You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2007.
Aicha wants to talk to me. She’s pregnant again but doesn’t want Donn to know—that is too embarrassing. Although Mauritanian culture expects wives to get pregnant soon and often, at the same time pregnancy is something that must be hidden; it’s intimate, and has a whiff of shame about it. Someone (male) catching a glimpse of a pregnant woman might inadvertently think about what causes it. Aicha tells me that once she is obviously pregnant even beyond the loose swaths of her mulaffa (head-to-toe veil), she won’t leave the house. What if one of her older male relatives saw her and realized, with a shock, that she wasn’t a little girl anymore? I tell her, “That would be his problem, not yours!” Aicha has been married 7 years now, and is in her mid-to-late 20s. But I can’t convince her.
I love my friend Aicha for many reasons. We have that soul connection that makes friendship possible across the boundaries of culture, language, political and religious views, and even diverse topics like race, or what constitutes beauty. Why are we good friends? We just like each other, in that mystical way that happens when you find a real friend. We like being together; we like talking about things. We may disagree, but we listen to each other.
One of the many things I appreciate about her is the way she has, more than any other single person, introduced me to Mauritanian culture. She has opened the door to me. Aicha comes from a very conservative tribe but she is university-educated. Her traditional background makes her a great source of information. The culture was always somewhat diverse, made up of various tribes each with their own oddities and special areas of expertise–the scholarly tribe; the warrior tribe; the tribe of griots, or singers. Different tribes have embraced modernity to varying degrees. Aicha’s tribe is well-connected and educated in general, but they have also fiercely held on to their traditions. Talking to her, I get a glimpse into another world.
Aicha’s tribe practices an ancient local custom called sawaHah, and I have to say that only people obsessed with not thinking about sex could have come up with this one. SawaHah originally dealt with relationships from generation to generation; it’s about showing respect to elders and not broaching certain topics in front of them, and it combines concepts of respect and embarrassment. But here, it also deals with the relations between in-laws and spouses and with keeping one’s parents from ever having to face the realization that one has, well, grown up. Accordingly, Aicha’s husband has never even met his father-in-law. “He saw him once from across the room in a public building,” Aicha tells me when she is explaining this to me. Since there is no marriage ceremony, only an agreement between 2 families followed by a lot of sheep meat and women ululating, it is possible to never confront your parents with the reality of an in-the-flesh, real live spouse.
But this is also a culture where married couples often live with their parents. Aicha’s sister and husband lived for a while with Aicha’s parents. The son-in-law never sat in the same room with his wife’s father; never greeted him. If he had to walk by an open door to a room where his in-laws were seated, he would pull his robe up to cover his face and scuttle out of sight as quickly as he could. He is in the military, and one night a thief broke in and came into the parents’ room, demanding cash, threatening violence. Because of sawaHah, the soldier son-in-law was helpless to interfere. He couldn’t shame his parents-in-law by seeing them in their nightclothes, much less by what was implied that he was actually in the same house as they were! The thief got away with the family’s cash that night.
Just like it is shameful for a bride to show happiness, lest she be thought eager, brazen, in the same way when Aicha is living with her in-laws, she must be the last at night to go up to the bedroom she shares with her husband. If she is tired and goes to bed before the rest of the family, everyone will wink and nod knowingly, and she will face their sneers the next day.
She doesn’t tell her mother-in-law that she’s pregnant, and is worried that the older woman knows. “She told me not to carry in the tray of drinks, that it was too heavy,” she sighs. She enjoys the freedom of discussing pregnancy with Michelle and I, who as friends AND outsiders are doubly safe. When she was pregnant with her first child, I loaned her an old copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In it, she found a frankness of information that astonished and delighted her. She was also thankful for the openness with which I talked to her about my own pregnancies and childbirth experiences. It’s surprising to me that she doesn’t feel comfortable discussing these topics with her own mother; although she can tell her mother that she’s pregnant, they won’t talk about it at all. She would never tell her father and is embarrassed that he will eventually realize that he’s expecting another grandchild. Aicha would never shame him by being in the same room as he and her son; she is a dutiful daughter who adores her father. “I couldn’t believe my sister!” she tells me one day in shocked tones. “My father is traveling and asked her what gifts she wanted, and she said shoes for her child!” I don’t get why this is shocking, so she explains. “It is not right that she discuss her child with my father like that.”
