Yesterday and today
were the biggest and most important holiday on the Muslim calendar. It is
the feast of the sheep, the feast of sacrifice. In West Africa, it is
called Tabaski, but it is called by other names in different parts of the
Muslim world, though the significance is the same everywhere. The feast
celebrates an event, as described in the Koran, when Abraham was commanded
by Allah to sacrifice one of his sons. He proceeded to go through with it,
but at the last moment, an angel came to him and substituted a sheep for
his son. The sheep was sacrificed instead.
On this holiday, people
repent for their sins and ask for pardons from people whom they may have
wronged during the previous year, coupled with a promise to do better
during the coming year. They celebrate by eating and drinking all day and
night, as they visit friends and family. Each Muslim country has local
cultural interpretations that are added to the celebration. Mauritanians
have been significantly influenced by neighboring Senegal, where the last
generation of children grew up asking adults for money, a practice that has
also spread to Mali and Guinea.
The sacrifice of sheep
is not something that brings joy to this vegetarian's heart. Likewise, the
story itself, like so many in the Bible, Koran, and Torah, is about as
plausible as Red Riding Hood's grandmother being released intact from the
belly of a talking wolf. My approach, then, during this holiday, is neither
as a gourmand nor as a religious believer, but as a foreigner trying to fit
in with my Mauritanian friends.
I woke early on Sunday,
the first feast day. Usually, prayer calls begin sometime between 4:45 and
5:15, and then stop for a while ("Prayer is better than sleep.").
On this day, they continued for hours. There was also the added feature of
drums. In addition to the usual morning prayer calls, there is an additional
one reserved for this day. Around 9:00 or 9:15, people go to the mosque,
where the imam says a special prayer and then has his sheep slaughtered.
This is the signal for everyone else to go home and kill their own sheep
that has been specially purchased for the occasion.
This year, the fête (feast)
brings the added delight of its being part of a four-day weekend (Friday
through Monday), and Mauritanians join people everywhere in appreciating
that. The government offices, banks, and businesses are closed, but I was
surprised to see that the large Marché Capitale (Capital Market) appeared
to be in full swing when I walked by on Sunday.
When people visit
family and friends, they sport new clothing. I took to the streets wearing
my new kaftan and went to visit people. By and large, they are always happy
to see me. They greet me warmly; during my visit, they say such things as,
"This is your house" and "We are your family." They
always say it has been too long since the last time I visited; why have I
No visit can be too
long and I can never eat enough. If I stay two hours, they want to know why
I couldn't stay four; if I stay four, why not six? When I leave, they
remind me that the next time, I should spend the entire day with them. And
even when I eat all I need or want, they implore me to eat more. If they
serve me on my own plate (rarely, but it has happened), and I eat
everything on it, they just toss more food on it. If I am eating from the
large communal platter, and I consume everything that was in the area in
front of me, they just start to fill it up again by tossing more food into
the now-empty space.
I have found acceptable
ways to handle my being a vegetarian, but there are some other challenges.
For example, I don't want to drink the sodas or sugary fruit drinks they
serve. As for the tea, it has lots of caffeine, tons of sugar, and - worse
than those two problems - the same small glasses are routinely used by many
people without the benefit of being washed between drinkers. Is it any
wonder that so many people are walking around coughing and spitting,
complaining that they have "la grippe"?
When hosts ask what I
want to drink and I say that water would be excellent, their deflated
response shows me that they think of it as "only" water. I remind
them that water is necessary for all forms of life, so when they give me
water, they are giving me life, which I appreciate very much. When I
explain it that way, most people have been able to smile and show me that
they understand my thinking, including the host who called me "a
This feast was cause
for me to create a bi-cultural riddle:
Question: What is the name of the liquid that Mauritanians use to put on
their sheep this week?
Answer: Tabaski sauce.
I intentionally did not start this week's post with news about work. I hope
that my readers didn't think I have been complaining during the last two
weeks, with those stories about my counterpart. It's probably not a bad
idea to set the record straight on this: I don't mean to be complaining -
just explaining what is going on. On the one hand, I am rolling with the
cultural challenges presented by the way that work is (or is not) done
here. On the other, yes, there are frustrations and I will even admit to
wondering what it would be like just to chuck the whole business and head
on home. But those feelings pass. I am committed to staying here for my
full term and doing as good a job as possible in writing my books.
