COS: the beginning of the end

 

         When Ross planned his visit to me, he set his departure for the second of April because at that time the COS (Close of Service) conference was scheduled to begin on the fourth. In fairly typical Peace Corps fashion, however, the date of the conference was changed. Since our travel date was moved up to the first of April, it meant that Ross was by himself at the Château for about a day and a half. We enlisted the help of Mamouni, resident court jester, to entertain Ross and squire him about, including that last trip to the airport.

*****

          The COS conference has been a part of the Peace Corps experience for the last many years. I am not sure when it began to be included, but I am aware that many RPCVs who served in the sixties do not remember having any type of experience such as this.

          There is a myriad of information that needs to be gathered in order for us to be cleared to leave the country and given our plane ticket back to the USA. All of this was explained at the conference, along with several other sessions.

          The site of this year’s conference was the Campement de Keur Macene, one of several properties run by a tourism company called MKH. (They advertise a website, www.mkht.com, but when I tried to visit it to see photos I found that it was not up.) The ride was a bit more than three hours from Nouakchott, in the direction of the extreme southwest corner of Mauritania. If you look for it on a map, find Rosso at the border of Senegal and then look west of there, almost to the Atlantic.

          The trip began with about two hours on a paved road, followed by roughly twenty minutes on a wide and well-defined dirt road, and finishing with forty-five minutes on a sometimes-dirt/sometimes-sand, sometimes-there’s-a-track/sometimes not meandering across a no-man’s land of desert and scruffy bushes.

          The only information I had ever heard about Keur Macene was from the Volunteers who spent eleven days there during the Iraq War in April of 2003, shortly before my group got here. (For safety and security reasons, the PC administration had instituted a consolidation of PCVs at that time.) They were not very complimentary about the facilities, so I was not expecting much in the way of amenities. I was very surprised, then, to come upon an idyllic setting adjacent to a lagoon, with lawns, palm trees, and nicely constructed circular huts, most of which were built to include two rooms, and each of those rooms meant for two people.

          The rooms included hot and cold running water, a showerhead mounted high above the head (important for tall folks like me), flush toilets, towels, comfortable single beds with nice sheets and clean blankets, air conditioning, and attractive if not basic tile work. There was a dining room that accommodated our entire group of Volunteers, PC staff, and drivers. It was nicely appointed with linen table cloths, attractive china, and matching flatware. I enumerate these accoutrements of both the sleeping quarters and dining room because of the pleasant surprise that each one brought. I also recognize that these features would have been minimum expectations in the USA or Europe, but they far exceeded my expectations after having been here for twenty-one months.

          I had packed my mosquito net tent, travel sheet, and towel. Happily, I didn’t need any of that.

          We had a relaxed afternoon and evening on Friday the first. As is typical when we have these large group events, there are always people who have not seen each other for some time – Volunteers who are posted to different regions of the country – so it was nice to catch up with each other. This is a private facility, which allowed us to have our own alcohol supply on hand. Shopping for that in nearby Senegal was part of the planning for the event. Our group is a hard-drinking one, with tendencies toward gin, rum, and whiskey. That didn’t leave much of interest for the Cabernet Crowd, of which I seemed to be the sole representative. (I should add, though, that there are at least four confirmed non-drinkers in the group.) In any event, the booze was brought out on the first night.

          The sessions began in earnest on Saturday morning. The entire weekend was most capably led by Ellie LeBaron, an RPCV who served in Turkey in the sixties, and who is also the wife of the US ambassador to Mauritania. Ellie began by outlining the objectives of the conference:

1. Review your PC experience and your role in development in the RIM.
2. Assess your skills and experience gained as a PCV and learn how to document them.
3. Explore options after the PC in terms of graduate school or job.
4. Increase awareness of issues and concerns regarding re-entry into the culture of the USA.
5. Plan the final months in country so as to bring closure to work relationships and host country activities.
6. Identify ways of working on the PC’s Third Goal (to promote a better understanding of Mauritanians on the part of the people of the USA).
7. Provide the PC administration with response and recommendations.

8. Review medical and administrative procedures for closing PC service.

          I don’t think it will be necessary or of interest to most readers to detail every aspect of the conference, but some of this may be instructive. In the first session, we focused on identifying and documenting the skills that we have gathered during our work here. It was important to start this as a foundation for what will follow for most PCVs as they head back home: job search or grad school application.

