Monday, May 18, 2009

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...

First, my apologies for the neglect on this site over the last month. I hope that the end of the school year is not too busy for all of you! For the last post (or what I think will be the last post of the year) I thought I'd write about perceptions of beauty here, because it really is quite fascinating.

Please keep in mind that most of these criteria for beauty are for the Moor/Arab culture, but you do see some overlap into the other southern cultures. However, I am most familiar with Moor culture.

Women: The first major difference that you will see in one's perception of beauty is weight. In the USA, our culture focuses on the importance of slim women's figures. Here... it is the exact opposite. The heavier you are...the more beautiful you are. As modern medicine and western culture (including TV shows, and movies)becomes more and more standard, we see this trend starting to change. Many younger women no longer subscribe to the same tendencies as the older generations. The traditional culture was that women who were very curvy showed that they did not need to do much work. In the past, and even now in the more rural areas of the country, many families still practice the tradition of force-feeding their young girls. They believe that it is so beautiful to be as heavy as possible that families will make young girls of marrying age eat and eat and eat until they literally cannot eat more without vomitting. There were and are reports of "fat camps" existing where families can send their daughters to make them beautiful for their future husbands. As mentioned previously, with modern medicine and western culture gripping the region more and more, these tendencies are starting to diminish.

Another beauty trend here is skin-color. While we in the USA tend to try to soak up the sun, here they do everything in their power to avoid it. Traditionally here black people were of the slave caste, while the "white" arabs were their masters. It is important to note that although slavery has been tecnically abolished multiple times here, there are many families that still practice it. With this past, it perhaps gives rise to the obsession of the culture with light and white skin. So much so that many women use a whitening cream on their face that is actually quite harmful and dangerous. One of Peace Corps' health projects is education on this skin lightening cream that so many women use. I'm not sure of the composition or all of the effects that the cream has on women, however I do believe that prolonged use causes wrinkles and spot on the skin.

Another aspect of beauty for women is a non-permanent tattoo like design on the feet and hands called Hennah. It is important to stress that it is never permanent, but that it stays on for days and/or weeks depending on the quality and how much contact you have with water after putting it on. It is usually a orange-ish brown paste that you put on your hands and feet in intricate designs. You then leave it on there for hours while the dye seeps into your skin to change its' color for a few days.

Men: For men it is generally most acceptable to have a very thin frame, with not much muscle. You certainly won't see men putting time aside to go lift weights at the gym. As with other aspects of culture, men have much more freedom and lee-way with the acceptable norms than women do. If you see a man who has a little bit of muscle, you certainly wouldn't think twice about it. However, that being said... I have not seen a Mauritanian man yet who was over-weight. There is such a strong cultural stigma against an over weight man (because it is feminine... not due to medical concerns or western perceptions of beauty).

I hope this at least gives you a start for what "beauty" is here, and an understading that beauty truely is a cultural perception.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gender Issues

There are certainly gender issues and disparities the world over. Unfortunately, Mauritania is one country where the disparities are quite large. This is changing, however slowly. With Peace Corps here, we actually have an entire sector devoted to the promotion of Girl's Education and Empowerment (GEE). There are many restrictions placed on women and girls, that their male counterparts do not need to adhere to so strictly. In dress, a woman must cover completely, wear a dress, and western attire is almost never acceptable. On the other hand, men very often dress in slacks and a collared shirt, or suit and tie.

In athletics, boys are encouraged to play sports: especially soccer, however girls would be ridiculed for similar behavior past a certain age. It is important to note that in the south, among the Black African cultures girls (even past puberty) will play sports such as basketball, but rarely soccer as it is seen as a more high-contact and aggressive sport. Another note: here at my site in the north, there is a small contingency of girls (mostly at the Girls' center) who are interested in starting to play basketball, however they will not play at the stadium because then everyone will know that they are playing sports.

In the home, the men are free to roam around and do as they please while women generally stay to cook and clean. As mentioned in the previous post on Family Units, that is not to say that no men do any housework at all, or that they never help their wives. It just simply is not the norm. If a group of men live alone together, they will often either eat at restaurants or have a woman come cook for them.

