Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Typical Conversation

A Typical Conversation

When I meet a new person and we strike up a conversation, it tends to follow a predictable pattern. Here is a rough translation.

Me: Salaam u walakum
“George:” Walakum salaam
Me: How are you?
G: Good
“Sam:” Good
“Harry:” Good. You?
Me: I’m good
G: Good
S: Is everything good?
Me: It’s good, thanks to God
H: Thanks to God. Is it well?
Me: It’s well, thanks to God. Are you good?
G: I’m good
S: Do you know Tashelheit (Berber)?
Me: I know a little. It’s difficult
H: It isn’t hard
S: Yes it is
G: It’s very hard. Blah blah blah blah.
Me: I don’t understand
H: You don’t know anything
Me: I know a little
S: He knows a little
G: He knows
H: Blah blah blah blah blah
Me: I don’t understand
G: Blah blah blah blah
Me: I don’t understand
S: (Making praying motion) Do you pray?
Me: I pray
S: Say this, “(recites the phrase that converts the speaker to Islam)”
Me: No
G: Why?
Me: I have my own religion
H: Blah blah blah blah
Me: What?
H: Come to the mosque
Me: No. I am not a Muslim. I have my own religion.
S: Say this, “(recites the phrase that is the way of converting to Islam)”
Me: No. I have my own religion. I pray in my room, not in a mosque.
G: What religion?
Me: Christianity
G: I don’t understand
Me: It is the same religion as the French
G: Oh
H: What are you doing here?
Me: I work for the department of health. I work in the health clinic in _______.
S: You’re a doctor?
Me: No. I am a teacher of health. I teach health. (except I always mispronounce the word for health and have to repeat it a few times before they understand).
G: Are you married?
Me: No
G: Do you have a wife in America?
Me: No
S: Why?
Me: I don’t know. Because
H: You should get a Moroccan wife. My daughter/sister/cousin/friend is available (woman offered to me may or may not be present).
Me: I don’t know. I don’t want one
G: You should get a Moroccan wife
Me: I don’t want one
S: Why not? You should get married
Me: Because I don’t want one
S: Why?
Me: I don’t know. I have no money. I have to work a lot
G: Oh. Blah blah blah blah
Me: What? I don’t understand
S: Blah blah blah blah
Me: huh?
H: I told you he doesn’t understand anything
S: How much money do you have?
Me: Oh. I don’t want to say.
G: Why?
Me: Because
H: Say
Me: No
S: Tell us
Me: No
G: Why?
Me: Because I don’t want to. It’s not a lot.
H: How much?
Me: I’m not saying
H: Come have tea with us….

Conversation continues over tea, following a similar line of questioning

So that’s pretty much what I talk about these days. Other popular topics include: President Bush (Bad), Hilary Clinton (did you know she was born in Morocco?), do I like Morocco? (Yes), Berber vs. Arabic (Berber is better), how much does stuff cost in America (a lot), and can I take someone to America with me when I go (No, costs too much).
The last topic reminds me of a sort of depressing part of this job. My job description says that part of the reason I’m here is to improve the lives of Moroccans by improving the Moroccan health system. But the thing is that a lot of Moroccans I’ve met don’t want to be in Morocco. In many parts of the country (including Khenifra, where I am), there aren’t a lot of ways to earn money. So people travel to the big cities and other countries for a large part of the year.
On Sunday, most of the working age men in my town are going to Spain. They say they don’t know where they’re going or what work they’re going to do, but that they’ll be there for probably six months. They’ll earn money there and send it back home. And like I mentioned, lots of people ask if I can help get them a visa to America. Which means that no matter how much the health system improves, if nothing else changes, there are still going to be a lot people earning their living outside of the country. It also sucks, by the way, that all the men my age are leaving. It’s pretty much impossible to be friends with women here without stirring up controversy, which leaves children and older men as my friends until November or December.
But it’s not all bad. In fact, I really like it here. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m responsible for villages very far from when I live. Today I walked to one that is maybe 17 km away. It was an amazing, gorgeous walk and I can’t wait to do more exploring. Along the way, people invited me to have tea with them and when I got there I had multiple invitations for lunch. There, I also met the teacher of the local school, who is my age and speaks French. I’ve met other teachers in other schools and they all are excited to try out their French on me (even though they speak it much better than I do). I’m sure that I will be friends with the teachers.
It’s also really exciting to think about all of the potential projects that I can do. However, this early on, I really can’t do anything because I need to get a better understanding of the situation in the community. I’m actually very excited to do the needs assessment of the community, which involves going door to door doing interviews. I’m sure that it will be pretty uncomfortable at times, but it’s going to be very helpful.

That’s it for now. Tomorrow I go to the provincial capital to have a meeting with the head of the Ministry of Health in Khenifra. Hopefully will learn lots. I hope all is well back home.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Swear In

Swear In

I’ve been in Morocco for nearly three months now and I officially become a Peace Corps Volunteer on Monday (up until now I’ve been a Trainee). So it seems like a good time for a reflective post.

