the beginning of last week, we had another day off for one of
those holidays-you-never-heard-of. This one was Africa Day;
its history goes back to May 25, 1963, when the Organisation
of African Unity was founded in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At that
time, many African nations were newly independent of their former
colonial powers. The purpose of the OAU was to defend the sovereignty
of its member countries and to eradicate the remaining vestiges
of colonialism on the continent. On its 38th anniversary, the
OAU became the African Union, still based in Addis Ababa, with
its stated aim to unify its 53 member nations politically, socially,
and economically, through its federation that is loosely based
on the European Union.
didn't see any demonstrations or evidence of celebrations. It
seems to be one of those middle-level holidays that is deemed
important enough to close the schools and offices, yet not necessary
to kill a goat.
We had two well-attended dinners at the château this week.
On Tuesday the crowd included Mark, who was just back from Morocco
and seeing parents in Paris; Brandon on his way to the USA for
his sister's high school graduation; Jen just back from meeting
a friend in Paris; Jessica and Scott on the way to meet her
parents in Morocco; Heather in from her village since school
is out; Nouakchott residents Carl, Marc, Matt, Will; and the
ever-present Mauritanian Mamouni.
On Thursday, Lisa J. was in town to work on getting funding
from NGO's for her projects, as were Kari and Mitch; Jen was
still in town; Becky and Audrey were back from vacation in Gambia
and Guinea; Nouakchott residents Carl and Mark; and Mauritanians
Mamouni, Babah, Ismail, and Khady. Lisa lives in a Pulaar village
of fewer than 400 people, so it was surprising that Khady recognized
her from there!
We finished a vegetable soup with red beans and rice on Tuesday.
By Thursday, my next batch was more of a lentil stew, and instead
of throwing the rice in it, I made it separately, so the stew
was served over it. People have been very complimentary about
my cooking, but I think that its success is based more on the
fact that most of these people have been subsisting for months
at a time on greasy couscous and goat. Not only that, but it's
a meal they didn't have to cook or buy!
As of the middle of May, I started seeing a few banners around
town announcing an exposition of furniture at a Moroccan showroom
that is on a road where I frequently walk. I made a mental note
to stop by if I remembered, just to see what it was all about.
Then, on Friday, I went there to investigate. I was greeted
by one of the Moroccan restaurateurs who asked me, "Do
you know the products of IKEA?" I told him I did. He informed
me that that is what he had ordered for this "exposition."
It was in its third day by the time I got there and he said
that most of the items had already been purchased. He said that
if this is shipment was successful, he was going to investigate
becoming an IKEA representative for Nouakchott.
I find that most of the IKEA furniture is made of composition
board and not very appealing. But when they use real wood, the
designs are pleasant and functional. They have lots of useful
kitchen and bath items. I bought something that I will find
useful: an apron. I don't need it myself, but I have been thinking
of having aprons made as gifts, using local fabrics. This one
will be the model that a tailor can copy easily.
As I was leaving my house this morning at 7:20 to go to ENS,
I found Babah waiting for me outside the gate. The night guardian
had not yet unlocked the gate, so Babah couldn't get in to knock
on my door.
was a surprise seeing him there so early, and then he told me
that he had found a new job. He is now working at the super
marché closest to my house. In fact, I can see the side
of the building from most of my windows. I get a kick out of
the name of this one: Galerie Tata. It's the store that many
previous Volunteers called "Wal-Mart" because of its
large size and variety of merchandise, with a large assortment
of household items, toys, and some clothing, in addition to
food. It's probably the largest market of its kind in Mauritania.
Recently, they placed a big new sign on top of the building,
with just four letters spelling "TATA." Since I live
one block behind and one block over from the store, from my
windows it reads "ATAT."
imagine that Babah's position, in terms of our nomenclature,
would probably be described as a stock boy. These stores hire
people to stand around without anything much to do except watch
the customers and possibly answer the occasional question about
where to find the coffee filters, which are inexplicably shelved
nowhere near the coffee.
said that they pay better than the other market where he worked.
But I wonder how long he is going to last, considering the hours
he has to work: from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon,
then, after a break until 6:00 in the evening, he goes back
to work until 1:00 in the morning. And during these two seven-hour
shifts he has to stay on his feet the whole time, as it is strictly
forbidden to sit down.
you do the math on this, considering that his only day off is
Friday, this means a whopping 84-hour work week! The only people
I know who have ever worked such punishing hours were in Silicon
Valley tech start-ups. At least they had stock options and break
rooms with well-supplied refrigerators. Babah is not sure what
the monthly salary is; he said it is between 15,000 and 20,000
ouguiya, which means that his hourly rate of pay will be 179
to 238 ouguiya or 55 to 73 cents!
This morning I gave my final exam in American Civilization at
the ENS. I set it up so that it would be easy to administer
and grade. It was twenty multiple choice or true/false questions.
