MAURITANIA I (1966-1967):
An American Looks Back on His Experience in Mauritania
by Nicholas Dodge Wolfson
It was the late spring of 1966. I had only the vaguest ideas about a future for myself. I
wanted adventure (I'm Indiana Jones at heart) and I knew I cared about people less
fortunate than I. Graduation loomed. I was apprehensive. What was I going to do?
On a lark I filled out a "fast track" application for a Peace Corps position teaching in the Micronesia US Pacific Trust Territory. I thought, Micronesia, where's that? South Pacific...palm trees and white sand, anexotic adventure. Yeah, I could go there....
People ask today if I went to Mauritania as a Peace Corps Volunteer to get out of the army. No, I did not. In mid-1966 Vietnam was only an ominous speck on the horizon, visible only to those who were paying attention. Only the most aware students followed international affairs or had any idea what was going on in the world. Nobody was very plugged in to the media. TV consisted of two or three channels and pre-cable picture was very blurry.
We were on the cusp between two eras. Dope was still a stupid person, smack was something you did with your lips when you ate ice cream, and quite a few students were still wearing jackets and neckties to class! Still dormant before us, waiting and unseen, was "hell-no-we-won't-go!", "off the pigs", "turn on, tune in, drop out", Sergeant Pepper, and the "New Age". MTV, McDonalds, and the Disney Store were not even on the radar screen.
Well, the "fast track" application worked. I received back in the mail a few weeks later an acceptance form letter with what looked at first glance like "MICRONESIA" on the header. I went around for a few days thinking I was going to Micronesia. Then I looked again and saw that it said MAURITANIA, not Micronesia. Where the hell is Mauritania? An island in the South Pacific? I looked on a map. Mauritania was in Africa-the Sahara Desert! Not some cushy palm-tree beach place. The desert....
We were Mauritania I, the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to enter Mauritania. Nobody (I mean nobody) really knew what we were getting in to. It took forever to get us out into the field. Many of us drank our way through training in western New Mexico. Then our group, the "dirty dozen" (all male), waited in Dakar. Then we waited in Nouakchott. Weeks lengthened into months.
The logistics were impossible. At the time there were only about ten miles of paved road in all of Mauritania-mostly in Nouakchott. We took a standard American truck-van (the equivalent of one of today's SUVs) on a two day "test drive" and barely made it back alive, limping back to Nouakchott after and a couple of broken springs, a seriously clogged carburetor, and sixteen flat tires. Imagine prying truck tires off of rims, and pumping up tires by hand, while sitting on cram-crams in 130 degree heat!
We needed special vehicles with special tires that could handle the incredible heat and thorns, the vicious "washboard" surfaces, and the tortuous overland travel. Luckily for us, the Peace Corps had recently been expelled from Guinea and we got their trucks!
I was assigned to various public works projects in the Trarza and Brakna regions of southern Mauritania. With a trusty fellow Volunteer, I covered an area about the size of half of Minnesota. We made our way from one project site to another guided by local nomads whom we would pick up, and assisted by aerial photographs and a compass. The guides would sometimes sit on the sixty-gallon barrels of gasoline in the back of the truck softly chanting "La Ilaha il Lala!", smoking bone cigarette-pipes! I had a base camp in the village of Boghé on the northern bank of the Senegal River, a few hundred kilometers inland from the ocean.
I trained and worked with mostly nomadic people, assisting them with hand-dug water wells (some were 100 meters deep!); building earthen dams to trap water run-off during the very short rainy season (if you hold the run-off in one place even for a day, it will sink beneath the surface of the desert and will stay there for some time, permitting shallow wells to be dug to get at it, and maybe even allowing for the growing a bit of hardy grain); designing and building gites d'étapes, a sort of desert way-station, like the old Pony Express stations for wayward travelers; and occasionally helping to build a bridge or two.
