Back "home" again



          I have had a busy week getting back into the swing of things. Returning to Nouakchott has given me a new appreciation for the sense of "home" that it offers, even if it is temporary. It's comforting to know where the stores are, what the prices are, to run into people I know in the streets, to work with and see familiar people, and to be able to prepare a cup of tea or a bowl of soup whenever I want to in my own kitchen.

          This week's posting is made possible by a new webmaster. Brian, whose daughter Molly is a PCV here, has begun entering my weekly ramblings onto the website. Neil had been doing it since staging in Philadelphia - a good ten months! I appreciate all the work that Neil did in helping me to stay in touch with family and friends, as well as Brian's offer to fill in as of last week's post.

           The third goal of the Peace Corps is for Volunteers to bring our experiences home to our loved ones. I am grateful to have the assistance of these other people who are already home.

          The students have finished their student teaching at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), so I resumed my American Civilization class with them. For some reason, only six students of the twenty-one showed up last week. Teachers report absences on an attendance sheet that gets turned in after the class; each student is assigned a number, and I report the numbers of those who don't show up. I don't know if there is any penalty for not attending class, as the whole procedure seems lax.

           The last time I saw the students, at the end of January, one of the students posed a question to me in front of the class. He wanted to know why American culture is "taking over the world." I told him I didn't have a response for him right away, but that I would think about that. During the hiatus, I found a new book that has a chapter in it about American culture. I photocopied the chapter for the class and gave the copies to another professor to hand out to the students during my absence, so that they would have something to read and discuss during the three weeks that I was on vacation.

           The chapter I gave to them talked about how, at the formation of the United States, much of American culture came from Europe. It went on to explain the cyclical nature of the way cultures influence each other. I explained to the class that I thought the same thing was happening now - that American cultural styles (clothing, dance steps, music, food) were being copied by people who felt that they liked them. I also told the class that I thought that (1) in order to be copied on a mass level, there has to be something attractive about what everyone is doing and (2) nobody is being coerced to accept or partake of a foreign culture in any way, such as listening to music, watching television, or drinking Coca Cola.

           The same student began our discussion on Thursday by asking me if I was in favor of globalization. I began my response by asking him and the other students how they defined "globalization," as I had to admit that it is a concept that seems to be understood differently, depending on who one speaks to. Unlike air and water, which are universally known and defined as having the same properties, this is one concept that does not have a universally agreed-upon definition.

           The class contributed three ideas toward what "globalization" means to them: (1) everyone lives the same way, (2) sharing, and (3) learning from each other's cultures. Using those definitions, I told them that I believed in sharing and learning from each other, but that it is impossible for all of us to live the same way and I didn't think that it was reasonable to try. Why would somebody living on the equator wear what somebody living in the Arctic Circle wears? There doesn't seem to be any reason to expect people all over this vast globe to do things in a uniform way.

           We had a lively discussion. The students took the position that America is forcing its culture on the rest of the world. I had the feeling that they wanted me not only to admit that this was true but also to take personal responsibility for its being the way it is. I told them that I am only one person, and not very powerful at that. I continued to explain that I do not even participate in many so-called typical American behaviors, such as watching television, drinking Coca Cola, owning a car, and eating hamburgers. I insisted, once again, that nobody was making them wear any style of clothing, watch American movies or TV shows on television, or dance in any particular way.

           It's a two-hour class, with a short break after the first hour. When we resumed the discussion after the break, we had a breakthrough. I changed my approach for a few minutes. I told them what some of my friends and family had said to me when they heard that I would be living in an Islamic Republic - that I should be careful not to get blown up. Many people thought that I would be killed by Islamic fanatics.

           This produced a more or less predictable response: the students insisted that violence is not the way of Islam, that I am safe here, that Muslims want peace in the world just as much as other people, and that it is only a small group of people who are participating in terrorist activities. They told me that I should not judge all Muslim people by the actions of a few irresponsible ones.

           That gave me the kernel of understanding that I needed to get my own point across: that the American people, as a whole, are not forcing their culture on the world, and that it is a small number of executives in powerful positions such as food conglomerates and media companies that are hustling their products into the mouths and homes of as many people who will accept them. This explanation led to a more widespread understanding and agreement among the students and with me. Just about everyone was able to see that there were similarities in the two situations.

           Only one student left the class disgruntled, but it had nothing to do with the discussion. He had shown up ten minutes before the end of the class. When it was over, I prepared the paper that had to be handed in to the surveillant général, who keeps the records of what was taught and who was absent. This student stood next to the desk and, as I wrote his number among the absentees, he said, "That's me. I am here."

           Yes, I told him, you are here now, but you have been here only for ten minutes, whereas your classmates have been here for almost two hours. I do not count your being here for ten minutes as being present for the class. You did not participate in our discussion and you do not even know what we learned today, so as far as I am concerned, you were absent. If you want to take this up with the surveillant général, you know where his office is.

