When Ross planned his visit to me, he set his departure for
the second of April because at that time the COS (Close of Service) conference was scheduled to begin on the
fourth. In fairly typical Peace Corps fashion, however, the
date of the conference was changed. Since our travel date
was moved up to the first of April, it meant that Ross was
by himself at the Château for about a day and a half. We enlisted
the help of Mamouni, resident court jester, to entertain Ross
and squire him about, including that last trip to the airport.
The COS conference has been a part of the Peace Corps experience
for the last many years. I am not sure when it began to be
included, but I am aware that many RPCVs who served in the
sixties do not remember having any type of experience such
There is a myriad of information that needs to be gathered
in order for us to be cleared to leave the country and given
our plane ticket back to the USA. All of this was explained
at the conference, along with several other sessions.
The site of this year’s conference was the Campement de Keur
Macene, one of several properties run by a tourism company
called MKH. (They advertise a website, www.mkht.com, but when I tried to visit it to
see photos I found that it was not up.) The ride was a bit
more than three hours from Nouakchott, in the direction of the
extreme southwest corner of Mauritania. If you look for it on a map, find Rosso at the border of
Senegal and then look west of there,
almost to the Atlantic.
The trip began with about two hours on a paved road,
followed by roughly twenty minutes on a wide and well-defined
dirt road, and finishing with forty-five minutes on a sometimes-dirt/sometimes-sand,
sometimes-there’s-a-track/sometimes not meandering across
a no-man’s land of desert and scruffy bushes.
The only information I had ever heard about Keur Macene
was from the Volunteers who spent eleven days there during
the Iraq War in April of 2003, shortly before my group got
here. (For safety and security reasons, the PC administration
had instituted a consolidation of PCVs at that time.) They
were not very complimentary about the facilities, so I was
not expecting much in the way of amenities. I was very surprised,
then, to come upon an idyllic setting adjacent to a lagoon,
with lawns, palm trees, and nicely constructed circular huts,
most of which were built to include two rooms, and each of
those rooms meant for two people.
The rooms included hot and cold running water, a showerhead
mounted high above the head (important for tall folks like
me), flush toilets, towels, comfortable single beds with nice
sheets and clean blankets, air conditioning, and attractive
if not basic tile work. There was a dining room that accommodated
our entire group of Volunteers, PC staff, and drivers. It
was nicely appointed with linen table cloths, attractive china,
and matching flatware. I enumerate these accoutrements of
both the sleeping quarters and dining room because of the
pleasant surprise that each one brought. I also recognize
that these features would have been minimum expectations in
or Europe, but they far exceeded
my expectations after having been here for twenty-one months.
I had packed my mosquito net tent, travel sheet, and
towel. Happily, I didn’t need any of that.
We had a relaxed afternoon and evening on Friday the
first. As is typical when we have these large group events,
there are always people who have not seen each other for some
time – Volunteers who are posted to different regions of the
country – so it was nice to catch up with each other. This
is a private facility, which allowed us to have our own alcohol
supply on hand. Shopping for that in nearby Senegal was part of the planning for the event.
Our group is a hard-drinking one, with tendencies toward gin,
rum, and whiskey. That didn’t leave much of interest for the
Cabernet Crowd, of which I seemed to be the sole representative.
(I should add, though, that there are at least four confirmed
non-drinkers in the group.) In any event, the booze was brought
out on the first night.
The sessions began in earnest on Saturday morning. The
entire weekend was most capably led by Ellie LeBaron, an RPCV
who served in Turkey in the sixties, and who
is also the wife of the US ambassador to Mauritania. Ellie began by outlining the objectives of the conference:
your PC experience and your role in development in the RIM.
2. Assess your skills and experience gained as a PCV
and learn how to document them.
3. Explore options after the PC in terms of graduate
school or job.
4. Increase awareness of issues and concerns regarding
re-entry into the culture of the USA.
5. Plan the final months in country so as to bring closure
to work relationships and host country activities.
6. Identify ways of working on the PC’s Third Goal (to
promote a better understanding of Mauritanians on the part
of the people of the USA).
7. Provide the PC administration with response and recommendations.
8. Review medical and administrative procedures for closing
I don’t think it will be necessary or of interest to
most readers to detail every aspect of the conference, but
some of this may be instructive. In the first session, we
focused on identifying and documenting the skills that we
have gathered during our work here. It was important to start
this as a foundation for what will follow for most PCVs as
they head back home: job search or grad school application.
