“The Glasses Project,” Official Recap

They say every volunteer has one big project all their energy goes into, a pinnacle of sorts to their two-year service.  Actually, I don’t know who “they” are, and I’ve never heard anyone say that, so I’m entirely making that up, but it seems to me to be the truth.  Almost all of the volunteers I know seem to have one project that required blood, sweat, and tears.  For Avery, it was his peer education classes at the elementary school.  For Caity, it was the building of her women’s center.  And as you know if you’ve read any of my blog at all, for me, it’s been the so-called “glasses project” all along.

Before delving into all the details of this past week, it seemed fitting to recap how we ended up here, but instead of typing something new, Caity Connolly said it best on her blog from this week, so I will quote her:  “A bit of background: About a year and a half ago, I met with an organization out of Oxford, England that manufactures self-adjustable, cheap, corrective eyewear for the developing world. They prefer to distribute through established aid agencies and organizations, […] and we came to the realization that the Youth Development program in Peace Corps Morocco was a great fit with their ideal distribution model.  This kick-started a five-month period of optimism where I thought writing a grant to make this happen would be simple. Hah.  Long story short, we re-wrote many grant proposals, received and then lost funding, and were left very discouraged by late spring of last year.  This was when, considering my rural village workload, I handed the reigns of the potential project to my fellow PCV, Philip, and told him I wanted to be involved, but had neither the internet access [n]or ability to do the research [or the] multi-continent communication that would be necessary to pull this off.”

Well, here we are.  A little over a week ago, Eyejusters mailed 800 pairs of glasses (400 self-adjusting glasses and 400 reading glasses) to the Kingdom of Morocco, and on Monday morning, I met two representatives – Owen and Greg – at the Marrakesh airport to kick of a trial run of their self-adjusting glasses here in the country across multiple villages (both rural and urban).  No sooner than the morning before their flight landed did we hit the first snag: the glasses were being held by Customs at the Casablanca airport.  When the boys showed up in Marrakesh, one of the first things I said to them was, “I hope you’ve always wanted to go to Casablanca.”  Three hours later, we were walking between the FedEx depot and Moroccan Customs in Terminal 3 of the Mohammad V International Airport, asking for permission to give the glasses to the shipper instead of the recipient (a Moroccan association director who lived some eleven or twelve hours away).  Luckily for me, no one spoke English, so I got plenty of opportunities to practice Arabic to try to explain why it was daroori (necessary) that we receive the glasses as soon as possible.

I explained all this hullabaloo in an email to a few friends that night: “Despite the fact that I had the sender with me, because he was not the receiver of the shipment, we were jumping through paperwork loops, and by the time we’d jumped through most of them, the work day was over.  That lead to re-organizing the entire project in the back of a Dacia rental car.” [Note: slightly smaller than the Kangoo Owen had requested, but really only slightly].  So, stuck in Casablanca, we had to hunt down an affordable hotel.  I went on to describe that experience in the email, saying, “In a nutshell, Google Maps steered us in the wrong direction, and we ended up on the wrong side of Casablanca.  We called the hotel, and someone drove out on a motorcycle so Owen could follow him in the rental car.”  Following a motorcycle through the streets of Casablanca at night is “a bit like playing Grand Theft Auto,” but Owen managed to pull it off quite well.  As many of you know, this was, really, my introduction to Casablanca.  Somehow, I’d managed to live in this beautiful country for nearly a year-and-a-half and had yet to stay in the city.  As the motorcycle whizzed around the corner of Place Mohammed V (formerly the French Quarter), I saw a familiar building, one my grandfather had taken a picture and written on the back of the photo, “This is where they announced the end of the war and the death of Roosevelt.”  It was a humbling introduction to Casablanca, seeing – at night – exactly what my grandfather had seen here some seventy years ago.

The next morning, we returned to the airport for day two of Customs paperwork, hoping we would not have to spend a second night in Casa but more than aware of what might be ahead.  A Canadian couple we met there had been at Customs for three days straight, though one of them asked us if we were having “just as much trouble trying to get cocaine” as they were.  I figure they’re either in jail now for saying something stupid or they’re still at Customs trying to get their “cocaine” released.  Several hours passed waiting for confirmations that funds had gone through or for the right signature or stamp, and at one point, as I sat down on a set of steps ready for a complete breakdown that my project was falling apart before me, Owen said something like, “Chin up, Phil, British men have persevered more trying times in the desert.”  It might be one of the most absurdly comforting things anyone has ever said to me.  As we weaved our way through mounds of endless paperwork and watched inaction take on a completely feckless art form, there was this sense of camaraderie, a kind of bond through the dry wit spoken aloud whilst sitting around with an Englishmen and a Kiwi (read: New Zealander) who had likely dealt with their fair share of bureaucracy in the developing world.

