Chugging along


           Last week, I mentioned getting some new clothes, including having to replace the pocket of the ink-stained new shirt. Surprisingly enough, this single topic attracted three comments from website-reading friends and family.

           I said I would be taking the shirt to a tailor and my brother Bob asked me why I didn't take it back to Mamadou, who made the shirt in the first place. If I go to Mamadou, I have two choices: his home or his work. The house is far out of town, which makes it a considerable journey - not that I never do it, but then I always have to contend with the pressure from the family to spend the entire day with them.

           Mamadou's work is in a part of Nouakchott that is closer to me, but he is not always there. And he doesn't have a telephone for his exclusive use. Sometimes I call the number and get sister Fatou, brother Saidou, or his mother. He once gave me the phone number at his job. When I called and asked for him, including his last name, I got a person who said he was that Mamadou, I told him who I was, and that person had no idea who I was. Mamadou's name turns out to be the equivalent of a "Mike Johnson."

           When I eventually do get to him, we then have another week's waiting time before I get the finished garment, which is accompanied again by the same kind of telephone or transport inconveniences. It was all of this that led me to the decision to go to a local person for the simple replacement of the pocket. As my friend Patti pointed out, all that had to be done was make the new pocket a little bigger, and that is the solution I chose. The stain is still inside the shirt, but it is now hidden by the new pocket.

           Tailors are ubiquitous here. They are as easy to find as the sand itself. I had a few other items that needed minor repairs - little tears in pocket corners, and things like that - so I just brought them all to a local guy.

           Nan, the mother of a former student, wrote to suggest that I dye the trousers that got bleach on them. Good idea! I will take them with me to the training site in Kaédi this summer; that's the dye capital of the country - not that I am dying to go to Kaédi, but it will be good to see my host family from last year.

           Patti also asked what I did with discarded clothing. Are there used clothing stores? I wouldn't quite say "store," since many are stands in the street. But, yes, there are lots of them. Much of the Western clothing here comes in shipments of foreign aid. And, as is the case with much foreign aid, it is not given directly to people who need it, but winds up in the hands of people who then sell it. (I am sorry to tell you that this happens with a lot of food aid, too.)

           All this clothing from the USA is what accounts for the young man I saw wearing a cheerleader jacket embroidered with "Tiffany" (I wish I had my camera with me for that one!); Muslims wearing shirts that bear "WWJD"; a young boy proclaiming that he is the "World's Best Mom"; a fair smattering of people wearing shirts that say something like "Senior Show, Class of 1996" and another little boy with a T-shirt indicating "BABY" with an arrow pointing downward, but the shirt was so big on him that the arrow pointed to the ground.

         On Tuesday afternoon, I got a text message on my phone from one of the women PCVs in my group, apologizing for the short notice but asking if she could stay with me. We at Château Jay love our first-time visitors and do everything we can do make them feel welcome. She had good timing, and a visit was fine.

           What turned out to be not-so-fine, however, was that she told me that she had been repeatedly sexually harassed lately, and it has started to affect her. That very morning, she was walking down the street, holding the hands of some children she was walking with, and a guy she had never seen before asked her if she would be available that evening, and how much would it cost?

           This was despite the fact that she was modestly dressed, walking with children (who, fortunately, did not understand French), and was making no attempt to solicit him.

           We had a conversation in which it became even more obvious to me how differently we men Volunteers experience our daily lives here, as compared to the women. We know that no Mauritanian man would address a Mauritanian woman on the street in that manner. Why would he do this with a Western woman? Her answer came quickly: television. The television here has an abundance of shows and movies from the USA and Europe. It is very common to see couples undressed or partially dressed and in amorous situations. Men conclude that that is what all Western women are like, so they are encouraged to treat Caucasian women that way when they encounter them in person.

         For the last two weeks, Kristen's counterpart (the one I referred to as "H") in my "Counterpart blues" stories), has been very nervous about making sure that we meet our deadline of completing the first English book by the end of May. I found his anxiety to be surprising and decidedly un-Mauritanian. Additionally, he doesn't seem to be following through with what needs to be done in order to make the deadline. Take this last week, for example:

           We could have met on Sunday, but did not. So that was one day lost. On Monday, we had a meeting and he didn't show up. He fixed a meeting for Tuesday at his office. I double-checked the time and location; it was definitely his office. I waited there for him and he didn't show up. That evening, he called to say that he had waited for me at my office (in a different building, about two blocks away) and wanted to know where I was. I told him, of course, that I had been waiting for him at his office.

