2.23.2015

The View from Rabat, Morocco

Kasbah de Oudaïa
I apologize for the large break in communication throughout January and February; I was on ‘med-hold’ in Yaoundé for the entirety of January, as local doctors attempted to decipher my 10-month-long mysterious malaise. When my health problems boggled every specialist in existence in Yaoundé, Peace Corps decided it was best to send me to our regional medical office in Rabat, Morocco, to see if they might have any idea what has been plaguing my right arm for half the year.

So, with a mix of trepidation and excitement, I flew to Rabat in early February. Since I arrived in Cameroon, I haven’t left the country and nobody has visited me, and I didn’t have a trip planned either; so needless to say, this trip to Morocco was quite unexpected and nerve-wracking.

Why nerve-wracking? Well, after 17 months of no interaction with the outside world, one can become a bit…villegeois. For example, back in September I had my first interaction with an elevator in over a year, and do you know what happened? I got lost…in an elevator for goodness sakes! In my defense, it was all very confusing given that the buttons were located on the outside of the elevator, so what ensued was me joyriding on the elevator for a good 5 minutes before I realized I had to get out, select a floor, and then step in. Needless to say, after an experience like that, I was very concerned about what would happen when I stepped back into the outside world.

Thankfully, my travels weren’t too eventful. I was terrified of the flight, as always, but I only made one faux pas on the plane ride when attempting to order coffee. I got only temporarily lost in the Casablanca airport before the security officers in the international departures terminal turned me around and redirected me to the arrivals terminal (but not before I already had made it through security). A local driver holding a sign with my name on it greeted me and as soon as I made eye contact, he was off running in the direction of the car. Baggage laden, I jogged behind him and it began to set in that I’m not in Cameroon anymore.

If it hadn’t set in at the airport, it sure set in during the car ride from Casablanca to Rabat, Morocco’s capital. First of all, the air was crisp and cool instead of heavy,
humid, and hot; everything in sight was clean and trimmed; the road was full of nice Peugeots instead of agence de voyages buses; well-fed European-looking cattle grazed in the fields accompanied by horses and donkeys; electricity was everywhere; there appeared to be traffic laws; and there was an absence of goats and street-side credit vendors and beignet mamas. While Morocco is on continental Africa, it really couldn’t feel any further away from the Africa that I’ve come to know after years in Cameroon and Sierra Leone.

I immediately went to the Peace Corps Morocco office, which is a million times more beautiful and modern than the Cameroon office, and was sent directly to three different medical consults with various specialists. I was poked, prodded, MRI-ed, bloddied, and questioned, and finally in the evening I was released to eat and relax. I met up with some Morocco PCVs and we went out for Chinese food and gelato. We spent hours talking about the differences between their Peace Corps experience and mine, and the two could not be any more different.

Polychrome Fountain in the Kasbah
Unlike PC-Cameroon, PC-Morocco has several PST training sites of just a few volunteers at each site, rather than our large 50-something person joint PST. Morocco has only one section (Youth Development), and all volunteers live in relatively large cities, and all have electricity, and most have running water and wifi, and every post is accessible by train or paved road (what?!) - even in the Sahara, and fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant everywhere (grapes, passion fruit, persimmons, figs, mandarins, dates, nuts, eggplants etc). While Morocco is leaps and bounds more developed than Cameroon, the volunteers still struggle with many of the same issues as Cameroon PCVs. Lack of work and/or sense of fulfillment seems to be a common thread amongst all PCVs, regardless of the country. 


Morocco Female PCVs also claim to deal with a good deal of (sexual or verbal) harassment, although after telling them some stories from my life in Cameroon, it seems as if Grand South female PCVs in Cameroon face a bit more harassment. After a week and a half in Rabat, I only had one harassment incident, and it was a 12-year-old grabbing by butt as I walked off the train - which is unacceptable, but also quite minimal compared to what I deal with in Cameroon (for example, today in Yaoundé I had a taxi man ask me if my vagina was small, claiming that if that was the fact he wanted to have sex with me). If I spent the same amount of time out and about in Yaoundé alone as I have this past week and a half in Rabat, I would’ve experienced men groping me, reaching their hand up my skirt, general derangment, and incessant comments such as: “Go back to where you came from” or “I want to have sex and make mixed babies with you”. Thankfully, Rabat has none of that, but from what it sounds like based on female PCVs, the harassment gets worse outside of Rabat. I’ll say it once and I’ll say it a million times again, life as a female PCV can be extremely rough, both physically and mentally. However, Rabat has felt like a paradise compared to Cameroon, and I’m quite grateful to have a mental/psychological break from the wears of Cameroon.

