Hanging out with the ENS crowd


          On 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.

          I reminded 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.

          I didn't 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.

          My first 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.

          Abdoulaye 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.

          We couldn't 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.

          The 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.

          Everyone 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 by 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.

          Meanwhile, 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!

          Then the 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.

          One common 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.

          They wanted 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.

          The 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.

           The next 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 of service.

           Eventually, 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.

           During 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 together.

           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.

           After all 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!

           The next 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.

           He liked 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 another plan.

           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.

           The bulk 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 future reference.

          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.

           That's 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.

           So this 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 week.

           We have 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.