SawaHah is frustrating to the outsider. “How can a society function like this?” we wonder aloud. It’s still a mystery, and part of what makes living here a bit like visiting outer space. Even other Arabs wonder about it; as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, Mauritania is the only place that practices it in quite this manner.
In the meantime, Aicha pops prenatal vitamins that Michelle was able to get her from a visiting doctor and worries about how she’ll balance her full-time job (with an international company) and another baby. She wants my advice, wants to enjoy the freedom to discuss anything and everything that we enjoy together. I tell her stories from my own culture, of my own relationship with my in-laws, and we agree that we come from opposites sides of the globe.
Hey, it’s campaign time here on Planet Nomad. I was just nominated for “Best Writing” at the Share the Love Blog Awards. Check it out at One Woman’s World or click on that lovely new banner in my sidebar. It’s fun! It’s free! Share the Love, people.
Her brother was young, very young, and immature, only about 21 or maybe 22. In this culture, men can take forever to grow up, whereas women can be married and mothers at 13 or 14. He was young, he was immature, he was with friends; they were playing cards. One friend began to taunt and tease. “Promise me you will do the same thing I am going to do on Friday.”
“No, how can we?” he, they, protested. “How can we promise something when we don’t know what we are promising?” But the friend teased and taunted. “Be a man! A real man would do it!”
The fragile ego of a young man is a thing familiar to us all, no matter our culture or background, so they all promised.
The friend announced, “I am getting married on Friday.”
A storm of protest broke out—We are young! We don’t have the money to get married!
Her brother said, “I can get the money, but my parents will not allow it. I am young.” The friend said accusingly, “You promised.”
Her brother went home. The eldest son, firstborn male, pride of his parents, raised that the world was his for the asking, said to his mother, “I want to get married this Friday. Choose one of our relatives for me—I don’t care which one.”
His mother protested. His father put his foot down. No, this was ridiculous. His son was young, so young, so immature, plus had no money of his own.
The son took this crossing of his will in stride, as firstborn sons, favored of their mothers, will do. He said to his mother, “I will get married this Friday, and you will find me a wife, or you will never see me again. I may kill myself, I may not, but you will never see me again.” And he left the house.
Three days later, his desperate mother came up with a plan. She went to her relatives and told them the truth. They will refuse, she reasoned, and I will tell him I have done what he wanted, and he will return home, and all will be well, and all will be well. So she said to them, “He is young, so young, and immature. He has no money. His wife will have to live with us if he marries now. The wedding would be Friday, this Friday, in two days.” Relieved, she sat back and waited for their refusal.
But the relatives liked this family, and this family’s money and connections. “We agree,” they announced, and his mother gasped. And on that Friday, they married their 14-year-old daughter to the brother of Leila.
She moved into his room in his father’s house and quit attending her junior high school classes. Perhaps her friends envied her—so beautiful and desirable to marry so young!— perhaps they didn’t.
For he was young, so young, and immature, only 22 or maybe 23. And soon he began coming home at 1 a.m., then at 2 a.m., then at 3 a.m. or not at all. She, poor child, often slept with her husband’s little sister Leila, who was a year older than she, rather than sleep alone. “He is your husband,” urged her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, “Speak to him!” But she shook her head and bit her lip. “I don’t want him to be angry with me.”
Finally his mother spoke to him, but he didn’t listen. His young relative was boring; he would rather be with his friends.
She, in the meantime, did all she could to ensure a pregnancy, and soon was able to announce that a baby was on the way. They fussed over her, her husband’s family, and every day the mother of her husband gave her a gift. She would pack a small bag and spend the day with her family. Maybe her friends came to see her, maybe she even put on airs—a married woman, and to be married young connotes great beauty, and already pregnant, so fertile. And maybe (please God!) it would be a son, to bring joy to her heart, pride to her eyes, prove her worth to her husband. She might return home to her husband’s family in the evening or she might not, and it didn’t matter, because her husband was often traveling now, or out with his friends, meeting other girls.
