Rosana Zarza-Canova: My love affair with Peace Corps, Morocco

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WILLIAMSTOWN — As I bump into the moms of Williamstown running errands on Spring Street, at Wild Oats, or Caretaker Farm and try to sum up my Peace Corps experience in five minutes, I find myself exclaiming, "I love the Peace Corps!" "It was my favorite job to date!" "It was perfect/incredible!" "Moroccans are the most hospitable and generous people in the world!"

But, I always find myself feeling unsatisfied. I'd like to sit down for hours to tell them about my village and my friends so that they can understand it fully, and, most of all, to impart a positive view of Morocco and Moroccans in this world which can at times feel overwhelmed by fear and hatred.

I served in a village an hour north of Marrakesh from 2015-2017. Peace Corps Morocco has a partnership with the Moroccan Ministry of Youth and Sports and volunteers are based in youth, women's and sports centers. They also collaborate with local associations, NGOs,and non-profit organizations on a variety of programs and projects. I co-taught English and life skills, trained youth on organizing activities and clubs, and helped establish the first community library.

Volunteers of all ages

We had three months of training in the Moroccan Arabic called Darija, culture, and technical skills before departing to our sites. In our first meetings, I was ecstatic when I learned that the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in our group of 100, Alice — 84 at the time — was originally from Williamstown! In addition to a range of 20-year-olds and several young couples from the Midwest, there were quite a few volunteers over 50, which created a balanced energy within the group.

The part I most loved about the Peace Corps was being in my humble, traditional village of 5,000. Surrounding the village are 15 duars (farming villages) with olive, cactus fruit and watermelon farms owned by King Mohamed VI, although the main source of work is in factories in the outskirts of town. These factories produce butter, the famous Moroccan tea glasses, and electrical poles.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) my goals were to "help others understand Americans" and "help Americans understand others." Thus my job was essentially cultural exchange. There had been two other PCVs previously, but I was the first Western female volunteer and the only foreigner in my village. Cultural exchange took on many exciting, creative forms during the two years.

I immersed myself in my work at the dar shebab (youth center) and in my neighborhood, learning about Moroccan culture and local customs, and in the process, gaining the trust and respect of the community. My friends taught me how to make khobz (Moroccan bread and stable of the diet), tagine (variety of vegetable and meat dishes made in a clay pot), and couscous — like a good Moroccan housewife. The mutual goal seemed that I could get engaged and stay in the village and with them forever.

I received many invitations to drink sweet Moroccan atay (tea) and snack on homemade — out of this world — bread and olive oil while watching silly Turkish soap operas with women and girls. I attended baptisms and weddings that would last hours or days at which I would stuff myself into a coma with djej mahamur (grilled chicken with lemon and olives) and lehem u barqoq (lamb with prunes) and later shake off dancing with my hips, side to side, round and round!

Cultural exchange for me is invigorating. I loved taking in the smells, tastes, and sounds of Morocco rather than reading about them in a book. I got to know Moroccan culture well by actively participating in it. The Peace Corps experience is more fun and meaningful than tourism! I am heartbroken when I hear of tourists having a negative experience in Marrakesh, because in addition to my village, it became like another home city to me!

In return, I shared my American culture by showing photos of my family and friends and the landscape of the beautiful Berkshires with scenes of fall foliage or videos of the snow, which especially thrilled my friends. I even gave a presentation about maple syrup and made pancakes with teenagers at the youth center. The teens were not impressed with pancakes because they are similar to Moroccan bread called baghrir. However, they were intrigued about the maple syrup!

Toward the end of my service, we would discuss the differences in the educational systems and "welfare state" in the U.S. and Moroccom or organic farming with not only my women friends, but their male counterparts. The organic farming conversation was over a specialty dish of wild rabbit and grapes.

'Doing' was 'being'

Global friendship is at the core of the Peace Corps experience. What is even more invigorating than cultural exchange is when connections are made and friendships are forged across barriers: language, culture, religion, and socioeconomic status. Some people only want to hear about the "doing" part of my service even though "doing" was "being." Yes, my Moroccan counterparts and I did a lot. I would not have been successful without the partnership of my community. What I will remember most is not my first English class, but my friends Youssef, Hajiba, Anaas, Fatima, Chaimae, Suhad, and Latifa among others.

My life has personally been enriched by cultural exchange experiences and global friendship. The Peace Corps offers the opportunity to build peace through action and understanding. If we focused on our many similarities rather than our differences, respecting others and diversity, we are stronger. Now more than ever, it's important to create community and extend yourself. I wish I had known more returned Peace Corps volunteers in Williamstown or the Berkshires, young and old. It's never too late to join the Peace Corps.

Rosana Zarza-Canova grew up between Williamstown and Madrid. She graduated from Bard College in 2012 and will begin pursuing a Masters in education with a concentration in bilingual, English as a second language and multicultural education at UMass this fall.


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