27 November 2014

Throwback Thanksgiving

Another Peace Corps Thanksgiving.  I'm on the train on my way from Casa to Rabat, about to have Thanksgiving supper - I say that because it's from 2pm to 5pm, so "supper" feels like the appropriate antiquated word for eating at that time - with hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers that I've never met.  And I'm reflecting on both my last 7 Thanksgivings, since Peace Corps came into my life, and also on what I'm thankful for this year.  Since it's technically #ThrowbackThursday, I'll give you a bit of a look at where I've been for the past few years.

The Thanksgiving of 2007 will always stand out in my mind - we were at the end of our training, and although I can't quite remember if we had already sworn-in as Peace Corps volunteers or about to swear-in, I'll always remember that all 68 of us took over the kitchen of the center in Fes, and made Thanksgiving for over 70 people.  I don't know why I didn't help much, but I have photos of my friends Danice, Diana, and I hanging out with our CBT counterpart, Idriss, and making hand-shaped turkeys and feather headbands.  There are also pictures of people who would become my life-long friends in chef coats and hats, as well as POTS of mashed potatoes.  It was definitely a delicious night, and will stand out as one of the best Thanksgivings I could have had being so far away from family.

Thanksgiving 2008 involved 2 celebrations - one with Danice (again!) her friends from Notre Dame, and my host mom-sister.  I have distinct memories of us taking two-day-old bread and using a rock to make it into bread crumbs for green bean casserole.  This was the year that my mom was a champion and sent me a whole box of Thanksgiving fixin's and called it "books" so customs would let her send raw cranberries overseas.  Probably the only "unethical" thing she's ever done.  And it made everything worth it because after a year away from home and without seeing family, the taste of MSG-filled cream of mushroom soup and freeze-dried onions were much welcome.

The next year's Thanksgiving was also epic, because we had just COS-ed and begun our 3-week no-airplane journey back home.  We were in Barcelona, renting two apartments in the Gothic quarter, and had some of the best chefs of Peace Corps with us to make a lovely dinner for 21 culture-
shocked, slightly tweaked out RPCVs who were about to board a two-week cruise back to America.  This Thanksgiving also featured a rendition of "Do Re Mi" rewritten for Peace Corps Morocco that deserves it's own blog post, and much love and warmth in the candlelight of our Barcelona apartment.

Thanksgiving of 2010 I don't think I have photographic evidence of, but it involved another turkey tagine.  I was working for Morocco Exchange and it was the first day of one of our 4-day trips.  I had gone to a fairly swanky restaurant the day before, and asked them to prepare a late lunch for us that involved turkey tagine, to surprise the students.  I knew the feeling of having your first Thanksgiving away from home - I had experienced that while studying abroad in Spain, just as they were doing at the time - and so I wanted it to be special for them.  We felt the same warmth with new friends and eating turkey despite being away from home, and this dinner made it one of my favorite trips that I hosted with MoEx.

In 2011, I was back with Peace Corps friends.  We met at a friend's mom's apartment in Evanston, Ill. and my dad and his new wife got to meet some of the most important people in my life.  We had wonderful food, talked about Thanksgiving/Christmas movies we used to watch, and of course, drunkely Skyped those who were far away from us, including "real" family, Peace Corps family, and other loved ones.

2012 was a big year for me.  I was with my sister in San Francisco, and she brined the turkey by herself - it was amazing by the way.  I also got to have a little Peace Corps flavor in my life that year because my friend David was also living in San Francisco at the time, and came over as well.  Before I left Philly, however, I also met my new friend, Fer, an Iranian at Penn who I came to see as one of my best new friends from that period, and who I hope to visit one day in her home.  We met that night when she asked me what I was drinking, and then we talked for at least an hour about education, pedagogy, and I recommended that she read Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  The beginning of a beautiful friendship.  I'm so thankful to have her in my life - even though we don't see each other that much - because she constantly reminds me how awesome women scientists are, as well as Iranians.  She's the one in the funky hat sitting across from me.

And now we're up to last year, 2013.  I went home to visit my mother and had a lovely Thanksgiving
with just her and me.  Before I flew home from Baltimore, though, I had a pre-thanksgiving meet up with Peace Corps friends - in line with the theme of this blog post of course - and we talked about how we had come, and that's where the idea for the reunion we had this past May really solidified.

