A few minor adjustments



We have been given a huge amount of reading material. When we arrived there was the Welcome Packet (a spiral bound book), the Volunteer Health Handbook, and the Volunteer Handbook. Then, there is a syllabus (book) that is aligned to each program. In the Education program, we also have several program-specific documents about teaching English. There is a lesson book for learning Hassaniya, and so far I have received three books for French (a grammar book, 501 verbs, and a theme-based book about vocabulary). There is a readings packet for PST, a cross-cultural workbook called Culture Matters, and then there is the one that has my favorite title of all: a booklet named A Few Minor Adjustments. Someone's tongue was firmly planted in her or his cheek when (s)he came up with that title!

A few? Minor? Let me tell you - there are more than just a few and they are far from minor!

Besides the obvious cultural and language adjustments we are all making, I find that I am facing several other areas where it is necessary to adjust the way that I operate in the world.

First of all, I am making an adjustment to my standards for cleanliness. This is not a very clean place. Being in the desert as we are, and with the prevailing winds, sand and dust are everywhere. My clothing and other possessions are getting dirty very quickly, and I find that I am making the adjustment to accepting and living with a greater amount of dirt than I am used to.

That being said, it is remarkable that the Mauritanians present themselves in public as being very clean and well turned-out. Clothing is washed, ironed (!) and beautiful to look at. The men wear an article of clothing called a boubou that looks something like a gown over their other clothing. The women obviously spend a lot of energy on making themselves more than simply presentable. Their clothing is usually made with colourful fabric that includes either a headdress with a matching cloth or a veil (called a mulafa) that has a complimentary color.

My second major adjustment is my standard for being organized. We have moved several times since we arrived, and have not always had adequate time to prepare for each move, which has resulted in things being thrown together in a haphazard manner. In addition to that, in the room that I have at my host family's house, there is nothing like a dresser or table where I can arrange things. So everything is either in a piece of luggage or on the floor. And since the room has no window, it is always hot, which means I want to get in there, get what I need, and get out as soon as possible.

My third major adjustment concerns meals and mealtimes. Since I am either with my host family or at the training center for meals, I have to eat when the food is served, no matter when that is.

The fourth adjustment is related to the meals and has to do with my maintaining a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism has --- well, let's just say that it is a concept that has not taken hold in Mauritania. I was as pro-active as I could have been, in that I asked the host family coordinator on the PC staff to explain my situation to the family before I got there. As a result, Berti, who prepares the meals, is as cooperative as she can be, but it means that there are some objects on the communal platter that get closer than I would like them to be to critter parts and critter juices.
My response is that I am going to do what I can to get through PST with the host family, and then when I am on my own, I can be more scrupulous about the food that I eat.

A fifth adjustment, also major, has to do with the simple act of sitting. I am not used to sitting on the floor so much of the time. It takes different muscles to support the back and neck when sitting on the floor than when in a chair. I think I am getting a little strength in these muscles over time, but it is still not an easy thing to do.

A few minor adjustments, indeed! Brilliant understatement, don't you think?

You would be shocked (and maybe even disgusted) to see what Kaedi looks like. I will start by describing my own street.

From the front of my host home to the front of the home on the opposite side of the street is 52 feet. The surface is hard dirt or sand underneath, topped with fairly loose sand on top; it is rutted, pitted, and anything but level. That width of 52 feet has no separate delineations for any purposes, such as vehicular traffic or sidewalks. Most of the traffic is pedestrian, as there are very few cars or trucks that go by. Donkeys come through pulling carts in some areas of town. Any pedestrians stay fairly much in the center of the area, as do the vehicles when they come through. Why?

Why, indeed! It is evident that there is no system for something as basic as garbage pickup. That's right. Abou, my host father, who is the deputy mayor of Kaedi, confirmed that this city of 45,000 inhabitants has no garbage dump, no recycling system, and no way to get garbage away from the houses. As a result, the streets are completely littered with such things as batteries, animal legs, tails, hooves, bones, and horns, car parts, fish heads, plastic bottles, animal dung in varying degrees of freshness, empty food packaging, razor blades, flip-flops, rocks, hair weaves, tires (whole and in parts), piles of rubble, plastic bags, shoes, and cans in a variety of conditions from perfectly cylindrical to flattened and rusty. Kaedi is a center for the cloth-dying industry in Mauritania. When the women are finished with their dye, they pour the remainder into the streets.

In addition to the people in the streets, the most common animal is the goat. There are some sheep, donkeys and chickens, too. I have seen only a few dogs, one cat, and the occasional horse.

I have seen nothing that looks like a park or a public square that would be an inviting place for people to gather and converse. That sort of activity is usually confined to the home. And there is a wonderful little outdoor structure where the family gatherings take place. Since it is hotter inside, this outdoor structure, something of a gazebo, is the best place to pass the time during the day - and that is exactly what many people do. It has a roof, a floor either right on the ground level or a little bit above that, and some poles to support the roof.

