A little bit of this and that



Last week, my major activities were Model School in the morning and French class in the afternoon. Other than that, there is not a lot of news to report. That being the case, I thought I would send along some short stories and anecdotes that illustrate what I have been seeing and doing here.

The Internet has been out of service in Kaédi for the last week. On Monday, 9/1 I was able to send my weekly update to Neil in San Francisco for posting to my website. Then, as of Tuesday, the service has either been non-functioning or so slow as to render it useless. I'll give you an example of how slow it was: one of the days, when I tried to get to my e-mail, each page in the progression to get to the mailbox took between five and ten minutes to load. The mailbox page itself was taking so long to load that eventually I got the message that the page had expired. After fifty minutes, then, I was able to see a partially loaded mailbox, but was not able to get any of the e-mails in it.

Not being able to use the Internet also meant that I had more time on my hands with nothing to do. I could usually count on spending one or two hours, if not more, on the combination of using the Internet and walking to and from the cyber café. Unfortunately, reading was not a good option for filling time because there was not a comfortable place to sit and read.

Several weeks ago, I was walking down the street in Nouakchott one evening at about 6:00. A man in his thirties was headed in the same direction as I. We nodded at each other and I said, Bonjour; my intention was to say "hello" rather than "good morning." He seized his chance to correct my error, responding, "Bon soir (emphasis on the "soir," meaning "evening")!" And then he chided me, saying it was too late in the day to say "bonjour."

I considered myself corrected. We were moving at the same pace, which was awkward for me, as he kept looking over to me. It was now obvious that I was not from France, which is probably the most common origin for Caucasian foreigners here. So he asked me where I was from. I told him the United States, to which he had yet another choice response: "America! The police of the world!"

With two strikes against me, I wondered what could possibly be next. I shook my head and told him that I was personally against the behavior on the part of the United States as "police of the world," that I was here as a Trainee with the Peace Corps, and that I was going to be working with the Ministry of Education to help make the schools better.

With that, there was a decided shift in his demeanor. He had been a teacher, and quit his job in frustration because the pay was so low. We talked for a little bit, and then he invited me to sit with him in his office, where he produced some snacks for us. Within ten minutes, he invited me to his family's house to have dinner with them that night.

I had other plans, so I could not make the dinner, but I was pleased that I had managed to turn around what had begun as a negative encounter.

The PC has issued us bath towels that are made of 100% Acrylic. The towels move water around the body rather than soak it up. I didn't bring any towels with me, thinking that I would find one when I arrived.

I did some cursory looking for one in Nouakchott, but came up empty-handed. Then, when our group was waiting at the long-distance taxi stand to go back to Kaédi after our Site Visit, an ambulatory vendor came around selling towels. I could see that they were cotton, but the psychology of street bargaining being what it is, I thought better of showing any excitement at his appearing in front of me. The correct comportment in a situation like this is to display an air that says, "I would think about buying it if the price is right, and if the price is not right, I can get along without it for the rest of my life."

So I asked, almost with a yawn, how much it was. His response, 1,500 UM, sent my fellow Trainees and me into gales of laughter. (With approximately 300 UM to the dollar, that would be about $5, which we knew was way overpriced, even after our short time here.) He then knew that we knew that his price was too high. We have been advised that much of the time, the original asking price can be as much as three times the one the vendor will accept. He asked me how much I would pay for the towel. I told him I thought it was worth somewhere around 400 to 500 ougiya. Now it was his turn to laugh. We were even.

He responded by asking me to pay 1,200 ougiya, and I told him that I thought it was still too high. Once again he asked how much I would pay, and I told him the same 400 to 500 ougiya. He shook his head. We were at an impasse.

Just then, one of our facilitators who was arranging for the taxis came back to our group. Moctar, being a Mauritanian, knows all the prices that one should expect to pay. (It usually works very well for us to take along a local when we go shopping, as we then will always get the best prices.) So I asked Moctar how much the towel should cost. He touched it, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "300 or 400."

We got a good laugh at that - everyone except the vendor, that is, who refused to sell it to me at that price. I am still using the Acrylic towel, but will find a decent cotton one when I get back to Nouakchott.

One of the tailors in Kaédi made a nice outfit for me of tie-dyed blue cloth. Mom is his name. He and the friends he hangs out with in his shop are from Senegal, a francophone (French-speaking) country where Wolof is also spoken. He told me that he thought my French was quite good and he asked if I really was an American. I thanked him for the compliment and assured him that I was, indeed, an American. He said it was quite rare for Americans to speak French.

I told him no, that America is officially a francophone country and that everyone speaks French there. "Really?" he asked me. He checked with his Senegalese friends to see if they knew that, and they said they didn't. Oh, yes, I told them, that really is the case: America is a French-speaking country.

So they sat there, nodding their heads, considering this new piece of information. Then, I added, …and for those Americans who do not speak French, they speak Wolof. First came the puzzled look, and then the peals of laughter, as they realized I was joking with them. We all shook hands and had a good chuckle.

I went to a corner store near my host family house. Waldeh, the ten-year-old girl in the family, came with me. El Hajj, the young man at the counter, asked me if I was staying with Waldeh's family. Yes, I told him.

"Her mother is my slave," he told me. Hmmm. I thought that maybe I had not heard him correctly or understood his French, so I asked him to repeat what he had said, and he said the same thing again. I just nodded, completed my purchase, and left the store with Waldeh.

