Overseas Phone Call from Mauritania
Peace Corps Volunteer Michael Thoms Talks With Maumee Valley Country Day School
Once a year, a few Peace Corps volunteers get to talk by telephone with U.S. classrooms they've been communicating with. We've recorded some of those conversations. Today, Maumee Valley Country Day School in Toledo, Ohio speaks to Michael, a Peace Corps volunteer currently serving in Mauritania.
- Ron Tschetter
- Hi, I'm Ron Tschetter, Director of the Peace Corps. For more than 45 years, the Peace Corps has helped communities around the world. Volunteer Voices is a collection of audio stories from just a few of the more than 182,000 volunteers who have served since 1961. For more information on the Peace Corps, go to peacecorps.gov.
- What's a typical day like in Mauritania for you?
- In the terms of a typical day, it depends on what season it is because in Mauritania we have three seasons. We have starting early July maybe through October—the rainy season. People are very busy because they are going out in the fields farming planting corn, sorghum, and peanuts. So it's very busy in that respect. For those days, what I've been doing, I'm an agro-forestry volunteer. So go out in the fields, I can help them with that or learn how they cultivate here. After that it's the cold season. It doesn't rain until the next rainy season. During the cold season, people usually plant vegetables. That's when they do their vegetable gardens. There, it's similar things, working with the cooperatives as well. Starting this coming month, it's about to be the hot season. During the hot season, people really just sit around because it's really, really hot and really dry. You kind of search for shade wherever you can get it and sit around and drink tea. It's very peaceful and very, very boring too a little bit. Usually, where I am, I live with a host family. I eat all of my meals with them. Lunch and then dinner. Lunches are usually, since we're by the river lunches are usually rice and fish pretty much every day. For dinner, there's couscous and milk or sometimes couscous with a kind of bean sauce or like bean water. Also, here, they make a dish that's made out of bean leaves. Just regular green bean leaves that they kind of just chop up. It's actually very good. So what do you do in a day? So you get up, kind of walk around. A lot of it is culture a lot of what you do is greet people. So if you go around to a village, I've spent a whole morning some days just going around saying hi to people. The greetings here take a long time. You say "hello. How are you? How is the family? How is your health? How is everything?" They can last for a good minute. It's kind of the polite way to do it. Once you go into someone's house or compound they'll invite you to sit down. They'll invite you for tea. Which is a Mauritanian tradition or cultural thing here. They make a very, very sweet minty tea. Which is very good, but it takes a while to make. You have three glasses of it. So the whole process takes like about an hour. But anyway, a lot of it is people just sit around and talk if they're not out working. Usually after lunch, it's kind of a dead time because it's very hot so people just usually take naps or just lie down and don't really do anything until the evening. There's a pretty busy nightlife just because the evening is cold, or cooler, so a lot of people will circulate the village just saying hi to people, similar things, some people have boomboxes going.
- Is it too hot to work on your wells and other projects?
- It's too hot for me. The people here, they'll work all day, they don't really care because they're used to it. It's certainly too hot for me to work on the well project in the afternoon. It depends, there are some days when the actual Mauritanians here will come to you and say "Boy, it's really hot today." Those are the days that you don't really want to be outside or inside or anywhere really in this country.
- How do people in Mauritania perceive the United States and the western world in general?
- At least down south where we are, when we introduce yourselves "I'm a volunteer from America." The immediate reaction is not "Oh America, why are you in a war in Iraq? Why don't you like Muslims?" The immediate reaction is "America! Can you get me a visa? Can you teach me English?" Where we are I've never once felt like I was being accosted or like I was in danger because I was an American. And it's weird because at the same time, in their marketplace they're selling a wallet that has a picture of the American flag. In the corner where the stars and stripes are there's a picture of Sadaam Hussein. You don't really know what to make of stuff like that. My favorite is there's a taxi right here in Sélibaby that has a Madonna decal on one side and on the other side is Osama bin Laden. There's cultural mismatch. It's the century we live in I guess. I don't know.
- What percentage of the country is Muslim, Michael?
- Everyone. 100%. It's officially an Islamic republic. It's the official religion. There are one or two churches in the walkshot which are allowed by the government because they're lots of expats or foreigners who would want to go to church. There's one more in Nouadhibou and one more in Rosso. But pretty much everyone here is Muslim. So that's another whenever you travel in the country there are always mosques, always prayer call going on. When you take a long trip in a car—as you know Muslims pray five times a day—so they'll stop the car, get out to pray, like the entire car will get out of the van to pray and then get back in the car and away they go again. It's a very important part of living here. It's a pervading part of the culture, I guess.
- Thanks for listening. Are you in a classroom? Do you want stories written just for your class? Enroll in the Correspondence Match Program in Coverdell World Wise Schools. We can connect your class with a Peace Corps volunteer serving in any region of the world. For enrollment and program information visit us online at www.peacecorps.gov/wws/correspond.