On Monday, the 8th we all left
the homes of our host families and returned to the training
center to complete our PST. In order to show our appreciation
to the host families for their hospitality, each of our work
sectors gave its own small thank-you gathering. The Education
sector gave ours in the school library during the afternoon
that we left.
We had refreshments, gave short
speeches, and handed out certificates to the families. Because
we knew that we would have too many people if everyone in each
family showed up, we had to limit the invitees to two people
per family. In my family, Berti, the mother, and Yahya, the
twelve-year-old boy came.
When it was time to say good-bye,
Yahya started to cry, which got his mother and me all tearful,
too. It was a tender scene. More than anyone else in the family,
I will miss Yahya; he's easy-going, smart, fun, and a was a
helpful guide to me. And, in direct contrast to most of the
kids in the host families of other Trainees, he never asked
me for anything. One of the problems during the home stay period
was that many Trainees were deluged with requests for their
possessions from host family members. It became an annoyance
that many of them had a hard time with. For me, since Yahya
never asked for anything, it became a pleasure for me to offer
things to him. When we went walking together, it was enjoyable
for me to get him a beverage or a snack. And while he did comment
about some of the things I had, like my watch or water bottle,
he never outright asked for anything.
Our Country Director was here in
Kaédi for the beginning of Center Days. One of the things
that she is doing is holding one-to-one interviews with Trainees.
She started the process on a previous visit and will finish
it this week. This time, I had my turn. She is very dedicated
to the PC program here and wants to help make sure that all
goes smoothly for us. I explained some of my frustrations with
the miscommunications, such as all the luggage that was transported
here but was supposed to stay in Nouakchott.
She explained the challenge of
managing a staff largely comprised of Mauritanians, for whom
the communication style is different than ours. For one thing,
when they are asked to convey a message to us, they are frequently
told why we need to do things. The "why," however,
is not important to Mauritanians, so that is a component of
the information that they frequently leave out when they tell
us about certain things we need to do. Our reaction, then, is
that we don't know why we have to do something, so we don't
necessarily want to do it.
Since illiteracy is high, when
the Mauritanian employees get oral instructions about things,
they do not have the option to write things down. Thus, they
tell us the bare bones information, having remembered only what
they have heard, without being able to make notes for themselves
- and sometimes not remembering everything that we need to know.
Our first evening at the Center,
we had a visit from one of two Fullbright Scholars living in
Mauritania. He is working on his Ph. D. dissertation through
the University of Michigan. Matthew Lavoie is an expert on Mauritanian
music, and he gave us a lecture-demonstration about it. He explained
to us that the griots (GREE-ohs) in Mauritania are the only
ones in West Africa that still have to be born into a family
of musicians in order to "have the right to be a musician."
In the examples that he gave us about famous musicians in Mauritania,
he frequently cited how the musicians were related to each other.
The tradition of handing down one's work in life has been modified
in neighboring countries, but not in all sectors of Mauritanian
There are a few other rigid aspects
to playing music here, too. The guitar-like instrument, the
tidinite (TID-nit) is played only by men, and the harp-like
instrument, the ardin (ar-DEEN) is played only by women. Guitars
are also used, and local musicians have modified the frets so
that the sounds can accommodate their scales. The music played
during any given session goes through five modes; during each
mode, the musician plays two different ways, referred to as
"black" and "white." First the black is
played, and then the white, as the music progresses through
the five modes. Once any particular mode is finished, there
is no going back to it for the remainder of the session.
I asked Matthew about the references
to "black" and "white" ways of playing the
music, and what those colors refer to. He said that this is
not a racial reference, though he does not know exactly what
the reference means, as it is an old way of talking about the
music. The Soninke, Pulaar, and Berber music also has the same
nomenclature, and the first two of those are historically all-black
African cultures, so there would be no need to distinguish between
different peoples in this manner.
Matthew played several examples
for us via cassette tape. A musician, Jheich (pronounced Jaysh)
Chighaly, was with him and played the tidinite for us.
Even with the explanation and the
comprehensive demonstration, the music sounded like one thing:
a guitar player tuning up for a performance. If you have ever
heard the string section get ready during the last five minutes
before the concertmaster comes onstage, then you will already
be familiar with what the music sounds like to me.
The next day, just before lunch,
I was talking with Matthew in the courtyard of the school, when
Jheich summoned him to go to Jheich's brother's house. They
invited me to go with them. That is where I met Jheich's older
brother El Amar, who taught him everything he knows about playing
the tidinite. Before I left him that afternoon, El Amar invited
me to come listen to him play that night. On my way there, I
ran into Oumar, a student from the Model School, and Oumar accompanied
El Amar played through all five
stages of the music for me, in both black and white ways. Before
I left, I told him that I had a musical instrument with me,
and asked him if he would like to see it. He said yes; that
became El Amar's introduction to the autoharp, an instrument
he had never seen or heard of before. I brought it to him the
next day at noontime.
