Culture encounters


            The weather has been delightful during these last two weeks. I have been able to take walks at any time of the day without sweating profusely. Many of the days have been totally or partly overcast, which is a nice break from the relentlessness of the sun that dominates during the rest of the year. It hasn’t been necessary to avoid going out in midday for fear of wilting in the heat. I have had to keep my apartment windows closed because of the fairly constant wind that has been blowing dust around. Fortunately, the temperatures have been cool enough so that keeping the windows closed doesn’t heat up the house.

          Sleeping with a blanket is nice! My bedroom temperatures during the day are about 75. When I go to sleep they are around 72, and they are usually around 68 when I wake up in the morning.

          The Mauritanians have a different take on the weather, though. They ask me how I am managing with “the cold.” They are bundled up against the the elements as if they are headed to climb a glacier. Meanwhile, with these daytime temperatures in the mid-seventies, I am happily walking around in short sleeves, enjoying the breezes. The only down side at the moment is that there is a tremendous amount of dust in the air, which is wreaking havoc with my allergies.


            During the last week, several situations have highlighted the differences between my own culture and that of the Mauritanians. Some have related to work and some have manifest in social settings.

          Last week, when I went to ISERI with the embassy employee who is serving as my liaison, he was able to show me the computers I would be using for teaching English. During that visit, we were not able to see how the software worked because it needed to be updated and he didn’t know the password for gaining access to the system. He told me that he would contact me by the end of the week so that we could set up another visit to ISERI.

            I was concerned that this project may have represented a low-level priority for him, and I felt the need to contact him to be sure that I would be able to get in there to see the demonstration of the software. By Tuesday, I had already tried to reach him by leaving a message at his embassy extension and one on the voice mail of his cellular phone. I had received no reply.

            Tuesday afternoon my APCD asked me to come to his office to see him about a project he wanted me to undertake. (More about that later.) When we were finished discussing what he had summoned me to talk about, I told him that I had not been able to get a reply from this particular embassy employee, and that I was concerned that if I do not understand how the software works, I may not be effective in teaching this program that is so highly dependent on it.

            In my expressing this concern to my APCD, I knew that I was using a very different approach than what would be acceptable in the United States, where rules of etiquette demand that if you have a problem with somebody, you take it up directly with that person, rather than go behind his back by talking to a superior.

            Things work differently here, where a direct American-style “confrontation” – even in a situation like this, reminding a person about doing something that he said he would do – could cause both parties to lose respect in each other’s eyes. My APCD and the embassy liaison, both Mauritanians, would be able to speak to each other within the same cultural context and, therefore, further advance the work that needed to be done so I could get into the lab and do what I needed to do.

            My APCD called him on the phone and they discussed the situation. The embassy employee thanked my APCD for calling him. Then, when he got off the phone, my APCD explained a little bit about the dynamics to me. In the eyes of this embassy employee, he is now doing a favor for my APCD. Never mind that it is part of his job; never mind that he had already told me that he would do it. Since it was the call from a Peace Corps representative that got him moving again on it, this now represents a favor he is doing, and that is good for him, because it means that he can now call my APCD and ask him to do a favor in return at some time in the future.

            Within ten minutes of their telephone discussion, I got a call from the embassy employee, arranging to pick me up at the Peace Corps at 11:00 on Thursday morning to go to ISERI to see the computers and their software in action.

            Then, on Thursday, we went to ISERI and I got to see firsthand how the system works. It was impressive. It is called English Language Learning and Instruction System (ELLIS).

          Each lesson begins with a dialogue that is enacted by actors in a video shown on the student’s monitor. Granted, at beginning level English the dialogues are less than riveting. But there are some software features that look promising. For example, after the dialogue is played, the student sees a written version of it on the screen, next to a smaller video version that is ready to be played again, according to the needs of the student at the keyboard. The student has several follow-up choices, during which (s)he can: repeat the entire dialogue, click on only certain lines to be repeated, repeat the dialogue with slower speech, click on words that need to be defined in the user’s native language, illustrate grammar points, illustrate culture points, get repeated practice in pronunciation, and have the opportunity to record and then replay the student’s own voice as (s) plays the role of any of the actors in the dialogue.

