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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.