Mishaps and Metaphors, part 2

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So I realize there’s been a bit of a hiatus since my last blog post, so just to recap: at the beginning of September, my friends and I attempted to climb Mt. Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, but unfortunately, we climbed the wrong mountain and because of time and energy constraints, had to give up our pursuit of summiting Toubkal that day. We were sad and defeated at the time, but in hindsight it was hilarious that we had made this blunder.

Now as I said in my last blog post, this incident provided for me a metaphor that represents the problems with development aid today—noble efforts are being made to solve the problems of global poverty, lack of human rights, overpopulation, and access to education (among other problems) but a lot of these efforts are missing the mark. That is, people are climbing the wrong mountain, and like us, sometimes don’t even realize it until they get to the top.

To be clearer, let me give you a well-known example. I’m sure many of you have heard of the shoe company TOMS. Well back a few years ago, TOMS came up with the idea that for every pair of shoes a customer would buy, they would give one free pair to a shoe-less child in Africa. Knowing that many of their targeted clientele wanted to both look cute and donate to charity, this marketing plan was genius. TOMS was able to give away 1 million pairs of shoes to poor African children. Now on the surface this sounds great: The children now had shoes to protect their feet from the gravelly and trash-ridden African ground. So where’s the beef? The problem with this scheme and many other donation schemes is that it produces what is known in international economics as a “dumping” problem. Dumping is when manufacturers export products to another country and charge a lower price than the local price or a price lower than the cost of production or just give things away for free. The problem with this is that instead of buying local goods and spurring the local economy, people will buy foreign goods because they are cheaper.

So why is this a problem in Africa and where did TOMS go wrong? Well, the shoes that TOMS was giving away weren’t made in Africa, they were made in China. So even though they were providing a short-term solution to the problem of shoe-less children, in the long run, they were actually hurting the local economy because now, no one was going to buy shoes from local producers. They already had free shoes! Basically TOMS punched the local shoe producers in the groin pretty hard.

This is just one example of many Buy-One-Give-One-Away schemes. This article talks about many more. There is no question that donations can help needy people. But before you give your next donation, think very carefully about the way you do it. For example, if your local church asks you to donate used clothing to send to needy people in Cambodia, think twice about this! Though you may be clothing a poor person, you are essentially dumping free goods into the economy and hurting local clothing producers. Instead, it would be more beneficial for you to donate money to a local clothing producer in Cambodia who will then give clothes to those in need. This is the reason why Fair Trade goods have been such a huge success and are actually one of the better international development aid ideas. While there are critiques about the Fair Trade system, the point is that by purchasing fair trade items, your money is going directly to local producers whose production will benefit the local economy.

So getting back to my point about international development aid—all aid is well intentioned, but most of it only focuses on short-term goals instead of long term solutions.

As you know, most aid is financial and much of it is known in international economics as “conditional aid.” Put simply, if Malawi does X, Y, and Z, they will receive aid money. Or, if Malawi fits into a certain category (e.g. has low rates of education, high mortality, low levels of production) it is qualified to receive aid. While this might seem intuitive it can also be counterproductive. Travel writer (and ex Peace Corps Volunteer) Paul Theroux explains it perfectly in his book “Dark Star Safari” in which he travels overland from Cairo to Capetown:

Some governments in Africa depended on underdevelopment to survive—bad schools, poor communications, a feeble press, and ragged people. The leaders need poverty to obtain foreign aid, needed an uneducated and passive populace to keep themselves in office for decades.” (Theroux, p.318)

Basically, some governments have no incentive to improve their country because if they do, they’ll stop receiving aid.

