Out with the old, in with the new

 

           The week started off with a new harangue from Abdellahi about paying 15,000 ouguiya for repairs to my apartment. Furthermore, he told me that since my original contract was up at the end of June, I would have to be out by that time, even though Erwin had agreed for me to stay there while he was out of the country.

           Abdellahi got to be so insistent and demanding that I, once again, closed the door on him and refused to answer his knocking. I now had a new dilemma: if Abdellahi didn’t allow me to stay until the fifth of July, the day of my departure, then where would I go?

          The next day, I saw Cheikh at the Peace Corps. Cheikh said that Abdellahi had called him, too. I told Cheikh about the argument of the day before, and that I had closed the door on Abdellahi. Cheikh doubled over in laughter, saying, “He told me that.” I said it was all true.

          Cheikh said that he would like to help me out, if possible. The Peace Corps can pay a building owner for improvements that are related to safety and security issues. In fact, I have already received reimbursements for replacing one lock on the front door, adding a second one, and putting up screens to cover all the windows. I told Cheikh that there wasn’t anything that I thought the Peace Corps could do along those lines, but he said he would like to come over to check things out. Clearly, he was trying to be helpful by working with me to resolve the issue.

          On Wednesday, we went together to the apartment and he saw nothing that needed to be done for which the Peace Corps could pay. As we drove away from the house, he told me to stall Abdellahi for a few days by telling him, “The Peace Corps is looking for a way to get some money to you.”

          I said I would tell him that, and that we just needed to hold him off for less than one more week, because then I would be gone. Cheikh laughed, said, “Exactly!” and then reached to the back seat to shake my hand. “Let him have the hope that something will happen,” he said, implying that there would only be hope, and no funds forthcoming from the Peace Corps to take care of the landlord's repairs.

*****

          When my old corkscrew broke last week, I went to a store here and bought a new one. After all, I still have a few bottles of wine that I will consume before I leave here.

          The first time I went to use the new corkscrew, it broke! I went back to the store where I had purchased it, only to find that the cashier was in no way predisposed to replace it for a new one, even with the receipt that showed I had just made the purchase. "You pulled too hard," she said.

          I asked for a manager, who was marginally more helpful. At first he backed up the cashier, saying that if they replaced everything that broke, they would go out of business, because every day people would be coming in with things that they broke at home.

*****

          There were more medical visits this week in order to get ready to leave. I have had just about every bodily fluid tested so that I can achieve medical clearance. All that left was the TB test, which was to be started on Friday, and then handing in my medical kit and water filter, which the medical office said I could hand in on the morning of the fifth, the day I leave.

          Everyone advised me to wait until the morning of the fifth to tie up all the final tasks: handing in the final forms and then getting my total clearance, which would entitle me to getting my passport, the check for one-third of my re-adjustment allowance, and the check for my airfare home (the method I had chosen since I had already purchased my ticket).

*****

          Preparations have been underway for weeks to welcome 46 new trainees (at one point 52 had accepted invitations, but some have already had a change of heart).

          On Wednesday, we had our first official welcoming committee meeting, comprised of PCV Regional Coordinators and Volunteers living in Nouakchott who would like to be involved. We went over the timeline of events, the need to assemble welcome packets, and what would be in the packets.

          The Cross-Culture Manual has been delivered to the bureau, so that part or my work is complete. I am pleased with the way it turned out.

           That night, I taught my last class at the Nouakchott English Center. The students, as usual, were extremely appreciative. They are hoping that somebody will be able to teach there during the coming year.

           After the class, I went to dinner with the director of the ENS, which also included Toumbo, my main contact at ENS and NEC, as well as Boubou, the first directeur des etudes whom I met there.

           They chose a restaurant that is owned by a friend of mine. As soon as I heard the name of the restaurant, I knew that there would be something for me to eat there, as I enjoy the tabouli, one of the items from the Lebanese section of the menu.

