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The kids and I have had some interesting discussions over what constitutes needing to phone Mummy in the middle of thesis juries. This is what we came up with:

  • Wondering if you can watch TV is not an emergency.
  • Telling me that your stomach hurts everytime you get up and can you watch TV is not an emergency.
  • And finally, wondering if Abel should be playing Nintendo as he isn’t supposed to and wondering if you can have some banana bread and since we’re talking anyway, would it be ok if you watched TV is really and truly not an emergency.

And now, the last of thesis juries, brought to you by the new kinder, gentler totalitarian regime. Now instead of freaky scary, he’s helpful.
On all the posters was the slogan “Big Brother is Washing You!”

This cracks me up. I love the funny typos. (And I realize that by A. choosing this as a topic and B. writing it at the end of a long day, I’m almost guaranteed to make some myself! Please Spell-Check, catch them all! Save my reputation!) As I told the student who made them, everyone makes typos, but we bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained professors really do appreciate the funny ones.

So I didn’t even point out to him that he described Winston and Julia’s romance as sweat.

One more from 1984: “They were devoted to service Big Brother and to worship him as a supper leader.” He really is nicer folks!

You learn so much at this job. For example, I learned that “colonial legacies still perch on the African mind.” I learned that “Africans were worshipping animals, woods, and pants.” (Well if you saw some of their outfits!) And a beautiful woman was described as “nourishing men’s eyes with her perfect shape.”

And don’t forget that “sight, like the mind and the rain, happens to be a physically based occurrence over which humans have no control.”

Some of you may remember my favorite student of the year, dubbed Romeo. Many students use long words in their thesis papers, usually lifted straight from books or internet articles; he is an especially frequent offender. I called him on one of them. “What does soporific mean?” I asked him. He blinked, startled. “You mean you don’t know?” he asked me, “shocked” at my ignorance. It was priceless.

He dedicated his paper to his “expert typist and English graduater.”

And yet, these students work really hard. They have a TERRIBLE time finding sources—books in English are just plain rare in Mauritania, especially books of the sort that they need. Whereas in the States, we start learning how to take notes and produce research papers in about Grade 5 or so, this is the very first research paper these students have ever done! They have no idea about how to take notes, or how not to plagiarize, or how heinous a crime it is, or at least used to be and still should be. One student, whose paper on Poe included the gem “This glossy edition includes several illustrations by well-known artist Mark Summers” which was so obviously copied directly off the back of a book, responded to my criticism (ok scolding) by saying to me, “But this is why I asked you to supervise me. I knew you would teach me how to do it right. I never knew before.”

I admire them; I despair of them. They work so hard; they’re so lazy. They achieve incredible heights given their circumstances; all they do is sit around and complain and cheat, and they are often so rude. They drive me crazy.

And so, “I dedicate this harvest of the previous years of my education to all those who I respect and want to express to them my real appreciation and grateful.”


I really don’t have time to write with all the thesis juries. Yesterday we started at 8 a.m. and saw students non-stop till 3, with the exception of 2 very short toilet breaks. I’m happy to report that this year, for the first time, there are flush toilets at the U. Yippee!! I’m hoping to report soon that they’ve been cleaned, but at least progress is being made 🙂 The first year there were cubicles and squatty-potties, but I really didn’t like closing the door and being shut in with all the creatures who lived there. Last year there were tiled squatty-potties, also tending towards the filthy side, and this year there is a locked door and 2 flush toilets, no paper, and only one with running water. This isn’t surprising, since locals don’t use toilet paper—and yes, that is why it’s rude to eat with your left hand.

The U is really making great strides. We actually had air-conditioning in the library all day. The poor students waited outside in the heat, but I was practically cold. Air-conditioning is very rare here, and I’m not used to it, although I appreciate it when I can get it. We have an AC in our bedroom, and in the hot season the kids bring matlas in and we all sleep in the one COLD room 🙂 It’s lovely, and walking out the door of our room in the morning is always such a shock. But it’s expensive to run and we only use it when absolutely necessary.

Arabic is a flowery language, and students carry that over when they begin to write in English. Here are a couple samples from dedications:

“I dedicate this thesis to my father, who supported me morally and financially.” I don’t know how to support someone morally—I think this young man meant his father raised him to be a moral person.

One dedication, after mentioning parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and classmates, ended “And to everyone I know.”

“I would like to transform my indebtedness, gratitude and deepest thanks to my supervisor…” This one was for me! I’m the one to receive this transfer of gratitude! I don’t let it go to my head though. Last year, another teacher, a woman in her 50s, got one that called her “bewitching” and “fascinating.” I copied it down and I wish I could find it—it’s the funniest dedication I’ve ever seen.

