Sunday, March 30, 2008

Field Trip to Zagora!

We got back yesterday from our field trip where we visit and work with a Peace Corps Volunteer in the field. I and one other girl went to a village in the Zagora province, which is mostly desert. Our host was great, and it's certainly an eye-opening experience, since most of our training takes place in cities. This is our first chance to observe what volunteer life is actually like.

It is also becoming more and more clear why we are needed here. Walking through Rabat or any other big city you see Chanel and D&G boutiques, and you wonder if you are actually in a developing country. But the rural areas... it's like night and day. The clinic for our village has one nurse, no doctor, and the nurse only works 12 hours a week. This clinic serves a region of 11,000 people!! The medical waste is dumped outside the clinic, so the ground is covered in used needles. Much of the village smokes, but people claim not to be able to afford toothbrushes. Clean water has finally come to the middle school, but it isn't enough to make the latrines functional. The potential for improvement is certainly there.

We got to participate in our volunteer's projects, including working with an association of handicapped people. There is much misunderstanding here regarding people with disabilities. Namely, the belief that if you have a physical handicap, it is because you have done something wrong and Allah is punishing you. The association works to dispel those myths and improve living conditions. At the school, we visited the student Health Club, assisted with teaching an English class, and began a mural of a map of the world. Children here, we found, had little understanding of geography - they could pick out the United States on a map, but had no idea where Morocco was located!

And just so friends and family back home can stop worrying, the living conditions of volunteers here is quite comfortable. Our host lived in a one-room adobe hut with concrete floors, and he had an electric light and a water pump outside. We ate well, too - fresh fruits and veggies are very cheap, as are pasta, beans, rice, couscous, bread, eggs, and cheese. So far I haven't had too hard a time being a vegetarian here. It will be easier when I have my own place and can control my diet, though. While we were at our host's site we were invited to lunch with the school officials and the menu was couscous with vegetables... cooked with cow ears and cow brains. Quite a delicacy. I did my best to eat around it, but I still felt a little ill afterwards.

All in all, best part of training yet. Pictures to come!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Isminu Malika

The title of this entry is “my name is Malika”, which is the name given to me by my host family in my CBT site. I think I’ll keep it!

I got back yesterday from my first CBT (Community Based Training) week. I lived with a Berber family in a small village in the Atlas mountains there and studied Tamazight. It is a really difficult language. It’s actually called Tashelheet in my community, which is actually another Berber language, but the lines aren’t very clear. The dialects are fluid, and borrow words from each other as well as Arabic, Spanish and French. Vocabulary varies even between neighboring villages! So the Tamazight I am learning now may not even be exactly the language spoken in my final site. This is probably the most challenging and rewarding aspect of Peace Corps training.

My family was very patient with my feeble attempts at language, fortunately! For the most part I followed around my host-grandmother (MaHlo). She’s a tough lady. We went to the fields to cut clover for the animals and fed and watered her cow, donkey, chickens and goats.

The village itself is beautiful. There is only one paved road that goes through, and one phone. The sky is perfectly clear at night. All the houses are clay and it is situated up in the mountains next to a river with fertile fields lining it. The people of the village grow walnuts, almonds, olives, and roses. The famous festival of the roses is coming up in a couple of months and I’m really excited that we will get to be there for it!

Eventful Week…
The day we arrived, another trainee’s host brother died. So there was a lot of commotion in the village about that. The next day, another sick brother returned from the hospital, so there was a two day feast to celebrate, complete with the slaughtering of two sheep. The it was the Aeid for the prophet Mohammed’s birthday, so family in other cities all came home. This was when I discovered that there are at least 24 people in my host family who come and go from the house! Meanwhile, our LCF (language teacher) was sick, and ended up quitting. So we had an interim teacher from Rabat.

Health Issues
I started to get a feel for the kinds of health issues I’ll be facing as a health volunteer. There are a lot of dental problems in the village because the local free clinic doesn’t have a dentist and the private clinics are very expensive. As for sanitation, hand-washing here is treated very differently; it is more ceremonial than practical. Soap is used only after the last meal of the day, not before eating – unlike in America, where we do the opposite. Cups are communal, which could easily spread sickness through a family.

What particularly interests me is nutrition. There is no shortage of food here, the question is whether people have a balanced diet. The bulk of the diet is bread because it is filling. There is no distinction here between being “well-fed” and “nourished”. Vegetables are varied and easily available, but they are always peeled and overcooked so very little nutritional value is left. Sugar is also a HUGE part of the diet – I was drinking up to 8 cups of sugary tea a day! I was told that tea is good for you because it gives you energy… which is half true. It does give you a pretty intense sugar high! I have to wonder if that quantity of sugar has caused any health problems.

