May les forces be with you


           I was reading in my apartment on Tuesday afternoon, when there was a knock at the door. It was Abdelahi, the day guardian. He started to explain to me that there was a job that needed to be done around the grounds of the building. All I understood was something about needing to "vider les forces." "Vider" means "to empty," so I got that much. But I couldn't puzzle out what he meant by "emptying the forces," as that was the only translation I could come up with at the moment.

          When he saw my confusion, he tried to explain by using other words. He pointed to the ground and mentioned "les ordures," the garbage. I understood the word but not his intention, as there is not any garbage that has to be cleaned up.

          By the way he was speaking, the only "force" I could feel coming on me was the one pulling some ouguiyas from my wallet. But I still didn't know why.

          In French, words such as this are referred to as faux amis, false friends, in that they lead you to think that they mean the same as another (in this case, English) word, but they really mean something different. The French word sensible comes to mind; it does not mean "sensible," but "sensitive," just as "medicin" is not "medicine" but "doctor."

          Your granny may be shocked to hear you ask her to, "Passez les preservatives" at the breakfast table, because you wouldn't be referring to the fruit preserves but to the condoms, and what are they doing at breakfast, anyway? These exist in Spanish, too; if you asked a colleague if he was embarrassada, he might wonder what ever gave you the idea that he was pregnant. You get the idea.

          I have encountered only a handful of words that are universally identical - or at least very similar. Any desperate tourist in a foreign country can tell you that the word "toilet" is not as widely understood as (s)he would like it to be. I have noticed that "mama," "papa," "taxi," "police," and "passport" get fairly widespread recognition across linguistic and geographic boundaries.

          This brings us back to Abdelahi. As he struggled to explain the situation to me, using as many synonyms as he could dredge up, he finally employed a word that I have heard used in a variety of other cultures. It served as the Rosetta Stone for me in this situation. It was his mention of "caca" that brought me to the understanding of what he was talking about: the septic tank needed to be emptied!

          Inasmuch as I have been making daily contributions to its being filled, I now need to share the cost of its cleaning. Each of the four apartments needs to pay 4,000 ouguiya for this service. I forked it over and went back to reading, having declined Abdelahi's generous offer to show me the point from which les forces would be removed.

          About an hour later, he was back. He had come to inform me that the truck would have to make two voyages to complete the deed, which increased the price, now necessitating each renter to kick in an additional 2,000. There is no telling how much money this job actually costs. I don't doubt that Abdelahi is asking for more money than is needed for the job, and that he is pocketing the difference. I guess that makes him everybody's faux ami.

          The next day, a truck came by to do the task. As I heard its rumbling, I looked out the window to see a large white vehicle with two campaign posters of the Mauritanian president, Maaouiya Sid'Ahmed ould Taya plastered on its side. The writing on the posters was in Arabic, so I could not read what it said. I did think that it was funny to have the president's picture associated with this mission, though, and I wonder if there is any political or comic intent behind that - something along the lines of Merde for Maaouiya or Taya Turds?

           Château Jay has been jumping lately. There were only two nights during the last three weeks when I have been there by myself.

           Last Monday night, I made a new vat of soup and served it to a crowd of thirteen. Then, on Wednesday, I was expecting Annika and her friend Jigar. He will be in Mauritania for about a month. (Jigar came with a suitcase full of food, much of it from Trader Joe. Now that's the kind of houseguest to have, isn't it?)

           That afternoon, Jessica D. asked if she could stay. Later on in the day, Hector and Genny asked. I had never had five overnighters at the same time before, but it all worked out.

           The newest session of the English Conversation Club has begun - the fourth time that I am teaching it. This time, there were eleven students at the first meeting, which is the highest number I have ever had at a first class. Usually, it starts with four to six and then increases as we go along. About half the class were repeat students from other sessions, along with some newcomers. We finally have down a good system for running the class, and it went smoothly.

           During the last week, a second-year PCV who will be leaving soon asked me to help with a project that he wants to finish before his COS: the making of a CD-ROM PowerPoint presentation about Mauritania and the Peace Corps. We used the new cross-culture manual as a means of making sure we had all the topics that he wants to include. The idea is that this is something that everyone leaving the PC/RIM can have and use for the purpose of group presentations.

           Late Thursday morning at around 11:00 I got a panicked call from my counterpart, D. Gérard the Belgium was in town to check on the work that we had done, and D was calling to tell me that there were "big problems." He had called Kristen, too, and asked that we both come to the office for a meeting "immediately."

           We were a little miffed that nobody had even been told us that Gérard would be here so that we could plan to spend time discussing our work with him. Kristen said she could make it to a meeting by 1:00 - and no sooner - but she was not going to stop what she was doing to get there. In the interest of solidarity, I agreed.

           When we got to D's office and looked at Gérard's comments, we could see that they were predominantly favorable, but there were two review lessons that were not to his liking, and they needed to be reworked. Kristen and I said that it would be a simple matter to make the revisions, and we would get right on it that Sunday.

