Monday, July 25, 2011

Smithsonian - More Photos

Khadija, Mom, Fatima, Sophie and Emily hanging out after lunch. 

The crowd watching the women weave. Normally, there were several rows of people watching and listening while I talked about the women, weaving in Morocco and my time in the PC

This is a group of us waiting for the bus after the fair one day. The woman in white started the world map project and designed manuals for PCVs to paint world maps on school walls around the world. The RPCV in blue, Laura, helped her local elementary school build two classrooms using recycled plastic bottles. Her host mom and aunt, who came to DC to help her demonstrate, were the principal and a teacher at the school

Khadija weaving early one morning, before all the visitors came. This is one of my favorite outfits she wore, with a traditional Berber headdress and sparkly white sheet held together with a large gold belt. 

Fatima working on her carpet. She wove a beautiful, all natural dye carpet with Berber symbols in lots of beautiful colors. 

The Festival

The festival itself was an exhausting but totally amazing experience. Most days, we had several rows of people (up to four deep) surrounding the weavers and listening to me talk about carpets, weaving and Peace Corps Morocco. (On the second day, the Smithsonian staff started handing out throat lozenges to all the participants because we were talking so much.)

I can't say enough about how well Smithsonian took care of us during the festival. We had breakfast and dinner provided everyday at the hotel and food tickets to get lunch at the fair. They arranged transportation to and from the fair everyday and always had people walking around to make sure we didn't need anything at the fair itself. Best of all, they gave all the participants spending money so that we could sightsee and the women could buy souvenirs to take back to the families in Morocco.

For me, one of the best parts of the fair was that my family and friends came to visit! My mom, Emily and Sophie came up the first weekend of the fair with two of my cousins, Christina and Patty. They helped me explain about Peace Corps Morocco to visitors (which was great, since there were so many, I couldn't talk to everyone), they brought sandwiches for Fatima and Khadija when they found out neither particularly cared for the food at the fair and they took me out to dinner every night so that I got my 'fix' of Mexican and Italian food. My mom really wanted to take Khadija and Fatima out to a nice dinner, but they were always too tired after the fair ended. They just wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep.

After the fireworks on the fourth, Mom, Emily and Sophie drove the 16 hours back to St. Louis. The next weekend, my Dad and Katie (another sister) flew up for a night. It was great to see everyone and lots of fun for them to see the fair. Dad and Katie bought lunch for the ladies, which both really appreciated, and helped me at the cooking demonstration. (We had 6 cooking demos during the fair, where Fatima and Khadija prepared dishes from Morocco and I talked about food in Morocco and my PC experience as a whole.)

I think the crowd really enjoyed hearing my Dad talk about visiting Morocco and drinking tea with my host family. Often, we PCVs get so used to the culture we're living in that we forget to mention some pretty amazing things. For example, I'm so used to the amazing hospitatily in Morocco that I sometimes forget to mention it when I'm describing my time here. When my family came to visit last summer, the hospitality we received at my host family's house is one of the most special memories for them. His comments about Morocco really added something special to our demonstration.

I also got to spend time with my friends Greg and Lauren from undergrad. I hadn't seen either of them in several years and I really enjoyed catching up. It was wonderful hearing what they've been up to and about their lives in D.C.

The fair was closed on July 5th and 6th, so we got to go sight-seeing. Sarah, an RPCV from Morocco, and her husband Brahim, came down from NYC to visit. I think everyone had an amazing time and we had a lot of fun trying to figure out how to describe all of the sights in Tashelhit.

One of the souvenir shops we went to had an oval office we could take pictures in.  We got shots of Fatima and Khadija pretending to work at the desk and this great group shot. Lynn, in the hat, is an RPCV from Morocco who lived in Fatima's town. Fatima was beyond thrilled to see Lynn. Her smiles didn't stop the two days Lynn was in town.

This is a shot of most of the Peace Corps participants at the fair during the reception they held on the 6th. The reception was beautiful and it was great to hang out with such an amazing group of people

This is us at the cooking demonstration. Generally, there were about 40 or 50 people watching us make sffa (a delicious dish made with couscous, powdered sugar and cinnamon) and a chicken tajine. 

These were some of my favorite people at the fair. Samba (on the left), from Mali, read a beautiful poem about what Peace Corps means to him and his community during the reception. It had most of us near tears. 

Smithsonian Folklife Festival - Traveling

I just got back from an amazing two weeks at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. It was exhausting, but such a cool experience. Khadija and Fatima did great, despite often being overwhelmed by the strange food, strange clothes, strange sights, etc.

