Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gone, But Not Forgotten

When I was in Rabat at the end of last month for my mid-service medical exam, I sent a letter to my folks in the states. It sounds like they received it about a week after I'd sent it. If I've got a letter to send to the states, if I'm about to travel to a major city here in Morocco, I usually wait until I get to the big city to mail it. That way, it will likely arrive sooner than if I mail it from the town in which I live. Once I mailed a letter to the states from the town in which I live, and it took six weeks to arrive!

Anyway, soon after my folks had received my letter, I received an e-mail message from my mom, in which, among other things, she acknowledged that they had received the letter. She also described how, when my dad was reading the letter, their dog, Star, walked over to my dad and started sniffing the letter! As Star was sniffing the letter, she started wagging her tail! It seems as though she picked up my scent on the letter!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Trying To Get Turtles To Race Each Other

A couple of nights ago, I walked out my front door and found a few boys, perhaps eight years old, crouched in front of my front stoop. I looked down and saw that they had placed a couple of turtles side by side on the stoop. I think that perhaps they were scaring the turtles, since the turtles had almost entirely receded into their shells.

"Ah," I said to them in Moroccan Arabic, despite the poor prospects for competition between these particular turtles at that moment, "A race." Then, knowing how competitive that Moroccans, including Moroccan youths, can be, I asked, "Which one is going to win?"

A second later, another boy ran up and placed on the stoop a third turtle which was twice the size of the two which had already been there. He exclaimed, "This one!"

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Seeing Some Of My Fondest Hopes Realized

This weekend, Moroccan women are participating in a series of workshops in my town here in the Sahara. Another Moroccan woman is leading the series of workshops. She is bringing the other Moroccan women together to express themselves, getting them to discuss the experiences they have had whilst defending their human rights. She is guiding them to discuss the definition of human rights and the objectives and results of programs which seek to educate others about women's human rights. She is leading them to evaluate practical, effective strategies for promoting women's human rights. She is educating these other Moroccan women about international human rights law relating to women. She is directing them to analyze the challenges they face as they work to protect their human rights, and they are sharing strategies to use in their work. She is helping them to develop plans to work more effectively on behalf of women's human rights.

Having worked to help protect women's human rights, naturally I was keenly interested in these workshops. Once the workshops got started, however, I was once again faced with the formidable challenge I usually face while sitting in on meetings here in Morocco. The workshops were being conducted in Arabic, and I was understanding far less than five percent of what was being said. I became dejected. I bemoaned how I was constrained from sharing my knowledge and skills with them, or even understanding what any of them were saying.

And then suddenly I saw the light, a crucially important point which I frequently consider in general, but which had temporarily eluded me in this particular situation: in my mind, I had been making this situation about me, and this situation clearly was not about me. I thought, "Of course it's not about me here. It never was, and it never should be." On the contrary, it hit me, how amazing and wonderful it was, what was happening in front of me. It wasn't a PCV standing up there educating these Moroccan women. A Moroccan woman was educating them. I thought, "This is exactly what the Peace Corps and I want. This is the ideal situation: a Moroccan woman educating other Moroccan women. She's doing it herself! She's not relying on a PCV to do it." The Peace Corps, and PCVs, want projects to be sustainable: that is, they want the host country nationals to be doing the projects themselves, which is exactly what this Moroccan woman was doing after being trained to do so by an NGO (non-governmental organization) named Global Rights, which does this type of work in various countries around the world.

Next I thought that not only are these Moroccan women likely feeling empowered by the knowledge they are gaining, and by the opportunity to express themselves about their efforts to protect their own human rights; perhaps they are also feeling empowered by how another Moroccan woman is the one who is educating them and leading them and encouraging them. Hopefully they are looking at this woman who has so much self-confidence, and, by watching her in the active, assertive position she is occupying as she educates them, perhaps by witnessing her courageous behavior, hopefully they are thus gaining the insight that women can defend themselves. Hopefully they are feeling inspired to do so.

