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