We begin this week's
installment with two new Peace Corps abbreviations for you: ETR is for
Early Term Reconnect and IST is for In-Service Training. They are pertinent
because they happened during the last week. (My explanation of PCVRC comes
at the end of this entry.)
ETR takes place after a
new group of Volunteers is in country for six months; we have just passed
that mark. The entire group participates as a whole. The official events of
ETR lasted Saturday evening and all day Sunday.
Everyone got individual
pizzas for dinner on Saturday. There is a tremendous amount of attention
paid to food at ETR. As our Country Director told me, if the food is good,
then the evaluations for ETR are good. This is especially important for the
Volunteers who have limited choices for food in their villages - no
restaurants, very few fruits and vegetables in their local markets, only a
few canned foods available, and the same host family meals for weeks on
end. When they arrive in the "big city," they enjoy eating things
that they would not have otherwise eaten in their villages.
After pizza we had our
first presentation. A Mauritanian professor who is a human rights activist
spoke about various issues that are currently of interest in the country.
As he sees it, the crises that Mauritania is now experiencing are
environmental (drought, deforestation), political (corruption with
impunity), and economic (based chiefly on the worldwide drop in iron
He also talked about
the human rights violations practiced here. For one thing, he gave us an
explanation of - though not an excuse for - the slavery as it has existed
in Mauritania. Officially, slavery has been abolished in the RIM. This
country has a history of a caste system, in which each generation of a
family inherits its station in life. One of the problems here in completely
eliminating slavery has been that the families of former slaves continue to
be economically dependent on the families for whom they have worked during
previous generations. As a result, while they are free to go, they see
themselves as having no other place to go because they do not have the
economic means to do so. As a result, they stay with the same families for
whom their ancestors have worked and with whom they have lived. It's a
complex issue and I hope to understand more of it as my time here
The professor had some
help with his presentation from the political officer of the US embassy.
The latter talked about the "unwritten checks and balances" that
are currently at work here. This was brought on by somebody's question
concerning the enforcement of anti-homosexuality laws. According to the
political officer, these laws are not enforced by the government. He feels
that if the government were pressured to enforce the anti-slavery laws,
that a side-effect would be a crackdown against the gay people who have
historically not be harassed in Mauritania. In fact, the professor told us
that it is widely known which jobs are traditionally held by homosexuals,
and that they are generally respected for the work that they do. Griots
are musicians who have inherited their stations in life; many of the
drummer griots are gay, according to this professor.
On Sunday morning, our
Country Director addressed us. In her remarks, she noted that all 46 of us
who swore in as Volunteers in September are still here - a fact that she
noted was "unprecedented." She continues to be impressed by the
dedication and skills of our group.
The remainder of the
day was engaging, for the most part. Particularly pertinent was our
cross-culture session, in which we touched upon the dynamics of
relationships that each of us is facing, both in the workplace and on the
personal level. This was a good opportunity for everyone to learn more
about such topics as hierarchy in the work place; gaining acceptance in a
culture where only Islam is seen as a true religion; how to strike a
balance in friendships so that we get the personal time that we need; the
concepts of material possessions and gift-giving; and dating. Each of these
topics had some lengthy explanations and we all had opportunities to ask
questions. It was the most valuable segment of the day for me.
We then had an
opportunity to hear about funding opportunities for projects that we would
like to develop. Among the programs in which the Peace Corps participates
are the Small Project Assistance (SPA grants) and Peace Corps Partnership
Program. After we heard about those, we met representatives from various
Non-Governmental Organizations that have offices in Nouakchott.
The length of the IST,
which started on Monday, varied for the different program sectors. For
Education, we were supposed to have our own two-day IST, but a change in
plans meant that we were asked to attend the Small Enterprise Development
(SED) group IST instead. This two-day workshop was focused on the planning
and implementation of projects. The SED people were attending with their
counterparts - the Mauritanians with whom they work at their sites. It was
much more pertinent to SED because they have a wide range of project
possibilities, as compared to the teachers who already have their
"projects" developed: namely, teaching.