On the Sunday following our arrival at host family homes, we began our language lessons. The plan is to study for five hours a day. Of the ICT group (the tech guys) and me, three of them with low French skills have to study that first. Eventually they will have to learn Hassaniya. Two of them and I are studying Hassaniya right away.

Three students to one teacher is a good ratio for learning. By the same token, it also means that there is little time for daydreaming. The teacher is Aly, who looks a little like a young Richard Pryor. Since PST started, his wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter, and he has not seen her yet. He will not be able to get home to see his wife and daughter until about the 20th of July. My classmates, coincidentally enough, are Carl, who was living in San Francisco before he joined the PC, and Matt, from Portola Valley, about thirty miles south of San Francisco, and whom I met in February at a San Francisco Regional Office Peace Corps event.

Aly lives in Nouakchott, so he is staying in a rented place that is usually a private school during the school year. That is where our classes take place, but not inside the school, as that would be too hot. We meet outside in the sand and dirt courtyard, in the shade of a large tree. Classes are timed so that we meet generally in the morning starting at 8:00 and in the afternoon starting at 4:00, as a way to avoid the hottest part of the day.

There are not any amenities that you would associate with a classroom. There are just the folding chairs and us. Writing means a juggling act, as we rest our books on our laps to take notes. After a few days of this arrangement, Aly brought out mats and bed cushions so that we could sprawl out on the ground and change our body positions, which was much more comfortable. Any writing that Aly does is on a board that has been painted black on each side, and that board is propped up on an easel.

Then there is the auditory accompaniment to our studying: neighbors sharing their loud music, children playing, babies crying, roosters crowing, and people coming through the neighborhood making announcements on loudspeakers. Every once in a while, a rooster hops into the yard from the neighbor's house, which gives Aly, Matt, and Carl an opportunity to play Chase the Rooster.

The basis of Hassaniya is Arabic. Aly explained to us that every Arabic-speaking country has its own dialect of the language. Vocabulary words differ from one country to the other. This language is rough stuff! A simple word like "father" makes changes in its ending, depending on whether one is talking about one's own father, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs, and whether the person (whose father you are talking about) is a male or a female.

I feel like my brain has been assaulted. After the first few days, I felt as if a million dollars had been dumped on me, I was given a chance to pick up as much as I could hold, and came up with three cents.

But some of it is sinking in. The strength of the way that the language is taught is that the Peace Corps uses an approach called Competency Based Curriculum. This means that we are learning how to be able to function (and be competent) in some very specific and useful areas, such as greetings, introducing people, asking about the existence or presence of a person or object, talking about families, asking for help, describing the physical and mental state of a person, asking for and giving advice, talking about daily activities, describing the weather and seasons, asking for and giving directions, bargaining and purchasing at the market, expressing needs and intentions, talking about meals, describing work and explaining an action plan, explaining the advantages and disadvantages of a project, discussing society, culture, and customs, how to use public transportation, setting up an appointment, explaining what we did in the recent past, and describing places and things.

Can we do all of that in just ten weeks? We will have to see about that!

Meanwhile, at home, the host kids and parents are helping out as much as possible. Waldeh has appointed herself as my teacher, and she is as cute as can be about it. After about two days of class, she threw out a barrage of questions to me, and I had no idea what she was talking about. Eventually, I recognized the word for "eye." She was asking me, "Where is your eye?" I remembered having learned that word that morning! I pointed to my eye. She and the other kids broke out into applause and smiles. Relentless, she continued. I didn't recognize any other words until she got to "shirt." It sounded familiar, I knew I had heard it, but it took me a while to pull it out. Finally, I tugged on my own shirt, which resulted in another round of applause and smiles all the way around.

It's the moments like this that help to keep me going!

On Wednesday we had the first sandstorm since we arrived. About fifteen minutes before the end of our Hassaniya class in the late afternoon, Aly responded to a neighbor's cry that there was a sandstorm coming. They are visible, much the way one can see rain clouds or a twister advancing. In the distance we saw a huge cloud advancing toward us. It was not only in the sky but at ground level, too. The color was a pastel version of a terra cotta pot in which many people keep plants - very light reddish brown.

Aly suggested that even though it was close to the time we would be going home to our families, that we stay there with him and not try to make it home in the storm. As the sand cloud came closer, the sky got darker. Soon there was that pastel terra cotta color all around us. It wasn't very windy, but windier than it had been. And it the sand that was being blown around was very fine - more like dust than sand. I had expected that it would be like a whirlwind of sand being thrown around, and possibly painful, too, but it wasn't like that.

It lasted about an hour, at which point everything was dusted with the powdery sand/dirt.

