The Long Road South, and Sickness

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I really wish I had written this blog post about four months ago, right after it actually happened and was fresh in my mind, but alas, I did not take my computer with me when I traveled so I’m going to attempt to recreate the stories of my travels for you now.

Downtown Dar es Salaam

After leaving Zanzibar, Jared and I took what was probably the fastest boat I’ve ever been on (and that’s saying something considering that it was a passenger ferry. . .) to the Tanzanian mainland. Even the ship crew must have known how awful their boat rides are as they passed out vomit bags to everyone on board. Luckily, I never had to use mine—at least not until a few days later. We pulled up to the chaotic port of Dar es Salaam, a city that, prior to our arrival, pretty much everyone had told us to avoid. “Traffic is horrendous,” “it’s loud and dirty and unsafe,” people told us. But it’s also the largest city in Tanzania and for that reason, we thought, worth at least a night’s stay. And to be honest, it really wasn’t that bad. Sure it was loud and dirty, but aren’t all big cities? We walked around a little bit, found an Indian restaurant to eat at, and then woke up at the crack of dawn the next morning to board a bus south.

The quiet streets of Kilwa Masoko

The bus ride wasn’t too bad (at least not compared to later rides on our trip) and we actually had assigned seats to sit in. We decided to get off in a small town called Kilwa Masoko which is about halfway down the coast between Dar es Salaam and the Mozambican border, and is known for the nearby island of Kilwa Kisiwani which is the site of ancient Arab trading ruins. We were very much looking forward to seeing the ruins however after inquiring how to get to the island, we discovered that there was only one tour group that would take visitors there and that they charged around fifty USD for a trip which only lasted a few hours. Um nope! Instead we improvised and spent the next two days wandering around the quiet fishing village and trying out the local bars. It was at this point in the trip when we really began to sync our bodies to the rise and fall of the sun. Being a small town, most of the restaurants and bars didn’t have electricity which meant that as soon as the sun went down it became very dark. So usually around 8pm we would head back to our hotel and were asleep by 9. Likewise because we were going to bed so early, we were also rising early. Like 5am early. Much too early for my liking but most of the buses left really early any way so this turned out to more convenient than I would have thought.

Food sellers rush up to the windows of the bus to sell their wares to passengers.

After leaving Kilwa Masoko we spent one night in the bustling city of Lindi and finally one more night in Mtwara which was to be our last stop in Tanzania. Now I should tell you that southeastern Tanzania is the least traveled part of the country—not even coming close to rivaling the busy island of Zanzibar, the peak of Kilimanjaro in the north, and the safari camps which dot the northern and western parts of the country. What’s cool about this is that you really have the feeling that you’re seeing a place that not many foreigners have been; certainly no one you’ve met. And that’s a really cool feeling to have. However, it also means that the place you might be traveling to doesn’t have much infrastructure for tourism and therefore not many food and hotel options. Or that you’ll have to sit in the back of a truck bed for 6 hours to get there because that is literally the only way to get there. And sometimes it means that there’s a reason not many people are going there—because it’s just not that interesting. My boyfriend Jared would probably differ with me on this but I have to say that I didn’t find this part of Tanzania to be that interesting.

The Ruvuma River border crossing

The day we were set to cross the border into Mozambique I woke feeling nauseous and feverish. We climbed into a bus that would take us to the border where we would then get out of the bus, wait in the customs line to get our passports stamped, board the bus again which would then board a ferry across the Ruvuma River, and cross into Mozambique. We arrived at the customs office and immediately I felt like I was going to vomit. I could feel my face turning pale and my whole body beginning to sweat. Just get through the customs interview I thought. Just as I was keeled over about to be sick a foreign woman approached me and said, “Are you ok? You don’t look so good.” I replied to her that I had felt nauseous and feverish all morning. She asked where we were going and when I replied that our final destination that day was a town about 2 hours south of the border she asked how we were traveling there. I pointed over at the mini bus in which we had arrived. She looked at me with the look of a kind, concerned mother and said, “You can’t travel in that. We have some room in our car, why don’t we take you.” I thanked her so much for her generosity but said I’d be fine. She persisted and once we got through customs Jared and I climbed into her car. We learned that she and her husband were from Denmark and had been living in Mtwara doing development work. There was another Danish couple traveling in the car ahead of us and it turned out that the husband was a doctor. After telling him about my symptoms he diagnosed me with Dengue fever and gave me some medicine to make me feel better. Surprisingly the medicine worked and I was able to enjoy the rest of the ride to our destination.