I do have to tell you how awesome my kids are. On Wednesday, I went straight from a morning class at Oasis to thesis juries at the U, so I didn’t see the kids till I got home, tired and hungry, at 6 p.m. Elliot was shocked to learn I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He (age 10) and Ilsa (just-turned 9) had made supper already—they’d made each family member the kind of sandwich that they like (with or w/o mayo, with or w/o cucumber, for example) and had made a table out of a board and two stools, set it with cloth, cups, napkins, and name placements, and also set up various stations where you could go for a backrub or to have your hair done, etc. It was very nice, and they’d done it entirely on their own as Donn was at work.

I’m in the throes of thesis juries these days, so thought I’d share a few gems I’ve read recently. These are amusing, but I have to say much better than anything I could produce in French or Hassiniya Arabic.


On the civil rights movement: After their enslavement, they obtained their legal rights but their unassimilated skin prevented them from becoming totally Americans.


On Poe: The murders like to make their victims suffer and kill them in an inexpressibly Gothic way.


And this one isn’t from a thesis, but from a description of a desert trip to the writer’s home village, but I thought it might brighten your day: …there is no paved road. The cars don’t move there. The only element of transportation is the donkeys. It is the first time for me to ride a donkey. The fear of falling is savingly reduced by the softness of the land constructed by sands and dunes which made obstacles reduced the donkeys from rushing faster. But I fall three times…My friends laughed everytime I fell. The caravan included some countryside people who glaring even me; they could not trust that anyone could fall from a donkey’s back…We arrived at the village. It is a long tired traveling, but it was a touristic one I ever did in my life.

Here is a story about Mauritania that was headlined on Yahoo. It concerns Mauritania's second biggest city, Nouadhibou. Until this last year, there was no road connecting the two cities. Now there is, and it goes right by my house. If you check out the story, you will see a picture of men wearing the long flowing white robes, called in Hassiniya Arabic dra'ahs, which are typical clothing here.

Now, if you were going to put together a celebration of reading, what would you do? Me, I’d have games and bright balloons, free books, people dressed up like characters from them, people reading stories, puppets, etc. Not so the French! Instead, they tested on comprehension for all the books read throughout the year. What a great celebration!

I managed to survive my 4 hours at the French school. Speaking to children in a foreign language is more difficult than speaking to adults, I’ve found, and in an informal survey taken of my friends, I think my experience is common. Kids speak more quickly, they use more slang, and they are less understanding of my mistakes and funny accent.

It was fun staying for school with my 3. We walked in and they scattered to their classes while I stood under a tree with some other parents. Already at 8 a.m. it was starting to get hot. I was assigned a desk under an open tent, testing the K-Gr 2 on extracts taken from various books. I had to read them aloud! The kids were divided into teams of 3, one from each grade. As a team raced up to me and I began to read the instructions, I would see looks of stress and panic appear on their little faces! But once I read the extracts, which I did with lots of expressions even as I murdered the vowels, the panicked expression would be replaced with confidence. “Je sais! Je sais!” (I know! I know!) they’d shout, and hands would shoot up into the air. It was even kinda fun.

At the recreation (recess), I went with the other mums into the teacher’s area, where I was given a tiny cup of extra-strong coffee. I chatted with 2 of my 3 kids’ teachers, where they revealed to me a human side that my kids don’t even suspect exists! Then it was back under the tent for a rather-difficult crossword puzzle with older kids. By noon, I was heat-fatigued. Although I’d been in the shade the whole time, it was 104 degrees outside and the water in my bottle was hotter than the coffee had been. Still, no one laughed at my accent, at least not to my face, and everything went fine—even according to Ilsa, who is often ashamed of my accent.

Home for lunch, then up to the university to pick up an enormous stack of thesis papers. Juries start next week. In fact, I should be reading them right now!

Last night we had our annual thank-you dinner for those who volunteer at Oasis Books. We include Midwesterners, Southerners, Canadians, and Donn and I, with our ideal West-Coast accents. (You must admit it’s easiest to understand and pleasantest on the ear… J ) We got into one of those you-pronouce-bag-HOW? conversations, and hit on words like aunt, crayon, garage. Towards the end, we noticed our two non-native speakers staring at us; a Dutch woman and a Brazillian man who learned English in Wales. “Do you ever have conversations like this?” we asked. They shook their heads. Guess they really don’t know how to have fun in Sao Paulo!

My neighbours are putting a permanent tent on their roof. So far they’ve got the wood frame, covered in tightly-stretched material, and now they’re putting a sort of chicken wire round it, over which they’ll put mosquito netting. I’m sure it will come in handy as a sleeping area in the hot season, which we’re heading into.

