Thursday, December 4, 2008

The base may be shaky, but it holds.

The kids at my dar chebab build a pretty impressive Jenga tower, no?

This pretty much sums up how I’m feeling lately. Hollow at the base, but somehow everything is holding together.

Actually, things are improving by the day. Yes, there are plenty of moments when I’m scared, when I wonder what the hell I’m doing here or whether I’ll ever be able to speak Arabic or make any kind of difference in these kids’ lives … but these moments pass, I find, and I can mark plenty of progress in just the past week.

I’ve started sessions with a tutor, a teacher at one of the town’s two colleges, or middle schools. Things started out rough. Even more so than in the U.S., Moroccan education is based on rote memorization. Comprehension is less important than simply repeating what the teacher says. I however, have tons of questions and want to steer our sessions in a different direction. We both felt pretty uncomfortable with each other’s styles at first. By the end of the first session, though, Latifa was promising to teach me how to make tagine … and then, upon discovering I don’t eat meat, pledging to convert me from such an unhealthy practice.

I can feel my language slowly coming along, too. One rung up from nothing isn’t much, but it’s still progress. Instead of comprehending walu (nothing) anyone says to me, I’m starting to pick up a few words per sentence (if the interlocutor is patient enough to repeat the sentence a few times beshwiiiyyyaaa, or slowwwwlllly). Enough to think I usually get the gist of things … which is probably going to get me into trouble sometime soon.

Feel guilty that I haven’t done much actual “work” yet at my dar chebab. Right now, afternoons are devoted to pingpong and board games and getting to know each other, though I do have some ideas for small activities/projects to propose. About 20 boys, most of them 14 to 16, pass through on any given day. They’re eager to talk about all the things any young boys anywhere talk about – sports, who can dance hiphop, who can pop his shoulder out of the socket. A few speak enough English that we can communicate. And they’re surprisingly solicitous around me, each making sure to shake my hand when he arrives, help me clean up when we leave, walk me home.

And yes – they’re all boys. Girls here don’t come to the dar chebab. Yet. The boys assure me they will come for English classes. But my next mission is to start up a girls club, devote at least one day a week to making a safe and comfortable space for girls, a place they’ll enjoy and where their parents will allow them to gather. From there, will figure out what to do next. Inshallah.

The boys have helped me set up a schedule of English classes, which I hope to post around town later this afternoon. We won’t get started until after L3id Kbir, the Big Feast – one of Islam’s biggest holidays. Every family slaughters a sheep or a goat, or at least a chicken, as a sacrifice, and then lives on every part of the animal until it’s gone. A weeklong celebration, I’m told, with blood from the slaughter literally running in the streets that first day, and the entire town smelling like barbecue – including one’s home, hair, clothes – for at least a week. This vegetarian is more than a little nervous.

Nervous, too, about starting those English classes. My biggest complaint about Peace Corps training is that we received practically no training on how to teach or develop a lesson plan. We learned about 1,000 “icebreaker” games to play with kids, and we each received a box of books that so far I haven’t found very helpful, and we had a one-day session with a linguistics expert who taught us a few more games. We also received a collection of lesson plans provided by current and previous volunteers, which only served to scare me about the “English” being taught in the name of Peace Corps. If the volunteer can’t distinguish between your/you’re or there/their on a lesson plan, should he or she really be teaching English?

So I have moments of feeling unprepared for the task. There are about a zillion resources online, but it’s hard to hone in and determine which are the most helpful. And I’ve really no idea how to start. Thankfully, the previous volunteer told me that the kids here will be eager to tell me what they want to learn (unlike the kids we taught during training, who sadly couldn’t really grasp the concept of having a say in their own education). In the end, I guess my only plan is to wing it. I’ll learn as I go, I suppose.

Village doorway.

Not all is work here.
One afternoon my host sister Kabira asked if I wanted to go to see her a mra, or woman, in one of the tiny remote villages near here. Kabira worries a great deal about the acne on her skin; she’s been to a traditional doctor in Agadir but he was a “big zero” (Kabira hasn’t yet met a man who isn’t a “zero”). Instead, she said, she wanted to see this woman who knows everything and has remedies for everything. Eventually I got what was going on … we were going to see a homeopath.

“Maybe she can help you, too, Rakya,” I managed to say (kind of) to Kabira’s mother. Rakya has been having constant pain in her heel, her back, her stomach. If traditional remedies are still practiced, still acceptable … well, I’d be scared to rely on them myself, but surely my host family would see it as the next natural step.

