Windy and gritty


For those of you who are reading this in the United States, if you have any books you want to get rid of, please let me know, as I could put them to good use here through the Nouakchott English Center or one of the other organizations where I am working. There is an inexpensive way to mail them to me. I have already sent out one request by e-mail and don't want to overload you with the details in another mass e-mail, so if you are interested in this, just let me know, so I can get the information to you.

The weather is changing a bit. Now a few hotter days have been interspersed with the previously cooler ones. And the wind has been picking up, sending sand and dust flying. Everything is gritty. When I sit on my bed, it feels like I am on a sheet that has been on the beach all day. The air temperature is mild, except during the hottest part of the day, but in order to cut down on dust and sand entering my place, I have to keep the windows closed, which makes it stuffy in there.

My class on American Civilization with the teacher trainees is currently on hiatus, as the students are now in a stage of their training that sounds like student teaching. We resume our work together in April.

There are two new classes that they want me to teach to the next group of trainees, but I had to turn down this possibility, as I need to be available to work on the textbooks, now that that work has been increasing.

The English Conversation Club is going well, with a mostly mature group - all men - who suggested that I bring in a reading selection for us to go over and then discuss. I tried this approach and it was very successful. I brought in copies of a story, everyone looked it over for words they did not understand, we discussed the meanings of words, and then I read the story so that they could hear proper pronunciations. After that, everyone else took turns reading, asking for corrections to their pronunciation.

Just before we dismissed, I asked everyone if they had a wonderful feast (the one I wrote about last week). They asked me if I did, too, and if I ate a lot of sheep. I surprised them by saying that I didn't eat any sheep at all because I do not eat any animals. One of them said, "Oh, you're a vegetable!" Close enough! What I didn't expect was the overwhelming interest in my diet, and why I did not eat animals.

I told everyone that we could talk about it during next week's session. I am glad to be doing this job during the age of the Internet because I have been able to find several excellent documents that I can copy and distribute for our discussion.

The relaxation of the last four-day weekend was followed by a three-day work week, which is always nice. At the end of last week, when we divided up the first eight chapters for the first-year English book, we set Tuesday, 10:00 AM at IPN (the agency that writes the texts) as the time to get together to compare notes.

Then, on Monday night, I got a call from H, to tell me that there was a meeting at 10:00 AM at IGEST (the agency that creates the curriculum) to work on the new curriculum for the second-year English book. I reminded H of the IPN meeting; he said that this one was more important and that he would tell D that we would not be there.

A total of seven of us was at the meeting. I showed them the scope and sequence that I had done for Book 1. They were amazed and impressed. Never before had anyone put information like this in a logical easy-to-read format. They all wanted copies!

The meeting didn't get too far, as all we did was talk in generalities. There were some documents that needed to be copied so that we could work from them. The snag was that the person who had to make the copies was not in the office, so we could not get the papers copied. Yes, the machine was working. Yes, it was accessible. Yes, there was paper in it. But the person authorized to use it was out of the building, so we could not get to work. The meeting, therefore, was dismissed until Wednesday at 9:00 AM.

On Wednesday morning, I was about ten minutes late to the meeting, but still the first one to arrive. Almost everyone was there by 9:45, but they were just chatting, drinking tea, and shaking hands with everyone who walked by the room and stopped in to say hello. At 10:15, one of the group announced that the man who could make copies was on his way to the building and would be there in ten minutes. We continued chatting and sitting around until about 11:00, when one of the people took me to his office, showed me his computer, and asked me if I would like to use it. I asked if there was Internet on it, he said yes, and then I had something to do for a while.

By 12:10, I had been able to read much of my e-mail, answer a few, and get rid of the spam. I got up to stretch a bit and saw that my meeting participants were gathering their goodies and getting ready to leave. Everyone was very amicable and friendly - nobody stressed at all about not getting any work done. Just another day at the office, with everyone agreeing to meet on Thursday at 9:00 AM.

On Thursday, I woke up at 7:30, which is the latest I ever sleep here. Usually I am up between 6:30 and 7:00, which gives me plenty of time to get ready in a leisurely way and then walk to the office. My first thought was that I would have to hurry up in order to be out of the house in an hour and to the meeting on time. Then I stopped myself and thought, Why should I be a chump, the first one to arrive, and wait around for an hour until a meeting gets started? So I took my time and showed up at 9:40, the fourth of the seven people who were to be there. By the time the seventh person showed up, at 10:20, the fifth one had disappeared. The long-awaited documents were still not photocopied, but we started the meeting without them, which led me to wonder, If we could work today without these papers, why couldn't we have done it yesterday and the day before?

