Saturday, November 7, 2009

Moroccan receives $1 million Opus Prize

I had a rough week last week and was getting down on Morocco. However, this story helped renew my faith in the people here. Education and particularly women's education is one of the greatest challenges facing Morocco. Illiteracy rates among rural women reach 80%!

Excerpted from News Release:
Aïcha Ech Channa, founder and president of a Casablanca, Morocco, organization that provides services to unmarried women with children, is the winner of the $1 million 2009 Opus Prize.

The University of St. Thomas and the Opus Prize Foundation of Minnetonka conferred the award Wednesday night at an event in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The other two finalists – Sister Valeriana García-Martín of Bogotá, Colombia, and Father Hans Stapel of Guaratinguetá, Brazil – each received $100,000 awards.

The honorees, who will use the award money from the Opus Prize Foundation to further their faith-based humanitarian efforts, were recognized as unsung heroes creatively transforming lives through a commitment to service and social entrepreneurship.

“The Opus Prize recognizes individuals whose work and story can inspire us to tackle the world’s most deeply rooted problems,” said Amy Sunderland, executive director of Opus Prize Foundation. “They demonstrate what faith, will and vision can do to make our world a better place. They show us change is possible.”

While the Opus Prize Foundation has worked in partnership with Catholic universities since 2004 to make the annual award, the recipient may have roots in any faith.

Aïcha Ech Channa of Casablanca, Morocco
Aïcha Ech Channa
Ech Channa, 68, is something of an icon in Morocco when it comes to human and civil rights for single mothers and their children. During the 1980s she worked in the Moroccan Ministry of Social Affairs where she was confronted daily by the ordeals of single mothers.

She recalled an afternoon in a social worker’s office where a single mother was giving up her baby for adoption. “This mom was breastfeeding her baby, which means she never wanted to abandon it. And at the moment when she forcibly took away her breast from the baby’s mouth, the milk sprayed all over the baby’s face and the baby cried. This cry was in my head. And that night I did not sleep. I swore to do something.”

In 1985, Ech Channa founded the Association Solidarité Féminine in Casablanca to provide services for single women and their children. She started in a basement and now operates three day-care centers and training schools, two restaurants, four kiosks and a hammam (fitness center and spa).

More than 50 women receive training every year in literacy, human rights, cooking, baking, sewing, fitness services and accounting. Participants also receive daily child care and medical treatments in addition to social, psychological and legal support and counseling for better reintegration in their society.

Ech Channa, a Muslim, says she gains inspiration from a sense of justice rooted in the value systems of all religions.“I want Solidarité Féminine to be a model that provides an example for the respect of human rights, economic development and confidence in humanism,” she says. “This is a model that can be carried everywhere in the world.”

Her organization was officially recognized in 2002 by the government as a charitable organization and has received support from Moroccan King Mohammed VI.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Lovely Day in Khenifra

I got up early today and rode the transit from my village to Khenifra. My friend Miriam was waiting for me at the bus station in Khenifra. She used to live in my village but her family recently moved to Khenifra, so we had made plans to spend the morning together. She loves my pumpkin bread, so I had brought some with me and we went to a cafe to have coffee and catch up with each other. Miriam is 16 and has had a pretty rough life. Her father died a couple years ago leaving the family in a tough spot financially. Miriam is the youngest of a bunch of children and only her and an older sister are left at home; all of the other siblings have married, but none of them are helping to support their mother and sisters still at home. They moved to Khenifra so Miriam and her sister could work to support themselves and their mother. This meant that Miriam had to quit school, which broke my heart. She was one of my most enthusiastic English students and was visibly upset when she told me she had to quit school. I was a bit pessimistic about their move – many young women looking for work often end up in prostitution. Thankfully, both Miriam and her sister are working in cafes.

Today, I had a glimmer of what it must be like to be a parent. The last time I saw her, Miriam had told me about her new boyfriend, who is in his early 20's. He sounded like a nice enough guy, but men are men no matter what country you are in and I couldn't help but wonder what his motives were. While we had coffee, Miriam told me that she broke up with him because he wanted to sleep with her! Oh how my heart swelled. I have her a huge hug and tried to explain how proud I was of her. My Tamazight is not that good, so I told her in English. I'm not sure she fully understood, but I did my best to explain. Miriam went on to tell me that she was done with boyfriends for a while because all they do is cause trouble.