The kind Danish couple dropped us off in Moçimboa de Praia, a small town in northern Mozambique, where we had planned to spend a night before continuing southward. Finding a hotel wasn’t easy as it seemed that most of the hotels (or pensions as they’re known in Portuguese) were booked. This confused us as the city didn’t seem to be much more than a small town close to the border—why would people be coming here? However, we eventually learned that one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world had just been discovered off the coast of northern Mozambique and that suddenly, a few months before; foreign oil workers had flooded the area. That would explain the newly paved roads we’d driven in on and the ridiculous number of foreign men we’d seen driving SUVs. So we checked into a dingy, disgusting hotel and prayed that there weren’t any cockroaches. It was only for a night anyway.

A few hours after we arrived, my head started throbbing. I was starting to sweat again and my head felt like it was on fire. Any time I tried to get up I felt like I was going to be sick. I told Jared that I needed to go to a hospital and he heroically managed to find a taxi driver to take us to a nearby clinic (I say heroically because we didn’t speak any Portuguese and the hotel people didn’t speak much English). Standing up to go out to the taxi I threw up all over the hotel room floor. I began to sob because I didn’t know what was wrong and I wasn’t sure that there was anyone in this tiny little town that could help me and because I’d never felt my head so hot in my life. We arrived at the clinic and I pushed into the waiting room and marched up to a nurse. I pointed to my forehead and said “hot” which she didn’t seem to understand. I tried “caliente” (not knowing the word for “hot” in Portuguese but thinking that Spanish might be similar) but she didn’t seem to get that either. Finally, she reached out and tried to hand me a single pill. I didn’t know what it was and I definitely wasn’t going to take it. I barked at her that I wanted to see a doctor. This she seemed to get. A few minutes later a doctor walked in, and fortunately, he spoke a little English. I explained my symptoms to him, to which he responded, “It sounds like you have malaria.” “What?” I replied. “That can’t be. I’ve been taking my antimalarial pills every day as recommended.” He looked at my arms and my face and could see that they were dotted with mosquito bites. “Yes it is still possible to get it,” he responded. “Antimalarial pills do not prevent malaria but rather they significantly weaken the disease if it enters your body.” I was shocked. I had no idea that this could happen. I’d been cautious and had used the bug net at nighttime, worn bug repellent, and long pants and shirts and yet I had still been getting bitten every night. He tested my blood for signs of the disease and nothing came up but because my symptoms matched those of malaria he decided that the best course of action was to treat me anyway. I was prescribed the full cocktail of treatment including the 8-pill anti-malarial set to be taken over 4 days, ibuprofen to be taken 3 times a day, and some other mystery pill. Altogether, I would be taking 15 pills a day for one week.

The next morning Jared asked if I was ready to continue south. I still felt terrible and did not want to get into a cramped bus in which I would quite possibly vomit, but I knew that we needed to keep moving. Jared encouraged me and said that if we could just make it to our destination of Ibo Island we could stay there for a few days and I could relax and recover. As much as I didn’t want to travel while being sick, I knew he was right. And so we continued south and a day later we arrived on Ibo Island.

Now I’m not going to sugar coat this and say that everything was fine. It took me about a whole week to recover from my sickness and it was a miserable week. I had seriously considered going home because I couldn’t imagine continuing on for another 5 weeks the way I was feeling. I give a lot of credit to Jared who put up with me, and more than that, took care of me throughout the whole week. Not only was I sick, but as a result of my sickness, I was irritable, difficult, and rude to other people around me. On one bus ride I laid down across a whole bench because I didn’t feel good, while other people, women with children and babies, had to squish together on the floor of the truck. All because I wasn’t feeling well. It was not my finest moment and looking back I’m ashamed of how selfish I was and how I let my sickness overtake my mood, and worse, my humanity.

But I did eventually get better, and thankfully, we were able to continue our adventure.