These permanent tents are a fixture in Nouakchott, no matter the socio-economic status of the family. We have one too—we call it the gazebo, and sometimes we drag out the matlas and cushions and sit there with friends, but everyone else refers to it as our khaima, our tent. This is a culture that until recently was nomadic, and that still celebrates the nomad. Every summer, as soon as school lets out, there is an exodus from the city—pick-up trucks or small sedans piled high with all the household furniture, crammed with entire families, heading east into the desert. Families return to tiny desert villages for months on end; some live in tents after the rains, and drink camel’s milk and eat dates. This is considered the height and depth of Mauritanian culture—the deepest and best experience that life has to offer.

Poor families live in their tents, often pitched on a scrap of land between the beautiful villas of the rich. This sharp juxtaposition of two opposites is common here, in a culture that is changing so quickly you can get whiplash just watching it. Most Mauritanians, both men and women, still wear traditional garb, but it’s common to see a Moorish man, in a long flowing pale blue robe, driving a brand-new Mercedes while talking on a cell phone. Another man, in a suit coat and tie, sits in the passenger seat. On the major thoroughfare that runs from Morocco down through Senegal, connecting the entire West Coast of Africa, donkey carts slow traffic to a standstill. Sometimes when I pick up the kids from school in the heart of the city, I see cows standing mute in a bit of a shade. Herds of camels trot sedately down the street—in fact, at our old house, near to the French Embassy, our nearest neighbours were a herd of camels. Here is a picture of our car, with Donn’s surfboard on top, and the camels passing by. A friend told us that their owner “loves those camels better than his own daughters,” and certainly the camels were well-tended. I have no idea about the daughters!

Camels and car.jpg

The love affair of the nomad with the camel continues unabated, although nowadays camels are transported long distances in the back of pick-up trucks. It’s quite a sight, although it is difficult for Americans, raised on movies that say things like “no spider was harmed in the making of this film” at the end, to watch the process of the camel being loaded or unloaded. First the camel is forced to kneel, then ropes are tied around its knees (camels are double-jointed). Another rope in the mouth holds down the tongue, a sensitive part. Then, while men hang onto these ropes, a group of other men hoists the camel up, while it tries to whip its long neck round and bite them. Sometimes they drop it. The camel bellows. I’ll try to get a picture, although in our new house we don’t have camel neighbours—just goats, who try to get in and eat our garden, donkeys, and the wild dogs and cats—all these are common in all areas of the city.


SIF: Click on the thumbnail picture to see it bigger. It took me 2 days to get this picture to upload!

  1. Today I am much better, just dizzy with tiredness. But now Donn is sick. It’s terrible being sick at the same time as your spouse. Who will bathe my fevered brow and fetch me cold drinks? Not to mention I’m not quite up to fetching him cold drinks and waiting on him hand and foot either. Worst of all, he doesn’t have the same thing I’ve got. Instead of aches and a lowgrade fever, he’s got a terrible cold/cough and um, tummy issues, she said delicately. Life overseas tends to include lots of those. But I don’t want to get his illnesses! Plague stalks our dwelling. Already my nose is starting to run.
  2. Before he was struck down, Donn made it to Mauritel this morning and guess what?! Our billing problem has been solved! Alhumdullilah, as they say in Arabic.
  3. I let Elliot talk me into doing a 4-hour stint at his school’s Lire en Fete (basically a Celebration of Reading) this Thursday. I just got a note from the director telling me I’m running a booth! AUGH! HELP! I can’t do this all in French. My French is so rusty, after a year of reading thesis papers and teaching ESL and having all my French friends sign up for English classes and practice English with me. I was envisioning something a bit more behind the scenes, or perhaps reading “The Cat in the Hat” in English or something. After all they are all learning English. I’m so stressed. The things we do for our kids. But he said, “Please Mom, you never help at my school.” What would you have done?

Yesterday I was achy and I was up all night with a fever and chills. I woke up with a splitting headache. Headache, fever, chills? I sent the family off on their own and settled in to a quiet morning in bed. I made the mistake of getting out our copy of “Where There Is No Dr.” This handy book assumes that, while there is no doctor, there is a large, well-stocked pharmacy nearby. It also has lots of graphic drawings—helpful, no doubt, if you are wondering if that skin lesion is leprosy or merely part of a tubercular rash, but a bit disconcerting when combined with a splitting headache and a morbid imagination. I lingered a while in the fever section, wondering if I could possibly have malaria, dengue fever, or typhoid—my symptoms fit all of them. Except my fever wasn’t that high—yet. I wandered over to the “colds and coughs” section and decided I wasn’t going to die after all, especially as by this time the ibuprofen (sold locally as Brufen) was kicking in. If my fever continues to mount in the following days and I experience other symptoms, I’ll let you know, but I doubt it. I’m already much better.

When Elliot was 5, I found him leafing through the section on childbirth. It has extremely graphic drawings—suitable for a book of this type, but for a 5 year-old boy, not so much. “I just want to be ready in case I need to know,” he told me. That made me relax, as you can imagine.

