Random acts of kindness

           I got a letter from my father last week, in which he asked me how I was keeping up with what was going on in Iraq, and what I thought of it. I told him what I tell anyone who asks me about these or any other current events: that I am not making any attempt to keep abreast of them, in that I don't find any advantage in having that as part of my consciousness.

            I know that there are many people who consider that one is "well-informed" if he knows about current events. I agree that it is important to be well-informed. At the same time, I think it is worth asking: well-informed about what?

            Many people go to great lengths to be well-informed about which celebrity is getting married or divorced. Some people choose to be well-informed about how to build a barn, fly a plane, cook a soufflé, or kick a ball. You can be up-to-date with the stock market, sports, Broadway theater, or the latest best-selling novels. Being "well-informed" has almost as many different definitions as there are people themselves because we each have our own ideas about what is important to know.

            Several years ago, I closely examined not only how I was spending my time, but what my life objectives were. Reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey helped me with defining priorities and writing a mission statement for my life. I am striving to be a person who makes contributions to humanity. Any concerns that I have about tikkun olam (Hebrew for "repair of the world") and my actions with regard to such a bold undertaking, have to be tempered by the realization that I am but one person, that my influence and abilities have their limits. It feels more comfortable for me to keep my focus and awareness as close as possible to my "sphere of influence," to use a term that Covey defined in his book.

            My contribution to making the world a better place has to do with kind and loving acts toward people I see, know, and interact with, whether daily or annually, regularly or sporadically. That is where I want my attention to be. I don't see how the knowledge of atrocities made on behalf of my or any other government can help me toward this end. If anything, I find that the more I know about the gruesome details of man's inhumanity to man, the more discouraged, pessimistic, and cynical I am likely to become. I don't want to be that kind of person.

            Likewise, I don't take favorably to the powers that be in my government dictating to me what people in which countries will be my friend. There was a situation a little more than a year ago in which somebody got upset with an action that the French government took, which resulted in the renaming of "french fries" as "freedom fries." There were calls by many Americans to boycott all things French.

            This was particularly stupid, first of all, because the word "french" in "french fries" refers not to the nation of France but to the cooking method used to prepare the potatoes. Perhaps the people calling for this "patriotic action" didn't know any French people, but I can count many of them as my friends - people in whose homes I have been offered generous food, wine, and lodging, and those to whom I have offered the same hospitality. My home and my heart will continue to be open to them and to all similarly well-intentioned people, without my mindlessly getting sucked into doing what some random elected official says I should do.

            There's another aspect, commonly stated, that I do not understand concerning issues like the United States sanctioning the killing of people in Iraq - or anywhere else, for that matter. I hear many Americans say that "we" are in Iraq. I don't know which part of the "we" they think they are part of, but I can assure you that I do not consider myself to be part of any group fighting a war against any other people.

            It's the same kind of "we" that you hear people talking about when, sitting in front of the television with a couple of beers in their bellies, one in hand, and a six-pack in the fridge, the game is over, and these guys are saying, "We won," or "They really beat the crap out of us."

            In both cases, I can't understand how anyone can consider themselves to be part of something that they had nothing to do with. It's as though all it takes is saying you're part of something to make that so. If it's as easy to associate with a group that one wants to be a part of in this manner - just by proclaiming that you are part of the "we" - then it's just as simple a matter to disassociate with such a group's actions.

            More disturbing to me than the dividing of people into the "us/them" dichotomy is that too many people do not understand that as inhabitants of this planet, there is no "us" and "them": there is only us. I find it sad and self-defeating that people use arbitrary factors such as age, race, religion, sexuality, national origin, or governmental constructs as barriers that stand in the way of our reaching the maximum potential that we can attain on Earth for all humanity.

            Too many wars and other conflicts are currently being waged because of the way that people have inherited from their ancestors the same world view of dividing what they see into an "us" and "them." How does it help humankind if we accept this legacy as passed down from previous generations? The most important lesson that we need to learn in this world is to release the hatred that has spawned of conflicts that began before anyone who is currently living on this earth was born, whether it be Catholic Irish versus Protestant English, North/South in the United States, Hutu/Tutsi, Israeli/Palestinian, or white European subjugation of indigenous peoples worldwide.

