by Kerry Zahn, Paris, Mauritania
Because I am very fair skinned and most people in Mauritania have dark complexions, I am easy to pick out in a crowd. Some days it does not bother me when children call out "nasaranni," or "foreigner," when the see me coming down the street. I just figure that maybe they have never seen someone like me before and are excited to see a foreigner. But other days I do not have so much patience. Some days I just want to be left alone, to look like everyone else and to blend in with the crowd.
Last year, I spent one of the Mauritanian holidays with my host family from my Peace Corps training in Boghe. I had not been back for quite a while and I was excited to be with my family again and to actually be able to understand some of what they were talking about. As part of the festivities for the celebration, my host sister and I got dressed up in mulaffas (brightly colored veils that the Moor women wear in Mauritania) and went to visit her friend.
During the walk to her friend's house, I heard the dreaded word nasaranni several times, but because I was with my sister and was happy, it did not bother me too much. When we arrived at the friend's house, my sister led me to a room with a television in it and left me there while she went to help clean up her friend's house for a wedding that would begin that evening. The television was in Arabic so I did not understand it, and occasionally children or even adults would come in to stare at me in my mulaffa. If I had been dressed in my own clothing, all of the attention would not have been so bad, but because I was feeling uncomfortable enough already, the stares only agitated me more. After a while I became frustrated with all of the attention and decided to leave. I told my sister I was leaving and I started off.
On the way back to my host family's home, I saw a lot of children who thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen to see a white person wearing a mulaffa. By the time I got home, I had reached the end of my patience and was about to burst into tears. I immediately went to my room and took off the mulaffa, thinking the whole time, "I hate this country, why am I here?"
My mom, noticing that something was amiss, asked me what was wrong, and I explained to her my frustration with the label nasaranni and kids always yelling it at me. She thought about it for a minute, and the next time she saw some kids passing in front of our house, she called them over and told them that I was not a nasaranni and that they should not call me that, that I was her daughter and one of them. Her few words touched my heart.
Never did I think that I would be accepted so completely into a family; never did I expect such generosity and caring from someone who was a complete stranger to me only nine months earlier. I realized regardless of what else I accomplished with my time in Mauritania that I had already achieved much, that what the Peace Corps is really all about is building relationships and understanding between people.