Thus I realized that what I thought was a missed opportunity, and a waste of resources, was in reality an opportunity that indeed was being seized, courageously, boldly, assertively; that these women were taking the resources they had and multiplying the benefits which could be gained, by investing their knowledge and skills in each other, by educating each other and empowering each other.

Once I had reached this realization, I was not only content to sit and watch this woman educate her peers; I was thankful to be watching her educate them. Having recognized that my pride and my ego had been causing me to poorly perceive the situation and my place in it, and thus having seen that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, I next asked myself, given that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, how could I best help in the position in which I found myself? I saw that I could help by encouraging them to do this work, partly by helping them find new opportunities to do this work, including by getting them in touch with others whom they can educate. Thus I set about gathering the information about these workshops, so that I can forward it to others who can be similarly educated and empowered, and who in turn can thus educate and empower others...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I Know Why I Am Here

During recent weeks, other PCVs, who arrived here in Morocco about three months ago, have been having a rough time. They haven't had much time to adjust to life here in Morocco yet, and thus are still experiencing culture shock. Since their PST (Pre-Service Training) ended last month, many of them are no longer seeing other PCVs everyday. Thus, they're facing many of the challenges attendant to adjusting to life in a foreign country, but without the face-to-face support of new friends they've made in the PCV community.

Having lived here in Morocco, and thus in a foreign country, for over a year now, I figure that I might be able to help; I certainly hope that my words are helping! I've been sharing tips, including coping strategies, with them, partly as laid out in my August 2011 blog entry entitled "Tips for PCVs and PCTs."

And while I didn't especially need the reminder, nevertheless I appreciate how, in being presented with the opportunities to help other PCVs, I am being reminded of why I am here: to help others. In helping other PCVs, I am reminded of how I am here to help Moroccans, especially impoverished Moroccans, and even more specifically, to help them better themselves. To help them learn and develop themselves so that they may better face life's challenges. And I am happy to be helping them, as in doing so I have the opportunity to give back some of the tremendous amount of help I have received from countless others throughout my life.

Friday, December 16, 2011


A couple of days ago, when I left this cyber where I live down here in the Sahara, and was walking down the street, I saw a middle-aged man getting onto a bicycle. A boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, was riding toward him on a bicycle. As the boy was about to ride past the man, the boy threw up his hands and muttered, "Blah!"

I chuckled, amused at the boy's spontaneous, playful gesture. Meanwhile, the man on the bicycle was starting to pedal away, appearing thoroughly unamused.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Invitation To Become a Work of Art

On my way here to the cyber today, I was greeted by a young woman. I stopped to exchange greetings with her. As I was doing so, I noticed that she had henna on her hands. It looked like the person who had drawn it onto her hands had done a pretty good job. Suddenly she asked me if I wanted henna on my hands.

Although Moroccan girls and women often have henna on their hands, I don't think I've ever seen Moroccan men with henna on their hands. But then I remembered that my friend and former fellow PCV, Ben, had had henna on his hands, but just a big blotch of it, not crafted into any sort of design. Thinking of how he had had it on his hands, I agreed, somewhat hesitantly, to have some henna put onto my hands.

I then saw that the young woman's friend standing next to her had one of the syringes used to apply henna to the skin. I extended my hand to her, slightly concerned about what she was going to draw on my hand, thinking that Moroccan women have designs of henna drawn onto their hands, but that Moroccan men don't have henna designs drawn onto their hands.

However, soon after she started drawing on my hand, it became clear what she was writing. When I discerned that she was writing an "A" on my hand, I started laughing, since I had realized that she was going to write my Arabic name, "Abdu," or "Abdo," on my hand, which in fact she did. I thanked her, appreciating her generosity in sharing her henna with me, and her sense of humor in writing my Arabic name on my hand.

Moroccan women usually use henna for purposes other than writing people's names. They use it often for at least a couple of purposes. One is to color the skin and fingernails. As I've mentioned, women use henna on the skin to draw designs on women's hands. However, Moroccan women also apply it to their hair, so as to give their hair an orange tint. People have also applied it to leather, wool and silk. I've also seen it applied onto pottery here in Morocco, though the potter who I saw doing so down in the town of Tamegroute, which is well-known for its pottery, told me that only potters of that region apply henna to pottery; he said that potters elsewhere in Morocco don't apply henna to pottery. The henna plant is grown here in Morocco.

