Ringing in the New Year… 2965?

While I and my fellow Ohio State fans anxiously watch the National Championship tonight (go Bucks!!!!!), the rest of Azilal will be celebrating a different holiday. I forgot to mention this holiday last year but nonetheless it’s something I find fascinating – the Amazigh New Year, which takes place on January 12.

The Amazigh New Year is celebrated among the Amazigh populations of North Africa, which are concentrated in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya but also reach into the other countries in the region. The celebration itself is nothing too special – it mostly revolves around eating food and spending time with friends and family – but the history and the conflict surrounding the holiday are what I find most interesting.

This year the Amazigh people celebrate the year 2965. According to some, this commemorates a victory of an Amazigh leader over the Egyptian Pharaoh that led to a unification of the Amazigh community (in our calendar that first year was 950 BCE). It’s also sometimes recognized as the beginning of the agricultural year.

Although there is a fairly large Amazigh population in Morocco, the Amazigh New Year is not recognized as a national holiday, which leads to conflict every year. Amazigh activists across the country use the holiday as an opportunity to protest that while the Amazigh language was recently recognized as an official language in Morocco, the government has a long way to go with actually recognizing and embracing the country’s Amazigh heritage. I saw a couple different protests in Azilal last year; even the high school students staged a walk-out in protest of the government’s lack of recognition of the Amazigh people and culture.

This year, I’ll just focus on the celebrating. Happy 2965! Asggas Amaggaz 2965!

– Cori

You can check out my source articles here and here.

An Ongoing Process

Immersion language learning is an incredible experience. On my best Darija days I can listen to myself speaking and be really impressed by how easily I can say some things with little thought, considering two years ago I knew none of it. Matt and I have also unconsciously incorporated some Darija into our vocabulary even when we’re speaking English, as our friend who just visited could attest to. He’d occasionally have to remind us to explain something we’d just said in complete English, instead of just mostly English. And as silly as I’m sure we sound, I’m actually really proud of that.

Unfortunately, for every time I’m impressed by how well I speak Darija there’s also a time when I’m barely following a conversation, a time when I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, or a time when I pretend I understand something just to not have to stop and ask for an explanation AGAIN. This usually happens when we branch outside of my usual conversation topics and get into any subject with a more specific vocabulary. For example, the other day I stumbled through a conversation with my mudir about a theater competition he’d just been to. I pretended my way through most of it only to get stuck on the word for “ceremony”, which my mudir was determined to explain to me. Luckily he ended up remembering the English word, otherwise I don’t think I ever would have gotten it. It’s times like those when I find myself wishing I didn’t count so much on immersion and did a little bit more studying…

But no matter how much I learn, I’ll probably always be making stupid mistakes. I had an epiphany about one such mistake the other day at the store. I was saying “yeah” to confirm what I wanted the clerk to get me (I say “yeah” all the time, because what people say around here is “eeyeah” which sounds so similar I just sometimes don’t bother with the “ee”). He then kept asking me how much of each thing I wanted, until I realized that without the “ee” in front of it, “yeah” sounds a lot like the Tamazight word for one (which is “yan”). So it’s taken me almost two years to realize that people are probably hearing me saying “one” when what I mean is “yes”. I know that mostly they’ll understand me , but I’m sure every so often there’s also gonna be the person who’s secretly laughing at me for being the silly foreigner who can’t even pronounce “yes” right. Oh well… at least I learned the word for ceremony this week. 🙂

– Cori

In the bled

A couple weekends ago I went to visit a Moroccan friend of mine who lives out in the bled. “Bled” means country in Darija, and PCVs have adapted the phrase “in the bled” to mean any fairly isolated place. There used to be tons of PCVs in Morocco who lived in the bled – this was when there were still Health and Environment sectors instead of only Youth Development like it is now – and I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to live out there. I love nature, hiking, and being outdoors and so I tend to romanticize what it would be like; consequently this trip was an incredible experience for me, both because I was really looking forward to it and also because it was a good eye-opener.

