Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Day number 790 as a volunteer, 1 day left

Finally, I never thought I would be in Nouakchott, knowing I will never have to go back to my village. The new volunteer who is going to replace me is a guy named Greg from St. Louis. We visited my site last week, it wasn't too encouraging. There is a small group of people in my village that will accept a volunteer and most of them were on vacation. I hope that they have returned by the time Greg finishes his training and moves to Nbeika in late September.
My counterpart didn't find new housing like I told him to. Technically, the villages are supposed to provide housing for the volunteers. I would have settled for getting a house for the same price that a Mauritanian would pay. My counterpart suggested the family that I lived with for my last 6 months. Except, they decided to charge 10,000 UM a month and 1/3 of the water bill. The last part about paying part of the water bill is nothing but a slap in the face, with the Moor system, things are never calculated out to the last penny, round it off, forget the change, handshake, slap on the back and you’re all set.
The fact that my former landlord went to the trouble to haggle at such a ridiculously high price is the most polite thing for him to do in his culture, but to us Americans it seems like they are trying to show us up.
At this point, I blame Peace Corps, they really don’t have any idea how to place a volunteer with certain tribes. It’s not that the people of Nbeika don’t want to do a certain thing, they literally are missing the ability to comprehend logic. If they have not heard of a thing or haven’t done it before, then 99 times out of 100, they will just refuse it like it doesn’t even exist. Mostly, I am talking about the idea of an American coming and living at their level. For this to happen, the volunteer will not be able to pay to the “Nasarani” tax, which involves trying to charge Americans and Europeans twice as much, and in a place like my village they will do that to any outsider including other Africans. That fact makes me feel a little better. But, there is no way a volunteers can continue to survive or even hope to accomplish any work unless the people give the volunteer the same treatment as anyone else. I told my replacement that if he continues to have trouble he should put in for a site change as soon as possible. He already said the community is not a “welcoming place”.
It’s so funny how some people in the administration and some volunteers spent two years implying that somehow I was doing something wrong…I thought, hey maybe I am going about this all wrong, so I would try new stuff, try to meet new people and as far as I can tell it didn’t get me anywhere, except through two years.
So, tomorrow is my last official day as a volunteer. I finished all of my paperwork today, so I don’t even have to show up at the office tomorrow, woo-hoo!.

Daily life remains the same here in Nouakchott since the coup, except there are anti-aircraft machine guns mounted on the back of military trucks and these are spread throughout the city. The soldiers are friendly enough though, they usually greet us when we walk by. The morning of September 2 I fly out to Casablanca, Morocco. From there I am taking a bus up to Barcelona, Spain. I have a reservation to fly to Shannon, Ireland. From there it’s about 6 hours to my Uncle Tony’s house in Glengariff. I can almost taste the Guinness from here.

From the Washington Post

Mauritania's Poor Skeptical on Oil Riches
By NAFI DIOUFThe Associated PressSunday, August 28, 2005; 1:34 PM
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania --
This country hasn't even started exporting oil yet, and already some Mauritanians are demanding a share of the hoped-for profits.
Hundreds of professors at Nouakchott University have backed their demands for better health insurance and housing with a threat to strike this fall, illustrating how oil's promise has raised expectations _ and tensions.
"I am convinced that oil money will go into the pockets of the rich," said Mohammed El Abd Ould Ramdane, standing ankle-deep in muddy rain water stagnating outside his home in the slum of El Mina.
Just a few blocks away stands the new and immaculate white building housing Mauritania's Oil Ministry. Flush businessmen drive luxury cars and enjoy meals in fancy restaurants while clusters of buildings spring up in this once sleepy nomadic capital of a country where 28 percent of the 2.7 million inhabitants live on less than $1 a day.
A history of cracking down ruthlessly on opponents and anger over allying this Muslim nation with the United States in the war on terror and opening full diplomatic relations with Israel six years ago were cited as the prime reasons for a bloodless Aug. 3 coup that toppled President Maaouya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya. But a power struggle over oil also may have played a role.
Bickering over oil comes despite economic improvements in recent years, even before the first oil revenues in this West African nation.
The World Bank says access to primary health care rose from 30 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2001 and primary school enrollment increased from 49 percent in 1987 to 88 percent in 2001. It attributed the gains to a shift in public spending to social sectors and poverty reduction programs.
Still, there are widespread suspicions about the offshore oil fields, where Woodside Energy of Australia expects to begin pumping early next year, at a rate of 75,000 barrels of oil a day.
Executives of Woodside, which has invested $600 million in the field, will not comment on the terms of the contract with the Mauritanian government, citing a clause of confidentiality. Mauritanian officials also are tightlipped.
"With oil, the gap between the rich and the poor will be wider," said Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 2003 opposition presidential candidate. "Revenues from the fisheries and iron industries have never trickled down to the poorest. How long do you think they will wait?"
Ramdane, the shack-dweller, lives on less than $2 a day, earned selling water. The 55-year-old can afford to send only two of his 11 children to school. At night, their makeshift home is so crowded that some of the children have to sleep with neighbors.
"I only count on myself to get out of this situation," Ramdane said.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

President's Overthrow (USA Today)

