Monday, August 25, 2008

To Hell with Good Intentions

So right after I wrote that last post, I had to read this speech by Ivan Illich for a cross-cultural session and write a little bit about it. It touches on some of the concerns I have about my service here, which I mentioned in "Development" (particularly the need to consider and incorporate local culture in development), but Illich is much more condemnatory. He views the American international development mission as not only culturally insensitive but just plain disrespectful. He feels that on no level can the middle-class American volunteer relate to the poor and/or underprivileged that (s)he claims to serve. Most provocatively, he suggests that the American interest in international development (as promoted by the U.S. government through Peace Corps, for example) is to stimulate the development of a consumer class abroad.

Illich was speaking in 1968, and his views reflect the cynicism of Latin Americans toward the U.S. at the time. His speech was also made to a group of volunteers who had only committed to serve for a few weeks or months, which I think makes a huge difference. You can't do much in two months, whereas two years gives you time to learn about and appreciate the culture.

Anyway, I have plenty to say about this subject, but I'm really interested to read everyone's thoughts, so please comment!


We’re leaving for our sites in less than a week, and I’ve been thinking more and more about what exactly I’m going to be doing for the next two years. I’m supposed to be training local Mauritanians, women in particular, to encourage and facilitate the education and empowerment of girls in their community. Peace Corps’ buzz word is “sustainability”, which means we’re technically not supposed to be doing the educating and empowering ourselves. The idea is to train host country nationals to do that, so that when we leave the process will continue. Basically, we’re working to make ourselves obsolete. Definitely an idea I can get behind, but I’m not sure how often that actually happens. If all the PCVs left Mauritania today, I have no idea which projects would continue in their absence, how effective they would be, and for how long. I’ll probably get a better feel for this once I actually start working, but its interesting to think about.

On another level, our work is supposed to impact general mentalities and social norms. All the sectors (Girls’ Education and Empowerment, Health, Environmental Education, English Education, Agro-forestry, and Small Enterprise Development) obviously target these to some extent, but I think GEE has more to do with culture than any of the others. The hard part of my job is going to be reaching across that cultural divide. I’m thinking that one of my most powerful assets as a GEE volunteer will be the example I set as a woman with a college degree, working on her own in a foreign country. On the other hand, it might be easy for girls to look at that and think, well, she can do that because she’s American, she’s not one of us.

As a foreigner, I’m definitely exempt from certain social and cultural norms. Taking advantage of those exemptions (consciously, not when I’m just being a silly, oblivious toubab) is something I’m going to have to think about, since it differentiates me from the girls I’m supposed to be mentoring.

I’m rambling at this point, and I have a lot more I’ve been thinking about, but I‘ll get into all this in another post: how the culture stands in direct opposition in certain respects to our idea of development, and whether or not it’s worth changing or losing parts of that culture (or even possible) in the name of development. Also, focusing on something like girl’s education when they’re not even getting enough nutritional value out of their food to grow hair, for example.

Of course, girls’ education is invaluable in terms of women‘s rights, and promoting women in development is one of the most efficient ways of promoting development itself, since educated and empowered women are that much more capable of contributing to society. In reality, though, I’m not under the impression I’m going to be shaking the foundation of gender roles in Mauritanian society over the next two years. The big gain out of this experience is going to be mine, and the biggest impact I’ll have on my village will be the little exposure to another culture my being there will provide.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Family Pics

Had to use my friend's camera, but I managed to get some good ones. I also took an awesome video of my three year old brother dancing like Shakira, but I'm having some problems uploading it. Check back soon; it's totally worth it!

Model GMC

I feel like its been a little while since the last time I posted. I’ve actually been busy! Everyone just moved back to the center. It was a little weird leaving my family, even though I'll probably go back and say good-bye again before I leave for good.

Hm, what have I been doing since I last posted...I taught my first GEE lesson on nutrition with another trainee, Amanda. It went alright; I think we both learned a lot. I gave a second lesson on PowerPoint with Pablo (Semper Reformanda, for those of you who have been checking out his blog) that went a lot better. It was kind of a rush, actually. First of all, I’ve gotten back to my old comfort level with French, which has been super helpful for teaching (even though I’ll probably be doing most of my communication in Hassaniye at site, it’s good to know I can get around basically everywhere else).

Second, watching these girls doing something useful on the computer that they couldn’t do before was great. Luckily, they already had some experience with computers, which made our job a lot easier. Some of the other trainees had to give lessons on how to use a mouse. That might have been better practice for me though, since the girls at my center likely won’t have touched a computer before.

The girls we taught were exceptional. A good chunk of them had finished lycee (high school), some had even passed their BAC and are going to university in Nouakchott. Total rock stars. They don’t even go to the GMC here in Rosso because they’re so busy doing all the things that we’re encouraging girls here to do: getting out of the house, finishing school, going to university and hopefully starting a career.