“Well, no, don’t be silly, Rebecca, she’s not a real doctor,” is the response I think I got. Rakya will eventually wrap herself up dramatically in her brown and purple length of fabric, hiding her face but her hot pink knit longjohns and fuzzy green slippers showing underneath, squeeze herself into a taxi and return to her real doctor in the modern city of Agadir.

My host sister, hiding her homeopath treatment behind traditional Berber women’s garb.

But Kabira and I did go on our journey to the homeopath, which I assumed/hoped would be an exotic daylong ritual. Instead, we got lost for a couple of hours in a neighboring town when Kabira couldn’t remember where to go. Eventually she managed to pay (with my money) a taxi driver to spin us aimlessly around the countryside until she recognized the correct village.

There, as we all squatted on a deep red rug in the crumbling concrete salon, a smiling ancient woman took a powder out of a fold of paper, mixed it with water in a ceramic dish and creamed the brown goop onto Kabira’s face. Safi. In and out in 5 minutes, as with any other doctor. No 12 cups of tea, no hours of nodding and smiling for hours without being able to follow the conversation even though it’s obviously about me. Expecting to be encouraged to participate in some ritual involving magical potions and ulular chanting, I was a little disappointed. If also a little relieved.

Fresh-squeezed orange juice (check out those peels!) in Taroudant.

My days off are Sunday and Monday, and I’m trying to protect those days from getting caught up in all the things other people want me to do. I went for a long, solitary walk this past Sunday afternoon, out of town on a long, winding road framed by orange groves with cedar windbreaks, pointing the way to the craggy mountains beyond. My iPod earbuds protected me from the shouts of men passing on motorbikes, but my few fellow pedestrians were friendly and curious. I finally felt peaceful; I haven’t had many opportunities lately for exercise or being outdoors. It will have to become a habit.

And on Monday I met my stajmate Vish in nearby Taroudant. We did slip in one work-related meeting – with the regional delegate for the national Ministry of Youth and Sports, which overseas all of Morocco’s dar chebabs and the work Peace Corps volunteers do there. But the rest of the day was devoted to relaxation and sightseeing. My host sister described Taroudant as a mini-Marrakech, and I can see what she means. It’s an ancient city still surrounded by rampart walls thousands of years old, with long winding alleys of suq where shops sell amazing leather purses and shoes (there’s a tannery in the city), traditional and modern clothing, homeopathic remedies, silver jewelry and dishes, hardware, vegetables, freshly butchered meat and anything else you can imagine.

We had fresh orange juice, peeled and squeezed before our eyes, for 2 dirhams – about 25 cents. We found a Yves Rocher spa where we could (if we had any flus) get a taste of home by buying fancy lipstick or have our nails done. I was able to sit and relax with a book in a quiet outdoor café without being harassed as a foreigner. I have a feeling Taroudant is a place where I’ll spend a lot of my off hours.

Taroudant’s ramparts.

Everywhere I turn lies another beautiful picture that I’m desperate to capture. The colorful spices sifted into cones. Rows of beautiful old women squatting on the curb in brightly colored body wraps. Six bodies piled into a taxi, defying the laws of space and volume. The gnarled, knotty hands of a beggar petting and grabbing for my cloth bag. Men on bicycles bringing their harvest to market, a fresh green block of mint or cilantro that completely obscures both farmer and vehicle. Packs of schoolkids on bicycles, five or six deep and by the dozens, pedaling home down dark highways, flanked by flashy motor scooters and overloaded farm trucks.

But I’m not a photographer. I’m not even a journalist anymore, apparently. I’m too sensitive to others’ feelings to take a photo without permission. Permission is rarely granted. I can understand that. Such images have to live in my head.


Krista said...

Hooray for progress! Just remember the title of your blog, lady! Little by little...Rome wasn't built in a day.

I love this post. It is so descriptive and it is fantastic to hear that some kind of normalcy is starting to appear in your life. I'm so glad you are working to find a way to get the young women involved!

I will be calling you tomorrow, Saturday morning (my time). Love and miss you tons!...kj

pe5ish said...

hello Vish !
how u doing ?
i really wanted to thank you for what you did in our little town Ait iazza . i can feel now that kids love english language and try hard to learn it !
i hope you continue in this way and Insha Allah God will help you !
i'm sorry about what you had in the few days after your first coming !!! and take care thnx again !