Glutton for mutton

 

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 "disappeared"?

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 philosopher."

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 "teamwork."

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:

The Bullfighter 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 www.susanorlean.com.

Travels in Mauritania by 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 many.

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.

In completing 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.

Coincidentally enough, 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 flights.

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.