Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Mauritania
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences. Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal.
In other ways, however, our diversity poses challenges. In Mauritania, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed.
Outside of Mauritania’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as typical cultural behavior or norms may be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Mauritania are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present.
In order to ease the transition and adapt to life in Mauritania, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
- 1 Overview of Diversity in Mauritania
- 2 What Might a Volunteer Face?
Overview of Diversity in Mauritania
The Peace Corps staff in Mauritania recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Many female Volunteers expect the worst when coming to serve in an Islamic republic. Based upon the Western media’s conception of the role of women in Islam, many Volunteers anticipate a situation that is much worse than what actually exists. Women in Mauritania have a great deal of freedom and many more rights than women in other Islamic countries. Mauritanian women have held ministerial positions and other influential roles in the national government. However, Mauritanian society is still very much male dominated. Female Volunteers will find that many men (for cultural reasons) refuse to shake their hands. They might also find that they need to work harder than male Volunteers to get respect from counterparts and other community members. In addition, as a result of stereotypes perpetuated by Western movies and the inferences made about women living alone, female Volunteers may find themselves the regular target of overt sexual advances and marriage proposals.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
The most common challege for African Americans living in Mauritania is constantly being mistaken for a Pulaar, Soninke, or Wolof person. While this sometimes makes Volunteer service easier, it can also cause a great deal of frustration.
These Volunteers are often asked what family they are from (larger family units are a source of identity for these three ethnic groups), and host country nationals are often shocked when the Volunteer does not speak their language. A more negative aspect of life in Mauritania is the racism that some Volunteers encounter. A minority of Mauritanians believe that dark skin is not a desirable feature, and African-American Volunteers have experienced problems as a result.
Because of the presence of Chinese doctors and development workers and Korean fishermen in Mauritania, Asian-American Volunteers are sometimes mistaken for them and often have to deal with the negative reactions that come from the insensitive behavior of other foreigners.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Respect comes with age in Mauritania. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. While this often proves to be an unexpected bonus for older Volunteers, many struggle with the fact that the majority of Volunteers in Mauritania are in their twenties (the average age is 23), and they sorely miss having an American peer group.
In training, senior Volunteers may experience frustration with the basic level of technical skills being taught. Senior Volunteers may have to be assertive in developing an effective, individual approach to language learning.
During service, senior Volunteers may not receive desired personal support from younger Volunteers. They may also find that younger Volunteers look to them for advice and support (while some Volunteers find this to be a very enjoyable part of their service, others find the role uncomfortable or burdensome).
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
As homosexuality is forbidden in the Koran, most Mauritanians believe that same-sex relationships are wrong. While this may not be surprising, what is confusing is the fact that Mauritanian men and women tend to be more physically affectionate with members of their own gender than with the opposite sex. This should not be taken as a sign that homosexual relationships are accepted. Even the most open-minded Mauritanians judge gays and lesbians rather harshly. Many even refuse to admit that homosexuality exists in this country. While this is certainly not the case, most gay and lesbian Volunteers have found that they are not able to be open about their sexual orientation. Another challenge is finding peer support. While Peace Corps/Mauritania is committed to supporting diversity, it is a relatively small program, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers may serve for two years without meeting other openly gay Volunteers.
See also: Articles about Mauritania on the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Peace Corps Alumni Association website at http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles.htm
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Mauritania is an Islamic state. While the majority of Mauritanians are curious about and respectful of religious differences, most Volunteers will experience some religious harassment during their two years of service. This harassment can range from good-natured or subtle pressure to convert to Islam to open hostility toward non-Muslims and/or Westerners. These situations are generally frustrating for Volunteers, but the majority find constructive ways of coping with them and feel that living in an Islamic republic gives them a unique perspective that they would not otherwise have had.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
For the most part, public facilities in Mauritania are unequipped to accommodate persons with disabilities. However, as part of the medical clearance process, the Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Mauritania without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Mauritania staff will work with any disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.