The way work gets done?

 

          My APCD called me on Sunday to tell me that he had scheduled a meeting on Tuesday with a small group of people: the Directeur Général of IPN, my immediate supervisor, my counterpart, and me. One of the main objectives of the meeting was to find out what has been happening with my job – or, more to the point, why there just hasn’t been much work during these last few months. The most subtle and diplomatic way to frame it was to call it an assessment of the relationship between IPN and the Peace Corps, with an eye towards future collaborations.

          My APCD has worked as a teacher at several levels of education in Mauritania, and he knows a lot of people throughout the Ministry of Education. He is well-connected, well-respected by Mauritanians, and knowledgeable about the ways that Americans operate.

          The Directeur Général of IPN has been in his position a little less than one year. We met only once, when I was sitting outside his office, waiting to see the typist, and he (the DG) arrived to work. I had been presented to his predecessor at a protocol meeting, but not to this new one.

          My APCD thought it would be a good idea for the two of us to meet beforehand to sketch out our concerns in order to make a uniform presentation. He asked me about my job satisfaction with regard to working at IPN. I told him that the work itself, when it happened, was enjoyable. But there were several stumbling blocks to getting our work done effectively.

          I was able to identify three impediments to my work progress: (1) there is no computer available for us to use at IPN, which means having to leave the premises to get any work done; (2) even though there are scheduled work hours of 8 AM to 4 PM, these times are not respected, as everyone always has other things to do, which means that there is no stated core time for us to work together – time during which none of us will plan to do anything other than the work we are supposed to do together; (3) there has been no progress since June on the first book Kristen and I worked on. This final point, I explained, contributes to my feeling that I shouldn’t even bother doing anything about working on the second book, if the work will eventually amount to nothing.

          After discussing these issues in my APCD’s office, a Peace Corps driver took us to IPN, where the DG greeted us warmly. My direct supervisor was called into the meeting, but D, my counterpart, was not there. D arrived about ten minutes late, after we had already discussed the difficulties of finding shared work time. He piped in with some irrelevant information and the DG quickly put him in his place, telling him to be quiet.

          I had the immediate sense that the DG was diligent, wants to affect change, and is concerned that there has been such a low level of productivity on the part of the English Department. Though there was no intent to point fingers at anyone, D became defensive. Then our supervisor, seeing that he was the person responsible for our work since he is our liaison to the DG, also found need to state his own case. He said that as long as we were clearing the air, he wanted to say that I had not shown up at the office very much, which meant that it was difficult for me to become integrated into the work team.

          My APCD picked up on that immediately, explaining that there is no reason for me to show up at an office where there is no work to do. He explained that I had spent numerous times waiting for D to come to meetings for which he either did not show up or for which he arrived very late. Because there was not much work at IPN, the PC had approved my assignments to other agencies, and he named them. In short, he said, my talents were not being put to good use and my time was being wasted. The DG nodded supportively at my APCD and me. Any time D had something to add, he was put in his place.

          As for the issue concerning the computers, my supervisor said that he would be able to find one for us to use two days a week. With regard to the work hours, it was clear that office hours are 8 AM to 4 PM from Sunday through Thursday. And yes, there has been trouble finding the money to get the book printed, but they are working on it.

          After about twenty minutes, my APCD and I left the meeting, leaving D and our supervisor with the DG. We both had the very strong feeling that they were getting a good talking to, if not a finger wagged in their faces. We waited for them to emerge from the DG’s office, at which time the four of us met in the supervisor’s office.

          One of the things I needed to do, as long as I was there, was to get my supervisor’s signature on my vacation request form. On the one hand, I felt a little sheepish asking for vacation time. On the other, what is the incentive to stick around if there is no work to be done? I handed him the paper in the presence of my APCD, which was probably my best move, and he signed it right away.

          D informed me that there would be a meeting with Gérard, the consultant from Belgium, on Thursday at noon. I said I would be there, of course.

          My APCD asked me to come into his office the following afternoon so that we could debrief. We covered what had happened at the meeting the day before, and my APCD said it was apparent that my counterpart was “not highly motivated, not entirely honest, and not committed to the work.”

          The Ministry is hoping to get funding from a country such as Lebanon to print the texts; another possibility for financing is the World Bank. My APCD then touched on the issue that I had not understood when I heard Kristen’s counterpart mention it a few times during the last few months: “the contract.” He said that the contract had been signed three days earlier, so now all of the people working on the book could get to work.