           It was all very pleasant. Most of all, I was grateful to see that there were no lasting adverse repercussions over the debacle concerning the final exams of a few weeks ago. At the end of the meal, they presented me with a very nice little wooden box with metal accents on it, which is one of the Mauritanian artifacts on sale here.

*****

          Babah has been visiting more often, and is insistent that I help him get a visa so that he can visit the United States. There is a commonly believed myth here that in order to get an American visa, all one needs is an invitation that has been stamped by the host's mayor's office and the guarantee that the host will feed and house the guest during his stay in the United States.

          No amount of my explaining has been able to convince Babah that it just does not work that way. When he asked if I would go with him to the American embassy to request the visa, I said yes, I'd go.

          He went to the embassy by himself to pick up the application and its instructions, on which there is no mention of invitations or hosting. Any American reading this knows that there is not a mayor's office in the country that would have anything to do with approving the visit of a foreigner in the home of a private citizen.

          What the application did ask for, though, was original bank statements during the last twelve months. In addition, it said that the applicant needed to start the process two to three weeks before departure and show an itinerary that included a date of departure from Mauritania as well as a return date.

          When I pointed out these requirements to Babah, he said that all I needed to do was go with him to the embassy, explain that I have invited him, and tell them that I am like a father to him.

          I told him that I thought that the consul would say that it is very nice that I have established such a deep friendship with him, and then ask where the bank statements are.

          He said he would get them. I asked if he had a bank account. He said no. I asked, then, if he did not have a bank account, how could he get original statements from an account that does not exist? He said he did not need it. I told him that it said right there, in very clear language, that this was a requirement.

          Furthermore, I pointed out the need for two to three weeks of lead time, and that I was going to be leaving one week from the day that we were reviewing this paper.

          Babah clearly did not want to face the reality of the situation. He asked if I would be willing to write the invitation, and I told him I would. He needed it mailed to him. I asked for his address. He doesn't have one. Now what?

          He said he would be back in a few days, which he did do. He had an envelope pre-addressed to himself in care of his employer's post office box. He reminded me of the need to write the invitation and get it stamped by the mayor's office in San Francisco. I explained that there is a mayor's office, and that they do not have anything to do with issuing invitations to visitors.

          We left it at that: that I will send the invitation when I get home to the USA in September.

*****

          Mamouni loves to get native English speakers into his classes. He asked me to accompany him to his class on Thursday afternoon, and I was very glad I did, as it was held in the brand-new building of the European Commission. The grounds and high quality of workmanship in there made it well worth the trip, to get a peek inside.

*****

          There were several of us in town during the last week, many in the process of COS. Since the new trainees were coming on Saturday, all the PCV Regional Coordinators were in town, too, serving as the welcome committee. On Friday night, we had a nice dinner at a new Chinese Restaurant so that we could be together, both first- and second-years, this one last time.

          Though everyone arrives in the country as part of a group and goes through the training together, the process is not the same for COS – no ceremony, no official group closure, or anything like that. We are left to do this on our own.

*****

          Mauritania, usually behind the world in so many things, jumped ahead this week, as the US ambassador held his Fourth of July party for the American community on Saturday the second.

          The embassy is restrictive about who gets onto the embassy grounds. Only those PCVs who live in Nouakchott and who were in town on official business were allowed in. I think that that was a bit severe, especially in light of the fact that the party this year was a potluck.

          The ambassador asked me how things went with my teaching at ISERI and I told him how it all worked out. He was curious to know if I was well-received, and I told him that I was. I suggested to him that perhaps it was what I called the “shaybahni factor,” being respected because of my age.

          His response to that surprised me. He told me that he had just read the farewell poem I had written for the latest edition of Nouakchott Notes, the PCV quarterly newsletter, and he had wondered what “shaybahni” meant. He speaks fluent Arabic and, in fact, the Mauritanians I have spoken to have always been praiseworthy of his ability to do so.