We left our villages on Monday, June 27th and traveled to Casablanca. Khadija and I traveled together from Marrakech to Casablanca, while Fatima met us at the hotel in Casablanca. It was Khadija's first time on a train! So many firsts on this trip, for both women. They did an amazing job 'going with the flow' and trying new things. After the first day of the fair, Khadija turned to me and said, "Now I know what its like for you volunteers when you first get to Morocco. EVERYTHING is strange!"

It was over 120 degrees when we were traveling through Marrakech and the train, unfortunately, had no air conditioning! Its amazing how much more exhausting traveling is when its super hot. We made it into Casablanca in the early evening and quickly turned on the air conditioning in our hotel rooms. Smithsonian really took care of us on the trip - they paid for our travel in Morocco and graciously offered to pay for a hotel room in Casablanca the night before our flight, so that we all had a good nights sleep before another long day of traveling.

We woke up on the 28th, ate breakfast, and headed out to the airport. We had A LOT of luggage, since I brought carpets and embroidery from my cooperative to sell at the festival and Khadija and Fatima brought all their weaving supplies. We looked a little silly each dragging two giant bags to the train station and then to the ticket counter.  After checking in at the airport and sending our bags off, we were a lot more comfortable. We went through security and relaxed for a few hours before our flight.

Both Khadija and Fatima did absolutely fine on the trip. It was Khadija's first time on a plane (Fatima had been on a short plane ride from Casablanca to Agadir) and both ladies first time out of Morocco. Luckily, the plane wasn't full so we could all stretch out and get some rest on the flight. After 8 hours, we arrived at JFK and went through customs. I was a little worried, because we had a huge amount of luggage, but we made it through without any problems. All of the customs agents really got a kick out of my speaking Tashelhit (you speak WHAT??) and wished the ladies good luck on the rest of their trip.

After grabbing a snack at Starbucks, we got on our plane to D.C. By this time, we were all exhausted. When our plane got stuck on the runway for two hours, both Fatima and Khadija fell asleep and slept until we landed in D.C. at 11 pm. We found the Smithsonian staff that came to pick us up at the airport and rested for a few minutes while waiting for some of the Columbian participants at the fair to arrive. They got in at 12:30 AM and we took the bus to the hotel.

Smithsonian put all of us up at the Marriott Hotel by Georgetown. The hotel was absolutely beautiful and I felt really lucky to be staying at such a nice place. After making sure that Fatima and Khadija could work the air conditioner, TV and the shower, I went to sleep. We were up again at 7:30 am for orientation and a trip to the mall to set up for the festival.

This is me with Fatima on the train to the airport. You can't tell so much from the photo, but it was HOT and we were carrying a lot of luggage. I was so happy when we finally got to the airport and could check-in and get rid of all those bags!

Zarnaz, an RPCV from Morocco, invited all of us to her home for a wonderful dinner. I can't thank all of the Moroccan RPCVs enough for their help during the fair. They went out of their way to make all of us feel at home, taking the women out for shopping, for lunch, and coming to help at the fair itself. They were all wonderful and made the experience even more special for all of us. 
Fatima, me and Khadija in front of the official 50th Anniversary sign for Peace Corps.

This is us at the 4th of July parade with our amazing neighbors at the Festival, Elena and Mele from Tonga. They demonstrated weaving palm like leaves into mats and decorative items, like the belts they're wearing

Amy, Khadija and Karen at the dinner party at Zarnaz's house. Karen was the PCV in Khadija's village a few years ago and Amy served in a village very close to mine. Both really went out of their way to make all of us feel at home in D.C. and came to the fair several times to hang out with us. Khadija's face would light up anytime she saw them :)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Its official! This summer, I'll be coming to D.C. to represent PC Morocco at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I'll be bringing two weavers from here in Morocco; one from the north, Fatima, and one from the south, Khadija. I'll be in D.C. from June 28th through July 12th. The festival is June 30th to July 4th and July 7th to 11th. The ladies will be demonstrating Moroccan weaving techniques outside on the mall. I'll be there to help translate and explain about weaving here in Morocco.

Its a huge honor and I'm really excited to be the PCV chosen to represent PC Morocco. I must admit, though, I am a bit nervous about the huge undertaking this trip will be. Neither of this women has traveled extensively. They come from small villages in rural Morocco. This trip will be the first time Khadija has been on a plane! (While Fatima took a short plane ride from Casablanca to Agadir, she's never been on a large jet like the one we'll be taking.) They both seem very excited and I hope that excitement helps them cope when faced with western toilets, strange American food, the 'nakedness' of American clothes when compared to Moroccan jellabas, etc.   They are going to be constantly surprised by the strange things we'll be seeing/doing in D.C.

