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.