ETR, IST, and PCVRC

 

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 prices).

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 increases.

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 conscientious!

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 notoriously unreliable.)

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 difference.

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 evening.)

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 the repair.

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 for it.

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 USA!

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 provided.

*****
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 contact.

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 the job.

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!