Hope Travels: Lessons on the Importance of Community in Mauritania

On her continuing Hope Travels journey, Nancy experienced the resourceful and kind nature of the Mauritanians and, from prisons to kites, learned how powerful positivity can be.

A section of the mural painted in the Mauritania boys’ prison. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

A section of the mural painted in the Mauritania boys’ prison. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Mauritania in Northeastern Africa is a small and rarely discussed country, known primarily as one of slavery’s last strongholds. Slavery was abolished several decades ago, but it is still something that many, such as the Abolition Institute, are still working to resolve. As a disclaimer, Nancy did not work with the Abolition Institute or any other groups working to address slavery during her visit, however she did work with artists and organizations focusing on supporting the Mauritanian community. This allowed her to explore the positive facets of the country that are so often overlooked.

Mauritania certainly faces a number of challenges, but that does not prevent it from offering lessons in positivity and community that deserve to be recognized and appreciated. Everywhere Nancy turned she was greeted by friendly faces offering to share a meal or a mint tea. Most everything is a shared experience there. Even though few locals speak English and Nancy does not speak any of the country’s languages, she found nothing but courtesy and a willingness to share. Fortunately, Nancy had made several connections that were fluent in English who acted as willing hosts and translators.

The full mural in the boys’ prison. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

The full mural in the boys’ prison. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

One of the locals that Nancy worked with was the artist Leena. Leena and her husband are originally from Finland, but for the last 10 years have lived in Mauritania with their four sons. The family has fully embraced the culture and consider themselves Mauritanians.

Aside from being a gracious host and translator, Leena also worked with Nancy on paintings and murals in the nearby boys’ and women’s prisons for the Noura Foundation. The art projects provide a creative outlet for the inmates. The bright colors also help to create a less bleak atmosphere as to the messages of hope and encouragement painted on the walls in English, French and Arabic.

The room that housed the majority of the painting in the boys’ prison is a recent addition, slated to become the center for education. Each boy in the prison was given creative freedom on a single part of the larger murals to lend them a sense of pride and being a part of a greater whole. The guards of the prison eschewed the stereotypical menace of prison guards in popular culture and instead acted as positive influences upon the young boys in the prison. The experience had a surprising but powerful impact.

A guard and some of the boys painting the prison’s learning center.. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

A guard and some of the boys painting the prison’s learning center.. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Reflecting on her time with Leena in the prison, Nancy said: “I am certainly not idealizing prison or pretending this is a desirable experience, but I think it is noteworthy that hope can be found in unexpected places. The message of redemption and the importance of dreams were apparent, tangible, and necessary here. In each interaction with the adults, there was great urgency to create meaning with impressionable young people— something that doesn’t have to be restrained to prison walls.”

After the enlightening work in the prison, Nancy travelled to the village of Gory with a large group of doctors who gave free medical treatment to over two thousand people over the course of a weekend. She joined the trip on recommendation of Bakary Tandia who is now living in the US, but has deep family ties to the village. While unable to organize work with the Abolition Institute that Bakary helped create, she was able to join the medical caravan that he organized. Nancy was inducted as an honorary member of the Tandia family and had no shortage of welcoming new family members in the town of Gory.

Enjoying the kites even without the wind. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Enjoying the kites even without the wind. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Experiencing the warmth and joy of family in a small village where medical care is a rarity, showed that happiness can be found in the simple things many people take for granted. Positivity and hope can arise even in the face of adversity, a lesson Nancy learned trying to fly kites with children on a windless Mauritanian day.

Nancy hosted a number of kite events during her time in Mauritania. Some of the kites were donated and decorated by students of Westmont Junior High School. In addition to being the school where Nancy teaches, it is also one of the leading schools for Hope For The Day events and education including the recent ExpressionFest organized by Westmont students. The rest of the kites are blank for local children to decorate themselves. At the start of each event, Nancy imagined the kites soaring high in the sky. The wind never picked up, but her promises of how much better things could be fell on deaf ears. While she focused on what was missing from the day, the children were running and laughing. It was a powerful reminder that you can have a good day without it being a perfect day.

Her time in Mauritania showed Nancy that generosity and positivity are powerful mindsets that can help to bring joy on a personal and community level. The country provided a consistently surprising and enlightening experience. After concluding her time in Mauritania her travels continue as she recently arrived in Namibia. You can learn more about Nancy’s journey on her blog. Join the Hope Travels facebook group and learn how you can become a Hope For The Day Agent of Impact. Check out our continually updated list of Hope Travels partners here.

Jackson Kilpatrick