Monday, July 27, 2009


For the past two months, the majority of the work I’ve done has been organizing a training that will (hopefully) happen in September or October. I’ve got to get much of the work done now, ahead of time, because the grant that I will write for the project will take a while to process. Also, Ramadan is starting on August 22nd and I can’t count on being able to do any work during that month.

Last year three other volunteers and I held a Traditional Birthing Attendant (TBA) workshop. One of the other volunteers took the lead in organizing the training so I was just helping out. But that volunteer is gone, so organizing the training falls on me this year.

The focus of last year’s training was home birthing. But it became apparent as we were planning the training that there is only so much you can teach women during a three-day training. After the training we encountered another problem: just because we had trained these women didn’t mean that everyone in the village then sought them out to help with births.

These two lessons mean that the focus of this year’s training will be slightly different. Maternal and infant health is still the main community health priority so the same basic issues will be heart of the training. In addition to issues directly related to pregnancy and birthing, we will be talking about basic health issues in the home: hygiene, infant diarrhea (which killed two infants about a month ago in my village), and basic first aid. The other important change in the training will be empowering the trainees to spread what they learn during the training to their communities when they return. We will have them role-play scenarios in their communities where they can talk about the lessons of the training. We will also involve other community leaders in the training to assist in this dissemination of information. In terms of preventing maternal and infant mortality during childbirth, it’s easier to affect a change by increasing the number of pre-natal visits to the health clinic than by turning women into certified midwives. The success of the training will be judged by how well the women spread the information in their villages.

I solidified these conclusions in my mind during a meeting with the local doctors who will be running most of the training. We talked about the curriculum and we were in agreement about changing its focus. The new focus of the training means that volunteers will have a greater role in teaching during the training. Last year all the volunteers did was organize things behind the scenes. But this year we will be more involved in the classroom, which means that there will be more preparatory work. The meeting with the doctors was held on Thursday and it involved me running a meeting in French, which is my least favorite foreign language. There is something about the sounds and constructions of French that give my tongue a very difficult time.

Although the meeting in French with the doctors was the most intellectually demanding thing that I’ve done in a while, the other work for this training has been much more physically demanding: recruiting women for the training. The goal is to have two women from each village. Some of the trainees will be returnees from last year’s training and it was easy to recruit them. But the rest are from nearby villages that I am less well connected in. I spent much of my first year here making connections with people in these villages and I am now trying to use these connections.

In a village called L, I am friends with an association president and the moqadem (appointed for life, local Ministry of the Interior figure). I rode my bike 12 kilometers to L one day and told the association president about the project. I asked him to think about what women would be good for the training. I told him I would return in a week and we would go around and talk to the women. I came back in a week and he hadn’t done anything. He called the moqadem to his house and we talked about the project. The moqadem told me that he liked the project, but he had to get permission from the Caid (regional Ministry of Interior figure) before he could do anything: come back the next week. So I came back the following week and the moqadem had two names for me. One was his unmarried, 27 year old daughter (unmarried, kind of young, and well-connected is the ideal candidate). The other was a relative of the association president; she is 59 years old. I don’t like choosing women because they are connected to the people who I know, but I’m dependent on the village leaders that I’m working with to help me find women. Plus, after talking to the women I thought that they would be willing participants in the training.

In a village called T, I am friends with an association president. I walked 10 kilometers to T one day and told the association president about the project. This guy has been asking me for a long time to do a project with him in his village. He gathered another member of his association and they talked about who would be best suited for the project. They called a woman over to the house. She was 90 years old. I told them sorry, but she was too old. So they talked about the kind of woman they were looking for and I think they better understood what I wanted. They called another woman over the house and she was a good candidate. Interested, divorced, 35 years old, talkative. We talked with that woman about who else in the village would be good for the training and so we called another woman to the house, who was accompanied by her husband. We talked for a little while and the husband was unsure about letting his wife leave. I told them to think about it and I would return in a week. When I went back a week later, they told me “no.” I was talking with the association president later and it came out that the husband wanted more money (we pay the trainees a small amount for participating in the training). The association presidents couldn’t think of any more women. They had already found three and T is a very small community, so I told them that the one woman going would be enough.

In a village called T2 (28 km away), I am friends with an association president, who lives in Tounfite (market town). Last year a woman (president’s aunt) came to the training. I asked the president if his aunt would want to go again. He said yes. I told him that there was a spot for another woman and he told me that he could find another good candidate. I trust this guy enough to do the work on his own.

