10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Joined The Peace Corps (Morocco)
Jesse Altman is finishing his tour in Morocco this December and has maintained a blog during his Peace Corps years. This is a recent item on Jesse’s blog, reposted with his permission. — JCoyne
10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Joined Peace Corps
Close of Service Conference
and my Last 4 Months in Morocco
by Jesse Altman (Morocco 2016-18)
After closing out my summer work and the month of July, I headed off to Rabat for our Close-of-Service Conference! It is crazy and unbelievable that 23 months have gone by and less than 4 remain for my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. The conference was a lot of fun, but bittersweet as well. This was the last time that our entire staj (cohort) will be together since we all have different departure dates starting in a few months’ time. Having said that, I feel good about the time that I spent with the people I have become friends with these last two years and know that this is likely not good bye forever, but rather see you later, probably stateside!
The conference itself was alright, with lots of reflection on our service, logistic preparation and explanations for our departures, and a look to the future with jobs, grad school, readjustment and more. So, having completed this last, HUGE mile marker of my service, I thought I’d do a little reflecting myself and share a few things that I wish I had known or been able to tell 2016 Jesse before he embarked on this mishagas journey (mishagas is sort of like crazy in Yiddish and I’m not quite sure why I felt the urge to use it, but it feels right).
There are so many things that I wish I had known before I joined Peace Corps/left for Morocco and I don’t think it would be a very fun blog post if I just listed dozens of tidbits, so I’m going to try to condense this list into 10 main, slightly larger pieces of knowledge.
**WARNING: These are generalizations and pertain to MY personal experience in Morocco. Some may just pertain to me, some to Morocco, and some possibly to Peace Corps as a whole. It, of course, varies from person to person, experience to experience, and country to country. So, keep that in mind please!
1. You’ll Have More Free Time Than You’ve Ever Had Before – Especially in the Summer
Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, here and I think most everywhere else, involves a whole lot of time sitting around: in your house, in a café, in your place of work waiting for people to show up to your activities, in your host family’s house, in your friends’ houses, waiting for transportation, waiting for your power or water to come back on, and for a whole plethora of other reasons. We’ve got a ton of downtime as volunteers and it’s up to us to fill that time. I’ve read more, watched more TV/movies, and found so many other things to fill up this time and I still have time to kill. And in the summers, when school is out, and everyone flees the heat to go to the beach, you’re left alone in site with no one to work with, but that’s alright! Just read more books!
2. Peace Corps is Unstructured – This Work Depends on You Being a Self-Starter
Peace Corps isn’t your normal 9-5 office job (duh). There is no set way to do Peace Corps. Work here is unique to the community you are serving and, unless you’re a teacher working five days a week at a school (which is not the case here in Morocco), your work will probably look different day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year as the community’s needs change, doors close to previous projects, and new opportunities present themselves. My work in the summer looks drastically different from the rest of the year. And my work back in 2017 looked very different from my work now in 2018. Tuesdays involve chess while Wednesdays include English and Computer Literacy class. And the brunt of this work does not present itself to you, but instead requires you to go out, find the people who are interested, find the right location, and be an assertive self-starter. Personally, that has been a large point of growth for me.
3. Life Moves on Without You
As my friend Emily wrote in her blog, “The Earth Keeps on Turning”. Life back home moves on whether you’re there or not. The number of things that have changed back home is vast and I wasn’t there to see any of it happen. My brother graduated college and started working. I’ve missed a few other graduations and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. My grandmother passed away; I miss you and still think of you Grandma. My friends have all started jobs, maybe even held several jobs, and moved cities. And that’s just what’s happened with my social circles, not to get started on how the US as a whole and even the world has changed since I left. And this whole time I have been doing my own thing here. This has easily been one of the harder truths I’ve had to come to terms with serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
4. Integration Takes Time, a Lot of It, and Work Depends on It
I did not do a lot of work my first year of service and the reason for that is integration. Integrating into a community takes a lot of time! It’s not that I didn’t put in the work during my first few months so that I could jump straight into work. It takes time for people to fully trust you and open up. And for a job that so heavily depends on those you’re serving being comfortable asking you to help them with specific goals or projects, that means being patient, working on integrating, and allowing things to take their course, however long that may take.
5. The Cubs Would Win the World Series!
Go Cubbies! Easily one of the saddest things to have missed out on, but also one of the happiest moments in Morocco! Waking up the next morning to the headline: CUBS WIN THE WORLD SERIES, was an incredible feeling and I literally jumped up out of bed in excitement when I saw it. Fly the W!
