Monday, March 31, 2014

Bringing the World Home (the Peace Corps Third Goal)

"The logic of the Peace Corps is that 
someday we are going to bring it home to America." 
President John F. Kennedy, 1961 

What makes Peace Corps service unusual (amongst many other things), is that service continues long after volunteers leave their host countries! I have written in previous posts about the goals of the Peace Corps that volunteers are expected to work towards - Here's a quick reminder:
1. Helping the people of the host country with technical skills.
2. Helping to promote to the host country a better understanding of Americans.
3. Helping to promote to Americans a better understanding of the host country.

Goals 1 and 2 were very much a part of my time in Morocco. I was able to take small steps towards Goal 3 during my service: through this blog, through time spent with visitors, through a pen pal program with a home school in Connecticut, and a few guest blog posts here and there. But the real work on Goal 3 started when I came back to the US.

A lot of Goal 3 seems to happen informally as we catch back up with friends and family, but I am also on the lookout for chances to speak about our experiences in larger settings, and Justin and I were recently fortunate to have our first opportunity to speak formally about Morocco; in this case, to the 8th grade class of The Emery/Weiner School from Houston, Texas! 

How did I manage to connect with 8th graders from Houston you might ask? Through my lovely friend Nishta, a high school classmate and teacher at The Emery/Weiner School. Nishta and I have been able to stay in touch through the wonders of Facebook and I even wrote a guest post for her fantastic blog while in Morocco. When I got back stateside, Nishta and I reconnected and set up a time to speak to her students when they came to visit Washington, DC on a class trip. So earlier this month, Justin and I put on our coworker hats once again and collaborated on a powerpoint presentation to deliver about our experiences - ranging from why we joined the Peace Corps, to the type of projects that we did, to some of the key lessons we would want Americans to learn about Morocco. We weren't sure how our presentation would go over, but to the credit of these mature, respectful, and talented students, we spoke to an excited and engaged crowd of 60 with tons of interest and lots of questions!

Huge thanks to Nishta and the wonderful folks at The Emery/Weiner School for the work that they do with these great students. We were really impressed by their interest in Morocco and the Peace Corps and questions that showed real thoughtfulness, but beyond that, when having a dialogue with the students about volunteerism and service, we were also incredibly impressed by the volunteer activities that these students were already doing back in their own communities.

Incredibly thoughtful thank-you notes from Nishta and her students.

It was truly a fantastic Goal 3 experience and we're looking for lots more of them! If you're interested or know of opportunities, please let me know. And if you're interested in seeing the presentation that we gave to Nishta's students, you can download it from here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What I Wish You Knew about Morocco (Peace Corps Week special)

In honor of Peace Corps Week, current and returned volunteers worldwide have been asked to share messages on the theme of "What I wish Americans knew about my host country." It's been over half a year since I returned to the US (cannot believe how quickly the time has flown!) and hardly a day goes by where I don't reflect about my life in Morocco, compare cultural differences, or think about some of the lessons that I gained over my two years. So in honor of Peace Corps Week, I thought I might share some of the key things I learned.

Let's start with some basic ones:

1. Morocco was the FIRST (yes, first!) country to recognize American independence, and has signed the longest unbroken peace treaty with the United States in American history. Moroccans are very proud of this relationship; it's something that I heard from friends and strangers almost every day.

Moroccan children hanging with Mrs. Clinton at the Embassy.

2. It's not just deserts! From rolling hills to snow-covered mountains, massive forests covered in cork trees to oceanside resorts, rocky plains to yes, the Sahara desert, the country has some of the most diverse landscapes that I have ever seen.

From Tangier, to the Sahara desert, to the snow-capped Atlas mountains.

A few that dig a bit deeper:

3. Moroccans are literally the most hospitable people that I have ever met. There's a reason that Moroccans all call each other "brother" and "sister" within just a few minutes of meeting. It is so common to meet someone on the street, ask for directions, and all of the sudden a few minutes later you find yourself on the way to their house for tea and then dinner and you are meeting the full extended family. During my Peace Corps training, I was warned not to compliment someone too heavily on an item, because they would surely try to give it to me - this happened several times when I forgot! This isn't to say that people don't have arguments or issues amongst each other, but there is something deeply inherent in the culture and religion to be open, generous, and hospitable towards others.

Justin and I with our Moroccan family.

4. As the US is an incredibly diverse country, so is Morocco. Morocco is primarily a Muslim country (about 99% identify as Muslim) but I observed an incredible diversity in people's perspectives and views - some are what we might call more conservative, some more progressive. I saw many women dressing in a western style, many others fully covered, and pretty much everything in between. The Moroccan Arabic language is most commonly spoken but the accents and vocabulary change between every community and region in the country. And that's not to mention the parts of the country heavily influenced by the Spanish and French, and an incredibly rich history - Morocco has some of the most beautiful Roman ruins in the African continent.

Roman ruins in Volubilis.

5. The word "inshallah" is a defining aspect of Moroccan life. It means "If Allah wills it" and comes into play when thinking about everything from plans for a meal, to an upcoming trip, to meeting a future husband or wife, even about death. It means accepting that God works in mysterious ways and is in control of plans. But interestingly enough, there is a line in the Koran that says that while God is in control of plans, people must still put in a strong effort and work hard and will be rewarded. 

A group of students in our job skills training class.

And one last one that's kind of fun:

6. Maybe you have heard of argan oil? It has now become famous in the US and is included in all sorts of cosmetics, and pure argan oil is extremely expensive. You might not know about the traditional method of extracting argan oil, and here's where it gets fun. Goats in Morocco climb the argan trees. The goats then eat the argan nut. The nut passes through the goats, the waste matter is gathered and the argan oil is then extracted from it. So this expensive, famous, extravagant cosmetic... is derived from goat poo. I can't make this up.

Goats in trees! Where argan oil begins :)