Mauritanian army officers claim president's overthrow

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) — A group of Mauritanian army officers announced the overthrow of the president on Wednesday, hours after troops took control of the national media and the army chief of staff headquarters in the capital of this oil-rich Islamic nation.
Mauritanian President Maaouiya Ould Taya is an ally of the United States in the war on terror.
By Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images
The group, which identified itself as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, announced the coup against President Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Taya, who was abroad, through the state-run news agency.
"The armed forces and security forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered much over the last several years," the statement said.
The junta said it would excercise power for two years to allow time to put in place democratic institutions.
Earlier Wednesday, Taya arrived in the nearby West African nation of Niger, apparently trying to return home from Saudi Arabia where he had traveled Monday for the funeral of King Fahd, according to officials in Niger's capital, Niamey.
With his plane on the tarmac, Taya held talks at the airport with Niger's President Mamadou Tandja. Taya did not speak to reporters and security forces kept journalists at a distance.
Taya, who has allied himself with the United States in the war on terror, has faced staunch opposition among Islamic groups in his impoverished desert nation of 3 million and has cracked down ruthlessly on opponents since a 2003 coup attempt.
Heavily armed soldiers deployed in force around the presidential palace, ministries and other strategic buildings and on the streets of the capital of Nouakchott, blocking key roads and several entrances to the city.
A short burst of automatic gunfire was heard near the palace, where three anti-aircraft truck batteries were set up at midmorning. No casualties were reported.
Mohamed Ali, a father of eight who lives nearby, was among dozens of people fleeing the city center.
"I'm afraid for my family," he said. "I'll come back when things are back to normal."
The presidential guard troops cut state media broadcasts and the nation has no private stations. The airport also was closed to civilian flights, according to the military.
Taya has survived several coup attempts during his 20-year reign, but only the 2003 effort to overthrow him had made it past the planning stage, marked by several days of street fighting in the capital.
He implemented a crackdown after that against members of Islamist groups and the army, jailing scores of people accused of plotting to overthrow him. His government also has accused opponents of training with al-Qaeda linked insurgents in Algeria.
A June 4 border raid on a remote Mauritanian army post by al-Qaeda-linked insurgents sparked a gunbattle that killed 15 Mauritanian troops and nine attackers. Algeria's Salafist Group for Call and Combat claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a message on a Web site that the assault was "in revenge for our brothers who were arrested in the last round of detentions in Mauritania."
Mauritania, a sparsely populated nation on the northwestern edge of the Sahara, is strictly regulated by Taya, who took power in a 1984 military coup and tried to legitimize his rule in the 1990s through elections the opposition says were fraudulent.
The predominantly Islamic West African nation, which straddles black and Arab Africa, opened full diplomatic relations with Israel six years ago, leading to widespread criticism from Islamic groups at home.
The president, who is in his 60s, supported Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War, but switched alliances dramatically in the late 1990s — breaking diplomatic ties with Iraq.
Oil recently was discovered in reserves offshore, and the country is expected to begin pumping crude for the first time early next year.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

More on Nbeika

So my village is one of the toughest in Mauritania. There are a handful of towns like this in Mauritania. I know two others in the Tagant region, and interestingly they are all the same tribe. The Kunta, who according to the unreliable stories from the locals used to raid camel caravans of other Mauritanians. If you trace their migration from Morocco to the Adrar region of Mauritania and down into the Tagant. They were booted out of each place, before ending up in my village. Also, the Tagant has only had regular transportation into the more modern cities of Mauritania for about 15 years.
The night before I left Nbeika, I distributed trees and did a sensiblisation on Moringa trees, and about 10 people showed up that I had invited. So it hasn't been a complete loss.
I convinced a couple of the more well-connected people to find a house for the new volunteer, when I come for a visit in the middle of August. Unfortunately, even if I quit, Peace Corps would replace me no matter what I tell them. The World Food Program is going to put a school garden in one of Nbeika's smaller neighborhoods. So I might as well stay and try to get the new volunteer off on the right foot.
Until then I am going to stay at our regional house here in Tidjikja. I have lots of reports to type up.
Two days ago, we rode along with a Spanish tourist out to some cave paintings near a town called El-Howeitat. And then out to the cliff town of Rachid. These were the other two Kunta towns that I know. No problem, because we brought our own food to minimize contact with the locals. I got some great pictures of the cave paintings: giraffes, elephants and a war between humans on horseback.
While in Rachid we ran into a French photographer and the Ghanaian shoe repairman from Tidjikja. We had a good time exploring the ruins of the old town. The old town is made up of stacked rock buildings that are still standing but the roofs have all fallen. The story goes that a French general named Coppolani bombed the village in the early 1900s. He lived in Tidjikja at the time, and had a large harem and bathed in camel's milk, the Moors eventually fought back and killed him. We got back to Tidjikja that night. It was a long day, we kept getting stuck in the sand, but the Spaniard had a couple shovels and boards to put under the wheels. He left today, eventually going to Guinea-Buissau and from there he was going to bicycle to Mozambique!
It's not too bad in Mauritania as soon as I get out of my village.
39 days left.

