Five-day weekend


           The American and Islamic holidays aligned in such a way that everyone working for the Peace Corps or at the American embassy just had a five-day weekend. It began with Veterans Day on Thursday. After the usual Friday-Saturday weekend, Sunday was the Islamic celebration of eid-il-fitr (which you may see spelled in numerous other ways), the feast that marks the end of Ramadan. In typical local fashion, showing that if a little bit of something is good, then a lot of it must be better, Monday was declared a holiday by the President of the Republic. Why did he do it? Because he could! And nobody complained.

          To get started with last week's activities, I have to back up to something I left out of the last post: my American Civilization class at ENS.

           Considering the bad luck I had had with the flight to Nouadhibou, I was especially concerned about my return to Nouakchott because I was scheduled to teach the first session of the class on Thursday morning, the 4th, at 10:00. As it turned out, I was in the minority of people concerned about my presence at the class. Of the forty students whose names appeared on the two class lists, only four showed up!

           I asked those in attendance why the others weren't there. They told me, "They didn't know about the class." But, I reasoned, you're here. If you knew, why didn't they? No answer to that. The way this training program is set up, all students at the same level take all their classes together.

           I had intended to give a lengthy introduction at the first session - about me, the Peace Corps, and the class itself. It was obvious that I would have to repeat anything I covered during that session, and I didn't want to do that. So I told the four present to spread the word among their classmates that I would be back the following week and that I expected everyone not only to be in class, but to be on time.

          I arrived a little early on the 11th, to take care of the necessary formalities. The surveillant général told me to expect a small turnout. "The fête," he reasoned, indicating that Ramadan would be over on either Saturday or Sunday, depending on when the new moon is determined to have appeared.

           But the fête is at the end of the weekend, not now, I replied. All he could do was shrug his shoulders. In any event, fourteen students showed up for the session. Yes, there were still twenty-six absent, but I thought it would be best to begin. And so we did.

           All went smoothly. I handed out the prologue to Guns, Germs, and Steel so that everyone could read the first few pages. Then I asked them to form small groups to discuss with each other what they had just read. One of the things I needed to do was to find out the levels of their English comprehension. Were they going to need me to explain whole concepts or just the occasional vocabulary word? Those present did fairly well in understanding what they read, and they were also able to keep discussions going in their groups.

           I had just finished reading the book. Since it is a valuable resource that I will use for this class, and I have been "reviewing" my reading material in my weekly posts, I may as well write about it now, so that you can see the applicability of this book for my class.

           Author Jared Diamond has done research in New Guinea for many years. During one of his visits in the 1970's, he met a local man named Yali who had observed that white people had brought many of their inventions to New Guinea, yet the local people had not created many inventions themselves. Yali wanted to know how it came about that the white people developed so many inventions and that his people had not.

           This led Diamond to a twenty-five-year research project, in which he studied evidence of human habitation on all the inhabited continents during the last 13,000 years. In a somewhat simplified version of what he eventually found, he determined that the human beings whose groups formed societies on each continent were equally as intelligent and in possession of the same intellectual capacity as each other. They were, however, tremendously influenced by the patterns of climate, environment, domestication of food and animals on their respective continents, and, surprisingly enough, by the orientation of the axis of each continent itself.

           You can see that the land masses of North and South America and Africa have a north-south axis. This orientation inhibited the spread of plant and animal domestication from north to south (or vice-versa) because of the changes in climate from one latitude to another. What would grow during one part of the year in one area would be inappropriate for the next nearby climate zone. Additionally, the deserts of Mexico and northern Africa effectively served as a barrier from north to south, inhibiting the domestication and spread of plants and animals.

           Contrast that with Europe and Asia, one land mass that Diamond refers to as Eurasia, and in which he includes the nearby coast of Africa north of the Sahara Desert. Effectively, when plants and animals became domesticated in the Fertile Crescent area and in parts of China, their spread was facilitated by the east-west orientation of this land mass, which meant that nearby areas of the same latitude could grow food that had been successfully planted and harvested nearby.

           The widespread domestication of plants and animals are the precursor to the growth of cities, as some people shifted from the hunting-gathering mode of sustenance to that of farming. The process of growing food on farms meant that people could stay in one place instead of lead a nomadic existence. Furthermore, since only a small number of people took on food production for larger groups of people, the result was that others were free to exchange ideas and create inventions - a luxury not available to hunter-gatherers, who had to keep active in looking for food wherever they went. This set of circumstances launched the development of societies during the last 13,000 years.

          During our discussion, one of the students wanted to know what all of this had to do with American Civilization. That was a good question, of course. I explained that last year, some of the students in the class expressed their curiosity in how American culture had taken such a prominent place in the world. As a result, I had to backtrack a little, going from 2004 to the nineteenth century to trace the roots of European ideas as they advanced to the United States. This time, though, instead of beginning with the present and going backward, I am starting 13,000 years ago in order to bring the current state of affairs into better focus.

          Many students were able to make their own link to the question that Yali asked the Diamond; they saw parallels to their lives here in Africa, and the state of development in which their own country now exists, especially in comparison to those countries that are more "developed" - or that, at the very least, have developed more of the inventions that Yali noted.

