Weekend with Elvis


          My full schedule of classes resumed this week – or it was supposed to.

          At ISERI, where I am on the schedule to teach for four hours, there were only two classes, so they let me go at noon. Bedine told me that this week there will be afternoon classes and the students will be the ISERI administrators.

          That evening, I began what will be my final ten-week session of the English Conversation Club at NEC. For this first class meeting, there were only eight students in attendance; six of them were repeats from previous classes. If the sessions during the last two years are any indication, we will be adding more students as the coming week’s progress.

          For previous classes I have relied heavily on entries from the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. They have been invaluable for their blend of new vocabulary, uplifting story lines, and introduction to many aspects of American culture. This time, I decided to depart from that venue. Instead, I am using my own writing as a basis of reading and discussions. It’s not just any writing, though; its sections from the new cross-culture manual that will be used to train new PCVs this summer.

          I am working on a revision of the manual. In using this material for the conversation class, I have the dual benefit of not only providing the students with English, but having a group of Mauritanians read about the way Americans describe their culture. I am hoping that this will yield a more rounded perspective and can tweak the information in the manual, thus verifying its accuracy.

          Last week we read the section on eating etiquette. The students loved it! They were impressed that I was able to provide an accurate picture for newcomers, and they had only minor points to add or modify.

          On Friday I began what will be my last month for the American Civilization class at ENS. I introduced them to the material that I used last year, which was an excerpt about American culture and its influence in the world. What attracted me to it in the first place was that it explains the phenomenon of the influence of European culture on the United States during the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. One of the points that I am trying to make is the cyclical nature of influence that cultures have on each other.

          From ENS it was off to lunch with a bunch of PCVs and then marshalling a convoy of taxis to Rosso for the weekend – our IST (in-service training). The focus of this spring IST was the same as the one we did last year around this time: the book, titled Lesson Plans that Work, produced by four previous Peace Corps teachers.

          Karl, a second-year teacher, was the organizer of this year’s event, and he did a stellar job in many respects, starting with the proposal to pay for the event itself. The funding came from a grant that he wrote, appealing to the Small Project Assistance (SPA) fund of the Peace Corps. These monies provided for transporting PCV teachers and many of their counterparts to Rosso; lodging with host families (who are paid for providing us meals); snacks and lunch at the school where the conference was held; and finally, by the end of this month, the printing of a large number of books so that English teachers can use them in class as of the 2005-2006 school year. (You already know how the Ministry of Education is not providing books. One of the goals of this manual is to make up for that!)

          Our going to the taxi garage in groups was a good move. That way we were able to buy out entire cars, which facilitated our moving out of the garage relatively quickly. Everyone agreed to put four of ourselves into each six-passenger cars. We were being reimbursed for one seat apiece, so that the cost of the extra two seats, divided among the four of us, came out of our own pockets. There's no cause for alarm on the part of our fellow American taxpayers: you were not subsidizing any superfluous luxurious transport! (If only you were able to see it!)

          Friday was a hot one in Nouakchott, and it was even hotter in Rosso. At our rendezvous point, we were matched with our host families. I was lucky on this score in that Karl had consulted with me beforehand. One of the Mauritanian teachers of English is a former student of mine from the ENS last year, now in his first year of teaching. He, Cheikh, was my host for the weekend. He was always an alert, attentive, articulate, and intelligent student. I was delighted to be able to spend some time with him.

          Cheikh’s nuclear family lives on the outskirts of Nouakchott. They are Wolof, originally from Senegal, where he was born in Saint-Louis. When he gave me his e-mail address last year, I saw that he used “Elvis” as part of it, so I started calling him “Elvis,” as there were at least three men in the class named Cheikh, a common name here.

          As with many people here in Mauritania, Cheikh has extended family all over the country. He has cousins in Rosso, which means that he has a convenient place where he can go for meals, if he wants to. He doesn’t live with them, though, as he shares a house with a few other people a couple of blocks away from the family.

          In our talking about his teaching in Rosso, Cheikh told me that he would like to be able to work in Nouakchott instead. I asked him if it would be easy to make such a transfer. He told me that all he would have to do is find a teacher in Nouakchott who wants to teach in Rosso, and then they would be able to make the exchange by going to the proper ministry office. In such a case the school director has no say in the matter – yet another bizarre feature of the way that schools are run here.

          We left the assembly point and then spent some time at Cheikh’s place, taking showers to try to cool off a bit. He had a high showerhead in the bath, which was a pleasant feature and a nice surprise. Because of the heat, the water was naturally solar heated. Since it was still light outside, I thought that this would be the best time to set up my mosquito net tent in the courtyard.

          After our attempt to refresh ourselves, we went to the family’s house to wait for dinner. Our pre-meal activity was interacting with the constantly shifting parade of personalities: cousins of all ages, from toddler to teen to old-timer, and a variety of friends and neighbors dropping by. There was a core group of about eight people – an older woman, some teenage girls, and a few toddlers – that remained throughout the evening. Other people came and went.

          My favorite outfit was on one of the teens: a tank top on which she advertised that she is MISS SEXY. One little boy, about three years old, had an itchy bottom and couldn’t get enough scratching on it, as he headed from one person to another so he could get it taken care of. Since he didn’t know me very well, he thankfully never asked me to help him out with his itch.