Friday, July 22, 2005

July 22

In the last two weeks, a taxi driver stiffed me on my change, a kid stuck a pellet gun between my eyes( I was so angry that I could have snapped the little animal in half), my landlord kicked me out of my house, the local market people try to double the prices on me almost daily, me and a couple friends got totally screwed on a camel trip, my translators don’t show up to my agricultural training sessions, and the local agriculture extensions are making the locals pay 20,000 UM($80 US) in bribes to fill out applications for US Embassy assistance.
As of 3 weeks ago the management of this US Embassy assistance will now be managed by Peace Corps, but guess who wasn’t informed? Yeah, that would be me. I have been trying to dis-associate myself from the Embassy for a year now, because there are dozens of applications for their “Self-Help” assistance from Nbeika floating around. It is so stupid for us to be handling Embassy funds. Peace Corps is supposed to be separate from the US government, that was Peace Corps’ official policy. The separation is because a lot of things that the US government does, don’t go over well with some Mauritanians. Now, all of my statements to the people in my village about Peace Corps not being related to the US embassy will look like crap.
I have emailed my supervisor and told them they need to come to my village and explain this to all of the people applying for US Embassy/ Peace Corps “Self-Help” assistance. And I told them they can’t send my immediate supervisor because he is a black African, and the people in my town won’t listen to him. I can’t explain something as complicated as the money changing hands in Hassaniya or French to the villagers because it makes no sense to me in English, ha ha! My replacement has no idea what they are in for, but I will stay to make sure Peace Corps helps with the transition. Otherwise, they would probably just drop off the poor kid in Nbeika without any of the info that I will give him/her.

I dealt with my stupid landlord by leaving town, but not before I one-upped him by giving his family a bunch of gifts. In the bizarre sense of Arab rules of honor and courtesy(which are totally hypocritical and random in my view) I showed him up.
I beat them at their own stupid game.
Two years down and I have no respect for Moor culture at all. What I have noticed is that it has taken two years for some people in Nbeika to build up enough courage to harass me, or try to rip me off. And that says a lot about them as human beings, not an ounce of guts.
There are some great individuals, and it’s terrible they are stuck in a culture of corruption and laziness. Things will never improve if the United Nations and bleeding heart politicians in Europe and the US keep giving foreign aid to countries like Mauritania that gets stolen from the poor by the rich. It’s easy for the Peace Corps administration, embassy shmoes, clueless Christian organizations to put a positive spin on their work. Cause they get paid to be optimistic.

The Christian organization World Vision needed a new director for Mauritania a couple years ago. A PCV who had just finished a 3 year stint(with great French and Hassaniya) applied for the job. He had every qualification for the job except they wanted a Christian for the job and he wasn’t religious.
The funny thing is, WV had to put a Muslim in the position as an interim director because they couldn’t find any Americans to take the job. How soft can you get? World Vision directors get huge houses, chauffeurs, air-conditioned SUVs, servants paid local wages. It’s a cush job if I ever saw one. That is the mentality of aid organizations.

Have a nice summer.

Friday, June 24, 2005

In The News

An article I found on allAfrica.com but written by a United Nations news agency, about the recent attack on a Mauritanian military base by an Islamist group from Algeria.

Nouakchott Tens of thousands of people have taken to the dusty streets of the capital Nouakchott at the behest of the ruling party, with more marches planned across Mauritania to protest a fatal attack on a remote desert military base by an Algerian Islamist group.According to police, more than 40,000 people braved the afternoon desert heat on Wednesday. President Maaouiya Ould Taya's Social Democratic Republican party (PRDS), which organised the event, pitched the figure closer to 60,000.Even the opposition, known collectively as 'The Cavaliers for Change' and usually at loggerheads with the government, have echoed the Ould Taya's condemnation of the attack. Men in floor-skimming robes and women in brightly coloured traditional dress waved placards in the protests that take place as the US this week launches a multi-million dollar anti-terrorist training programme in five West African countries, including Mauritania. US officials speaking from Washington this week, said the weekend attack in remote northeast Mauritania, illustrated the need for the project which will cover 10 countries in total and cost US tax payers half a billion dollars over five years. An Algerian group known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), claimed responsibility for the last Saturday on a Mauritanian military barracks in which at least 15 soldiers were killed, some with their throats slit. The US has linked the GSPC with Al-Qaeda who claimed responsibility for the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. They said they carried out the attack "in revenge for the violence carried out against our brothers in prison". Since mid-March, Ould Taya has carried out a series of arrests against people described as Islamic militants. However, local religious leaders and the Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group, say Ould Taya is using Western fears of Islamic fundamentalism and global terrorism as a pretext to muzzle his political opponents. In a seemingly unrelated move, the government allowed thirty-some Islamist detainees access to their lawyers on Wednesday for the first time in two months.According to the presiding Judge, Sall Amadou, they will be allowed to see their families next Monday. [ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

