Center Days and swearing in



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 society.

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 me.

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 United States….").

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 here?

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, spiritually.

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 expected.

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 mistaken.

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 in Pennsylvania
What was in store for us here in Mauritania!

Sometimes I wonder what I've gotten into,
Here in the land of Moustapha and Bintu.

The Trainees' routines are confusing and strange
Because all of our schedules are subject to change.

We sit on the floor, and I have a confession:
Finding comfortable seating is my newest obsession.

Wherever we go, there are people around.
A full day of solitude is not to be found.

Most of us think that the children are sweet,
Except when they shout out "toubab" in the street. 2

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 fantastic
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 Peugeot.
I'd give you the details, but you don't want to know.

And when we got there, what did we see
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 pass!
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 beer,
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 about me
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.

Arizona's Melanie,
Natalie C. and Natalie E.

The Margarets, yet another pair,
Stephanie, Nathan, and Robert. 7

Two Lisas have we; now check out this action:
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 a surprise:
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 and Mitch.
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 begin;
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 far,
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 day long!)
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!