Model GMC has been over for about a week, and I've mostly been working on my Hassaniye since then. It's been coming along. Something clicked for me this past week, like I just woke up one day and realized I could actually hold a conversation. Very cool. And necessary, since I'm getting tested either tomorrow or Tuesday.

Also, I'm giving a speech in Hassaniye at the swear-in ceremony! Someone from each language (Hassaniya, Pulaar, Wolof, Soninke, and French) is giving the same speech, I guess so that Peace Corps can show that we've actually learned something. It would have been nice if we could have written our own speech, but it's definitely easier this way. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Day in the Life

As per Mom's request, I'm going to give you an idea of what my day to day life is like here.

I wake up around 7:00 for my 8:00 language class. Usually I'll meet up with some other the other five PCTs in my class on the way. We have class until 12:30, and then we head home. I'll hang out with my family for a little bit, maybe practice some Hassaniya or read, then we'll eat lunch around 1:30 or 2:00. Usually we have marru w'il huut, which is basically a big bowl of rice, with some fish and a few cooked veggies in the midddle. Everyone eats out of the same bowl with their right hands (left hands are strictly off limits). I try to nap after lunch, and then I have class again from 4-6:30.

After that, sometimes people head to the local restaurant, which is a little store-front type place with plastic lawn furniture and a TV. They serve "burgers", which are pretty much french baguettes with some chopped up meat, fries, mayo and ketchup. Not my favorite dish, ha. They also do these sort of half fried, half scrambled eggs, which are pretty decent. The owner is really nice; he let's us hang out for as long as we want, and most of the time we don't even buy anything. So sometimes we'll do that, sometimes we'll stop at the internet cafe, sometimes we'll just wander. The nice thing about living in Rosso is that I'm around a lot of other PCTs.

Weekends are usually spent finding new ways to kill time. We do a lot of sitting around trying to read or nap but usually sweating too much to do either. I drink a lot of tea with my family. Do laundry. In the mornings, a bunch of PCTs meet up to play soccer or football or something. I run sometimes. This weekend we're actually organizing a 6 K race out to one of the brousse sites, which should be fun. At the very least, it'll give us something to do, ha. We go on walks outside of town when the temperature drops. Sometimes I'll give an English lesson.

So that's pretty much it. We also have sessions at the center every once in a while. Right now, GEE is in model GMC, which means we get to plan and teach our own lessons to some of the local girls. So GEE trainees do that in the mornings, instead of language class. Model GMC is really good practice, but we're getting tested in Hassaniya in two weeks and I need all the class time I can get, so it's a trade-off. Also, I'm not going to be teaching any classes until I get my GMC set up, which won't be until January at the absolute earliest.

To answer Mom's question about me being on my own at site: that's not going to change. And I'm not the only one who's going to be at site by myself. I'd like to think that they chose us to be on our own for a reason, and that they considered the site itself when deciding whether or not to put more than one volunteer there. Who knows. Either way, I'm very close to Atar. I can travel in region whenever I feel the urge to see another volunteer. Obviously, they want you to spend most of your time at site, but I'm not really that worried about it. I might get bored, and I'm sure there will be times when I wish I had another American there, but in the long run I don't think it's going to be that big a deal. And who knows, maybe next year they'll give me a site mate! In the mean time, I'll do a lot of reading, a lot of sitting, drinking tea, eating dates, gardening, hiking, running, writing, and, of course, educating and empowering Mauritania girls.

Ok, that's it for now. My partner and I are giving our lesson on Friday, so I'll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Post-Coup Mauritania

I'm sure by now most of you have heard that the president was arrested a few days ago and the military has taken control of the government. Life under military rule has been pretty much same old (but it's still crazy to think about). I was on a break from language class when my friend texted me from brousse, "There was a coup d'etat in Nouakchott." I had been aware that people had some issues with the president, but I was caught completely off gaurd. It doesn't help that we're supposed to avoid conversations about politics with Mauritanians, but we asked our facilitator about it and he actually laughed. Apparently, this is the fifth coup he's lived through, so it's old hat at this point.

I did ask some other Mauritanians how they feel about the coup, which has given me some insight into not only the current situation but the political culture in general. But I've had to keep my inquiries pretty neutral. It's almost comical that we can't discuss politics (or religion), since most of us studied poli-sci, international relations, or some other related subject in school. I've definately had to resist responding to some provocative statements.

In terms of my work, I don't think the coup will have much of an impact. Peace Corps isn't going anywhere, and as far as I can tell, the funding that my sector relies on is still flowing. For other development/aid efforts, though, any suspension of international aid will definately be felt throughout the country (UNHCR does a lot of work in this part of the country relocating refugees from Senegal, for example). IRIN has some good information on everything that's been going on here.

Anyway, I'm safe and sound, of course. All the frantic phone calls/emails made me feel really loved, so thanks!