On Wednesday, we had
our final meeting with Gérard, the Belgian who is overseeing our work in
writing the text for the first year of English. He is pleased with the way
I set up the scope and sequence for the book. His only caution is to be
sure that I/we don't pile on too much in the way of new vocabulary and
language forms. He wants to be sure that we do not frustrate the students
who will be using this book as their first experience with the language.
For that meeting, there
were three of us - H, D, and myself - who were supposed to have worked on
the scope and sequence of the 21 lessons (18 new and 3 review) in the book.
I had everything laid out for the entire book; H had a few words on one
sheet of paper. D not only had nothing, but was late to the meeting,
arriving when Gérard was preparing to leave. D, sitting down without even
apologizing for his tardiness and lack of contribution, looked over what I
had done and then launched into his speech about the "team" that
we are on and what a "team effort" this is and needs to be.
Once Gérard had gone,
we were left to schedule our upcoming meetings so that we can complete the
work by our deadline. Now that the scope and sequence has been approved,
our task is to use it as the basis of writing the lessons. The first third
of the students' book and teachers' guide needs to be completed by the end
of February. This comprises seven lessons, of which I have already done the
first. As for the remaining six lessons that need to be done, D stepped
right up to make the assignments as follows: I will do lessons 2 and 6;
another PCV will do lessons 5 and 7; lessons 3 and 4 will be done as a
collaborative effort of D, H, and S. Thus, we see his definition of
It is clear to me that
the people I have been working with in writing any English textbooks are
going to leave the bulk of the work to me. They are always in other places
- at meetings, at classes, doing other things that prevent them from
completing their contributions to the work. I accept the reality of the
situation and will move on from there.
What this has to be
about is creating a textbook for children and teachers, rather than
personality conflicts and disputes about sharing the workload.
As I analyze the dynamics that make my work situation the way it is, I see
that I am working with poorly paid and under-motivated civil servants who
have to spend a good deal of time out of their offices in other
wage-earning capacities so that they can make enough money to feed their
families. They get little or no support from their own Ministry of
Education. How seriously do we take a Ministry that says that they want
their students to have six years of English but does not provide English
teachers with the training that they need to do the job properly - and that
schedules English to be taught for only one two-hour session per week?
Training others by
transferring skills is the first goal of the Peace Corps. That is my
primary job in working with these Mauritanians. As for transferring skills,
these men already speak English and have already written the existing
texts. Yes, I could teach them some of the finer points of writing and
English usage. But they have to be present in order to do that, and they
are not present, either physically or mentally, to do the job they are
required to do.
I have to remember, at
times like this, that there are also two other Peace Corps goals: helping
local people become more familiar with Americans and making Americans more
aware of Mauritania and its people.
There is no question in
my mind that I am already successful in achieving the second and third
goals. At this rate, as I continue to meet and work with other
Mauritanians, I have every reason to believe that this will continue.
Anyone who knows me
well realizes that I am the last person you'd expect to make a point by
using a sports analogy, but that is exactly what I am going to do in trying
to gauge the current and future success of my work here. As I see it, if I
can do a reasonable job in the implementation of two of the Peace Corps'
three goals, that gives me an average of .667. If that were applied to a
baseball player's batting average or any team's win/loss record, it would
be considered a phenomenal success, wouldn't it?
It's time to share what I have been reading lately. The following covers
the month of January:
Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean. It's a funny
thing about her use of the word "extraordinary" in the title of
the book. Most of the people the author writes about are everyday people in
a variety of jobs such as a clown who entertains at children's parties, a
man who owns a shop that sells ceiling fans, a haircutter, a reporter in a
small town newspaper, and a dry cleaner. Then throw in Bill Blass and the
first female bullfighter in Spain. Orlean has a knack for making these
people and their lives sound intriguing, unusual, and exciting. That, in
and of itself, is the extraordinary aspect of the book. One lesson in this,
for me, is that each of us is already living a rich and varied life that is
endowed with a terrific cast of characters. All we have to do is turn to
them and appreciate them as the unique people that they already are! The
author writes for The New Yorker magazine and you can also check her out
and see some of her writing at
Peter Hudson. This British author was here in the late Eighties and spent
much of his time in the desert. He paints a picture that must have been
accurate at the time, but I imagine that there have been many changes in
the ensuing years. His style is enjoyable, as he shows tremendous respect
for the people he encounters.
