Rachel Weiner is a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Morocco. She talked with reporter Jesse Chadderdon about a treasured anecdote about her experiences in that North African country.
There are these exquisite little sugar cookies we eat with tea at my host family's house. They have honeycomb patterns and I always felt guilty liking them because I knew they are from a store, and not baked by my host mom or Samira.
One particular day, after eating a few of these cookies with tea for a mid-morning snack, I made my way to a new acquaintance's house who had invited me for lunch. As soon as I arrived, they asked me to give them some money.
"Help me get a visa to America," the man insisted.
“I don’t know how,” I said truthfully, as I inched away from him slowly.
I sat there, fuming internally, and plotting my escape.
I managed to leave by making up some excuses. When I got home I headed toward the kitchen, armed with my Arabic dictionary, in case I needed some serious words to talk to Samira and my host mom about what had happened. I thought someone in my town should know about this.
The kitchen smelled warm. My host mom, Samira and I all sat in the 3x6 room for an hour with the warm oven and swirling scent of vanilla, sesame seeds, yeast, and orange rind. I put my book behind me and sat down on the chair they pulled into the kitchen for me. Minute by minute, I felt the tension leave my muscles, aided by the fresh out-of-the-oven cookies they gave to me. These cookies, I realized, were the beautiful little sugar cookies that they serve me sometimes before dinner, and they’re not from the store. Samira invited me to help make the little honeycomb pattern in the dough.
After we had made what seemed like 300 cookies together, Samira turned to me and said, “Now what did you want to talk to me about?”
I took a deep breath and relayed in broken Derija the events of the day. I could feel a little ball forming in my throat as I spoke, but Samira stared at me calmly, waiting patiently to see what I would say without responding alarmingly. I got my message across and Samira assured me that I would never have to go back there. I felt supported, protected...and warm. We had dinner like normal, and I tried to explain to them the connotative differences between the words “house” and “home.”
“I’m not explaining this well,” I say to Samira.
“No – I understand,” she assured me, and she put her hand lightly on mine to emphasize the point.
Page 2 of 4 - I think people are the same the world over. Some are good and some are bad, but I think we should count ourselves lucky to find the good ones. It's such an incredible feeling to know that despite the cultural or linguistic differences, you can count on someone when you are in distress.
Q) Why did you decide to join the Peace Corps? Did you always have designs on Northern Africa?
A) I decided to join Peace Corps after a few years of long days in Washington, D.C. I worked in political communications. I tried lobbying, as well as campaigning, but I never found my niche. I remember going to the park on the weekends and thinking how silly I was because all I wanted to do was "help people." It seemed so ambiguous and idealistic at the time, but I eventually decided that the Peace Corps would give me my outlet.
When I went to the Peace Corps, I didn't tell them that my preference was Morocco. I had been advised not to "country shop." Peace Corps, I was told, would not look kindly on an inability to adapt. I secretly vied for the opportunity to work in Africa or the Middle East, promoting girls' education. Because of my experience teaching high school French, I was a good candidate for a francophone country in Africa or the Middle East, which were my two first choices. I was very well situated to my goal, and I think I was very lucky.
Q) What are your day-to-day responsibilities as a Peace Corps ambassador? How is day-to-day life different than in the West?
A) A normal day for me starts at 8:30 a.m. I walk to the bread oven and pick up a loaf for breakfast. As soon as I return to my house, I work up an appetite by straightening and cleaning the house, clearing the detritus that always accumulates in the previous day. My favorite breakfast is eggs benedict, which is surprisingly easy to make, and since I've been here, I've invested a lot of time in cooking. While I'm eating breakfast, I'll begin heating a large metal pot of water on my butane-powered stove. After I fill a few plastic buckets with the hot water, I can bathe - though I'm careful not to discard the water, which I'll then use to clean the tile floors. I dress carefully, covering my whole body - even in the summer. I've resolved not to cover my head while here, though I do keep a scarf with me in the event of heavy wind or sandstorms. It's also prudent for me to practice this modesty if I have to travel.
For the morning, I may go out and get vegetables, send mail, make photocopies in the town commune, or prepare lesson plans in my house. I make myself available at the youth center from 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. for homework help, though I also use that time to work on the multilingual library that we are creating in site. I go home to start making lunch, which may be vegetable and rice curry, grilled zucchini, deviled eggs, or a cheese and vegetable sandwich. I eat fresh vegetables everyday, and if I want chicken, I go pick one to be slaughtered for me. Because I can't eat a whole chicken myself, I usually only eat meat when I have guests. Nothing has preservatives except for the few canned items I buy weekly. Very often I don't make my own lunch, as I have an open invitation everyday for lunch at about a dozen houses!
Page 3 of 4 - Around 4 p.m., I may go visit my host family for a snack, and to catch up on daily news, before going back to the youth center for afternoon classes. From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., I teach English classes to varied levels, but before leaving, I meet with the youth center director to talk about upcoming projects and village news. At night, I check my email in my house, read the news, and call friends and relatives as time allows. In my village, because there are landlines set up, it is possible for me to have a dial-up connection. Sometimes at night I'll fill a large bucket with water and soap to scrub my laundry, which I then hang on the clothesline in the house. They would dry instantly on the roof, but the sun drains the color from them in a day, and the sandstorms sometimes embed fragments of grit into the clothes. For dinner, I usually make vegetable soup from the leftovers in my house. I settle into bed with some tea and a book. Though these day-to-day activities seem limited, they are all conducted in Derija (Moroccan Arabic), which keeps me constantly engaged intellectually.
Q) Describe your village? What is your housing like?
A) My house is a cement multi-family unit, catering to teachers' families, and it is in stark contrast with the majority of buildings in the village that are made of mud and straw. I have a salon, bedroom, toiletroom, and small kitchen. It is a ten-minute walk from the center of town where I buy my vegetables, and about 20 minutes from my workplace, the youth center.
My village is small, but still reasonably able to provide all the conveniences that I deem necessary for my comfort. There are approximately 8,000 people in the center of town, which runs along the only main road in my region. We have a post office, a small health center, a birthing clinic, and two cyber cafés. We don't have a bank, so it's necessary for me to travel to get money. There are about five cafés that mostly serve tea to men relaxing with their friends.
I live in a desert oasis where the landscape is vast and dramatic. On one side of the road, you can see the Draâ River, which irrigates the three-kilometer wide berth of date trees and underlying seasonal crops. The other side of the road displays an impressive and seemingly unending desert of rocks, pausing at the distant mountains in a spot called Foum Chenna. The mountains there are adorned with prehistoric rock carvings, including gazelles, snakes, hunters and ostriches.
Q) Describe the people you interact with on a daily basis?
A) On a day-to-day basis I see a regular cast of characters, including my host family, the people with whom I lived for my first two months in site. My host mom and sister, Samira, are two very dear people to me. They took care of me when I had bronchitis, helped integrate me into the community, give me daily language lessons, and generally accept me without judgment. My host mom originated from the region of Marrakech where she grew up speaking Tashelheit (a Berber language). Though she never went to school and can't read, I still regard her as one of the smartest women I know, because she learned Derija in one year after marrying her husband.
Page 4 of 4 - I also visit my postman, vegetable seller, caféman, and youth center supervisor almost daily to do my errands and facilitate my development work. Because I live near the regional high school, I see the students walking back and forth from classes all throughout the day. Between all these people, I can never expect to arrive anywhere early, because each time I see someone I know, I stop and greet them, kiss them on both cheeks, and inquire about their health, family, and how they passed their day. This touching interaction has been a nice change from the harried American commute.