Thursday, November 11, 2010

Laying a Foundation, Starting to Build

What exactly have I been doing the last six months? It’s a good question but not one I’ve been very good about answering. I’ve realized lately that I’ve been pretty negligent in keeping people up to date on what I’ve been doing at my site since I arrived. Here is an explanation of the work I’m doing and what’s been going on in my home in the Mid-Atlas Mountains of Morocco. If you are looking for an exciting blog entry, this isn’t it! If you’re interested in better understanding where I am in the Peace Corps process, and exactly what I’ve been doing for the past six months, read on.

The first three months in my site, May through July, were really about laying a solid foundation for my service. Forming relationships, establishing myself in my community, gathering information, and developing my language skills were the primary goals. Peace Corps defines this time as the “Community Assessment” period. The idea is that in order to be involved in successful projects, volunteers must have a deep understanding of the community they are living in and be well-respected by community members. The first part of my community assessment focused on understanding my site as a whole. I needed to gather information on things like population, demographics, water and sanitation, transportation, local authorities, health services, schools, and local businesses.

The second part of my community assessment looked at health issues as they relate to the community as a whole. My technical job title here is Community Health Educator so in my community assessment I set out to understand what health issues exist in my site, how those health issues relate to the community as a whole, what factors contribute to these issues, and what resources exist in the community to promote good health. A large portion of my time was spent at the community health clinic, visiting local schools and talking to community members. I made visual assessments of the physical environment, made observations of patients and procedures at the local health clinic, and asked a lot of questions to the doctor, nurses, teachers and community members about health in the community. I officially work for the Moroccan Ministry of Health, so time was also spent developing relationships with staff at the provincial Ministry of Health and learning about local and national health priorities and initiatives.

Throughout the process I took note of resources that could potentially be utilized. For example a well-staffed local health clinic; the existence of functioning Associations, both men and women’s; schools; as well as a successful weaving cooperative are all assets to the community. Beyond that, great potential lies in the educated individuals and spirit of community activism that already exists in my site. Peace Corps projects are oriented towards facilitation and capacity building within a community and should be sustainable after the volunteer leaves. No project can or should be carried out in isolation by the volunteer, so having good local counterparts to work with within the community is essential.

In the past three months I have started to build on the foundation I laid during the first three months and have begun to utilize the many existing resources in my community. Health issues such as diarrhea, skin and eye infections, poor dental health, and illness related to poor nutrition were identified within the community. To address these issues, I built on the work of past Peace Corps volunteers to develop a health curriculum for the local schools with lessons on hygiene and sanitation, nutrition, and dental hygiene. With the help of the local principal and teachers I will begin teaching formalized health lessons this month.

Maternal and Child Health was also identified as a serious concern within my community and is considered a top national priority by the Moroccan Ministry of Health. I’ve used connections at the local health clinic and associations to start a Maternal and Child Health peer-education group. So far four training classes have been completed, addressing issues such as nutrition and hygiene during pregnancy and the importance of pre-natal exams. Over the next two months, in partnership with the head of the local women’s association, the training of the first group peer-educators will be completed and the program will expand to surrounding villages (inchallah).

The next step in the process will be monitoring and evaluating current projects, expanding existing programs, and potentially planning and implementing new community health projects. While the community assessment period was officially the first three months in site, it will be an on-going process. Throughout the remainder of my service I will continue to learn about my community, develop new relationships and partnerships, and improve on my language skills. I have learned so much over the past six months and have formed really wonderful relationships with people in my community. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 18 months of my service brings.

To Eat or Not to Eat: Meat

When I made the choice to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, I knew that certain sacrifices would have to be made. Giving up being a vegan was one of those sacrifices. Living in a small rural village there is no access to soy milk or tofu, or health food stores stocked full of veggie burgers. I determined early on that eggs and milk would be necessary to stay healthy during my service and I have had no qualms about switching to being a vegetarian.

While I made the choice to eat eggs and milk during my service, it was very important to me to stay vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat since I was four years old, and my concern for the treatment of animals is a big part of who I am. Since coming to Morocco I’ve made changes in my appearance and behavior to show respect for my community and have embraced many aspects of Moroccan culture. Being a vegetarian was one very important piece of me that I could maintain.