          It is Hassaniya, which is different from the Arabic in this case. The closest such term in Arabic is cheikh.

          He also remembered the last line of the poem.

          I had no idea that the ambassador even received, let alone read, our newsletter.

          (The text of the poem is at the end of this post.)

*****

          Our fresh batch of trainees arrived about an hour late and with only their carry-on luggage. All other bags had been left behind in Paris, which greatly facilitated their arrival at the airport, but which is a cause of concern for all. Fortunately, they knew in advance that they were to have a carry-on bag of necessary objects for the first few days, and then would have their luggage delivered from the airport to Kaédi.

          I enjoyed being on the welcome committee, mingling with everyone during the break times, and answering questions. I had exchanged e-mails with a few people during the last few months, and more than half a dozen of the trainees told me that they had been reading posts on my website.

          The entire group is in their twenties, with the oldest one turning thirty this summer. According to Will, our resident statistician who delights in figuring out things like this, the average age for this group is only slightly older than last year’s group, though the range in ages is greater.

          After everyone got some shots and relaxed a little bit, they convened in the conference room and our country director introduced himself to the trainees, with other staff and PCVs standing in the front of the room. Then he introduced me and I read the “Welcome Poem” that I originally wrote for last year’s group. I took the occasion to wear a magnificent new boubou that Lisa had just presented to me as a gift a few days before. The poem and I got a warm reception from trainees and staff alike.

          Sunday morning, I was talking to a trainee with a hyphenated last name. I told him that I had a friend in San Francisco who had the part of the name that preceded the hyphen. The trainee said that he has a cousin in San Francisco: same guy. The cousin, Steve, was a volunteer in my classroom for several years.

*****

          I found a workable solution for sending stuff home: taking it to Spain. After not getting replies from the guy in charge of shipping things overseas, I decided that he must be more interested in other things than in sending my packages.

           Of the options available, Air France Cargo from Dakar (where there is no embargo) would have cost $325; Royal Air Maroc would cost 42,900 ouguiya ($143) and that would just get my cargo to NYC. Then I would have to get it to San Francisco, which would certainly cost more. By comparison, according to the website of the Spanish post office – which, by the way is quicker and easier to navigate than the one of the United States Postal Service – the cost to send my two packages will be 129 euros ($154). We’re talking about two pieces here: a trunk weighing twenty kilos and a box weighing ten.

           Overall, I have a higher sense of trust for the post office in Spain than I do for anything here in Africa. In fact, I have mailed packages to myself from Spain before and actually received them intact.

           There is a bit of inconvenience concerned with schlepping everything to Dakar and then Barcelona with me, but the lugging will end at the Barcelona airport, as the website even told me the terminal in which the post office is located.

*****

          The days leading up to my departure were extremely stressful. There were two sources of consternation: tailors and airlines. They conspired to make it an even more difficult time than I had thought it would be.

          I’ll begin with the tailors. Saturday the 25th of June was to be Mamadou the tailor’s last visit to my house. I had a considerable amount of work for him: principally two shirts, but also some repair jobs and a few gifts for the children in the family of my friend Salif.

          Saturday came, the fruit salad (Mamadou’s favorite dish, which I prepare each week) was ready, and Mamadou never showed up. He has no phone; I can sometimes reach him through his brother Saidou, but Saidou was in Senegal.

          In my fantasy of an enjoyable good-bye to Mamadou and his family, I’d have gone to their house for lunch on Friday, July first, and pick up the finished work then. As it was I now had no idea where Mamadou was, when he would be back, or how he could get the work done. (I eventually went to Mamadou’s house mid-week to drop off all the scraps of fabric that he and other tailors love to use. He was still not there, so I had to make do with saying good-bye to the other family members and leaving it at that.)