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Jambo #5

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Zanzibar, Zanzibar, Zanzibar is really far
you can’t get there in a car
Zanzibar is really far
Zanzibar, Zanzibar, in Zanzibar they don’t have tar
you can’t get there in a car
Zanzibar is really far
Prior to arriving in Zanzibar last Saturday, the only thing I knew about Zanzibar were these song lyrics from this weird song that my 8th grade science teacher, Mr.Gendreau, used to play for us. Not exactly useful information. . .

A traditional eastern African fishing boat called a dhow.

But since being on the island I have learned quite a lot. Zanzibar, for those of you that aren’t familiar with it, is an island off the coast of Tanzania in Eastern Africa. It has been a part of Tanzania since 1963 when the people living here gained their independence from the Omani sultanate that had been ruling here since the 1800s, and joined with the mainland, which at the time was called Tanganyika. An interesting fact, the word Tanzania actually comes from the combination of (Tan)ganyika + (Zan)zibar + Azan(ia) (which is the Greek word referring to Eastern Africa). Before the Omani sultanate, Zanzibar had been used as a port of trade by both the British and the Portuguese who brought spices here from the east and grew them on the warm, fertile land. This cultural melee is easily seen in the island’s current residents. People living here are of African, Middle Eastern, Indian, and European descent. However, 95% of Zanzibarians are Muslim and there are over 50 mosques on the island, which has a population of about 1.3 million. Here, the Arab greeting “salam u alaykum” is just as likely to be heard as the Swahili “Jambo.” So just when I thought that I was leaving Morocco, it seems as if it’s following me just a little bit. Zanzibarians also frequently say “hakuna matata”–that’s right, like The Lion King (which uses several Swahili words–for example, the monkey named Rafiki is the Swahili word for friend). I still haven’t quite gotten used to that and think about the Lion King just about every time I hear it.

Just like in Morocco, every day we go out here, we get approached by several people offering us tours of the island, local art, or drugs. We know they’re just trying to make a living, but it gets a little annoying after awhile.
After spending our first two days in Stonetown, the biggest city on the island, we took a local bus called a DalaDala north to a city called Nungwi on the northern tip of the island. Nungwi is an interesting place because the village is like any other you might find in Africa–no running water, children running around with no shoes, and dirt roads. But just beyond the village is a stretch of the most beautiful beach, lined by fancy resort hotels (like the Hilton Doubletree). It reminded me of photos I had seen of Tahiti–white sand beaches, the most crystal blue water you’ve ever seen, and beach huts with thatched grass roofs. A paradise right next to a squalid village. We stayed two nights at a cheap beach bungalow and during the day time arranged for a trip out on a traditional dhow (an African fishing boat) which included a seafood lunch and snorkeling in a marine conservation area. It would have been quite nice if I hadn’t gotten seasick. . . oh well. But it was a truly beautiful place.

Gorgeous white sand beaches.

Gorgeous white sand beaches.

The only hard part about it, as I mentioned before, was that people would constantly come up to you and try to sell you things. “Jambo! Would you like to go snorkeling?,” “Jambo (#2)! Would you like to buy a wood carving with your name on it?,” “Jambo! (#3) would you like to buy some mango or pineapple?” There was even one moment when we were swimming and a guy was shouting at us from the beach about going scuba diving. We kept telling him that we weren’t interested, that we’d talk to him later, but that didn’t seem to work. He literally stood there for 10 minutes trying to get us to come out of the water and talk to him. Not exactly the relaxing swim I was hoping for. . .

But as I said before, Zanzibar is a truly unique place and one not to be missed if you’re coming to Tanzania or Eastern Africa. The unique mix of cultures creates an atmosphere you can’t find anywhere else in the world.

Truth and Reconciliation

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Many of you probably don’t know this, but I cried when I left for the Peace Corps. Not tiny little tear drops, but gushing streams of water that soaked my shirt. The reason most of you don’t know this is because as I said my goodbyes to all of you, I was stoic, I didn’t shed a tear. I might have even seemed cold. Before saying my goodbyes I had decided that the only way I wouldn’t break down was if I was to remove all of my emotions when I gave you my last hugs. I know it sounds terrible, but we do what we have to do to tell ourselves that everything is going to be alright. It wasn’t until I said my last goodbyes and went through airport security and then finally sat down alone while I waited to board the airplane to Philadelphia that I realized how alone I would be over the next two years. How, even though I would Skype with all of you throughout my two years and make new Moroccan friends and volunteer friends, this was a challenge I was facing alone. And that’s when the tears started to flow.

