Sunday, August 10, 2008

A couple different things

I haven’t posted in a while because I haven’t been to a cyber café since my last post. So I’ve made up for it by making this post extra long.

SIDA (AIDS) Testing

Another volunteer recently organized a testing day in Boumia, which is a nearby big town/transportation hub. Boumia is known to everyone as a center of prostitution. If I tell men in my town that I’m going to Boumia, they will invariably ask me if I’m going to see a prostitute (no, I’m not). They also offer to go with me the next time I go. So Boumia is a probably a good place to be doing SIDA testing.
A couple volunteers and I went to the testing to do education with people waiting for their results. I was struck by two things: first, people (and by people I mean men, I only talked to men) were pretty open about talking about SIDA. I was expecting it to be a much harder subject to broach. I’d told a few people that I’m close with in my village why I was going to go to Boumia and they were a little appalled. My feeling is that people in the cities are more open to the subject than those from the country. Second, the men I talked to really didn’t know that much at all about the disease. Pretty much nothing. So it was a good experience and I think we were able to communicate some important information.


The other day there was a fight between two members of my community. They were off in the fields, far from town (as described in the previous post). One of them was herding sheep and the other was harvesting his field. Some of the sheep started to eat the man’s wheat and he got angry and yelled at the sheepherder for not keeping a close eye on the sheep. When the sheepherder didn’t do anything about the situation, the guy harvesting wheat hurt one of the sheep, almost killing it. And so the fight started. Lesson learned: never hurt someone’s sheep.
I found out about this whole incident the other evening. I left my house to go walk around town and a large part of the town, mostly women and children, had congregated in many different groups. It was obvious something was going on. I asked some of the kids and they told me about the fight. Apparently most all of the men had gone to watch the fight.

Tall, White, American Man

It’s silly to pretend that my race, gender, and other physical characteristics don’t matter here. They matter a whole lot. (Not so different from America, after all). And in terms of quickly winning respect from my community, my appearance can often be quite helpful. I’m going to comment on how different characteristics affect my work here, but understand that I do so without having experienced another’s perspective. Of course, I’ve talked to women and minority volunteers about their experiences, so I’ll add in those perspectives when they’re appropriate. But, obviously, those perspectives are not first hand.
First and foremost is my gender. When Peace Corps was developing this site, some members of my commune (local government) told them that the community only wanted a male. A woman would have a completely different experience integrating into my community. I spend a lot of my time outside, in public places, talking to people. I learn a lot about the community and it’s a great place to practice my language. It’s also really easy for me to hang out at these public places and be seen by my community, which is important so that they can get used to me. If a woman were here, I don’t know if she’d feel comfortable hanging out like I do. There are no women hanging out in these public places and I don’t know how my community would react if a woman volunteer tried to sit down and talk. Additionally, I believe I receive more respect talking to other males about work-related topics than a woman might.
The down side is that I don’t have as easy access to the female community. It’s hard for me to have a real conversation with women without some excuse. The women that I’ve met have been invited into my host family’s house or I’ve worked with at the fields. I greet women on the street and they’re more and more comfortable to converse with me, but it’s a lot slower going. Obviously, a woman volunteer would have an easier time. But, speaking from pure speculation, I think it would be more challenging for a woman volunteer to meet and talk to as many women as I have men. Like I said, I can meet pretty much the entire male community, hanging out in the center of town. But female social spaces are confined to less public spaces and smaller groups. Women do hang out outside, but almost always close by their house.
As a health volunteer, having access to women is very important as they do all of the cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. The health lessons that I really want to do involve talking to women in small groups, in their homes. Which is may be impossible for me to do. So being a male health worker can be a disadvantage as well.
Race is also very important. There is racism in Morocco and I think it could be hard to be a volunteer of a different skin tone. In particular, I’ve noticed that there is racism towards people of East Asian descent. I’ve had other volunteers tell me that they face a lot of harassment for their race. One story is that some Moroccans bark at people of East Asian descent because they believe that all East Asians eat dogs. Other volunteers, often of Hispanic or African descent, have told me that they are confused for Moroccans. There are stories of volunteers being refused the sale of alcohol (alcohol is prohibited for Moroccan citizens) because they look Moroccan. Being confused for a native Moroccan would have its benefits and drawbacks, as a volunteer. Being white, this has never been an issue for me. I’m clearly not Moroccan.
Finally, I’m much taller than most people here. The average guy is probably 4 or 5 inches shorter than me. There are only two men in my entire village who are as tall as me. I’ve always been about average height, and being taller than everyone feels different. I may be making up this feeling, but it feels as though my height commands respect from people whom I’m talking to.
So all in all, my physical characteristics shape my experience and effectiveness as a volunteer. It might be easier for me to work with local associations on big projects. Some men recently approached me in my village to help them try and replace the water pipes. I was really pleased that people felt comfortable approaching me so early on in my service to talk about work and potential projects and I think that my race and gender have something to do with it. On the other hand, it might be harder for me to have discussions with women about household issues, which are extremely important for improving health conditions.
However, I don’t want to make this issue so black and white, as there have been a couple of important, notable exceptions. First, I’ve had a woman volunteer visit my site. Walking around with me, she had no problem talking to men in public places. It seemed that the men were welcoming of her. Of course, she has been in Morocco for over a year and has the benefit of already speaking good Tamazight. Also, it was probably easier for her since I was accompanying her. Second, in my work on the midwife training, I’ve found women to be surprisingly open. Initially, when I met with women to talk about the training I was accompanied by my host mom and this woman volunteer. In my presence, speaking to those two women, the potential trainees that we talked to showed no hesitancy to talk about birth. And since then, on my own, the same women have been comfortable talking to be about the training and other things. So my feeling is that, having gotten to know me in the presence of women, they now feel comfortable around me.
Synthesizing these ideas, being a white male definitely affects my work, but maybe not as much as I thought it would. It is possible for me to meet with women to talk about work, but there are some initial barriers to overcome.

Other than that, it’s been raining a lot recently. Having threshed the grain, my family spent today separating the grain from the waste, another time-consuming project. All of our work filled four plus bags of wheat. Everyone in the community gives a small portion to the local talib, or religious leader, leaving us with four bags. I asked my mom how long it would take us to eat a bag of wheat and she said about a month and a half, giving us 6 months of wheat. Problem? Apparently not. I didn’t understand exactly what she said, but it sounds like we’ll mix the wheat with another grain to make it last the year.
Last weekend I met up with a few volunteers. There was a little carnival in a nearby town with bumper cars and a Ferris wheel that spun about twice as fast as a normal Ferris wheel. There was also cotton candy. So that was a lot of fun. I hope all is well back home.

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