It has been almost two years since leaving my life in Mauritania. Since then, my wife and I attended my brother’s wedding in California, backpacked for a year from Mexico to Peru, spent the summer visiting family and friends in the United States, took a road trip with a Prius and a tent from California to Oklahoma and back, wintered outside Madrid, bought and converted a campervan, and took two three-week trips before finally reaching in Cologne yesterday. We had been planning this move for months but we wanted to wait for the winter. And the extra months in Spain gave me the opportunity to really improve my Spanish comprehension.
And now, a new chapter emerges; living in a city, navigating life in a new language, project-based work with friends, and another region to explore.
Note: This is the first time I’ve written anything about me and Islam and shared it. I am hesitant to write this even now, mostly because I’m scatterbrained and a terrible writer. I linked to blog posts from others who are more knowledgeable in certain topics to keep this short. You might not know I’m Muslim. Or you might consider me too recent a convert, not informed enough. It should be obvious, but these are just my thoughts and I speak for myself. In some stricter circles, it might be considered inappropriate to do so without having some type of qualification. I don’t speak Arabic and I wasn’t raised in a Muslim household. But these are blessings and my reality. I am a Muslim by choice. I have unique perspective and a voice. As the Qur’an commands of us, we must come to know one another [49:13]. Here is a part of me.
Sometimes, I have the feeling I’ve lived two separate lifetimes. In some way, I have. It started when I woke up one morning after the doctors pulled a tube out of my throat in the ICU. That tube helped me breathe while my body and a drug cocktail dealt with inflamed membranes in my spine and brain, poisoned blood, and renal failure. It was a year after high school and I was hospitalized with meningococcemia. Before then, I was a very average teenager in the suburban sprawl of the San Gabriel Valley playing in a band, hanging out with friends, and going to shows. I lived in my bubble. But after that morning, something changed. I no longer desired to stay close to home and play video games on my free time. I wanted to use my brain. I needed to see and feel all life.
What do you do when you might be deported back to a country that wants you dead? That’s the problem many Afro-Mauritanian immigrants face now, due to increased attention by ICE and a complex relationship with the Mauritanian regime back home.
Ann McDougall wrote a piece for Africa is a Country to correct some assumptions. Mauritania is known to the world as one of the few countries that still practice slavery. Technically, the practice has been illegal since 1981. Abolitionists like Biram Dah Abeid are routinely imprisoned at home while receiving awards abroad. A few bidani Moor friends describe abolitionists as highlighting a situation that doesn’t actually exist.
But the immigrants in Ohio and Kentucky weren’t fleeing slavery. They escaped an ethnic cleansing perpetrated during a border war between Mauritania and Senegal a generation ago. The Mauritanian regime interrogated, imprisoned, killed, raped, and expelled Afro-Mauritanians en masse who lived near the river into Senegal to make way for bidani Moor land speculators during the late 80s. These were some dark times.
The fall-out from these initial évenements continued through the end of 1991; thousands more were detained and tortured. At least 500 mysteriously disappeared in the process. On National Independence Day, (November 28) in 1991, 28 African (Halpulaar) Mauritanian soldiers were publicly, symbolically hanged outside the northern town of Inal where they had been imprisoned. The “Martyrs of Inal” are still remembered—both in Mauritania and in Ohio.
McDougall gives a few reasons why forcing Afro-Mauritanians back home will put them in danger. Either the Trump administration doesn’t listen enough to experts and could not actually know the intricacies of their plight or they just don’t care. It is worrying either way.
When [the Afro-Mauritanian refugees from Senegal] had arrived in New York, many of them had paid an English-speaking compatriot to fill out their application for asylum. But instead of recording their individual stories in specific detail, the man simply cut and pasted together generic narratives. (It is not uncommon for new arrivals to the United States, desperate and naive, to fall prey to such scams.) A year or two after the refugees arrived in the country, judges reviewed their cases and, noticing the suspicious repetitions, accused a number of them of fraud and ordered them deported.
But those deportation orders never amounted to more than paper pronouncements. Where would Immigration and Customs Enforcement even send them? The Mauritanian government had erased the refugees from its databases and refused to issue them travel documents. It had no interest in taking back the villagers it had so violently removed. So ICE let their cases slide.
Now, the the United States under Trump wants nothing more than to rid the country of anyone who came here desperately seeking shelter. A friend in Nouakchott told me her brother was detained for two days by ICE in Ohio.
The Mauritanian deportees will not be sent into slavery. But they will be made stateless—an internationally recognized crime.
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. 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.
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 about, 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 times[^3]
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 my favorite person in the world
saved enough money to backpack around for at least a year with that person
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 Mauritanians, the nights at cafés 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.