Buckets of miscommunications


          The week began with the unfulfilled promise of the printer who was producing Lesson Plans that Work. The book was supposed to be delivered to the Peace Corps bureau on Monday morning. He called to say that they were a little late and would deliver the books in the afternoon.

          Meanwhile, because my APCD was on vacation, I was charged with the responsibility of accepting delivery of the books and paying the balance due, some 200,000 ouguiya, about $667, from the grant that Karl had written.

          When Karl got the money from the bank, all that they had to give him were notes of 500 ouguiya. Off I went to the bureau with 400 bank notes, a stack of bills more than two inches high (I measured), and heavy.

          At the end of the day, the printer called to say that the books would be ready the next morning, inshallah, but I told him that I had to give a final exam, so it would have to be the afternoon, so I could be there to accept the delivery and pay the balance due.

          After I gave the exam, I had lunch in the downtown area, then checked in with the printer and saw stacks of unbound books all over his shop. Additionally, a taxicab had backed up to the print shop, its trunk opened, and inside were piled many unbound stacks of the books, not in boxes, just in loose stacks, with rocks on top of each pile to keep pages from blowing away. I don’t know where the book was being taken, but if that taximan had to apply his brakes only one time, he had the possibility of having a big mess on his hands in the trunk.

          I told the printer I would see him that afternoon at the bureau. He called me about 4:00 to say that he was ready. By that time, though, I was not near the bureau. I said we would have to arrange for a delivery the next day; he said all right.

          A few minutes later, the printer called to remind me that the next day was Africa Day, a holiday, and he wanted to know if the bureau would be open or closed. It was to be closed, so we would have to wait until Thursday.

          On Thursday morning, the printer came with the books, and they look great. He had followed all instructions and it seems to be a clear and well-done job! That was one thing right for the week!


          I arrived at ENS on Tuesday morning with Mamouni, who was to help me proctor my final exam. Since I had two sections of American Civilization, each one was assigned to a different classroom for the test, so I thought it would be necessary to have Mamouni with me to proctor in one of the two rooms, with me in the other.

          At every seminar gathering of Peace Corps teachers, the topic that comes up most frequently is the way that Mauritanian students cheat on exams. Cheating in American schools is such a no-no that our teachers are shocked to see this happening so blatantly here. The PC teachers have mentioned that when Mauritanian teachers proctor exams for them, they permit the students to cheat. For this reason, the PC teachers have always said that they prefer to proctor their own exams, and that is what they do.

          Last year at ENS, nobody had ever told me anything about proctoring my exam for me. I thought they were just leaving me alone to do what I needed to do. Both last year and this, the only information that they ever gave me about the exam was the scheduled time for it to be given.

          Armed with all the non-information I needed, I arrived at ENS to discover that there were other ENS teachers – people I had never met – in the rooms where I was supposed to be giving the exams. They told me that I would be able to leave – just give them the tests and they will take care of it.

          I said that that was all right – I would be staying to do the job myself. “But we have a president, a vice president, and a secretary in each room, selected by the Commission de Surveillants. I bid them “bismillah” (welcome) and told them that they would be able to stay if they want, no problem, and also that nobody had told me anything about their coming to do this.

          The students began to get a little fidgety when I told them that there would be only one person at each of the two-seater desks – an impediment to their cheating, if they had planned to do so. There was barely enough room for everyone, and some of them were surprised when I placed them at the teacher's table in front of the room.

          In the confusion of who was supposed to be in charge in the classrooms, a man came up to me and said, “I am the directeur de quelque chose." I shook his hand and told him I was happy to meet him after having taught at ENS for two years, and this was my last day. I was politely trying to let him know that I did not understand what authority he had, and that if he did have any, I wish I had been advised of it before I had come to the school that day.

           In perusing those students in attendance, I noticed some people I had never met before, because they had never shown up for class until the final! It led me to wonder about the thought process behind never showing up for class, but being there to take the final exam.

           Eventually, all the surveillants left each of the classrooms, leaving Mamouni and me to proctor the exams by ourselves.