           Then he asked me if I could transfer the work we had already done onto a diskette so that the typist could use it as a reference. Could I get the diskette to the typist on Wednesday morning? Sure thing. But I told him that none of the disk drives at the Peace Corps works, so I will transfer the information onto my thumb drive, and then onto the computer that the typist is using.

           On Wednesday morning, as I was arriving at the PC bureau, H called to remind me of what I needed to do. I got a kick out of that: a Mauritanian calling an American to remind him of a job that needed to be done! There were a few PCVs in the computer room at the time, and we all got a good chuckle out of that!

           When I delivered the files on the thumb drive, I saw a very cozy little scene. There was my counterpart, D, sitting next to the typist, manuscripts in front of them, working like two busy little beavers to enter the information that they already had onto the computer. (This is the guy with whom D had the blow-out fight that I wrote about.) I made the transfer of data, exchanged some small talk, and then left them to their work. On my way out of the building, I ran into H. He told me that we would be meeting the next day, Thursday. Could I make it a meeting at 9:30? Instead of laughing at the ludicrous possibility that a meeting could actually get started at that time, I told him that I taught on Thursday mornings from 8:00 until 10:00, so I wouldn't be able to meet until about 10:30. He said that that would be fine, but also said something like, "I hope I can make it," which put a bit of a doubt in my mind as to whether or not he would be there.

           Thursday is my most scheduled and longest work day, with my first commitment starting at 8:00 AM and the last one ending at 7:00 PM. I usually get up at 5:45, which is early, even for me. I factor in a 45-minute walk so that I can get to the ENS on time. I could take a taxi, but walking is my only regular form of exercise, and the morning is a good time to walk, before it gets too hot.

           I arrived at ENS to find that none of the students was in the classroom. This is unusual, since there are usually at least two or three there before I get there. Ten minutes passed, students from other classes milled around, and still there was no sign of anyone coming to my class. This led me to wonder what was going on. Was it something I had said the previous week to cause the students to boycott the class? What could it have been?

           By 8:30, with nobody there, I filled out the fiche de presence, which includes a space for the student numbers of all absentees. I put all the numbers there and then went to the surveillant général to hand in the paper. I showed him that all of the students had been absent, to which he replied, "That's not possible." Of course it's possible, I told him, because it just happened.

           After a few moments of reflection, his face lit up. He remembered something. "Oh, yes. You teach in English, don't you?" I told him I did. "The English section this week has a visiting professor from Algeria. That's where they are."

           All I could do was tell him that this was a piece of information that I would have found useful. Didn't anybody think to tell me? "Oh. Toumbo didn't call you?" Evidently not, since I am here to teach a class that is not taking place. I just shrugged it off and decided that I would head over to my office, the location of my next appointment, a 10:30 meeting.

           On the way there, it struck me that it may not be a bad idea to confirm this meeting with H, so I called him. I consider myself lucky to have reached him because earlier this week I got a message telling me that his number was not valid. H told me that the meeting was postponed until Sunday at 10:30, so that freed me up until the next appointment, which was my 12:30 French lesson with Ali.

           I usually have to be in touch with Ali on Thursday mornings anyway, to fix the location of our lesson. Sometimes we meet at my house and sometimes at a restaurant. The time of the lesson's start can fluctuate by an hour, since he may have things to do around noontime. When I reached him, he told me that his car was not working and he wanted to know if we could meet on Friday instead of Thursday.

           It may be "three strikes and you're out" in baseball, but I was pleased to have a gift of time in front of me now. Here it was, only 8:45 AM, and I didn't have a commitment until 5:00 PM!

         Pleased with my newly-found free time, and since it was still early in the day, I thought that I would be able to face the market where I would need to buy fabric for more trousers. By this point, the one pair that Mamadou had made looked fine after they were washed, so I decided to get more of the same cotton fabric in different colors for other pants.

           Marché Capitale has fewer fabric shops than Marché Cinquième, but it is closer and it had what I needed for the time being. I had been there with Kristen on Tuesday, but by the time we had gotten there it was afternoon, getting hot, and I didn't have the patience to deal with shopping.

           When I got to the shop where I had purchased the blue cotton for the first pair of pants, I saw that it was closed, though the others around it were already open. By then it was about 9:20. A man drove up and parked nearby. He looked familiar but, then again, not quite. When he saw me waiting in front of the closed shop, he told me that it was his younger brother's, and that the brother was coming.

           (Cultural note: I have never heard anyone here refer to a sibling without the word in front of it to indicate that the person was either younger or older. It is always "petit frère," "grand frère," "petite soeur," or "grande soeur.")