While Morocco is more developed, and some might say ‘Posh Corps’, that means the volunteers have a whole new set of problems to deal with during their service: doing development work in a pretty well-developed country, and also attempting to have a ‘typical peace corps experience’ while also having amenities such as wifi, electricity, and running water. Many volunteers I spoke with said they love having electricity and access to internet, but it also distracts them from work and becoming integrated, which is hard enough for many females. While I look at their experience in complete envy of all they have and by the fact that they live in such a beautiful and diverse country, they look at my experience and say that they wish their experience was more ‘typical’ by living in a small village with no amenities. I guess the grass is always greener…

When not in doctors offices waiting for my next consult, I got in a fair bit of sightseeing and food tasting. Man oh man, I have been starved and deprived for far too long in Cameroon. Right before I left for Morocco, all that there was to eat in Ngatt was corn couscous (a big blob of mashed and balled corn, mind you), oil for a sauce, and weird bottom-feeder fish occasionally. I don’t know about you, but that is not my definition of healthy or delicious. And while Yaoundé has some international food options (Pizza, Chinese, Lebanese), the pickings are slim.  Rabat, on the other hand, has every international cuisine known to Earth (Thai, Syrian, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, etc), not to mention an overabundance of all fresh produce. Fresh-squeezed juice bars are on nearly ever street and there are fruit and yogurt stands for crying out loud!

And as a former barista, I believe good quality coffee and tea are necessary for a properly functioning body, and besides chai, Cameroon offers little decent coffee or tea. In Rabat, however, cafés line every street and men (and some women) sit, sipping their mint tea, sage tea, or espresso while reading the newspaper and watching people pass by. I’ve been heavily caffeinated ever since my arrival, and I’ve enjoyed every last sugary sip of the mint tea, or whip cream topped cappuccino, almond/date/avocado smoothie, or strawberry orange juice. That will all be hard to give up to Cameroon.

Rabat’s café culture is not the only thing that is reminiscent of Europe. In fact, one of the things I appreciate and love most about Rabat is that it is a wonderful mélange of European, (North) African, and Middle Eastern. The European influence is strong, evident in the ubiquitous cafes, large plazzas, creperies, and large boulevards and tiny winding side streets. Moroccan Arabic (Darija), the smells of the spice markets, the plentiful date vendors, and the daily call to prayers are some of the many reminders that you are indeed in the Islamic world. And a venture outside at night reminds you that yes, you are still in Africa, as the Senegalese and Malian street vendors come out selling their pagne, masks, phones, and other knickknacks. Turkey is often cited as being the crossroads of the East and West, but I think Morocco is the under-appreciated intersection between the East, West, and South. It’s an interested and beautiful mélange of cultures.

But if you are tricked for too long into forgetting that you are indeed in Africa by the timeliness of everything, the friendly customer service (or just it’s mere existence), and by the clean streets, you are reminded when the Sub-Saharan migrants and/or refugees emerge in the afternoons and evenings and sell their merchandise. For being a part of Africa, Morocco is severely racist against Sub-Saharan Africans. I was immediately confronted with the racism against Sub-Saharan Africans in my taxi from Casablanca when my driver and I had a conversation that went as follows:
Taxi driver: “So in Cameroon there are only Africans?”
Me: “I don’t understand…yes, Cameroon is part of Africa…so everyone is African”
Taxi driver: “No, I mean, is it full of blacks? You know, Africans. They aren‘t white like us.”
Me: “Oh, um…yes, I suppose so.”
Taxi driver: “Oh, sorry. They are barbaric”

And so it continued. This conversation was then repeated on several other occasions with coffee shop waiters, scarf salesmen, etc. I hate to remind Moroccans that they too are African, seeing as they seem to pride their white skin and close proximity to Europe as a carte blanche for being better civilized. One man in the Medina told me, “Africans are barbarians. You should leave Cameroon and move to Morocco. We are more civilized because were are next to Europe. Those Africans in Cameroon are just too barbaric because they are too far from Europe”. All in all, the racism is pretty evident, and Moroccans don’t really attempt to hide their thoughts and feelings towards sub-Saharan immigrants.

My two weeks in Morocco were refreshing, on all levels. While I still frustratingly remain a medical mystery, I’m grateful that I got the chance to visit such a wonderful city. Since my 3am return to Cameroon, I was rudely reminded of the challenges this country poses. But I have 10 months left and I’m determined to stay healthy and be productive in the time I have left. My trip to Morocco reminded me just how diverse both Africa and Peace Corps service can be depending on where you are posted. Overall, I found Rabat to be diverse, welcoming, and relaxed - in the next post, inch'allah, I'll be sure to update on some of the sites I was able to see throughout my trip.


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