A little background on male-female relationships in Morocco: they aren't supposed to exist outside of marriage. While Morocco isn't nearly as strict as other Muslim countries, like Iran, sex before marriage is still not accepted. Well, its not accepted for women. A women who is discovered to be “making relations with a man” must either marry the man or face the consequences which include being shunned by your family and being essentially a “marked” woman. Then she must support herself, which often means turning to prostitution. Its a little easier for the man, since its culturally acceptable for men to have sex before marriage. Now I know you are thinking, who can the man have sex with if there are all these consequences for the women. Well, this is why prostitution is lucrative.

A side-story on this issue. I recently ran into a young Moroccan women who was friends with a previous PC volunteer. She lives in EEK and I hadn't seen her in a while. Turns out, she was visiting her new boyfriend and her old boyfriend saw them together. He called the gendarmes (the local police) and sent them to “catch” her and her new boyfriend together. The gendarmes found them alone (not necessarily in a compromising position, simply alone together), which resulted in a very quick wedding. Her choice was to marry this young man she barely knew or be turned out of her family's home. Just like that, her life changed forever. She is 19 years old, speaks English fairly well and had plans to attend University in the fall. Gone; all of that is gone. Now she lives with his family in a small village near mine and spends her days tending the house.

All of this was to frame Miriam's story. She is a bright, energetic young woman who wants to be a police woman! I would hate to see her dreams shattered and for her to start married life at 16. I was thrilled beyond words to learn that she had stood up for herself and not succumbed to pressure from her boyfriend.

We had a rather busy day together. We went to the Oued Srou Association, which led the SIDA workshop, to pick up more brochures for the event in my village. While we were there, another PC volunteer from Midelt showed up with a couple men from an association there. They are planning a month of SIDA-related activities, so we all met with Khadija together.

Miriam and I met another volunteer, Linda, for lunch. Linda has an Obama action figure, so we took pictures with Obama and our tagine. Miriam was a good sport through all of this because Linda and I spoke English as we caught up with each other. Tory met us and we went to tutoring. Miriam helped with our tutoring session by asking questions and answering our questions.

It was after 4 when we got to the bus station and the transit was already there. Miriam and I said goodbye and she made me promise to visit her again soon.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Productive PC Day

I was still recovering from the weekend and a late night last night, so I slept in until 9:45 this morning. Giving me enough time to throw some clothes on and rush out the door to meet Said and Ali at 10am to meet the director of the high school. It was a brief meeting and my role was mainly to lend them credibility. The director and teachers agreed to allow us time this Saturday afternoon for an information session about SIDA. Whew! They didn't seem to need any convincing, but this Saturday will be here before I know it. I made plans to meet Said and Ali later in the day to make a game plan and went home to eat breakfast and do some laundry. The sun was out, so I had to take advantage of it!

In the afternoon I met the women from the weaving cooperative. They did some serious networking over the weekend at the workshop – they learned about several craft fairs and festivals, picked up some great ideas from Fatiha and were talking about creating a shop close to the main road where they could be more visible to tourist traffic. Right now they mainly work out of their homes, if they work at all. They do own a small house but it is tucked behind another house and not easily accessible to the main road, plus its very dark so its not very conducive to weaving. There was some heated discussions going on as they made plans to purchase supplies to start weaving together. I suspect there are some trust issues and I want to talk to Zinb about doing some small seminars or tea talks about business skills and team work activities to try to build up their trust. They made plans to meet on Friday to hand roll couscous to sell at an upcoming fair.

The meeting was great because we hung out on the roof of the house they own. It was a beautiful day and women trickled in in the half hour after the meeting was supposed to start. Some had babies strapped to their backs, while others were had young children in tow. Everyone was very animated and opinionated. Sadia the young woman I mistakenly thought was shy and soft-spoken kept interrupting Zinb as she was talking. Zinb would quickly tell her to be quiet, please and she would pipe down for a few minutes before jumping right back into things. All of the ruffle feathers were smoothed by the end of the meeting and we all left on a good note.

I went over to Zinb's house for tea after the meeting. I had made pumpkin bread, also known as muskoota (cake) in my village. Most women make something like a tea bread in bundt pans and I don't think I've ever had the same cake twice. Since recipes are passed down from mother to daughter and nothing is written down, every woman's cake is a little different. None of them ever put any vegetables like zucchini, carrots, or pumpkin in their muskoota, although sometimes its flavored with yogurt or shredded coconut. I make what Americans know as zucchini/pumpkin/banana bread with chocolate chips and call it muskoota. It usually goes over very well and today was no different. The women loved it and wanted to know why mine had a nice golden brown color. My secret is whole wheat flour I bought in Meknes. It gives everything a heartier texture and that nice golden color. Unless you buy wheat kernels or grow wheat and grind your own flour, the only kind available in stores is bleached white flour.

