Welcome to our new trainees


           The biggest news of the past week is the arrival of the new trainees (we call them stagiaires, using the French). They arrived without incident on Tuesday, which recalled the same grueling trip that we had taken only the year before.

           Several of us in my training class felt that the group of Volunteers who preceded and welcomed us had not done what they could have in order to smooth the way for our arrival. (Somebody referred to our welcome as "lame.") In response to this, we made the unspoken group decision to bend over backwards to make our new stagiaires feel welcome, included, and informed. Our planning sessions paid off well, eliciting from our Country Director a comment that this was the smoothest arrival that he has ever seen.

           Forty-two stagiaires arrived. One didn't make it to Philadelphia and one who had made it to Philadelphia didn't come to Mauritania. Perhaps part of the calmness upon arrival had to do with sheer numbers, with this group being 75% the size of ours. Fourteen additional people made things more crowded and boisterous last year.

           On the whole, the group itself seems to be calm, mature, and easy-going. They spent only one night in Nouakchott, as compared to our two last year. In fewer than twenty-four hours, they were whisked off to Kaédi for the formal beginning of their Pre-Service Training.

           I wrote a new poem for the occasion. It is at the end of this post, with a column on the right to explain some terms you may need help with.

         &nbspThe Mauritanian sense of humor has taken a bit of getting used to. It is very common for people to put each other down and make each other the butt of their jokes. It's not a behavior that comes naturally to me, especially after all my years of teaching and working on building the self-esteem of so many young people.

           But here, these put-downs are acceptable, expected and help to bond people to each other. I have three examples for you.

           One of the custodians at the Peace Corps bureau is named Thiam (pronounced "chom"). With all the dust and sand that blows around here, he has a constant job, especially when there is a lot of wind. One morning, when I arrived, I saw him sweeping up sand and said, "Enfin tu travails!" (Finally, you are working!)

           Since then, he greets me with, "Enfin tu arrives." (Finally, you are here.) Alternatively, we simply greet each other not with the equivalent of, "Good morning," but with, "Enfin!" To him, this is hysterical.

           My second example took place at the place where I found the colored paper. After I paid for it, I told the owner of the shop that I had other errands to run and didn't want to carry around the ream of paper with me. I asked if it would be all right for me to leave it there and pick it up later. He said yes, and showed me that one of the employees would hold it for me until later.

           I replied by saying that I didn't trust these guys - which is ludicrous since we didn't even know each other. But, for some reason, everyone thought that was terribly funny, and responded by patting each other on the back and shaking my hand.

           The third anecdote happened last week when I went to the bank to withdraw money from the ATM. After I got my receipt, the screen displayed a message that there was a problem with the machine, which necessitated my going into the bank for help.

           At the customer service desk, the person who was able to help me made a phone call. While he was waiting for a reply on the phone, somebody came in to make what was obviously a personal transaction, in that the young lad on my side of the counter took money out of his pocket to give to the bank employee. During their exchange, I saw that the employee had a huge wad of bills in his pocket, which is not surprising since the largest note here, 1,000 ouguiya, is worth less than $4.

           When he got off the phone and accompanied me to the ATM, I told him that now I knew where my money was - he had it in his pocket! This caused him to laugh, pat me on the back, and shake my hand.

         The evening before the new stagiaires arrived, Kristen's counterpart invited us to a ceremony celebrating the end of the school year; it was held at the Ancienne Maison des Jeunes (direct translation: "former house of the young," which appears to be not much more than an auditorium).

           The hall looked like a 1950's-era school auditorium, complete with linoleum floor, aqua paint, and wooden chairs with seats that fold up - many of which were missing either the backs or the seats.

           A master of ceremonies held a microphone in his hand as he paced around the stage. I am not sure what he was saying, as he spoke to the crowd in Hassaniya. And it was evident that the crowd didn't know what he was saying either, largely because they ignored him. Throughout the audience, people spoke to each other, joked, and circulated around the room as if there were nothing happening on stage.

           Minus the spitballs and paper airplanes, it was the audience that every junior high school principal has threatened with the admonishment, "Now if you boys and girls cannot settle down and show respect to the people onstage, we will not be able to have these wonderful assemblies any more."

           I had been looking forward to the event so that I could get a glimpse into another facet of Mauritanian culture. I think I did, even though it was not what I had originally had in mind!

         On Saturday afternoon, one of my students from the English Conversation Club invited me to spend the afternoon with his family at his home. Selme works for the Ministry of Rural Development and the Environment, in the ozone office. During several discussions in class, he has brought up issues related to the environment.

