Doing the workweek shuffle

 

         The workweek started off unusually – on a Monday! I don’t know that I will have too much difficulty adjusting, but it seems that the Mauritanians will. In fact on Monday while I was waiting with a group of people for a meeting to begin, one of the participants told me, “People will find it hard to work from 8 to 5.”

          I reminded him that even before this change was made in the workweek that 8:00 was the beginning of official office hours, and that people didn’t show up at that time anyway.

          “And they didn’t stay until 4:00, either,” he added.

          So I wanted to know, if they didn’t show up at 8:00 and didn’t stay until 4:00, what difference would it make that the hours have been increased to 5:00 in the afternoon? They’re still not staying – they’re just not staying until a different time!

          The next question had to do with how people will deal with the fact that there used to be work on Sunday, that Monday through Thursday remains the same, and now there is half a day on Friday. How do you squeeze five workdays into four and a half?

          In asking around about this issue, I have found that in many cases, one of two different solutions has been applied. In some instances, the Sunday schedule becomes the Monday schedule, and everything ripples down through the week. There are times, though, when Monday through Thursday schedules remain intact and the Sunday schedule becomes the Friday schedule.

          This still does not address the problem created by the fact that both Sunday and Thursday used to be full days of work, whereas Friday is now half a day. One person told me that at his school, the classes that used to be held on Sunday afternoon are now held on Friday afternoon after 4:00. Other people tell me that classes are just being fit in where they can.

          The high school in Nouadhibou where one of our PC English teachers works has a different – and puzzling – solution altogether. Up there, all classes that used to be taught on Sunday are now taught on Saturday. Their two days off a week now consist of Sunday and the afternoons of both Wednesday and Friday.

          How is all this going to affect me, teaching at three distinct institutions that may have totally different approaches to making the shift?

          As for NEC, they asked me to change my 5:00 – 7:00 Tuesday class to 6:00 – 8:00 on Wednesday, so it looks like they are taking the domino approach.

          I was on my way to ISERI last Wednesday when I received a call from Bedine, telling me not to come in because they were still doing some sort of testing. He explained that my computer-based English class will resume next week and he closed the conversation by saying, “See you next Wednesday.” Later in the day I called him back to confirm the day. Yes, that class will remain on Wednesdays.

          My Thursday morning American Civilization class at ENS will shift to Friday morning. The class last week was cancelled because there is a group of American teachers visiting now. The class for this week will not take place because of the holiday Id el-Mawlud el-Nebewi (described in the post of 5.3.2004). That brings us to Friday the 29th, for the next session.

          I did visit my students at ENS this week; I explain that later on in the post.

*****

          At noon on Monday I went to IGEN for our meeting of the Syllabi Re-Writing Committee, to work on the final revision of the Integration and Remediation Guide for the third year of teaching English. As the guide states, its goal is: “At the end of the third year, the student will be able to produce a text both in speech and writing, in a meaningful situation on some familiar topics (talking about present, past, and future situations).” That sounds sufficiently vague, don’t you think?

          The director of the project is Aïchetou, and she gave me the only existing copy of the thirty-page document that they have created so far. The cover sheet listed the meetings that they have had since the sixteenth of January on writing this syllabus. I could see from the schedule that this was now the sixth and final week of the project.

          I asked why they hadn’t told me that they had already held five weeks of meetings on this; I could have attended some of the sessions. I also asked if Kristen had attended, and Aïchetou replied, “Sometimes.” (Strictly speaking, Kristen is posted to this agency, IGEN, while I am posted to IPN. But we both work on the projects in both places.)

          Aïchetou handed me the document. I noted that there is but one document being shared, looked at, read from, corrected, and discussed among five people working on it. I opined that it would be convenient if each person had his own to refer to, which would eliminate the need to pass around this single copy. “No paper,” said Aïchetou.

          I commandeered the papers in order to do some proofreading. Most of the work was done surprisingly well, and the only corrections I needed to make were along the lines of British spellings (“colours,” “practising,”) and terms (“fortnight,” “penfriend”). When I pointed out their phrase “subject/verb accordance,” only one person had ever heard of it as “agreement” instead of “accordance.”

          I corrected “organise” and “capitalise” to put the “z” where the “s” had been, causing one person to remark, “Oh, yes, the zed,” to which I explained that we don’t say “zed,” but “zee.” He said, “Yes, Americans say either “zed” or “zee,” and was quite surprised when I told him that no, we do not say either “zed” or “zee” – just “zee.”