Another problem with international development aid is that it’s exactly that—international. The problem with foreigners swooping in to the rescue is that then the locals have no reason to help themselves. I mean, would you try to solve your own problems if someone else told you they’d solve them for you, and for free? You probably wouldn’t. This is the problem with organizations like the Peace Corps (yup, I’m guilty too) and other international service organizations. They’re taking jobs from locals and enabling them to become lazy. Again Paul Theroux explains this phenomenon in a quote from a local African man:

The donors are making us lazy. The Japanese volunteers are doing what the city council used to do—mending potholes. It is better for us to have potholes. We would be forced to do something about them. We’d have to think for ourselves.” (Theroux, p.484)

Efforts have been made to fight this problem. One is example is an organization called CorpsAfrica that was started by a former Peace Corps Volunteer named Liz Fanning. The idea is basically that Africans should be volunteering in Africa—not foreigners. The program is designed to “recruit men and women from developing countries of Africa to move to high-poverty communities within their own country. Each volunteer will stay in a host community for one year to create and support small projects that eliminate barriers to economic growth and prosperity.” The program is currently being launched in its pilot phase right here in Morocco.

The problems with international development aid are numerous and not likely to be solved overnight. Many efforts are already being made to put international development on the right mountain (so to speak). CorpsAfrica and the Millennium Challenge Corporation are two examples and I’m sure there are many more. One thing that needs to change for sure is corruption in developing countries.

So like I said in the beginning, I’m not sure that I want to work in international development aid, at least not in its current state. I’ve always wanted to help those in need, for about as long as I can remember. That’s why I’m in the Peace Corps. But I don’t think that donating money, or volunteering internationally are necessarily the right ways to help. That’s why, I’ve been working harder to not work—but instead, to make local Moroccans volunteer their time and help their community themselves. That’s why I’m refusing to teach computer classes in my computer lab; there are qualified people here who can do it themselves and will benefit from the pay. And I’m going to try to hand over my aerobics teaching job to one of the women in the class and convince the gym owner to pay her to teach, instead of having me teach for free. As I said in my blog post Between a Rock and a Hard Place—Or, Between the Moroccan Way and My Way, the best thing I can do here is to put myself out of a job.

So I’ve been ranting about this problem for a while now, and sadly, I don’t have many solutions. But I think it’s important for people like me, who dream of solving the world’s problems, to realize that there’s a right way to go about it, and a lot of wrong ways. I’m not giving up on my dreams, but I am going to work hard to put myself on the right mountain.

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Mishaps and Metaphors, Part 1

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So for a while now I’ve been wanting to write a blog about my feelings on development aid. International development is the field that I’ve wanted to work in since I was about 13 (around the same age when I decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps). But now, as I’m doing development work, I’m not so sure this is the field in which I should be working. Or the field in which anyone should be working—at least not in its current state. I’m going to get into why I feel this way a little bit later, but first, I’d like to share a little story about something that happened to me recently that proved to be the perfect metaphor for how I feel about development aid.

So a few weekends ago, a group of volunteers and I went to the town of Imlil located in the High Atlas Mountains to begin our ascent of Mt.Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa (4,167 meters or 13,671 feet). The first day of hiking was pretty simple. We had a volunteer with us who had already summited Mt.Toubkal, the path was clear, and it was a beautiful day. With the exception of some pain in my hip joint (which adequately made me feel like I was a 70 year old woman), everything went swimmingly. Later that night, once we’d all had a chance to rest and eat some dinner at the refuge where we were sleeping, it was decided that we would wake up at 4am the next morning to begin our hike so that we could watch the sun rise from the summit of the mountain. While a few of us were nervous about hiking in absolute darkness, we agreed that it would be amazing to watch the sun rise from that altitude and knew that we had someone with us who had done exactly the same thing before. And so, at 4am the next morning, armed with nothing more than a few headlamps and cell phone flashlights, we began the ascent.

To say that it was dark was an understatement. There wasn’t a single other group of hikers out that we could see and the only source of light other than our own were the sparkling night stars. It was incredible.