In a village called B, I am friends with a random guy. I rode my bike to the village and told him about the project. I told him to think about it and I would come back in a week. I came back in a week and he hadn’t done anything. He saw a woman working in a nearby field and said, “let’s go talk to her.” Not a good start. We talked to the woman for a while and she was sort of interested. Her young granddaughters were with her and they were trying to persuade her to go. They understood the idea behind the project. The woman told me she had to talk to her husband about it. I told her I would come back in a week. When I came back the next week I found the woman working in the same field. She told me she had not asked her husband. So I went to the woman’s house and talked to the husband about it. Luckily he thought the project was good, but he told me that his wife was the only woman in the household and he could not have her absent for the training. But he like the project so he went with me to the house of the moqadem and we talked about the project some. The moqadem told me he could help me, but that he needed permission from the sheikh or khaliph (Ministry of Interior figures in-between moqadem and caid) first. He told me to have the sheikh or khaliph call him. So I left and found the sheikh a couple days later. The sheikh already new about the project so he was happy to call the moqadem. I went back to B a week later and talked more to the moqadem. He told me that he would have a meeting with the men in the village on Friday morning and I should come Friday afternoon to find out what everyone had decided. When I came back Friday afternoon, nothing had been done, but everyone in the village had heard about the project and had an opinion. The moqadem gathered a few influential men and they made a list of women who they thought would be good. After the meeting, I went with the moqadem to these women’s houses and talked to them about the project. Two were interested, so I signed them up.

There are three other villages that I have recruited from (in addition to the two with women returning from last year). Another memorable recruiting trip involved the diarrhea episode explained in a previous post. That’s the bulk of my work these days. I’m glad to be finished with recruiting because it is exhausting. It’s also frustrating at times when people tell me they will do something and don’t do it. But it’s also quite rewarding because I get positive reactions from the people that I’m working with. People tell me, “Your words are good.” I’ve gotten to know many more people in the course of this work, so that’s nice as well.

One last thing: I like this project a lot because I think it is the most purely “Peace Corps” project that I can think of. I’m working with different community partners (local women, local community leaders, Ministry of Health employees) to address primary health concerns by empowering local women to become community health leaders. I am able to do this project because of the relationships that I have built up and because my language is good enough. And I am able to determine the curriculum for the training because I’ve been here for a year learning about the health concerns of the community.


This past week I’ve been helping my family with their harvest. It’s long, slow, hot work. Barley and wheat are harvested with hand and sickle. I am careful to stretch before and afterwards to prevent my back from getting to tight. Lots of people here have back problems and I’d love to teach people about stretching. The harvest work done here is very marginal. Lots of work done for little reward. A wheat field must be fertilized (which involves transporting mule loads of manure from barn to field), irrigated (using irrigation canals), plowed (two mules and a wooden plow), irrigated again, and then harvested. Once harvested, the work is not finished. Then wheat is threshed; some people use machines and others use a more old-fashioned technique. The wheat is spread out on a flat surface with a pole in the middle. Four mules are attached to the pole and made to walk around in circles on the wheat, breaking off the wheat form the stalk. Then the stamped on wheat is gathered in a pile. On a windy day, people throw the broken up wheat into the air, which slowly separates the useful wheat from the less valuable hay because the wheat is heavier than the hay. Then useless chunks are sifted and separated out by hand. Then, finally, the wheat is taken to a nearby mill and ground. (Then you can make bread, by hand). Like I said, it’s a lot of work for a final product that has low value (although critical to life here). My host family’s product is even more marginal because they have to pay people to help along the way (my host dad is too old to do much of the work). They told me that they spent 650 Dhs (about $90) for last year’s wheat crop. I asked how much it would have cost them just to buy the ground wheat at market: 900 Dhs. So they’re breaking their backs over 250 Dhs ($34). Furthermore, my family has to support a mule in order to make all of this work possible, so that’s an added cost to the price tag of the wheat. Fortunately, my host dad has a pension from previous work that allows them to get by. I wonder if they think about ditching this farm work and living off the pension, but I doubt they would do that. I think that its important for their status in the community to maintain their fields, although it’s countless hours of work to save a couple dollars.

