The way things (don't) work


In Japan, it's "gaijin," in Thailand, it's "farang," and in Central America, it's "gringo." After "mother" and "father," it's the next word that children learn how to say. These are the words that identify the foreigner and alert the neighborhood that there is a strange-looking guy in unusual clothing walking through town.

In Mauritania, the word is "toubab" (TOO-bahb). And accompanying that word, we usually get a friendly "bonjour." Yes, the kids in the street are friendly. And they usually come up to us with an arm extended so that we can shake hands. What we need to do, though, is remember NOT to shake hands with them. Why? Because they play in the streets all day, and all they have to play with is garbage.

And, with regards to that, one of the other Trainees remarked the other day, "We're eating goat, and the goats are eating GARBAGE. No wonder everyone is getting sick!" (Maybe the reason that it took me so long to get sick, compared to everyone else is that I have NOT been eating goat.)

Yes, folks, there is a different approach to sanitation here. My host family mother makes a pot of hot cereal for all of us to share, mixes in the ingredients, and when she tastes it, she puts the tasting spoon back into the pot to stir it up. At the water coolers, there is one drinking cup. Anyone who wants to drink water from that cooler uses that same cup. Likewise, at family meals, there is one cup of water, which is passed to anyone who wants water during the meal.
(In the case of drinking water, all host families received instruction from the PC that the Trainees are to drink only the water that we filter and treat ourselves in the PC-issued water treatment kits.)

I managed to stay well until the 16th. By that point, at least half of the group had spent at least one night or an entire day in the infirmary at the training center. I had a very good record going. And then, I (finally) got an attack of diarrhea. Fortunately, it did not have the accompanying stomach pains or fever that many of my fellow Trainees have had. And, best of all, it is now gone, after only two days. I consider myself lucky.

This week, after eleven days staying in the homes of our host families, we had three days and nights of what are called "center days," which means that we pack up what we need for that amount of time and we all head to the training center, eat communally, have tech sessions (classes within our work programs), and training sessions that are administered to the entire group. For those of us who are at host families in Kaedi, it is a matter of walking to the lycée that is serving as the training center; for those Trainees in sites further away, it means that the PC vehicles round them up and bring them here.

One of the distinguishing features of these center days was the event known as "site announcements," which means that this is the time that everyone finds out where they will be living and working during the next two years.

I seem to be the only person who had received my site announcement as part of my invitation to serve here. My work as the CDS (curriculum development specialist) means that I will be working with two agencies of the Ministry of Education, and that means only one thing: being in the capital, Nouakchott.

Other people, though, have been finding out before the official announcements were made. For example, the three married couples were told where they would be. And the four ICT guys knew that at least three of them would be in Nouakchott, with the possibility of a fourth being in a regional capital. As it turned out, they will all be in Nouakchott.

Before we headed to the center days, there were evaluation meetings with the language facilitators. Matt, Carl, and I, who have been studying Hassaniya together, saw that as our opportunity to explain to the PST language coordinator that we felt it would be more important for us to improve our French than to be learning Hassaniya, since we will be working with government agencies where French is spoken, and it would be impossible to get our Hassaniya to what it should be by mid-September.

To our relief, he agreed. He also informed us that for the next phase of the training, starting this week, we will be switching to French instruction. Not only that, but the language proficiency test that we will have to pass in order to be sworn in as Volunteers, will be in French --- and we already are fluent enough to pass that test. So that was a huge weight off our shoulders, as we had been concerned that we could not be sworn in because our Hassaniya comprehension was so pathetic.

Now that we are more or less up-to-date with current events, I can get to the title of this week's entry: the way things work - even though the emphasis is the way that they DON'T work!

The major frustration for everyone during the last week was the Internet outage. Here we are, away from family and friends, and relying on the Internet to stay in touch, but there was, once again, no connection. Thanks to the ICT guys in our group (those are the technology mavens), we were able to find out what happened. (Part of their work here included an appointment at the offices of both telephone companies; this information comes to us as a result of one of those meetings.)

