MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Supporting Women-run Social Enterprises: Helping Entrepreneurs to Help their Communities

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Jacqueline Burge
Jennifer Mulli
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When is a trade fair more than a trade fair?

In September, Trade + Impact held its first Summit in Morocco, bringing together women-run social enterprises, international buyers and potential investors. The Summit featured products from two key sectors: handicrafts and agribusiness for cosmetics. These sectors were chosen because they employ significant numbers of women, and additionally, have huge growth potential. Markets for each of the sectors are estimated at USD 30 billion, and global demand is growing.

Like many sectors, handicrafts and natural cosmetics face significant barriers to profitability and growth. Structural barriers, such as tariffs and taxes on inter-African trade, present challenges. Reliability of shipping and transportation cause delays in deliveries and increased costs. In addition, these sectors are very fragmented, with large numbers of small producers working in relative isolation. Access to materials is an ongoing challenge, particularly sustainable materials. Producers working in handicrafts and cosmetics face challenges in accessing financing, and very few of those attending the Summit had ever accessed a loan, outside of money borrowed from friends or family members.

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Announcing findings from YouthInvest

There are approximately 1.3 billion young people in the world between the ages of 15 and 24, and one in five live in Africa. This is the largest cohort of youth the world has ever seen. To be a force for positive change, these young people need opportunities that will help them thrive - access to training, education, jobs and financial services. And yet, youth are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. They also are 33% less likely to have a bank account, and 40% less likely to have saved formally than adults. MEDA is supporting young people around the world with increased access to sustainable economic opportunities.
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What a long dreadful train ride

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“What a long, dreadful train ride” I heard people shrugging, while I was watching the landscape slip away behind me. We were stopping in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time, in what appeared to be “ghost stations”. I didn’t’ really ask why, I didn’t really care, I was simply enjoying the moment and anticipating my first work related trip. I was heading to Tetouan to assist with a 3 day training session organised and supported by MEDA Maroc, which focalizes on informing credit agents and directors from MFI’s on how to better understand and handle young clients. The train stops yet again, the AC wasn’t working, and some of the windows wouldn’t open, the passengers are all quiet, it was too hot to bother talking. Kids were coming out behind piles of rocks and bushes, running from a distance towards the train, trying to hop on the train for a free ride to the neighboring costal city: Azilal. They were bright eyed boys with big smiles, having the time of their lives while being chased after by the security guards and their dogs. I always enjoy road trips; I lose all concept of time while basking in the images and live portraits surrounding me.After resting in Tangier I hit the road to Tetouan! The development agents I met there were all enthusiastic about the training. Their interest and participation were great, even though the sessions were held during the week-end. We all had a sense of how important it was to provide appropriate financial services to the youth, and countered the multiple stereotypes surrounding young MFI clients. Clients weren’t numbers anymore; they were people from their community that they were eager to help. While I was capturing these moments with my camera, I noticed the same bright eyes and smiles I previously encountered during my train ride. I kept wondering what was so similar between two completely different groups of people. Could it be hope? Hope to reach more clients...hope to reach the beach or hope for improvement...hope for a better future.

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Two words: snail soup

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me make something abundantly clear, snail soup is probably one of the best street foods out there! The moment I stepped foot in Morocco, my thoughts were haunted by the delectable gooey critter. During orientation week in Waterloo, we were taught to examine our surroundings the second we arrive in our residencies; I am a tad bit ashamed to admit that I went snail cart hunting instead, though I promise I promptly scrutinized my environment afterwards. Once I unpacked in Casablanca, I went for an evening walk to get acquainted with my new neighbourhood, and of course track down the “bebouch” (snail) stand. I was able to smell the tempting broth from miles away; sweet scent of herbs and spices such as thyme, oregano, tarragon, mint, peppermint, liquorice roots, anise seeds, and the list of ingredients goes on, and on…and on. For those of you who have an adventurous gastronomic side, I suggest you try some snail, click here  for the recipe or hop on a plane to Morocco.After checking off “bebouch” from my bucket list, my real adventure started: interning as an impact assessment agent with MEDA, in the city of Casablanca. The team here is great! Everyone is eager to help and love to share different information about the area. YouthInvest is the project that MEDA Maroc is currently working on, it’s truly catered to the Moroccan demand; unemployment being a heavy burden, this project facilitates youth access to micro financial services as well as the work market. Next on my bucket list: sheep brain.

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To the field: Oujda, by the Algerian border

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In late July, I was sent to Oujda to interview a few young clients who received “100 hours for success” training from MEDA Maroc. I took the (quite comfortable) overnight train from Casablanca and arrived in Oujda, right by the Algerian border to the East, on the next day. After having checked-in at the hotel, we promptly set off for the MEDA Maroc Oujda office and I met with our local staff. I was soon thereafter interviewing the first client, Fatima Zahra, who plans on opening her own clothing store once she gets enough experience in the field and has put aside enough money.

Later that day, I had a long and engaging two-way discussion with a group of youth after a “100 hours for success” session and was able to gain a lot of mileage as to the real-life skills and the hope MEDA Maroc’s program instills in Moroccan youth, enabling them to reach for their dreams and achieve whatever they set out to do. I’ve met and interviewed a few more youth and was able to collect valuable information and success stories.

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On language and identity

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So, apparently, I’m Moroccan. No one could ever tell that I’m Canadian by my appearance alone. Due to my French and Indian background, I guess I could look like a great many things. I remember people in Uzbekistan thought I was Uzbek, in China I looked as though I was from the Xinjiang (East Turkestan) Autonomous Region, and Caucasians (from the Caucasus mountains) think I’m Azeri. It’s pretty practical. Even when I do tell someone, such as my cab driver on my first day, that I am from Montreal (I flew from Montreal, but I’m actually from Brampton, Ontario), he assumed I was one of those 60,000 young Moroccans who study abroad. Awesomeness. But… when I don’t speak French, and switch to Arabic I pass for any other Arab, but definitely not Moroccan. I spent the past year studying Fusha (literal) Arabic and a bit of Egyptian dialect. When I talk to people I do so in Fusha. I don’t really fear being made fun of – as I’ve been told I would –; the important thing is to be able to communicate. And frankly, I never get any remarks. People usually ask whether I’m Syrian or Egyptian. I tell that I’m Indian – a habit I’ve acquired in my travels in Central Asia, where your ethnicity is of utmost importance and is determined by your father’s background. Saying that I’m Indian also helps me avoid the temptation of speaking in French – my mother tongue. I’m in part here to improve my Arabic skills, after all. I have Satellite TV with over 700 channels in Arabic from all over the Arab world. It’s pretty cool to have been able to follow political events in Egypt on an Egyptian channel, and watch Turkish soap operas in Syrian dialect. I’m impressed with the fact that many Moroccans understand these dialects. In general, I find Moroccans are gifted with languages. At work The staff at MEDA Maroc is very friendly. Colleagues have helped me buy, and then, repair my bike. They made me try couscous, tagine and other local goodies. I am definitely a fan of Moroccan cuisine now. At the office, I’ve mainly been working on building the MEDA MENA website for Morocco and Egypt, translating a newsletter from Arabic to English and doing other communications tasks. This week, I’ll be going to Oujda to conduct a few interviews with program beneficiaries. It should be interesting.