Her young body was not even beginning to swell and round when she miscarried. Her husband was traveling with friends in another part of the country; it didn’t concern him, and he didn’t return to the city.
He had been gone well over a month when he sent a letter to his mother. “Tell Fatima I divorce her,” it said.
Her mother handed the letter to Leila, but she refused to be the bearer of such bad tidings. Another sister also refused. So they phoned another relative and asked her to come over and take the letter to the young wife’s room.
“And she cried—can you believe it?” Leila tells me. “I never thought I would see a divorced woman cry. I was so embarrassed.”
I explain carefully that the girl’s tears do not seem strange to me.
“But it is a great shame for a divorced woman to cry,” Leila argues.
”That means she loves someone who does not love her, and that is a great shame.” And it seems that with her tears, little Fatima lost any sympathy she had in the eyes of her sister-in-law.
Or perhaps it is just that the passage of time has proved blood, especially the blood of the immediate family, to be thicker. Because the young man is no longer so young and immature. He grew up and remarried, but this time, says Leila, he really loves her, and he is now father of 3. She beams with pride.
Fatima? Oh she hasn’t remarried and lives still with her parents. She is dismissed with a wave of the hand. She lost.
Donn and I recently watched the movie “The Constant Gardener.” We borrowed it from friends, which is basically the only way to get movies around here—at least, if you want original instead of pirated versions, and also if you want versions that actually play the movie.
The plot, for those of you who missed it, concerns a drug company who tests its products on so-called “disposable people”—i.e. poor Africans who would “probably die anyway.” It’s immoral and cash-producing and the Evil Masterminds who do it and control the universe basically win at the end, although the movie ending is a little happier than the book version (and for once I didn’t mind).
My point is to say that sometimes, things start in Africa. They try things here that they couldn’t get away with elsewhere. And so, I want to warn you that the Pod People are taking over.
This weekend, Elliot and Abel came up with the wild idea of cleaning their room. Unprompted. On top of that, they actually cleaned it, instead of their usual push-things-to-the-side-and-come-for-approval method. They were running up and down the stairs with bag loads of trash. They got rid of things voluntarily. They emptied off shelves and put things back neatly. I didn’t even know they knew how. And that’s when I realized. These were not my children. They were clever imitations. They looked right, sounded right, smelled right—but the actions were not right.
Many mothers joke about how their kids never clean, how they can’t see the floor in their children’s rooms. Here, it is the sad truth, no exaggeration. But something like this has never happened before in the Nomad household. Ever. Obviously, Donn and I have done a stellar job, both genetically and by example, of passing on our own “organizational skills” to our children.
Ilsa, who was unaffected by the Pod People, announced that her room didn’t need cleaning. Afraid, I went to check, and discovered that not only could I not see the floor except in spots, but that the tide of “artwork” (i.e. paper junk) had risen as high as the bed, so that she could theoretically slide to the floor if she wanted.
I knew Elliot was back when he came up to me and gave me a big hug. “Wait till you see our room!” he announced. “It’s going to be one of the happiest days of your life! (pause) …except for maybe the day you got married or had kids.” He’s never quite grasped the idea of having perspective.
This is part 3 of an irregular series in which I present for your reading pleasure events that happened here on Planet Nomad before we got internet at our house and discovered the joys of blogging. It’s so long that I will just briefly say THANKS for all your comments (I made my goal of 20 comments on a post—best ever!) and now I’m tempted to fish for compliments more often 😉
In November 2002, Debbie and I decided to attend a conference being held in Dakar, Senegal. Neither of us wanted to drive, because when driving cross-country in Africa it’s handy to have some men around; to deal with police checks (police relate better to men), to change flat tires or deal with engine trouble, to scrape locusts off the grill in the event of an invasion, to deal with the myriad problems that can arise. Flying is expensive. So we decided to take bush taxis.
