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
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."
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
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
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
· External conformity
· Tolerance of diversity
· Efficiency and practicality
· 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
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
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
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 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
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!