Sleeping outside


          Two thirds of my classes ended this week: Wednesday was my last session at ISERI. That same evening we had an English Conversation Club class at NEC.

          Friday was the last class meeting of American Civilization at ENS. I found out that my final exam time at ENS has been scheduled for tomorrow morning at 10:00. Mamouni said that he would help me to proctor the exam, since I had helped him with his last week. That's a good idea, as cheating is a way of life for students here.

          Considering that Friday was the last American Civilization class, and that the last two meetings preceding it had been cancelled because of seminars – so late in the school year? Whose idea was that? – I thought that there would be a fairly high attendance of students wanting as much help as they could get before the final.

          When class was ready to begin, only three of the forty students were there. We began on time. Throughout the class, I explained various features of the final, writing notes on the board for students to copy onto paper. Throughout the next hour and a half, eight additional students showed up, anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour late, and that didn’t stop them from leaving the class to take phone calls.

          Upon entering the room, their most common excuse was, “I thought there was not class today,” leading me to wonder, If you thought there was no class, why are you here?

          When I expressed my surprise that there weren’t more students in attendance, especially since the last two classes were replaced by seminars, one of the students shrugged his shoulders and said, “We are victims of the administration.”

          There was no way I was going to let him get away with that! If you sit by and say that others are in control of your life, you have no recourse for what happens to you. I reminded all those present that every paper I handed out has had my telephone number and e-mail address on it. The exam schedule has been posted and everyone knows that our exam is going to be tomorrow, the 23rd. Some people have missed classes at which I have handed out material that will be included on the test.

          What about calling me and saying that you need the handout? And if you are too timid about calling me yourself, have you contacted your class delegate to contact me on your behalf? Are you using the time between now and the exam to complain that there are only a few days left or are you using it to study the material so that you can do well on the test?

          As I peruse the class list, I can see that three people have never shown up to class; five students have shown up to only one or two sessions. In one private discussion, I consulted my roll sheet and pointed out to one student that he had been to class only two times. “That’s not true!” he corrected me. “I’ve been here three times!” As if that kind of record was something to be proud of or would have made a big difference!

          True, my perspective about this is typically American. I felt that if these young adults, all future teachers who are going to want to have their own students next year, were to be exposed to American civilization that they should also hear the way an American responds to what they had to say.


          Along with the weather, interest in my apartment is also heating up. Mamouni has asked to show it to some people from Woodside, the Australian petroleum company that has a contract to explore for oil in Mauritania. On Friday, I got a call from Erwin, an Austrian guy living in Nouakchott, who said that he was interested in moving in when it becomes available.

          Mamouni called me to say that he had somebody who wanted to see the place, and then expressed his interest in getting his commission if he were the person who found somebody who moved in. I told him that if I found somebody myself, I would be expecting the commission. He asked me, "You wouldn't want a commission, would you?"

          All I could ask him in return was, Why wouldn't I?

          After that phone call, I got back to him and asked Mamouni to come by so we could talk. We agreed that we would split whatever commission came along for the apartment rental, no matter which one of us got it.

          Now Erwin is waiting to hear from his current landlord. He knows that his rent is going up, but he does not know by what amount. The answer to that question will determine whether Erwin moves in or not.


          It was a hot week. I slept inside only two of the nights. When it was time for bed, around 9:30 to 10:00 the inside temperature, depending on the night, was anywhere from 87 to 92. Outside, though, it was usually 85 or lower. Those few degrees make a huge difference in comfort.

          In the mornings, I woke up to outside temperatures of about 75 to 84 and then entered an apartment that was always several degrees hotter.

          I am surprised I hadn't thought of this earlier. Guess I am a slow learner!


          This was a week for lots of people being late and also for miscommunications. As for the latenesses, Babah was to come over on Thursday evening and kept me waiting for an hour. The next night, Gay Mamadou was to come by and when he was still not there two and a half hours after the appointed time, I called to tell him to forget about it for that night.

          On Sunday morning, I was up a little after 6:00 and turned on the phone. I was surprised to get a call at 6:51 from Lamine, who asked if he could come by. I said yes, and he told me he would be there in half an hour. Two hours later, he was still not there! I went on my way for the day. At 12:45, when I was eating lunch, he called to apologize, but I never did get to know what had happened.

          All of this points to one of the basic differences in the way Mauritanians and Americans perceive time. We Americans are oriented toward doing. I always have plenty to do and I usually tailor my projects to the time it will take to do them. For example, when I am waiting for somebody to come by at a specific time, I choose the project that will fit my anticipated period of waiting, which leads to my frustration when people do not show up when they say they would.

          By contrast, Mauritanians are oriented toward being rather than doing. Whatever a Mauritanian is, she or he can be in any setting. This means that a person or persons who are being are just passing time, not doing anything in particular, and they do it with whoever is there with them at the time.

          They have no idea why I would be upset or confused about their showing up late for appointments. What could I have possibly been doing anyway? Just being there at home.

          As for the miscommunications, the first one came with regard to seeing Babah's new place where he is working. He had told me that he was employed by some French people and that he had his own room in their house. I was curious about who these people were and what his living quarters were like.