          In each of the other classrooms, as I passed by occasionally during the exam period to check on how Mamouni was doing, there were several teachers seated in front, chatting, paying no respect to the students who were taking exams and needed some quiet time to think. Outside in the hallways, students also talked loudly in the same disruptive manner.

          In addition to not handing over my classes to the assigned surveillants, I was told that I hadn’t prepared the exam on the paper it was supposed to be on. Nobody had told me I needed to do anything like that. The exam paper was something that had to be seen to be believed. It is large, about the size of two 8 1/2" x 11" papers put together along their longer side. The top 2.5" or so is perforated and can be torn off. On that portion, there is room for the student's name and other identifying information, along with the note that "The candidate is asked not to write in any case above the perforated line," which is a contradiction because all the identifying information is above that line where the student is clearly not supposed to write. So how does one follow directions and yet hand in a paper with which he can be identified?

          What I later found out that happens is that the administrators get the papers from the teachers and, before tearing off the part with the name, put some sort of number on both the top and bottom sections of the paper, so that the writer of the exam can be identified after it is graded. Then each paper is read and graded by two teachers who do not know whose papers they are reading. After the papers have been read, they are returned to the administration, who matches the numbers on the top and bottom of the papers, so that the grades can be assigned to the students

          It is evident that this is not a culture of writing, which accounts for there being no policies and procedures manual. By the same token, nobody had told me prior to that day what was expected of me. I tried to explain, as calmly as possible, that I would be very happy to follow the administrations procedures, if only somebody had explained to me what they were.

          When Mamouni's group of students had completed their exam and there were only a few students left in my classroom, Mamouni came by with a teacher named Naji who wanted to meet me. Naji asked me to join him in the salle de professeurs after the exam.

          After I handed in the sheets on which the students had signed out before leaving the exam, I saw Naji, who began by telling me that he had met the U. S. ambassador, and that he was a wonderful person. I told him that I had heard our ambassador speaks excellent Arabic, and Naji said that that is true.

          Naji said that the ambassador was "a good friend" of his, and then asked if it would be possible for me to set up a meeting with the ambassador. I had to tell Naji that the ambassador was not a good friend of mine, and that I had no way to arrange for such a meeting. I told him that in the scheme of things here, Peace Corps Volunteers are probably the Americans in Mauritania who have the least amount of influence and prestige with the ambassador, or anyone else at the American embassy.

          Once he saw that his possibility of a private audience with the ambassador was not going anywhere, he told me that he had been working at the ENS since 1982, and that he thought it was time for him to have a promotion. Didn't I agree? I told him, Well, I guess so, but I really didn't know anything about his work there. Nor did I know anything about the way the education system functioned. (Evidently, based on the fiasco that had just taken place!)

          In the end, I had to leave Naji with no hope toward helping him advance whatever agenda he had in mind.

          Leaving the ENS, I headed to the downtown area and stopped for one of my favorite lunches – the falafel plate at Snak Irak – and began tackling the job of grading the exam papers. I had made the correction process as easy as possible on myself, having comprised the exam exclusively of multiple choice and true/false questions. I added a page on which I asked the students to tell about the impact of the class on their perspective about the United States, and I explained that this final sheet would not be graded, but that I would add two points to the total score of anyone who wrote something there. Almost all the students did write something.

          Exams and grades in Mauritania are on a twenty-point system. Based on that, a grade of less than 12 would be failing in the USA, but here the line of failure is anything below 10.

          I finished grading the papers at home. By American standards, several of the students failed the test, but by Mauritanian standards, only one did.

          Before the end of the day, word got to me via two sources as to how upset the ENS administration was with the events of the day.

          In the afternoon, I ran into one of my ENS students, Sidi Mohamed, who lives a few blocks from me. His English is very good, as he has spent some time in the United States, and he really cracks me up by calling me "Big Daddy." Sidi Mohamed told me that it would be a good idea to see the directeur des études on Thursday.

           Mamouni then came by my house to tell me that he had seen one of the professors, who said that he was first concerned that I had done the exam on the wrong paper, but once he got to look at my exam, he saw that "the content was good," so he said that people weren't all that worried any more.