            Even with the pronunciation practice, the student gets choices of three distinct profile views: a male, a female, and one called “X-ray,” which demonstrates the proper placement of the tongue, teeth, and lips, so that the student can best imitate the proper pronunciation.

            What remains to be seen – and I am sure that this will add some fun to the process! – will be the students’ capabilities in using computers. The entire program is predicated on their being able to use a computer mouse and track information on the screen. We shall see.


          I wanted to get a better understanding of the ISERI situation – my having to get my APCD involved in setting up the appointment because I had been unable to do it – so I talked a little with Mamouni about this roundabout and non-confrontational manner of discussing problems with people other than the ones you are having them with. He not only confirmed this as the preferable means of working with others, but said that it is a common practice in families, too, where children rarely discuss anything directly with their father. When there are concerns that have to be handled, the kids take them to the mother, who speaks to the father, and then gets back to the children with the father’s decision.


            Our first-year PCVs are going to have their Early-Term Reconnect (ETR) in February. As I had mentioned earlier, my APCD called me into his office to talk about a task he would like me to handle. It was about the possibility of my helping out with one of the day’s activities. What he and the training staff had in mind was a twenty-minute session that would be a quiz about the contents of the Volunteer Handbook, the manual that lists all the rules and regulations that PCVs are supposed to be following.

            On the one hand, I was pleased and flattered that the training staff were asking for my assistance. It’s nice to know that they think I have something to contribute, and I would certainly like to be able to make the day run as smoothly as possible. I understand that, in their eyes, they are showing respect to me by asking me to participate in this way because I am an older person. They are probably also projecting their own culture on the group of Volunteers who will be present at the event, assuming that, for the same reason, these younger people will show me the respect that is accorded to me because of my age.

            While I was sitting there and thinking about it, though, the sensation that I got was that I was being thrust into the role of a Peace Corps administrator. I was thinking, If the administration is having problems with people who are not following the rules – and I know there are, so I am not saying this as if there is a doubt about it – then why don’t you just address the problems when they come up? I imagine that the reason why they don’t do it directly is because of the same dynamic that I wrote about earlier – just too “confrontational” for them.

          The other Volunteers, while they are certainly not my contemporaries, are my peers in this program. It’s clear that I am not “one of the guys,” yet I don’t want to do anything that will widen the gap that already exists between them and me, not only because of the difference in our ages, but also because I have chosen not to participate in their parties, getting drunk, staying out late, attending the large social gatherings, and the celebrations of their Christian holidays with them. I have been invited to these events and I know that had I wanted to attend, I would have been welcome. I am also fairly sure that most people understand that my non-participation is just a reflection of personal choices that I make, rather than a judgment against what they are doing.

          At the same time, though, being thrust into a position in which I am put in front of them for the purpose of “quizzing” them on the contents of the manual that explains the regulations and how we should be following them... well, that just seems to me too much like I am being put in front of a group of first-graders for the express purpose of going over the school rules. Frankly, boys and girls, too many of you have not been following the school rules now, have you? Okay, so let’s go over the school rules so that everybody knows exactly the way we are supposed to behave at school!

            My APCD is my superior, we come from different cultures, and I want to be a cooperative team player as a Peace Corps Volunteer. When he asked me to do this task, I felt the need to be able to (1) find a way to be able to comply with his request, yet (2) do the job in a way that I would not be cast in a negative light in front of the first-year Volunteers. I suggested that I might be able to create a more enjoyable and fast-paced session by doing it in the format of a quiz show. At least in that way it won’t be dry, boring, and pedantic. He liked the idea, so I have begun working on it; I have a month in which to get it ready.


            Culture clashes on the home front:

          Demba is a young man in his early twenties whom I met while I was helping out with the polio eradication campaign in November. He has made a few visits to my apartment, and on two of these occasions I was able to see how different his life experiences have been, even though he is living right here in the capital.

            On his first visit, I offered him some peanuts. He said he would like to wash his hands first, so I showed him where the hallway bathroom was and then I walked further down the hall so I could use the bathroom that is connected to my own bedroom.