So there you go.  My trail that has led me to today, my 8th Thanksgiving since I embarked on this experience that changed my life.  I hope that this will be another memorable event in a line of wonderful memories for which I am so thankful.  And now, in no particular order, my Thankful list - for those of you who are still with me:

  • This year I'm thankful for Whatsapp, because it allows me to stay connected with the most important people in my life.  I mean, I guess I'm thankful for the internet in general, but if we had to be specific, I couldn't have decided to embark on this next adventure without knowing that I could maintain the relationships that are most important to me.  I am especially thankful for Whatsapp group chats and the comfort they give me, every morning, when I wake up to 22 messages from my best friends.  How did people do the Peace Corps before the internet, I mean really?
  • This year I'm also thankful for my volunteers.  They say when you're volunteering, you always get more than you give, take more than you could ever bestow upon people.  And it's true even in this management role, with these young Moroccans.  They inspire me every day with their optimism, their patience, their willingness to do something that is so outside of their cultural context and their comfort zone.
  • I'm also thankful for Morocco, and especially Peace Corps Morocco.  Some people never find direction in their lives, never find a purpose, and it is because of this country that I have a guiding principle and, if we're being honest, a reason to keep on "keeping on."
  • Finally, this year I'm thankful for the hard things that have happened to me in the past year or so.  I don't have a hard life, and I'm very aware of my priviledge, but I have faced what are ,for me, some of the most difficult situations of my life since leaving Penn, and I am thankful for the pain they brought, the lessons I learned, and the fact that they remind me how lucky I am to have the good things in my life that I do, and that I am lucky just to be alive.
Thanks for reading, dear friends and family, and I hope you have a wonderful and warm Thanksgiving, wherever you are.

23 November 2014

Training, Training, Training

Warning: Long post!

Finally - and sadly - our training for CorpsAfrica is over.  Much like my original training, it went by in a whirlwind of meetings, PowerPoint presentations, hikes, glasses of mint tea, guitar circles, scrambles to get things accomplished, and laughter.  It may not be the formative experience for me that my own training was, but we did our very best to make sure that it was that kind of experience for our volunteers.  I feel supremely confident that they are ready to go out into their communities and make a difference, and as I've been telling them for the past five days, I've never been prouder of a group of people/students.

Week 1:

We spent the training in Casablanca at a Ministry of Youth and Sport Facility in Bourgone.  The facility became our home in Casa, and although we were comfortable enough, much of my memories of training will be of (1) searching for food that was NOT paninis or schwarma or pizza and (2) chasing the stray cats that lived in the center out of our room.

Before I even arrived at training, the volunteers attended at Red Crescent training that - I think - began the bonding process, as well as got them in the mindset of how much they would have to invest in this training.  They spent two days fighting Casablanca traffic to go to the suburb of Ain Sebaa and learning basic first aid and CPR skills.  We lost two volunteers after those days - they gave the excuse that they hadn't actually finished their Master's theses, as they had originally told us - and our group was down to 10 volunteers.  I actually never even met them, because they had left while I was still in Rabat, preparing to come down to Casablanca.

I arrived on Thursday of that week, and was quite happy to be thrown in the mix, helping coordinate and set up for 2 days of presentations by various NGOs in Morocco who work on projects that our volunteers might be interested in once they settle into their sites.  We meet with the International Youth Foundation, the UN Volunteers program - who are sponsoring my UN counterpart here - the Moroccan Center for Civic Education, The Anou, INJAZ Al-Maghrib, Travel with a Mission, and a few others.

It was the week of beginnings, and the group had already started to bond and form inside jokes about the Heimlich maneuver. I remember feeling like I had come home, and I was - and would continue to feel the joy of being back into Morocco, and moreover to be busy and useful.

