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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.