Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Past Week Reaffirmed My Decision to Join the Peace Corps and Communication Breakdown

The Past Week Reaffirmed My Decision to Join the Peace Corps

I just got back from my CBT (Community Based Training) and it was a great week. The town we stayed in was a small village near Klah (not sure of the transliteration). It is right next to a river, so it is primarily an agricultural community. It’s up in the mountains; it’s breathtakingly beautiful and its climate is much cooler than that of Ouarzazate. I haven’t seen much of Morocco yet, but it’s the best I’ve seen so far. Wow. We got to do a little exploring in the surrounding area and it was great. Unfortunately, I haven’t taken a single picture since I’ve gotten to Morocco, but I promise to change that soon.
First, I’ve got to mention my host family. They were amazing and generous. I think about 15 people live in the compound on a regular basis, but because of the holiday (Eid) and some other circumstances that I’ll get into later, somewhere around 25 or 30 people were staying there for the week. My “host mom and dad” are about the same age as my parents and they are the central figures of the family. Their children and grandchildren live there as well.
My host brother has been ill for a couple months now. He spent a month in a hospital in Marakech, which gives an indication of the severity of the illness. He doesn’t normally live with my family, but he was home while I was there because he is recovering and feeling much better. His wife and children were staying in the compound as well. Other family members had come home to spend time with him and celebrate his recovery.
Thursday (the 20th) was a holiday to celebrate the birth of the Prophet. According to the Peace Corps people, it is a relatively muted holiday as the day also recognizes the Prophet’s death. Nonetheless, it was a large celebration at my house. On Thursday we slaughtered two sheep in preparation for the coming feasts. No one worked that day, but spent the time preparing for the evening. At around 3-4 pm, my family invited all of the women of the village over for tea, couscous, and meat. They wanted to give thanks to God for the recovery of their son and feeding the whole village was their way of doing that. I didn’t know so many people would be there, so it was a little surprising when I walked into the family courtyard to see over 100 women sitting and eating.
The next day we invited all the men of the village to our house to continue the celebration. By the way, this way of giving thanks to God is known as sadaqa. While this celebration was concurrent with Eid, I think that most of the celebration was about sadaqa and not Eid. Normally when people have parties and invite others over for food, not everyone is invited and the invitees bring presents for thanks. But because it was sadaqa, no one brings any presents; it’s all about the family providing for the village. The men’s celebration started later than the women’s: around 9 o’clock. There were three or four rooms full of men and they put me into the room with mostly older men and a man whom I presume to be the Imam. We were served tea and chatted; intermittently the Imam would lead recitations of the Qu’ran. I really liked the chanting: several men were singing and there was a harmony part. After we ate some amazing food, the Imam gave a sermon. Then, later in the night we went outside under the nearly full moon, and there were more recitations.
I didn’t pick up much of the Imam’s sermon, but I did hear the words for health clinic several times. It’s just speculation that is guided by my own fears and prejudices, but my guess is that the Imam was saying that God is to thank for my brother’s recovery and not modern medicine. The Peace Corps people have been warning us that we’ll encounter such attitudes, so I’m probably overly sensitive to it. Whether or not I understood the Imam correctly, it is an issue that will impact me directly as a health volunteer.
In summary, it was a great week. There are many young kids in my family and I spent a lot of time with them. Physical affection between adults and children is much more common in Morocco than in the States and it was a nice change. Even though my communication skills aren’t very good yet, I was still able to interact with the kids and have fun with them. I brought a soccer ball and that won them over from the start. We don’t go back to our CBTs for almost two weeks and I’m really looking forward to it.

