The weather on Planet Nomad has been a little bit whacky all week. During the day, il fait tres chaud—it’s sooo hot. The sky is filled with sand, the sun dim but heavy. Then, suddenly, in the late afternoon there comes a breath of coolness. By nightfall the wind has picked up and I shiver, standing outside in the garden where I came to cool off. We race round the house opening windows. In the morning, we close everything up, and the house stays relatively cool all day—a breath of relief when you come in from outside. On Wednesday, it was 104 degrees at 2:00, and 74 degrees by 8:00. Doesn’t this seem a little extreme?
I was aware of the heat Wednesday afternoon because we went to an ism, or naming ceremony. The ism takes place on the 8th day of a newborn’s life. I’ve heard that an imam, or Muslim preacher, comes to the house in the morning, spits in the child’s ear, and gives it its name—which the parents/extended family have chosen for it. I’ve never seen this part. I think it is at this point that the child is often given amulets to wear, which the parents believe protect it from evil or harm. In a nation where infant mortality is still high, you can understand why parents grasp at anything they think might help.
Other superstitions show up at this time, too. I remember going to an ism for a baby girl. She was wearing thick black eyeliner! This, I was told, is a way to help ensure that she’ll be a beautiful adult.
Wednesday afternoon, the kids don’t have school. A friend of ours called to invite us all to the ism. The kids groaned—they are all going through stages when they don’t really like tradtional aspects of their host culture. And eating goat with their hands while sitting on the floor has come to personify all that they don’t like. But for an ism, a goat—or two, depending on how wealthy the family is—must be killed and cooked.
This family is Pulaar—part of a sub-Saharan African tribe that lives in the south of Mauritania. The women wear brightly coloured robes that are as wide as their arms, but which are folded up onto their shoulders. I’ve tried boubous on before, and they make me look absolutely square (since I’m short and, well, not thin), but Pulaar women look nice in them; dignified, gracious.
When we arrive at the house, we are ushered into the back room to see the mother and baby, then we are separated; D and I are shuffled off to a salon filled with women, while Donn and the other men go to another salon where the men are hanging out. The boys decide to wrestle in the hall, getting dirty footmarks on the freshly-painted walls (sigh…), while Ilsa goes off with Habsa, the baby’s older sister, to play. There are LOTS of people there. For an ism, you pretty much invite every single person you know, have ever met, or are related to, which in Africa, means that your house has wall-to-wall people, inside and out.
It’s hot. The open windows bring breezes which apparently are wafting from an oven. We sit there, D and I, and watch the babies play. The other women speak to us occasionally in French, but mostly chatter away in Pulaar. Sometimes we speak to each other in English, mostly comments about how the babies are without exception dressed for a Minnesota winter, not a Mauritanian spring. They wear layers and layers of clothing, and are often wrapped in winter-thick blankets. All this in a place where, when it’s 65, we think it’s cold!
Soon it’s time to eat. First, someone comes round with a bucket and a plastic teapot sort of thing. She pours the water over your hands into the bucket. Then, another woman comes in with little plastic tablecloths, which she spreads on the floor. A man brings a large bowl full of rice, veggies and meat. We gather round. I make the boys eat with me, so that I can bully them into looking appreciative, but Ilsa has disappeared; later I will be haunted by her assurance that she “really really wasn’t hungry” and so really really didn’t eat.
We dig our hands into the rice, and remove them, gasping in pain. “OUCH!” Elliot announces loudly, as everyone turns to look. The food is sooo hot! There’s lots of oil in it, though, so it’s easy to form the rice into little balls, which can then be transferred to the mouth with minimal mess. It’s tasty. I keep scolding the kids, in English, to keep eating! They really aren’t that hungry, but I don’t care; I just want them to eat an acceptable amount so that our hosts aren’t offended. “Five more bites!” I hiss at Elliot, who at 10 ½ should be eating more than he is. Probably it would be less noticeable if I just kept quiet instead of muttering away in English, but I never could just leave things alone. Abel does great though, digging down into his section until he reaches the bottom of the bowl.
Afterwards, the bucket comes round again to wash our hands. We dig into the dirty water to find a sliver of soap, lather up, and rinse off. Then comes The Dread Zrig. Zrig is a national drink here; its basically just water, milk and sugar. What’s not to like? The kids like milk, they love sugar, but…they HATE zrig. The Mauritanians don’t understand this, as all Mauritanians, no matter their age, just love it. “Smile and take big sips,” I mutter threateningly at Ilsa. She gives a huge grin, patently fake, and takes the merest sip. “Bigger!” I mutter casually through clenched teeth. D and I drink our glasses, and the kids share one. Elliot takes one sip and makes a terrible face before putting on the fake grin.
It’s painful. Perhaps I should let them stick to water. This is a specific parenting choice you make when you live overseas; how much do you do dictate how your child responds to your host culture? Do you make them choke down the dates, which they hate? (And WHY would they hate dates, which are straight sugar, when they love sugar so, if not to simply frustrate their parents?) Donn and I feel that the point of good manners is to set others at ease, which fits in with our efforts to minimize selfishness in ourselves and our children, so we make them eat a little bit of everything, and be at least outwardly happy about it. Are we fueling hypocrisy? No I don’t think so. After all, being honest with yourselves and others isn’t supposed to mean setting your own personal comfort above that of anyone else.
After the zrig, we drink a round or two of sweet mint tea, but have to leave early to get Donn to work on time. We head back through the afternoon heat to our side of town, which is nearest the ocean, and thankfully, again that evening comes the cool breeze.