It was a cold and rainy day when I arrived at my final site. And I’m not just saying that so it sounds like a cool introduction. It really was pouring rain and freezing out. Perfect weather for traveling with 2 huge bags. Two other volunteers and I, with the help of a veteran volunteer, flagged down a taxi as we prepared to be dropped off one by one to our final sites. Sitting in the car all I could think about was, “here we go, this is it – my 2 year service starts today!” All the information I had about my site was that it was a small village outside of Azrou. I’d be working with a local “association” having no idea what exactly they did or what I’d be doing. And I was going to be living for the first month with the president of the association and his family. A family of 5, two kids in their mid-20s and one 2 year old.
Well Peace Corps got one thing right, my village is tiny!!! Oualla has one main road down the center. The downtown is probably less than a mile from start to finish. It’s surrounded by the foothills of the Mid-Atlas Mountains and little farms. Kids run around in the street playing soccer as the men sit in cafes and socialize. The women gather in each other’s houses or on streets, soaking up the sun and gossiping.
I quickly learned that the association I was assigned is the community center for the town. They put on many activities and classes for the community like Arabic classes for women and children. They do community projects like trash pickup or mural painting. They take kids hiking in the foothills, teach dance lessons and much more. I’m still working out exactly what I’ll be doing, but I think it will be a little bit of everything. Right now my main focus is on English because it the easiest way to start working with the community.
As for my family, weeeell Peace Corps left out some details. Instead of walking into a family of 5, I walked into a family of 11. Yes you read that right not 5, but 11!!! With 3 other family members living down the street who basically live there too, so it’s more like 14. Plus 4 that live in Fes and come over from time to time. So that’s a grand total of 18!
Let me draw out the family tree for you….
- Baba Mohamed (Grandpa)
- Mama Iesha #1 (Grandma), she lives in Fez so I only see her on occasion.
- Mama Fatiha #2 (Grandma), yes, Baba has 2 wives and together they have…
- Hassan who is the oldest and has 3 year old daughter Lena. They live in Fez. Still haven’t meet him yet
- Fatima who lives down the street with her husband and 2 kids: Zaika (10 yrs old), Downa (8 yrs old)
- Fatiha who has 3 kids: Omar (12 yrs old), Malik (8yrs old), Kadisha (3yrs old)
- Abdelhaq and his wife Karima and their 2 year old daughter Woda who calls me Bodley (Peace Corps got the part right)
- Norden who comes over from time to time. He also lives in Fez.
- Hamind not really sure where he lives, I think Fez.
- And lastly there’s me!
Hard to follow????? Yeah that’s why it took me 6 days to figure out how everyone was related to each other and probably still missing a few other family members.
So back to when I first arrived. Very shocked and confused, wondering if I was even at the right house. I was immediately pulled into the house with food pushed in front of my faces as everyone one yelled “Kuli!, Kuli! Kuli!” (Eat! Eat! Eat!), “Mr7ba! Mr7ba! Mr7ba” (Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!). (The number 7 is written to represent a hard H sound.) And I kid you not, about every 10 minutes someone would come up to me asking “Kulshi bhir??” (is everything good?) and I would respond, “Kulshi bhir, himdullah!!” (everything is fine, thanks be to god), and they would all start laughing and smiling. It didn’t take long at all to feel a part of the family. Two days to be exact. Quickly relationships started forming with everyone.
There’s my Mama Fatiha, which we call Mama buboza, well because she kinda fat (their words not mine!!). Every morning she checks to make sure that I’m wearing at last 2 layers of clothes. She literally grabs me and lifts up my clothes and checks saying “brd bzzaff brra!” (its really cold outside).
Now my Baba Mohamed, he’s quite the character. He loves to make a fool out of me. One way he does this is by having me name every single family member in the room. Which of course I admittedly fail at because I am meeting about 5 new people a day. He just sits there laughing as I struggle through the names. He also likes to get me to say “7shuma” (shameful) words without me knowing it. I’ve quickly caught on and just yell back “7shuma Baba!!! 7shuma!!” and we both start laughing our asses off.
Fatima is so sweet and kind, always asking why I don’t go to her house more often or about my family back home. She also asks if I’ve talked to my parents today, saying “Mom, Baba, Kayla mzen (good)?”, replying “mzen himdullah (good, thanks be to god)!!”
Karima, Abdelhaq’s wife, who is only 25 years old does all the cooking for all 14 of us. Every time I see her she’s cooking away in the kitchen with a big smile on her face.
Noura, now she’s a little goof ball. She also does funny impressions of people saying everyone in this family is crazy and by the end of the 2 years I’ll be just as crazy as them. She also has been helping me with my Darija language, which has been so helpful.
Said is the little brother of the family. He’s 23 and loves to joke around with me. We have this on going joke that he’s going to marry my sister (Kayla). We have also started to go on runs together in the morning, which has been amazing and I’m so thankful for!!!
Then there’s Fatiha, who has quickly become one of my closest friends. The second day of knowing each other she dragged me to the 7ammam (public bathing house) and gave me a good scrub down. Every night we sit by the fire chit chatting and joking around, make
fun of each other and laughing the night away. She asks me about my family back in America and tells about her past. I have evenstarted to teach her some English, which has become one of our favorite things to do together. Like many women in Morocco they get married very young and never get the chances to go to University and learn English. Fatiha got married at 20 and had her first kids at 21. She is now divorced (hamdulillah!! Her husband was not a good man). Which it has only been the last couple of years that Morocco has allowed for couples to get divorced. Fatiha always tells me how she wishes that she studied more and how important education is. So every night when I come home after teaching the kids at the Community Center there’s Fatiha with her notebook going over the vocab I had taught her the night before. My heart fills up with joy because I know how empowering it is for her to learn English, even if it’s just a couple of phrases.
Lastly there’s Adblehaq, the president of the Association, who on the first day of meeting him kept say I’m 1,000 times welcome here and that he and I are “kif kif” (same, same). Since then I have been shown nothing but that, respect and that we are equals. If you know anything about Moroccan culture you know that gender rules play a HUGE part in Moroccan society. Men have so much freedom. They can run around in the street playing soccer, stay out late at night, and sit in cafes for hours. Where as for woman that is not the case. They mainly stay in the house cleaning and cooking, looking after the children. But Adblehaq has made it very clear those rules don’t apply to me. Besides being president of the Association, his main income is from running a community soccer field, which you guessed it is mainly for men. But everyday I tag along with Adblehaq to the soccer field, the only woman there, kicking the ball around with the guys. Another time he showed me that we were equal was when he asked me if I wanted to go the café to watch a soccer match. In most cafés, unless you’re in a bigger city, you won’t see a single woman. Cafes are a man’s space and even as a foreigner you don’t challenge it unless you see other women there. So there I was the only woman entering in a man’s space, surrounded by around 30 men watching a soccer game with Adblehaq right by my side.
Also, for the other family member, Mama Iesha and Norden, I too have experienced nothing but love. I damn near almost burst into tears when Mama Iesha said “aji bnti” (come over here daughter) when we were taking family photos.
Every night when I go to bed and go over my highs and lows of the day, all I can think about is how I’ve only been here for less than a month and I already love this family so much. I can’t even image what our relationship will be like in 2 years. (Hey, maybe I’ll stay here forever…. that’s what they keep telling me.) So, yeah, I’d say I hit the jackpot with my site and my family. That’s all I needed – a little village in the foothill and a BIG FAT MOROCCAN FAMILY!