Marriage and schooling: Women usually will get married quite young here by our standards. Although looking at it from the other way around, they all can't believe I'm SO OLD at age 24 and unmarried. How they see it is that I have wasted away much of my good mothering years by being unmarried. It's all a matter of perspective and what one's perception of "normal" is. When I explain that I'm unmarried because I went to school, they understand that because here usually a woman will attend school until she marries. That age is just much closer to the 15-17 year old range. My host sister in Rosso (age 16) is now married, and I asked the question the last time I saw them if she still went to school (knowing the answer already). Of course they kind of chuckled and said, of course not... she's married! Now though, the male counter parts are much more encouraged to finish their BAC (a sort of post-high-school/college entrance exam). Many girls are starting to complete high-school, but not as many as boys. Once you get into the College setting, there's an even greater disparity in numbers between the sexes. As much more education is encouraged for males, they also get married at a much older age. Many times men won't marry until their late 20s or early 30s. There are of course many exceptions, but this is just a general rule of thumb.

Genders in the workplace: obviously the first step to gender equality is to ensure that women are getting educated. When you have two candidates for the same job, one is a male with his BAC, and the other is a female with only primary school under her belt, who can blame an employer for picking the more educated man? The lack of education of women spills over into the formal workplace, where you see MANY more men than women. Very often women will have small boutiques, or make artisan items to sell to earn a living for themselves and children.

Mauritania seems to be showing some excellent signs of improvement in gender issues. Even something as simple as a young woman wearing jeans under her veil shows some change. But we're seeing more women getting educated, and with Peace Corps there are special programs in place for the development of womens' education specifically. What's more, is that these programs are not only supported by the women in the community, but many men have come to support the increase in womens' education. There are certainly some very well educated women (and many times they can intimidate many men). I know a woman here who works for the mines, she got married only recently after studying English at the University of Nouakchott... and her English is very good. There's even been a report out of a woman who may be running for President in the next election. I've only heard that though from one source, so we'll have to see.

Family Units

The family unit in Mauritania is a bit different than what you might find "normal" or "average" in the United States. For starters, many times the number of children in a given family can be upwards of 5 or 6. From the families I've seen, I would say it is rare to find a family with only a couple of kids. (I have met though one lady who is an only child.) Another main difference is that, although not universal, polygamy is not only practiced, but culturally acceptable according to Islam - a man is allowed up to 4 wives, but cannot take a second unless he is able to fully provide for both families. That being the case, in a family where there are multiple wives (and children), sometimes one wife will live with her children in one home, and another wife will live with their children in another home. The husband can sort of float from one house to another. Please don't assume that this is the most common practice in Mauritania... only that it does exist. I would say that polygamist family units are in the minority, but certainly I know of many examples. I believe this trend is on the decline as divorces are quite common-place here. From what I've heard and seen, the divorce rate is about the same as in the USA. I know one lady here in town that has been married 6 times. That is obviously not the norm either, but it is an example of how common divorces can be.

Next, within the home, you will have some times what we would call extended family members living in the same home: Grandparents, Uncles, Cousins. It is very rare for a child to leave the home of their parents until they are married. It is definitely much more acceptable for a young man to leave his parents home to find work in the capital, or to attend school (and that will happen quite often even when he is not married). However, it is basically unheard of for a woman to leave her parents' home before marriage. I believe that women who attend University before getting married will stay with relatives in Nouakchott, but very very rarely would they ever live alone, as this is not culturally acceptable.

Division of chores in the house is also quite interesting. First, in a house where the husband is at home all the time, he will rarely do much house-work. This is not an all-encompassing statement however. I have seen some men help their wives, and I've met some men (1 or 2) who like to cook. Of all of the household chores that get done, the most common chore for men to do is to make the tea. The wife is usually in charge of all of the household chores, and depending on the age of her children she will either do them all herself, have a sister help her, or delegate tasks to the children. Once the eldest young girl reaches about 13 years old, she will usually do most of the household work including cooking and cleaning for the whole family until she is married. After she is married, the mother will resume the tasks, or re-delegate to a younger child. Once again, boys will rarely cook and clean, but they will make tea. With my host family in Rosso, all the kids (in the whole neighborhood) came over to help clean up the trash in a vacant lot next to the house).