The other news is the my host dad’s sister died. I went to the “wake” and there are a couple of stories from that. People are pretty subdued. Tea and couscous are served, like any other gathering. The fkeih (religious leader) does some readings from the Koran. At one point during the wake, with everyone in the room listening, someone asked me what we say to the family of the deceased in America. I told him we express our condolences and that we say that the deceased is with God. I said that we tell the family that the deceased will not be forgotten. He said, “In Morocco, it’s important to forget the deceased. We say ‘goodbye,’ we forget them, and we don’t talk about them again.” So that was interesting. My host dad was feeling sick during the entire wake and I knew he was looking forward to it ending so he could get home. We had about a 20-minute walk home, so everyone at the host’s house offered for us to sleep there (it was late when the wake finished). He said no and we started walking. As soon as we were out of the village my host dad walked to the side of the road, dropped his drawers, and took a dump. I bring up this story to reinforce what I said in a previous post about the taboo against talking about the bathroom. My 73-year-old host dad held his bowels for several hours in the house of his sister and family rather than ask to use the bathroom. Then took a crap on the side of the road. Unbelievable.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

God Phrases

God phrases are a critical part of speaking Tamazight. I know a good deal, but this is far from an exhaustive list. Most of the phrases are actually Arabic, but some of them have a Tamazight twist to them, as noted.

Humdulillah – Arabic. Thanks to God. Said when exchanging greetings with someone, when finishing a meal, any time something good has happened.
Hmmdrbbi n krats – Tamazight version.

Llayster- (a-lik) – Arabic. God protect (you). A nice thing to say to someone, especially if you are parting company from them. Also said when talking about something bad like disease or an accident. For example, “I went to the mall the other day and I saw a terrible car accident on the way, llay-ster.
Addi rbbister. Or Ad grifk I-ster rbbi. Tamazight version.

Llay-haf-tik – Arabic. God bless you. A nice thing to say to someone, especially if they have done a favor for you.

Llay-awn - Arabic. God help you. Equivalent to saying good bye.
Ak iawn rbbi – Tamazight.

Bismillah – Arabic. In the name of God. Said before starting meals. Also appropriate to say before starting journeys, meetings, etc.

Tbarkallah-a-lik – Arabic. God bless you. Said as a way of congratulating someone for a job well done.

Llaybark-fik – Arabic. God bless you. Response to above.

Inchallah – Arabic. God willing. Said any time you’re talking about future actions.

Annay ktab – Tamazight. Whatever’s written [by God]. It signifies that the author believes things are out of his/her control. For example, “When will you get married, Duncan?” Response: “Annay ktab.”

Addi rbbi lxeir – Tamazight. God will bring the good. Appropriate at almost any time, especially as a conversation filler. For example, “Duncan, what are you thinking about?” Response: “Addi rbbi lxeir.”

Rbbi salaama – Arabic. God brings peace. Said when talking about a dangerous situation.

Amen- Arabic. Belief. An appropriate response to many different God phrases.

Bsaha – Arabic. With health. Said after someone gets a haircut or buys something.

Llay-tik-saha. Arabic. God gives you health. Response to above.

Llay-sha-fee – Arabic. May God heal you. Said when someone is sick.
Ad iafu rbbi – Tamazight. God will help you.

Llay-a-tik-sim – Arabic. God give you poison. A curse.

Llay-sa-hel – Arabic. God make it easy for you. Said to beggars to let them know you won’t be giving them money.

Llay-xalf – Arabic. God replenish. Said to a host when the meal is finished.
Llay-jal-baraka – Tamazight.

Llay-rhm-lwalidin – Arabic. God bless you parents.

Adi rbbi lman – Tamazight. God will bring peace. Talking about the future, especially before a journey.

There are many more. Also people just throw God into random sentences. "God made it rain a bunch today" is a common one.


I just got back from Rabat where two other volunteers and I had a preparatory meeting for our meeting with the hammam owners later this month. I think we are well prepared. We got into Rabat early the day before so after found our hotel we took a bus out to the beach. It was really nice. It also felt like a different world than my community with everyone in bathing suits.

I have been helping this girl from my village study English. She is the only one from my village who has made it to high school and she “specializes” in English, so I’m helping her. The other day she asked me if I would “be her friend, like her brother.” It was really cute.

