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!
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.”