Slavery has been a touchy issue in Mauritania, and I didn't know how he meant what he said, as the family doesn't appear to be slaves to anybody, let alone the boutique man from around the corner. That evening, when I saw Berti, the mother in the family, I told her about this encounter and asked her what he could possibly have meant.

Berti has a Soninke (soh-NINK-ay) father and Black Moor mother. El Hajj is her cousin on the Soninke side of the family. She said that Soninkes joke with each other like this all the time. Because Berti got married and changed her family name to her husband's, this made her "weak" according to her cousin El Hajj, who, being a man, will keep his family's name, which makes him "strong." He's strong, she's weak. She is his slave. That is supposed to be the joke.

But she has played a joke on him, too. Do you remember the story of the family sheep that tried to eat my shirt? Berti named that sheep El Hajj, after this cousin.

When it rains here, the kids don't go to school. We had a morning last week when it was raining until after 8:00, when the first class begins. We had only twenty students in the whole school for that class. By 8:30 it stopped raining, and more kids showed up for the 9:00 classes. During the school year, there is no system for making up any missed days when this happens.

Stairs are not built with uniform heights of risers. It is common, therefore, to find in any given staircase that some of the steps are lower and some are higher than others, which results in a lot of stubbed toes and jarring of teeth while going up stairs.

The PC maintains an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in the event that there are any situations that warrant special attention for gathering Volunteers. There are three steps to the plan: standfast (in which all Volunteers are to stay at their sites), consolidation (in which Volunteers are gathered in a safe central location), and, finally, evacuation (in which everyone leaves the country).

During the war against Iraq this past spring and during the failed coup attempt in June, the PC in Mauritania moved to standfast and consolidation, but never to evacuation.

Last week, we had a drill to test our understanding of and compliance to the EAP. On Wednesday, our language teachers told us that we were on standfast. One of the things that we then had to do was return to our homes and pack a bag so that it would be ready in the event that we had to move to consolidation. When told we have to move to consolidation, we are supposed to be able to leave our sites, with baggage, within fifteen minutes of notification, which is the reason for making the preparatory step of packing a bag.

That evening, our facilitators made the rounds of our host family homes to alert them to this impending drill. Abou, the father of the family, didn't understand what was going on, until he finally realized, "Ah, c'est un simulation!" Fortunately, "simulation" is the same in English and French. Then he understood it and he explained it to everyone else in the family.

On Thursday afternoon, during the last fifteen minutes of French class, we received the call that our drill was moving to the consolidation stage, that we should report to our pre-determined locations, and that we should plan on spending the night there.

My consolidation location was the home of Aly, my former French teacher, and I was there with Carl and Matt, with whom I had studied French. The PC had delivered matlas (floor mats for sleeping) and enough food to cook dinner that evening. All in all, it was an enjoyable reunion for us, because we had not studied French together since our return from Site Visits. Our being in a private setting meant that we were able to walk around in shorts, which was an enjoyable side benefit.

We got a call around 10:30 AM on Friday, alerting us to the lifting of the "consolidation."

Our swearing-in ceremony was originally to be held in Nouakchott. Since everyone was told at the beginning of our training that we would be going back there for swearing in, we were able to leave non-essential luggage at the PC bureau, with the intention of retrieving it upon our return.

Just before Site Visit, our PC administration changed the location of the swearing-in from Nouakchott to Kaédi, which meant that most people would not be going back to the capital to get the luggage they left there. The staff at the bureau, then, had to make a plan to get all the luggage to Kaédi so that everyone would have what they had left behind.

During Site Visit, I realized that it would be unnecessary for them to deliver the luggage of the Nouakchott-bound new Volunteers to Kaédi, because we would then only have to turn around and bring it back with us, which would take up a lot of space in and on top of the vehicles. (You may remember from a previous report that this had been a problem before.)

When I explained this to the powers that be at the bureau, they agreed that it made more sense to leave our things there than to give them a round trip to Kaédi. We worked together to designate a place in the conference room, where the luggage was being stored, to put our bags. That way, when everything else was loaded up, these pieces would stay right where they were.

A few days ago, the luggage that had been left in Nouakchott was delivered to the training center in Kaédi. If you have been following my stories every week, including my citations of incidents of miscommunication and mismanagement, then you will not be surprised to read that all of the luggage of the people who are going to live in Nouakchott has been brought to us here in Kaédi! Go figure!

One of the dangerous insects here is called the blister beetle. It bites and then injects something that raises the skin and gives it a fiery welt that looks like a blister. If you really want to see what one of those bites looks like, you can follow the link on my PC page to Bob Salita's website, where he has a close-up picture of the results of a blister beetle attack.

I have written about the filthy streets of Kaédi and Nouakchott, with the obvious lack of any program for dealing with garbage. In talking with other Trainees after Site Visit, I have asked them if their cities and towns were as dirty as Kaédi and Nouakchott. Surprisingly, I found that there are several places that have initiated systems for collecting garbage. In Selibaby (sel-uh-BAH-bee), for example, all you have to do is get one of the charette (donkey cart) drivers to put your garbage container on its flat bed and it is hauled away to an out-of-town dump for about 100 ougiya. So it appears that the garbage situation is not the same throughout Mauritania.