Sunday, May 26, 2013

A National Spelling Bee, Another Year in Morocco, and Home Leave

A field trip to the Chellah, an archaeological site with both Roman and
 ancient  Moroccan ruins was part of the National Finals experience.
I see by looking back that it's been over a six months since I made a post. That's no way to write a blog, but it's the sad fact of the matter. I won't impose on your good will by trying to catch you up on everything that's happened over that time, but I will tell you about two big developments - my big project, Spelling Bee Morocco, went national, and I've extended my Peace Corps service for a third year.

Spelling Bee Morocco

After last year's successful launch on a regional level, Spelling Bee Morocco expanded into a national event this year and ended with the first ever national championship being held in Rabat, the capital, April 7-10.

Hoping for some magic in the Team Championship
I partnered with a regional chapter of the Moroccan Association of Teachers of English the first year and with the national board this year. The response was tremendous. We set a goal of registering 125 schools (25 participated the first year), but we ended up registering over 350! We weren't prepared for that. It caused a good deal of stress and need for improvisation, but lots of people - both Peace Corps Volunteers and Moroccans - stepped up and we worked our way through.

A contestant visualizes the spelling by writing on her palm
before spelling out loud in the Solo Championship.
In the end, we trained nearly 500 teachers, which gave us a potential of reaching 60,000 students with the spelling bee activity. Two hundred schools held school championships involving about 6,000 students and sent their top spellers to 25 district championships. The top finishers at the districts advanced to six regional championships, which sent 36 competitors on to the national finals. There, we crowned the first ever national champions in both team and solo events. Because the students came from as far as 14 hours away, the nationals were a multi-day event with a couple of field trips and other activities in addition to the competition. It was really a great experience for all concerned.

Judges conferring over a disputed point during the competition

I'm Extending My Service

The growth of Spelling Bee Morocco led to the second big development - my decision to extend my service for a third year. My role these first two years has been very much one of organizer and implementer, but I'll be taking on more of a consulting role next year. My plan is to help with the continued growth of the event as it expands into the remainder of the country but, more importantly, to focus on sustainability issues. There will be other changes as well. I'll be moving from the remote village I've lived in since I've been in Morocco to Rabat, the capital city.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have COSed this month (COS is an acronym turned verb for Close of Service). Instead, I've just come home to the States for a month's home leave prior to my final year. While here, I'm planning a busman's holiday to Washington DC to take in the finals of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee and a trip to New York to attend BookExpo America and reconnect with many of my old book industry friends. I'll be spending the rest of my time in West Michigan with my family and friends.

I've been back about a week now. So far I haven't experienced any of the reverse culture shock we're warned about. Mostly, all I have to say is - How sweet it is!


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Three Holidays

Thanksgiving, PCV style

Adam prepping tomatoes for stuffing
I was in a tiny village east of Rich last week, celebrating Thanksgiving with nine other PCVs.

I got there on Wednesday after a 12-hour trip from Rabat that included a 2-hour train ride, then a series of grand taxi rides for the remainder of the trip (about 400 km). Grand taxis are my least favorite form of mass transport here. All the grand taxis are either 5-passenger Mercedes or Peugeot station wagons. They never leave until they're “full,” that is, have six paying customers. So it's 7 people in a 5-passenger vehicle. Sometimes they'll stop and pick up yet another person. And they seldom count children as passengers. It can be a real ordeal, but often it's the only choice, so you just make the best of it. It was near dusk when I arrived in Rich and met up with a couple of other PCVs. We spent the last hour and a half in a tiny Peugeot van that seats comfortably four. We had ten. That's Peace Corps in Morocco.

Our feast.
For our Thanksgiving dinner, we had a real feast: the chicken type of turkey, my cauliflower-cheese pie, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, collard greens, a potato-eggplant casserole, stuffed tomatoes, cranberry-quince sauce, pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, and brownies. After dinner we played Celebrity, a charades-like party game, till almost midnight, then talked until nearly two. The next day, we took a 3-hour hike up into the mountains.