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First impressions in Morocco

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I can still remember how excited I felt on the Royal Air Maroc plane as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean. I was thrilled to finally set foot in Africa, and after a year of intensive study of the Arabic language, being able to work and live in the Arab world as well. It felt surreal. Then, I arrived. The airport felt pretty international (as they all tend to be) but very African as well. Mohammed V airport in Casablanca wants to become – and to some extent already is – a hub for flights to and from Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America. I have often been told that Moroccans don’t see themselves as African (that could in fact be said of many North African countries) – and I believe it’s a question I will try exploring over the next few months. I took a train to Gare Oasis, then a taxi to my apartment. It’s located in the south of the city, in Ain Chock. I wanted to get to know another side of the city and it’s people, away from the downtown glitter. Most of my colleagues were surprised at my choice – I live 9 km away from the MEDA Maroc office, which means, depending on Casablanca traffic, from 38 minutes to over an hour in the bus. It’s hot, sweaty, crowded, and quite frankly – though I’m usually a fan of intense travel experiences such as feeling like cattle at the back of a truck – I’m really not that fond of such promiscuity two hours a day for six months. So, naturally, I bought a bike. My best time so far is 24 minutes to get to the office. And I dare say it’s a great way of keeping fit. It also allows for more mobility and freedom. I never like being at the mercy of cab drivers in any place and have always valued bikes in cities that have no efficient public transport. I can pretty much go wherever I want to, when I want to – provided my legs have it in them for the extra kilometer or two. Rabat My first weekend in Morocco was spent in Rabat. I took the train a Saturday morning from the Casa Voyageurs train station and arrived in Rabat an hour later. I visited Rabat with a Moroccan friend of mine that I had met three years ago in Delhi! The city is so much quieter than Casablanca. To be honest, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the traffic and expanse of Casablanca. It was nice to see something more low-key and relaxed. It’s a nice capital with the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, a nice medina (old city) overlooking the sea, the Kasbah of the Oudaias, and nice restaurants and shops. I really do feel that I’m just scratching the surface as there is so much more to be seen and done. I plan on climbing the Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, sometime in August. I also want to see Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Chefchaouen, the Atlas moutains and the dessert.

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Happy International Women's Day - We are one woman

Today is March 8th so I will start by wishing you a happy International Women's Day.  One thing that I can definitely attribute to my internship experience is a stronger sense of feminism. Seeing the disparity and the double standards women face in Morocco - which on the whole is much better than many developing countries - but still not up to Western standards - has made me feel like I need to do something more. Here's a little description of street culture in the city: Casablanca is a very cosmopolitan city - it certainly doesn't have the traditional old city feel of Fes, or tourist-Mecca feel of Marrakech. But the men still rule the streets, whether it's groups of boys kicking a soccer ball, teenagers loitering, men sitting at sidewalk cafés, or old men playing cards, they are at home in public spaces. The errant (young) woman who proposes to go out alone, (imagine!), especially in the evening or at night (really!) must be inviting these men, aged 15-75, to comment on her appearance or repeatedly try to catch her attention by calling out variations on "bonjour/bonsoir," "Welcome to Morocco" (for foreigners), "Hola" and a variety of catcalling sounds: whistles, "oh-la-la," or my least favourite: kissing sounds. Why else would she try to run an errand or walk somewhere by herself? These catcalls can occur from across the street, but the eager man likes to whisper/shout these directly into the woman's ear or face, to make sure she hears them of course.  Even when the men she passes don't say something, they often stare for an uncomfortably long time, even turning and walking backwards for several paces after passing her. She is a piece of meat to the hungry wolves. The exceptions walk past without a word or a glance, but maybe they were staring too - it's hard for the woman to tell since she keeps her eyes fixed to the sidewalk or the street, avoiding looking at people walking by since that encourages more comments. Of course this doesn't happen to every woman, or women past a certain age, and my Moroccan coworkers tell me that it happens less to them, and that it used to be much worse 10 or 15 years ago. But that reminds me of a phrase from one of my sociology classes about it "getting better." We often do nothing because we argue that things are improving, they are better than they were before, but that rhetoric also implies that women are not yet equals. We don't seem to mind because the disparity isn't as blatant as it was in the past, but that doesn't mean there isn't more work to be done.  This might have sounded like you can't walk down the street in Casa, but that's not the case. You can, and you can go out and meet up with friends, get groceries, do anything you like, and for the most part you never feel unsafe. But you must always be wary, and you must also put on your mask of disinterest to try to curb unwanted attention. And most days you can walk deafly through streets, the comments sluicing off your mental armour. But some days you can't block them out, and you want to say something back, or hit someone particularly offensive.  These tactics help keep women where men think they should be - in the home, or at least not in public, not alone. It is a power thing, and it reflects the fact that these men think they have the right to say whatever they like to women, and that they shouldn't be in the public sphere. Definitely something that Moroccan families need to start teaching their children at an early age: respect for women, all women - not just their mothers. This monologue of sorts doesn't even address the fact that more women are illiterate, are less to be educated for as long as men, are less active in the economy, and are almost absent from positions of political or social importance. The country’s score under the Gender Inequality Index is 0.510 (104 out of 146 countries). And this is one of the better off countries in North Africa.  So, today, on International Women's Day, think about women in countries worse off than your own, and teach your own children/family what equality means. The only way changes will happen is if there is a behavioral shift worldwide. We are one woman, as the new UN Women song says, have a listen and share: http://song.unwomen.org/

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Circling central Morocco: +1600km in 5 days

