From Teaching at the Edge of the Sahara to Making Handmade Art
I gently sipped the hot, sugary tea as we sat around the campfire. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but I thought it would be rude if I declined. Our hosts, two adult daughters of a Mauritanian nomad, had walked from their tent to our camp next to a massive dune. Our friend Sidi knew them well, and they often stopped by to visit when they saw his pickup truck. The camels were hobbled, moving slowly between spare trees to chew on acacia as we talked, played guitar, and shared stories in different languages. My thoughts were drifting towards tomorrow, when we would make the six hour truck ride back to my apartment in Nouakchott, where I would dutifully but hesitantly start planning my lessons for the next week.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a teacher. This was music to my mother’s ears, being a math teacher herself (thankfully she didn’t expect me to teach math like her!) In combination with my passion for traveling meant that teaching abroad would be a dream come true. I hadn’t even finished my university education when I started applying to international schools.
A primary school teacher with no previous experience was probably needed in places where no one else wanted to go: A Turkish school on the border of Syria, Honduras, or a school that was being built in the rice fields of Laos. Nothing really sounded very appealing (or safe!). I was finishing my bachelor’s thesis along with my teaching practice in Scotland when I got an email from an international school in Mauritania.
Probably, just like I did at the time, you are wondering where this is; or if you know where Mauritania is then you are wondering if people live there and what that looks like. So with my head spinning, I called my friends in Edinburgh and we went out for some drinks and to decide if I should spend the next two years teaching in the desert. Impulsive and euphoric decisions were made, so the following morning it was decided that I was going to Mauritania.
I had my last Skype interview and exchanged emails with another teacher at the school (while back in Madrid my mother was participating in her own telethon contacting the Spanish embassy in Mauritania and all the expats there to prove that it was indeed not a place for a young lady to go live). Just like in many other future choices, she couldn’t convince me.
So there I went, 21 years old, fresh out of college, to teach in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. And I loved it. In fact I ended up staying for three years. I got to explore a country with breathtaking landscape and beautiful people (more of this in future posts!), and I got to teach second a third grade classes with a maximum of 16 children, and with an amazing assistant who helped me and the kids whenever we needed it.
Not everything was easy though. My very first day sitting in my classroom, I experienced a serious meltdown just by looking at everything that had to be done in one week before my students arrived. Not only did this involve curriculum work, but also organizing and setting up a classroom that had nothing in it. I couldn’t do anything else but hide under my desk and cry. But just for a little bit, then it was time to start opening boxes and setting up bookshelves.
But when the kids arrived everything came together and it was more rewarding that I could have ever expected . I experienced three years of amazing teaching, professional and personal growth, and a very strong connection with a group of young learners who also taught me endless lessons everyday.
I learned how to play guitar, to build a bedouin tent in the desert, to drive in the dunes and to get out if I got stuck. I learned that eating with my right hand is my favorite way to eat, and that sitting on the ground to eat, pray, or have a tea with friends brings me closer to Earth, animals and people. I learned to develop and implement reading and literacy learning centers, to talk to children from very different backgrounds, to ride a camel and to appreciate the nomad culture. I learned that Islam is a beautiful religion and so are the people who practice it, that Ramadan is a time for reflection and peace, that you should eat an uneven amount of dates before you eat a bigger meal, and that incredible oasis not only exist in The Alchemist.
Sure, it sounds ideal, I could have easily stayed there until today, but not only there are many places to explore, teaching is also very tiring and so is the “behind the scenes teaching scenario”. After three years it was time to leave for my next exciting adventure. I had such a small group of hardworking students each year that I was able to plan and prepare exciting hands-on projects for the class. While I enjoyed that very much, it was also time for me to take a break and have time to explore new projects for myself. During the next few years I recognized the passion of artisans and fell in love with creating for myself.