While both ladies have been taking a few English lessons these past few weeks, their knowledge is pretty basic. Besides 'My name is...' and 'I am from Morocco' they won't understand much of what's going on. That means they'll be relying on me 100% for translations in addition to explanations of what's going on. I'm both excited and nervous about doing all that. I have a feeling I'm going to be exhausted at the end of each day, but it'll be worth it. What an amazing opportunity for all of us! How cool is it that I'll be the one helping introduce them to all of these new things?!? I'm going to do my best to help them make the most of their two weeks in America. Our two days off will be jam packed with site-seeing, eating at different ethnic restaurants, and riding the metro (one of the women has never been on a train; neither have ever been on a metro.) Many RPCVs are going to be joining us, including the RPCVs from Fatima and Khadija's villages. Its going to be so much fun! If you are in the D.C. area, please stop by to see us at the fair.

Here is the website for the Folklife Festival -

And here are the news articles about me being in the festival with Fatima and Khadija :) I've never been in the paper before....

I'll have my computer with me, so I'll have email access. If anyone needs more information about visiting us at the fair, or setting up a time to see Fatima/Khadija in the evening, please email me :)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Safety in the Peace Corps

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about safety in the Peace Corps. On the day the 20/20 story about safety in the Peace Corps aired, we received a text from our country director reminding us that we could come to her with any questions or concerns. Since that time, I've discussed the episodes with many PCVs and written a few emails home about it. Overall, I thought the story was sensationalized and misleading, especially in regards to how PCVs (and RPCVs) feel about their safety. I have since heard stories of people deciding to not apply to Peace Corps because they are worried about their safety. This really upsets me, since I believe the work we do is so important.

First of all, let me say I feel as safe in Morocco (if not safer) than I do in St. Louis. Here, I don't hesitate to walk alone at night (something I would hesitate to do in my neighborhood back home). Most everyone in this tiny Berber village knows my name and I have had ZERO instances where I felt unsafe. In my cell phone here I have the number of the local police chief, the direct line to the police office, the 24/7 number for Peace Corps (where someone ALWAYS answers immediately),  the cell phones of my Program Manager, Program assistant, the 24/7 doctor line AND my Country Director. If, at any time I feel afraid, I can call any of these people and ask for help (as well as go to my neighbors or any of my countless friends here in my village.) Thankfully, I have never had to do so.

Most people aren't aware of how hard Peace Corps works to make sure PCVs are safe. When they say it is their number one priority, they really mean it. Here in Morocco, we have two full time staff members devoted to safety and security. All PCVs are required to tell these ladies (and usually their local police) when they leave their villages. We have a very thorough action plan in place in case a major catastrophe occurs. It is reiterated at all training events and practiced once a year. If the safety situation in a country looks iffy, Peace Corps is quick to pull the PCVs out. In the vast majority of evacuation stories I've heard, the PCVs had no idea any sort of a crisis had occurred and were confused and upset that they had to leave. From everything I've read and heard from PCVs that were evacuated, Peace Corps ALWAYS errs on the side of caution if a country looks unstable. And of course, PCVs are offered a free ticket home if they, at any time, decide they no longer want to be in Peace Corps. (This is called early termination if you want to google it at

I don't want to discount what Kate Puzey and her family went through, nor the horrible rapes of the other PCVs that were interviewed. These were awful tragedies that should be analyzed so that the risk for all future PCVs is minimized. Peace Corps needs to have a formal policy in place for how to notify a family when a PCV dies. PCVs that go through a trauma like rape should be given counseling free of charge, both in the immediate aftermath of the rape and for as many months as they need when the return to the USA. No PCV or family should feel "abandoned" as Kate Puzey's did. All Peace Corps staff should receive yearly training on what do to in an assault situation so that future PCVs feel supported if/when a sexual assault occurs. 

Unfortunately, the 20/20 story did not do an accurate job depicting safety in the Peace Corps. The story threw out many statistics about rape, assault and murder for PCVs. According to 20/20, 1000 female PCVs have been sexually assaulted in the past decade. Furthermore, 23 PCVs have been murdered in the past 50 years. These are awful statistics, right? Its horrifying to read that 23 PCVs have been murdered and 1000 female PCVs have been sexually assaulted. I've heard of people withdrawing their Peace Corps application after hearing these statistics. Who would want to volunteer to live for two years in an unsafe place?