The challenge for a volunteer is to draw the line between not criticizing cultural practices, but also presenting information about preventive medicine, nutrition and sanitation. I certainly have my work cut out for me.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Say Cheese

So this isn't a great photo, but this is me in the Casbah in Rabat at night by the pirate republic of Sale. More pictures to come, but the internet connection here isnt great and it takes a while.

Today we leave for Community Based Training (CBT). I will be staying with a host family and doing language and culture immersion in a small Berber village in the mountains, about 2 hours from Ouarzazate. So I will be incommunicado for the next week or so. I'll be sure to post about it!

Interesting cultural point: the TV show "Sex in the City" is known here, but it is called "Hshuma f-al Medina" - literally, "Shame in the City".

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Learning Berber!

Today we got our language assignments. Turns out I won't be learning Arabic as I expected... I will be in a Tamelzight region. Tamelzigh is the name the Berbers call themselves, as the name "Berber" came from Greek and Latin for "outsider" and later "uncivilized". I also know I will be in a very isolated location, probably in the mountains and not near the coast. I was hoping to be assigned a Darija (Arabic) region, and preferably somewhere warmer, but I'll make the best of what gets thrown my way.

Peace Corps mantra: Patience and Perseverence!

One of our trainees went home already. I have heard there is a high percentage of volunteers that dont make it through two years. I'm not surprised... it is going to be hard. But I didn't come here to have it easy!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No ice cream on the fifth planet, and other encounters

So a few of us wandered down to the Casbah the other night, where we met an interesting character. He greeted us with Bonjour, with glazed eyes as big as saucers, and proceeded to explain to us that he was from Planet Five. He sometimes visits Planet Four. When we asked for clarification, he told us "cannabis". I guess every city has at least one, right??

The other adventure involved a search for ice cream. At one shop we were told, completely seriously, that it does not exist. Another place told us it was "out of season". I guess the ice cream crop isn't ripe yet?

Humourous anecdotes aside, things here are going well. We are getting more proficient with the language, washing clothes in buckets, and using turkish toilets. Speaking of training, time for language class!

Sunday, March 9, 2008


I have now seen 3 political demonstrations while here. Just now, outside an internet cafe, a group of people marched past with the Palestinian flag. I didn't catch exactly what it was about, but it's a very important and sensitive topic here. In Rabat there was a demonstration by college graduates who can't find jobs. It is legal to protest here, as long as you have a permit. These students did not, and from the bus window I saw an officer hit a student with his baton. One was carried off from the street, presumably unconscious.

As Peace Corps, we steer clear of these and do not endorse any political message. I thought it would be interesting for those back in the States though to see the differences in political expression between here and home.

Rockin the Casbah

It has been a pretty intense travel week! I have now gone from Philly to New York to Casablanca to Rabat to Ouarzazate. I have pretty accessible, though not necessarily reliable, internet here in Ouarzazate, so I will update as frequently as possible. And as frequently as I can deal with the French keyboards. It is similar enough to the American one to be familiar and usable, but different enough to be completely infuriating!

Rabat was interesting... our hotel was situated very close to the palace of Mohammed IV, a large mosque, and a stones throw from the ancient pirate republic of Salay of Robinson Crusoe fame. Cool, no?! We tried to make it over there but got lost in the Casbah. I have some pictures, which I will post when I find a computer in this country with a USB drive.

We have had some intensive language training in survival Darija (Moroccoan Arabic). Which of course led to some interesting linguistic blunders. Actual conversation which transpired:
M to Pharmacist: "keyf deyra?"
Pharmacist (in perfect English): "you have diarhhea?"
Pronunciation is key...

I can hear the call to prayer right now. I love hearing it in the morning.

I have to get back to our training site for lunch now... until the next post, please keep sending emails/comments/love letters or anything else you feel compelled to do!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Camp Peace Corps

I just finished staging in Philadelphia. It's where we discuss the goals of the Peace Corps in more detail and do a lot of "get to know your 50 new best friends" kind of things. As I have affectionately been calling it, Camp Peace Corps.

Everyone here is great - we're making friends quickly. I have now also started a bluegrass band with some musicians in the group. I play spoons! :-)

That was pretty much the highlight... beyond that, there wasn't much new information in the last couple of days. What I really want to know right now is: where EXACTLY am I going? What exactly will I be doing? What is my address after May? How will I wash my underwear? These are the burning questions on everyone's mind...

We fly to Casablanca today... I can't believe this day finally came. I also can't believe I managed to start running a 101 degree fever the DAY BEFORE. This flight won't be particularly fun for me. And yes, we have doctors there, so I'm sure I will be fine.

It's time to check out and catch a flight... the next post will be from MOROCCO!