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 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
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
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.