Monday, October 25, 2010

On the Road

Some of my favorite moments in Morocco having taken place in the inherently overcrowded vehicles that make up Morocco's public transportation system. Ironically*, it has also been the source of many of my discomforts and frustrations. I guess that's life in a nutshell. But before I recount some of those stories here, I will give you a little bit of background information.

Unless you own your own car (I know a grand total of two people who do), you are forced to rely on the amalgam network of public transportation vehicles:

Petite taxis are used for getting around within cities. They are color-coded by city, and while some charge a flat rate to go anywhere in town, others use a meter. Look out, though, because in Marrakech and some of the other touristy cities, they will try to tell you it is broken and demand an exorbitant price. Always settle on the price before you get in.

Grand taxis are used for getting from one town to the next. They legally cram six passengers into these sedans (four in the backseat and two sharing the front passenger), but I have traveled with as many as 14 in the wagon-style (use your imagination as to how exactly this worked, but I will tell you there was a pubescent boy sitting on the left side of the driver.) Grand taxis generally only cover certain “territories”, so if you want to take a longer trip, you may have to “taxi hop.” This means that you take one taxi to the edge of its territory, and then you catch another one and take it to the edge of its territory and so on until you reach your destination. You catch grand taxis at the taxi stations, and they won't leave until six passengers all wanting to go to the same place have arrived. Depending on the day and time, this can take a while, so I always bring a book.

Transits are large van-like contraptions that are most commonly used to bring people from the more remote mountain villages once a day. Souq (market) days are especially interesting because of the much higher demand, and it isn't unusual for a transit to wait to leave until not only the entire inside is crammed full, but the roof is also swarming with people, vegetables, chickens, sheep, mattresses, and any number of other wares hanging on for dear life. Don't worry, though Mom, I have never ridden up top.

Souq buses are local buses that drive all over the country making stops whenever someone claps their hands to get off or flags them down from a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere. These generally compete with transits for being the most colorful way to get around, and therefore tend to be my favorite. They are also nice for medium length trips (between 1-4 hours) that cover the territory of several different grand taxi stations because you don't have deal with getting on and off like you would if you were taxi hopping. They are also generally more physically comfortable than grand taxis because you get your own seat, even though you may have to sit next to a kid “sharing” his personal music with everyone around him by blaring it from his cell phone. You might also be surprised to find that the old Berber woman across the aisle is carrying a box full of live pigeons, or that baby chickens are wandering up and down the aisle looking for their mother.

CTM buses offer a more urbane atmosphere and make regular, usually fairly scheduled stops in major cities. Since they are a bit pricier, they tend to be full of tourists and the Moroccan elite. For long trips (more than 4 hours), I usually spring for these because of the savings in time (no random stops) and headache that can result from multiple hours of competing personal stereo systems.

Trains are the nicest and fastest option, if you happen to be in the more developed north and going from one big city to another. Some are older, but the newer ones feature A/C and are quite comfortable. Since I live in the south, though, I rarely get to use them.

Because of the communal and often cramped nature of the business of getting around, I find that humanity is more exaggerated. This includes the good sides and the bad sides, but perhaps because I tend to walk on the sunny side of the street, I think the former is more prevalent. The following events took place some time last summer on souq day in the next town closest to us just after we moved into our own house:

We decided to paint our house. The previous volunteer, bless her soul, painted the salon a pounding fluorescent pink that just had to go. So, we hopped into a taxi to the next town where the nearest hardware store was to pick up some paint and a few other household essentials. We bought a pair of low, round wooden tables that are common here as well as a few vegetables before making the final stop for the paint. As we were selecting the colors, it began to rain. Then, it began to pour. After huddling with other similarly stuck people under the meager awning for several minutes, we decided to make a dash for the taxi stand. We scuttled as fast as we could carrying a 66 lb bucket of paint and two wooden tables before ducking into the back of an already crowded grand taxi. It was steamy with the warmth of our bodies inside and the coolness of the summer storm outside, so the driver kept having to remove the pink towel he had draped over his head to wipe the windshield. The two old women sitting in front of us apparently hadn't finished their shopping yet, so the driver went around to the various places where they had errands and would dash out into the rain with a shopping list before returning to wipe his forehead and the re-steamed windshield. Meanwhile, all the passengers, us included, were chatting merrily. The last stop was the bakery, and when the driver returned with several bags full of freshly baked bread, the women passed chunks of the steaming loaves around to all the passengers, apologizing for the delay they caused. The rain forced us into even more cramped quarters than usual, but it also made everything seem more vibrant—the smell of the bread, the feel of the moisture, and the sound of the water tinkling on the metal roof. It all worked together to make this one of the most human moments I've experienced here in Morocco.

