the desert isn’t brown

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On your first visit to the desert of southern Morocco you might notice a lot of brown. On first glance your gaze may be filled with it. The mountains, filling the horizon. The ground, littered in sand and rocks. The houses, built out of the clay they stand on. Even the camels, if you are lucky enough to happen upon a herd, are brown.

But if you take the time to look, to really see the landscape around you, you wouldn’t describe it as brown.

Here’s what I see:

In the early hours of the morning, when the mountains are tinged with soft blues and purples,

The blue scarves, wrapped carefully atop men’s heads, protecting themselves from the harsh Saharan sun beating down,

The radiant purple flowers shooting up over the mountains after the torrential floods, signaling the beginning of spring,

The vibrant red of a freshly picked pomegranate from a tree in the oasis, its small fruits spilling across the ground as you crack its outer core,

The way the stars shine on a clear night, and seeing a shooting star is more of a when than an if,

The joy in little children’s eyes as we run and play and duck and hide, their happiness and inner light exuding carefree bliss, to which no passerby cannot mirror,

These are the things that I see. This is the desert that I love.

It’s anything but just brown.

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Girls Leading Our World

Last week I saw the culmination of my biggest project in Peace Corps so far — my town’s very first Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Camp!

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With the assistance of four truly incredible and beautiful Moroccan female counterparts and three spunky American Peace Corps Volunteers, we put together a four day sleepover camp (sleep being more of a suggestion in the end) for 30 middle school aged Moroccan girls. And it was wonderful.

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GLOW Camps are part of a global Peace Corps initiative that seeks to empower young women across the world. Each camp is uniquely designed by Peace Corps Volunteers and tailored toward the specific needs of their host country. Popular GLOW Camp themes include promoting gender equality, fostering positive self-esteem, encouraging healthy lifestyles, learning about career opportunities and more. Here is a video produced by Peace Corps if you are interested in learning more about GLOW Camps worldwide.

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For the past three months I have lived and breathed this project. The work leading up to the camp included writing my first grant, conducting hours of meetings with community leaders, designing sessions with my counterparts, and a lot of sleepless nights. (All on top of daily programming and classes at the Dar Chebab, my family’s visit, a workshop for parents of youth with special needs, and organizing a Spelling Bee. Yiikes I’m tired just thinking about this again.)

To me, the importance of a GLOW Camp here in my town in Morocco was paramount. I live in a place where, day in and day out, young females are not afforded the same opportunities as their male peers. I wanted to create a camp where girls could believe in the power of being a girl and their ability to change the world. I wanted them to believe that their gender doesn’t have to be the determining factor on whether or not they will achieve their dreams, that they are capable of anything and everything they set their minds to.

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We talked about what it means to be a girl, and why sometimes we wished we were boys. We talked about the importance of positive self-esteem and what we love about ourselves. We talked about the dreams we have for our futures and how to create a plan to achieve them. We talked about our bodies and how to keep them healthy.

We made homemade face masks and laid on our beds side-by-side with cucumbers over our eyes (and munched on the extras). We sang boom chicka boom and clapped to traditional Amazigh songs. We danced to the Macarena and the Cupid Shuffle. We played relay races and freeze tag and worked our bodies with aerobics and yoga. We performed skits that talked about gender roles in our everyday lives. We made dreamcatchers out of paper plates, string and beads to hang over our beds and remember the lofty goals we set for ourselves.

And we laughed. We laughed a lot.

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On the last night of the camp we all stood together in a circle and talked about our dreams. My heart overflowed with pride as each girl smiled and took her turn sharing her goal. The energy in the room was full of hope and desire for the future, a room full of Morocco’s future doctors and teachers and singers and engineers and policewomen and fashion designers and surgeons and chefs. We each illuminated a glow stick as a promise to ourselves that we will work every day towards achieving our dreams — and then we danced the night away.

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At the end of camp each girl was presented with a certificate that says “[her name] is a strong and beautiful girl that is capable of changing the world.” My hope is that each girl will look back on that certificate and this camp for years to come and believe that statement. Because I do. I believe in each of them so much.

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Look out world! These girls are comin’ for ya.

Anita Comes to Morocco!

This month I hosted my first visitor to Morocco! My Auntie Anita and I have been close ever since I can remember, but I couldn’t believe it when she e-mailed me a few months ago stating she planned to come visit me. I don’t think I truly believed it was real until I saw her walk out of the international arrivals gate in Casablanca, more than five hours after her scheduled landing.

Thanks to the many Moroccans and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers we met along the way who made our trip anything but boring. Here are a few photos of our travels through Fes, Chefchaouen, Essaouira, and Marrakech!

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Through the Windows of Buses

Since swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve clocked more than 2,000 miles on various forms of transportation throughout Morocco. And every time I hop on a bus (or a train, or a taxi, or…) I’m amazed by the diversity of the terrain in this country. I can start a journey surrounded by rolling green hills and end in the snow capped Atlas Mountains. Sometimes my route hugs the coast and all I can see is the ocean, whereas on other journeys I may not see water for the entire seven-hour trek. I’ve seen wildlife varying from livestock, such as cows and donkeys, to peering out to watch the goats that climb trees or having to wait patiently as a herd of camels crosses the road.

