Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Summer Dawn, Mid-Winter


The slam of a metal door, and I begin the walk through my scrubbed Moroccan town. Just outside my house, I pass a group of boys is boys huddled around a game of marbles in the dust, before continuing on past the clucking and clatter of the nearby chicken butcher. Further down my street, I greet 3 smiling women I know, dressed in colorful, flowing izars and carrying parcels on their heads.

The weather today is that of the summer days of my childhood; those warm, sparkling days with sun streaming through the sky, a breeze blowing through your hair, birds singing an invitation into the days’ bright open sky. Days when eyes flutter open to the mid-morning light, covers are thrown back, bare feet pad down the hallway, and young hearts swell with the day’s promise of adventure to come.

Adventure – it’s a sensation I’ve come to know on a daily basis in my life here. On the main road, groups of men sit at favored caf├ęs, drinking Moroccan sweet mint tea and watching the world pass by. Schoolchildren ride in from nearby villages on their bikes, and shopkeepers fruitlessly sweep endless dust from their entranceways. I cross the road, and a van packed with people honks its horn as it passes, offering a ride to those wishing to go into the next town. The sun beats down, my skirt rustles in the warm wind, and I bring a hand over my eyes, conscious of the growing heat the new month has brought.

A warm breeze on my cheek, and I’m carried back again to American summer; to days of wide green lawns, sprinklers clicking away, lawn-mowers humming, dogs barking; to the clacking wheels of rollerblades, long bike rides, hopscotch along the sidewalk, the cold splash of a neighbor’s pool; to popsicles, slurpies, cool turkey sandwiches, and family dinners on the patio in the waning evening light.

Miya u steen, miya u steen!” The prices of apples, bananas, and an array of vegetables reach my ears as I make my way through the maze of souq, Piles of green herbs, rows of carts bearing fruit, and mounds of onions with skins as red as beets spread out in front of me, and the scents of a thousand spices assail my senses from the bright stall on my right. Finally I find them: strawberries, the first of the year, arriving with the newfound warmth of the season.

Ripe-red berries, fresh as my memories of farmer’s market strolls in Michigan, trailing behind my mother and spinning in the sun’s glow; of twilight ice cream trips, sleeping bags, and popcorn popping; of bonfires cracking through the darkness, marshmallows melting, and songs humming from the radio; of running barefoot on the wide lawn, wet, fresh-cut grass sticking between your toes, while stars twinkle back an echo of the day’s warmth.

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Though my writing might suggest otherwise, I’m not coming from a place of homesickness right now. On the contrary, I’ve been feeling more inspired, hopeful, and happy with my service than I have in quite a long time. So this morning, as I contemplated my newfound energy, I made a conscious effort to feel what was around me, to truly soak up the sky I’m under, the weather wrapping my skin. And what I felt, much to my surprise, was the embrace of a warm summer day in Michigan – the summer days of my childhood, running free through a vast suburb that seemed filled with endless possibilities. Maybe it was something in the weather – the temperature, the way the breeze fluttered through my hair the way it did all those years ago, the warmth of the sun – but maybe, just maybe, it had something to do with my newfound sense of purpose; this sense that suddenly, everything fits together – my past with my present with my future – at least as much as it ever can.

You’ve probably noticed the infrequency with which I’ve written over the last few months, and I won’t lie to you: a large part of that is because I’d been having a rather rough go of things. That is, of course, with the exception of the marvelous, absolutely wonderful and loving visits from family and loved ones I had – and I am truly lucky to have people in my life that love me so much that they’d travel halfway around the world just to visit with me for awhile. Needless to say I will cherish the memories we made for my entire service and into my life beyond.

In the spaces between, however, I found myself stuck in a major rut. I wasn’t feeling fulfilled by my work, and I event felt that I was horribly matched for my assignment. English teaching is only a small part of my purpose here, but the daily task of teaching something I didn’t feel qualified to teach wore me threadbare, and I began to dread even going to my Dar Chebab for classes. In my other projects, I didn’t feel that my skills were transferring well, and I became burnt out and even disinterested in much of what I had been excited about. What’s more, the street harassment began to bother me with renewed ferocity, and I found it difficult to even go for a walk in my town without becoming frustrated and angry. I began questioning what kind of an impact I could possibly be making – even in the cross-cultural aspects of my work – especially if such a large portion of the youth in town still deemed it necessary to shout at me in French or vulgar English. The work we do here is difficult in more ways than I can count, and without my usual passion and positive energy, even the simplest of tasks began to seem daunting, even impossible.

It is often said that every Peace Corps Volunteer goes through a similar phase, but I was beginning to wonder if what I was experiencing was in fact part of the normal up-and-down cycle of a PCV life, or if it was something more prolonged, more difficult to overcome. It had gone on for several months, after all, and my disheartened feelings extended from work to social interactions to all aspects of my Peace Corps life. I repeatedly asked myself when I was going to wake up and feel excited again – when the fire in my heart that keeps me alive and enthusiastic would be rekindled. I needed something to kick me back into gear, but what?

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The answer to my troubles took the form of a project I’d been invited to help out with in Tazenakht, a small town in the desert to the east of my site. I’d been looking forward to it since the summer, but I hadn’t expected the transformation it would catalyze within me in just a few short days.

The project was a camp called Girls Leading Our World (GLOW). Facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteers all around the world, GLOW camps bring together groups of girls with a focus on both providing education on important life skills and empowering girls to incorporate and share those tools within their communities. These camps are often the first time many of the girls have left their town to participate in something like a camp, and it’s a great opportunity for them to express themselves and discover new friendships.