And on Saturday, we all headed home. Only an 8 and a half hour trip for me this time, including my 45 minute walk home after I got to Kalaa. Most of it was by transit and grand taxi, too, though my friends Zoe &Adam were with me, so we always bought out the back seat (4 places for the 3 of us), which made it almost like luxury travel!
The two Graces and Zoe in "old
 lady" shawls typical of Grace's site

Off to climb a mountain

A couple days after I got home, I was surprised to find kids going from door to door, chanting and asking for treats– or money. They were dressed in robes and a few had masks on. It reminded me a little of Halloween. At dinner that night, I mentioned it to my host family. Yes, they said, it was tshura. - known as Ashura to Jews and Arabic speaking Muslims – which commemorates Moses' deliverance from the Egyptians, and which falls on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim (lunar) calendar. I was surprised because I didn't recall it happening last year.

I was even more surprised when all the women in the room asked me for money. “But you're not children!” I said. They laughed. “Oh, women go around, too!” “You're kidding,” I said. No, they said, still holding out their hands. I gave them each a dirham (about 12 and a half cents), which is what I'd given the kids. “Cheapskate,” they called me. It was all good-natured, but for me it was one of those jarring cultural moments. Not that the kids went door to door, but that women did too. It was a reminder of the role of women here in the bled (countryside), their lack of autonomy and control of money, that they were, in effect, on a par with children in relation to the man of the house.

Christmas is Coming

The fame of my cookie cutters has spread. Adam and Zoe ordered several sets, but with Moroccan themes – a camel, a tagine, a palm tree, a kasbah, and a Moroccan flag. The orders now number eight sets. My host brother Mohammed (a very fine dagger-maker) delivered them the other day. These designs were a little trickier than the traditional ones I had him make for me last year, so Fatima, a host sister, and I baked a test batch of cookies to try them out. And it's a good thing we did, because there were a few minor difficulties with them, which led me to modify the design a bit. But that didn't affect the taste of the cookies. They were gone in two days. All in the name of product development!

I went away for Christmas last year, but this year I'm planning to have Christmas at my house. I'll have a celebration for my host family on the 23rd, insha'allah, then on the 24th some of my PCV friends will arrive and we'll spend a few days of cooking, eating, and conviviality. I have a good-sized oven (rare in Morocco), so we're even going to try to roast a turkey! I'll send pictures.

Friday, November 2, 2012

On the Road Again

Adam, me, and Ryan after the run
I was in Casablanca on the 21st to run the 5th Annual Casablanca Half-Marathon, joined by my friends Adam Richie Halford, who ran the Marrakech Half-Marathon with me last January, and Ryan Scheidt. The weather was great – sunny and about 70 degrees – the course was pretty flat and beautiful – most of it along the corniche, the road that runs along the ocean, and past some sights – and each of us exceeded our pre-race expectations, so it was a big success overall. We had a celebratory meal at Rick's Cafe, a tourist spot that plays on the fame of the movie Casablanca, but which still delivers a good meal and good service. I had a T-bone steak, a cut of meat almost impossible to find in Morocco, along with mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley of green beans, carrots and cauliflower that was not overcooked, also a rarity in Morocco.

My time for the 13.1 miles? 2:03:50, or 9:24 per mile. That was five minutes and 15 seconds, or 24 seconds a mile, faster than my time in Marrakech. So what now? I told myself that if Casa went well I would run the full marathon at Marrakech this year. But I'm still undecided about that. The last 3 miles were pretty hard. Could I really do another 13? Not sure about that.

Odds and ends:

I'd intended the title to refer to the marathon, but it could just as easily apply to my life these last months. I've made a trip to Rabat every month since May, each of them 4 days or more. The two weeks straddling July and August, I took a vacation in Europe, with a one-day stop in Milan, 5 days in Berlin, 3 days in Dresden, and 4 days in Prague. It was great. In September I was away from home 11 days. So far in October, I've been home only half the time. Most of my travel has involved my big project, Spelling Bee Morocco, which is going national this year.

