Mauritanian landscapes are breathtaking. During the airplane’s incoming descent, the Atlantic Ocean reveals itself, but unlike most other cities, the Nouakchott coastline stands bare. Instead of typical beachfront properties and busy highways, sand travels as far as the eyes can see with only narrow roads heading toward the city.
The barren, but soft landscape can pull tires in and it’s not uncommon to see remnants of popped tires lining the steamy roads.
All of these things make traveling in and out of the capital city of Nouakchott challenging, which limits access to medical care for many of the small villages throughout Maritania’s interior.
My friend Bakary Tandia introduced me to Gory. His great, great grandparents founded his village hometown where many members of his family still live. Gory is a Soninke village settled next to a Fulani Village named Djeol. While he resides in the US now, his affection for Gory was clear when he introduced me via email to the Bamanthia Tandia, president of the “Association pour les Ressortissants de Gory (ARG). He described Gory as a beautiful village strategically located between a towering hill and the famous Senegal River. People living in Gory share all of the infrastructure like schools, a health center, and marketplace which leads to extraordinary bonds and strong community cohesion. However, medical needs can persist beyond what is readily available.
To my great benefit, during my time in Mauritania, the ARG hosted their annual caravan to Gory with over 45 medical professionals who provide a weekend of healthcare for over 2,000 people. The health screenings are headed by natives of Gory who invite members of other nearby communities as well. Doctors travel to the weekend event from locations in Mauritania and Senegal. Senegalese doctors are appreciated because of the added dimension they bring to the process as many have experience in this type of caravan in Senegal and it’s always nice when doctors who grew up in Gory return each year.
ARG is a nonprofit organization that has been providing healthcare to the village of Gory for 20 years. Their medical caravan began during an outbreak of bilharziasis caused by the stagnation of the river years ago. Even as those conditions have improved, the needs for ongoing health education and treatment continues. Doctors continued to embark on this journey each year because of the great humanitarian outcomes, but also because of the positive exchange between the professionals who attend.
Bamanthia Tandia coordinated my visit to Gory which began with a pick up in Nouakchott. I was warned the first 70 km were smooth riding, but after that, we should be prepared for rough roads and police checkpoints that would slow us down for the balance of the seven hour ride. The roads were bouncy for sure, but outside of one flat tire, my roadtrip partners and I made it to Gory seamlessly – arriving at about 11:00 PM on Friday where people filled with village square and large platters of food were waiting for us.
The center square of Gory is a bustling place – an empty courtyard surrounded by open-doored residences and containing only two trees. Throughout the weekend, one tree housed the men in shade and the other near the cooking area was for the women. The underbellies of the trees were never empty. From morning to night, there was always a place to belong as there was no question that everyone seemed welcome. Whenever I passed the women’s tree, I am drawn in by their smiles, shouts, and the way they waved me to sit down.
On Saturday morning, we enjoyed a traditional breakfast of bread and milky tea together. Saying together is an understatement on this weekend in Gory – as I mean it was the entire village consistently eating meals together in the square. Large pots simmered from day to night and large platters were distributed and returned by children who clearly knew their jobs well.
Eating communally with all hands in the same platter is common practice with a hand washing pitcher and bucket offered before and after the meal. Everyone sits on a blanket and eats rice from their own area of other platter with everyone digging into the shared meat, fish, or veggies in the center.
This is an easier process if you can master mashing the small mix into a bite-sized ball before eating. I never really mastered a solid ball and seemed to be the only person who ended the meal with a blanket, shirt, and face covered in rice. Licking the rice directly from the hand after the meal was fun – like it felt sort of like it was breaking a rule – but it wasn’t.
The symbolism of not wasting a morsel of food feels like a responsibility of all diners and also a reminder of how wasteful I can often be. Extra food scraps and bones are saved for the local animals so really – nothing is wasted.
After breakfast on Saturday, the large group of doctors moved to their locations at the local medical center and high school. When we arrived, you could see that people arrived by all modes of transportation as the area outside was lined with horse carts, donkeys, truck emptying large groups of people every few minutes from their beds.