Since we’re getting ready to swear in, PC staff has been going over the bigger themes in Peace Corps. The Peace Corps mission is to promote world peace and friendship. There are three components by which the PC hopes to work towards their mission. First is as a development organization to build capacity within countries to improve living standards. Second is to allow foreigners to learn more about American culture and values. And third is to educate Americans about foreign countries. (So in reading this blog you are helping fulfill the third goal of the PC).
So how am I working towards the mission and goals of the PC now that I am a volunteer? For the first six months of service in my community, my two main jobs are learning the language and integrating into the community. Obviously as a health educator, language is critical if I’m going to communicate information to my community. The integration is equally as important because I have to gain the trust and respect of my community if I’m going to be effective. I have to meet as many people in my community as I can and figure out who I’m going to be working with. This is especially important for me because the “community” that I am responsible for is very spread out. I reported differently in an earlier post, but it turns out that there are villages 5, 10, 12, 16, 20 and 24 kilometers away from my village that I’m expected to work with. Also, I am the first volunteer in my community, so people have to get used to seeing an American face in town. Essentially, the most important part of my job for the first 6 months is to meet and hang out with people.
Another important aspect is doing a needs assessment of the health situation in the community. As the first volunteer in my site, I have very little information about the health needs of my community. At first, I can talk to the nurse in the health clinic (who speaks French, which will be very helpful) and a couple of the community leaders that I’ve already met about what they think I should be doing. But once my language improves and I feel more comfortable in the community, essentially I need to interview as many people as I can about the health problems that they have. I need to find out if people have bathrooms and how they get their water. I need to find out how many of their children have died and where they go to birth their babies. In any situation, these would be very sensitive questions, but it will be particularly difficult in the generally more conservative atmosphere in my site. Especially since I need to talk to women about many of these issues. Obviously, sensitivity, respect, and tact are paramount and I need to be careful not to offend anyone. At the same time, I can’t do any health work if I don’t know what the problems are.
After six months, however, our jobs as volunteers change a little bit. We have what’s called “In Service Training” for a week, where we all meet together for more training. At this point we learn about grant writing and other ways to initiate infrastructure projects. Until that point, we’re really not supposed to do much health “work,” other than a few informal health education sessions. Explicitly, our job is to learn the language and integrate.
So how has training helped me be a good volunteer for the first six months? It’s been pretty helpful. The most important skill that you learn during training is language and my language ability is OK. It’s a difficult language and my language group had some disruptive issues with our language teacher, but I’m doing OK. We had our language proficiency exams a couple days ago and I had a pretty good score. Unfortunately, the Berber dialects are so variable throughout Morocco that the language I learned in training will be significantly different from the one I speak in my site. By no means will I be starting over with language at my site, but a lot of what I learned won’t be helpful.
One surprising part of training was the lack of technical training. We had one session on the general health situation in Morocco, one about latrine construction, and one about maternal and child health, but that’s pretty much it. It was very frustrating at first because it didn’t feel like we were learning any of the skills necessary to be health educators. But as I’ve described above, the first six months of service are really about listening and learning rather than teaching. Which means that after three months of training and six months of service (nine months in country), I’ll finally be able to start doing work.

After swear-in on Monday, I travel to my site on Tuesday. I’m very excited to be done with training and start working. Hope all is well in the States.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Agni Bunch

I just got back from my last week of CBT (Community Based Training). We have one more week of training in Ouarzazate and, inchallah, I swear in as a Peace Corps Volunteer on the 19th.

The Agni Bunch

The name of my CBT family is Agni. After two months with them, I still don’t completely understand how all of the people are related, but I’ve mostly got it figured out.
The patriarch of the family is Ali. He owns the teleboutique in the town; everyone in the family defers to him. One of his sister’s and two of his brothers live with us. He is married to Khadija and they have 11 children. Some of the children (maybe 6) live in the house and the rest work or study in big cities (Marakesh, Casablanca, K’lah Mgouna and Rabat). The children who work in big cities send money home and come back for holidays and at random times. For instance, Ibraihm came back from Marakesh this past week just to spend time with the family. One of the brothers works in Casablanca, but his wife and kid (the super cute kid in a previous post) live with the family. The teenage children go to school in K’lah Mgouna (17 km away) and come home for the weekends.
One of Ali’s brothers is married and lives with us. He and his family comprise the second family unit in the house. In addition to that, there are a few young (16-20 years old) people who live in the house. Their parents live in Casablanca or Rabat. I’m not sure, but my guess is that their parents are brothers or sisters of Ali or Khadija.
There is some differentiation between the families. The older members of Ali’s family all eat at the head table and sometimes there will be a small, special meal that only they eat (I’m always included in those meals). Generally, they also have nicer stuff. However, for the most part, you really can’t tell who belongs to what family. The little kids call all of the women “mom” and everyone takes care of everyone. Even people that are unrelated show up at the house and hang out for a few days.
What I’m trying to get across is that there is a different conception of family in Morocco. Family is larger, more inclusive, and more fluid, which made it easier for me to become a part of the family. To them, I am Sma3eel Agni. They were still treating me differently than other members of the family, mostly by giving me more and better food, but I really did feel like a member of the family. One time the little kid called me “aromani” (foreigner) and everyone yelled at him. When I left, everyone was pretty sad and a few tears were shed. They want me to come back in shar timiniya (literally month 8, August) because that’s harvest season. Apparently everyone in the extended family will come back from their jobs in big cities for the whole month – I’m guessing that there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 people in the house. And I fully intend to come back. The Agnis were really great to me and I miss them already.