          I asked him to explain to me what this contract thing was about. After all, if these employees are working for their respective agencies of the Ministry of Education, and writing the books is part of their job, then what kind of contract do they need? As it turns out, the textbook writing is “seen as something extra in their work assignment.”

          Thursday morning came and I set up my time to accommodate the noon meeting that I had found out about on Tuesday, fitting in obligations to various people before and after it. At 8:30, just when I was arriving at the PC bureau, D called me. I told him I’d be seeing him at noon and he said that the meeting was at 10:00 AM, not noon. I explained that I had arranged everything else in my day around this meeting, and that it now meant I had lots of changes to make so that I could attend the meeting if it was to be held earlier. I thought about not going at all, but in the end decided that it was best to be responsible about this, even though the scheduling now created some logistical problems.

          The content of the meeting was very much a surprise to me. Gérard, “the expert” who had overseen the project through to its finished form, and whose instructions we followed at every step of the way, explained that the book is too voluminous – it has too much work for students who will be studying English for their first year, given that they will probably have only one class meeting of only two hours per week. One example, he said, was that the vocabulary lists are too long and they need to be reduced to a maximum of fifteen words.

          Another criticism is that there was not enough opportunity for students to practice what they had been learning. More such practice exercises need to be built into the book.

          With every criticism and suggestion, D sat there, kissed his ass, and agreed with everything he had to say. They were acting as if they had just seen this document for the first time! All I could think was, Where were you people when we did this work in the first place? Gérard, this is not the first time you are seeing this, so why is this the first time you are saying anything about this? Up until now, we have done everything you have told us to do, and this is the result? But I had the distinct feeling that anything I could possibly say would not be productive, so I sat in stunned silence.

          Twenty minutes into the meeting, S showed up and had to be brought up to speed on what had transpired. About ten minutes after that had been accomplished, H showed up and the updating process began again, all of which brought the meeting to higher levels of tedium.

          H had evidently already been tipped off about what was going to be discussed, as he came prepared with a new Lesson 1 for the revised book! I felt like Rip Van Winkle, having been asleep for some years while the work of the world had progressed during my slumber. It was hard to believe what was happening.

          H said that he, D, and S were ready to get the revision started, and that all he needed for Kristen and me was to take on three aspects of the work: (1) proofreading, (2) verifying the cultural points, and (3) typing. I told him that we could do it.

          After a mind-numbing hour and forty-five minutes, we concluded with Gérard confirming that everyone knew what needed to be done, and all of us agreed with him; he then left for his next meeting. As soon as he departed, I got up to leave, too. D asked me, “Where are you going?” I told him that the misinformation he had given me about the meeting time had caused my day to have to be rescheduled, and that I had to leave right away so that I could fulfill another commitment. He said that he needed to see me before I left, that he had to address some issues with me. We walked into the hallway.

          The first issue was that my supervisor thought that my upcoming three- week vacation was too long, but that I would be permitted to go anyway. I told him that it was a good thing I was being allowed to go because I was going, whether I had his approval or not. I explained that there had been no new work assigned since last summer, so I had no reason to believe that I would not be able to take a vacation now.

          He said that since I hadn’t done any work recently, he had some work that he wanted me to take with me on my vacation and return with it when I came back to work. I never found out what that work was because I told him in no uncertain terms that I was going to be traveling with two friends visiting from the United States and that I had absolutely no intention of doing any work for him during that time.

          The other issue was that there was a new colleague in the English Department at IPN who needed office space and they were wondering if this person could use my office while I was gone. If so, could I just give him the key? The only thing of value I had in there was a spare pair of reading glasses that I use while waiting for meetings to happen. So that was fine with me. I forked over my office key.

          As for the work during the next three weeks, the main part of it has been done. Since their contract has been signed, let them work for their money!

*****

          Two friends came to visit from the USA this week. Donna arrived on Thursday and Ross on Saturday. We will be traveling together to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia during the next three weeks.

          It is good to see both Donna and Ross. This is the first time that either of them has been to Africa, so it is eye-opening to observe their reactions to this new world around them. In addition to their charming and friendly selves, they brought me some books I had ordered, my mail that had been accumulating at home, and some foodstuff that should be able to keep me going for the next several months: ground hazelnut coffee beans, parmesan cheese, dried tofu, brewers yeast flakes, hot chocolate, and hijiki.

          Ross served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines in the sixties; we met in 1977, and this has always been something that I have admired about him. I have lots of RPCV friends who have inspired my being here now.

