Anthropology lessons


We had two surprising bits of news from Peace Corps Washington during the last week.

First of all, there will be worldwide decreases in the number of trainees for all PC countries. The Peace Corps budget cuts indicate (to me) that U.S. expenditures for war are obviously a higher priority than those for peace. This is sad, not only for our country but for the other nations with which we are trying to build friendships. In the case of our program, we were originally expecting to have 72 new trainees in June; one round of cuts trimmed that to 59; then, last week, it was reduced further, to 41. Factor in the inevitable ET's and it's hard to know how many people will be left to swear in by September.

Secondly, the office in Washington has asked that our Country Director take over the program that is both larger and in a bit of trouble in neighboring Mali. She has agreed to do this. One of our APCDs will be the interim Country Director. We probably won't be getting a new CD until June.

It will be a loss for us, as it is hard to know who will replace our CD. She maintained a delicate balance that is not easy for an administrator to pull off: she is both a competent bureaucrat and a good listener who took to heart the concerns of the staff and Volunteers in her charge.

Babah took a look on my kitchen wall, where I have put up postcards and greeting cards that friends and family have sent to me. He said that he wanted to create something for me to put up there from him. I gave him a pad of drawing paper and he is now creating masterpieces to put up there.

He came by during the last week when I was making soup, so I put him to work cutting carrots. It's a black bean and wild rice soup, with lots of onions and garlic. My cooking motto is: If you put in enough onions and garlic, you can make old sweat socks taste good!

I had a few shaky moments at home with a new leak. One evening I saw a puddle between the bathtub and the toilet, with no clear indication as to the origin of the water. I still don't understand the reason why it is the tenant's responsibility to pay for these repairs, but that is the way they do things here. So I went to sleep with the thoughts of either having to pay for an expensive plumbing repair or, if it was going to be too much, moving out.

The next morning, I did a little mopping up and found the source of the leak. It was not from within the wall, but from a pipe leading to the bidet, which is between the toilet and the sink. I sighed with the relief that this would be much less expensive to repair. The plumber's time and materials cost 1,500 ouguiya - less than $5! Whew!

Two embassy employees invited me to their homes over the weekend. One event was a happy hour on Thursday evening; the other was a dinner on Saturday evening. It's a very enjoyable group, with people who have worked all over the world, mostly with the Foreign Service. Conversations included mentions of living and working in Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Burma, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Cape Verde, Sierra Leona, South Africa, Peru, Germany, France, Ireland, and Canada.

At the end of the Saturday dinner, the hostess asked me if I would like to take home some of the leftover food. It's hard to say no to hummos, tabouleh, babagnoush, and pita bread. She fixed up a huge pan of it. Now, I thought, what am I going to do with all this? It was more than I can eat before it spoiled.

We have had an influx of Volunteers arriving in Nouakchott, so I brought it to the PCV lounge. Just like the faculty room at school - any food brought in is happily and quickly consumed!

It's a funny thing about some books and the way that they have been appearing in my life recently. I was visiting one of our Volunteers in the Peace Corps' medical apartment (where out-of-towners stay if they are here with medical problems), when I saw The Dance of Life: The Other Dimensions of Time by Edward T. Hall on the top of a pile of books. I could see from the description on the cover that it was about the way that different cultures perceive and use time. I lost no time in reading it as soon as possible.

The book, published in 1983, explained a lot about the way different peoples around the world relate to time. The author's references are predominantly Americans, Europeans, Native Americans of the Southwest (Hopi, Navajo), Japanese, and Arabs of the Mediterranean. Most significant for me is his explanation of the differences between cultures that operate on Monochronic Time (M-time) and Polychronic Time (P-time). My understanding of these concepts have helped me to have a better grasp on the way that people relate to each other here, especially in comparison to home.

At work, Americans use M-time, in that they do one thing at a time. At a business meeting, all those in attendance are focused on the work at hand, with interruptions being kept at a minimum. In M-time cultures such as the USA, it is scheduling that orders life. M-time is oriented to tasks, schedules, and procedures. Time is seen as a continuum with a past, present, and future. It is seen as a commodity that can be managed, controlled, spent, wasted, and saved.

In contrast, Polychronic people such as Turks, Arabs - and certainly Mauritanians - tend to do many things simultaneously, such as hold a meeting, give and take phone calls, and permit interruptions for greetings and tea. I used the word "interruptions" because that is the way that an M-time person would see all the things going on that stop the course of the meeting proper. But they clearly do not see these other activities as interruptions.