Now as I’m in the last week of my service, I find myself wanting to come clean about what being here has meant for me over the past two years; to share with you the whole truth even though its picture might not be as pretty as the one you had painted for me in your mind. Why is it that at the end of our days, we can say all the things we couldn’t say before? Perhaps there is some liberation in speaking about the past. That remembering what happened exactly as it did frees you from the weight of future lies in which you create a fictional truth to impress your listeners.

Or maybe, knowing that we fought so many battles and experienced so many wonderful moments means that we finally deserve to tell their tales.

So here it is: my truth and reconciliation.

Truth: The gender roles were never easy for me here and I think they were one of the few reasons that I could never fall in love with Morocco. Constantly getting harassed on the street, even if it was just a “Ciao Bella,” turned me into an angry person many days. Every time I’d have to walk somewhere I’d put on my “don’t fuck with me” face and hope that by looking as menacing as possible, and as ugly as possible, that men would leave me alone. I’m looking forward to being in a place again where I don’t have to wear that mask. But even outside of the harassment, some of the very people who were closest to me exemplified the behaviors that I found to be most frustrating. A very close friend of mine, who has also been friends and counterpart to all of the volunteers before me told me recently that he wants to marry a girl between the ages of 16 and 24 (he is 30), that she should not have an education higher than a high school diploma, and that she will stay at home and not be allowed the option of working. While saying this, he sat and made comments about girls’ butts as they walked past us and said that if girls didn’t cover themselves well then they deserved to be stared at. This from someone who I thought would have learned from being friends with strong, independent women! I guess not. In another instance, when my family was visiting I wanted to bring them over to my tutor’s house to eat. My tutor is one of my favorite people in town and I was dying to introduce her to my family. However, before the lunch she informed me that if my family came my father and brothers would have to sit in one room with her husband while the women sat in another room. She said that her customs would not allow her to be in the same room as my father. That she and her husband and her children and me and my parents and my brothers could not all sit in one room together and share a meal. I cried when she told me that. Morocco can break your heart sometimes.

And yet out of all that I now hold closer to my feminine identity than I ever did before. Not that I didn’t feel like a woman back in the US, but I think sometimes it takes someone threatening us for who we are for us to truly understand how important that identity is. Here in Morocco, I faced many struggles because I am a woman, but facing those struggles made me feel more womanly and more proud to be a woman than ever before. It also made me want to work with Moroccan women as part of my job here, and do programs that remind them how important they will be in shaping the future of this country.

I would say that the same holds true for my identity as an American. Here in Morocco, I’ve been confused for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Frenchwoman, an Australian, and a Chinese woman; and yet throughout all of that confusion I continue to make it clear where I’m from. Additionally, watching Moroccans call my Asian-American site-mates “Chinese” for two years because they don’t understand how diverse America is has made me more proud than ever to be from a country that is truly diverse. If there is one thing about being American that should make every one of us proud, it’s that. Not our high GDP, our world power, our army, or our films—our diversity.

Truth: Moroccans are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met—much more so than Americans (sorry guys!). If I’d wanted to, I could have probably eaten every single meal for 2 years in the homes of others. Not only will they invite you over to their house for tea as soon as they meet you, but that tea will inevitably turn into an invitation for dinner which will turn into an invitation to sleep over and stay for breakfast in the morning. And this phenomenon not only holds true for wealthy Moroccans but also for poorer ones. I’ve eaten a meal with families who don’t have much and yet they still manage to scrounge up whatever they have and treat me like royalty. How is it that those who have so little are often the ones who want to give so much? I will never cease to be amazed by this kindness and generosity and I will do my best to make my Moroccan friends proud and carry that tradition back to America with me.

Truth: This final week has been full of tears. The first time I cried was when I gave a thank you letter to my counterpart Nabila, thanking her for everything she’s done for me over the past two years. I don’t think she realizes it, but the majority of the things that I accomplished during my time here would not have been possible without her. In a country filled with “Inch’allah,” tardiness, excuses (“I was late because it’s very sunny today” is something I heard quite often. . .), and sometimes laziness, she was a beacon of light and hope and reliability. She came when she said she would, she came on time, she did what she said she’d do, and more than that, she took initiative. She is a role model for all youth and female professionals in Morocco and I can’t wait to hear what her future holds.