There have been two weddings in my community recently. When there is a marriage, the wife comes from whatever village she lived in to move in with her husband’s family. One of the brides is from the same city in the South as my host mom. The other night my family invited the two newlywed couples over for dinner. The weird thing about the dinner was that the guests ate dinner separately from my family, although I ate with the guests. The most remarkable part about the dinner was the interaction between the couples. There was actual physical affection between bride and groom. They had their hands on each other’s legs. They laughed and joked with each other. Until this point, I had never seen affection between husband and wife before, so it was really good to see.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Reading about development in books, a common theme to explain some countries lack of progress is poor governance, corruption, and general bureaucratic inertia. Experiencing those things first hand has made them much more real. I’ve already written about corruption and political troubles, so I’ll stick to simple bureaucratic headaches this time. I’m sure that these frustrations exist in other countries, but Morocco is the first country that I have tried to do this kind of work so it’s all that I know.

I was inspired to write this post by a conversation that I had with the doctor at my health clinic the other day. She was complaining about bureaucratic hoops and obstacles and how they hindered her work; I was glad to know that Moroccans weren’t happy with the status quo either. I told her that Ministry obstacles have slowed my work at every step. Every project, anything I have done here has been made more difficult by needless technicalities.

The project that has best exemplified these frustrations is the hammam project. Quick summary: in order to reduce wood consumption demand, another volunteer and I are trying to convince hammam owners to convert their water heating systems to a more efficient stove with the help of a branch of the Ministry of Energy. Before the project could get started, a “national convention” had to be written up that formalized Peace Corps’ relationship with the Ministry. At first I was kind of excited by the whole deal, but it turned into a timewaster that was just a formality. Once that was done, we could move onto formal meetings with the Ministry. After the meetings, communication with the representative at the Ministry has been frustratingly difficult. We’re doing work in our province to prepare for a meeting that the representative will lead. It’s impossible for us to communicate quickly with the Ministry. We have to go through our Peace Corps staff representative, who sends a message to the Ministry, who has to get permission from higher up to release the requested information. It takes a long time, if it happens at all. For example, we requested the address of a hammam that had made the conversion in a nearby city (Ifrane) 3 weeks ago and still have not gotten an answer – I do not expect one. Another frustration came when the Ministry rescheduled the meeting that we had been planning for a month from July 7th to July 29th – after we had told the hammam owners to expect the meeting on the 7th. Finally, the Ministry has asked us to do a survey of rural wood use (repeat: they asked us). We have been trying to figure out their goals for the survey and what information they want us to collect, but it’s impossible to get an answer. If it’s to be done correctly, the survey requires information collected from all times of year; we need to start collecting data before the summer ends if we want to finish the survey before we leave Morocco. I don’t expect them to get the information to us.

Almost two months ago, another volunteer and I wrote up a proposal to the Ministry of Health for them to send doctors to Boumia to do pelvic exams on sex workers there. When the doctors came, they did not do exams, but just interviews, which was nearly useless. Their excuse was that there were too many women – not even a good excuse. I went back to the Ministry to see what could be done. They promised me that if there was a small group of women, they would come back and do the exams – but I had to write up another formal proposal. So I wrote it up and went to seek authorization. I was then informed that the delegue (head health official for the province) was on vacation for the rest of the month (July) and that I could not get permission until he came back. He had already given approval to an identical proposal that was simply not followed through on.

Several months ago, two other volunteers and I wrote up a STI HIV/AIDS curriculum that we wanted to teach in local high schools. We got permission from the Ministry of the Interior and needed permission from the Ministry of Education. I went to the Ministry of Health and asked our representative there what to do. He told me that he would take care of it. We waited at least a month and no response. I went back and asked him what the deal was. The rep told me that he had dropped off the proposal and was waiting for a response. He said it wouldn’t be more than a week. That was in April. No response.