One of my pomegranates, good to look at, but not so tasty.
It's pomegranate season, and it turns out I have a pomegranate tree in my courtyard (the other tree is an almond tree). Last year, the pomegranate did not bloom or bear fruit, but this year, under my TLC, it did blossom and has produced 6 pomegranates! Unfortunately, they look good, but they're not very tasty. They should have a tart sweetness, and the little kernels should be juicy. Mine are quite sour with big seeds in the kernels – not much pulp or juice at all. All show!

Me, helping strip the sheepskin from the carcass
Leid Axatar (Eid Adhar) began a week ago. Given the timing and the upcoming Independence Day on the 6th of November, it effectively means that most people are taking a two-week holiday. People return to their parents' homes and spend time with their families. Transportation is hard to find, and when you do, it's likely to cost 50-100% more than usual. Little work gets done. I'm staying at home during most of it, which is nice for a change, but I'll be glad when it's over. You can only eat so much meat. As last year, I helped my family slaughter a cow and two rams. By tradition, you eat mainly meat for the next week. I soon began to exist in a stupor of protein and fat.

The weather has changed. We've had quite a bit of rain the last month (much needed – Morocco has been suffering from a drought for the last couple of years and for the last year especially) and turned cold. In the space of only a few weeks I went from covering myself with only a sheet at night to one blanket and now two for last week.

That's it for now. I won't make any rash promises, but I will try to get back on track with regular blog posts. Incha'allah.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Results Are In

The first ever Spelling Bee Morocco championship was held May 25 & 26 in Ouarzazate and was deemed a success by nearly everyone. We crowned champions in two events – the team bee and the solo bee. While it is great to introduce a new kind of event for Moroccan students and provide a touch of Americana, what is most rewarding to me is the emotional and psychological impact of the event.

Ibtissam Boulaghmane, the solo bee winner, told me after her victory that she had never won any medals before,  that she was not good in sports, so she had never been able to compete for anything. But she won two at the finals – first in the solo bee and second in the team bee - and one at her City Bee. Plus the trophy, of course. She added that it was great to meet all these other kids, too.

At lunch, after the final event, as they were going around the table, telling me what their plans for next year were, one girl said, “This is it for me. No matter what happens on my baccalaureate exams, I am done with school. But what a way to finish! I will remember this for the rest of my life.” The other kids chimed in and told me her father and brother insisted that she stop school and adopt the traditional woman's role, which means she will live and work in her father's house until (if) she gets married.

Three 11th grade girls won the team competition.  They
renamed their team "Heroines" after the win.
Despite stories like that, the role of women in Morocco is changing. One of the gratifying things about the Spelling Bee Morocco project to me is that it provides an opportunity for girls to compete with boys on the same playing field. And in this case, they excelled. Of the 27 qualifiers for the finals, 20 were girls. And all the champs were girls.

Another deeply satisfying aspect of the competition was that my younger son Joe helped me out a lot. He was in the country, visiting and traveling. He accompanied me to several of the trainings I gave to Moroccan teachers.

On one we went to Zagora, a southern city on the edge of the Sahara. Even in the spring it was very hot. In earlier days, it was the traditional staging area for camel caravans and boasted a famous sign saying “52 days to Timbuctou.” We also had a memorable day at the training in Kalaa, across the river from my village. It rained hard during the training, and it rained in the mountains. By the time we were done, the river had flooded and the road bridge was washed out. But the transit driver knew of a place a few miles north and dropped us of there. Following the lead of a few other locals, we tramped for an hour through flooded muddy fields in the near dark until we did, indeed, come upon an intact cement footbridge. Once on our side of the river, I soon realized we were on a road familiar to me from my running. The rain had stopped, and we had a pleasant hour's walk home along the dirt road lit by a starry sky.
My son Joe served as score-keeper for the finals.