I would lie and tell you that the reason we stopped to take so many breaks on the way up was to admire the stars, but this would be only a partial truth. The path was steep and rocky and even people who were in good shape would have to take frequent breaks; plus, my hip was acting up again. We climbed for about two and a half hours before we could finally see the sun peeking out over the mountain tops. About a half hour later, we finally reached the top. The view was amazing. We could see rows upon rows of mountains that had a bluish-gray haze over them that reminded us of the Smoky Mountains. The peaks were all dotted with white, glistening snow and at the bottom of the mountains was a clear blue lake. We would have stopped to admire the view for longer except that we weren’t at the summit yet. There is a large sign that marks the summit of the mountain and none of us had seen it yet. We all began to look around us, knowing that the sign had to be right around the corner, probably hidden by some boulders. And then there, off in the distance, someone spotted it.

We’d climbed the wrong mountain.

Upon realizing the humongous mistake we’d made, we started desperately devising a plan about how we could get to Mt.Toubkal.

1)      Stay on top of the mountain ridge we were on and try to walk all the way over to Toubkal on the top of the ridge.

2)      Descend the mountain that we were on and then start over and ascend Toubkal.

3)      Invent a teleportation device with which we could teleport to Toubkal.

4)      Give up the pursuit of Toubkal and just be happy that we’d climbed a mountain.

Considering that my hip was giving me incredible pain and that it was already around 9am at this point and we still had to hike all the way back to Imlil that day (another 8 or 9 hours of hiking to add to the 5 we’d already done), a few of us ruled out option number 2. And seeing as we didn’t have the materials to invent a teleportation device, or that it wasn’t a particularly time-efficient option, we ruled out number 3. That left option 1 and option 4. I think by this point several of us were leaning toward just giving up and heading back, but hey, we’re Peace Corps volunteers. We don’t give up that easily. And so we all rose to our feet (painfully, on my part) and began trying to hike across the top of a mountain ridge toward our destination. Sound crazy? Well it kind of was, but like I said, we were optimistic.

Not a half hour later we were stopped again. We’d reached the edge of a cliff and a deep trough lay between us and our destination. At this point we knew that the only way we’d be getting to Toubkal that day was to retrace our steps all the way back to the beginning and start over. Despite knowing that we didn’t have much of a choice, we took a vote, and pretty much agreed that we had neither the time nor the energy to summit Toubkal that day. And so we turned our backs on the sun and headed back down the mountain.

In hindsight, it was pretty funny that we had climbed the wrong mountain. I mean it’s the highest mountain in North Africa for god’s sake, it should have been obvious, right?! But at the time we felt tired and defeated. As much as no one wants to admit it, we all wanted that photo at the top, the one with the sign in the background and us in the foreground with our arms raised in triumphant victory.

So that’s “mishap.” And like I said earlier, I’ve been wanting to write a blog post for a while now about how I feel about development aid. I swear I didn’t plan it to happen like this, but us climbing the wrong mountain turned out to be the perfect metaphor for why so much development aid doesn’t work.

Stay tuned for part 2. . . . .

Ode to Casablanca

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Before I begin, I should mention two quick things—firstly, that this isn’t a true ode, at least not in the Pablo Neruda sense of the word. And secondly, that until recently, I didn’t like Casablanca.

Casablanca to me had always been a place to pass through. I would come into the city for a few hours for a meeting at INJAZ and to have lunch with my friend who works at the U.S. Consulate. I always associated Casablanca with the stress and sweat I accumulated as I sat on the train from Settat, rushed from the Casa Voyageurs train station, shoved past the pushy cab drivers who would try to cheat me out of my money, and made my way onto the tramway. As soon as my meeting was over I would repeat this process in the reverse direction and return to El Borouj just as quickly as I’d left it. Occasionally, me and a few other volunteers would come to Casablanca to forget that we were in Morocco—by taking a visit to the un-creatively named Morocco Mall.  The Morocco Mall is the closest you’ll get to America in Morocco. It is a 3-story mega mall replete with a food court (McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Pinkberry, Starbucks, Chinese food, etc.), IMAX theater, ice skating rink, aquarium, air conditioning and of course the requisite high-end clothing stores (oh, and a Payless). What more could you need to convince yourself for a few hours that you’d returned to America? Well maybe they could add a Taco Bell . . .