*****

          On Tuesday I got a call from Berti, the mother of my host family from Kaédi. She said she was in Nouakchott with Waldeh, the oldest daughter, and that they were staying with her sister Zeinabou.

          Donna and I went to Zeinabou’s house on Friday to pay a visit to the family. (Ross had not yet arrived.) They are in Nouakchott so that Waldeh can have an operation. She had had her appendix taken out in Kaédi a few months ago and they are concerned that there is a problem in the after affects of the operation. She picked up her shirt to show us a growth the size of an orange that seems to be growing under the surface of the skin on her stomach. The operation will be tomorrow.

          This was Donna’s first visit to the home of a Mauritanian family. We stayed for several hours, which included lunch. Zeinabou remembered from my previous visit that I am a vegetarian and she prepared a meatless dish of rice and vegetables for Donna and me. They served us first, rather than put our platter next to the one from which they were eating. They offered us spoons, but I told them that I could eat with my hands and that Donna was game to try eating with hers.

          As we ate, the family members in the room sat and watched us – the daily alternative to television. I kidded them that we were the daily show “Watch the Toubabs Eat.” Donna was a quick study, easily picking up the technique of making a ball of rice with the vegetables and popping it into her mouth.

*****

          These last two months have been marked by picking and choosing with regard to the books I have read. It made me remember as far back as the summer of 1969 when, just out of college, I started to read The Hobbit and Rabbit, Run, two books I could not get into. In each case, the realization hit me: Nobody assigned me to read this! Since I’m not enjoying it, I can stop whenever I want, and move on to something else! That’s what I have been able to do ever since then.

          The Art of the Essay: The Best of 1999 is a collection that was selected and introduced by Phillip Lopate. I read all but seven of the twenty-eight essays: six I tried to read and ultimately found unappealing, and one that had been torn out of the book. As a budding essayist myself, I am enjoying the way that others craft their own writing.

          A Short History of Nearly Everything was written by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite writers. I was pleased to find this hefty volume in PCV Jordy's personal library, and immediately asked to borrow it. It's one of the books in a box that was sent more than a year ago that did not arrive. I had expected that the focus of the book would be people and what they have accomplished – a Bill Bryson version of Guns, Germs, and Steel. But what I found out when I began reading it is that it is about science – not a topic to which I naturally gravitate. I thought, Well, I will read it anyway. It will be good for me, and found myself learning about the way that the planets were created, the vastness of the university, the composition of the Earth, and things like that. At more than 500 pages, the book is evidently well-researched, and from what I read, I saw that Bryson brought his trademark humor and wit to this tome. But I soon began to realize that I was in trouble with myself: when I had free time to read, I took a gander at the book, and didn't want to pick it up! I gave it back to Jordy, so that I could plug away at some of the other books I have on hand.

          Kindness, Clarity, and Insight is a compilation of speeches given by The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso during visits to North America from 1979-1981. I have a strong attraction to the Buddhist principles he espouses, and not much interest or need in having an explanation of the nitty-gritty behind all of it. Some of the essays were a bit too complicated for me to grasp (“Tibetan Views on Dying,” “The Path to Enlightenment,” “The Union of the Old and New Translation Schools”), while some were much more easily accessible (“Compassion in Global Politics,” “Religious Harmony,” “Karma,” “Religious Values and Human Society”).

          Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why, by Richard E. Nisbett was a fascinating and eye-opening volume about trademark differences between the way Asians and Westerners think. It was carefully researched and filled with bits of information that was included in the investigations of both American and Chinese universities, among others. For example, when shown pictures of a chicken, a cow, and grass, and asked to put two of those items together, the majority of Westerners paired the chicken with the cow, whereas the majority of Asians paired the cow with the grass. The conclusion that the author makes has to do with the way these groups think: that the Westerners think in categories and the Asians think in relationships. By the way, Asian-Americans scored in the range between the two other groups. And there were lots more fascinating examples.

          The Nisbett book was an excellent set-up for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, whose subtitle, A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures, tells a lot about what happened in the book. It was amazing to read how uncaring, uneducated, and ignorant the doctors were who treated Lia Lee, a resident of Merced, California, and her family. Most of the people the Lees dealt with had a total disregard for the culture of the family, and it largely resulted in Lia’s disastrous physical condition, from which she never recovered. I was really happy to have just read the Nisbett book, as it served as a good basis for understanding the clash in values at work in Merced in the Fadiman book.