The yin and the yang


Every Volunteer has a job description, but that is not all we are expected to do. There is also a part of our work that we are supposed to create ourselves, based partially on our own initiative and also as a result of the people we meet wherever we serve. These jobs are referred to as secondary projects.

In all, it's something of a yin and yang approach to our Peace Corps service, in that one part of what we are doing - the written job description - depends not only on the expressed needs of our host country, but also recognizes that the pace of life is lethargic, so it could lead to our waiting passively for months on end, desperate for things to happen.

On the other hand, the secondary projects are frequently the result of meetings with people we encounter via unofficial channels, or even with agencies that have not formally requested PCVs to help meet their needs. It seems that these can start up much more quickly, galvanize a Volunteer to be resourceful, and, above all, more active in putting things into motion.

My cousin Rick, who has been reading my online ramblings, has remarked about the different approaches to business and relationships here, as contrasted to the United States, and in referring to yin and yang, commented, "Maybe in some cosmic way, this is how the world achieves balance." Could be!

My work here is still in the process of achieving its own balance. Last week, one of my secondary projects began! It's one that I knew would be coming along, as I had met some of the personnel from the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) during a summer visit to Nouakchott. This is the teacher-training institute, and they told me that they would like my help; as specific as they got, though, was that I would be "training teachers." That leaves a lot of open ground, though, doesn't it?

Now that my hours are set at IPN (my primary job), and as long as there is a description of what work will have to be done, but no work itself, I am free to begin other jobs where needed. The proper protocol, when I get a request, is to discuss it with my APCD, and then find a way to work it into my schedule, if he approves it.

The ENS wants me to teach a class about American Civilization, even though hearing these words in such close proximity to each other sometimes makes me chuckle. (It reminds me of the time Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilization, and he responded by saying, "I think that would be a very good idea!")

Getting the class started has been an edifying study about the way things work here. There is no syllabus, no curriculum guide, no text. All I had in the way of instructions were, "You know. Teach American Civilization and history, like the Civil War and things like that." I officially got this request last Monday, and then was expected to be in class at 8:00 on Thursday morning to teach the first session.

The students had already started their studies. There was no pre-registration for the class, nor a way for them to check out the "professor." All second-year trainees at the ENS were simply enrolled in the class, put on the class list, and, I suppose, told to be in X classroom at Y time.

At the Nouakchott English Center, I found a few books that I will be able to use in order to get the class started. The introduction of Making America: The Society and Culture of the United States, edited by Luther S. Luedtke, lists the following "traditional core values" (pages 23 and 24):

· An activist approach to life, based on mastery rather than passive acceptance of events
· Emphasis on achievement and success, understood largely as material prosperity
· A moral character, oriented to such Puritan virtues as duty, industry, and sobriety
· Religious faith
· Science and secular rationality, encouraged by a view of the universe as orderly, knowable, and benign, and emphasizing an external rather than inward view of the world
· A progressive rather than traditionalist or static view of history, governed by optimism, confidence in the future, and a belief that progress can be achieved by effort
· Equality, with a horizontal or equalitarian rather than hierarchical view of social relations
· High evaluations of individual personality, rather than collective identity or responsibility
· Self-reliance
· Humanitarianism
· External conformity
· Tolerance of diversity
· Efficiency and practicality
· Freedom
· Democracy
· Nationalism and patriotism
· Idealism and perfectionism
· Mobility and change

We spent the entire session talking initially about the Peace Corps itself, and then discussing the first core value on the list, which we contrasted to the Mauritanian approach. I found the students to be engaging and enthusiastic. It was during this session, with the yin and yang in mind, that I referred to this ancient symbol and used it as an example. Most of the students said that they recognized it when I drew it on the board.

In addition to asking my students what their names are, I needed to find out what they want to be called. A typical male name here may be something like Sy Mohamed ould Abdelahi. In this name, Sy is the family name, Mohamed is the given (first) name, and "ould," (pronounced "wilt") means "son of." All together, then, this is Mohamed, son of Abdelahi, member of the Sy family.

It is not always easy to know what this person wants to be called, however. In fact, he may be addressed by any one of those three names. I know some men who are called by their family names, some by their given names, and some by their father's name. There is a lot of flexibility concerning what name - or even what part of a name - a man or boy will be called. It can also change during a lifetime. As for women, this seems to be less flexible, as they have the family name, given name, and the appendage of "mint" followed by their father's name, meaning "daughter of," but they are never called by their father's names.

I finally have a dining room table and chairs! I mentioned the table last week. I decided not to go the custom-made route for the chairs, so I got a set of six stacking plastic lawn chairs. In order to make them more comfortable, I got some foam and had them covered in fabric to make cushions. That, of course, meant the requisite shopping for foam and fabric, along with taking everything to the tailor. It's an exhausting process, what with finding items that are my taste - or at least that I can live with - then bargaining, schlepping, and explaining everything to the tailor. But it is also exhilarating to see everything come together in my home, and to be in a comfortable environment where I can spend time alone or have friends come to visit.