On Thursday, we had a visit from the U. S. Ambassador to Mauritania. It meant that we had to leave our host families and spend the evening (but not overnight) at the center. Ambassador John Limbert and his wife greeted us, answered questions, and then stayed around to socialize during dinner. He comes across as a very down-to-earth and approachable person.

Ambassador Limbert is finishing his service here next month. (It will be his replacement who will be present at our swearing-in as Volunteers.) He explained to us that he was in the fourth group of PCV's to serve in Iran in the Sixties. Having an ambassador who was a PCV himself means that he is particularly attached to the benefits of the Peace Corps.

Ambassador Limbert explained that the Embassy's three major missions in Mauritania are the war against terrorism, humanitarian aid, and the advancement of human rights.

The Counsel from the Embassy was also in his entourage. She recently worked in Chad and has been in Nouakchott for five weeks. She told us that there are currently three hundred Americans in Mauritania. The largest group is the Peace Corps. There are some people working for the Embassy and other aid organizations. Other than those specific groups, there are maybe ten other Americans in the country.

Other Embassy officials in the group told us about projects with which they would be happy to help us. And the Embassy, with its facilities such as swimming pool, tennis courts, weight room, and snack bar, are at our disposal when we are in Nouakchott.

One of the enjoyable benefits of the Ambassador's visit was that all the Trainees, dispersed among host families for the previous six days, had a chance to be together again and compare notes about our progress so far. There is a wide variety of home stay situations. Two of the married couples have their own small houses in the family compounds. Some of the Trainees are in homes where there are maids who do all the serving and cleaning up. On the other end of the spectrum, some are in places with no indoor plumbing or water.

Here's a little bit of information about the money here, and what it will buy. The unit of currency is the ouguyiga (oo-GEE-yuh, with a hard "g" as in "go"), generally abbreviated as UM. When we exchanged money in Nouakchott we got 285 UM to the dollar. During PST, we get paid an allowance of 500 UM a day, usually on a weekly basis; this is referred to as our "walkaround" money. The per diem will change when we are posted to our sites. Here are some things of general interest, and how much they cost: a .75 liter of drinking water is 80 UM, a baguette of bread is 40 UM, a can of soda is 100 UM, and an hour at the Internet station is 200 UM.

Many of us are having clothes made for us in the local style. I had some made this week. I bought a bolt, 6 meters, of fabric, for 4,000 UM and had it made into a shirt, long pants, and a pair of shorts that I will be able to wear around the house. (We don't wear shorts in public, but my host family mother said it would be all right to wear them around the house.) The tailoring for this cost 700 UM.

Now at the end of the second week in country, there are eight members of our group who have decided that they want to go home. The PC calls this "early termination" and it is generally referred to as "ET." "ET" is used as a verb, as in "Did you hear that so-and-so ET'd?" or "I'm thinking about ET-ing."

The first two ET's came on the day we were assigned to our host families, and they have continued one at a time until the seventh one yesterday. The Trainee grapevine is fast! I was visiting three sick Trainees at the center's infirmary when our seventh one came in. The nurse asked us to leave the room so that the ET Trainee could watch the ET video - something I had not known about since then.

Usually, many of us don't get to say good-bye to a Trainee who is ET-ing, because (s)he stays at the center until the next car is going to Nouakchott. Then, once in Nouakchott, (s)he has to wait until the next plane is leaving for Paris; there are only three a week. The PC wants to get the ET-ing Trainee out of Kaedi as soon as possible, so that there is as positive an atmosphere as possible among the remaining Trainees.

Those of us left behind - now 48 of us - continue to say we are staying, but it is hard to know what is going on inside anyone's head. With the ET's of the last week, I have the distinction of being the oldest one now in the training class, as Charlie, my Philadelphia roommate, older than I by a few months, was one of them. (I have found in my discussions with other Trainees that I am not only the oldest one here, but am older than many of their parents!) So far, five of the ET's have been men and three have been women.

People are generally expecting that there will be a few more ET's soon. There are just a few of us who know the sites where we will be living. Some people seem to think that once the sites are announced this week, there may be some ET's, or, if not then, it may happen in early August when we take a week to visit our sites. If people perceive that they will not be happy at their sites, there may be some more ET's then.

The PC does not do anything to talk people out of ET-ing. Their perspective is that if people will not be happy here, it would be better for them to leave. And they also told us that it is much better to ET during PST than to wait until after swearing in and being posted to our sites.

The most recent cause for frustration has been an absence of Internet service again. When we got here, it was a problem between here and Nouakchott. Then service began on the 7th of July and worked until about ten in the morning on the 11th, at which time the entire network went down. The problem this time is with the phone lines maintained by the Mauritel phone company. So this is just an advisory to anyone who is going to try to e-mail me and finds that it takes a long time for me to get back to you: the system is not reliable. If I don't answer soon, it's because there is something wrong with it.