Friday, October 31, 2008

My Host Family

My Host Family
When I first met my host family, I was unhappy with the situation. I had just spent my Peace Corps training with an awesome family full of kids and life. They were relatively wealthy and life there was good. My host family in my site, however, was different. My host dad is 72-years-old and very difficult to understand. He looks angry. My host mom is 38-years-old, his sixth wife. Obviously not a relationship based upon love. No kids. The food was pretty bad. Most dinners we had either milky rice or pasta. My first week with them, I was really worried about the rest of the time that I had to spend in the house. When I was sick at one point (probably from their food), it was the closest I’ve been during my service to thinking I wanted to go home.

As I got to know them better, things improved. It turns out my host mom is super nice. She wants to help in any way she can. She also speaks clearly and is good at understanding my shitty Tamazight, which is a relief. Beneath his rough exterior, my host dad is also a great guy. He can be totally hilarious at times and he always stands up for me in town, which is nice. The best example of this was, early in my service, he went with me to the local political leader and police when someone in town harassed me. It was a long frustrating day and it was really good to have him accompany me. The whole time he said things like: “if that guy says another word to you, I’m gonna …”

Nonetheless, during my three months in homestay, I was frustrated. The food got a little better, but not much. I really hated eating the same shitty thing day after day after day. More than that, there are parts of Moroccan cultural interactions that really got on my nerves. For example, at meals my host family was always telling me to eat more. At first it’s hard to know how to say no. And even when you figure out to say no, they keep insisting that you eat more. Something else that got to me was that my host mom and dad started fighting amongst themselves frequently. It was never violent, but it was unpleasant to be around. They would fight in front of me and ask me to take sides. One day my host mom told me that if I wasn’t staying at the house she would have packed her stuff and moved back home. Mostly, it was just tough having to spend so much time with these people – I’m sure I would have been frustrated with most people.

But now that I’ve moved out of their house and into my own, I couldn’t be happier or feel luckier to have them as my host family. In addition to being really nice, my host mom has turned out to be helpful with work. She attended the midwife training that we put on last week; in fact, she was instrumental in helping me recruit and organize women from our village to go to it. She is my link to the female world and I learn a lot from her. Moreover, she likes me a lot and I know that she does nothing but tell her friends how good I am. It is partly thanks to this, I believe, that I’m having warmer relationships with other women and girls in town.

The best part about my dad is that he is hilarious. He always sings these songs in this traditional Berber style. I used to think that he was singing some old songs, but no. As my language improved I realized that he just improvises songs about the things going on around him. For example, “Sma3eel (my name) just said he’s full” or “Mina (my host mom) hit the cat with the stick” or “I’m hungry, bring the tajine.” Or he’ll repeat what someone else just said in song. It’s funny, trust me. In addition to the songs, he also has some great nicknames for me. The most recent one started when I was sick about a week ago. He called me “buhulu.” Having the prefix “bu” attached to a noun means owner of that noun. For example, buautomobile would mean owner of the automobile or butahanut means owner of the tahanut. But I didn’t know what hulu meant. I asked and they pointed to their noses and sniffed. It means snot. So he was calling me owner of the snot. Now whenever we greet each other we call each other buhulu. Besides being funny, my host dad is nice and helpful.

The lesson is that once I got a little space from my host family, I really got to like them. I just don’t want to live with them. When I’m in town (which is nearly always), I go over to their house pretty much every day and spend a couple hours there. It’s a nice thing to do when I have some down time, but I don’t want to sit all alone in my house. I feel completely comfortable there. I end up spending a little more time there than I’d like to: they normally guilt me into staying for a meal or tea or something. But I’m so thankful to have a place where I can go and be with people and be comfortable. I like going outside and talking to whatever guys are hanging around there, but there isn’t the same level of intimacy. The conversations in my host family’s house are much better, probably because we know so much more about each other. The most amazing thing is that I’m finally starting to understand my host dad, which is an accomplishment itself. Out of all the people in the world, a 72-year-old, uneducated, rural, toothless, Tamazight-speaking man is probably one of the most difficult to understand.