          From there, it was off to a meeting of the group with whom I am writing curriculum. Unfortunately, that was business as usual. One member of the team teaches until 10:00 AM, so we didn't even plan to start the meeting until 10:30. We sat around for more than an hour. At 11:40, the person in charge of the meeting showed up, and another person showed up at 11:50.

           Kristen and I make it a point to let everyone know when we need to leave these meetings, and for this day it was noon! We met until about 12:10, and then Kristen and I left. We scheduled our next meeting for the following Tuesday. Why Tuesday? Because Sunday is a holiday (more about that later) and it wouldn't make sense to meet on Monday because, in the words of one of the participants, "Sometimes people don't work the day after a holiday," so that takes us to Tuesday.

          Later that day, I began a new ten-week session of the English Conversation Club at the Nouakchott English Center. The group is smaller this time - eight students, two of whom were in the last session of the class. When I was in Cape Verde, I found one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and am using some of those stories for discussion, vocabulary, and improvement of pronunciation. We had a good class and everyone seemed to enjoy it.

          Every Peace Corps Invitee receives a country-specific book that is packed with information about Peace Corps service. There are 92 pages in The Peace Corps Welcomes You to Mauritania; it is referred to as the "Welcome Book." Our director of training has asked me to participate in re-writing the book. This is one of the projects that I have now begun working on: looking through the book for modifications that have to be made. The current edition has lots of website references, so part of my job now is trying to get to all the websites to make sure that the urls are still active.

          There have been several PCVs passing through town lately. One group, the Environmental Education (EE) sector, just got back from the Adrar region where they organized a successful garbage pick-up campaign. Since there is no regular organized way for garbage to be collected and disposed of in Mauritania, it seems to pile up everywhere, and people apparently accept its omnipresence. An EE Volunteer organized this effort and everyone in the sector went to help.

           On Saturday, I made a vat of split pea soup and invited the masses to dine on that and the homemade whole grain bread that I have been purchasing here. There were six of us PCVs - Molly, Annika, Will, Madge, Karl, and me - in addition to my Mauritanian friends Mamouni, Babah, and Ismail.

          And now, the holiday: it is called Id el-Mawlud el-Nebewi, popularly referred to as Id Mawlud (pronounced "aid moe-LEWD). It celebrates the birth of the prophet Mohamed. In some places, the celebration is one week later, at the time of what would have been Mohamed's baptême. For this festival, the practice is to greet people, help the poor, and of course no holiday in these parts would be complete without the killing of a sheep. In this case, it is preferably a ram with big horns. As with some religious feasts, sometimes the day after it is also celebrated. Today, Monday, there were no kids in the school yard this morning, so I guess everyone is taking the opportunity to celebrate the second day.

          I have heard some Jewish people joke that many of our holidays can be described in the following nine words: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat." Using that same approach, this is my take on the way that Muslim feasts are celebrated in Mauritania: "Allah is great. Mohamed is his prophet. Let's kill a sheep."

          I was able to read quite a bit during vacation. Here are the books that I finished during the month of April:

           Destinations: Essays from Rolling Stone was the first I had ever read of Jan Morris' travelogues. I found her to be intelligent, enjoyable, and articulate, though I am not in a hurry to read any more of her dispatches. There is something just a little too precious about her style.

           The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less by Terry Ryan. I mentioned this one in my post of 12 April, so I won't go into it any further. I always read acknowledgments in books, and was not too surprised that since the author currently lives in San Francisco, she mentions as a good friend an acquaintance of mine. I then e-mailed this person and found out that the author is currently negotiating the film rights to the book, so I imagine it may be a movie by the time I get back to the USA.

           Dave Barry's Guide to Life is a compilation of four previously published titles: Guide to Marriage and/or Sex, Babies and Other Hazards of Sex, Stay Fit and Healthy Until You're Dead, and Claw Your Way to the Top. I think Dave Barry is very funny, indeed, and I enjoyed reading his take on these aspects of American life.

           Against All Odds is the story of how the author, Tom Helms, rehabilitated from two separate accidents. After his first, a car accident, he was declared a quadriplegic and told he would never walk again. He refused to accept the diagnosis and put a tremendous amount of time and energy into regaining full use of his limbs. He was successful and went back to college, lived as an able-bodied person for four years, got engaged, and then slipped in front of his house, where he hit his head on the bumper of a car, and that got him into worse physical and emotional shape than he was in after the first accident.

           In Patagonia is Bruce Chatwin's book about his journey to the southern ends of Chile and Argentina. I enjoyed the bits in which he talks about his own experiences, but I didn't find it as easy to maintain my interest when he lapsed into historical stories of the times when people such as Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Charles Darwin, and various sea captains ventured through the same part of the world.

           The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a book I have always wanted to read but never did until now. This version included an introduction and notes by R. Jackson Wilson, and I found them to be enlightening and useful.