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In one day, we became rich beyond our neighbor’s wildest dreams, although this made sense once we found out their dreams. We did this by selling our house, giving away our ’84 Volvo to a deserving high-schooler who used to baby-sit free, and stepping off an airplane in our new home, Nouakchott.

Stepping out into that warm, dusty night five ½ years ago, I had no idea of my newfound status, although the small boys converging upon me should have given me a clue. I brushed them off inefficiently, too overwhelmed by a 28-hour international flight, complicated by 3 small children, to pay them much heed.

Soon, however, my neighbors began to make my status clear to me. They knocked on my door, day and night, to ask for help. “Pay my rent,” said a woman with gold rings in her ears, wearing a fairly-new muluffa. “I need money for lunch,” announced the man who delivered our water, although we had just paid him amply for his services. Neighbor children swarmed the house, eyed my kid’s toys with great awe, and proceeded to pocket a few small things; Hot Wheels cars, broken sunglasses, Barbie furniture, hair clips.

“I’ve never had a million dollars; I suppose you have,” said Abdel Khaliq to Donn one day. He’s originally from Atar, a dusty town situated in one of the hotter parts of Mauritania, near an oasis. “No,” protested Donn, whose bank account is less than $1000, but it made no difference; Abdel didn’t believe him. Everyone knows Americans have more money than they could ever use, always, springing up from a magic well in never-ending supply. Besides, $1000 was far enough beyond his experience. “If I had a million dollars,” Abdel went on dreamily, “I’d buy a house in Atar and drink camel’s milk whenever I wanted.”

This was towards the end, when the relationship was beginning to sour. We were so naïve, we had no idea of our responsibility as rich Americans, nor of obligations placed on us in the guise of friendship. Some offered friendship for its own sake, with no thought of return. But others had different aims.

It’s a very strange thing to suddenly be rich. Yesterday at the kids’ school, a man I know slightly (he sells vegetables and has ripped me off several times) presented me with a piece of paper and a story of how his wife is in hospital and he needs money for medicine. It could be true; it could be a story. It made no difference—I opened my wallet and showed him that it was empty. “That’s ok,” he said. “You could just give me some euros.” I stared at him in amazement. Apparently he thought my magic money supply was in my car; I just had to press a button and voila! Euros or dollars or ougiyas—whatever I needed.

Even though this aspect of life can be frustrating for the adults, I love the effect that growing up in a poor country is having on my kids. When we first arrived, Elliot was 5 and the twins had just turned 4. For the first several years, they thought we were really rich. (which we are, really. That’s one of my many points) It was fun when we first went back to the States 3 years later. “We’re really rich,” Elliot confided to a new friend. I watched his mother’s eyes going in amazement from his slightly-faded t-shirt to the borrowed and battered old mini-van we were driving to me. But I didn’t bother explain.

Now they’re older, and wiser in the ways of the world. They know there are a lot of things out there that they can’t have. Their school is located on the grounds of the French Embassy, and it’s the best school in town—everyone wants to go there. The son of the Spanish Ambassador is in Elliot’s class, and so is our landlord’s daughter; the president’s kids attend; many of their classmates are the children of diplomats, or have parents who work for big international companies, not mostly-unknown NGOs.

But I think this is healthy. They walk out of our gate in the morning, dressed in clean clothes and with full tummies, and see a herd of goats tended by some small, dirty children who will not be going to school. They go to an international school where other kids have newer, trendier clothes and take tennis lessons and never hesitate an instant when signing up for book clubs or extra-curricular activities. On their way to and from school, they drive past villas, whose inhabitants travel for vacation to Spain, and tents, whose inhabitants travel for vacation to the desert. They are learning to see that they’re not rich and that there are many things they can’t afford—and yet, that they are rich, with plenty of food and warm beds and toys and books galore. It’s a good balance.

October 2006

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