In Video Night in
Kathmandu and Other Reports from the Not-so-far-East, Pico Iyer visits
and writes about five places where I have been (Bali, China, Hong Kong,
Thailand, Japan) and five where I have not yet been (Tibet, Nepal,
Philippines, Burma, India). Having had my own experiences in some of these
places, I found that his perceptions and commentaries were not only
accurate but insightful. I enjoy his playful and artful use of the
language. This is the second book of his that I have read, the first one
being Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, which I
completed on the plane trip from San Francisco to Philadelphia to begin my
Peace Corps experience.
Nine Hills to
Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village by Sarah Erdman. I enjoyed
finding many similarities between her Côte d'Ivoire setting and the places
I have seen in Mauritania. The author was a health worker and was extremely
successful in introducing here programs to the villagers with whom she
lived and worked. Her descriptions are vivid and her focus is sharp. In
fact, the focus may be too sharp! Her writing is almost exclusively about
the villagers and her work, which means that it left me wondering about the
travel that she mentions only in passing and her relationships with other
Volunteers and the PC itself. I found it disconcerting that, toward the end
of the book, she makes only a passing reference to a good friend, a fellow
Volunteer, who died in an accident. There had been no previous mention of
this person, nor details of the event itself. Maybe she just had to keep
those details out so that her book would be more about one topic than about
A funny thing happened
on the way to finishing this book. As I put it down at the end of one
reading session, having only sixty pages to go, I gazed up at my bookshelf,
saw another book, and was curious enough to pick it up to give it a
once-over. That short glance took me straightaway into reading Wendy
Wasserstein's Shiksa Goddess (or, How I Spent My Forties): Essays within
a day and a half. I found her writing to be delightful: packed with humor
and experiences, rich with the relationships that fill the author's life.
Wasserstein's tome before I returned to Erdman's, it seemed that I was
doing something that several of my fellow Volunteers have recently done:
taking a vacation from Africa by visiting a modern Western society. (Some
of them have traveled to the USA or Europe for vacation within the last
month). The contrast between the books is stark; the authors are living not
only on two different continents, but in two different worlds. Wasserstein
is a famous playwright whose world is centered around New York. Her wide
field of vision includes references to a plethora of American products,
cultural events, and celebrities. By contrast, Erdman is a first-time
author writing from a remote village that is so "out of the loop"
that it becomes electrified only one week before her service is completed
in 2000; she is steeped in the mores of Africa and populates her stories
with the anonymous people we will never know in any way other than through
her. The contrast between both women's worlds served as a means for me to
appreciate them all the more.
both books were gifts. I picked up Shiksa Goddess at a sidewalk sale
in San Francisco during the week before I left to come here. It was the end
of the day, and the women who were holding the group event were beginning
to pack up. I asked one of them how much the books were and she replied,
"Oh, if you see anything you like there, just take it." By
contrast, Nine Hills came to me from the parents of a fellow
Volunteer; they have been following my website posts for some time now, and
I expect to meet them when they visit their daughter in December.
Talking and thinking about the juxtaposition of cultures, above, makes me
think about a personal goal that I want to share with my friends and family
who read this. I have only recently been able to put this into words. It
comes as a result of my having read Jeff Greenwald's The Size of the
World a few years ago. The author sets out to circumnavigate the world
without leaving its surface. In eschewing planes, his goal is to get a
greater sense of the world, its mass, and how everything is connected by
traveling on the ground and water rather than in the air.
In reflecting about
what Greenwald has done, and trying to put it into words for myself, I
think of him as living in a "space continuum," whereby every
place he visited was connected in space to the points that came before it.
He keeps the continuum going by staying on the surface, without any
I have been here only
seven months, which is long enough to see that staying on the ground while
traveling in Africa can be a time-consuming venture. While I don't have the
same desire to have Greenwald's "space continuum" experience, I
have given some thought to a different spin on it - something that I am
thinking of as a "cultural continuum." In order to keep that
going, it is my goal to stay within African cultures during my service and
Close of Service trip. That way, I will have no interference from European
or American cultures during this time. I will spend all my vacations within
Africa and the surrounding islands associated with it.