A Capstone Experience to my Service – a visit from the Country Director

On Monday, the Country Director and the person in charge of gifts and grants for all of Peace Corps drove out to our province in the Middle Atlas.  It was an opportunity for several volunteers to come together and talk about (and show off) some of the work we were doing based on the grants we wrote to make it all happen.  Jon and I managed to pack their day full, which in turn packed our entire week full of prep work for their visit.

The day before they arrived, the children at Jon’s local primary school painted a large mural of fruit to promote nutrition and a Peace Corps logo on an adjacent wall (that included both the American and Moroccan flags).  After the children finished painting, Jon worked with them to prepare a series of “welcome” and “thank you” songs in what was none other than an awesome, shameless act, and quite possibly the most adorable thing you could imagine next to a room full of teddy bears and butterflies.

In the meantime, I sat down with Monica Groen and Nicole Gravante, as well as several Moroccan counterparts (two awesome guys named Hassan), to prepare for what was to be my final glasses distribution in Morocco and to “pass the torch,” so to speak to volunteers who will continue distributing glasses after I am long gone.  It gave us a chance to put our heads together and say, “Okay, here are some problems with this project, and here are some ways to overcome those concerns.”  One problem we kept running into, for example, was a lack of understanding over how to use the new technology for the glasses.  For you and me, it’s simple – you just turn a dial, and a sliding lens corrects your vision.  But imagine explaining that concept to an 86-year old Berber woman who is illiterate and whose first attempt to use the glasses was to put them on upside down.  That’s not a joke.  That happened.  Distributing glasses, it turns out, takes an incredible degree of patience and a willingness to teach.  I was thankful that we had Hassan and Hassan to do some translation for us and to sit down and work with people who might not have understood the first time.

The next morning, during the distribution, I gave a pair of negative lenses to a 59-year old who understood exactly how the glasses worked.  He turned the dial, stopped it, smiled, and belted out a, “Oh yeah, bless you; God’s blessing on you!”  I asked him if they helped, and he grinned big and joked, “There’s nothing blurry anymore.”

When Peace Corps staff showed up, we had a big presentation at the school with children handing staff roses and fresh pomegranates from the teachers.  Then, they gathered around to perform a special kind of Berber dance called an “ahidous.”  That looked a little bit like this video, except performed by 8-year olds and minus the horses at the beginning.  Again – adorable.

For lunch, we got a chance to sit down with the country director, a couple of members of the diabetes association from my town and talk about our diabetes project and the prevalence of diabetes in Morocco.  Allal, our counterpart, insisted that diabetes affects 50% of the population.  I know it’s at least 20%, and sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if hyper- and hypo-tension  along with Type II diabetes, put that figure pretty close to accurate.  Allal’s excitement about working with us makes him a great candidate for a future host family.  In the meantime, Jon and I may try to squeeze in one more education project before Eid El-Kbir.

After lunch, Jon and a few other volunteers took the country director to Beni Hassan, a nearby village on the outskirts of Jon’s site, where they got to talk about a medical caravan Jon completed, bringing over a dozen doctors and nurses to do health trainings last May.  When they got back, we sat down in Jon’s house for a few hours with sage tea (barroumbo) and harcha, which is basically sweet corn bread.  Jon used the school projector to project a slide show on the wall, where he was able to show the reconstruction of a cellar roof that fell in at the primary school last winter.  Peace Corps funds had been used to repair the roof, freeing up space to store food for the children.  The conversation with Peace Corps staff gave us a chance to really reflect on our service, on our projects, and on why we came to this country in the first place.

Just before concluding the night with dinner, we went to another ahidous, this one put on by an association of guys in their 20s and far more like the video above.  Jon and I wore djellabas, and by the end of the dance, the country director, the staffer from D.C., and all of the Peace Corps volunteers were dancing ahidous in a circle with our Moroccan friends.

Honestly, the whole shindig was like a capstone experience to my entire two years, getting a chance to reflect and celebrate with our Moroccan friends.  The next morning when I rode back to my town in a beat-up old van listening to Berber music the whole way, it just dug in more and more how much I will miss this place.

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.

Glasses Project Update

There’s a few things I wanted to say about the glasses project after having been home and having a chance to explain it to some of you.  The biggest thing is this: I do not know who has or hasn’t donated to the project.  Once the project is funded, Peace Corps will – theoretically – send me a list of sorts that will include your name if you choose to include it.  You may also give anonymously, in honor, or in memory of someone.  But I had some people ask if they got word from me that they’d donated, and I have not.  That said, I deeply, deeply appreciate all who have donated.  I can’t say that enough.  More importantly, I know the Moroccan youth when they have a pair of adjustable glasses will be just as appreciative, as will their mothers and fathers.  I’m looking forward to sharing those pictures and videos with you.

If you haven’t had a chance to give yet, do it now before you miss out!  We are halfway to our goal.

It’s easy to give.

Then, enter a number in the white box and hit the blue “donate” button.  You’ll then be directed to a safe, government website where you can use credit cards or a debit card to donate.  Afterward, they will email you a receipt.  So far, I haven’t heard of anyone who has had problems with this, but please let me know if you do, so I can let Peace Corps know.  The Peace Corps website was down yesterday, but it is back up and running today.

I think that about covers it.  Some have asked for more of an explanation of what the project is.  In a nutshell, go here and check out these glasses.  We are partnering with that organization in Britain, which is basically a bunch of Oxford physicists.  The glasses, as you can see, function in a special way so as to remove the necessity for the middle-man (the optometrist) and put the power of adjusting your prescription in your own hands, making screening and distribution easy for the developing world, where optometrists can be expensive or unavailable.

That’s it.  Keep your eyes peeled tonight or tomorrow for another blog (a long one) on my American adventure home!

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.