Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Light in the Dark

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What they don’t tell you about Peace Corps before you join is that not everyone in the host community wants you there. Not everyone will welcome you with open arms and treat you as a member of their family.  Many people in my community have praised me for my mediocre Darija skills and ability to eat profuse amounts of couscous, saying, “you are Moroccan now.” Others, mostly people I don’t know, shout at me on the street in languages foreign to me and treat me as an outsider. I understand why they do this; after all, they don’t know me and probably don’t know that I work at the dar chebab. But nevertheless, it’s frustrating. In less than a month I will be celebrating my one-year anniversary of living in Morocco—the longest time I’ve ever spent living abroad, and I’m still trying to fit in. What Peace Corps doesn’t tell you is that some volunteers spend their entire 27 months of service trying to fit it, trying to convince people that, no, I don’t look like you, but we can be friends, you’ll see, I have much more in common with you than you think.

I’m not trying to complain, I’m just trying to tell all of you back home that integration is not as easy as my photos probably make it look. That, as I’ve said before, fitting in takes patience. We don’t take photos of the bad moments after all, only of the good ones.

This constant need to feel like you fit in is wearing.  It kind of reminds me of high school in a way, where everyone is trying desperately to fit into one mold. I often feel that way here in Morocco—like I just want to shout out, “Accept me! Like me! Stop shouting at me in Italian! I live here!” Just to reiterate, the people who know me, my Moroccan friends, my students, they treat me well and have accepted me and welcomed me with open arms. It’s just the other people, the people who shout at me on the street (who, I’d also like to point out, are 99% men) that get to me, because I know I’ll never be accepted by them. Maybe I shouldn’t care so much; after all, it’s not them I’m trying to work with.

Anyway, the point of this entry wasn’t to complain about that. It’s a problem I have, but I’m dealing with it. The point of this entry was to tell you all about my light in the dark (the dark being everything I just mentioned above).

The other day after my current events club, one of my students, a kind 16-year old girl named Fatema Zahra, had no one to walk her home. Sadly, here in Borouj, many girls are afraid to walk home alone at night and usually get a male sibling or neighbor boy to walk home with them. On this particular night, Fatema Zahra had no one to walk her home and asked if I would go with her. As we were walking, she asked me if I was afraid to walk home alone in the dark, to which I responded, “No, I’m not afraid. I’m a strong woman and I can protect myself. I have nothing to be afraid of.” She then responded, “You know, Martha, I want to be just like you, someday.” Confused, I asked, “You want to be a volunteer like me? You want to work with youth someday? That’s wonderful!” She politely shook her head. “No. Well yes I do want to help my community someday, but what I meant was that someday I want to be strong and brave like you.”

We all need those lights in the dark, those moments when everything becomes clear to us again, that we remember why we set out to do something challenging and frustrating in the first place. This was mine.

Progress Report

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If a potential employer was to ask me what one of my biggest strengths was I would say that it is my unfailing ability to self-evaluate. I am constantly reevaluating everything in my life—my work, my friendships, my relationships, my wardrobe choices, my feelings about the world around me. I’m that person who goes through their closet every single season and takes anything that I haven’t worn in over 6 months to Goodwill. Why keep it around if it’s just going to fill useful space that you could use for other things that you’re actually going to wear? You see, I’m a very practical person in this sense—if you don’t use it, get rid of it.

I’m also good at evaluating my work—something that I’ve been doing quite a lot of here in Peace Corps. I always try to ask myself, is this working? How could this be working better? Is this useful? Is this a productive use of my time? Will this have an impact on those around me? Will that be a positive or negative impact? Will this have an impact on the future? How will my community perceive me for doing this work? Is my work meaningful to me as an individual? Is what I’m doing here worth giving up two years of my life in the United States?

These last two questions in particular, are ones that I’ve been asking myself over and over again and are undoubtedly questions that every Peace Corps Volunteer asks him or herself many times throughout their service. One way to think of this is like a math problem.  In order to deem our time useful here we want our Peace Corps service in Morocco to be greater than or equal to what we might otherwise be doing if still in the United States. Or in math terms:

Peace Corps Service in Morocco ≥ possible life in the United States

I guess to figure out the answer to this equation one has to think about what one would be doing if they hadn’t left the US. For me, my best guess is that I’d be working as an intern at a non-profit or maybe I’d be doing Teach for America, or maybe I’d have an entry-level position somewhere. With the exception of maybe Teach for America I think I can say that my experience thus far in Morocco has been more valuable than the other two options. Even if I’m not at all factoring in the work I’ve done for my community, the personal growth I’ve achieved is without question more than what I would have achieved had I been working in the US right now. But what if I do factor in that work? Is it still worth being away from my family and friends for two years?

As you may have read in my last blog post, “Reflections and Resolutions” I’m doing a little self-evaluating on that subject right now.

  • Since my last post, I have been to two new Moroccan friends’ houses to eat a total of 3 times. (Unfortunately on one occasion, I was forced to stay for a total of NINE hours, to what I thought was just going to be a lunch. . .)
  • One of my biggest successes since January is that for the first time since I started my service, I am truly involving Moroccan counterparts in every stage of the planning process for an event! Because there aren’t activities for women in my town, I had the idea to plan a 2-day Women’s Festival in March to celebrate International Women’s Day. Last week, a few women from my aerobics class and a few girls from my dar chebab classes met to begin planning the event. While I did share a few of my own ideas, I also tried to be very quiet and let the women decide what activities they wanted to have at the festival. I am helping to oversee the project, but I want this event to be theirs from beginning to end. Go Me! A++
  • Hmm . . .  not really spending a lot of time studying Darija . . . Must work more on that.
  • Also since my last post, I have finished reading two books and am onto my third (the incredibly interesting Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond).  While I don’t think I’ll ever catch up to my boyfriend who has already read a whopping 25 books since being here, I’m proud of myself for spending more time reading every day.
  • I’m trying to be craftier in the kitchen and thanks to many wonderful, culinary-minded volunteers; I am having fun experimenting with new recipes.  Watch out world—I now can make two different kinds of soup from scratch!!
  • And while I am trying to spend more time walking outside, I’m still getting cat-called a lot so instead of walking I’ve decided to ride my bike. Another great form of exercise, great way to enjoy the weather, but easier to avoid getting shouted at.
  • Ok, so I haven’t exactly been working out six days a week. Woops.  But last week I did work out four times, the week before five, and the week before that four and the one before that five. So while I have completely and utterly failed at working out six days a week as I told myself I would, I have also been working out a lot more than I used to before I made that resolution. So take that.

Overall I’m going to give myself a B+ on my self-evaluation report. I’ve made some huge strides to make my work more sustainable though I could still be doing more. I’ve also tried harder to be more physically and mentally active so that’s good. And I still haven’t really done anything in the way of studying more Darija or Moroccan and Islamic traditions. But there’s time for that. For now, I’m happy with what I’ve changed in such a short period of time and am really starting to feel that my work here is not only useful to me as an individual but also to people in my community.