During hour seven, as we couldn’t stop laughing and smiling watching everyone running around looking busy but actually doing very little, the glasses were released, and we rushed them to the Dacia rental car and began the race to my village across Morocco’s beautifully, newly-paved motorways.

The next three days were a bit of a whirlwind of screening and fitting for glasses.  This is probably the hardest part for me to write about, so again, I’ll quote from Caity’s blog: “In the towns of Immouzer Marmoucha, [our site], and Sefrou, Phil, myself and other volunteers were trained […]  in screening and distribution of the product and got to see first-hand how this innovative technology can change lives in an instant.  Literally, a small turn of a knob on the side of the lenses, and someone can go from an inability to read the top line of a sight chart to the level of sight considered legal to drive in the UK.  Nothing I have done during my time in Morocco has been so instantly rewarding.  Few things in life are actually so instantly rewarding!  It is particularly shocking that this distribution began a mere four weeks before I am slated to return to the US, and I’m so grateful to have seen the beginning of this project on-the-ground.”

Hearing Caity’s enthusiasm was shocking to me, because I realized for the first time that I shared no sense of accomplishment with her whatsoever.  Maybe part of it was just that I had come into last week with a lot of stress about a bajillion different things from spring camp to projects to saying goodbye to people I hold dear.  Rationally, I could not have been happier with the project.  I knew Caity was right – this is a huge accomplishment.  I also saw first-hand the excitement and shock on the faces of so many Moroccan youth who were going to be able to read the blackboard in school for the first time.  I would say to them after handing them a pair of glasses, “Bssaha ou Ruaha,” or “To your health and your rest,” for which the response is, “God give you health,” a typical Moroccan saying.  One woman made sure after receiving her glasses to say, “God bless your parents.”  So, uh, God bless you, Mom and Dad.

Still, all God phrases to the side, and I was so embedded into the project’s details and success, so concerned with making sure things went off without a hitch, so overwhelmed by the responsibilities, that giving out the glasses was more like a necessity and not even for a second something where I felt the need to pat myself on the back or to be proud of what we had done.  Somewhere in the process of connecting myself to ensuring the success of the project, I had disconnected myself from the emotional value of what was actually happening.  So, hearing Caity say what she said brought it all back for me.  It reminded me that behind all the red tape of Customs, there was something happening that had only been a dream of ours as recently as November.  It reminded me that we could actually have a deep, meaningful impact on someone’s life.

At one point, I put on the glasses and played around with the dial twisting it to a point where my vision was terrible and then back to 20/20 vision.  I sat back in the car seat as I was doing that, and thought to myself, “I’ve never in my life had a moment where not being able to see something was a reality that I just had to accept.”  But so many of the students who came to us had been forced to accept for far too long that not being able to see was just going to be the way of their life.  With optometrists and glasses so easily available in the States, that reality just isn’t one we have ever had to consider, so our ability to see is often taken entirely for granted.

As the week came to a close, I looked around at the glasses we have yet to give out, knowing that this project is ongoing.  Over the course of the next few weeks, glasses will be distributed across Morocco from towns that border Algeria to the deep south in the Sahara.  I will be attending a few of those distributions and continuing to give out glasses in my village, as well.  I sort of had to sit back and realize this week that the “glasses project” didn’t just define a small section of my service in the Peace Corps but will continue to be a major part of the rest of my service, as we work to establish sustainable projects “on the ground” that can see distributions beyond my two-year time here.   I am looking into purchasing plane tickets, as well, to Oxford in June to see Eyejusters in action.

My introduction to work in development a few years ago left me with a sometimes bitter taste in my mouth, having to deal with so many government bureaucracies before this past week, but what I learned this week in partnering with Eyejusters was probably one of the most important things you can learn in doing development work – that the success of your work largely depends on who you choose to partner with, their motivation, and perhaps their humility.  And what defined Eyejusters to me wasn’t just their commitment to working with us to see this project through but also their understanding of why this need exists and their desire to do something about it not for their own selfish benefit but just because that’s the kind of thing you do – you know, that you help people, if you have the means to do so.  I say a lot on my blog that I don’t like to think of myself in those terms, you know, as some American come to help poor people.  But when you have the means to figure out how to make something slightly better for anyone – regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they do or don’t have – you should take it.  And that’s what made this such a success for us.  We few volunteers shared a vision (pun intended) with an organization a continent away, and it was the process of holding to that communal vision that we were able to make the right connections to benefit a small group of people in a little North African country I’ve come to call my second home.  So, Al-hamdulilah.  Thanks be to God.  And here’s to hoping the next few months and distributions go as well as the past week went.

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