We had a lovely tea time and I meet Zinb's family. She has twin brothers, who I haven't met, but she keeps trying to set me up with one of them. I always laugh and deflect her overtures by saying I don't know him (this doesn't usually work because arranged marriages are still fairly common) and she always tells me that he looks just like her. What more could I need to know?!

I had to leave tea early to go teach my English class. Zinb tried to give me bread before I left, but I declined with a promise to come to her if I ever wanted bread. Meals and snacks are not complete without bread and the fact that I don't eat bread all the time still miffs people. In English class, we worked on time and I was amazed at how quick they were with picking up the quarter past or quarter to an hour. They recently learned this in their regular English class in school, but I was still surprised at how fast they were telling time.

I went straight from English class to the women's literacy class. These women amaze me too. Most did not know how to write numbers or recognize numbers when we started and they are already counting in the thousands. We are also learning the Arabic alphabet – the main reason I joined the class. We are starting to learn words, but I don't usually follow enough of what is happening to pick up the words. Once I'm comfortable with the alphabet and feel confident enough with my Tamazight, I'll start studying Arabic. For now though, I'm focusing on improving my Tamazight and practicing the Arabic alphabet by writing new Tamazight words with it instead of the English alphabet. Literacy class also gives me face time with a group of women and hopefully, I can plan some tea talks or other events with the women from class.

Just as I was starting to make dinner, Said rang my doorbell to see if I could come to the internet cafe with him to find additional information and pictures to use for the SIDA information session. I needed a few minutes to eat something and gather my things together so I told him I would meet him there. He and Ali were crowded around a computer google-ing to try to find the information they were looking for. I had some pamphlets with a website in Arabic, which proved useful. Another English-speaking young man from the Sisterhood was there helping an older man video chat with someone. He asked me why I didn't invite him to the workshop...I wanted to tell him because I didn't know him, because he always asks me to help him with his English, but never shows up to class and because he strikes me as kind of a jerk - not good qualities for someone I wanted to do peer education about a sensitive subject. Instead, I told him there were only a certain number of slots for each village and I was sorry he didn't get to go. This made me realize how careful I need to be about singling people out for opportunities.

Said and Ali found some good information (I hope – its all in Arabic) and I agreed to buy red ribbon and print out some documents for them while I'm in Khenifra for tutoring on Wednesday. PC had sent me a bunch of pamphlets for World Aids Day, which we'll use at the high school. I was counting them, in English in my head, and I noticed that Said was counting along with me in Arabic. This struck me as rather funny and I told him we should switch – I'll count in Arabic and he can count in English to help us with our language.

They walked me home and I was kind of hoping one of them would invite me over for dinner since it was 9pm and none of us had eaten dinner. No such luck, Said mentioned hoping there was still dinner left for him, so maybe we were past dinner time and they didn't want to invite me over to nothing. I ate popcorn with curry powder (yum! you should try it) instead.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Building Friendships

Today was souk in EEK, but I slept in and missed the last taxi out of my village, so I had to walk part of the way to the main road before getting a ride. I met up with Michael, the new PC volunteer there and we did our souk shopping together. We swung by the office briefly so I could meet one of the new employees at the project. It was pretty quiet in the office so we didn't stay long. I got back home in time to enjoy a snack on my roof before it was time to go to Arabic class. Zinb, one of the women who went to the workshop was there and we chatted for a bit. I learned that she is going to be the director of the new NEDI!!! I've been waiting for it to open for months and finally I know who is going to be in charge. I'm so excited because she came to the workshop, so she met some people who are doing great work at other NEDI's and hopefully we can replicate some of that here. We made plans to meet tomorrow for tea and to talk about the NEDI. She is also the president of the women's weaving cooperative that is trying to get going again, so she's a busy woman.

Just as I was making dinner, Said called to invite me to dinner with his family. I went over and spent a wonderful evening with him and his family. His father remembered me! He is old and doesn't hear very well, so sometimes I can't tell if he knows me or not, but today he greeted me with a strong hand shake and a solid hello. I've never seen him without a hat, but today he wasn't wearing one and you could see his permanent tan line. His head is bald and bright white, but his face is tanned and wizened.