One by one, as our
Education volunteers saw how boring and useless this was for us, we left
the presentation and retreated to the PCV lounge. Eventually, our APCD
tracked us down. He appeared at the door of the lounge, told us, "You
are supposed to be downstairs," and then left. Nobody moved and he
didn't come back to insist that we go there.
During lunch, the
teachers finally got some of the help that they needed. Our APCD arranged
for us to eat together to discuss issues and concerns that the teachers
have been having. This was probably the most useful aspect for them.
On Tuesday, the second
day of IST, I woke up at 6:20 to the sound of water flowing. The sun was about
forty minutes away from rising. My first thought was that Cheikh, the new
night guardian at my apartment building, was up early to water the plants.
It was his first night on the job and I thought, Wow, he sure is
When I went to the kitchen
to start putting my breakfast together, I suddenly realized that the sound
of water was not outside and downstairs, but right there in my
apartment. The water was gushing out from underneath the bathroom sink. As
I turned the lights on, I could see that it had begun its flow into the
hallway, the living room, and one of the bedrooms, soaking the carpeting in
its path. I was able to get the matalas off the living room rug
before they got wet, too.
I felt like a dog
trying to chase four rabbits at the same time - didn't know where to go
first. I quickly went downstairs and summoned the guardian to come upstairs
with me. I had to show him what was wrong because he does not speak French,
as the others have. He came to see it, but was as helpless as I was to deal
with the situation. Evidently, his job training manual didn't have any
information about how to turn off the water at its source, so I had to stay
there and figure out what to do to stem the tide.
My only other recourse
was to call Abdullahi, the day guardian, who is also something of the
superintendent and owner's representative for the building. As a stroke of
good fortune, I was able to reach him. (The cell phone network is
While I was waiting for
Abdullahi to arrive, I got a big wash basin and put it in front of the
spray. With the situation handled on this front, I was able to turn my
attention to mopping up water. All I had were a mop, a long-handled
squeegee, and two buckets. Squeezing out the mop got rid of some water, but
there was so much water to deal with that it was impossible to see the
In the interim, the big
wash basin filled to the brim, and then the water suddenly stopped. I was
able to pour it into the drain of the stall shower to get rid of it. Shortly
after the empty basin was back in place, the water started gushing again.
It continued this way for several rounds, just filling to the top, then
stopping for long enough to empty it out.
Abdullahi was helpful.
He went right to the source of water for the building, and turned it off.
This left us with the mopping up to do. Cheikh and Abdullahi dragged the
half-soaked carpets downstairs and draped them over the walls to dry during
the day. (Just my luck, it was not a very sunny day, but it turned out to
be warm enough so that the rugs dried in time for me to get them back
upstairs and have my place ready for me to host a dinner for six that
Abdullahi laughed when
he saw me mopping up water, saying that the mop was "trop petit"
(too small) for the job I was trying to accomplish. All I could do was
shrug my shoulders and tell him that was all I had. Then I was amazed to
see how he decided to accomplish the same task: he took a small throw rug
to sop up water and wrung out the contents into the newly-available wash
basin. With all that water to mop up, he did his work very quickly.
Between us, we finished
soaking up the rest of the water. With the full wash basins of water,
Abdullahi suggested that we just empty them out onto the stairs and let
gravity do its work on cleaning them as the water flowed to the front door.
By the time we were
finished, it was about 8:30 and I had called my APCD to let him know that I
had a problem at home and wouldn't be able to attend the second thrilling
day of IST with SED. With the water mopped up and the rugs out to dry, all
we had to do was get the leak fixed. Or, at least I thought it was
"we," but Abdullahi wasted no time in cluing me in that there was
no "we" about it - it was I who would have to arrange and pay for
We had been through
this before. There has been a leak under the kitchen sink for months. I
placed a bucket there to catch the water, and I empty it when it fills.
