Focus on the children of Africa


This week I want to start by saying that I have been receiving several e-mails from people who tell me that they have not heard from me recently, despite the fact that I have been sending them e-mails. Several of them have AOL accounts, but they are not the only ones who have written to tell me about this problem.

I have been getting - and answering - these e-mails. But there is something that is keeping the responses from getting through. I am sorry that people are worrying on my behalf. I have been in Nouakchott, not traveling, and managing to keep in touch with everyone, but still, some of my e-mails are not reaching their intended parties.

If this applies you, please hang in there, as the people with whom I am sending and receiving e-mail are looking into this. They say that there are some problems on the receiving end of things, such as the AOL server, as none of the e-mails have bounced back to me.

I've had a steady stream of visitors at Château Jay. In the beginning, they were other PCVs. During the last weeks, there was a UN Volunteer and the friend of one of the Volunteers who is in my group. This friend, visiting from the Bay Area, stayed with me when he arrived in town, and then left to see his friend the next morning. We had e-mailed before his arrival, and he thoughtfully asked me if there was anything he could bring me when he came. That is how I came into my new supply of the food that I have missed most since I arrived here: tofu!

My most recent visitor is a friend from before Peace Corps days - Greta, from Belgium. She is a veteran traveler in Africa. In fact, we met on this continent, in Morocco, three years ago. It's been a wonderful visit.

Greta's request, made soon after we met, was that we communicate in French, since it is the second language for each of us, as opposed to speaking in English (in which she is quite capable, as there are times when we have to lapse into English to explain a word or a phrase). I do not speak Flemish, her mother tongue. All the same, her French is excellent. I am enjoying my acquisition of new vocabulary and new ways to express myself in French. She has a particularly amusing manner of speaking, complete with hand gestures, grimaces, and sound effects.

When we are together, we eat and laugh a lot. It's a good thing that when we are at my house, we spend a lot of time on the matalas - no need to fall down laughing, as we are already on the floor!

Greta brought an additional guest with her: a tortoise that somebody gave her and named Caroline. Why Caroline? Because her shell looks like a tiled floor, called carreau in French, which is pronounced like the first two syllables of the name.

They say that both houseguests and fish smell after two days, but Greta has been here for a week already, with the probability that she will stay almost another full week. No foul odors yet!!!!
I noticed during our pre-service training that the atmosphere and interpersonal dynamics were a lot like college orientation. We Trainees were the freshman; the Volunteers who had already spent a year here were the upperclassmen.

Though the standard term of service is two years in the PC, there is the possibility of extending our work for an additional year. Our program in the PC/RIM has been very fortunate in that several people during the last few years have extended to their third years. A critical mass of these people is now ready to COS (Close of Service, which people use freely as verb, noun, and adjective).

During the last two weeks, two of our Third Years have COS'ed, and there are a few more coming up. We have had a few going-away parties for them here in Nouakchott. Other than these private parties, though, there is nothing comparable to a graduation ceremony.

One of the joys of being here, and an enhancement to my service during the Internet age, is that I am having a lot of very insightful responses from people who are reading what I post to my website. Last week, it was my cousin Rick, and this week, I received a thought-provoking e-mail from his daughter Stephanie.

Steph asked me if I had heard about Oprah Winfrey's new cause, the children of Africa. She went on to tell me about a television program concerning a visit that Oprah made to Africa, highlighting donations of food, clothing, and toys. Steph related that Oprah chose Africa because of the high numbers of children who have been orphaned as a result of AIDS.

Steph, noticing that I had not written anything about the African AIDS epidemic; she asked if this was something that I face frequently. Secondly, she wanted to know if we PCVs knew about what Oprah was doing and what we thought of her cause: giving lots of money that will not even put a dent into her fortune, and then going back to her hotel room. Are we annoyed that Oprah is being deemed a hero, as compared to those of us who are "in the trenches," as she put it, working every day (with the conclusion that we are not getting any recognition for our work here)?

As for the first comment, it appears that Mauritania is not suffering as devastating an impact as the other African countries that have been affected. This is not to say that there is no AIDS here - just that the consequences, as of right now, are not as dire. There were observances here of World AIDS Day on the first of December. Several organizations have mobilized to inform people about the actions they need to take to keep the disease from spreading.

When I got Steph's e-mail, there were five other PCVs in the lounge, and I polled them on the topic. A few days later, as I sat down to write the first draft of this entry, there were four other Volunteers in the room. A few people said something along the lines of, "Anything Oprah does would annoy me," but the prevailing opinion is that she is using her celebrity toward a positive end, which helps to draw additional attention to the problem.

It reminds me of a quotation from the Talmud that I recently heard for the first time: "Ours is not to complete the task, nor is it to desist from it." I have my own interpretation of these words: we see a problem before us, and we know that we may not be able to resolve it because it is a huge job. But just because we can't finish the job doesn't mean that we should throw our hands up in defeat without even trying.

Some of the Volunteers pointed out that the primary PC goal is to engage in projects that have sustainability. The word "sustainability" is an extremely important aspect of the work that we do, as we focus on the transfer of skills that will remain with the host country nationals long after we go back to our homes. There is a distinction between this approach and handing things to people - the idea behind the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish.

By the same token, one of the PCVs commented that if people, as a result of Oprah's actions, contribute more money to some of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) based here in Africa, then it means that these groups, in turn, will have more money available for the potential funding of projects for which we petition.

In pondering this situation, it makes me consider the monumental importance that parenting has on children. Parents give love, attention, and values to their progeny. What then, I ask you, is to come of a generation that grows up without parents? That is the extreme and dire consequence that Africa faces, as we look forward some twenty, thirty, or forty years from now. What do you suppose will be the nature of people in power who were raised without parental love, attention, and the teaching of values?

If you think that Africa has an untenable bundle of problems now, I ask you to forecast the consequences for one generation into the future, as a disenfranchised populace that has not received parental loving care grows up and inherits the leadership positions of the more than fifty countries here.

What, then, do I think of what Oprah is doing? First and foremost, she is doing something! Doing something has to be better than doing nothing!