Thursday, November 19, 2009

In Loving Memory

On November 16th the world lost a Peace Corps Volunteer and a wonderful person. So-Youn Kim left us unexpectedly. I'm never very good with words when it comes to these things, but I felt I owe it to her to let the world know how special she was. She was beautiful, articulate and opinionated, so it seems only right to leave you with some words of hers about the experiences we've shared here.

“I believe in the power of the day to day, the simple yet otherwise impossible conversations, the truths that I speak and live that affect the people around me as I learn from the truths around me in turn.”

Rest in peace, friend. You are loved and missed dearly.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ramadan and Projects

It's Ramadan in the Muslim world, and this has two upshots for me and my work: 1) we are fasting, meaning no water or food from sunrise to sunset, and 2) I have absolutely nothing to do! It recently cooled off a bit, but until last week it was over 110 degrees throughout the day, so it was too dangerous to walk around outside without water. Also, my counterpart, the nurse, left town to be with her family for the holiday - and closed the clinic for the entire month. This leaves me at home with my host family. I've been breaking fast with them every night and spending time with my friend Khadija doing little crafts and baking.

The fast-breaking meal, "lfthur", happens right after sunset, following the call to prayer. In wealthier households, this involves a delicious spread of all kinds of goodies - harira (a moroccan vegetable soup), boiled eggs, shebekia (a sweet pastry), cookies, cake, coffee, juice, etc. My family is considerably poorer, so it's a much simpler affair: a few fresh dates each, a small glass of sweet, milky coffee, a bowl of askeef (a simple flour-based soup), and whole wheat flatbread cooked over a fire. I absolutely love it.

I realized recently that I really do consider my host family to be my family. We walk into each others' houses without knocking. When I eat with them, they expect me to help with the food preparation and cleaning up. We share food we prepare. Sometimes, they drive me absolutely insane, and sometimes, I think I couldn't live without them. I call them "auntie", "sister", "mama". There is a upside and downside to my relationship with them. On the one hand, it has held me back from meeting other people in town. On the other hand, I have a place and people that I call home, and it is what has kept me here with things got difficult.

Work progress, as I mentioned, has halted for the time being, but I have some projects in the works for after Ramadan. These are:
- a health class for women. I've chosen 9 women to attend weekly classes on basic hygiene and first aid, and at the end of the course I'll give certificates and encourage the women to use their knowledge to educate their communities.
- lessons at the school with a local teacher. I'm going to sing songs and do demonstrations with the little ones!
- Traditional Midwife training. 12 local traditional midwives will attend a training session by nurses on safe birthing practices, family planning, AIDS, warning signs during pregnancy and nutrition.
- Community garden. I'm talking to the women's association about planting medicinal herbs. Currently, the remedies used for skin problems and common colds do far more harm than good. I'm hoping to plant aloe vera and chamomile, and whatever else will grow in our desert that has medicinal applications.

If you've been following my posts since early this year, you'll know that my women's association has been in the works for almost 9 months now - and we are FINALLY a legal entity! Honestly, there were times along the way I was sure it was never going to happen. The women have no organizational experience, no one is literate, and none of them have ever seen a functioning association. Not to mention, this is NOT my area of expertise and my health training covered nothing of the sort, so I was just as lost! But after 9 months of long meetings, trial and error, and perseverence - the Women's Association for Hope and Development is a reality. I am so proud of them!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

2nd Year...

The latest news is that I am now officially a second year volunteer. My one-month mark just passed and was duly celebrated with mid-service medical exams, where I discovered I've been carrying around an amoebic parasite. It's some form of dysentary, so I've named him Larry. Fortunately it's been asymptomatic so I've felt perfectly fine.