6. Not Everyone Wants or Needs Our Help; Someone’s Indifference Toward Your Work in Site is Okay – Focus on Those Who Want to Work with You
Peace Corps is about building connections with the country you are serving in and doing the work on their terms, not yours. There have been times when I’ve tried to start projects that I’ve wanted to do because the seemed cool and I thought my community would appreciate and be excited about. Of course, that does not always work, and I have faced several failures trying this approach because not everyone wants our help or even care that we’re there trying to work and be helpful in the first place. The most tried and true way to do this work is to focus on those in your community who want to work with you and to do it on their terms. If you want to start an environmental club and they want to do chess, then you do chess. If one organization makes excuses and is not willing to make time for you to do work for/with them while another welcomes you with open arms, then work with the second organization who wants you there. It’s as simple as that (I think).
7. Morocco is NOT Just a Desert
I knew a little bit about Morocco before coming here, but in the grand scheme of things virtually nothing. Morocco is not just a desert. There are some beautiful coastal cities, incredible mountains, and green valleys. It gets cold in the winter like it does anywhere else. I would never have expected that I’d spend four months every year virtually always wearing a winter coat, hat, gloves, and three pairs of socks at a time. Sleeping under four blankets was a foreign concept to me, but now feels normal in the dead of winter. Warm, winter clothes were a must and I originally didn’t pack nearly enough of them. Live and learn I guess.
8. Success Comes in All Shapes and Sizes, there is No One Size Fits All Success
The traditional idea of success that we hold as Americans does not apply to Peace Corps. Success here means getting your rent and utilities paid, having a flawless conversation with your local produce vendor without accidentally asking for shoes instead of apples (this hasn’t actually happened to me, but you get the idea), or managing to round up five students to consistently show up to your club/class. Success shows up in the little victories that you manage daily and even if “work” isn’t going well, that doesn’t mean that you’re not having a successful service because you’re still integrated into your community, speaking the language successfully, and developing sustainable relationships.
9. Poop and Other Bodily Functions are a Normal Conversational Topic – Everybody Poops
One of the first things that we were told when starting Peace Corps by our medical team was, “Get used to talking about your poop” and boy have we. Poop and other bodily functions are such a commonplace part of conversations between volunteers that any stigma there may have been associated with it before this has long since disappeared. That’ll be a fun one to deal with when readjusting to life in America.
10. I Will Never Know the Full Extent of the Impact I’ve Had on My Community and That’s Okay
My community still talks about Ismael, a volunteer who served in my site more than 5 years ago (I think closer to 10 at this point). I have the privilege of seeing the impact of his Peace Corps service through the relationships he made with individuals in my community when he was here. We are often told that we will never know the full extent of the impact we’ve had as Peace Corps Volunteers and that is a painful truth to accept. While the technical work that we do teaching English, life skills, computer literacy, or building a basketball court, is important, it’s the relationships that we build and the individual influence we have on people that defines our impact as volunteers. And you can’t know that until years later when they have grown up or changed careers as a result of something you said or sparked in them during your time in their community. That’s the rub and that’s okay. Personally, I am proud of the service that I have completed (so far) and maybe, ten years down the line, when another volunteer is placed in my site, they’ll be telling that volunteer all about Yessine and what he did. One can only hope, right?
Thanks for reading!
Jesse Altman (Morocco 2016-18) grew up in a northern suburbs of Chicago before going to Tufts University. He graduated in 2016 with a degree in Economics and International Relations. After a summer hiking around the Rockies, he joined Peace Corps and went to Morocco as a Youth Development PCV. https://jessepeacecorpsmorocco.wordpress.com/
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I wish that I had known before going to Ethiopia in 1963 the following:
1. It was cold at night in the highlands where altitude range from 6,000 to over 10,000 feet.
2. That men held hands with men but not with women.
3. That unmarried men and women did not socialize.
4. That ethnic tensions was always just below the surface and sometimes erupted.
5. That the country was the size of Texas and California combined and diverse in cultures and languages.
6. That I would fall in love with its people and have cherished memories fifty three years after departure.
7. That it would shape my life and lead to a search for identity that I ended up with a doctorate in American history and a minor in African history, and that I would teach African American history as a professor for thirty six years. That after returning home, I still get excited to see Ethiopians in American cities.
8. That Ethiopians were confused when I said that I was an American, and that neither my father nor grandfather were Ethiopian.
9. That Ethiopians in America would say to me “Anta habasha nuh?” Are you one of us? and for me to proudly reply yes!
9b?. That I would encourage people to join the Peace Corps fifty three years after my service ended.
