For anyone who ever wanted to know what a Peace Corps Volunteer really does – this is it. Or rather, this is the best of what we can do, I believe. Last week, together with Caity Connolly, Avery Schmidt, Ori Pleban, and Adam Eldehan (who came all the way from Essaouira to help us out), we ran a two-day workshop at my youth center, the Dar Chebab, educating 46 youth and several women on HIV/AIDs, sexually transmitted infections, and gender roles.
Honestly, there’s not a whole lot more I could say that hasn’t already been said here. My friend Caity wrote a blog yesterday about our very successful project, and I encourage you to read what she had to say first. I’ll fill in the blanks with less commentary about the project itself and more of my usual rambling.
Even though the project took place in my site and decorated my Dar Chebab wall with almost seven murals, the project itself was Caity and Avery’s brainchild from their In-Service Training that happened around the time I showed up to live in their region (they live between forty to fifty minutes away from me). I jumped on board after telling Caity that I felt like we as volunteers spend too much time focusing only on girls, and while gender education is absolutely necessary in a patriarchal context, you don’t make much of an impact only telling girls that they should be empowered; you’ve gotta share that with boys, too. And since a sexual health seminar seemed as appropriate a time as any to have a frank conversation about gender, we split one of the days up devoting the morning to HIV and STIs with the afternoon getting a focus on gender.
During the gender session, students were given a group of cards that said things like “strength” or “beauty.” They were then asked to separate those cards between traits belonging to “males” vs. traits belonging to “females.” Later, they were asked to describe the “ideal” male or female. As you can imagine, this generated some heated conversation. One of the more interesting moments came when one of the boys suggested that while both genders could have “beauty,” only women were allowed to be beautiful. We sat after hearing this a bit perplexed, only to realize that such a notion was fully Qur’anic (if not also Biblical). It’s haram, or forbidden, for men to wear silk or gold, largely because such ostentation would be insulting to the poor, but for women, gold and silk are permitted. I guess beauty is not always in the eye of the beholder, after all.
As the discussions got heated, I started thinking a lot about our role as educators. The approach we take as volunteers is to enlighten our students and our communities. That can push buttons. It can sometimes mean standing in contrast to myths and traditions that have permeated the culture or even the religion for what seems like eons. I’ve said before on my blog that I don’t think it’s our responsibility as volunteers to change the culture, or even if we wanted to, it would be foolish to think we could. We’re not here to colonize, and I stand by that.
But there’s a fine line between telling people what to think and helping them learn to think for themselves. The mistake we as volunteers (or any educators) have to avoid is the assumption that, if we’re all enlightened, we come to the same conclusions. That doesn’t mean there aren’t better conclusions than others, just that we should temper our own conclusions with humility before asserting that one is better. Many times during the workshop, students would turn to us as they held a card in their hand – “power” or “humor” or whatever – hoping we might provide some kind of affirmation that they were placing their card with the “right” gender. One student at the beginning, put his card in the middle, saying that it fit “b-juj,” both. Looking at us to see if this was okay, Caity just said, “Whatever you want; it’s your opinion, not ours.”
“It’s your opinion, not ours.” If only that kind of mentality went into everything we did. We’re all entitled to our opinions. The tricky part is letting everyone speak theirs and figuring out how to speak our own opinions lovingly without the expectation that ours somehow “wins” in the end. It’s not a competition. Granted, this is all complicated by the fact that sometimes, we confuse opinions for facts, and even though correcting something that’s false may be important or necessary, it should be done with the same humility as sharing an opinion without the need to change a person’s mind. None of us walk those lines well or regularly with humility, but it’s nice to think we could. And during the training, that’s the exact approach we seemed to aim for with our students.
But enough about that. The second day of the training was a day of painting. I designed two murals for the empty Dar Chebab walls, and the remaining four were empty space for chebabna (our youth) to creatively draw and paint the things they wanted. Since we ran out of time at the end of the day, my next two weeks, starting Tuesday, are going to be filled with painting four more murals on the walls, making the Dar Chebab extra colorful. There’s just not a lot of activities for Moroccans (or Americans) that are more fun than painting on an empty wall in the middle of a desert.
One kid in particular, Mehdi, has become my right-hand man of sorts, and was more than willing to help me paint and clean every single brush. I absolutely adore this kid, and I don’t really know why, though I think it’s because he reminds me of Kurtis MacKendree, one of my youth at Rehoboth in America. Mehdi is a fourteen year-old Moroccan who wears a Yankees cap but has probably never heard of the Yankees. His blue, high-top sneakers combined with his skinny-girl jeans (that he’s sagging) are like a new fashion statement somewhere between emo and rap star. I took him (along with two other awesome kids) with me to camp this summer, and he’s quickly becoming my project or my little mission. His English isn’t that great yet, but he always refuses to talk to me in Arabic. He wants to know English so badly, and I wish that every student I’ve ever worked with was as diligent and interested in learning as he is; come to think of it, I wish I were that motivated to learn. I’d have Arabic down pat by now if I were.
As the day came to a close, Mehdi made a point to thank me for everything we were doing and said that he had missed me since summer camp had ended. It’s little moments like that make it all worth it. You know, for all those little moments where you think, “Why am I doing this? What good is this doing for anybody?” Where you’re down and it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort or appreciated, and then something like that happens, and you meet one kid, one smiling face, who makes you realize it’s not even so much about making this huge impact as it is about just smiling with another human being and helping them appreciate themselves and their world a little better, motivating them to be who they want to be and living into who you want to be because you did so.
So will those forty-six youth make healthy choices, live healthy lifestyles? I dunno. I mean, I hope so, but whatever impact the training makes on their lives or the lives of the people around them, it’ll be Mehdi’s smiling face that I’ll carry with me into tomorrow, and it’ll be people like him who remind me why I do what I do. Because one smile like that is enough to make it all worth it.