If Peace Corps gives you nothing else, it gives you time to think. If you leave your 27 month commitment without strong personal convictions worked out extensively in your mind, man, you must have been watching a lot of re-runs of The Office (and West Wing, and House, and Family Guy, and…and…and…). In the immortal words of Fred Quinn, “…not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
As of late, a lot of opinions are cropping up among us PCVs about the worth of our time in this country. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen one group COS (which means “close-of-service”….we use it as a verb…), another is preparing to leave in about 5 months, we’re gone in 10 months, the newest group has hit their half-year mark, and we’re all bracing ourselves for the arrival of new volunteers this month and are therefore assessing our own services…..or maybe it’s because we’ve all just had a lot of time to think. We are constantly examining our worth here. What we want our service to be. What can we realistically do given the situation. How do we want to be remembered in our towns. How do we want to remember our services. All necessary questions, in my opinion. It seems kinda basic, but the importance is there–how can we be effective if we’re not constantly questioning our effectiveness?
There does come a point in self-examination, however, when I think that it’s easy to step over the line and into the proverbial Sahara desert of despair. All PCVs know what tune I’m spinnin’. The “my time here is completely valueless, nothing I’m doing is sustainable, and by the way what am I doing with my life” bit. Sure, there’s some truth to all of this– sometimes, more truth than we’d like to tell our parents back home who all think we’re heroes and/or crazy. And here’s where I will diverge from the Sahara reference and quote The Newsroom (who said I didn’t spend some of my time here watching TV too?)
“[Peace Corps] is not the greatest [international development organization] in the world. But it can be.”
Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what Will McAvoy said. But we’ll run with the spirit for this blog post.
Right now, Peace Corps Morocco has a lot of sad volunteers. I don’t mean pathetic– I mean frowny-faced. We’ve wandered into the Sahara desert of despair, gotten lost, and when we asked for directions, we realized that the people of the disputed Western territories don’t speak the same Darija as us (Peace Corps Morocco inside joke). Many of us have classes that sometimes don’t show up when they’re scheduled. Some of us have lackluster counterparts. Some have projects that started out well and completely tanked. Others can’t even get a project started. Some of us compare our time here to what we could be accomplishing in America (and usually start crying). Some of us stare in awe at the wealth surrounding us and can’t believe we’re spending our time working with “them” instead of the “poor people.” The problems come in an array of colors, shapes, and sizes, but essentially boil down to us feeling completely useless/worthless. Our visions of our Peace Corps selves and our expectations– which we considered to be reasonable– have been shattered by reality.
For those of you who don’t know the nuts and bolts of our set-up, our official relationship is with the Moroccan Ministry of Youth and Sports. We are assigned to dar chababs (youth centers) that are selected by the aforementioned ministry. The catch is that cities that have dar chababs are usually bigger, richer, and more “well-stocked” in terms of associations and/ or counterparts. As a result, some volunteers find themselves in situations where they’re completely ornamental– i.e. teaching English to private school kids for free or finding local associations who are already spearheading every project the community needs. In a truly developing country like Morocco, we live with both ends of the economic spectrum, sometimes simultaneously. It’s hard not to get down on yourself when you’re helping out at a camp taking place on a grassy green campus walled off from people living without running water and electricity. Meanwhile, others run into the problem of complete disinterest towards their programs– i.e. no one showing up to English classes or wanting to build a library in the town. Problems such as corruption, lack of accountability, and an absence of follow-through are also more common than we’d like to admit. Feelings of negativity fester. I mean, come on, we’re Americans. We inherently relate our self-worth proportionally to our accomplishments. Additionally, we’re Peace Corps volunteers. If we’re not working and getting something done, then what the hell are we doing here?
My thoughts on the situation are this. Yes, Peace Corps Morocco could be a more effective machine. It is my personal belief that the development of sites and counterparts would immensely improve the effectiveness of the program. I speak from my own experiences: two of my most successful ventures thus far have been counterpart-based trainings, including a project design and management project that I implemented with my counterpart for our upcoming interfaith dialogue, and a week-long training about the International Youth Foundation curriculum that we will begin in Tameslouht next week inchallah. More trainings like this would be ideal, since they’re both sustainable (buzzword!) and relevant to our work. In terms of site-development, I think that I was handed absolute gold when I was assigned to Tameslouht. I say this because harassment has been null and void, there are a plethora of active associations here, the dar chabab is jammin’, and there seems to be room for my site mate and myself to adequately help out. I know that other PCVs aren’t as lucky. Some people get massive sites where PCVs are harassed endlessly, there’s no work, people aren’t interested in the PCV, there’s no need for the PCV, etc. Unfortunately, Peace Corps Morocco is shifting towards placing all PCVs in these massive sites due to the semi-recent switch to the Youth Development sector (Environmental, Health, and Small Business volunteers were phased out). Again, in my opinion, putting PCVs in towns like Tameslouht– small enough to benefit from the resources that a PCV brings, large enough to sustain them– would be ideal. Of course, I realize that there are only so many Tameslouhts in Morocco, but the point is that a little more site development would go a long way.
In the end, though, no matter how big or small our sites are, how well they were developed, how well our projects are going, or how our counterparts are, our time spent in Morocco is not without value. Two out of the three goals of Peace Corps are cultural exchange. While the value of these two goals is a huge part of why I think my service and that of most others’ is so important, I get the emphasis on the first. However, who is to say that cultural exchange is mutually exclusive from the goal that looks the best on paper (/ our VRF)– a transfer of technical skills? An American who is always on time to teach class, helps students to learn another language, creates a safe learning environment, treats men and women alike respectfully, and makes it normal for Moroccans to interact with and respect foreigners who aren’t Muslim (to name a few examples) teaches these technical skills through example. You won’t be around to see how you helped influence a kid to be on time to an important meeting, or to get a job that required knowledge of English, or to work comfortably with both women and men, or to get a job that required him or her to work with foreigners…but they’re all made possible by your unique presence. Additionally, for those two hours you’re teaching an English class, it’s two hours less that those kids spend watching TV, chatting on Facebook, playing in the streets, sniffing glue, or throwing rocks at dogs. It’s exposure to a native English speaker that the high school students need to do well on their BAC exams (and consequently get into university). For the two kids who show up consistently to your art club, it’s two more kids who get to have an outlet for their creativity. In a country whose public school system doesn’t include art, music, or theater, it’s a time where kids are encouraged, even expected, to think outside of the box.
Moroccans were fine before we got here, and they’ll be fine after we leave. The goal of us being here is not to save anyone, or bulk up our resumes, or have a statue erected in our honor for bringing water to the small town of whatever. In my opinion, it’s for us to help out where we’re needed and do the absolute best we can whenever, however, and wherever we can. 27 months isn’t enough time to witness the results of every action we make, but it’s more than enough time to get something started.