Wednesday afternoon, I received a phone call from one of the
students in my American Civilization class at the ENS. He was
inviting me to "spend the day" with some students
from the class. This was the rain check for the previous Saturday
that had been cancelled. He suggested that I come over to the
ENS at 10:00 AM and stay all day.
him that it was a work day, so I didn't know if I could be there
the whole day, but I could probably stay for a few hours. I
asked if we could do this on Friday instead, but he insisted
that no, this was already a collective decision. Not only would
it be too hard to let everyone know of a date change, but the
next day everyone who lived outside of Nouakchott would be leaving
town to go back to their villages.
know what to expect - probably sitting in a dorm room and talking,
maybe having some water to drink, most definitely the serving
of Mauritanian tea. I was curious to see the inside of the residence
hall where some of the out-of-town students have been living.
clue that this was something out-of-the-ordinary came at about
10:15 on Thursday morning. I had some errands to run before
I went to ENS, and I was running a little late. One of the students
called to see where I was and if I was coming. I've never seen
a Mauritanian express any anxiety over somebody's being fifteen
minutes late. I told them that I was about ten minutes away.
When I arrived,
there were half a dozen of the men from the class, gathered
in an area between classroom buildings. They greeted me warmly.
I definitely felt that they were happy to see me. Since some
of the students in the class did not speak English, we conversed
in French. I didn't know why we were standing outside, rather
than going inside to talk, as they indicated we would do.
told me that we would be going to a nearby restaurant called
Bab Le Ksar. That surprised me, as I had heard of the place
and know that it is one of the few places in town where alcohol
is served during the evenings. As far as I could tell from what
I have heard, there is dancing to lots of loud music, as well
as a very smoky atmosphere, which are two good enough reasons
for me to stay away. I had heard that all you have to say is
that you are a Peace Corps Volunteer and you get a discount
on your drinks, which is all well and good, but not worth it
for me to endure the other pitfalls.
leave yet, though, because we were waiting for the photographer
to show up - someone who didn't know the location of Bab Le
Ksar, so he needed to be with us in order to find the place.
A photographer? That surprised me. It also reminded me that
this was the second time that I had meant to have my camera
with me so I could take a group photo of this class, but it
slipped my mind. Still, I was surprised that Abdoulaye would
go so far as to hire a photographer.
showed up and we walked over the Bab Le Ksar, arriving a little
after 11:00. Nobody was sitting at any of the tables in front.
As we arrived, a woman from our class showed up and led us up
the stairs alongside the building to a covered rooftop terrace
where we were able to relax in the shade on matalas. This student,
Aissata, works there, which is probably what led to its choice
as the site for our gathering.
was very kind to me - providing me with a pillow to lean on,
making sure that I had plenty of water when they saw that I
did not drink the Coke or Fanta, seeing to it that there were
plenty of peanuts for me to snack on, inquiring if I was comfortable.
little, more students showed up to join us. I noticed, though,
that none of the white Moor students was there - only the Pulaar,
the blacks. When I asked about this, those present said that
not everyone could make it, but they were all invited.
the photographer just sat. I don't know if he was wondering
when he was going to be put to work, but I know that I was!
questions began. One of the students asked me why it was, in
America, that polygamy is against the law, but that homosexuals
can marry. This question makes a lot of sense in that this represents
a reversal of what is commonly accepted here in Mauritania.
misconception about the USA is that the laws are the same everywhere.
I explained that gay people cannot marry in every state, that
this is just a recent development. Then came my cop-out reply
for a complicated issue such as this: that I do not make the
laws and really can't explain them.
to talk more about public acceptance of homosexuality. In the
USA I am comfortable about being out of the closet, but I am
following PC/RIM advice and not disclosing this part of myself
to Mauritanians. If I ever do so, I will wait until closer to
my departure time before I come out to anyone here. That means
discussing the issue in general rather than personal terms.
I told the
group I thought that scientists will eventually prove that being
gay is a matter of genetics, something over which we have no
control, like our skin color, hair texture, and height. As I
talked about this, I could see that there were some students
nodding in agreement. In any event, the conversation petered
out after a few minutes.
group splintered into one-to-one and small-group discussions
for a while. Then it was time for another question to be posed
to me: if my wife didn't like my friends, which would I choose?
My wife or my friends? I tried to explain how popular it was
in the USA for couples to spend some time with their same-sex
friends - that this was perfectly fine, much as it is here in
Mauritania. But they needed to know what choice I would make
if my wife hated my friends and didn't want me to be with them.
For this one, I told them I would choose my wife, as that is
the relationship that is central in one's life.
large discussion was the most heated and lengthy of all: the
relative merits of village life versus city life. This was one
where I was left alone, though, so I didn't take the opportunity
to tell them that my only request to my Peace Corps recruiter
was to be placed in the largest possible city in my country
there were several people wanting to know how they could get
a visa to visit the United States. It is always especially surprising
to me to see that even those who are critical of American policies
and cultural imperialism are interested in going there.
much of the time, the women were keeping busy in the kitchen
- a room that had one little sink and nothing else in it. At
about 2:30, one of them came out with a platter of food for
me, saying that she knew I could not stay long. I didn't want
to be the only one eating, though, so I told her that I would
wait until everyone was served, in order that we could all eat
I had to
be at a meeting at 4:30, before my 5:00 English Conversation
Club, and I had to get some other things done before 4:30, so
I told them that I could stay until 3:30 or so. At about 3:15,
all the food came out - artfully arranged vegetables cut up
on three separate platters. Finally, the photographer had something
to do, as Abdoulaye sprang to his feet and arranged us for a
group shot, with the platters of food in front of us for inclusion
in the photo.