The day before swearing-in, the
Trainees and Volunteers had our last cross-cultural session
at a rural site outside of the Kaédi town limits. Most
of the day, from about 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM, we spent sprawled
out on our matalas and the nattes (mattress-type pads and thick
woven plastic floor coverings) under a tree that provided us
with lots of shade.
When we got back to the center,
each of us had our final evaluations, presented to us individually.
Of the 47 of us Trainees remaining from the original 56, 45
were invited to swear in the next day. The two who were not
invited to train in are in tenuous circumstances. One of them
did not pass his language competency test in the local language
he will need to speak in his village; the other was mismatched
with regards to his work role here, and there remains a little
bit of a question as to whether they can sort it out.
This second person's situation
causes some repercussions for me, as this was the person to
whom I have become closest in our training class, and the one
most likely with whom I could establish an enduring friendship
during the next two years. After the Town Meeting he and I stayed
up and talked until midnight, trying to figure out his next
course of action.
Friday, 9/12 was our day of swearing
in as Peace Corps Volunteers. Our new Ambassador to Mauritania,
Joseph LeBaron, was here to do the honors. We were addressed
by Kateri Clement, our Country Director, in both French and
English. The Ambassador spoke in Arabic, French, and English.
Members of our training class spoke in French, Hassaniya, Pulaar,
Soninke, and Wolof. We took the same oath of office that has
been administered to Presidents of the United States for hundreds
of years ("to protect and defend the Constitution of the
I am going to close with two selections
for you. First, there is the Ambassador's speech to us at our
swearing-in ceremony. Then, there is a poem that I wrote and
read at the last Town Meeting, the night before swearing in.
Text of Ambassador Joseph LeBaron's
speech to us
Well, you've made it. From the
many tens of thousands of people who think about joining the
Peace Corps each year, you actually applied. From the over 20,000
people who, like you, applied, you were among the 33% chosen.
And among those 33% chosen, you are among the select group that
finished training. You have already seen at least several of
your fellow trainees drop out, even after you arrived in Mauritania.
You are the "accepts;"
you are the winners in that great winnowing out process. But
you must be thinking right now: Will I feel like a winner in
a month, six months, a year? Will I thrive here? Can I survive
That depends, really, on exactly
who you are. So who are you? I've read through all your aspiration
statements. I've studied your strategies for adapting to Mauritanian
culture. I've seen your personal and professional goals.
So who are you? Let me tell you
who I think you are:
You are, with the exception of
two or three, not long out of college, but you are well-trained
- and realistic. One of you wrote, "There will be days
when I feel terrible, sick and weak. I will lie shivering on
my bed and wait for it to pass, for the next day to come."
You probably will get sick from
time to time. But I hope there will be days, too, when a rare
and wonderful feeling descends upon you, days when you feel
you are exactly where you are meant to be, doing exactly what
you are supposed to be doing - professionally, emotionally,
If and when you feel that, hold
on to it. Tuck it away in the deepest part of you. It will sustain
you if times turn tough here.
Many of you wrote something similar
to this: "By being in Mauritania, I will have fulfilled
my goal of living and working in a foreign country."
I read a fascinating New York Times
article recently. It reported the research on happiness by an
economist and three psychologists, including a Nobel Laureate.
It's major point was this: We are wrong to believe that achieving
some major goal will make us as happy as we imagine it will.
But the reverse is also true. We are wrong to think that not
achieving that goal will make us as unhappy as we think it would.
In other words, we humans are notoriously
poor when it comes to predicting exactly how we will feel in
the future, how happy or sad some event, condition, or achievement
will make us feel.
So what's my point? It is this:
if realizing your dream of serving abroad in the Peace Corps
turns out to be less fulfilling than you think it should, don't
worry. If, as one of you wrote, "only by serving the needs
of others and of the world as a whole can one truly achieve
personal fulfillment" does not lead to the deep sense of
happiness you think it will, well, that's all right and to be
Something more fundamental than
your Mauritanian experience is going on. It is simply that everything
we humans have thought about life choices, and about happiness,
has been at least somewhat naïve and, at worst, greatly
One other point from the professors'
research came to mind when I read this: "I expect to be
uncomfortable, feel out of place and in over my head at times."
And this: "I will try not to fight against contradictions
between my culture and my adopted culture." Or this: "I
expect my Peace Corps service to be one of the most emotionally,
physically, and culturally challenging experiences of my life."
According to the article, there
is a fundamental difference between how we behave in "hot"
states (those of anxiety, courage, fear, and the like) and "cold"
states of rational calm. And the professors' research indicates
that we cannot seem to predict how we will behave in a hot state
when we are in a cold state. If fact, these kinds of states
have the ability to change us so profoundly that we're more
different from ourselves in different states than we are from
another person." Our emotions are pitted against our intellect.
