Writing, writing, writing!


          The last week has been extremely busy: fatiguing, yet exhilarating at the same time. My work time has been spent on the two writing jobs I described last week: the first year English textbook and the cross-culture manual to be issued to the incoming Peace Corps Trainees. (They arrive in eight days, and we can feel the excitement on both sides of the Atlantic!)

          Of the two projects, the cross-culture manual has been the more enjoyable. There have been many Volunteers in town during the last week, and they have been more than willing to add their observations to the material I have already put together, which will make it a much better final product.

          A week ago, the material that I had assembled was not very well organized, and it looked like an overwhelming task to put it all together. This week, thanks mostly to ten-hour days sitting at the computer, everything is in much better order. I sent a printed draft of the book to the training center yesterday. The cross-culture coordinator will review it and make final suggestions to me when she comes back to Nouakchott on Thursday. Then we will print a final copy and send it to be printed and bound.

          It's a daunting task trying to describe a country's culture comprehensively in a book. There are so many variables, including customs, food, and clothing that change from one region to another and from one ethnic group to another. Many of the aspects of the culture are interrelated. For example, certain behaviors between men and women are dependent on which ethnic groups people belong to. Male-female relations have an impact on gift-giving, eating, schools, and other areas of society, which makes it a challenge in determining in which section certain information belongs.

          It's a process that I have been enjoying, though, and I can already see that it will be something that it will be valuable for future Volunteers.

           Just in time for inclusion in the cross-culture manual is a story that helps to illustrate the different ways that Mauritanians think when it comes to business. This is becoming known as "Janine's Cake Story."

          Janine walked into a café that serves meals and sells baked goods. There was a cake in the display case, and she wanted to buy the whole cake. She asked how much it was and was surprised that the price quoted was an extremely high 8,000 ouguiya, which is about $30 at the current exchange rate. She asked the worker if the cake was also available by the slice. Yes, it was, at the price of 500 ouguiya per slice - much more reasonable, since that is less than $2 per slice. She asked how many slices there were in the cake and was told, "Nine." Doing the math, she could see that nine slices times 500 was significantly less than the total of 8,000 ouguiya. However, the employee was unimpressed with her advanced math skills, and insisted on maintaining the original price for the whole cake.

           Fortunately, Janine was with a small group. They solved the problem by having the worker cut the cake into its nine pieces, and then, among them, purchased every one of those pieces, paying the per-slice price, at a savings of 3,500 ouguiya.

           Another PCV, Lisa, heard some of us talking about this and then she offered her own tale. This is "Lisa's Photocopies Story."

          Lisa went into a place to have a large number of photocopies made and paid 10 ouguiya apiece for the copies. The next week she went back to the same store and needed six copies of one document. When she got her copies, she handed the clerk 60 ouguiya. The clerk said that the cost per copy was 30 ouguiya. She questioned that, of course, citing her copies the previous week at 10 ouguiya apiece.

          The clerk told Lisa that the per-copy price was only 10 ouguiya if she made ten copies or more. She realized, of course, that at those prices, she could pay 180 ouguiya for the six copies she needed or decrease her cost by 44% simply by asking to have him make four copies that she did not need. And that is what she did.

           There has been a thriving black market in currency exchange here for many years. The official bank rate for changing dollars to ouguiya has been around 260 the whole time I have been here. The main Nouakchott market, Marché Capitale, is crawling with money-changers. Most of them have shops of some sort, but I don't think these people make their living by selling jeans and shirts. Money exchange is what keeps this market going. A Westerner walking within a block of Capitale is besieged by men approaching and asking, "Change? Change?" And, just as heat intensifies the closer you get to a fire, the number of men approaching increases once you get nearer to - and then into - the market itself.

           They want euros and dollars. When exchanging here with one of these traders, the lowest rate we have gotten since we arrived in June, 2003 has been 280. For a long time, it was over 300. At the end of May, it rose to 340. Then, the bottom fell out. I didn't see this firsthand, but several other Volunteers were in the Capitale area when national police descended on it, arresting those who were caught exchanging money. This was said to be by order of the president.

           There have been three results to this police action. First of all, the exchange rate on the black market plummeted to match the official bank rate. That, of course, was the president's desired effect. The second was that we have been able to walk through the market and its neighborhood for the first time without being assaulted by requests to change money, which is a refreshing change. The third result, though, was not that it eliminated the black market - just that it drove it underground. A moneychanger I know and trust called me to tell me that if I wanted to change money, to give him a call beforehand, as it would be better for him if I didn't go to his shop at Capitale, that he would come to my house.

           Fortunately, I don't need to have money changed right now. And it's a good thing, too, as I don't relish the thought of having a moneychanger coming to my house to transact business.

           In my post of 8/25/2003, I related how my counterpart was seen drinking from my Nalgene water bottle during training in Kaédi, and that I could not find it the next day, after he and the other counterparts departed. The only conclusion was that he took it with him when he left. Now I have a really strange update about the water bottle.

           Last week, when one of our Volunteers was going through Boghé on her way to Nouakchott, she happened to look into a car repair shop and she saw a green Nalgene bottle sitting on a shelf. Upon closer inspection, she saw that it still had my name on it! She said that one of these days, when she is going through there again, she is going to walk into the shop, tell the person who has my bottle, "You are not Jay Davidson. That is not your water bottle," and rescue it for me. If and when that happens, I will let you know.