So things are still going well. I can’t help but count the time since I was last sick: it’s been about 7 weeks now (which, uncoincidentally, is about when I left my host family’s house). Back in town after the midwife training, the women are still super excited. They greet me around town like I’m the best thing since sliced bread (which hasn’t yet made it to rural Morocco). Now the job is to organize a forum for the women to talk to other women in town. I know that this is happening informally – a woman came into the sbitar on Monday for a pre natal checkup and said that one of the women from the training had convinced her to do it. That was awesome. My adult tooth brushing campaign in my village just ended on Tuesday. I think it went well. People stop me around town and ask me about it. I’m still going to go to the schools and make the kids brush their teeth. Having work is an awesome feeling. Also, two women from the midwife training helped a woman give birth the other day, which went well. So thats pretty cool.
The big thing in my volunteer life right now is that Sunday is the first day of IST – In Service Training. It’s definitely a big milestone in PC service. Everyone from my training group will meet in Azrou for a week. (Azrou is about 3 or 4 hours north of my site. The disappointing thing is that the training was originally planned for Agadir, which is beach paradise). We’ll have more (lame) training sessions and hopefully a few good ones. We all have to write a “community health assessment,” which is basically a report on what we learned during our first five months in site. I’ll be posting that report in this space in a few days. It’s pretty dry, but it also gives a pretty comprehensive look at the health problems of my community. IST is also exciting because I’ll get my first extended break from my site since I’ve been here and I’ll get to see the friends that I made during training whom I haven’t seen since.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Midwife Training

Midwife Training

This past week three other volunteers and I hosted a traditional birth attendant (TBA) training in Tounfite. It was the culmination of several months work. There were some problems, but I think it was an unqualified success.

Mara Hansen, a fellow volunteer, started organizing this workshop several months ago, before I was even in Morocco. In her community, she had been moved by several stories of death during childbirth. Since her community is isolated and the government provided medical facilities are lacking, most women give birth in their homes, with the help of other women. We have little power to change the services provided by the Ministry of Health, so the idea is to empower local women as midwives so that the community can be more self-sufficient. Ideally, the government would be providing these services, but some of these villages are so isolated that it is difficult for them to do so. When I got to my site, Mara worked hard to include me on the project. My community is equally isolated, so there is a similar problem here as in her village. I set up some meetings and she came to my site to recruit the women. I spoke with the men who had concerns about sending their women away and Mara talked to the women. The other two volunteers involved were David and Kristen LaFever, a married couple in Tounfite. They traveled to a village much more isolated than either Mara’s or mine and recruited two women from there.

Still before the training, there was a ton more work to do. We had to find ways to feed all these women and places for them to sleep. We had to set the program with the nurses who would be running the training. We had to go to the Ministry of Health and get their approval. Etc etc etc, a lot of boring stuff. But onto the training. I wasn’t able to observe the actual training (because I’m a man) so I’m just going to give my perspective on things, supplemented with what I was told about the training.

On Sunday morning, the transit that I had arranged for arrived in my village to pick up the women. It was raining and the transit was early so the women weren’t ready. One told me she couldn’t come that day; could she come tomorrow? It was an inauspicious start and it was clear that a lot of the women were worried about leaving their houses for so long.

When we got to Tounfite, there was time to kill so the women went there separate ways. All the women and us volunteers met later that day for dinner at David and Kristen’s host family. The LaFever’s host family is just their host mom (who is widowed) and their host sister (who is divorced). The two women make a living by cooking for weddings and other events, so they were the perfect family to help us host the training. The opening dinner went well. Some of the older women are pretty feisty and love to joke around. 70-year-old Rkiya Kouru saw me dancing in the kitchen and came up and danced alongside me. Rkiya is pretty hilarious; she’s constantly making jokes. Talking with the women from Mara’s site, they were amazed to learn that I helped with harvest in my site – men in their community do not do that sort of work. At the end of the night, we accompanied some of the women back to the places they would be sleeping. Rb-Ha, who is probably 72 years old, cried when we dropped her off at her house, thanking us for our generosity.

Monday morning we all met in the sbitar (health center) to start the training. Two professional midwives would be leading the training, with a younger local girl helping with translation (the midwives don’t speak Tamazight and most of the women don’t speak Arabic). Mara and Kristen would sit in on the training and help out when they could, while Dave and I were relegated to kitchen duty. We spent a lot of our time preparing tea and food, cleaning up, running errands, and the like. The role reversal was obvious: the women were the focus of the training, learning and being served, while the men were working behind the scenes.

Mara and Kristen were ecstatic with the success of the first morning’s session. The midwives leading the training were really good at what they were doing. Moroccan pedagogy is generally based upon rote memorization, but the trainers were leading an interactive workshop and engaging the women. Given that most of these women hadn’t been to school in maybe 30 or 40 years (if at all), having such competent trainers was crucial. It was a big relief that the quality of the training wasn’t something that we had to worry about.

However, we had our first and biggest problem to deal with. 10 women had spent the night at David and Kristen’s host family’s house. We had told the host family that they could expect 5 or 6. Furthermore, many women told us that morning that they couldn’t stay with the family whom they had stayed with the night before and had nowhere to stay. We panicked a little bit. Before the training, I had asked all of my women if they had a place to stay in Tounfite during the training. I explained to them that it was easier for us if they could stay with family, but if not, we would find a place for them. Every single one of them told me that it was not a problem, but here they were telling me that they could no longer stay with that family. Maryam, a 23 year old from my village told me that she was ashamed to stay with the people she had stayed with last night. Maryam has already been divorced twice, meaning that she’ll probably live with her family for the rest of her life. Her explanation was that it was unacceptable for a woman to be out all day long and then come back for dinner, expecting food without having worked. My host mom, Mina, didn’t know anyone in Tounfite. I had asked a family in Tounfite (whose mother was already attending the workshop) if she could stay with them. So I had the permission from the man of the house. But Mina was ashamed to stay there – the man of the house was out of town and she didn’t feel like it was appropriate to impose on them.

