Give & Get

Didn’t get a chance to buy a pair of adjustable glasses as part of our “glasses project” PCPP grant a year ago?  Now, you can buy a pair directly off the Eyejusters website, and youll be contributing another pair to the developing world.  Just thought I’d help spread the word.  For $55, you get a pair glasses, and another pair go to places like Beni Hassan, where we’ll be distributing more glasses next week!

To England and Back Again

There’s a scene in an episode of the Simpsons where Bart & Lisa are in London and walk into a candy store. The store owner warns Bart and Lisa to be careful, saying, “Word to the wise, British candy is a bit sweeter than what you’re used to ‘cross the pond,” but not heeding his warning, the two dive into British chocolate anyway.  Thus begins a thirty-second montage referencing A Clockwork Orange, where Bart and Lisa enter into a complete daze eating their way through the rest of the candy store and through all of London, their eyes wide-open and foaming at the mouth.  This is, of course, an absolutely accurate description of British candy, and pretty well describes my last seventy-two hours verbatim.  You can watch the entire episode here, and that particular scene begins at 10:20.

So, yeah, my trip to England was fantastic.  It was cold.  It was wet at times.  It was basically everything you could ask England to be in the dead of summer, you know, monsoon season on the Island.

I spent a lot of my time with Greg, one of the engineers with Eyejusters, and it was really nice just getting to have some down time chit-chatting with him.  I, of course, paid off the boys with the grant money we owed them, took a tour of their office, and chatted a little bit with both Greg and Owen about where our project had gone and where it was going.  It was exciting to think about the information they could glean from our project and how it could help them tweak and make improvements for future generations of glasses and could also really put them on the map.  The boys have gotten a good bit of press lately, from Gizmodo to CNET to multiple foreign blogs.  Several websites have picked up a Reuters video, as well as a CBS News video that mentions the Peace Corps project.  My favorite video, though, is the one Owen through together, which Ive posted elsewhere, but have a look-see again:

I’m sure in the next few months even more news sources will start to pick up the story, which is especially good, because – inchallah – the press gives us a chance to distribute more glasses here in Morocco as more people learn about this new product.

So, yeah, actually getting to visit the Eyejusters office was something that kind of brought the project full-circle for me.  I think I mentioned in a blog about the project that I had very little sense of accomplishment.  Even though I knew that what we were doing was pretty cool, I had just become so stressed out and focused on the logistics of the project’s success, that it was as if I was incapable of appreciating what we were doing.  But being in Oxford brought it home for me again.  And I think that’s largely because of the “good” of this organization.  The guys there remind me a lot of the stories you’d hear about Google in its early days, when it was just a start-up, and a lot of their focus was on doing “good things” for the sake of doing good things.  Even Google’s motto was something like, “Do no evil,” and a lot of energy was put into making sure they helped people and weren’t just making money.

Eyejusters have a product that they could rush through the market, making God-only-knows how much money, but because they’re focused on making sure their product that’s meant to help the developing world actually makes its way into the hands of those who need it means that they have to be choosy about how they allocate their resources.  It forced me to take a step back and say, “Wow, there really are a lot of ethical decisions businesses have to make, really, on a daily basis,” and it made me feel really good to know we had partnered with an organization that wasn’t just doing it right but was deeply intentional about how right they were doing it.

Of course, it wasn’t all work and no play.  Greg and I went to a few museums, including the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and I took a few snapshots of some Harry Potter hot-spots around the Christ Church College area.  The second night I was there, we had ourselves a little “international BBQ,” though by barbecue, I actually mean “cook out,” complete with sausages, pork chops, hamburgers, salad, and assortments of cheese.  I was the resident American, along with two Kiwis (New Zealanders), a former South African drill instructor, and a Spaniard.  To go from a place where everybody is pretty much one race to, well, the United Kingdom with people from nearly every place imaginable… let’s just say it was the break I was needing.

