Welcome to Kaédi


Before we left for Philadelphia, the Peace Corps advised us that the appropriate attire for staging there, as well as arrival in Mauritania, would be business casual. In taking a look around me, I feel that I fell asleep and woke up in a Gap ad. There is khaki here as far as the eye can see.

After our second night in Nouakchott, it was time to get ready to go to the site of our Pre-Service Training, now referred to as PST. (The Peace Corps uses lots of initials for reference.) PST is in Kaedi (kah-EH-dee) this year. Before we left, we were given the opportunity to re-pack all our bags, so that we would have what we need with us in Kaedi for the eleven weeks of PST, and leave everything else at the PC office in Nouakchott.

The infrastructure maintained to keep everything functioning smoothly is extraordinary. The PC employs many Mauritanians on the staff, both full- and part-time. There are drivers, trainers, teachers, and liaisons to the agencies with which we will be working. The trainers include people who help us with cross-cultural topics as well as language.

We made the five-hour trip from Nouakchott to Kaedi in air-conditioned jeeps that hold eight passengers. There were several points along the way when the driver had to stop, give a paper to a police officer, and then continue on our way.

The PST training site is Lycée de Kaedi, a public high school unlike any high school you are likely to have seen. There is a large central area which may, in the U. S., be referred to as "the quad." The large expanses of space are hard-packed dirt with a layer of sand on top. (Remember, after all, that this is the desert.) There are a few trees to provide shade. The classrooms have small and rickety desks which fit two adults, but into which, we were told, three or four students sit. The overall appearance is that it is rundown and in need of repair - or, better yet, a bulldozer.

The male Trainees have two large classrooms that serve as dormitories. There are no beds, though, as that is not the custom in Mauritania. Rather, the concrete floors are covered with removable plastic mats. On top of those mats are foam fabric-covered sleeping cushions. Many of the Trainees who have brought tents with us have set up the tents outside, where the air is cooler in the evening. The women Trainees are in two similar dorms.

Our first activity upon arrival, after leaving our baggage in the dorms, was to divide into small groups and circulate, round robin style, to each of four stations where we learned how to say greetings in each of four languages: Hassaniya, Soninke, Pulaar, and Wolof. At this point in PST, nobody really knows where we will be living. This was done, I can only guess, as a warm-up activity. In any event, it was preferable to the "welcome" in Nouakchott, during which we got our shots!

Meals on campus are in a large room that would not be taken by any of you as a dining room, in that there are no tables and chairs. Before we eat, we wash our hands with water being poured from a plastic pot that resembles a teapot. We soap up our hands as another person pours the water over them. Then we go inside to eat, being careful not to touch anything with the right hand, as that is the one that will be used for eating.

We eat on the floor, sitting in groups of about five people. A square piece of fabric, something like a tablecloth, is put on the floor in the middle. When the meal arrives, it is on a large round platter. After saying "Bismillah," everyone shares the food from that platter. Since there is no silverware, we use our hands to eat, picking up small amounts of rice or couscous, rolling it around in the palm of the right hand, and then putting it in the mouth. There are some important rules of etiquette to know while doing this, such as not touching anything on the plate with the left hand, and keeping your eating hand, generally speaking, in the region right in front of you. It is perfectly acceptable, though, if you are not touching a potato, carrot, or other food in front of you, to have somebody else ask you for it, and then you would simply toss it over to the region in front of them, from which they are eating. Many of us are finding that, as a result of eating this way, we are dropping food on and staining different parts of our clothing that we do when we sit at a table - instead of dropping food on our laps, we are doing so (for men) near the cuffs of our trousers.

On Monday morning, we had our first meetings within our work sectors - the programs in which we will be working. The APCD for Education is known as Bagga. The two others with whom we work are Bahana and Gass. There are twelve of us working in education. The other eleven people will be teaching English at the secondary level and they don't yet know where they will be. In my capacity as Curriculum Development Specialist (usually referred to as the CDS), I already know that I will be in the capital. Additionally, Bagga has informed me that he expects that I will participate as a trainer to the other eleven people, along with him, Bahana, and Gass.

At lunch, we had a hearty welcome from the officials of Kaedi. After that, we did more work within our sectors. Those of us in Education got a rundown on the structure of the educational system here in Mauritania. My Trainee colleagues are in for quite a rough time, based on what we heard from three panelists, all Volunteers, who have spent the last year teaching in different parts of the country. The class sizes are large (usually with anywhere from 40 to 60 students), there are very few materials, and discipline can be a big problem.

When the Trainees meet within their program groups, these are referred to as tech sessions. Our next tech session was devoted to the methodology of teaching English as a foreign language. In addition to having a discussion of all the different approaches to this work, we were treated to a local English teacher who came in to a classroom to teach a lesson to fourteen students gathered up for our viewing. One of the things that we could not help but notice was that the typical way that students try to get the teacher's attention is by holding the arm straight out and snapping their fingers. (I don't know that any of my teaching friends at home would like that!)

We had a homework assignment for the next day, but in typical PC fashion, there is no sense calling it "homework" when a fancier term would do, and preferably one that could later be known by a collection of initials. There's no way anyone could guess what these are called, so I will tell you: our homework is referred to as Trainee-Directed Activities, or TDA's.
The first TDA was for us, in small groups or pairs, to prepare and then teach a lesson to the other Education Trainees, using one of the various methodologies we had learned about the day before.

Everyone was asked to evaluate our levels of French knowledge, from novice to beginner, intermediate, advanced, or superior, and either as low, middle, or high within each of those levels. I said I thought I was at the high end of intermediate. We then had interviews in French, to see if our self-assessment matched the interviewer's.