          It’s a good thing I knew that “inverted commas” referred to quotation marks. Otherwise I’d have just thought that they were punctuation marks with their tails up.

          Almost every correction was a cause to begin a discussion and take a poll to see not only (A) how many people knew that point or not but (B) whether they should honor corrections suggested by this guy who has been speaking English as a result of his one visit to the United States that lasted only fifty-six years.

          One of the lengthiest discussions was about a lesson that begins with this scenario: “When visiting a site you come across an English speaking tourist who is planning to visit Nouakchott.”

          I wanted to know, What do you mean by “visiting a site”? They told me that they meant a website. I explained to them that you do not meet people at websites. I understand that they are trying to make the book current and relevant, but it also has to be factually correct. I suggested the possibility of “meeting” in a chat room. In the end, they decided to go with obtaining an e-mail address from a friend.

          Further along in this same example, the visitor comes to Mauritania and asks for somebody who speaks English to take him to “the attractive sites to visit in Nouakchott.”

          In this case, the “sites” they were talking about were in the city. Grammatically speaking, there is nothing wrong with the sentence, of course, but I tried to be subtle and suggest that the word “attractive” be substituted with another word. I offered “useful” as one possibility.

          Aïchetou pushed the issue and wanted to know what was wrong with the word “attractive.” I didn’t want to say it if I didn’t have to, but as long as she asked me I wanted to know from her, What attractive sites are there in Nouakchott?

          “Well… hmmm....” Aïchetou pondered the question. “There is the museum.”

          It’s a small and not-very-exciting museum, but, sure, why not concede that Nouakchott has an attractive museum? No harm in that. What else?

          “The market,” she said.

          Aïchetou didn’t specify which market, but that doesn’t matter. The markets here are filthy. Some of them may be less dirty than others, but “attractive” doesn’t mean “less dirty,” does it? In the end, we changed “attractive” to “interesting.”

          It wasn’t until the next day, when I was relating this session to one of the other volunteers, that she thought perhaps the original writers had meant to write about the “attractions” in Nouakchott, which would make sense! (Just this morning, I mentioned this possibility to the group. They decided that, no, they didn’t mean “attractions.” What did ensue, however, was a digression about how an attraction is not necessarily attractive. If nothing else, they are fine-tuning their English vocabulary.)

          After I had a chance to review the contents of the proposed third year syllabus, I expressed some concern that I had with regard to the March meeting at IPN with Gérard from Belgium, who said that the first-year book was too ambitious, trying to pack in more information than the students will be able to handle. That would undoubtedly have a ripple effect on the second book, which would, in turn, have its impact on the third. So I wanted them to be aware of what had transpired.

          They told me not to worry – that the second book was less dense. Then they offered me a little insight on how it came to be that Gérard arrived at his conclusion that what we had done in the first book was too ambitious: he had been working under the misconception that first-year English students took two two-hour English classes per week for learning the material. It only recently came to light that there is only one two-hour class weekly during first year English!

          At the end of the week of working together, Kristen’s counterpart “H” turned to me and said, “You will remember and miss so much this dirty country.”

          In some ways, I am sure that he is correct.

          Today we were to have a final meeting that never happened. Four of us showed up, sat around for a while, talked, and then the meeting disbanded. One of the members of the group, Diba, a high school English teacher, offered to drive me home. On the way to his car he said to me, “This is so difficult. People are not taking seriously their commitment to their job.”

          He, too, is correct.

*****

          On Monday I saw my APCD at the PC office and he told me that he was going out of town on the first of two back-to-back missions the following morning. He asked me to go to the ENS, arrange a meeting there with Toumbo, my supervisor, and the directeur des études, and see what their needs are concerning the possibility of a Peace Corps Volunteer to replace me when I leave.

          I thought it was a bit odd, asking me to do that, since he is the administrator from the PC here, but went ahead and contacted my supervisor, who works not only at ENS but also at NEC. (I found out just this weekend, when I relayed this story to Jessica, that it is common to ask PCVs to be involved in what they call site evaluations. The PCV doesn’t necessarily have any authority in making assignments or changes to sites, but the PC does consider what we have to say.)

