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    Posted February 13, 2011 by
    Tinghir, Ouarzazate, Morocco
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    50 years of the Peace Corps

    More from koryisma

    Health Education Volunteer: Morocco


    Patience, flexibility, a sense of humor, and managing expectations.


    Most of these are in the literature that they give you before joining Peace Corps. Be patient-- you have to be to get through the application process itself! Be flexible-- this is tested through your inability to choose where you serve as a volunteer. A sense of humor-- everyone gives examples of humor as a tool for mishaps in a cross-cultural setting.


    What they didn't explain was how I would have to be constantly managing my expectations.


    I arrived in Morocco in 2007, a bright-eyed 23-year old recent college graduate. I had two years of working in a women's clinic in the States under my belt, and was ready to change the world, one village at a time. I was going to make this unknown community healthier, more educated, and worldlier. I was going to do it all.

    I. Ego. The downfall of so many Peace Corps Volunteers.


    The reality is that to do real, sustainable change, you have to let go of the "I." It's tough. It takes work, especially for so many type-A Millenium-generation 4.0 GPA American young adults, who base their self worth on their productivity. Society no longer values who we are, but what we do. For people with this mentality, and, indeed, many outside the world of development work, a "successful" Peace Corps Volunteer is one with a long list of improvements and projects.


    Letting go of that and managing your own expectations is the hardest part of being a volunteer. Admitting that you neither can nor SHOULD do a project on your own if it is going to be sustainable. Letting go and taking six months to a year to get anything besides basic education work going is difficult, especially if people around the Volunteer—the only “benchmark” you see, and a normal quality for recent grads to use for comparison and affirmation—are doing lots of projects, the volunteer feels like he or she should be doing the same.


    What matters is not what you do, but what you can do for and with your community.


    My community was difficult. I would have never said that, except that the volunteer who replaced me and people who were in her group who came to know the community called it a challenging community to work with. An Amazigh population— the indigenous North African population also known as commonly known as Berber—this particular tribe in my village of 2,000 prided itself on being independent and self-reliant. Many distrusted the government, and they also distrusted or took years to get to know and accept working with teachers, local government agents who were sent there to work, and even the doctor who came from a big city. A single, young American woman had no chance of working within the established norms of the community.


    The truth was that the people were amazing. They welcomed me with open arms, laughing at my stumbling over the Tamazight language but in a kind way. I could not leave my house without sometimes literally being dragged into another house for sugary mint tea, homemade bread, freshly pressed olive oil, and honey or margarine or jam. I can’t count the number of times I shared couscous from a communal bowl, or was even dragged to fantastic weddings over the summer. The people were warm, curious, friendly, welcoming, and the most hospitable people I have ever met.


    They just didn’t know what to make of me trying to start projects—especially the men.


    As a woman who had never been married and had never been pregnant, they listened patiently to my education sessions on safe home childbirth, and went home and gave birth with their mother-in-laws assisting. The toothbrushes that I gave to every child in town with a lesson on healthy foods and how to brush their teeth were more often than not later used by mothers to scour pots and pans, or taken by fathers or brothers for their own use.


    When I came back to visit, some of my girls who were in my “pseudo Girl Scout troop” came over to me, pointing to their teeth. “Look, they’re rotting because we don’t brush them.” One of them pronounced, the others nodding silently. They understood the connection—I just couldn’t initiate behavioral change.


    The last straw came when I thought that the local association agreed to work with me for a cultural event they were doing. I spent a month preparing my part, and was excited that I had finally gotten them to work with me. I was going to knock their socks off—I was going to do the best presentation on health that anyone had ever seen and they were going to be begging me to work with them. It was going to happen.


    Unfortunately, the day of the event, they prevented my participation. There was no warning, they just canceled my event. I couldn’t help it. I took the long way home, bawling as I walked through the fields used for substance farming. I had been in my Peace Corps town a year.


    I called Peace Corps Rabat—the in-country headquarters—crying. “I need to change sites,” I wailed. “I can’t do anything here. I am wasting my time.” They refused to move me because, as one of my supervisors who I began to eventually see as my Moroccan uncle or older brother said, “If you change sites and still don’t do anything, you’ll see your whole Peace Corps experience as a failure when it’s just circumstances.”


    It took me a full year and a half in my community to feel like I did anything worthwhile other than education. I believe education is important—key to development—but two years is a difficult amount of time to initiate behavioral change, especially with the language barrier. I started searching outside my small community and worked with an association in the bigger town nearby to do a World AIDS Day event.


    A week before December 1, 2008, we prepared everything we needed to have a booth at the weekly market where thousands of people from a 50-mile radius came to do their shopping. We set up booths, asked a nurse to come speak to the group with a voice of authority, gathered materials from the Ministry of Health, and most notably, trained nine young women in how to educate the public about HIV/AIDS in an appropriate and accurate way. The only disappointment was that we did not have enough time to get a mobile unit to come do free testing.


    That day was a success. The association and I were very pleased with it. As an aside, I mentioned that I wished that I would be around a few weeks later. There was a festival in a nearby community, and I thought it would have a bigger impact there and that it would be a way to reach more people. I would have loved to repeat the event, but I had friends visiting from the States and had to pick them up a two-day drive away. I left, feeling like I had finally done something with a remarkable partner organization, and went back to the teaching initiatives that I had been doing for so long.


    Two months later, I hear someone in my town talking about the association and the festival. I asked them to repeat themselves, and they told me that the association I had worked with did a bigger and better information booth with the mobile testing unit. They had another training of trainers for lay health educators, and it had grown from what we had started together.


    At first I was annoyed. Again—ego. “Why didn’t they tell me? Why wasn’t I a part of it?” I asked myself, frustrated. Then it hit me: this was it. This was exactly what was supposed to happen. I helped get the ball rolling on something, and a group of motivated people took it over and kept it going on its own. This is what Peace Corps is about.


    My expectations for my service, even during training with my peers, had the bar set high. I wanted to change the world. I wanted them to name babies after me, and I wanted to “save” where I was living from all of the maladies of rural Morocco. Peace Corps taught me about ego, about managing expectations, and about the necessity to put the needs of my community or organization or workplace before the needs of myself or my own self-esteem. Peace Corps taught me humility, and that people living in adobe houses with no bathroom can teach me as much if not more as I can teach them. I learned the true meaning of welcoming strangers and of loving your neighbors. I learned not to fear poverty. I learned to be humble.

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