Life at the office


It would be impossible to overlook the mess that has been left behind in my office. The paperwork in the top desk drawer indicates that my PCV predecessor used this as her office, too. But she didn't do anything to clean out the years of debris.

There are book catalogues dating back to 1979, conference agendas from the Eighties, professional journals more than ten years old, and a huge assortment of math books in French and Arabic, none of which will be useful in the work that I am doing. All of these take up a total of eight shelves in two cabinets! Everything is coated with a thick layer of ochre dust.

I decided to wait a week to ask my supervisor what I should do with all the junk that I don't want and that will, most likely, not do anybody any good. He came to my office, sized up the situation, and then came to the decision that I should take all the garbage and cram it into one of the cabinets, which will then give me one empty cabinet - in his estimation, more than I will need - and one filled with useless garbage for the next two years. In his spirit of generosity, he offered to start helping me right away. He has a great technique that many of my former organizing clients used to use - a little something I like to call Cram, Shove, and Push.

I took a picture of these, as I am sure that my friends who are professional organizers will enjoy seeing them. Believe me, I have thought of two other possible solutions for getting rid of the stuff, but neither will work. (1) Put some stuff, a little at a time, in waste containers elsewhere in the building. Good idea, but the only other container I have seen is the one I talk about in the next paragraph. (2) Take stuff out of the building and deposit it in street containers. But there are no garbage containers in the streets!

I have seen two men walking around with shirts that have "IPN" (the initials of my agency) on the back. They seem to be custodians, but I don't know what they have custody of. The large waste bin in the hallway near my office has been full to overflowing since last week. Somebody has swept together cigarette butts, ashes, and empty packages, but the pile has been sitting in the same place for days, so that the debris gets redistributed through the corridor more and more each day.

The "executive washroom" (right!) has only one toilet - and it does not flush. IPN, evidently, has not been informed of the invention of soap. I brought a bar of soap with me, so at least I can wash my hands, but there is not anything I can do about that non-flushing toilet, except hope that I have to use it only as infrequently as possible.

My office is in a part of the building where there are some French people working on the French textbooks. One of them, Luz, has a coffee maker in her office. She says that she can't stand tea, so she makes coffee and invited me to join everyone. She and the others are very friendly and welcoming, which reflects the same kind of treatment from the Mauritanians. In that regard, all is going exceptionally well.

On Thursday morning, I was invited to go with an inspector from one of the other Ministry of Education agencies to an English class that he is teaching to air traffic controllers. English is the language of communication for air traffic controllers, and these people have to improve their English so they can pass a test. Otherwise, they lose their jobs.

I joined them in a modern and well-appointed building adjacent to the airport, where we sat in a conference room. First I introduced myself and told them a little about what led me to being here. Then, they asked questions, so that they would hear my responses in English.

One of the things they have noticed is the preponderance of PCVs from California. They wanted to know about the American education system, the main industries of California, the climate and geography of the state, and a little bit about the politics.

The weekend was especially enjoyable, in that close to twenty Volunteers with whom I trained were in town. We Nouakchott Volunteers had fun playing tour guide to them, taking them to the markets, as well as to the restaurants where they can get the kinds of things they cannot get in their towns and villages: Chinese and Italian food, pizza, beer, and ice cream.

I have had quite a few people who have read my reports tell me that they are glad they are not here because the way of life is so different from that at home. Yet, despite the goats, donkeys, sand, and garbage, these Volunteers are telling us, "You Nouakchott Volunteers are so lucky. You have everything!" (One of these guys is in a village so small, he says, "It's just eleven families and me.")

I will leave you this week with some words about a movie I saw last night at the French Cultural Center. Usually, movies are not a medium that I enjoy; I go once every other year or so. But I wanted to see Heremakono because it was filmed in Mauritania. If you find that you are wondering what it looks like over here, you may want to see this movie, probably at one of those theatres that shows foreign films. Then, you will be able to see men in boubous and howlies, women in mulafas, the desert, inside houses, the serving of tea, and the singing of music.

The version I saw was in both French and Hassaniya. The Hassaniya had French sub-titles, but the French wasn't sub-titled. I don't know if it would be the same if shown overseas. In any event, the plot isn't very complicated, and most everything of value for somebody curious about Mauritania is visual anyway.

If you should see it and have any questions, comments, or observations, I look forward to hearing from you.