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My friend Diana from Montreal spent two weeks visiting Morocco, and together we did a 1600+km tour of the country in 5 days. Here are some of the highlights.MarrakechThursday evening, Feb 14th, after I finished work, we headed to Casa Voyageurs and took the evening train to Marrakech. This was quite different than my last train journey there - which you can read about in my November post! We arrived late, and (of course) got ripped off by the train station taxis who over-charged us but also only dropped us off at Djema-el-Fnaa, the square, rather than the street we needed to get to our riad. After some wandering, and glancing confusedly at the map provided by the riad and the poor signage around the square, we were able to get the assistance of a very generous restauranteur, who walked us to our hotel out of the goodness of his heart, down a couple of very seedy-looking medina alleys. Alas we arrived at the hotel and checked in, sometime around 11:30 pm. We spent Friday shopping, touring the Bahia Palace (pictured left), appreciating the Koutoubia Mosque and gardens, and observing the entertainers, monkeys, snake charmers and dentists of Place Djema-el-Fnaa. The tourSaturday morning at 8 a.m. we met our driver, who would take us on a organized tour from Marrakech, through the High Atlas mountains, through to Ouarzazate, Skoura, Kelaat Mgouna, Todra Gorge, Arfoud and Merzouga, where we rode camels out into the Erg Chebbi dunes to spend Sunday night at an oasis camp, guided by a Sahrawi nomad. The tour through the High Atlases (pictured right) provided plenty of great views, although the roads were very winding. Ouarzazate is famous as being the location of film studios and is a popular region to film desert-themed scenes. We also stopped at Ait Ben Haddou, an old Kasbah on the edge of the High Atlases on the road to Ouarzazate, which was a stronghold of the ben haddou tribe for centuries. On our ride from Marrakech to Merzouga we stopped at a women's cooperative to see how Argan oil is made, at a rose distillery and coop in Kelaat Mgouna (in the Valley of the Roses), and went to the source of the river in the Todra Gorge, one of three gorges in the region.The Dar Panorama in Skoura was a great place to stop Saturday night, with excellent food and the guesthouse to ourselves. It had a view over the date palm groves of Skoura which was beautiful at sunset. The camel riding was a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience. We both had white camels, which is special. We stopped to watch the sunset over the dunes (pictured left), and left early enough to watch the sunrise from a good spot as well. What was more surprising was that there were tons of cats at the oasis camps. There is a Berber family who lives there permanently to watch the camp, so I guess cats are a part of the domestic patchwork, but it is weird to see them in the middle of dunes. Sunday morning we did the long trek from Merzouga to Fes via Ifrane and the Middle Atlases. I forgot to mention that we passed the Anti-Atlases on our way out to Merzouga, so we saw/drove through all three sets of Atlas mountains. We stopped briefly in Midelt, where I ended up buying a Sahrawi carpet of camel hair, in a multitude of colours. I really hadn't planned on getting such a big one, or of this style (described sometimes as painterly or zanafi style). I probably paid too much for it, but I bargained the man down by 3300 dirhams so I thought that was pretty good, and the Morrocans have a saying that the right price is the price you are willing to pay.FesWe got dropped off in Fes on the night of the 18th, and spent the night in a riad in the medina where we met some great fellow travelers. We did a walking tour of the medina the next day, and in the evening I headed back on the train to Casablanca, so I could work on the 20th.Diana stayed in Fes for 2 extra days with her new companions and arrived back in Casa in time for my birthday, which we celebrated by going to the  February Jeudi Casaouis event. All in all I think it was a good trip - although somehow Diana ended up going home with about 20 kgs of extra luggage and a new carry-on to accommodate all the pottery and breakables!

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Training MFIs to improve financial access for youth

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For the past year our project, YouthInvest, has been working to shift strategies to its second phase - training Micro-Finance Institutions (MFIs), commonly referred to as AMCs (Associations de micro-credit) here in Morocco, to improve their services and products to meet the needs of the sizeable youth market. In 2012 MEDA signed an agreement to train credit officers and branch managers for one of the larger MFIs - the Fondation Banque Populaire de Micro-Credit (FBPMC) in cooperation with another NGO that is funding the training on improved customer service for youth clients. MEDA Maroc has been training their staff in week long sessions across the country, With the goal being to train the staff from about 50 branches. The evaluations coming out of these sessions show how successful the program is, and the participants' satisfaction with the content and delivery.This past weekend, February 8-10, 2013, MEDA Maroc offered a short overview training on the "Financial Solutions for Youth" training suite we will be offering to all Moroccan MFIs. There were nearly 20 participants at this select workshop, representing MFIs large and small, as well as a few individuals interested in the sector. Training for Trainers (TOT), Better Customer Service for Youth Clients, Developing Financial Products for Youth, Risk Management for Youth Clients, and Technical Assistance for Product Development are the components of this new YouthInvest phase. MEDA will also be conducting a study of financial products and services currently available to youth, as well as current youth client satisfaction surveys before commencing the training suite for MFIs. A similar study is being conducted in Egypt, where YouthInvest is also active.While this phase has taken some time to get off the ground, partnership agreements are being signed with MFIs presently, and the materials and content for the three training topics are being finalized. A good deal of my time at work has been dedicated to supporting this phase in recent months (helping with customer service materials, translating partnership agreements, and taking photos at the FBPMC training in Khouribga in order to use some shots for upcoming publicity. Included are a few photos from our training on "Financial Solutions for Youth" in Casablanca and the FBPMC training on Improving Customer Service for Youth Clients in Khouribga the last week of January. 