Thursday, June 23, 2005


Last week, a big group of us went up to the Adrar region of Mauritania. We first went to the capital called Adrar. It's one of the more modern large towns in Mauritania. The region itself is similar to where I live, except bigger in scope.
The cliffs are taller and steeper, the gorges are deeper and days are hotter. The second day we went to an oasis called Terjit. We camped there for two nights. It was in a narrow little canyon filled with date palms. We went swimming in the pools of water that have been dammed up by some enterprising Mauritanians. We hiked up to the top of some of the cliffs and I got some amazing pictures, the valleys were incredibly huge. We did quite a bit of hiking and got in some dune-boarding as well. The region reminded me of Arizona and Utah.
The next morning, went back to Atar and got passes on a bush taxi for the town of Choum. It's a tiny little town at the southeast corner of the territory called Western Sahara. Mauritania has a huge iron ore mine way out in the desert and Choum is the halfway point. I believe the train tracks form the actual border between Western Sahara and Mauritania. Western Sahara used to be a Spanish colony, but there has been some disputes between Morocco and Mauritania and the people of Western Sahara. There is a rebel group called the Polisario Front that occasionally initiates attacks on the Moroccan military. Right now I believe it officially territory of Morocco, but due to the rebels the Moroccans have no authority there. There are quite a few landmines along the border.
We got to Choum and there was a couple other PCV's waiting for us. They had tried to catch the train the night before but the train didn't stop. The train finally came rolling in around 10pm a couple hours late, we thought it wasn't going to stop so we ran along side it, throwing our bags on and managed to swing up onto the platform at the rear of the last engine. From there we moved a several cars back and sat on top of a big heap of iron ore. 12 hours later we arrived in Nouadhibou, at the northern tip of Mauritania. We got off the train, we must have looked pretty funny to everyone, covered in the black and red dust from the ore we had been sleeping in.
Nouadhibou is about the liveliest town I have seen in Mauritania, the harbor is filled with huge fishing boats from Europe and there are dozens of shipwrecks in the eastern side of the harbor.
There are fish processing plants that provide a lot of jobs. It is kind of ironic that the economic capital of Mauritania is largely populated by Africans from other countries and lots of Chinese, and a few Europeans. Nouadhibou is very cool for Mauritania rarely in the 90s, the nights are cold and it goes for years without rain.
The one day we spent there, we went to the beach. The ocean is really nice there, not too cold and the undertown isn't bad either. On the beach is a boat the beached in 2003. It was about a quarter mile long and a 100 feet tall. A guard lives on it with his dog, he said the company that owns it is going to try and get it back into ocean soon.
Also, there is a colony of monk seals and we saw one that was about 10 feet long. I, uh, thought it was a whale at first.
There is really good seafood restaurants there run by the Chinese. Some also are brothels.
Yesterday, we caught a bush taxi back here to Nouakchott. The ride was long and slow. This might be because, the government hired 5 different construction companies to do different sections of the road. It will be nice when it's finished, although I will be long gone.

Monday, May 23, 2005

May 23

At the beginning of May, a bunch of us attended the Jazz Fest in St. Louis, Senegal. There was a lot of good music, there was mostly European artists and a few Americans. We stayed in tents at a hotel right on the beach, which was great the water was really warm. The cool weather near the ocean was a relief from the interior of Africa, it’s hot all day and usually all night. Last week we had a couple sandstorms that lasted for several days at a time. Too sandy to do anything outside, too hot to sit inside. Even staying indoors at the end of the day I was covered in grime. I think the dust is alive it gets inside everything, on the food, in your clothes. It’s funny how after two years, I still could quit at anytime. Right now is the beginning of the “Guetna”, when the dates are almost ripe enough to harvest, they are still green and sour. In a month they will be light brown in color and taste like brown sugar.
I am supposed to be preparing for a school garden from the World Food Program. From the meetings with the locals, the situation isn’t too encouraging. Basically, the WFP delivers the supplies. The community provides the labor to build the fence, dig the well and helps the children plant the garden. The produce goes to the children and their families. The Peace Corps Volunteer works with the children to show them how to garden. One problem is the school director, he keeps changing his mind about whether he wants the garden or not. At this particular school there is a organization for the parents. They created a committee to take charge of the project, but I attended one of the meetings and after listening to them argue for hours about the same things I came away discouraged. They argue without putting any solutions on the table, they just keep repeating themselves and hope they can wear the other people down. I am going to keep after the committee and the school director, so they understand the garden is for the kids at the school.

This past weekend, the volunteer who teaches in a village 10 miles south of me brought her english club up to our regional capital. It was a field trip for the kids. They put on a series of skits with students from the high school here in Tidjikja. Last night, we played cards with them and cooked chicken and chili. Of course they didn’t like the food. I will never understand Mauritanians, they would rather eat plain cous-cous or rice with sand and shards of bone in it, than try something different for once in their lives.
Teaching english is one thing Peace Corps does well. The whole agro-forestry program suffers because we are trying to give advice to gardeners and farmers older and more experienced than ourselves. Teaching English, the expertise of the teachers is apparent to all the kids and all of the other teachers. My expertise in the garden is not so apparent.
Three months to go.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Latest

