I remember going through something similar to what I’m experiencing now, in the Peace Corps, in college. My freshman year, my parents urged me to join some organizations outside of the drama school… I had spent my entire high school career bulking up on tennis, orchestra, leadership opportunities, and service, and once I hit Carnegie Mellon I dropped most of it to “focus on my theatre studies.” I droned on and on to them about how BUSY I was, and there was just no time, and the list goes on. I then remember a few years later standing in the lobby at 2 am with two of my best college friends, Grey Henson and Jessie Shelton, after not having slept in 2 days, drinking my 5th or 6th cup of coffee, and arranging a ride home so I could take a shower and then bike back for a meeting within two hours and realizing I had no idea what busy meant until I was a senior. In my senior year I juggled my thesis, being the student installation curator for Playground (my school’s arts festival), volunteering with Goodwill, Big Brother Big Sister, participating in Growing Theatre with a local Pittsburgh grade school, and juggling four extra elective classes a semester to try and finish a minor (which I didn’t, by the way, I was one class short for a psychology, education, and photography). I rarely slept, I was constantly in meetings, I was running all over the city, and when I looked back on my freshman year, it’s a joke to me that I ever thought that was “busy”.
A year ago today, I was at spring camp in Essaouria… It was my first Moroccan camp experience and I remember feeling so accomplished. I had just come off of working on an art show my site mate, Dipesh, had organized, my parents visited, I helped facilitate a harassment training with new PCVs, and now I was at spring camp! I was so busy! I remember the long days, being stressed, trying to plan, and being nervous over having to lead youths in any sort of activity for more than an hour. Right now, I’m currently co-coordinating a spring camp in my village, and it’s amazing how this sort of work has almost become relaxing to me. Granted, there are less kids and the hours are shorter, but if I were to look at my service now as opposed to a year ago, I settle that a year ago, I had no idea what ‘busy’ meant.
I just finished a two month leadership and empowerment training with girls from my village, Issafen, and also three neighboring cities: Tissint, Akka, and Tata. Each Peace Corps volunteer implemented a one or two hour session once a week for 8 weeks from a program created by Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM) (http://www.adfm.ma) amongst other female rights associations around the world. Each session included a story about a woman’s organization that achieved something noteworthy, and an accompanying activity. These sessions aimed to help girls here understand that “leadership” isn’t a word privy to men, rich people, and people with a university education. The other aspect was that the sessions were facilitated by Moroccan women in the community who are seen as leaders or who were looking for a leadership opportunity.
A lot of powerful things came out of these sessions. It was difficult at the beginning; I came to the woman’s center every Saturday ready for no one to show up… thinking they were bored or over it. But without the fail, a dedicated group of 15 girls persisted, took interest, and in the end took ahold of their leadership skills. On March 31st, they were invited to Tata along with 15 other girls from each of the three other cities (about 50 girls total were present) to attend a capstone conference, again facilitated by the women from their communities.
The girls participated in a mixture of story/written activities, art activities, watching a film, and of course in true Moroccan form, a talent show. We provided lunch and snacks and materials and the day unfolded to be very successful. Not only was it a fun getaway from Issafen, but the girls challenged their preconceived notions of what a leader is and hopefully walked away with momentum.
This was the first major project I organized in the sense that I applied for and was awarded a ‘SPA grant’. These grants are given out to a selected number of volunteers every year and are funded, in full, by USAID. Without this funding, the project would have been possible but not as impactful… we were able to provide food and materials for the participants, which can be very important culturally in Morocco. Also, as opposed to a similar project I implemented last year, I coordinated the program over a two-month period (with a few months prior and post for planning and follow up) instead of just for one day. My experience with this program in July 2012 was crucial to its success this time around. The project would also not have been possible without my sitemate, Meredith, and volunteers from surrounding communities: Kate, Laura, Stacey, Elizabeth, and Melanie. All of these ladies put in an incredible amount of time and hard work and were all well represented at the conference… I couldn’t have felt more supported, and I truly couldn’t have done it without them.