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From Oujda to Essaouira in 1 Week

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I've been a bit silent on here for the last few weeks because I've been travelling quite a bit. First, was a trip to Oujda Jan 2-6 for work, then a weekend road trip to Safi, Essaouira and Sidi Kaouki Jan 11-13. Here I'll paint a bit of a picture of what these regions are like, being found at opposite ends of the country. Oujda and Jerada (oriental Morocco)As I mentioned after my previous visit to Oujda in October, the region in which Oujda is found is referred to as the oriental region, because it is the northeasternmost region of the country, bordered by Algeria and the hemmed in by the Mediterranean Sea. It is hilly and rough around much of the Oujda area - which is the easternmost city in Morocco, a scant few kms from the Algerian border, and home to roughly 800,000 people.Jerada is further South from Oujda, and closely surrounded by mountains and trees. It was a hour from Oujda by grand taxi, and is known for its coal production. Next to the youth centre where my colleagues and I sat in on a "100 hours to success" training session was a mountain of coal waste that overshadowed the surrounding buildings. Jerada is in the Beni Snassen mountains. This time visiting Oujda I had a chance to see more of the city. I went with local extension officers to 4 different centres where they provide training to youth, and although it is hilly and bare around most of the city. From about May to September or October is the driest period here, so when I landed in September everything was reddish-brown, the colour of the earth around Casablanca. When I returned from Berlin in December I was astonished by how green everything had become. SafiOn the 3 hour drive South to along the highway to Safi I noticed that the rolling hills surrounding Casa flattened out onto fertile plains, before approaching mountains and hills once again as we neared the coast of the Atlantic. Safi is set right on the ocean, and has been a popular port for hundreds of years. The red clay of the region makes Safi most well known for its ceramics, of which we bought plenty! Safi is also known for its phosphate production and sardines. The Portuguese held Safi for some time in the middle ages, when they had forts and settlements all down the coast. The Spanish had the North, along the Mediterranean, the Portuguese had the Atlantic coast. The French came later. EssaouiraThe route to Essaouira became a bit unnecessarily long, as we made an unplanned detour through the countryside in our search for the coastal road. It did give us a chance to see some really rural areas. We drove through mountains and woods, and saw some massive waves and dunes along the coast when we finally did get on the right road. The city itself is a popular tourist destination. We stayed in a riad in the old medina so we saw plenty of Euopeans wandering around as well. The sqala de la ville is the fort in the old medina, with great views of the ocean and the sunset. The sqala du port is a short walk away, and is still located at the mouth of the present fishing port. Sidi KaoukiThe length of coast between Essaouira and Agadir is famous for its waves ideal for surfing and windsailing. Sunday morning we went on a short drive through the Argan tree groves to the small community of Sidi Kaouki. We managed to photograph some of the goats that eat the argan fruit - the source of the oil that is so popular in Morocco for cosmetics and cooking. We also hiked up a gravel road to a hill overlooking the ocean and beach. We met some children who were watching their cows and camels when we went back to the car. The area was fairly quiet, but quite rocky. Stopping at the Sidi Kaouki beach for lunch and a chance to dip our feet in the ocean - swimming was not recommended with the 3 metre-high waves - was fantastic. There were some tourists about, but very few people at this time of year, even though it was above 20 degrees. ReflectionsThe abundance of agriculture from Sidi Kaouki all the way back to Casablanca was very evident. Verdant, lush fields hugged the highway once we left the mountainous area that was filled with argan trees, goats and sheep. Often we passed individuals walking along the road, or waiting for a grand taxi. It was difficult to figure out where they had come from, as most often they were far from buildings in any direction. Although I grew up in the country, I can't imagine the isolation that a rural youth would feel in one of the tiny communities we passed through. Illiteracy in rural areas, especially among women is quite high in Morocco - in 2010 only 57% of women (15 years old and over) were illiterate (source: UNESCO), with approximately 80-90% of rural women being illiterate. The related challenges would be staggering. You realize how much you have to be thankful for as a Canadian.   

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Long Time Gone

I'm trying to look back and process the last six months, but it's hard right now to visualize everything together; it comes in bits and pieces, good and bad. I think it's going to take some time to figure out exactly how I've changed because of this experience.*We went to Oujda, one of the towns in northeast Morocco where our programming happens, earlier this month. I had the chance to sit in on youth trainings, which was an amazing, inspiring experience.These are kids who sign up for training to improve their job prospects - kids, I say, but really 14-25 year olds. Every week, they go to sessions on entrepreneurship, money management, and life skills at community centers, where they sit in unheated rooms (and I am here to tell you, it gets cold in Oujda!) and listen to our awesome training staff. They're focused, they're interested, they participate - and these are things I think most Westerners take for granted.How many of us complained about talking CALM 20 (for non-Albertans, this is "Career and Life Management") in high school? How many of us, at, say, age 17, would have sat politely through a presentation on stress management or time management without rolling our eyes, passing notes, or just zoning out? Obviously, there is some self-selection happening, but it was seriously impressive to see young people so engaged.We had staff from MEDA in Oujda help us out by showing us around and translating from Arabic into French. They were some of the absolute nicest people I have ever met in my life, incredibly welcoming, and I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity to hang out with them and see the awesome work they're doing.*I never did figure out how to love Morocco. Deeply respect, yes; the culture and tradition, the focus on family, the art, the amazing people I've met, the amazing things I've seen and done. I like a lot of things about Morocco, but not living here! I love to travel, but I want something to come home to, people to share what I've done with. I miss my family and friends so much that it almost feels physical, sometimes. Six months was enough, for me. I want a home base near the people I love.I've learned a lot about myself from this experience. I'm proud of some of it; other stuff I'd like to work on, like my instinct to retreat inward when I feel stressed or threatened. I never used to consider myself shy, but here I've been different - diffident - and it's definitely been a personal and professional obstacle.The thing is, though - I think I'm learning (slowly, painfully!) to take my personal challenges and view them as challenges, not failures. For everyone who knows me, this is huge! I'm a major perfectionist, super A-type, perhaps slightly OCD - so being able to sit and think, okay, I feel really timid today, but I'm going to do one thing that scares me and I'm going to keep doing it until it doesn't scare me anymore has been a real game-changer.This experience has taught me how to be a stranger, how to be the 'other', how to exist on the outside of a society. I think until you have that experience, you can't fully understand how hard it is to live someplace like Canada and not speak very good English, not understand the customs, not know how to get from place to place. I think of our 'nation of immigrants' and wonder how many people I encounter every day who feel like I often felt here - confused, homesick, out of rhythm, even judged. I only have to do it for another 9 days, but for some people it's just life.Anything that builds your capacity for empathy is a good experience. Even the bad parts of living here - by which I mean the constant street harassment - have taught me a lot about how women in most parts of the world (up to and including many parts of the developed world, absolutely) are adversely affected by outward displays of sexism.I have also had some great professional experience to add to my CV, for which I am super grateful, and I have loved working with the MEDA team and learning about the YouthInvest project. I feel really good about the career I've chosen in development and I think this internship has really solidified it as the right choice for me.I'll leave you with the poem that means the most to me, and the sentiment that has kept me going when the going got rough:    love is a place    & through this place of    love move    (with brightness of peace)    all places     yes is a world    & in this world of    yes live    (skillfully curled)    all worlds     (e.e. cummings)