Our husbands drove us to the southern edge of the city to the taxi stand. The stand is a dusty lot filled with taxis; old Mercedes sedans, made to sit 5 comfortably, were parked in vague rows, between which strolled merchants selling tiny packets of cardboard-like biscuits, bottles of juice, long-life milk packets, and other things useful on car trips. We emerged cautiously and were instantly mobbed. Taxis wait until they are full to depart, but Debbie and I had already decided to splurge and buy an extra seat. We traveled the first stage of our journey with a Liberian couple that we knew; between the 4 of us, we bought 6 seats and so could set off at once. Sure it was a pinch to spend the extra $8 or so, but we thought it was worth it to sit with a mere 3 adults in the back, instead of risking being squished in with a traditionally-built African woman, or a man in a voluminous robe who might be subtly friendly.
Soon we were whizzing our way south. The weather wasn’t unbearably hot, and the open windows provided a pleasant enough breeze. The first stage of our journey, Nouakchott to Rosso, passed uneventfully. The taxi dropped us off near the ferry.
The Senegal River serves as the border between Mauritania to the north and Senegal to the south. The town of Rosso is split by the sluggish brown water; there is Rosso, Mauritania, and Rosso, Senegal. In between, a simple ferry runs several times a day, although it doesn’t keep to a strict schedule. For example, the 10:30 ferry may leave at noon.
Since we had only ourselves and our bags, we didn’t need to wait for the ferry, a process usually rendered obnoxious by heat and curious children. Instead, we opted to take one of the many wooden pirogues bobbing about near the shore. A pirogue is sort of like a dug-out canoe in shape. We boarded quite quickly and wobbled our way to an empty spot along the edge.
The crossing was brief—it’s not a very big river. We hit the other shore with a bump, and everyone arose and began pushing their way off the boat. Debbie and I were cautiously balancing our way forward, when a wave from the ferry smacked our little pirogue. I sat back down again with a bump, but Debbie overbalanced and ended up on her back, skirt fallen round her hips, feet up in air over the bench. And this in a place where ankles are considered a little racy! I helped her up quickly and then we had to sit back down again because we were laughing so hard. (Aside: Debbie is a great person to travel with)
We made it out of the pirogue and began the steep climb up the slippery rocks to the road. I lost my footing and came within two inches of taking out a large Pulaar woman, dressed for travel in a royal blue satin robe with gold trim. She shot me a look that would have scared me to death if I believed in the Evil Eye.
The border crossing was no worse than normal. We eventually sorted everything out, and walked several blocks to the Senegalese version of the taxi stand to find a taxi to Dakar. Again we bought extra seats, and again I sat by an open window as my hair and nose filled with dust.
The conference went well. It was held in the same hotel that Mike and Robert stay at in “Endless Summer,” for all you surf-freaks out there. When it was time to return home, we went again to the taxi stand in Dakar. This taxi stand is bigger than the one in Nouakchott, choked with dust and trash and people selling items and people buying items and people haggling over prices—sort of a combination mini-market/taxi stand.
We found places in a sort of station wagon. We bought an extra seat and wedged ourselves into the very back, knees near our chins, contemplating how it would have been possible to fit 3 adults in that little space, thankful we were rich enough not to have to find out.
The ride from Dakar to Rosso takes about 8 hours. We left about 6 a.m. The taxi whizzed along, stopping occasionally in tiny roadside villages for cold drinks and snacks. By about 11 a.m. we were in dire straits. The taxi had stopped in a really remote village, and Debbie and I crawled out to stretch our cramped limbs. We were desperate for a spot of privacy, so in great determination we crossed the road, heading for a field with some lovely big tall weeds. We soon discovered, however, an obstacle; a deep ditch full of fetid water, too large to leap, extending as far as we could see alongside the highway. What to do? We glanced back at the taxi and saw that it was ready to depart, waiting just for us, a taxi full of men glancing our way. Some of the villagers were also out for a glimpse of the white women squished in the back of a taxi. We looked at each other in despair. There was no way we could get back in that taxi and wait any longer to relieve ourselves.
I can’t speak for the whole continent, but in my experience Africans have no trouble relieving themselves in public. Round here, it’s a common sight. The world is their toilet. Their wide robes sweep to the ground, providing them some modestly, provided they are wearing robes. But for Debbie and I, it was a whole new experience. We were wearing long skirts, but they weren’t as wide as a muluffa. Hopelessly Westernized as we are, we were also wearing underwear, which complicated things. Also, again as complete newcomers to this sort of thing, we were more concerned about drips and drops on ourselves than we should have been. We were as behind a tree as we could be, but we were definitely not private. No, we basically were in full view of the men in the waiting taxi, the fascinated villagers, and any passing cars.
