Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Mauritania
- 1 Communications
- 2 Mail
- 3 Telephones
- 4 Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
- 5 Housing and Site Location
- 6 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 7 Food and Diet
- 8 Transportation
- 9 Geography and Climate
- 10 Social Activities
- 11 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 12 Personal Safety
- 13 Rewards and Frustrations
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service we consider normal in the United States. If you come here expecting U.S. standards, you will be in for a lot of frustration. Mail takes a minimum of two weeks to arrive in Mauritania. Some mail may simply not arrive, and some letters may arrive pre-opened or with clipped edges because someone has tried to see if any money was inside (this is rare, but it does happen). Although we do not want to sound too discouraging, communication can become a very sensitive issue when one is thousands of miles from family and friends. We think it is best to forewarn you about the reality of mail service in this part of the world. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to write “West Africa,” “Airmail,” and “Par Avion” on the envelopes.
Despite the potential delays, we strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly (perhaps weekly or biweekly) and to number your letters. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so advise them that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly.
Sending letters and packages by airmail is always quicker and more reliable than surface mail (usually sent by boat), which has been known to show up years later!
People visiting in the U.S. can carry mail back and put them in a mailbox when they arrive. This is usually quicker and more secure than relying on MauriPost. If you want to send mail this way, bring plenty of U.S. postage stamps with you so that letters are ready to mail upon arrival in the U.S.
Your address during training will be:
“Your Name,” PCT
Corps de la Paix
Although you will not be in Nouakchott during training, your mail will be brought to you at the training site. Once you have become a Volunteer and are at your site, you may have your mail sent directly to your address there.
While local telephone service is becoming more widely available inside Mauritania, it is still a bit unreliable. Generally, long-distance service to Europe and North America is good but expensive. You, your family, and friends should be prepared to rely mostly on letters and e-mail for communication.
More and more professional Mauritanians are using cellular phones, especially in the capital and larger towns, and they all subscribe to one of the two cellular companies in the country. It is highly unlikely that a cellular plan bought in the United States will cover Mauritania and the surrounding region, with or without roaming charges. Therefore, we strongly discourage you from bringing your phone along. You may want to purchase a cellphone once you are in-country. One advantage you have here is that it costs you nothing to receive a call on your cellphone (local or international).
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
E-mail is available in Nouakchott and in all regional capitals. Because you will probably have limited access (Volunteers average a visit to the capital once every month), one option is to arrange for Volunteer friends posted in sites with Internet access to print out and send you your e-mail. Most Volunteers set up a Yahoo, gMail, or Hotmail account before leaving home, giving the e-mail address to friends and family. There is access to the Internet in Mauritania through commercial outlets in Nouakchott and most regional capitals. Some governmental organizations in the regional capitals may also have Internet access and usually are willing to let Volunteers check their e-mail. DSL Internet service is currently available in two of Peace Corps/Mauritania’s 10 regional satellite offices. It is expected that high-speed Internet service will continue to expand to the regional capitals.
Housing and Site Location
Peace Corps/Mauritania will provide Volunteers with funds to secure safe and adequate housing in accordance with the Peace Corps’ site selection criteria (see the chapter on Health Care and Safety for further information). Housing may range from a one-room hut with no electricity or running water to a larger house with several rooms, running water, and electricity. The Peace Corps will pay for any necessary security and hygiene improvements, including a water filter.
Peace Corps/Mauritania asks host communities and agency sponsors to provide Volunteers with housing that includes a private bedroom and bath/latrine facilities. You may share a compound or a house with a host family, but the Peace Corps will ensure that you have at least one room to yourself.
Unless you are posted to a regional capital, you will most likely not have running water or electricity. This means that you may collect your water from a well or a borehole and spend your evenings reading by candle, lantern, or flashlight. You will need to be very flexible in your housing expectations as there are no guarantees of available (or continuous) electricity or water.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer in Mauritania, you will receive four types of allowances.
