Girls under the age of 13– how do you even begin to describe this species? Cute, of course. A little exhausting. Full of unabashed energy. Frustrating, sure. Evil? Perhaps. Always miraculously hovering between heart-melting smiles and ear-splitting screams. But mostly, for the past 10 days, the perfect combination of sukkar u l3triya (sugar and spice), with occasional nice, and an overload of adorable.
About 75 of these adorable creatures entered into my life last Monday. My schedule during Ramadaan literally flip-flopped– instead of trying to sleep in as late as possible to lessen the amount of time I basked in the sunlight, I was up at the crack of dawn (fine, 7:30, but the same thing in essence). Me and my faithful sidekicks– fellow PCVs dragged from their various corners of Morocco– kinda lugged and slugged ourselves around and tried to get pumped up for the next 10 days and out of the nocturnal Ramadaan funk.
Why? The one word that can bring simultaneous fear and dread and maybe excitement depending on how new you are in your service as a PCV– CAMP.
As many of you know, I work with a fantastic group of women artisans here in Tameslouht. Back in the day (aka January), when we sat together for the first time and chatted about their goals for their newly-formed association, the ladies mentioned offhandedly how few young girls were interested in traditional crafts. I’m honestly not sure why exactly– lack of interest, lack of opportunity, movement away from the traditional…? Probably some combination of the three, according to my sources. And it’s a shame, really, since traditional crafts are a potential income-generating activity that doesn’t really require women to leave the house. Working on Fesi embroidery can be accomplished in one’s pajamas, watching TV (I know this because I have actually done it myself). It’s a ridiculously simple and effective model for women who either want to or have to get married and stay home with their kids. Through many conversations over the next few months, this topic would continuously weave its way into our threads of thought. And I kept chewing on it. I honestly can’t remember was the first person to bring up a training, or a camp, or a mentoring program, but suddenly, we’re talking about holding a camp for the girls of Tameslouht and I’m nodding away while sipping tea, only half-understanding everything going on around me. Camp? With artisans? I understood those words, so whatever the finite details are….my answer is totally a YES!
My previous experiences with Peace Corps camps has been overall more positive than the average bear. Sure, I’ve had good kids, but more importantly, I’ve gotten to lead art clubs– probably the one thing I’m actually qualified to do! Of course, the real fun comes when you don’t have the massive closet at the Georgia Museum of Art that is absolutely chock full of every craft material your heart could ever desire….and instead you have a pen and several (of your personal) sheets of paper to work with. Challenges breed creativity, right? Well, this camp was looking better than my previous ones already– we wrote a World Connect grant and were able to actually have a budget. Bring on the markers and paper!
The artisans and I sat down and created a schedule for this 10 day camp that would have fancy things (like the aforementioned markers and paper). We decided that the mornings would be dedicated to learning the crafts– the girls would break into small groups and pair off with an artisan. For 2 days, the group would learn the skill being taught by that artisan, be it Fesi embroidery, 3la 7sab embroidery, crochet, or basket embellishment. One hour would be for intense instruction, and 2 additional hours would be “studio time”, a vestige of my art school days where each person has time to work on their craft individually. Lunch, of course, would be a must, followed by an afternoon stuffed with workshops. We wanted these workshops to put the traditional crafts into a 21st century context– aka have local women leaders teach things like marketing, color theory, accounting…all of those business-y things that are so important this day in age for both product development and, well, selling yo shit. The last day would be an open house for the girls’ moms, an opportunity to bring the women of the community together and celebrate their daughters’ hard work. I even wrote it all purdy on a big piece of paper so that the campers could follow along with the neatly sectioned-off activities. What could go wrong if we had a large, public, mutually-agreed upon schedule?!
Oh, silly me. I made a schedule. Have I not learned anything in these past 2 years?
Day 1 made me quickly realize that, in the truest Zen fashion, I needed to let go of my meticulously-drawn schedule and just let the present wash over me. What triggered this change of character and consciousness, you ask? Well, for starters….no one showed up. Camp started at 9am, and we were just hanging out by ourselves for a good 40 minutes or so. Then, two extremely cute girls walked in, dropped off by their dad. Adorable! Yay! Campers! Oh….wait, these girls are like, 5 years old. I then confirmed with them that they are actually both 10 years old. Carrie, a PCV who had prepared an accounting workshop for the camp, looked over at me, and we both watched the complicated numbers and rules for bookkeeping just melt away into the cuteness of these little girls. About an hour later, 30 more of their peers (aka, 10-12 year olds) were all crowded around the tables, drawing on name tags and already having the time of their lives. The schedule seemed to already be collecting dust in the corner.
We probably started craft instruction a good 2 hours late. No worries– the girls got into it right away. Never have I seen such avid concentration from this demographic. Difficult is the only word to use when describing how it was attempt to tear them away from their baskets and embroidery for lunch (another activity that jumped so far out of its time frame that it was pretty much drawn on the wall). Our first workshop, thank Allah, was being led by the lovely Heather from Mushmina and one of the artisans who she works with named Kenza. I say “thank Allah” because Heather is Returned PCV– aka, she is totally used to schedules being hilarious antiquated notions of Americans trying too hard to be Americans in Morocco. 2 hours late? No worries, she said, I can condense my presentation easily down to 1 hour. Heather and Kenza talked to the girls about Mushmina, product development, and how this amazing company started from just a simple idea. After their presentation, the girls drew personality webs (on the fancy paper we bought, sha-bam) and jotted down all of the adjectives that they would use to describe themselves. An absolutely great way to kick off 10 days of learning, creativity, and girl power.