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Communications, consultants, and customer service

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Time for an update about what I've been doing as the Communication Development Intern at MEDA Maroc. Things have been constantly changing for the past couple months here at MEDA Maroc, with 5 employees leaving our small office of 10, and new staff being hired on gradually.YouthInvest (in Morocco and Egypt) also changed its primary strategy in the past year and things are finally really starting to move in that respect. Rather than focusing on mostly training youth about financial education, business creation and savings, we are turning to the microfinance institutions (MFIs) and banks in Morocco to provide them with a suite of trainings on how to:

    Improve customer service for youth clients (and attract youth)    Develop financial products that appeal to youth    Manage risk specific to youth

Since about July 2012, staff in North America have been working alongside staff here in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region to develop these training programs. We worked specifically on the Product Development training in September when several MEDA staff from Waterloo and Washington visited Casablanca, and lately I have been working with Casablanca staff to improve the customer service training modules.Customer Service TrainingFor the past month I have been working on a team to streamline, add content and images and otherwise improve the existing customer service training. We have tested out the training with a Moroccan bank through a current partnership, and we have had extremely positive feedback from those evaluations, but we are trying to tighten up the training to maximize the value financial institution staff will get out of it. This is starting to wrap up, but it has been an ongoing project since mid-November.Consultants DatabaseSince October I have been in the process of creating a database of consultants with microfinance experience in MENA, so that MEDA has a go-to list when searching for trainers to provide the trainings mentioned above (the plan is to gradually expand to each MENA region country to offer these trainings, so we need trainers with experience in these countries). It will also be useful for the Technical Assistance MEDA will provide to financial institutions to help them develop youth products and adapt their risk management to best serve youth. The list is currently nearly 200 consultants, but I have been contacting them to find out their interest in working with MEDA and not all have responded. Personalizing the messages to each consultant and recording when emails were sent, responses received, cataloging CVs of interested people has meant that this is a time-consuming but valuable database. There is still lots of work to do on the database, and we haven't even sent out a job offer yet!CommunicationsOn the communications side, we finally finished the November MEDA Maroc Newsletter (for which I put together the English version, alongside my coworker's Arabic version) and sent it out to our partners and the global MEDA staff the first week of December. I have also been assisting with the creation and translation of partnership agreements, pamphlets, client stories, and the 2013 strategic communications plan. We are planning to increase our reach through social media so we've been working as a team on a renewed website too.To supplement our communications materials and presentations, I attended a YouthSavings information session on Thursday to take photos. YouthSavings is a project we are carrying out in the Casablanca region where interns provide a 1 hour presentation on how and why youth should save money by creating a savings account. The interns also provide the forms and help the youth open their own account. Participation among youth is voluntary (it is not during class time) so you have to have animated interns to capture the students' interest right in the beginning. It was a very interesting experience, even though it was in Darija - a language of which I only understand about 20 words!

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Marrakech: "the daughter of the desert"

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Last weekend, Elena and I decided to make a day trip to Marrakech (French spelling), the third largest city in Morocco but one that gets millions of visitors every year due to its multiple attractions and unique location at the edge of the Atlas mountains and the desert. By train this was a day-long adventure, trains run every 2 hours from the main Casablanca station, and 2nd class tickets (economy) cost only 90 Dirhams one way, about $10 CAD. The trip is about 3 and 1/4 hours long.

Want to play Sardines?At the train station many travellers, tourists and Moroccans alike, were heading to Marrakech. We'd been warned that there is no limit to the number of 2nd class tickets sold, so it is always possible that you will have to spend the entire journey standing, crammed into the small hallway that edges the compartments in each train car.  It turns out that day was one such day.  We crushed onto the train, peered into already full compartments, then, resigned, settled in for the long journey with little air and nothing to sit on. Despite trying to upgrade to 1st class, we were informed all the tickets there were sold out (limited number of tickets if you're willing to pay more for the privilege). It was so busy because the folks that go home for Eid-ad-Adha return anytime over a period of about 2 weeks surrounding the holiday. Additionally, the term vacation for students happened to coincide with our travel date. Sigh.  Needless to say, Elena and I were very hot and tired by the time we reached Marrakech, although we saw some great scenery on the way there which we would have missed in a squished compartment (the only advantage is sitting). We also played a game of "things that could be worse" which lightened the mood and put things in perspective (ask me if you're curious).Majorelle GardensWe decided our first stop in Marrakech would be the Majorelle Gardens, owned and renovated by Yves Saint-Laurent. Once we got a taxi to the gates we sat down and had lunch at a trendy (read: tourist pricey) restaurant. The chicken tagine was good, but the servings and prices were steep compared to Casa! One of the neat things about Marrakech in general was the massive numbers of tourists present, even this late into the fall. Instead of being "one of these things is not like the others" we actually fit in. Quite different even from Rabat and Casa.  The gardens are beautiful. Upon entering, the peace and quiet of the walled gardens surrounds and washes over you. The winding paths past different types of palm trees, cacti, and calm ponds transport you to a different place. The birds welcome you with their melodies.  There is also a Berber museum within the gardens, a cafe and an exhibit of all of the LOVE card designs YSL sent to his friends and clients each new year. Very pretty!Jemaa-el-FnaaDeciding we could easily walk to the Medina next was not a good idea. Miscalculated that one by a couple kilometers... But we eventually found the Koutoubia Mosque and the Jemaa-el-Fnaa square. Originally the place where public executions were held, it has been a marketplace for hundreds of years. In particular it has an overwhelming number of entertainers (musicians, snake charmers, monkeys in chains, storytellers, folks wearing traditional garb for photos, etc). We quickly bypassed the snake-men, and wandered through some of the narrowstreets of the souks. There are multiple souks specific to each type of good you are looking for, like olives, spices, carpets, jewelry, lanterns, and many more, but right around the square you can find a great variety of stalls. The merchants are impressive polyglots too - perhaps not perfectly fluent, but they can shout their wares in French, English, Arabic, Spanish, even some Italian and German here and there! After a-wandering, we followed sound advice and found a hotel that had a rooftop café overlooking the square where we took a break, watched the sun set and the stalls in the square start to light up.      A bit of purposeful shopping followed, then we had the headache of trying to find a taxi willing to use their meter (required by law, ahem!) to take us to the train station during rush hour. No luck. Ended up getting a grand taxi willing to take us for 30 Dh. It seems food prices aren't the only inflated things in Marrakech. First Class, best choiceWith only a few minutes to spare we decided on first class tickets for the return journey and some surprisingly speedy McDonald's take-out from the train station. It was a pleasant journey back to Casa sharing the compartment with a family and another young woman.
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The beauty's in the breakdown

