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
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
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”
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!