For my water project in a nearby community, I was hassled by the person (call him Mohamed) I was working with to hurry up and get my grant approved. Well Peace Corps sped the grant through and it was approved in April. I went off with Mohamed to get the project started before I went to America in May. We went to the bank in a town 3-4 hours away and got the money out and counted it. When we finished counting the money, Mohamed told me that we could not submit the project for auction that day (the main purpose of our trip, or so I thought) because the place was closed for the day. It came out that he knew the place was closed before we left; his purpose for the trip was to accompany me to the bank and see if I had the money or not. Soon after, I left for America. When I got back from America, Mohamed told me that we could not get the project started because of the proximity of the elections. OK. Once the elections were finished, he told me that we could not get the project started because the association that I was working with had to get some of its paperwork in order: two more weeks. Before those two weeks were up, I went out to the community and was talking to the water association president about another project. I brought up our water project and the president said, “Didn’t Mohamed tell you? The project is cancelled.” A couple days later I went to the Commune and asked Mohamed what the deal with the association’s papers was, two weeks had passed. I didn’t mention what the president of the water association had told me. Mohamed said, “It will be another week before the association gets its paperwork in order.” Then I told him what the president had just told me about the project being finished. He said, “Oh, yes, the project will not happen.” How long has this guy (who had once been hurrying me to get the grant money in) known the project was dead and done, but hadn’t told me? For a reason unbeknownst to me, he hid the fact that the project was not viable behind a wall of bureaucratic excuses. How long was he going to continue to hide it?

I don’t mean to make this sound like a laundry list of complaints. I’m trying to illustrate the obstacles hindering progress that are institutionalized by government Ministries. Every volunteer has his/her own list of similar difficulties. Why do we have so many problems? Some of the “delays” are in fact the Ministry indirectly telling us no. For example, I don’t think the Ministry of Health/Education wants us to do STI HIV/AIDS education in local high schools, but rather than telling us “no,” our proposal is lost in a shuffle of papers. Many of our problems are personal rather than institutional. For example, the project with the Ministry of Energy has been met with especially egregious delays. I believe this has a lot to do with the person that we are working with simply not wanting to do work and hiding behind the cover of his Ministry. I think the project with doctors doing exams on sex workers is hindered by the same lack of interest in doing work. Finally, I think volunteers have problems with Ministries because they don’t know the right way to navigate the system. We’re mostly young kids who have no authority or prestige. Just like Moroccans from the communities that we live in, our interests and ideas can be dismissed.

Institutionalized stasis is pernicious because it provides cover for all of the illegitimate obstacles above. Instead of having to admit that they don’t want to do the exams, the doctors can hide behind the monolith that is the Ministry of Health. They know that I have to make a 6 hour trip out to get formal approval and that they can make up an excuse when I do make the trip. Government employees can collect their salaries, shuffle their papers, and go home at the end of the day without having lifted a finger. Even the most honest, hard-working Ministry official is bound by the constraints placed upon him/her.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I’m supposed to be doing grassroots development. So why am I bothering with government agencies? Even the most “grassroots” actions require the permission of some Ministry. Visiting schools: Ministry of Education. Organizing women for a traditional birthing attendant training: Ministry of Health and Ministry of the Interior. I tried to gather people outside of their homes to talk about dental hygiene, but I needed permission from the Ministry of the Interior first.

I’m not by nature a very angry person, but this kind of thing is getting to me. I cannot get my work done. The bullshit with the water project (that I started working on maybe 9 months ago) is especially frustrating. I have recently been contemplating responding to these obstacles by raising my voice and demanding better treatment. I don’t know what kind of a response that would get; I could either get what I want or be completely shut out.

Like I said, I don’t mean to complain about my situation, but to point out the obstacles to development here. Morocco is moving forward, but problems such as these slow its progress.


Things are good. The recruiting for the TBA training is nearly complete; I will be meeting soon with local doctors to finalize the curriculum for the training. There has been a wedding each of the past two weeks; those are fun.

I was riding my transit to market last week. It was early morning and the transit was crowded. Halfway to market, the transit stopped to pick up a guy along the side of the road. He had two sheep and instead of putting them on top of the transit as per usual, they got inside with us. I was thinking about going on top of the transit myself: the transit was uncomfortable and now I was worried about these sheep shitting on me. Just as I was pondering this option, one of the sheep lifted its head up and sneezed all over my pants. A large amount of snot was concentrated in the area near my right knee. The owner of the sheep grabbed the other sheep’s tail and used it to wipe the snot from my pants. This was the day after I had crapped my pants.

Several weeks ago, Morocco moved its clocks forward an hour – daylight savings time. From my experience with DST last year, I knew that my life would be easier if I didn’t change my clocks; no one in my community observes the time change. However, when I leave my community and go to a bigger town, the time moves forward an hour. Morocco has urban/rural time zones for the summer until the rest of the country changes its clocks back.