When I showed this to Abdullahi, he informed me that I would have to pay
for it, since he gave me an apartment in working order, and any repairs are
my responsibility. That seems to be the universal system. I tried to
explain to him that when I took the apartment, the water and electricity
had not been turned on yet, so it was impossible for me to be sure that
everything was in good working order. This argument, though rational, did
not move him any closer to fixing that leak. So I have been using the
bucket until such time as I could deal with arranging for a plumber to come
Now this. I told
Abdullahi I still didn't understand why I had to repair somebody else's
faulty building. He told me that if the problem were "grand, grand,
grand," like the roof caving in or the walls falling down, then it
would be the owner's responsibility. But this was not only very small, but
it was also clearly up to me to fix.
When all else fails,
one has to accept reality, and that is what I decided to do. More daunting
than paying for the repair was arranging it: finding a plumber, explaining
the problem, and getting him to do the work, with the possibility of
getting ripped off in the process. I said all right, I would pay, but asked
him if he could make the arrangements for the repair. He told me that he
knew an excellent plumber whom he would call. A bit later, he informed me
that the plumber would arrive by 11:00.
The plumber, the newest
Mamadou to enter my life, arrived by 11:15 to size up the situation and see
what he would need to get the job done. As long as he was looking to make
the repair, I had the wherewithal to show him the leak under the kitchen
sink. He said he could do both jobs for 2,500 ouguiya (roughly
$8.20). I was relieved to see that I wasn't going to get soaked a second
time that day, so I said that would be all right, and he went to buy what
he needed to do the job.
With that work
completed, I showed him the faucet and shower hose fixture in my bathtub. I
had been able to get all the water to come out of the faucet, but when I
try to divert it to the hose spray, only some of it goes there, and the
rest continues through the faucet, resulting in a not-very-powerful
trickle. He said that the fixture was "fatiguée,"
(literally, "tired") and that he could make a replacement, labor
included, for 4,000 ouguiya (a little over $13). I thought that it
would be worth it for me to pay this so that I could have a much more
pleasant shower experience for the next year and a half.
Mamadou came back on
Saturday, apologetic for not being able to find the new fixture for the 3,000
ouguiya that he thought he would. In the end, it cost 5,200, but
even at the equivalent of $17, I felt that it was worth it to have this
done. We all know it would have cost significantly more than that in the
I got back to IST in
time for lunch with the Education group. One of my fellow Volunteers, upon
hearing why I was late in arriving, responded by saying, "At least you
have a house. At least you have a guardian." Yes, my
conditions here do contrast sharply not only to those at home, but also to
those of my fellow Volunteers who are out in the bush.
One of the Volunteers went to the US for a few weeks and offered to do some
shopping for me. One of the things she came back with was a new set of
sheets to replace the ones that the Mauritel post office workers stole from
the box that I had sent to myself. It is really nice to be able to sleep on
a decent set of sheets, as opposed to the plastic one that the Peace Corps
Your final PC abbreviation for today is PCVRC. That stands for Peace Corps
Volunteer Regional Coordinator. The country is divided into regions, of
which there are ten that have PCVs. In an attempt to keep the
administration and Volunteers in good communication with each other, there
are quarterly meetings of the Volunteer Advisory Council (VAC). Each region
is represented by a PCVRC, whose primary responsibility is to be the
contact person to galvanize Volunteers when the Emergency Action Plan has
to be set into motion. In addition to that, the PCVRC is responsible for
bringing concerns to the administration, as well as keeping ongoing
The PCVRC positions are
generally available only to Volunteers who are at least in their second
year of service, as these are the ones who have some experience here and
some knowledge of the way things work. This year, though, we have a few
regions where the only Volunteers are first-years; by default, they are
serving as PCVRCs. Here in Nouakchott, we now have only one second-year and
one third-year Volunteer, along with my group of six first-years. The more
experienced Volunteers didn't want to be the Nouakchott PCVRC, so this fell
to our new group to fill in the gap. And that led to my volunteering to do
If you can remember
your student council days, you will have an idea of what the meetings are
like. The only thing missing was the promise to get better food in the
cafeteria. In all, our PC administration is very open to the Volunteers and
our concerns. There is a lot of attention paid to being sure that lines of communication
stay open and are in good working order.
This week is something of a landmark for our training class: 25% of our
time in Mauritania is complete!