          While I had Toumbo on the phone to talk about arranging this meeting, he told me that I would not be meeting with my class this coming Thursday because there are some visiting American teachers in town (as explained above) and they are having two weeks of classes with all the English students at ENS.

          Several months ago, Toumbo had told me that they would be coming, but he was vague about the time of the visit and then never informed me when they arrived. I decided to check out the scene on Thursday morning by trying to see the directeur des études as well as finding out what these teachers were up to.

          When I told him why we needed this meeting – to see about the needs for another possible PCV to replace me when I leave this summer – he said to me, “You cannot be leaving! We do not accept that!”

          On Thursday morning, as I walked through the campus gate, I saw the directeur des études talking with a group of people. I thought I would start right there, as long as he was visible and not off-campus or in a meeting. He was quick to reply that he would like to have a volunteer to teach American Civilization again next year, as well as classes in literature and linguistics.

          That done, I was off to the classroom, where I found an energetic and enthusiastic teacher in front of the large group of English students. There are four women and one man, all retired teachers, who are here under the auspices of an organization called Global Involvement Through Education. The woman I spoke to said that twice a year she takes these two-week teaching trips to developing countries. She has assembled an impressive manual and other resources that she uses.

          When I got back to the bureau later in the day, I sent an e-mail to my APCD, explaining the possible need for a new PCV at ENS during the 2005-2006 academic year. After I recounted what the directeur des études had told me, I couldn’t resist putting in my two ouguiya worth, namely that I thought it would be a much more rewarding (not to mention much less frustrating) position for a PCV to be at ENS than it would be to post somebody to replace me at IPN. It has been a joy working with these motivated students who will soon become English teachers all over the country.

          In the event that somebody is going to be needed as a native English speaker to contribute to the work on the new English books as they progress, why not simply make proofreading of the textbooks a secondary project for this person? At least s/he will be engaged in more rewarding work for a majority of the time.

          I have no idea how my APCD will view this or even if he has the ability to make such a change. I understand it takes quite a bit of work to make any alterations to the way Volunteers are posted to their various government agencies. This means that he may even agree with my suggestion but it may take a year or more to get it to happen.

*****

          I got a call from my bank in the middle of the week. An officer wanted to know exactly what kind of problem I was having with the ATM. It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. I explained that there was no problem, that the only problem I had was many months ago – maybe even as long as a year ago..

          He told me that he had seen a note that I had deposited in the suggestion box inside the bank building. When I put it into the box, I was under the erroneous impression that the contents of the box were emptied and read on a regular basis.

          I guess that doing something annually is a regular basis!

*****

          Babah paid a visit on Saturday afternoon. He has been doing quite well lately. After being jobless because he was overworked at the supermarket, he found a job related to the French embassy. I could not work out if he is at the embassy itself or working for people who work at the embassy.

          In addition to that, he is taking computer classes in the afternoons after work. He is learning how to type and navigate the computer for the first time, as well as improving his French.

          In any event, his job consists mostly of running errands and doing other jobs as needed. One of his functions has to do with buying merchandise for people. He told me that one couple had been quoted a price of 200,000 ouguiya for a washing machine and that with his help they were able to buy it for 120,000. They had been originally told that a refrigerator would cost 120,000, but he got it for 70,000. He seems to be earning his keep that way.

          He has also been touring people around town and around the country as the need shows itself. On a few such occasions, he has been able to engage the services of his brother Taleb, who owns a car.

          He still stays most of the time with his family in Toujounine, but his pay includes a room provided at a house with a family and he can use it whenever he wants to – even live there full-time. He gets all his meals and he can use the family’s washing machine for his clothes.

          He was vague about exactly how much money he is earning, but he did say that it was the same as the supermarket. The biggest improvement between that job and this, of course, is that there are many fewer work hours on this one.

          He and his siblings are making some progress in buying their share of the family home from the older siblings who do not live in it but want their portion of the inheritance. He has helped to raise the 1,600,000 ouguiya that they have paid out so far, leaving a balance of 1,400,000.

*****

          I got to meet my webmaster this morning. He is Brian, the father of PCV Molly, who has just arrived for a two-week visit in Mauritania.

          It’s possible that Brian will not be able to post for me while he is here, so if you see that the website is not being updated as usual, that is the reason. Please wait until he gets back to the USA in early May, and then you will be able to catch up.

          Alternatively, you could always send me an e-mail and ask me to send you my latest post as an attachment.