          The following were listed as accomplishments by participating PCVs. Not each of them applies to every PCV, of course, but I think that the list is both comprehensive and telling:

·        learning foreign language(s)
·        integrating into culture
·        persevering under difficult situations
·        surviving the many trips via taxi brousse
·        budgeting our living allowances
·        teaching in classrooms for the first time
·        enjoying Mauritania
·        dealing with harassment
·        communicating in a different power structure
·        learning about Islam
·        managing projects
·        organizing effective committees
·        making lifelong friends
·        making commitments and following through
·        making brousse wine
·        becoming more self-reliant
·        learning to see ourselves as Mauritanians see us
·        becoming more culturally sensitive
·        eating with our hands and without utensils
·        doing without things we used to think were necessary
·        making the best of many situations
·        gaining insight into the Arab world and black African cultures
·        expanding our ideas of Africa and the Peace Corps
·        being assertive
·        learning nonverbal communication
·        expanding our concepts about development work
·        redefining expectations
·        managing anger
·        being kind to others
·        carrying water and other things on our heads
·        dealing with malnutrition
·        pushing ourselves beyond preconceived boundaries
·        showing generosity to poor people
·        becoming personally sustainable
·        learning the importance of chores in socializing (i.e., fetching water as a way of keeping in touch with other people)
·        handling chaos
·        learning to be a “bad cop”
·        developing a sense of humor (especially black humor)
·        being selective about giving charity
·        finding hope in seemingly hopeless situations
·        self-diagnosing and treating a wide variety of medical conditions
·        sharing personal space while trying to maintain independence
·        learning what is/what is not sustainable
·        understanding how child-rearing practices affect social structure and vice versa
·        learning gender roles in the society
·        dealing with competition and racial prejudice
·        learning to distinguish between individuals and their country’s policies
·        learning patience
·        learning to stay healthy on a limited diet
·        understanding the local brand of slavery and class/caste system
·        learning new games: euchre, cards, lawn bowling
·        learning how much people are threatened by change
·        learning to slow down (i.e., taking an afternoon nap)
·        becoming grateful for being an American
·        understanding different perceptions about time
·        learning to deal with PC administration
·        dealing with local systems of protocol and administration
·        evolving one’s sense of self
·        becoming effective at bargaining, negotiating, and persuasion
·        repaying host families without using money
·        getting by without language skills
·        understanding the importance of building relationships before working with people
·        improving mental math skills in the marketplace
·        keeping oneself entertained
·        dealing with stress
·        learning how to lie well
·        establishing boundaries
·        maintaining identity, especially with regard to what we are willing to give up and change or not
·        experiencing the diversity of Americans
·        sewing
·        planning lessons
·        speaking in public
·        speaking in public in a foreign language
·        mentoring and counselling high school students
·        writing proposals and getting them funded
·        evaluating projects
·        improvising
·        living communally
·        living “in a fishbowl” with status as a celebrity, rock star, or side show freak
·        learning not to take animosity personally
·        dealing with loss and death, both here and in the USA
·        dealing with homesickness
·        conquering fears of insects and other critters
·        understanding the effect of local imam and mosque culture
·        experiencing new diseases
·        observing locusts and their treatment
·        living through drought conditions
·        pulling water from a well
·        brushing teeth with a stick
·        learning new sustainable hygiene routines
·        valuing health, diet, and vitamins
·        learning Mauritanian cell phone etiquette
·        improving writing skills
·        becoming introspective
·        gaining a greater sense of self

          The next session was devoted to learning about a document that each of us will need to write: the DOS (Description of Service), which is expected to be two or three pages that will document and describe our PC service. The DOS is used for grad school and job applications. It is kept on file by the PC for sixty years – longer than anyone is going to need it. It also identifies our knowledge, skills, and abilities, which are referred to as KSA’s in job applications.

          After learning all we needed to know about our DOS, our chief of security presented a safety and security session that was mostly a repeat of everything we have heard since our initial training in 2003. Because of the repetitive aspect of the information, this was mostly a waste of time. There was one crucial bit of information that he imparted, though, and the entire session could have been boiled down to this one fact: statistically, the last few months of service have been shown to be a time when PCVs have experienced being crime victims. This has happened because many people have been in country for almost two years, and they have let down their guard.

          The Sunday sessions began with a discussion of readjusting to life in the USA. We explored the concept of “reverse culture shock” and continued to identify concerns, problems, and issues that may arise upon returning to the USA. The idea was to develop personal strategies and resources for dealing with re-entry. Ellie explained that we will likely feel a loss in our role status; loss of our support network of fellow PCVs; loss of our employment status; cross-cultural adaptation; and changes in expectations.