The next story takes place on a winding mountain pass that goes up and over the High Atlas mountains from Marrakech to Ouarzazate. The view it offers is one of the most spectacular you will ever see—that is assuming you are not vomiting your guts out from car sickness. It's no wonder that the pass is called Tishka, which means “difficult.”

Since the Tishka offers enough potential challenges, I usually spring for the plusher CTM bus ticket. However, by no means is the ride comfortable. Although some people have no problem with the 4.5 hour ride, I, unfortunately, am not one of them. On this particular instance, the bus is full, and I am traveling alone. The seat next to me is occupied by a 30ish man dressed in a traditional jellaba and white scull cap indicating that he has taken the religious journey to Mecca required of all Muslims who are able. His mustache-less beard indicates that he is particularly devout. Other than a brief formal greeting, he says nothing to me. As we twist and wind our way through the breathtaking scenery, I close my eyes and try to focus on falling asleep. About 2 hours into the journey, the hairpin turns become even more folded in upon themselves until one can hardly believe that a bus is able to go around them. My nausea is creeping in. People around me begin to vomit into plastic shopping bags. The sound and smell is not helping my efforts to hold myself together. The man next to me also seems to be struggling. He reaches for a red book lettered with elaborate gold Arabic calligraphy and begins to read aloud. Whatever your religious beliefs, an oral recitation of the Q'ran is one of the most beautiful and peaceful things. I am not Muslim, and I don't understand a word (well, I know Allah—God), but it doesn't seem to matter. The effect is almost instantly pacifying. The Q'ran is written in verse, and the cadence of the original Arabic sounds like a song even when it is just spoken. My neighbor reads aloud for almost an hour, by which time my nausea has passed. I am fairly certain that if it weren't for those rhythmic words, I would no longer have had possession of my meager breakfast. At the end of our journey, I quietly thanked the man next to me. He looked down and humbly responded “bla shukran a welajeeb,” which roughly translates to “no thanks are needed because it was my duty.”

This next story takes place in a transit leaving the village where I live. As I mentioned before, they cram as many people into these things as is possible. I mean, things get really cozy. By the time I got in, there were already 19 other people in the van. So, we're riding along, and everyone is laughing and talking. The driver, for some reason, decides that he wants everyone to pay in advance (usually we pay after we arrive). So, since he's driving, he asks this random passenger to collect money from all the other passengers. This is a big ordeal because he first has to figure out how many people there are (not obvious because some people are on laps and on the floors. There are even two guys in the trunk.) Anyway, once everyone settles down and pays up, he asks, “okay, did everyone pay?” There is silence for a couple of seconds, and then out of nowhere, we all hear a loud “baaahaahha”. Apparently, there's been a sheep in the trunk with the two guys the whole time, and he wanted to make sure he was accounted for**.

These stories recount just a few of many adventures I've had using the public transportation system in Morocco. There are countless others—one time a stranger bought me a sandwich because he thought I might be hungry. He didn't know I had already packed one. Another time, a van swerved in front of the souq bus I was riding, forcing the driver to turn sharply and stop to avoid a collision. The van zoomed off, but nearly every male on board immediately got off and ran after the van shaking their fists. It was almost two hours until they all wandered back unsuccessfully and we were able to continue on our journey. Almost every time it rains, there are flash floods that create temporarily impassable rivers across the road. So, everyone piles out, takes pictures with their cell phone cameras, and mills around for however long it takes for the river to subside (usually less than an hour) or the driver decides to turn back. As I mentioned briefly, I feel like the hodgepodge system of modes of transport and forced physical proximity of strangers who happen to be thrown together creates a sort of amplified humanity where anything can happen. Almost every time I go somewhere, there is a feeling of “we're all in this together.” I think this feeling typifies much of life in Morocco, and I feel lucky to be a part of it!