          On Monday I took the work to a neighborhood tailor named Boubacar; he has done some small jobs for me and I was willing to give him a try. I explained to him the urgency of timing in getting this work done – that I was leaving on Tuesday the fifth and that I needed the work by Saturday the second, inasmuch as there were some gifts there for people I wanted to see before I left.

          He made a show of writing the order in his appointment book. I was impressed that he even had one. He said the work would be ready Saturday evening at the close of business. Within a day or so, it dawned on me that I would be busy with the just-arrived trainees on Saturday evening, so the next time I passed Boubacar’s shop, I explained that to him.

          He said that I could call him Sunday and that he would open up for me in the afternoon. On Sunday, though, when I called the number he gave me, the person who answered said he was not Boubacar. The guy on the other end of the phone didn’t speak much French, so I had a hard time understanding him. Eventually I got a Wolof speaker on the phone and then I came to find out that Boubacar was at the tailor shop.

          Meanwhile I had arranged to visit Salif and family, but now had to change dates because the kids’ stuff was not ready.

          When I got to the tailor shop, it was closed. I had to wait until Monday. All I needed to do was grab the stuff, pay for it, and run. It would be fast. After all, it had been ready since Saturday night, right?

           First thing in the morning, I went by and the shop was closed. A little later on, it was open, but nobody was in there. I saw my work in a pile. The two shirts were almost finished: they had no collars, buttons, or buttonholes. None of the other work had been done, and the fabric just sits there in a heap! Here I was, leaving in just over twenty-four hours, and now had to deal with all this.

           I was livid, and neither Boubacar nor an employee was there to speak to. What to do? I snatched up everything and took it to Marché Capitale, where tailors by the dozens work outside of the fabric shops. I spoke to a tailor outside of one of the shops I frequent, and presented my case. I asked if he could do the work. He said yes. I asked when it would be ready. He said 5 PM.

          I called Salif and told him I would be at his house by about 5:30.

          That done, I decided to take the advice (in absencia) of my friend Carl, and I went to Air Mauritanie to reconfirm the 1:30 departure of my flight the next day. (When I booked it, the flight had been set to leave at 4:00 PM. I had received an e-mail from Airtreks.com that the departure had been advanced by a few hours. That being the case, I thought it would be particularly good to be sure of the departure time.)

          I was not ready, though, for the information that the employee had told me: the departure had, once again, been advanced. The new time was now 7:00 in the morning – the next morning!

          (I shudder to think of the scenario of my showing up at the airport at noon, only to find that the plane had already left hours before – and no way to get to Dakar by 2:00 the next morning for the flight to Barcelona! You’re not here now, Carl, but thank you just the same! And a few words to the wise: Flush the toilet. Floss your teeth. Say “please” and “thank you.” Reconfirm your flights!)

          This set me into a panic. Here it was, Monday the fourth, and the Peace Corps bureau was closed for the holiday. It would not open until an hour after my flight was now scheduled to leave, and how was I to finish up my medical procedures, get my passport, my checks, and the valuables locked up in the safe?

          The clerk, seeing my panic, asked if I was going. I assured her I would, so she made the changes on the ticket, and reconfirmed me.

          There was only one solution to the problem: I had no choice but to call Cheikh, our Volunteer Support Officer, the lynchpin of the COS process, explain the situation to him, and beg him to come in. This was something I did not want to do, as he and everyone else at the bureau had already put in two weekend days because of the arrival of the trainees, and they deserved to have their day of rest, even if Independence Day had no meaning to them.

          The telephone network chose this as the time to fail, and I could not get through to Cheikh. Eventually I reached our Country Director, explained it all to him, and he said he would call the guards and give them his permission to open up the part of the building where Cheikh needed access.

          I eventually reached Cheikh and he agreed to come in. His doing so pointed out one of the unfailing counterbalances that seems to exist here: whenever one set of forces conspires to screw up the works, another steps in with an attempt to stabilize the situation. Enter Cheikh the Stabilizer, setting up a time to meet me at the bureau!

