I’m perched on the rooftop back in Azrou, after a long week in Khenifra, our CBT site. It was good, hard-good. There were many challenges hitting me all at once and it was very exhausting to keep going, but I’m feeling refreshed now with the cool mountain breeze, rest and more intimate time with friends, less constant language struggles.
We drove to Khenifra last Monday, 1.5 hour drive, got out of the car and almost fell over with motion-sickness. The Grande taxi’s are crazy drivers wheeling little Mercedes through winding mountain passes and desert valleys. The scenery was so beautiful… I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road.
Khenifra is a big, red, dusty city nestled in the middle of red mountains. It is a little more exotic feeling than Azrou, with palm and date trees lining the thoroughfare to the governor and administrative buildings. However, crossing the Wed (river), the glamour is replaced with red dust and trash. My travel-abroad experiences are limited, but from second-hand knowledge and perceptions from such literature as the Lexis and the Olive Tree (Friedman, Thomas) I’ve had the idea that you can find a McDonalds anywhere. Guatemala was like that: little towns with a big yellow M near the town center. The last yellow M I saw was in Rabat (the capital of Morocco). Khenifra houses 100,000 people… poor people. Internet Cafes are abundant and you can buy Herbal Essence shampoo in hole-in-the wall tobacco shops, but no westernized restaurants, no fast-food, it is still very much a Moroccan town, just larger than most. The souk is bigger, and the old Medina has a whole shopping district, but it is Moroccan-style too: open-air tube (cloth) stores for Jalabbas, vegetable “stands” … dusty vegetables spread out on tarps, and men, men everywhere, staring out silently from cafes on every corner, calling “Ca Va Gazelle!” from the street, sitting on their fruit cart, banging away at the hind end of skeleton-donkeys carrying goods across town.
We dumped our backpacks at Sadiya’s (our Moroccan Language Culture Facilitator) rented house/training site and immediately took off to introduce ourselves to some important official. The twenty-minute walk, after a long, windy trip, with no food was too much for one of my site-mates, Carolyn. She squatted outside the administration building while Sadiya carried on expected chit-chat with the guards, waiting for the official to arrive. Finally Carolyn’s condition was so bad we needed to find a toilet or something for her immediately. They rushed her into an alcove stuffed with files and a sink … and she emptied her stomach. The official turned out to be gone for the day, so we trudged back to the CBT site, met our host mothers with a few stumbling words of Arabic and departed separately with them to our respective homestays, all a little queasy about being thrown into a home where no one could understand us and our local language skills consisted of Hi, how are you, good, thanks be to God, I’m 24, I live in Cincinnati, it’s a bigger city in Ohio, USA. I was still queasy from the trip. My new “Mom”, Amina was very sweet. With use of a clock, indicated that I should sleep until 4pm and then we would walk about the city or something.
I slept for a long time, woke up and thought the confusing clock said 6pm. I rushed downstairs, flushed and not sure what to do. My little sister saw me and woke my mother.. who was napping in the dining room. We were brought sweet mint tea and cookies and I tried my hardest to indicate my apologies for sleeping so long. I looked at my cell phone and realized it was 4pm, not 6 and laughed. Not sure if she understood what was going on in my mind. Another lady rushed in, greeted me with Salam walekum and kept motioning and blabbing away about going out somewhere. I just nodded, the ladies wrapped the sheets they’d been sleeping in around themselves, covering their heads and hair, and out we went. Around the block, and up stairs we went to a room full of ladies and girls and more mint tea and coffee and cookies. I greeted the many curious stares, with my little phrases, to their delight, and sat down. They pelted me with questions, but upon finding my shrugging shoulders and embarrassed laughs the only response they would get, they switched to talking about me, with little laughing glances at me, once in a while. I meanwhile busied myself trying to avoid using my left hand while eating flats of bread.
That was my introduction to a foreign world. A week later, I have a wonderfully, sweet, happy family to call my own, here in Morocco. The father, Omar Aarab, I saw rarely … late at night or early in the morning. He was a teacher as well as a government official. Very fit, good looking, happy to be alive, friendly, professional and busy. Mama Amina (or Mama Mia, as I teased her) was a very amiable, hard-working, smart mother with many chores, a well-run beautiful home, and (as I later found out) the president of a weaving/rug making cooperation. Hajar, (17), the eldest daughter, was very sweet and responsible for many of the meals, household work and my homework. She spoke a little English which helped. Anis, 15, was very sweet, laughed at my antics, played Indian and Moroccan music for me and was always about town in the evenings, offering to lead us wherever we needed to go. Sara, 13, was quieter, sweet and loved to cuddle on the dining carpet area and teach me new words. Oossama, 10, the family adored. He was always giggling and watching me or cuddling with his mom after dinner.
Most everyone in my CBT was a bit jealous of my homestay. Besides a wonderful family, the home was gorgeous and they were obviously pretty well-to-do. There were three floors, a sumptuous saloon, two bathrooms, and actual hot water in my bathroom (still a bucket bath, but just having warm water, let alone any running water was a luxury many families could not afford). I had a cozy little library for my room.