           He lives with his family in the Dar Naïm neighborhood (translation: "house of happiness"). Dar Naïm is on the outskirts of town, an area that Selme described as "new," but I haven't been here long enough to be able to discern the difference between this and any other neighborhood. In a city that has been settled only forty years ago, "new" is a relative word.

          Before we drove out to the house, Selme picked up two United Nations employees who were in Nouakchott for a conference about the environment. There was Bobby from Britain, who has been living in Barcelona for the last thirty years, and Gabriel from Burundi.

           The houses of the neighborhood are boxy, predominantly unpainted concrete. Inside Selme's house, we were ushered into the salon, which was furnished with wall-to-wall turquoise carpeting and six sectional "sofas" that lined the walls. This is the type of seating that people have if they choose not to spend all of their time on the floor.

           These seats are hard foam, shaped like a typical refrigerator box, the side with the largest surface area resting on the floor. The foam does not give very much in response to sitting on it, so these seats are only marginally more comfortable than sitting on a refrigerator itself. The pillows are moveable. In this case of Selme's salon set, the turquoise of the carpeting was repeated as the background of the seating and pillows, with gold accents throughout the fabric.

           Salmon-colored curtains hung on either side of the windows, with a white lacy section that covered the windows themselves, allowing light and air to enter. The salmon was repeated in the two rectangular throw rugs that lay on top of the turquoise carpeting.

           Taking pride of place in the room was the television. True to form for Mauritania, it was always on.

           Selme's wife, Assa, came into the room to greet us, and I understood right away that she is not a Moor, in that Moor women do not shake hands with men. Selme explained that he has a White Moor father and a Black Moor mother. He is from Kiffa, in the southeast of Mauritania, near the Mali border. He met Assa there; she is Bambara from Mali.   

          One of the things we talked about was the need for Mauritanians to wean themselves from the use of charcoal for cooking. The government is promoting solar energy and butane gas. It's difficult for those using charcoal because they can't make the necessary investment in the equipment they need to make the transition to alternative methods.

          The television showed a report about the current discussion in Spain about gay marriage. Bobby was able to comment informatively about the way that Spanish people see the issue. Selme told us, "If my brother were a homosexual, he would have to be tolerated. You can't attack him without attacking me." Later on in the conversation he said, referring to gay people, "This person has no choice to be like that. It is not necessary to be hard with them. Try to accept it."

          Selme switched liberally among stations showing news in French, news in English, and music videos. During one of the music videos to which I was not paying too much attention, I realized that I heard a familiar melody. A large group of young and attractive Arabic men and women in Western clothing were marching down streets, holding signs and banners, singing. I asked Selme to translate for me. Are they singing, "Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in?" He said they were singing, "Let the freedom in." Close enough. At the end of the video, amid the Arabic credits, was the sole line of English: "Let the sunshine in." I've been humming it ever since.

          At about 1:00, Assa came in to "set the table" for lunch, only it wasn't a table, but the floor. She had a nice round tablecloth for that purpose, and something that I had not yet seen here: matching napkins. As the food came out, Assa also brought out individual plates and cutlery, which are unheard of in most Mauritanian households. It seemed that the plates had been purchased for the occasion, in that the residue of the sticky labels was still on the edges.

          We had a delicious meal of salad, beans, sauce, and french fries (The United States may be the origin of the phrase, "Would you like fries with that?" In Mauritania, they don't ask. Most places serve them on everything, including sandwiches: You're getting fries with that.)

          After about two more hours, the tablecloth came out again. Lunch was not over. The main course was one of the Mauritanian national dishes called tchubbejin (CHUB-a-jin). Assa had prepared some plain rice and fish-free sauce for me. All was tasty, and we were exhorted to eat, eat, eat.

         Yesterday, I delivered the document of our first English book to the typist who is putting it together for the graphic artist. From the office, I went to the ambassador's Fourth of July party, to which most Americans living in Nouakchott were invited, along with the PCVs who were in town at the time.

           I am usually out of the United States for this holiday. When I am there, it's not something that I usually do anything about. I can name only one year - 1988 - that I can remember what I did for the holiday, because I was visiting my friend Carl in Washington, D.C. and we went to the National Mall. Here in Mauritania, though, with not much else to do, I went to the party at the embassy.

           The ambassador's house wouldn't win any architectural awards, but it was nicely furnished and surrounded by something that we see very rarely in these parts: a lawn and lush vegetation. Next to the house is a gate leading to his private swimming pool, which is separate from the "community pool" where everyone else gets to swim.

