had responsibilities that my visit couldn’t interrupt, and rightly so.  One day the phone rang.  It was the embassy, I guess, warning me to remain inside and everyone in the house should stay inside; there was to be a demonstration.  That sounded interesting.  Soon a ramshackled truck began passing the house, with white-garbed men (this was a Muslim society, so women didn’t count; I think that has changed a bit since then) yelling and waving sticks and some things that didn’t look like sticks.

One day, a French fellow who knew Mark asked if I’d like to drive out to a fishing village.  Of course, I said, I’d be delighted, since I could tell Mark was feeling some stress from trying to entertain me (when there was nothing with which to entertain anyone) and do his work.  I also had some packages to deliver to other Peace Corps volunteers, packages from their parents who had learned via the Peace Corps grapevine about my trip.

The pickup needs no describing; I couldn’t do it justice anyway.  The driver, Franz, seemed delighted to show me all the sights on the way to the fishing village.  I had one package to deliver on our way back, but I didn’t want to leave it in the pickup, which obviously had no way of locking the doors in case we got out to walk through the village.

Franz assured me that no one would steal the package. “Just leave it in the pickup,” he said.

“But someone will take it and it’s not mine; it’s from the parents of one of the volunteers.”

“No one will take it.”

I wondered if this was what they called a standoff. “But,” I kept insisting, until he finally said,

“Here’s why no one will take it. A thief gets his hand cut off.  And they have to make sure which hand, because one hand is for shaking hands and the other is for wiping oneself.”

It took me about two seconds to realize what the one hand was for. And I knew that hand would never be used for shaking hands with others or for eating. But I couldn’t resist asking, “What if the thief stole again?”

He shrugged, always a Frenchman.  “They cut off the other hand.”   Then I realized how awful that would be.  The man wouldn’t be able to work—nor to eat—nor to wipe himself. And, equally serious, would instantly be identified as a thief….even with just one hand gone, but now with two.   A thief had more problems than I’d ever imagined.  How did he earn a living without hands, I asked Franz.

He shrugged; the French do that a lot. “His family has to take care of him….and he’s disgraced within the family. So he dies sooner than he would have.”

I decided to leave the package and go watch the fishermen bring in their catch.  And that was truly something.  Huge waves, tiny boats, extra-large fish, blue, white-capped waves, and the bright sun overhead.  Where was a camera when I needed one?  But my son had forbidden me from taking pictures, because in the old tradition, something that was true in some U.S. Indian tribes, the taking of a photo meant “stealing one’s soul.”  No pictures.

And no one stole the package either.

I met some other volunteers and gave the rest of the packages to the right offspring.  I went to bed early that night.  Sometime during the night, evidently someone entered the house and stole several thousands of dollars from the owner of the house.  But no one seemed upset about it the next day, when the theft was discovered. I thought we should take up a collection to make some effort to return some funds to the woman.  That idea was shot down so fast, I thought my head would swim.  I never knew the reason.  Had she lied? Was she hoping I’d take up a collection for her?  Was everyone afraid?  Who knows?

We went back to Nouakchott, where I found the days to be too long, so I asked if I could help out in the embassy or whatever it was called.  I spent two days compiling some sort of lists, which even to my math-challenged brain, didn’t add up. So I told whoever was my superior there that there was a $250,000 discrepancy in the fund report.  He shrugged.  I wasn’t asked to return the next day.  Hmm.

The heat was terrible.  I decided to take my son down to Dakar for a few days, and he rec’d permission to do so, where he’d then put me on the plane home.  So, we flew (yes, again) to Dakar, stayed in a lovely hotel, ate food I could recognize, which hadn’t always been the case in Nouakchott, did some shopping, and my son lazed around the pool.

When we were away from the hotel, however, he took on a different persona.  Watchful, more guarded, careful….not because of me, but because of possible theft.  We saw a case or two of that while we walked around the city.  This city had been one of the major departure places for African slaves being shipped to the U.S. and probably to England.

There were some things I noticed, which may have changed by now.  I love to bring home from my travels things that the people in the country produce for sale to visitors.  None there. When driving outside the city, there were signs that intrigued me:  Train crossing ahead. (There was no train, period.) Watch for autos merging or merging traffic. (No autos; no traffic). Stadium ahead.  No stadium in sight. (There may have once been a stadium, donated by Spain?) But there were no trains, and few autos.  It was as though someone, with a kind heart, had rounded up signs we might see in the U.S. and Europe and “donated” them to Mauritania.  And one didn’t want to ask questions, because that might have been seen as being critical.

This all was at least 25 years ago; things may have changed by now.  My son met and married another Peace Corps volunteer, Judith, and they have two wonderful children: one is a French (yes, of course) teacher; the other is nearing the end of law school. At my son’s wedding, several parents of Peace Corps volunteers came up to thank me for taking the gifts to their own children.