Said and I made plans to talk to the director of the college (high school) to see if we can do a SIDA training for the students. We practiced his English and then my Tamazight. Over the weekend we had agreed to meet everyday to practice our languages together, so tonight was our first opportunity. After dinner, we drank tea and chatted. Before dinner, his mom had asked if I wanted tea after dinner and I had asked Said what they would do if I wasn't here. I hate to be a burden on people and I didn't want them to make tea just because I was there, but I don't know how to say that in Tamazight. Said translated and his mom looked at me and said, "we'll have whatever you want." I said, not to make it just for me, but of course we had tea. And it was wonderful! I had been craving a good glass of tea with shiba and that is what we had!

Ali showed up for tea and we all had a great time laughing and teasing each other. There was something on TV about Agadir and they asked if I had ever been. I haven't, so Hessna (Said's sister) offered to take me there. I would have to pay for her transport, but once we got there we could stay with another sister and we wouldn't have to pay for food or lodging. It sounded like a nice idea so I agreed, but I don't think they believed me. Later Said told me that he and another sister we planning a trip to Agadir and he invited me along. We joked and laughed about the boys - one of the other PCV's at the workshop is fluent in Tamazight and they were impressed with her. They kept saying the other one wanted to marry her, but Hessna told me they were both smitten with her! Said told a joke they had heard over the weekend and we had a good laugh over it. Said was in rare form - making faces, teasing me and generally seemed to be taking life a little less seriously than I am used to seeing him. It felt really wonderful to be among friends. Said told me again that I was part of the family.

Over the weekend, I felt like we reached a new level with our friendship. I was teasing them about going back to America - I had to leave the workshop on Saturday morning to meet with an association in Khenifra and I told them I was going back to America. Ali told me not to joke about things like that because I was his best friend and I couldn't just up and go back to America yet. I think he was serious, which just made me melt. I told him I thought Said was his best friend and he clarified that we were both his best friends.

While we were laughing and talking tonight, Ali asked me a question in Tamazight that I didn't understand. Said translated in a whisper for me, which didn't make sense since no one but the 3 of us would understand the English. Ali was asking if I ever drank alcohol. Said told me not to answer because it was none of his business, but I answered and truthfully. We had talked about it before when I first met them and had told them that I drank in America, but not anymore. I was still hesitant to be completely honest about that since it is a cultural taboo here. But, over the weekend, they borrowed my camera to take pictures with some of the other participants at the workshop. Said looked at the other pictures on my memory card and saw some pictures from New Years Eve, when I had a party at my house. We were drinking and it was obvious from the bottles in the picture. He told me when I sat down next to him that he was sorry he looked at my pictures and I told him it was OK. I didn't realize those pictures were still on there and that he saw them until I got back to the hotel that night. There was nothing I could do about it, so I let it be. Now Ali asked me this question tonight and I didn't feel I could continue the charade. Plus, I felt like I could trust them. That was the end of that discussion. I answered and they changed the topic and we carried on with our evening.

Before I knew what time it was, the clock struck 11 and I took my leave. Said and Ali walked me home and told me to be careful of monsters and scary things on my staircase. They know that when my downstairs neighbor is gone, she turns off her electricity, so the stairs are dark! They don't know that I hate to think about things like that. Its the reason I don't watch scary movies, so I told them so. They teased me some more and made monster noises while I turned on my flashlight. We said goodnight and I went home to tell you about it. It was really a great day.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Breaking Down Barriers

This weekend was an incredibly productive and rewarding weekend. Last Thursday, 5 people from my village joined me in Khenifra to attend a workshop about “health.” This was my euphemism for AIDS. Sadia at the rural commune suggested this to me – she used to work for the association leading the event, so she knew what they would really be learning. AIDS (known as SIDA, the French acronym) is still very taboo in Morocco and I wasn't sure if they would be open to attending the workshop if they knew it was about SIDA. The guys, Said and Ali, are young, more educated than many and speak English. They've been my buddies over the past couple months, so they kind of knew what they were in for, but I don't think they really knew what to expect.

The taxi ride to Khenifra was a bit awkward – everyone was quiet and a little shy. When we arrived in Khenifra, the boys took off on their own to meet a friend and the women, Fatima, Zinb, Sadia H, and I walked to the hotel. Along the way, I talked to Sadia and learned a bit more about her. All 3 women are members of the weaving cooperative in my village and they have recently started working again. We were some of the first to arrive, so they went to get settled in their rooms and I hung out with Mara, the volunteer who organized the event.

The goal of the workshop was to teach HCNs (host country nationals – a nice government name for Moroccan citizens) to be peer educators about SIDA prevention. As Peace Corps volunteers, we can only do so much in terms of education and awareness, by teaching the people of our villages to be educators and leaders, our work is more sustainable. Ideally, the workshop attendees will return to their villages and teach their friends, family members and other community members about SIDA prevention.