          The next session was devoted to job-hunting opportunities that exist in the PC, the US government, and the private sector. It was one to which I didn’t pay much attention, in that I do not intend to seek employment when I go back to San Francisco.

          We had a panel about prospective job-hunting. It included the political officer from our embassy, who gave us information about working for the State Department; a person from the United Nations who talked about jobs available there; an individual who started his own NGO in Mauritania; and an RPCV who served here and who is in the process of starting her own NGO.

          We then focused our attention on bringing our experiences back to the USA, with attention being paid to how we could do that, including lists of objects people will take home so that they can demonstrate aspects of Mauritanian life.

          The afternoon was devoted to an optional beach trip, something that several of us decided we would pass up, in that there was no shade there and it was a long ride of an hour or more in each direction. As it turned out, among the four cars that made the trip, there were at least three flat tires. It was much more restful staying at the encampment!

          In the evening we had work, though, in that we needed to prepare for a major session the following day: evaluating all aspects of PC Mauritania functions during the last two years and getting ready to present our findings to the staff that would be with us the following day. We worked after dinner on this one, with some groups going on until almost 10:00 PM.

          Though it was getting late, it was time for a little fun on two fronts. First of all, Lisa M. has prepared a terrific CD-ROM that is going to help us with our goal of helping to make Americans more aware of Mauritania. She has gathered images of daily life in Mauritania and the work that the Peace Corps is doing here. All of this is now in its last stages of completion in a PowerPoint presentation that we will be able to use at home. Unfortunately, by the time everyone got to see it, some of them were too drunk to appreciate it.

          The evening wasn’t over after that, though. Molly had prepared a list of superlatives so that everyone could nominate fellow PCVs to a list of “most likely” categories. People had been handing in their votes for a few days, so it was now time to announce the results. In addition to the predictable and flattering classifications such as “most likely to succeed” and “most likely to marry another PCV,” there were a few only-in-Mauritania (or only-in-PC) categories. I won’t list them all because some of them are fairly rude or, at the very least, not very complimentary, but a few of them were:

·        most likely to become an APCD
·        most likely to continue to use a makaresh (water pot to clean oneself after using the toilet) in the States
·        most likely to become a politician
·        most likely to have four wives
·        most likely to rule the world

·        most likely to be a PCV for five years

          Molly informed me afterward that I had been nominated in four categories:
·        most likely to marry a Mauritanian
·        most likely to leave Mauritanians with the most bizarre memories
·        most likely to bring up their Peace Corps experience in a bar as an effort to hook up with someone
·        most likely to continue to wear Mauritanian clothes in the States

          In the end I did win one of the categories: most likely to write a Peace Corps book (also known as the Mango Elephants in the Sun award, so-named for a much maligned Peace Corps book that has been the butt of many jokes among our PCVs).

*****

          Monday began with our discussion about concerns that we have with respect to readjusting to life in the USA. About half the members of our group have taken vacation time at home during their service. Ellie used some of their comments to begin this discussion because they have already had a small dose of re-entry to home culture. Some of the concerns are:

·        different concepts of time and relationships
·        noticing excesses of consumption
·        feeling guilty about what they have, which Mauritanians do not have
·        not caring about Mauritania on the part of people you speak to
·        understanding all conversations around you because they are in English – a different experience after be surrounded by other languages
·        feeling out of place
·        needing to silence yourself
·        keeping up to the corporate pace
·        deciding what to wear
·        being afraid of falling back into old routines
·        being pressured to be happy
·        losing defined role in a community
·        losing anonymity
·        losing our peer group
·        experiencing changes in interpersonal relationships at home
·        dealing with the opposite sex in a different way
·        being seen now as the spokesperson for the Muslim world
·        being smothered because everyone wants to be with you
·        needing decompression time
·        needing to travel a lot for new infusion of experiences
·        keeping in touch with Mauritanians back in the village
·        hunting for a job
·        applying to graduate school
          We came up with the following as potential strategies for coping with these challenges:
·        taking lots of naps
·        looking at re-entry as a new adventure
·        listening to and caring about experiences of friends and family during the last few years
·        keeping in touch with other PCVs
·        getting everyone’s addresses
·        taking a lot of walks
·        being selective about whom you see
·        seeing a therapist (NB: PC pays for three sessions)
·        getting in touch with new immigrant families at home
·        meditating
·        making a scrapbook about experiences here