So you see why Casablanca was never a place in which I desired to spend much time. In all of my haste to get in and out or to escape the country in which I live, I never really realized that Casablanca is, quite beautiful.  In many ways, it is your traditional big city—expensive high rises crowd the downtown, interspersed by historic government buildings. The city’s first tramway was just completed in 2012 and rumor has it that the city has plans to build an underground metro system, which would put it on equal footing transportationally with many American cities. It also has a swanky beach area known as the Corniche which is known for its trendy nightclubs and bars. And of course, like any other major city, Casablanca experienced urban sprawl and has a slew of neighborhoods where one shouldn’t find oneself at nighttime.  But getting back to my point, Casablanca really is quite beautiful—you just have to know where to look to find the beauty.

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Sacre Coeur Cathedral

A lot of my Moroccan friends would hate me for saying this, but I think the Art Deco style buildings built during the French occupation are my favorite. If you’ve ever been to Miami and liked the style of the hotels lining the beaches there, you’d like Casablanca. It might take you a lot longer to find them, as many of them are well hidden (and well neglected) but they’re still here. In my opinion, the best examples are the Cinema Rialto, the Hotel Volubilis, the Sacre Coeur Cathedral, and the government buildings around the Place Mohammed V. One of my other favorites is this old abandoned house just a few doors down from the Starbucks on the Boulevard d’Anfa. It has the kind of wrap-around porch where you could spend an entire afternoon just whiling away the hours, consumed by a good book or watching passers-by. I can’t walk by it without stopping to wonder what lucky person once lived there. I’m not sure if a house can be called romantic, but this one certainly is. If only it wasn’t abandoned, windows broken in, and yard buried in garbage. If I could, I would buy it and fix it up, returning it to the grandeur it must have once known.

If you can shut out the noise of the streets and admire the old architecture for what it once was, you’ll be filled with a sense of what the French call la nostalgie. (The French do, more than any other nationality I believe, have the most unfailing ability for remembering things as they once were.) Now I’m not suggesting that Casablanca return to the way it was, but I think that as any city is developing into the future, its architects and planners should try to preserve elements of what once made it great. There is one group of artists and architects here called Casa Memoire who hope to do exactly that. According to their website they were created in 1995 and seek to preserve 20th century architecture through public awareness campaigns, events, and by lobbying local government to preserve Casablanca’s historical buildings instead of tearing them down.

Hotel Volubilis

Now I know that I’ve spent the majority of this post talking about the French architecture that I love so much, but don’t mistake me—Casablanca is, uniquely Moroccan. As much as the French occupation is part of Casablanca’s rich history, so is the port, first begun by the Phoenicians and then later used by the Romans. And so are the neighborhoods of Derb Sultan, Hay Mohammedi, and Sidi Moumen, where lower-class Moroccans go about their day buying hobs (bread) to eat with tagine and visiting the local mosque to pray. As with other great cities, Casablanca isn’t just the port, or the Morocco Mall, or the Art Deco architecture. It is the sum of its parts.

Casablanca isn’t like Vienna or Paris or London. It might not be immediately obvious to you that Casablanca is a beautiful city. You have to look a little harder to find the beauty amongst the chaos. In this way, it reminds me a lot of Detroit. What most people forget when they write about the decay and destruction of cities like these is that they still possess so much beauty—you just have to know where to find it.

And so I appeal to all of you explorers out there to come and discover Casablanca. You might be surprised what you find.

Just Call Me Betty

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If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony.”              – Fernand Point

So you have to admit that it’s kind of ironic that I’ve turned into a cooking/baking/brewing/pickling machine just as the Moroccans are about to begin fasting for Ramadan. I swear I’m not doing it on purpose! Although the thought of wafting heavenly smells into the streets as everyone is starving sounds like the perfect revenge for all the harassment I get. . . Ok, ok, enough with the evil thoughts.

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Not exactly food-blog worthy photography. . .