* I am always nervous to use the word “ironically” because so many people bitch about how everyone else always misuses it. They then give some definition or example of how the concept is misused (the most common is the song “Isn't it ironic?” by Alanis Morisette, which apparently, despite the title, contains no examples of irony whatsoever). I confess that I have heard so many literati give conflicting definitions of irony that I have no idea who is right, and so I usually avoid using it. However, in this blog entry, I believe I am at least close to what some people would consider the correct usage, and I could not think of another conjunction.

** Side note about sheep and goats: they sound exactly like a person trying to sound like a sheep or a goat.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


This last May marked the passing of our first year in our village (not including the 2 months of training prior to arriving in site.) In terms of seasons, everything we are now experiencing, we have already experienced once. Since rural Morocco is very much guided by the seasons, that means a lot—we experienced our second wheat and barley harvest, our second end of the school year and mass exodus of teachers, other professionals, and anyone who has enough money to get out of town before the hot summer. A new group of Peace Corps volunteers has arrived and completed training. As I’m experiencing all these things, I can’t help but reflect on what things were like the first time I experienced them. During the barley and wheat harvests, no one sleeps and everyone is extremely busy and tired all the time. Harvest happened to fall during the time when we were living with a Moroccan family, and I remember thinking that they never paid us any attention. Now I can see that they were just exhausted from working so much. I also know that now that we are between the grain and fruit/almond harvests, people sleep a lot during the day, so I can expect to just stay in my house for the better part of the afternoon.

The arrival of the new group of volunteers has also been cause for reflection. I can see so much of my former self in their attitudes and emotions. At the beginning of this month, they all moved into their own houses after a total of 4 months of living with 2 different Moroccan families. Hearing them talk about how good it feels to be able to dress, act, and eat whatever they want in the comfort of their own space makes me remember the immense pleasure I got waking up after spending the first night in my own house.

A lot of my values and ideas about what it means to do development work have changed without me even realizing it. Even though I was logically aware that projects that are started by people from outside the community almost never work in a sustainable or meaningful way, I still believed that I could enlighten and motivate our community to take action to change what I thought were obvious needs. Many failed attempts and a year later, I know that it is not possible (for me at least) to motivate people who don’t want to be motivated. Now I am definitely not saying the Moroccans are not motivated—I have seen some truly inspiring work here—but they are only motivated about the things they believe are worth being motivated about. It just so happens that many of the things that our community is motivated about are not the same things that I initially was motivated about. My job as a development worker is to be open to the needs identified by the community, and help them to do something about meeting those needs. Sometimes, though, it is just a matter of the angle that you approach things. For example, I conducted a series of informal health discussions with women and girls in my neighborhood. The first one was about nutrition. Lots of people were interested because with the influence of Western media and values, the concept of beauty has changed from a nice, fat, well-endowed women to the thinner version that is valued in the Western world. The young women were interested in learning how to be thinner, and they saw nutrition as a means to accomplish that end. As soon as I started talking about how eating good foods can prevent diseases like hypertension and diabetes (both of which are huge problems in this area), the women lost interest, but as soon as I started talking about how to lose weight, they got really interested. The angle I was hoping to push with nutrition was how a healthy lifestyle can help you prevent diseases and not need to depend on the clinic or medicines (which can be unreliable and expensive). However, the conception of prevention doesn’t really exist here, and all they cared about was looking good so they could get a good husband. It took me a long time to accept that even though the motives are different, if the end result is the same, I guess that is good enough for now.

Another thing I have realized about development work is that a lot of money is wasted. Even if it isn’t wasted, people may come to expect it, which defeats the whole purpose of development work. This has been a pretty major attitude change for me because I have always been pretty supportive of social spending. I am still supportive of a lot of social spending, but I think there needs to be a few things that need to be corrected before social spending can be effective. Firstly, you have to eliminate corruption. Corruption exists everywhere, including America, but it is pretty strongly rooted in the Moroccan government. I think the only way to eliminate corruption is to encourage true democratic participation. (I want to clarify that I don’t mean the kind of token democracy that exists in America, but true democracy where citizens are free and able to be critical of and actually make changes in their society.)