Being a second-year also means that the new group of volunteers has arrived. It's been interesting to meet them, largely because it's so evident how far we've come in a year. Not just in terms of being physically adjusted and having acquired more language, but having a realistic perspective on what it means to be a PCV. Let me expand on that one. Peace Corps Training does NOT prepare you for what you are about to do. You get a little language and cultural training, some ideas of where to start, but largely, you figure this out on your own. You never really know what you're getting yourself into until you're there. That also means you don't know how you will react to challenges. It can be a little frustrating to talk to brand new kids who are so naively confident in what they will be able to accomplish in a year. You don't want to dampen their enthusiasm and confidence, which can go a long way here, but at the same time, you don't want to feed it, knowing they'll only be disappointed.

I have now been here for a year, and in a physical sense, I have nothing at all to show for it. No projects, classes, or physical structures. And I'm not alone in this. Some people get disillusioned with it, or just plain bored, and go home. We all have these ideas when we begin that we will have busy and fulfilling lives, and sometimes, that isn't the case. You spend an entire year trying to get a meeting with the right public official who won't take you seriously because your French is less than perfect. You spend 6 months trying to hire a tutor and then he comes to your lessons high with a prostitute, and then makes a pass at you. You try to meet with every local official you can, and without a translator and with minimal language training, communicate your purpose, and then end up being rejected. You find a potential project and a potential work partner, and they offend the wrong person and it blows up in your face. And then you just keep trying. You end up spending long days alone in your house when you just can't deal with hearing "You don't speak Tashelheet! You don't know anything!" one more time. And yet, you keep trying.

This is why I can't lay any blame on those who have gone home. It's frustrating to feel so useless, to have nothing positive to contribute on a daily basis, when you've sacrificed two years of your life, your money, your comfort, your family and friends in return for something that you think will be richly rewarding but turns out to be trying in every way. This is also why a part of me wants to punch in the face any new volunteer I meet who asks me "what projects have you done so far?" and I have to respond none, I'm still trying to find something. Then they give one another smug looks as if to say "that will never be ME." They'll learn soon enough, I suppose.

Before you start thinking that I'm jaded from being here, let me say that I'm really not. If I was, I'd have thrown in the towel already. In spite of my last year here, I still have hope that I'll be able to find someone to work with and get something done. I've made a few new contacts and had a few good meetings that hopefully will lead to a school health club in my village in the coming school year, a formalized women's association with plans to sell handicraft, and maternal health classes. If I have learned anything though, it's not to count my chickens before they hatch, so I'm going to keep pushing on those and if they don't work, I'll keep looking for something else. Thanks again for all the continuing support from everyone back home... I'll keep you all updated!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Day in the Life

Whoa - two in one day! Jackpot! :-) I've been meaning to do a post like this for a while now, and since my friend Debra recently came to visit, I now have the necessary photos to show you what an average day in my life is like. These weren't actually all taken on the same day, but you get the idea...
I make breakfast in my small but awesome kitchen...
I go to the city (about two hours by taxi) to get groceries for the week...

I talk to my host aunt about our plans for the Women's Association...

I walk through the alleyways of the crumbling old medina to get to the clinic, school, or wherever else I might be going since women aren't permitted on the main road...

In the evening, I go outside and socialize with the women and play with little Fatima...

And then I unwind with my cat, Salvador.

The end!

Prostitutes... and Geography

Sorry about the delay again, friends. I've found I really only update when 1) Something interesting happens and I happen to be near internet in the next day or so before I forget about it, or 2) I get emails from family haranguing me for updates. Since the former doesn't happen frequently, STAY ON MY CASE!!

My story for the day is about a prostitute I met. In my experience, I've always like the prostitutes I've come across here. In this culture, moral and respectable women tend to be more subdued in public, passive, and subordinate to men - a position I often find frustrating. One "working woman", in a taxi with us, decided the driver was taking FAR too long for his cigarette break (he really was - it was almost midnight and he had stopped on the road for 30 minutes), and she leaned on the horn and refused to stop until he got his butt back in the driver's seat. I wanted to hug her. I can't imagine a conservative woman EVER doing something that bold.