I was just listening to the call to prayer, and I thought: That's probably something a lot of people at home have never experienced. The call to prayer occurs - well, a bunch of times a day. There's an official schedule, but basically: Dawn, sometime around midday, sometime around the end of work, and dusk. (I'm sure I'm missing a few.) It comes over loudspeakers designed to cut through the city noise - which means, yes, it will wake you up until your body stops responding - and you hear a man singing, sort of. It's not exactly like Moroccan Idol; his voice wavers and drops and rises. Sometimes it goes for a long time, but often it stops just as you're getting used to it. I think it's something I initially had a hard time relating to. Religion, here, is public; it's not that you see mosques everywhere - they are everywhere, but they are private, where churches and temples and mosques in Canada are visible. The expression of religion, on the other hand, is open. Everyone worships the same God, so maybe it's less fraught with the difficulties we'd have back home. We pray in private, but our places of worship are more public. (The exception, of course, is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which is enormous, big enough that it eclipses almost every other structure in the city. It is - unlike most of the buildings in Casablanca - new and gleaming, meant to be seen and admired. The contrast between the mosque and the crumbling apartment buildings and shantytowns and ruined sidewalks is incredibly stark; they don't look like they belong in proximity to one another. I'm not trying to say that they should have spent the money on infrastructure instead - just that it's funny, how there always seems to be money for huge monuments, and none for everyday necessities.) * Me, well; my hair is longer, and my bangs are slowly growing out, which is a super irritating process when you don't have a flat-iron or any styling products. I'm sleeping better, although some days I still feel more tired than I should be, and I've more or less figured out what to cook and what to eat, which is awesome. I have moments where I wonder what I've done to my life, and moments where I am genuinely grateful that I did it. I don't love it here yet. I'm not sure I'm going to. Is it okay to say that? I feel like I'm contravening some unspoken etiquette here, but I'm not sure that I've really found my place in Casablanca, and maybe I won't. I have another 3 months left, and I have done a lot and learned a lot and I wouldn't trade it back for anything - but I don't love the city. I love the work - the work is amazing - but I don't really have a place in the city, and I miss having the sense that I have a place. I've come to terms with the harassment - the cat-calling, the men who try to whisper in my ear, the kissing noises when I walk by, the men who slow and literally bend backwards to stare at my chest for another few seconds - but it's tiring, too. I feel like I can't go anywhere without being stared at; whereas at home I can be invisible, unnoticed. Mostly, I miss my friends and family. I'm not constantly homesick anymore, but I miss being able to go out with my friends, or call my dad, or just be there for important things. My best friend from high school is getting married in June, and I find myself wishing I could be there to go dress shopping with her, or to try on the maid of honour dress she ordered for me. There are things like birthday parties and illnesses and funerals that I regret missing. Funnily enough, I miss Canadian weather. I've been away from Canada for (now) nearly five years, and now I daydream about those cold days when it's just snowed and everything is absolutely silent. I think I'm thinking about that now because it's never silent here; you can hear traffic and people and the call to prayer and animals and everything almost all the time. It's not bad, but for me it's not ideal. I love to travel, but I wonder if I'm just too far away for too long to be really happy here in the long-term. Not to worry - I have another 3 months and 1.5 weeks before I'm done, and I'm looking forward to it - but part of my reason for coming here was to see if I wanted to work in the field fulltime, and I'm not sure now that I would be happy doing so. I think a position where I could travel to the field a lot but come back to a home base in Canada or the US would be ideal for me right now.

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What's the Attitude

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We went to Rabat on Saturday; what amazed me, after Casablanca, was how clean it seemed. There were still some parts that were less than beautiful, but the streets, the buildings, and the tourist sites were all really well-kept. Casablanca has grown on me a little, in the way that familiarity grows on you, but it's definitely a city in progress, trying to bridge that gap between community and progress, trying to find its character. The city itself is almost bipolar; shantytowns aside clothing stores, major fast-fashion chains on palm-lined boulevards only minutes from boarded-up storefronts, Africa's biggest "destination mall" in a city with crumbling infrastructure. I'm sure all of this is present in Rabat, but it seemed less stark, at least. We saw workers maintaining palm trees, the site of a new café on the waterfront. The royal mausoleum, where guards in full formal dress sat on horses. An art gallery, in the old casbah. * Work has been really great so far this week. We have a contingent of people here from MEDA Waterloo, and one of our staff from MEDA Egypt, and we are doing a clinic on a training that MEDA is developing for creating youth financial products with MFIs and other financial institutions. The idea is to teach staff how to effectively go through the product development cycle in order to offer targeted youth products, which benefits both the youth in question as well as the institution. I don't know much about training, so this has been really interesting to me. There are materials available from places like CGAP, but MEDA adds value to these kinds of trainings by having in-country networks, experts, and the focus on youth that many microfinance organizations lack. Going through all the presentations, both from the perspective of staff and the perspective of trainers and trainees, has been really helpful for me in learning more about MEDA's actual programs – which I know is going to help me do my job in impact assessment! I've really liked getting to know the team better. Also, it's been really nice to work in an English-speaking environment for a few days. * Left:The Royal MausoleumCenter: French protectorate=era achitectureRight: The main boulevard I feel myself changing as I'm here. Parts of me keep chipping away; I'm not sure if it's a good thing, yet, because I don't know what will replace them, but it's an intellectually interesting process. I think it comes from being continually challenged, by losing the context through which I had always defined myself. In Canada and the States, everything visible about me meant something to others, defined my role: My glasses, my hair, my gender, my name, my clothes all spoke to where I belonged – to whom I belonged, my friends and family, my country, my company. Here, those things are true too, but in a completely different way; here, they mean outsider. It's not a loss of internal identity so much as an absence of an external one, which in turn is challenging my internal identity. It's making me question how much of how I act was performative in North America, done because that's how I thought it should be done, and how much is integral to me as a person. It's not that I think of myself as a fake sort of person (actually, I am hilariously transparent most of the time), but I do think that knowing where your 'place' is in a society affects how you behave. In this case, I don't have any idea of where my place is – still – so I'm often at a loss.
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The Oriental Express 2.0

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I recently got to experience my first trip on the night train to Oujda, where the satellite office of MEDA Maroc is located. It is a 10 hour overnight trip from Casablanca to Oujda by train, which travels via Rabat, Fes and a few smaller stops before reaching the end of the line in Oujda, a mere 15 kms from the Algerian border, and 60 kms from the Mediterranean. Because it is the easternmost part of Morocco, this region is referred to as the Oriental region - hence the Oriental Express 2.0 title. Not the original, but not inaccurate!

