Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Ugly Underbelly

(Disclaimer: this post is mostly going to be me complaining about life back at site. It's not as bad as it's going to sounds, but I got spoiled in Morocco.)

Looking back on my last few posts, I realized that I haven't posted much about site or Mauritania in general lately. I've been traveling a lot, and work hasn't been too eventful. I was back at site for less than two weeks post-Morocco before I went into Atar to plan a conference for the mentors and teachers from my regional and a couple of other GMCs. In Mauritania time, thats nothing. It took me a few days to get settled in before I could even think about teaching.

Maintaining my own house is a lot of work. In fact, just living is a lot of work. Cooking dinner in a 2x2 meter concrete box, hauling water out of a cistern for washing dishes in a bucket, bathing in a bucket, watering my bush, constantly refilling my water filter, washing my face and brushing my teeth in my yard with a plastic teapot for water. When I get back from even a few days out of site, I have to sweep a layer of sand out of my room, kitchen and two bathrooms (2x2 meter concrete box with hole in the floor for toilet, identical 2x2 concrete box with hole in the floor for shower) with a bunch of sticks tied together. And that's just my house.

To maintain friendships in this country, you're expected to visit regularly. Close friends visit daily, but as a foreigner, I can get away with once every two or three days. However, if you've been traveling, you need to catch up with everyone as soon as humanly possible. Since visiting usually involves at least an hour or two of eating, tea drinking, and/or sitting around watching TV and chatting, it takes the better part of three days for me to get all my house work and socializing out of the way. I usually get antsy to start working and gloss over the socializing part.

To get started working, I have to plan four separate weekly schedules for my college girls, my "working" women, my primary school girls, and my teachers. Inevitably, their schedules conflict. I have to get in touch with all 40 of these attendees to check their schedules and then put something together that works for all of them, keeping in mind that I have no electricity between 4 and 7 PM (which makes computer classes a huge hassle). Then I have to get in touch with all of them again to make sure they know when their classes are. And getting in touch with people is surprisingly difficult, considering that I live within a kilometer of everyone I work with. I see them pratically everyday, but when I actually need to get in touch with them for something other than shooting the shit, they don't have their cell phones on them, I don't have their number, reception is out, or I don't have the money to pay for the credit to call them all. When I actually get them on the phone, I have to explain things in my still limited Hassaniye. Eveyone expects me to adjust the schedule to meet their individual needs (but usually just wants), and inevitably, I have to redo the schedule 3 times before I can finalize it. Then I have to hope that everyone finds out what it is in time to make it to their classes.

Then I have to put up with less than half of my students showing up to classes because they didn't know when classes were or they just didn't feel like coming to class and I wasn't around to harass them about it. Right now, that's about where I am. I'm starting to get the hang of all this, but its hard to plan ahead because no one else here does.

Had my first real day of classes since I got back today, and it was exhausting. Up at 7 30 (slept through my bread delivery), spent an hour finishing my taxes, tried getting in touch with women to make sure they were going to make it to the 10 AM computer class I scheduled before I left for Atar three days ago. That class was cancelled, and only 2 out of 4 women showed up for the 11:00 class. Worked on the schedule for an hour after class, posted the weeks announcements, then walked home for a quick lunch on my own (usually I eat with a family, but that takes an hour, which I didn't have to spare today). Walking home at mid-day is already scorching, and the hot season hasn't even arrived yet! Back to the GMC half an hour later to finish the schedule and prepare for a two hour english/geography lesson. I usually spend half of class yelling at the girls to be quiet and pay attention. Its not that they're uninterested (well, sometimes it is), but they just have no discipline. After that, I spent an hour sitting in on a french class (my male teachers aren't allowed to be with the girls without a chaperone) and putting together a computer competency program. Finally started to make my way home at 6, which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on who I see on the way back.

I was supposed to teach a computer lesson from 7 to 8, but I was just not up for it tonight. Another hour to make dinner, whenever I can squeeze that in, or wait until 9 and eat with a Mauritanian family. Hopefully take a bucket bath at some point, and then, if I can keep my eyes open, watch a little something (I've been keeping up with LOST - keeps me sane, ha) and then pass out between 10 and 11. Done.

On top of that, I've got a few secondary projects I've been trying to get off the ground for a while but just haven't had the time. I'm going to try to put together a project to have toilets built for my primary school. I need to get the estimate for that and then write up a grant proposal.

I'm also about to float this idea that's been rolling around in my head for a while. We have a feeding center supplied by an Italian NGO that distributes flour to local vendors for cheap (the grain comes from the World Food Programme). This same Italian NGO has been talking about starting a food program through the primary school, supplying mid-morning snacks (which would serve as breakfast for most students) and lunch. Right now, they want to serve a traditional Mauritanian porridge called inche, which has virtually no nutritional value. However, another PCV trained a women's cooperative in Atar to make a porridge called ceramine, which is a mixture of ground grains that provide a complete protein.

I want to train a women's co-op here in Ain to make ceramine, and have the Italian NGO buy it up and serve it at the school instead of inche. Most of these women's co-ops have no goods worth selling, and even if they did, there's no market for them. They mostly survive from selling vegetables from their gardens, and since everyone grows the same things (not a whole lot of options in the desert), the market is flooded and I can't imagine they make very much money. So, if the ceramine thing flies, these women will not only have a viable product but a market for it. And the kids will actually have something nutritious to eat. Should be an easy sell for the Italian NGO, but I don't know if the women will go for it. Mauritanians are very stubborn and set in their ways, regardless of how successful they are.

So, that's work at the moment. Stressful, but the end of school in June will open up my schedule a bit. I feel like a big whiner right now, ha, but it helps to vent about it. Also puts it in perspective. I can only do so much, and while all my traveling doesn't help, a lot of the difficulties I face here are beyond my control. I just have to accept those limitations. And if I choose to travel the way I do, I have to accept that it'll have an impact on my productivity at site.

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