Since my last post mentioned my amazing skills in elbow use, today I am going to tell you about when I first learned to use them. It wasn’t easy, but as I mentioned before, it definitely comes in handy.

I wrote the following in December 2001, 8 months after we moved to Mauritania. It was my first experience paying the phone bill…

 

Our phone bill came late to the post office box this month, and we only had two days to pay it. Here, bills are all paid in person. We tend to pay our bills as soon as we get them regardless of when they are due, as the number of people also paying bills at the same time will be less.

Donn usually pays our bills, but today he came to get me. “The line is so long today; it would have taken me at least half an hour,” he says. “Can you do it? Women don’t have to wait in line.”

When we arrive, the lobby is packed. Various semi-formed lines straggle throughout the area, and degenerate into tightly-packed groups of people. We spot the women’s line; it stretches across the room. I join what appears to be the end, behind two women who are sitting on the floor. I greet them and they respond with a smile and invite me to join them on the floor, which may have been cleaned in the last month, or may have not. I decline.

I find out that if there are only men, women don’t have to wait in line, but since there are so many women, we have formed our own line. I stand patiently, leaning against a pillar. After 10 minutes, only one woman has finished her transaction and left the front of the line. This isn’t good; there are 15 women in front of me!

I watch two women come in; one in a purple muluffa and the other in shiny black. The black muluffa joins me at the end of the line, and the purple bravely goes to the front.

I remember that I read, in books on crossing cultures, how frustrating standing in these liquid lines can be for Westerners. The books urged me to use this time to get to know people and practice my language. Ok, I think. I rack my brains for words about waiting, about the weather. She responds briefly but prefers to be alone with her thoughts, which seem to amuse her. After about half an hour, the purple one gestures for her friend to join her, next to the front of the line. Off she goes. An argument ensues between the shiny black muluffa and a blue boubou who has been standing in line. They gesture towards me; the blue is obviously telling the black where she belongs. But the black, with the louder voice, triumphantly asserts that her friend in purple was saving her place! She is merely joining her friend. The blue is defeated. Of course, the purple one cut too, but it doesn’t seem my place to join in, especially as my Hassiniya isn’t strong enough for an argument. Now I understand a little of her secret thoughts.

I see other women cut through our line to join another, shorter line. I want to do that, too, but I am unsure. Perhaps that is not the correct line, and I would lose my place. Also, why would all these women wait hours if they didn’t need to? I attempt to ask the woman in front of me, who has finally stood up for a while. Perhaps she sensed my frustration, as she prefers to be comfortable than to keep the line formed and impenetrable to people who want to cut in. She is in a brown muluffa, and reminds me of one of my favorite English professors from Portland State.

She tells me in detail about the shorter line, which I don’t follow, but ends with “Mou zayna.” I know that; it means “not good.” Ok. I cling to that. The other line is not good, or maybe those other women are not good. I dunno. I stay where I am.

Now the woman behind me is young and nicely dressed; probably from the south of the country although she is not dressed as a Pulaar. She speaks French and has an attractive, intelligent face. She is also friendly. She explains the other line to me; it is for people who need to pick up their bills, not people who have come to pay them. Oh.

By now I have been standing here an hour, and have moved only about a meter’s-length forward. Donn appears in the back of the room with all 3 kids; he’s just picked them up from school. We wave at each other.
I am close enough now to see part of the reason this line moves so millimetrically. The long men’s line joins ours at the window. As near as I can see, there is no rhyme or reason to this, and there is another men’s line converging in from the other side. 3 lines to one window! No wonder it is taking so long.

There are only 6 women in front of me now, but the brown muluffa urges an orange muluffa to come in front of her. My patience is beginning to desert me. “Alesh?” I demand. (Why?) She tries to tell me that the other woman was there first, but I know she wasn’t. Maybe she left for an hour and a half and came back. There’s nothing I can do, so I try to at least appear mollified.

Now we are up to where the men’s line begins to converge. It is getting harder and harder for me to remember my strict upbringing which taught me to be kind, considerate and respectful to others. I am especially annoyed as I realize that the men’s line has been moving faster than the women’s! Brown Muluffa in front of me lets another woman, in pink, cut in. I control my fury with an effort. This is obviously the social event of her day, but I have many things I need to get done, and the kids are sitting outside and haven’t had lunch.

The men in the third line begin to talk to me, and I realize another reason for our glacial speed. They are trying to hand me their bills, folded around a stack of ougiyas (Mauritanian money), so that I can pay for them and they won’t have to stand in line so long! Oh; so everyone is paying for all their friends and complete strangers. I am in no mood for this! “No! Hanin!” (wait) I hiss at them through clenched teeth!

I am into a completely new personality now; I haven’t felt this way since grade school. I am entering the rugby scrum stage of the line, with people shoving against me from every side, and I put my elbows out. Good thing I’m not claustrophobic, because this is an entirely new experience for me. It is only by maintaining a grip on my last vestiges of self-control that I manage to not start “accidentally” trampling toes. Showing a skill in elbow use I didn’t realize I possessed, I do a fine job of keeping myself in front of a man with a red head-dress, but I am defeated by Brown Muluffa. She is just not in a hurry! She is unconcernedly paging through her ougiyas, taking another bill to be paid from a man standing nearby, letting two men go to the window instead of one, letting pink muluffa collect friend’s bills from the end of the line.

I remember my decision to get to know people and practice language. “Anna hone lowi,” I say firmly to the young man in line next to me. He looks at me in surprise. I have no idea if I am grammatically correct, but these words mean “I (am) here first.” I repeat it again, if possible even more firmly. At the back of my mind, I wonder how I am coming across. Am I possibly looking a little desperate? I can feel that my eyes have narrowed and my expression is grim.

It is Brown Muluffa’s turn but she doesn’t seem to care. I have lost it. I take her firmly by the shoulders and maneuver her in front of the window. Pink muluffa is shuffled off to the side. I keep the young man in place with my eyes, daring him to take one step forward. He probably thinks this American has lost her mind. As soon as Brown Muluffa reluctantly finishes and moves off to the side, I’m there, planted firmly in front of the window. I will not be moved!

The man behind the glass glances up and announces that it is supposed to be a man next, since he just helped a woman. But I’m not moving. I stare at him innocently out of my blue eyes, framed by my white skin and fair hair; surely this foreign woman can’t speak Hassiniya! Anyway there is no way I am moving now. He glances to the side and the young man, who probably only wants me out of there before I spontaneously explode or call the UN or something, nods. I hand him my bill and he takes it. I pay. I get change. I stuff it in my pocket, forget to say goodbye or thank you, and stumble over the crowds of people surging behind me. I feel a little shaky. It has taken over 2 hours to pay this bill, during which I have completely lost my mind and my self-respect.

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