A family that I’m good friends with in my community recently bought a sofa for their living room. They are quite proud of it; most people here just sit/lay on the floor. I went to their house one day and the sofa was the most uncomfortable, hardest thing I’d ever sat on. The floor is much better. The next time I was at their house, the sofa was not to be seen. I asked them what was up and they said, “We like the floor better. We’re not used to the sofa.”

Three conversations on religion. First, I was off in another village, recruiting for the midwife training and getting a typical conversion speech from someone. They weren’t pushing me too hard. They asked if people in my community tried to get me to convert and I told them yes. They said that these people are my friends – they want me to convert because they like me and they don’t want my soul to go to hell. Second, I was helping a local girl with English (the one girl from our village that I know of who will go to University) and we were talking about religion. She asked me what religion I thought was true and I told her I thought they were all equal. She told me: no, the prophet Mohamed was the only real way to God and that other religions were inferior. I was disappointed; I was expecting higher levels of tolerance from her because she was educated. Third, I was talking to a friend about life in general. He said, if everyone takes Mohamed’s road and follows it carefully, life is boring (the word he used literally means bland). He said life is better if people take different roads, enjoy their lives, and share their experiences.

This morning I woke up at 6 am. I was out the door by 645. I was on the top of a 10000 foot mountain by 10 am. How awesome is that? I met some sheepherders from my village near the peak, hung out with them til 1230, had lunch, then hiked down the other side of the mountain in order to get to my market town.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Collection of Random Stories

First, thanks to Yasfari for your comment. My few trips to some cities (Meknes and Fes are my favorites so far) confirm what you said: the difference between urban and rural folk is great. I couldn't think of a theme for the post, so I just started writing down random things that happened to me the past week.

I was Khenifra early this week for a Ministry of Health meeting. I finished with my meeting and went to the bus station/taxi stand to find transit back to my site. It was about 9:30 or 10 am in the morning. In the bus station there are always lots of guys standing around who work for the bus companies. I asked one of them if there was a bus to Boumia, which is the hub I have to go to get to my site. He said the bus left at noon. So I walked over to the taxi stand. Although taxis are just big Mercedes that would normally only fit 5 people, they take 6 passengers, plus the driver in Morocco. The taxi will not leave until there are 6 paying passengers. So I asked if there was a taxi for Boumia, I was told that yes there was and that I was the third person to ask about it. Not bad, I hoped to be leaving within a half an hour. But waiting and waiting and the number of people kept hovering around three. Sometimes less, sometimes more. And meanwhile it is hot. Khenifra sits in this bowl between some big mountains and it gets heated. Some people would get impatient waiting for the taxi to fill and leave. Around 11:30 the taxi got up to 5 people, but then 2 walked over to the bus station to take the noon bus (about two dollars cheaper). Five minutes to noon, I gave up too and walked to the bus. There was one seat left, which I took. But then this guy came up to me and said that he had saved the seat and everyone around him was in agreement (Stealing a saved seat is a crime worthy of death here). Shit. So I asked the bus driver if I could stand – sometimes buses will let people stand and other times they will get kicked off the bus. I had a moment of panic when I thought about walking back to the taxi stand and waiting for the unfillable taxi to fill. But then the guy actually found me a stool to sit on and he shoved it in the aisle in the back row. I sat on the stool, pressed between two sweaty, hot men (very sweaty myself) and was grateful. Luckily, hot transits normally cause me to fall asleep, which I did while leaning on my neighbor. Two and a half hours later, we roll into Boumia.

A guy playing a guitar/banjo and walking alongside a donkey comes into my town the other day. The donkey is loaded down with lots of sacks. I am standing next to one of my friends and I ask him what this banjo-donkey guy is doing. My friend says that they guy goes around from house to house with his banjo, playing and begging for wheat. There is a pause in the conversation. Then my friend says: “The guy is an idiot. We’re harvesting wheat in two weeks. He won’t get anything now. If he waited two weeks everyone would have wheat to give him.”

A girl that I went to middle school with is in Peace Corps Morocco. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve seen her. Her site in Morocco is on the other side of the country. We happened to be in the same city last week so we met up and hung out for a while. It’s a small crazy world.