In spite of that, we felt better as we regained our cramped quarters in the back of the taxi.
You just never know what skills you’re going to need in life, do you?
Our second pirogue crossing wasn’t as exciting as the first—perhaps Debbie felt she had already shown enough of herself to the world, and the Mauritanian side isn’t as steep so I had no opportunity to nearly knock anyone into the river. We were directed to a fringed cart drawn by a horse (our lives are so picturesque!), which we rode for about 3 blocks to another taxi stand. By now we were getting tired. It was early evening and we’d been traveling all day. We paid for an extra seat and shared the back seat with only one other man, who was very polite and squished as close as he could to the window; a pointless gesture since the seat had no springs left. We all 3 kept sliding, inch by inch, closer and closer to each other with each little bump on the road, until we’d all end up squished together in the middle and have to pull ourselves apart again.
Debbie and I split up once we made it to the outskirts of Nouakchott; she took a city taxi to her house and I to mine. After a joyful reunion with my family, I shook the dust from my hair and went off to shower and contemplate the joys of locked bathroom doors.
Jeana wrote the other week about left-handed compliments, although I must say that I have received some awfully nice compliments from left-handed people. My mother calls those with that talent for the devastating comment “diplomats in reverse.” It’s a talent that at least 2 of my children excel in—I don’t mean to boast, but they are really good. Here’s Elliot’s latest example.
We got given this DVD of U2’s latest concert tour for Christmas. Donn and I have been U2 fans for years, but we were unprepared for Elliot’s enthusiasm. He loves it. He watches it every day.
He came up to me in the kitchen the other night. “Do you think I’ll still like U2 when I’m a grown-up?”
“Probably,” I said. “I still do. Of course, I’ve liked them since I was a teenager.”
(gasp) “They were teenagers when they became a rock band?”
“Well, I think so. I’m not sure how old they were when they first put out an album, but I was in high school when I first heard of them.” (pause) “You do realize they are a little older than we are, right?”
“Yeah,” he hesitated. “But they’re more active.”
In other news, it’s national de-lurking week and/or month. What, you say, is a lurker? In blog-ese, it’s someone who reads a blog but never comments, never, not even once. To me, the expression ‘lurker’ always sounds a little shady, like someone hiding round a corner in a dark alley with malicious intent, ready to pounce. As for de-lurking, it sounds downright shocking! I don’t know who comes up with these expressions.
I really don’t care if you lurk—I’m just happy to have readers. On the other hand, I am insanely curious. So, if you want, just click on the word “comments” and write a little something in the box below.
Not sure what to write? Here’s a sample; just cut and paste.
“Wow, you are the best writer I have ever read in my life!! Better than Margaret Atwood, Lemony Snicket and T.S. Eliot combined! I read you religiously and never miss a post. Ever. Keep writing. Oh, and here is a big wad of cash/amazon gift certificate, just for fun.”
I read a very thoughtful post-and-comments on the subject of the beauty we mothers see in our children last night, and it got me thinking. I have a nine year old daughter who is bright and talented and talkative and loves math and reading and who is also already convinced that she is a little too fat.
She lives in an Arab environment and goes to an international French school and has American friends, so her influences are mixed. Arab and French women tend to be more feminine than American women, for whatever reasons. It’s rare for girls to go out for sports; they tend to take dance or theater or music. For many years, she has been the only girl in her class without pierced ears. I don’t know at what age the French pierce ears, but Mauritanians pierce their daughters’ ears at 3 days. In a language where there is no word for child, only for son/daughter, boy/girl, you have to have a way to know at a glance the sex of the child. Families who can’t afford earrings for their tiny ones tie bits of brightly-coloured twine through the holes to keep them open. Let’s not think about how they are pierced in the villages and shantytowns. It’s best not to.
