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

Positivity… ?

Last week was Mid-Service Training for my group of PCVs. We all got together for a “training”, which was really mostly just talking about how we’re feeling right now. I honestly didn’t have high hopes for it, but I left feeling really… positive, which surprised me. That’s not to say that I never feel positive here – I do – but it’s just usually related to hanging out with friends, or to a specific trip we took. I guess it’s been awhile since I’ve felt generally positive about living, traveling, AND working in Morocco looking forward.

Our training was nice for a bunch of reasons. One, it was nice to have a couple medical appointments and hear that I’m healthy (no cavities! Yeah!). Two, it was great to get tested again for my language level and learn that I’ve improved three levels (I can’t even explain how validating and awesome this made me feel). Three, Rabat has some delicious restaurants, and I spent way too much money drinking with friends and eating Chinese, real pizza and real salad at a German restaurant, and a bacon cheeseburger with onion rings and a real Sam Adams beer at an American restaurant (I know this sounds like some crap you can get anywhere in America but seriously you can’t get it here and it was So. Good.). And four, it was seriously fantastic to hang out with my good friends from training who I basically never get to see, as well as with other friends I’ve been slowly getting to know over the year. I actually got to stay in Rabat for a whole week, since my medical appointments were a couple days after our training ended, and it was a great break for my mental health.

Exploring the ruins in Rabat with some friends

Exploring the ruins in Rabat with some friends

In addition to the training, I’ve also been feeling more positive lately after meeting a couple new Moroccan friends who are interested in helping me do projects here in Azilal. Since I haven’t pulled off any big projects to my satisfaction yet, I’m hoping with the help of my friends that I can do it this year. I didn’t see it coming, but right now I have a lot more hope for my final year than I had a couple months ago. We’re kind of in a transition period right now (more about that in a few weeks), and I know that once it passes a lot of the excitement will be gone and I probably won’t be feeling as positive or hopeful. But one thing I talked about with some of my friends at training was the importance of being hopeful, even when you know, inevitably, that things are going to go wrong somehow (this probably sounds kind of pessimistic, but really it’s just a fact). So I’m going to enjoy the positivity while it lasts, and hopefully I’ll actually come up with a project or two to show for it.

– Cori

Amazigh Pride

At the beginning of September, Matt and I traveled to a town a few hours south of us called Ouarzazate to attend a 10-day language training workshop. This time we weren’t learning Darija, but instead a language called Tamazight, which is one of the languages of the Amazigh people.

The Amazigh were living in Morocco long before the Arabs came to North Africa, and are considered the indigenous population of Morocco. Upon the arrival of the Arabs, the Amazigh people were pushed farther and farther into the less inhabitable areas of the country, such as the mountains and the desert, and as a result you can still find large pockets of Amazigh peoples living in those areas. Azilal is one such area – almost everyone we’ve met here speaks Tamazight – although as a larger town, most people do also speak Moroccan Arabic.

I really enjoyed this training because, along with the language, we got to learn a bit about the culture and history of the Amazigh, which I found fascinating. I’ll try not to bore you with too many details, but I want to share some of the things I found most interesting.

  • The Amazigh people live in modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. They are widely referred to as “Berbers”, but this is a French term related to “barbarian” and is not how they generally identify themselves, which is why I’ve used “Amazigh” throughout this post.
  • The Amazigh have their own calendar which is currently in year 2963. There’s a lot of speculation on what event prompted the start of the calendar, but one explanation I loved was that the calendar began after an Amazigh victory over the Egyptian Pharaohs.
  • Tamazight has its own alphabet, called Tifinagh, that is slowly becoming more commonly used in Morocco – we see it on the signs of some official buildings here in Azilal. The letter of the alphabet that corresponds with “Z” (ⵣ) doubles as the symbol for the Amazigh culture in general – it represents the meaning of the word “Amazigh”, which is “free man”.
  • The Amazigh have fought a lot of oppression in the past, and continue to do so today, although they are seeing some improvement. In the earlier part of the century it was illegal to use the alphabet but now you’ll see it on official signs. Also, Tamazight was just recently made an official language of Morocco in the new constitution in 2011.

I’m excited to try out my new language skills here in Azilal. So far we’ve been able to communicate with just Darija, but whenever we meet a new person in town, they never fail to ask us (in Tamazight) “but do you speak Tamazight?” I’m so glad that now, instead of giving them a blank stare, I can say “imik!” (a little!) The Amazigh culture is so interesting, and although the extra language makes things a little difficult sometimes, I’m happy to be in a site where I can experience it a little bit during my time in Morocco.

This is the Amazigh flag with the "free man" symbol

This is the Amazigh flag with the “free man” symbol

The Tifinagh alphabet

The Tifinagh alphabet

Us exploring Ait Benhaddou just outside of Ourzazate during one of our afternoons off

Us exploring Ait Benhaddou just outside of Ourzazate during one of our afternoons off

Our Tamazight class (with our teacher front and center) after we performed an Amazigh kids' song for our end-of-training talent show.