I was frustrated. I think we were all frustrated. If we had known before the training that this would be a problem, we could have planned for it and arranged for more housing. But here we were, stuck with about 15 women who needed somewhere to stay and only an afternoon to arrange it. And why had they said previously that they had a place to stay? At times like these it’s really easy to chalk up such miscommunication to “cultural differences” and leave it at that. I’m not sure if I have a more nuanced explanation. I’m sure that there was a problem in the way I asked or the way I listened or something.

Our immediate solution was a bad one. Before the break for lunch, Mara and I told the women that if they had any place to stay, they needed to stay there. We said that we couldn’t impose so many people on the LaFever’s host family so please find somewhere else to stay.

We left the sbitar on our way to lunch brainstorming all the people in Tounfite that we knew whom we could ask to host a woman. We had a long list of people to ask. But when we got back to the LaFever’s house we made an important decision. No matter whom we asked and how willing they were to host someone, the women would feel ashamed to stay there. If we wanted the women to feel comfortable we only had one choice: to put them all up at the LaFever’s host family. This meant a huge increase in our spending that was unbudgeted for – so it would have to come out of our stipends. But it was the only option if the training was going to succeed.

When we returned from lunch, I realized that our decision was the right one. Many of the women had skipped lunch because they felt too ashamed to impose on someone. They were angry with us and their focus was not on the training. Even after we told them that we had solved the problem and that they were all welcome at the LaFever’s host family, the insult hung in the air for a little while. The silver lining was that, despite the insult and lack of food, no one had gone home. They were committed to the training.

That afternoon came another problem of a different sort. The midwives leading the training had received a letter from the Ministry of Health (their boss) saying that they had failed to evacuate a room in response to a request from Peace Corps volunteers (us). This letter was inaccurate: the room in question was empty and we had not made any requests. Our assumption is that the head of the sbitar in Tounfite made the complaint to the Ministry (there is a lot of friction between the head of the sbitar and the midwives). It was disheartening to witness the women that we were working with (who were doing an excellent job), being undermined by their superior on our behalf. So we wrote a letter to the Ministry saying that there was no problem.

The rest of day one was pretty uneventful, mostly we were reassuring women that they were welcome and that anyone who didn’t have family to stay with could stay with the LaFever’s host family. I was worried that some women would go home rather than impose themselves on someone. Luckily nobody did.

Day two saw more success in the training room. Sitting in our tea preparing room, Dave and I could hear constant clapping and laughter. I really wish that I was able to witness the training, but that was out of the question. One woman, Itto, who is 56 and from my village, had to go home for a day. The wife of her son was sick, so she had to take care of the house. She apologized profusely and I told her to come back the next day if she was able (she did come back). Hanou, 54 and from the most remote village that we recruited from (one of the most remote villages in Morocco) was feeling ill, so she stayed at the host family’s house in the morning, but came to the afternoon sessions.

That day the women doctors who work at the sbitar prepared food for the tea break. They were very involved in the training and excited to help in any way that they could. It seemed that they would come over to the training whenever they had a spare moment. They also promised to make lunch for all of the women on the following day. It was great to see so much enthusiasm on the part of Moroccan health workers. At my local sbitar, I see mostly disdain for the community that I work with. So it was awesome to see the doctors and midwives interacting with the women as equals and treating them with respect.

David, Mara, and Kristen all had other things to take care of that evening, so I was the only volunteer who went to the dinner that night. I’m really glad I did as it gave me an opportunity to interact with the women in a way that I hadn’t before. They were totally comfortable around me and we started joking right away. A ‘representative’ from each community would try to convince me to marry someone from their tribe. Naima from Mara’s community said that I to marry a girl from her tribe because they have lots of apples (which was persuasive). They would extol the benefits of their tribe and I would agree to marriage. Immediately women from another tribe would get ‘angry’ and start arguing about which community was better. The women finally agreed that the most remote tribe was bad (it is really poor) and that I should choose between the other two communities. I said I couldn’t choose, so they came up with a way for me to choose randomly and I ended up choosing Mara’s community. Well, there just happened to be two unmarried women from Mara’s tribe at the dinner! Naturally the next question was: which one do I want to marry? I said I couldn’t choose and that my host mom should make the decision for me. It was pretty hilarious: she made this big show of inspecting the women and asking them all these questions. She ended up choosing Rkiya, who is about 25. Rkiya has one child and is widowed. Her husband was murdered in Rabat because he failed to pay the people he was bribing for his job there. She is pretty quiet. The whole time the women were apologizing for joking around, but it was really enjoyable. It was especially good to spend time with them because I had been worrying about how they were feeling after we told them they couldn’t stay at the LaFever’s host family. Now that they had a place to stay, they seemed to be over it and feeling comfortable.