I realize that this hasn't covered all of the aspects of family living, but it's at least a start. Let me know if you have any comments or questions!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Market and Shopping

One of the big things I had to get used to here is how to shop. You certainly don’t go to your neighborhood Target, Walmart, Costco, or Best Buy to pick up whatever it is that you need.

Each city and town will have a main market-place where you can get most of the items that you need. For other big items, you may have to travel to Nouakchott, or another larger city. Different boutiques and/or vendors specialize in different products, and you can just make your way around buying what you need. All of the house wares are located in a part of the market together, while all the vegetable-women sell next to each other too. For meat (at least in my town), there’s a main hall with the butchers in the center and then surrounded by vegetable venders. Usually you will see men selling meat and house wares while women will sell the other items (not always).

Another big difference between here and in the United States is that you need to go shopping every day, and sometimes more than that. There is no refrigeration (at least for most people – myself included), so that means you have to buy what you need for your next meal, eat it all, and return to the market before the next meal. In the cold season you can generally get your food to last about 24 hours without a refrigerator, but in the hot season it may last only a few hours.

Another important aspect of shopping here in Mauritania is the bargaining process. When people see others who they expect to have lots of money (Westerners and tourists), or just may not know the correct price for items they will tell you that it is more expensive than it actually is. When this happens you need to bargain with the seller, sometimes even walk away if the price is not correct. With sellers like tailors and taxi bruisse the price can vary much more with quality and such so you need to be extra careful. After having been here a while, I feel that the sellers know us and they don’t try to take advantage of us because (for the most part) they know we won’t pay the tourist price. You still need to stay on your toes though, and watch out for inflated ‘western’ prices!

Here’s our grocery store. I didn’t mention it in the main section because we are a rare site that has one (due to our ex-pat population). It is very common to see both ex-pats and Mauritanians shopping here, and it’s one of the stops for just about every volunteer that comes to visit us! An interesting note about the grocery store is that prices are fixed.

This is out on the paved road (away from the main market), but it’s pretty common to see the meat hanging in the open like this for people to see before buying.

This is the actual meat market area. You don’t see a lot in the picture, but you can see some meat hanging in the upper right hand corner.

This is a lady’s stand I go to fairly regularly for vegetables. She’s got a
pretty good assortment.

This is just another view of her boutique.

This is the section of the market for house wares. It’s pretty dead right now in the picture because I didn’t want to be taking pictures when everyone was out.

This is what we like to call “bread row”. All the men who sell bread line up with their wheelbarrows full of bread in the morning, and sell until they have no more.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

As with many cultural topics in Mauritania, the type of food one eats largely depends on location and ethnic group. Typically in the north we see less variety of foods and more bland foods than in the south. More specifically speaking, the northern diet consists largely of meat, rice, and couscous. In the south you’ll see an abundance of fish, vegetables, and some fruits, especially the closer to Senegal you get. From what I can gather, there are two main reasons for this trend. Culturally speaking, the Arab Moors (mostly in the north) were nomadic peoples who never stayed long in one spot. This means that in their diet you’re not going to see much in the way of vegetables and fruits because that requires one to stay in one place to tend the fields. Another reason is the geography of the country, and the natural allocation of water resources. As discussed previously, the majority of the water, and rain will be found in the south along the Senegal River, which creates a better environment for gardening. This is not to say that there are not gardens in the north – one town in the north is specifically known for its carrots.

No matter where you are in the country, the variety of dishes is quite limited. Typically a family will eat the same meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday. Usually in the morning people will eat bread with their tea, or have a porridge type meal similar to grits. For lunch in the south the favorite is a Senegalese dish “Chub u gin” aka rice and fish. In the south, the fish and rice is accompanied with a number of vegetables such as eggplant, carrots, peppers, potatoes, and/or a green leaf called bissap. When fish is in short supply, people will generally substitute the fish with goat or sheep meat. For dinner many times one will eat couscous along with goat or sheep meat, or just plain couscous. For special occasions at dinnertime you’ll have a plate of couscous with a goat’s head on top. There are many other plates commonly found here such as MafĂ© (a peanut butter-tomato sauce served over rice – my favorite), Yassa (an onion sauce over rice), and spaghetti and meat.