There was a wedding this past week that was a little different from other weddings I’ve been to. The family is a little wealthier than most due to some of the sons working in the army. They hired some musicians to come play, which was cool. The boys/men in the family were all drinking in public, which was weird, to say the least. People are sometimes drunk at weddings here, but I’ve never seen someone walking around with a bottle of vodka in their pocket. Finally, a girl (20 years old?) from another village was there who had different ideas about what was socially acceptable. She danced much more provocatively than other girls. She took off her headscarf and swung her head around quickly, with her hair flying all around. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve only seen on TV Berber weddings. Everyone in the village was talking shit about her the next day.

I’ve recently had two more religion conversations that were more interesting and in depth than the normal “convert” conversations. One was with a nurse in a nearby douar. We were speaking in French, which allowed us to have a bit more nuanced of a conversation. He quoted the Karl Marx “Religion is the opiate of the people” line to me as an example of Western hedonism. He is going through a tough time in the village (lonely, lack of support from the Ministry) and he says that prayer and God helps him get through the difficult times. I pointed out to him how similar what he was telling me was to the Karl Marx line, and he agreed. The other conversation was with this guy from out of town who is from a very religious family. This guy takes his prayers very seriously. He is intense. Unfortunately his Tamazight is not great, so he slips into Arabic a lot. He read the Koran for me and explained parts of it to me. Other than these two men’s devotion to God, the common theme of the conversations was that they both were explaining the wonderfulness of Islam to me. The implication (sometimes more explicit than implied) as they are exalting praise on Islam is that I would be foolish not to convert.

Two of my host mom’s sisters are visiting. They will stay at my host family’s house for a couple of weeks. They are both quiet, but smart and educated. It’s clear that they have more money than other people in our village. The story of my host mom is a mystery to me; everyone in her family is well-educated and living fairly comfortable lives in a city. Her youngest sister is fluent in English and starting her doctorate studies this fall. Somehow my host mom got married to a man 34 years her senior in a poor mountain village 300 kilometers away.

The last story requires some explaining before I dive in. The culture of rural Morocco forbids talk of anything related to the toilet. People don’t go to the bathroom at each other’s houses. There is a word “hashek,” that you use whenever you talk about anything dirty as a way of apologizing for the dirty talk. You say hashek if you wash your hands in front of someone, if you talk about a donkey, and especially if you talk about the toilet.

With that explanation as context for the final story, I’ve been feeling kind of sick for the last week. A little diarrhea, but not much. Mostly just uncomfortable stomach cramps and maybe I’m feeling a little tired. My work this week (and for the past month) has been traveling to my outer villages to recruit women for our upcoming traditional birthing attendant (TBA) training. I was scheduled to go out to a very isolated village 18km from mine to recruit on Saturday. Although I was feeling a little sick in the morning, I got on my bike and headed out.