          I don't want to create any trouble for the Peace Corps, so it made me wonder what I should do to make things better. Even though my APCD was on vacation, I knew that he was spending his time at home, so I thought it would be best to call him and figure out what I should do. He was very supportive of me, saying that there was no way that I would be able to know what I was supposed to have done, and that the administration at ENS should have explained it to me beforehand. He suggested that I go there on Thursday to speak to the directeur des études, that I should be apologetic, and try to set things right.

          I went back to the ENS on Thursday, when it was open again. I saw the directeur de quelque chose, who turned out to be the directeur des études. His title surprised me, as I thought I had already met the directeur des études. ("We have two," he told me.)

          He very calmly explained to me what my transgressions had been the other day and then told me that there was no problem. Everything was fine. He explained to me that all the information I needed to know about exam procedures had been posted on the wall of the salle de professeurs. I said yes, everything I needed to know, except for knowing that I needed to look there. Understandably enough, since I am not on the faculty with a regular class load, all I do is come into the school once a week, teach my class, and then leave. I have never been introduced around to people, shown the facilities, attended a faculty meeting (for which I am eternally grateful) or told who was who and what was what.

          Everything is done very properly there, he said. "The image of the school is important."

          In looking over the exams, I was pleased to see some of the comments written by students for extra credit. The only grade I gave for these papers were two points if the students wrote answers and nothing if they wrote nothing.

          My first question was, "Have your opinions about Americans changed since you have taken this class?"

          Yelly wrote, "Of course, before I thought that Americans were selfish, they don't care about the other countries and why they are active, because want to control the world. But since I have met the American at this school, I found them different."

          Mariem wrote, "I hope if they could give little time to learn about other cultures and religions, so we can understand each other and live in peace."

          Sidi Mohamed wrote, "Of course my opinion about United States has changed, because, I had a steady opinion which says that Americans are good people, but I'm a little bit unhappy about their foreign policies, particularly when it comes to the policy of the actual administration." (Note that "actual" is a translation from the French, meaning "current.")

          I asked the students if they had any advice for me or for the teacher who may come after me.

          Amadou wrote, "I think that you are gentle man, you have no problem for doing your classes. And I think that the teachers who will come after will see that Mauritanian's have no problem. He is really welcomed."

          Ghalia wrote, "I think you are an old teacher so no need to advices."

          Mamadou wrote, "It was interesting to compare American culture and values with Mauritanian ones. I think that these things have to be shared. We need to understand each other in order to leave in peace."

          Finally, I asked the students if they had any additional comments.

          Mamadou wrote, "According to me we need people like Jay to understand Americans. You have made your best to control the class. We all know that it's difficult to teach in a class with different ethnic groups and with a teacher who doesn't share the same religion with his students."

          Leila wrote, "Anyway Mr. Jay you showed competence, activity, and objectivity toward us and toward your goal in teaching us. Thank you very much for the time you have allowed us."

          Mariem wrote, "I prefered to read all things about the Americans. Because, you are supposed to teach the American civilization, so we are eager to know every think concerning America, and think you for your efforts."

          Mohamedou wrote, "The time devoted to this class, is not according to me sufficient we need more than two hours a week to learn about America."

          A different Mohamedou wrote, "I have no comments to add except the idea that American people are not bad. We should not judge people and societies according to what their political leaders may commit. Briefly, Americans leadership is bad but the American people are not."


          Erwin the Austrian called me during the week to say that he wanted to take my apartment. This will make my departure extremely easy, partly because he is going to Austria in the middle of June, which means that I will be able to stay there for the few days in July before I leave the country on the fifth.

          Also, there are a few PCVs from my group who are extending their service to a third year and will be moving to Nouakchott. They will be getting a lot of my stuff. Instead of having to move everything out for them, I can just leave it behind and they will pick it up when they move here from their current sites.


          Miscommunications this week were not limited to the ENS. There were some at NEC, but nothing quite as serious.

          First of all, with Wednesday being the Africa Day holiday, I walked by NEC in the morning to see if it would be open. It was closed.

          I called Sunyah, the director, to confirm that there was no school. He said, "The center is closed today, but do you want to teach your class?"

          I wanted to know how I would teach the class if the center was closed. Where would I meet with the students?

