Sunday, April 26, 2009

It’s All Downhill From Here

First to respond to Patricia. Thank you for you comment. I would love to ask you some questions about your work. Can you email me at

It’s All Downhill From Here

Assuming I serve 27 months in Peace Corps Morocco, I have just passed a big milestone. At the end of April, I will have been in country for 14 months (and almost a year in my site), a little over halfway through my service. It’s a good feeling. Plus I’m taking a two week holiday to America to go to my brother’s wedding. So it seems like a good as time as any to take stock and reflect on my time in Morocco.

Mostly, it’s been good. I’ve had my ups and downs. In Peace Corps training, we’re warned that we will have long periods of time where we feel down. For example, one might feel generally down for a couple of months, but then pretty happy for the next few months. I haven’t experienced that; my ups and downs are more day to day than month to month. The single greatest factor in determining how I feel is how my work is going; if I just done a cool project or if there are exciting projects on the horizon I am much happier.

My most difficult period was my first 3+ months in site. I was living with my host family for longer than expected (2 months is normal) because of difficulty finding alternative housing. My host family is wonderful, but living with them for such a long time was not easy. I didn’t like the food that we ate. At that point, the work I was doing was very limited and small in scope. I had a difficult time communicating, which was frustrating (although the challenge of learning the language gave me a goal to work for). But the most challenging part of the first 3 months in site was being sick a lot. I had something like dysentery twice. Having dysentery entailed a week of illness. I tried to stay active during those times and get outside, but it was hard. In between those spells, I was sick fairly regularly. I lost weight. I also was experiencing disturbing dreams. In a half-sleep, I would dream that I was laying down in the very position that I was sleeping, but that I was in someone else’s house, in a group of people. It would dawn on me that I needed to walk home, but the fact that I was wearing my pajamas would panic me. I would slowly realize that I was dreaming and snap out of it, but the thin line between being awake and sleeping was a little frightening. It was difficult to tell if I was dreaming and hallucinating, because I felt awake during the dreams. Someone later suggested to me that these dreams were a result of stress. However, I don’t want to make the first three months seem terrible. They were also a time of constant discovery. It was exciting. Everything was new. I could feel language ability improve on a regular basis. My community’s comfort with me also changed noticeably. And I also had a great support from fellow volunteers when I needed it.

Which brings me to another point of reflection: the volunteer community. I probably ought to devote an entire post to this sometime, so this will just be a brief discussion. Fellow Peace Corps volunteers are my best friends in Morocco. This is simultaneously disappointing and wonderful. Disappointing because my expectation of Peace Corps was that my best friends would be Moroccans in my village. Wonderful because the volunteers closest to me are great people that I am thankful to have met. Sharing a difficult experience like Peace Corps with someone is bound to bring you closer to them. Fortunately for me, the people nearby me would be my friends regardless of the environment. They have made everything so much easier for me.

Reflection on Morocco: it’s an incredible country that I haven’t begun to explore. I recently made a list of all the places that I want to visit before I leave. I was trying to be selective and limit the list to places that I couldn’t leave the country without seeing. But the list is long and I won’t be able to see everything even after two years. There is so much diversity in this country: culturally, geographically, linguistically, socio-economically. Anyone who says he/she knows the “real” Morocco doesn’t know the first thing about the country.

Reflection of my service as PC volunteer: the Peace Corps has three goals. 1 Increase other people’s awareness of Americans. 2 Increase Americans awareness of other cultures. 3 Community-level development work. I think I’ve done a pretty decent job with the first two. My integration into my community, however, isn’t as deep as I would like it to be and it probably never will be. One reason for this is that work is taking me out of my site more and more. People in my community tell me that I leave too much. Another (more disappointing) reason for this is that I don’t spend a lot of time with my community even when I am here. Men in my site spend nearly all their free time in public spaces, talking and passing the time. Simply put: I don’t find their conversations interesting and I don’t like doing nothing all day long. I spend some time in public spaces, but not as much as other men. I’m not good enough friends with them to enjoy their company for long periods of time. On the plus side, I spend a lot of time at my host family’s house and have a good relationship with them.

As for the development aspect of Peace Corps, it’s up and down. On the whole I’m happy with what I’ve done, but as you’ll see, the bulk of the work that I hope to do in Morocco is during the second half of my service. So I have a lot left to do if I want meet my goals.