Although she of course compares her looks unfavorably to her friends’, in some ways I don’t worry about her self-esteem. My daughter is exotic in her environment. She has fair skin; she is American; to some, her passport is as precious as pure gold. She received her first marriage proposal when she was 4, and this turned out to be the first of several proposals, mostly from men in their 20s or 30s.
Ilsa is small for her age, and at 4 she still looked like a toddler. I was out with Ilsa and my friend Z, and it had gotten late. Ilsa lay down on the carpet and went to sleep, and Z’s cousin, about 17, covered her with his robe. Then he told me, “I’ll wait for her; I’m going to marry her.”
I took a deep breath and carefully explained that in our culture we do it differently, that she’s the one he’ll have to convince, not me, and that not until she’s about 22 and finished with university. I thought I was very polite, especially considering that my initial emotions curled my hands into fists, but Z was appalled at my manners. “It’s a great compliment,” she hissed at me. “What’s wrong with you? It means he thinks she’s really beautiful.”
I was skeptical, though, as this same young man had earlier been exploring with me the possibility of me getting him a visa to America. I suspect that my daughter’s golden hair had less to do with it than her golden passport.
When she was smaller, everywhere we went people would mutter, “Zweina, zweina, masha’allah” (beautiful, beautiful, thank God—the “prayer” is meant to avert the Evil Eye) while reaching out to pat her cheek, feel her hair. They still do it, although to a lesser extent now that she’s older.
Ilsa takes it all in stride. “Why would he want to marry a little girl?” she asks me when, at the age of 8, she receives a proposal from someone who is about 25. “I bet he’ll be dead by the time I’m old enough!” She laughs. “We can only hope,” her father adds dryly.
On the cusp on the teenage years, she moves through her days with confidence, braids swinging down her back. Of course she’s beautiful, but what I want to show her is how the whole package works; how what is inside of her will come out and shape her features to show grace and kindness, or sourness and cruelty.
When she was little, someone gave her a book of Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast. I’m not a big Disney fan but I don’t mind their version of this story because it’s more full of morals than the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. Gaston is beautiful on the outside but not on the inside; the beast learns to be beautiful on the inside before he can become beautiful on the outside; only Belle is beautiful in both places.
Inner Beauty. I don’t mean to be mystical here; it’s something that we all recognize on some level or another—how when we love someone, we see the whole package. Ilsa sparkles. She’s more than just a set of features that I think resembles her grandmother’s—it’s what she does with those features: how she pouts and blinks her eyes when she wants something but can’t hold the expression and we both start giggling; how she gives me this cheesy grin when she thinks she’s about to hear a “yes”; how she glows when she’s excited about something and dances around the room; how angelic she looks when those features are at rest in sleep (yes I know it’s a cliché. There’s a reason things become clichés, you know). It’s her ability to turn a neat room into an absolute pigsty but to her, it makes sense—the towels are carpets and the pile of clothes is a throne, don’t you see, Mom? It’s how she walks through rooms with her nose in her book, holding a plate of scraps for the rabbit, and calls for someone to open the door for her because it doesn’t occur to her to set down her book, feed the rabbit, and then pick it up again.
When you are away from someone you love and think of them, you don’t think of their face. You think of them—their essence, who they really are. It is an emotion deeper than words or pictures, one that really doesn’t need them. It’s why we can forget faces but remember people. This essence goes by other names, character or soul. Teenagers can’t understand that a pimple on the end of their noses is of much less importance to how their face ultimately looks than how they treat the unpopular girl on the bus, but one of my goals* in raising my daughter is to teach her this. She already instinctively chooses her friends for their characters; her best friend is the girl who likes reading and climbing trees, not the one who prefers trying on her mother’s make-up to acting out the latest stories they’ve invented. But I remember how enticing those other girls can be. They’re the ones who tend to be popular in high school. I want to give her enough of an anchor for her soul that she stays true to who she really is, and that in truth she is someone who makes wise choices.
To be honest, Donn and I are not among the “Beautiful People.” We weren’t popular in high school; we weren’t swamped with dates in college. (Although, like beetles, we are beautiful to each other 🙂 ) I will be very surprised if Ilsa ends up with model-good looks. But that’s not what I’m worried about. I don’t care if someone sees her walking down the street and is struck by her beauty, although if we stay in the Arab world, it may happen. But I care that she impress people she meets with the qualities that make her uniquely Ilsa, my beautiful daughter.