The following were listed as accomplishments by participating
PCVs. Not each of them applies to every PCV, of course, but
I think that the list is both comprehensive and telling:
learning foreign language(s)
integrating into culture
persevering under difficult situations
surviving the many trips via taxi brousse
budgeting our living allowances
teaching in classrooms for the first time
dealing with harassment
communicating in a different power structure
learning about Islam
organizing effective committees
making lifelong friends
making commitments and following through
making brousse wine
becoming more self-reliant
learning to see ourselves as Mauritanians see us
becoming more culturally sensitive
eating with our hands and without utensils
doing without things we used to think were necessary
making the best of many situations
gaining insight into the Arab world and black African cultures
expanding our ideas of Africa and the Peace Corps
learning nonverbal communication
expanding our concepts about development work
being kind to others
carrying water and other things on our heads
dealing with malnutrition
pushing ourselves beyond preconceived boundaries
showing generosity to poor people
becoming personally sustainable
learning the importance of chores in socializing (i.e., fetching
water as a way of keeping in touch with other people)
learning to be a “bad cop”
developing a sense of humor (especially black humor)
being selective about giving charity
finding hope in seemingly hopeless situations
self-diagnosing and treating a wide variety of medical conditions
sharing personal space while trying to maintain independence
learning what is/what is not sustainable
understanding how child-rearing practices affect social structure
and vice versa
learning gender roles in the society
dealing with competition and racial prejudice
learning to distinguish between individuals and their country’s
learning to stay healthy on a limited diet
understanding the local brand of slavery and class/caste system
learning new games: euchre, cards, lawn bowling
learning how much people are threatened by change
learning to slow down (i.e., taking an afternoon nap)
becoming grateful for being an American
understanding different perceptions about time
learning to deal with PC administration
dealing with local systems of protocol and administration
evolving one’s sense of self
becoming effective at bargaining, negotiating, and persuasion
repaying host families without using money
getting by without language skills
understanding the importance of building relationships before
working with people
improving mental math skills in the marketplace
keeping oneself entertained
dealing with stress
learning how to lie well
maintaining identity, especially with regard to what we are
willing to give up and change or not
experiencing the diversity of Americans
speaking in public
speaking in public in a foreign language
mentoring and counselling high school students
writing proposals and getting them funded
living “in a fishbowl” with status as a celebrity, rock star,
or side show freak
learning not to take animosity personally
dealing with loss and death, both here and in the USA
dealing with homesickness
conquering fears of insects and other critters
understanding the effect of local imam and mosque culture
experiencing new diseases
observing locusts and their treatment
living through drought conditions
pulling water from a well
brushing teeth with a stick
learning new sustainable hygiene routines
valuing health, diet, and vitamins
learning Mauritanian cell phone etiquette
improving writing skills
gaining a greater sense of self
next session was devoted to learning about a document that
each of us will need to write: the DOS (Description of Service),
which is expected to be two or three pages that will document
and describe our PC service. The DOS is used for grad school
and job applications. It is kept on file by the PC for sixty
years – longer than anyone is going to need it. It also identifies
our knowledge, skills, and abilities, which are referred to
as KSA’s in job applications.
After learning all we needed to know about our DOS, our chief
of security presented a safety and security session that was
mostly a repeat of everything we have heard since our initial
training in 2003. Because of the repetitive aspect of the
information, this was mostly a waste of time. There was one
crucial bit of information that he imparted, though, and the
entire session could have been boiled down to this one fact:
statistically, the last few months of service have been shown
to be a time when PCVs have experienced being crime victims.
This has happened because many people have been in country
for almost two years, and they have let down their guard.
The Sunday sessions began with a discussion of readjusting
to life in the USA. We explored the concept
of “reverse culture shock” and continued to identify concerns,
problems, and issues that may arise upon returning to the
USA. The idea was to develop personal
strategies and resources for dealing with re-entry. Ellie
explained that we will likely feel a loss in our role status;
loss of our support network of fellow PCVs; loss of our employment
status; cross-cultural adaptation; and changes in expectations.
The next session was devoted to job-hunting opportunities
that exist in the PC, the US government, and the private
sector. It was one to which I didn’t pay much attention, in
that I do not intend to seek employment when I go back to
We had a panel about prospective job-hunting. It included
the political officer from our embassy, who gave us information
about working for the State Department; a person from the
United Nations who talked about jobs available there; an individual
who started his own NGO in Mauritania; and an RPCV who served
here and who is in the process of starting her own NGO.