One document that we did have was dated February, 2000 and it was the basis of the current syllabus in use. What we decided to do was look through it, see what is currently being taught, and decide what changes needed to be made, if any. There are many useful and necessary concepts that are in the syllabus. I had to speak up, though, and say that it looked overly ambitious, when you consider that during the second year of English (as with the first), the language is taught in only one class session per week for a total of only two hours.

During the second year, we go into such topics as asking for repetition and clarification; reporting past events; making requests; expressing quantity; expressing obligation; introducing others; and making comparisons. (There are more; that is just a sample.) Our first order of business was to see what could be eliminated from the syllabus and postponed until a later year. That is where we spent our time until the meeting was concluded, which meant it was the end of the work week.

The phone companies here (there are two) do not send bills for cell phones. Their system is totally pay-as-you-go. You buy cards with credit for amounts from 1,000 to 10,000 ouguiya, scratch off the silver that covers the code on the back, dial 444, and enter the code. At that point, the credit is added to the phone, and you also have two months during which to use the credit. One advantage to plunking down 10,000 ouguiya (about $33) for the most expensive card is that this one comes with a bonus of 3,000 extra units, giving a total of 13,000 units to use during the two months. I have purchased this twice now, and find that this amount of credit lasts for the whole two months, usually with a little bit left over.

It's hard to go anywhere in town without seeing men and boys who sell these cards on the streets. They are also for sale in stores, but I try to buy from somebody selling on the street because this seems to be the only way they make their living and they really need the money. It is standard procedure, when one buys a high value card, to take the card, scratch off the code covering, enter the code right there on the street, and then pay the seller only after the phone has been credited; this way, there is no possibility of being ripped off.

Toward the last days of the two-month validation period, the company starts sending warnings that the time is almost up. One good feature to the system is that if there are credits left on the account, they get rolled over and added to the new total, as long as more credit is purchased before the expiration. So on Sunday, when I bought my new card for 10,000 UM, I got the message that I now had 15,000 or so credits that would expire on the first of April. That was fine, but it didn't stay that way.

I started to notice a problem on Tuesday when I received a text message from a PCV in another town. When I tried to respond, I got a message that my response could not be sent. I chalked it up to a busy network - not the first time that has happened. Then, in the evening, I had a visitor who asked me if he could use my phone because he had no credit on his. When he tried to make the call, he said that there was a recording and gave it to me to listen to because I have chosen English as the language of getting information from the phone company, and he does not speak English.

The message said that I had only 3,000 in credit, and that it was past the expiration date. How could that be? This was very disturbing, especially to receive the information late in the evening, shortly before going to sleep.

I got up early so that I could take care of this at a phone company office before going to my 9:00 meeting. It was a good thing I got there early, as the place was almost deserted at 8:30. I was half expecting that whoever I spoke to at the office would have some sort of "Yeah, right!" attitude when I explained my problem. The employee I spoke to was very sympathetic, asked me for my phone number, the amount of credit I thought I still had on the phone, and told me that it would be restored by 10:00. As it turned out, there had been a technical problem with the phones, so I was one of many customers who had problems.

By 12:15, when I left the meeting that never happened, my credit was still not back and I could not make calls, which was frustrating because one of the other Nouakchott Volunteers was sending me text messages that I could not answer. I stopped in again at the phone company office, now a mob scene, and the employee I had seen earlier in the day told me that all would be restored by 4:00 in the afternoon.

At 3:59 PM, my phone beeped. It was the phone company, informing me by text message that my account had just been credited. This tale now had a happy ending!

I had a restful weekend, but felt very sluggish and exhausted. As I thought about it, I couldn't figure out why I would be so tired. I usually associate this kind of fatigue with physical exertion or sleep deprivation, and I had recently experienced neither.

By the time Saturday evening had come around, I felt better. I had spent most of the weekend in and around home, reading and doing quiet things in solitude. Then I had my revelation: the exhaustion was not physical, but emotional! It was the result of the constant interactions that I have been experiencing with this still-foreign environment!

Overall, I think I have been making a good adjustment to life here, but that doesn't diminish the fact that everything is different: food, language, friends, housing, shopping, routines - everything. And that takes its emotional toll.

There are also times when, totally satisfied to be by myself and recuperate, the Mauritanians begin to descend on me, totally unfamiliar as they are with the concept of solitude. Everyone here lives with a family, and it is most common for them to have as many as a dozen people in their homes at all times, with nobody having what we consider to be private property or personal space. They look on us Westerners with pity, sorry that we have to spend so much time alone - and, as a result, they come to visit us, unannounced, so that we don't have to be alone.

My friend Mamouni had his own revelation during the same weekend. His older sister was out of town with her husband and children. She had asked him to stay at her place while they were gone. This meant leaving the large house where he lives with his extended family and spending time alone at her house. He told me he loved it! He couldn't believe how restful and peaceful it was without anyone there to bother him!

We had a good laugh and some new common understanding when we shared our experiences.