The final day was by far the most chaotic. For the afternoon session, we had invited moqadems and sheikhs (community leaders) to come and talk with the women. The idea was that the women and the moqadems would make an emergency action plan in case there was a problem in birth that the women were unable to deal with. Inviting these people meant that we had to remind them that they were coming and provide and extra good tea break. Plus we had invited even more people to a closing dinner to be held that night. And there was lots of other running around to tie up odds and ends.

When the men finally showed up (some were late, others didn’t come), it led to what I think was a really productive meeting. It quickly became apparent that there had never been communication between these community leaders and the health staff at the hospital. The protocol for getting and ambulance to the village was unclear. There was a lot of important information passed between the two groups. It’s absurd that it took a foreign association (Peace Corps) to bring these people together in the same room. The sad part was that the meeting made clear that many of these isolated communities are pretty much on their own when it comes to dealing with such things.

We eventually split up into smaller groups, with each community meeting to talk about its specific problems. My sheikh and moqadem were both in attendance, which I was thankful for. They were very helpful in talking about an emergency action plan. Additionally, a doctor who was just assigned to my community last week came. She was instrumental in leading the conversation. My women really like her (she’s a breath of fresh air compared to what they’re used to dealing with). Even beyond working on this project, I’m hopeful that she can bring a lot to my community. The meeting ended with tea and some spectacular break food.

Our final piece of work was to make sure the concluding dinner went well. With the LaFever’s host family helping us, it wasn’t that hard to pull off. They were so helpful the entire week and we couldn’t have done the training without them.

At a cafĂ© before the dinner, I met the nephew of one of the women attending the training. Moha is 30 some years old and living in Tounfite, although he works at the government building in my community. He had been hosting his aunt, Hada, 50, who lives in Taararte. Taararte is about 28 km down the road from me and pretty much without any help from the government in terms of health care. They have a sbitar in their community, but it is unstaffed and locked shut. Hada was very relived by my doctor’s presence, because she will be making rounds in a van to outer communities.

The dinner was the most fun that I had all week. I had been working behind the scenes most of the time, so I didn’t get to interact with the women that much. Even during the dinner, I had to spend most of my time in the men’s room, entertaining the men we had invited. But I took a couple trips to the women’s room, where they had drums and everyone was dancing. The doctors and midwives from Tounfite had come and everyone was enjoying themselves. I danced a little bit, which everyone thought was hilarious. One of the songs they sang had lyrics that went, “Sma3eel (my Moroccan name) is like the moon.” It’s pretty much the best compliment you can give someone. Even though the celebration dinner wasn’t the real success of the training, it was the best opportunity I got to get a feeling for the mood of the women. They were overflowing with joy and very thankful.


Like I said, I think the training was an unqualified success. I can’t imagine it going better. I’m extremely lucky to have capable volunteers around me who helped to include me in the project. The next step is to facilitate meetings between the women we trained and the rest of the women in the community. I also hope to host another training with women from different communities, although that probably won’t happen for a year.

I believe this is the most valuable thing that I’ve done as a health education volunteer so far. The ironic part is that I did very little education myself. My role was primarily bringing people together and making sure the meeting ran smoothly.

The real effect of the training won’t be known for sometime, if at all. There aren’t statistics about maternal or infant mortality during birth, so there’s no way of quantifying the effect the training has had. Something that is completely unquantifiable is the way that we empowered these women. Helping with births and women’s health in general is not highly valued here. I think it was important to let these women know that we value the work that they are doing. I also think it was a good example for the men in my community to see an American man take such action and put women’s health as a priority.

A common refrain amongst volunteers is how unwilling people here are to change their ways. Yet these (mostly older) women, who were sick, tired, and in a completely foreign environment, were willing to sit down and learn for three days. Even though the midwife trainers were wonderful, it would have been really easy for the women to ignore them – they’re young and only speak Arabic. But the women engaged themselves and everyone benefited from the experience. There were women from other communities who heard about the training and showed up to ask if they could watch. At the end of the training, even though they were really tired, the women said they wanted more.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Brush Your Teeth!

Brush Your Teeth!

