Planting a Tree vs. Planting a Seed

Awhile back, I read an article giving tips for how RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps volunteers) can talk about their service in job interviews. This is good, because PCVs as a whole tend to let every conversation lead to tales of, well, our intestinal distress (among other colorful topics). One of the helpful hints mentioned how RPCVs should be open about discussing experiences with failures, a prominent taste left in the mouths of even the most “successful” volunteers. The article argued that this can work to your advantage, as it makes you look more equipped for successes since you are so well-acquainted with every corner of failure. I can dig it. I happened across this article just a few months ago, and thought, sure, failure might make me more employable when I get back (inchallah?), but it’s nice to have a few wins to balance out all of those bajillions of loses, ranging from small, everyday downers (mixing up the words for jemaiya (association) and jema3a (Friday) yet again) to more substantial disappointments (watching a well-planned project never get off the ground due to lack of funding). 

These two examples, of course, are clear-cut: it’s easy to identify the mistakes and know that you need to pronounce the “3a” in “jema3a” with more gusto next time. If you get enough Moroccans laughing at you, sheer embarrassment will guarantee you will never make the same linguistic mistake twice. But the failures in Peace Corps projects and daily life are more often than not ambiguous, slippery creatures that you’re never quite sure what to do with. They are usually part-win and part-loss, making it even  more difficult to plan for success in the future. What’s a girl to do?

I’m nearing the end of my service (7 weeks and 1 day left, holy COW) and have become a bit reflective about these things in my old age– especially concerning the paradox of the “do no harm” principle of development. It’s fucking tricky! Say, for example, you hire an engineer to build a pipe system that brings water to a village. That’s fantastic, right? Well, what about the men whose job it was to bring water every day to the village? These guys are out of a job, and most likely have only this one skill that they’ve spent their entire lives cultivating…but the village has water. How do you weigh the quality of life of a village vs. the livelihood of a group of men? And who is the person deciding this town’s fate, anyways– the village? A single group of people? An international development agency with an expiration date on their involvement with the town? Ugh. Kiss simplicity goodbye.

Even more timely that the water pipes is an example from my own service. It involves trees, and it happened yesterday.

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The High Atlas Foundation arranged for a 1 Million Tree event to take place on January 16th. Essentially, this initiative donated free trees to communities and associations who could provide a narrative about how the one day event would be the beginning of a sustainable environmental project. One of Tameslouht’s own associations, Mouarid Association for Environment and Development, stepped forward and said that they would like a donation of trees to kick-start a neighborhood beautification project. Mouarid is a section of Tameslouht that deals with several environmental issues, including a lack of sewage pipes and consistent difficulty with water. They own a small stretch of land that backs up to the local elementary school and has remained vacant for as long as I can remember. Trees, by all means, would be a perfect addition. The association took care of all of the prep work– tilling the land, digging holes, picking up trash, painting the walls, and arranging the underwater irrigation system for the trees. In addition to this manual and logistical labor, the association also put together two events: in the morning, they showed a documentary made about the environmental problems faced by Tameslouht and hosted a conversation about people’s reactions to these problems immediately afterwards. Post-tree planting, we went to the commune president’s house, ate lunch, and then had a discussion concerning actual solutions to the problems.

Or at least, this is the highlight reel. What if I mentioned that the only people who attended our meetings were older men? Women and youth were notably absent among this particular group. What if I talked about how the only youth who participated were kids who happened to be walking by when we pulled them in for photo ops and to pack some dirt around a tree? What if our post-lunch discussion mostly covered topics that weren’t even related to the agenda, and when we steered the conversation back towards trees and environmental problems, we were met with a wall of “Those are big problems that we’ve been trying to fix for a long time. We need money and…”? What if, after all of this, all we did was plant trees– and nothing else changes?

It’s hard to feel fully satisfied or fully disappointed with the direction the day took. The association worked so hard to make the actual tree-planting a seamless activity, and they’ve also ensured that these trees will be taken care of. Everyone who came to the meeting and the tree-planting dedicated their entire day to the event and did so with enthusiasm. Is it right, therefore, for me to wish that there had been more of an effort to address other long-term environmental problems? Or that youth– the future of this town– were involved in any portion of the activity, ideally absorbing messages about how important it is to feel responsible for the fate of environment? Tameslouht, like many other Moroccan villages, is on its own when dealing with trash, sewage, water, and many other trappings of the “large government” complex Republicans love to rail so hard against in America. The province governor is someone they can complain to if things get really bad, but usually, Tameslouht’s citizens just deal with the problems themselves. People here make a living out of collecting people’s trash and dumping it on the outskirts of town. Neighborhoods, like Mouarid, take it upon themselves financially to cover expenses relating to sewage systems. Artisans burning tires to heat their kilns produce toxic byproducts but are able to support their families and carry on traditional Moroccan handicraft production. (A sidenote– artisans in Tameslouht received several kilns from FODEP, as mentioned in the article. The catch? It’s exponentially more expensive to use the gas than the tires, making the price of a 10 dh ceramic tajine go up to the thousands.) In the face of these large, complicated, expensive problems, people have carved out their own viable solutions that are nowhere near sustainable (like burning tires and dumping trash in fields), but that, if removed, would damage the society even more in the immediate future.

This, my friends, is the ultimate conundrum of development. Do you plant a tree, something already well-formed that will fit into the society in which it grows– predictable and accepted? Or do you plant a seed, a lifetime investment that will take longer to sprout and develop, but will ultimately change the landscape completely? Sure, the answer seems simple, but going for the seed uproots a lot of people’s lives in the process. It’s hard to convince people who already don’t have a lot (I mean, really live on the bare bones) that yes, if we make this change, your entire life will be miserable, but future generations will benefit from it. It seems like someone has to taste failure regardless of the decision, just to differing extents and for different periods of time. And for us PCVs– we’re only here for 2 years. It’s hard to convince people to totally change their lives for an abstract end result that we won’t stick around to see come to fruition.

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As you can tell from this overly-sentimental and metaphorical entry, our little tree planting caused me a major identity crisis. The event, by all accounts, was a success: new trees ware now growing in both a community space and in the local high school, both sections under the care of very passionate associations who are going to ensure that they grow. Planting trees, overall, was an easy and fun task. The bigger issues that were raised during our morning and afternoon discussions, however, are going to take much longer to parse out. We’ll see how far we get with planting seeds.

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