The second time I cried was when I was handing out certificates to my INJAZ students for successfully completing My Company Program. In that moment, I felt so proud of them and everything they had accomplished. Not only did they overcome difficult challenges but they also proved that students in rural Morocco are just as capable as those in big cities. Because of their hard work and determination, they paved the way for thousands more students in rural Morocco who will now also be able to do INJAZ programs. I wish them all the best as they go into the regional competition in Casablanca in June.

Truth: Despite all of the challenges and hard times, I’m going to miss Morocco terribly. In all honesty, I have never felt that I was more a part of a community than I do here. Working with community members to accomplish a goal, engaging with people at all different levels in the community to host events, sipping uncounted pots of tea and discussing the future of Morocco, and working with youth to make El Borouj a better place, are all experiences that I will never forget. And because of this experience, I will be looking for a job in community development when I return to the US.

I could make a list of all the ways that Morocco and this experience have changed me, but I’m not going to do that. You’ll see it when you meet me again in the US.

Alright. This is it. The big one. To all those who have made this experience what it was, a thousand times I thank you. Through the good times, the bad, the waiting, the couscous, the cultural confusion, the tea, and the forced public-dancing, you’ve always been there, right alongside of me. To all of my students, my aerobics ladies, my community partners, my Moroccan families and friends, I will never forget you u ana gan-tuhajtkum bzzef! To my American family and friends and all of my PCV friends, your love and support have made me the person I am today, and for that I am eternally grateful.

As all things must eventually come full circle, so must this blog. So with that, I end with a quote from the first blog post I wrote, “Here’s to continuation. Here’s to the next step of my life. And here’s to never saying goodbye.”

 

 

 

. . . But that’s not it!! I’m going to try to keep the blog going throughout my travels this summer, so if you want to hear about traveling in Eastern Africa—stay tuned!

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You: Just a Few Things I Learned in the Peace Corps

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  • Never do anything on your own. You should always have a host country national helping you and learning from anything that you do. Even something as simple as entering numbers into a spreadsheet, responding to daily e-mails, and definitely grant writing–an hcn (host country national) should always be with you and learning from what you do. Second, when it comes to HIV/AIDS and Women’s Empowerment it is absolutely crucial that you study up on the local customs, practices, and taboos. For example, for a male to talk about condom use in front of a group of women might be totally inappropriate. Especially when talking about potentially taboo subjects, it is better to have a local make the presentation or to be alongside of you to help with any potential miscommunication.
  • Don’t expect for things to get done on time. Try to set realistic expectations as to what you and your partners can actually accomplish in a given time frame. During your first week, carefully observe the people that you work with and try to gauge who is the most reliable and can be tasked with time sensitive material. Just because someone says they can do it, doesn’t mean that they can. And be sure to give people positive reinforcement when they complete good work. Also, when dealing with hcn partners who might not be holding up their end of the work, try to remind them how important their work is the completion of the project and how valuable they are as a team member. I find that ego-boosting goes a long way when people aren’t following through!! Telling them that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do never got me anywhere.
  • Talk to anyone and everyone–from the local town leaders, to the bread man, to the women’s cooperative, to the plumber. Even people that don’t seem that important can sometimes be the ones who might share invaluable information with you or tell you where you can get the cheapest and best quality materials.
  • Never be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. And don’t pretend to know more than you do. They know you’re not a local and will be able to see right through you if you’re pretending to be more knowledgeable about something than you are. Again, this is where involving local partners really comes into play. They’ll be so happy that you came to them for help and feel like valuable team members.
  • Be adaptable to the local culture, but don’t be afraid to hold tight to your own values as well.
  • Try to pick up on the cultural intricacies that exist in your community. For example, not everyone in Morocco likes being called Arab. Some people are fiercely proud of their Berber heritage and will tell you that they’re Amazigh before they tell you that they’re Moroccan. Be aware of the cultural differences that exist in the community that you serve and be respectful and sensitive toward them. Don’t generalize and assume that everyone is the same.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if something doesn’t work out. As the Moroccans say, inch’allah—some things are meant to be, and some aren’t. Even if you’re not Muslim, I think this is a phrase to live by. In the end, all you can do is take a step back, reevaluate, and start over.
  • Moroccans are incredibly hospitable. Much more so than most Americans. Time and time again, random strangers would open their door to me and offer me a steaming pot of mint tea and cookies.
  • Moroccans are also the most persistent door-knockers I’ve ever seen. They will knock on a door for 10 minutes before they give up. I’m not sure whether to find this annoying or just determined.
  • Never be afraid to stand up for yourself. Whether you’re getting harassed on the street, not being heard at work, or not being properly understood, be brave and be an advocate for yourself. In the end, people will respect you for having the courage to say what you wanted to say.
  • Moroccan grand taxis might be cramped, but they always got me where I needed to go. If it’s good enough for the locals, it’s good enough for me.
  • Being a teacher is rewarding, frustrating, inspiring, challenging, tireless, fun, stressful, wonderful, and surprising. Every human being should be a teacher at least once in their life.
  • Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
  • Take every opportunity that is presented to you, even ones that may seem trivial or unnecessary. You never know what might come from doing something new.
  • Youth must be given opportunities to learn in non-traditional ways. While traditional blackboard learning is necessary, giving students the opportunity to act, draw, sing, create, explore, and experiment is essential to them developing as well-rounded human-beings. Also, many students struggle to learn by traditional teaching methods and need to be taught in other ways in order to learn.
  • The only way for someone to become a leader is to lead. It is not enough to watch others; leaders must take initiative and do. However, all good leaders must also be good listeners and recognize others for good work.
  • Wherever you are and whatever you do, your happiness should always come first. Life is too short to be doing something you don’t love. But that being said, falling in love takes time and likewise, it can take some to time to figure out how to love what you do. Always be sure to give each thing you a do a fighting chance first, and try try try, and if you still don’t love it, move on.