Unfortunately, these statistics are misleading. First, over 200,000 volunteers have served in the last 50 years, which makes the murder rate about 11 in 100,000. This is lower than the murder rates in many US cities, including New Orleans (52 per 100K), Baltimore (37 in 100K), and even St. Louis (40 in 100K). Second, 20/20 quoted that the 1000 female PCVs were sexually assaulted in the past decade. They fail to mention that approximately 11,000 female PCVs served during that time, making the assault rate about 1 in 11 female volunteers, much lower than the US average of 1 in 6 American women!!   (Many thanks to Scott Brinton, an RPCV at the LI Herald for his well-researched article on this issue. You can reach it at Scott Brinton Article)

While I don't think Peace Corps is perfect, and I know there is always room for improvement, I hope that no future volunteers are scared to join because they fear for their safety. The vast majority of PCVs (myself included) serve their 27 months without any major safety issue. Just like in the USA, bad things happen, but I don't think they happen at a significantly higher rate in Peace Corps. For most PCVs, Peace Corps is a time to learn a new language, new culture and a whole lot about yourself. Its a time to help make the world a better place (even if its only your tiny corner of it.) Most importantly, its a time to teach others about the real America and Americans about your new home. 

If anyone has any questions about joining the Peace Corps, or what else Peace Corps does to make sure PCVs are safe, please visit   or  Peace Corps Wiki Health Care and Safety. You're also free to contact me, either through this blog or at my email :)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Busy, busy, busy

The last two months have really flown by! December was jam packed with a craft fair, mid-service medical exams, and then my flight home for Christmas. I felt like I was always rushing around, but had a lot of fun and felt like I got a lot accomplished.
The banner design for all of the Marche Maroc craft fairs. 
 The craft fair was the fourth in a series of craft fairs run by PCVs here in Morocco. A group of us got together to organize one for early December in Marrakech, in hopes of catching the winter tourist crowd. Although sales weren't amazing, I really learned a lot about running the fair. I enjoyed working with the other PCVs and meeting the artisans from all over Morocco. In addition to my cooperative, we had 26 other cooperatives and associations from (mostly rural) sites around the country. In total, we brought in 44 artisans!

Some of the fair organizers with the American Ambassador to Morocco, Samuel Kaplan, and his wife, Sylvia. They were in Marrakech for the film festival and made a special trip out to see our craft fair. 
The goal of the craft fair is two-fold: we want to give the artisans a chance to sell their products AND have some training for them in basic business. The fair was held from December 1st - 5th at the Ensemble Artisanat in Marrakech. The delegate for Marrakech (the head of the Handicrafts division of the government) was very helpful. He arranged for tables and chairs, as well as let us have the use of a room for training and the awards ceremony. Talking with him was a bit of a problem, because those of us organizing the fair only spoke Tashelhit (Berber) and the delegate only spoke Arabic and French. Still, with the help of our program manager, Tariq, we managed to get everything worked out eventually.

Thanks to a grant from USAID, we were able to provide each artisan with a place to sleep, a certificate of participation, and a couscous lunch. On top of that, we used the grant to print posters and flyers to advertise the fair, as well as programs to hand out at the door. Although not everything went perfectly, most artisans said that they learned something at the workshop and almost all of them said they enjoyed networking with other artisans. Its amazing what you can get for only a few thousand American dollars. (For example, the ingredients for the couscous lunch for about 75 people was only about $200, including renting all the equipment. Can you imagine feeding 75 people for $200 in the US???)

Me with Angelica and Linda, two of the PCVs that live close to me. They are both lots of fun :)
These fairs are a lot of work, but I think its important to give rural artisans (especially women) a chance to get out of the village and meet other people. It was great to see how the more experienced participants helped out the newcomers. Our biggest seller for the fair was a woman from a very tiny village in the High Atlas Mountains. This fair was the first fair she had EVER been to. She didn't speak a word of Arabic or French, but her welcoming smile (and the help of the experienced participant next to her) meant she sold more than any other person at the fair. (Of course, it didn't hurt that she had beautifully made natural-dye carpets with unique designs).
The beautiful carpets of our top seller. They are all natural dyes.

The fair ended on Sunday, December 5th. After a quick stop at the artisan hotel to make sure everyone was packed and ready to check-out, I made my way (with a few other fair-planners) to Rabat for medical exams. Halfway through Peace Corps service, all volunteers are required to get dental check-ups and physicals. Luckily, I was healthy (no parasites!). Although not all parts of the medical check-up are fun, it was great to see everyone from my training group again. The last time we had been together was for a week long training in June!
The 19 of us from my training group!

A few days after I got back to my village, I was traveling again. This time, it was to go home for Christmas. I was a little worried, since many of the airports in Europe were closed due to snow in the days before I was set to travel. I also had my friend Linda, who lives 10km away, watching the mountain pass for me. (It closes a lot for snow in December and January.) Amazingly, I made it to the airport in Casablanca and then all the way to St. Louis without missing any flights!