Another unifying matter regarding food and diet is the way the food is prepared, how it is eaten, and when. First, Mauritanians use a ton of vegetable oil in their food preparation. It increases the calories in the meal, but more importantly it allows you to ball the food up in your hand. That’s right… no forks, spoons, or knifes… you just eat with your hand. The meal will be served in a large single bowl or plate on the floor, and all of the family and/or guests will gather around. If there are a lot of people, there may be two or three dishes. Each person can eat the food that is in the “imaginary pie slice” that is directly in front of you by balling it and eating with your right hand. Sorry lefties… you still have to eat with your right hand! There are “table” manners of course for eating that must be followed. Most importantly one never ever reaches into a common bowl with their left hand! If you have an issue with your right hand, you’ll be issued a spoon. Next, you can never reach outside of your “pie piece area”. Even if your favorite vegetable is in the next pie piece over, you should ask to have someone throw it into your pie piece. The host will typically tear off choice parts of the meat for the guests and visitors. The meat is usually placed in the center, and you may need to ask someone for some help when tearing off a piece. Usually breakfast is served around 7 or 8am (this depends on the family). Lunchtime is between 2-3pm, and dinner is anywhere from 8-10pm. Remember that one always serves tea with every meal.

This is a dish from a little restaurant in Nouakchott. It looks to me like it’s Yassa (the onion-sauce over rice). Usually in restaurants foreigners will be given spoons like you see in the upper right hand corner.

You don’t see a meal like this too often… this was a special treat at for our swear-in ceremony because the ambassador was there. What makes it so special is all of the vegetables and the whole chicken. I don’t think I’ve seen so many vegetables all on the same plate since that day.

Here it is… the famous “chub u gin”! This is of the white variety (meaning there’s no tomato past in the sauce for the rice to make it red). My family in Rosso ate this every day without fail (except when they ran out of fish at the market).

Here is a very popular dish called Mishwii. The city of Aleg is famous here in country for having the best around! It’s grilled sheep, goat, or camel served with some bread, and maybe some onions for good measure. Typically you’ll also have the intestines, liver, etc. also served in this dish.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Current Events

Sorry it's been a long time since I've last posted on here. My computer is momentarily down again with no power cord. So no more picture posts until I get a new one. But I was just thinking I could give you a quick update on current events. First, they have set a date for the elections here: May 30th. I believe that there is also a run-off date set for sometime in June if it is needed. Just today I read that the Alternative Party is nominating Mohamed Yehdi Ould Moctar Hacen to run for the presidency. I have not heard as of yet weather or not General Aziz will be running. Moving on to Israel and Gaza... as you can imagine the people of Mauritania feel a strong tie to the Palestinians with their common religion. As mentioned in previous posts, Mauritania is one of three Islamic states that recognize the state of Israel. At the moment, that status seems to be in jeopardy as they have frozen ties with Israel. As far as I know they have not severed diplomatic ties, however they have recalled their ambassador and everything. We will have to wait and see how this all plays out, if the new president will have anything to say about it, and whatnot. Exciting times!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

House and Home

The houses here are quite different than what we see in the US, but then again, our climates are also very different too. Here you’ll never find a house that has a heater because it’s simply not needed. There are a variety of homes available in the RIM, each suited to its population’s economic status and climate. The pictures I have are of places I live(d) and other volunteers’ homes. Although these are for the most part “Americanized”, you can still get the basic picture.

Rosso Home: I lived here with a host family for 2 months during stage. We had a compound with a main house area (single entry door) with 2 rooms, a salon, and a “kitchen”. They did not really use the kitchen for anything put storage of dishes and the refrigerator, but it still existed. All of these rooms will typically be shared by everyone in the family. With Peace Corps policy, we need one room completely to ourselves, so I had one of the rooms, and the family had the other. Outside the main house area there was a lumbar, bathroom, magasin (another room which many people will use as a boutique, but my family used as storage), and goat/cow pen. It’s very common to have colorful plastic woven mats for sitting on the sand outside, and carpets inside. The house has water and electricity… however the definition of running water in this case is having a robinet (a water spicket) inside the compound. In Rosso the water was on almost all day, except for around noon until 3 or 4. To get through that time the family would fill up buckets and other containers for water. There were some families in Rosso who did not have robinets, and had to have water delivered via donkey cart, or use their neighbor’s robinet.

