During our service with the Peace Corps, each volunteer becomes “known” for something in our sites. Whether it’s something about the way you dress, the place where you teach, a funny interaction that you had at a hanut (small store)– something is going to stick. As for me in my site, more often than not, I’m known as the one who teaches aerobics classes to women.
There have literally been instances when a woman will stop me in the street and says, “Are you the one who teaches aerobics classes?” Men will approach me too, asking for the class times because they want their wives to attend. Even my young students at the Dar Chebab (youth center) know and encourage their mothers to work out with me.
My aerobics class is held in the 9aa moghatat three times a week – it’s basically a glorified indoor basketball court. If you were to join me for a class, we would open the doors to find the women had showed up long before we did, taking advantage of the women’s hours and gossiping as they ran laps around the court. Once the class begins, we each use a puzzle-piece shaped mat to stand on for the exercises. A group of more than 50 women form a circle with their mats around me. The women range from young women fresh out of university to old Hajjas of 70 years old. Some women live a stone’s throw away from the gym while others walk 2 kilometers from their duwar (village) to join us. It’s an amazing sight to see and I feel such a great sense of purpose and pride when I walk into the gym for each class.
Building this aerobics class has been many years in the making. My former sitemate Laura first began the class four years ago in a cramped old classroom at the Nadi Neswi (women’s center). As the class size began to grow, they eventually migrated to the 9aa moghatat. We have since worked together to organize long walks with the women to show them safe places to walk on the weekends. We also introduced regular fitness tests to demonstrate their progress and began training Moroccan counterparts to teach classes.
For my third year of service, I was eager to build upon the progress that we’d made – to train more women to lead classes, to bring the classes to the villages of Tata – I had so many plans. This was the class I was most excited to teach.
But sometimes in Morocco, just as you think you’ve gotten it all figured out, life likes to throw you a curve ball.
It was a Saturday early last month, and I had just finished teaching the class. The sweat on my forehead was still fresh and the endorphins were buzzing through my body.
A small group walked over and huddled around me. These were my “regulars” – some of the most dedicated women in the group. Fatima began: “So Abir, starting Tuesday we have a new trainer.” I kind of cocked my head and told her I didn’t understand. She repeated the sentence, this time adding: “Do you know Loubna? From the other gym in center? She’s our trainer now.” I could feel my eyes beginning to water and it became more and more difficult for me to comprehend what they were saying.
Another woman quickly grabbed my hand and begged me to continue attending the classes with them, even though I wouldn’t be teaching. The other women chimed in: “wlfnak – we’re so accustomed to you.” They kept repeating it. “We love laughing with you,” they added. I nodded my head and walked quickly out of the gym. I didn’t want them to see my sadness. My shock. My disbelief.
I couldn’t bring myself to attend the classes the next week. This, combined with the election results… I just couldn’t get out of bed. I had worked so hard for this! Laura and I were the reasons this class existed – how could they do this to me? It was hard not to feel as if this was a direct attack, as if I wasn’t good enough so they decided to replace me.
Slowly, I worked up the courage to go to one of the classes. I gave 150% that day. I went hard on every exercise, continuing repetitions after all of the other women had tired. I wanted to prove to the women how fit I was – that they had made a mistake and wouldn’t be as strong under the leadership of the new trainer.
After the class, I began prodding my now former students. How were the classes? Did she do the same routine each time? Were they maybe paying her to teach? The women seemed satisfied, which obviously aggravated me. But I couldn’t let it go. Something just didn’t feel right.
A few days later I was sitting down to breakfast with my Moroccan baba Omar, who coincidentally is the mudir (director) of the gym where I now used to teach. I gingerly dipped a piece of bread into the olive oil and casually said, “So…did you hear what happened with my class…?”
I wasn’t expecting what he said next: “It’s the delegue’s fault.”
“The people at the local ministry office said that you don’t have a certificate to teach aerobics and that’s why there is a new trainer.” I quickly opened my mouth to protest, but he continued – “I tried to help by saying that you do have a certificate, but they wanted proof.”
“It’s just an excuse anyway,” he said. “The Ministry of Youth and Sports wants to take credit for your class and Loubna is the wife of one of the men who works in the office.”
“The women never wanted to get rid of you,” he said kindly while sipping his tea. “They were really upset.”
Everything suddenly made sense.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned during my Peace Corps service – it’s patience. If this had happened to me two years ago, during my first year of service, I would have lashed out. I would have been aggressive. I probably would have confronted the women and asked them to their faces why they had done what they did. I would have demanded answers. I would have gone to the delegue and told him why what he did was wrong. But what good would any of that have done? What good would it have been to act before I knew the whole story? To be upset with the women who were just as upset as I was?
During my nearly three years in Morocco I’ve learned to step back, wait for events to unfold, think critically – and then choose how to act thoughtfully. It is so easy to misread a situation – with language barriers, cultural barriers, the concept of being direct or indirect in certain situations – I know two years ago I would have gotten this one wrong.
So, to the new Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers: have patience. Trust in yourself, in your work, and in the people who care about you. These things will always prevail – even if it doesn’t seem that way from your first read of the situation.
Even though I am no longer teaching these women’s aerobics classes, I believe that the work that I’ve done speaks for itself. We helped create a safe environment for women to exercise. We helped demonstrate to our community that women’s fitness is important. We helped change our town’s perception of women’s fitness – and the delegue recognized that and wanted to be part of it.
You know, as Peace Corps Volunteers, as development workers – the ultimate goal that we are seeking is to put ourselves out of a job.
And now, after stepping back and taking a second look at this situation – I believe that I have achieved that goal.
This post was originally given as a “TED Talk” speech to the incoming group of Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers on December 8, the day before their swearing-in ceremony. The theme of the morning was success stories and overcoming challenges.