Left: A mural near the Moulay Slimane Foundation centre for sustaining traditional arts I set off on my adventure in good company, one of the other interns from our office was heading up to Oujda along with her YEN supervisor who played a role in starting the impact assessment of the "100 hours to success" program MEDA Maroc has successfully been running since 2009. Other staff had already arrived in Oujda earlier in the week, while we were at the YEN clinic my co-intern co-organized, and the pilot of the impact assessment study was starting the following morning. We boarded the train in the dark - E. and I were lucky to be booked together into a compartment with a small couch to sit on between the beds, rather than the very tight bunk bed set-up in the adjacent compartments. Not to say there was a lot of room to stretch. I tried to get a decent night's sleep but I found the noise and the motion and the foreign-ness of the whole experience too distracting. I think I mostly cat-napped.

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In the Field: Meeting Clients, Practising my German





The past two weeks have been a flurry of activities throughout MEDA Maroc's offices, which was marked by visits from MEDA staff from Europe and Canada, a Monitoring & Evaluation Clinic organized by the two YEN interns in Morocco (Elena and Rémi, my fellow Canadians), a field trip to Tiflet and Rabat to meet with beneficiaries and partners, and a trip to our Oujda office for interviews and to observe the start of our impact assessment baseline survey. I'll start with the trip to Tiflet and Rabat, and write about the Oujda trip will be my next blog post.Tiflet and Rabat with MEDA Europe

Germans having lunch at Sqala, a Moroccan restaurantTo start off, two weeks ago, I spend Friday and Saturday assisting a small group of Germans engaged in MEDA activities in Europe tour Casablanca, Rabat and Tiflet. The group was led by the main MEDA Europe staffperson, my Communications supervisor, and a tour guide to translate from Arabic to German. We hired a bus to take us around, and late on Friday afternoon, after stopping to ask a dozen people for directions, we arrived at the Tiflet ARDI (one of our partner organizations) office, where the group was introduced to over a dozen beneficiaries of one of our financial services training programs.  We then visited the bakery of one of the beneficiaries, which he learned to better manage and thus make it more profitable, before heading back to Rabat for supper and a good night's rest.  Saturday saw us heading back to Tiflet (about 1 hour from Rabat, further inland) to visit the "kindergarten" and after-school program another client created after his training. The have approximately 50 kids benefiting from the program, from pre-school aged to high school aged children. We also got a magic show from a beneficiary who animates events and birthday parties.   Our next stop was a carpet store, where a brother and sister who took the training do some interesting business. The brother creates contemporary carpet designs, and sends them to women weavers in the area, who produce the carpets. The sister designs and makes clothing as well as household bamboo furniture. The two also source traditional Berber carpets, and sell them. I was very tempted to buy something, but I was too indecisive!    Left: Beneficiaries at the Tiflet ARDI office  Right: Some of the carpet designs the young man created        It was great to see what young people, my contemporaries, are able to do, and how they have created innovative ways to support themselves and their families. They're not rich - but they're not unemployed (unlike 30% of Moroccan youth aged 15-29 according to World Bank estimates) and they're doing something that they enjoy and is productive - that sounds like success! The Germans were very interested in the youths' businesses, and asked tons of questions. Unfortunately (and I must say for the first time really since coming here), I was the person who went around but understood very little - the kids and partners would speak Arabic, then the interpreter would directly translate into German. Since I only know a handful of Arabic, and I seem to have forgotten all the important words I once-upon-a-time knew from two semesters in Herr Schmidt's class, I mostly just followed along and asked for explanations from my co-worker when she was nearby. Since I talk to everyone here in French, I kept trying to ask the Germans questions in French - but mostly they spoke English as a second language, not French, which again was confusing. It felt very odd to be "that person," but the trip was very interesting and gave me a chance to meet youth who benefited from our trainings.  What I found really intriguing was the fact that, of the group of 11 Germans, several of the men had brought their teenaged children along. In fact 4 of the 11 were under the age of 20. One of the dads explained to be on the first day that they had brought them along because they thought it would a good chance for their kids to learn about the lives of youth in another country. To make them aware of the differences in daily life, work, education, life style, everything. For their part, the German teens were great: interested and engaged. They even swapped Facebook contact info with a number of the youth we met.  How many parents take their kids on trips like that? Where they see the end results of MEDA's work firsthand? Very few. Kudos to them for expanding their children's knowledge, while also being engaged enough to care how and where funding is spent (Some visitors were already MEDA donors).
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A Week of Firsts: La Corniche, Cooking, Oriental Dancing, Bstilla and Pétanque


"A whole new world Every turn a surprise With new horizons to pursue..." This week was an especially full week of firsts - I had my first trip to La Corniche, an area of Casa along the waterfront, I cooked my first real, acceptable dinner completely from scratch, I tried bstilla and found it delicious, and learned how to play Pétanque at a costume party in Maarif quartier.