While not eating meat has been met with surprise or confusion in many cases, Moroccans have been overall very understanding of this difference. Some people even make vegetarian dishes if I’m coming over now. We were warned during training about the possibility of it being culturally offensive not to eat meat but after several months of benign reactions to my vegetarianism, I became confident that it wasn’t a big deal. I maintained this confidence until a few weeks ago.

It was a cold, rainy day and I was hiking over the mountains with another Peace Corps volunteer to a very remote part of my site. I’m hoping to do some work there and have been trying to establish relationships with people. After about three hours of hiking we were cold and very muddy. From the distance we heard a man yelling for us to come inside and drink tea. We veered off the path towards the man and gladly accepted the offer.

We were taken into a small one-room home with a miniature wood burning stove stationed in the middle. The house was warm and comfortable and we sat down gratefully in front of the fire. We spent time with two men and two women drinking hot, sugary tea. When they heard that I’m involved in health work one of the couples shared that they had lost a young child recently. I took the opportunity to discuss some aspects of maternal and child health with them and ways to stay healthy during pregnancy, delivery, and post-delivery that I have been teaching in a Maternal and Child Health class. Afterwards they told me, “You are always welcome here; we are family now.” It was a perfect situation in my mind. I made new contacts, did some impromptu health education, and had a highly enjoyable afternoon with some great Moroccans.

A little while later one of the women left the room and went outside. Before I knew it there were feathers flying in the air outside of the door. I covered my face with my hands; I knew exactly what was happening.

The family had killed one of their chickens for me, a hugely generous gesture. My heart started beating faster. I thought I was just coming in for tea, and these people had no idea I didn’t eat meat, what was I going to do? It was already dead and there was no way to leave. The woman proceeded to pluck the feathers and brought the chicken inside to prepare. I turned away to avoid the bloody process. Thoughts were racing through my head. Being a vegetarian is who I am, and if I eat meat now they’ll expect me to eat it again when I come back, I don’t want to do that. If I eat meat after being a vegetarian for such a long time I’ll probably get sick, how will I hike back over the mountains if I’m sick? These people killed a chicken to welcome me into their home and to show their respect for me, how can I disrespect them by not eating it? It was the first time in 20 years that I contemplated eating meat.

We waited as the chicken cooked. Back and forth I went in my mind. Finally the chicken was served in the traditional communal fashion. A loaf of bread was torn and distributed. While the others dove into the chicken, I began eating the bread plain, knowing full-well that it wouldn’t go unnoticed for long.

“Eat!” They told me. “Why aren’t you eating? Eat!” I hesitated. “I don’t eat meat,” I finally said. “What do you mean you don’t eat meat? Eat!” I explained that I’m a vegetarian in the US and that I’m a vegetarian in Morocco. There was clear disapproval and disappointment. The chicken was finished in silence as I tried to eat as much as I could of the bread. Suddenly one of the men declared, “You ate nothing!” I tried to explain that I had eaten a lot of bread and drank a lot of tea, but I was interrupted. “No, you ate nothing.” I felt guilt wash over me like a wave. I had been afraid that not eating the meat would be offensive and it was.

When it was finally time to hike back, the family again emphasized that I was welcome in their home and that I was a part of their family. I felt relieved that they still had a positive image of me but the guilt continued to weigh heavily. Since that day I have gone back over that experience in my mind many times, and I still don’t know if I made the right choice. While under most circumstances here it’s acceptable to abstain, in those situations where it can be offensive not to graciously accept a kind gesture, the question remains: To eat or not to eat meat?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In Search of Nomads

In the final months of his service, Casey had many important goodbyes to say and loose ends to tie up. On this occasion the task was simple- to deliver a gift, a bottle of maple syrup, to an old friend. This friend just happened to be a nomad in a harsh and remote area of Morocco known as Tifferquatine. Braving the elements, packs of vicious dogs, and uncertain terrain, we attempted to make this special delivery.

The morning of the mission we woke up early. Aaron, Casey and I set off towards a neighboring mountain range. By 8 in the morning the sun was beating down. We followed a steep uphill, dirt road, past a small village, towards the mountains. As we reached the end of the road and looked out at the vast expanse of baron land, we evaluated our options. The nature of nomads is movement, and there was no certainty of when or where we could find our target. We discussed which peak to scale, which one would require the least rock climbing, whether we had enough water for the hike and whether the overall risk was too high. After the discussion we took an anonymous vote using rocks and decided to continue. I expressed my apprehension about serious rock climbing, and we chose a less direct route that was decided to be safer.