Joe enjoyed the experience, too. When we were making arrangements for his flight home, he said, “I'd really kinda like to stay for the regional finals.” So he did, and he served as the official scorekeeper.

His involvement served another benefit, too. The day after the finals, a teacher who had been at the Kalaa training as well came up to me and said, “I want to tell you how good it was to see you and your son working together. We've been talking about this. You know here in Morocco we have the impression that in America, when kids are 18, they leave the home and don't come back again. Maybe they call on the phone once or twice a year, but don't come home. Now we see that's not always true.”



It's hot here now. In my courtyard (usually a relatively cool place), it gets into the 90s during the day. Outside, in the sun, between 110 and 115. I bought a fan. It helps.

I had my mid-service medical exams in Rabat a couple of weeks ago, and all is well. Hard to believe I've been here this long – 16 months, actually.

I've continued work on Spelling Bee Morocco, planning for our expansion next year into other regions of the country.

In a week, I'll be leaving for a two-week vacation in Germany and the Czech Republic – Berlin, Dresden, Prague. Really looking forward to it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How I Spell Work

When I’ve cried “busy” in recent blog posts, what I’ve been alluding to is Spelling Bee Morocco™.

It’s a project of mine that has taken up the lion’s share of my time since last December and involved a number of my PCV friends as well – Ryan Scheidt (website), Mark McEnery (graphic design), Mimi Duong and Fauve Johnson (City Bee organizers), and Maureen Sieh (connections and press coverage) – and many others who’ve pitched in here and there. The idea came from another PCV, Ben Pennington, who finished his Peace Corps service last October and is back in Tennessee writing, reading, and making music.

Trophies and medals for the
 City and Regional Championships

Morocco is a land of many languages. Most people speak a dialect of Berber (there are three main ones, including Tamazight, the one I speak) or Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. In school, they are taught Modern Standard Arabic from the 1st grade on. They begin French in 3rd grade.  In recognition of the role of English as the current lingua franca of the world, the Ministry of Education mandated the offering of English about 10 years ago. But it does not begin until 9th grade and lasts only four years and there just aint much English spoken here.
So Spelling Bee Morocco™ aims to promote and popularize the use of English – through play, not testing. As a uniquely American creation, spelling bees also offer opportunities for cross-cultural education. Spelling Bee Morocco™ has two main activities – a competition and a website. The competition provides motivation and recognition for Moroccan students of English. The website provides information about the competition, but, just as importantly, it functions as an ESL resource for students and teachers all year long. The Spelling Bee Morocco™ competition is open to students through 12th grade.
During the practice round at the Kalaa City Championship
We’ve partnered with the regional chapter of MATE (Moroccan Association of Teachers of English) for Ouarzazate, Zagora, and Tinghir provinces. Our hope is to develop a program that will become national in scope, but this first year we decided to restrict it to the region, get some experience, and work out some details. This is what we’ve done so far:
·         Developed a website and created a Facebook page
·         Applied for and received a grant from WorldConnect/Kids2Kids to support the cost of City Bees and the Regional Championship
·         Held five trainings that introduced the spelling bee concept (pretty much unknown in this country) to about 50 teachers
·         Registered 25 schools, which finished their school championships earlier this month
·         Held four City Spelling Championships, which were completed last Sunday.
And this is what remains to be done:
·         Hold our Regional Championship in Ouarzazate, the largest city in the region.
·         Start all over again. Things have gone well enough so that we think we can expand it - and that's a whole new ball game.
Checking to make sure all spellers are in order in the
Solo Bee at the Kalaa Championship
Despite the challenges of introducing a new concept, working long-distance, organizing a multi-part event, trying to work to a schedule in a country where serious planning seldom seems to extend more than a day or two in advance, it has gone pretty well. On Friday and Saturday, May 25 & 26, twenty-seven of the best spellers in southern Morocco will converge on Ouarzazate for the first ever Spelling Bee Morocco Championship. As in the States, talent and desire will tell. The group includes one ninth grader. The remaining spellers are split about evenly among 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. The spellers will compete in two events, a team spelling bee and a solo spelling bee. Teams of three spellers each from five schools will compete for the team title. Seventeen spellers will vie for the solo title.
I’ll be sure to let you know how it all turns out. In the meantime, you can follow “Spellbound,” the blog for Spelling Bee Morocco™  by providing your email in the app on the blog page. You can now also follow us on Facebook. Please go there and “like” us.
And now…I’m busy. I still have a championship word list to create.
The top finishers of the Kalaa City Solo Spelling Bee