From my Western perspective, dental hygiene is a problem in my community. I wish that I could do a preliminary survey and find out how many people here brush their teeth, but I don’t think that is an appropriate thing to do. If I had to estimate, I would say that in my entire 450-person community, maybe 5 people use toothbrushes on a regular basis. But there’s really know way for me to know and it could be as low as 0. It’s not just my community; I’d say that the idea of dental hygiene is one that is fairly new in Morocco.
So I’ve decided to make dental hygiene my first, independent, education project. It doesn’t take a large investment of resources or time. I also think that people can see the benefit of their behavior change fairly easily (maybe except for those people whose teeth are too far rotted brushing may just push the teeth out).
In the schools I’ve been talking to the kids about brushing their teeth. Basically I tell them that if they don’t brush their teeth, their teeth will rot and fall out, just like the older people in my community. I try to be very blunt about it. I brought in a hard-boiled egg soaked in Coke, which made it turn brown, and then had the kids use toothbrushes to clean the egg. I also brought in a model clay mouth for the kids to practice brushing teeth on. (Side note, hands-on education is not apart of the teaching pedagogy here; it’s all about rote memorization.) Since doing the education, I’ve been coming into the school on a regular basis during their recess and having all the kids brush their teeth in front of me. It’s pretty funny to watch 30 kids slobber spit and toothpaste all over themselves and realize that this is my job. I think that an activity like teeth brushing is something that, if you’re a child, you need to practice doing over and over and over again until it becomes a habit.
The second aspect of my education is a lot more uncomfortable, although I think that I’ve unnecessarily imposed some of that uncomfortable feeling upon myself. Working with a local association (which basically means talking to one guy), I’ve divided my community up into six different groups (groups made by dividing the community by geographic proximity). On the day of a meeting, in the morning, I tell the people that we’re going to meet in the afternoon. When people slowly show up for the meeting, I tell them about what I’ve been doing in the schools. Then I tell them that my parents reminded me to brush my teeth twice a day every day and that they need to do the same. I feel a little uncomfortable telling grown adults to brush their teeth; telling them to help their kids is sort of a roundabout way of suggesting the idea to them. In the better meetings, the adults have asked about their own teeth and if they too can brush their teeth.
Finally, I’m going to supply the local store with toothpaste and toothbrushes so that once people run out of what I’ve given them, they can easily buy more.
That’s pretty much the plan. I still have one more meeting with adults. And I’m going to keep going into the school and making the kids brush their teeth in front of me. The big question is: will people change their behavior? Well I’m of two minds about that issue.
When I’m feeling pessimistic, it’s easy to be very negative about the impact of this work. Speaking generally, people here are very conservative and don’t easily change their ways. Pretty much everyone does everything the same way, which is the same way that their parents did it. Not just with hygiene practices, but also in many different aspects of life, people can’t imagine that there is another way of doing things. People are incredulous when I talk about things in America. Furthermore, I think that a habitual act like brushing your teeth is hard to change. For people to change their habits, they need constant reminders. I can do that to some extent with the kids, but it’s not as good as parents reminding them every night. Which brings up another cultural obstacle that I’m facing: parenting in the way that we think of it is not really a duty of being a father or mother here. Kids pretty much run free and do whatever they want. They don’t really listen to adults and adults don’t try to speak to them. So I’m not just introducing the idea of brushing teeth, I’m introducing the idea of parenting. Which may be harder to change.
When I’m feeling optimistic, I feel as though people might actual end up brushing their teeth. With the kids, I’m planning on really drilling the idea of dental hygiene into their heads. When I see kids on the street I ask them if they brushed their teeth (they tell me they did, but who knows if they’re lying). Kids (and everyone) are going to remember the American who lived in their community for a long time – if I go to the school every week and make the kids brush their teeth, they will remember that. In terms of adults, the most positive thing is that people who weren’t able to come to one of my meetings are approaching me on the street and asking me if I have any toothbrushes or toothpaste. We go to my house and I make them listen to my spiel before I give them the goods. This makes me think that people are talking to each other about what I’ve said and that they’re at least curious. People do complain about how their teeth hurt, so they recognize a problem. Another positive thing is that having my host mom as an ally is a great way for me to reach girls and women that I would otherwise be unable to speak to. Girls have asked her about getting toothbrushes/toothpaste from me (they are too afraid/embarrassed/ashamed/ to approach me). Once I resupply on toothpaste, I’m going to give her stuff to give to people and teach her how to teach others how to brush their teeth. It’s possible that having my host mom work like this will reach more people in a more meaningful way than I am able to.
I believe this idea of toothpaste and toothbrushes is either a) completely new to people here or b) something that people think of as a luxury item only for Westerners. People are always surprised when I say that I bought the toothpastes and toothbrushes in Tounfite (the market town, 28 km away) and how inexpensive they are. So hopefully if people see that it’s something they can afford they will buy into it. It’s also something that people are not at all ashamed to speak of. I felt weird teaching adults how to brush their teeth and worried about being condescending, but I’m going to stop letting the feeling hold me back. People are open to talking about the issue.
Balancing these two conflicting feelings, I guess I want to believe that people will change their behavior. There are many things working against me, but if I concentrate on this issue, some people will come around. Even if people don’t immediately change their behavior, introducing the idea of dental hygiene is the first step towards ultimately changing things. Change might not come immediately, but maybe I’m laying the foundation for behavior change in the next generation – at least that’s what I tell myself. Some volunteers are very negative about changing Moroccans behavior and I think they let that negativity limit what they try to do. I came here to do health education and I’m going to try and do it. Plus it gives me something to do and some feeling of efficacy.