 

Books I Read While I Was in the Peace Corps

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Just in case you wanted to know. . . .

  1. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
  2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  3. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  4. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  5. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  6. Song of Fire and Ice: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  7. The Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
  8. Freakonomics by Steven Levitt
  9. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
  10. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  11. House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
  12. Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux
  13. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  14. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  15. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
  16. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  17.  Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  18. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  19. Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky
  20. Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson
  21. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
  22. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  23. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  24. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
  25. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  26. Lords of the Atlas by Gavin Maxwell
  27. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  28. Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
  29. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
  30. Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway
  31. God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East by Judith Miller
  32. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
  33. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
  34. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  35. July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
  36. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  37. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
  38. Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz

 

***Note: I thought about having a separate blog post with a list of the TV shows that I watched while I was in the PC, but then I thought the sheer volume of TV that I watched would end up just being embarrassing. I’d prefer for you all to remember me as the deep, erudite intellectual that I am. . .   😉

75 Days and Counting

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Ok, so I realize that 75 is kind of a random number (other than it being a multiple of 25). I had intended to write a blog post entitled “100 Days and Counting” because 100 seems like such a more momentous number than 75, but ya know, life happens (and coincidentally, so does laziness) so I never got to write that blog post. But instead, I bring you Significant 75! 75 DAYS!!!!!

You’ll notice by my excessive use of exclamation points that I am excited about this fact. That’s the question that everyone keeps asking me lately, “Are you excited to be almost finished?” and “Will you be sad to leave Morocco?” My answers: yes and kind of. I think that having only 75 days left means that I am officially allowed to start thinking about what comes next (even if, in reality, I started thinking about what comes next a long time ago). What’s difficult about this end period is that you can’t stop your brain from imagining the possibilities of your next life, but at the same time, you want so badly to live in the here and now and cherish your last moments while you still can. It’s a weird sort of limbo to be in—finding the balance between the present and the oh-so-near future. I think a lot of volunteers are officially clocked out by now and are just counting down the days until we’re finished. I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t in that group (I think my blog title gives me away a bit. . . ). But at the same time I’m diving into my work more now than I possibly ever have before. Maybe it’s because I’m suddenly realizing that the big, looming “0 Days” means that I’ve got to finish up my projects quickly, tie up loose odds and ends, and make sure that everything I created doesn’t crash immediately after I let go. But I think I’m also plunging in because I know that this is the last time I’ll be in these circumstances—the last time that I’ll be surrounded by my wonderful students, be eating with Moroccan friends, be speaking Darija, be hearing the call to prayer five times a day. Living in Morocco hasn’t always been easy, and there have been moments when I’ve wanted to get out as fast as I could, but once you have an actual measure on how much time you have left, a date to count down to, suddenly that sense of urgency doesn’t seem as important anymore. Before it was,” how many days do I have to go? How much longer do I have to keep doing this?” And now, it’s, “75 days is tangible. I can do 75 more days. Let’s do this!”

