Eight months and counting


I have been homesick during the last week, thinking more than usual about the life and people I left behind in San Francisco. The Peace Corps has given us a chart ("Critical Times in the Life of a PCV") that reflects various stages Volunteers go through during their 27-month service. This was put together by a group of Volunteers who were about to close service in Senegal in the mid-1980's, and is said to be applicable in all countries. They have delineated stages at 1, 2, 3-6, 7-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-23, and 23-27 months of service.

I took a look at the chart and saw that now, in the 7-10 months period of service, there are three issues that PCVs are most likely to be facing: slow work progress, language plateaus, and cross-cultural frustrations/culture shock.

It looks like I am right on schedule. Yes, work is progressing slowly. Yesterday, I spent two hours in a meeting during which we had a maximum of ten productive minutes of work! I would call that slow progress. Today, we had a meeting set for 9:00. When I showed up at 10:00 (I am catching on now!), I was the second one there. People dribbled in during the next hour, chatting, drinking tea, and not making any movement toward getting to work. Then, at 11:10, somebody said, "Let's meet tomorrow at 9:30." Everyone else agreed, and that was the end of work for today.

On Thursday, during two hours, there was no work accomplished. Imagine this scene: six people sitting around two dusty tables in a room roughly eight by ten feet. The light doesn't work. Everyone who walks by the room - and there are a lot of people - stops in to say hello to and shake the hands of all the men. People are taking and making cell phone calls. A custodian is fumbling through a set of keys to find the right one that will open the door that leads onto a balcony, thereby admitting some light and fresh air. People get up, leave the room, and are gone for half an hour at a time; by the time Person A comes back, Person B is gone. Then, two hours after the meeting "started," people start packing up their papers, shake hands, announce that they will see each other tomorrow, and head off. At this pace, work is progressing very slowly, indeed.

My reaction, though, is not frustration. If I had to put a word to it, I would say that I am bemused. I have been invited to help. I am willing to help. But I am not going to get stressed out over not being able to get this work done!

My language skills are not a problem at the moment, so this is not an area of concern for me now.

As for cross-cultural frustrations/culture shock, this is the area where I am dealing with the most stress. It centers around the Mauritanian custom of people coming by and knocking on my door, unannounced, which interrupts what I am doing. Sometimes what I am doing is nothing; sometimes it is reading; sometimes it is work. In any event, I have always enjoyed my solitude. I once heard this distinction between introverts and extroverts: introverts charge their batteries by having time alone and extroverts charge theirs by being with other people. Using that definition, I am definitely an introvert.

I never had to face this in the U. S. because it is not an issue there; very few people would come to my house unannounced, and I myself would drop in on very few others. (I wrote about this last week.)

It seems to me that this has been a contributing factor in my feeling out of sorts and homesick. Not only do I want to be by myself sometimes, but I want everything to be familiar when I leave the house. And things here are not familiar - not yet, anyway.

As I continue to read the chart, I see that behaviors and reactions to these issues usually see the Volunteer comparing himself to others, being overzealous, being homesick, feeling uncertain about abilities to adapt culturally, and being intolerant with the host culture. Those seem to be on-target for the way that I am feeling.

There are also some suggested interventions, which include reunions, corresponding with family and friends, talking with some wise older people about the slow starts and failures, and doing simple projects that can more easily come to fruition. I am working on these.

Today, I had a short meeting with our Country Director. I explained the situation to her and she was an excellent listener. My greatest struggle with the issue is that a major goal of my work here is to form friendships with Mauritanians so that they will have positive interactions with an American. That being the case, I need to be cautious in asserting my need for "alone time" so that I don't do it in a culturally insensitive way.

Yesterday, I received the news that an associate dean from my college days had died. I was sad and reflective. Then, toward evening, I got a call from the United States. During the call, there was a knock at my door. It was the friend of a friend, and he had yet another person in tow. There was no way that I wanted to entertain, once I got off the phone.

I had to go down there to tell him that I was on a call from the US; please wait. Then, once the call was over, I told him that a dear friend had died, and I needed to be alone. I found out today that what I did was culturally inappropriate because in this culture, if somebody dies, the impulse is to be sure that there are plenty of people visiting the person who is mourning.

When I described my housing to the Country Director, she told me that I had several choices of things I could do in order to recapture my solitude (and I add that she was understanding of my need to have time by myself):

* Invite the person in, put him in a room I am not using, and then continue to go about my business, whatever it is. I find it hard to believe that that would be acceptable, and I would feel extremely uncomfortable doing it. She agreed that this would be an easier option if I had a television (which I will not have), but it would be acceptable even without it.