After several hours of hiking up the hot rocky mountain, we reached the top. We began walking along the mountain ridge in search of settlements. After some time, we saw a make-shift tent in the distance. As we hiked towards the tent, four enormous dogs ran towards us, growling and barking. Of the many vicious guard dogs I’ve encountered in Morocco, these were easily the largest and most ferocious. We quickly grabbed rocks, an automatic reaction for anyone who has spent time living in the bled. My heart raced. After numerous rocks were thrown and aggressive moves were made, the dogs finally stopped circling us.

We made our way to the tent and were greeted by a woman, a young girl, and several small, half-naked children. It was not who we were looking for. Speaking fluent Tamazight, Casey inquired about the possible whereabouts of his friend. After being pointed in his general direction, we traveled along the mountain ridges, and for a second time were circled by a pack of large dogs, this time six or seven. For a second time I was grateful to be with Aaron and Casey.

We continued walking in the harsh sun over the mountains, looking and wondering if we had assigned ourselves an impossible challenge. After several more hours and searches in all different directions, we saw a small tent in the distance. Casey went ahead, and then motioned for Aaron and me to follow. It was the family of his impossible to find friend. We had finally arrived.

We were greeted with the warmth and hospitality that I have been so impressed by in Morocco. We were immediately given tea, bread, eggs, and raw, rancid sheep butter. A sheep leg was put in a pot to cook over the open fire. The fire made the already warm tent unbearably hot but I was grateful to be out of the sun.

After Casey spoke with the women for several minutes, he removed the large, plastic bottle of New Hampshire maple syrup from his backpack and presented the gift to the family. A small amount was poured in a clay bowl and tasted by the women using a piece of homemade bread. The bottle was carefully closed and stored with the few precious possessions of the family, including several plastic buckets, a small basket and old powdered milk tin.

Casey went out to get fresh water for our return while Aaron and I stayed with the two women and children in the tent. I helped to make fresh bread with the women (a skill I had thankfully practiced during my home-stay), which was cooked over the fire. The women insisted on washing our filthy socks, and scrubbed them clean in a small basin of water. I worried that they would not be dry in time and felt bad knowing they would be just as dirty after the return hike.

After a significant amount of time, Casey returned. The water source, located at the top of a small mountain, was not safe for drinking. I immediately regretted the large amount of water I had gulped down from the communal mug when we first arrived (I continued to regret that decision for the week to come). I also thought about the burden of carrying water from this distant source every day.

While our mission was complete, our journey was far from over. After Aaron and Casey finished their meal of sheep and vegetables (the women were very understanding about me being a vegetarian and gave me more bread and rancid sheep butter to eat), it was time to head back. We thanked our hosts and told them we needed to leave in order to get back before dark. The older woman responded that we needed to stay the night because it was going to storm. The moment she said this, thunder boomed.

Ignoring the advice and warnings of the women, we decided to take our chances. Rain poured down on us and the scorched earth turned to mud. We slipped and slid as we made our way over the uneven terrain. As we walked, the wind blew, lightning flashed and hail began to pelt us.

A serious storm was coming and we needed to get off the mountains. We would somehow have to reach the nearest town and take transportation from there. The quickest way to civilization was down a steep embankment. There was no clear path, only loose, jagged rocks. Casey found the safest looking area and set off down the mountain. Aaron and I followed. My descent down the mountain involved a combination of sliding on loose rock, twisting of ankles, falling in thorny bushes, and a steady stream of obscenities. To my relief, we reached the bottom and made our way towards safety- a small village in the distance. As we walked in silence, muddy and exhausted, I thought to myself, “This was a really great day.”

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mrhaba- You Are Welcome

Traversing the dirt paths of my community it is impossible to reach my destination without exchanging countless greetings and receiving numerous invitations for tea. Elaborate greetings involving handshakes and kisses on the cheeks, heartfelt well wishes and warm smiles are a part of everyday interactions; even among strangers. Family and community are the focus of life in small towns like mine and a large emphasis is placed on cultivating personal relationships. Following this spirit of commune, hospitality of the highest caliber is built into every aspect of life.
"Mrhaba", I have been told innumerable times, “You are welcome here.” I have shared mint tea, bread, and homemade sweets at the homes of countless neighbors and community members. I have been offered the best of food and drink in communities where there is not always enough to go around. I have been greeted and embraced by strangers and welcomed at intimate social gatherings.