Week 2:

The second week of training was definitely a highlight of the training.  On Sunday morning we welcomed Garrett, our design - thinking trainer, into our group.  He and I had been working together since I had decided to come back to Morocco to put together a comprehensive training for our volunteers.  To remain true to the CorpsAfrica motto of "Development. Redefined."  we wanted to take what we had learned from our own experiences as volunteers (he had been a volunteer in Liberia from 2010-2012), as well as feedback from last year's CorpsAfrica training, and integrate design-thinking into the pre-service training of this groups.  We started out getting them to think differently, by having them re-design a wallet in pairs, introducing them to the concept of design for innovation, and (what turned out to be most powerful for them based on their feedback later on), showing them one of my favorite TED talks, "The Danger of a Single Story."

Because of my experience and training in Experiential Learning, we wanted them not only to learn about the principles of design-thinking, but also to put them into practice in a 'real' context.  So, because one of our board members is the founder of The Sidi Moumen Cultural Center, we decided to take them to Sidi Moumen, divide them up into small groups, and see what they could learn about the center.  We wanted them to work to understand the deeper issues that the center and the community were facing, and suggest innovative solutions to these issues.

For those of you who don't know, the neighborhood of Sidi Moumen is somewhat infamous in Morocco for being the location of the largest shantytown in the country.  It is also known throughout Morocco as the place where Salafist groups recruit, to the extent that it is commonly known that the bombers of the May 16, 2003 bombings in Casablanca were mainly from Sidi Moumen.  The Moroccan government has long been trying to invest in moving people out of their shantytowns into housing projects, but it is still an area that faces many urban poverty challenges.  For long-time followers of my blog, you may remember my two articles a few years ago where I reflected on this issue.

Our group came and spent two afternoons/evenings meeting as many people as possible in the center and practicing interviewing and understanding techniques that they had learned.  They really loved being able to speak with so many people, and having a chance and a reason to ask deeper questions, trying to understand the challenges of the center and the surrounding community.  They also were able to visit people in their homes, including some who had lived or still lived in the shantytowns.  There they were able to get people to open up a little more than they might in the center, far from ears of the leaders of the center who they might be afraid of offending.

In the end, they came up with three varied ideas of how to address issue they found:

  • One group felt that there were a number of children who came from broken homes who needed youth leaders in the center to reach out them in a more concrete way
  • A second group felt that there was a group of housewives who would like a cooking class and they could use the class as a way to make some money that they could keep for their own
  • A third group talked about the desire of the youth volunteer leaders in the center and how they could use job training
All solid ideas right?  Well, one of the most powerful experiences of this week was the presentation we made at the end.  We wanted the volunteers to share their ideas with the community and receive feedback for moving forward.  Time constraints and Moroccan etiquette, however, turned the presentation into something much more formal than we probably should have attempted.  And because of the stage and the way in which the ideas were presented, it came across as an "us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders" situation.  Some of the parents and older members of the community center, having seen their children grow and benefit so much from being members, became quite defensive and during the middle of the presentation, it devolved into a very useful back-and-forth about what the purpose of our presence in the center even was.  There were apologies on both sides, and our volunteers ended up taking the line that this was just a training and that the members of the center need not worry.

Like I said, a wonderful learning experience, with many "what not to do" lessons to take with them to their sites.  We had a small party for Garrett on Saturday before he left, and then we were off to the mountains for our third week of training.

Week 3:

The majority of the volunteers told us that the third week of training was their favorite.  This week we spent in the High Atlas Mountains above Marrakech, living in a village that is now the site of one of our volunteers.  We also went up there for the volunteers to have a second chance to practice their design-thinking skills.

On Monday, we drove down from Casa to Kech, and then had our minibus driver (my friend Salah who I used to work with through Morocco Exchange) take us to a town above Asni called Tizi Ourgane.  There we met with the president of our board, Omar, and the owner of the shelter - called a jeet - where we would stay for the week.  It was a beautiful 4-5 hour hike from Tizi Ourgane to the village, Tiziyane, and it was such a relief for us to get out of the pollution, noise, and humidity of Casa and up into the warm but not hot, dry air of the mountains.  As is common in these mountains, we had two mules to carry our bags, so we had a lovely hike up and arrived before sunset.

Much like the previous week, we spent the third week getting to know our surroundings.  Our second day was pretty much spent hiking to and from - and visiting - the village of a previous volunteer to meet her and see the project she had completed.  Because we had seen and discussed many examples of failure before this, it was lovely to see the example of her success.  She had worked with her local associations and leaders to build a preschool, but more importantly, she had successfully navigated the social and cultural pressures of her village, and come out of her year there as a stronger, more confident, and more capable person.