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Own World Book Day

Happy World Book Day to everyone!
As a person who worked in the book business for 37 years, most of my working career, this is a day that is close to my heart. There are several things that make it especially dear to me this year.
The first is that the U.S. has adopted a great idea from the U.K. and created World Book Night, run by my old friend Carl Lennertz, one of the great enthusiasts for books in the U.S. On this day, 20,000 people in the U.S. will give away 1,000,000 books to whomever they choose. What a great way to share the love of reading and show how you value the worth of books. You can see the list of books being given away in the U.S. at the World Book Night site. And here’s a link to the U.K. site as well.
The second is that Ann Patchett, one of my favorite novelists – and also a bookseller – was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the world for 2012. In an op ed piece in the NY Times recently, in which she lamented the Pulitzer Prize committee’s decision not to award a fiction prize this year, she wrote this:
Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.
Joe reading Neil Gaman's American Gods in my courtyard

The third is that my son Joe is visiting me, and he spends a significant chunk of every day with his nose in a book. It warms my heart that this boy – now man – that I read with every night for the first 13 years of his life has rediscovered reading. What adventures we had – Tin Tin, the Little House books, the very first Harry Potter book – too many to list. And what good times we’re having now as we each talk of the books we’re in. He recently finished Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Heller’s Catch-22, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and has just started Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.
And the fourth is that, after living in a small village in Morocco for a little over a year now, I see even more clearly the important role that books play in changing individual lives, culture, even a country. In my town, except in my own house, only one time have I seen a book other than a textbook or a Koran. I have never seen a person reading for pleasure, or, for that matter, even for information. This is a good town, with good people, but it is also a town with a narrow vision, and a short vision.

This “bookless” culture is not confined to small villages. The city of Agadir, with a population of about 700,000, does not have a public library. In most schools, the libraries, if they exist, are locked most of the time and primarily contain textbooks. A recent report found that Moroccans spend an average of only 1 dirham (about 12 ½ cents) on books a year, and only 1,000 new books are published in Morocco each year.

Fatima "reading" Goodnight, Gorilla, by Peggy Rathman
in Tamazight to a couple of local children

But there are individuals, of course, who are fascinated by books. I’m speaking mainly of children who, like children everywhere, thirst for stories – stories that help explain their own lives to them but also, in Patchett’s words, help them imagine lives other than their own. And there a few adults, too. In my village, I’ve found one so far (there may be others) - Fatima, one of my host sisters. In February, on my return from the Marrakesh Marathon, I gave Fatima and Sulayman, my 6-year-old host nephew, each a book in Arabic – the first book either of them had ever owned. So that was my World Book Day, I suppose.
Since then, I’ve gotten a few wordless (or nearly wordless) books from the States. Fatima has become the storyteller, supplying a Berber text to these wonderful stories. My plan is to create a library here in my village in connection with the women’s association I work with. I’ll tell you more about that in a future post.
I guess the best way to close is to mention what I’m reading. I recently finished, Cry, the Beloved Country, and Things Fall Apart, two African classics which, aside from their intrinsic beauty and power, help me understand a little bit better what I’m experiencing here in Africa. I’m currently reading Arabian Nights and Days by the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Nagoub Mahfouz and a very funny unpublished novel, A Speckled Axe, by James Quackenbush, a friend of mine.
I didn't want to begin with an apology, but I know I'm waaaay behind in posting to this blog. I've been busy! And I have lots to tell! And I will soon...insha'allah.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Moroccan Hoodie and Other Stories