          I told him I would like to see his new place, and we met on Saturday afternoon. But he thought I wanted to go with him to visit his family in Toujounine. No, that is not what I had said.

          We did go to the apartment and I met the husband of the couple that employs him. Several expats here employ what they call "a boy" to do errands for them. I find that to be a demeaning job title. In any event, it seems that that is what Babah is doing.

          The couple pays and treats him well, so at least he has found a decent job. Babah told me that he and his siblings have come close to paying off the cost of their home to the siblings who do not live there, and he proudly told me that most of that money has come from him.

          After the look-see at Babah's new digs, I went home for my weekly meeting with Mamadou the tailor. For this week, I had designed something that I wanted him to make.

          Dissatisfied with the billfolds I have used for holding airline tickets, money, and passport, I designed a new one for myself and asked Mamadou to make it. Rather than using leather (too bulky and dependent on the use of animal skin) or plastic (too flimsy and easy to tear), I thought that I would try something made out of a piece of nylon from one of the laundry bags that I had brought here with me.

          I made a prototype out of paper and gave it to Mamadou, along with the laundry bag, showing him that all he needed to do was cut off the bottom of the bag, use what he needed, and sew up the bottom again. I would lose a few inches of length on the laundry bag, but it was plenty big to begin with, so that would not be a problem.

          Imagine my surprise when all I got back from Mamadou were the top few inches of the bag – the part with the drawstring. How was it possible that he needed all that nylon just to make one little billfold? As it turned out, he thought that I had wanted him to make as many of the billfolds as possible, using up as much nylon as he needed to maximize the number.

          That is how I got not one, but six new travel billfolds made of white nylon.


          On Friday, I got a call from the PC's director of security, informing me that I should not go to ISERI, that there was a demonstration. Following is part of an e-mail that was sent to me; the e-mail subject line was "Fight at ISERI":

          "The students of ISERI (Scientific Institute for Islamic Studies and Searches), tried yesterday to organize a gathering asking for some administrative reforms. The Director of ISERI who refused this gathering asked the Guards (of ISERI) to charge them. Sources said that few students and one guard were lightly injured.

          The Students Union promised to take some measures like demonstration or boycott of exams.

           I am worried about the (PCV) teacher at the American Corner in ISERI."

          Since I had finished teaching there on Wednesday, there was no need for me to go back anyway, so nothing to worry about.

          This morning, Monday, our Country Director called me as I was working at one of the bureau computers. He forwarded an e-mail that contained the following information, titled "Gathering at ISERI":

          "Despite the promises of the Director of ISERI to find appropriate solutions today to the students’ claims, the Mauritanian Student Union plans to organize a gathering in the ISERI, tomorrow Tuesday.

          Observers think that the maintain of this demonstration is only for making more pressure on the Director of ISERI."  

          Our Country Director then asked me to call the Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy. The DCM had sent him an e-mail: "Could you please call Jay for me? I would like to thank him for his teaching at ISERI and service as a volunteer. His work was important to our PD effort and I greatly appreciated it.

          (I had to ask what "PD" stood for; it is "Public Diplomacy.")

          When I reached him, the DCM was very complimentary to me, saying that I was a big help to our (U. S. government's) work in Mauritania and that he guessed I had no expectation of doing anything like that when I came here.

          I told him that it worked out just fine, that it was not the best use of the computers or the English software, and that I was happy to be giving the American taxpayers a little bit of value for their money.


          I haven't had a tremendous amount of time to read lately, what with all the hours I have been putting towards the lesson plan book. But I have done some reading since the last book reviews I posted:

          The Best American Essays 2002 was edited by Stephen Jay Gould. This was a decent collection of writing that had been written during 2001, which accounts for several pieces reflecting the topic of the events of September 11th of that year. I enjoyed a wide variety of essays that were so well written that it did not matter that their subject matter was fairly obscure: Bernard Cooper’s inviting his father to the ceremony where he was going to accept the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award for his first book; the story of the restoration of the “Countess of Stanlein,” Bernard Greenhouse’s cello attributed to Stradivarius; Barbara Ehrenreich’s firsthand medical trauma, “Welcome to Cancerland;” Jonathan Franzen’s tale of handing over his father’s brain for an autopsy; Amy Kolen’s recounting of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York, 1911; and a portrait of Robert Carter III, “The Anti-Jefferson,” by Andrew Levy.

          Into the Wild was Jon Krakauer's investigation of the death of Christopher McCandless, who hitchhiked to Alaska from the lower States in an attempt to live off the land, and then died in the process. Krakauer interviewed a large number of people in several states who had met Chris along his way. The book began as a shorter work in Outside magazine and drew more response than any other piece the magazine had published up to that time.

          I had never heard of Rick Bragg until I picked up his All Over but the Shoutin', which details his upbringing in rural Alabama and traces his life, education, and career through his winning the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. I haven't seen any of his other writing, but can say from what I read here that he is a fine storyteller who writes with an eye for detail, heart, perception, and sense of humor. He manages not only to get across his own family's story, but left me thinking that this would be a guy I would really enjoy sitting down with for a conversation.