The next 2 days were full of laughs, new friendships, some heated discussions and lots of bonding. Everyone met for dinner together on Thursday night and I managed to be the source of much entertainment at my table. Said and Ali were quick to translate when I didn't understand something one of the women from the Sisterhood said and then to give me a hard time about needing to study more. They told me I was like a student in elementary school and that if I didn't study, they would punish me! There was silverware on the table and Fatima looked at me and said she didn't know how to eat with silverware. I told her that I'd been in Morocco so long that I forgot too! We had a good laugh over that one and it seemed to break the ice a bit. Dinner was at 8 and it was after 10 when we actually finished and headed back to the volunteer's hotel. The participants were staying at the hotel where the workshop was taking place, but the volunteers had to stay at a different hotel across town because the participants filled up the first hotel!

Friday morning started with introductions and ice breakers. I sat at a table with the 5 people from the Sisterhood, but we were told to go meet someone new. I met a woman from Boumia who is a force to be reckoned with. She is the director of a women's center and runs all kind of programs to help women – she has a bakery cooperative, a weaving cooperative and other ongoing activities for women. And she knew about my NEDI and wants to help get it opened and up and running!!! Lahamdulah! Once everyone had a few minutes to meet their new person we went around the room introducing our partners. Everyone was very gracious to the PCV's as we tried our best to speak the language. Sadia H from my village was a little shy about the introductions because she couldn't remember everything her partner had told her, but she did her best and everyone was very supportive.

During the morning coffee/tea break, Said and Ali sought me out to tell me they felt a little out of their league. Most of the other participants were presidents or active members of associations, well-educated, and active in their communities and they were feeling unqualified to be there. I did my best to encourage them, told them I wouldn't have invited them if I didn't think they would be successful. Plus, I invited them because I don't think they realize the potential they have. I was hoping they would see what other people are doing in their communities and it would get them thinking of ways to be active at home. They are always telling me there is no work and nothing to do in our village, so maybe this will be the kick in the pants they need to start doing something.

A note about languages in Morocco – there is written Modern Standard Arabic, which is based on the Arabic of the Koran and is the universal spoken and written language of the Arab world; there is Darija, the spoken Arabic dialect of Morocco, which varies a little across the country; and there is Tamazight, the “Berber” dialect spoken by people in the Middle Atlas Mountain. These are not the same languages; a person can speak Darija, but not understand or know how to read Modern Standard Arabic. The women from my village fall into the latter category – they know the alphabet, but still sound out words and aren't comfortable speaking Darija. So, they were a little daunted by the morning activities which included a doctor from OPALS (another French acronym for an African organization fighting SIDA) talking about SIDA statistics in Morocco and other medical topics. Most of his talk was given in MSA, so they were a little out of the loop when we sat down to lunch.

The event was funded by Peace Corps, but led by a local association, Oued Srou which leads workshops like this in the Khenifra province and is involved in other community development activities. Khadija, the woman who led the workshop did a wonderful job and since she speaks Tamazight, made time during the breaks and at meals to explain anything my women didn't understand and to answer their questions. Most the other participants also spoke Tamazight, so they would explain their answers or reasons during discussion times in both Arabic and then again in Tamazight. It was awesome to see everyone come together like that.

In the afternoon, we played a game to demonstrate how quickly an STI or HIV can spread through a group of people. Everyone received a plastic bag and was told not to look at the contents. Then we went around greeting everyone and swapping a handful of the contents of our bags. After a few minutes we all sat down and opened our bags. Everyone had a mixture of lentils and rice. Khadija explained that at the beginning, one person had rice and everyone else had lentils. By sharing the contents of our bags, we had quickly spread a “disease” through the entire group. It is a great exercise and extremely illustrative. I had my women explain it to me and they were spot on! I've played other versions of this game where participants are given the option just to shake hands with people when they greet. This is illustrative of abstinence. Another option is to allow participants to knock their bags together in a “cheers” kind of motion. This is illustrative of wearing a condom during sex, i.e. you can still “meet” a person but not swap bodily fluids/lentils and rice.

In addition to their language challenges, it was hard to miss the fact that my women were the only ones wearing jellabas, a traditional, more formal garment. Women usually wear them when they go to souk in Khenifra, travel, or go to special events. The rest of the women wore more modern clothing - pants and sweaters or pants suits. I think it was partially because the other women are from larger cities/towns and they were a little younger than my women. Interestingly, all of the women wore head scarfs.

