PEACE CORPS WORKER HELPS MOROCCO
- Dick Mason
- The Observer
Patience, the everlasting value of family and an occasional desire to be indistinguishable.
A two-year stay in Morocco as a Peace Corps worker can provide enlightening lessons about all three.
It did for Jeff Clark of La Grande.
Clark recently completed a 27-month stint in the Peace Corps based in the village of Ain Bechar in Northeast Morocco.
In Ain Bechar, Clark learned that patience is waiting up to five hours for a taxi every time he needed to go to the city of Taza. A taxi came to Ain Bechar once a day during a five-hour span Â— but it was never known when.
The value of family, meanwhile, was impressed upon Clark many times. The reason: at least three generations live in each of Ain Bechar's 22 houses. To see the influence this has on children is inspiring.
"You could see the effect that sense of community had on the lives of children,'' he said.
As an American, Clark was virtually a celebrity in Morocco, even though it is a Muslim country.
"Moroccans love Americans. They just don't like our foreign policy,'' Clark said.
He sometimes felt he was in a goldfish bowl. Wherever he went people watched, particularly in cities. Moroccans were curious about everything he did, even the items he purchased at markets.
"Being so conspicuous was an incredible experience,'' Clark said.
He appreciated the attention because it made it easier for him to meet people. Still, he felt an invasion of privacy.
"Sometimes I wished I could disappear and be like everyone else.''
Clark is delighted that since returning to the United States he can walk down streets unnoticed.
"Suddenly I am back to being invisible again.''
Clark's time in Morocco provided time for uncommon introspection, especially the first six to nine months Â— the time it took to learn Moroccan Arabic, Morocco's primary language. Clark was almost alone while learning the language since nobody in the village spoke English.
Communication was difficult.
Clark learned Arabic from a tutor, Lahcen Debour, who lived in the village. Clark and Debour became good friends and hung out together. It became a reciprocal friendship, for Clark taught Debour until he became fluent in English.
As he was learning Arabic, Clark asked many questions of community members to integrate himself into the village. He thus learned what the people were in need of.
He made sure that the projects he assisted with were what the people wanted and then started helping community members help themselves.
"It was not what I wanted or felt the village needed, but what they felt would increase the quality of life in the village.''
Clark helped the community build a women's center where women can go to further their education. This is particularly important because many women in Ain Bechar are illiterate.
The center is also a place where women go to learn about health and hygiene, the environment and more.
The health information at the center may save lives. Until the center was built the people of Ain Bechar didn't know about antibiotics or the importance of using soap and water.
"People would put mud packs on cuts to stop them from bleeding,'' Clark said.
The center is a place for women to go to enjoy things such as crafts.
"It's a place for them to have fun,'' Clark said.
A place to be cherished.
"Women don't have a lot of things in the Muslim world,'' Clark said.
The people of Ain Bechar provided 34 percent of the funding for the women's center, an indication of how much they supported the project.
Clark also helped lead efforts in Ain Bechar to get 1,400 fruit trees planted in the village and bring electricity to the seven homes that did not have power. Clark helped raise the money needed to get electricity for these homes with the help of $2,000 from
La Grande donors.
"People in La Grande really stepped forward to help with this project,'' said Clark, a 1999 graduate of La Grande High School and a 2003 graduate of Oregon State University.
The money helped cover the electrical installation fees of the seven households. Clark said that electricity is relatively inexpensive in Ain Bechar, but the installation fee prevents some families from getting power.
Clark believes that the most important thing he did in Ain Bechar was to teach its people how to help themselves do things such as build a women's center or obtain electrical power. He believes they now have the knowledge and skills to pursue similar projects on their own.
All Ain Bechar residents have electricity now. Running water, though, is another matter. The village has just two faucets, both outdoors, and everyone goes there to get their water.
Showers are not available in the village and can be taken only during visits to nearby cities like Taza.
In Taza and throughout Morocco, contrasts are everywhere, revealing a wide economic gulf.
"In cities you sometimes see a Mercedes Benz pass a cart being pulled by a donkey,'' Clark said.
Moroccan contrasts extend to the behavior of its people. On city streets its people can be rough, aggressive and demanding. In their homes, though, Moroccans are most generous.
"It is a complete contrast. There is nothing but love in the home,'' Clark said.
In Ain Bechar, people are friendly in and outside their homes.
"When you enter the village, it is like being inside a home.''
The family Clark lived with had four children, all of whom he became close to. They and all of the children in Ain Bechar have the benefit of growing up with an extended family that lives under one roof.
"Children have so many people they can go to for advice,'' he said.
The down side of these living arrangements is that families have limited privacy. "Everybody knows everything about everybody else,'' Clark said.
Another down side to life in the village is that people have limited opportunities to move on in life because of their community's economic hardships.
"You can be stuck in the same role your whole life,'' Clark said.
Some in Ain Bechar envied Clark because in the United States one has a wide array of life paths available.
"America is all about new beginnings,'' Clark said.
He was sometimes asked what it is like to be able to "go anywhere and do anything'' in the United States.
The La Grande resident had a number of discussions about the Iraq War but found that the discussions were painful for many Moroccans.
"Talking about the war is uncomfortable for them because Muslims see themselves as part of a brotherhood. They see the people of Iraq as their brothers and sisters.''
This compassion extends to people outside the Muslim world.
Clark returned to La Grande several months ago. Today he wonders what life in the United States would be like if more people lived their lives in one community like they do in Ain Bechar.
So struck was Clark by the sense of community in Ain Bechar that he has decided to settle down in La Grande, where his parents, Joel Clark and Brenda Jackson, live. He is earning his real estate broker's license and will work with his mother at ERA Driggers & Associates.
"World travel will always be a part of my life. I love being immersed in a different culture, but I have come to the point in my life where family and community are what are most important to me.''