Thursday, November 6, 2008

Things happen for a reason

During her first year of service as the first ever Peace Corps Volunteer in Guerou, Andrea encountered a number of obstacles- different culture, language, weather, a conservative community and being an American non Muslim woman promoting Girls Education and Empowerment - which a weak minded person could hardly deal with them. Andrea courageously managed to get the people used to an westerner living among them, established productive relationships with the community, opened a Girls Mentoring Center and, most importantly, recruited 13 wonderful young girls who are interested in improving their lives through education. To put it briefly, Andrea set in motion the consuming task of paving the rough road for future generations of Peace Corps Volunteers in Guerou.

For her second year and with a new male partner on board (I know it sound like a misogynous comment but gender plays a fundamental role in Mauritanian society) we set up our main goal for this next year: making the Girls Education and Empowerment Program and, therefore, our GMC sustainable in Guerou. What this exactly means is that if one day Peace Corps decide to pull out of Mauritania in case of an emergency, administrative order or political conflict (as we have lately seen in Mauritania) the community in Guerou would be able to run the program efficiently by themselves; after all this is a program that should be managed by the people in Guerou, and for the people in Guerou. To achieve this goal, we need to assemble a strong network that includes different key community actors - local government, educational corps, women cooperatives, NGO’s - that understand that it is in their interest to promote Girls Education and empowerment, not only to please the demands of a specific sector in the community but to improve the well being of their society and benefit future generations of Mauritanians.

Before I continue with my story, I’m forced to explain why Girls Education and Empowerment is such an important program and why are there thousands of individuals all around the world promoting such project. Educating and empowering girls is a vital effort that will help tackle other problems that affect our world gravely. There are several compelling benefits associated with this endeavor, which include the reduction of child and maternal mortality, improvement of child nutrition and health, lower fertility rates, enhancement of women’s domestic roles and their political participation, improvement of economic productivity and growth, and protection of girls from HIV/AIDS, abuse and exploitation. Girls Education yields some of the highest returns of all development investments, yielding both private and social benefits that accrue to individuals, families and society at large.

It is worth highlighting that girl’s education in Mauritania faces several socio-economic and socio-cultural constraints such as the high costs of school expenses, lack of schools installations (the ratio of secondary to primary schools is just 1 secondary to 21 primary schools at the national level), burdensome daily household chores at their own homes, early marriages and pregnancies (1 in 4 girls is married by age 12, 1 in 2 girls by age 14 and 3 in 4 girls by age 17), discriminatory social representations of women’s roles devalue girls education, sexist attitudes conveyed in the curriculum and school manuals reinforce traditional representations of girls (number of female teachers in secondary schools was 374 to 3167 men in the 2003-04 year), among other things. Although the Mauritanian Government has made incredible progress promoting girls education through the implementation of new compulsory educational laws, there is so much to be done.

While writing on this blog, I’ve compared my Peace Corps service with riding a rollercoaster. Every day that passes by brings new experiences and emotions, and trying to grasp so much information at once turns into a real challenge. Like all high adrenaline attractions, however, there is always a short moment when the rides slows down so you can take some air, regain concentration and prepared yourself for the next big slope that is waiting ahead; and that invigorating moment is what I exactly experienced this past two weeks.

After celebrating some religious festivities with our Mauritanian friends, everything started to work out pretty smoothly. This break gave Andrea and me the opportunity to settle down and analyze the road lying ahead of us. We had the opportunity to meet people that were willing to support us in our Girls Education and Empowerment (GEE) activities. During these productive meetings, we received good ideas from the community and incorporated them into our action plan for this year. It seemed that the complicated task of putting together the GEE puzzle in Guerou was finally underway. However, before we got ourselves to ahead, we received some unfortunate news: the majority of students in Guerou that took the BAC (test that students all around the Francophone world take to get into University) this year failed it, so they have to repeat their last year of Lycee. What does that mean? Well, there was extra number of students and not enough of school facilities to place them, so the room where we had our GMC had to be given back to the Lycee. Yes you got it right; they shut down one of the few solutions that they have to resolve their BAC problems to satisfy a short term necessity- Kinda bizarre huh? I must admit that after receiving the news, Andrea and I felt hopeless. Where can we find another place to move our GMC in a town like Guerou? To make the things worse, the girls were constantly calling to ask us when we were going to start activities. What where we going to tell them? That we had no GMC?