Our last night together, we went to a pub called the Eagle & Child, where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other members of Oxford’s literary society, the Inklings, used to gather.  Lewis actually handed out an early manuscript of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there in the pub.  The fish & chips was pretty delicious, but the real treat was the sticky-toffee pudding for dessert.

The next morning, I caught a bus to the airport and before I knew it, I was back in Morocco getting shafted by taxi drivers and never hearing a lick of English.  The sun and a huge dust storm served as my welcoming party.

So, yeah, that’s my trip.  I’m back in site now and should be here most of the summer, minus a break for part of Ramadan.  I’m absolutely broke (having dipped into a good chunk of my own money to travel for the project), but every nickel-and-dime has been well worth it.  It’s insane to think that I only have four months left in this country – and still a lot of work ahead.  Hope everyone back home is doing swell.

A Slew of New Videos

As many of you know, the glasses project proved (and continues to prove) to be an incredible fruitful part of my service.  While Eyejusters were in Morocco, they took several videos, some of the Olive Orchard where I live, some of the actual glasses project.  I’ve been meaning for some time to get these up for the world to see.  So, here they are.

First things first, a few more of my village in the orchard:

Next up, some adventure shots of our travels around Morocco, as we brought glasses from place to place with – of course – stops for tea along the way:

Next on the list… a series of shots we took that show everything from “how the glasses work” to fitting a pair of glasses to even a trial and a training of other Peace Corps Volunteers:

Put ALL of those videos together, and what do you get?  A professionally made video by Eyejusters:

For more, check out the Eyejusters website on Morocco.

“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.

Number Crunching, or How the Glasses Project Quadrupled.

This morning, this email was sent to those who donated to the glasses project and included their email address:

“Dear Friends,

“If you’re receiving this email, it’s because you recently gave to the United States Peace Corps Partnership Program Grant to support my “glasses project,” titled “Eyewear for Moroccan Youth,” and I wanted to write you to update you with some exciting news.  The impact of the donation you gave has quadrupled.  As you know, the project asked for $2000 to bring 120 self-adjusting glasses to Morocco to benefit youth in-need for two rural communities.  This morning, I received an email from Owen Reading at Eyejusters, the glasses organization out of Oxford, England.  Owen has asked to fly down, at his expense, to be a part of this unique project and to collect information about the success of their product.  As such, Eyejusters has agreed to provided an additional 280 self-adjusting glasses, as well as 400 pair of reading glasses, bringing the total number of glasses provided to 800.  After crunching some numbers, that “discounted donation” brings the cost of each pair of Eyejusters down from $15 to just $3.96 per pair and every pair of reading glasses from $2.05 to $0.54.  In other words, if you gave $15 to purchase one pair of glasses for a Moroccan youth, you have, in effect, provided 3 pair of Eyejusters and just over 6 pair of reading glasses to Morocco’s youth.
“I cannot begin to express my gratitude for you and the impact you’ve made.  I do not have email addresses for everyone who has given, so if you happen to know someone who might not know this wonderful news, please pass the word along!  I expect to purchase the glasses once the funds flow into my account this or next week, and I expect to screen and distribute the glasses in early April or early June, as I am travelling throughout the month of May.  I will post pictures to my blog once the glasses have been distributed.  Again, many, many thanks to you.”

Your Chance to Make a Difference this Christmas

This year for Christmas, instead of spending lots and lots of money on things people want, I implore you to throw out just a little change on a need that can make a real difference in a student’s life.  Help students in my community and in the south of Morocco  see the blackboard in school, as we bring 120 innovative and self-adjusting glasses to the Kingdom of Morocco from Eyejusters and the Centre for Vision in the Developing World.  For only $15.00, you can provide one youth with a pair of these glasses.  If you would like more information about this project, please email me, and I would be more than happy to provide you with a copy of the Partnership Grant I recently wrote.


Worrying and Stuff, or the Glasses Project is Back!