Looks like there is more yin and yang at work here, with the exhaustion of the shopping balancing the exhilaration of the comfort at home.

I haven't talked much about many of the people I have been meeting here. Time I should do that. One whom I should mention is Mamouni. He is the official teacher of the English air traffic controllers' English class where I helped out a few times; that is where we met. (As a point of information, I will point out that Mamouni is his family name.)

Mamouni's English is excellent. Though he has an accent, he has a good command of the language, including very up-to-date vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. He is also enthusiastic and conscientious about learning English, which makes for enjoyable conversations.

Mamouni has been spending a lot of time during the last several years with Americans, which accounts for his English being as good as it is. He is very open-minded. In one conversation we had, he told me, "My father taught us that we should not hate people - any people. I have all kinds of friends - Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish. My father taught us that the Jewish people are our cousins."

He seems to have appointed himself to the position of my new best friend. In one way or another, we manage to see each other almost every day. Last week, we were talking about some of the differences between United States and Mauritanian culture. I told him that US culture was very youth-oriented, and that there is not the same kind of respect there for age that there is here. As an example, I told him that it would be very unusual in the US for a 28-year-old such as himself to be interested in spending any time with me, a person who is twice his age. In response, he said, "What I'm gonna learn from you I'm not gonna learn from a person my own age."

Since we have shared several lunches and dinners, I have been introducing Mamouni to my vegetarian diet. He likes the soup that I make and we joke now when I serve him and say, Sorry, but this is healthy. Your body may not be used to food like this! He agrees, telling me that he definitely feels a difference in the way he feels after a meal of mine than after a typical meat-based Mauritanian meal.

There is a Mauritanian drink called bissap (pronounced BEE-sop), which is made with various kinds of fruit, lots of sugar, and water. (If you think of Kool-aid, you will get the general idea.) One of the Volunteers here had several single-serving sized containers of Crystal Light drink mix that she handed out to us. I served some of it to Mamouni at my house, and he said, "So this is American bissap!"

On Thursday, he asked me to accompany him to the airport to help him administer part of the final oral exam to the air traffic controllers. We went there after my first class at ENS. Then, on Friday, he asked for my help in putting together part of the written final exam for the same group.

Mamouni has a car, and he helped me go to the other side of town to see my preferred tailor, who made the cushions for the chairs that go to my dining room table. After that long afternoon together, I told him that I didn't know if I would see him on Saturday, that I had a lot of work to do and would be busy. He said, "Tomorrow, if I'm not gonna see you, I'm gonna miss you." Then he proceeded to his logical conclusion: "So, I'm gonna see you tomorrow." It was as simple as that.

As it turned out, we did run into each other. I was walking home and was a little more than a mile from my house when he spotted me and honked his car horn. I almost didn't look, since I have been trying to ignore the incessant honking. But there he was, just across the street from me, and gave me a ride home.

I continue to note how time is viewed here, and how it is different from my homegrown perceptions. Some popular Senegalese musicians were in Nouakchott last week and gave two performances. The posters took several formats, from smaller ones taped onto storefronts to large banners hung at intersections. All the posters indicated the names of the artists, the dates of the two concerts, and the venues. But none of the posters indicated at what time the concerts would begin. Call me crazy, but that would be one bit of information I'd want to know, if I were interested in attending the concert.

The place where I most commonly purchase my fresh vegetables is near a common route that I use frequently. It's in a narrow alleyway between two buildings, and perpendicular to the street. One of the difficult aspects of shopping there, though, is that when the women vendors see me coming, each one of them pleads with me to buy from her. On one of my visits, a woman said to me that they were "all the same," which I took to mean that they were part of a cooperative effort and must be sharing equally in the profits. But in subsequent visits, I could see that there is simply too much fussing with each other over my business to support this as a possibility, for if they were really "all the same," it would not matter from whom I purchased my vegetables.

They all have the identical goods: lettuce, tomatoes, beets, potatoes, onions, green beans, and the like. There are about seven stalls with these offerings, and each woman imploring me to buy from her. So what should I do?

The last time I was there, I thought that maybe my best solution would be to ask them to help me solve this dilemma. What did they think I should do? Pick one of them and buy only from her every time? Buy some things from one and some things from others? What would be the fairest way for me to shop?

One of the women offered a solution that everyone liked: I should rotate my purchases, starting with the first stall, then the next time at the second, and all the way down the line, until I get to the last one. Then I should start all over again with the first one. On this particular day, I was purchasing from the second woman. So the third one said that the next time I come in, I should buy from #1, then her in #3, and so on down the line.

The next group, to serve here in PC/RIM from 2004 to 2006, has already started receiving their invitations!