           So I walked into the older brother's shop to look around and see if he had what I was looking for. He was very friendly, Lebanese (like a lot of the shop owners here), and asked me if I was in the Peace Corps. He told me he had seen me with Kristen the other day and asked if she was my daughter. He told me that he would give me a good price, a discount for being a Peace Corps Volunteer.

           Ahmed had much of the same stock that Hassan, the younger brother, had. He said that his brother would be there by 10:00, and I saw no reason to wait until then, so I bought some khaki and navy blue fabric and decided to make it home while I could still beat the heat.

           When I got back to the house, I found that my visitor was still there. She informed me that the water was not working. The first thing I did was check to see if the electricity was on or off; that may sound like an odd thing to do, but the suppressor that delivers water to each flat is run by electricity, so when the current is cut, so is the water.

           There was electricity, so that was not the problem. I decided to enjoy the rest of my free time at home, and I checked periodically to see if the water was running or not.

           When I left the house at about 2:30, I asked Abdelahi, the day guardian, if the water outage was everywhere or just in our neighborhood. He told me that there was no water outage, and I could see that water was dripping from a spout that had just been turned off. This meant that the problem was mine, and mine alone. Here we were, just finding this out on Thursday afternoon, with the weekend upon us.

           Abdelahi told me that he would look into the problem, so I went off to the bureau, to continue on to the Nouakchott English Center after that, not to return home until the evening.

           At English Conversation Club that night, the class was getting larger. Two weeks ago, during the first session, I was disheartened that there were only six students. Last week, there were nine. This week there were thirteen.

           It's a nice mix with about five students from the previous session and the rest of them new to me. They are all adults, and they are used to talking whenever they want, whether someone else is speaking or not. It is fairly common for me to explain what a word means, go on to another word, and then have somebody ask about the word that I had just explained. This week, I decided that when that happened (and it did, often), I would ask one of the other students to explain it, rather than my having to do it again.

           Before the end of the class, some of the students expressed their displeasure that their classmates were not listening to each other, and that we would have to repeat information that we had already gone over. I enjoyed hearing their suggestions about how we could improve that.

           This is an enjoyable group. Many times, it helps if I do a little body movement or facial expression to explain the meanings of words. I did this, for example, to show what "stooped," "crouched" and "peered" looked like. Also, when they finally understand something that they had previously not understood, I frequently reply with the Hassaniya for "yes" instead of English. It is pronounced "eh-heh" and that final syllable is frequently elongated, so an "eh-he-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-h," with an upward inflection produces the same result as someone stretching out the vowel sound in "yeah" or "right" in English. Even though it is just one little word, they enjoy my using it.

           I try to remind everyone to turn off phones before the class. Mine was off, but it continued to vibrate in my pocket, and I told the class I had to see who it was, because I had not yet heard from Abdelahi about my water situation. Sure enough, it was Abdelahi calling, so I excused myself to see if I could get the problem squared away before the weekend started.

           Abdelahi told me that Mamadou was coming to fix the problem and wanted to know when I would be there. (This is yet another of my adult Mamadous, whom I think of as Mamadou the Plumber, Mamadou the Tailor, and Gay Mamadou.) Usually I go from NEC to Ismail's house to see him and Babah, but I told Abdelahi that I could be home by 7:30 if I needed to be.

           I apologized to the class and told them about the water problem, at which point one of the students said that he worked for the water company and that if I ever had any problems I could contact him directly. That's a connection that could have saved me money when I had to pay 12,000 ouguiya last September to get my water meter!

           Earlier in the afternoon, I anticipated that when I got back to the house, there would still be no water and I would have to explain to Abou, the night guardian who speaks no French. One of the PCVs at the bureau gave me a quick Hassaniya lesson, telling me how to say, "My house has no water. I want water. Call Abdelahi." So I practiced this for the class and, to my great surprise and their pleasure, they understood what I said!

           Fortunately, I didn't have to use the Hassaniya or go without water. When I got back to the house, Abou told me that Mamadou had just left. The problem was fixed!

         On Saturday morning I called Ali to see what the plan would be for my French lesson. The car was still broken and Ali suggested that I go to his house for the lesson. I have been there to visit on a few occasions but have resisted going there for a lesson because of all the distractions: television, baby, drop-in visitors, and telephone. Furthermore, the location isn't very convenient.

           I realized though, that if I were already going to Arafat to see Ali, that I may as well go further down that same road to Peka to drop off the new fabric and sample pants to Mamadou the Tailor. (The best approach for having clothes made is to give either a drawing or, better yet, an exact replica of what you want made. The tailors can reproduce whatever you give them.)