That night we had dinner with Yousef, a French Teacher and a good friend of ours, and sadly told him the news and even most importantly, asked for his opinion. He told us that his friend, the new Educational Inspector of Guerou, may have a solution or at least know somebody that could gives us some directions on what to do. The next day we met the inspector who, after having a short talk about our work and our recent news, generously offered us an extra room that he had in his new bureau. Although we were kinda skeptical about his promise, once we saw the room everything changed. It was awesome and perfect for our GMC. With tiled floor, electric fans, pleasant area, big garden and in a nice building, the phrase “things happened for a reason” really struck me. That next day, Andrea and I hired a “donkey kart” to move all our material from the Lycee to our new GMC and, with the help of the Girls, we cleaned the entire building; our new GMC.

Life sometimes works in a bizarre way. On Monday night I went to sleep with a feeling of hopelessness and bitterness in my heart, but on Thursday morning, I woke up feeling energized, excited and with a ton of ideas to implement in our new GMC. Ill Hamdouillah.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

An effective NGO

World Vision Sponsored Children in the Assaba Mountains

During my International Relations courses back at the UNLA (my college in Morelia), one of the recurrent debates that we had with my classmates was in relation to the importance that NGO’s posses in today’s international order. On one side of the debate, there were people that stated that in today’s globalized world, where power is more diffused and decentralized, NGO’s play a vital role in promoting social and economic development, they serve as institutions that hold governments accountable and also promote global awareness on issues that affect people all around the world. To put in another way, NGO’s are the voice of the global civil society and they represent its interest to the international community. On the other hand of the debate, there were people that were skeptical about the true impact that NGOs can make in the world. It is true that NGOs are more important today than 30 years ago, but the only institutions that can really transform the world are the global governments. Although NGO’s can promote awareness on some global issues, they usually don’t produce major changes on the global political agenda. During these debates I usually sympathized with the latter group, being really skeptical about NGO’s true impact in the world. However, all that changed this past week.

So before I write about my NGO experience, I’m going to do a small recap of my first month in Guerou. Ramadan is finally over and it was a great experience. During this time I had the opportunity to learn more about Mauritanian culture and Islam, breaking fast with families got me involved in the community, made some good friends, got to know the family’s of the girls that go to the GMC and I improved my French and Hassaniya language skills. Also, in regard to my recreational activities, I found a place where I can play X-Box and Playstation 2, watch European soccer games on the weekends and apparently I joined a soccer team for next month’s tournament. Additionally, I found a nice place to live in an area called Babi- Salaam -“The door of Peace”- with two great Mauritanian friends called Cheikh and Moktar, who work in a NGO called World Vision. Last but not least, Andrea is back from her vacation trip so that makes things even better. Thus, my first month in Guerou has been an awesome and it also prepared me to start my activities at the Girls Mentoring Center and school..

Okay, so now back to my story. The last day of Ramadan, my friend and World Vision Coordinator, Cheikh, invited me to take a trip to some villages located in the Mountains of Assaba to deliver food, aid and clothes that Irish families sent to the children of the Assaba. Since there was nothing that required my participation in Guerou that day, I gladly accepted Cheikh’s invitation. So we met at the WV Bureau, packed some supplies and started our adventure on a Toyota Land Cruiser, which is similar to the Peace Corps “Vomit Comet”. During the 5 hour bumpy trip, we literally drove through the rocky mountains without roads or tracks whatsoever (the landscape resembled the one in the Lion King Movie), and passed by people riding in camels, tons of cows and some random villages. Although I already had similar humanitarian experiences like this one back at Mexico, it really struck me how there is societies that live so far away from what we call “civilization”, in places that seem to lack the special distinctiveness that would stimulate someone to live there.

