Work! At last! (sort of)


The elections are over, so that is no longer an excuse for people not being at work. My counterpart came back to the office and gave me copies of the English curriculum to read. The outline is in place for the first four years, with regard to the kinds of things that are to be taught each year.

He told me that we are to be revising the book for the first year and writing the book for the sixth. It is, however, still Ramadan, which is the next excuse to turn up, followed by the fact that our immediate supervisor has been in Tunisia. When Ramadan is over and our supervisor gets back, we will see what comes up next.

One positive turn of events is that one day, when I was leaving the building where my office is, I encountered both my counterpart and the counterpart of the other PC Curriculum Development Specialist. He told me that we would be having a meeting "next week," though he was not any more specific, so it was not quite time to take out the calendar and pencil to make any firm plans.

I understand that my predecessor was quite perturbed about this indeterminate way of running things, which led to her leaving before her first year was completed. Me? I just begin each day with my "just another day in paradise" attitude. Besides, it would be out of the question for me even to think of leaving before the French embassy comes through with my wine order!

My office at IPN is in a part of the building where the French people are working on the French curriculum here. One of them, Luce, makes coffee in her office every day. There is nothing that resembles an employee lounge, so when it is coffee time, we congregate in there. I asked if I could bring in coffee or in some way to contribute, and Luce asked me to bring in some bottled water. (There are no water coolers.) Just a slice of life at the office. The French people who work here are very friendly and welcoming.

Last Monday was the next hash sponsored by the Hash House Harriers (see entry of 10/27/2003 for the previous story). I am sorry to say that I have now become a HHH dropout. The reason I quit running six years ago - my knees - started to flare up again. In the middle of the run, I told everyone to stop waiting up for me, that I would make it back to the house on my own. I waited for everyone there, had a few beers, and that was it for me with the Hashers.

I was especially discouraged that I was lagging behind everyone else since half of the group is smokers and I should be able to keep up with them! But even when I was running, I was always the slowest (or among the slowest) of the pack.

Several people from the US have mentioned to me that they have been noticing Mauritania in the news, now that I am here and they are aware of the existence of this country. This happened not only around the time of the presidential elections, but also in relation to a news story that some of you have seen concerning the marketing of camel milk cheese by a Mauritanian dairy based in Nouakchott.

The dairy maintains a store very close to my house; I walk by there every day on my way to and from the PC bureau. One of the Volunteers bought some camel milk and I tasted it, but since I am not a milk drinker, it did not do anything for me.

Another Volunteer bought some of the camel milk cheese and passed it around. The verdict: excellent! It reminds me of a camembert or brie.

If you are curious, you can go to the Tiviski Dairy website at Information there is available in both English and French.

It was one year ago this weekend that I received my invitation to serve in the PC/Mauritania. That was a quick year. (They are all quick once they are over, aren't they?)

As far as I can tell, I was the first person in my training class to get an invitation. The process is probably beginning now for the group that will arrive in June, 2004. Will, one of the other Nouakchott Volunteers who has considerable Internet and other technical experience, is working on revising the PC/RIM website so that it will continue to be useful, with a special focus on helping Volunteers, Invitees, and people who are considering coming to visit us.

I can't do the html work, but can write, so I am helping with that. Our goal is to be sure that all Invitees and visitors are as well-prepared as possible.

One consistent project I have kept up with is the class in which air traffic controllers are studying English. My reason for being invited is that I am a native speaker of the language. The class continues for only two more weeks.

The members of the class were asking for reading material in English. I gathered some excess Newsweek magazines that had been collecting at the PC bureau.

In one of my first class sessions, a member asked me to give my impressions of life here. I talked about the garbage and goats in the streets, the overall different attitude about the meaning of cleanliness.

In the same discussion, I asked them if they had any sense of what there was about Africa, a continent, a massive collection of varied peoples, that would make a contribution to world society. The reason I asked the question is because I had my own inkling of an answer, and I was curious to see if anyone in the class was able to look inward at their own way of life and see what there was that was special about it, especially with regard to world dynamics.