A view from inside the compound. The lumbar is on the left, main house on the right and goat/cow pen is the red door. The bathroom is just behind me.

The family’s goat/cow pen

The family lumbar in Rosso… notice the mosquito netting to cut down the probability of contracting Malaria.

The main entrance to the main home within the compound. Notice the satellite TV dish… very common throughout Mauritania.

Akjoujt Home: I have a compound now that has 2 rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a lumbar. The kitchen was designed to be next to the bathroom, but I like to have it away from there. It’s a fairly typical Mauritanian home for the area with the exception of the fact that I do not have running water. I go to my landlord’s home a few times a week to ask them to pass a hose through the wall so that I can fill a 200 liter barrel. I then will siphon the water out into buckets as needed. Another aspect of my home is that I have a garden. Although it is not unheard of for Mauritanians to have gardens in the home, it is not the norm. Other things that differentiate my house from a typical Mauritanian home would be that I have a “dresser” made of tomatoe crates, I don’t have matalas (colored foam mattresses) laying around the outside of the room, and I don’t have a separate salon.

This is a typical toilet in the RIM… some may be porcelain and/or flushable, but the pit style is what I’ve seen most of.

This is my lumbar… also use it to hang laundry on laundry day. The kitchen is in the upper right hand corner, and the main room is just off the right hand side of the photo.

Cooking in Akjoujt. I have my range set up on wooden planks, but most Mauritanians will cook on the ground.

Getting water out of the barrel.

Another volunteer’s home in Akjoujt: This compound is slightly larger than mine, with a robinet, separate toilet from shower area, but no lumbar. I would say about half of the homes have some sort of a lumbar/outside shelter inside the compound.

A view of the kitchen, magasin, toilet and shower areas

The two main rooms

Other homes in Akjoujt: Here are some pictures of other homes in Akjoujt, seen from just the outside. It is important to note that traditionally the Moors were a nomadic people traveling around setting up tents anywhere they would go. The lumbar is sort of similar to that, and many people simply live in a lumbar or other such tents.

It might be hard to see, but if you look close and zoom in you might be able to see the permanent tent-like structures that are people’s homes.

Chinguetti: One of my friends lives up in Chinguetti and has an interesting house that is much more suited to the climate there. As you know from previous blog entries, Chinguetti is right on the boarder of the Sahara, and gets both very cold and very hot. His house is quite similar to mine in that it is compound-style with separate entries into rooms: kitchen, room, bathroom, but he has a “khyma” aka tent instead of a lumbar.

This tent can be put up and taken down in a matter of minutes. The wooden “floor” stays out all the time though. I just wanted a closer view of the wooden plank. It’s set up on bricks because the sand is so cold in the winter and so hot in the summer.

Nouahdibou: Some other friends live up in Nouahdibou that may have a more similar home to what you might expect. The standard of living for inhabitants of Nouahdibou is generally higher than other regions due to the strong economic activities and development there (namely fishing). These homes are comparable to homes in the capital, and that’s why volunteers in those two places are afforded more in a monthly stipend as their homes also cost more to rent. That is not to say that everyone in Nouahdibou and Nouakchott live in homes like this. There are also shanty towns with homes made of scrap metal for people who come looking unsuccessfully for jobs.

A little closer to a mainstream US kitchen. Fridge, oven, stove, sink with running water at all times that there is electricity. In the first picture is the oven along side the refillable gas container.

A room complete with wardrobe, light fixtures, screened and glassed windows, and rug in the middle.

Now here’s some green technology for you! Every so often you’ll see this hole in the ceiling with thick glass to prevent air, rain and other elements getting in. During the day it lights up the rooms better than lights can… even when it’s cloudy! The roofs here are often flat as there’s not much worry of rain drainage, and it’s used as an extra level of the home sometimes too.

And the bathroom… once again, running water, shower, sink, and toilet (western-style). There’s another bathroom in this house that also that has a bathtub/shower.

A more or less typical Mauritanian salon… minus the computers. The matalas on the ground, pillows as back supports, and a run in the middle. Going back to the green lighting technology developed in the 1960s here… there are no lights on in this room, and no flash on the camera.