Communication Breakdown (It’s always the same)
Alright, enough positivity (is that word?) for one post. So this past fall I was in Spain for a while and part of the time I was in an environment where I had to communicate in Spanish. It was difficult and mentally exhausting. I missed important parts of conversation and I felt a little out of the loop.
However, compared to Morocco, Spain was a walk in the park. I studied Classical Arabic (Fuswa) for one year and it was very difficult. I learned a lot about the structure of the language and the grammar rules, but the sounds are so different that I wasn’t really able to communicate effectively after a year of study. Before I came to Morocco, I started studying Moroccan Arabic (Darija), which is significantly different from Fuswa. We did about a week of intensive Darija in Morocco and it was a tough transition. There are a lot of similarities…and a lot of differences. I felt like I was starting to get into Darija and figure it out a little bit, but then I got placed into a Tamazight site.
With only one session on Tamazight language under our belts, they sent us out too the CBTs. It was difficult. I couldn’t really communicate verbally, other than greetings. My family was very understanding about how hard it was for me and tried to help me a lot with the language, but it’s frustrating to not be able to participate in any conversations (outside of class during the day) for a whole week.
On top of that, my CBT group got a little unlucky. Our LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator, who is basically in charge of all of our training while at CBT) was not very good. Apparently he was having a difficult time sleeping and so he had no energy during the day. For the first few days, we moved at a very slow pace and I don’t think I got much out of it. On Wednesday (we arrived on Sunday), he quit the job and so they sent someone else out to our site. Fatima, who is an administrator now, but was formerly an LCF, came to run our training. She was very good and I learned a lot from the sessions that she led, but it was only two days since we had Thursday off for Eid. So our group is behind on language, which sucks. They’re going to give us extra tutoring while we are in Ouarzazate, so hopefully we can catch up. We’ll have a different LCF when we go back.
I want to be good at Tamazight by the time our training is up. At our swearing in ceremony, someone from each language group (Darija, Tamazight, and Tashelheit) gives a speech….in that language. I want to be good enough at Tamazight to give that speech. Inshallah (god willing).

Well that’s it for now. This was a hastily written post with a lot of information, so I hope it’s coherent. I had a great time and, after two weeks of sitting in classrooms, it was good to get out and interact with Moroccans for a change. Salaam.

To Alex, Ive been playing lots of soccer, everyone here plays. To Adam, yes, its amazing. I can use my French from time to time, even in the small villages. There were two people in my family who spoke a little.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

First Disappointment

First Disappointment

So as many of you know, I really want to study Darija (Moroccan Arabic) while I’m in the Peace Corps. Well, yesterday, we found out our language groups. I’ll be studying Tamazight. Tamazight is a Berber language that is only spoken by 11 million people in the world, almost all of whom live in Morocco. Since learning a useful language is a big reason I joined the Peace Corps, I was disappointed. But I think Peace Corps is going to be about getting over disappointments quickly and making the most of the situation, so I’m over it. And here’s why.

I’m still going to be able to study Arabic. Right now, Tamazight has to be my focus so that I can communicate with my community and be effective at my job. But once I get comfortable with Tamazight, I can get serious about Arabic. The Peace Corps provides a monthly allowance to spend on language tutoring. There are no limitations imposed by the Peace Corps about what languages you can learn with this money. I’ve been told that most teachers at the locals school will speak classical Arabic in addition to Darija, so I can use the money to study that if I want. There’s no question that being in a village whose primary village is Tamazight will make it harder to learn Arabic, but if I put effort into it and go a little out of my way, I’ll be able to study what I want.

One bonus of being in a Tamazight site is that I’ll probably be placed in the mid to high Atlas Mountains, which is where I want to be. The temperature will be reasonable and there will be a regular sort of winter, with snow. I’ll be within a stone’s throw of some amazing hikes. Plus, the Tamazight sites are closer to big cities like Marakech and Rabat. So all in all, I’m just fine with studying Tamazight.

Another thing is that I think Im going to have to get used to disappointment and setback in the Peace Corps. Obviously, a lot of things aren’t going to work out like I plan, so maybe this is good practice.

That’s it for now, we go to our CBTs (Community Based Training) on Sunday. The family that I’ll be staying with has 12 people in it. There are two brothers, their wives, and their children. They are a farming family. The two wives are the only two females, so most of the people are boys between the ages of 5 and 19. I am going to play so much soccer. It’s exciting and I can’t wait.

ps to alexs question: no, i dont think that revealing my honorary status would be a good idea here, unfortunately. but that doesnt mean im not proud.

miss you all, salaam

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Camp Peace Corps and Funny Story

Camp Peace Corps

We’re in Ouarzazate now, which is an 8 hour bus ride through the mountains from Rabat. It was really a spectacular trip through windy mountain passes with some incredible views of the Atlas Mountains. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but traveling through the mountains makes you realize something: this is an amazing country. In some respects, it’s similar to California. It has a long coast, awesome mountains, and a desert. It covers the same land area and has the same population. It’s multilingual and there is great income inequality. I guess that’s where the similarities stop, however.

