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.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some new pictures

I just wanted to post a quick note to let you know that I posted a few pictures from Christmas. There are a few from L3id Kbir, but I didn't get a chance to finish uploading before my battery ran out. Next time, inshallah.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Christmas in Akka!

Christmas in Morocco in the Peace Corps is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. The most immediately obvious difference is that we weren’t with our families. However, there were lots of other differences, too. For one, Moroccans, being an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, don’t celebrate Christmas. Some of them are vaguely aware of its existence, but they tend to blend it together with New Years and many of the traditions we take for granted they are simply oblivious to. It has been fun explaining the concept of a Christmas tree, stockings, gift giving, and the nativity story.

Another unexpected and very nice aspect of celebrating Christmas in a country that does not traditionally celebrate Christmas has been the complete lack of commercialism that normally proceeds the actual holiday for several months. I almost forgot that it was the Christmas season until a week or so before when we began making preparations for our Peace Corps volunteer community celebration. Imagine for a moment: no traffic, no commercials, no whiny kids, no incessant Christmas music. What is left when you strip away all this is just pure and simple Christmas.

To celebrate this year, Sean and I and 9 other volunteers gathered at a fellow volunteer’s house near Akka, which is in the far south of Morocco surrounded by sand and date palms. The old part of the village is actually dug out of the side of a mountain and there are several ancient cave painting sites not far away.

We did a simple secret Santa gift exchange under a small, Charlie Brownish Christmas tree. Nicole, who’s house it was, did an admirable job decorating the house with some garland and photos of snowy scenes her family sent her from America. We spent the majority of the time sitting around and cooking various delicious meals and sweet snacks. For Christmas dinner, we had Indian food: daal, vegetable byrani, naan, rice, and a side of camel steak. We also had a steady stream of sweets like shaped honey cookies, cardamom orange biscotti, cinnamon rolls, spiced cider, and hot chocolate with cardamom and chili. Our Christmas Eve dinner was fried chicken, stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes and gravy all mixed together in communal tagine platter. It was very messy and fun to crowd around the small low table and eat the dripping feast with a combination of spoons and hands. There was an excess of gravy, and through some combination of dares and Christmas cheer, Sean and a couple of the other guys ended up doing “shots” of gravy, which we all thought was disgusting, but they claim was delicious. We were all just so happy to be together and were having such a good time that we thought the whole thing was just hilarious.

Even though our families were not there, people were constantly dashing off to some quiet room to receive a phone call from home. Some people were even able to arrange conference calls on Skype, so we got to meet each other’s families. As we took turns sharing our family’s Christmas traditions, I felt as if we were somehow mixing them all together along with our experiences here in Morocco to create our own version of Christmas.

Later in the day, we went to the elementary school and helped Nicole with a nutrition education activity, although we certainly hadn’t been following any of our own advice the past few days! The next day we went on a hike through the palmeries and then caught a bus to the beach town of Tiznit. We spent the next few days hanging out with our friends from training. We had calamari on the beach, bought some beautiful silver bangles from the silver souq, and made a birthday pineapple upside-down cake. By the time it was time to go home, we were ready!