          After that session, we had a critical one given by our Administrative Officer. There is a huge amount of paperwork that needs to be taken care of before we COS. He gave us a booklet of explanations and forms. A sample of what needs to be taken care of includes these forms:

·        COS Date Verification & Date Change Request – in which we verify that we will leave the country on our scheduled date, request a change of date, or extend our service for another period of time
·        Request for Change of Home-of-Record – in which home address can be changed; all checks are sent to this address, as well as this being the basis for plane fare to return to the USA
·        Description of Service (DOS) sample format
·        Privacy Act Waiver – on which we indicate that we either want or don’t want our DOS to be disclosed to others
·        Final Payments Worksheet – on which we settle up any overpayments that may have been made to us in our Living Allowance, Leave Allowance, or other payments
·        Funded Project Clearance – in which we settle up anything left over from projects which may have been funded by outside sources
·        Bank Account Closure – on which we verify that our checking account has been closed
·        Return Transportation Request Form – on which we indicate that we want the PC to issue us a ticket to our home-of-record or we can request what is referred to as a “cash in lieu,” which means that we get either the dollar or ouguiya equivalent of that ticket, and then we can purchase our own ticket and take whatever route we want to take
·        Certification for Use of American Flag Carrier – on which we promise under Section 5 of the International Air Transportation Fair Competitive Practices Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-623) that if we purchase our own airline ticket back to the USA, we understand that we may not use any other than an American carrier, except between points where there is none
·        There are ten more forms that I have not even mentioned here!

          Now that we had our newly-acquired “Completion of Service Admin Procedures for PCVs” booklet, the PC administrative staff was on hand to hear the gathered presentation of PCV response to what it has been like to work with them during our time here.

          Ellie introduced the session by explaining how remarkable it is that all forty-six of us who swore in as Volunteers are still here. In his remarks, our country director referred to us as a “golden group” that was serving during a “golden age” of PC Mauritania and he added, “I’m honored to be here with all of you.”

          Then we let loose with the critiques, presented on flip chart paper, citing the “minimal support and respect” on the part of the people who have been difficult, and also singling out by name some of their co-workers who are especially helpful, pleasant, and easy to work with. I didn’t make an effort to look at the faces of the two people we critiqued negatively, but some Volunteers told me they did, and they were not pleased with our remarks.

          I had thought all along that while a session such as this might be cathartic for us, it is probably one of the sessions that will yield the smallest results. What can be done about the two individuals with rather important administrative jobs who are abrasive, treat Volunteers disrespectfully, and are almost universally disliked by the PCVs because of how difficult it is to work with them? On the administrative level, they are probably effective with their jobs, which is what our Country Director and the headquarters in Washington are looking for. We can complain until the bugs come out, and if most of us had our choice, these people would be replaced. But there is virtually no possibility that there will be any kind of improvement, short of getting them personality transplants.

          At lunch, our training director asked three other PCVs and me to meet with him privately. He had a situation with which he needed some help to find a solution. As it turned out, some of the drunken reverie of the night before had gotten out of hand. One or more people – probably from our group, since we were the only ones there – had broken into the dining room by crawling through a window. He or they then took whatever beverages and food were in the refrigerator. This had justifiably upset the staff.

          As we discussed it, we ultimately decided among us that it would not do any good to announce this to everyone assembled, so it meant that one of us had to speak to the most likely suspects. Fortunately it was a small group and it was also fairly evident who the most likely culprit was. As far as we know, the Peace Corps then made whatever financial restitution was necessary in order to repair our relations with the operators of the resort. I hope this doesn’t mean that other groups will not be able to have events here.

          As in most cases like this, it is always unfortunate that a few disrespectful and non-thinking individuals can ruin a situation for all involved.

          After the much-needed lunch break, we had our PCMOs deliver a PowerPoint presentation concerning the medical procedures for COS, including all the things we need to do to be cleared medically for leaving the country, including information about available insurance for us (provided free for one month, after which we pay if we choose to continue with it), etc.

          The last large group session was particularly enjoyable. Ellie had printed out some typical questions that people at home will be most likely to ask us when we get back. She walked about the group and gave people a chance to reach into an envelope to pull out a question so that we could have immediate practice answering it. It reminded me of the Table Topics sessions at Toastmasters, when we get questions given to us and then have up to two minutes to respond off the cuff. I am only going to print some of the questions here. (If you gotta gotta gotta have them all, send me an e-mail and I will send you the entire list.)

