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
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
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
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
* 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
* 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,
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.