The Colgate Scene
May 2002

"How will I explain?"
One Peace Corps volunteer tries to straddle a cultural divide

Kankossa, Mauritania

I should have known that Colgate would follow me everywhere.

Still, when I took off for the Peace Corps last June I thought I'd seen the last of the 'Gate for awhile. After all, I was going to be teaching English in Mauritania: a place so distant that before receiving my assignment I didn't even know what continent it was on.

I was wrong. Colgate was thriving in western Africa. While I couldn't find an apple or a piece of cheese in my village, Colgate toothpaste and shampoo sat on boutique shelves between stale cookies and dusty kilos of sugar.

The university had crossed the Atlantic as well. One evening, another Peace Corps volunteer pressed a picture against my mosquito net. "Do you recognize this?" she asked. Through the dim light I made out Case library. What was this doing in the Sahara desert? It had been left behind, along with a Colgate Thirteen tape, by an earlier volunteer who was also a Colgate grad.

Colgate kept showing up in my mailbox, too. An occasional Scene arrived -- months late -- and I quickly learned that moving to another continent isn't enough to avoid the college's requests for financial support. That's how, one steamy December day, I found myself sitting with a Mauritanian friend flipping through the university's 2000-2001 Report to Donors.

I scanned the black-and-white photographs. It made me smile to see the same cheery undergrads doing the same activities around the same campus that so many of us have enjoyed in the past (as was evidenced by the long list of donor names surrounding the photos). But I didn't linger over any of the pictures; I'd seen it all before. My friend, Nenah, hadn't. She carefully scrutinized each page.

"That's a television?" she asked, pointing to a photo of a student hunched over a computer. Then, after I explained what it was, "What do you do with one?"

What do you do with a computer? I've sat behind these machines for hours each day in the States but couldn't think of how to explain the Internet or e-mail or, worse, computer games. How could any of that make sense to someone who lives in a village that has no electricity or indoor plumbing, that's 60 miles from the nearest paved road? Who's from a culture where most people don't own books? Where many people can't read?

"You write things on it," I said. She seemed satisfied with my answer and we moved on. Soon we came across a photo of two students studying paintings that were about to be hung in the new art building.

"What are those?" Nenah asked. How to explain art? The only paintings I'd seen in this Muslim country were postcards from art museums that I'd taped to the cement wall of my one-room house. The closest thing to art here are leather pillows covered in geometric designs painted in ink that rubs off on your hands. There are no art museums; there is no art class at the high school where I teach.

"Paintings are like photographs, only people make them," I said.

My Hassaniya -- a dialect of Arabic that many people here speak -- is weak, but even if I were fluent, how could I explain these pictures of Colgate to Nenah? What's a dormitory to this village where people spend their time under tents, only dipping into their two-room houses to fetch sugar or clothing or to entertain a special visitor? What's the Chapel's glorious organ? The only piano a friend could find was an electric keyboard in the hands of a non-governmental organization. What does Frank Dining Hall, with its turrets and harsh angles, look like to someone who lives in a country whose capital city is miles of sprawling one- and two-story cement buildings? What are buildings and grounds' lush carpets of grass to a woman who lives in a place where it rains just inches a year?

Every 10 pages or so Nenah paused. "America is better than Mauritania," she said. I protested. "Mauritania is good. America is good. But they are not the same." John Hubbard's photos of Colgate are beautiful, but I can't believe that if he photographed Mauritania the results would be any less gripping.

Or any less foreign to my American friends.

How will I ever explain the sand that coats my room and fills my ears and nose after sandstorms? Or the veils that so many women wear, which require constant adjustment and slip casually off their heads and shoulders in the company of friends? How will I explain that as I type this in a dusty Peace Corps office a woman I have never seen before offers me three rounds of the tiny glasses of tea that people here drink many times each day? How can I explain that although the people in my village live in poverty as compared to the States they are happy; that they laugh, they joke and they are so generous with me?

I will try, but in the end I doubt my American friends will understand this country any better than my Mauritanian friends will understand ballet, American football, fraternities or that poverty exists in America, too. Or any better than I understood the first pictures I saw of Mauritania before leaving. One dusty book from the 1970s showed a picture of an empty desert landscape. The caption read, "Sometimes, during sandstorms, whole villages are covered with sand."

What did that mean? Now I know.

A large part of why I joined the Peace Corps was because I wasn't satisfied seeing the third world just in pictures. I wanted that first picture of Mauritania to become real. That happens every day.

But living here is also bringing the pictures I have of my own culture into focus. It's forcing me to rethink aspects of the United States that I always accepted, much in the same way as my best Colgate professors urged me to do. It's showing me what a product I am of pictures from my past: Colgate, my hometown, my family. When I leave Mauritania in 2003, I'll add pictures from this country to that album.

Nenah and I studied a photo of a grinning student who lounged outside in an easy chair. It was a sunny, spring day in the Chenango Valley. Whitnall Field stretched behind him with the campus rising above it.

Nenah smiled. "He has a nice room," she said.

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