Our Tamazight class (with our teacher front and center) after we performed an Amazigh kids’ song for our end-of-training talent show. Matt was a little bird that fell from a tree (that’s us) and broke his leg, but was then saved by an angel.

–          Cori (ⴽⵓⵔⵉ)

In-Service Training

Hey all! Since we’ve been in site for a little over 2 months now and have (theoretically) started integrating and doing work, it’s time for another Peace Corps training! We’re currently in Marrakech for what’s called In-Service Training, which is a week of training for all the volunteers in the group we came with. We’re having a great time catching up with everyone, seeing the sights of Marrakech, and participating in really important organized events such as the Pool Olympics, Darija Talent Show, and the Prom that’ll happen at the end of IST next week.

The big mosque in downtown Marrakesh

The big mosque in downtown Marrakesh

Snake charmers in Jemaa el Fnaa, the big tourist square. This is where he catches us taking a picture and makes us pay for it.

Snake charmers in Jemaa el Fnaa, the big tourist square. This is where he catches us taking a picture and makes us pay for it.

Matt performing his twist dive in the catapult event of the Pool Olympics

Matt performing his twist dive in the catapult event of the Pool Olympics

But really, we are doing quite a lot of work here meeting with volunteers and staff to discuss what we’ve all been up to and to be trained in a few more things. We’re also getting a lot of language instruction – Matt and I are studying Darija in the mornings and in the evenings we’re also finally getting a chance to have some formal instruction in Tamazight, the Berber language that almost everyone in Azilal speaks. It’s not strictly necessary for us to learn, because most people in Azilal also speak Darija, but we figured it’d be nice to have that extra way to connect with people.

We’re pretty busy and pretty tired most days here but it’s really nice to see everyone after being in site by ourselves for the better part of the last few months. Enjoy the pictures!

Matt and Cori

A Bittersweet Good-bye

This week we’re having our Swearing-In ceremony, which is our first big landmark of Peace Corps service. It signifies the end of our training period and our transition from being Peace Corps Trainees to being actual Volunteers (which is actually a pretty big deal although it might not seem like it). This is one of those parts of service when Peace Corps people like to reflect about how far they’ve come and all that stuff… so hang on with us the next few weeks if our blog posts get a little cliché.

We left Taounate on Saturday to come to Rabat for our Swearing-In later this week, and leaving ended up being an extremely emotional experience.  We thought that integrating into the community and learning Darija would be the most difficult part of our training period, but it turned out that leaving our host family was pretty difficult and painful as well.  Our family has been amazing for us (which is not something that can be universally expected in the Peace Corps – it wasn’t even the experience for all of the trainees in Taounate) and we really felt like we had become part of the family. There were lots of hugs, tears, invitations, and promises to come back and visit in the days before we left. The final morning Mama Naima even got up at 5:45am to walk with us to the bus stop so she could give us each one last long hug before we left.

The whole experience of leaving really emphasized the power of making connections in the communities where we live. The Peace Corps has been telling us this from the start, but it wasn’t until we left our first homestay experience and looked back on it that we really understood the experience of connecting with a Moroccan family and their community. As Mama Naima has told us at least 20 times, we are welcome in their home for the next two years and probably for many years beyond that, which is pretty amazing. We might not be able to converse above a 2nd grade level, we might have miscommunications on a weekly (if not daily) basis, and we might not enjoy being told to “KUL!” long after we’re full at the end of a meal, but a Moroccan household has accepted us as part of the family. We’ve shared meals, laughs, and a mutual respect for each others’ cultures, and that makes up for a lot of what we’re lacking in other areas. And the fact that we made such a deep connection with our family in just two months really put in perspective what the friendships we’ll make during our years in Azilal have the potential to be. We need to make strong connections so we can put down roots in the community, so we can offer useful assistance, and so we can stay sane while living so far from our family, friends and fellow volunteers.  After living in Taounate for a couple months, we’re finally (mostly) confident that we can accomplish that.

We’ll end this post with a half-sad, half-funny story from the night before we left:
We made a handwritten card to give to Mama Naima and the family along with our thank-you gift to them, and we wrote it in Arabic script to make it a little extra special (she can’t read but we figured the rest of the family would appreciate it). When we brought it out to give it to her we wanted to read it out loud for her, but we were both so teary and emotional that we had a really hard time deciphering the Arabic script in the first place (even though we had written it) and pronouncing it correctly after we figured out what each word said. We interrupted our gift-giving to run and find our notes that we had used to write the card, but we still didn’t end up making much sense, so Anass had to re-read the card for Naima. I’m sure you all can imagine us sitting around crying a little, laughing a little, and hugging each other as this is all going on – it was a sad moment, but also something nice to be a part of. Hopefully Naima and Anass felt the same way.

Can’t wait to head to swear-in on Wednesday and head to Azilal to start the next two years on Thursday!
-Cori and Matt