I’ve been remiss in making posts to this blog. Good reasons – I always have good reasons – but you don’t want to hear my excuses. Today, I’ll try to bring you up-to-date on my life for the past five weeks, saving details on my work and travels for separate posts.
The Travel Bug
It’s a kind of illness – a delicious kind of illness – this travel bug. When I got back from my vacation on the Atlantic coast in early January, I fully expected to launch into my work and get a lot done. It turns out I was not as productive as I’d expected to be. The trip had rejuvenated me, yes, but it also infected me with the travel bug. I spent a lot of time researching and planning future vacations – Central Europe (Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Budapest), Turkey and the Balkans, sub-Saharan Africa. At least one of those trips I will surely take. Others will remain – like most thoughts of travel – on the shelf of dreams.
Cookie Baking

Sulayman decorates a star

In mid-January, I had a baking party with my host sisters. They’re very good cooks, but for a variety of reasons do little baking, except for bread, which they bake every morning. They loved the cookies I served at our Christmas celebration and made me promise to show them how to make them. On January 22, Aicha, Ouardia, Fatima, and Sadiya, along with her children Sulayman and Ayman, came to my house. I served them lunch of chili and corn bread. Corn bread they’re familiar with. The chili was new, but they loved it – it has lots of meat, after all! And then we spent the rest of the day making oatmeal cookies and baking and decorating Christmas cookies. What fun!

The Marrakesh Half-Marathon
Adam and me after the race
Near the end of the month, a PCV friend, Adam Richie-Halford, and I went to Marrakesh. The first two days, we worked at Marche Maroc, an event put on several times a year by PCVs in the Small Business Development sector for the artisans they work with. There were workshops in the morning; in the afternoon, the artisans sold their wares from booths set up on the margins of the famous Djemaa el-Fna. On the third day, Adam and I ran the Marrakesh Half-marathon. It’s the longest race I’ve run in many a year. I was happy with my result – I finished, I never walked, and though I felt the effects for the next day or so, I had no injuries. And I ran a respectable time for me – 2:09:05, a little under a 10-minute per mile pace.
When I got back home, my family was very interested in my photos and my participation medal. “What place did you get?” one asked. I didn’t understand. “First, second, third…?” “Oh, two thousandth,” I replied (actually, I lied a little – it was more like 2,164th, but that number was too difficult for me to figure out how to say). First, there was a look of incredulity, then a roomful of laughter. The look of incredulity surprised me a little. What did they expect from a 67-year old? But then I think of people’s reaction to me when I’m out running in the country. They often will point out a short-cut to me, or invite me to stop for tea. I think most of them have a hard time grasping that I’m running in order to run, not to get somewhere. By the same token, I think my family had a hard time grasping why I would run in a race if I wasn’t trying to win. But they liked the medal and the pictures.
My Moroccan Hoodie
Me in my bespoke tajlabit
Every now and then through this cold dry winter, I’ve seen a tajlabit made of a salt & pepper weave fabric (ašhعabi) that I really liked. Whenever I asked where I could get one, people would tell me I needed to look in a fabric store. I did that, to no avail. But while I was working at Marche Maroc, I made some purchases to help support the artisans. I’d just bought a bottle of argan oil for my host mother and father, and I looked up and saw a bundle of fabric in the adjacent booth. It was just what I’d been looking for. I went over and admired it. It turned out it was made from hand-carded, hand-spun, hand-dyed, and hand-woven wool. I asked her if it was enough to make a tajlabit. Yes, she said, three meters, the standard. I bought it. When I got home, my host father took me to the tailor he goes to. After some oohing and aahing from the tailor, which reassured me about the fabric, he took my measurements. Three days later, I had my own salt & pepper, winter-weight tajlabit. There was enough fabric left over for him to make a hat (tarbush) for me. I’ve never had a hand-tailored piece of clothing before, but now I have a completely hand-made piece. I can tell you, it’s quite warm as well as handsome.