We then focused our attention on bringing our experiences
back to the USA, with attention being paid
to how we could do that, including lists of objects people
will take home so that they can demonstrate aspects of Mauritanian
The afternoon was devoted to an optional beach trip, something
that several of us decided we would pass up, in that there
was no shade there and it was a long ride of an hour or more
in each direction. As it turned out, among the four cars that
made the trip, there were at least three flat tires. It was
much more restful staying at the encampment!
In the evening we had work, though, in that we needed to prepare
for a major session the following day: evaluating all aspects
of PC Mauritania functions during the last two years and getting
ready to present our findings to the staff that would be with
us the following day. We worked after dinner on this one,
with some groups going on until almost 10:00 PM.
Though it was getting late,
it was time for a little fun on two fronts. First of all,
Lisa M. has prepared a terrific CD-ROM that is going to help
us with our goal of helping to make Americans more aware of
Mauritania. She has gathered images of daily life in Mauritania and the work that the Peace
Corps is doing here. All of this is now in its last stages
of completion in a PowerPoint presentation that we will be
able to use at home. Unfortunately, by the time everyone got
to see it, some of them were too drunk to appreciate it.
The evening wasn’t over after
that, though. Molly had prepared a list of superlatives so
that everyone could nominate fellow PCVs to a list of “most
likely” categories. People had been handing in their votes
for a few days, so it was now time to announce the results.
In addition to the predictable and flattering classifications
such as “most likely to succeed” and “most likely to marry
another PCV,” there were a few only-in-Mauritania (or only-in-PC)
categories. I won’t list them all because some of them are
fairly rude or, at the very least, not very complimentary,
but a few of them were:
most likely to become an APCD
most likely to continue to use a makaresh (water pot to clean
oneself after using the toilet) in the States
most likely to become a politician
most likely to have four wives
most likely to rule the world
most likely to be a PCV for five years
Molly informed me afterward that I
had been nominated in four categories:
most likely to marry a Mauritanian
most likely to leave Mauritanians with the most bizarre memories
most likely to bring up their Peace Corps experience in a bar
as an effort to hook up with someone
most likely to continue to wear Mauritanian clothes in the
In the end I did win one of the categories: most likely
to write a Peace Corps book (also known as the Mango Elephants
in the Sun award, so-named for a much maligned Peace Corps
book that has been the butt of many jokes among our PCVs).
Monday began with our discussion about concerns that we have
with respect to readjusting to life in the USA. About half the members of our group have taken vacation time
at home during their service. Ellie used some of their comments
to begin this discussion because they have already had a small
dose of re-entry to home culture. Some of the concerns are:
different concepts of time and relationships
noticing excesses of consumption
feeling guilty about what they have, which Mauritanians do
not caring about Mauritania on the part of people you speak to
understanding all conversations around you because they are
in English – a different experience after be surrounded by
feeling out of place
needing to silence yourself
keeping up to the corporate pace
deciding what to wear
being afraid of falling back into old routines
being pressured to be happy
losing defined role in a community
losing our peer group
experiencing changes in interpersonal relationships at home
dealing with the opposite sex in a different way
being seen now as the spokesperson for the Muslim world
being smothered because everyone wants to be with you
needing decompression time
needing to travel a lot for new infusion of experiences
keeping in touch with Mauritanians back in the village
hunting for a job
applying to graduate school
We came up with the following as potential strategies
for coping with these challenges:
taking lots of naps
looking at re-entry as a new adventure
listening to and caring about experiences of friends and family
during the last few years
keeping in touch with other PCVs
getting everyone’s addresses
taking a lot of walks
being selective about whom you see
seeing a therapist (NB: PC pays for three sessions)
getting in touch with new immigrant families at home
making a scrapbook about experiences here
After that session, we had a critical one given by our
Administrative Officer. There is a huge amount of paperwork
that needs to be taken care of before we COS. He gave us a
booklet of explanations and forms. A sample of what needs
to be taken care of includes these forms:
COS Date Verification & Date Change Request – in which
we verify that we will leave the country on our scheduled
date, request a change of date, or extend our service for
another period of time
Request for Change of Home-of-Record – in which home address
can be changed; all checks are sent to this address, as well
as this being the basis for plane fare to return to the USA
Description of Service (DOS) sample format