            Can't we wise up to the fact that we have a responsibility to learn from the hateful acts that were perpetrated in past generations? If we carry ancient grudges into and through our lifetimes, the only sure legacy that we will be able to pass along to our children will be the bequest of hatred. Is that what we really want?

            Getting back to the situation I originally addressed - following current events, which most commonly means politics - what works best for me is to limit my awareness to the issues that I need to understand in order for me to be an informed voter. I take my voting seriously and have never missed an election since I first registered to vote in 1968. What I don't do, however, is get so emotionally involved in the electoral process as to get distracted from the other work that I need to do in order to have something left inside of me to be able to deal with the day-to-day life activities that will continue regardless of who is in the White House, the statehouse, the House of Representatives, or my own house.

           I enjoyed the sculptures of American artist Louise Nevelson. In fact, when I was teaching kindergarten in the 1970's, I created an assemblage that eventually hung next to the deck in my Palo Alto home, and I called it "Homage to Louise." I recently came across this quotation by her: "I have made my world and it is a much better world than I ever saw outside."

           What I particularly like about her words is the understanding that each of us can and does create and live in a world of our own. Whether we realize it or not, we have autonomy with regard to the people and events that populate it. I like a world of beauty, peace, and harmony. That is the awareness that I want, and if I can help to actualize it for myself and those around me, that would be even better!

            It was a busy week at Château Jay, with three different PCVs staying at various times. At the beginning of the week, I finally had a chance to spend some time at home making a new pot of soup - split pea this time - and invited a bunch to come and sample it. I also enjoyed being the recipient of some acts of kindness:

            Brandon had been to my house for soup and bread before he went to the USA for his sister's high school graduation. I had asked him if he could bring back a bread knife - something I could not find here - and he did.

            Lisa M. is a science type; she is the first person I knew to have one of those USB drives (thumb drive) for use in transferring documents between computers. When she was staying with me, I showed her the white crud that was sticking to the inside of my stainless steel teapot. Without a moment's hesitation, she said, "That's calcium. Try vinegar." I put a little vinegar in the water and let it sit while I went out to work. When I got home, it was sparkling inside and out, courtesy of Lisa.

            Annika is in town from one of our furthest villages. When she arrived in town, she brought two books that she thought I would enjoy reading.

            Babah continues to plug away at his two-shift-a-day job at Galerie Tata. Recently, though, his roommate Ismail has quit working because he wasn't being paid by the ministry official for whom he had been driving. An unemployed Ismail does not have to get up early, so he has been not only staying up late, but inviting friends to visit.

            Babah has been getting home after 1:00 AM to their shared room filled with people listening to loud music. He has been unable to sleep well enough so that he can wake up and be at work by 8:00 AM. So he left that shared room and has been staying with his family on the outskirts of Nouakchott. He now has to get up even earlier. Another repercussion of his move out of there is that during his several-hour break between shifts, he has no place to go to rest. Even though I live within sight of the store, I am not home during that time.

            Babah says that he has had some problems on the job because he has reported co-workers he has seen stealing from the store. He is plugging away, though, and will wait until the end of the month to request that his hours be cut so that he can resume a normal life.

            On Wednesday evening, a married couple that works at the embassy had the second book exchange at their home. It was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. I went with two PCV teachers, Annika and Karl.

            Toward the end of the evening, when most of the people were gone, there were just three of us PCVs with the hosts. The woman said to us, "We have a lot of taco shells left over. I wonder if you can help us get rid of them." We thought that she was going to go to the kitchen and put them in bags for us. Instead, she invited us and any other PCVs we wanted to invite, to make and eat tacos the next night, right there in their home.

           We brought the fruit to make fruit salad and had an enjoyable evening of five PCVs with this couple. The father of the host was a PCV in one of the first groups that the Peace Corps sent to Ghana, back in the Sixties.

            During the past weekend, I put the finishing touches on the cross-culture manual. Erin, a second-year PCV who is closing service after the up-coming training, is the cross-culture coordinator. She agreed with me that having the cover of the manual and the chapter divider pages in a color other than white would be a nice touch. All it meant would be shopping around for a ream of colored paper, since there wasn't already one at the Peace Corps bureau.