When it is applied to the hands, one has to wait (less than an hour) for the very dark brown henna to dry. After not too long, the gooey dark brown henna hardens, and will fall off very soon if you don't wash it off. Indeed, as I have been typing this blog entry, pieces of the hardened henna have kept falling in front of the keyboard on which I have been typing. At this point, most of the dark brown hardened henna has fallen off, revealing, on the palm of my hand, orange-rust colored letters spelling "Abdo."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wait For It...

How ironic... the young woman who gave me the idea to write this blog post just walked into this cyber where I am typing, greeted me, and shook my hand. OK, perhaps it's not that ironic or unexpected, since she is the same one who had essentially made a marriage proposal to me earlier this year (see my February 2011 blog post on that particular encounter with her).

Anyway, not to be distracted any further from the subject of the blog post which I have sat down here to write today... yesterday where I live down here in the Sahara, I crossed paths with this same young woman who I just mentioned. I was walking through the crowded area across the street from two schools here in my town. Given that sessions of classes had just let out, such that many students were mingling on and near the block on which I was walking, I didn't realize that I had passed her. I then heard a soft, female voice say, from behind me, "Abdu..."

Ah, but now I must digress again, to explain that name. Moroccans seem to expect PCVs to use Moroccan names rather than their English names. As far as I know, there is no direct translation of my name in English into Darija, that is, into Moroccan Arabic. I figured that "Abdullah" was the closest I could get. Invariably either Moroccans or I shorten it to "Abdu."

Anyhow, I thought, "Did I just hear someone say 'Abdu'?" I turned around to try to see someone who might have called my name. I saw the young woman in question, smiling ever so slightly at me.

I walked back to her, asking her in Darija, "Bihxir?" and "Labas?" both of which mean, "Are you fine?" She responded that she was fine. As I approached her, I waited to see if she would extend her hand to me for a handshake. She put out her hand, so we shook hands. Moroccan women might not feel comfortable shaking hands with men, so it's important, as a man, when greeting a Moroccan woman, to wait to see whether or not she extends her hand for a handshake.

However, when I speak with Moroccan men, other than when either of us is passing by without stopping, I always try to remember to shake their hands. It's an expected part of greetings between men in Morocco.

When men shake hands here in Morocco, if they know each other, and are glad to see each other, they might firmly and vigorously shake hands with each other. However, when a Moroccan woman shakes a man's hand, she does so always briefly, and, even more unsurprisingly, much less firmly than men shake hands. Indeed, often a Moroccan woman will merely touch her palm against the man's palm, without actually grasping his hand.

As if to provide this very type of comparison with its attendant contrast, the next person with whom I shook hands was a man. I had left my brief interaction with the young woman and walked to the community center here in town. I had gone there to inquire about the status of paperwork which must be completed before I can teach an English class for adults there. When I entered the office of the community center, the fellow there in the office shook my hand quite firmly, and for a significant duration (at least compared with the usual length of handshakes in the US). In fact, he used the handshake to guide me to sit down before I started talking with him, continuing to grasp my hand until I was sitting down.

Moroccan men also use handshakes as a way of making sure you don't get away from them before they're done talking with you. I've had conversations with Moroccan men where they've maintained the handshake throughout the entire conversation. Unnerving though it was at first, I have come to recognize why Moroccan men do so. And, I've realized that often one must wait in relation to handshakes with both Moroccan women as well as Moroccan men: with the women, for them to initiate the handshakes, and for the men sometimes to end the handshakes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Assembly Required

The dar chebab (youth center) where I do most of my volunteering has been mostly closed for remodeling for several weeks now. This coming on the heels of it barely having re-opened and kids trickling in as the school year started. That coming on the heels of it being closed for a good deal of time since it was the summer.