On the morning of the 11th, a fishing boat in the Senegal River accidentally severed a cable that was responsible for transmitting the Internet in this part of Mauritania as well as the portion of Senegal across the river. As a result, all land line phones, cell phones, and the Internet lines of Mauritel, one of the phone companies, were out of service.

Nobody could work on the problem because Friday and Saturday are the weekend here. Sunday was not an option, either, because that is part of the weekend in Senegal. (Customer service? What's that?) Then, on Monday morning, they got to work on it, and the first repairs were made, which re-connected cell phone service. It was not until Tuesday, the 15th, that land lines were re-connected.

Since then, however, even with the Internet technically functioning, it has been a source of frustration for us, as the connections are very slow. On Thursday, for example, I signed onto the computer, and after twenty-five minutes, had still not gotten to the inbox where my e-mail is located. I decided to give up, and went back to the training center. On Friday, there was a new twist: only Internet sites that were hosted right here in Mauritania, were accessible. By Friday afternoon, that little glitch was fixed.

There have been more malfunctions, though, and these were more specific to me and my life with my host family.
My host family is very welcoming to me. They have done absolutely anything they could to make my stay with them comfortable. The day before I arrived, they purchased a new fan for my use. Let me tell you, having an electric fan makes a BIG difference! Before a week was over, though, in the middle of the night, I heard an explosion sound coming from the fan, and it stopped working.

I felt bad that the fan provided for my use had broken, so I offered to buy a new one. The host family's father's brother has a shop at the market, and they suggested that I see him so that he would negotiate a good price for me. That done, I got a new fan for 3,000 UM (at the rate of 285 UM for one dollar). All went well for three nights. On the fourth night, I woke up soaked in my own sweat, the fan not rotating; it, too, had broken.

Berti, the host mom, tried to arrange to get the two broken fans repaired. She felt confident that she would be able to do that, but eventually found that they could not be fixed. For that night, they gave me their fan to use. Then, the next day, I came back home to find that a ceiling fan had been installed in the room where I sleep!

Plumbing has also been a source of the way things don't work. At the house, the handle that turns the shower on and off is not attached to the faucet; it is kept around the shower area. Turning the water on or off means putting that handle in the position so that it catches the threading in just the right way. All went well until one afternoon when I decided to take a shower just before my Hassaniya class. Then came the event that I like to think of as "Lucy takes a shower."

So there I was, finished, and trying to turn off the water, but I could not attach the handle in the right position. Eventually, I had to let the water run, get dried off, get dressed, and then, since nobody was home, go into the street to see if anyone knew where Yahiya, the twelve-year-old boy, was so that he could turn off the water. I had learned enough Hassaniya to ask, "Where is Yahiya?" so that was helpful, and then, when he arrived on the scene, I explained the problem to him in French. He found a pair of pliers and then took care of the situation.

There were a few other plumbing problems this week. During center days, one of the nights was so hot, and the air was so still, that I woke up suffocating. I thought it would be a good idea to take a shower to cool off, but when I got into the shower, there was not even a trickle.

Then, upon getting back to the house after center days, there was no water at the house. Somebody had done some plumbing repairs down the street. Instead of cutting off water to his own house, he stopped the water to the host family house. This happened, of course, on Friday morning, the weekend, so that meant no shower.

Berti sent one of the kids to a neighbor for a bucket of water, which meant that my "shower" on Saturday morning was a bucket bath. Believe it or not, it IS possible to clean one's entire body, from soap up to rinse off, with only one bucket of water. In fact, I had some water left over.

Enough for things that are not working!!! Surprisingly enough, as we are coming across these situations, our Trainees are making the necessary adaptations that we need to make so that we can cope with life here. That being said, it seems that the most difficult adjustment is malfunctioning of the Internet.

