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The life of a Peace Corps Morocco agriculture volunteer

The life of a Peace Corps Morocco agriculture volunteer
17 Feb 2020 by Johnny Garces

(published November, 1999)

Cheryl Zainfeld

My home in the States is in the Sonoma Valley north of San Francisco; specifically the little town of Glen Ellen which is surrounded by vineyards.

Prior to Peace Corps, I worked for Macmillan Publishing which is based in NYC., but I was in their west coast division of marketing and advertising.

I decided that, at a certain point in my life, I would go into volunteer work and Peace Corps was the obvious first choice.

My one daughter, Sarah, is in a masters program at Mills College in Oakland, California. She is greatly looking forward to the day when her Mom will be happy to sit in a rocking chair on the porch and read or knit, rather than adventuring in a strange country halfway around the world.

For the past few months I have lived and worked among the Berber people in Ben Khlil in the Province of Khenifra. It is a little village of about thirty families at the base of the middle Atlas mountains south of the market town of Khenifra.

My dream in coming to Morocco was to work with rural women in helping them in some way toward self-empowerment and self-sufficiency. Just by seeing me live and work alone among them and provide for myself was a beginning. As time went by and I learned to communicate with them, I was able to learn possible ways of contributing to the community through my skills and previous experience.

Over and over again I heard from everyone how much they wanted to have a nedi in the community, where they could learn new skills like sewing and knitting while passing on their knowledge of weaving to those who hadn't been taught The carpets and capes and pillows which are woven on large hand hewn looms in each woman's home are incredibly beautiful. I immediately saw the potential of additional income for the families if their craft products could be marketed

I approached the director of the extension office about using an old school building where we could set up the looms, I approached a local NGO to donate an old Singer sewing machine, and I convinced three families to drag their old looms out of the rafters in the barns. We were off and running.

Fortunately, my Grandmother had a treadle sewing machine which I used to play on when I was a child, so I started giving sewing lessons. The first week, fifty women and girls came to sign up for the sewing lessons; on one machine! We went to the local souk and bought old sheets to use for material and, at the same time I bought raw wool for the first carpet (Digs is now the proud owner).

Throughout this process, I learned that the women didn't know how to sign their names or read Arabic script. I asked them if they would like to learn. Their response was an enthusiastic "yes". Someone suggested that we ask the local preschool teacher if she would be willing to volunteer some time after her classes to teach basic literacy at the neddi. The classes were scheduled each night before the evening meal.

There are now thirty women who can write their names when asked.

Of course, there were difficulties along the way, and still are; the cold in the winter, the polluted drinking water. The time when I returned from being in Rabat late at night, only to find that the little boys had stuffed debris in the lock on my front door so the key wouldn't work and I had to climb the wall and climb through a window to get in.

After that, I decided I needed to find a way to involve the boys of the community in the project, so I asked a neighbor to bring his mule and plow up the back yard to make a children's garden. The boys dragged in brush to fence the plot and found some old boards to make a gate to keep the sheep and chickens out I sent home for some seeds, which they proudly showed me how to plant. From then on, the little boys became working members of the neddi and would never think of harming it.

One day I noticed a young girl in the neddi looking longingly at my bike. I asked her if she would like to ride it and she said she didn't know how. The next thing I knew was running behind to hold her upright as she went hooping and shouting across the yard. That was the beginning of my bicycle riding lessons. My dream is to find someone to donate several used bikes to the neddi for the girls to ride.

Last summer, the new AG and PWEE volunteers were at my site for three weeks. It was so much fun for me to be able to share my community with all of them. They were all so completely supportive to me in my work there. They did demonstrations of tree plantings behind the neddi which were meant to grow into a pleasant hedge. Unfortunately, an unexpected rain storm caused a flash flood which sent three feet of rushing water into the garden. My bamboo chicken house (with my four pet chickens) and all the trees were washed away. Volunteers came to the rescue with there pants and skirts hitched up, wading through the red clay looking for the lost hens. Incredibly, they all survived and are alive and well today. Although, I threaten them each day with the tagine pot if they don't start giving me eggs.

As I go into my second year, I am overwhelmed with ideas. There are so many possibilities and so little time. In a few months time, I will be looking back on all of this as a memory. It is being one of the most enriching times of my life.

Peace Corps experience is a gift which Americans give to themselves.