Hundreds of people were already lined up waiting for specific appointments with the team that included pediatricians, gynecologists, neurologists, dentists, and more. The busiest lines seemed to be the places that would cause the most immediate pain – especially the dentist corridor that was filled with people waiting for exams – but often waiting to have aching teeth pulled.
I had the opportunity to visit many of the rooms where patients were being treated.
Even though the halls were lined with patiently-waiting crowds, each treatment room held one person who was being respect as an individual, as they received quality care.
The doctors volunteered their days to be here and took advantage of the opportunity to use their gifts to serve people who were willing to wait hours to see them. Patients were given prescriptions when needed and were able to visit the free pharmacy room to get what they needed.
My friend Hatta is an ENT physician. She worked in the small space until every last patient was seen on both days – totaling over 50 patients on her first day. As I sat in her room, I watched her kindly tend to the needs of sore throats, swollen glands, and ears clogged with wax. One boy and his mom celebrated when a large chunk of wheat cereal was dislodged from his ear.
One doctor sat in a center area sharing diabetes prevention information. As I sipped the sweet Mauritanian tea I have grown to love, I watched him passionately point at large posters and repeatedly say the French word for sugar….sucre…sucre…sucre.
Pregnant women lined outside the classroom housing the gynecologist – some for an entire day – and entered a space where two women were receiving exams. Parents sat in line as placeholders for children who could be found running off energy in the courtyard to pass the time.
The line for the psychiatrist was hard because you could see many solemn people needing a place to talk and be heard. While the doctor graciously listened, you could see that the need was overwhelming and he wished he could take more time with each person. I asked about treatment options and he said that today, he was there to listen and offer support. I was happy to introduce him to the Hope for the Day webpage resources.
Generally, I walked around and took it all in. Being alone in Mauritania invites interaction. I think when traveling, everyone has a certain group of people who seek to connect. For me, outside of children, it is teenaged girls. As I filled time throughout the day, groups of giggling teens would take me by the hand – only being able to say things like “Nancy” and “selfie” and then posing me with their friends and teaching me to sing the “Gory! Gory! Gory!” chant. There really isn’t much I won’t do to make people laugh.
For all the connectedness that village life can offer, the remote nature of living in the Mauritanian interior makes consistent and comprehension medical care difficult because of the long distances to hospitals equipped with necessary medical resources. ARG addresses this need by bringing hospitals to the people. For the entire weekend, the two makeshift hospitals were packed, with some people waiting in line for more than one service. Most people could be treated near home, and those who could not, were referred and encouraged to make the long journey to a hospital.
My time in Gory was special. First off, almost everyone I met was related to my friend Bakary Tandia. I felt like I was representing his celebrity status as so many people shared their connections to him….an uncle, a friend, a cousin, a Kung-fu partner. I also received great privilege from my hosts Bamanthia Tandia and Dr. Hayda Tandia who made sure that my accommodations were comfortable and that all of my needs were met. I was able to sit under the women’s tree for hours – enjoying their laughter and some origami-folding for kids.
I enjoy the simple, but universal message of making origami hearts because when I have no words to share, I can always motion loving affection as I hand over my beating paper hearts.
We also tried to fly some kites in Gory where I thought I would have to convince and assure the teenagers that this would be WAY FUN with a bit more wind. But, nope, they ran, laughed, and cheered as pulled kites behind them.
On our way home, we experienced two more flat tires. The bursted tires lining the road should have been my first clue that this might happen, but each time, there was a carload of returning doctors who stopped to give us a hand. And, it gave us a chance to enjoy a few extra cups of tea and this beautiful sunset.
Being an honorary Tandia for my weekend in Gory was an experience I will never forget. Thankful for all of the doctors and planners who see a need and do something about it. Your medical bags and truck beds carried more than medical supplies, you traveled with HOPE and LOVE and are an example of the type of person I want to be.