So it’s not exactly a fun and meaningful Mother’s Day for me. That’s ok—we can always celebrate the French version, which is the one the kids make me cards in school for.

Last night, in spite of the aches, I went to a birthday party for an Arab friend of mine; one of my students. She’s Palestinian, not Maure, and although she has lived in Mauritania for her entire life, she and her family are noticeably different. I suppose we don’t blend in that well either, come to think of it, but you can always tell a Middle-Eastern Arab or even a Moroccan from a Maure.

It was a great party. Women only. Everyone arrived covered head-to-foot under colourful local veils, which were instantly removed to reveal skin-tight halter tops, tiny skirts, nose-bleed-inducing sparkly heels, and bare midriffs. Soon we were all sitting round clapping as the girls took turns belly-dancing to Arab pop music. It was great fun. Ilsa, who just turned 9, was persuaded to join in, and she had a blast. They invited me as well, but I didn’t see any of the other married women dancing, so I didn’t know if it was appropriate. Some of the girls concentrated deeply on their moves; other were laughing and singing along as they danced. It was strange to see movements that we in the West would view as sensual being done in front of an all-female audience. I also liked that none of these beautiful girls were what we’d call thin in the West—yet they obviously enjoyed themselves unselfconsciously.

The room was solid people, and the door was closed so that no passing male could get a glimpse in, so it was stiflingly hot. Soon they brought round tiny glasses of bissop—made, I think, from hibiscus flowers, a really good local drink the color of cranberry juice. There was also lots of good food—tabouli salad, falafel, two kinds of cake. We gathered round the birthday girl and her one large candle in a cake she’d baked herself, and sang along to a taped rendition of “Happy Birthday”—first in French, then in English, then in Arabic, then disco-style in English again. A rumour that the girl’s father had returned caused a general panic, and the veils were whirled round them once more. False alarm; the girls relaxed once again.

Later, the birthday girl opened her presents—that is, she and all her friends and sisters opened them. One friend tried on 3 different kinds of perfume, and her sister put on a new ring. I’m sure that at the end, she got all her presents, but I liked how casual she was with them initially. The point is, she was having a wonderful time with her family and friends.

I will never forget the day my friend Z sat me down on a matla in her front yard for a real woman-to-woman chat. “You really need to start looking your age,” she told me firmly. I was elated! Because what she meant what that I needed to gain weight. And frankly, that is the first time in my life someone has ever said that.

This happened a couple of years ago, but I saw Z today for the first time in months and noticed that she is following her own advice. She’s a mother now, and an established and respectable member of the community, with a job and a car. I’m 10+ years older than she is, and I should be bigger than she is, but I’m not. *quiet smile* Here in Mauritania, women are supposed to be as big as possible. And as pale as possible. (Suddenly, I’m practically a beauty queen!) Donn said to her once, “Z, you’re looking pale and fat!” He told me later he just wanted to see if he could actually say that to a woman without getting hit! But it worked. “Oh thank you Donn; you’re so kind!” she said.

It’s changing, but this is a place that a few years ago had “Wife-Fattening Farms,” where parents would send their 12 and 13 year-olds to be forcibly fattened up. Drinks such as whole milk and incha, made with a sort of oatmeal, were poured down their throats. It is an honor and a beauty to be big. An American friend of mine just opened a gym, and she has these enormous, 250 pound women coming in to see her, telling her they need to exercise for their health but they don’t want to lose an inch! One woman came in and said, “My husband just returned from a 10 day business trip and he said my face looks thinner.” She quit the gym immediately.

It’s easy to mock this, and I do, and it’s easy to decry all that women will do to themselves in the name of beauty. But is it really any different in the West? Here, women risk cancer with skin-lightening creams, diabetes runs rampant, and exercise until recently was non-existant, at least for the White Maures. After all they had the Black Maures and the Pulaars to do the hard labour. But what about that weight-loss drug with the catchy name, Phen-Phin or something?, that had to be taken off the market after people using it died. What about anorexia and bulemia and a culture that worships youth? What about pressure to inject a wrinkle-reducing poison into your face, or to spend a fortune on the latest styles? To be honest, it’s strange but sort of nice to be in a place where you can be comfortable with your weight and age, knowing that you’re supposed to be fatter and look older. And it’s also good to realize that the standards of beauty may differ, but really it all comes down to the same thing—women care deeply about how they look, and they are insecure about it, whether it’s wanting a tan, or wanting to be “white.”

Me, I’m doing my best to fit in; there’s a bar of extra-dark chocolate in the fridge right now and I’m going to eat it while Donn’s at work. It’s a sacrifice, but when you move to another culture, you must not remain too aloof.


PS I figured out how to do photos, but now our digital camera is broken. I’m looking through old photos for something good. Elliot says instead of PS I should say SIF—for Something I Forgot. Makes sense, but will it catch on?

May 2006

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