Leaving Mauritania

This morning I’m leaving Mauritania. While I will certainly miss my friends, colleagues, students, and hangout spots, it’s time to go. I came here on a temporary substitute teaching contract in February 2013, thinking I would only stay a few months. It’s been a time of great opportunity, learning, and change. Now, four years later, I’m moving on to other places and things.

After I finished my U.S. Peace Corps service in Sierra Leone, I came home to California with a modest readjustment allowance but without any idea of what to do next. I was convinced teaching wasn’t for me.1 I decided I would determine my effectiveness as a Peace Corps Volunteer by being a good community member rather than a Language Arts teacher. In that, I feel I succeeded.

Among the stones, I made great Sierra Leonean and American friends, learned to speak Krio and some Loko, spent the majority of my time outdoors, ate delicious food, and learned more about myself and others.

I came home relieved to see my family and friends after so long and ready to settle into the lifestyle I had left. When a few weeks of not working turned into a few months, I started getting nervous. Was I unemployable? How will I pay rent in the outrageous housing market of Southern California? But I wasn’t acknowledging my years teaching in West Africa as professional assets. An acquaintance of my dad’s encouraged me to try teaching overseas again.

I started my search at an international school in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I had met the director before leaving and we got along. The thing that kept me from accepting a job at that time was I would only have around two weeks back in the United States. She had already filled the positions for the current year but forwarded my email address to another international school director in Nouakchott. After a few email exchanges and three weeks, I was on a plane, heading to a country I knew little about2, ready to teach first grade.

A lot has happened in the years since—too much to adequately chronicle. I’m pretty lackadaisical about writing publicly, but I’m trying to gain confidence about that.

These last four years. I;

  • enjoyed teaching first grade for three years and IT/ESL this year
  • contracted malaria on a return trip to Sierra Leone and was hospitalized back home in California
  • played with the Baseball/Softball Fédération de Mauritanie
  • started practicing Islam, something I’ve been interested in doing since university
  • visited the the Adrar region of Mauritania three times3
  • contracted dengue fever
  • watched way too much Netflix
  • learned to drive a manual transmission
  • vacationed in Turkey, Morocco twice, Islas Canarias, Senegal thrice, and Spain
  • met, fell in love, and married a wonderful woman
  • saved enough money to backpack around for at least a year with that wonderful woman

Before every vacation away from school and Nouakchott, I would be dying to get out for awhile, eager to escape the monotony, heat, or constant deadlines of work.

But every time I’d spend more than two weeks away, a longing came to me for the pace of life here, the unhurriedness of Mauritanians4, the nights at a café chatting about everything, heading out into the desert for a night camping, eating tiéboudienne on Fridays after school, and being comfortable at home.

There are things that will always prevent me from calling Mauritania my permanent home. But this post isn’t the place for that. And maybe I won’t write ever write that. Because even though I’m more than ready to board the plane and say goodbye, I know it won’t be gone too long. I know Mauritania will pull me back, at least for a visit.

  1. Teaching in rural Sierra Leone was pretty challenging. My school closed often, sometimes for important agricultural priorities, but more frequently for student and teacher truancy or secondary events that diminish classroom hours. There were no resources other than a piece of chalk and one photocopied textbook. I had over 80 students packed into a room, three students to a desk. 
  2. I think I knew more about Mauritania than the average person. I love maps and constantly perused my Rough Guide West Africa book in Sierra Leone. When I traveled to Guinea-Bissau, I saw many of the pharmacists were Moors in da’aa and figured they had to have come from Mauritania. 
  3. A trip to Mauritania for the Adrar alone is worth it. If you find yourself in Morocco and/or Senegal, even better. I highly recommend SidiTours
  4. Except in the case of automobiles in the city. 

11:34 AM

One more day left in Mauritania and my job as a teacher. I simplified my calendars from 5 down to 3; General, Personal, and Work (maybe that becomes writing?). I’m also preparing to sell my MacBook Air and go iOS-only, first on a Mini, then hopefully a 10.5″ post-WWDC.

Beginning Worldbuilding with MindNode

Last year, I read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, an entertaining high fantasy novel featuring quasi-Islamic characters and settings. Reading it solidified my interest in the fantasy genre and made me especially appreciate authors who wrote diverse characters.

I have lived in West Africa for the majority of the last seven years. Throughout that time, I’ve kept a journal in notebooks and on my computer. But I’ve struggled with how to write about things pubwlicly in a way I would feel comfortable rereading years later.

Instead of documenting real life, with all of my own potential biases and projections, maybe it would be easier to create a fictional world inspired by the Upper Guinea region; a place that is marked by the coastal mangrove swamps and rivers in southern Sierra Leone, the highlands of the Fouta Djallon, the island cluster of Bijagós, and the people who live there.

Dense forests, undulating hills and valleys, rivers, swamps, well-trodden footpaths leading from home to farm, villages and towns with thatched huts, isolated hamlets, and palms.

With these images in mind, I started to create a part of my own fantasy world.1 In the previous post, I mentioned my goal of building a world to use for twelve short stories over the next year, in preparation for NaNoWriMo. But I am also interested in worldbuilding for its own sake. At first, I would scribble down notes when I thought of something; simple things like names or a model of government. When I moved my longer digital notes over to Ulysses2, I went crazy making groups and sheets to hold all my thoughts in.

And then I stalled. I’m not sure if it was my previous system with its linear style or my workload at school, but I stopped. Until I discovered the benefits of mind mapping.

“[A mind map] is visually looking at ideas and their connections and relationships with each other.” — David Sparks

I’ve used mind maps with my primary school students for writing preparation in the past, but I always considered them a step before outlines or more traditional note taking, not of value by themselves.

For macOS and iOS users, MindNode is my favorite mind mapping app and it has helped me with worldbuilding. It allows me to brainstorm abstractly and experiment with the places I’m creating. It is also easy to manipulate nodes and mind maps in the same project. MindNode allows for different export options like an image or an outline in Markdown. I transferred my scattered written and digital notes on my four culture groups and spent an hour or so adding and editing nodes. I will examine each culture more closely in subsequent articles, but here is what my mind map looks like now:

The Coast

I named the whole MindNode “The Coast”, because I haven’t come up with a suitable name for this area of my world, or the name of the world in general. The names I do know, however, are my cultures; Belemu, Galija, the Dasasi, and the Jani Republic.

Each culture’s node has characteristics and individual themes. The individual themes are ideas for short stories; something unique about that place that can be highlighted. Characteristics are still a work in progress. I have a few inspirations for the types of government listed for each culture, but the environment is uniquely Upper Guinea.

I listed religions with a “crypto-” prefix. I have not elaborated on how realistic or fictional to go so it is mostly a placeholder for the future. Religion and other characteristics will be highlighted in separate posts.

That’s about it for now. My next task is to continue working on these cultures, create geography, and start constructing some languages. Writing about worldbuilding and my writing goals have driven me to work on them more.

If there are any comments or questions, don’t hesitate to reach out! I’d love some feedback and if anyone else is doing the same.

  1. Some might have noticed that I have left out people. It is deliberate. There is far too much heterogeneity even in this particular part of West Africa to adequately describe people. I’m more comfortable putting landscapes into boxes, not people. I am also conscious of the added responsibility of writing people of color as a white male and this is something I want to understand better. 
  2. The undisputed champion of all writing apps for macOS and iOS. I will be writing more about the greatness of Ulysses in the Technology section.