My friend lives in a small farming community in a valley on the north side of the highest peaks in the High Atlas range, and as you’d expect it’s a breathtakingly beautiful place. I think I spent half my time there just sitting outside enjoying the view. The other half of the time I was taking advantage of the great hiking and the fresh fruit, butter, honey, buttermilk, eggs, and meat. My friend’s mom was even nice enough to show me how to weave on her loom. It was everything I’d envisioned and I had a great time – but I was only there for a short period of time, playing the tourist.

One day when we were walking around talking about how beautiful it is there, my friend pointed out to me that people only live there because that’s where they grew up, and they’re poor enough that most of them don’t have much of a choice of moving away. There are very few jobs there, and most people farm or raise animals because they have to in order to have food. Many kids don’t get to stay in school because they need to help support their families, and so they don’t learn Arabic (only the spoken form of the local Berber dialect), which further limits their prospects of moving away or finding a job. The real shock for me was when I asked if anyone really liked living in her village, and she told me no, she didn’t think so. Even if I lived out there for my entire two-year service, I’m still not sure I could really appreciate how difficult subsistence living can be.

I still feel the pull of the bled, and I can’t bring myself to give up my vision of what serving in Peace Corps there would be like. Matt and I are planning at least one more backpacking trip to the area, but this time instead of walking through these isolated villages and wishing I lived there for a moment, I’ll try instead to keep in mind the endless hard work it takes to just live in a place like that, and consider myself lucky to be able to see these beautiful places from a tourist’s point of view.

The view from my friend's house.

The view from my friend’s house.

We walked up the hill behind my friend's house. Later in the day her family made fun of me for wearing sandals.

We hiked up the hill behind my friend’s house – it was hard! Later in the day her family made fun of me quite a bit for wearing sandals.

View of the village from the top of the hill

View of the village from the top of the hill – you can see it’s pretty small.

Me trying and failing to be helpful. It was fun to learn though!

Learning to weave a rug – aka trying and failing to be helpful.

– Cori


We did a spring camp last week. I know we often mention it in passing, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually described what goes into a camp, so I thought that’d be a nice post for today. So without further ado… Camp!

Spring and summer camps are a mandated part of most PCVs’ jobs here in Morocco. That’s because Peace Corps’ partnership here is with the Ministry of Youth and Sport, which is the ministry that oversees the Dar Chebabs and Nedi Neswis, and camp is an important part of the Ministry’s yearly plan. The way this usually works for PCVs is that their mudir receives a fax at some point letting us know there will be camp. Unfortunately, this fax often comes days before camp is supposed to start, and you can imagine the kind of chaos that creates. Luckily, this year we’ve been planning on doing an April camp since February, so we avoided the usual chaos.

When we say we do a camp, we literally mean we do the whole thing (not all volunteers’ camps work this way, but ours usually do). We plan it, bring in friends to work it, buy any extra supplies we need, and run it. The only thing we don’t worry about is food – that’s up to the mudir. This year there was no money for food, so we were completely in charge. A couple weeks before the camp Matt and I sat down to make the schedule – we could do a half-day camp since there was no food, we decided to use a daily team competition structure to enforce discipline, and we brainstormed some ideas for instructional sessions. The next week we called up some volunteers to see if anyone was interested in helping out, and then the day before the camp started we sat down with everyone who would be helping to finalize the schedule and pick which sessions we could offer. We can get away with this type of planning because PCVs are awesome and most of us have tons of instructional sessions and activities in our back pockets, ready to go.

After the usual confusion of calling our mudir and finding out no kids had signed up, then going the next day to check it out and finding out there were, in fact, 20 kids signed up, we began camp on a Tuesday afternoon. Our first day was filled with playing get-to-know-you games, creating teams, having the teams create their flags, explaining how the team competition would work, and playing team-building games after they had their teams. It was a pretty good day – the trust falls were especially popular.

 Caption: The team names they picked were “Anonymous”, “Ayour” (Tamazight for “moon”), and “Evil”. Teams got points for behaving well, helping out when asked, and for participating in “Library Time” at the end of the day, when they had to write English sentences, answer a couple questions about the sessions we had during the day, and identify countries on our big world map.