Now I realize that some of you (Molly, Shelly, Amelia, Sarrah) might be laughing right now as I refer to myself as the wonderful Ms. Betty Crocker (yeah I know she’s not a real person); remembering the time when I made that inedible polenta pizza for a dinner party, when I mixed pasta sauce with tuna and frozen spinach and thought I was being really creative, when I added too much milk to the Kraft macaroni and cheese box thus rendering it into a gluey sort of paste (you’re thinking “how can she screw up mac and cheese???” Well I was like 12 ok. . .) Laugh it up all you like, but the verdict is in—people are now asking ME how to make things!

Moroccan housewives have given my homemade cinnamon rolls with frosting a two thumbs up and have even attended a private cooking session at my house to see how they were made. My host mother ran to grab her recipe notebook the second she tasted my vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting. And my chocolate-chip banana bread was TO DIE FOR if I do say so myself. I know I’m getting a little cocky here, but as the girl who got laughed at because she didn’t know that you had to use a 2-1 water to rice ratio when cooking rice, it feels so damn good to finally be getting some praise.

The beginnings of a chicken and vegetable soup.

So what am I cooking, you ask? Well, considering that baking ingredients are probably the easiest to get here in Morocco I’ve been experimenting mostly with that. I’ve made cakes, chocolate chip cookies (though still haven’t quite mastered these yet), peanut butter cookies, chocolate chip banana bread, and scones. Also, in order to attain my dream of one day owning my own Bed and Breakfast and serving fabulous breakfasts to my guests I’ve also been trying my hand at various breakfast items like frittatas, heuvos rancheros, cinnamon rolls, banana pancakes, crepes, and delicious homemade oatmeal. And finally, I can now add 3, count ‘em 3!!, soups from scratch to my repertoire. Chunky tomato soup is my specialty but my chicken and vegetable and Italian Wedding soups aren’t too shabby either.

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Heuvos Rancheros

With the intense heat of the summer (it’s been in the 100s for the past week with no end in sight), my desire to bake has decreased slightly which is why I’ve decided to expand my culinary experimentation in new directions. After a good friend tried it, I’ve started brewing (??) my own moonshine! (Something about the word moonshine makes me think I should be wearing a beat-up old leather hat, a button-down shirt with a patch in it, and holding a banjo around a campfire. . .) I’m attempting to make some peach liquor which should be ready to drink (umm, I mean sip. . .) in a few weeks. I’m also hoping to try some pickling. The Polish dill pickle-eater in me has been completely underwhelmed by the itty bity cornichons that the Moroccans eat which are way too sour and utterly lacking in garlic. I’ve done my research and it seems that making a good pickle is actually quite complicated so we’ll see what happens.

I guess the truth is that I’ve always wanted to be a good cook but never really had the time or money to explore the hobby. While I still don’t really have the money, I do have the time. Other than the obvious benefits of impressing your friends with tasty treats, cooking has come to be really cathartic for me. And interestingly enough, what I’ve realized is that cooking has proven to be analogous to event-planning here in Morocco—I put everything I’ve got into the mixture, mix it up well, and hope for the best. Sometimes the result turns out flawlessly, exceeding my expectations (chocolate chip banana bread, INJAZ Entrepreneurship Masterclass) and other times it’s an utter failure (burnt lamb pot roast, last year’s summer camp in El Borouj). As someone who has control issues (just ask my boyfriend. . .) it’s good for me to learn that you can only do so much. In the end, some things just work out and others don’t. And when it doesn’t, you just clean up the dishes and figure out what to do better next time.

Life in Motion

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“ . . . An object in motion remains in motion, and at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.”              

–Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion

Over the past 16 days I have been on a total of 8 long-distance buses, 2 trains, 10 grand taxis, and 4 tramways, not to mention the countless city buses and petit taxi rides I’ve also taken. I’ve traveled a total distance of 2,745 kilometers (or 1,705 miles in America speak). Needless to say I’m feeling pretty well traveled at the moment—and also pretty exhausted. But as goes Sir Newton’s First Law of Motion, it looks as if I’ll be staying this way for a little while longer . . .