Living in Morocco, I have seen that the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people extends far beyond social niceties and cultural norms. It is translated into relationships of the highest quality. No greater evidence exists than the interactions I’ve had with my two host families, both during training and now at my site. I have had the privilege of living with and learning from truly wonderful people and in the process have formed friendships and learned lessons that will last a lifetime. I have not only been made to feel welcome in my host families and communities, but a part of them. I am called "utma" meaning "sister", by the women in my families and, on many levels, I feel that I am.

I’ve felt it through the encouragement of my language learning, through the enthusiasm I am met with when helping to cook, in hugs, kisses on the cheeks, in dancing, in jokes, in the way my sisters hold my hand on our daily walks through town, and in the special vegetarian meals my families have graciously made without complaint. I’ve seen it in the countless ways my families have helped me to adjust to a new culture and in small gestures such as waiting with me at the bus station the first time I traveled alone.

I have also seen it in the genuine concern family members have shown for me. During my nine weeks of training I had to leave my site for a few days due to illness. The members of my community continuously asked where I was and if I was alright. When I arrived back, I was greeted with indescribable enthusiasm by neighbors, and above all, by my host family. My family later described to me their feelings about the incident as, “It was like the whole family was sick. We worried about you and missed you so much. A piece of us was missing.” For people to not only open their home to me, but to care for me as they would a member of their own family, is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had.

When I first arrived in Morocco, the idea of being far from family and friends for over two years was overwhelming. I worried about feeling lonely and isolated and about how I would adapt. I have come to see that there are people here who love me, care about me, and worry about me like my own family does. Thousands of miles away from the familiar, in a rural Moroccan town, I am not only welcome, I am home.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

First Impressions- Site Visit

After nine and a half hours on a public bus; 2 and a half hours squeezed in the middle of the front seat of an over-packed, stick shift taxi; and a 30 minute ride on a tranzit van, I finally arrived at my official Peace Corps site. A small village in Boulemane Province, my community is situated at the foot of a Mid-Atlas Mountain range. A river, lush green fields, trees and flowers blanket the valley while donkeys, cows, sheep, chickens and stray dogs inhabit the fields and paths of the town.

My new house, a modest concrete dwelling, is filled with love and generosity. During my week long site visit my new family, mainly middle-aged women, welcomed me into their home and provided immense support and encouragement. Eager to help me learn the language and integrate into the community, I was introduced to countless neighbors and friends. After only a short time it was apparent that I will be living amongst a group of people with a strong sense of community.

A shining example of the motivated people within my community is my host sister, Kenza. A petite woman of 40, she is a pillar of positive change. In 2008 she started a women’s association that is now active in the community. Beyond the association she has found numerous ways to share her skills and enrich the lives of those around her, including through a literacy class that she started for women in the town.

My visits to local schools also revealed dedicated individuals who are working for change. During my brief visit I met several teachers who were passionate about improving the community and was able to participate in a tree planting project at a local elementary school. I was warmly welcomed throughout my new community and was met with enthusiasm. People seemed genuinely interested in my role as a health professional in the community and the need for better health care and education, something that is often severely lacking in rural areas of Morocco.

I am heartened by the local people within my site who are already working for change and by the potential for growth. It is my hope that I can work in partnership with these allies and friends to improve the health and lives of the people of my new community. Inchallah, my relationships with these people will embody the spirit of the Peace Corps- A sharing of culture, friendship, skills and understanding.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Big Announcement

Yesterday the 40 members of my "stage" traveled from our small training communities to the city of Ouarzazate, our training hub site. In the morning we presented health lessons, in our local language, that we developed based on an issue identified during the community analysis portion of training. Issues ranged from waste management, to diabetes, to hydration, to nutrition, to hygiene, to traffic safety. Lessons included demonstrations, songs, posters, group activities, and drama geared to people of varying ages and education levels. It was amazing how many great ideas could be learned just from other trainees.

