Thursday, January 28, 2010

Embraced. And bracelets.

Loubna and Somia with their new creations

So much has been happening in my site since I returned, I hardly know where to start, and I hardly have time to write it all up until I’m off to another activity.

Seems all my legwork is finally paying off. All those conversations with women I meet in the street (Why am I here? To teach at the dar chebab! Yes, there’s a dar chebab! Send your kids! Send your girls!) With girls (The dar chebab is a safe place for girls. I can talk with your parents if you like. Promise you’ll come? Good ~ see you Friday!). With boys (You want your baccalaurea degree, don’t you? Come practice your English so you can pass the English test!) With teachers (So you’ll remind your students again? Could I come speak to your class again?)

All those conversations that never seemed to result in anyone actually coming to the dar chebab.

That’s changed. My first day back at work, I found myself mobbed by at least 30 middle-schoolers, mostly girls, all excited to talk with me, few old enough to have started formal English classes at school. We set up new class times. We played board games and pingpong. We discussed where I’m from, why I’m so old and unmarried, whether I pray.

And they’re actually coming to the classes we set up ~ 20 strong per class. And they’re so excited to practice (Hello! Howareyoufine? Nicetomeetyou!) that I don’t even need to make up diverting games to keep them in the classroom.

The crowds are carrying over to Saturday’s Youth Café, and their enthusiasm ignites my own. Last week I bought 100 dirhams worth of embroidery floss (way too much, btw) and we made friendship bracelets. Brahim, one of my scholarship campers from last summer, makes a mean bracelet and was embarrassed but proud to be named the leader of Saturday’s activities. He got them all started on basic designs, and from their a sense of cooperation blossomed. Older kids helped younger ones. Girls and boys collaborated. Everyone traded their final projects. I doled out praise along with the yarn and scissors.


The dar chebab is just part of my madcap busy month. Classes have started again at the nedi neswi (women’s center), and that’s another layer of infectious enthusiasm. But what I’m really excited about is the Women’s Wellness Workshop we are planning for the end of next month. Launched by Trina and Joy, and embraced by all dozen female Peace Corps volunteers in our region, this will be two days of lessons in nutrition, basic hygiene and dental care, family planning and menstrual health, along with several examples of sport classes. Each of us is bringing three young women from our communities, with the expectation that those women will lead similar workshops when we return to the villages. Sustainability.

I couldn’t be more excited about this project, and the women I’m bringing are bubbing with nervous anticipation, knowing they have to help me lead a yoga session. The afternoon we 12 volunteers spent at Tanie’s new home, eating pizza and planning out the workshop, was the loveliest Sunday I've passed in awhile.

So much is going on here. And so of course I have to leave again … and again. This weekend I travel to Azrou for an English teaching workshop and to lead two days of Gender and Development training for the new crop of volunteers. Less than a week back in site before I head up north again for the spring meeting of the GAD Committee. Then a few days back in site before heading to the health workshop in Agadir.

Sigh. It’s all good stuff. But it keeps me away from my kids, and I’m afraid they’ll forget the dar chebab again and we’ll be back at square one.

Joy, Vish, and The Big Picture
A rant about “donations.”

I also returned to find a huge, heavy box waiting for me at the post office. Our Peace Corps librarian had sent me donations for the dar chebab’s library, books and other items donated via the U.S. Embassy.

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Well, here’s what I would like to say to whoever donated these items:

Dear “donor”:

You know what? We are not your trash barrel! I think it’s great that you want to do something “for the children” ~ but put some thought into what you’re donating. What makes you think we want several copies of the “International Baccalaureate North American/Caribbean Biology Diploma Programme Summer 2004”? Or a 1960s biography of Winston Churchhill (written for adults with native-level English)?

Or the following titles on dusty, brittle VHS:

1992 Graduation
Elementary spring concert 1997
Spring Arts Fair 1985
WHO Assembly on AIDS (untitled but on VHS, so how up-to-date can the information be?)
Do you get some type of tax benefit for “donating” these items rather than putting them in the recycling bin? Do you get some type of feel-good buzz thinking you are helping kids in a developing country? If you don’t want your kid’s graduation tape anymore, what makes you think we do?

All this means is that we have to throw these things away for you. And it’s harder to dispose of anything in a developing country ~ both because garbage infrastructure is lacking and because people own so few things, it hurts to throw anything away.

We are not your landfill.

If you want to truly give, that’s great. A small monetary donation would go a long way toward buying simple beginner English books that could actually be used. Or send some simple children’s books ~ inexpensive, light and easy to ship.

I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from making in-kind donations. Just, please, give a little thought before you “give.”

Currently mourning: Howard Zinn, 1922-2010. A true American hero. “The People’s History of the United States” should be required reading; wish I had a copy of it here, now.
Currently celebrating: Fresh strawberries
Currently reading: "A Whistling Woman," A.S. Byatt; "Best American Essays 2009"; Prairie Schooner Summer 2009
Currently listening to: Whiskey Man and a Nowhere Girl; Thao with the Get Down Stay Down; Andrew Bird; and multiple other new playlists donated by Miz K and Miz A ... thanks, ladies!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gone, but I'm back. Kind of.