If it hasn’t been obvious, life in Morocco has been somewhat worrisome lately.  I’ve had a few days where I thought to myself that vacation in America couldn’t get here soon enough and a few other days where the idea of going home to America scared me to death, too.   Some worries I’ve shared.  Others I’ve kept to myself.  But one strange thing about our lives here, although maybe this is true everywhere – I’m not sure – is that worries can flip flop to joys in a matter of minutes (or vice versa).  The roller coaster can go straight up or straight down, depending on the day.

Last night, along with my friend Katy Howell-Burke, I submitted an almost 20-page Peace Corps Partnership Program Grant to the powers that be requesting $2000 to purchase 120 glasses for Moroccan youth.  That’s right, the “glasses project” that was once dead has been revived overnight because of a Moroccan association that was willing to partner with Katy to help us waive the customs tax.  And if approved, you, dear reader, will have an opportunity to contribute.  For only $15, you can purchase a pair of glasses to put one heck of a smile on some thirteen year-old’s face.  That is, rather than requesting government money through a US AID grant, the Peace Corps Partnership Program partners with friends and family of volunteers.  I look forward to sharing more about this on the blog if the grant is approved.  But that, my friends, is incredibly exciting news!  I chatted yesterday with Owen, of Eyejusters, the glasses organization we are partnering with out of Oxford, and if all goes well, he may just fly to Morocco and even bring the glasses with him.  And not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but this project will pave the road to potentially bringing thousands more glasses into the country later on.  Incha-Allah.

That, of course, puts the “diabetes project” on hold.  At least until after I return from America.  Rumor is, Peace Corps is out of grant funding for that kind of project anyway.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s insane if all grant monies are already used up, and it’s only December (the funding year began in September).  Because of the budget crisis and whatnot, a lot of cuts hit Peace Corps and other foreign aid programs.  Which makes no sense, seeing how most Americans believe that foreign aid accounts for about 30% of the budget and, for that reason, want to see foreign aid slashed to only account for about 15% of the budget.  When in reality, foreign aid accounts for less than 1% of the U.S. budget.  So, if you come across people who complain that America spends too much money on foreign aid, tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about, please.  I implore you.

Anyhow, with the glasses project back on my platter and the grant now submitted, the biggest worry I’ve been dealing with was a little matter relating to getting evicted from my beautiful house, Dar Yanayr dyal Fouad.  I was given until January 31st to move out.

About a twenty-minute walk outside of town (and maybe a thirty- to forty-minute walk from where I work) is a giant olive orchard (the “zitoun,” which I’ve mentioned elsewhere) about seven to eight times the size of my village.  Because the orchard grows along the riverbed, and very, very old aqueducts irrigate the fields nearby, it’s an incredible patch of green in an otherwise relatively brown, arid plateau.  I set my sights to moving there, thinking it would give me a more realistic “Peace Corps experience,” as opposed to my current situation, which I’ve termed “Posh Corps,” where I have lovely amenities, such as… well, water and electricity and internet.  Actually, I may yet have all of those things living out in the l-blaad (countryside), but life in the countryside is drastically different from life in the city.  It’s more hospitable and kind.  Invitations for tea are regular.  People smile and greet you constantly.  A simplicity to life makes it seem, well, more like what you’d expect out of Africa.  And let’s be honest: when you hear the words “Peace Corps Volunteers,” do you really picture someone living in an apartment in the city?  It’s not what I signed up for.  I signed up to rough it.

This morning, I went with another volunteer, Nicole Abrams, and her counterpart, Hassan Achou.  This has been a huge stressor, because it took almost two weeks to find a house when I first arrived a year ago.  That’s just not something you want to have to navigate twice.  But this time, having a friendly Moroccan along for the ride (who is also Berber and can speak both Darija and Tamizigh) gave me a little more hope.  As we walked into the orchard, people were knocking the olives out of the trees and onto tarps below.  It’s harvesting season, and in just a few weeks, there’ll be new olive oil everywhere.  And this part of the country is known for its olive oil, so that’s something to write home about.