News April 22

My supervisor just finished up a site assessment for my village this week. I am going to be replaced by another volunteer. A part of me was hoping he said something along the lines of, “…well I just don’t see a volunteer making much of a difference here, so you can go home early if you want.” Then I would go through my part of the ritual saying things like, “Yes, I understand, it’s really too bad…blah blah blah.” But, it wasn’t to be, now I am stuck here until the end of August.
The reason I am getting a replacement is so they can work at a school garden that is going to be funded by the UN’s World Food Program. One of the elementary schools has been proposed as a site, and now the community is trying to organize. One of the teachers is taking charge and organizing things. It’s amazing because he is Pulaar from southern Mauritania, and normally a lot of the Moors(white and black) don’t like them very much.
I went to a meeting with him and the 5 people who make up the committee, they were selected by a popular vote of all the parents of the school children. Of course, the meeting was a 3 hour argument between a black Moor, a white Moor and the Pulaar teacher over who would get which position. Finally, I told them they had to come to an agreement, and they did. The way these gardens come into existence is a mystery to me, did the WFP visit my town? My Peace Corps Supervisor knew more about it than I did until a week ago. All this time I wonder what this Pulaar school teacher is getting out of the deal? Could it be that he actually wanted to help the community that he lives in?
The meeting was encouraging because he specifically turned down a position on the committee, saying that the government of Mauritania might post him to another village next year.
Later that day I was walking back to Nbeika and I passed a car that was broke down on the pavement. The driver asked me if I could help him push the car onto the shoulder. I thought, “Sure, no problem,” right. Wrong!
I get the car rolling and the idiot turns the wheel too much and the car heads for the edge of the shoulder, about a 5 foot drop. He yells at me to stop pushing, so I grab the bumper and try to stop it. But, the car had just enough momentum that I couldn’t stop it. Then he runs behind the car and almost got run over, the car rolls about 10 feet, the whole time he is pushed by the car stumbling backwards, until he gets knocked over a fence into some thorns. He starts yelling at me. This woman comes running out of a tent accusing me of ruining her fence. Within 5 minutes there is a crowd of 20 people. We tried towing the car out with another guy’s truck, and broke four ropes in the process. The whole time this woman is screaming at the crowd that I ruined her fence, so I am trying to help get the car out and defend myself at the same time. After awhile there was nothing to do but leave.
That afternoon, I was looking for a car and an SUV with a bunch of Mauritanian patrones stopped me told me there was a woman back down the road telling people that the Nasarani(white guy) knocked down her fence. I managed to explain to them that I had been trying to help the guy move his car and he turned the wheel too much. They thought it was pretty funny, then they gave me a free ride up here to my regional capital of Tidjikja.
There is a new agriculture extension agent in my region, we spent a couple days last week hiking around villages in the basin north of my village. The first night we got a car and drove about 40 kilometers north through the date palmeries and past some seasonal ponds. We walked about half way back, meeting with garden cooperatives in villages along the way. I tried to give them some advice about composting but I don’t think it registered with the locals, all they want is money and garden tools. It was the beginning of Mohammed’s birthday so everybody was slaughtering animals, I ate more meat in those two days than I had for the past 10 days. Fresh cow’s milk and goats milk, too.
Only four more months to go.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Mauritanian Politics

I didn't write this article, a friend of mine came across it on the Internet. It covers a lot of ground on recent current events in Mauritania.

Military Rebellion and Islamism in Mauritania

Andrew McGregor
By Andrew McGregor

Mauritania, the vast desert refuge of the Arab/Berber Moors in northwest Africa, may seem a distant front in the war on terrorism. Yet the pro-Israel/U.S. policies of its President, Maaouya Ould Taya, have sparked an Islamic revival in this traditionally moderate nation, a country that takes pride in being the world's first Islamic Republic. Mauritania has experienced no domestic acts of terrorism or known al-Qaeda activity, but the President claims Islamists with foreign connections guided three recent coup attempts. The unexpected outcome of the just-completed trial of 181 alleged insurgents helps shed some light on the nature of the Islamist threat in Mauritania.

Led by 20-year-old Iraqi tanks, a rebel faction of the army smashed into the capital of Nouakchott on June 7, 2003, driving to the presidential palace. The insurgents were led by a secret group of officers who styled themselves as "The Knights of Change". Heavy fighting continued for three days until a final breakout attempt by the surrounded rebels was defeated. At least 15 people were killed and 68 wounded.

From the beginning, the regime blamed Libya and its close ally Burkina Faso of instigating the rebellion and supplying arms and military equipment, presenting captured weaponry to support its claim. And though the blame was publicly applied elsewhere, the administration quietly closed three important Saudi institutions in Nouakchott. In any case, the President announced that foreign-linked Islamists intent on destroying the achievements of his government were responsible for the fighting. Ould Taya also maintained that two further coup plots were broken up in August and September 2004.

The Trial

Because of security concerns and the large number of suspects, the trial was moved in late 2004 to Wad Naga, a desert military garrison 50 kilometers from the capital. There were numerous charges of torture from the detainees which appeared to be verified by smuggled footage of beaten, starved and chained prisoners aired on satellite TV and the Internet. Medical attention was denied and protests by the prisoners' families were met with mass arrests. Three prominent Islamists were arrested for distributing the photos.

Coup leaders Major Salih Ould Hanana and Captain Abdul Rahman Ould Mini entered guilty pleas. Hanana used his time in court to deny receiving foreign assistance and to describe the President as "[A] despot who doesn't respect the laws of the country or international conventions… I wanted to change a rotten and illegal regime by way of a coup, similar to that launched on 12 December 1984 by President Ould Taya." [1] Islamist rhetoric was noticeably absent from Hanana's address. Ould Mini cited the tribalism prevailing in the government and the injustices in the army as reasons for his leading role in the "Knights of Change". [2]

Both Hanana and Ould Mini were given life with hard labor. Even the defense lawyers were surprised by how little evidence was provided for the second and third coup attempts. When the verdict was brought in, the opposition leaders held responsible for these later plots were all acquitted. Prosecutors sought but failed to obtain the death penalty in 17 cases. Over 100 of the accused were released, with most of the rest receiving 18 month sentences.