The second thing that needs to happen to make social spending effective is also related to democratic participation. Young people need to learn how to be proactive citizens that are both personally and socially responsible. One thing that I love about Moroccan culture—and this is true of other Islamic nations as well—is that they have a strong sense of social responsibility. However, the political structure is set up so that personal responsibility is not as emphasized. Both are crucial for the existence of an effective and just society. The best way I can think of accomplishing this is through educational reform and youth programs. Currently, the system of education is largely based on memorization and other consumerist socialization methods. (By consumerist, I mean that information is absorbed without critical processing.) Additionally, in the past, graduation from university pretty much guaranteed a job with the government. For many reasons, this is no longer true, so people are upset that they don’t have jobs after they graduate. This is an understandable frustration, but the fact of the matter is that their consumerist education has not taught them any marketable skills. Educational reform that focuses on critical thinking blended with the already existing social responsibility would be a great step in the direction of a more just society. Under these conditions, social spending can be most effective in allowing for the continuation of programs that ensure quality education and support for all citizens.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about how I, as an individual development worker in a foreign country, can be most effective. Unfortunately, I don’t think I am able to do much about corruption directly. I can, however, work with youth to empower them to identify and change what needs to be changed in their own society. I don’t have the power or ability to work on systemic changes, nor should I—I think that kind of change needs to take place from within—but I plan on working with individuals with whom I come into contact. We are planning a peer education program which teaches middle school students leadership and creativity skills, as well as basic information about health and other topics. It is then up to the students to develop effective ways of communicating that information to their peers. I am excited about this program for several reasons. Firstly, it is an area that I have identified where I can personally make a difference. Secondly, I know it is cliché, but the youth are the future, and working with them is the best way to stimulate change from within. And lastly, it is basically free and does not require outside support, thereby reducing dependency on foreign aid.

It’s funny how change and progress sneak up on you. It is easy to get caught up in the day to day worries in life without taking time to reflect on the bigger picture. I am grateful for this opportunity to be living and working abroad and for the opportunities it has provided for me to reflect on my life and my role in the larger society. I hope that I continue to reflect on my experiences and not forget to feel grateful for the opportunities I have and the progress I am making.

TashlHeit Wedding!

I have been to a few weddings since I’ve been here, but this last one definitely takes the cake (there was no cake, actually.) My friend and neighbor, Bedia, was the bride. The groom was someone from Ouarzazate who I didn’t know. Chances are, she didn’t really either. The whole neighborhood was busy day and night making preparations for about a week, but the wedding itself lasted three days. Before I get into the details of this specific wedding, I should give a little background about TashlHeit weddings in general.

Traditionally, weddings last three days. The first two days of the wedding are celebrated separately—one party at the groom’s house and one party at the bride’s house. On the last day, usually around midnight, they come together at one house for the joining of the new couple.

On the first day, they have a dinner for the men. Typically, they serve first a whole chicken with French fries and green olives, and then a stewed beef and prune tagine. Desert is usually some sort of fruit. The second day is the women’s lunch. They serve either couscous, or the same meal as the men. The women’s party is accompanied by constant drumming, singing, and dancing. Even before the actual wedding starts, if they are done with their work for a while, they default into song and dance. On the third day, the real party starts. Men and women are both served, although they are not in the same area. Often, the men will be outside and the women inside, or perhaps they will be in different houses. Depending on how conservative the village and the family, gender segregation is more or less strictly enforced. This doesn’t stop weddings from being the best place to get engaged, though. Everyone dresses up in their finest, glitteriest, and, to the untrained eye, tackiest, clothes. Women go around and spray strong perfume on you when you least expect it, so that you never quite get used to the musky, borderline alcoholic smell of Moroccan perfume.

There are a variety of ceremonies that accompany weddings. In a traditional TashlHeit wedding, the bride wears a red scarf over her face the whole time, as well as an elaborate, dangly headdress. Part of the joining ceremony involves taking off her scarf in the presence of the groom (under a blanket) and showing him her hair. This is significant because the husband and family are supposed to be the only ones who can see a woman’s hair. (A barber here once refused to cut my hair because he knew that I was married and didn’t want my husband to get jealous because he was touching my hair.) Another aspect of TashlHeit weddings, although not a ceremony per se, is parading the bride around for all to see. During the second day, at the women’s lunch, she sits for hours while she gets her hands and feet elaborately tattooed with henna. She spends most of her time throughout the three-day wedding literally sitting on a pedestal having her picture taken.