But first, let’s back up a bit. The last time I posted I was telling you all about my week at Spring Camp in my boyfriend Jared’s site. The following week, myself and my new site mate Vince, hosted our own Spring Camp at the dar chebab in El Borouj. All in all, I consider it to have been a success, albeit with a few hiccups here and there. But it was a really great experience for Vince and I to plan our first camp and to work with a local Moroccan association called ANEC to implement it.

Shortly after camp, I began my second INJAZ program called “It’s My Business.” It was a 6-week program meant to teach 14-17 year olds about the fundamentals of business and to inspire them to seek out their inner-entrepreneur. Unfortunately because I had to wait so long to get the materials I needed to implement the program, we were forced to squeeze the 6-week program into two weeks. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have an amazing and determined counterpart (my friend Nabila) and we were able to complete the program on time and to great success. A total of 19 students received their certificates of completion and overall, I received very positive feedback from the participants. 

This was supposed to be the final INJAZ program that I would be piloting in El Borouj however, PC recently asked me and seven other PCVs to pilot another program called “Company Program” next fall. This will be a 16 week program (the longest yet!!) during which students will actually create their own product/service and at the end of the 16 weeks compete in a competition to sell their business plan. I’m already looking forward to starting! And finally, PC has promised me that at some point in the coming months we will finally be hosting a training for other PCVs interested in doing INJAZ programs in their sites. Obviously I’m very excited to finally have the opportunity to share this wonderful program with other volunteers so that they can inspire their students to use critical thinking and to be creative.

At the same time that I was implementing the final week of the INJAZ program, my mom and sister arrived in Morocco. They came immediately here to El Borouj and spent a very busy four days meeting my host family, friends, mudir, and students and eating a ridiculous amount of Moroccan food. But they handled it like pros and I was very happy that they were willing to let me drag them around El Borouj and manage their very busy schedule. Despite having had the true Moroccan experience in my town, I think we were all relieved when it was time for us to leave for Casablanca and begin our travels. We met my Aunt Sue and cousin Stephanie in Casa and together the five of us traveled to Fez, Chefchaouen, Rabat, and Marrakesh. It was an event-packed week and a half and I was so happy to get to share this beautiful country with them. Of course, traveling in a country like Morocco with five people doesn’t come flawlessly. It took a lot of guidance on my part and a lot of patience on theirs (that is patience in dealing with me when I would get angry at taxi drivers for trying to cheat us).

On the 23rd of May I dropped them off at the airport and went straight to my Peace Corps regional meeting at the quiet beach town of Oualidia. While the meeting itself wasn’t that exciting, it’s always nice to get to spend time with other volunteers and to do it beach-side didn’t hurt either! After leaving the meeting two days later, I went straight to a town called Sidi Ifni which was 520 kilometers (329 miles) south of Oualidia. It was Jared’s 27th birthday and a big group of volunteers in his region had decided that this Spanish-built surfer’s paradise would be a good place to spend it. It was a lovely weekend and we got to explore the cute town and the famous Legzira beach which is known for its natural rock archways.Legzira Beach

After being gone for what seemed like an eternity I returned to Borouj, but only for six days. Then it was off to Rabat for my Mid-Service Medical exam. (As volunteers, we get to see a doctor and dentist at the mid-point and the end of our service for regular checkups.) Now I’m back in Borouj, but yep, you guessed it—not for long. This coming Friday I’ll be headed to Marrakesh to speak at the In Service Training for the new group of volunteers. Then on Monday I’m off to Europe for two weeks.

It’s crazy because I remember back to January and February when I was dying to be busy and now that I am, I feel like I could use a good week to just sit around and relax. You always want what you can’t have, right? But I guess I prefer this to doing nothing. Somehow sitting around and doing nothing in the Peace Corps is much more difficult than doing nothing in the US. For one, there are so many more things to do in the US when you are bored (movie theaters, coffee shops, malls, libraries, bars, etc.—none of which we have here in El Borouj, with the exception of the coffee shop but you all know that those are mostly for men). Also, when I’m alone here in Morocco and have nothing to do I miss my family and friends more than anything, and then I wonder what I’m doing here, and I start to think too much, and boredom just turns into this downward spiral of misery. And finally, one can’t help but to think that the reason one has joined the Peace Corps is to do something. So sitting around doing nothing gives most volunteers the feeling that they’re wasting their time and won’t ever make the difference that they were hoping to make. So like I said, I’d prefer to be busy than not, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t waiting for the calm after the storm. I’m sure mine will be coming someday, Inch’allah, I just don’t know when.