Mauritania's New Foreign Policy

Diplomatic relations with Israel were opened in 1999, prompting an angry response from Iran and many Arab nations. The President no longer attends Arab summits and the tightly controlled official press has a noticeable lack of information about Iraq or Palestine. Ould Taya's shift in alignment from the Arab/Islamic world to the U.S. and Israel has created a wide gulf in Mauritanian society. The French and Arabic speaking Mauritanians feel a natural attachment to France (the former colonial power) and the Arab world. The Islamic opposition warns that allowing Israel to establish a presence in the country is to open the door to Israeli intelligence activities in North Africa. The U.S. and NATO are both interested in developing Mauritania as a cornerstone for anti-terrorism operations in North Africa.

Calls for change have also been fuelled by the discovery of large offshore oil reserves. Production is scheduled to start next year at an initial rate of 75,000 barrels per day. While the amount is not large compared to some Arab states, it has life-changing potential for impoverished Mauritanians who survive on an average income of US$1 per day. The leading company in Mauritania's new offshore oil industry is Australia's Woodside Petroleum, with major contracts for development awarded to the Halliburton Corporation. The opposition fears that the oil revenues will be swallowed up by a well-entrenched system of government corruption.

The Opposition

The same ethnic, tribal and caste divisions that characterize Mauritanian society fracture the political opposition. Both government and opposition remain dominated by the Bidan, the "White Moors". Despite the name, paternal descent from Arab/Berber roots is more important in determining status as a "White Moor" than actual skin color. The "Black Moors", or Haratin, may be understood as black African freedmen who have completely assimilated to Moorish culture and religion. The Bidan are further divided by clans and castes, the warrior and marabout castes being the most important. The marabouts form the traditional Islamic leadership. Some 30% of the population is composed of non-Moor black African Muslims in the south of the country. Some Bidan are alleged to still keep black Africans as slaves.

Mauritanian democracy is more a matter of form than substance. A Parliament exists, though real power rests with the President. Small and ineffective political parties are allowed to contest elections (when not banned by Presidential decree). The regime has refused to register Islamic political parties and the Ba'ath party has been banned since 1999, though there is a lingering Ba'athist influence in the army's officer corps as a result of many officers receiving military training in Iraq from 1984 to 1996. Many of the known Ba'athists in the army were dismissed in 2000 amidst the dissatisfaction with Mauritania's new friendship with Israel. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 more Iraqi-trained officers were dismissed and a large number of "Islamists" rounded up.

Islamism is a relatively new phenomenon in the country, which remains heavily influenced by the traditional Sufism of the Tijaniya and Qadiriya orders. Islamic activities are tightly controlled by the Ministry for Islamic Development and Culture and the officially approved mosque leaders can usually be mobilized in support of the government.

The most notorious of Mauritania's radical Islamists is a high-ranking al-Qaeda leader, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani (Mahfouz Ould al-Walid). Abu Hafs acts as a spiritual advisor to al-Qaeda, though he has no special following in this regard. He followed Bin Laden from Sudan to Afghanistan where the U.S. believes he played an important role in planning the East African embassy attacks and 9/11. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has suggested that Abu Hafs was the prime al-Qaeda advocate for cooperation with Saddam Hussein. In the months after 9/11 Abu Hafs acted as an al-Qaeda spokesman, denying responsibility for the attacks. [3] Abu Hafs was mistakenly reported killed by the U.S. in Afghanistan in January 2002. He is now believed to be in Iran, possibly under detention.

Less well known is a relative through marriage, Mohammadou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who acted as liaison between the Hamburg cell and Osama bin Laden in planning the 9/11 attacks. Ould Slahi is reported to have made two trips to Afghanistan for al-Qaeda training. In 1999 Ould Slahi was in Montreal, where he is alleged to have helped Ahmad Ressam with the "Millennium Plot" bombing attempt. Arrested by Mauritanian police in 2001, Ould Slahi is now believed held in a special CIA unit at Guantanamo Bay.

Conclusion: "The Hanana Effect"

With the trials drawing to a close, the Ould Taya government announced a 400% increase in the minimum wage, bonuses for civil servants and improved living conditions for the military, developments that quickly became known as "the Hanana effect". The announcements came just as most of Mauritania's people face severe food shortages as a result of last year's devastating locust plague.

In the end, neither Ba'athism nor Islamism seem to have been decisive factors in the military rebellion. Within the army and the government Ould Taya is accused of favoring tribesmen from his homeland in the northeast. The inequitable distribution of promotions and poor living conditions for the military undoubtedly had as much to do with the coup as political factors. Some of what is called Islamist (i.e. Salafist) activity is actually the reassertion of the marabout caste in their role as Islamic leaders. The marabouts are alarmed with the radical change in foreign policy of their Islamic state. More locally they have lost control of the Qur'anic schools to the Government but retain close ties with the army and the civilian opposition. The Islamist-Salafist trend remains marginal in Mauritania and certainly does not have the type of influence needed to be mount coups or form a Shari'a based government. No connection between the Islamists and the putschists was established in the trials.