Inspired by her success and story, our volunteers gave their full effort that week, reviewing and re-practicing their design-thinking process. In coming up with their ideas, they worked much harder to get the community involved this time, and were able to take more time to figure out what resources the community had.  Their ideas this time were:

  1. to start a trash clean-up campaign that would run co-currently with a sensitization program to not only get the people of the community involved in cleaning up their own village, but also in understanding why it was important, and changing their behavior
  2. using a only-slightly-run-down building near the mosque as a community center, using it for after-school activities, tutoring, and parent association meetings
  3. hold a community meeting for jeet owners throughout the valley and have volunteers from Marrakech come up to teach them how to improve their touristic services in order to attract more clients, and make the clients feel more at home when at the jeets.

Although we didn't hold a community meeting this time, our ideas were clearly much better received by the community.  So much so that we were able to mobilize a contingent of young boys as well as some older men to help us and go around the community, picking up trash.  The volunteers also worked on sensitizing kids not to throw their candy and cookie wrappers all over the place after we had finished about two hours of trash pick up.  It was also quite a learning experience, because before we could say "plastic bag," the community leaders who were helping us had started two trash piles on fire. So instead of talking about and figuring out a way to get the trash out of the village, we had a village that smelled like trash smoke for the next 24 hours.  Baby steps, baby steps.

At this point, I was still feeling that floaty, honeymoon feeling about being in Morocco, and, because of the beauty of the mountains, the ever-growing closeness of the group, the nightly philisophical dinners and talks on the roof of the jeet, and one special trip down to the river - complete with guitar-accompanied Moroccan rai and American classic rock songs, that feeling only grew during this week in the mountains.

Weeks 4 & 5:

Week Four and Five kind of blend together in my mind, mostly because they became less planned.  Simply due to the nature of the work we do and the country in which we work, we were forced to be more flexible with our plans and change many of them at the last minute.  Our volunteers really rose to the challenge of these weeks, and thus the training carried on and we were able to fit in even more than we planned.

Two of these days we sent the volunteers out to a farm outside of Marrakech.  Our idea was not only to give them an opportunity to ask farm workers and owners questions about the business of farming, but also to give them a tiny taste of how HARD farming is, especially due to the monotony of many of the tasks involved.  As you might expect, they weren't so happy about spending a day pulling plastic tubing out of the earth so that the farmers could water their fava beans, but I know that they (and I) will never look at fava beans the same way again.

We also brought them up to a site of a PC volunteer in the mountains above Ait Ourir, and gave them another chance to see a successful project - a women's doll-making cooperative and an early-education project.

Another two days were spent in Ifrane, the Switzerland of Morocco, meeting with professors and student leaders at Al-Akhawayn University.  We talked to some true experts, who spoke about community integration, development, anthropology, and the UN from a more academic perspective, and helped our volunteers see their work in the larger context of human development projects throughout Morocco and the world.

Our final major event of these two weeks was a day-long training in Setting Expectations.  Taught by a business school type, it was one of the most valuable activities - in my perspective - that we did that week.  Not only did the volunteers get a chance to voice what they expected of us, but we also got to work with them to clarify what we expected of them, and I believe they went forward with a much clearer idea of how they were to proceed once they got into site.

Site Assignments & Swearing-In:

And, just like that, our training was over.  We gave them site assignments, a weekend off with a chance to go home, and hosted a swearing-in ceremony in a fancy, seaside restaurant in Casablanca.  This end-of-training period affected me much more than other endings have in the past - except the end of my own pre-service training - because I had not only spent 24 hours a day with these wonderful young people, but also because I felt deeply invested in what we had taught them and their lives and future service.  It was a bit of a bittersweet goodbye, seeing them with all their bags at the Casa Voyageurs train station, but mostly sweet because I was - and still am - ridiculously proud of them, and hopeful about what they will accomplish in their sites.  So we shall see how things progress from here.  Two months of integration.  Another training group coming in December or January.  Much travel to visit them in their sites and make sure they are set up and feel supported.  It's going to be a great great couple of months!