Tuesday, April 15, 2008


We arrived in Tinjdad late in the afternoon on Sunday - but now that it is staying lighter later we still had plenty of day. Jessica had made spring rolls for us as a snack (wow!). We talked a little bit about our plans for the workshop and went to meet the cooperative president. Jessica speaks Tamazight, Rob and I speak darija, and the cooperative members use both, but we still had to translate to each other to understand what was bring said. Challenging, but fun as opposed to deterring! We went to a tourist shop to see what locally-produced items sell there, and then walked about three miles from Tinjdad Center back to Jessica’s neighborhood, stopping at the cooperative’s space to see what was on display for sale there and visiting Jessica’s old counterpart, who I had met way back when at Lee’s farewell party. We then made dinner and brainstormed as to how the workshops would run. I don’t get to use the brainstorming part of my brain a whole lot – I do consult and exchange ideas when I meet with fellow volunteers, but maybe the difference is writing it down and organizing it and knowing it will be used for something.

We spent most of Monday morning going over the details of the workshop, but we also took a little walk. I had been through Tinjdad before by bus and car; it’s a very long town, flat, only a block or two deep, and from the main road it doesn’t look very interesting. But when you get off the main drag it’s quite charming. The flat earth would be good for bicycle riding, and in every direction extends the palm oasis, with fields of barley and wheat, little douars (towns), old, crumbling ksars (mud-brick complexes where many families lived), koubbas (shrines to descendents of the prophet who came to the area) and mountains way in the distance to both the north and south. The walk itself was great but the wind and sand exhausted us – we came back and had to rest. In fact, we thought that afternoon’s workshop would be cancelled entirely – Jessica thought the women wouldn’t go out in the wind. I was both disappointed (all that preparation!) and relieved (all that wind!) to hear that, but then we got the word that people would be there, so off we went.

This cooperative is made up of about 25 women and right now they aren’t very active. I did see some of their wares at the Meknes trade fair, but at the time had no idea I would be doing these workshops, so didn’t spend much time looking then. The women make whatever they want and bring it to the cooperative building, which has sporadic hours, and if something sells, they don’t necessarily make more of it. Jessica had asked Connie to do workshops as well, and she went last month, talking about customer service and costing and pricing. We decided to focus on the first day on why they were in the cooperative and learned some interesting things. About half of the women have their own businesses and are more successful there; the ones who are more successful through the cooperative are those who don’t have other business on the side. When the cooperative was formed three years ago they were told they were getting money from the ministry for machines and for teaching others, and they have basically been in a holding pattern since then, waiting for the money. Now there are hints that the money is actually coming and that it is coming soon, so this was a good time to do the workshops and to have the members think about their commitments to each other.

There were only five women there on Monday so the informal discussion was good; we saved more formal discussion for the next session. After the session, we took a walk in the palmerie – this part of Morocco is just so different from my part. I’m glad I live in my part but glad I had extended time to experience life in this kind of site. We came back and took our learning and strategized about the next day. On Tuesday morning we walked to the nearby douar of El Khorbat, where the casbah is still occupied, and went to meet with a friend of Jessica’s who lives there and is starting a pomegranate jelly business. A motivated artisan – with a unique product – who can sell everything he makes – what a rarity! He still wanted some business ideas; his main issue is securing jars and pectin, and we had some thoughts there. Then we talked about branding and labels and potential outlets and other flavors; it was fun. We went to his roof and looked at the dry riverbed; he said that when he was a kid, before they built the dam, there was water, and cranes and egrets, and frogs, and all sorts of different plants. Now you look out and see desert and date palms with small tops because they are not getting enough water. What will this place look like in another 20 years?

Part of the casbah where he lives houses a luxury hotel/restaurant/museum complex and we toured the museum. It’s a really good one – history and culture, well-signed and explained. And not in Lonely Planet! In fact, Tinjdad isn’t even mentioned in Lonely Planet! I think I’ll write to them (since I’m writing about the caves in Grenada already). Another stop at home for lunch and a rest - it’s not summer-hot yet in Tinjdad but there is still a long mid-day break. I did something I thought I would go 27 months without –I painted my toenails! Still not my fingernails…. And then it was workshop time! We had a local teacher as our translator – she was very animated and empathetic and the women warmed up to her in a way they might not have to us even if we’d had more language; we’re still from another country and another site and she was one of them (the good news was that Rob’s being of another gender didn’t hinder open discussion).