I’m legitimately busy now. It’s getting to the point where I can’t do everything that I want and have to prioritize. So that’s really nice. Hopefully it will last. It’s not just dental hygiene; there are a couple of other projects that I’m working on.
By some amazing coincidence, someone who I don’t know in America read my blog and is interested in helping fund a water project in my community. So I’ve been trying to press local association people to work with me and get the ball rolling. On Thursday we went up into the mountains and found a spring. We measured the flow and made estimations about how far it is from a village. The village that it would serve already has a chateau (water tower), but it is empty because people cannot afford to pay the electricity needed to pump the water. The idea is that if we can reroute the water from the spring to the chateau, there will be no need for a pump (which pumps water from a well). If this project came through, it would bring running water to over 1,000 people and be a huge success. Right now women and children spend hours a day collecting water and having tap water would eliminate that work. Furthermore, because people collect water from wells and streams, there are many water borne illnesses. If the water is captured from a spring it starts off cleaner. Then we can treat the water in a centralized place (the chateau) and hopefully greatly reduce the frequency of water related disease.
Another project that I have been fortunate enough to latch onto is culminating next week. The midwife training, largely organized by another volunteer, is happening on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. 12 women from three different villages in my commune will be attending. I am very excited for this training and I think it may be the most important thing that I do in my two years here. If it goes well, I plan to do another training next year and get women from other communities to come. There is a lot of bureaucracy and detail work involved in pulling off the training. We had a meeting with the Caid (mid-level government official) on Friday. I have to make sure that all the women have somewhere to stay in the town where the training is held. I have to make sure they all know when the training is and provide transportation for them. We’ve had to meet repeatedly with the nurses giving the training and go to the provincial capital (Khenifra) to meet with the Ministry of Health. We had to set up the building that will be used for the training. We had to write the grant for the project and then beg our family and friends for money (thanks again, by the way). And more. All the while dealing with a subject that makes people a uncomfortable. I think that talking about it over and over with certain people has reduced the taboo surrounding the subject and that itself has some value.
Finally, on a non-work related note, (although everything I do in my village impacts my work) I held a sadaqa at my house. Basically a sadaqa is when someone hosts a meal and feeds people as a way of giving thanks to god. The local religious leader normally says a blessing. It’s traditional to do when you move into a new house. I also felt like it was a good way of thanking certain people who have been especially helpful to me here. My house being small, my sadaqa was small, only 8 people (not including my host mom, who doesn’t count by most people’s standards). But it went very well. It was super expensive: I spent more than what I normally spend on two weeks worth of groceries. The food was good and people were excited to be invited into my house. It was especially important for my host family to know that they are welcome in my house, even though I’m sure they will never come over. Early on I had the idea that I would cook American food, but if I’d done that everyone would have been pissed. So, unfortunately, I had to enlist my host mom’s help (I don’t know how to cook Moroccan style food) and she did most of the cooking. I feel pretty awful about perpetuating the gender divide of labor here, but I’m not sure if there was any way around it. I tried to get her to eat with the men, but she refused. It’s probably better that way – everyone but me would have felt uncomfortable. It was a fun night. The only down side was that the next day some people who weren’t invited complained.
So things are good. My mom and sister are coming in about two months and that’s very exciting. The election draws near and it looks better and better for Obama. I’m hopeful. I’m going to bring my absentee ballot to my community and have people see how the voting works. It’s getting cold and I should be getting a wood stove for my house very soon. Hope all is well.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Limitations of this blog