In true PCV fashion, we adjusted the schedule accordingly. Too many fancy activities were trimmed down to an entire morning full of crafting. Can’t figure out how to keep the kids entertained while the artisans help cook lunch? Let the kids volunteer to lead to games and you sit back and help keep everyone in line! Campers are getting restless before lunch? Let them sing on stage! Speaker doesn’t show up in the afternoon? No problem…the girls didn’t even notice, because as soon as lunch was cleaned up, they would go and grab their materials and just jump back into crafting without being asked. We did have several other fantastic workshops– Naima Kassi, a clothing designer from Marrakech, Hassania Ayoubi, a university student studying Human Development, Abdelatif Jâaidi, the President of the Associations’ Space of the El Haouz province, and Naima Wahmane, an artist from Amizmiz, Malika Kassi, a representative from the High Atlas Foundation, two representatives from the Moroccan Ministry of Artisana, and lastly, Zakia Lemerini, the president of the Gueliz commune and the president of the Nakhla Association for Women and Children. The days without workshops in the afternoon were dedicated to crafting (as mentioned), watching the “You Can Dream” video, having a recycled-goods Project Runway, designing a mural, and lots of games.
Also, that whole “spend two days on a craft and then move to the next!” thing really just didn’t pan out. Girls wanted to spend more time learning Fesi, or take their time finishing their basket, or try a new craft day 2 instead of day 3. It was amazing to just sit back and watch the natural flow of the camp take place instead of getting my American fingers stuck in it. Fatima, one of my favorite artisans, became our camp’s “bolisiya”, or policewoman. She kept everyone in line, honest, and quiet (or as close as humanly possible for this age range). Some of our older girls (15-16-17) weren’t feeling challenged the first day, so they convened into one group and learned the more difficult embroidery from Zineb. As the week wore on and the younger girls got more confident, these older girls started helping them learn the embroidery. Lots of girls rose to positions of impromptu leadership, volunteering to lead games, helping to clean up without being asked, and assisting our bolisiya in her unrelenting standards of etiquette.
We were amazed how quickly day 10 was upon us. The ebb and flow of new girls finally settled down (only 3 new girls showed up on the second-to-last day), projects were being completed, oh, and the girls were getting a little stir crazy. That intense concentration that had been such a (wonderful) surprise definitely started to show its seams on day 9, and by day 10, well, the stuffing started flying out from all angles. We had more requests for activities than for extra yarn, there were more tears than the average day, and there were several small girl fights that hadn’t been present in the previous days of calm. We PCVs + our bolisiya did our best to mitigate the situation; more games were thrown in, an activity dedicated completely towards decorating the room for the party was created…these well-intentioned gestures kinda added fuel to the fire. However, among all of this last-day crazy, a beautiful party was getting put together. All of the baskets, crochet, embroidery, and all of the products of the markers and paper were displayed (along with all of the new paper decorations, ranging from chains to cut-out pictures from magazines)…the room looked like it had housed 75 extremely creative girls over the past 10 days. Goal accomplished.
Moms and little siblings trickled in around 3, 3:30, 4…the Moroccan equivalent of 3pm sharp, and Zakia Lemerini joined us around 4ish to kick off the festivities. She was quite an engaging speaker, standing out because of her pixie hair cut and traditional jellaba combination. Zakia spoke about being treated differently than her brothers growing up, but not letting this taste of inferiority define her life. She chose to study a male-dominated field, geology, that left her spending nights by herself in the mountains. After all of this, she said, I didn’t turn out badly– I still got married, I still had kids, I still was able to do all of those tasks that so traditionally define women. At the same time, I was able to continue my career as a geologist, become a college professor, become the president of the Gueliz commune, and start an association for women and children.
This message seemed to crop up throughout the camp, both directly and indirectly– not necessarily that these girls should buck the system and never get married and define their lives by their careers, but that they should be able to have the skills and the confidence to make that choice if they wanted to. Artisan skills, the original goal of the camp, almost became of secondary importance when we saw how positively the girls responded to the strong, independent, successful females who led workshops throughout the 10 days. Some of these women managed to play the traditional role of wife and mother while doing something 110% for themselves, whether it was working for Mushmina, like Kenza, or starting an association, like Zakia. Others, like both Naimas, Malika, and Hassania, are unmarried and spending their time pursuing something that they find to be of value, both to themselves and to society. Meanwhile, our girls were learning to think creatively, solve problems independently as they arose within their work, to recognize opportunities for them to step up as leaders, and to have the confidence to take that crucial step. It’s something inherent within the creative process that I think is drastically undervalued, and not just here in Morocco (cough Murrica cough).
And thus, certificates were handed out, more tears were shed, and we closed out the camp with lots of the adorable girls asking when the next camp would be. That’s probably a good sign.
Thanks to the amazing, talented, patient women of Creation Tameslouht for planning this thang and making it happen. Thanks to the Peace Corps volunteers (Lucia, Michelle, Carrie, Britt, Catherine) for their devotion to kitchen duty and clean-up. Thanks to Mustapha and Abdelillah for going back and forth on a motor like 19 times a day to pick up bread, cookies, tape, and whatever other strange item we needed at a particular hour of a particular day. Thanks to everyone who donated their time and resources to make this camp a reality. And, most of all, thank you to the 75 adorable, sometimes frustrating, always smiling (except when crying), creative little girls who chose to spend 10 days of their summer making things. We’re all looking forward to seeing where you all go in your lives.