           D insisted that we do it that afternoon, in order for Gérard to have it with him when he left Nouakchott the following day. Kristen and I couldn't understand how projects like this could be left without doing any work for weeks on end, and then had to have immediate action. We told him we would get it done in due time, and that if he wanted to do it himself, to give to Gérard, he could do that. When we left, he said he would.

           We offered e-mail as an option for sending this to Gérard, but D said that he needed it sooner than that. On Sunday, we found out that D had not done the job. He called Kristen to tell her that he had Gérard's e-mail address and that we could send it to him that way.

           With Annika and Jigar staying for a month or so, they have installed themselves in the guest room that has two windows. (The other one has a window to an enclosed area, but not to the outside.) The only problem is that there has been only one fan in my apartment. They purchased a fan that they are going to leave with me, inasmuch as it won't do Annika any good at her site, where there is no electricity.

           When they plugged the fan into the outlets in their room, however, they found that the connection of the plug into the outlet was not very tight. In order to get the fan to work, somebody had to be pushing on the plug.

           Mamouni came to visit and we showed him the problem. I asked him if he would be willing to help us out by going to the part of town where the day workers hung out, hire one, and bring him back to the apartment to fix the faulty outlets. Throughout the apartment, there were three of these that didn't work well, along with one light switch for which the light didn't stay on when the switch was flipped.

           When Mamouni saw the faulty outlets, he insisted that there was no problem at all. "Right," we said. "All we have to do is have somebody stay awake all night and hold the plug into the wall." We demonstrated that as soon as somebody let go of the plug, the fan stopped spinning.

           At that, Mamouni began to assemble a collection of objects in such a manner that a heavy object reached the desired height to lean against the plug, exerting enough pressure on it to keep it in the socket. "See? No problem!" he declared, excited that he could help out.

           We told him that we thought his African solution was creative, but we wanted an American solution: something that could be fixed once and for all, never to have to worry about again. He went to the market, found an electrician who came by to assess the situation, and all four faulty fixtures were changed in less than half an hour. The total cost for parts and labor was 1,300 ouguiya, less than $5.

           In analyzing what happened, we found two ways in which the African and American approaches were different. First of all, we Americans preferred to spend a little money in order to avoid the time-consuming process of rigging a contraption that would do the job every time it needed to be done. In contrast, the African approach was to invest the time and effort as opposed to spending the money.

           The second observation we made was that the electrician did not take the precaution of turning off the electricity in order to get his work done. This is consistent with other safety measures that are routinely ignored here: attendants smoking as they pump gas into cars in which the motors are running; passengers not wearing seatbelts in cars; people sitting on top of truck cabs; low or no retaining walls on rooftops, etc.

           As near as we can figure out, people have an attitude that the length of their lives has already been determined by Allah, and they do not need to interfere with that by taking unnecessary measures.

           We have a married couple that is moving to Nouakchott. Jessica, the wife, is looking for an apartment. Mamouni has appointed himself as her personal real estate agent, driving her around to vacancies that he knows of or has heard of. It came to light at the end of the morning of doing this, that if he represents her and she signs a lease, he will be entitled to a fee equal to the first month's rent, payable by the owner of the property. This can be a considerable sum, equal to almost two months of wages for many Mauritanians.

           One evening, he was speaking with Jessica and the owner of one of the properties. The woman told Jessica that her son got his MBA at Boston University. Jessica went to college in the Boston area, so she told the owner that she knew the area well. At that, the owner asked Mamouni if he was familiar with Boston.

           Mamouni's reply was, "Taxation without representation!" After Jessica finished laughing, she asked Mamouni how he knew that information. He told her that as a Mauritanian, tea is very important to him, so he would have to remember any event in which so much tea was thrown overboard!

           Our new stagiaires are completing their second week now. They are in their first Community Based Training phase, staying with host families. So far, nobody has decided to ET. We did have a sad event, though, as the father of one of the trainees has died, and she has gone back to the USA. She took all her possessions with her, so it is hard to tell whether she will return or not.

           I didn't have an opportunity to do a lot of reading since the last time I wrote about my books, but here are the ones I have most recently read:

           In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers recounts the tale of how his parents died within five weeks of each other and he, as a recent college graduate, is left with the care of his seven-year-old brother. They left suburban Chicago for Berkeley, where they remained for most of the book, until they moved to New York City. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

           I just finished re-reading Unified - A Course on Truth and Practical Guidance from Babaji, a book by Roger G. Lanphear. I met the author in Hawaii in 1989, bought the book, and followed the twenty-four-week course that year, starting at home and continuing during my summer trip to Italy and Greece that year. Since that time I have been using the daily quiet period as something on the order of a meditation. Now, fifteen years later, I reviewed the work and did it again.

           Mali Blues by Lieve Joris is a collection of four stories that take place in Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali. One of the things that I appreciated about the book was seeing the similarities among the cultures here. Each country has its own ethnic groups, languages, and individualities, but there are also many West African similarities that cross geographic boundaries.