          He said that they could open the center if I wanted them to. I told him that that would not be necessary – if the other classes are not being held, then I would not teach mine, either. Besides, even if I wanted to teach the class, there would probably be a low attendance because most students would think there was no class.

          That seemed to handle the situation, or so I thought, until just before 5:00 in the afternoon, when Sunyah called me and asked, "What is your final decision?" I wanted to know, What was my final decision about what? He wanted to know what I had decided about teaching the class. I told him that I thought we clarified that earlier – that the other teachers would not be there, so I would not go, either.

          Then another topic came up with him. A few weeks ago, Sunyah had told me that NEC was trying to get Mike, father of PCV Andrew (see post of 5/16), to do some workshops at NEC. When he initially told me about it, he didn't give me any other details or information about the meetings. Then Sunyah told me that the workshops were scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, the 30th and 31st of this month.

          I said that I hoped the workshops would go well. He said, "You will be there, won't you?" I asked if he wanted me to be there. He said, "Yes, I told you about this a few weeks ago," to which I replied that he had told me he was trying to arrange the workshops, but not that it was anything he wanted me to attend. I told him that I would be able to attend.


          The next miscommunication came on the social level. I had called Salif, the head of a family here, who has relatives in San Francisco – Julie and Ibrahima, whom I met before I came here. I asked if I could come to visit them on the weekend. Salif said that Saturday afternoon would be best. We didn’t set a specific time.

          In thinking about an afternoon visit, there is always the question of lunch. If I show up before lunch, the family will want me to stay to eat, and if I show up after lunch, they will berate me for not having eaten with them. So I said yes, I would come for Saturday afternoon, meaning that I would be there before lunch.

          I showed up around 12:45, not too close to lunchtime, which is usually around 2:00 here. Salif’s wife was surprised that I was there. She had thought that I would be there about 4:00 or 5:00. Salif was away from the house and his wife asked me to call him to tell him I was there. He, too, expressed his surprise. Once we got over that, however, all was fine.

          We had a stroke of good fortune in the outage of electricity for the afternoon, which meant that the television remained off for the duration of my visit. There was also another gentleman visiting, a delegate to the country's National Assembly, who was very helpful in answering my questions about the way the Senate and National Assembly function. This was information that I was looking forward to filling in for the cross-culture manual that I am revising in time for the arrival of the new group of trainees.

          When lunch was served at Salif’s house, I was surprised to see that forks were included with the meal, which is something that one rarely sees in a Mauritanian household. The assembly delegate expressed his delight in having the forks. I asked if he usually used them. He said, "Yes, it is much better to use forks." I was just getting ready to ask him why he thought it was advantageous to use forks over bare hands, and he added, unprompted, "Because when you use forks you don't have to wash your hands before you eat!"

          Mamadou, the baby whose baptęme I went to, is now a year and three months old, walking all over the place, and very affectionate. One of my missions for the afternoon was to take a family picture to send to Ibrahima and Julie in San Francisco. As everyone was getting ready for that, somebody put a small ball in the courtyard in front of Mamadou and he toddled after it, kicking it like a budding soccer player.


          I wasn't the only one having communication problems this week. Carl, a PCV who lives near me, sometimes comes over on Saturdays to give work to Mamadou the tailor. Last week, he had supplied Mamadou with fabric for a zippered vest, and he had also printed a photo of the finished product, downloaded from a website.

          It's important to know that the photo showed a 3/4 frontal view of the vest, displaying what the left side of it would look like on the torso, but nothing of the right side, since that was hidden from view.

          When Carl tried on the vest, he went to put his hands in the pockets and found that there was a pocket only on the left side, not the right. It was not on the photograph, so Mamadou didn't include it when he sewed the vest.


          I was talking with a Mauritanian about diet this week, and we were comparing the food and drink that each of us consumed or avoided. He told me that he drinks milk and I said that I did not because I do not digest it well. He then told me that he is a smoker, so it is very important to drink milk because that way, the good effects of the milk can eliminate the bad effects of the smoking!

          He was surprised when I told him that I do not eat any meat. He said to me, “You look very young and strong, so I think you eat a lot of meat.” I told him that if I look young and strong, it is because I do not eat meat!