Mostly, however, the ongoing assignment was to preserve my own life-at least that was how I saw it. Several Volunteers had their last will and testaments on file at the American Embassy, just in case. The place was filled with natural perils, hardship, danger, and quite rugged living. Other than goat meat, and tomato sauce, and (occasionally) cow, there was nothing outside the capital that we soft Americans were going to welcome as food. In Mauritania, I was often sick. My weight dropped from about 170 to 130 pounds. When I returned to the US and the government sought to draft me for service in Vietnam, I seriously considered the advantages of going over to Southeast Asia for a rest, good food, and regular hot showers.
Considerable ground work for our public works projects had been laid by the American, French, and Mauritanian governments. There was a budget, there was planning, there were (some) vehicles, there was engineering assistance, there was a strategy. Tribes ("fractions") got supplies, raised work-crews, trained them, did the work, got paid in surplus US grains. So, we were fairly successful-except for the overall big problem. The genesis of the whole program was the idea of nation building which was big in the 1960's, when the former European colonial areas were becoming independent states. To build a nation in an area inhabited by wandering nomads, like Mauritania, it was thought you needed to settle the nomads first. Then they could be educated, taxed, and receive the benefits of modern government. How to settle nomads, who have been wandering the desert following their flocks and herds for millennia?-Dig wells, so they do not have to wander looking for water. So, we dug wells.
But, there was a hitch. Reliable wells permit animals to stay in one place, they eat all the ground cover, the sun bakes down on the exposed roots, the roots die, and soil changes chemical composition, and the desert advances to the south at a rate of 10 kilometers per year. (To be fair, we weren't the only source of the advancing desert problem, of course. There's climate change and global warming and the like as well.)
Suddenly, along came the Six Day War in the Middle East, and Peace Corps Volunteers were rounded up (it took days to find us!) and expelled from Mauritania. Here's what we think happened. One of President Moktar Ould Daddah's policies had been to assign black officials to high posts in the Moorish areas of the north, and Moorish officials to high posts in the black areas along the Senegal River. Although it might have led some people to think Ould Daddah was less than enthusiastically pro-Arab, I thought it was an enlightened policy. I heard that when the war broke out, Moors of influence let him know he needed to make a strong pro-Arab gesture or he would be out. Hence, the story goes that Peace Corps had to go (along with all the other Americans in the country, including the Embassy.) Our expulsion and escape is a story in itself! Anyway, off I went to Senegal complete my Peace Corps tour.
When I returned to the United States after 21 months in Africa it was a completely different country than the one I left-the Chicago Democratic Convention, Woodstock, Kent State, Marches on Washington, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Activists attacked me for being a "cultural imperialist", for contaminating the Third World with American values, for paving the way for the predation of American corporate interests. I found that it is very hard in this life to be morally pure; it is very hard to be right.
Was my being in Mauritania worth what it cost the US taxpayer? The only debate would be about what do you mean by valuable. It was worth it to me. And in my mind it was, hands-down, certainly a better investment than the lives and billions of dollars lost in Vietnam.
What did I get out of the experience?
*I became more educated. It cannot be said that I am ignorant about poverty, hunger, injustice, global capital, third-world governance and the like.
* I retain a strong commitment to Africa and I pay attention to what goes on there. I know that we are all connected, all of us in the world. I know that when they sneeze in Dar Es Salaam, it has an impact in Little Falls, Minnesota.
* I have an ever-increasing certainty that the little individual can and does make a difference. Tied to a discontent with the world as it is, that is a powerful thing. I participate, I lobby, I donate money, I vote. I am more self-reliant, more courageous, a better US citizen, a better world citizen.
* I am ever more appreciative of what incredibly vast material wealth I possess (compared to Donald Trump I may be poor. Compared to Ahmed in Tidjikja, I am Donald Trump!).
* I love to travel to exotic places.
What about Mauritania made the greatest, most lasting impression on me?-The desert nights, lying outside the camel-hair tents under the vast starry sky, the wind blowing across a thousand miles of sand and scrub, listening to the soft voices of the nomads for whom so little had changed since long before the birth of the Prophet Mohamed.