Rabat was…OK. As the title of this post suggests, it felt like being at some sort of camp. We had sessions all day long and our free time was very restricted. We ate all of our meals in the hotel, where they served European food. It was really frustrating to be in Morocco, yet hardly be able to tell the difference from Philadelphia. One night we had some free time and we wandered on over to the Kasbah (old fortress), which is situated on the ocean. There was a pretty spectacular sunset and it just made me more excited to move onto the next part of training.

Here in Ouarzazate training is a little bit better. We’ve started language training, learning survival Darija (Moroccan Arabic). It’s nice because language is taught in smaller groups as opposed to everyone jammed into a conference room being lectured at. Also, my Classical Arabic training is a huge help. Other than that, however, we’re still going over very basic Peace Corps stuff. We’ve been given a lecture on Peace Corps’ development policies about three times, repackaged into different forms and presented by different people - it’s a little tiring. The frustrating part is that by May 20th, when we swear in as volunteers, we’re supposed to be a) health care experts and b) capable in the language we’re assigned to. It feels like there’s a whole lot to learn.

Best part of Ouarzazate so far was Sunday when four of us went to the town square and hung out for about four hours. At first, a few boys approached us and we talked, joked, and played soccer. But the group of kids kept getting bigger and bigger. They grew more and more courageous about interacting with us and it was a lot of fun. I guess it’s probably you’re stereotypical Westerner Meets Youths In Developing Country story, but it was great. By the end, it was getting a little too comfortable, as the kids thought the funniest thing in the world was flicking their boogers onto us. They also loved teaching us words for lewd acts in Darija.

Fortunately, on Sunday, we’re going to our CBTs (Community Based Training (Peace Corps has an acronym for everything, but that’s a subject for a different post)). We go to sites in groups of 5-6 and we live with a host family. The training will be much more specific and practical. Also, being in smaller groups and living with a family will make it a lot easier to get a better feeling for Morocco.

One Story of Humiliation and Another Close Call

So when I was in Rabat, I decided to shave my head. I borrowed someone else’s clippers and set off to my bathroom. I’d shaved the front half of my head when the clippers stopped working. I let them sit and tried again. Nothing. I cleaned them out. Nothing. At this point I’m starting to really worry: am I going to have to walk down into a group of 60 kids whom I just met with the most unreal mullet ever? I like to think that I’m not a very vain person, but that would certainly have tested my limits. Well, long story short, the owner of the clippers figured out the problem (after an excruciating 10 minutes fiddling with the them) and I was saved of embarrassment…temporarily.

A couple days later we were in Ouarzazate. I’m sharing a room with two other guys and I used the toilet and, well, clogged it. There’s no plunger in the bathroom. I wait. Nothing. Uhhh. So I go outside and ask some of the people in the room next door. They don’t have anything either, so I ask more people. Nope. So now most of the people in our hotel know that I’ve clogged the toilet.

Our rooms are all situated around a courtyard, where people hang out. Simultaneous to me asking around for a plunger, some kind of weird odor enters the courtyard. Of course, everyone thinks that it’s coming from our bathroom, and my bowels. For the record, our room did not smell one bit and my roommates can confirm this fact. Nonetheless, I’m still short a plunger, so I go to the office, where one of the Moroccan women who teaches language is working. Now, I would feel uncomfortable asking a Western woman for a plunger, but it was even harder given that she was wearing a headscarf and quite shy. Even worse than the embarrassment was the fact that the plunger was in a room that had been locked up for the night. So not only did everyone and their mothers hear that I clogged the toilet (and they thought it stunk up the courtyard), but the toilet was stuck until the next morning. A good, character building cross-cultural experience, of sorts.

I just thought that was a hilarious story that was worth sharing. Everything is good in Ouarzazate; we’re all anxiously awaiting the next step. It’s clear that patience is an important skill in the Peace Corps. To answer Dans question, I dont know. I find out the language of my host family tomorrow. Were at a hotel now, host fam on Sunday

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Travel, Training and Rabat

So I dont have much time and my keyboard is shit so this will be short.

Training in philly was ok. kinda boring. but we got to meet our friends for the next two years so nice. i like the people a lot. everyone loves hiking and the outdoors so were already planning expiditions. one complaint: there isnt much diversity of any kind. 83 percent white. all college grads. all super liberal. oh well.

Rabat is awesome, from what ive seen. we took a walk in the medina (old city) today which was pretty sweet. also, we witnessed an unemployment protest on our way in. unfortunately, the peace corps doesnt allow public political commentary of any kind so i cant say anything more.

all i have time for now, hopefully more later.