Today, April 19th, is the 5th anniversary of our first arrival in Nouakchott. We haven’t been here non-stop for 5 years, but I will never forgot the contradictory emotions that assailed me as I first stepped off that plane into the heat of a Saharan April. And although this blog is named Planet Nomad in honor of the fact that we live in a country where the culture is still nomadic and nomads are celebrated, by moving overseas we have joined the crowd of expatriates who are always, well, moving.
In honor of that, my post today is something I wrote in the first few months here. It describes an interaction I had when I was still learning about shopping on my own.
July 2001…I venture downtown alone, via taxi, to buy things for Elliot’s birthday celebration. The day is hot, the streets dusty and choked with trash. I buy some items at a French boucherie and emerge into the glare, blinking and looking around for another taxi.
A man approaches me, smiling hugely. I tense. I know what is coming, I think, another request for money. I have already guiltily avoided the large brown puppy-dog eyes of several beggar boys, who have perfected the art of looking pitiful. This man, however, is more creative.
“You are American?” he begins in English.
I nod guardedly.
“Welcome!” He makes a sweeping gesture. “Welcome to Africa!”
“Thanks,” I mutter, taken by surprise.
“We love to have Americans come to Africa,” he continues. “Because Americans love black people.”
I feel a little proud of such a heritage and a little skeptical of it, too. But I nod. What else can I do?
He continues to speak, in heavily-accented English. Americans are not like other Westerners because they love the black people and are always willing to help them. Hmm, I think. This is a slightly new twist on the role of America in international politics. He must have known some awfully nice Americans, I think in my innocence.
Have I come to stay or am I just passing through? he inquires anxiously. When reassured of my continued presence, he beams, if possible even more broadly. I have arrived at an auspicious time. His wife has just had a son, and tomorrow is the naming ceremony, held on the 8th day after birth. It is a time of great joy for him, and he would like to present me with a gift.
I shift a bit in the glaring sun and dust, and watch in some bemusement as he produces the most hideous fake-gold costume-jewelry bracelet I have ever seen. It is truly ugly as few things are. He firmly puts in on my wrist, explaining that I must keep it because it will bring good luck to his son, now that he has given a gift to an American women, who loves the black people…
My mind drifts back to a few weeks ago. We had only been here a few days, and Donn took Elliot to the market. He had brought me a similar hideous bracelet and a similar tale, of a man who had spoken English, welcomed him to Africa, and invited him to the naming ceremony of his son, to be held the next day. Donn was invited to participate in the joy of purchasing a sheep to be eaten at the celebration.
We were touched at the graciousness of a people who would invite complete strangers to a family celebration. “I think you should go,” I tell Donn. He nods in agreement.
“Do you think I could come, too?” I ask, eager to experience my new adopted culture in all its variations. “Maybe,” says Donn. “I don’t know where he lives or anything, but I’ll ask.”
And the next day, he had driven around the downtown area looking for the guy. When he did find him, he asked about it. At first the man looked a little confused, but then his face cleared and he told Donn that Donn had misunderstood; the naming ceremony was the next day. It was not too late for Donn to help purchase the sheep…
So I determinedly and not too regretfully give the bracelet back. No, no, I tell him. I can’t keep the bracelet. He insists. It is bad luck for his son if I don’t. But it is a gift. I am not to give him any money for it. (No fear of that, I think!) That would also be bad for the child.
I doubt the existence of the child altogether, but I don’t say so. I am polite. I am still new in Africa, you see. By now he is beginning to tell me about the sheep that will need to be bought. It is so expensive, you see. It may be as much as 20,000; of course he wouldn’t want that much but if I wanted to chip in a little towards that, say about 5000…
“I thought you didn’t want any money,” I say.
He is shocked. Of course he doesn’t want money! The last thing on his mind would be for me to pay him for the bracelet, which is a gift, to welcome me to Africa and to bring luck to his son. However, if as a reciprocal gesture I wanted to contribute a little something to the purchase of the sheep…
I nod. Finally we are to the point. “I won’t give you money,” I tell him. “For one, I only have enough money on me to purchase the things I need myself today.”
He nods, but obviously doesn’t believe me. In my experience, people I meet on the street believe I wear a layer of 1000 ouguiya bills next to the skin, drawn fresh each morning from my magical never-ending supply.
We go back and forth, under the hot sun, me holding my groceries in one hand and beginning to sweat, while traffic whizzes by and taxis enticingly come and go, always spotted just too late to flag them down. Can I never escape this man? I experience a feeling of desperation.
I give him the bracelet back again for about the tenth time. “I wish your son all the best,” I say, trying to keep my teeth unclenched.
He gives the bracelet back to me. “It is a gift for you,” he states. “It is bad luck for my son if you don’t take it.”
“I don’t want the bracelet,” I tell him. “I wish your son blessings and prosperity.”
He tries again to give me the bracelet. If it wasn’t so hideous I would probably just keep it and walk away, but I don’t want to ever have to see it again. Maybe I could give it to one of the beggar boys, popping it sweetly into their red cans in lieu of the coins they really want. Or I could just drop it in the dust of the street and the wheels of my taxi could run it over. But I don’t want to have to deal with it, and I doubt he would let me walk away. I give it back.
“I think you met my husband,” I say, hoping that this will trigger some guilt that I’m on to this very creative story for getting money from Americans. He just nods. He has no idea.
He is now suggesting that maybe I would like to give just 1000 or 2000 towards the sheep. In desperation, I rummage in my purse. He perks up. “Or 4000 or 5000,” he continues. “Sheep are very expensive; maybe as much as 20,000.”
“I told you already I won’t give you any money,” I tell him. I am looking for some small plastic toy that I can give to the non-existent child, just to get rid of the man. After all, he can’t deny the child at this point; he will have to take it.
My fingers close on a roll of lifesavers. I pull it out and remove a bit of fuzz. It is unopened.
“Look,” I tell him. “I’m not going to give you any money. But I wish your son all the best. Here is some American candy for him.”
He takes it suspiciously. “This is really from America?” he says.
”Yes, look. There is only English writing on it.” I turn the roll over, squinting at the tiny writing, looking for the magic words “Made in U.S.A.”
He is happy. Something from America is probably more than he thought he’d get. Maybe he thinks he can resell it; maybe it will give him prestige. Whatever. Finally, I am able to walk away without an ugly bracelet or having committed myself to owing this man something in return.
I tell Donn about it and we laugh. We continue to see the man often in the downtown area, and Donn has even asked about his son a few times. The answers are always a little ambiguous. But now, the man feels, we are fast friends. Surely we would like to buy this little souvenir he has, from Mali, over 200 years old, for only 20,000 ouguiya…