After getting kind of lost and the “really dark night” already upon us, we finally arrived to our final destination. The place was a vast flat piece of land with three mud houses, two Haimas or tents, and tons of cows where three big families live. One thing that didn’t change was the warm hospitality that Mauritanians have, which received us with food, tea and camel milk. At first everything seemed so natural, it seemed that people didn’t really care that there was a “foreigner” among them, but once the light up a bonfire and light illuminated the terrain, I could see and hear the expressions of astonishment of the villagers once they saw me. The children where motionless, some frightened, while the adults just whispered among themselves. A little girl, finally had the courage to walk to me, but instead of stretching here hand to greet me, she touched my face for 10 min trying to understand what was so “different” about me. That night I went to sleep with 15 children putting attention on every movement I did and woke up the next morning with those same kids staring at me. Creepy but true LOL.

The next day, the World Vision staff started to deliver food, clothes, money and even goats to the families of the sponsored children. It was a powerful thing to see how people, that may never meet each other in person, can bring so much joy and happiness with just a small donation. Moreover, thanks to all the World Vision donations that come from Ireland, the children of the Assaba Mountains also have an elementary school that World Vision also built two years ago and a food program that can help the kids continue their studies without any nutrition problems.

The World Vision trip helped me regain the faith that had I lost on international institutions. Organization such as World Vision still continue to promote a better understanding of the ”real and imbalanced” world that we live in, and even most important, they try to solve such inequalities by creating a constructive bond between families that want to assist others and those people that really need their help. Of course, I know that like any other human institutions, NGO’s have their flaws and malfunctions, and they should always find themselves in a constant process of improvement for the sake of humanity. Nevertheless the important thing is not to see and judge their failures but to analyze their contribution in the unending task of making this world a much better place; and that I also hope to accomplish with my Peace Corps job in Mauritania. Inshallah

Friday, September 12, 2008

Il Hamdoulillah

Sign indicating you're entering Guerou
With Ambassador Boulware and Mark during Swear in Ceremony

Il Hamdoulillah

Starting new life is always a rough test for the human spirit. It takes a great amount of energy, courage and patience to grasp the alien environment that surrounds us and, most of the times, overwhelms us. However, starting a new life and adapting to a totally different country, society, culture, language, and environment; now that’s a heck of a challenge.

During the nine hour drive from Rosso to the region of Assaba, I noticed a huge change in the panorama since my last visit 4 weeks ago during Site Visit. What used to be a dry and sandy landscape turned into beautiful green and vivid scenery that bear a resemblance to the oasis’s so often described throughout the Bible. We also stopped in a different town to eat Mishui -roasted lamb and my favorite Mauritanian meal- where it tasted way better than the one in Aleg. What did not change however, was feeling the same adrenaline running through my entire body when I saw the sign announcing that we just reached Guerou, my home for the next two years Inshallah.

So far, my assignments for the first month is to introduce myself to the community, establish several constructive relationships and let the people know why in the world is an American, called Pablo, doing in Guerrou. My site mate and only PCV in Guerrou, Andrea, (which I will always praise for the great job she has done here) will be leaving on a really well deserved vacation for a couple of weeks, so basically I’m going to be on my own during this time. The daunting part is that the month in which I just arrived concurs with Ramadan, one of the most important festivities for the Muslim Ummah. Ramadan is a month where ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance into the future, ask for help in refraining from everyday evils and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deed. Muslims do not eat or drink anything from dawn until sunset. What I’ve heard from other PCVs and also noticed is that during Ramadan people are usually in a devoted religious mood and simultaneously very exhausted due to the lack of food and fluids that they usually intake. Don t get me wrong, this could be an awesome opportunity to experience and learn from the Mauritanian culture and Islam- after all, that’s the Peace Corps premise and one of the main reasons why I decided to come to Mauritania. However, if I was the one fasting in this hot weather -like I did for one day- let say I would not be in a mood to be socializing with people, especially with a nasrani like me.

So having the current situation in mind, I decided to take a walk through the city and try to make some friends. As I was expecting, the first people I met all asked me the same questions over and over again: Are you fasting? Are you Muslim? And although I tried to avoid responding to such inquiries, their persistence made me give them away a “No” for an answer. Most of them just laughed and continued the chatter while two of them immediately lost interest in me and even refused to shake my hand. However, before I started to feel discouraged a vibrant “Salam wualey kum” just caught my attention. A tall, aged black African with a big smile greeted me and kindly invited me to break fast with him. So I spent the next four hours with Mamadouh, the driver for the city’s Hakem, and met his wonderful family, talked about how is life in Mauritania and USA, described our jobs and, of course, practiced my feeble Hassaniya.