* When the person arrives, explain that I was just on my way out - then leave for a while, coming back once the person leaves.

* If the person is significantly younger than I am (and especially if he is not the head of a household), then it is acceptable to tell him it is not a good time for a visit, being gruff if I have to. That's another choice that makes me uncomfortable, as I don't need to be rude in order to make a point.

* When I told her that there is a guardian at my building, she said that I should use him to run interference for me. I should tell the guardian to tell anyone I don't want to visit that I am not there, or sleeping, or will be coming back much later in the day - too late to wait for me. This is the option that has the greatest potential, and with which I would be most comfortable.

There have been a few other incidents somewhat along the same lines, but they have happened out in public. I was buying some items from a local street vendor when a man sitting next to her started up a conversation, told me he loved Americans, asked me for my phone number, and told me he would like me to visit. In this case, I lied when I said I did not have a telephone, and then prayed that my pants pocket would not start ringing!

Then, yesterday, I was walking past a government building when a guard beckoned me to come over to him. He asked if I recognized him. When I said I didn't, he said that we shared the same six-passenger taxi during the Tabaski feast a few weeks ago. Evidently, the facts that we had been in the same taxi and that I was now walking by his job showed him that we now had enough in common to warrant an exchange of phone numbers. Once again, I told him I didn't have a phone, but I dutifully wrote down his phone number, which I will never use.

Several months ago, I mentioned that I had hired a young woman, Awa, to wash clothes and clean my apartment. If there were laundromats here, I would use one, but there are none, which leaves me only two options: wash clothing myself in a bucket at home or take everything to one of the professionals (blanchisseries, as they are called).

The first option is out, as my back cannot take the stooping and bending it would require to wash clothes by hand. The second option, while not a bad idea, can get expensive. One of the reasons why it is as costly as it is is that the blanchisseries iron everything that they have washed, and there is no option not to have everything ironed. I do not need or want my socks and underwear ironed, which is what they do. My shirts and pants come out just fine when hung up to dry, so they don't need to be ironed, either.

Having somebody do this in my apartment actually costs less than taking the laundry out, and comes with the bonus of having the floors and other surfaces liberated of the ever-present dust.

In December and January, Awa became very undependable, saying she would come and then not showing up. There were even two occasions when she was supposed to be there but wasn't, and when I called, her husband said she was "on the way," and she still didn't come.

In January we had a new night guardian named Baba Ali. He said that he would like to do the cleaning, so I gave him a chance. He lasted as guardian three nights before he quit. Then, on his second time to clean my place, he brought his younger brother Ablaye, to whom he handed over the job.

Ablaye came over a few times and seemed to be doing a fine job. Then, one morning after he left, I noticed that a bottle of lotion was not where I had put it. I looked everywhere for it and could not find it. I knew that it had been there earlier in the day. There was only one possibility: Ablaye must have taken it.

A few days later, I also noticed that a partially used tube of strong glue was also gone. On the morning when Ablaye came to clean, he brought Baba Ali with him and I spoke to both of them outside the door. I said that something had been missing, but I didn't say what it was.

Ablaye asked, "The bottle of lotion?" Baba Ali said that he had asked Ablaye where it had come from and Ablaye had been evasive about it.

One thing I know about many African societies is that they are communal. There is less individual property ownership than we have in our Western societies. At the same time, the Koran is clear that stealing is not a Muslim value; there are places where the hands of thieves were cut off as punishment for stealing.

I spoke to two Mauritanians about this, to see if I could get their perspectives. Mamouni quoted a saying from the Bambara people of Mali, to the effect that "a man who steals a needle would steal a cow." My French teacher Ali had a similar quotation in French, that "a man who steals an egg would steal a cow."

Ali offered some cultural insight, though. He said that in the mind of an African, I would be seen as somebody who was wealthy. A person such as Ablaye would see an item of small value, such as the lotion, and could easily justify taking it, because of the difference in our economic status. Ali said that this did not excuse the act, but it was one way of explaining it.

Baba Ali, the older brother, has been by to see me again, but Ablaye has not come back, nor has he returned the lotion. Last week, when Baba Ali had come by to visit, there was a knock at the door. The day guardian introduced me to Ami, a young woman who used to clean for the Moroccan woman and child who lived in my apartment before I did. Ami wanted to know if I needed somebody to clean for me, and I hired her on the spot.

So far, she had been there twice - on time each day.