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Pages From a Moroccan Diary, Spring 2000 by Peace Corps Volunteer Ann Rubinstein
Pages From a Moroccan Diary, Spring 2000 by Peace Corps Volunteer Ann Rubinstein
Pages From a Moroccan Diary, Spring 2000
by Ann Rubinstein
There have been over one hundred meetings. Multiple meetings with the president of Tata town, the president of Tata commune, the director of the youth center, the director of the high school, the directors of the two women’s cooperatives, the directors of nine different elementary schools, the representative of education, the representative of the youth center, the representative for safety, the representative of something I don’t even know how to translate, the women’s union, the president of the women’s union, the secretary of the women’s union, the cook, and more that have faded into some remote area of my consciousness. All those meetings over the past six months went into preparing an event that will take place tomorrow and the next day. Last November, Take-our-Daughters-to-Work day was so far away that there was no question everything would be settled by May eighth. But then yesterday we had to make absolutely sure the conference hall was booked for our lunch and then we had to locate, collect, and count the plates and cups. Not to mention that last week the number of nine to twelve year-old girls plummeted from twenty-one to nine, leaving us running around on a mad search for girls whose fathers would let them shadow a woman at work. I tend to chalk all the bureaucratic circles and procrastinations up to the fact that I live in Morocco. But for all I know, life could work this way the whole world over. I came here straight out of university and this is my first non-minimum wage job. Well actually, the Peace Corps pays well below American minimum wage but regardless, this is my first time dealing with any government. Peace Corps is a U.S. organization that sends volunteers to developing countries around the globe. Volunteers in Morocco work in four different sectors: health, environment, small business development, and education. I am an education volunteer. I teach English in a youth center at night to high school students and adults. By day I participate in cultural exchange, an important part of the Peace Corps experience, which basically means I go about my daily business in town. My town is not large. I live in Tata in the south of Morocco. It is a quaint town that evolved out of a military base. Some people here think the most beautiful parts of Tata are the villages surrounding it. I think the rows of pink houses and stores on perfectly grided streets with the Anti-Atlas Mountain foothills all around are beautiful in their own right, though it is true, the oasis and fields in the mud house villages are amazing to see. I even think the irrigation ditches are beautiful – what water isn’t beautiful in a place so near the Sahara Desert!
My two years of service stretched in front of me like eternity when I arrived in June of l999, but now after nearly a year , I am wondering if my calendar is running fast. It feels good to be volunteering two years of my life to something worthwhile. Many Moroccans don’t understand the concept of volunteerism. They have a word for volunteer –mtatawen – but it is a relatively new addition to the language. When my purpose is questioned by those who don’t understand, or by those who think I am a spy, I tell them that most Peace Corps volunteers work in villages. They bring tap water or electricity to the people. They save the land from desertification. They teach villagers about health, such as family planning. The worth of these services is immediately grasped and appreciated by Moroccans. And then I tell them that I live in a town and teach English. Sometimes I go on about the importance of English for getting into university, and how it is key for those who want to do work in sciences or with computers. Usually though, I think that spreading my language as an act of development work is rather pompous on my part. But I believe education of any kind is worthwhile, and in Morocco it is particularly important to be a woman teaching. Morocco’s illiteracy rate is high, over fifty per cent, and astoundingly the female illiteracy rate is over eighty per cent. Girls education was not a priority in the past, girls had too many responsibilities at home to go to school. Girls are still doing a large part of the domestic work, but now things are changing. The new king has set forth a women’s rights program and there is a girls education initiative. Even the education of women is becoming a priority and literacy classes are forming all over Morocco. In Tata, eighty women come to Arabic literacy class for two hours five times a week. It is the perfect time for the Take-our-Daughters-to-Work program. The program involves girls coming in from surrounding villages and getting paired up with working women in Tata. After scrounging around this week, we have sixteen girls signed up. The goal number was twenty-one. The problem is that fathers don’t want their daughters to participate, because they don’t want their daughters spending the night, because they don’t want their girls to leave the villages for the ‘big town,’ because fathers just don’t want their daughters to be educated. But fathers aren’t the only ones opposed to women’s advancement. In my English discussion class two Fridays ago, a group of ten female high school seniors discussed the fact that they didn’t want any more rights, since the Koran already dictated what rights they did and did not have. These women said they wouldn’t have minded being married at fourteen, even though they would be nowhere near as educated as they already are. It was a very depressing conversation class. This past Friday only four girls showed up and it was a much more personal discussion. Two of the girls revealed that they are engaged to men they hardly know. One girl, Keltoon, a hard-working excellent student, said she would much rather go to university than get married, but she has to do what her father wants her to do. She expressed jealousy over my American freedom. I asked her how she could oppose women’s rights since she herself is suffering because of her lack of rights. When the issue was put in such a personal manner, Keltoon did support the king’s women’s rights program.