*I’m including this word in a blatant attempt to qualify this post for Scribbet’s writing contest.
You Are an Espresso
At your best, you are: straight shooting, ambitious, and energeticAt your worst, you are: anxious and high strung
You drink coffee when: anytime you’re not sleeping
Your caffeine addiction level: high
Saturday, we went to the beach because EVERY Saturday we go to the beach. My husband is
stubborn dedicated like that.
Lots of people normally join us, but because we’re the faithful ones, we provide the tent so people have shade, or a shelter from wind and blowing sand, or a landmark to view when the current pulls you to the south, so you can easily see how far you’ll have to walk to get back to your friends.
It’s our own tent, bought a few months after our arrival. Donn went down to the tent market where he sat with the tent ladies in the shadow of the Moroccan mosque, drinking tea and haggling over prices. Mauritanian tents are typically 2 or 3 layers thick; the outside is thick white canvas and the inside is patterned with bright scraps of fabric. I think they use rags, which would explain why part of our tent has red dinosaurs—technically not traditional, but colourful nonetheless.
Local tents have a large central wooden pole with a pointed end, and a little hawli, or hood, that you stick it into to prevent it from tearing through the fabric. Each corner has a rope which is tied to a stake, and then wooden cleft sticks are driven in at the corners, giving some height to the interior. These are the small tents, of course—the ones that people live in are much larger, big as houses, and require much larger poles.
Our tent has gone to the beach pretty much every Saturday for 5 ½ years, gradually getting more and more tattered and stained, until it ripped a couple of weeks ago. I told people we’d had a skylight put in, but they weren’t as appreciative as you’d think. (Note to those who want visuals: I do have a pic of Donn poking his head through this handy new feature, but he won’t let me post it because he doesn’t like it.)
We took this tent with us on Saturday, along with 3 extra kids, and headed out. According to Donn’s sources, the waves were supposed to be good. But it was Day 8 of the sandstorm. As we drove north of town, it got dustier and dustier. Blowing sand shrunk the horizon to just beyond the car. Why were we going?
Did I mention we’re
stubborn dedicated? We decided that since we’d already made it this far, past the police check and the customs check, we’d at least go SEE what the beach was like.
We did. It was horrible. The wind was howling off the desert, whipping the sand up in swirls and whirls, stinging lashes of pain and irritation. We ate our gritty sandwiches in the lee of the car, then left. We spent the afternoon in the house with all the windows closed, watching a movie and spilling popcorn on the floor.
Sunday, the sky was clear and blue, for a change. We took down all the Christmas decorations, dusting them off before packing them. You would not believe how much dust gets into my house during a sandstorm, in spite of sealed windows and closed doors. Even the cat was dusty.
It’s official—the sandstorm is over. We can see the sun (and it’s hot). My friend was laughing at some tourists she saw today outside a hotel, sunglasses on and soaking up the rays. But even with afternoon temps in the 80s, the shade is cool and the nights need blankets. The moon soars amongst the stars, casting shadows in the garden. It’s perfect weather.
Life is still very quiet here on Planet Nomad. There’s no sign of the sandstorm letting up just yet. One year at this time, the sandstorm lasted 32 days, so we may be here a while. We’re keeping the windows closed, and the house is staying downright cool! We’re wearing slippers and long-sleeved t-shirts and enjoying some extra coffee (like we ever need an excuse to do that). Today is the last official day of vacation, and next Monday it’s back to work and school.
In lieu of any current excitement, today’s post is about the locust plague of 2004.
We’d just come back from living in France for a year. We’d descended, rather like a plague ourselves, on our previously-good friends Tim and Debbie and their one son, turning their quiet and well-organized home into something more like, well, our home.
It was early September, the hot/humid season. We’d heard reports over the summer of a locust visitation, and were suitably horrified, and secretly a little disappointed that we’d missed the excitement. We needn’t have been.