          Now I had several boxes of stuff to get to the bureau. I called Mamouni and asked him when was the soonest I could see him. He asked, “How about now?” When he showed up I explained the situation to him, and he swung into action. He even offered to take me to the airport the next morning at 6:00.

          The change in plans affected several other people, too, as there were some folks who had said they would meet me at my house at noon the next day and either say good-bye there or go with me to the airport. I had no intention of asking people to join me at the airport at 6:00 in the morning, so I called everyone and asked them to come by the house that evening.

          Later on, as Cheikh and I went through the checklist, we got to the form asking if I had any Peace Corps property to return; yes, I had a phone. In his own helpful way, he said that it would be difficult for me to operate without the phone on this last day, so he said I should keep it, then hand it over to somebody to turn in for me. What a guy!

          He told me that our PCMO was in the med office. I went in there and they were willing to finish me up. The PCMO noticed that she had neglected to pierce my arm for the TB test on Friday, so she had to fill out a form authorizing me to have this done when I return to the USA, to be completed before the end of the next six months.

          I brought my medical clearance forms to Cheikh and he signed off on everything, too. As I was saying good-bye to him, the floodgates opened and poured forth, as I came to express the sadness I was feeling about leaving Mauritania.

          Last year, when the group ahead of us was leaving, it was easier to say good-bye to those who were leaving. This year, now that I am the one going, it has been difficult.

          I left the bureau at about 4:00 and went home to drop off papers, now needing to get to the tailor. I arrived a little after 5:00. I know that this may be hard to believe, but the work was not finished! I asked to see if the little gifts for Salif’s kids were done, and they had not even been started!

          There was a diminishing amount of time to try to juggle, so I just left the tailor there and went to Salif’s house. The visit had to be short, as I was soon going to have to get home and be the gracious host. The only impediment to my doing that was that I had not fully (1) cleaned up and put things away in the apartment or (2) packed things away for shipping or traveling. Under the original plan, I was counting on doing that during Tuesday morning, an option that I now did not have.

          Stephanie came in from Rosso and I pleaded my case of desperation to her. With everything topsy-turvy as it was, could she play co-host and also help me get ready. No surprise that she said yes, and I was even more grateful than ever for her friendship.

          We didn’t get to work long on packing and cleaning before the drop-ins began. Everyone left after 11:00, and we didn’t get to bed until almost 12:30.

          In the morning, after about five hours of sleep, we finished up what we could. Stephanie said she would come back after I had gone to finish up anything that had not been completed.

          Right after Mamouni showed up to give us the ride to the airport, Annika came by, followed by Kristen and her boyfriend Adel. Are you guys nuts? I was especially surprised to see Kristen, who is Not a Morning Person.

          We arrived at the airport at 6:30 to see the tail of an Air France plane and one other, but not one from Air Mauritanie. Mamouni went inside to get the news, and he came back to tell us that the flight was now scheduled to leave at 9:00. I went inside to register and leave my baggage. The check-in crew told me that the plane was “fatiguée” (tired, worn out).

          Like everything else in this country! was all I could say. They laughed and told me to come back at 8:30.

          Making the most of our newly-gained time, we went to La Palmeraie for breakfast. It opens at 7:00. Would I be stretching my credulity by saying that on this particular day, it didn’t open until 7:30? (I didn’t think so.)

          Arriving back at the airport at 8:40, we found out that the brand-new departure time was now 10:00! We still did not see the Air Mauritanie plane on the tarmac, which was troubling, but the airport people told us that the plane was there.

          Enter from the parking lot a flight crew wearing uniforms that were most decidedly not from Air Mauritanie. We came to find out that since the Air Mauritanie plane was so fatiguée, the airline had somehow managed to rent both a plane and a crew from the Nigerian Slok Air! How’s that for cleverness? They found a way to solve the problem! I was giddy with joy over that, because it was going to get me to make my connection.