We started with where we had left off the day before – why did you join the cooperative, what benefits to you see, what are your responsibilities. Rob led some team-building exercises – everyone had to put their fingertips on a bamboo cane and lower it to the floor, with nobody’s fingertips leaving the cane, and when it didn’t work, strategize about why. We taped pictures (flowers, suns, needles) onto people’s backs and people had to group themselves by like picture –without talking. We then talked about what makes a successful team – the women are soccer fans so they could think from a sports perspective or from their own. We covered characteristics of a successful cooperative and formal officer roles. In the pre-planning and brainstorming, this was important – but when we started, the women said they knew all of that. So then why does the president do all the work now, and why are there people who are supposed to come to run the store and then don’t do it? And why did only half the members show up for this workshop? The discussion got frank and heated as the women challenged each other. We broke them up into small groups and had them brainstorm about the ideal cooperative and about what they would do if /when they get the money. The women were extremely receptive to all of this and threw out what seemed to me to be sophisticated words and concepts. At the end we told them our observations, with the caveat that this was from being there just a couple of days. They make a product that is unique to the region, the taharuet – the black cloth with neon embroidery that the women wear (and now that I have been through the wind, I see why!). Tourists and locals buy them. We suggested that they consider making only those, exclusive to the cooperative (they can still have their own businesses on the side for everything else). And that they had to have regular hours for the shop. Or they could continue as is while they wait for the money. They were receptive, but the idea and the motivation really have to come from them.

Overall, I thought it was a great success, but I recognize that today it could be status quo. At least we gave them something to think about and I feel good about the work we put into it and the execution of the sessions themselves. It’s nothing that Jessica couldn’t probably have done for herself, but as with Kristina coming up here to work with the rock-carver, her bringing in “outside experts” added credibility and focus, made the women feel important, and made them more interested in attending. We spent Wednesday on follow-up, writing our reports and brainstorming about other projects Jessica is working on, such as a taharuet competition. Jessica also needed some time to herself to prepare for an English class, so I took a couple of solo walks, going back to the casbah, finding a ruined ksar (it doesn’t take much to ruin them – one good rain or flash flood and the mud will melt; the trick is maintaining them) and a gallery with some nice rugs and jewelry (just looking…). Kristina’s site is nearby; it would have been nice to see her too, but sadly, she was not available, so maybe I will see it some other time. I couldn’t decide which picture to use – one of the sand storm or one of a taharuet - so here’s Jessica using her taharuet to seek protection from the wind.

Thursday morning there was time for one last walk before I had to leave. Moha the jelly man came with us as we went to the biggest of the ksar ruins. We went to the mellah – at one point 500-2000 Jewish families lived there (nobody seemed to know for sure); many of them come back now on tours to see their ancestral homes. We went to the Muslim cemetery – according to Jessica’s Rough Guide, the graves were marked with sticks rather than more formally so that jackals wouldn’t dig them up. Beyond the Muslim cemetery, at the edge of the desert where there’s no longer enough water for the palm trees to grow and there is just a vast expanse of nothing is the remains of the Jewish cemetery. It’s interesting to be here in Morocco, where Arabs and Berbers and Jews lived together in harmony and then disharmony until they either converted or left, and to have been in Spain, where Catholics and Muslims and Jews used to live together in harmony and then disharmony until they converted or left. It’s a reminder that Goals 2 and 3 – sharing American culture with other peoples and sharing the culture of other peoples with Americans – are critical to the mission of Peace Corps. The history and culture of Morocco – some still very much alive, some preserved, and some just there in the ruins of an old building and in talking to older people who still remember what it was like because it wasn’t that long ago – add to the reasons why I am glad I was assigned to this particular country.

So - I did it! I spent yesterday at home. Well, I did open the door to get my Maroc Telecom bills and step outside to put the trash out, but that’s as far as I got. I did some reading and some writing and some straightening and updated my expense spreadsheet. I did have contact with the outside world via email, and I went most of the day without a text message (now I wonder if a day ever goes by without one!). Some of the emails were work-related, so it wasn’t a day without work, but it was a much-needed day to myself. I could use the whole week and then I might really feel caught up, but I have too much else going on!

Hi Sharon - I was directed to your blog from the Wuellner family. I'm just beginning my Peace Corps application and would appreciate - if you have time - any pointers or things you wish you'd known.
Thanks, and your assignment sounds fascinating!
Best wishes from Evanston.
Well, I wish I had known to check out blogs and look for yahoo groups - there are all sorts of places where you can find out about real experiences and ask questions. I liked the book, "So you want to join the Peace Corps - what to know before you go" and actually between that and the information Peace Corps sent me felt well-prepared! Good luck with the process and contact again if you have more questions! The people in the Chicago recruiting office were great, I thought.
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