[It’s good to be back. Our internet has been down since Saturday—5 days. I don’t have time to get caught up with all my blog reading, but I’ll be trying to do so in the next few days between packing.]

It’s official—no more thesis juries. I finished the last one today, and then walked in disgust off the university campus—maybe forever! My closure was completed for me. But I’ll come back to that.

Today was an interesting day. I arrived on campus shortly after 9 a.m., which was our official starting time, but hey, it’s Africa. I was prepared for 6 juries; 3 of them my students (i.e. I’m their supervisor). My fellow jury members were an American couple, both English professors. We sat at student desks in the dim, tiny library, which didn’t even exist until this couple arrived on campus 4 years ago and basically created it themselves. Behind us, an AC creaked to life; its battered flap protesting as it blasted us with cool air. The students brought us bottles of water, juice, milk and pop, arranged plates of cookies and pastries on small plastic plates. We settled in and called the first woman.

Here’s a sampling of today’s juries:

· Student #1 had chosen to do her thesis on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also called Female Circumcision. She had linked it to a literary theme; one of Ngugi’s novels has it as a central issue. But her personal opinion blazed out through her pages. Afterwards, as we chatted more informally, she revealed that she’s been fighting her parents on this issue for years. Circumcised at age 5, she tells her father in no uncertain terms that she resents it, and she has fought to protect her younger sisters from this practice. She thought she was winning; her youngest sister is 7 and was still intact. She left her village in the south to come to Nouakchott for her last year of university, and when she was gone, her mother had her sister circumcised. Until today, I didn’t even know it was practiced here in Mauritania. I had imagined it to be an issue only in Eastern Africa. I was wrong—apparently it is widespread even throughout West Africa, and she had statistics for how very common it is amongst all the ethnic groups right here. She is discouraged about how slowly things are changing. I tell her; maybe it won’t change until your generation become parents, but I’m sure it will. Don’t give up, we urge her.

· Another student had opted for the Changing Role of Women in America. Her thesis was not well written; far from it. ‘At least,’ I groaned at my fellow jury members, ‘it’s not plagiarized!’ It was practically unreadable. I was prepared to be angry at her. Then I met her. She comes from a very traditional tribe and a very traditional family. She has 3 younger sisters, all married, but she has fought and fought her parents to be allowed to stay in school. Her tribe, she tells me, typically takes girls out of school after Grade 6. She wanted to become a doctor, but her parents would not allow her to study outside of the country, and Mauritania has no medical school. ‘What will you do now,’ I ask her, as Mauritania has no options for post-graduate work either. She sighs; she doesn’t know. She’d like to become a teacher, but that necessitates a year spent in another town, in the interior, and her parents wouldn’t allow that. But today she’s happy to have completed her thesis, and the future feels bright. I fear for her determination, but I know that no matter what happens in her life, her own daughters will face a very different future than the one she faces today.

Her mother has come up the school; maybe to support her daughter, but maybe also to see what her professors are like. We shake hands. This woman is so young; she is probably close to my age, which makes me depressed at first. But then, she was probably only about 13 when she had her first child, this stubbornly-unmarried and dedicated student who is now taking my picture on her cell-phone camera and asking for my email address so we can stay in touch.

· The fifth student of the day was one of my supervisees. (is that the right word?) A serious and contemplative young man, he struggles with a stutter, which when added to a foreign language can make things complicated. He had obviously spent a lot of time practicing his defense, which was delivered with agonizing slowness but very little stutter. His topic was a linguistic one, about how children acquire language and the obstacles against language acquisition like poverty, war and refugee status, etc. Later, one of my colleagues asked him his opinion about the Talibe boys, those boys who are sent away from home into the charge of the imams, who spend their days begging in the streets and their nights memorizing the Qu’ran in a language they don’t understand, who cluster on the streets corners and at intersections, fighting each other, opening their puppy-dog-brown eyes wide to plead for coins from passersby. With me, they practice their 2 or 3 words of French. The student, who is from the same ethnic group, lights up at this question—his stutter is a little worse, but the words tumble eagerly from his tongue. He tells us he interviewed many of them. “They can’t even speak their own language well,” he says, because of a lack of adult interaction. Some are 15, 18, years old (he says 80 but we understand him) and have never been to school; they enter the system at age 4 or 5. “I asked them if they wanted to go to school and they said YES,” he tells us, practically pounding on the desk. He wants to become a linguist and help children. I hope he does. He’s already joined the Lions Club.

By this point, I was yawning my head off (I’ve been staying up till 2 a.m. most nights and spending my days in that tiny library. “Don’t go!” the kids say every morning) but at the same time feeling very warm and fuzzy and inspired, and a little sad at the thought that soon I’d be leaving these students, who fight against such incredible odds and who have stories such as I, from my privileged Western background, can hardly understand.

There was one jury left. The student was Tunisian; his supervisor a Mauritanian professor. Mr B left; Mrs B and I waited for the Mauritanian man to come. We finally managed to get him on the phone. “I’m sorry; I’m busy,” he told us. “I can’t come. We’ll have to reschedule.” WHAT? Something in me snapped. Here I am, staying up till 2 a.m. reading papers, not seeing my kids on their vacation, not helping my husband with packing, stressing because we are MOVING OUT OF OUR HOUSE in 3 days and I haven’t had time to do anything about it. (Note: we don’t leave in 3 days; we’ll stay at a friend’s) My colleagues have similar tales of great stress. And yet, we were all here, on time, every day. Mr. B and I were on all the same juries this year; 32 of them. This professor had only the one.

He tried to tell me he didn’t know he was scheduled, but the words were hollow; we both knew he was lying. I was furious. I told him, “I can’t reschedule. If you don’t come, you’ll have to find someone else.” I was really angry, and it was evident to all. “I’m sorry,” he said again, but you could tell how empty the words were to him. I was still angry with him when I walked off that campus and caught a taxi home. I’m still angry with him now, although the strength of the emotion has dissipated into tiredness and resignation.

I have written of students who obviously don’t care; who copy and paste their work direct from books and internet sites. But this is another major problem at the university—teachers who don’t care. The professor of grammar shows up twice in an academic year; once for the mid-term and once for the final. He’s been doing this for years and years. And yet he receives his pay check, just like my American colleagues do, who are pathetically overworked. (Mrs B had over 900 essay exams to grade this year) Teachers blatantly work other jobs and don’t come to class. I vividly remember one day in late March, when another professor showed up and said that he was supposed to be using my room. He was supposed to have started teaching his class in October, as I had, but this was the first time he’d shown up.

Not all are like this, but the majority are. I was the only non-Mauritanian teacher my first year there, and also the only one who showed up with any consistency. My students didn’t know what to do with me at first. Now, there are 2 other Mauritanian teachers who are dedicated and hard-working, plus the American couple and a Canadian teacher. Things are improving, but there’s still such a long ways to go.

I was so optimistic with those two students this morning, but sometimes it’s hard to maintain, especially with a lack of sleep. Anyway, for better or for worse, I’m done with juries.

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