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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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).