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.