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When Life is not a Beach ...

Last Update: 11/3/2013 3:00 PM

Athalia Markowitz

Annika Dubrall (Mauritania 2003-2005) found out she was going to Mauritania in a letter from Peace Corps headquarters during her senior year at CAL. When read the name “Mauritania,” she imagined a tropical island with coconuts and warm sand on a beach, mistaking it for Mauritius. At the UC Berkeley library, she looked up Mauritania and realized that her Peace Corps experience would not be taking her to the beach. Mauritania is an Islamic Republic on the northwest coast of Africa with a Muslim population whose secular laws are influenced by the Sharia Muslim code. More than three-fourths of Mauritania is the Saharan desert, and the country is known as a hardship country—meaning it is one of the most challenging sites for Peace Corps Volunteers.

Annika shipped out as an education volunteer with 55 other PCVs and embarked upon three months of training near the capital. Upon arriving in Mauritania, Annika learned what living in an Islamic Republic means, where women are required to dress modestly, cannot be seen going out on their own after dark, and are expected to keep their heads covered in many parts of the country. Annika also worried about her language abilities. As well as French, many Mauritians speak an Arabic dialect and at least one of three other African languages. Almost nobody spoke English. She was not sure how well she would be able to get around.

When Annika was assigned to her site—a small community called Kankossa in the Sahel at the far southeastern corner of the country—her training family sighed. Kankossa and the Assaba region are known for being backwater—and Annika had never visited her site before being placed there. After swearing in as a PCV, her APCD (who had family in the region) drove her for two days to get to the remote town. The first day, they drove on paved roads to the local capital. The second day was through sand dunes, until finally, they arrived at the house of the APCD's cousin near Annika’s site. They were fed dinner and Annika immediately felt ill. She fell asleep and when she awoke the next day, her APCD was gone. She was on her own.

Annika's Home

Annika got a ride to her house in town on the back of a donkey cart and slept for two days as she fought off a fever. When the fever broke, Annika took in the community she would call home for the next two years. Kankossa is a town of a few thousand with a poor population that is largely uneducated and isolated. With temperatures regularly breaking 100 degrees, life in Kankossa is mostly lived outdoors. Many families have cinderblock rooms in their compounds where they keep their possessions, but in their yards they set up lumbars, which are big open-air tents made of tree branches and covered with cloth or plastic. The locals spend almost all of their lives under the tent—eating, playing, and sleeping in the open air. In Kankossa, there is no inside plumbing, so people in the village share neighborhood faucets or wells. There is no electricity and there few latrines. On top of the physical difficulties of life in Kankossa, the culture of the town is extremely conservative. Women keep their heads covered at all times (which was optional in training for Peace Corps Volunteer) and women cannot walk around on their own after dark.

Annika was the second volunteer to be placed in her site to work with a secondary school and a women’s gardening cooperative. As such, she inherited a compound of her own. She had her own cinderblock house, a private latrine, and a lumbar in her yard. Annika lived across the street from her school and right next to a coveted community faucet.

Annika did her best to respect the customs of the community: she covered her hair, did not go out alone after dark and did not befriend males in the community. Yet despite her best efforts, some people in town were not pleased with her behavior. One day after six months in Kankossa, Annika’s scarf fell off of her head while she was teaching a class—and the principal of the school happened to walk by the class and saw her exposed hair. The next day, he called Annika was into his office and asked if she was a Muslim. In the best Arabic she could muster, Annika explained that she was not a Muslim but was doing her best to respect the customs and traditions of the town. The principal then asked if she was married. When Annika responded that she was not married, the principal told her she was not welcome and never spoke to her again for the rest of her time in Mauritania.

Mauritania Landscape

Another issue was that Annika lived by herself. An independent woman, Annika struggled with her inability to go out on her own or fully express herself. Having her own home and private space was one area where she was not willing to compromise. People in town thought it was odd that a woman lived by herself. While some people defended Annika’s decision to live on her own, gossip followed her.

A final challenge for Annika was that it was extremely hard to make friends. Friendship with men was not sanctioned, and women her own age were already married and had many children. As a result, the closest Annika came to friendship was with some of her male teacher colleagues—with whom she could only speak during group lunches.

While all of these challenges made life hard, Annika slowly adapted to a routine. She taught more or less from 8 am-1pm (other teachers kept her notified of the schedule changes since the principal would not talk to her). She would eat lunch with one host family and listen to the BBC in French and Arabic. Or sometimes she would read, during the heat of the afternoon. In the early evening, she would garden with the women’s cooperative and try to teach them accounting practices. In the evening, she ate dinner with another family, and would then go to her own compound to sleep.

After a year of this routine, Annika realized that the gossip about her sleeping on her own was becoming a distraction. She was fully integrated into the community, and still there would be chatter about the teacher that slept alone in the compound. So Annika acquiesced and began to sleep with the family she ate dinner with. She was one of 11 women under the lumbar in the yard. To escape the heat, Annika doused herself with water before going to bed. She woke up early to bathe by herself in her own compound, and kept her belongings in her own cinderblock house, but almost all of her waking and now sleeping life was now spent outside of the compound.

Reflecting on her experience in Mauritania, Annika says that people in the community came to support her as an outsider in their own way. Neighbors offered her space under their lumbars or offered to accompany her if she needed to walk around after dark. Some teachers in the school let Annika know about staff meetings and schedule changes so she could succeed despite the censure of the principal. Annika realized that while she could not change a whole village—or get them to understand that a woman could live on her own—she allowed people to support her in their own ways.