Ould Taya sees an opportunity to solidify his rule through participation in the war on terrorism, even if it means creating Islamist threats and external aggressions where none exist. Hanana and some other rebel officers come from warrior tribes that traditionally work closely with the marabouts. There may be further cooperation between these two castes to restore the customary balance of power within Mauritania. This local reaction to Ould Taya's tribalism and authoritarianism remains open to exploitation by Salafist extremists but no evidence exists that this process has begun. Growing ties with the U.S. and Israel are isolating the Ould Taya regime, which will increasingly have to rely on the loyalty of the army. Furthermore, Ould Taya may see a U.S. military presence and Israeli security assistance as insurance for the survival of the regime.

Dr. McGregor is the director of Aberfoyle International Security Analysis in Toronto, Canada.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Dogon Country

Peter, Albin and I left for Dogon Country on Tuesday March 1st. We hired a guide, his name was Hassimi and he grew up in a Dogon village, he could speak French and some English. The first day we drove from Sevare to Bandiagara. Bandiagara is sort on the edge of Dogon country. There is a partially paved road that you can take down the cliff into the Dogon valley. The Dogon people are mostly farmers and still hold to their traditional African religions(animism). They build mud brick granaries with pyramid shaped tops made out of straw. The houses in the villages are built close together and the paths often come to dead ends. Some villages seem like mazes. The people are quite the craftsmen do a lot of woodworking and leather work. The metalworking wasn't very good. The Dogons live along a large 1000 foot cliff called the Bandiagara escarpment. We stayed in the most interesting places where they have built there villages right at the base of the cliff or on the edge of the cliff. During the wet season(June-Sept.) there are waterfalls and the whole area turns very lush. Right now it is the middle of the dry season. We did a lot of hiking up and down the cliffs. Thousands of years ago the Tellem people lived in and around the cliffs just like native americans who built villages into the mesas of the southwestern U.S. The Tellems were pygmies. No one can figure out how they were able to access their homes, they look like they are impossible to reach. We were able to climb up to the base of the cliff where there are old Dogon granaries built among the ancient Tellem houses. It was really cool, you can walk from rooftop to rooftop of the old Dogon granaries with the valley about 500 feet below and the overhanging cliff above you.
we tried some homemade millet beer, which wasn't too bad for fermenting porridge, unfiltered so lots of chunks. The swedes didn't like it, so I had to drink a liter of it by myself.
We ate pork the last night we were there, those poor muslims don't know what they are missing out on. Some of the Dogon villages are split three ways between muslims, christians, and animists. A lot of the men wear big straw hats, about half the clothes are western, they do make a lot of their own shirts sort of baggy, rough cotton shirts. Our last night we came into a village where a Belgian NGO had built a school, the villagers did a ceremonial dance to thank them. Peter took a picture and just about caused a riot, I guess only the pre-approved professional Belgian photographers can take pictures of that tribe. It's an old tribal law going back centuries. The dance was interesting, and some of the dancers were firing off their muskets as they danced, only powder no balls.
We hiked for about three days. Then Peter and Albin left to go to the film festival in Burkina Faso. I went back to Sevare to catch a bus for Bamako. the next day I went to the bus station and got my ticket. Guess what bus was leaving next, the same broke down thing I took from Bamako on the trip out. AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
It was one of the weirdest coincidences, ever. Between Sevare and Mopti, the two towns split by the river, there must be 200 buses coming or going. Karma was with me this time, made it back to Bamako in about 12 hours. Just in time to find out my reservation with Air Mauritania was cancelled. I managed to get a flight for two days later. When I talke to my country director to let hime know that I was going to be late, he said Air Mauritania had actually gone on strike for two days.
After a couple of work days here in Nouakchott, preparing for a presentation on composting, I head back to my village.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The road to Dogon Country

Thursday the 24th of February, we picked up our Malian visas and headed to the big taxi garage in Dakar. We waited for about 4 hours and then we packed into a Peugeot station wagon and started driving across Senegal. Outside Dakar there was a large Baobab forest. Baobabs have thick trunks and branches that look like roots. The tree looks like someone pulled a normal tree out of the ground and flipped it upside down and stuck it back in the ground.
Our driver ran over a goat and didn't stop to pay for it.
We made it to Kidira that night, showed our passports to the border guards and walked across the bridge into the the town of Diboli, Mali. It was around midnight, so we went to the taxi garage and laid down on the ground for some sleep.
Next morning, the guards in Diboli tried to get a little "chub-chub" from us, they told us they needed some extra money to process our forms. yeah, right!! We didn't pay, lucky for us a supervisor showed up just as I finished filling out the form and while the border guards were busy greeting their boss, we got the heck out of there. Acutally, we just walked around the corner and back to our taxi.
The road to Kayes, our next stop, was under construction and during the three hour ride we all got covered in dust. Kayes is a big town in Mali, on the Senegal River. It is also one of the hottest places in the world, averages over 100 degrees Fahrenheit 9 months of the year, except for the rainy season in July, August and September when the daytime highs are in the 90s with humidity and thunderstorms. It was remarkably hotter than my village in Mauritania is at this time.
We purchased tickets on an open air bus for Bamako, the capital of Mali. And then we waited for about 4 hours before we could leave. The road was unpaved most of the way and had those corrugated ruts, when taken at 60 miles an hour threaten to shake your teeth right out of your head. We stayed the night at some truckstop village, I slept in a homemade recliner that was near one of the open air restaurants. Parts of Western Mali were pretty, with rolling hills and dry grass and small trees. Nice change from the flat sand of Mauritania.
Bamako, the next morning, 90 and humid, open sewers flow down concrete canals between the sidewalks and the street. It is the most polluted city I have ever seen, the smog from hundreds of thousands of old mopeds is unbelievable. Mali sits in a U-shaped river valley that the smog and humidity settle in. Imagine someone burning tires and plastic inside a sauna that's the atmosphere of Bamako.
Bamako, we spent the worst day of our vacation trying to find an ATM, we found a bunch but the one for Visa cards was broken. We stayed at the 3 story Peace Corps house in Bamako. We used to have big places like that to stay at in Mauritania, but they shut them down after September 11th. A hotel up the street lets Peace Corps volunteers use their pool if you buy a beer at the bar. Of course Bamako, has every kind of food imaginable. I ate steamed doughballs with a meat and tomato stew, that was awesome.
At this point I decided I couldn't make it to the film festival in Burkina Faso, we decided to check out Dogon Country which is about 450 miles further east. By all accounts, we had another 10 hour bus ride ahead of us, that is what the Malian volunteers told us. We broke down an hour outside Bamako and had to stay the night waiting for the spare part, then we ran out of fuel less than an hour from our final destination. 26 hours after leaving Bamako we made it to Sevare, a town with another Peace Corps compound, and a place to hire a guide for Dogon country. It took us around 4 and a half days of hard travel to get to Dogon country in Mali from Dakar, Senegal.
I will never do that again.