During dinner, some of the men started drumming on the tables and singing traditional Berber songs. This is known as a Hadus and one of the participants is a Hadus master/leader. As soon as the dishes were cleared, everyone joined in and soon books and metal serving platters were being used as drums! A lot of the music is based around drumming and call and response songs, so it didn't take much to get everyone going. Pretty soon, the men were lined up together and the women lined up across from them. Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder and danced...its mostly a bobbing up and down with a little hip thrown in. The Hadus master stands in the middle and leads and dances. Then a couple girls get in the middle and dance together...then a couple boys. Sadia H was the first to get in the middle and start dancing – I thought she was a shy person, but not anymore. She pulled me in and then before I knew it, Mara was wrapping her scarf around my hips. Its funny because in America, most women don't like to accentuate their hips, we would tie a scarf around our waist to accent it. But here, its the hips and then you shake them. So I did. And, I tied my scarf around Mara's hips and we all danced and laughed together! Since we had to get up early the next morning, we didn't stay up too late dancing.

Sunday was another full day of discussions and activities. In addition to learning about SIDA prevention, the participants learned how to be good communicators and educators. There was a heated discussion about communication styles. Many people believed that if you told people enough times or gave them the information forcefully enough, they would listen. This may be partially due to the education system where memorization and recitation is rewarded and critical thinking is not really taught.

During our afternoon break, I sat outside with Ali and Said and we discussed prostitution. Its a major issue in Morocco and something that people seem to accept. Its part of the reason SIDA could explode here in the next decade. Although Morocco has few cases of SIDA relative to Sub-Saharan Africa, the culture and sexual practices are ripe for SIDA to reach epidemic levels. Testing rates are not high, so infection rates may be much higher than what is reported. Said was arguing that if the women would be 'good' women and not make themselves available for prostitution, then prostitution wouldn't exist. I was arguing that just because it was available didn't mean men had to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, prostitution is economically viable. One of the participants is working with prostitutes in his village and his challenge is that most other income-generating ventures don't generate as much income as prostitution. Its kind of a vicious cycle because a woman who has been raped, divorced, widowed or has premarital sex is often shunned by her family and must support herself and her children. Education rates are low, especially for women, so often the only means of immediate income is prostitution. Said's argument was indicative of the cultural norms here and in many places throughout the world...Women are responsible for prostitution, not the men who shun them in the first place, leading them to prostitution...not the men who visit them. Its the women's fault. It is frustrating to have conversations like these, but I try to remember that we come from very different cultural backgrounds and in this culture, prostitution is widely accepted as a norm.

Linley, one of the other volunteers and I were also talking about this and came up with a campaign idea. We want the men to spend their money on other things than prostitution – baked goods, locally made clothes and crafts, eating out a restaurants and cafes, etc. It would support more women in other professions and save the men money.

We had another Hadus on Saturday night. At 11pm, the Moroccan participants started telling jokes and we volunteers headed back to our hotel. The sense of humor here is different and the jokes I understand aren't funny to me. Plus, everyone was talking so fast that I missed much of what was being said. Everyone met again for a farewell breakfast on Sunday morning. We all went our separate ways, but somehow ended up at the bus station together again. A majority of the participants were taking a 1pm bus so they bought tickets and then we went to souk together.

Khenifra's souk is on Sundays and it is crazy...packed with people, carts, donkeys and of course lots of food and goods for sale! It was great to be there with locals because they watched out for us “white folks” and made sure we didn't get lost in the crowd. At one point, a fight broke out and one of the young men from Midelt pulled me out of the way and then led me to a safe spot away from the gathering crowd. Its so interesting because in their own way, the men do look out for the women in their lives. Its just not the same way men look out for women in America.

I met my friend Miriam for lunch. She used to live in the Sisterhood but moved to Khenifra last month and I hadn't seen her since her family moved. We went back to her house and made a vegetarian tagine. Then we went for a walk to a little stream with a waterfall. It was beautiful and full of kids enjoying the warmer weather and sun. She begged me to stay the night, but I was exhausted and ready to crash. I promised to return again soon and to spend the night. She walked me back to the bus station and we made it just in time for me to get the last seat on the transit back.

