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