10. That I would be excited to meet RPCVs and hear about their experiences.
Excellent and insightful list which I can identify with. As with Jesse and William, I learned the hard way that the climate was more diverse than I imagined. I thought Guatemala was a tropical country until I reached my first site, which was over 10,000 feet and where it occasionally snows. Ixchiguan is close to the border of Mexico and when I arrived I was looking down at the clouds and sheep below. My initial living arrangements were a windowless room in a municipal building and as I tell in “Different Latitudes” it was well air conditioned due to the large gaps around the frame of the entrance door and a few candles were my major source of heat. The next day I picked up sweater and began looking for more livable place. But with great altitude comes spectacular scenery as I learned when driving down the mountain past green coffee and banana plants on my way to the hot humidity and sugar cane of the South coast.
Jesse: Good luck readapting to the U.S.A. and whatever endeavor you choose.
Peace Corps Service offers Volunteers the opportunity to form attachments and friendships with people they never would have met had they remained in the US and then life’s unpredictability takes us where it will.
No one ever could have predicted a Jewish boy raised in The Bronx would form a decades long close friendship with a Somali Muslim raised in the bush outside of Galkayo.
On one hand, you may never know the impact you have had (if any) but on the other hand, since life is full of unexpected twists and turns, relationships may develop over the decades following PC service. Our closest Somali friends fled the anarchy and chaos of their country and ended up in the United States. Our friendship, close to begin with, strengthened over four decades. Now our adult children have bonded with our friends’ adult children, whose own children call me grandfather. And Uncle Awale considers our grandsons part of his family and is teaching the oldest how to play soccer.
I was an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. My unit was called “Morocco Nine.” Or Morocco IX. Before Morocco IX there were eight other Morocco “expeditionary forces.” Someone in the first eight started a Morocco Peace Corps Volunteer literary magazine called “the Harka.” What is interesting about this is the genius of the name of this Morocco Peace Corps literary magazine, which was usually completely misunderstood by the “veterans.” I remember some “volunteers” in 1968 telling each other that the name meant “the Burning.” Sounds like something out of the “International Brigades” in the Spanish Civil war, doesn’t it? And that puzzled them, namely, why it should be called “The Burning.” “The Burning” is, in fact, a totally incorrect interpretation and is due to the difficulty of correctly pronouncing Arabic. We would ask Moroccans what words meant, but we would very often mispronounce those words, getting confusing results.
“The Burning” would be Kharqa, not Harka.
So what is “Harka?” It is “movement.” Now the first idea that a Moroccan would understand from “Harka” as “movement” would be “harraka `askariyyah,” or “military maneuvers.” One could conclude that “military maneuvers” would be, after all, a suitable name for a literary magazine of what sounds like a military organization, a “Corps” even though it has that characteristically American double-think aspect, “Peace Corps.” And the Peace Corps was supposedly about economic development “aid.” Moreover, in Arabic, “Peace Corps” is al-Kita`ib as-Salaam, “the enlistees of peace” which really has a military sound to it and is even a little apocalyptic, like “salvation army” suggesting subversive religious revolutionary movements, of which, in Islamic history, there have been many. So, “military maneuvers” is an interesting and intriguing name for a “Peace Corps” literary magazine. Quite suitable, really. The way a “Salvation Army” “church” is called a “Headquarters” or a “Citadel.” Not to mention that many Moroccans thought we were spies.
But that is still not what the real meaning of “al-Harka” is (or rather, was) in Morocco. And I am sure that not many even in Morocco really know what it means. So, even pronouncing the word correctly to a Moroccan is unlikely to provide the correct explanation. And, in most cases, an American Arabic speaker will still mispronounce the word, what with there being three different “h” sounds and two “k” sounds. (Not to mention two “a” sounds, one of which is a glottal stop, or an absence of sound, two “t”s and two “s.”) That is why French has become the second language of Morocco. At least in French everybody knows what a word means, not like in Arabic.
Harka does mean, in Moroccan dialect, “bringing out the troops.” But “bringing out the troops” or “movement” or “maneuver” is actually the name of a magic procedure in which the literate sorcerer pours dense black ink made from charcoal into the palm of a young pre-pubescent boy, without guile, with word markings on the side of the palm, and makes incantations from the Koran, which include the critical phrase “And now your vision has been made clear” referring to after death clarity regarding what life was all about. And the magician then asks a question about something distant or otherwise invisible, that is, hidden, that he wants to know. And the sorcerer asks the boy what he sees in the liquid black spot in the palm of his hand. What the boy sees is the answer to the question. It is a magic divination. Sorcery. I actually know someone who was the subject in such a divination in his childhood and he became hysterical when it took place.
I would really like to know who came up with this name for the first, and only, short-lived, legendary literary magazine of the Peace Corps in Morocco. And how it came about. But it was genius, that I know. Especially since, under the circumstances of Peace Corps life which meant going back a thousand years into a strange Oriental Past, the literary product would be of experiences that challenged one’s sense of reality.