Our GLOW camp was organized by one of the volunteers in Tazenakht, in conjunction with her Moroccan counterpart organization and other PCVs. The camp took place in the local Dar Taliba (girls’ boarding house), and for 4 days campers and counselors alike ate, slept, and did activities within our shared space. There were 9 of us American Peace Corps Volunteers there to lead workshops, do activities with the girls, and help with general logistics. There were also 12 Moroccan volunteers from local associations, as well as 15+ helping hands to assist with taking care of the girls, leading activities, meals, sound/tech, etc.

42 girls arrived at the camp early Friday morning, and from that point on the Dar Taliba was alive with energy and smiles. The workshops – led primarily by PCVs with the exception of a few led by Moroccan volunteers – covered a wide array of topics, from the extremely serious to the fun and artistic. In between workshops, there were songs, chants, dances, camp games, and a field trip to a local lake, as well as time for rest and meals somewhere along the way.

A list of workshops included in the camp:
Gender roles
Self-esteem
Goal setting
Women’s rights in Moroccan law
Women’s health
Beauty
Cinema
Self-defense
Arabic Calligraphy
 Rape 
Sexual harassment
Henna
Belly dancing

In addition to helping out with general camp activities, my role was to lead the Goal Setting workshop. I’d learned a lot about goal setting activities from my past work with various organizations in the US, and I was excited for the opportunity to discuss such an important skill with girls in Morocco. Though it was a lot of prep work, my workshop (entirely in Arabic, mind you – this camp was NOT about teaching English in any way) went really well! I talked to girls about their dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, lawyers, musicians, and much more. By the end of the workshop, each camper had created a drawing of her “dream self,” a list of goals for her life within 5 years and for her adult self, and a 5-year timeline detailing her plan for achieving her most desired goal. I’ll admit that I was nervous before the workshop. I worried that the girls might not understand what I was asking, or that they would have a hard time with the exercise due to the relative lack of this kind of activity in their education up until that point. The girls, bright and bursting with goals and dreams, proved all my worries to be unfounded, and I was inspired beyond words by their enthusiasm.

I could go on and on with stories of all the myriad ways the girls of the camp amazed me, made me laugh, and brightened my spirits during those 4 days, but instead I’ll say only this: Never underestimate the power of a group of feisty, educated, empowered, generous, artistic, and hilarious 13-18 year old girls gathered together in one place; and always remember the power of two cultures coming together for a common purpose and a shared passion for the girls of our future.

The last night of the camp consisted of a closing ceremony and never-ending dance party, as is essential in any Moroccan camp. From 4pm until almost midnight, campers, counselors, and helping hands gathered to celebrate our shared talents, inspirations, and the wonderful experience of the past 4 days. The girls put on a talent show absolutely bursting with creativity, we enjoyed cake and soda, and everyone danced away under the moonlight to the beats of drums played by the girls themselves. As I looked around me that night, I realized that I had finally found it – what I had been searching for all those long months before: A sense of community, of belonging to something bigger than myself; a feeling of purpose, of being able to contribute some meaningful drops into the big bucket we’re all swimming in together; a sense of being able to share my skills across cultures, and to connect on levels beyond language with people who grew up halfway across the world from me.

Perhaps most importantly, I’d found an understanding that all of this was made possible by the simple idea of one Peace Corps Volunteer; that all of this was put together by a PCV and her counterparts, working together toward a shared goal. While in my downtrodden rut, I had begun to falsely regard many of my project ideas as faraway, out of reach, forever to remain in their idea state. But all of my feelings of burnout, all of my cynicism and resignation melted away that night, as I stood looking out over the groups of girls having the time of their lives. I felt as though I had suddenly woken up out of a bad dream, with more than an entire year left of my service just waiting to be filled with meaningful work and cross-cultural connections. I resolved, right then and there, to hold onto that feeling, to hold onto it tightly and never let it go, even in the most frustrating of circumstances – for it was the light on the horizon I’d been waiting for, the lifeline I’d been grasping for all of those months, and I’d be damned if I was going to ever let it out of my sight for a minute.

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And so, here I am, inspired to write for the first time in almost 4 months. Things aren’t perfect, but I’m thrilled to say that I’m back on the horse and galloping full-speed into what the next few months hold for my town and my service. As though welcoming the new leaf I’ve turned over, a group of 8 new girls from a nearby Douar came to the Dar Chebab this week and seem intent on sticking around. I led an art project where we made collages about what we want for the future, and taught the girls Ultimate Frisbee as an example of good sportsmanship and strategy. I have a Diabetes screening and awareness project planned with the Ministry of Health next month, and have arranged to have the professional women’s soccer team from Taroudant come to my site and give a workshop for my girls’ team. What’s more, my counterpart and I have finally gotten the wheels turning on our idea for a girls’ soccer camp this summer, and I’m optimistic about our prospects for making this a successful project for a large number of girls. There are a number of other project and partnership ideas bouncing around in my head, and I’m so happy to once again feel that anything is possible with a little conversation and creativity.

It’s as though a dawn has suddenly broken in my mind, and the fire inside of my heart has been rekindled. All of this requires a grain of salt, as nothing in Morocco is necessarily easy. Nevertheless, as I approach the year mark of my service next month, I’m looking forward to what the next 16 months will hold – the bad and the good, the hilarious and the curious, the successful and the frustrating, the familiar and the adventurous.

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