My dad usually says that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how much things you have lived, there is always a first time for everything. Well once again, he is right. That was definitely a great evening full of new experiences. I recruited my first two girls for the GMC (or at least that’s what both Mamadouh’s daughters said), I experienced my first big sand storm which blinded me for a moment, and, most importantly, I broke fast during my first Ramadan in an Islamic country. That was a delightful moment; a moment where a Christian and Muslim shared the same bread, tea, Zrig (Mauritanian drink that is a mix of water, milk and sugar), dates, but more significantly, we joyfully shared our ideas, thoughts and dreams. Il Hamdoulillah – The glory be to God. .

Friday, September 5, 2008

Rollercoaster Experience

My buddy Zach and me after Swear in Ceremony
With Hailey during the swear in party wearing our sick clothes.

The days when I used to go to the madrassa for my Hassaniya language class in Mbalal; playing soccer in the sandy field with my Mauritanian friends; the GEE tech sessions at Rosso; eating camel burgers in the Mauritanian” McDonalds” with my friends; but even most importantly, the days when I was called a Peace Corps Trainee are finally over. The truth is that so much has happened in my life during the last week of Stage that it feels like if I’m riding a rollercoaster without an end.

So just for a fast recap, after leaving Mbalal I headed back to the Peace Corps Center back at Rosso to prepare myself to swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. To achieve this, I had three days to take a language proficiency test in Hassaniya, elaborate an essay on my cultural exchange during Pre Service Training and another one on the GEE Tech sessions that we had during the last month. If I failed to realize one of these duties, my Swear In process would be delayed for another two weeks or so. However with the help of God and some studying time, everything went pretty smoothly and without a hassle.

So after finishing this series of formalities, I had basically two days to rest and enjoy all my friends for the last time in the next 4 months, I had to get ready for swear in ceremony and party, and last but not least, prepare myself for my next assignment: being a Girls Empowerment and Education Agent in the city of Guerou.

The Swear In Ceremony was tremendous. Although it was kind of a low key ceremony due to some Peace Corps budget restraints, we had the honor to count with the Ambassador of the US to Mauritania Mr. Mark Boulware and his wife Ms. Boulware; the PC Director in Mauritania: Obie Shaw and other important PC officials such as Damien and David Salomon; and a great number of current PCV which were so helpful and supportive during the past two months. During the ceremony, all the trainees sat down and listened to an encouraging dialogue from Obie, three speeches in local languages by some trainees and, at the end, the Ambassador formalized our status as Peace Corps Volunteers making us swear-as in a presidential inaugural ceremony- to fulfill the objectives and mission of the Peace Corps.!! WHAT GREAT MOMENT WAS THAT!! I felt like all this happiness, joy and energy rushing through my veins waiting to get liberated; and it was a great timing for that desire, because up next was the Swear in Party.

So once the night arrived and we finally finished cooking all the food for the party (by the way Mexican Style food) we all headed to the Hotel Chemama in the PC trucks and joined all the current Peace Corps Volunteers to have this big party “the American style”: dancing to hip hop music, drinking smuggled alcohol from Senegal, people dressed up in silly outfits (including me as you can see in the picture) and all the rest of the things that can happen in a place filled with 100 Americans in a foreign country. It was a blast for us and a nightmare for our security officers – who had to take care of the needed, if you get what I’m saying- and the Mauritanians that lived near the hotel. I know that describing the party and looking at all the pictures may make us think that we are the classic dumb Americans that like to party without limits the “spring break” style and not the ideal and humble Peace Corps Volunteer that’s not interested in such juvenile recreations. This could maybe be true, but believe me and in at our defense, after two months of learning a new language, living in a conservative country and struggling with an extreme weather, environment and, for some people, sickness, I think we needed a really good break and the swear in party gave us exactly that.

So after all this, it was time for me to get ready to leave for my final site: Guerrou. Although I have only been in Mauritania with the PC people for two months, I really felt a sad saying good bye to every person. It was during the time of hugs and kisses and waving good bye when I felt that the exciting, challenging and transformative part of our PC experience was finally going to start. Of course, the past two months where challenging and difficult but we always had the option of going back to the Center and interacting with people of our same culture if we felt bad or lonely. But this next phase is not going to be like that anymore, and that is good. Going to your new site, meeting new people, integrating into the community and making them accepting you because of who you are, working in your sector and learning the culture and language without the help of PC facilitator is what Peace Corps is all about.

