Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

Mandatory Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or people, the Mauritanian government or people, or the Peace Corps.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The commencement (Camp Peace Corps)

Imagine that a clown moved into your house. The clown could do it's very best to integrate into the family and community even wear a suit and tie and sit in an office for 8 hours a day and try it's very best to learn English (translating everything in it's head from clown to English) but no matter how good at English he got or how well he is integrating you would still think of him as the clown living in your house. That is how one of the experience Peace Corps volunteers described what I will feel like tomorrow.

Tomorrow morning, I will become that clown moving into P.K. 10, a neighborhood near the Peace Corps training center in Rosso. A few hours ago we were placed into language groups and groups for our community based training. Myself and three other trainees, other environmental ed and agroforestry trainees, will be studying Hassaniya, a dialect of Arabic, with one language facilitator. We will be each living with a different family and struggling to communicate hisas the families don't speak French and we won't speak any Hassaniya. Rosso is a new training site meaning that these families likely won't have every had anyone from Peace Corps stay with them before so it should be an interesting experience. Some of the experienced volunteers performed a hillarious skit for us demonstrating the difficulty of moving in with a host family and a few of them said that this part of training is the hardest part of Peace Corps b/c you are clueless to the culture and don't speak the language at all.

Despite that challenge, after a few days of orientation, I have been extremely impressed with the Peace Corps training staff. From our brief lesson on greetings and some casual conversations in French I can see that the language facilitators are all incredible teachers and that the methodology is good. If it's possible for me to learn this language then they will help me get there. There is no better way than 7 hours on instruction a day followed by living in the community and with a homestay family and no other option for communication, not even French. The technical training seems really good to. The staff is great and most of the activities in the syllabus are practicing what we will eventually be doing including planting a garden to model the teaching gardens we will eventually be planting with our students. I can't wait to leave Camp Peace Corps and get started.

The first few days of orientation have been a combination of excitement, fun, cards, bad lectures, and anticipation. We have endured lectures, on health, safety, culture, Peace Corps policies and other topics inside the Center in Rosso. We have been learning the basics of Mauritanian culture: how to eat with your hands (only the right, and make the rice into balls), how to shower and do laundry and shower (with a bucket), and most importantly how to dress with Mauritanian style (pants, collared shirt sandals or Islamic dress (I already bought 2 pairs of Mauritanian duds)). The center consists of three huge rooms with a sandy area outside where we play soccer, frisbee, and an area under a tent where we play cards, chess, backgammon or just relax in our free time. The center is the kind of place that would be considered very basic in the States but is downright luxurious compared with the rest of Mauritania.

I have been practicing my French a lot with the language Facilitators and it kind of scary how much my French has improved in the past week. It was even good enough to pass out of studying French based on my oral language exam. My facilitator speaks a few languages including French and Hassiniya but not English. Meaning that if he needs to explain anything complicated he will explain it in French which will be pretty difficult. Two of the people in my group of 4 are pretty fluent and the other one is intermediate at about my level.

I also really like the other trainees. There are 76 of us from all over the country mostly the Midwest. There is a huge diversity of background, ranging from recent college liberal arts grads to a paramedic to a 57-year ex-EPA employee. Everyone is really enthusiastic and we have been having a great time just hanging out.

I'll leave you with one brief anecdote. One day we were throwing a frisbee around after dinner when someone (not me of course) threw the disc over the wall onto a neighboring property. With a boost I hopped over the concrete wall to get the disc. After throwing the disc back over, I couldn't summon the strength to pull my body over the wall so everyone watched my head come over the wall a few times but not my body. Eventually someone was able to give me a boost back over but not before I questioned my judgement of using help to climb a wall knowing that help would not be available on the other side.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Final Countdown

As I write this entry I am getting ready to undergo a radical change in my life. On June 17th I will be flying from Newark Airport to Atlanta where I will spend a few days dealing with the Peace Corps bureaucracy before flying from Atlanta to Dakar Senegal on June 20th. From there a bus will take me to Rosso Mauritania where I will have three months of technical and language training before beginning my actual Peace Corps service.

It's funny to think about how different my life will be in about a week. I have spent most of the last four years in Ithaca, NY a land of beautiful waterfalls, monstrous hills freezing cold temperatures, and free-flowing kegs. I will be moving to the sands of Mauritania where the land is flat as far as the eye can see, the temperature rarely drops below, "unbearably hot," water is a scarce and treasured commodity and the sale of alcohol is forbidden. That's right I'm moving from the land of keystone light and kegstands to a place where foreigners are forced by circumstance to make their own wine in buckets.

Many people have asked me how I will be able to make it two years away from friends and family (not to mention frisbee). If you are reading this entry than you are a friend and I will miss you but it's that the difficulty of being away from everyone pales in comparison with the opportunity I have. The opportunity to travel the world, to live with people from a different culture, to learn languages (j'espere) and to try understand how a different group of people view the world.

Mauritania is a country that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry describes as la terre des hommes (land of men) for it's harsh conditions and other Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa often recite the phrase, "at least we are not in Mauritania" whenever they are struggling. Despite the harsh climate and sometimes difficult working condition I am excited to be going to what appears (at least from what I can find on the internet to be a fascinating country with a unique history, several diverse cultures sharing the same plot of land and an exciting future.

As soon as I found out I was going to Mauritania I searched the Cornell Library and the internet for information about Mauritania but couldn't find much. I soon realized that as a former part of "French West Africa" almost all of the writing about the country is in French. If I want to learn more I guess I'll just have to improve my French. I did manage to find two great books about West Africa. Blue Clay people about a frustrated AID worker in Liberia and an awesome book called "Riding the Demon" in which the author just rides bush taxis around Niger and writes about the culture and chaos of the road.

Here are some links to some information about Mauritania:

New York Times page with lots of interesting articles covering Mauritania from a variety of perspectives:

Also I will be doing environmental education work. Here is a link to the Peace Corps environmental education page:

I won't get my actual assignment and location until sometime in the next few months. The first three months in Mauritania will be training both technical and linguistic and during that time the Peace Corps staff will assess my strengths and weaknesses and pick my actual location based on that. Once I am at my site I will choose a project based on my skills and the needs of the community.