Two years ago on August 3, 2005, Donn went off to a morning meeting. It was a stressful time in our lives; in June, his dad had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and had surgery for it, and on August 1 or so, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, totally unrelated to the first kind. We were trying to decide if we could fly home as a family, since this would be a personal visit and come out of our own pockets instead of being covered through our NGO, and we only had a month till school started. Yet this might be the last time the kids could see their grandfather. “Don’t fly home,” he urged us over a staticky connection. “If you spend all that money, I’ll feel obligated to die.”
We were also still dealing with the aftermath of a murder of a close friend and colleague; a multi-ramification event which sent us into such a tailspin that it was still, 5 months after the fact, something that had to be dealt with almost daily. We were struggling with depression, dealing with an especially hot and sticky “rainy season,” and looking for tickets home for even a semi-affordable price. It was summer; I was trying to keep the kids occupied. And Donn, as I said, went off to a meeting.
He called me shortly afterwards. “Stay home; apparently there was a coup last night.” I was amazed. The last coup attempt that had come close to succeeding (there were others that didn’t) had kept us up all night; there was heavy fighting and people died. There were demonstrations and parades afterwards.
The kids and I went upstairs and turned on BBC. Turned out the then-president, Maaouiya Ould Taya, had gone to a funeral in Saudi Arabia. When he returned, his plane was refused permission to land, and his former best friend, Colonel Ely Ould Vall, and a military council had taken over.
The weirdest thing was how quiet the city was. It was as if everyone was just watching and waiting. Yet business went on as usual. Donn ended up spending his day helping a friend get something out of the port, and looking for airline tickets (which here means going in person round the various airline offices). The kids and I watched TV. For once Mauritania was on the news! We snickered at the various ways the announcers pronounced “Maaouiya Ould Taya”—each time a new person was on, we’d hear a new version. (How is it pronounced? My best version would be “Mow-eeya Wuld Tiya”)
We knew how to act during coups. You decide which books to take in the event of an evacuation; you gather important documents and negatives of your husband’s artwork; you bake something. Last time apple pie; this time brownies. Have an extra cup of coffee. Invite friends over. Watch TV. And PHONE YOUR MUM! I didn’t do this the first time, figuring she wouldn’t know and why worry her, and of course she saw something on BBC and freaked out and called our NGO, both my brothers, and Donn’s parents. The NGO didn’t know what was going on and got mad at us too. This time we phoned them, phoned both sets of parents, checked the latest news, ate more brownies. None of these precautions were necessary.
The coup was actually welcomed by many Mauritanians, who were sick of Ould Taya, who took over in a coup in 1984 and, like my case of shingles/Creeping Eruption, just wouldn’t leave. He kept winning “democratic” elections with 92% or 95% of the vote, while his opponents languished in prison. Ould Vall promised that there would be free and democratic elections within two years, and that neither he nor any of the military council would run.
And everyone thought skeptically “Wouldn’t that be nice?” and sat back to watch.
Last summer, a year after the coup, Mauritanians voted on a new constitution. Among other things, it guaranteed a 5-year term for the president, and stated that the president could only be elected twice. No more “in it for life” dictator-types, in other words.
Last November, elections were held for parliamentary positions and also for mayors of various townships and neighbourhoods. Observers from the EU and the AU praised them for their transparency. I heard a story about how someone important came to cast his vote and, as was his habit, began to push his way to the front of the line. In the past, this would have been accepted as normal, but instead he was forced back to the end of the line, to wait out in the hot sun like everyone else.
And finally, last month, presidential elections were held. As he had promised, Ould Vall did not run. There were 19 candidates, 4 of whom had a real chance. Two split the main percentage of the vote; in the run-off election, a man named Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi became Mauritania’s first democratically-elected president.
A Sudanese friend had said to Donn, “There’s never been a free election in Africa. Are you telling me the first will be in Mauritania?” It was. Even people who were not thrilled with the outcome praised the elections. He really won, they assured me. And so, in this quiet way, this little desert country of only 3 million people, this nation of sand and barren hills where even the capital city is full of goats and camels, became a leader.
Mauritania is in many ways half-Arab, half-African. But true democracy is rare in either world. Usually, when a country turns to democracy, there is fighting and rioting; everyone wants to be the winner at any price. Look at the news from Nigeria, the former Zaire, Iraq, to name but a few. But here, amongst a nation still struggling with tribalism and the legacy of slavery, poverty and illiteracy, democracy was welcomed.
Oh sure, it wasn’t perfect. One of my older students had to miss class to travel to his village; he told me, “200 people are dependent on me to help them know who to vote for.” But then, America can’t exactly talk—we’ve had our own issues recently (hanging chads, anyone?), and we’ve been working on this for over 200 years now.
All week, the city has been washing its face, so to speak. Trash has been picked up. Long stretches of concrete wall along the main roads have been repaired and painted. Crews of men with pots of fresh cement have repaired curbs, which given the driving around here were in pretty bad shape. Date palms have been planted all along the main roads. It looks really nice in comparison to normal, although I wonder how it will strike those unused to its particular charms. Also how long before it resumes its normal littered look.
Today the streets are lined with soldiers. Many roads are completely closed off, rendering traffic even worse than usual. There are cannons and anti-aircraft guns pointed above the horizon in all directions. There is a ceremony brewing and high-ranking dignitaries from 11 countries have already discovered there aren’t a lot of hotels here. Though tempted to claim that it is all in honor of today being our 6th year anniversary here, this is all in preparation for the inauguration of the new President. The population was warned in advance that there would be a 21 gun salute, in order to avoid widespread panic.
Donn went to buy a phone card this morning from our regular seller, who was listening to the radio. “We’re the best democracy in the world!” he announced happily. Ok, in the real world? Not exactly. But today marks the celebration of an incredibly large step in the right direction. Congratulations to my adopted country.
(And for those of you who read my earlier post on the subject, the Purple Candidate with the rap music is the winner!)