MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

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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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 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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Another taste of Morocco

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Camel for Lunch

Three Saturdays ago, I went to explore Habbous, the new Medina area created by the French during the Protectorate in the 1920's, with my friend and her boyfriend who was visiting from Canada. We walked through Maarif in the general direction of Habbous, then up through a very local neighbourhood that included several butcher shops with huge chunks of raw meat (or indeed most of a cow) hanging in front of the shops. We also passed numerous flocks of 20 or so sheep every few streets. These had arrived all over the city about 10 days before Eid (October 26th), including a flock that was installed in the garage next to my apartment building.

This is because Eid-al-Adha is the Festival of Sacrifice - to commemorate Ibrahim (Abraham)'s willingness to sacrifice his son (with the son's permission) to God. As a reward for his faith, God switched out Abraham's son for a ram, so Muslims celebrate this event by sacrificing a sheep, goat or cow, and share the meat with neighbours, family, and supposedly the homeless as well (I didn't observe this but I did read about this). So this means, going out and selecting a ram for your family ahead of time from one of the flocks shepherds bring in to the city, and bringing it home a day or so before Eid. We're talking millions of sheep being sacrificed on a single day in Morocco, let alone across the Muslim world. In fact, half of the sheep in Morocco are slaughtered on this single day (according to the daily newspaper).

Back to Habbous - we finally took a taxi to get the rest of the way to Habbous as we were turned around from exploring this small Moroccan neighbourhood, and we promptly arrived about 10 minutes later. The walled area is clearly newer, and is next to a royal palace (always closed to the public), a park and a mosque. We browsed the shops, the olive souk (barrels and barrels of numerous varieties of olives), and continued to the area past the walls that is the only market where you can buy camel meat in Casablanca.  We bought it some ground camel meat (it is unclear whether it is mixed with beef or not) straight from one of a street of butchers - while we stood next to the furry head of said camel hanging from the awning, which was flanked by the camel's bare hump. Sorry - no photos of that! Then we walked around the corner, to a row of small "restaurants" that cook your meat for you, and serve it to you with cooked onions and tomatoes and bread. We had a couple pots of mint tea too. The meat was surprisingly good! You sit practically in the street, with the smoke from all these little restaurants blowing in your face. We then headed back through the market area and had a look at the carpets and clothing stalls before walking back to Twin Centre (a good 25 minute walk at least), through a nice neighbourhood and park.  Eid-al-AdhaSo, seeing all these sheep chilling out (AKA unknowingly awaiting their imminent deaths) on every second street, I figured the actual sacrifice on the feast day would be equally visual, possibly in the street (my street is filled with apartment buildings - where else would you do the act itself? I thought). Especially since entrepreneurial folks started selling charcoal, rope and knives, or knife-sharpening services, all over the place suddenly. Friday morning, Eid, was a holiday, so I woke up a bit later than usual, but to a much quieter street than usual. The "bah"ing I'd heard all week was gradually silenced, over the course of the morning, but not in an obvious way. It was raining as well. There were virtually no cars driving by on the busy road behind the building - I think it was the quietest I have ever heard Casablanca - even at night.  From my balcony I could see a couple sets of families up on the rooftop larger balconies off their apartments who were obviously going about the sacrifice business, although I couldn't see much looking up, but there were few people in the streets.  A co-worker invited me to come to her family's place in the late afternoon for the holiday, so I left my apartment just after 1:45 pm to try and locate a rare taxi. As I went past my building I saw families working on cutting up their sheep carcasses in the basement/parking garage of my building - aha, this is where they must be doing it! I also saw the carts of sheepskins that men were collecting, most people don't tan their own sheep skins anymore, they give them away. The taxi ride through Casa was eerie - very few people and very very few cars. The smoke from the charcoal fires used to cook the sheep heads on street corners wafted down the empty streets, making me think of an abandoned city in a war zone perhaps. The meal at my co-worker's was much more informal than I expected - I had visualized something akin to Thanksgiving or Easter - lots of family, lots of food. But we ate a late lunch of tripe, bread, onion-tomato salad and french fries, with tea and homemade cookies accompanied by fruit to round it off. I had to leave before supper was served in order to get back to my apartment on one of the last trains (within Casa) and I was a bit worried about the number of taxis that would be available. Perhaps supper is the larger meal with more dishes.  Those who know me well know that I'm a picky eater - I don't like or eat fish, seafood, sushi, hardly like eggs, and rarely eat weird things. There was even a year or so when the only meat I would eat was chicken. So I would like to congratulate myself for trying both camel meat and sheep tripe, within a week. I only managed one mouthful of tripe, and did not find it my liking, but I think it is likely something you have to grow up on to enjoy.
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Bon Appetit!


