Model School and a wedding

 

Model School is supposed to be as close to regular school as possible, to give our soon-to-be-teachers an opportunity to get used to what the teaching conditions will be. When I go back to Nouakchott, I am going to write a description of the Mauritanian school system, so please be patient for that. In the meantime, this is just a little bit about what we are doing here six days a week (every day but Friday).

Since all PCVs teach at the secondary level, that's what Model School is. Kids start studying English during the first year of what we would call middle school or junior high, which is called collège here (French pronunciation, koh-LEJ). This summer school has one class for students who have studied English for one year (2ème), one for kids who have studied two years (3ème), and two classes for those who studied for four years (5ème). Most classes have a census in the low thirties, but the 2ème class, with the youngest kids, has 70 enrolled, of which at least 58 show up every day!

There are fifty-minute classes that start at 8:00, 9:00, and 10:00. The Trainees are teaching either one or two classes a day, so they are very busy! Anyone not teaching is observing somebody else. Then, at 11:00, we all get together to evaluate the lessons we have seen.

The Trainees are, by and large, right out of college, and have had absolutely no teaching experience. The most gratifying aspect of this process is seeing how their technique is improving on a daily basis. I would have thought it impossible, but it seems that they are going to be ready to teach after having only these seventeen days of classroom experience. Smart cookies!

Sample lessons have been about using the simple past, counting (using peanuts; food works here as motivation, too!), comparing things, days of the week, describing people, using words that express quantities (a lot, enough, more), present and past progressive verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and possessive pronouns.

Each room has a cahier de textes, a notebook, in which the Trainee indicates what the lesson was about. This way, whoever is going to teach any particular class can look in the cahier to see what has been taught, so we know what information has been covered. Of course, we can meet with each other individually, too, to get details about lessons.

Originally, I was on the schedule only to observe others. But, due to popular demand (two Trainees wanted to see me teach) I was given one class to teach. I observed the class a few days to see firsthand what they had been taught, and then, last Wednesday, I taught a lesson about responding to questions with complete answers (Instead of answering the question, "Is Heather tall?" with a simple "Yes," we went through the process of extending the answer: "Yes, Heather is tall."

The lesson went very well and the Trainees who saw it told me that they learned a few things that they will be able to incorporate into their own teaching. I can tell you, though, that it gets very hot while teaching, as opposed to sitting in the back of the room, near the open door, trying to catch whatever breeze I can!

The Trainees have received dire warnings from the Volunteers who have already spent one year teaching: only the very best and most serious students enroll in this program, and the conditions are not what the teachers will experience in the classroom. I am sure that they are enjoying it while it lasts, for even though the classes are large, the kids are attentive and pleasant.

All in all, though, I am quite pleased that my teaching career is over!

*****

I have written about having clothing made here, and how inexpensive it is. There is good motivation for it, too, which is largely the heat. Our PC dress code is that men wear dress shirts with collars, and absolutely no T-shirts in public. If we resort to African style clothing, however, we can wear the traditional styles, and collarless shirts are acceptable under those conditions. That is a good reason for having shirts made, as they are cooler without the collars. A typical shirt costs the equivalent of four dollars for the fabric and a dollar for the labor. This week I had one new shirt made and one ensemble of shirt and pants. The ensemble is a local tie-dye technique for which Kaédi is famous.

Last Sunday was the first day I was wearing a shirt that I had made in Nouakchott while I was there during Site Visit. The shirt, a pullover style, is worn not tucked in, and comes down to about mid-thigh, with inverted V-shaped slits on the sides, creating flaps in both the front and the back. I was in the front yard of my host family; this is the family that calls me Alioune. As I walked by their sheep, who was tied up with a leash to a post in one corner of the yard, I felt a tug and heard a ripping sound. As I turned around, I could see that the sheep had the back flap of my shirt in his mouth! By this point, the damage was done, as the tear went halfway to the back of the shirt.

Little Alioune and Hawa were there to witness it. First, they fell down laughing, and then Alioune ran out into the street to gather the neighbor kids so they could see the latest mishap that had befallen their very own toubab.

I went to a tailor to have it sewn back. It is not too noticeable, though the pattern is a little bunched up in that area. I will probably continue to wear it for a while - at least long enough to be sure that I get a picture taken in it so I have a record of new clothing I have had made. By the evening, I realized how funny this was, and when I told Abou, the father of the family, he asked me if I had yet taken a picture of the sheep, reminding me that this is something of which I must have a picture. Sure thing!

*****

A fairly common Peace Corps practice worldwide has been the establishment of buildings known here and in French-speaking countries as maisons de passage, frequently referred to as Volunteer hostels or by alternative names in other PC countries. They are places in which PCVs can stay when they travel to other towns where there are also PCVs. The typical practice has been to have rooms where people can stay overnight and socialize.

Last week, we received word that Gaddi Vasquez, the Director of the Peace Corps, has ordered that all such maisons be shut down, lest they be targets for terrorist attacks. All of us recognize the wisdom behind this, and at the same time we are sad to see the passing of this Peace Corps tradition, especially since we have not been able to make use of them while traveling ourselves. We understand, of course, that the PC is concerned about our safety. At the same time, it is unfortunate that it means we no longer have this easy way to meet each other, compare notes, and form friendships.

