Slow news week


          During 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.

          I 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.

          It 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."

          I 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.

          He 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.

          When 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.

          A 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.

          It's 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.

          Before 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.

          I 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 machines.

           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:

          The 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.

          I 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 and income.

           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.