Limitations of this blog

A few conversations I’ve had recently made me realize that I’m probably failing to relate a complete picture of my community and of Morocco with this blog. The problem is that there are so many parts of life here that I take for granted. Because I take these things for granted I make the assumption that everyone knows about them, and so they go unsaid. It’s difficult to put yourself in the pre-Morocco mindset and thus difficult to communicate to someone who doesn’t have the same mental starting point as you.
I think these assumptions and the miscommunication that results is the source of one of the frequent complaints that Peace Corps volunteers make: people back home just don’t care. PCVs often say that their family and friends aren’t interested in or can’t discuss the issues that are important to them. I don’t think it’s a problem of interest (at least with my family/friends), but just that there is a mental disconnect. It’s impossible to communicate things that have become so basic to my everyday life because I am hardly aware of them myself.
A conversation I had on the phone the other day reinforced this idea. There were two topics in particular that made me realize the difficulty of communication. First was religion. I was trying to communicate the conversations that I’ve had with people about religion here. The caller was asking me how I managed to talk about my views on religion, which are not exactly orthodox, in such a conservative society. And I realized I had failed to communicate a basic aspect of talking about religion with people here: I cannot have honest conversations about religion here. Generally speaking, people in my community only know one way of spiritual belief. It’s more than just not questioning their own beliefs; most have never thought about people who have different beliefs and what those beliefs might be like. When I tell most people that I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that I pray twice a day (instead of five), that what I say when I pray is not exactly the same as what they say, that my religion says it’s OK to eat pork, that I don’t face Mecca when I pray, and etc etc etc, these ideas are new to them. These ways of practicing belief are already so heretical that I would never try to explain the nuance (and far greater heresy) in my belief. Mostly, people are so busy trying to convert me that they hardly listen to what I say about religion. For them, there is only one way of believing.
The second topic in the telephone conversation was about women. I believe the caller asked if I had any female friends. There isn’t even a word for a platonic female friend in Tamazight. All nouns are gendered: they all inherently describe the gender of the noun. When someone says the word “friend” they either say “amdukkal” (male friend) or “tamdukkal” (female friend). If a man says he has a “tamdukkal” that means that he is having sexual relations with that girl (which, by the way, is completely inappropriate). And vice versa for a woman talking about an “amdukkal.” When I talk to my community about my female friends in the Peace Corps, I either call them “amdukkal” (which is incorrect, but appropriate) or I say “tamdukkal,” but immediately qualify that by saying I’m not having sex with them. When I tell people here that I have female friends that I’m not having sex with it is a new idea for most people.
My best/only native female friend here is my host mom. That’s only appropriate because people think of her as my mom. (But it’s still weird that I talk to her; most boys don’t talk to their mothers). There are a couple of girls whom I’ve spoken to, but only ever in a larger group that included my host mom. When I go to the health center or local school for work and talk at length with the female nurses/teachers (who are from bigger cities and more liberal) about work, people think that I’m courting them. Why else would I be talking to them?
These are topics that I’d like to explore in greater detail at some point, but for now I’m just using them to illustrate the depth of the cultural differences. The differences are so basic and engrained in society and how I think about my community that I might not think of them. I don’t bring up this point to complain or bemoan the fact, but simply to try and improve my own communication. Most volunteers see the communication breakdown as being the fault of the people at home, but I think it’s the volunteers who have shifted paradigms without realizing it.


It’s getting cold here! I’m going to buy a wood stove to heat my home, along with more a warm traditional Moroccan item of clothing called a jellaba (Arabic) or takabut (Tamazight). During the summer, the weather and wind all came from the West, but now that the seasons are changing, it comes from the South. Snow is on the tops of the nearby mountains and two days ago we had some earlier morning snow/sleet/hail/rain that turned the ground white for an hour or two.
I’ve been doing lots of oral hygiene education – more on that in my next post. I’m also busy organizing the midwife training, which starts on the 20th of this month. Thanks to everyone who gave money. You’ve made a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives. There will be a post about the training once it’s finished, two weeks from now. I’ve been healthy for more than a month now, which is a wonderful feeling. The presidential election is in three weeks or so. I believe Obama will win, but only if all of you vote! I wonder how many of you reading are McCain supporters. I’ve been watching the news about the financial meltdown back home. It seems like a good time to be abroad. Hope all is well.

Friday, October 3, 2008


My village
Me and friend, my village in lower left corner.