So one thing, everyone likes is food, right? If, for some weird reason you have no interest whatsoever in food, then by all means, feel free to skip this post.Anyways, to start off with, I knew coming to Morocco, that food would be different. I know they eat a lot of breads, I know they don't eat pork, but I never thought much about breakfast foods...Milk SnobIn my first few days in Casablanca, my roommate took me to the local equivalent of a mini-mart, where we get some staple supplies. She warned me about the cereal selection. Uh oh. I happen to really like cereal - I like to eat it every day in fact. We approached the cereal section and I am aghast - the main cereals to be found all have chocolate in the name...eek! But we're in a small store, so I brush it off and find some yogourt and some other items. Then we get to the dairy section, but I can't find a single carton of milk in the fridges...there is leben and another type of buttermilk-like dairy product people here drink but no ordinary pasteurized, homogenized cold milk. This could is a problem.Coming from a dairy farm, I know that bought milk will never taste like home milk since it has to be treated. I know this. I tolerate this, but I like my milk on cereal. Having bought milk in Europe, I never thought I wouldn't be able to get fresh milk at the store. The only milk to be found is UHT milk in cartons that look like juice tetra packs, and they aren't refrigerated until after opening. What IS this? I have never heard of UHT milk before, so I decided to avoid it until I knew how it could keep, unrefrigerated - to me that just sounded wrong. I went home to look it up.CerealSince avoiding the chocolate-coma cereal and shelf milk seemed like a good idea, I go with the flow and buy a "petit pain au chocolat" (Chocolate croissant) from the local bakery for breakfast each morning to go with some orange juice, and this is working out for me still (into week 3). Yum! The bakeries here are fantastic. Last weekend, we did another trip to the Acima, a larger grocery store, further away. This time I bought some Frosties (not Frosted Flakes, Frosties) which should be the French equivalent of Frosted Flakes since they are Kellogg's, have Tony the Tiger on the box and the packaging looks the same, right? Wrong. Along with the Frosties I bought some whole milk (it's either whole or skim), and have some for breakfast one morning in lieu of a croissant.The cereal doesn't taste the same. The "pétales" of corn (not "flocons") are different, texture- and size-wise. The milk also has a different, heavier taste to it. I'm not sure if it is the sweeteners from the cereal or the milk flavour, but something is TOO sweet. I've tried it again to see if I can pinpoint it, but I can't. Maybe trying the Special K equivalent next will be an improvement.Local cuisineA lovely entrance in Rabat's Oudaya KasbahBeing so close to Europe and as the 6th largest city on the continent (fun fact), Casablanca has considerable Western influences on the menus of local restaurants. In terms of Moroccan foods, I have tried a chicken couscous, their version of pizza (on a flatbread rather than a dough), and msemen with dried meat (kind of like a crepe). At a work lunch between meetings today we ate in a hotel restaurant, where they served a delicious lamb tagine with raisins and caramelized onions. I look forward to trying more dishes like this. I must say, the orange juice here is very good. None of the oranges I see in the market look particularly nice for eating, but the juice is sweet and smooth. I'm personally surprised not to see more clementines (all the ones we bought in Quebec came from Morocco!) but maybe it is not the season?

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First week adventures: cockroaches, communications and coordination




First impressionsPictured left: This is the view of my street from my balconyI arrived just over a week ago in sunny Casablanca, and noticed a few things right away:-it is hot. We're talking 28-30 degrees Celsius on a daily basis. They're predicting 31 for this weekend. And the sun is brighter that I've ever seen it. On the walk to work at 9 a.m. it is high in the sky, and on the way home, it is blinding. I even got a bit of a sunburn on my 3rd day. There's only been one semi-cloudy day so far in 10 days, and it cleared out to allow the afternoon blinding to begin. -it is big. The city is 3 million people and you definitely can get lost if you're not paying attention. Luckily I live about a 7 minute walk from work, so that is an easy daily commute. We (myself and another MEDA intern) have a lovely large apartment, in a Moroccan neighbourhood (I think we are the only Westerners). But there is a market down the street and tons of local shops. You don't have to go far to get what you need, despite it being a huge city.-it can be smelly. With this heat, and that many people, there is a lot of garbage in the streets. Of course, that can create a certain aroma...They do collect it regularly, and there are street cleaners, but you appreciate your recycling and compost at home more when you don't have access to either. -there are feral cats! This might seem obvious to some people but I've seen dozens of cats all over the city. Not house cats, wild cats. A mother cat even gave birth in the hall in our office building. The kittens were adorable, but sadly, they had been displaced when we came in on Monday.

Pictured right: I walked to the Hassan II Mosque one evening, it is stunningCommunication Development Internship The whole reason I am in Casablanca for six months is to work as the Communication Development Intern with MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) Maroc office. I started on Monday, and they've been letting me get acclimatized, but I did learn what my tasks will be for the duration of the internship and they sound both challenging and fun. I'll be writing up financial success stories about youth that have participated in the YouthInvest program (3 per month) which will involve monthly trips to Oujda, where MEDA Maroc has a regional office, to interview youth. Did I mention it is a 10 hour train ride overnight to get there? It will be a great opportunity to travel and see more of the country. I'll also work on the English version of the newsletter, help with a study they will be doing, and help put together a document that details all of the financial services for youth in Morocco. This will be the biggest job to take on. I'll also help with additional communications work as needed, and help do some knowledge management for MEDA. CockroachesNow you want to know why I put cockroaches in the title. That's because, having never seen any before arriving in Morocco, I have now had to dispose of two of these intensely gross, huge, FAST bugs. The first was pretty dopey, so maybe it was on the way out anyways, but I helped him out by tossing him out the window. The second was much more creepy as I watched it race through our apartment living room and into the kitchen. Then, while I tried to figure out how to catch or kill it, it raced to our bathroom. Crouching under the sink with the cabinets open, I managed to stun/hit it several times with the dustpan before quickly scooping it up and flushing it down the toilet. No one warned me about cockroaches before I arrived. *Shudder*Coordination I am quickly getting settled in to life here in Morocco. Having a roommate who is also an intern has been really helpful - she arrived before me and has helped me learn and adapt quickly to the neighbourhood. The apartment is furnished but, for my own peace of mind, I bought sheets and a new pillow for my bed. I don't know where Moroccans buy their linens, but it definitely wasn't where I bought mine! The cost me 3 times what they would have in Canada! Oh, wal-mart, how I miss you! Everything else here is very cheap. A chocolate croissant (they love bread and it seems to be the staple of all meals) is only 3 dirhams (about 30 cents) and everything else (other than American bedsheets I suppose!) is similarly priced.Pictured left: The Hassan II Mosque from the seawall, it is one of the largest in the world, about 15 mins walk from the apartment

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