Saturday, September 5, 2009


First, response to the replies. Thanks for your input. Jillian, I don’t think we really disagree at all. Our differences on your first point result from where we live in Morocco. On the second point, I agree with you: misogyny is an appropriate label. I think we witness the same thing. I was just trying to put a new label to the behavior.

I was kind of disappointed that no one responded to what I thought was my most controversial claim: that some volunteers are racist. Is no one going to take issue with that?


Ramadan is the month when Allah (God) revealed the Koran (Muslim holy book) to Mohamed (God’s prophet). The Muslim calendar is lunar, so the month of Ramadan moves forward a little over a week every year.

All observant Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during Ramadan, the holiest month in the year. Fasting means no eating, drinking, smoking, sex, thinking bad thoughts, saying bad words. It seems that people are more diligent about making their prayers (Muslims are supposed to pray five times per day) during Ramadan. At the least, more men make their prayers in the mosque as opposed to the home. Ramadan is a month of prayer, reflection, and religious study. In the cosmic count that determines every person’s eternal fate after death, prayers made during Ramadan count twice as much in the good column. (In comparison, prayers made in Mecca (Islam’s holiest city) during Ramadan count for 100,000 times as much as normal prayers). So there is an incentive to be diligent about your prayers during Ramadan.

Last year, I fasted 30 straight days. I was very careful not to eat or drink. One day I accidentally ate, but it was an honest mistake. I’m being much less diligent this year. The first day of the fast I was traveling all day, got thirsty, and drank. With the month halfway elapsed, I have cheated on two other days. I considered not even fasting at all after a conversation I had with a Moroccan who does not fast. He said, “Why fast? You’re not Muslim. Be respectful, don’t eat in public. But there’s no reason to fast.” He’s definitely right, but I’m (half-heartedly) fasting anyways.

The hardest part of fasting for me isn’t being hungry or thirsty, but just being low energy for most of the day. I’ve been waking up at 9 am, taking a nap every afternoon, and going to bed at 11 or 12. Some days I wake up at 3 am to eat a snack and go back to sleep. There isn’t as much going on outside, so when I am awake I spend most of my time reading and writing. Ramadan is boring and passing slowly.

It’s impossible to write about Ramadan without writing about people’s generosity. I have not cooked a meal in my house for the entire month, and I don’t expect to. I get an invitation to someone’s house for the break fast almost every day. If I don’t get an invitation, my host family has extended a permanent invitation, telling me, “If no one else invites you, come to our house. Don’t eat in your house.” There was one day where I accidentally accepted too many invitations and got in trouble for forgetting to go to someone’s house. I really appreciate the invitations. It’s nice to get to know people in their houses. It would be miserable to fast and not be able to break fast with other people. Break fast is definitely my favorite part of the day and I start counting down the hours until sunset everyday around noon (only 7 hours left!).

Men stand outside in the center of town in the few hours before the sunset prayer. Time passes a little faster talking to other people and forgetting to check your watch every five minutes. The people who don’t pray in the mosque walk to their houses a few minutes before the call to prayer. In my host family’s house, I go in and say hi to my host mom and dad. The call to prayer goes off and they both make their prayers. I stare at the food, impatiently waiting for them to finish their prayers so I can eat. We break our fast by eating a date (as instructed by the Koran). We stuff ourselves with greasy, sugary food and sit back to watch the special Ramadan programming on TV.

The unfortunate part of Ramadan (for me) is that the month puts religion in everyone’s mind. I get at least twice as much harassment during Ramadan about converting. Several times a day, people ask me to convert. Everyone asks me if I’m fasting. When I say that I am, the next question is: “Do you pray?” My skill at deflecting these sort of questions is getting better, but some people can be persistent. As I’ve noted before, it’s normally the least observant people who give me a hard time. Some people tell me that Christianity and Jesus are bad and that Mohamed is the only path. I’m amazed at the lack of empathy that allows people to tell someone else (their friend) that their religion is bad. Everyone wants to know how I pray. I try to emphasize similarities (common God, common values) rather than reverence of different prophets. It’s unbelievable how persistent people are; after more than 15 months of living in my site, the same people are still trying to convert me. Last night, however, I was having the typical discussion and a couple guys were giving me a hard time for not being a Muslim and two others told them to leave me alone. They made arguments about how Christians and Muslims were similar, not different. That was nice.

The strange thing about the constant requests for conversion is that it turns me into a vehement defender of Christianity. I frequently end up arguing things that I do not believe. For example, Muslims think the idea that Jesus is the Son of God is absurd and I happen to agree with them. But I feel that I have to defend this position in order to maintain the myth that I am an observant Christian (a Christian is acceptable, although inferior to a Muslim. An atheist is a deviant who would be ostracized).

Thank God, there are exceptions to the harassment. My host family is the most respectful of anyone that I’ve met. My host dad has said a couple times that I should think about converting, but never insistent and always respectfully. Once my host mom walked in on him telling me that and she said, “Don’t bother him about that. We’re all the same.” End of conversation. The families that I am closest with in town don’t give me a hard time at all. I appreciate that there are some people who don’t make in issue of religion.