For those of you wondering what will be keeping me so busy over the next 75 days it’s this: 3 weeks of spring camp, 1 women’s festival, 7 more weeks of my last INJAZ program, 1 week of Closing of Service Conference in Rabat, welcoming a new volunteer into my town, giving that person my house, packing, saying my goodbyes, and eating, eating, and eating. If I look about 20 kilos heavier by the time I return to America, blame the couscous.

So getting back to the questions that I keep getting asked: yes, I’m very excited to be almost finished. Two years is a long time to be doing anything, especially living in a foreign country, and I’m excited to return home. Will I be sad to leave Morocco? Kind of. I’m not so sure I’ll be sad to leave the country itself. As much as it’s hard to admit, there are a lot of things about Morocco that I could just never get used to; things that I didn’t quite want to get used to either. No matter how hard I tried, there seemed to be something inside of me that resisted some changes. For example, unlike a lot of other volunteers I never took a Moroccan name. Instead, I insisted that people call me “Marta” even though it was confusing and hard to pronounce (much easier to pronounce than “Martha” though). I don’t think it was so much that I didn’t want to blend in as much as it was really important to me to keep my identity throughout all of this. I know a lot of volunteers that would argue the other way and say that having a Moroccan name helped them to fit in. But I don’t think it’s the name that helps you fit in as much as just being who you are and finding people who can accept you for that. After all, the point of a program like the Peace Corps isn’t to fit in; it’s to learn to accept people for their differences and to hope that they will do the same for us. When Moroccans tried to give me a Moroccan name I would always tell them that if they came to America I would call them Mohammed or Bouchra or Fatima or Youness, that I wouldn’t try to change who they were just because they were in a new place.

But what I am going to be sad to leave are the people who’ve been there for me throughout all of this—my friends, my tutor, my aerobics ladies, my students, my counterpart, my director, my hanut lady, and my host families. And of course, I’ll be sad to leave all of the amazing volunteers who have completed this journey with me. As a person who has traveled a fair amount in her 24 years, I can tell you that even though I’ve seen some of the most beautiful and stunning places in the world, it’s not the monuments that you remember, it’s the people. And so when I get to that “0 Day” if I shed tears it will be for the people I’ll be saying “see ya later” to and the people that I’ll be missing the second that I step onto the plane.

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?: Why Asking the Right Questions Makes all the Difference in the World.

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Ahh the age old question—do Muslim women need saving? Ok so it’s not really an age old question, more like it just popped on to most Americans’ radar in the last few decades. But either way, I thought I might weigh in on the question that was recently written about in Time magazine by Columbia professor Lila Abu-Lughod, seeing as this is a question I myself have been asked several times.

So here’s my answer:

Is this the right question to be asking?

Now you’re confused. You wanted a clear answer telling you exactly how you should or should not think on the matter and instead I just answered a question with another question. Let me explain:

First, what are we (the Western women) proposing to save them (the Muslim women) from? The veil? Oppressive regimes? Lack of education? Lack of equal rights? These are all things that have been used as justification for Western intervention in the Middle East. We Westerners see people living lives differently than our own and our first instinct is to think that those lives are worse than our own—that those misfortunate souls should want and be able to have our amazing lives. How do I know this? Because, as much as I hate to admit it, that thought has passed through my head before. But this is the first misconception—thinking that everyone in the world wants to live the way we do. Just because a Muslim woman can’t drink and go to bars doesn’t mean she wants that right (by the way, Muslim men are also forbidden from this according to the Quran). Just because a Muslim woman chooses to wear the veil doesn’t mean she’d choose to wear booty shorts and a tank top if given the option. As Professor Abu-Lughod puts it,

“People all over the globe, including Americans, wear the appropriate form of dress for their socially shared standards, religious beliefs and moral ideals. If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, we need to look no further than our own codes of dress and the often constricting tyrannies of fashion.”