I had remembered
talking about being a vegetarian to the English Conversation
Club, but not to this group. They said that I had mentioned
it once, and they remembered, which was really very thoughtful
for them to base the entire meal around my dietary needs.
that lounging around for hours, though, I really did need to
eat and run, as it was after 3:30 by the time we finished eating.
But it wasn't over! As I shook hands and prepared to leave,
I could see that several of the students were putting their
shoes on so that they could accompany me to the street. There
was another round of pictures that needed to be taken: in front
of the restaurant, several of the students had arranged with
Abdoulaye to have individual photos taken with me. I had a good
laugh when I saw the place that they had chosen for these shots:
right in front of the restaurant's big Coca-Cola sign!
day, I spoke to Mamouni about this gathering. I was wondering
if the students had invited their other teachers, as I was the
only one there. Mamouni said that not only would they not have
invited other teachers, but the teachers would not have attended,
as they would be interested in keeping a greater distance between
themselves and their students.
As I was preparing this to send for posting to the website,
I got a call from Toumbo, my supervisor at ENS. He was calling
to ask me what I had done with my exam grades. I told him that
nobody had ever given me information about how to do that. We
arranged for me to prepare a list with the grades for the final
exam and to give it to him at the Nouakchott English Center
so he can hand it in.
I have several large writing projects to work on right now.
We are supposed to be finished with our textbook work by this
coming Sunday, the 20th.
I am also
working on two documents that will be used within the Peace
Corps. The first one is for the cross-cultural component of
the upcoming training. The materials that we had last year were
in drastic need of revision. Several months ago, I proposed
to my APCD that we do a full-scale book about the culture of
Mauritania, along the lines of the Culture Shock! series. I
had read Culture Shock! Indonesia and Culture Shock! Netherlands
before my trips to those countries. I have a copy of Culture
Shock! Morocco to use as an example.
the idea as a secondary project for me. There wouldn't be any
need to pay me additional money for my work on this, of course,
but I was hoping that we could get funding to pay a Mauritanian
consultant to work with me on the project. He passed the idea
along to our then-Country Director, who also liked it. Then
the budget cuts hit and there was absolutely no way to be able
to pay a Mauritanian to work with me, so we had to come up with
As it exists
now, we are revising and adding to the existing material. Last
year's document was a hodgepodge that included some original
writing by people within the Peace Corps and some photocopies
of articles concerning topics of interest. There was no consistency
with regard to typeface, style, or any other aspect of appearance.
In addition, a lot of the material that had been covered during
the cross-culture sessions last year had been presented either
orally or in flip-chart format, meaning that the Trainees had
nothing to which they could refer for future use.
of our work now is in either summarizing the articles so that
we can get new documents out of them or in writing new sections
so that everything we have will be in print and available for
We are seeing
this as a two-stage project. For this year, we will certainly
have a better manual than we had last year, so we are already
far ahead. One of the things we will be doing during the coming
year, though, is soliciting the experiences and other contributions
of both the current Volunteers and the new Trainees, so that
we can do a more detailed revised version for 2005.
One of the
Volunteers who was a teacher during the last two years has been
impressed into service as the cross-culture coordinator. She,
Erin, came to Nouakchott last week so that we could begin our
work on the massive revisions. We threw ourselves into the project
and have been working all day every day at it. She left for
the training site in Kaédi yesterday morning, so I am
finishing it up. I have a deadline of the 24th to get this done
so that it can be printed in time for use by the Trainees.
not all! Last year, our training class did all right learning
each other's names. But there were many facilitators with new
and unusual names for us to learn. We heard that in previous
years there had been a bulletin board posted with everyone's
photos, which helped people to learn names. Without that last
year, though, we were lost.
year, we are going to have a phone directory that will include
photos of all PCVs, PC staff in Nouakchott, the new Trainees,
and the facilitators during the training.
The workload of writing and preparation for the new Trainees
means that I have been working all day every day, going into
my second week of that. It is enjoyable and productive, so I
am not complaining. But it has meant that, as a byproduct of
these busy days, that I have not had any days off during which
I could stay at home and prepare my usual vat of soup for the
a group of PCVs in town now. One of them, Janine, got a message
from her mother, asking her if she had been to my house for
soup yet. Janine was totally up-to-date about my activities.
She is being kept informed not by anyone here, but by her mother.
In Ohio. It seems that Mrs. K. has dutifully been reading several
of our online journals and getting her fill on life in Mauritania.
I had to
disappoint this recent group by not having cooked for them.
They are staying in one of the small hotels that has kitchens.
They invited me to one of their apartments for dinner yesterday
- delicious Mexican cuisine, except it seems that tortillas
are about as hard as igloos to find here.