So now that you have a general idea about how TashlHeit weddings are, I will tell you about the details of Bedia’s wedding. The first thing that was a little different about her wedding was the chronology of events. The men’s dinner was first, as normal, but because some unknown reason, they postponed the women’s lunch until after the joining ceremony that normally takes place on the third day. This was confusing for everyone. Anyway, so my [other] neighbor knocked on my door around 5pm and told me to get my clothes so that we could go over to the wedding house to get ready. When I arrived, it was a cacophony of women rushing around to put pillows in place, finish preparing food, and get dressed. My neighbor ushered me into a back room piled with colorful, glittering dresses and plastic bags full of makeup and jewelry where several women and girls were frantically trying to figure out what they were going to wear. Since I had already done my makeup and I only had one dress choice (the one my neighbor lent me), I was ready pretty quickly.

As more women finished, we started to gather in the courtyard to play drums, sing, and dance while we waited for other guests to arrive. I was glad I got there relatively early because I got a nice place to sit next to a fig tree and as guests arrived, I didn’t have to get up to greet them—they just came to me as they went around and kissed everyone’s hands in the traditional style. Around 9pm, the groom’s party arrived. We all went out to greet them by singing, drumming, and clapping for about an hour. The women in the groom’s party were carrying all kinds of brightly wrapped gifts on trays on their heads, which they impressively balanced while dancing. The men did a traditional AHeydus dance, which involves standing in line and singing and clapping. They had hired a special band to play as well. After a while, we all went inside. Sugary mint tea and cookies were served, and then the bride came out in an elaborate white and silver outfit. She got into a silver glittery coach, which was carried around the courtyard by four boys dressed up in capes and pointy hats. Everyone took lots of pictures. After a while, she went into a back room to rest and change into her next outfit. The women went into the courtyard for more singing and dancing, and the men went outside where the band was and just sat around and talked. Girls came around with a variety of fancy, sugary cookies, mint tea, and almonds every hour or so. We did this for about 7 hours. Every hour or so, the bride came out in a new outfit and posed for more pictures on her elaborate, silver, LED- lit pedestal couch.

Around 2am, they finally served dinner. At 4am, the bride came out in her final outfit—a white, American style wedding dress. The bride and groom fed each other sugary cookies and milk from a fancy goblet. The groom then gave the bride several pieces of jewelry, including a ring. She gave him a ring as well. Then, they tossed small gifts of food and candy to the guests before heading back to their room to consummate the marriage. The rest of the guests rushed outside to cram themselves into cars so that they could drive around the neighborhood honking and yelling. Fortunately for me, I was too slow and all the cars were full by the time I got outside. So, I got to go to bed, just as the dawn call to prayer was being announced.

If this sounds exhausting to you, you’re right. I have just described one night of three, so imagine this whole thing multiplied. If you happen to be a close friend or family member to the bridal couple, you have been doing this for a week. The purpose, as far as I can tell, is to show the community how well you can provide for your family, but also to share with them your wealth. In American weddings, the motivation is a little different—the bride wants to live her fairytale dream—but the result is often just as elaborate. I’m not sure what it is about weddings that make people spend so much time, energy, and money, but they sure make for a good party!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I recently completed the major project of my Peace Corps service thus far. It was a huge collaborative effort by me, Sean, 7 other Peace Corps volunteers, the Ministry of Health, a local development association, a national AIDS awareness association, 42 high school student leaders, and about 20 medical professionals, teachers, and community leaders from the region. It entailed 5 different peer education and professional trainings, many great discussions about values, religion, society, health, and development, lots of traveling and networking, and countless meetings, emails, and text messages spread out over the course of the last 5 months. It culminated in 2 HIV/AIDS and STI education tents—one for men and one for women—from 8am to 9pm every day for the three days of the Rose Festival. Collectively, our peer educators had discussions with a grand total of 2,560 Moroccan men, women, boys, and girls over the course of three days. I mean, they had real, honest, sometimes controversial discussions. 523 people were tested for HIV. Potentially best of all, though is that we empowered 60 people to do sexual health education on their own and in future projects with all the participating associations. In addition, they gained confidence as public speakers and community leaders. Wow. I think we deserve bragging rights for that. When I say it, I can hardly believe these results are ours.

Okay, I admit this post is little more than bragging, but sometimes I just need that. I am not above the need to feel that what I do with my life is validated by successes now and again, especially because much of this experience has been small and a trying. It is important to step back from your life from time to time to examine the bigger picture. I hope you all can do that, too. I would love to hear about it!