In terms of the veil, it’s about time for Western women to learn the true reason that Muslim women choose to wear it, or not. I recently discussed this topic with my good friend Sarrah who put it perfectly:

“I think it’s hard for a Western woman to understand why any woman would choose to cover. Talking with many friends and family members, though, they say that covering their head is a choice they make not out of fear or obedience, but because it gives them freedom in their own way. It makes them less visually appealing and gives them freedom from men seeing them only as a sex object. Some say dressing modestly and covering makes people look at their eyes and listen to their words, rather than being distracted by their body. I’ve also talked with people who say that covering brings them closer to God because then they’re more concerned with improving the things that really matter, not allowing time to be vain. Some also choose the more traditional route to save their full beauty for their husband.”

Second question that needs clarification: why do we associate Muslim women with saving? Couldn’t we just as well associate American women with saving? Or Mormon women with saving? Or teenage African-Americans with saving? Again, Professor Abu-Lughod puts it perfectly:

“Blinded to the diversity of Muslim women’s lives, we tend to see our own situation too comfortably. Representing Muslim women as abused makes us forget the violence and oppression in our own midst. Our stereotyping of Muslim women also distracts us from the thornier problem that our own policies and actions in the world help create the (sometimes harsh) conditions in which distant others live. Ultimately, saving Muslim women allows us to ignore the complex entanglements in which we are all implicated and creates a polarization that places feminism only on the side of the West.”

What she’s basically saying is why do we have to look elsewhere for victims to save, when we know quite well that maybe in some sense, we need saving too?  We all know that women in America make less money than men and hold fewer high-level positions. The percentage of women who are CEOs (4.2% of Fortune 500 companies), or are in Congress (less than 19%), or who are physicians (34% in 2012) all suggest that maybe the people proposing to save Muslim women should also be offering some help to American women. Professor Abu-Lughod is also asking why only Western women can be feminists. Why is it that when we picture a feminist in our heads, the woman we most likely picture is white? You see the problem with dividing people into the categories of “victims” and “saviors” implies that the only group that can save the “victims” is the “saviors,” when in fact, maybe the “victims” are entirely capable of saving themselves.

No doubt, there are some women that may need a little help in the world; women who are being oppressed by terrible practices and made to suffer in unbelievable and cruel ways. But again, we need to ask the right question here! Are those women suffering because of Muslim practices or are they suffering from cultural practices? A lot of the negative practices that we associate with Islam (like the Taliban forbidding girls from going to school or women from entering the mosque) are not actually at all related to Islam, but rather, are cultural practices. The Prophet actually encouraged his wives and daughters to learn because we know from the Quran that he taught them to read and write. When attempting to address what some see as the oppression of women in Islamic countries many people don’t properly make that distinction, between culture and religion. I know it’s something that has been hard for me here. When I get harassed on the street every day I often times think in my head “Muslim men are disgusting and they don’t respect women.” But then I catch myself and remind myself no that isn’t true, rather, that man who harassed me doesn’t respect women.

Additionally, a lot of people point to the fact that Islam is a male-dominated religion and that women suffer from this. Again, we need to remember that male domination is a human problem not just a Muslim one. Sorry boys. . .

So finally coming back to myself, what has been my experience living as a Westerner in Muslim Morocco? I’ve pretty much realized by now that I neither want to “save Muslim women,” nor should I. I think the best thing I can do for women and girls in my community at this point is to ask them “are you happy with your life?” and if they are, let them be. And if they aren’t, ask them “so what are you going to do about it?” Any change that is going to happen in Arab countries is going to happen because Muslim women want it to happen and make it happen—not because some Western woman “saves” them and tells them how they should live their life. My goal, as an educator and a role model in my community, is simply to ask all of my students, male and female, to look around them and make sure that they have all of the opportunities that they want. And if they don’t, encourage them to find solutions themselves. And my goal, as a Westerner living in a Muslim country, is to make sure that I’m asking myself the right questions—because often times when we foreigners assume that we know the problems in another culture, we aren’t asking the right questions.