The week after this program, Issafen prepared for a two-day festival/art expo. The women at the women’s center were working full time to finish ribbon baskets, crochet projects, and cookies to sell in their tent. They sold jars of spices, books, and numerous other goodies as well to try and make money for their association that is run out of the center. When we weren’t at kindergarten, we were working round the clock with them to arrange, organize, and label every sort of item to be sold. The night before the festival women from around the Tata province came to sell their own goods, and one of the local women hosted ALL of them at her house (there were seriously about 50 women staying there). We ate with them, sang with them, danced with them, and put in a good 16 or 17 hours a day integrating and helping out for the big weekend.
The festival had multiple “activities”, but the main one was the art expo and sale. The volunteers (including myself) set up a face paint table for kids, and painted various designs on faces and hands for 1 dirham that we would then donate back to the woman’s center. It ended up being a big hit! On the first day of the festival the governor of the Tata region came, and we were asked to greet him along with some of the local girls who were dressed in traditional Tamazight outfits. There are times in Peace Corps, especially in our small village, where the community feels the need to showcase us in ways we often feel uncomfortable… this was definitely one of those times. While it was a great experience to meet the governor, we felt as though there were many other important and successful community members who will live in Issafen for their entire lives who deserved this opportunity before us. Nevertheless, we greeted him and watched him cut the ceremonial ribbon for the festival, followed him into the commune building along with about 50 other community members who were invited, and listened to various speeches from him and others about the region and about Issafen. We also attended a presentation about education in the region, and were so pleased to hear one man urging the fathers of the community to send their daughters to school, telling them it’s shameful to keep them from the world of education and every child, no matter the gender, deserves an equal chance.
At the end of the weekend, there was a celebration (called an aHawash) where women from Tafrout (a neighboring city) came to sing and dance in traditional Tamazight techniques. They awarded certificates to various people who helped put the festival together (including our women at the Issafen woman’s center!!) and then a famous Tamazight singer came to perform, the crowd went wild, and not knowing who it was, it being 2 am, and not having slept much in the past week, we took our exit from a efficacious, exciting, and draining few days.
After a day of rest, we began Issafen’s first annual Spring Camp. We are in the middle of it right now, and I will write more/post pictures on it in the weeks to come.
In Peace Corps they always tell you that you’ll have to become comfortable with being by yourself, and comfortable with being bored. I was ready for this, stocking up on books, TV shows, craft projects, etc… ready to travel, visit other cities and countries, hang out on the beach or in tourist areas, but since I’ve returned from my trip home in America, and honestly in the past year, I haven’t felt that this was a reality, and for that I feel truly blessed. Making the move to Issafen has proved to be the best decision I’ve made in my service, and my only regret is that I didn’t make it sooner. Those afternoons I used to spend in my house watching television are now often spent at my counterparts house, mornings I used to spend waking up late, doing yoga, making a big breakfast, and heading out to work around 11, are now spent running and teaching art at Kindergarten. This village has opened up a world of opportunities to me, and I have in turn learned much more about my ability as a project manager, a volunteer, and an individual.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
xo Mumford and Sons/Issafen Kindergarteners
Happy March, Happy Saturday, Call Me Maybe?
xoxo Issafen Kindergarten Class of 2013
I may be late to the game on this, and maybe it’s because of my current position as a PCV, but it seems the conversation has heightened lately surrounding third world/first world dichotomy and more specifically the American attitude towards “helping” or “giving”. A lot of this attention has been frustrating, and as I talk in circles with various other volunteers attempting to pinpoint what exactly about this conversation seems so arbitrary, I usually find myself more confused than when I began.
There have been some blog posts published by Peace Corps volunteers recently condemning other volunteers for their martyr-like attitudes towards the Peace Corps and Morocco. To them saying things like “I just want to help the children” or even saying “I want to help” at all is a diminishing statement to a society that doesn’t need help. They denounce other volunteers who post pictures on their facebooks or update their status and blogs regularly talking about their successes, stating that people who do this are using their community members and students to make themselves feel better, and nothing more. I have various objections to these posts, especially ones where volunteers go so far as to call their colleagues “assholes,” most likely because the volunteer they describe as posting pictures online and updating their blogs about success stories describes me. This blog is filled with pictures of my students and my work. I could sit here and defend myself, and write extensively about how I update my blog so I can do what I think a travel or work blog’s purpose is… updating family and friends about you know, my travel and my work. Seems pretty straight forward. I’d also like to think that we as volunteers are mature enough at this point to let each other experience our services as our own without judgment, but you know, in my small village, I see my kindergartners smear each other with boogers and spit and use the bathroom without washing their hands and think “I could help them learn about spreading germs”. Sorry if that offends you.