If anyone is considering volunteer work, which is needed everywhere, but one wants a foreign experience, nothing beats the Peace Corps.  And one doesn’t have to eat worms any longer, as we thought was once a requirement.  Just a good sense of humor, patience (lots of that), and a desire to help others in some way…..look into the Peace Corps.

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Dark Comes Early in Africa, Sometimes

When I was in Mauritania, visiting my Peace Corps son, I stayed in what was called the United Nations Building.  Lest you imagine that it was a posh hotel with eager servants caring for my every need, it was a small, spare mobile home, but certainly met my needs.  This was my last night in the country; I was leaving the next morning to return to Dakar on that wonderful (ahem) airline, either Air Mauritania or Air Senegal, whichever logo happened to have changed that day on the side of the plane. (All the same plane, you realize.)

Packing things kept me busy, then I thought I’d go for a walk.  I opened the door; it was dark as pitch outside.  I looked at my watch; surely I hadn’t missed dinner.  No, it was about 3 in the afternoon.  I opened the door again—it was still totally black outside.  Even my hand in front of my face, was hardly visible.

This seemed very strange to me.  Had I just lost my mind? Then I noticed the strange, soundless noise.  Yes, soundless; yes, noise.  Something that felt like it hurt my ears.  I closed the door, then opened it again.  Still dark, still 3 p.m.

Remember the Shirley Temple movie where she was “transported”—I was wondering what had just happened.  I even went the direction of a nuclear explosion somewhere, because now I realized that the darkness was loaded with arm-scratching sand.

It was a simple windstorm.  That’s what everyone told me when I ventured out after the darkness had lifted and the sun had returned.  (A hot sun every day—one day, I was in town, and unfortunately happened to see a thermometer…132 degrees….and it was in the shade.  I was in the sun.)  I don’t “do” sun well, so now here was a sandstorm or windstorm; you take your pick.

A kind Mauritanian, noticing my distress—I think I leaned against a building to avoid falling down—stopped to make certain that I was “okay.”  I assured her I was just fine and thanked her for her concern.

But my brain wouldn’t stop working.  How did the people here survive at work when the sky during the day would turn this dark?  How did animals react to the unexpected “blackout” and the howling wind?  But at least now some old movies made better sense.  When a camel caravan would go crazy or when a French army outfit would suddenly disintegrate before no visible enemy except this sudden darkness and the high wind that followed, was now explainable.

Food and Shots

The entire continent of Africa, as the new book King Leopold’s Ghost describes so clearly, was chopped up by the “civilized” nations of Europe:  England, Belgium, France, and Portugal.  Under the color of kindness, these nations robbed, enslaved, and killed thousands of Africans while stealing the rich produce, i.e. gold, etc., that was found there.

That vast continent today still draws world attention for other unsavory reasons:  mini-wars involving child-kidnappings, villages destroyed, and brutal destruction reflecting the problems of the Middle East.  Under another guise, religious groups in the U.S. and England especially sent preachers and priests to “redeem the souls” of the Africans, who had their own religion, thank you very much.

When my son was sent by the Peace Corps to Mauritania, a small West African country, it piqued my interest, so after he’d been there a couple of years, I decided to visit him.  A French teacher in my school decided that since I was going, he’d also take a trip, stopping in Senegal.  I warned him to be certain to get all the required (big time required) shots.  He laughed it off.

After our plane landed in Dakar, the last time I saw him on this trip was as he was being  dragged down the stairs—probable destination: a medic with a needle.  They mean business about health, so if you ever go, please get your shots.

This was all before Al-Qaida, or Isil or Isis—all the same serious warlords. But one day I received a call at the house where I was a guest.  It was the American Embassy, warning all householders to remain inside. I decided to obey, although I wasn’t certain what was about to happen.  Well, soon trucks loaded with white-clad men, yelling and brandishing weapons, began to stream past the house, demonstrating against something or someone.

Later, while walking with my son around town, I noticed a sign with the famous logo of a radical group.  I started to take a picture; my son had a fit—worried that we’d create a “scene.”  Or worse.  So, as one should when in a foreign country, I listened to the expert and hid the camera and kept walking.

There’s table behavior also that one learns. (Remember which hand to use for eating if it’s finger food … see earlier post for that.)  Being food-phobic, a disease I just made up, I always question the ingredients in the food in the bowls before me.  One day, on another trip to Africa, a large pizza-like platter was placed before us.  Ah, something that looked familiar!  So I took a large slice, and began to eat:  it tasted fine.  I mentioned that after about my third satisfactory bite.  One of the men at the table said, “Yes, it’s pigeon.  Delicious.”

I’ve always tried to ignore the source of food, especially meat, that I enjoy. I try not to picture cute little calves or their mooing mommies or daddies as I eat a hamburger or meat loaf or steak.  But pigeon! Those pretty white and gray birds who strut around my yard. It was like eating family. I quickly became “satisfied” to explain my loss of appetite.