          The family was very accommodating about my diet. Somebody prepared me an omelet with onions. I think Cheikh may have been a little puzzled about why I wasn’t eating bread (it was still Passover), but he didn’t say anything about it.

          After dinner (at 10:00 PM!) we went back to Cheikh’s house. It was still hot, with the temperature at 91. It was worse in Cheikh’s room, so we decided to sleep outside in the courtyard. I had a hard time getting to sleep. I know I was still awake after midnight. I dozed off for a few hours but was awake by 4:15. I lay there, anticipating the morning prayer call. Hey, I thought: I could have awakened the imam himself. (“Wake up so you can wake everyone up!”)

          Saturday morning at 7:00 it was already 86 degrees, the portent of what was to come for the day. We walked to the lycée where classes were to be held. Eighteen of our twenty-two PCV teachers were there, along with a dozen Mauritanian English teachers.

          In our effort to add lessons to the book, each person was supposed to bring along a few lessons, all written out according to the proscribed format, and then trade them amongst the other teachers. It’s evident that any of us could teach our own lessons. But when those lessons were written down, would they be as understandable to somebody who had not created them? People would teach only lessons written by others, and then we would be able to critique them during the sessions that followed the classes.

          There were six classrooms available to us – one each for first-year through sixth-year English students – thus allowing for six people to teach at any given time and giving ample opportunity for the others to observe.

          Unfortunately, the school structure itself is in the same sorry state as all the others I have seen here: broken and cracked windows (many of them with jagged edges of glass protruding), small and uncomfortable two-student desks (many with no back supports, broken slats for seating, and bent or missing support bars), no light fixtures (though there are rusted casings in the ceiling, indicating that they used to be there), litter inside and out, no chalkboards (there was a section of a wall that had been painted black), cracked walls, faded paint, nothing on the order of a cafeteria, gym, playing field, or toilets for the students (there was a faculty toilet in deplorable condition for which we needed to use a key that was always difficult to track down).

          The heat made an already unpleasant locale even less bearable. It was a just-sit-there-and-sweat-without-doing-anything heat, a drink-all-day-and-never-have-to-pee heat, and I'm-glad-I-don't-live-in-Rosso heat.  

          What helped to make the whole experience worthwhile was the enthusiasm of the participants. Much to the credit of the students and teachers, everyone was either sitting in or teaching classes on their weekend. It is impressive to see that so many of these kids are that motivated to learn English.

          The food was prepared well. When the lunch was brought in, I was served a spaghetti dish, in deference to my diet. Spaghetti is probably not proper Passover fare, but I had to make accommodations. I was grateful that they had considered my needs.

          When the classes were over for the day, Kristen and I had to keep going. We headed to the Girls’ Mentoring Center (GMC), a project partially funded by the Peace Corps, and began our computer work there. Stephanie, who lives in Rosso, was in the building and was able to play soothing Chopin music on the piano while we tapped away.

          Stephanie, a frequent and always-welcomed visitor to Château Jay, had made a pot of vegetable soup at the Rosso house and invited me there for dinner. Two PCVs – Ayrin and Teresa – live in the house. With all the teachers in town, and a few spouses who are not teachers, the place was full of folks. This is fairly common for Ayrin and Teresa, especially since Rosso is on the Senegal River, at the border crossing to Senegal, and lots of people stay with them, either coming north or going south.

          By evening, the temperature had lowered significantly and a nice breeze was blowing. When I went to sleep it was only about 84 degrees, which was much more pleasant for sleeping. I had moved my tent to the roof so that I could catch whatever breeze was available. On Sunday morning when I woke up it was 70 degrees, and the day turned out to be hot, but not unbearably so, as it had been the day before.

          As for our Sunday participation, Kristen and I were able to persuade our APCD that it would help get the revision moving along quicker if we spent our morning at the GMC computers instead of observing in the classrooms; he agreed. The downside was that Stephanie wasn’t there to play the piano for us. Additionally, Kristen’s computer was messed up: the backspace, enter, and delete buttons didn’t work! Have you ever tried to work on a document without those features?

          Oumar, the PC driver who had driven our APCD to Rosso on Saturday morning, picked us up at the GMC so that we could go back to the lycée for lunch. I was ecstatic to get a nice big salad. This lunch was scheduled for us to eat with the students of the school's English Club, and then they stuck around to talk with us during the break that followed. Then we had one more class session, the evaluation of it, and it was back to Nouakchott.

          Ten of us PCVs squeezed into the Vomit Comet for the return trip. Despite the enjoyable company, what a supremely uncomfortable experience that was! The seating in the back is only about seven inches off the floor, which puts my derrière very low and my knees much higher. In addition to that, there is barely enough floor space for the feet of the people who sit back there facing each other. Oumar has a habit of first speeding up and then slamming on the brakes, which means that we were propelled sideways into each other throughout the trip. I got back to town with severe pain in my neck, shoulders, and back. All I wanted to do was be horizontal for a while.

          This week the real work begins for me, as I have been designated as the editor of the new and improved Lesson Plans that Work.


          The day before I left for Rosso, I was in the supermarket where I do most of my shopping. I ran into Darren, the second secretary at the Israeli embassy. He invited me to his house for Mimouna, a celebration I had never heard of. It has its origins in Fez, where Moroccan Jews had a party at the end of Passover. Taking center stage are all the foods that one does not eat on Passover.

          Sadly, I was not able to attend, since I was going to be out of town.