The afternoon was devoted to a cultural fair, at which we saw a blacksmith, leather worker, cloth dying, drumming, dancing, and the preparation of a large clay water vessel, called a canary. There were also local refreshments, such as frozen confections (bissap) and dates.

After being at the training center for a few days, it was time for an interview with our APCD. At this interview, Bagga informed me that my French self-assessment was accurate, and that, as a result, I would not need any additional French instruction. (Some Trainees who are at the novice or beginning levels have to get French instruction before they can move on to another language.) Bagga told me that since I will be working in the capital, the most important language for me to learn would be Hassaniya, which is the local version of Arabic. This, then, would influence where I would have my Kaedi home stay, in that I would need to be with a family that speaks Hassaniya.

There's also something else that will distinguish me from the other Education Trainees, and that is that I will be doing my Hassaniya training with members of the ICT group; those are the five guys who are working on technology projects. At least four of them will be working in the capital, where I will be, and they will need to know Hassaniya, too.

This has been a good location for getting to know lots of the other Trainees. Most of them are in their twenties, and I haven't been with this many twenty-year-olds since I was one myself. I find, though, that they are very approachable and enjoyable. It's a group in which anybody can sit down next to anyone else and strike up a conversation, or anyone can insinuate himself into an ongoing discussion with other people.

We have been given medical kits that look like briefcases. There is a lot of stuff in there. One afternoon, the medical officer (PCMO) went through the kit for us, taking out every item and telling us under what circumstances we would use it. They seem to have thought of everything, including sunburn, upset stomachs, and injuries. We even have our own syringes, so that if we have to go for medical treatment that needs an injection, we can hand over our sealed and clean needle for use on ourselves.

The evening of the third of July had a July 4th theme, with the meal being more like a picnic, rather than Mauritanian style. (No hot dogs, though, thankfully.) There was also a talent show (called a talent-less show by the emcee), which was a chance to hear some music played by all the Trainees who brought instruments. That meant it was time to trot out the autoharp. I got together with a Trainee who has worked in a pre-school and we led the group in a sing-along version of "On Top of Spaghetti." Everyone had a good time.

The folks at home celebrated July 4th as Independence Day, but for us it was Dependence Day, as we made the shift that day to our home stay families, on whom we would be dependent for the next few weeks. But before being shipped off, what better way to say "goodbye" than with another shot! This time there was only one - rabies - for me, as they had checked my medical records and found I already had the hepatitis vaccines.

My home stay family is right here in Kaedi, as are many of the other families, so I didn't have to go far to get there. The father, Abou, is 41; the mother, Berti, is 30; and there are five children. The girls are Waldeh (10), Hawa (8), and Aicha (4 months); the boys are Yahiya (12) and Alioun (4). It is customary for the Trainees to get a local name from the host family, by which they will call us. I have been given the same name as Alioun. Abou, Berti, and Yahiya speak French, which makes communication very easy for us. They also speak Hassaniya, with which they will help me, but at least the greater communication concerns are under control!

One of the requirements is that we have a private room with a door that can be locked. My room is nine by ten feet and is particularly distinguished in that it does not have a window. Imagine, if you will, a pitted concrete floor, dingy green walls, one small table, and a nail hammered into one of the walls. The lock is a hasp that has been nailed into the door and doorjamb on the outside, which means that anyone with a screwdriver or pair of pliers could easily take off the lock. In short, I have seen storage lockers that were more commodious and had better security.

Entry to the house grounds is through a door from the street that opens onto a courtyard of 33 by 38 feet. The ground is dirt, covered with sand. There is a water spigot in one corner, which is the source of all cooking water. There is no room that has been designated as a kitchen. Any cooking is done on a portable stove, of which there are two: one that uses charcoal and one that uses gas. Think camping. Think camping every day of your life.

There is a dining room, which is the only room that has what you could call furniture. Around the walls are cushions that are firm and sturdy, roughly 18 inches high, on which people can sit or lay down to watch television, which is the principal activity that takes place in the room. Abou told me that he stays up late to watch television every night. I thought, okay, that's fine, as I will be sleeping in my tent in the courtyard.

When I unpacked some things, I asked Yahiya if he could get me a basin so I could wash out some dirty clothes. His response surprised me, as he took the clothing from me and told me he would wash everything for me. (Go find an American twelve-year-old boy who would do that!)

There were no clothespins in the house, so Waldeh, Alioun, a neighbor kid, and I scoured the neighborhood shops for some. Among the three of them, there was one pair of flip-flops, which they alternated wearing. I was also impressed that none of the kids ever asked for her or his turn for the flip-flops, but that the wearer just tapped another kid's shoulder and then kicked them over.

When we got home, I had a big surprise waiting for me: the television had been moved into the courtyard, right next to my tent! This meant that everyone would be up until all hours of the night, watching television, and, when that got boring, watching me toss and turn inside my tent. By this point I had shrugged off my storage locker of a room as a non-problem. But this television situation was going to be something that would take some thinking.

I told the family I had some reading to do, and I went into the dining room to do it. That's when I realized that the solution to my problem was to sleep in the dining room. In this way, I would have some privacy and I would also be able to get away from the television. When I asked Abou if that would work, he said yes, and that was a tremendous relief.

Just in case you are wondering about the television fare, this is what I have been seeing: Mauritanian news in both French and Hassaniya; Senegalese stations that broadcast Senegalese soap operas in both French and Wolof; Senegalese stations that broadcast Brazilian soap operas dubbed in French.

Meanwhile, the cyber station in Kaedi has been out of service since before we arrived here, and all the Trainees are more than just a little nervous that they can't communicate with the folks at home.

The weekend here is Friday and Saturday. Finally, we have a few days off! It's a good time to get to know our host families, walk around town a little bit, and get settled in to the fourth environment since we left home (hotel in Philadelphia, auberge in Nouakchott, and the two in Kaedi).