The Nouakchott hotshots


For whatever reason, the PC has determined that five of us should spend fifteen days in Nouakchott during PST. All of us will be doing our work with government agencies, so that is probably the reason for this. We will also be living in Nouakchott during our PC service.

One positive aspect of this is that we have a reprieve from the heat in Kaedi, as our remaining 42 fellow Trainees are still there.

We made the trip in a PC vehicle, which means significantly more comfort than the taxi brousse that the Mauritanians would have to take. Even so, the trip is 6.5 hours. I hate to think of how long it would take in the taxi brousse.

We are staying in new host families, which also means new names, but only for some of us. Will and Robert are going by the French pronunciations of their given names. Matt managed to keep his Kaedi name. Carl and I have new names. My family here asked me what name I had from Kaedi. I had the sense that if they liked it, for whatever reason, they would have continued to use it. But I guess that "Alioun" was not to their liking, so they decided that I would be "Ibrahima," nicknamed "Ibra."

The adult brother of the host family father is also Ibrahima, and he lives in the same house. I especially like being called Ibrahima because that it is the name of my Mauritanian friend at home in San Francisco.

The host father is Sedinte, which turns out to be the family name; lots of men seem to go by their last names here. Mom is Fatou. The only son is Moussa, 17; daughters are Hawa (19), Zeinabou (15), Mahmi (13), and Aichetou (15 months). Zeinabou and Mahmi may be cousins rather than sisters; there are a lot of people living here and it is not easy to tell how everyone is related.

I started my Nouakchott stay in a foul mood. For whatever reason, I had an expectation that my accommodations here would be much nicer than in Kaedi. When they turned out to be just about the same (a very hot room in which I can't really spend any time), I was very dejected. It was an important reminder to me about expectations; I've known that for a long time. But this was a kick in the pants to me: I need to be more in-the- moment, more accepting of what is, rather than hoping for things to be the way I want them to be.

Every day, there has been a delightful breeze here, which makes it very enjoyable. Daytime temperatures are probably around 90F/30C. The evenings are especially delightful. I have an option here that I don't have in Kaedi: sleeping on the roof. In many ways, it is a very strange thing to do, in that people all over the neighborhood can see each other as they are on other rooftops sleeping. But because the air is cooler than in my room, and there is a nice breeze blowing all night, it means that I can sleep without waking up on a sweat-drenched sheet, as I did every night in Kaedi.

Rooftops here are also different in that there is not a large retaining wall that surrounds the roof. On apartment buildings at home, one might expect that there is a wall at least four feet high, which would do an effective job of keeping people from falling off. Here, the "wall" is about 18 inches high! Believe me, I do not get close to the edge of the roof!

We are not allowed to drive motor vehicles here. I wouldn't want to anyway. It is anarchy on wheels. I am sure there must be some rules of the road, but they are not obvious to non-drivers. Many intersections have neither stop signs nor traffic lights. A few of the larger crossroads in the main part of town have uniformed police directing traffic. Otherwise, it's just a matter of being careful and assuming that you do NOT have the right of way, as drivers would just as soon run you down if you got in their way.

Our mornings here have been filled by meeting people at the agencies where we will be working. The other four Trainees with me in Nouakchott are working in the information technology sector, so their meetings have been different from mine. I have been having my appointments in four different locations:

Two are part of the MEN (Ministere d'Education Nationale):

IPN (Institut Pédagogique National), which publishes textbooks for the Ministry of Education.

IGEST (Inspection Générale pour L'Enseignement Secondaire et Technique), which consists of people who not only write the national curriculum, but who inspect the schools to make sure that the teachers are following it.

University of Nouakchott, the only university in the country, across the street from IPN, where I was introduced to the chairman of the English Department. One of the coordinators of the Education sector of the PC also works as an English teacher at the University. As of now, I do not have any official connection with the University as part of my job description, but all of us Volunteers are expected to have what are called "secondary projects," so this is the place where I hope to be able to do some public speaking classes on the order of Toastmasters, for the advanced speakers of English.