And to think the majority of my travels have only been south of Marrakech! There’s so much left to see!

Here are some snapshots captured with my iPhone through the windows of buses over the past few months…

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Wandering Through… Tagmoute

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A few weeks ago I was invited to go on a day trip to a nearby village with some new friends in town I had made. It was by far one of the best days I’ve had in Morocco so far.

The village is tucked much deeper into the mountains than my own community, and we twisted and turned through the narrow two-lane road early on a quiet Sunday morning. As we approached closer to our destination I could feel the cool mountain breeze on my face, a welcome relief after weeks of unrelenting scorching temperatures.

The van stopped in a little valley between the mountains filled with beautiful trees. We unloaded and spread our blankets under a wide argon tree.

The rest of the day was full of laughter, exploring the valley and getting to know new friends. I have been discovering that no Moroccan event is complete without a large spread of food or a music jam session – and this occasion was no different.

After we packed up for the day, we walked through the village and met a man who taught me how an olive press works! It is the first step in the olive oil process, and the olives are placed on a large cement surface. Then a large circular cement object is rolled over the olives in a clockwise motion in order to crush the olives. After that, the crushed olives are collected and brought to another contraption to catch all of the juices inside. I would really like to learn about the rest of the olive oil process someday in the future!

Here are some pictures from the rieHla! I can’t express enough how much I love living in this region. xx

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Other Moroccan beauties I’ve wandered through: Volubilis

 

Wandering through… Volubilis

Volubilis is an ancient city that marked the fringe of the Roman empire in North Africa during the first through third centuries. Known to locals as Walili (وليلي), it was also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The town was inhabited for hundreds of years by various groups after the Romans lost control and was eventually abandoned around the eleventh century.

Some of my friends and I took an afternoon to explore the ruins and bask in the sunshine. The expansive, green landscape surrounding it was a sight for sore eyes, especially as ours have become accustomed to the dusty, brown, and rather unappealing sight of our town. We even enjoyed playing “tourists” for the day, a hat these trainees have not worn often throughout our eight (!!!) weeks in country so far. The hat was not worn for long however as, in true Peace Corps fashion, on our way home we opted to forgo a taxi ride and trekked three miles on foot to the local bus stop to save money.

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The Violence of an Image

My favorite class at UCT has been “Culture, Identity and Globalisation in Africa.” Our goal for the semester was simple: think Africa differently.

My professor Siona challenged us to ask questions about our new environment and the dominant discourse surrounding it. We spoke a lot about photography and the impact this particular art form has altered the world’s view on Africa.

When I say I live in Africa right now, most people will think of images like this:

I took each of these pictures myself, but is this the real Africa? What do you think when you see these pictures? And is what you think as a result the way I want to portray my time here? Probably not.

Much of Africa’s history, and the museums regarding that history, has been shaped by those from outside of Africa. Colonial powers came in, took over the land, and subjected the native people to their preferred forms of governance and ways of life. Colonists were fascinated with the “tribal” peoples and continued to poke, prod, and take pictures of the people for the benefit of their home country. Photographers documented what marked Africa as different from what they knew in Europe. Discourse has continued in this manner until today – where we generally view Africa as a poverty-stricken, far off land full of civil wars, exotic animals, and bare chested women.

In an article titled How to Write about Africa Binyavariga Wainaina writes:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar,’ ‘Masai,’ ‘Zulu,’ ‘Zambezi,’ ‘Congo,’ ‘Nile,’ ‘Big,’ ‘Sky,’ ‘Shadow,’ ‘Drum,’ ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone.’ Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas,’ ‘Timeless,’ ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal.’ Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.

This article and our discussions in class makes me think critically about the events that happen in my daily life and how I choose to document them. How will taking a photograph of these events change the way I view Africa? Or change the way my parents or friends view my experience?

Have you ever wondered why the discourse surrounding photography is so violent? Loading the camera with film. Aiming the camera. Shooting a picture. Capturing a moment.

Beyond that, the relationship between photographer and subject is also of a violent nature. In a separate reading for my class Susan Sontag remarks:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.

We must always remember the consequences of our actions. Every time I switch on my camera I ask myself:

  • What am I trying to capture with this photograph?
  • What am I trying to say with this photograph?
  • What will viewers think of this photograph? Is that what I want them to think?
  • Is this the way I want someone to take a photo of me or my home?
There are many times that I subsequently turn off my camera after thinking about these questions. I believe some photographs are not meant to be taken. I refuse to present my study abroad experience as that of a “typical” “African” journey. Because there isn’t one.
My hope is that by reading my blog posts, you too have learned how to think about Africa differently. A vast continent that cannot be contained by one description or one stereotype. A place full of bustling cities, up and coming economies and world class thinkers mixed in with the most beautiful landscapes and wildlife I have ever seen. A place that has allowed me to learn and grow into the woman I want to be.