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.

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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.