As Hall writes about members of P-time cultures, "Their involvement in people is the very core of their existence." They are oriented toward people. Because they value people as highly as they do, they listen when others speak, they do not cut them off, and, above all, they do not subjugate the needs of others to something as arbitrary as a schedule that has to be followed.

This goes a long way toward explaining what I have been witnessing as meetings that are chaotic, where not much work (or what I would call work) is getting done. And there is more:

Hall explains that P-time people "are almost never alone, even in the home" and that they are "so deeply immersed in each other's business that they feel a compulsion to keep in touch." This information helps to explain all the drop-in visitors I have complained about. Since the Mauritanians themselves do not spend time alone, they have evidently not placed a value on solitude. As for their incessant visits to my house - they want to make sure that I am not lonely, and they need to be up-to-date on what is happening in my life. It all becomes clear now!

Hall explains that there are both tight and loose versions of M- and P-time cultures, and that there are occasions when people flip from one mode to another. For example, an American parent can have spent much M-time in the office, but once s/he is home, cleaning up, watching after children, and making a meal, there is a decided shift to P-time (what we have come to call "multi-tasking").

One morning, I was waiting for a meeting to begin and was reading The Dance of Life. Somebody in the office saw the book and told me that he had another one by the same author, which he would lend to me if I was interested. That is how I came to read The Silent Language, which was written earlier (1959), and is an explanation of the many features that create culture and through which culture is transmitted without the use of language. It, too, was fascinating, along the lines of an Anthropology 101 course.

There is a reference in these books to yet another one: The Hidden Dimension, the author's book about the way different cultures view space. This could be useful, too, and I have ordered a copy; it's on its way to me now. Hall is an anthropologist who pioneered the field of proxemics, the study of people and their relation to space. I am looking forward to greater understanding when this book arrives!

Last week, I was in the office of the PC's cross-cultural coordinator, when I saw yet another of Hall's books, Beyond Culture (published in 1976), sitting on top of a stack. I asked to borrow it and have just completed reading it. The information in his books tends to overlap, which I find useful, as he writes about concepts that he may have covered in a previous book I read, but is now reinforced for me as I read it in a new context. In Beyond Culture, he makes a further helpful distinction for me between Polychronic and Monochronic cultures:

In Polychronic cultures (Mauritania), the completion of a job has lower importance than being sociable to others with whom one is working. "To be obsessional about achieving a work goal at the expense of getting along is considered aggressive, pushy, and disruptive." Yes, then, it is clear to me: my Mauritanian co-workers are decidedly not obsessional about achieving their work goals!

Hall acknowledges that working in a Polychronic culture "can be almost totally disorganizing" to a people from Monochronic cultures, saying, "The two systems are like oil and water - they do not mix."

I can sum up what I have learned from him in this quotation: "The reason man does not experience his true cultural self is that until he experiences another self as valid he has little basis for validating his own self."

In considering the different approach to time as displayed by people here (and especially in contrast to American society), I may also now have a better understanding of some other aspects of the local society:

During my most recent session of the English Conversation Club at NEC, we read an article from a business magazine. It was a story about an employee of Les Schwab Tire Centers; he stopped and changed the flat tire of a middle-aged woman, brought her to the store where he worked, where they fixed the flat for free, and said that that was just the way their company did business. The story claimed that this company gives away $10 million in business every year by changing flat tires for free. They also earn more than $1 billion a year!

The Mauritanians in the class couldn't quite understand why a company would do so much work for free, if it was in business to make money. That brought up a conversation about long-term benefits. I explained to them that yes, they do give away a lot of business, but look at how much more they gain as a result of their grateful customers.

It made me wonder if this is related to the local perspective about time. People's schedules here are short-term. You may remember how hard it was for me to get a date book for 2004. Advanced planning is not a strong suit of this culture.

A survey through my apartment and the homes of most people will reveal that painters did not use drop cloths when they did their work. You can see shoddy workmanship everywhere. How did that come to pass?

My guess, as I extrapolate on what I have learned recently, is that the focus of the painting and other workmanship, is to get the job done as soon as possible. The focus is obviously not to have a nice appearance for many years to come. It appears to me to be the view toward the short-term results rather than the long-term benefits.

Yes, indeed: anthropology lessons!