I’ve had a lot of moments lately (and I can’t help but think that several volunteers experience similar moments) where I sit back and think, “What am I doing, really doing, in the Peace Corps?”
I mean, I’d say I’ve laid a lot of that out in previous posts, answers to those questions, that is – most of which is related to following my grandfather’s footsteps but a lot of which is related to simply living with my heart rather than my brain. I am “Fouad” (heart), after all. Something I have to remind myself of often.
But living with your heart doesn’t mean throwing away your brain.
A week or two ago, I found myself in Mogador. Actually, the name of the city is now Essaouira, but long ago, when it was controlled by Portugal, it was called Mogador, and because I think that’s cool (sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings), I’m sticking with it. So, a week or so ago, I was in Mogador for the Gnaoua Music Festival (check out the Vlog for video). Imagine Bonnaroo with an African flavor, and “This Tent,” “That Tent,” “The Other Tent,” and “Another Tent” are sprawled out across a small city with medieval fortresses lining a rocky beach. The line-up brings Africans and Europeans alike to this city, taking a town that usually has 30,000 people in it and kicking the population up to more than 400,000.
Peace Corps had its own tents set up near one of the main stages, one offering HIV/AIDs testing and the other offering blood pressure checks. I found myself stationed for three consecutive days encouraging Moroccans to get their blood pressure checked, repeating the same phrase again and again hoping more people would be tested. In a sea of people walking along the actual sea (Mogador is on the Atlantic), there were occasional gaps where I’d get a break as I stood in the hot Moroccan sun just admiring beautiful Mogador. It was hard not to think about the good that could come from people knowing their blood pressure or exactly why I wanted to be able to help provide that service.
I don’t pat myself on the back for what we do in the Peace Corps, and I don’t like thinking of this job as “helping people,” even though service is, I think, an important aspect of my life. That’s not to say I don’t take delight when there’s a big win for someone who I’ve cared about here; in fact, I spent part of today rejoicing when I found out my host brother, Omar, passed the Baccalaureate exam – the major hurdle to being able to attend university. But that win was about relationship to me, not about service (or the English I taught him, etc.).
I recently heard our jobs described as “agents of change,” and that’s beautiful post-modern lingo, but at the end of the day, what I’ve learned the most about Peace Corps is that Peace Corps is not a development organization. We aren’t agents, and we’re not here to change Morocco. And any attempt to do so is ridiculous and insulting (to both America and Morocco, in my opinion). We’re here to share cultures, plain and simple, and while one major part of our lives is “to provide technical assistance” to our host country, I firmly believe that the point of that technical assistance is to help foster relationships and nothing more.
At least, that was the big realization I had recently when I discovered myself fighting Peace Corps hand, tooth, and nails moving from one bureaucracy to the next trying to make the glasses project happen. Thanks to some help from the country director, the glasses project is hanging on by a thread, a smidgen of hope (which could still see a few thousand free, innovative glasses brought to Morocco in January or February). It took being asked to write a letter to one of the princesses in Morocco, realizing that wasn’t a reality, returning to the drawing board for the eighth time, and begging for help before it really hit me that development projects are difficult to pull off for an organization structured to do much smaller, traditional projects like HIV/AIDs education (which is always good education that should be happening, even if America’s AIDs epidemic is far worse than Morocco’s).
I shouldn’t get started talking about the glasses project. It deserves a post all its own, and that will happen eventually, but I want to see where that story is going to go before I write that one up. The point remains, though, if I can bring free glasses to this country, that’s great, and I’ll be very pleased with being able to do something that I find truly meaningful, but at the end of the day: our lives are actually about relationships, and no matter what small level of impact I could have on the illiteracy rate, the real difference – I believe – will be the smile I’ll see on Omar’s face when I return to site and congratulate him on passing his big test. Because he’s my friend and my brother. Not because I felt obligated to serve him or because he ever needed anything from me. I just chose to love. It’s that simple. Choosing to love. We should do more of that. Even if that isn’t something we can measure as easily with statistics and reports and all the paperwork Peace Corps salivates over.
After the Gnaoua Festival, I headed home to celebrate my birthday party, complete with Turkey Pineapple Cheeseburgers with caramelized onions and Heinz BBQ sauce, all of which was purchased right there in the desert. After dinner, we topped it off with s’mores on my roof, courtesy of Caity’s mother and quite fitting for the Fourth of July celebration. And what made it even better? I fell asleep on my roof in my hammock inside of a mosquito net and covered with a rain fly. Best sleep in Morocco I’ve had yet.
But the dinner itself brought up a similar argument I had been thinking about in Mogador when one volunteer insisted that we are here essentially to help jump-start the sexual revolution in Morocco, because to him, the way some women are sometimes treated in the culture “is just plain wrong.” His worldview was black-and-white. No grey. No in-between. For him, the more progressive, Western world had defined “right” and “wrong” with a definition that the rest of the world should inevitably accept. A group of older volunteers were quick to point out the folly of that viewpoint, namely that you must approach a culture from within the culture and view it on its own right, determining morality from the moral code set forth by the people as they live and understand it. Any other approach is arrogant, and in an attempt that sounds peaceful and loving, you actually gloss over cultural traditions and norms and assume that everyone should be like you. All under the guise of making the world a better place.
So, naturally, that became a shouting match, and to me, it all goes back to what I was saying earlier, that we’re just here to love people, and though love can also mean raising concerns for their way of life, including the difficulties that come with that way of life, we’re not here to make them like us or put them in some box that fits our ideals. And I’m of the opinion that volunteers who think we should do that… should go home to America where they’ll still have trouble making everyone think like them.
After all, America was founded first and foremost on a rebellion – the idea that we could disagree. That’s something that makes me proud to be an American – that not everybody has to think like me, even though we live in a world where Facebook and Google filter our results so we’re being trained to think like each other more and more, in a box, everyday. Disagreement is good and usually healthy when it doesn’t turn to shouting matches (or worse), though sometimes, perhaps, shouting matches can be necessary too. I don’t know. But I tend to believe that the best form of peace – and the longest lasting – is the kind that is like a sibling who, despite annoyances, is still your sibling.
Case in point, I would suspect that Morocco and America haven’t and don’t always get along behind the scenes. Or rather, I’m certain there are things our two countries would say “could use some improvement.” And yet, the longest and oldest unbroken treaty in United States history is the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between America and Morocco. You can check out George Washington’s letter to the Sultan of Morocco here.
So I hope you had a great Fourth of July. I hope you found someone to disagree with and love at the same time. And I hope you used both your brain and your heart when you did so.