·        So how was Africa?
·        Aren’t you glad to be back (in the US)?
·        Do they hate Americans?
·        Did you have to eat really strange food?
·        Wasn’t it really dirty?
·        Was it worth two years of your life?
·        What religion are they, anyway?
·        What’s the economy like?
·        Did you go native and dress as the locals did?
·        What kind of toilets do they have?
·        Don’t you think we have problems enough here in the US with the home-less and drugs? Wouldn’t it have been better to serve two years in the US?
·        With the war on terrorism going on, weren’t you frightened being in a Muslim country?
·        Are you ready to get a real life now?
·        So what are Muslims really like?
·        Weren’t you afraid of getting AIDS?
·        Did you live in a jungle in Africa? Were there wild animals?
·        How did you live without air conditioning?

          In all, it was an excellent conference, planned well by our training director and the COS conference committee consisting of PCVs Jessica and Madge. I can add here that at this point, four members of our group have confirmed that they would like to extend their service for another year. Two have requested that they stay at their sites and two would like to work in Nouakchott.

          Keur Macene is located near one of the few national parks in Mauritania. The PC staff made an arrangement for a visit there early on Tuesday, the morning of departure. Those who wanted to see the birds signed up for a 6:30 departure, after which was scheduled lunch at Keur Macene, thence the return trip to Nouakchott.

          The Vomit Comet was available to take nine non-bird watchers back to Nouakchott at 6:30 AM. One other vehicle was leaving at about 11:30. Thirty people signed up to see the birds; I opted for the 6:30 departure to Nouakchott (which turned out to leave fairly punctually, at 7:08). It was an uneventful trip back to town, except for the flat tire when we were about eighteen kilometers away.

*****

          Even the next day, Wednesday, our work was not done! Everyone in the group was being given two Nouakchott hotel nights (except for those of us who actually live here) because the Office of Planning, Policy and Analysis at the PC headquarters in Washington is piloting its new COS survey by putting it online. Our bureau rented out the public cyber space located at the Palais de Congres so that we could be the first COS-ing group to fill this out online.

          Our letter of introduction to the process said that it would take thirty minutes, but because there were still glitches in opening up pages and navigating from one to another, it took me almost two hours to complete.

          I completed it just in time, as I had been asked to make a presentation at the bureau to the Environmental Education (EE) sector conference being attended by our group of PCVs and their counterparts.

          I had given the workshop about Multiple Intelligences Theory at the same conference last year. There are three first-years in Environmental Ed. In my discussion with them concerning their work, I heard many of the same challenges that the English teachers have: overloaded classes (up to fifty or sixty students), teachers or administrators who are not supportive, and kids who can’t or won’t pay attention. In short, it seems that teaching is probably the most demanding work that exists in the PC.

          I tried to give the EE Volunteers whatever support I could so that they could impart their material to the students. In the end, however, we had to resort to discussing classroom management techniques. The PC miracle is that anyone who has such a discouraging and difficult teaching experience here would even consider returning to the United States to train for a teaching career. On the brighter side, though, is that even a difficult inner city school experience in the USA would be much easier by comparison.

*****

          It was a busy week at the Château. Lisa and Nina were there for return visits, while Thomas was making his debut. On Friday the eighth I spent my first night alone at home since the third of March, which lasted only one night before a return visit from Château regulars Hector and Genny.

          Blessedly, the punishing heat of those few days last week has relented. It’s much more bearable being indoors without air conditioning now. My days for sleeping with a blanket are over, however. There have been a few times when I have been able to turn off the fan in the middle of the night.

*****  

          After having heard a rumor two weeks ago, we got the official word last Thursday: the Mauritanian government has decided to change the dates of the work week and weekend. According to the official decree that I read, the Ministry of Communication and Relations with Parliament has recognized that the current Sunday-to-Thursday work week does not “work with the rest of the world” and that in order to “integrate our economy in the international market, of which we have more and more need, above all” with the upcoming natural oil and mineral explorations, and after consultation with the president of the republic and the Islamic High Council to assure “scrupulous respect of the sharia teachings” (NB: sharia is Islamic law), the work week for government offices, effective today, the eleventh of April, will be from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM on Monday through Thursday and from 8:00 AM to noon on Friday.

          The Peace Corps bureau will add fifteen minutes on the first four days and one hour on Friday. There is widespread speculation that the new weekend is going to turn into three days, with many people not even paying attention to their Friday half-day.

          The past weekend, then, was a three-day weekend, so that the newest work week would begin today, Monday the eleventh. Wouldn’t you know that I had a work meeting scheduled for noon on Sunday? That was moved to Monday.