The whole ride I was feeling pretty good. I had a couple of cramps, but nothing bad. I got to the village and to the house of the guy (Mimoon) who was going to help me. He wasn’t there so the family put me in the guest room with the family patriarch. He started giving me the usual quiz on America, inevitably leading to demands for my immediate conversion to Islam. I wasn’t really listening; my stomach had started cramping pretty bad. Mimoon returned to his house and came into talk to me. He told me that he had spoken to a couple women about the training, but that the women wanted to speak to me about it. Good – I wanted to talk to them as well. But Mimoon said that we ought to have lunch first and go talk to the women when we finished. If there is a guest, tea must precede lunch, so we waited for that to be prepared. And my stomach is getting worse and worse. Unlike the cramps that I’d had previously in the week, these feel like they will require a bathroom. Oh no. The tea is made and I sip on it a little bit. I really don’t want to ask about the bathroom; I’m doing a mental risk calculation. If I ask for the bathroom, it’s certainly a little inappropriate and everyone would feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, if I don’t ask, then 90% of the time, no one knows differently. However, 10% of the time I can’t hold it and there is a drastically more embarrassing event. Added to this calculation is the near certainty that this family does not have a bathroom – the village that I’m in is quite poor. A little time passes and it seems more and more likely that I do not have control over my bowels. I decide to embrace my privilege as a Westerner and ask for the bathroom. There isn’t one, of course, but I’m directed to a spot outside. The spot is not very secluded; just on the edge of the village and easily in view of fields and some other houses. (The cultural taboo against speaking about the bathroom and the fact that the lack of toilets turns going to the bathroom into a very public event makes for an interesting combination.) I do my business as quickly as possible and go back inside. We sit around for a little bit, drinking our tea, (no mention of the bathroom is made) and then lunch is brought out. I tell them that I don’t want to eat very much because I’m sick. Unfortunately Morocco has another cultural taboo against guests refusing food. They tell me to eat, eat, eat, eat. I eat as little and as slowly as possible. As they’re telling me to eat more, I’m developing bigger worries. My cramps are pretty bad; should I go back outside? I’m embarrassed to leave in the middle of lunch to go to the bathroom again. Suddenly my choice on the matter is taken away: I crap my pants. Feeling a little diarrhea escape, then realizing that there is nothing I can do to stop myself from emptying my intestines in my pants during lunch is a unique feeling that I have never felt before. There is a sense of resolution to the dilemma about whether or not to go to the bathroom and a resignation to the inevitable humiliation. And a bit of panic. I say, “Excuse me, I’m returning there.” On my way out I grab my backpack and my 1 liter water bottle. Back outside I am feeling at a loss. I take my pants and underwear off and finish my bowel movement. I can see a woman and her child in a field. They probably don’t notice me, but who knows. However, half naked with bigger problems on my hands, I’ve thrown caution to the wind. I’m glad that I’m embarrassing myself in a village that I don’t live in, but at the same time it sucks that this is happening where I don’t know anyone that can help me and is so far from my house (and bathroom). Thankfully Mimoon has always been nice to me. What to do? Can I wash my pants (and myself) with my half-full water bottle? I use most of the water, but it quickly becomes obvious that this will not nearly be enough. The pants are pretty well ruined. Should I put the pants back on and go inside the house to ask for another pair? No, that seems to be a terrible idea. I put the pants back on (sans underwear) and sit the side of the hill to collect my thoughts. I write a text message to a couple of Peace Corps friends telling them what happened and seeing the story in written form lets me laugh at it. I decide to sit on the side of the hill until someone comes looking for me and then ask them to get Mimoon. Well 5 or 10 minutes later (although it feels much longer) a little kid walks behind the house and I tell him to go get his Dad. Mimoon comes walking out. I ask him if he has some pants he can give me. When he comes back with the pants (two pairs, actually. Moroccans I live with almost always wear two pairs of pants regardless of season) I say, “I’m very sorry and thank you.” He says, “It’s no problem. You’re like us. We all have problems with our bodies/health. It’s no problem” A time that could be totally humiliating turns into a recognition of our common humanness. How wonderful. I just wish it didn’t take me crapping my pants for someone to recognize the human need to use the bathroom. He goes back inside. I use the rest of the water and clean myself as best as I can. I put his pants on and my stomach actually feels OK. Hopefully this is my last trip behind the house. Back in the house, Mimoon and Mimoon’s dad are feeling a little uncomfortable, but that doesn’t last long. I no longer feel embarrassed about it and I think that makes it easier for them to relax as well. They have finished eating, but pour me another glass of tea and try to get me to eat some more. Luckily, the whole “crapping my pants” thing makes it easier (although just a little easier) for me to turn down food. I end up with a little piece of bread (which I kind of want to eat) and a glass of tea (which I don’t want to drink). I finish them both. Alright. I turn to Mimoon and ask him if we can go see the women. He asks, “are you better?” I say “a little.” We go outside and walk to a nearby house. A man whom I’ve met before and another anonymous man are finishing their lunch. The first man’s wife is serving them. We get into the conversation and the woman is having a hard time believing that I speak Tamazight, so Mimoon is translating for me. She is youngish, kind of smart, talkative, and interested: an ideal candidate. The husband (who gives permission about whether or not she can go) is flip-flopping. When I tell him that we did a training like this last year, he is sold. I get the woman’s information and we go to the next house. Another good candidate who is interested (and widowed, allowing her to decide for herself). All the while my stomach is feeling pretty good. A few cramps, but nothing to scare me. We get back to Mimoon’s house, I gather my things and say goodbye. I tell Mimoon that I will meet him in Tounfite the next day (market day) to give him the pants back. He says, “llay-ha-nik.” Which normally means “goodbye,” but in this context means, “forget about it.” I don’t know if he’s telling me he never wants to see his soiled pants again or if he just means “don’t worry about it” in a polite way. My mom calls on my bike ride home, allowing me to laugh about the incident some more. I get home, excited for a bucket bath. Of course, my water is out (it happens about once a week). I have just enough water stored up to take a bucket bath and put the offending pants in a tub with soap and water to soak.