La CornicheOn Wednesday evening, the staff of MEDA Maroc's Casablanca office went out for dinner, together with our colleagues from Waterloo, Washington and Cairo, who were all here to work on a training program we will be developing for microfinance institutions. I will elaborate more on this developing project in a separate post in the near future, as it extremely relevant and an exciting opportunity for MEDA in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, and in general. We went to an Italian restaurant on the ocean's edge in La Corniche, an area filled with restaurants, shopping and big houses. Popular with tourists. The restaurant was positioned between two swimming pools, a stone's throw away from the beach itself. The public can pay to spend a day at the club and the water is filtered salt water from the ocean. Good food, and great company.  On the way to La Corniche by taxi we passed through one of the shanty towns near the lighthouse which were juxtaposed by elegant restaurants with security at the entrances mere metres away. As we drove along the coast we watched the sun set. Pineapple and Pepper Chicken CookingI admit that most of my dinners after work have been pretty simple - sandwiches, bread and veggies, spaghetti with canned sauce or rotisserie chicken or chicken soup that my roommate and I make from the leftovers. While yes, that counts as cooking, I cooked my first creative dinner completely from scratch the other day, and had leftovers to enjoy later this week - chicken breasts with sautée peppers and pineapple. Yum! It feels good to cook something - but what I would give for an oven or a microwave! Oriental DancingFriday night, my friend and I tried oriental dancing at the gym a few blocks from my apartment. I managed to get us a trial class for free before deciding if it is somewhere Iwant to get a membership, and my friend was game. The instructor was very low-key, and not particularly vocal, but we had a lot of fun trying to duplicate what the other women were doing. Similar to belly dancing, there is a lot of lower body movement, hip action and wrist and arm rotations to go with the steps. A fun experience, and a very good workout. The ladies in the class were friendly. The only things we were missing were the jingly scarves everyone was wearing around their hips. BstillaI had to look this name up. While shopping for a few things yesterday with a friend, I bought a bstilla, a sort of chicken "pie" in layers of phyllo dough, and dusted with powdered sugar. The chicken (in researching this it says it could be pigeon - but I'm going to pretend I know for sure it was chicken) is seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices, and raisins and something that was perhaps cabbage round it out. Whatever it was, it was filling, delicious, and only cost 5 Dirhams. I have my friend to thank as she pointed out the store where they sold these, along with shrimp filled pastries, sweet pastries, msemen, and other typical Moroccan bread items. I will have to look for these at one of my local shops.PétanqueSaturday night I attended an apéro, then an "M" themed costume party. I got better acquainted with more of the French interns who come to Casablanca on a similar, but much longer program than our CIDA internships. They general work here for 1-2 years. A few of these new friends introduced me to Pétanque, a very popular game from the South of France that is similar to lawn bowling. In teams of 2 or 3, you attempt to get your team's balls closest to the "cochonette" or "bouchon", a much smaller, wooden ball, that you first toss to the other end of the "terrain" (must be thrown 6-10 metres, in the sand). Kind of like curling, you can hit the other team's balls away from the cochonette, but you can also hit the cochonette and send it closer to your balls. You play ends, and calculate points the similar to curling. The team to reach 13 first wins. Lots of fun, and I scored some points! 
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Jet-lag and culture shock

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I think I'm finally recovering from my jet-lag! (Knock on wood.) Now that I've discovered white noise tracks that I can play on my iPod when I go to sleep (to drown out the street noise below!), I'm sleeping a lot better. Today was a holiday, so I slept in and took a nap. I'll have to relate my laundry adventure another time; suffice to say that the little portable washing machine here was not as intuitive as I initially assumed! I'm headed for another early night, which will be nice, since tomorrow at work should be a lot more intense than Monday! (Fortunately, it's a four-day weekend thanks to Eid and the King's birthday. Lots of time to look around Casa and catch up on sleep!) The culture shock is a little bit harder to deal with. I feel quite timid a lot of the time, which is not how I normally am; it's like I've suddenly become extremely shy. Partially, I think I don't want to offend anyone; I'm the newcomer, but it's hard to know what's acceptable. The other part is probably that being a foreigner attracts a lot of attention, and it can be super jarring to have someone yell after you on the street. One guy yelled, "Ça va?" (equivalent to "How are you?", or, in this context, "How you doin'?") after me for a full minute. It's definitely something I've encountered elsewhere, but because here it seems discriminate (that is, because I'm a foreigner, rather than just someone walking by a construction site in NYC), I think I'm finding it more jarring.

It's not just that everything is different; it's that, in this context, I'm different. What I thought was pretty decent French is appallingly insufficient, which has made me - even with English speakers - almost a mute. (My accent is bad, and theirs is indecipherable to me - not a good combination!) I don't know how to be polite; I don't know how to do anything, almost. Sometimes I've even felt nervous about leaving the house, which is so not me, and not reflective of the place I'm in, either - Casablanca is not a dangerous city. But between the language barrier, the stress of moving, jet lag, and adjusting to a new culture, I've felt like everything is out of control. So here's the truth: My French will improve, and my culture shock will get better. Everyone's does. From reading that MEDA sent me to my own research, it's just a necessary phase. I remember going through parts of it when I moved to Baltimore from Calgary, so it's no surprise that I'm feeling it moving from the East Coast to North Africa! The intensity has surprised me, but after a few weeks I'm slowly starting to get my bearings. (Hopefully they'll forgive me at work for doing my best impression of a silent data analyst... I'll stop stuttering eventually.) Here's what I've found the most helpful for combating culture shock: 1. Reach out. Reach out to your family, reach out to your friends. Write letters, Skype, send texts, Facebook - whatever. Some of the websites caution against relying too much on your 'old life' for support, but when I really need to feel grounded, my friends are the ones who provide that. (Love you guys!) 2. Don't hole up. It might be enticing to hide under the covers, but it only delays the inevitable. You will need food, water, diet Coke (if you're an addict like me), etc. Even if it's just for ten minutes, get out of your own space. Say hello to the shopkeepers. Keep your eyes up (unless you are on an uneven sidewalk - in which case, do not do what I did and sprain your ankle!). 3. Don't force it. You will have good days, like I had today, where you get into your project at work and talk to someone you love from home and feel great about the next six months. And you will also have bad days, like I had yesterday, where everything seems impossible. (The things you admit to on the internet... in my defense, I totally felt better afterward!) It's normal. From what I can tell, everyone experiences different levels of this, and nobody is immune from culture shock. It manifests differently for different people - I am prone to worrying, so obviously mine is manifesting in anxiety right now - but it's something that most people experience in different ways. 4. One day at a time. Instead of thinking about how bad you're going to feel for the next six months, focus on getting to the end of one single day. Not only does it prevent self-fulfilling prophecies - I'm miserable because I knew I was going to be miserable! - but it narrows your focus, which makes everything that seems huge and impossible seem smaller. 5. Perspective is important. Six months is nothing. I spent six months transitioning out of my last job! It's not that I want to dismiss this as being 'all in your head', but to some extent, if you're physically safe and your basic needs are provided for, then that knowledge can help to get you out of feeling insecure. 6. Read, read, read. Read everything you can about the culture you're in. A lot of websites suggest doing this before you leave - and that's a great idea - but doing so when you're there can also be really helpful. 7. Go easy on yourself. This is one I struggle with - I really felt like I was "failing" to adjust here, rather than going through the process of adjusting. Give yourself some room to make mistakes or just plain feel homesick, instead of viewing that as some kind of zero-sum loss. Let every day be as clean a slate as possible

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