Meeting My Son’s “Family” in Africa

When the Peace Corps sends volunteers to other countries, there was an original placement of two or three weeks with a family. (I say “was” because I don’t know the current arrangements; this goes back a couple of decades.)

Mark, my son, was sent to Mauritania on Africa’s west coast; I came to visit him.  He wanted me to meet his family; I did.  There were some communication problems, so I kept smiling and nodding and pointing to attractive things about me in their home.  One thing was the pretty hands and feet of the young women in the family, pretty because they were covered with henna drawings.  So, with the courteous and generous nature of Africans, the girls wanted to put henna on my hands and feet.  Of course I agreed.Henna design

I gave them some money; they went shopping for the henna. (I don’t think they call it henna, but that’s the only name I have.) Soon, amid much laughter and delight, everyone was involved in painting me.   Later, when I took a shower, worried that the henna would “run,” I found I didn’t need to worry.  Nor did later showers remove the henna.  But many people with whom I associated there, were likewise decorated, so I didn’t worry about it.

Then I took the plane(s) back to the U.S. Now I stood out, like some sort of wandering minstrel without a musical instrument.  People oohed and aahed, frowned, looked askance (don’t get to use that word often) at my hands, arms, feet, and legs decorated with swirls of henna.

I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for when I returned—more comments.  Then school started again.  By now, I’d showered many times—that African henna product is persistent.  My students made comments, wondering if I hadn’t showered after working in the yard or something.  I used that experience to try to teach about diversity, but probably failed.

I still treasure the memory of that afternoon of fun the African girls and I had decorating my visible body parts.  I have no idea what they were saying; they had no idea what I was saying, but we all seemed to understand each other.  Maybe—just a thought—maybe the United Nations reps, each country’s leaders, and most of the population of said countries in the world need to have a “henna fix.”

Africa

It is impossible to describe an entire hemisphere in short snapshots of writing, but I’ll try to cover one aspect, which is true.  I went to Mauretania to visit my son who was in the Peace Corps there. (His last year of college, he confided that he didn’t “know what he was going to do,” so I suggested joining the Peace Corps.)  After two years, he’d have money saved (they took a huge chunk of each monthly salary and put it into savings for when his two-year obligation would be over), have excellent recommendations, and would be two years older—and hopefully, wiser.

So, while Africa was not my destination of choice, I landed in Senegal, where I had to take a smaller plane to where my son was.  The first unusual thing was that airplane personnel came by and moved us around; I decided it was to even the load??  I sat next to a UN representative, which was great since I could ask lots of questions.  (One also needs lots of “shots” to go to Africa; check with your doctor.)

We landed, me wearing a two-piece pant suit in the 130+ degree heat.  We were to stay in the UN housing, which, dear taxpayers, was very modest….think Motel 6 suffering starvation…which was okay with me.  Since I was to meet Mark’s friends and colleagues, he gave me some advice.  Most of it typical, except the hand bit.

In many countries where a particular religion is dominant, a person uses one hand with which to cleanse oneself after using the bathroom; the other hand with which to shake hands upon meeting and eating.  Sounds simple, except in the nervousness of meeting strangers, one suddenly forgets which hand to shake with.  If you pick the wrong hand, it’s seen as an insult.

One of the personnel, I never really knew his job, asked if I wanted to go watch the fishing vessels come in at the end of a day’s fishing.  I said, sure, but that I needed to take a package given to me by a woman at home for her daughter, also a Peace Corps volunteer.  He said, “fish first, then delivery,” and drove on—a bit fast I thought—on a road marked with a sign that indicated some country had donated highway materials to this area. (These signs were everywhere, but the funniest was one which indicated to “watch for the train crossing” when there was no track, nor would there ever be a train. (Signs like this, for a wide variety of “gifts”—mostly not needed—to this poor nation, were frequent.)

When we got to the fishing village, my friend gestured to leave the package for the volunteer in the rackety pickup, without locks on doors.  I said, “No.”  He said, “Not a problem. No one steals in Mauretania.”  I couldn’t believe that, then he told me this:  “If someone is caught stealing here, one hand is cut off, so everyone meeting him or her knows they are dealing with a thief.”  Right away, I wondered if the hand that was used for cleansing was cut off; if the “good hand” was, that person could never shake hands again.  (Use your imagination, please.)

I wasn’t convinced, but it was his country, not mine, so I left the package on the front seat of the pickup (remember, no windows, no locks, open air!) and walked to the beach to watch the largest fish I’d ever seen being towed to land.  It was a great picture—sun, surf, tide, fish.  But I kept thinking about that package.  When we returned to the pickup, it was still there, exactly as I’d left it.  (Try that on some street in the U.S.)

This is what I like about traveling; one learns so much.  I’ve written six novels featuring countries I’ve been in—and am in the process of “editing” them.  Argentine Assignment will be available shortly.