The Cold Country with a Hot Sun: One Woman’s Experience in Morocco

By Clare Hancock

Melissa and her husband, Cory. Melissa is wearing a jalaba dress from Morocco. Photo: Clare Hancock

Melissa had just stepped through the entryway of her host family’s house when she spotted a package in the corner where she kept her things. Her head was spinning from a morning of rigorous language lessons in a dialect of Berber that was ancient enough to lack a written form. Her stomach was griping and moaning about the level of saffron, cumin and pepper it had to digest. Her muscles ached. Her soul was weary. And while Melissa enjoyed interacting with Moroccan locals, she found it difficult to remember the myriad social conventions during conversations. Overwhelmed by all that she was expected to learn in such a short time, Melissa couldn’t help but feel that she had failed as a Peace Corps volunteer before she had even started.

Without hesitation, Melissa tore open the package that her family in Eugene, Ore., had sent her. American treats she had been secretly craving were nestled inside. Melissa pulled an item from the box, a bag of Dove chocolates. She peeled the aluminum from the square of chocolate. The sound of metallic crinkling filled the room. She popped the morsel into her mouth and let is slowly melt on her tongue. She looked down to read the “promise” that Dove had unfailingly printed.

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again and do better.”

 .         .          .          .          .          .          .          .

Melissa VanSteenwyk, 26, was born in a small town in Idaho where she spent her younger years. When she was in first grade, her family moved to Ore., where they eventually settled in Eugene. “Eugene is home,” Melissa said. As a child, Melissa enjoyed basketball, working with animals, playing outside and climbing trees which never failed to make her mother nervous. Melissa attended Eugene’s International High School where she loved all her classes, especially photography, art and sculpture, and the environment was respectful and accepting of all backgrounds. Melissa earned a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science where she met, Cory VanSteenwyk, her husband-to-be. Throughout her childhood, Melissa’s family shared their home with exchange students from around the world. The students’ vibrant upbringings taught Melissa not to fear other cultures but to accept and learn from them.

 The Peace Corps

The Peace Corps offered something that Melissa had always wanted: an opportunity to help people in a significant way. She also wanted to experience a culture completely different from her own. She wanted to see how American’s were viewed through foreign eyes. “I felt blessed that Cory and I hadn’t started a family yet so we were free to do an experience such as Peace Corps,” Melissa said as she described how she had hoped to see a different perspective on life and for an adventure beyond anything she had imagined. That is exactly what she got in 2009 when she and Cory left for Morocco.

.         .        .         .          .          .          .          .

If anything took Melissa by surprise on her arrival to Morocco, it was the diversity of landscapes and cultures. “The cold country with the hot sun,” was a favorite saying among locals, Melissa said. