Counterpart bleus, part deux


My counterpart invited me to take part in a class that he teaches at the African Virtual University (AVU), which is housed on the campus of the University of Nouakchott. This program partners with universities around the world to offer distance learning via satellite and computers. (If you would like to learn a little about it, check out the website at

At AVU, D teaches an English class based on a textbook that is accompanied by video tapes. It is a rare bonus for the class to have a prized native English speaker on hand, which is the reason he gave for inviting me. The class meets on Sunday through Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8 PM; I attended the Tuesday evening session.

After making my introduction and giving the students - about ten adults in their 30's and 40's, including only one woman - a chance to ask questions, D began to rally their support for my continued longterm involvement in the class by asking, "Isn't it great to have Jay visiting us? We'd like him to come back more often, wouldn't we?" As he spoke, he made the motioning arm and hand gestures of a television show emcee trying to stir up his audience.

Who would answer "No" to that question? Of course, they all wanted me to come back - they'd probably do anything they could to avoid having to listen to their windbag teacher. But I was not predisposed to do this on a regular basis; the University is across the street from my office and I already go down there in the morning, then go home or to the PC bureau which is across town. Coming back later in the day is not something I want to do. I have been finding that a quiet evening at home by myself or in the company of a visiting PCV or Mauritanian friend is just what I need to recharge my batteries and be ready for the next day. I started to explain this to D, but he wasn't having any of it. "We want Jay to come back every week, don't we?" he asked the class. What he wasn't saying (but, knowing him, I am sure he was thinking) was, "If Jay comes to the class, it means I'll have less work to do."

I had thought all along that this was going to be a one-time visit. The students are very nice, but I see enough of D at the office, and my best approach for keeping my sanity on the job is going to be to minimize my exposure to him. At the same time, I see no reason why people interested in learning English should have to suffer just because of D.

I told him and the class that as of the coming Thursday, from 5 to 7 PM, I was going to be in charge of the English Conversation Club at the Nouakchott English Center, a secondary project to which I had already committed and been approved by my APCD, and that anyone who wanted to continue to work with me could do it there.

D had to try one more time, though. His last strategy was to try to make me feel guilty for not committing to the class, as he said, "Oh, come on, Jay. Can't you make a sacrifice?"

I held back from saying the first thing that came to my mind: Sacrifice??? You want to talk about sacrifice, buster? I could be in San Francisco this very moment - or anywhere else in the world, for that matter - and I am here trying to make nice with the likes of you, you fool. Just because I trudge through the sand everywhere I go doesn't make it a day at the beach, you know. You mean you think I haven't already made enough of a sacrifice just to be here?

But, no. I didn't say that. I just held my ground and put as positive a spin as possible to what I was saying - that I would very much like to continue working with everyone, that it was a fine group, and that I hoped that they would join me on Thursday evenings at the Nouakchott English Center.

Last week, when I related the story about dealing with my D and H, I didn't mention the problems that we have in keeping our meetings on task. There are many interruptions to our work: the tea man comes for his visits, which, in true Mauritanian fashion, means not one but three separate servings of tea in shot glasses; somebody is compelled to answer or make a call on his cell phone; one of them has to leave the room to smoke (I made it clear that I did not want anyone smoking in my office); one of the meeting participants saw somebody in the hallway whom he has to speak to immediately; or a random person enters the office to engage in a conversation with somebody who is in the meeting.

People don't have the mentality to understand that a meeting should not be interrupted. If they want to come in and talk, they do it. And nobody in the meeting ever says anything along the lines of, "I'm busy now. I'll get back to you later."

One of our most frequent interrupters is M, a friend of D. He has been in my office frequently enough so that he knows what we are doing. On Thursday morning, when I was walking into the building, he saw me at the entrance and stopped me to talk. He explained that he has a contract to type the textbooks for 40,000 ouguiya. From what I could gather, he was concerned that I was taking his job away from him because he saw that the papers I have been bringing into the office are already typed (on the computer at the PC office). At least that is what I thought he said. I assured him that I was not there to take any work away from him.

About ten minutes later, while I was preparing for our meeting of the day, I saw M in the hallway. I went next door to D's office and asked D, H, and M if they could come into my office so that we could talk about this matter. Mostly, I wanted to see if I had understood M correctly - and, if I had, I wanted D and H to explain that I was not there to threaten his livelihood.

H began. He was measured in his speech, saying that it was understandable that when M saw the papers on my desk, he thought that he had been replaced and would lose money on my account. H explained that M was just looking out for his own interest. H said that he would be able to help him to understand that it is not the mission of the Peace Corps to take jobs away from Mauritanians. All right, I thought: we are off to a good start.

I don't know why D didn't just let it go at that. Instead, true to his confrontational self, he took the tack that M had no business looking on my desk and putting his nose in "our work." Whereas a simple, polite explanation would have done the trick, D got defensive and hostile. As a result, M became even more upset than he already was. A three-way argument ensued, in which H, D, and M alternated among English, French, and Hassaniya. Occasionally, H would turn to me and say, "These two are really very good friends. They will work this out," to which D insisted that this was not true, and, anyway, friendship had nothing to do with it when this guy was interfering with our work.

D insisted that M leave immediately, which was a further insult to him. Eventually, H got everything calmed down about as quickly as it had heated up, so that we could plan for our second meeting with the Belgian representative who is overseeing our work.

The ruckus had gotten us off to a bit of a frazzled start, but Gérard, the Belgian, showed up, and we showed him what we had done thus far. I had paperwork showing our first lesson and something that we teachers refer to as a "scope and sequence" for the first six lessons of the book; it's an overview of all the material in the text, organized in a chart format showing for each lesson what the objectives are, what new vocabulary will be introduced, the grammar points to be included, and the cultural points that the teacher will need to explain to the class so that they understand the lesson.

Gérard thinks that we are off to a good start. He will be here for only another week. By the time he leaves at the end of this week, we have to do the scope and sequence for the next twelve lessons, thereby finishing the skeletal framework of this, the first book. Once he approves that, we will continue our work by putting together the actual lessons based on the scope and sequence, as well as the accompanying teachers' manual.

There is a silver lining in sight. At one point when D was out of the room, H informed me that work needs to begin soon in determining the syllabus for the second book. This is under the domain of IGEST, the agency where he works. They are asking that I be part of the group that does this, and H informed me that D is not going to be included, which should make the task much more pleasant for all of us.

Thursday evening saw me at the Nouakchott English Center for the first meeting of the English Conversation Club. I thought it was a rousing success. There is one student who is probably in his early twenties. Other than that, the class is composed of mature men who already have a decent command of English and who are motivated to learn more. They asked questions about my background and the Peace Corps. They were particularly interested in my impressions of Mauritania and wanted to know what I was telling my family and friends about my life here.

Several of the attendees from the AVU class were at the club. The Center charges them 3,000 ouguiya for the series of ten two-hour sessions of the club, which is about $10 for the whole series.

The weather is cool and pleasant now. In the morning, there is usually a bit of a chill in the air; I am guessing that the temperature is in the 60's. It's cool enough to wear my light jacket, but I don't take it with me because by late morning it is quite warm in the sunlight (probably in the 80's) and I whatever extra clothing I have I will have to carry with me wherever I go for the rest of the day.