Avery and I had a failed attempt a few days ago to find a house in the orchard, so I went into this a little wary.  We had talked with a guy at the masra (olive press) who said there were no houses there.  This time, as we passed by the masra, a nice couple came by on a donkey cart greeting us.  We asked them if they knew of any empty houses, and they said no but that they would ask.  As we kept walking, we trailed them by about twenty feet, and everyone they greeted, they kept saying, “Do you know of a house?  The foreigners are looking for a house here.”  Our mission had become theirs.  Within minutes, they had found a beautiful concrete house that’s brand new and sits in the middle of a mud-brick douar (village).  In fact, the house is next to an old mud-brick mosque, the oldest part of my site, which may date back hundreds of years.

The house itself isn’t finished.  But in a month’s time, it should be looking grand.  The roof is twice the size of mine and has a view of the mosque and of the orchard itself.  There is a large salon and a small  kitchen.  Two other rooms and a garage.  It couldn’t be more ideal.

I started out saying that life here can be a roller coaster.  So I’m not naïve enough to think that there’ll be no problems with this house.  But the point is this: there are places readily available in the orchard, and we even had tea with my new neighbors (who also happen to be the same people I met my first week in site when they had a baby naming ceremony, a sbora).  They might be nicer than anyone I’ve met in Morocco.

Worries, to be sure, are a regular part of life.  In fact, sometimes, they’re so regular, they can overcome us.  But maybe what we actually need is to let worry overcome us so much… that we no longer worry about worrying.  Fatalism can pave the path to happiness.  My girlfriend, Liz, was saying last night how whenever she rides in a taxi and isn’t wearing a seatbeat (because there just aren’t any), she worries for her life as she pictures herself flying through the window in some awful crash.  When she told me that, I responded, “That’s exactly why people here are so unbelievably happy.  Because if that happens, it happens, but no one is going to actively worry that it could.  To them, that would be absolutely absurd.”

In America, we have very little to worry about in reality.  Most of us have not only everything we need but everything we should ever want, too.  The things we worry ourselves over – our “First World problems” – are usually ridiculous.  Will I make this appointment on time?  Will I be able to afford that new gadget?  Will gas prices go up again?  Even the bigger things we worry about in America – like finding or keeping a job, being able to provide a college education, forming a retirement plan, etc. – seem like miniscule worries when you compare them to life here.

But Moroccans are a happy people.  But it’s not because their lives are simple.  Their lives can be far more difficult than you or I could imagine.  You’d think they’d be worried all the time if they worried the way we do in America.  But life is life.  Sometimes, there’s no stopping the bad things that happen from happening.  Sometimes, you lose a kid.  Sometimes, you lose a tooth or an arm or a leg.  When your way of life is difficult and things only improve little-by-little, there’s an acceptance that comes with the fatalism, and it’s not nearly as cynical as it sounds.

If you know up front that life is a “bumpy cart ride,” you’ll get on your donkey cart a little more prepared for life to be, well, what it actually is, rather than spending your days fighting it, trying to tame it foolishly, only to have life slap you back down to reality again.  That’s no reason not to try to repair the bumps in the road when we have the means to do so.  But worrying all the time about the inevitable, or even the possible?  Devoting so much energy to pretending you can escape the great truth that we’re all on the same path that ends in death, one way or another?

Life in Morocco has, indeed, been somewhat worrisome lately, but then again, life is always worrisome if you choose to worry.  Maybe it’s time to accept, instead, that life is life, that many times, things work out, and that even when they don’t, life will move on to the  next drama, whatever it may be, where again, things will either work out.  Or they won’t.  But whether they do or don’t, it’s the worrying that holds us back from a happiness that’s always within reach.  I don’t know what these next few months, what this  next year, will hold for me.  But that’s okay.  No sense in worrying about it.