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!