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John Osterman
An arid landscape with flat sand dotted with green bushes and small trees in the foreground. In the distance and on the horizon are brown and rust-colored rock plateaus and formations, some extending thousand of feet high. The sky is a pale blue.

Sand in the Couscous

Peace Corps Mauritania, 2001–2003

I was in the Peace Corps from 2001 to 2003 as an English teacher in Mauritania. That’s nearly half my lifetime ago; perhaps it’s time now to write about it.

When I got my invitation to serve, I had no idea where Mauritania was. For anyone suffering the same ignorance now, it’s in West Africa: north of Senegal, south of Western Sahara, north and west of Mali. The culture and people there reflect that geography, a mix of North and sub-Saharan Africa.

The local languages are many: Hassaniya, Pulaar, Wolof, Soninke, and several others. I learned Hassaniya and lived in the eastern part of the country, first in a town called Tintane and then in the regional capital of Aioun. I taught maybe 175 high school students over two years.

The posts below reflect my experience, now, of going through my journals, photos, and letters from that time. There are gaps. I lost my first journal, the one with my initial impressions and struggles adjusting, and my photos are limited—my phone holds more now than I ever took on film in Mauritania. There’s embarrassment. I wrote the most when I was most stressed, so there is a discernible negative bias. And a lot of what I wrote is not fit for public disclosure.

What follows is going to be problematic for lots of reasons. Problematic but vital—even when there is sand in the couscous, you’re still going to eat it. Bon appétit!

The inside and outside view of a four-page paper identification booklet. The upper-right panel reads 'United States of America Peace Corps Volunteer' in English and French. The upper-left panel shows the same in Arabic. The lower panels, the inside of the booklet, have identity information, emergency contacts, and a passport photo.
Me, beardless, at 23.

ETR and phone home

It was during my Peace Corps service that mobile phones really spread through Mauritania. At first, my town had no phones, fixed or cellular, and no access to the internet.


Christmas in Kankossa

The contrast with Tintane was stark. I’d been forming a theory about it: too big to be a village and too small to be a town, Tintane had the benefits of neither. Kankossa had the charm of a small village.


Desert (no island) books

Reading books in Mauritania was better than it was before or has been since. I had enough time to become immersed in the stories. But more than that, books just seemed more vivid somehow.


Thanksgiving 2001

Thanksgiving 2001 was in the midst of what might have been my hardest stretch in Mauritania. My second journal actually opens on November 18 with this admonishment to myself: “avoid cataloging mood swings—your last journal is not very flattering.”


Learning Hassaniya

One of the first phrases I learned in Hassaniya was "mnayn makaresh," which can be best translated as "where's the butt pot?"


My second school year starts

My second year teaching started in late October, when the annual rains were all but done and the “cool” season was around the corner.