Teaching Mamouni how to fish


         In December I introduced Mamouni to Amber, who works for a large international organization. When he heard where she worked, he told her that he does translations from Arabic to French and vice versa, and explained that he would very much like to work for them if the opportunity came up. She was very receptive, gave him her phone number and e-mail address, and asked for his résumé, saying that she and the others in her office would consider his services when they need translators, which is fairly regularly.

           Amber asked for Mamouni's business card, but he doesn't have one. I explained to him that it would be handy to have some made and carry them with him at all times, which would be an expense, but also an investment.

           Several months later, I ran into Amber and she asked me, "How is your friend Mamouni? I haven't heard from him or received his résumé." When I saw him, I told him what she had said. He explained his lack of calling her by saying, "Well, she has Mattel and I have Mauritel, so it is expensive to call her." (These are two competing telephone companies that operate here; it is more expensive to call from one to another than from among subscribers of the same company.)

           Gee, Mamouni! You're giving up the possibility of earning thousands of ouguiya because of the cost of a phone call? I tried to explain to him that this kind of expense, like the business card, is also an investment. He is fond of English expressions, so I taught him, "It takes money to make money."

         In the meantime, I have observed that despite his intelligence and facility with languages (Hassaniya, Arabic, French, Spanish, and English), he always takes the easy way out when it comes to the written word. If somebody uses a word he likes, and he wants to capture it to add it to his vocabulary, he will not only ask how it is spelled, but, "Can you write it for me?" instead of getting the spelling so that he can write it himself.

           When Mamouni told me that he wanted to be in touch with some American friends who had lived in Mauritania, I suggested a free e-mail account for him. He said that he already had one. I asked him how often he checked his e-mail, and he told me, "every few months." One Saturday, I got permission for him to work with me in the PCV computer room. We checked his e-mail, but the account had been closed for lack of activity, which meant the laborious process of opening up a new account for him (laborious because he was doing the typing, rather than I).

           A few weeks ago, when he was fumbling for a piece of scrap paper to write something down at my house, I gave him a notepad and pen. Now you can take notes whenever you need to, I explained. He doesn't ask me to write things for him anymore because he knows I will tell him to do it himself. But if there are other people visiting me while he is there, and this sort of thing comes up, he will ask somebody else to write for him.

           On several occasions, when he has been scrambling for a pen and paper, I have asked him about the notebook and pen I gave him. They are always somewhere else: the car, his bedroom, or, "I'm not sure." You could just put it in your boubou pocket, I advise cheerily. Those pockets are enormous - you could carry a week's groceries in there!

           On Wednesday evening, he showed up at my house and, taking a diskette out of his boubou pocket, asked, "Can you send my résumé to Amber from the Peace Corps tomorrow?"

           I told him that I wouldn't. Like a little boy being told he can't have a cookie before dinner, he asked me why not. I explained that first of all, the disk drives on the Peace Corps computers don't work - probably the result of too much sand and dust that have rendered them inoperable. Secondly, if I send her his resume, she is going to see that it is from me, and not from him. I asked, Do you want her to see you as an independent professional or somebody who needs other people to do your work for you? What is the image you want to project?

           He reluctantly saw what I was getting at, and he arranged to pick me up the next morning so that we could go to an Internet café together. When we were in the car, I asked him if he ever heard of the expression about teaching a man how to fish instead of giving him a fish. "Yes," he said. "Is that Chinese?" I told him that I wasn't sure of its origin, but that this is part of what we Peace Corps Volunteers are doing wherever we serve - with an emphasis on teaching people how to do things for themselves, rather than do the work for them, so that they can become independent and then transfer these skills to other countrymen.

         Even though the "teach a man how to fish" was something I had just explained to him, Mamouni began our Internet café visit by trying once again to get me to send the résumé for him. When that didn't work, he signed onto his account, only to get a message saying, "This ID does not exist."

          "Why doesn't it work?" he wanted to know. I asked him when was the last time that he used it. He said, "That time with you." That was more than two months ago, which led me to teaching him a new expression: "Use it or lose it." We opened a new account for him, complete with my having to explain what a ZIP code is so that he could fill out the registration. He had to choose a new e-mail address, since the old one didn't work. His preference was "mamouni," but that was already taken. He typed in "mamouni" again and then paused as he thought of what he was add to it to distinguish it. Then he finished: "mamounijay," and flashed a smile to see if I was pleased. (I wasn't, but I didn't say anything.)

           Once the document was attaching, he got up to speak to another Internet user, a woman he knows. He came back to ask me for a pen and paper, so that he could get her phone number. His cell phone has a function through which he can keep names and phone numbers, but that is too complicated for him, as I found out a few weeks ago when he was helping Jessica find an apartment and he called me several times to ask, "Do you have Jessica's phone number?"