Random photo, pre-vacation: Three capable, trustworthy Youth Development volunteers.

Vacation. ’Twas great. Several weeks back in the States, with nearly all of the people I love most in this world. Much play, much laughter, much good food ~ things I’ve been craving such as mushrooms, leafy greens, sushi, black beans. I went to movies and malls and (shh!) bars. I used washing machines. I played Wii. I was coddled all around.

And there was snow. Way too much snow. Lincoln got more than 24 inches in December; it just kept coming and coming. Blizzards thwarted several holiday plans, but it also made for cozier, quieter days at home with family and friends.

Peace Corps volunteers are constantly warned of the difficulty of readjusting to Western ways after a certain period “in country.” So many choices! So many opportunities! So few obstacles! Seems it’s a bit too much to take, at first, for some.

Well, I had no problems readjusting. In fact, I was a bit worried that returning to Morocco would be too much of a letdown after the culinary and cultural comforts of America. But, other than a litany of annoyances in my five-day odyssey trying to get back to my dusty village (an odyssey that included one flight canceled and two delayed, one majestic black eye, one threat from airport security, two sleepless nights in skanky hotels and four days without showering, but also the luxury of an overseas flight in business class and unexpected opportunities to reconnect with old friends), I found myself unexpectedly relieved to fall into the arms of my host sister and to feel .

The litany of annoyances hasn’t let up. I’ve returned to a village overwhelmed by rains, where, a week later, could-be swimming holes still punctuate what once were dirt roads. The improvised water/sewage system under my house has backed up once again. My dar chebab is closed yet again, this time thanks to rampant mold after all the flooding. The cost of replacing the lock on my front door (my host family, at my request, broke in while I was gone to sweep out the floodwaters) turns out to be a quarter of my monthly allowance. Said new lock broke, from the inside, the first time I used it, trapping me inside and leading to a brief bout of claustrophobia.

Most annoyingly, my Internet modem isn’t on speaking terms with my new laptop. So I feel unusually disconnected from the folks back home, particularly disconcerting after having just spent so much time in close proximity with that life.

Still, to no one’s surprise more than my own, I’m feeling fine. Maybe even a bit too prideful on how well I’ve learned to cope with everyday difficulties. Everywhere I turn, I feel truly welcomed back. I have plenty of projects to keep me busy, the dar chebab was full to overflowing Saturday, and students have been stopping me in the sodden streets, asking for English lessons. It was great to be home in America, but feels good to be home here, too.

No debate.
The other night, too tired to read, too sleepy to sleep, I popped in one from a stash of DVDs saved for such occasions, absolving myself of laziness with the idea that I was doing “research”—making sure it was an appropriate film to show my advanced English students.

The movie was “
The Great Debaters,” starring Denzel Washington as the adviser of a team of African-American college debaters in 1930s Texas, against the backdrop of Jim Crow laws, inexplicable racism making excuses for unfathomable violence. A celebration of hard work, fierce intelligence, determination, solidarity and perseverance. The idea that young people can make life better for themselves, for their society.

It was a moving, inspiring film. And it left me ticked off no end – because it’s yet another movie I cannot show at my dar chebab. A handful of scenes that couldn’t add up to even 30 seconds would mute its larger message. Two brief kisses, two briefer implications of sex, and it’s rendered impotent, so to speak, for my purposes.

American movies are easily viewed here, with several channels devoted to them. Action-adventure, idiotic comedies, slasher flicks are available day and night. Curse words are almost never bleeped from the English soundtrack, though the Arabic subtitles likely aren’t quite literal translations. Violence, as far as I can tell, is never censored. But if a couple even appear to move in for the chasest of kisses, the film suddenly leaps ahead to the next scene. Male-female relations simply don’t exist. (Of course that’s not true, but that’s the story and everyone sticks to it.)

I find it a struggle, here, to stay true to my own morals and values in a culture that has sometimes very different ideas about what is right and wrong. I sometimes find myself passing judgment on others based not on what I actually think, but on the messages this society conveys. A good lesson for anyone to learn, the ease with which we adapt to local norms.

Still, in this case, I don’t think it’s wrong to wish that the movie might’ve stuck to its larger message, in order that it might reach a larger audience. All my life I’ve fought censorship, but I find myself desperately wishing I could just snip out those fleeting moments and give my students the gift of this well-written film.

So, to that end …
I’m hoping my friends back home might be on the lookout for English-language movies with a positive message and with no hint of sexual overtones. Films are such a great way to let students hear dialogue and absorb a message without feeling as if they’re working.

“Wal-E” comes to mind. I haven’t seen “Freedom Writers” but wonder if it would fit the bill. I’m trying to remember whether “School of Rock” has any untoward romance ~ one of the English teachers at the high school here has mentioned it specifically, but I’m sure he’s seen the televised version. Anything else? Anyone want to contribute to the cause? Won’t someone please think of the children?

Quotes of the day.

“What is to give light must endure burning.” – Viktor Frankl

"We change, whether we like it or not." Emerson