I brought a supply of Newsweek magazines for students to read
if they finished early. Within the two-hour period allotted
for the exam, they were able to answer the questions and then
we had time to go over the answers together.
few people from the school administration came in to check up
on us. Nobody, however, has asked me to account for the grades
on the exams or given me any information about criteria to be
used for giving course grades: A, B, C, etc? Pass/fail? Excellent,
good, satisfactory, needs improvement? I expect that either
one of these two things will happen: (1) nothing or (2) somebody
is going to call me frantically, wanting to know why I didn't
fill out some sort of form that they never told me about.
hard to know which way this will go. I give each possibility
about an equal chance of happening, but I am leaning a little
more heavily on the second possibility. Whatever the results,
I will be sure to write about it.
they left, the students were extremely complimentary to me about
the class. They wanted my telephone number and e-mail address
so that they could keep in touch. Some of them who live on campus
in what must be a residence hall invited me to spend the afternoon
with them this coming Saturday. The invitation came from the
Francophone student who, during the class sessions, had been
the most critical of "American cultural imperialism"
and the most suspicious about America "taking over"
Africa. In addition to chatting with the group, I am also curious
to see the facility and living conditions.
have the same feeling of accomplishment that used to accompany
the end of the school year when I was teaching in public school.
In terms of the Peace Corps, I can see that this has been a
successful project. And, just as it always was at home, the
best part has been in working with the students and the most
frustrating has been in dealing with the administration.
There is a huge variety of fabric available here. Every day
I see patterns I had never seen before. In thinking about what
I may like to have as a souvenir of my stay here, I know that
I don't want to live in a place that makes a visitor to my home
ask, "You've been to Africa, haven't you?" Anything
I bring home will have to be functional rather than only ornamental.
I have settled upon something that will fill the bill: a quilt
cover for my bed. The other day, I purchased two yards each
of seven different fabrics. I will work with a tailor - probably
Mamadou - to come up with a variation on a patchwork design.
One of the things I needed to do, though, before the cover is
made is to wash the fabric in hot water and then dry it in a
hot dryer. I want to be sure that if there is any shrinkage,
it happens before the final product is made.
So that's a great idea, and easy to accomplish back in the USA,
but what about here, where there are no laundromats and all
fabric is hand washed? I had heard some of the Volunteers talking
about going to the home of our APCD to use his washer and dryer
for their laundry. I had seen those appliances there during
Thanksgiving, but hadn't given any thought to using them myself
- until this situation came up.
I asked by e-mail if I could use the washer and dryer and then,
this morning, when I got to the bureau, one of the other Volunteers
told me that she had just gotten permission to use them, too,
so we could head on over to the house and take turns with the
I stopped at Galerie Tata to buy some fabric softener and say
hello to Babah. Then I was on my way to get this job done. Now
everything is ready to be cut up and stitched together. I have
a few different designs that I am considering, so still have
to sort this out.
May's reading took me all over the place:
Seat of the Soul and Soul Stories were both written
by Gary Zukav. The former was published in 1989, the latter
in 2000. I had seen the author speak and found his message to
be both appealing and captivating. I brought Soul Stories
with me but had never read The Seat of the Soul.
Then, there it was, on the shelf of the Peace Corps Transit
House in Praia, Cape Verde when I was there on vacation.
The PCV libraries are a wonderful asset of our program. We can
use the give-one/take-one approach or just take books and then
pass them around. I have passed along to other Volunteers most
of the books I brought with me, and I am keeping that flow going.
I couldn't help but believe that one of the reasons that I was
brought to the Transit House in Praia was to give me the opportunity
to read The Seat of the Soul.
enjoyed both books tremendously. Zukav's primary message is
that we need to live in harmony, sharing, cooperation, and with
reverence for life. He believes that we are in a period of human
growth now during which many people are learning in a multisensory
fashion, having experiences of enlightenment through channels
other than the five senses.
In Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and
Lunacy, Eric Hansen enters a society of which I was previously
unaware: the world of orchid enthusiasts. He meets and describes
people who collect, grow, sell, observe, and create new species
of orchids. I was surprised to read of the lengths that some
people go in order to maintain their devotion and addiction
to these flowers.
Shifra Horn moved to Japan when her husband was sent there to
work in the Israeli embassy. The result was Shalom, Japan,
a delightful book that helped me to remember my own visits there
and enjoyment of many things Japanese. Her descriptions are
accurate and peppered with humorous stories to illustrate how
she learned much of the ways of a culture that had previously
been foreign to her.
The Ponds of Kalambayi is a Peace Corps book by Mike
Tidwell, who was a fisheries Volunteer in Zaire in the late
1980's. It's a wonderful tale of the way this foreigner moves
to a remote and destitute region and slowly gains the confidence
of the villagers, helping them to dig and create ponds in which
they can grow the fish that they need to augment their diet
In Equator: A Journey, Thurston Clarke makes a trip around
the world by staying as close to the equator as possible. Getting
from one point to the next sometimes meant trips that took him
far from the equator. He writes with humor, intelligence, and
thoughtfulness to his subject, including just enough information
about the political and social climate of each locale. The book
is populated with a selection of oddballs and characters who
helped to keep my attention throughout.