It recently re-opened, much to my relief and gratitude. One day recently some of the kids and the dar chebab moudir (director) and I started assembling a pool table which the government had sent to the dar chebab. At one point, I looked at the directions, which were written in English, along, of course, with accompanying diagrams. I pointed out that the directions were instructing us to affix the slate part of the table top to the wooden part of the table top before placing them on top of the legs of the table, which were already standing, per the directions. My suggestion did not meet with acceptance.

Coming on the heels of having so little work, having my reading of the directions essentially ignored, I became discouraged when I tried to actually be constructive by helping to read the directions, which were not in my companions' native language. I got up and left the room, retreating to the dar chebab moudir's office. I assessed the situation. I wanted to leave the dar chebab, since I felt like my fellows were not listening to me. I next thought, "If I leave here right now, this will be disastrous for my mood right now. And for my prospects of living and coping here in the longer term."

Once a couple of folks had left the game room, where the pool table was being assembled, and then soon after, the dar chebab altogether, I re-entered the game room. The folks who had left had seemed to be the least receptive to my suggestions. I again noted that the directions instructed us to first affix the slate part of the pool table top to the wooden part of the table top. My fellows then affixed the slate and wooden parts of the table top to each other.

Later, I mused that, when challenges occur, sometimes one just needs to take a step back and breathe a little bit. Then, after removing oneself from the situation for a bit, re-enter and try again. After all, and perhaps this is true even moreso for PCVs than for other people, things aren't always going to happen how and when we want them to happen.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

You Must Be The Change You Want To See In The World

Last week, I was walking down a street with a couple of boys who frequent the dar chebab (youth center) where I do most of my volunteering as a PCV. One of the boys had ripped up sheets of paper into tiny scraps. He began to let them go, so that they fluttered away in the wind. I asked him in Darija, that is, Moroccan Arabic, "Why are you doing that?" as I ran to pick up the scraps of paper.

When I rejoined them, the one who had dropped the pieces of paper asked me where he should put the scraps of paper he was holding. He motioned as if he should put them in his pocket. I told him that that was a good idea, and put the scraps I was holding into my own pockets.

In recalling this interaction, I am reminded of another instance in which I was picking up scraps of paper which had scattered in the wind here in my town. A few weeks ago, I was walking down a street. A motorized vehicle with a tarp tied over the sides and the top of the vehicle, but not over the back of it, passed me. As it passed me, numerous small sheets of paper flew out of the back of the vehicle. As I bent to pick up the pieces of paper, I saw that others were yet flying out of the vehicle.

Once I got further down the street, some young children, perhaps five, six and seven years old, saw me picking up the pieces of paper. They began to scurry around and pick up the pieces of paper and bring them to me.

Are those kids going to pick up litter, or things which end up becoming garbage, when I'm not doing so in front of them? I don't know. Ultimately they're responsible for their actions, just like I'm responsible for mine. I can, and should, model the behavior that I would like to see in the world. Otherwise I'll just end up complaining about what I don't like. Rather than actually doing something about it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How I Recently Felt Great About My Language Skills

I've been living here in Morocco for over a year now. I haven't had anyone from the US visit me here yet, though that is about to change. Even though I haven't yet had anyone from the states visit me here in Morocco, I have already hosted visitors to my town. Usually they have been fellow PCVs.

Last week, I was presented with a different kind of opportunity. As I was returning south to my town down here in the Sahara, I caught a bus in Marrakech. Soon after I sat down on the bus, I started speaking with a young man from the US and a young woman from Belgium who were sitting across the aisle from me. When they got off the bus later in the day, I told them to contact me if they decided to visit my town.

Later in the week, they called me and arrived here in my town. I took them on a walk through the palmerie, the huge grove of palm trees which extends as far as the eye can see. I brought them to the tops of some hills from which we enjoyed beautiful vistas, of the palmerie, the mountains, and the town. While I was showing them the town and the landscape, we ran into various people I know here. My new friends witnessed Moroccan friendliness and, indeed, hospitality, as we were invited to share tea. At my host family's home, in addition to tea, we also enjoyed cookies and peanuts. A little later, we dined with them. Since it was Friday, my host family served couscous topped with zucchini and other vegetables for lunch, as couscous is the typical Friday lunchtime meal here in Morocco.