           All I had to do was be sure that Mamadou would be there, but considering his telephone situation, that may be a problem. I called one of the numbers and reached his older brother Saidou. Saidou said that Mamadou would be there all day. I said I would like to bring Mamadou some more work. Saidou asked if I would spend the day there and I said that I would not be able to do that.

           This gave me the opportunity to use about 90% of the Pulaar I know, which consists of explaining that I would be there only to greet, and not to have lunch. Saidou said he would tell Mamadou. As it turns out, if you make this kind of distinction clear to people before a visit or early on, they will not insist that you stay for a prolonged time. It's very useful to know!

           When I got out to Peka there were lots of people at the house. Fatou, Mamadou's sister, knew that I was coming and asked why I hadn't been there for lunch. I told her that I had expressly told Saidou that I would not be eating lunch with them. So I jokingly asked if Saidou understood Pulaar. Of course, everyone got a giggle out of that. And just to be sure, I told Fatou right there what I had said. Everyone was listening to the conversation, the toubab-in-the-flesh being much more fascinating to observe than the toubabs-on-the-tube.

           The widespread head-nodding, laughter, and even a thumbs-up from an uncle, told me that I had made myself clear. "Yes," said Fatou, "we are going to have to teach Saidou how to speak Pulaar."

           I gave Mamadou the fabric and sample pants, stayed a bit, and then was off to Ali's house.

           Ali's son is now eleven months old and walking all over the place. He dances when music comes on the television, and is very comical in his movements. Sure enough, we had all the expected distractions for the lesson, but it was worth the visit to see little Baba Ali and his antics.

           Considering the location of Arafat and Peka, there are not many foreigners walking around out there. I can walk around central Nouakchott and not create a stir, but in these neighborhoods, the kids see me, call out "toubab" or "nasrani" and that is probably the most exciting thing to happen in the area all day.

         When I got home from Ali's it was almost dark. Abdelahi greeted me to tell me that Mamadou the Plumber had been looking for me. Why? So that he could get paid. The starter of the water suppressor had been broken and needed to be replaced.

           Oh, here we go again, with the tenant having to pay for the landlord's repairs! I am still dumbfounded by this whole approach. Abdelahi saw my frustration and tried to explain, once again, what I find to be inexplicable. This time, though, it got even worse, as Abdelahi asked me if I remembered how the suppressor made a "tokka-tokka-tokka-tokka-tokka" sound when I turned on the water.

           Sure I remembered that. Ever since Mamadou made the last repair, it has been doing that every time I turn on the hot water (never for the cold). Abdelahi told me that that sound indicated that the suppressor had been installed improperly and it was only a matter of time before it would break.

           Oh, really? He knew what it meant and didn't do anything about it?!?!?! I guess he saw that as my problem - or my problem-to-be. Making the situation worse was the fact that every time the electricity is turned on after a power outage, it gives a jolt that does a little damage to the suppressor.

           Abdelahi said that the original suppressor was installed before I moved in and paid for by the landlord. After that point, any damages or repairs were my responsibility. It could do its work for four years or blow out the next day. At this stage, all I am hoping for is a reliable fourteen-month run.

           Abdelahi told me that I should not forget that this is now my water suppressor. When I leave, it is mine to take with me. I guess I should see this as the solution to the problem of what I will take with me as a souvenir for my Peace Corps service in Mauritania.

           P. S. I called Mamadou the Plumber the next day to find out what the damages were. It cost 2,500 for labor and 1,500 for the material, a total of 4,000 ouguiya, which is $12.31 at the most recent exchange rate. Not only could it have been worse, but there is certainly no way to guarantee that it would be any better if I packed up and moved elsewhere.

         Sunday brought us to a meeting with Gérard, the Belgian who is overseeing the textbook work that we are doing. He comes to Mauritania occasionally for a week or so, checking up on all the groups with whom his company is contracted to work. This was a meeting for which everyone showed up!

           Gérard's conclusion is that we are on the right track. He likes the format that we have created. He had two criticisms, but they will be easy to deal with: (1) Because we distributed the lessons to be done by different people within our group of five writers on the team, the lessons lack a cohesiveness. All we have to do is get everyone in a meeting and see if we can make the revisions we need to give the lessons a consistent content and perspective. (2) The seventh lesson, which we designed as a review that incorporates the previous six lessons, is something that he would like to see take on a different format, as a means of having the students demonstrate that they have actually learned what was taught previously.

           Other than that, he likes what we have done, and he especially likes the suggestion that I made concerning the inclusion of cultural points that can be used to compare Mauritanian to American or British customs.

           With that, I will push the buttons needed to send this to webmaster Brian, pack up, and get to the noon meeting where we will revise lesson seven.