          The flight left at 10:10, took forty minutes, and I made it safely to Dakar, where I could now breathe a little easier. I opted to stay within walking distance of the airport, where I know the terrain reasonably well, having been here three times now. I checked my luggage at what must be one of the world’s last twenty-four-hour luggage checks, and then I headed to the area where I knew I would be able to find the Italian restaurant for lunch, the cyber café for writing this, the air-conditioned hotel for reading in the comfortable lobby for a few hours, and the Chinese restaurant for dinner.

          Am I the only one who’s tired out after recounting this?

          I will close this post with the “Farewell Poem” I wrote in honor of my completing my Peace Corps service here. As usual, there are a few terms that people in the outside world need translated; I am including them here, with the hopes that the formatting doesn’t get messed up when this makes its way onto the website.

          I anticipate two more posts. One will be dated tomorrow. It is the response to some questions that my friend Craig asked me. The final one will be next Monday, with reactions to my being in the developed world for the first time in two years.

*****

 

 

 

Farewell Poem

Before I leave the RIM, I'm taking time to tell
Some words of reflection, closure, and farewell.                                    

My service has concluded and I’ve made it out alive.
Was it really only two years? Sometimes it seemed like five!

Since my arrival here I have never left Afrique 
But it’s time to move away from this continent unique.

I’m leaving Mauritania none the worse for the wear,
With a few more wrinkles and a little less hair.

I’m outta here soon – that’s the end for me.
Nouakchott now needs a new PCVRC.                                                   

So long to the guards who work at the CAC,
And the quarterly meetings with Obie and the VAC                      

Training was reciprocal; each of us has had our turn,
For even we teachers must continue to learn.

I’ve enjoyed to the max the privilege of seniority,
For as a shaybahni there’s been respect for my authority.            

And besides my distinction as the oldest Volunteer,
I have a reputation for being a bit queer.

The day-to-day life is unusual, n’est-ce pas?  
It doesn’t get much different than Africa, quoi?                             

I’ve come to understand a new meaning of “soon.”
If said in December, it may mean “by June.”

You only get frustration wanting other folks to hurry.
So get with the program: Be happy! Don’t worry!

Where I come from we don’t have such brutal heat
Or quite as many people peeing in the street.

And there’s always real coffee, that’s what I say.
Don’t give me none o’ yoNescafé!

No more knocks on the door when I’d rather be alone.
No more dust from the desert or cellular phone.

Did I enjoy the food? Of course! Now don’t be silly! 
Zeine hateh, nech-nuh, alinyeh, inihwilly.                                     

The people are descending like locusts on a tree
With these words of good-bye that they offer to me:

“You weren’t with us here for nearly long enough,
But as long as you’re leaving, can we have all your stuff?”

Sure. Keep it with the thanks from the bottom of my heart.
Keep the matelas, keep the rugs – and you can keep my counterpart!       

I won’t need all of that as I slowly make my way
Toward an autumn arrival in my City by the Bay.

Where as an RPCV I’ll take on a newer role, 
Explaining my life here, per the Peace Corp’s Third Goal.                         

So until such time arrives as I see you all again, 
I also leave you with a grateful shokuran jehzilen.                        

It’s time to hit the road and I’ll become a rover.
I can sum up two years thusly: Glad I did it! Glad it’s over!

 

Explanations of local and Peace Corps terms

       

 RIM: République Islamique de Mauritanie

 

 

Afrique: French for "Africa"

 

 

PCVRC: Peace Corps Volunteer Regional Coordinator

CAC: Compound Access Control

Obie: our Country Director

VAC: Volunteer Advisory Council

 

shaybahni: old man

 

 


n’est-ce pas?: Right?

quoi?: What?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zeine hateh, etc: How to say "delicious" in Hassaniya, Wolof, Soninké, and Pulaar

 

 

 

 

matela: mattress on the floor

 

 

RPCV: Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

shokuran jehzilen:Thank you very much