           The résumé didn't attach to the e-mail, so the session ended in frustration. What I didn't tell him was that I was going to be having dinner at the home of Amber and her husband Chris that evening. If he were going to get a paper copy of his résumé to Amber, it would have to be by himself and to her office, rather than by my delivering it to her house that night.

         I was walking down the street, making a right turn around a corner, when a smiling man was coming toward me. He was making a turn to his left, which put us walking in the same direction. He greeted me as an old friend, smiling, "Don't you remember me? From the airport. Remember?"

           This approach must usually be effective, as most foreigners come into the country by plane and under a cloud of confusion, what with customs forms and assembling baggage, that most people think that they must have met this guy at the airport, just as he said. In any event, it's always been an indication to me that the guy is going to hit me up for something.

           Now that it has happened to me twice in Nouakchott and several times in Dakar, I recognize the ploy and waited to see what he is going to ask for.

           He didn't waste much time, as he launched into the explanation that he would be getting married on Saturday. I wished him all the best. He said that he needed to raise enough money to buy a sheep for the wedding. Would I be able to help him out? ("Can you help me buy a sheep for the wedding?" is the local equivalent of, "Can you spare a quarter for a cup of coffee?")

           I told him that I am a vegetarian and that I would not be contributing to the demise of a sheep on his or anyone else's behalf. He replied by saying, "But it's good to kill the sheep."

           I explained that I did not agree with him. It may be good for him, but not for me, and certainly not for the sheep.

           The only response he had was, "Sheep is better than beef." All I could tell him is that I wouldn't know.

           I was visiting my Lebanese friend Ghaleb. On the kitchen table was a jar of pink powder. I asked him what it was. He said, "Rose juice. Do you want to try it?" Rose juice? I had never heard of that.

           He mixed some with water. Sure enough, the smell of roses filled the kitchen. It's sweet, probably fairly close to Kool-Aid in the sugar content, and fragrant. He said it was not available here, that he brought it back with him from his most recent visit to Lebanon.

         On Friday, Annika, Jigar, and I went to Mamadou the Tailor's house for a visit. The week before, when he had been to my house, Annika gave him a sewing job. We were going out there to pick that up and to bring him some more work.

           It was enjoyable being there with others, which shifted the attention and the burden of conversation from me.

           Saidou, Mamadou's older brother, is getting married on the third and fourth of September (weddings take two days). He is marrying one of his cousins, which is common here, and demonstration of the belief in the saying, "Cousines sont font pour les cousins," or, "Cousins are made for each other," specifically meaning that the girl cousins are made for their boy cousins.

           While we were there, we got an enlightening peek into the behind-the-scenes build-up to the marriage preparations. Saidou told us that it is the custom for the new bride to give away all her clothing to her female cousins. She will start her marriage with a new wardrobe that is provided by the immediate family of her husband-to-be.

           Saidou and his mother gave us a show-and-tell presentation of the trousseau-in-formation. They brought into the salon a huge hard-shell suitcase. When they opened it, it was already completely packed. Layer by layer, they displayed the contents to us and to the other people who were visiting at the time.

           We began with a few towels and four sets of bed sheets. After the underwear collection, we got to the outfits. Most of these are sets comprised of three pieces of fabric: the head scarf, a foulard, which can be wrapped around the head in any number of ways, each of which has a different meaning or purpose (wedding tie, flirtatious, motherly, for special occasions); the pagne, which wraps around the waist like a skirt; and a top, which is either like a blouse or, in some cases, a boubou that covers both the front and back, but has two long openings on the sides, from under the arms to the ankles.

           The fabrics were beautifully sewn, dyed, and, in many cases, included extensive embroidery. Saidou's mother has been commissioning these outfits; two tailors have made them all. Their family has plenty of tailors, so I imagine that those are the people who have been doing the work.

           In addition to the clothing, there were shoes and jewelry. Once we got to see those, Saidou showed us the array of beauty products that he has purchased for his bride: lotions, creams, and hair care supplies, all still packaged Costco-style, in sets of six with plastic keeping them together.

         Yesterday morning, we met at my office with Kristen, my counterpart, and my work supervisor, Sidi Mohamed, who up until now has been very hands-off about the textbook work that we have been doing.

           Sidi Mohamed's involvement in the latest stages of work is a good indication that things are heating up toward getting this project finished.

           One of the aspects holding up the job is that nobody has yet added the Arabic translations of the vocabulary words - a step that we thought would be crucial in this first book, so as not to overwhelm the young students in their initial year of English.

           Kristen and I were unsuccessful in leading our co-workers to the understanding that if we copied an incomplete version of the student book now, in order to create the teachers' manual, that it would make more work for us later, as we would then have to be working simultaneously on two different documents, rather than finishing the student book, duplicating it, and then turning it into the teachers' edition by adding instructions for teachers.