I don’t remember exactly when the locusts first came back, but it was probably about 2 weeks after we’d swarmed in and settled ourselves into Johnson’s house, eating up their food but drawing the line at their hibiscus plants. One sweltering afternoon, we walked outside and saw the sky full of tiny winged bodies.
The first wave of locusts were pink with brown wings—kinda stylish, if you could overcome your loathing. They took out Johnson’s hedge in about an hour. The sky was full of whirring, chomping noises, as millions of tiny insect jaws set to work, masticating every green thing in sight. It was a somewhat awe-inspiring, if nauseating sight.
By sunset, all that remained of a once-proud hedge, a once brilliant spot of green in this dry and dusty land, was a meager collection of twigs. The hibiscus plants were just as bad. Tim and Debbie had rushed out with old sheets to cover up the flamboyant tree, but the locusts had eaten through the fabric in several places. The locusts were swarming, looking for a place to settle that night. A few got in the house. One got in Debbie’s hair; another landed on Donn’s shirt and ate a small hole in the linen.
I don’t remember all the invasions, but I do remember that, like labour pains, they gradually got closer and closer together. After that first wave, we assumed everything was dead. But a tiny green fuzz was appearing on the brown twigs, bringing joy to our hearts when, one blistering afternoon, we heard again the dreaded buzz of millions of wings and the chewing of thousands of tiny mouths.
The adults were overcome with dismay, but Abel (then 7) went out in the storm to fight. Armed with a cape, a light-saber, and a whip made of a bit of rope he’d found, he pulled on his flip-flops and yelled a mighty KI-YAH! He leaped out of the door and began whipping and hitting and kicking. It was truly inspirational, and we blinked back tears (of
laughter pride) as we watched his heroics.
Walking out into a locust hoard is like walking out into a rain storm, only instead of tiny drops of water, you are bombarded with insect bodies. They land in your hair, they land on your shoulders, they cover the ground. We were the lucky ones who only had to make it to our cars; the Africans, many of whom walk miles to work each day, had it much worse.
Each consecutive wave ate more. First, the pink ones ate all the green. A few weeks later, another wave of darker pink ones ate the new green. Then came yellow ones, who ate all the bark, and finally dull brown ones who ate everything that grew. All plants were mere stubs, a twig of a few centimetres poking forlornly out of the sand. The trees were stricken, and we didn’t expect them to survive.
They always came on the hottest days, adding insult to injury. I remember emerging from class one afternoon to find the sky full of a few dozens. My heart sank, knowing what was coming. Sure enough; next morning was a full-fledged invasion.
Locusts were everywhere. You’d slice open a baguette and find half a locust baked in. They got caught in the screens and died, and for months afterward we were finding bodies when we opened our windows. Every night, some would get into the house; every morning, there were bodies to be swept up. Weirdly enough, locusts would eat their dead kin. After some weeks, we were hearing rumours from our Mauritanian friends that in the interior, people were disappearing, eaten by locusts! Their dismay fed rumours that grew more and more implausible.
Invasions would typically last 2 or 3 days, until an east wind from the desert would drive them into the ocean, where they’d drown. We’d go to the beach and find piles of bodies washed up on the sand; one week we couldn’t swim because of all the carcasses in the water.
The last of the locust plague left a still, almost shell-shocked city. The locusts came to all of West Africa, but Mauritania sustained the most damage, and many people in the villages faced a terrible famine that year. Here in the city, where most of our potatoes, onions and carrots are shipped down from Europe anyway, it wasn’t so bad, but in the interior of the country, subsistence farmers were in dire straits, and many died in spite of great efforts by World Vision and other international aid organizations.
The city felt strange. It felt like a hellish autumn, as for once all the trees were bare. But the amazing thing was that life remained in those barren sticks poking out of the dry ground. In time, hedges, trees and bushes recovered, grew back, in the wildest “spring” I could ever have imagined.
That December also brought an unusual amount of flies. At the beach, I would crack open the cooler, plunge in my hand and pull out a sandwich, and in that time find my arm black with them.
It was more than a little spooky. I explained to someone at the time, “First locusts, now flies. If the water turns red, a lot of frogs appear, or anyone gets boils—I’m outta here!”