Said and Ali were there and they gave me a hard time about being late. It was a quiet ride, but when we got close to home they struck up a conversation with me. We spoke Tamazight and they pretended that we weren't at the same workshop over weekend. It felt great to be taken into their fold and treated like one of them. As we got out of the transit in the center of town, they continued the shtick about not knowing me and invited themselves over for coffee. I welcomed them and told them they could come over whenever they wanted, but they told me they were just kidding and wouldn't actually come. They didn't of course, but I feel that a lot of cultural and personal barriers came down over the weekend. Even though Said and Ali had figuratively opened their arms to me before the workshop, I still felt like I had to be careful about how much I shared with them or how open I was with things that aren't culturally acceptable here (alcohol, sex before marriage, allowing American men in my house, my real religious views, etc.), but now I feel we have reached a new level in our friendship.

Over the past 3 days, I also bonded with the women from my village. We laughed and teased and were serious when we needed to be. It reminded me of the time I've spent with my Grandmom, Mom and sister in the sewing room or during quilting classes we've taken. We always have such a good time together and the atmosphere this weekend was reminiscent of those times with my family. I feel honored and humbled that these women embraced me as one of their own...they kept calling me “Hibangh” which literally means “our Hiba.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Moving Day!

I am anxious to get into my apartment! I have enjoyed getting to know my host family, but the lack of privacy and general chaos in a family with young children is wearing on me. For the past week, my host family has been telling me that I don't need to move, that I am welcome to stay for as long as I like. The idea of my living alone seems somewhat unsettling to them. It is understandable, since most young adults live with their families until they get married or move to a big city to work or continue their studies. Even then, they often live with extended family or with roommates. Living alone is unusual, especially for women. By living on my own, I'll have to cook my own food and “gasp!” eat alone, clean my house, do my laundry, etc. If I stay with my host family, I won't have to worry about those things and my host mom keeps trying this argument on me to convince me to stay.

I told my host mother that I wanted to move today and she told me to wait until the afternoon so she could help me clean before I brought my things over. I found my landlord and got the key to the front door of the building and went over to check it out again. I was happy to find my front door still in tact and the new lock properly installed. The trash was gone, but unfortunately, my window locks were still missing handles and my landlord had stuck various wires or nails where the handles should be!

I am on the 3rd and top floor and the stairs are uneven and the tread is narrow, making them rather treacherous. Building codes are non-existent, so you really need to be careful on stairs and with doorway and ceilings! I also have access to the roof, which is great – I can see all of my village and have a great open view for sky gazing and enjoying the sunsets. My apartment is probably the same size as my host family's house. There is a “front hallway” that is more like a small room that leads to each of the other rooms. Towards the front is a large living room and on the side is a kitchen and bedroom. I have a bathroom, plus a smaller extra room that I plan to use for storage. I am lucky to have both running water and electricity! There is a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the center of each room. I don't have a shower or hot water heater, so I'll be boiling water on the stove and taking bucket baths when I need to bathe. The apartment is just down the street from my host family – I can see their front stoop from my kitchen window!

After our afternoon nap, my host mom, Zuhir, Jalil and I went over to clean. Since all of the floors are cement, we splashed buckets of water over the floor and squeegeed it all to the drain near the front door. Its a great way to clean and we didn't use any soap! I wasn't using the squeegee properly, so Zuhir took over. We even did all the stairs down to the front door.

I began carrying my things over, starting with the smaller items in hopes of getting help from a couple men with the larger duffel bag and my bed and ponjs. My host mom recruited Hakim, my host cousin, and a couple of his friends to help and they quickly carried everything else over. I thanked them as best I could, but I think inviting them to tea would have been the appropriate show of thanks. However, having just moved in, I wasn't quite set up for tea.

I spent the afternoon getting settled in, although, there wasn't much to do. I don't really have any furniture, so I couldn't unpack my clothes yet. I haven't bought a refrigerator either, so I don't have any food. I ate dinner with my host family, but happily spent my first night in my new apartment! It was wonderful to sleep in a bed and to wake up and not worry if I am properly dressed to leave my room to use the bathroom.

Pictures of my new house are posted here.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Visit to Azilal

I visited my friend Dan over the weekend! He lives a couple hours Southeast of Azilal in the High Atlas Mountains. His village is absolutely beautiful and more what I pictured my PC experience to be like than my village. I met Kaylyn, Audrey and Brian in Azilal (they all live within an hour of Azilal) and we took a taxi through the mountains on a stunning drive. Dan's village is a small farming community nestled into a valley, which also draws a fairly consistent stream of tourists. Many families have a “gite” attached to their homes; these could be compared to a bed and breakfast in the States – a couple sleeping rooms with communal eating. The gites house the tourists in a relatively discreet way – several of the guides we met told us there were a lot of French tourists in town, but we saw only a handful when we were walking from the taxi stand to Dan's house.