The conference begins tomorrow, May eighth, and I am hoping everything goes perfectly. But even without perfection, I hope a few girls get inspired. It does not matter if we have enough water mugs or if the high school tour starts on time, the important thing is that the girls are exposed to the choices they have in life. Tomorrow is why I am here. Literally, the kind of program we are doing tomorrow is the reason I came to Morocco, and figuratively, as a Peace Corps volunteer. I do not strive to change the world – once I got off the plane it was a quick trip from idealist to realist. But I do hope to have a small effect which will probably be more apparent in the future after I am gone. As I see it, Peace Corp’s ultimate goal is to no longer be needed, to assist the country in becoming developed enough to no longer need foreign development workers. I think Morocco is at that point. I hope that Peace Corps Morocco soon becomes just a fond memory to some educated women.
* * * * *
It is now six a.m., May ninth, the second day of the conference. Yesterday went so well. The day started for most everybody before it was fully daylight. Volunteers and girls coming in from the villages had to catch early transport. In Tata we had to prepare last minute things like setting up the youth center theater in a conference room and buying the perishable food. By the schedule, we were supposed to end the food-snack and begin at nine-thirty a.m., but in Morocco time is more of an existential concept than something to plan your day by, so a ten-thirty start was not half-bad. The plan was to start with five women giving speeches about how education has been important in their lives, pertaining to work and otherwise. These speeches quickly developed into a question and answer or really a discussion session, which was probably more useful. It was conducted in a mix of Tashlheit and Moroccan Arabic. Mostly Arabic. Tashlheit is the language of the indigenous people, the Berbers, but not everyone at the conference was local. So they spoke mostly in Moroccan Arabic, called Dirija. Even to someone like myself who understood none of the language used, it was obviously a powerful discussion. Later I got the translation. The twelve women were talking about how the most important thing to do in life is to get an education. All twenty-two girls (more got permission to come at the last minute) agreed, but brought up the many obstacles they faced. One girl pointed out that in her village, Tagmate, as in all villages, there is only a primary school, and that once she gets to junior high school age she cannot continue with school. The women speakers suggested the only available option of living in Tata with a family or in the dormitories during junior high and high school. The response was the same for all the girls; their families cannot afford to pay for lodgings in Tata and the girls are needed at home. Who would help their mothers if they left? Moreover their fathers do not want them to be educated, especially if it means living away from home. Rkya, a girl who lives in Tata center and thus has access to education, stood up and said that she really wants to go to junior high, but her father will not let her. She began to cry, as did many of the women and other girls. I had never seen a Moroccan cry in public before. At twelve-thirty everyone walked over to the lunch hall and were put in groups of one woman and two girls, who would later go to the workplace together, and they all posed for photographs. Lunch was chicken tagine, which is served at almost every meal in Moroccan households. It is meat and vegetables and spices cooked in lots of oil in a clay pot. The tables were segregated as the women thought the girls would be too nervous to eat in front of the women. They wanted the girls to get their fill of more meat than they usually see in a month. The city women dove right into the chicken with bread as a utensil. The girls followed the more traditional method of divvying up the meat equally amongst themselves before eating. After the meal several girls made chicken sandwiches to bring home the next day.