Privacy Act Waiver – on which we indicate that we either want
or don’t want our DOS to be disclosed to others
Final Payments Worksheet – on which we settle up any overpayments
that may have been made to us in our Living Allowance, Leave
Allowance, or other payments
Funded Project Clearance – in which we settle up anything left
over from projects which may have been funded by outside sources
Bank Account Closure – on which we verify that our checking
account has been closed
Return Transportation Request Form – on which we indicate that
we want the PC to issue us a ticket to our home-of-record
or we can request what is referred to as a “cash in lieu,”
which means that we get either the dollar or ouguiya
equivalent of that ticket, and then we can purchase our own
ticket and take whatever route we want to take
Certification for Use of American Flag Carrier – on which we
promise under Section 5 of the International Air Transportation
Fair Competitive Practices Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-623) that
if we purchase our own airline ticket back to the USA, we
understand that we may not use any other than an American
carrier, except between points where there is none
There are ten more forms that I have not even mentioned
that we had our newly-acquired “Completion of Service Admin
Procedures for PCVs” booklet, the PC administrative staff
was on hand to hear the gathered presentation of PCV response
to what it has been like to work with them during our time
Ellie introduced the session by explaining how remarkable
it is that all forty-six of us who swore in as Volunteers
are still here. In his remarks, our country director referred
to us as a “golden group” that was serving during a “golden
age” of PC Mauritania and he added, “I’m honored to be here with all of you.”
Then we let loose with the critiques, presented on flip
chart paper, citing the “minimal support and respect” on the
part of the people who have been difficult, and also singling
out by name some of their co-workers who are especially helpful,
pleasant, and easy to work with. I didn’t make an effort to
look at the faces of the two people we critiqued negatively,
but some Volunteers told me they did, and they were not pleased
with our remarks.
had thought all along that while a session such as this might
be cathartic for us, it is probably one of the sessions that
will yield the smallest results. What can be done about the
two individuals with rather important administrative jobs
who are abrasive, treat Volunteers disrespectfully, and are
almost universally disliked by the PCVs because of how difficult
it is to work with them? On the administrative level, they
are probably effective with their jobs, which is what our
Country Director and the headquarters in Washington are looking for. We can complain until the bugs come out, and if most
of us had our choice, these people would be replaced. But
there is virtually no possibility that there will be any kind
of improvement, short of getting them personality transplants.
our training director asked three other PCVs and me to meet
with him privately. He had a situation with which he needed
some help to find a solution. As it turned out, some of the
drunken reverie of the night before had gotten out of hand.
One or more people – probably from our group, since we were
the only ones there – had broken into the dining room by crawling
through a window. He or they then took whatever beverages
and food were in the refrigerator. This had justifiably upset
As we discussed
it, we ultimately decided among us that it would not do any
good to announce this to everyone assembled, so it meant that
one of us had to speak to the most likely suspects. Fortunately
it was a small group and it was also fairly evident who the
most likely culprit was. As far as we know, the Peace Corps
then made whatever financial restitution was necessary in
order to repair our relations with the operators of the resort.
I hope this doesn’t mean that other groups will not be able
to have events here.
As in most
cases like this, it is always unfortunate that a few disrespectful
and non-thinking individuals can ruin a situation for all
much-needed lunch break, we had our PCMOs deliver a PowerPoint
presentation concerning the medical procedures for COS, including
all the things we need to do to be cleared medically for leaving
the country, including information about available insurance
for us (provided free for one month, after which we pay if
we choose to continue with it), etc.
The last large group session was particularly enjoyable. Ellie
had printed out some typical questions that people at home
will be most likely to ask us when we get back. She walked
about the group and gave people a chance to reach into an
envelope to pull out a question so that we could have immediate
practice answering it. It reminded me of the Table Topics
sessions at Toastmasters, when we get questions given to us
and then have up to two minutes to respond off the cuff. I
am only going to print some of the questions here. (If you
gotta gotta gotta have them all, send me an e-mail and I will
send you the entire list.)
So how was Africa?
Aren’t you glad to be back (in the US)?
Do they hate Americans?
Did you have to eat really strange food?
Wasn’t it really dirty?
Was it worth two years of your life?
What religion are they, anyway?
What’s the economy like?