Being home was wonderful. I loved spending time with my family and enjoying all the luxuries we take for granted (central heating, hot water on demand, fast-food, a car, etc.) I think I ate out at least once a day. I definitely tried my hardest to take advantage of Mexican food, veggie burgers, cheese and the amazing tofu lettuce wraps from Pho Grand. I was even able to help celebrate my grandparents 60th wedding anniversary. The ten days I was home was definitely packed, but I really enjoyed it. It was a great break from Morocco, although I missed my English students and the ladies I work with at the weaving cooperative. They are all wonderful people and lots of fun to be around.

I flew back to Morocco on January 3rd and am now back in my village. Its definitely winter, although no snow in the village yet (I can see it higher up on the mountain peaks.) 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Natural Dye Workshop

Last week, I set up a Natural Dye Workshop for the members of my cooperative here in the village. It was a huge success. We were expecting 35 participants from the village but had 50 show up. The women and girls were very engaged in the lessons and rushed to help stir pots, add materials, or rinse the dyed wool when asked. The only thing they were nervous about was coming up in front of the group to reiterate the lesson in Tashelhit (our local dialect.) Luckily, a few were brave enough each time and all the participants really seemed to grasp the concepts of how to use local materials to dye wool.

In order to pay for the workshop materials and presenter, I applied for a grant from Peace Corps. Thank goodness Peace Corps has a partnership with USAID to fund projects like this. Although I only needed a small amount of money by American standards, the amount needed was out of reach for the local cooperative. One of the business program staff at Peace Corps helped me get in touch with a teacher who is an expert in natural dyes and a wonderful teacher. (She traveled over 20 hours to reach our village for the workshop!) Despite the fact that the teacher, Amina, spoke only Arabic, she was able to use many visuals and the women understood each step very well.

Amina showing one of the colors - I think this one is madder root.
The workshop lasted two days.  On the first day, Amina showed the women how to treat the wool with aluminum powder, which helps the color set in the wool. She explained the correct proportions of water, aluminum and wool and had volunteers repeat the instructions several times in Tashelhit to make sure everyone understood how to prep the wool. She showed the women how to use some easily accessible materials, such as chamomile, onion skins, pomegranate skins, and madder root, to create colors in the wool. The participants were very enthusiastic when they realized they could dye wool with materials they can pick for free in the fields and create colors identical to store-bought wool.

This table, which held the materials from around the community, wasn't big enough to hold all the things the women brought in to Day 2 of the workshop.

By using local materials, the women were able to create all the colors below. Some colors were a big surprise - a branch from a fir-like tree created a beautiful beige while the leaves from an almond tree created a vibrant yellow. Some colors were created by boiling the wool first with one plant and then with another. Dipping the finished wool in a baking soda solution brightened some of the colors even more. The participants had a lot of fun comparing the colors they created "naturally" with those they had previously purchased from a store.
All of these colors were created using materials available locally. Most can be picked for free in our village fields.
At the end of the first day, Amina asked the women and girls to bring in materials from around the village to use as dyes the next day. They really took up the challenge. I arrived with Amina very early in the morning to help set up for the day. As each participant came in, they brought some leaves, or flowers, or some plant they had found around the village. I was astounded by their enthusiasm and so glad I had organized this opportunity for them to learn a new skill and experiment with materials from around our village.

 Thank goodness Linda, another PCV who lives in a neighboring village, was able to come and help out at the workshop on the first day. She helped take pictures, organize the materials and keep me company (since neither of us understood arabic, we spent most of the lesson lost.) The picture below is of Linda holding up one of the colors.

Linda, a PCV from the neighboring village, came to help out on Day 1 of the workshop
 I was so happy the workshop was such a success. The teacher, Amina, did a tremendous job, in spite of the language barrier. The participants were enthusiastic and really eager to learn. Thank you to Peace Corps and USAID for funding this project and to my wonderful counterparts for helping acquire the materials we needed. If they hadn't spent hours bargaining with shopkeepers for the pots, stoves, and buckets we needed, with the hotel for Amina's room, and with village shopkeepers for the gas cans, snack food, and other supplies, I would not have to been able to have this workshop.

This is my favorite color from the workshop. It was created from a bush that grows along the roadside in this area. The bush is the color of a redbud tree, but creates this amazing violet on the wool.

Thanks to everyone who helped me make this workshop a reality. I hope the women use these new skills to create new carpet designs with a natural dye color palette. Keep your fingers crossed their enthusiasm continues and they really take advantage of their new skills.