Getting to work, at last



I have a new roommate, albeit temporary. Margaret, one of the other PCVs in my training class, was having the same kind of trouble I had with SOMELEC (see the entry from 9/22, entitled "Settling in.") She had electricity; there were promises of water, but there was no water. She was able to cite the thirty-day escape clause to the landlord and she broke the lease. She asked me if she could stay with me until she finds a place, and since I have the extra room, I said she could.


On Friday, I did something stupid. Wanna know what it was? Of course, you do! After I finished my lunch in a restaurant, I went to use its restroom. When I tried to flush the toilet, I could see that the handle was broken and the toilet wouldn't flush. Nearby, there was a bucket placed under a faucet. The bucket already had a little water in it, but not enough to be able to flush the toilet. I leaned over the bucket to turn the handle, and that is when my phone fell out of my shirt pocket and into the water!

I acted quickly to wipe off the water, take off the battery, and clean off the chip inside the phone. The phone didn't work (no surprise!). I was in a part of town that has a lot of telephone sales and repair shops, but since it was the weekend, all of them were closed.

I headed straight to the PC bureau to see if there was anyone there who could help me. Fortunately, one of the PCVs is knowledgeable about cell phones. He suggested that I leave all the components separate overnight so they have a chance to dry out, and that I try putting the pieces together in the morning.

I followed his instructions and was happy to see that the phone worked in the morning! It would have been bad enough to have to buy a new phone, but even worse than that would have been the shopping for it!

As long as I am on the topic of telephones, I may as well tell you a little about the system here. It's confusing and I will explain it as well as I can, considering how hard it is to figure out.

First came the "fixed lines" - the phones that are installed in homes and offices. These are maintained by Mauritel. With cell technology, Mauritel was able to get into that market as well, but it is not the only company doing it. The other company is Mattel, which is a cooperative venture between Mauritania and Tunisia.

Everyone's advice to me was to get a cell phone rather than a fixed one, since the mobiles are less expensive and easier to maintain. I put off shopping for a phone as long as I could, since it is a daunting proposition to me - not knowing what features to look for, what brand to buy, and how they work.

When my friend Bob left a few weeks ago, I bought one of his phones from him (he had three!), which made the whole process easier, since it eliminated the shopping component. So I do have a phone, but I don't have it turned on all the time and I don't take it with me wherever I go.

Once a person has a phone, the next thing to do is to get a SIM card, and they are available from both Mauritel and Mattel. Calls that are from one Mauritel cell phone to another or from one Mattel cell phone to another are not very expensive, but it does cost a lot of money to call either from (1) a cell phone to a fixed line or (2) from one of the companies to the other. People have said that it costs as much per minute to do that as it does to call overseas!

Once you have a phone, though, there are no phone bills. The way to make calls is to buy a phone card for one of the various amounts (500, 1,000, 3,000, or 10,000 ougiya), scratch off the back to reveal a code number, and then call the phone company to enter that number, which automatically adds the credit to the SIM card in the phone. You can make calls until you run out of credit and get a new card. The cards are for sale at all the boutiques and from people who sell them on the side of the road all over town.

I have seen some fascinating displays of telephone dependence, such as people answering phones and making calls in the middle of meetings and presentations. My favorite moment, though, came during the closing ceremony of Model School in Kaédi. Each student was called upon individually to receive a certificate acknowledging completion of the Model School program. In the middle of the presentation, a cell phone rang. It belonged to the person who was handing out the certificates. And what did he do? He stopped calling names, answered his phone, and we sat there watching him talk on the phone for the next minute or so!

The French Cultural Center in Nouakchott keeps a busy calendar of lectures, movies, musical events, and art exhibitions.

The current art exhibition is eye-catching. It features the work of two women.
Brigitte Daddah, originally from Denmark, does tapestry collages in fabric. Many of her hangings look like quilts. Nicole Vignote's pieces incorporate poetry into works that are painted and sculpted. The effect is dramatic.

I went to a lecture about the migration of birds across the Sahara. The lecturer, Bruno Bruderer, was part of the Mauritanian-Swiss cooperation that tracked birds during their migrations during the last two years. I was especially pleased that I was able to understand most of what he said!