The team names they picked were “Anonymous”, “Ayour” (Tamazight for “moon”), and “Evil”. Teams got points for behaving well, helping out when asked, and for participating in “Library Time” at the end of the day, when they had to write English sentences, answer a couple questions about the sessions we had during the day, and identify countries on our big world map.

I'm being very trusting since I'm pretty sure none of them had done a trust fall before that day

I’m being very trusting since I’m pretty sure none of them had done a trust fall before that day

The rest of the days were filled with rotation sessions – campers stayed in their teams most of the time and the teams would rotate through three instructional sessions offered by three of the volunteers. This turned out to be a great structure, because it broke the kids down into groups we could manage, and it meant we got to lead the same session three times, which when you’re doing it in a foreign language is extremely helpful. It goes without saying that Matt and I were suuuuuper thankful for the help of our fellow volunteers throughout the camp, because without them things would have been a lot harder. Here’s a quick outline of the sessions that we offered:

Wednesday: Matt led a session on how trash pollutes the water supply. It includes an activity where you slowly add vinegar to water and have the kids taste it until they can taste the “trash”. Our volunteer helpers, Lara and Clay, led an art session where kids drew their “paradise”, then passed the drawings around in a circle having each kid draw a piece of trash onto someone else’s paradise. They paired this with a presentation on how long trash takes to decompose to really emphasize the effect trash has on the environment. I led a free time session where we played games.

Matt's trash session

Matt’s trash session

Thursday: Matt and Clay led Frisbee golf in the park next to the Dar Chebab. Lara led an art activity to encourage self-esteem and respect, where the kids traced their hands then listed characteristics they liked about themselves in the fingers. I led a volunteerism session where we talked about what volunteerism is and its importance, then I helped each group plan a short volunteer project.

Friday: Each group completed their volunteer project. One group cleaned the Dar Chebab, one group picked up trash in the garden and read stories to kids at the little kids’ camp upstairs, and one group planned and taught a Tamazight lesson to our campers. Afterwards we had a short discussion on how the projects went and what they would do differently in the future.

A students from Team Ayour reading to kids

A students from Team Ayour reading to kids

Team Evil teaching me how to write my name in Tamazight

Team Evil teaching me how to write my name in Tamazight

Saturday was our last day, and we had planned to bleach-dye t-shirts, make drawings to post on a “board of the camp”, and have a talent show, but most of the kids didn’t show up. Whether this is due to them not being satisfied with Friday’s volunteerism activity, or because it was a Saturday, I have no idea, but it was still kind of disheartening. We still did the t-shirts and the drawings, but nobody wanted to do a talent show, and at the end of the day when we announced the winning team and handed out certificates it was like pulling teeth to get them to come in. But, all in all, Matt, Clay, Lara, and I led a camp that we were proud of, and it also turned out to be far less stressful than normal. We’re very glad it’s over for now… until, of course, we get back from the U.S. and it’s time to plan for summer camp. Dun dun dun…

– Cori

Beautiful Morocco

This video has been making the rounds among Moroccan volunteers lately. It’s a beautiful video that does a great job of showcasing the diversity of what Morocco has to offer, and it has some really gorgeous shots… if you’ve got 5 minutes to spare, I’d definitely recommend it (I feel the need to add a disclaimer that neither I nor Peace Corps are affiliated with the filmmakers in any way – I just think it’s a great video).

Matt and I have done quite a bit of traveling around Morocco (which anyone who reads this blog already knows) and we’ve really enjoyed getting a first-hand look at the beauty of this country. Our most recent trip was to go hiking out in the valley of Ait Bougamez, which is a popular hiking destination a couple of hours from Azilal. That area is also where a lot of health and environment volunteers used to live before their program ended; they lived in lots of tiny, isolated Amazigh villages way up in the mountains. It was really interesting to get a quick glance at what life in those towns is like, and what it would have been like to be a PCV in those areas. This hiking trip is probably the coolest trip we’ve taken so far, and undoubtedly it’s where we saw some of the most amazing scenery we’ve seen here. We’ve posted some pictures to give you a peek – enjoy!