Two-thirty p.m. brought the departure for work. I was in charge of picture-taking, so I got to go to each workplace and see how the girls were doing. The women work at the hospital, the hospital’s maternity ward, in the offices of the president of the commune, the representative for safety, the agricultural department, in a primary school, and in the women’s cooperative. All the girls were very excited, happily looking on as the women did their desk jobs, following them around the hospital and taking part in office talk. In each different workplace the girls feigned a busy work attitude when they were being photographed. At six in the evening we all came back together at the youth center. It was the birthday of two of the women, and they took the opportunity to throw themselves a party. We had cake, soda, and singing until seven. Then nine of the girls went home with host families for the night and the other thirteen went to their own homes.
Everyone pronounced the first day a success. The girls and the women had fun. Today, Insha-ala, God-willing, will go just as well.
* * * * *
It is Wednesday morning, the tenth. Yesterday wasn’t quite as crazy as Monday in terms of running around, but a few things did go wrong that left us organizers all running around again. Everyone arrived about nine, nine-thirty, ten in the morning. We placed the girls into small discussion groups as they arrived. Six girls to a group with one or two Peace Corps volunteers facilitating. Four girls from the village of Agouliz were only allowed to participate the first day, so there remained eighteen girls in three groups. They shared the experiences they had had they day before. All the girls felt that they had learned a lot. Pinning down exactly what they had learned and having an easy flow of conversation was about as easy as it would be be with any group of nine to twelve year-olds. At ten-thirty when the discussion and traditional snack of mint tea was over, a tour of the high school was planned. We all walked the five minutes over there only to find that the director had never received the written confirmation of our visit, so he would not let us onto the grounds. All the women involved in our conference are part of the Union of Moroccan Women in Tata, a well-known powerful organization here. The union, led by Mouna (their secretary, who helped us so much that the conference would not have worked without her) marched over to the representative of education’s office and would not leave until they got the letter of permission for the high school director. While this strike was going on, some volunteers ran over to the women’s cooperatives, the “neddys,” as they are called. One neddy agreed to do their tour earlier than planned. So all the girls went over there for a quick tour. This cooperative functions as a nursery school and a sewing school. All of our attention was drawn to the crazy little kids running everywhere. But we were actually there to see the high school age girls who were learning the arts of embroidery and sewing, an option for girls who don’t want to attend high school and want to learn a trade. A beef tagine lunch was served at twelve, When everyone was done eating, we passed out the photos of the girls and women at lunch and at work the day before. These were a big hit, as were packages of tooth brushes, soap and shampoo that we gave to the girls. At two in the afternoon we toured the second neddy. The girls were very impressed with the sewing samples. At three we made our second trip to the high school. This time the director met us waving the official papers approving our visit. He led all of us women, girls and volunteers into a class in progress. The director chose that particular class because it contained a high number of females. Much more than half the class was male, but there were quite a few females. I found these numbers interesting because the classes I teach, which seem to attract the most motivated students, have more girls than boys. At little over half the women in the class wore head scarves, the same ratio as among our visiting girls and women. The director stopped class so the girls could ask questions and discuss issues with the director, the teacher and the students. Once again I understood nothing until Mouna translated the Arabic into French for me later. The girls asked questions about numbers of female enrollment and female participation and motivation. They found out that the previous year, the one student in all of Morocco with the highest baccalaureate score was a woman from Tata. Consistently the top student at the high school has been a woman. The teacher said that on average the girls participate more in class and work harder than the boys. It was great for the primary school-age girls to see what they could achieve if they hurdled all the barriers between themselves and further education, but it was frustrating for those to whom the barriers are insurpassable. Three-forty five brought us all back to the youth center for mint tea and cookies before departure. I traveled back in a grand taxi with three girls from Akka, a town an hour south of Tata. The volunteer from Akka could not transport the three girls unaccompanied, as he is a man. The girls fell asleep all over one another, blocking their eyes from the harsh sunlight. When we got to Akka, they were smiling and quickly thanked us, anxious to get home to their families. Back in Tata, the women’s union was having a meeting about their upcoming projects. They decided to make girls education one of their priorities in the future.
Overall, Take-our-Daughters-to-Work day was a huge success, and everyone got something out of it. Next year, Insha-ala, will be even better, as we know what needs to be done, and whom we need to meet with to prepare every little thing.
Ann Rubinstein is 23 years old, grew up in Massachusetts, USA, a
is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts