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
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
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
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
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