One huge difference btw Morocco and America that I always forget about is how pervasive religion is here. People use God phrases ALL THE TIME and they say them in total sincerity. They are constantly thanking god and appealing to him for things. Example: on the taxi from Tounfite to Boumia yesterday, the woman sitting next to me whispered to herself “adi rbbi ster” the entire time continuously. That means “God protect.” I didn’t even think it was weird. Can you imagine someone doing that in America? I can’t.


In my reading time, I’ve been working on two very hard-hitting books. First is A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Examining the history of the oppressed and downtrodden (rather than the political elite) in United States history, it presents a very different view of what our country has been through. According to Zinn, our history is one of violence, racism, sexism, and the powerful keeping the weak in their place. My favorite part of Zinn’s book is his admission, from the outset, that his presentation of history is biased. All histories are biased, he’s just the only one to say it.

The second is The Road to Hell by Michael Maren. Maren was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya and afterward worked for USAID in Kenya and Somalia. He was extremely jaded by his experience with USAID and reading his account it’s no wonder why. Maren’s job at USAID was to monitor the distribution of food aid to Somalis. He started reporting massive problems in the distribution, but then found that none of the higher ups in USAID wanted to know about it. Food aid in Somalia was stolen by elites and sold to buy weapons and buy off political opponents. Free food removed Somalia’s incentive to regain food independence. Food aid programs taught people how to game the foreign aid system, not how to wean themselves off of it. Worst is the way USAID and other aid agencies were aware of the deleterious effects that their actions were having and simply looked the other way; if they canceled their programs, they were out of a job. The real demon in the story appears to be Save the Children. As characterized by Maren, Save is guilty of profiteering, exploitation, willful deception, and complicity in allowing their resources to be used by war criminals to perpetuate Somalia’s problems, rather than address them. Maren managed to obtain internal documents from both Save and the UN that expose the agencies awareness in the disastrous consequences that their programs were having.

Perversely, from Maren’s point of view, the root of the whole disaster of food aid is the agricultural lobby in the United States. Subsidies and protection from foreign imports encourage US farmers to produce far more food that can be consumed in the US every year. If the food were released into the US market, it would eat into farmer’s profits. So US agriculture convinced USAID to buy its surplus and dump it in African markets under the guise of a “Food for Peace” program. They don’t care how much food Africa needs, they just want the government to buy their food to keep prices high. Having cheap/free food come into Africa undercuts local farmers and thus creates dependency on food aid. Furthermore, some 75+% percent of “aid” contracts are mandated to go to US corporations. “Aid” legislation seems to be corporate interests fighting over the distribution of handouts. African politicians are stealing millions from their people, but it’s really nothing compared to the corruption in the US government.

It’s a must read for anyone joining the Peace Corps or hoping to work for any aid agency. Somalia is just one case and probably the one where foreign intervention has had the most negative effect, but the underlying reasons that foreign aid corrupted Somalia apply to any recipient country. It’s important to ask why countries that have received aid for decades are still the poorest countries in the world. Only one country (South Korea) has gone from being an aid recipient to an aid donor. Aid was important to South Korea’s development, but the real reason it has succeeded is good governance and economic policies.

While in Peace Corps I’ve read three other books that are critical of development (Dead Aid, White Man’s Burden, and The Village of Waiting). As a whole, the four books make foreign aid seem like the worst thing that could have happened to the “developing” world. As I see it, the three biggest flaws in aid agencies strategies are: 1) not understanding the situation in the country 2) their top-down approach and 3) agencies’ ulterior motives perverting the implementation of their program. Reading these books makes me think that aid workers ought to be required to take the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. I’m struggling with a bigger question: Is it possible to spur development through foreign intervention? Working for the World Bank or another development agency is something that I am considering after finishing school. Is it possible to do good while working for such an agency or are you just a cog in the machine?

I don’t believe that helping the downtrodden is a moral imperative, but I do have compassion for those who are less well off. Is there any way to act on that compassion that isn’t inherently condescending? From The Road to Hell, “The more time I spent in the village the more aware I became of the connection between the desire to enlighten, to do development work, and the desire to rule.”

Another thing

The linguistic diversity nearby me is incredible. I was talking to a man from a village 10 km away. I can understand him well enough to communicate, but not nearly as well as I understand people from my community. People in my town say that people in other towns talk differently. There is a greater difference in language between my town and a town 10 km away than there is between boston and los angelos, separated by 5000 km. The linguistic variety suggests just how isolated these villages were until French colonization.

Besides these heavy issues, all is well here. We got a big rainstorm September 1st, marking the beginning of fall. Day time temperature is very nice. We get a rainstorm every afternoon and then evenings are cool.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Duncan, the phrase you used, "our history is one of violence, racism, sexism, and the powerful keeping the weak in their place" resonated with the book I am reading, a very different genre (historical fiction), and place (Australia). The book is The True History of the Kelly Gang. Despite his fine spirit, keen sense of fairness and justice, honesty, hard work, and faithfulness to family and friends (perhaps too faithful to his mother), Ned Kelly was persistently pushed to a life as an outlaw by corrupt police, corrupt judges, and corrupt government. Where is the history of a people not besmirched by "the powerful keeping the weak in their place?"