In Islam, there are five things (known as the five pillars of faith) that one must do in order to be a good Muslim. One of those is fasting during the month of Ramadan. The Islamic calendar is a lunar one, so each year Ramadan moves forward a little bit. This year, in Morocco, it started on the 2nd of September and ended on the 30th (other Islamic countries start and end on different days; most other countries started on the 1st). Fasting means that you don’t eat, drink, smoke, have sex, or say bad words from sun up to sun down. In my community, sunrise was about 4:30 or 5:00 am and sunset was around 6:30 pm.
For me, there were good and bad parts about Ramadan. I’ll do the good first.
First of all, the food that you break fast with is delicious, although quite unhealthy. When I eat at other people’s houses, eating a lot is always encouraged, but even more so during Ramadan. I stuffed myself on a daily basis. My favorite thing is something called fat bread. Basically a thin, circular loaf of bread is baked. Then it’s sliced through the middle and pieces of fat, spices, and some onions or peppers are put into the middle. Then the bread is cooked some more to melt the fat. I told one American friend about this and he was grossed out by the idea, but believe me, it’s delicious. Fat bread is kind of a luxury and so not always served for break fast. Going to a house and seeing fat bread was always a nice surprise. A close second to fat bread is something called bu-shi-ya. It’s basically a fluffy sort of crepe, fried in a pungent cow butter. If made well, it’s really greasy. Bu-shi-ya is a staple of the break fast. Dates are always served – you’re supposed to eat a date first. Hard-boiled eggs are often served. There’s often something called sha-bek-i-ya, which is basically fried dough soaked in liquid sugar. Ze-mee-ta is often served. It’s flour, sugar, cinnamon, and some other spices cooked lightly in oil. It’s crumbly and you eat it with a spoon. Coffee is always served and sometimes tea as well. Coffee here is about half milk and it’s very sugary. After you eat all of these things, a-ha-rir is served. It’s a soup with any combination of lentils, beans, chickpeas or pasta shreds. It often has a little meat, normally chicken. It’s a thick soup; I believe ground wheat or barley is added to thicken it. There are some spices too. It’s pretty good.
The other good part about Ramadan is that it can bring a community closer together. People eat over at each other’s houses more. For me, it was great because I got to eat at several people’s houses and meet people (women mostly) whom I’d never talked to before. There’s are also a good community feeling that comes with daily accomplishing something (fasting) that is kind of hard. People in my community loved it that I was fasting with them and it definitely helped my community integration efforts.
Bad parts of Ramadan. You would think that not eating and drinking all day would be pretty uncomfortable, but it really wasn’t that bad. I was thirsty a lot for the first couple days, but then I got over that. I would get pretty hungry every day around noon, but it would only last for an hour or two and then it would kind of go away. Not eating or drinking just means that you’re tired and lethargic for a lot of the day. People still work, but not as much.
I think my least favorite part of Ramadan was waking up at 3 am every morning to cook and eat. I live right next to the mosque and there is a call to wake up every morning that I could not ignore. You’re tired and not even particularly hungry, but you’ve gotta eat cook and eat anyways, then try and fall asleep with a full stomach. So that was difficult.
Another negative aspect of Ramadan was the increased agitation that everyone experiences. You’re fasting and you’re tired, so your fuse is greatly shortened. I felt myself getting angry far more often than I’d like. In my village, where people are normally quick to come to blows, this led to several fights, often about nothing. I was talking in a group of men and two men started fighting; their argument was about what day of Ramadan it was. Fights in my village aren’t pretty; it makes my village seem like a bunch of immature idiots. And it’s really disappointing to see fighting during a month that is supposed to be about peace and community.
All in all, I was getting pretty tired of Ramadan and I was glad when it was over. Everyone in Morocco will tell you that it’s good for your health (their explanation is that it’s like a vacation for your stomach), but I’m pretty sure it’s bad for you. People are dehydrated for an entire month. They end up eating as many (or more) calories as normal, but just in short, grease-filled bursts. However, it was a good experience and I’m glad that I fasted along with my community. Also, I miss fat bread and bu-shi-ya.

Schooling in My Community
I just found out something about my school that is pretty shitty. So there is one school in my community and it’s only for the first six grades. If you want to continue schooling after that, you have to go to Tounfite (28k away). There’s no way to commute every day, so you’d have to know someone in Tounfite to stay with. Most kids don’t go past the sixth grade. I had been told by someone that it was because they didn’t want to and that it wasn’t valued by the parents. That may be true, but I just found out another reason as well. The last two years, kids from my community have tried to continue their education in Tounfite, only to have every single kid be failed out. They’re not well prepared by their teachers here so they can’t keep up. It really sucks that those families who are willing to make the sacrifice to try and improve their children’s lives through education are being failed by the school system. I like the teachers in my school, but I have to question what they’re doing if none of their pupils can make it at the next level.

Another month has passed. It’s really rainy here now. When it rains, the mountain streams come down and wash out the road to my village. All of yesterday people were unable to get here, although the road is passable again today. The tops of the nearby mountains sometimes get dusted white with snow or hail. Winter is around the corner.
On Monday I’m continuing my oral hygiene education campaign by starting to speak to the adults in my village. Working with a local leader, I’ve split the village up into 6 groups to make group a manageable size to talk to. Basically I’m going to be telling parents they need to help their kids remember to brush their teeth. At the same time I’ll be introducing the idea of brushing your teeth to adults. I have little idea how many people are going to show up for my meetings and little idea what their interest level/response is going to be like. I think that people will be curious. Also, having the local leader with me is going to help a lot as well.
On the 20th of this month, we’re starting the training for midwives. By the way, thanks very much to everyone who gave, we’ve reached our goal. Sorting out the logistics for the training is making me busy. The training will be a weeklong. Between that and the tooth brushing stuff, this will be by far my busiest month.