To digress a little: it's been my experience, in both traveling and hosting voyagers in my own home, that foreigners are frequently better equipped to talk about the visited society than are its residents. The foreigner is making comparisons to "home," whereas residents, with no similar frame of reference (unless they have traveled extensively) just see home as home, and that is the way the world is. (Similarly, children of famous people, when asked what it is like to have so-and-so as a father or mother, frequently respond by saying that that is the only father/mother they have had, so they don't know how to answer the question.)

With this in mind, it was not surprising that people may have been a little fuzzy on what I meant - on how, exactly, Africans are poised to make a contribution to the world.
I was willing to share my impressions with them, though, even though it is still early in my service.

The nourishing of personal relationships here is paramount. The observation that I have made is that the national sport here is "hanging out," and people are practicing it much of the time. Even in businesses, when customers come in, they frequently interrupt a group of employees that is hanging out around the tray of tea.

People do not need an appointment or a reason to stop by each other's house. What we call cheating in school is simply a matter of a friend asking for help, and when a friend needs help, there is a cultural imperative to give it.

With this in mind, I told the group of air traffic controllers that what I thought Africa has to teach the world concerns something about interpersonal relationships, the way that people and their welfare are more highly valued than business.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was near the end of my reading of Power Lines, a book written by Jason Carter, and saw this citation of Steve Biko, who died in the anti-Apartheid work in which he was involved in his native South Africa:

(T)he cornerstone of society is man himself - not just his welfare, not his material well-being but just man himself with all his ramifications. We reject the power-based society of the Westerner that seems to be ever concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension. We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationship. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa - giving the world a more human face.

Seeing this - having this seem like a confirmation of my still-early hunch - is a critical puzzle piece that helps me to make sense of what I see here with regard to relationships. It helps to explain how, when a clerk is waiting on me, and a friend of his comes by, the clerk drops me like yesterday's cold oatmeal, in favor of greeting his friend. The relationship represented by the friend is apparently more important than the money that the customer brings with him.

This perspective sheds a little light on a situation concerning me:

First, you should know that the PC bureau gets its security guards from the US Embassy. There is a rotation through which a few of the guards work some days at the embassy and some at the bureau.

This means that when I go into or past the embassy, it is fairly common for me to see a guard whom I recognize from her or his having worked at the bureau. There are several different routes I can take to go to work in the morning, and one of them involves walking by the embassy.

Last week, I was walking by there on my way to work. There was a car stopped at the gate, and a security guard was inspecting it. When the guard noticed and recognized me, he stopped what he was doing and came over to greet me and shake my hand! I was surprised that he would stop his work to do that. (By all means, yes, he did continue inspecting the car; but that waited.)

There is another short anecdote. I stopped by a woodworker to see about getting a shelf for my kitchen, since I was unable to buy it directly from the market, as I explained in a previous posting. It took several weeks to get a shelf of the length that I wanted, because Boubacar, the proprietor of the shop, was going to sell me a leftover piece from his work.

When I stopped by to pick up the shelf, Boubacar wasn't there. I asked how much it cost, and nobody knew because it was Boubacar who would set the price. So I asked if I would be able to take the shelf home and just stop by another time to pay. I anticipated, based on my experience here so far, that the answer would be yes, and it was, with a "no problem" thrown in. I go by there all the time, so will take care of this during the coming days.

How nice to get a new level of order in my kitchen, now that I have the shelf!

On Saturday, we received a new State Department worldwide caution concerning the need for Americans, both inside and outside of the United States, to maintain a high level of vigilance with regard to security. For now, we are being asked to stay away from the PC bureau and any other places where Westerners congregate. This is evidently as a result of some new attacks or threats, though nothing specific has been mentioned concerning Mauritania.