Basic health education (dental hygiene, hygiene): I’ve done lessons in three different schools. My favorite thing to do is handing out toothbrushes and following up with education. It’s difficult to tell if I’m changing behavior (mostly I think not). It’s hard to get kids to brush their teeth without their parents support. But one positive sign is that people in my community ask me for toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Mother and child health: The midwife training that I did last year was very successful. We trained 20 women to be effective midwifes and community health leaders. Getting them to do education in their communities about what they learned in formal settings has been difficult, but I think there is a significant amount of education happening informally. There is just no way to measure that education. Coordination with the Ministry of Health has been difficult and insufficient, but I’ve started working with a nurse in a nearby community on this project, which is promising. We hope to do another training this fall.

Water treatment and supply: My big water infrastructure project is slowly progressing. Construction should be starting around the time I return from America. On an individual level, getting people to treat their water is more difficult (no success yet). I haven’t devoted as much time to that as I would have liked.

Deforestation, erosion, and other environmental issues: This is the area that I’ve accomplished the least in, but has the most promise. Another volunteer and I hope to have a meeting with hammam (public baths) owners in late June about the prospect of converting their ovens to more efficient ones. There is a lot of work to do before then if the meeting is going to be successful. We are collaborating with an agency within the Moroccan Ministry of Energy. If the hammam project is successful, we going to do an assessment of individual wood use in the area. Hammams account for perhaps a fifth of wood use in the region, while individuals use approximately two thirds. It’s difficult to change many individuals’ behavior, but there is greater potential for reducing wood use.

STI and HIV/AIDS prevention: So far, I’ve had a minor impact on people’s behavior in terms of safe sex. It’s a difficult topic to discuss and it’s harder to change behavior (and impossible to evaluate the success of your work). Another volunteer and I have an ambitious project planned for this summer. We hope to get gynecological exams for local sex workers and then enlist 40 of them in a sort of study. All this is very uncertain, but we hope to provide half of that 40 with free condoms for the summer. At the end of the summer, we’ll provide pelvic exams again and compare the sexual health of those women who used condoms against the control group. It is unlikely that this project will happen, but we’re going to try. It’s difficult to get Ministry support for something like this. Fortunately, the volunteer and I have very good connections in the population that we are targeting, which could make the project possible.

Building capacity of local groups: This is really the core of Peace Corps’ development mission. The idea is that volunteers can empower locals to do development work so that it will be sustainable. I’ve done a little work on this on an individual level, talking to association members about their projects and how to develop them. I’m hoping to have a formal training for all the local associations in order to build their capacity. This training will hopefully happen in the fall.

As you can see, my service is back heavy. I’ve used the first year to identify problems and set up ways to address them. Hopefully I’ll use the second year to implement the projects successfully. As I’m here longer, I get a better idea of the issues that I should address and of how to address them. I’m sure I’ll only get better at this as my service progresses. Two years is not enough time for a volunteer to have maximal impact on his/her community. 10 years would be a more reasonable time frame.


Some local associations, another PC volunteer, and myself hosted an HIV/AIDS testing event in a nearby town. It went OK. The biggest disappointment is Moroccans’ continuing inability to say what needs to be said about transmission of HIV. An association member talked to a group of women for 10 minutes about HIV without once mentioning sex. The more I am exposed to the culture, I believe that this shame over talking about sex is self-imposed. People who come to these events want to learn the truth. I’ve found that if you say the shameful stuff with a straight face and without feeling embarrassed about it yourself, it’s fine. Another disappointment related to the testing is that the people who came to the testing nearly all older, married women. Men are the ones making the decision about whether or not to wear a condom, but don’t seem to be interested in the subject.

A local association member and I went back into the prostitution district of the town to encourage women to come to the training. This man wrote his master’s thesis about the sex industry in the town and so knows the women well. Walking back in the prostitution district was like stepping into another world. It was weird seeing sexuality flaunted like that in such a normally conservative society. Unfortunately few prostitutes came to the testing. One interesting note about the how people referred to the prostitutes. I mentioned before that unmarried females are called girls in Tamazight, regardless of their age. However, people called the prostitutes women, even though they’ve never been married. So apparently marriage isn’t what turns a girl into a woman.

I’ll know more tomorrow, but there are rumors that the transportation strike is going to start back up again. Nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get transit to the airport for my Friday morning departure, I’m going to go to Midelt, where there is some transportation to Rabat that is unaffected by the transportation strikes. I’m thankful to people in my village who alerted me to the possibility of the strike starting again and telling me to get out of here so I don’t miss my flight.

Everything is well. I’ve been thinking about coming home to America a lot recently, which has made the time go by slowly. I can’t imagine how hard the last month of my service will be next year, when I have the prospect of returning to America for good on the horizon. Hope all is well. See you all soon. I wont be posting while Im in America, so there wont be a new post until mid or late May.

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