The other woman I met was much closer to home. In the interest of protecting those involved, I will just say that she was entertaining a male acquaintance of mine in the city when I went to visit him for business reasons. It turns out she is from a village near mine, and helped me learn a few words in the local dialect. She was outgoing, confident, and kind of sassy. We exchanged polite invitations to one another's home for tea. (Normally, people say this as a gesture, but have no intention of actually travelling to another town for tea. I didn't, anyway.) Well, she did. While I was sick and confined to bed this past week, she came to my house. I was too ill to get up so I asked my family to let her know that I was in bed and couldn't meet her. The next day, the women of my house sat me down and explained to me as though I was a small child, "Malika, that woman is bad. You should not let her in your home. It is good you were sick, because she does very bad things." I asked for clarification, and after an awkward pause, they explained, "She speaks to many men in public."

I knew they were telling me in a delicate way that she was a prostitute. This was later verified privately - apparently one of my male neighbors "knows her", and she has a few illegitimate children. But the fact that she publicly spoke to men was supposed to be indicitive of all this. It made me very aware of how I personally interact with people. I get a little more leniency being foreign, but if I were to speak to men outside my family within my village, I would probably have the same reputation. I am now worried about the couple of times I have had single men stay over at my home. Mostly these were volunteers, and it was preceeded with long talks to my neighbors, landlord, and family about how in America, men and women interact differently, and it is not shameful, he is like my brother, etc. etc. But seeing their reaction to this woman, I do wonder.

The other thing I noticed is that they didn't draw a distinction between being a sex worker and being a "bad person". I offered a mild defense for the woman, trying to walk the line between being fair and honest and not damaging my reputation in the village. It's a line I walk every day. I said that I did not know her work, that it does not matter to me, and I like her because she was kind to me and helped me learn the language. My family's response was: "Well, it's okay, it's not your fault because you didn't know. But NEVER walk down a road with her alone because she will hurt you and steal your money." Prostitute, thug, thief, bad woman - it was all the same to them.

In hindsight, I AM glad I was so sick that day. I didn't have to publicly rebuke a woman whom I liked personally, and who is working the only way she is able, without education, to support her children. But I also didn't have to risk my reputation and my good standing with my neighbors. Honestly, I am not sure how I would have handled that if I hadn't been able to get out of it.

More importantly to me as a health worker, prostitution is the cause of the spread of STD's throughout Morocco. Because it is an industry that is kept in the dark, few efforts have been made to educate women about the importance of protection. A recent study showed that MOST prostitutes did not know the proper use of a condom. Another volunteer recounted a story in which her local doctor found that a woman had contracted an STD, and the doctor was not going to tell her because it would indicate that her husband had been unfaithful. It's an area where health education is really needed, but as you can see now, would be difficult for me to achieve while maintaining a good reputation to carry me through my other work.

On a complete side note, as I was sitting here typing this, a young woman approached me with an email address wanting to know if I spoke English. Her English was minimal and my Arabic is non-existent, so I never did figure out exactly what she wanted from me. Apparently she has an online boyfriend in Holland and wanted my English skills to write something (she said the words "marriage", "email", "chat", and "write" - your guess is as good as mine). As it turned out, she thought I KNEW this man. I was confused. I explained that I am not a tourist, I am not traveling with him, and I have never been to Holland. She said, "but you are American, and Holland is in America." Hmmmm. When I convinced her that Holland and America were different countries VERY VERY far apart, she got disappointed and left. This was a fairly well educated woman in her 20's - she had at least been through high school since she knew French, Arabic and a little English and had computer skills. Mind-blowing. I don't think geography is taught in schools here at all. Other interesting geographical information I have been told include: People in America speak French because it is next to France, Japan is also next to America and that is why they speak French too, America is in Europe, and Europe is in America. I'd love to do a geography education project with some local kids... if I can ever get the local school headmaster to give me the time of day. But that is another story, and this post is long enough.

Much love!