We had our second Saturday morning of peer-evaluated teaching practice with real Mauritanian students in attendance. This week, I did a team lesson with Jessica, one of the other Trainees. There were about twenty students with a wide variety of English ability, and we taught a lesson involving food, building a list of vocabulary words, words to describe food, quantifiers for food (more, less, some, a lot of, etc.), and then creating sentences for those words. This is especially good practice of the Trainees who will be teaching. (At this point, there are nine of them, as two of the ET's were in the Education program.)

Before I leave you, I would like to answer a question that my friend Sandy in California asked. In my first entry, I told about the "fashion show" at the PC bureau in Nouakchott, so she asked about the type of clothing that people wear here.

The first thing for you to understand is that the clothing styles reflect the modesty that is inherent in the practice of Islam. One of the guiding principles is that bodies are covered as much as possible. For the women, the areas that are universally understood as needed to be covered are the shoulder area and the calves. In addition, scarves frequently cover the head area. Long skirts need to be in material that is opaque enough so that there is no see-through effect. Clothing is loose so that people cannot discern the form of the body. That being said, the general clothing approach looks fairly familiar, as it is a variation on the idea of skirts, dresses, blouses, and scarves.

The same principles apply to men, but there is a clothing option that is different from what we have in Western clothing. The men do wear shirts and pants, very similar to what you have seen, but there are also loose-fitting shirts and pants made with very colorful fabric, and then there is the article of apparel called the boubou (boo-boo).

I will do my best to describe the boubou. Start with something that looks like a graduation gown. Instead of the way that the sleeves are on that gown, though, imagine that the fabric would hang all the way to the ankles if you held out your arms to be parallel to the ground. In this way, with arms outstretched, fabric hanging down, it looks like your head is popping out of the top of a large square of fabric.

On top of that, though, you have to imagine that the slit for the arms goes the length of most of the body, so that there is a rather large slit on either side. What most men then do is to take the excess of all this draped clothing and drape it onto their shoulders, which means that the clothing underneath, either a Western pair of pants and shirt, or locally made ones, is visible.

Fairly soon, people from within our training group will be posting photos on websites. When I have addresses for you, I will mention them, so that you can see some of the things I am talking about.

In closing, I would like to share with you something that I wrote the other day. To set this up, I will explain that during the last night at center days this week, we had another town meeting, also known as "talent show." Since it was the evening of the day when we had our site announcements, I used that to incorporate all the programs and many of the names of the towns and cities where we will be living and working.

I have already explained "toubab" to you, but you need to know one more word to understand the meaning of this. The last word is "Inshallah." It is used after talking about anything that is supposed to take place in the future, and it means "God willing."


Red Bob, Blue Bob,
One Bob, Toubab

By Jay Davidson, with apologies to Dr. Seuss

Toubabs here at PST,
(Those who didn't yet ET),

Toubabs get their invitation
To serve in sites around the nation.

Toubab, toubab near and far
Learning Wolof and Pulaar,

Soninke and Hassaniya,
Easy as a one-two-three-a.

French for me, French for you.
Comment-allez vous, vous, vous ?

Ag-fo toubab up ahead
And Environmental Ed,

Community health and water san,
Six jeunes filles and big tall Dan,

Volunteers in education
Teaching English 'round the nation,

SED, ICT, and CDS,
Toubab, toubab, yes, yes, yes.

Selibaby, Kifa, Atar,
Toubabs living near and far.

Toubabs hankering for spaghetti.
Will they find it in Chingetti?

Hey, hey, what do you say?
Toubabs going to Boghé.

More toubabs are coming soon
Further east in hot Aioun.

For several weeks the town's been ready
For toubabs here in old Kaédi.

Carefully selected hot shot
Leaving Sunday for Nouakchott.

And up north, before we're through,
Toubabs to Nouadibou.

Toubabs learning how to live
Culturally sensitive.

Toubab her, toubab him
Serving in the PC/RIM.

I love you, you love me,
We're a toubab family.

Trainees, staff, and Volunteers,
We're together for two years.

Toubabs funny, ha, ha, ha,
Make big difference, Inshallah.