So, if you find yourself in a "hot"
state sometime out in the field, this will be hard, but try
not to make precipitate decisions. Give yourself a time out.
For the benefit of those many
of you who are not in Mauritania, I have added several footnotes
below, to help you understand some of what I have included here.
The last Town Meeting was recorded and will probably be accessible
on the Internet soon. When I find out how you can get to it,
I will let you know.
A Letter Home by Jay Davidson
Dear family and friends, Footnotes
The objective of this letter I
am writing to you
Is to explain some of what we are going through.
By the end of my missive you'll
have an idea
Of the various aspects of our daily life here. 1
Little did we know when we met
What was in store for us here in Mauritania!
Sometimes I wonder what I've gotten
Here in the land of Moustapha and Bintu.
The Trainees' routines are confusing
Because all of our schedules are subject to change.
We sit on the floor, and I have
Finding comfortable seating is my newest obsession.
Wherever we go, there are people
A full day of solitude is not to be found.
Most of us think that the children
Except when they shout out "toubab" in the street.
They sure make me wonder, sometimes,
what I am,
As they see fit to say to me, "Bonjour, madame."
Their greetings are friendly and
I try to adapt,
But if I hear "ça va?" one more time, someone's
gonna get slapped! 3
When we shop for our food, to the
marché we go,
Not Safeway or Kroger's or the Trader named Joe. 4
The lunch and the dinner we eat
with our hand -
I think that the principal seasoning is sand.
And that hunk on the plate that
they said was a goat?
I'd rather have pizza going down my throat.
Each one of us is learning to treasure
The small things in life that can give us great pleasure.
Like you wouldn't believe how utterly
Is Dalla's homemade yogurt in those little bags of plastic.
And the feeling that we get, just
short of sublime,
When we make it to the toilet just in time! 5
Some of us took a trip all the
way to Nouakchott;
You should have seen the car we got!
It took seven hours in that old
I'd give you the details, but you don't want to know.
And when we got there, what did
But total vehicular anarchy!
Run, run, run, as fast as you can!
Don't be the next victim of the taximan!
Beep, beep, charette! We want to
Hey, what's Hassaniya for "Move that ass!"? 6
The first thing we did there, quick
as a wink,
We went to a restaurant to get us a drink.
A thousand ougiya we paid for each
And when they arrived, we let out a cheer.
We enjoyed the eight days of our
visits to sites,
Then returned to the heat of Kaédi - that bites!
You don't have to worry at all
Because I'm in excellent company.
I am surrounded by wonderful folk
Funny, well-traveled, and smart - that's no joke:
Annika, Angus, Becky, and Will,
Jennifer, Katie, Audrey, and Jill,
One Marc with a "c" and
two with a "k,"
The Ayrin who spells her name with an "A."
Karl with a "K" and Carl
with a "C,"
Erin E. and Erin P.
Natalie C. and Natalie E.
The Margarets, yet another pair,
Stephanie, Nathan, and Robert. 7
Two Lisas have we; now check out
Put them together, you get Michael Jackson.
Alice, Julia, and Notre Dame Dan,
You, Mr. Sutton, "Stand up! Be a man!" 8
Our couples are three, and here's
One of each from two programs do they comprise.
Jessica and Scott, Genny and Hector,
One from the SED and one from Ed. sector. 9
Of course I remembered dear Kari
How could you forget that sun of a gun?
Dana, Miriam, Andy, and Matt,
Smiling Janine and a gal named Cat.
Heather, Ginny, Brandon, and Molly
I can't imagine a group more jolly.
Our Volunteer work is about to
Tomorrow is our swearing in.
Eighty days of PST
About to become history. 10
We've studied the culture and built
up our confidence
As we have progressed through each language competence. 11
We sure learned a lot - now don't
get me wrong,
But I think that it went on for three weeks too long!
All the Trainees who made it this
Can now say together, "Alhamdoulillah!" 12
That's all for right now. What
more can I say?
I think of you often. I miss you. Love, Jay.
Footnotes for family and friends
1 All of our training sessions
have begun with "The objective of this session...."
and "By the end of the session, Trainees will...."
2 toubab = white person
3 ça va? = How are you? (We hear it wherever we go, all
4 marché = market
5 Many of us have experienced diarrhea.
6 charette = donkey cart, so the "ass" refers to the
donkey (of course!)
7 "Robert" is pronounced in the French manner, "Robaire."
8 "Stand up! Be a man!" - Dan was very sick and weak,
kneeling on the floor of the infirmary. This is what the nurse
yelled to him in her "encouragement" to get up.
9 SED = Small Enterprise Development; Ed. = Education
10 PST = Pre-Service Training
11 competence: Each unit in our language studies focuses on
a skill or competence to be achieved during that unit.
12 Alhamdoulillah = Thanks to Allah; people say it a lot!