Given that my new friends don't speak any Darija, that is, Moroccan Arabic, I was translating everything for them. Having reached a plateau in my learning of Darija more than half a year ago, at times I have felt as though my Darija skills could be better than they are. However, during my friends' visit here in my town, I felt pretty good about my abilities in Darija, since I had to translate everything for them. It reminded me of how far I've progressed in Darija since I arrived in Morocco over a year ago.

As with evaluating one's own language abilities, often in other ways in life, it can be easy to focus on what you'd like to be doing, but aren't doing, perhaps because you're not as skilled as you'd like to be. But I think it's much better to focus on, and remind yourself, of what you are capable of doing, rather than become discouraged because of what it seems that you cannot presently do. Remind yourself how far you've come. And where you're headed. And how to get there: by having faith, by loving yourself as God loves you, reminding yourself from where you derive your strength, and by calling upon that source of your strength.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Language Learning Strategies

I've received guidance from other PCVs, Peace Corps staff and Peace Corps recruiters on how to effectively learn a host country language. I figured that those tips could help others, so it recently occurred to me to share them here on my blog, so here they are.

It can be helpful to have a notebook in which you write new words and phrases you learn. By writing them down, you're likely to be learning them better for a couple of reasons. First, you're practicing them, or imprinting them onto your brain, by writing them out. Second, you'll be less likely to forget them if you write them down, partly since you can go back and look at them later.

You're also more likely to get more out of the notebook if you carry it around with you. Then when you hear a new word or phrase, you can write it down and not run the risk of forgetting the new word that you learned (or how to spell it, since you can write down the spelling when someone tells it to you, rather than later--or not at all).

Some people also suggest copying similar and related words and phrases over into new lists so that similar words and phrases are grouped together. If you do so, you might better remember the new words and phrases for a couple of reasons. First, again, you're imprinting them onto your brain by writing them out. Second, you'll be reinforcing the meaning of the words by making associations between similar words.

By having a tutor, you can benefit for various reasons. First, by having a consistent tutor, you'll get help from the same person, which can be efficient. Second, you'll have someone whom you can not only ask questions about the language, but also on a consistent basis. Third, you can set up usual times to meet, so that you are regularly spending time learning more about the language. Fourth, you can ask a tutor more technical questions, such as about grammatical rules, the answers to which you might not be able to discern from just having conversations with others.

Often a tutor is only as effective as you help him or her to be. While a tutor can help you spot your strengths and areas in which to improve, the primary responsibility of benefiting from your experiences with your tutor rests with you. Let your tutor know in which areas you are struggling, and how you feel he or she can help you. If you rely on the tutor to develop material for your meetings, you might end up focusing on areas which don't best use your time.

Language Partners.
Of course, the more you practice speaking the language, the more likely it is that you'll get better at speaking the language. Even though this point is obvious, people often don't think of having people with whom they regularly meet to practice speaking the language. You can do so just on a social basis, hanging out with a shop owner, in a barber shop, with people at a cafe, or just at someone's home. Often PCVs fall into the trap of not being social and sequestering themselves in their homes, which, of course, causes them not to be social, and thus not to practice their language skills. Because they have lower language skills, often PCVs then further avoid social contact. It's important to force oneself to get out there and be in the community, for various reasons, including to develop one's language skills.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Efficiency With A Snap of the Fingers

On my way back from my mid-service medical exam in Rabat this week, I visited my friend and fellow PCV, Jack, who lives and works relatively close to Marrakech. I arrived in his town when he was still at his dar chebab (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "youth center"), where we, as Youth Development PCVs here in Morocco, generally do most of our volunteering.

He was finishing up teaching an English class when I arrived. I stuck around not only for the rest of that class, but for all of the next two classes he was teaching.

I got a good tip from him on dealing with classroom misbehavior. At one point, some of the students in his class were talking amongst themselves. He responded to their chatter, by keeping his cool, but also by snapping his finger. Immediately his students fell silent. I thought, "Now, that's one that I've got to remember!"