The Peace Corps gives you an allowance to cover your basic living expenses. This living allowance is reviewed at least once a year through a survey of Volunteer expenses to ensure that it is adequate. Paid in local currency every quarter, it ranges from the equivalent of $140 to $396 a month. The allowance is intended to cover your food, rent, utilities, household supplies, clothing, recreation and entertainment, transportation, reading materials, and other incidentals. You might find that you receive more remuneration than your host-country counterpart or supervisor does.
A vacation allowance of $24 per month is paid in ouguiya. It is automatically included in the quarterly deposit to your bank account.
You will also receive a one-time settling-in allowance of roughly $290, paid in local currency at the end of pre-service training, to buy basic household items for your eventual site.
If the Peace Corps requires you to travel, you will be given additional money for transportation and meals. This amount is established by the post based on the current cost of transportation and lodging.
Most Volunteers find they can live comfortably in Mauritania with these four allowances, although many Volunteers bring money (cash or traveler’s checks) for out-of-country travel. All Volunteers are strongly discouraged from supplementing their income with money brought from home. The living allowance is adequate, and Volunteers are expected to live at the economic level of their neighbors and colleagues.
Credit cards can be used at only a couple of establishments in the capital, but are very handy during vacations and for travel outside of Mauritania (as are ATM cards). Volunteers have found that bringing new $100 bills brings the best exchange rate when changing money. For safekeeping, Volunteers can store money, personal passports, and other valuables in the Peace Corps safe in Nouakchott. However, the Peace Corps’ liability for stored items is limited, so consider your decision to bring valuables carefully.
Food and Diet
Volunteers often struggle when adjusting to the Mauritanian diet. The typical Mauritanian family eats either rice and meat or rice and fish for lunch (depending on proximity to the river or ocean) and couscous and meat, pasta and meat, or couscous with bean sauce for dinner. The abundance of vegetables in the Mauritanian diet varies according to the season and each family’s cooking habits. Given that meals in Mauritania tend to be very starchy and oily (meats are almost always cooked in oil), many female Volunteers experience weight gain during their two years of service. Conversely, male Volunteers often find keeping weight on to be a challenge.
Vegetarian Volunteers sometimes have difficulty maintaining a meat-free diet in Mauritania. Very few local dishes are served without meat, and it is often difficult to find alternative sources of protein. However, meeting dietary challenges is almost always possible if Volunteers are willing to be resourceful and flexible. Cooking for yourself is always an option but will cause you to miss out on the Mauritanian family experience. In the case of being invited to share a meal with a Mauritanian family, you will find that your host can be very accommodating if you explain any restrictions when you are invited to their home.
Getting around Mauritania can be challenging. Taxis (taxis brousses) are the main modes of travel among towns and often entail squeezing into a Peugeot 504 with eight or nine other people or sitting on top of luggage in the back of a pickup truck with 20 other people. Driving anywhere long distance is likely to entail rumbling along sandy roads through the desert. If you are required to travel for work or medical reasons, the Peace Corps will reimburse your travel costs. Some Volunteers use their settling-in allowance to purchase bicycles. Peace Corps/Mauritania provides helmets to Volunteers and they are required to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle. For your safety, Peace Corps/Mauritania prohibits Volunteers from driving or riding on any two- or three-wheeled motorized vehicle (such as a motorcycle) for any reason. In addition, Volunteers are not allowed to own or drive private cars in Mauritania. Violation of any of these policies may result in termination of your Volunteer service.
Geography and Climate
Mauritania is situated on the Atlantic Ocean in northwest Africa. It is bounded on the northeast by Algeria, on the east by Mali, and on the south by Senegal. Mauritania also shares a long border with the former Spanish Sahara, control of which is contested by Morocco and an insurgent movement, the Polisario, supported principally by Algeria. The northern five-sixths of Mauritania is desert—for the most part uninhabited (the region known as El Majabaat Koubra). The majority of Mauritania’s interior population lives in the narrow strip of Sahel and savanna that sits between the Senegal River and the Sahara Desert. This area of the country generally gets more rain and is a bit cooler, if more humid. A narrow strip of savanna near the Senegal River that is used for the majority of Mauritania’s agricultural initiatives quickly gives way to the more sparsely vegetated Sahel. Farther north is the Sahara Desert, which stretches to Mauritania’s northern and eastern borders.