           At their insistence, we are creating a separate document of instructions for teachers, and the typist will cut and paste these into it later.

         Babah called me yesterday afternoon to tell me that his father had just died. He had just left work to go home.

           The custom here is to pay a short visit to the family during the three days following a death, which includes the day of the death itself. The funeral, according to Islamic custom, is to be held as soon as possible after the death. In the case of Babah's father, he was brought to Aleg, more than 250 kilometers from Nouakchott, the afternoon he died, and was buried next to his mother (meaning Babah's grandmother) that evening.

           Mamouni and I went to Babah's house today to see the family and offer our condolences. One of Babah's brothers went to school with Mamouni. In a country with such an emphasis on people knowing each other and each other's business, most Mauritanians have only three rather six degrees of separation between them.

           When we arranged to go, Mamouni suggested one o'clock in the afternoon, "Because there are fewer police on the roads at that time." I asked him why he was concerned about police stopping him. What had he done?

           He explained that some of his vehicle documentation had expired. There was a tax of about 16,000 ouguiya that had to be paid, but he had not done so yet. Most people learn where the police maintain the roadblocks to check for these things, and if their paperwork is not in order, drivers take circuitous routes to avoid being stopped.

           I told him that it was none of my business asking this question, and that it would be considered very personal in the USA, but since people talk openly about money here (how much things cost, how much they earn), I would ask anyway, and if he didn't want to answer, that would be fine. I was curious to know what Mamouni had done with the 50,000 ouguiya he had just earned last week. Couldn't he pay the 16,000 for his car tax and then still have plenty left over? Mamouni doesn't want to pay the 16,000 for this tax because he doesn't agree with the tax being levied and he thinks that the money will only go into the pockets of corrupt officials. In the event that he gets stopped by police, he will be able to move on after he pays a bribe of 500 to 1,000 ouguiya.

           We were delayed in going to Babah's house because Mamouni was completing another real estate transaction for a PCV who is extending her service for a third year and moving to Nouakchott. That put off our departure to 4:00, at which point the deal was completed. Mamouni was all-business, though, and he had just made another commitment to show yet one more apartment. He wanted to delay the visit until the evening.

           I was a little put out by the changes in times, since I had already scheduled my day according to his needs, with this going to be the second change from the original plan. I didn't want to be out there in the evening, preferring to go home, eat dinner, and have some time to repose. So I just told Mamouni never mind, I would go out there myself. I have gone there myself before and did not need a ride from him - it was no problem, and he obviously had other priorities at the moment.

           My having said that shocked Mamouni from his more American "business first" mentality to the more Mauritanian "people first" sensibility. He told me he would cancel the appointment and insisted that we go right away to greet Babah's family. I told him it really didn't matter to me. But he saw that he had made a mistake in having me change plans once already, and we were on our way. He had another 45,000 in his pocket, and the taste for more in his mouth.

           On the way to Toujounine to visit Babah's family, Mamouni slowed down when he saw a soldier standing on a corner. He stopped, told the soldier where he was going, and offered to give him a ride if he were going in that direction. The soldier wasn't heading that way. As we continued, Mamouni explained why he offered the ride: "The police won't stop me if there is a soldier or policeman in the car."

           As we were nearing the house, Mamouni said, out of the blue, "You know, I need to get a business card." All I could say was, Do you think so? And we both laughed.

           When we arrived at the house, the haima (open-sided tent) in front was populated by women, so we were led inside to the house proper. Mamouni and I went into the salon that was reserved for men. Mamouni sat with his friend, Babah's brother Cheikh. As I sat down, I committed a faux pas by sitting in front of the person who was preparing tea, and blocking the view of the tea-maker from some people in the room. At the time, all Mamouni said was, "Be careful," while indicating that there was a lighted flame behind me. He indicated a place nearby, against the wall, for me to sit, and I moved there. It was on the way home when he explained to me what I had done.

           After we were sitting there for a few minutes, Babah came to get me and we went into another room. We were in there by ourselves at first, but were then joined by some of Babah's brothers and their friends. Babah sat almost motionless, his eyes on the brink of tears. The situation is sadder because his mother died only nine months ago and he, being the next-to-the-youngest, had fewer years with both parents. I didn't know what I could say to make him or anyone else feel better, but I had to be satisfied just being there.

         As the crowd increased, the room where we were sitting became a second men's salon. There was a second gathering spot inside the house for women, too. In time, with more people arriving, Babah circulated throughout the house to see people.

           I knew that the visit would be short; Mamouni explained that it is supposed to be. After about half an hour, Babah came to get me, saying that Mamouni was leaving and would drive me back. In the car, Mamouni pointed out to me that nobody from the family had shown us to the door. The usual Mauritanian custom is to do this; when paying a condolence call, though, nobody from the family sees a visitor to the door, as that is seen as inviting death to return for another visit.