It’s funny, volunteers say that in the Peace Corps, days go by slow but the weeks go by fast. And now as I feel my life in motion, I can’t help but know the idiom to be true.

No Ketchup in Tamegroute (or, A Visit to Africa)

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Tamegroute is the small town where my boyfriend Jared serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Located only a mere 2 hours from the Algerian border, Tamegroute is famous here in Morocco for its beautiful, green-glazed pottery. Painted murals on the walls of the pottery shops also illustrate another interesting fact about Tamegroute—that it takes exactly 52 days to reach the city by camel from Timbuktu.

According to Moroccan history, back in the days of expedition and conquer, the Saadians left from Tamegroute and nearby Zagora on camelback with the intent of capturing Timbuktu. The journey across the Sahara desert took them exactly 52 days.

The reason that I decided to write about Tamegroute is that I recently took my second 12-hour long trip down to this Saharan village to help Jared in hosting a spring camp at the dar chebab and really fell in love with its very unique characteristics, but particularly with how much it felt to me like I was actually in Africa. Not just Morocco, but Africa.

I know that probably sounds crazy to say considering that I’ve been living in Africa this entire time, but in my opinion Morocco feels more like the Middle East than it does Africa. I kind of feel like Paul Theroux when he visited Cairo in his travel book “Dark Star Safari”—he keeps telling other expats that he’s going to travel from Cairo to Capetown and they respond saying “ooh, we’ve never been to Africa” to which he muses, “But this is Africa.” It’s like I know that I live in Africa, but it just never felt like it until I visited Tamegroute.

I think more than the beautiful pottery or the cool, exotic history of the place there is one part of Tamegroute that I love the most and which makes me feel like I’m in Africa. Hidden behind the facades of the buildings lining the main road is a lovely maze-like palm oasis. After long days at camp and as the sun was going down, Jared and I would wander into the oasis and get lost among the tall palm trees and the mud walls built to separate one family’s farm from the next (ok ok, I’ll admit, one night I might have threatened to kill Jared because I thought we were really lost). To me, being in the palm oasis felt like being in a tropical, jungle-like paradise. Who knows, maybe I have an unreal, fantasized version in my head of what the real Africa is like, but this felt pretty damn close to the image that I had in my head and if I’m being entirely honest, I just wanted to stay there. I had never seen anything like it.

Perhaps the only thing cooler than the palm oasis itself is the tiny village of Ouled Brahim which lies just across the Drâa River within the oasis. The denizens of Ouled Brahim must have really hated straight roads because you can’t walk more than 50 steps without twisting around a new corner. Zigzagging through the village on our bicycles, I felt like an explorer, anxiously waiting to see what each new turn would bring. For fear of sounding like the typical white tourist in Africa, out to discover something new, I don’t want to say that that’s what we were doing. I’m sure other non-Moroccans had seen Ouled Brahim before, that we weren’t the first, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like we’d fallen across something new and magical.

As part of our spring camp activities, we decided to hike into the palm oasis with the campers and have a picnic. Along for the journey they brought with them a traditional Moroccan drum called a Derbouka and of course, the requisite soccer ball necessary for any occasion in which there may be a spare moment. I don’t know if it was the light rhythms of the drum or listening to the campers sing traditional southern Moroccan songs, or being surrounded by beautiful, lush greenery, but I just felt closer to the Africa where I had imagined I’d be spending my Peace Corps Service. Among the mud houses, twisting alleyways, and tall palm trees, I finally felt like I was in the real Africa.

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.