“Shwiya b-Shwiya,” the airport worker said to me as I pathetically tried to make conversation with him on my first day in-country. “Little by little” is the direct translation, and numerous Moroccans have used this phrase with me since I arrived here. In Moroccan Arabic, or Darija, this phrase represents more than just its literal translation: it ultimately represents the humble pace of Moroccan life. For me, “Shwiya b-Shwiya” is more than just a popular phrase in Darija; it’s an all-encompassing philosophy for Peace Corps life.
Time during Peace Corps is relative; each day moves slowly, yet long periods of time can pass by almost instantaneously. I’ve been in Morocco for almost two weeks, but I’ve already developed profound relationships that I know will transcend this 27-month period.
My cohort is comprised of 109 truly unique individuals. We hail from every corner of the United States, and come from a wide variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Not only am I lucky enough to be living and working in such a beautiful nation, but I’m even luckier to be doing this with them.
Peace Corps invitees will undoubtedly hear the word “Staging” several dozen times over the course of their waiting period between invitation and training. In short, staging is an 8-hour event that introduces Peace Corps invitees to their three-month training period, and to the two years that succeed it. Invitees meet at a hotel in a major city (in my case, Philadelphia) to participate in ice-breakers, activities, and a number of discussions about their host country. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers give advice, evaluate their own experiences, and bluntly ask if you’re truly ready for such a life-altering voyage. If you decide to go through with this crazy thing called Peace Corps, you scurry to your room, pack up your ridiculously huge bags, and make a beeline to your one-way flight.
The Peace Corps program in Morocco is one of the oldest in the agency’s existence, and Youth in Development (YD) is the only sector still active in the country. The kingdom is extremely developed (We’re talking flushable toilet paper AND drinkable tap water!), so Peace Corps has made necessary accommodations. Rather than standard development work (agriculture, economics, health, etc.), YD focuses on the importance of education, women’s empowerment, and quite a bit more. However, the most important factor in successfully achieving these goals is the ability to communicate in the local language. Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, is entirely new to me. To give you an idea of just how new, I’m currently watching Pirates of the Caribbean in the salon (living room) while my host mom asks me questions that I only wish I could answer. Regardless of this frustrating boundary, we still manage to point at things and laugh at our inability to speak to each other. Oh, well. Shwiya b-Shwiya.
The Morocco Country Director (CD) told us that once this language barrier is broken, our real work can begin. These three months of training are strictly for assimilating into Moroccan culture, and the first six months at our final sites (where we will spend the next two years) will probably consist of a lot of smiling and nodding awkwardly as well.
Darija is considered one of the most difficult languages learned by Peace Corps Volunteers; in order for us to get the most out of our language training, our entire cohort was split into small groups of around five people. Every small group was then sent to a satellite town or village surrounding Meknes, a larger city known as our hub site. For the next three months, we will live with local families and attend language and cultural classes taught by Moroccan tutors. The small group size is extremely crucial, because a large number of our cohort is hearing the language and seeing Arabic script for the first time ever (i.e. ME).
My group’s Community-Based Training (CBT) site is Agourai—a medium-sized town about a twenty-minute drive from Meknes. Despite the occasional catcalling I’ve had to endure, Agourai is outrageously charming. On my first full day in town, I witnessed shiny Audis driving amongst donkey carts, and motorcyclists following absolutely no rules of the road. I even walked past a man who halted his rusty jalopy in the middle of the street and sprinted away as if it were seconds from exploding. On my second day, I witnessed a dog balancing on the handlebars of a moving moped.
I think I’m going to like it here.
My host family is seriously cool.
I know 99% of Peace Corps Volunteers or Returned Peace Corps Volunteers say the same thing, but my family is indescribably awesome. Mama Aziza’s cooking might just rival that of my BFF, Anthony Bourdain, and my host sister Nissrine’s intelligence never ceases to amaze me. She’s 18 and just started her first year of college.
She LITERALLY just started her first year of college. Here’s a photo of us in the Meknes medina before her first day:
She plans to become an English teacher, which is wonderful, because Moroccan lawmakers recently ruled that children study English at younger ages, as it is commonly used at the university level.
You go, Nissrine!
Mama Aziza knows very little English, so I’ve been struggling with getting to know her. However, I’m this family’s fourth Peace Corps Trainee, so she understands that I genuinely want to learn her language. Even if we sit in near silence while I point at different household objects and ask for their names, she understands that I’m trying. Through a series of charades, she even showed me how to make coffee the Moroccan way! My host brother Soufian and I haven’t spent much time together yet, but I completely understand. He’s 16 and really just wants to spend time with friends (and ride his motorcycle). Baba Najin works for a government agency in another town, so I actually haven’t met him yet. Regardless that we’re all still getting to know each other, my host family has welcomed me with open arms—very open arms. I’ve been told that Moroccans are some of the most hospitable people on earth, but I never realized just how hospitable they could be…
Mama and Baba gave me their bedroom. THEIR BEDROOM.
While I get to live in the lap of luxury, Mama and Baba are taking Soufian’s room, and Soufian has to sleep on the couch in the salon. I understand that they truly don’t mind, but I’m definitely besieged with guilt.
As a Peace Corps Trainee, I get Sundays off from class, and on my very first day off, Mama Aziza took me to Meknes. We were helping Nissrine move for school, and we stayed at my host aunt’s house. I subsequently met all of my host cousins, was force-fed tea and bread (as is per usual), and somehow ended up watching a three-hour home video of my host cousin’s wedding. We also prepared a dish called Ryfsa, which was a big deal for me, because up until that moment, no one would let me lift a finger. I think this means they’re starting to view me as a family member, rather than as a guest.
After lunch, Nissrine and my host cousin Imane took me out for a night on the town. I still feel like a useless toddler who can’t do anything for myself, but having those two with me helped buffer my extreme foreignness—and it really was a wonderful night. We spent hours wandering around the medina, eating yogurt and talking about our ambitions. I even used Nissrine as a translator so I could talk to Imane; she’s studying physics at university and wants to pursue a Master’s degree in the United States. When I gain better Darija skills, I hope to discuss Moroccan women in science with her. She already told me she thinks working for NASA would be a dream. STEM women unite!
To finish this post, I thought I’d share some anecdotes that have popped into my head over the past week. Some of them are ridiculous, but I’ve thought about each of these on multiple occasions.
Bread is a food group.
Mint tea is also a food group.
That random woman just asked for my number.
Force-feedings are surprisingly ok.
Turkish toilets are great for epiphanies.
Diarrhea is not a myth.
Poop is a common theme amongst Peace Corps people.
Watching teens argue with their parents in another language is both cool and weird.
Men like to stare.
Bartering is still not my thing.
“Kuli” (“Eat”) is the most common word directed toward me.
I still can’t say a full sentence.
I walk in the middle of the road more than I do on the sidewalk.
All of the police somehow know my name.
Moroccans are exceptionally generous.
Morocco is home.