I think development work is a very delicate thing. There will always be people who think it’s an unnecessary imposition, people who think it’s the single most important thing to keep our world united, and thousands of people who’s opinions are somewhere in the middle. It would surprise me if we as the world, even we as America, come up with a unified opinion on how to distribute aid.
Today, I came across this video:
And it frustrated me. Why? Good question. I asked myself the same thing, and after some contemplation, I feel as though all of the various ideals that generated confusion and frustration have started to untangle.
This video suggests that most problems in the first world are due to items and experiences third world country people can’t have, and are therefore not “real” problems… such as cell phones, cars, computers. And then goes on to advertise for “clean water” in rural, impoverished areas, which doesn’t make sense that all of your examples aren’t about water, but whatever, that’s not the point.
As a white female who doesn’t cover her head, I stand out in basically every community in my region as a foreigner. The amount of times kids come up to me on the street asking for money or candy or pens is excessive. And it’s the same kids! Day in and day out, the same handful of children follow me and my site mate around Issafen asking for money. If we’re walking with Moroccan women, they don’t ask (as it’s a shameful act that their parents probably wouldn’t appreciate them doing), and even though we always say no, they are always persistent. They don’t ask Moroccans (women or men), just foreigners.
While I understand the basic good-heartedness of aid programs and while it is AN option to show up in a fancy car with a film crew and with money and free things to give away to the village children, instead of teaching them skills and competencies, this only associates said foreigners as people who give away free things, and thus our role is set in society.
But this isn’t entirely true… only about 5% of Issafen youths have this stereotype in their heads. I’m sure it’s bigger in different areas, but because of the positive history of Peace Corps volunteers here, the community is usually very respectful to our differences.
So what is the issue? I’d say one of the biggest lessons I learned coming here was that money does not equal happiness. I don’t mean this in the obvious way… such as not having a mansion or an iPhone or a 401K. I mean that our perception in America of “poor” relies so heavily on monetary value, that we forget basically everything else that contributes to a happy life.
If anyone that’s not a Peace Corps volunteer knew how much the average person in my community makes, they would immediately say that person is POOR. Capital letters, stand up and say it loud enough, POOR. But if you compare this to the national average, then the average of the province, then look at how things are priced and the rate of inflation…. These people are not poor. They are actually incredibly comfortable. They can put food on the table every day, three or four times a day. Their kids are warm in the winter and have books and supplies to attend school with. No, they may not be able to buy cheese or peanut butter, but that’s also because they just don’t sell it here.
I hear Moroccans in my village complain about ridiculous things all the time! “Maggie, while you were peeling the skin off the chickpeas, you missed a hair-like piece on one of them, and if there is any skin on the chickpeas I can’t eat them.” And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. We will always find people, in every country in the world, who find reasons to complain about their problems. If you give a complainer a cell phone, then they will most likely just find a reason to complain about that too.
I think aid organizations who help bring clean water to communities are awesome. I think Peace Corps volunteers that use their service as more of a learning experience than a work experience are just as validated in their involvement as people who want to “help.” But the more we think that money is the ultimate tool to fix the world’s problems, the less the world sees us as equals. It’s not about being better, it’s about being different. There are things I may be better at than Moroccans, and there are definitely things they are better at than I, but instead of judging or throwing money at problems that really have nothing to do with money, we can share our strengths and learn in return. We shouldn’t be afraid to say “I helped this person, this group, or this community to achieve *fill in the blank*” just as we should recognize when they help us to better our understanding of culture, acceptance, and new skills. Sharing knowledge with each other is an incredible thing… we shouldn’t forget this by focusing on what we think money brings to the table, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of categorizing it as “help.”
At the end of January, my site-mate Meredith and I ran the half marathon in Marrakech, one of Morocco’s imperial cities in the northern part of the country. It was my first real race! (besides the Tata 7K… which I’ve decided no longer counts). And it was a lot of fun. There were runners from all over the world, and my Packers swag got me some special cheers from Americans on the side-lines. I even met a fellow Wisconsinite, who is currently living and working in Saudi Arabia.
The race culture was incredibly fun (we got t-shirts and medals!) and I’m thankful to Meredith for getting me started on this interest, which will hopefully last a lifetime.