           The announced hours of the party were 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM. For the first hour and a half, there were only beverages. I can't fathom drinking beer and wine before noon, but most people were not having a problem with that.

           When the ambassador announced that the food had been set up at a room inside the house, and that we should all help ourselves, I was talking with somebody near the door leading to that room. I wouldn't have fought my way to the front of the line, but since I was already there, well, somebody had to be first!

           I took my food to a shaded area on the periphery of the yard. After about ten minutes, who should join me there but the ambassador himself. His wife is in the USA now, so she couldn't join us. We had a pleasant chat that ended when he got up to get seconds.

           At about 2:30, the ambassador announced that he was going inside but that we were welcome to stay as long as we wanted. Some of the embassy employees began to move the beer and other beverages to the other swimming pool. Most of the people left were the PCVs, along with a few embassy employees.




Welcome Poem, 2004

Explanations of local and Peace Corps terms


Just a couple of days ago
You were all in Pennsylvania.
Little did you know
What lay ahead in Mauritania.



When we heard you were coming
We all let out a cheer.
Welcome to the PC/RIM.
We're mighty glad you're here.

PC/RIM: Peace Corps/République Islamique de Mauritania


You'll soon be leaving Nouakchott
For adventures in Kaédi.
We're doing all that we can do
Out there to get it ready.



You'll depend on your host families
For the knowledge you'll be gaining.
It's all a part of CBT:
Community-Based Training.



Many ways of doing things
Will be strange and confusing.
They'll laugh at what you say and do:
To them, you're quite amusing.



In the streets the friendly children
Play with garbage in the sand.
They touch that filth and goat manure,
Then run to shake your hand.



Some folks will call you "toubab"
And to some you'll be "nasrani."
You'll have a new identity -
You're no longer Sue or Johnny.

toubab: Wolof for foreigner
nasrani: Hassaniya for Christian


Your new friends Zeinabou,
Aïcha and Moustafa
Can't wait to see you wearing
A boubou or moulafa.

boubou: local men's garment
local women's garment


Then just when you're adjusting
To your new host family's ways,
It's back to the Kaédi lycée
For some fun-packed Center Days.

lycée: high school


You'll be there for tech sessions,
To continue language studies,
Medical, cross-culture,
And town meetings with your buddies.



And then the big day comes
When you find out about your site.
"That name is unpronounceable!
I'll never say it right!"



You'll hear your village's name
And you'll wonder, "Now, where is it?"
You'll soon find out firsthand
At your full-week-long site visit.



By the time September comes,
You'll be crying for your mamas
When you find out "PST"
Stands for "Pressure, Stress, and Traumas."

PST: Pre-Service Training


As you're sweating in Kaédi
And you're a bunch nervous wrecks,
You'll be sorry you ever heard of
The Corpse duh lah Pex.

Intentionally corrupt spelling and pronunciation of Corps de la Paix,

French for Peace Corps


Just hang in there, everybody.
We want you to remember
That swearing in as Volunteers
Is on the ninth day of September.



That's your turning point,
With your life much more at ease.
At last, you'll be in charge,
To come and go much as you please.



Each of you will have a counterpart
With whom you'll do your work.
Yours may be a pussycat,
But could also be a jerk.



When you're living at your site
And things don't always go your way,
You'll see it's not a bad idea
To pray five times a day!



When the village gets you down,
Come and visit us right here.
We know where to find the chocolate,
The pizza, and the beer.



Take that long, hot ride
In a crowded taxi brousse.
There's so much you could complain about,
But what would be the use?

taxi brousse: bush taxi


Here is some advice to you
So we can all increase
The chances that you'll leave Nouakchott
All in one piece:



Watch out for the drivers!
Now heed what I say!
Pedestrians in this country
Never have the right of way!



Something quite important
That we think you all should learn
Is that drivers rarely signal
When they go to make their turn.



So you must be on your guard.
Look both ways before you cross.
There's no doubt about it:
The driver is the boss!



Living in a foreign land
Is a shock to your system.
We can help you to adjust
With these parting words of wisdom.



You'll find a key ingredient
Is your personal attitude.
It's you who makes your misery,
So pay attention, dude.



Your PC/RIM experience
Can be worth a million bucks -
The best time of your life
Or two years when everything sucks.



Your time here can be gruesome or
Your service can be great.
The toughest job you'll ever love
Or the easiest one you'll hate.



Please ask us for our help.
We keep each other strong.
You have a brand-new family
To which you now belong.



You joined the Peace Corps willingly.
No one pulled you by the hairs.
Marhaba! Bismillah!
To our newest stagiaires.

Marhaba: Welcome.
Come in and be at home.