I was quite happy with my site-mates, Jesse, Cory, Andrea, Carolyn and Juliana. Cory and Jesse were already very close friends, so I was thrilled to have both of them.. and Cory literally lived next door (in a “shack”). Cory’s house, as I mentioned before, was a pretty sorry state .. no running water, concrete, dusty walls and floors, little that made it appear as a home. His family talked with him very little. Over the week he spent more time at my house, and my family loved him. One night I sat with Mama Amina while he made dinner in the kitchen with Hajar. Another night I was exhausted and the the fam and the two of us hung out in my room. Mama Amina brought us yogurts and boiled eggs and juices for dinner on a tray, and Sara brought in a stick of incense. We found speakers in the library cabinet and played Elton John and Allison Krauss from my Walkman. They loved the music. It was a happy evening.
The week progressed slowly, with each day feeling like another massive hurdle of language barriers, hours of language and script lessons, lunches with more language headaches, and then afternoons walking far through the dusty city to seek out Hassan, a shoemaker we had met and were interviewing throughout the week for our test phase project. He worked in a 7x7 little hole in the wall, and we crowded in on stumps and cloth bunches, to chat and ask him questions, while he and a co-worker stitched traditional Moroccan slippers.
The first afternoon we came back from lunch and I prepared to take notes on yet another technical session. Saadia, our LCF just sat there and said “well, what are you going to do?” … It dawned on me that the simple sessions we had back in Azrou about developing a community map, a SWOT analysis were all the prep we would get .. now we were on our own to use the tools we’d been given. It was the first ounce of responsibility and self-directed work that we were expected to carry out . We were led to Hassan, the shoe maker and proceeded to introduce ourselves and explain our mission (via our LCF’s translations). We had him draw a community map of places important to him, institutions that would be helpful to have in Khenifra, etc.
We came back each day with another session of information gathering, but got ourselves into trouble by the third day. Keeping in mind that we had thoroughly explained on day 1 that this was just a training exercise for us, by the third day we decided to meet in his home with a group of five shoemakers that he collaborates with to help them with a SWOT analysis and needs assessment. The day turned out to be somewhat of a disaster… Hassan, Moha, and the three Mustafa’s gave us Atay and cakes, and we presented a poster-sized summary (in Arabic script) of what we had learned thus far, and our assessment of their needs, summarizing with the need for a centralized artisan district. “Who will be responsible for establishing this district?” they queried. We spent a great deal of time explaining again that we were in training and this was simply an exercise to help them determine what their greatest business needs were, that we would not be permanent volunteers in Khenifra and could not, therefore help them reach these objectives. You could see the attentive, needy eyes turn desolate and disappointed. We had escalated their expectations with our proposal, only to throw it all back on them with no offer of assistance. This was very hard for us to relay, and conscientiously to deal with, as a group and individually. We learned many lessons that day. You have to proceed extremely slowly, to keep questions pointed and simple, and to refrain from offering them large objectives or goals right away. We are Americans. They see us sailing in there asking what their needs are and presenting them with a summary assessment and they expected us to execute a plan to reach these objectives. The fact that all but Hassan were illiterate was another issue.
I suppose Peace Corps’ philosophy is to give us some basic tools and let us make mistakes, learn from them and then apply them in our real sites, in a few months. The meeting the next day was much more low-key and concise, but accomplished our next objective, a matrix that prioritized needs based on their communal choices between expressed needs. We all felt much happier about it.
On the last day there were rumors that Carolyn’s mom had invited us all over for Couscous (as my mother Amina had done the day before), but the rumors were not confirmed so we went to our respective houses for lunch. Saadia, our LCF by chance decided to go home with Carolyn to eat. Jesse was sick and came to my house, as it was closer, and I was partially sick and extremely exhausted from the long week and late nights. We huddled in my room over a stuffed fish and lentil lunch. One of my sisters came in jabbering away about Carolyn’s mom inviting us over today. I thought she meant for dinner and kept eating. Another sister came in with a similar message, only now indicating that we were to go for lunch, shortly. Finally Saadia came herself to wisk us away, and I realized that Malika had made us all Couscous and had demanded that Saadia go find all of us and bring us back to her home! Jesse was sick and stayed behind, but we went around to Cory and Juliana’s house, and Saadia repeatedly called Andrea on her cell.. Andrea who lived a 30 minute walk away from school and Malika’s. When we arrived she greeted and scolded us all, and were presented with a massive platter of chicken, squash and couscous” lunch number two. We stuffed ourselves. Malika, quite large herself, kept motioning that we should eat more so we would get big like her. She laughed and slapped her sumptuous thighs.
They brought a pitcher of water, soap, bowl and towel to rinse our couscous-sticky hands and then discovered a huge sweet cake in front of us. After desserts the table was cleared and a dance party ensued. Andrea had learned quite a bit of belly dancing to Malika’s delight. I fell asleep, a rather usual activity after lunch, while they all wrapped belts around their thighs and shook their full bellies. The afternoon development work session started a bit later than usual.