Thursday, October 06, 2005

I Left My Heart in Mauritania by Douglas Madey

The smell of chicken boiling and the sound of a newborn crying fills Ibrahima and Julie Wagne's studio apartment in Hayes Valley. Leaned back comfortably on the sofa with his legs crossed, Ibrahima Wagne pops an African date into his mouth and spits the pit out into his hand.

"These are a fruit from Africa, I bought them this morning," said Wagne, as he offered up some of the dates that were on a small yellow dish. Although he is able to get produce from his native country here in San Francisco, Wagne remains well aware of the 6,000 plus miles that separate him from his Mauritanian hometown in West Africa. Walking down a busy San Francisco city street to the produce market makes the idea of an unpaved West African road seem like a world away.

Born and raised in the small village of Bogme, Mauritania, Wagne graduated from college and went on to earn his PhD at the University of Badj Moctar in Algeria. With only 25% of his high school classmates continuing on to college, Wagne believes himself to be a rarity with his doctorate in biochemistry. Even more of a rarity, he says, was his decision to choose service over a large income and work for the Peace Corps in Mauritania.

This decision would ultimately change the course of his life. During his time at the Peace Corps where Wagne worked in cross-cultural training, teaching new
volunteers how to speak Fulani, an African language with French origins. One of his students, a young woman from Kansas named Julie, caught his eye and soon the two were dating. Within a year after the relationship began, Ibrahima and Julie were contemplating marriage.

While in Mauritania, under the traditional roles of a Muslim society, the couple lived in separate residences. "It was fine in Africa", Wagne said, "but we had to see if the relationship would work in America".

Wagne believed that the differences of working and living together in the United States, opposed to Mauritania, would reveal any unseen problems with the relationship that may not have been a consideration during their
time together at the Peace Corps. Financial responsibilities in the U.S., such as rent and food, seemed to be the major concern for Wagne as he contemplated the future of their relationship in a different country.

During his work with the Peace Corps Wagne applied to the University of California, Berkeley, with the intention of studying English, while at the same time testing the strengths of his and Julie's relationship. In the fall of 2002,
Wagne obtained a student visa and moved to San Francisco with Julie where he studied English and, as he had hoped, grew closer to the woman he loved.

After one semester, the resolute couple legally became Mr. and Mrs. Ibrahima and Julie Wagne. It was a simple ceremony, taking place at San Francisco City Hall in front of just three close friends. No big reception followed because according to Wagne, who scratches his head and smiles, saying only, "we had other things to do."

Just six weeks ago the Wagnes celebrated the birth of their first child, a girl they named Aissata. The baby was named after Wagne's mother, which in Mauritania is a common way to show respect to your family. The idea of family and togetherness is strongly shared amongst this newly extended family unit.
While Wagne talks about his wife and him raising a child, Julie Wagne sits in front of the desk in their bedroom gently rocking Aissata in her arms. "Having a baby", says Wagne as he pauses to gather
the words to say, "is not hard, but it's expensive," hinting gently at the strain a new child can have on the dynamics of a relationship.

While Julie Wagne cares for the newborn, Mr. Wagne continues our conversation, busy preparing dinner and tidying up the kitchen by putting away dishes from the dry rack. He says that Aissata wakes the couple up during the night and that her crib takes away from the already cramped little bedroom, but his expression as describes the inconvenience suggests the amount of joy that the two seem to get from looking at their child could fill a Pacific Heights mansion.

And just because the Wagne's of San Francisco are faraway from the Wagne's of Mauritania, does not imply a loss of contact with one another. Wagne keeps in touch with his family by calling at least once a week.

At 36 he has grown out of being homesick. With a quiet tone of certainty to his voice, Wagne says he doesn't "really miss" his many relatives in Mauritania. They're "a family, and I know they are there for me."

Wagne is now most concerned with providing for his wife and baby. With Julie Wagne home all day with the baby, Wagne continues to work full time as a "bar back," assisting the bartenders with making drinks, at the Zuni Cafe, the well-known San Francisco restaurant.

He considers himself financially stable. He is more concerned with San Francisco's unique gap in standard of living and its effect on his child. In a city such as San Francisco where the number of homeless seems to equal that of the wealthy, that gap is something Wagne finds hard to assimilate given his background. "In Mauritania homelessness is a choice," he says, noting that in Mauritania anyone could go back to his or her family for shelter instead of living on the street. "Here you can walk down the street and see someone in a Porsche and someone sleeping on the ground at the same time."

Wagne hopes to move his family to Mauritania -- if husband, wife and daughter have visas that would allow back and forth travel. The Wagnes plan on living the next five to 10 years alternating homes between San Francisco and West Africa. Wagne believes that it is important for his daughter to get a good perspective on where she comes from.

Through raising Aissata in both West Africa and the United States, Wagne hopes his daughter will have a better-rounded viewpoint of the important values and morals that he sees as necessary in an ever-changing world.
"Money," he says, "is not the base of success."

He wants his daughter to understand that success doesn'tfe doesn’t come from owning expensive cars. Wagne is focused on providing a balanced life for his daughter. He believes that he and his wife can do that best by partially bringing her up in West Africa. "Many times people can raise a kid, but they don't build family," he says.

Until Wagne is able to create the framework for a future of his family that incorporates the best of his parents' two cultures, he will continue
walking to work past the homeless of San Francisco on his way to help serve $12 drinks to the Porsche-driving elites of the city.


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