            As I walked by the bathroom where he was washing his hands, I saw that he had not recognized the sink as the place for washing hands. He was squatting down in front of the only source of water that he could find in the room: the toilet! That is where he had placed his hands to wash them. “Here,” I told him, entering the room, turning on the faucet of the sink, and giving him the soap that he had also not seen as part of the hand washing process.

            It is evident to me, then, that he has no experience using a sink as the source of running water. After all, when I met him, he was filling a bucket with water from a spigot in the courtyard of his neighbor’s house. I didn’t want to embarrass him or call undue attention to the situation, so I didn’t ask.

            On his second visit, he asked again to use the bathroom. When he went in there, he did not close the door behind him. Once again, I went to use my own bathroom. When I walked by this time, I could see that he was standing with his back to the hallway and that he was urinating, but not into the toilet! He was aiming at the three-foot-square basin recessed into the floor that sits at the bottom of the stall shower. His family most likely uses a pit toilet – a variation of a hole in the ground. Once again, I said nothing to him. After he left, though, I turned on the shower so that I could “flush” the urine down the shower drain.


            On Tuesday, some PCVs were coming back from their visits to the USA, and my friend Mamouni had told them that he would pick them up at the airport upon their return. He asked me to go with him. Natalie E. had brought Mamouni three books that he had asked for, written by and about George Orwell.

            After Mamouni dropped off Amy at her house, he came to visit me, happily bringing in Animal Farm, which he began to peruse. There were occasional words that he didn’t understand, so he asked me for clarification. Then, there was a knock at the door, and it was Demba coming to visit.

          Demba, with a limited education, speaks Pulaar and French; we communicate in French. Mamouni, university-educated, speaks Hassaniya, French, and English; we communicate in English. There are tremendous differences between the things that I can talk about with each of them, and now they were both at my house at the same time.

          Mamouni wasn’t contributing much to the conversation, as he was absorbed in his book, so it was mostly Demba and me talking about his going out dancing with friends. Every once in a while, though, Mamouni interrupted to ask about a word or a phrase in his book.

          I noticed that I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable because I wasn’t able to integrate the three of us into one cohesive conversation. Eventually, trying to be as subtle as possible, I explained to Mamouni that I would really like to give him as much help and attention as possible with his book, so it may be better to address these questions at another time. I also said that I felt very scattered about bouncing between him and Demba, from English to French.

          Apparently, I was being just a little too subtle. Mamouni simply said, “Okay,” and then resumed reading. I was waiting for him to make an offer to leave, but he did not do that. He just sat there reading, thinking that if he just didn’t ask me any more questions, all would be fine.

            After a few moments, I asked, Okay, what? He was puzzled. I then came right out and asked him to leave, coming back another time. Since he is a closer friend, has his own transportation, and is lots more understanding of cultural matters, this seemed to be the better choice. He did leave, which meant that I was then able to be involved in only one conversation at a time – with Demba.

            Later that day and the next day, Mamouni and I talked about the situation. He didn’t have any problems with it. In his culture, though, it would have been perfectly acceptable for him to just sit there, read, be ignored, and let the other two people carry on their conversation.


            I paid a visit to Biri, whose wedding I attended during training (post of 9.1.2003, “Model School and a wedding”) His daughter Aissa was born on the first of June, so she is seven months old now and adorable. Within a week after her birth, the baby went with Biri’s wife to Senegal, and they just got back to Nouakchott at the beginning of December. When I queried Biro about how difficult it must have been to be away from his wife and baby for that period of time, especially right after Aissa was born, he just shrugged his shoulders. That is considered to be “normal” here.


            Many well-meaning people have asked me during the last week if I had a merry Christmas. I guess that the typical Mauritanian thinks that all Americans are Christians. In most cases I just explained that it is a Christian holiday and that I am not Christian. Most people just let it go at that.

          When I visited the shop of a Lebanese fabric merchant, though, he said the same thing. This time, when I replied that I am not a Christian, he asked what I was. I told him that I am Jewish. He just extended his hand and said, “Bienvenue.”           

            It’s hard to generalize from this one encounter what kind of responses I will have from other people, but it seems to me that if I am going to “come out” in any way before I leave here, that I may as well get out there and do it!