*****

Most of us have just about had it with training. We feel that it is too long and could have been over a few weeks ago. We are pushed around daily, with changes, changes to the changes, and then not being sure what is going on. It is difficult to get complete communication for many of the situations. I will give you an example:

All of my language study has been with Aly, both here and in Nouakchott, first in Hassaniya and then in French; my two classmates have also been the same since the beginning. It's worked out well, as we all get along and have developed good rapport.On Tuesday, one of the facilitators tracked me down at the Internet café and told me that there are some Trainees who are falling behind in their language studies. In order to help them out they will be getting one-to-one tutoring, and my language class will be affected because Aly will be one of their teachers. This means I need to change teachers.

Good enough so far. I don't have a problem with the change because it seemed to be necessary. So he told me who my new teacher would be and where the class would meet that afternoon. Mr. Flexibility here went to the new class at the appointed time to find out the teacher perplexed as to why I was there. Then, the facilitator tracked me down there and told me Aly wanted to know where I was. I told him I was just doing what he told me to do that very day, with the change of teachers.

Then he told me, "But that wasn't supposed to start until tomorrow." Well, monsieur, that's a very important piece of information, don't you think? Wouldn't it have been a good idea to tell me that, too, along with everything else?

He didn't have an answer for me to that question. It is stuff like that that happens all the time - getting some information, but not all of it.

*****

At the end of the week, there was a wedding that many of us went to. It was the marriage of Biri, who is one of our PC language facilitators. He is from Kaédi, so this is where much of his extended family is.

For the last few weeks leading up to the wedding, Biri has been sharing the rented house with Aly, my now-former French teacher. It has been in short exchanges there that I have had any conversations with him at all, so it was a surprise to me that the day after the incident with the changes of teachers, he invited me to his wedding. That was the first surprise - that a person would invite somebody he hardly knows to his wedding.

As it turned out, all of the PC staff, Trainees, and Volunteers were invited. Seems like "the more the merrier" is certainly the watchword here. Jessica and Scott are two Trainees who have been living in the family compound of many houses during our community-based training in Kaédi, so they got invited to more of the events than most of us. I should explain, too, that this is a series of events that takes place during the course of three to four days.

I was in the group invited to show up at the compound at 10:00 Friday morning, along with most of the others. When we showed up, people there told us that there were four weddings in there today. As it turned out, Biri's three other brothers were also getting married.

Scott and Jessica navigated us through the compound until we came to the area where Biri's wedding reception was to be. The actual marriage ceremony had taken place the night before, so this is what we would call a reception. Biri and his bride had spent the previous night together, but it was the custom that during the day, they would not see each other. Typically, he would spend the day speaking to men and she would spend the day with women.

Biri himself led us inside a newly-constructed (and not yet finished) home, where we sat in the foyer on the ever-present floor-coverings. This room seemed to be the PC people and some men. For about two hours, all we did was sit there and talk to each other. At about noon, somebody came in with cans of cold soda for us (Hawaï brand). Then we continued to talk to each other for the next several hours.

Every once in a while, there was something unusual that happened. Singers came by to sing for us. These are people who are called griots (pronounced GREE-oh) in Mauritanian society. Their families have been musicians for generations, and that is their job, too. Evidently, the families arranging the wedding make the plans for the griots to perform, but it is up to the guests to pay them. This is made clear to us because they walk around clutching paper money so that we get the hint.

At one point, there was a parade of women through the room. Occasionally, people came through whom Biri would introduce by saying such things as, "This is my niece, the daughter of my older sister."

We finally got something to eat at 3:30 in the afternoon. By a little after 4:15 most of us were on our way out, having sat there all those hours.

******

The night of the wedding reception, just after going to bed, I started to have some gastric distress, necessitating frequent trips to the bathroom. (I'm trying to be polite.) I had been invited to sleep on the roof of the home of a PCV who lives just across the street. The huge advantage for my doing this is that there is not a television blasting until the wee hours of the morning, as there is in my host family home.

Anyway, probably at about 4:30 in the morning, I awoke and had to get downstairs to the bathroom --- and quickly! You may remember that line from Town Meeting a few weeks ago, with the question, "Who controls the doo-doo?" and the answer, "You do! You do!"
Well, I was trying to control it!

So I got down there, reached the front door, and gave a push, only to find that it had been padlocked shut as a safety measure. Needless to say, I was not able to keep control. I had to wait down there in the yard, in the dark, for well over an hour, until somebody woke up and could tell me where there was an outside water source so that I could clean up.

By the time it became light, I felt awful: weak, queasy, and depressed about what I had been through. My first thought was to stay right there in the PCV's house for the day. Then another PCV asked me if, when they got to Model School, they should just arrange for a PC car to come and get me to take me to the infirmary.

Wow! They can do that? was my answer. And they did! The result was that the nurse gave me some medication, I had to drink a liter of water with the Oral Rehydration Salts (yucky!), and I stayed all day and night in the infirmary. I napped much of the day and then slept nine and a half hours that night - in air-conditioned comfort, I might add.

It was fortuitous that that would be the night I would be in the infirmary, for there was a tremendous storm early in the morning, necessitating everyone to move from their outdoor sleeping places to the hot indoors. Just about everyone is talking about the awful night that they had, but I have finally had a good night sleep that has transformed my attitude. Whereas yesterday I was feeling that I would not be able to make it to swearing in on September 12th, now I am saying, Just two more weeks? Is that all? I can do that!