A “Typical” Day

A common question I get from new volunteers or other people who are not in the Peace Corps is, “What is a typical day like for you?” My answer is usually that there is no typical day in Peace Corps. However, if I had to provide an example of the kind of day that I commonly have when I am not traveling, working on a big project, or doing anything else outside of daily life, yesterday would be a pretty good example.

I woke up around 7:30am to the bright sun streaming in through my open window. Summer has already begun. Sean and I made a quick breakfast of homemade yogurt, ground dried figs, bananas, and wheat germ. I had a glass of [unsweetened] gunpowder green tea with lavender while Sean drank an Americano made with his used camp stove espresso maker he bought at souq for less than 3 American dollars and cream made from adding more than the normal amount of powdered milk. While I did the dishes from last night and that morning, Sean did his workout in our “gym” (we converted one of the many empty rooms in our mud house by putting in my yoga mat, a medicine ball made from a pillowcase with small gravel inside, and two empty 5 liter plastic bottles filled with water as weights). While Sean took a bucket bath, I did my morning workout consisting of about 30 minutes of yoga and 30 minutes of weight lifting. By the time we had both showered and dressed, it was about quarter to 10. We biked the mile or so into town to teach our bi-weekly English class for local middle school students. It is a small but dedicated group. No one showed up for the second class, but that was just as well because we had a meeting with our counterpart at the clinic. However, it turns out that he had to take the 4x4 into the outer villages in the mountains at the last minute because the other nurse wasn’t able to, so he wasn’t available to meet with us anyway.

After checking our mail and talking with a few people we knew from town, we headed back home to start on lunch. By then it was pretty hot, and we were glad to get home into the coolness of our courtyard. Sean made a lunch of lentils and cold salad while I caught up on some emails I had copied from the cyber. Afterwards, I read and took a short nap while Sean did some things on the computer. Around 4pm, we went back into town to meet with our friend the hygiene technician at the clinic. It is harvest time right now, and everyone is working long hours in the fields cutting barley and alfalfa by hand. We had tea and cookies before walking about 2 miles through the cool fields to help her harvest. After about 2 hours of harvesting, we loaded up the donkey for the trip home. Apparently, we didn’t do a very good job of balancing the load, or the harness wasn’t on properly or something, because a short ways down the path, the whole load tipped over. A brief side note about donkeys: they are very hardworking and very stupid. This one was actually the neighbor’s donkey that we were borrowing, and he has been taking the same path between house and field for so long that he has memorized it. Once you slap him on the ass, he will just go until he arrives at his destination. So, this donkey was still going, even after his load tipped sideways. Luckily, a group of 4 young boys were coming down the path towards us, and they caught the donkey and stopped him. We tried various ways of securing the saddle and the barley, but we kept being interrupted by the donkey just deciding to walk away and continue on his own path. About 20 minutes and several laughs later, we finally managed to secure the load. We said goodbye to the helpful boys and continued our way home. By this time, it was starting to get dark, so we said goodbye and walked the rest of the way home. Sean made delicious Thai food, and we watched an episode of Firefly before heading to bed. Overall, it was a pretty satisfying day.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Berber Warlords and Secret Prisons

I think I mentioned before that our site is full of old, crumbling Kasbahs. Other than the one that is supposedly haunted, the Kasbahs have mostly just become a really cool backdrop to our life in Morocco. Gradually, I even stopped really noticing them except for every once in a while when the lighting is really spectacular or something. But then, I happened to discover something pretty amazing about one particular Kasbah.

Sean and I were hanging out in the cyber checking our email when one of the guys who works there called Sean over to show him some picture montages he created. One of the montages was of this especially big and ornate Kasbahs in one of the douars (neighborhoods). Despite its decay, the interior and exterior decorations were pretty impressive. Plaster moldings were painted in a style he told us was from early 20th century. There was even a tiled bathroom complete with a bathtub. The craziest part was the prison in the lower level. Apparently, this was one of the many Glaoui Kasbahs that were all over southern Morocco. The Glaouis were a powerful Berber family of warlords that controlled southern Morocco from the 19th century until independence in 1956. They were infamous for their brutality and commonly tortured, killed, and/or imprisoned anyone who threatened their power. The French supported them financially during the colonial period in exchange for their cooperation. In addition to the money they received from the French, the Glaouis demanded “mandatory gifts” from the people under their control in exchange for “protection”. Of course, if anyone refused, they were put into one of their many prisons or publicly punished.