ENS (Ecole Normale Supériore), which is the teacher training institute. This is the place where I will be expected to do some teacher training in-services.

I have already had a taste of the way time is viewed here. We have been taught, in our cross-cultural training as part of PST that Mauritanians do not use time the same way we do. If an appointment is fixed for 10:00, people may show up an hour late or not at all. And that is exactly what happened to me two times this week.

The first time was at IPN. I got dropped off at my 9:00 appointment, and the person was not there. Fortunately, I had a book to read, which I did outside his office. At about 10:15, somebody asked me if I would like him to call the person I was waiting for. I said that would be all right. He reached my person, who said he would be there in fifteen minutes, or right around 10:30. I continued to wait until 11:15, by which time he had still not shown up, and then I wrote a note and left.

The second one was another day at the ENS, where the appointment was for 9:00. I waited until 10:00 and then left.

Welcome to Mauritania!!!!!

We have also been able to get to the PC office during a few of the afternoons here. It has a library, a room with four computers that have Internet connection, and lots of other space. This is where I encountered Bagga, the Associate Director (APCD) to whom I report. I told him about my no-show appointment, so he will be in touch with the guy and smooth things over. We are to try again during the coming week.

In the afternoons, we have our French classes. Our teachers have come with us from Kaedi. Matt, Carl, and I, in the more advanced class, are with Aly; Will and Bob are with Habib. In French we are getting a lot of time to converse, so our vocabulary is picking up. The study situations, though, are less than ideal. We are in a small building that is used as a private school. Even though school is not in session, there are still people around, having loud conversations, with kids incessantly calling to us, "Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour!" (Once is NEVER enough. And even when we answer them, they do not consider themselves to have been bonjour'd. They just keep it up!

Another advantage to being in Nouakchott is the variety of food. Most notably, there is pizza and Chinese food here. There are also salads and beer. I had a nice hummus in a Moroccan restaurant yesterday.

I took full advantage of having a weekend by taking to the streets by myself so that I could learn my way around. Up until the first week, we either walked within our own neighborhood (our home stays and school are in the same area) or were driven to our appointments in a PC car. This, then, was my chance to see how all these streets came together, which ones led where, and how it all fit together.

I was lucky: I got lost only twice!!

The first time, I was following the map that the PC gave us in our welcome packet. Unbeknownst to me, the place indicated on the map as the PC bureau was the OLD building, from which the PC moved last year. That threw me off significantly, until I figured out what was going on.

The second time, I was trying to get back to my house by taking a north-south street I hadn't used before, waiting to get to the east-west street near my house. I never saw a familiar intersection, so I continued walking, thinking that if worse came to worse, I could just get a taxi to take me there. Then, I heard somebody call my name. It was Aly, my French teacher, in one of the buses. He was wondering why I was walking around in that part of town, and where I was going. He invited me aboard the same bus, and set me straight on how I had strayed.

Both were good learning experiences for orienting myself to the city. During the course of the day, I also stopped at the US embassy to go for a swim in the pool, which was refreshing. I was the only one using it, which was a bit of a disappointment, as I had hoped to meet some other people.

This week we had individual one-to-one evaluations to assess how we are fitting in. All the PC staff who have been working with us have combined their comments to let us know how they think we are doing with regard to language study, cross-cultural adaptations, health, safety awareness, contributing to our individual tech sectors, and that sort of thing.

Years ago, the PC used to have a process called "deselection," at which point Trainees would be told that they were not going to be allowed to continue on the road to becoming Volunteers. The PC doesn't practice "deselection" any more, but they do have these occasional evaluations to let us Trainees how we are doing.

I got very good comments and scores for this evaluation, so it looks like they will be keeping me here for a while!

I have just one more bit of information to pass along. I met the second person in charge at the Israeli embassy today. I was walking by, saw the flag, and asked to go in. I was admitted by showing my PC identification. I had a nice chat with the man I spoke to. I had asked about the possibility of services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He told me that there are so few Jews in Nouakchott that they may not even do anything. In fact, he and the ambassador are the only ones at the embassy. There may be some Israeli volunteers coming to work on a project; if they do, there may be services.