            In the center of Nouakchott, there is a concentration of stationery/office supply stores - at least a dozen of them in a small area. My first stop on Thursday was at the place where I usually get my supplies. The proprietor asked me what color I wanted: yellow, blue, green, or pink? I told him it didn't matter that much and asked which one he had on hand. He said he didn't have any of them in stock, but would call around for me in order to find out where it was.

            After a few phone calls and sending an employee to look some of the stores in the neighborhood, he said that there was no colored paper available. I thanked him and left, stopping at a good half a dozen other shops. Sure enough, nobody had any colored paper.

            At the last shop I went to, when I asked if there was colored paper, the owner asked me, "What color would you like?" All right, then, now I am making some progress.

            I said, "Yellow."

            He replied, "We don't have yellow."

            I asked, "How about blue?"

            He responded, "We don't have blue."

            I queried, "How about the green or pink?"

            He answered, "We don't have those." It just left me laughing and wondering…. if he didn't have any of it, what difference did it make what color I wanted?

            I was going through that part of town on Saturday and decided to give it one last attempt. After three stores that had no colored paper, I found one that had an opened package of green and a closed package of yellow. So we will now be able to add a little color and pizzazz to the cross-culture manual.

            During the week, my APCD asked me if I would be willing to teach an English class. The next day, in his office, he gave me the details: it's going to be for beginners of English at the Institut Supérieur d'Etudes et Recherche Islamique (ISERI), the highest Islamic institute of higher learning in the country.

            The request for a teacher was from ISERI to the American embassy. The DCM at the embassy (Deputy Chief of Mission, second-in-command to the Ambassador himself) had recommended that I be asked to do the job because of my (1) being a man, (2) gray hairs, and (3) long years of teaching service. He thought that, as a result of these factors, I would garner more respect in that environment than would a young woman. This is a reality of life here.

            I told the DCM that my first concern about doing anything like this has to do with what I have heard about schools in general being seriously under funded. Being willing to teach a class is one thing. Having to scrape all over town for suitable materials is not something that I am going to be willing to do. I have already spent innumerable hours cutting and pasting, borrowing, creating, and slapping together teaching materials. If they really want to show that they appreciate having an experienced teacher to do this, I want to have materials that I can get right in there and use.

            The DCM told me that the embassy was committing something like $20,000 to $30,000 to this project. They are getting computers with interactive software and books - whatever books I like, so if I had any suggestions, just let them know.

            We made an appointment for me to visit the institute on Sunday. To underscore how important this was, they arranged for an embassy car to pick me up and for the embassy's Cultural and Public Affairs Assistant to go with me. When the embassy dispatches a car to pick up anyone, let alone a lowly Peace Corps Volunteer, you know that they are serious!

            On Sunday, I met with the director of the institute, two of his assistants, and the embassy official. One of the bits of information that came out during the meeting is that the technical council, which runs the affairs of the institute, has still not met to approve the adding of English and French to the curriculum. This meeting is going to happen sometime in October or November, before the beginning of their new school year.

            At ISERI, they are referring to the room where the computers will go as the salle americaine, the American room. Another idea that they had about my class is that since it will be the first English course there, they want the initial group to be limited to the staff of the institute and the director himself, a group of about twenty or thirty people.

            It's a good thing they didn't put "Mauritanian" in front of ISERI, or else it would be MISERI - and I wouldn't want that!

            Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my training group's arrival in Mauritania. A small group of us went out to dinner to celebrate. I have to be careful around whom I say anything on the order of, "One year down and one to go." As a member of the Education sector, I will get to leave with the other teachers at the end of the school year, around this time next year. The other PCVs, non-teachers, will have an additional two and a half months before they leave.

            The Pre-Service Training (PST) staff has asked us Nouakchott residents to help with the responsibilities of welcoming our new trainees. This has meant a few meetings to be sure that we have logistics under control. We even got a sheet of requests on the part of the PST staff and PC administration, concerning requested behavior with the PCTs: predominated by the obvious concerns that we remain positive and upbeat in our conversations with the trainees.

            They arrive tomorrow!