Our friend at the cyber offered to give us a tour of the Glaoui Kasbah, which we gladly accepted. It was amazing. We were trying to guess when it was built, but it is hard to say because it has many different additions. The main central section looks ancient, whereas the most recent area has fairly modern plasterwork and painting. We found a date carved into some of the plasterwork on the ceiling to be 1360 in the Islamic calendar, which translates to roughly 1940. It was inhabited up through independence in 1956 and all the way into the 1970s when it became too dangerously decrepit. The most chilling part was by far the prison, which was basically just a dark hole where they threw people. We didn’t get any good pictures of the prison because there were no windows for light. However, we got some amazing shots of some of the plaster work and the view from the top. Check my Picasa account to see them.

When we got back, we got to talking about how crazy it was that there was an old warlord prison in our site. That led to a discussion about all the other secret prisons that existed throughout the history of Morocco. During the reign of King Hassan II (1962-1999), secret prisons were fairly common. Political dissenters were kidnapped and then released into these places with no idea where they were or how they got there. Many were tortured and killed. If they were released, often years later, they usually never found out where they had been kept. One of the most famous of these secret prisons was actually underneath the famous square of D’Jamaa El Fna in Marrakech. Prisoners who were taken there could hear the noise and music from festivities above them and were later able to identify where they were taken. There is also an old secret prison on the road between Klaa and Errachidia. King Hassan II’s son and successor, Mohammed VI, has turned it and many others into memorials for the people who were abducted.

But Moroccans are not the only ones to have created and used secret prisons. There is a CIA blackout site in the middle of nowhere in eastern Morocco near the Algerian border between Outat el Haj and Guercif that was used to harbor suspected terrorists until 2006. Because it was conveniently located off US soil, many human rights laws were ignored. The site has been closed down, but it is scary reminder that the days of secret prisons are not as distant as history might make you think. Having an old secret prison in our own site is an even more insistent reminder of the past.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Finding Purpose and Making Progress: My Work in Morocco

Even though my official job title is Health Educator, my job description is very vague. Peace Corps and the Ministry of Health in Morocco came up with a project framework that outlines the major health concerns that they want Peace Corps volunteers in general to address, but they don’t expect or even want every volunteer to address every concern. So, it is up to each volunteer to decide (based on a set of loose assessment tools they gave us during training) what the most appropriate and pressing needs are and then figure out how to address them. It is about the most unstructured job I can think of, and it has taken me nearly all the time I have been in site (about 8.5 months, not including the 2 months of training before we got to site) to figure out even what I should be working on.

It’s funny, but I feel like just in the last few weeks all the gradual growth and progress I have been slowly working on without many noticeable changes have all of a sudden exploded into a very noticeable difference. For example, I am getting compliments on my language ability, which is something that I have struggled a lot with here. Not that I am great yet—I still only understand about 80% of what is said to me—but I lately seem to have gotten a lot better all at once. Our Moroccan friendships are starting to feel more like real friendships rather than forced ones, and we have started taking daily 1.5 hikes into the mountains with our host mom. She had a health scare and is taking the doctor’s advice for dealing with her cholesterol pretty seriously. It has been great for our relationship with her as well as our position in the community. Work has also recently gotten a lot more productive. We have been having weekly meetings with our local associations to plan a project design and management workshop for some other not-so-productive associations. We also hosted 16 other volunteers at our house last week for a regional meeting to collaborate on projects and share information. We are planning a huge HIV/AIDS and STD risk awareness campaign for an annual festival in May. We are hoping to put on separate tents for men and women to educate about the risks of infection and transmission. The town where the festival is going to be is notorious for its prostitutes, so we are also hoping to work with an association to do a risk awareness and condom usage education session for the prostitutes a few weeks before the festival. We hosted an HIV/AIDS and STD training for volunteers this week and we got some really productive planning done. We also are working on establishing a women’s association in our douar (neighborhood). It’s hard to say whether or not all this is related, but I almost feel like I have an “open for business” sign on my forehead and things are just coming together all at once for a lot of unrelated projects. It is pretty exhilarating after several months of slow going.

So, right now I am on a high. The timing couldn’t have been better because we were not really doing well for a while and I was pretty stressed out about a lot of things. I guess that is how it goes. They say that Peace Corps just exaggerates the natural highs and lows of life, and so far, it has been pretty true. I am just taking one thing at a time right now, and I am doing what I can to make this trend continue.