Khenifra Province

After I swear in as a PCV, I will go to my site in Khenifra Province. There are some poor places in Morocco, but Khenifra is one of the poorest. It’s gotten a lot of attention recently because a few years ago there was a humanitarian disaster in a community called Anfugo. Apparently twenty to thirty kids died during the winter because a) it’s cold and b) communities get snowed so there is no access to the outside world. Anfugo is actually not too far away from my site (~50 km).
The disaster in Anfugo got the King’s attention and there is government money coming into the area now. The governor of the province and the ministry of health deleguĂ© (my boss) were fired a few months ago because they were corrupt. Hopefully the new ones will do a better job. One nice thing that they’re doing for the new volunteers in the region is giving us a weeklong training session in the provincial capital (Khenifra) on the health situation. As a volunteer from a foreign country, it’s a good sign because it makes me feel like we are wanted and it makes me feel like real work is expected of us.
There are already signs of change in the area. The road to my town is currently being paved so, inchallah, my village will not have any access issues in the winter. Also, the sbitar (health clinic) in my community was given extra staff in the winter. I’m hoping that this extra attention to the region will make it easier for me to get resources for projects.
What else? Well, Khenifra is known as one of the most intensely Amazigh (Berber) regions. When the French invaded Morocco, the people of Khenifra fought fiercely and were some of the last to be conquered. From what I hear, the intense Berber pride remains today. What I have noticed is that people are always happy to learn that I’m learning Tamazight instead of Arabic. In fact, I was talking in a group of men in my village, which included some men from out of town. One of the men was a policeman from Rabat who didn’t speak any Tamazight. Everyone else in the group was getting on his case when I started speaking Tamazight saying, “The American knows Tamazight, but you don’t even know it. Why don’t you learn it like the American?” Hopefully the Amazigh pride issue will be something that I learn more about as I get to know people in my community better.

Well that’s it for now. It’s hard to believe, but training is nearly done – it doesn’t feel like three months in country.

CBT Valley

Other end of valley

Family pics

Saturday, May 3, 2008

My Home For the Next Two Years

My Home For the Next Two Years

So I’ve spent the last week in my permanent site on “site visit.” There’s a lot to say about my site and I don’t know where to start.
As I mentioned before, it’s in the mountains. In late April, the temperature was just a bit chilly, but comfortable. The people in my village tell me that summer will get a little hot, but nothing unbearable.
Winters, on the other hand, are a different story. It gets cold and very snowy. I’m going to have to get a wood stove for my house to keep it warm. I also might need snowshoes to get around because the snow is quite deep. The winters are going to be a little challenging.
There really isn’t any commerce in my village, so I have to go 28km away to a place called Tounfite. There are transit buses that ran a couple times back and forth. Tounfite is relatively big. There are internet cafes, teleboutiques, a weekly market, a hammam (public bath) and two Peace Corps environment volunteers. I’m guessing that I’ll be going in once or twice a week.
My site is very beautiful. There are two duoars (little communities) and they are both situated in a valley between large mountains. There is a river running through the valley and the surrounding plains are used for agriculture – mostly wheat and and some apple trees. People have some farm animals: mostly cows, donkeys, and chickens.
My host family is just a husband and wife. My host dad is 72 and my host mom is 38 – it’s my dad’s second wife. They don’t have any children together, but my dad has children from his first marriage, although I don’t know where they are. They work in the fields and we have a cow and some chickens, but they also get money from family in France.
As a health worker, there’s a lot of work to do in my village. As I found out first hand, the water isn’t especially sanitary and causes illness. I think that I’ll be treating all of my water with chlorine for the time being. There’s also a lack of bit l-ma’s (bathrooms), so people often use the outdoors. The nurses in the sbitar (public health clinic) told me that hand washing is non-existent. They also said that there are a lot of fungal/skin problems. So I think there’s a lot to do.
My community was very welcoming to me. People were inviting me over for tea and food the whole week. (By the way, the tea in Morocco is very sugary; it’ll be a miracle if I’m not diabetic by the end of my service). A number of people told me to come to them if I had any problems, which was nice. They’re all shocked when I tell them I will live in their village for two years. Also, everyone is very impressed that I’m learning Tamazight as opposed to Arabic. Generally, people all over Morocco who speak a Berber language are thrilled when you speak to them in Berber – their faces light up and they smile.

I took some pictures that Ill post when I get the chance.

But we’re back in Ouarzazate now. We go back to our CBT sites for a week on Wednesday (the big family with the cute baby). Hope all is well.