So all this happened in less than a week and I can already feel that I’m not the same person that I was 5 days ago. The first part of my Peace Corps service is finally over and I would say that it ended “con broche de oro”. Now, it’s time to start another episode full of challenges and emotions in Guerou. Thinking about it and retaking what I wrote at the end of the first paragraph, this is really a Roller Coaster that I’m riding in; and the name of the ride is called “The Peace Corps experience”.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Decir Adios

Hay cosas a las cuales nunca me he acostumbrado a hacer, incluso si me encuentro haciéndolas constantemente. Una de esas es el de decir adiós. Siempre que me encuentro en un aeropuerto, estación de camiones o incluso parada de taxis; me gusta ver las diferentes formas en que la gente expresa sus sentimientos al decir adiós o al recibir a un ser querido. A pesar de que cada quien tiene su a manera peculiar de comportarse durante esta situación, la gente que mas capta mi atención son aquellas que tienen una gran facilidad para dejar ir a personas importantes en su vida. Para ellos el decir “adiós” es algo tan normal en la vida, y claro que lo es; pero en mi caso, el despedirse de esa manera es algo que me costaría mucho hacer.

Mi vida ha sido la de vivir en un constante cambio. El mudarme continuamente desde que era pequeño, el decir “adiós”, lidiar con entornos nuevos y empezar una nueva vida debería ser algo al que debería estar totalmente acostumbrado. Al recordar la vez que me despedí de mi familia en Alaska o de mis seres queridos en México, produce en mí todavía un sentimiento de tristeza. Sé que este todo este constante cambio trae consigo cosas de las cuales podemos beneficiarnos como el madurar como persona, el aprender a adaptarse a diferentes entornos, conocer nuevas personas, lugares y culturas y, en mi caso, tratar de fortalecer mi relación con Dios. Pero la realidad es que el estar en constante cambio es duro; necesario pero duro.

La razón por la que estoy hablando sobre este tema es porque este domingo me toco despedirme de mi familia y amigos en Mbalal. Para ser sincero, nunca creí que iba a desarrollar una gran relación con varias personas de Mauritania durante los primeros dos meses de mi servicio. Al ver el gran grupo de personas que nos despidió con regalos y abrazos, me hizo sentir una vez más el sentimiento del que he estado escribiendo. Mi estancia en Mbalal fue toda una gran experiencia para mí. Es increíble lo que aprendí en un pueblo donde no hay electricidad o agua potable. Aprendes a valorar y respetar la cosa más importante que tenemos en la tierra: tu prójimo.- sea americano o de Mauritania; cristiano o musulmán, blanco .

Ahora me encuentro en el centro preparándome para “jurar” como un Official Peace Corps Volunteer el jueves ante el embajador de USA en Mauritania y otros oficiales. Sin embargo de la misma manera, me encuentro una vez más preparándome para decir adiós a mis compañeros de Peace Corps y empezar una nueva aventura en Guerrou que durara poco menos de dos años. Una vez más, es hora de prepararse para el cambio y nuevas experiencias. Que me espera alla? No lo sé completamente. Lo que si se es que con la ayuda de Dios, el apoyo de mis seres queridos y mis experiencias pasadas; creo que estoy listo para este nuevo reto. Inshallah

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pictures of my last week in Mbalal

GEE Volunteers and the Girls in Rosso
Look at the Shirt lol
My Sister Mineya helping me with laundry
My brothers Mineya and Habib

The Girls that Elise and I worked with during our GMC model

Friday, August 15, 2008

This post is to let you guys know that despite the recent Coup d'etat in Mauritania and the Report that Al Qaeda's North Africa wing has called for Jihad in Mauritania to establish Islamic rule after a military junta ousted the country's elected president; I'm doing fine. Things have been going on normally in my site, so don't worry (for those of you who where worried lol). Of course if something bigger comes up, then the PC will chose any required action plan. So well I go to go Ill have more details for you next week