           Our discussion gave me a gauge for how well they can tackle the material and how we will be able to progress with it.

          We've had a decidedly delightful shift in the weather here since my return from Nouadhibou: warm and breezy days have replaced the oppressive heat. Last Monday, there was a rainstorm. I had a bit of walking to do in order to get from the government cyber building to the Peace Corps bureau, and I loved walking in the rain! Many taxicab drivers beeped in their attempt to get me into their dry vehicles, but it was so refreshing to be in the rain, that I just ignored them. Later that night, there was a heavy storm, which made the streets muddy for a few days. The next night it was cool enough for me to use a blanket!

          Two of our PCVs were in town before their three-week vacation trip to the USA. When I invited them to dinner, one of them asked if I could make chili. She said she had been craving it in her village. Just because I had never made chili before didn't seem to be enough of a reason not to try it now. How hard could it be? The best thing to do, I thought, was just to forget about the fact that some people have a near-religious attachment to their chili recipes and that there are serious chili cook-off contests in many parts of the USA.

          By the time the chili was cooked, using a little bit of all the spices that Lisa had given me when I left Nouadhibou, as well as the TVP (textured vegetable protein) that both Janine and Heather brought me from their visits to the USA, the small chili dinner for four people at my house had evolved into a much bigger affair at a different PCV's apartment. The pot was heavy, but portable.

          Carl brought along some ground camel that he sautéed with onions so that people could have meat in their chili if they wanted it. There were about a dozen of us, including our Country Director, eating and generally enjoying ourselves in the rear of the apartment, where the salon and kitchen are located.

          Our hostess came in to express her surprise that her telephone, which had been plugged into the wall and charging in her bedroom, was not where she had left it. She wanted to know if any of us had seen it. Nobody had. But how could it be missing? Who would have it?

          One of the other Volunteers then went into the same bedroom, located down the hallway near the entry of the apartment, and noticed that the backpack she had brought with her was not there. In it were her phone, Peace Corps identification, and keys to her house.

          There was only one conclusion we could draw: somebody had entered the apartment and stolen these items! It was an especially brazen thing to do, considering that upon crossing the threshold, anyone entering would have had to step on or over a dozen pairs of sandals and shoes, indicating that there was a significant number of people inside.

          The "rationale" for the theft was that it was the end of Ramadan, a time when people customarily purchase new clothing and have to buy a goat or sheep to slaughter for the festivities. Never mind that it is contrary to Islamic teaching to steal; that seems to be beside the point. In this case, practicality had to take its place over doctrine.

          During the last week, I broke the daily fast in the homes of two families - one was Mamouni's and the other was the APCD of a different program than mine at the Peace Corps. Then, on Sunday, the day of the eid-il-fitr marking the end of the month of fasting, I went to the family of Mamadou the Tailor to spend most of the afternoon.

          Over the weekend, several of us second-year PCVs were talking about our relationships with Mauritanians - how they have evolved over the last year, how we get along with people, are or are not accepted, and the extent to which we have become integrated into the communities where we live and work.

          Thinking about this now is especially timely, since most of us have been inundated with invitations to break the fast during Ramadan, and then to celebrate the feast when it was over. It makes me wonder, though, what is the lure, the fascination, that compels Mauritanians to invite us into their homes to partake of their food? What could it possibly be that we have to offer that makes it worthwhile for them to invite us into their homes regularly?

          I don't claim to have the answer for all Mauritanians, but the situation calls to mind something that Pico Iyer wrote in the introduction to his Video Night in Kathmandu and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East.

          "Descending upon native lands quite literally from the heavens, dei ex machinae from an alien world of affluence, we understandably strike many locals in much the same way that movie stars strike us. And just as some of us are wont to accost a celebrity glimpsed by chance at a restaurant, so many people in developing countries may be tempted to do anything and everything possible to come into contact with the free-moving visitors from abroad and their world of distant glamour. They have nothing to lose in approaching a foreigner - at worst, they will merely be insulted or pushed away. And they have everything to gain: a memory, a conversation, an old copy of Paris Match, perhaps even a friendship or a job opportunity. Every foreigner is a messenger from a world of dreams."

          The fact is that the typical Mauritanians we meet do want us in their homes. While we are there, it's even better if a neighbor, cousin, or friend should drop in. "Look what we've got here! A celebrity! An American! You've seen them on TV. Now you can shake hands with, talk to, and eat with one! Look at the funny clothes. And if you really want a story to tell your family, wait till you see how he eats!"

          It starts to make sense to me by working with the Pico Iyer imagery and shifting the scene from here to the USA. "Movie stars" take the place of us foreigners and typical Americans take the place of typical Mauritanians.

          Once you make that transposition, what fan of (Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, Pierce Brosnan) wouldn't want to have him come for dinner so that his presence can transform an otherwise ordinary meal into an extraordinary experience? What fan wouldn't want to know what it is that (Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Julie Andrews) is carrying around in her purse? Their fans already know so much about (Sting, Oprah, Madonna) that they think they are already friends.

          We don't have to deal with nominations for an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, or Grammy, but it seems that we certainly do represent a different world to the people who live here. It is part of our responsibility as Peace Corps Volunteers to do that as well as possible.