Ariel the Peace Corps ambassador

Ariel Delaney is a 2007 graduate who joined the Peace Corps and is now living and working in Morocco.

Expect the unexpected. This was a hint of advice from my freshman orientation on college life at Castleton. This is now my live-by motto when approaching anything new. Then the newness wears off a bit. The Peace Corps new motto is patience and flexibility. It’s the first thing I learned here being on North Africa time — and it’s easier said than done! My days at CSC feel like yesterday and much like a new freshman, I share many of the same fears.

I live in Northern Africa in Southern Morocco on the edge of the Sahara. Adjusting to a dry heat of 135 degrees while living in hydric stress has been difficult, not to mention the cultural differences. One thing I’ve learned is to enjoy the small victories, like learning to type on an Arabic key board! Morocco is such an interesting place and not like anywhere I’ve ever been. Every day is a learning experience.

I now speak a regional oral dialect called Tashelheet. Tashelheet, Tamazight, and Tarifit are the Berber dialects. The Berber people were the first inhabitants of Morocco and arguably North Africa. There are also Berber tribes located in Algeria, Niger, Mali, Libya, and Mauritania. The national language is an Arabic dialect called Darija. I unfortunately don’t speak Darija. Moroccans understand all other dialects of Arabic from other Middle Eastern and North African countries, but Darija is only understood by Moroccans. Aside from these languages, there are also the colonial tongues of French and Spanish, but they won’t get you far here.

I live in the Province of Tiznit. I work under the Moroccan Ministry of Health as a Health, Hygiene and Sanitation volunteer. My official title is Health Educator, but the job goes a little beyond that. I was originally slated to serve in Mozambique in September 2007, but after a death in the family I postponed. After Mozambique, Morocco was the next readily available country. My job has many aspects. It’s probably not like the jobs many of my friends stateside have settled into and sometimes I feel as though it’s much bigger than me. I like to think it’s more of an adventure of the unknown.

My village has a 20 kilometer radius with 2,700 people spread around. The biggest issue is water, because we suffer from desertification. Morocco is predicted to be in a full on hydric crisis in 2025. Many homes have no bathrooms and no tap water spout. Many wells are hazardous. Another major one is maternal child health. Morocco has the highest infant mortality rate in northern Africa. It’s hard for me when I ask a woman how many children she has. All have at least lost one. One woman told me she lost four. My jaw dropped. The Peace Corps program used to be solely dedicated to this, but changed to reach all people. I try to reinforce proper health habits. Some of the health topics I cover include washing hands, bathing, covering food, food borne issues, feminine hygiene, HIV/aids education, std education, water conservation/purification, dental hygiene, proper birthing and pregnancy health.

Deaths from diarrhea are on the rise here and the illness is now the number one cause of death in Africa. The most important thing is to encourage people to go to the health clinic. My village received electricity in 1998 and the first girls started elementary school in 1999. The first class just graduated in May. I encourage all the young girls to go to school although many mothers opt to keep the girls at home. None of the women in my town know to read and write.

A lot of this is hard for me two understand, especially since I was raised in western society. Morocco has a Muslim majority (99 percent) and the role of women here is very different. For example, women in my town do not go to the local health clinic because the nurse, my Moroccan counterpart, is male. They also don’t go to market. They wear a head covering called an adal, which is a white cover that flows past the torso. Some wear lizar, which is a sheet that is creatively wrapped all around the body. Women and men do everything separate including eating meals and even praying. Addressing certain issues is hard for my nurse, but as a female I can facilitate these sessions were he cannot. I take it as my personal mission to protect the women from preventative illnesses. But there are other problems blocking our efforts like belief in local healers and sorcerers. People laugh when I tell them this, but superstitions run high here. The Berbers where at one point pagans, then converted to Judaism, then Christians. So the mix of Islam with local beliefs can be challenging when addressing health.

The hardest part of being here has been integrating into a conservative society. My Moroccan supervisors told me this region was conservative and I would have to change my appearance a bit. I wear a scarf and long shirts and skirts. Many may not agree, but I interpret this differently. Out of respect for my town and to be a role model for the young girls, I feel that covering has been a way to introduce myself without being threatening or reinforcing the stereotypes people see of American women on television. The first impression can last and knowing that I’d be here for two years, I wanted to make a good one. I do have to say that living in a Muslim society is much different than reading about it in book or seeing it on television.

It has transformed my perceptions and I encourage people to visit a Muslim country before forming opinions. Many times I am the first American many Moroccans meet and the cultural exchanges that I partake in are important both ways. The funniest moment for me had to be when people told be emphatically that Hilary Clinton is Berber and I should vote for the first Berber to go to the White House.

Many people e-mail me news briefs and ask are you safe?

My answer is yes, 100 percent. Safety is a frame of mind. Yes there have been and are terrorist attacks, most recent in 2007 in Casablanca, but Peace Corps Morocco has a great Moroccan staff that specifically deals with safety issues. Peace Corps Morocco was evacuated in 2003 when the war started, not because Morocco wasn’t safe but for the concern of public response. There are protests here about the situation in Middle East often, but they are not much different than protests stateside.

At times I just think of how people may perceive me. A western woman who speaks broken Tashelheet, says hi to men in town, lives alone, dresses weird, and is always telling the kids to wash their hands. Sometimes you just have to see things from the other side to put your role in perspective.

I arrived in March and at this time; I’m still in the integration stage. I just moved into a simple house after living two months with my host family. I’m figuring out what people know and using it to see how I can help make a sustainable effort here. I spend my days talking to many people, especially women, while improving my language. Moroccan whisky, also known as mint tea, is very important here. I count how many cups are consumed in a day as a way to gauge success because nothing is accomplished without sharing a cup of tea. I’m just absorbing culture and accepting invitations, which are not easily received.

This fall, during Ramadan, I begin teaching health in my local school. I continue to assess the local water sources in order to improve them. There are so many possibilities for work and many of my projects will depend on U.S. AID grants. It’s exciting to be apart of Moroccan life and see things happening at home through the eyes of my host country nationals. Maybe this will be the key to making a small difference in lives in a rural Moroccan town.

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