Dan's sitemates are Zarnaz and Doug, who were waiting for us at Dan's house. Dan's friend Tova was also visiting. She just finished studying abroad for a year in Israel and is traveling for the summer before heading home. Doug received a care package of dried fruit from Trader Joes and was making scones with crystallized ginger – yum! Dan's host family lives next door and they invited us all over for tea. They have a gite on top of their house and Dan was telling us that their actual house pales in comparison to the gite. In fact, he lived in a room the size of a closet during his home stay! The gite was beautiful and apparently they pull out all the stops for visitors. We had tea and coffee and wonderful bread with honey from the area!

Afterwards, we settled into Dan's house for the evening – made dinner, hung out on his roof and stargazed, had a “trash fire” and caught up with each other. A trash fire is kind of like a campfire except you add your trash. Dan's village is relatively remote, so absent packing it out when he goes to Azilal once or twice a month, Dan opts to burn his trash. We did not roast marshmallows over the fire! It was a beautiful evening and we caught a few falling stars. Dan's village doesn't have any streetlights, so we could see the Milky Way and more stars than I can remember seeing in a long time. I tried to sleep on the roof, but ended up inside on the floor because it was too cold! Can you believe it? In my site, I sometimes sleep on the floor because its too hot, but in Dan's mountains it was too cold to sleep outside!

Doug, our chef for the weekend, made pancakes with dried blueberries from his care package! After eating bread and oil for breakfast for the past 5 months, it was a wonderful treat. We headed out for a day hike to a gorge Dan had visited with the previous volunteer in his site. It was unbelievable – we hiked for about 3.5 hours through tiny Berber villages that still seem incredibly isolated. In several, they were separating the wheat grain from the stalk the old fashioned way. This involves tying a handful of donkeys, mules or horses together (shoulder to shoulder) with one attached to a pole in the center of a field. The grains are on the field and the horses walk or trot in a circle, while men mix the grains with pitchforks. Tova just finished a year studying abroad in Israel and she explained that there is evidence there of people using this technique hundreds of years ago.

This got me to thinking that in some ways, life in Morocco hasn't changed much over the past several centuries. Women still make bread the way they have for probably thousands of years. This grain technique dates back a while and although tea is a relatively new addition, arriving with the British in the late 1600's, it doesn't seem to have changed much in the past 400 years! Then we passed a man selling sodas and scarves outside his house – obviously, some things change! I just wonder who his market is – we didn't see anyone other than locals during our entire hike and he was a couple hours into the hike.

We had lunch at the mouth of the gorge where this is a beautiful waterfall formed by a natural spring. We drank right from the falls – cold, clear water! It was so refreshing. We had forgot to pack lunch before we left Dan's village, so we bought some bread and cheese from a small hanut in the first village we passed at the beginning of our hike. The bread had whole wheat flour and was among the best bread I've had in Morocco! We napped and relaxed by the falls for a while before heading back.

By the time we got back to Dan's village it was starting to get dark and we were all exhausted from our hike. Dan and Doug introduced us to their “Berber McMuffins” - basically a scrambled egg sandwich with laughing cow cheese and some sort of salami. You can get this just about anywhere I've been in Morocco, but they swore by the sandwiches at their favorite cafe, so we all had a sandwich before heading back to Dan's house.

Dan had asked everyone to bring food to share, so I bought a watermelon in Azilal on the way down. I didn't realize that Dan's house was an hour walk from where the taxi dropped us off. By the time we got to his house yesterday, I couldn't raise my arms because I'd just carried a good-sized watermelon for an hour! Today, it was totally worth it – after our egg sandwiches, we gorged ourselves on watermelon.

After a short night of sleep, we all headed home. I had a long, hot trip back to my village, but I stopped in Khenifra for a shower. There's a place where you can pay 8Dh ($1) for as long and as hot a shower as you'd like. I opted for cold, but not ice cold and spent a while cleaning up; it'd been a while since my last real shower and I missed out on my family's hamam last week, plus our hike was pretty dusty.

Before I left I was feeling a little disheartened after my host uncle's advances and some other personal things going on. The weekend was just the escape I needed to get back to my site feeling energized and ready to face the world again. Dan's language is pretty good, which was encouraging, since he was communicating pretty well with people in his site and I understood the majority of his conversations. This gave me hope for my language skills because I still feel like I miss 70% of what is said.

View Pictures of my trip to Azilal here.