Site announcements were held in the afternoon and nerves were high as we waited to hear where in Morocco we would be calling home for the next two years of our lives. In an effort to calm our nerves we decided to hold a silent rave prior to the announcement. The members of the staj, and even a few of our language teachers, could be seen dancing wildly on the roof of the hotel, each to our own music.

Sites were announced by province, with volunteers spread out across 9 provinces. The diversity of landscape and geography in Morocco made the announcements all the more suspenseful. Volunteers will be living and working in the desert, in the mountains, near the beach and everywhere in between.

After 6 weeks in-country, I finally know where I will be serving. My site is one of the most Northern of the group, located in the Boulmane Province. It’s a community of 2000 people, located in the Mid-atlas Mountains, about two and a half hours from Fes.

While there are still several weeks of training left, tomorrow I will travel to my site, and visit my new home stay family, with whom I will be staying for the first 3 months of my service. I’ll have the opportunity to meet local officials, visit the sbitar (health clinic), and talk to current PCVs in the Province about the projects they are working on. I’m incredibly excited to finally explore my new home and to meet the people I will be living, working and sharing my life with. If my current training site is any indication of the people, places and experiences I have to look forward to, the next two years will be absolutely amazing.

Baby Naming, Bunnies, and Bees

The past few weeks at my training site have brought a good deal of excitement. The birth of a new baby girl in Sarah’s home-stay family was cause for celebration throughout my community. Numerous parties were held at her home the following week and on one occasion all of the women in the community gathered for a feast. Large platters of food including whole chickens and noodles topped with a sweet mixture of ground peanuts, cinnamon and sugar were shared by the group. Lively music was played and after the feast was feasted, dancing commenced. Many women partook in the vivacious movement including, to the amusement of those present, me.

The actual naming ceremony was held one week after the baby’s birth and boasted the killing and eating of an entire goat, along with the collective naming of the baby. Here, the name is decided by a vote of family and friends, rather than the parents. I think it could be quite entertaining to adopt this practice in the US.

Easter also came to my training site, though prior to the date I was unsure if I could celebrate it at all. Morocco is a largely Muslim country and, as you can imagine, holidays such as Easter are not generally celebrated by the local population. After some contemplation I concluded that Easter has always been about spending time with people I care about and doing festive activities. With a little creativity I was able to, in a small way, have Easter in Morocco.

Sarah made an American-style lunch and invited us over to share it with her and her home-stay family. We also found a culturally appropriate, festive Easter activity to partake in after lunch. Many families in my community own farm animals, including cows, goats, sheep, chickens, and rabbits. We went to Tim’s house and spent a good part of the afternoon playing with his baby bunnies. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.

This past weekend I had my own adventure. We had a day off to leave our training sites and I decided to meet some friends from another training group in a small town about 30KM away. I took a “tranzit” to the town and was happy that my first experience traveling alone in Morocco was successful. The community was settled in the mountains and the red cliffs nearby reminded me of Arizona. We stayed at a small, locally owned hotel, with a beautiful view. We cooked dinner in the kitchen, relaxed outside on cushions beneath a small pavilion and spent time talking, playing drums, and learning songs from some Moroccan friends. It was a wonderfully relaxing day. Unfortunately, the events leading up to it were quite the opposite.

Prior to leaving, a disaster struck, of which my entire town talked about. I wanted to get my camera and sneakers out of my class room to use on my trip. When I arrived, there was a swarm of bees buzzing around the entrance to my school. Honey was being harvested and the bees were not happy. Being the optimist that I am I decided that the bees would leave me alone if I left them alone. As I got closer to the entrance, I was swarmed. Bees flew in my hair, down my sweater, and stung me through my clothes. Neighbors began shouting, “Sukaina, tezla!!” I did as they instructed and started running away from the school, yelling and pulling off my long sweater in an attempt to rid myself of the swarm. It was a spectacle. Days later, people were still asking about the bee attack. “Tamara aya!” It was a disaster, I would explain in an animated voice; a response that always got a good laugh. Fortunately I am not allergic to bees and was only left with some welts, a little embarrassment, and a funny story.

Every day brings new experiences and new adventures like these, which is part of what I love about being here. I’m looking forward to the last few weeks at my training site and to the adventures that living and working in my very own site will bring, just hopefully no more “Tamara aya.” 