The most recent concert I went to was not as thrilling, though. It was a group of three instrumentalists and three singers who performed a fusion of jazz, rock, and traditional Mauritanian music. The drummer, guitar players, and lead singer were excellent, but the two back-up women did not have pleasant voices.

The French Cultural Center is also one of the few places in town that sells beer, and it is the least expensive that I have encountered (500 ouguiya, just under $2).

Margaret has been busy looking for a new apartment. One of the PC drivers, Jacques, has been helping by introducing her to people he knows with places for rent. Jacques invited Margaret and me to dinner at his home in the outskirts of Nouakchott. It gave me an opportunity to try my approach in making sure that I can get a vegetarian meal and not offend my host when I am invited to dinner.

So far, I have done this twice. I thank the person and then say that I don't know if I should come for dinner because I am a vegetarian, and I don't want to be too much trouble for whoever is preparing the meal. The first time I did this, the person agreed with me, that it would be trouble, and invited me to tea instead. Jacques' invitation was the second one, and he said that it would be no trouble at all.

His sister and mother prepared a gorgeous and delicious plate of carrots, beets, peas, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. There was also a plate with meat on it, but they didn't expect me to eat from that.

This was the first time I ate with a local family since arriving in Nouakchott, so it was a return to eating with my hand, as well as an opportunity to practice my few meal-related phrases in Hassaniya. It was an enjoyable evening.

One of the advantages to having as much free time as I have had is that I have been able to do a lot of walking around Nouakchott, which means that I have slowly discovered where things are, how the parts of town are related to each other, and the best ways to get from one place to another.

I mentioned some time ago that it has been very difficult to find a decent map of the city, but I finally tracked one down, and that has helped, too.


Yesterday, I was able to make the first step toward getting to work. My APCD accompanied me to meet the directeur général of IPN (Institut Pédagogique National), the agency that publishes the Mauritania's textbooks. The actual meeting with him took fewer than five minutes, but it was the necessary first step to take in order for me to start working there.

My direct supervisor was also at the meeting, and I stayed with him for a little while after the directeur général left. My supervisor said that he would look for the key to my office during the day and, if necessary, change the locks. After about forty-five minutes together, that was it for the day. There was not even a tour to show me the executive washroom, staff lounge, and tell me how to use the coffee maker and microwave. (That's a joke, as I am sure there are none of these.)

My APCD cautioned me that people are going to be watching me carefully at first. I have some damage control to do in order to prove myself to these people, because of problems created by the PCV who preceded me in this position. She could not adjust to the Mauritanian methods of doing business, such as the way people are always late and the slow progress in the way that work is done. She left in April, part-way through her first year, which was a letdown for the Peace Corps and its relationship to the Ministry of Education.

I will have to make sure that I always have reading material with me - or other things to do - in the event that work slows down or that I have long periods of waiting. I will just have to see how things shake out. At least I have been warned about the way things work!

Today was my first day of work. I showed up on time, at 9:00 AM, and my supervisor had the key to my office ready for me. The place was dusty, but there is a working fan and the windows open. My desk was furnished with a page-a-day desk calendar from 2000 and a desk blotter-sized school year calendar from 2002. The shelves and cabinets are filled with papers that go back to the Eighties. I will have to take pictures of these, especially for my professional organizer friends.

I stayed at the office today until shortly after noon. When I tried to see a few people and found that they had all left their offices, I decided to follow their lead, leave for the day, and try again tomorrow.

Yesterday, while I was waiting in the office to meet the directeur général, I saw a map of the "Maghreb Arabe" on his office wall. Included on the map were Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. I had remembered the word "Maghreb" from my visit to Morocco more than two years ago, so I asked my APCD about it.

The word means "where the sun sets" and is used to describe this part of the Arab world. In contrast, the Arab countries starting with Egypt at their western end, are called "Mashriq," meaning "where the sun rises."

The practice of Islam differs greatly between these two geographic regions. The Maghreb is populated with Sunni Muslims, who comprise about 65 - 75% of the world's Muslims. My APCD referred to Sunni Muslims as being the "least violent," which could only be a good thing.

The Shiite Muslims, who comprise approximately 20% of Muslims, are concentrated in the Mashriq. There are no Shiites in the Maghreb, but there are Sunnis in the Mashriq.