Did you go native and dress as the locals did?
What kind of toilets do they have?
Don’t you think we have problems enough here in the US with the home-less and
drugs? Wouldn’t it have been better to serve two years in
With the war on terrorism going on, weren’t you frightened
being in a Muslim country?
Are you ready to get a real life now?
So what are Muslims really like?
Weren’t you afraid of getting AIDS?
Did you live in a jungle in Africa? Were there wild animals?
How did you live without air conditioning?
In all, it was an excellent conference, planned well
by our training director and the COS conference committee consisting of PCVs Jessica and Madge.
I can add here that at this point, four members of our group
have confirmed that they would like to extend their service
for another year. Two have requested that they stay at their
sites and two would like to work in Nouakchott.
Keur Macene is located near one of the few national parks
in Mauritania. The PC staff made an arrangement
for a visit there early on Tuesday, the morning of departure.
Those who wanted to see the birds signed up for a 6:30 departure, after which
was scheduled lunch at Keur Macene, thence the return trip
The Vomit Comet was available to take nine non-bird watchers
back to Nouakchott at 6:30
AM. One other vehicle was
leaving at about 11:30.
Thirty people signed up to see the birds; I opted for the
6:30 departure to Nouakchott (which turned out to leave
fairly punctually, at 7:08). It was an uneventful trip back to town, except for the flat
tire when we were about eighteen kilometers away.
Even the next day, Wednesday, our work was not done!
Everyone in the group was being given two Nouakchott hotel nights (except for those of
us who actually live here) because the Office of Planning,
Policy and Analysis at the PC headquarters in Washington is piloting its new COS survey by putting it online. Our bureau
rented out the public cyber space located at the Palais de
Congres so that we could be the first COS-ing group to fill
this out online.
Our letter of introduction to the process said that
it would take thirty minutes, but because there were still
glitches in opening up pages and navigating from one to another,
it took me almost two hours to complete.
I completed it just in time, as I had been asked to
make a presentation at the bureau to the Environmental Education
(EE) sector conference being attended by our group of PCVs
and their counterparts.
I had given the workshop about Multiple Intelligences
Theory at the same conference last year. There are three first-years
in Environmental Ed. In my discussion with them concerning
their work, I heard many of the same challenges that the English
teachers have: overloaded classes (up to fifty or sixty students),
teachers or administrators who are not supportive, and kids
who can’t or won’t pay attention. In short, it seems that
teaching is probably the most demanding work that exists in
I tried to give the EE Volunteers whatever support I
could so that they could impart their material to the students.
In the end, however, we had to resort to discussing classroom
management techniques. The PC miracle is that anyone who has
such a discouraging and difficult teaching experience here
would even consider returning to the United States to train for a teaching
career. On the brighter side, though, is that even a difficult
inner city school experience in the USA would be much easier by comparison.
It was a busy week at the Château. Lisa and Nina were there
for return visits, while Thomas was making his debut. On Friday
the eighth I spent my first night alone at home since the
third of March, which lasted only one night before a return
visit from Château regulars Hector and Genny.
Blessedly, the punishing heat of those few days last week
has relented. It’s much more bearable being indoors without
air conditioning now. My days for sleeping with a blanket
are over, however. There have been a few times when I have
been able to turn off the fan in the middle of the night.
After having heard a
rumor two weeks ago, we got the
official word last Thursday: the Mauritanian government has
decided to change the dates of the work week and weekend.
According to the official decree that I read, the Ministry
of Communication and Relations with Parliament has recognized
that the current Sunday-to-Thursday work week does not “work
with the rest of the world” and that in order to “integrate
our economy in the international market, of which we have
more and more need, above all” with the upcoming natural oil
and mineral explorations, and after consultation with the
president of the republic and the Islamic High Council to
assure “scrupulous respect of the sharia teachings” (NB: sharia
is Islamic law), the work week for government offices, effective
today, the eleventh of April, will be from 8:00 AM to 5:00
PM on Monday through Thursday and from 8:00 AM to noon on
The Peace Corps bureau will add fifteen minutes on the first
four days and one hour on Friday. There is widespread speculation
that the new weekend is going to turn into three days, with
many people not even paying attention to their Friday half-day.
The past weekend, then, was a three-day weekend, so that the
newest work week would begin today, Monday the eleventh. Wouldn’t
you know that I had a work meeting scheduled for noon on Sunday? That was moved