Mauritania has three main seasons: the hot season from April to July, the rainy season from August to November, and the cold season from December to March. Keep in mind that hot, cold, and rainy are relative terms and that seasons probably do not vary as much as the ones you are used to in the United States.
Social activities will vary depending on where you are located and may include taking part in local ceremonies like weddings or baptisms, storytelling, and parties and dances. Some Volunteers visit nearby Volunteers during the weekends or make an occasional trip to the capital, although it is expected that Volunteers will remain at their sites to accomplish the second Peace Corps goal of cultural exchange.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity and presenting yourself as a professional at the same time. It is not an easy thing to resolve, and we can only provide you with guidelines. You will be assigned to a Mauritanian government ministry, and you are expected to dress and behave as your colleagues do. While some of your counterparts may dress in seemingly worn or shabby clothes, this is because of economics rather than choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their “best.” A foreigner wearing shabby, unmended clothing is likely to be considered an affront.
Peace Corps/Mauritania has instituted the following dress code, required for the Nouakchott office, the Kaédi training center, and other official functions. Peace Corps/Mauritania requires for office-type work assignments that men wear collared shirts and pants. Pants on women are appropriate, but they should be worn with shirts that hang to mid-thigh. Ankle-length skirts (not simple wraps), long dresses that cover the shoulders, mulafas (full-length veils worn by Moor women), or boubous (robes worn by local men or women) that go to the ankles are also appropriate. As temperatures are usually quite high, buying clothing that is mostly or all cotton is highly recommended. Volunteers can wear any kind of shoes or sandals (with or without socks) except plastic shower flip-flops. As you will be walking a great deal (mostly in sand), sturdy sandals that can easily be removed are highly recommended. Clothes should always be clean, not unduly wrinkled, and free of tears.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but such an important issue cannot be overemphasized. Statistically, Mauritania is one of the safest countries in the world. That said, as stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Most Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although many Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Mauritania. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
The developmental and human accomplishments of the Peace Corps are frequently not tangible or easily measured. Progress is often frustratingly slow. Through the Peace Corps, thousands of Volunteers have been given the opportunity to have a hand, even if only a small one, in shaping how some of the world’s neediest people live. At the same time, the world has been given a personal view of individual Americans putting their ideals to work.
The excitement and adventure of the Volunteer experience are, in some measure, a result of its unpredictability. There will be unexpected joys as well as unexpected disappointments. You could find plans for a health clinic canceled at the last minute because the Department of Health has been reorganized. Your plan to dig a well might be held up by a quarrel between local groups over who is to do the digging or because the required materials cannot be delivered as scheduled. The official to whom you were supposed to report might be replaced by a successor who knows little about a scheduled project. Such variables can erode the enthusiasm, the patience, and the idealism of a Volunteer. Your success will often depend upon determination, patience, and the ability to find another way. The Volunteer always has to be able to come up with a Plan B. A big part of the Peace Corps is the challenge to remain flexible, energetic, and hopeful at a time when it would be easy to give in to cynicism or indifference.
Ideally, a Volunteer’s lifestyle and work should merge. Accepting the community and being accepted by it are essential for success. In both their daily lives and jobs, a Volunteer must take care to avoid the inherent appearance of arrogance in the position of an outsider who has come to bring change and “improvements.” Volunteers find that as they live and work, they learn from the people of their host country at least as much as they teach them. In so doing, they can enhance their effort to achieve the third goal of the Peace Corps by bringing their host country experiences home to the United States.