West African Invitational Softball Tournament

February 18th through the 21st, Peace Corps Mauritania entered two teams in the social league of the WAIST. My team won the tournament, keeping with Mauritanian tradition of well, letting loose. Taunting the other teams and keeping the beer supply low is what Mauritania has been known for in the past but this year we won tournament too. This year we had a ton of volunteers so there was also a large and obnoxious cheering section, oddly enough they would throw in a random cheer for the other teams we were playing. We also got into a wrestling match with Team Senegal at the end of one of the games. A bunch of volunteers streaked at the Marines' house party.
At the end of the tournament, the Swedes( Peter and Albin) and I decided to take public transport to Bamako in Mali, and try to meet up with some other volunteers who were going to the film festival in Burkina Faso. They already had plane tickets, we figured we could save a lot of money by taking a bus.
We waited for our visas for two days. We stayed in a fleabag hotel in downtown Dakar, which is not the nicest city I have seen. Peter and Albin almost got mugged one night, but Peter threw a punch at one of the guys, and they managed to get away.
Our second day, we visited Goree Island, an old French military base off the coast of Dakar. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was used to ship slaves to the New World. We visited the "slave house" which has been turned into a museum. The island shipped out about 200 slaves a year during the height of the slave trade and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Dakar I ate the best sandwich of my life. For about $1 I ate a sandwich made of grilled chunks of beef, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, lettuce, grilled onions and mayonaise.
Leave Mauritania and the cuisine of West Africa is impressive. Almost every street corner and on the side of the road in small towns there are sandwiches, coffee and tea, rice and sauce, all kinds of good food. Stopped by the side of the road for a night in transit to Bamako, I had a big bowl of salad with a sweet and sour vinaigrette and fried sweet potatoes on the salad, totally awesome!!
On the 24th of February we finally left for Bamako...


Two Swedish guys knocked on my door, back in late January. They were backpackers travelling around Africa. They had met the Tidjikja volunteers who recommended that they come down to my site. We hired a 4x4 for a morning and went and visited Mat Mata the gorge with the crocodile pool. Along the way we passed several villages and driving along the floodplain there were mounds of stone with mud plastered onto the outside. The guidebooks say that they are old granaries some around 2000 years old??! We also did some hiking north of my village and climbed some rocks to get a good view of my valley. Our driver thought it was necessary to walk around with his shotgun the whole time, we didn't see any crocodiles but we did see a dead monitor lizard.
Along the way, we decided to travel together to the film festival in Burkina Faso. I had plans to go with a couple of volunteers, and we figured the more the merrier.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

For more info on Mauritania

Hey everyone,
to see pictures of Matt, Alicia and I sandboarding check out Matt's website.
It includes lots of other good pictures as well.


Click on "My Pictures", and scroll to the bottom for the sandboarding pics. Everything else is suitable so feel free to browse the other pictures.

Other good websites include:


This website has tons of interesting info, click on the links for Mat Mata, Ksar El-Barka, Tidjikja and Rachid.
Tidjikja is my regional capital and I have visited Rachid and Mat Mata as well. Mat Mata is a pool of water at the bottom of a cliff about 15 miles east of my village. I went there last year on a camel trip, there are some small crocodiles living there. Some Mauritanians in my village told me that a tourist got eaten a couple years ago. The crocs I saw were only about 4 feet long, hard to imagine them eating a tourist.
If Moudjeria is listed as a link, check that out. Another volunteer is teaching English there, that is about 12 miles down the road from me.


Search for "mauritania", be sure to do a site search because the search is normally defaulted to searching their online store. On the mauritania page click on the slide show, it has some good pictures.


For all the official stats and evaluations by the US government. Click on countries and regions, click on Africa, the list of african countries should be on the left side of the page in alphabetical order.
For hard numbers link to the World Fact Book (CIA).
I haven't looked at it but the Country Studies(Library of Congress) link might be worth checking out.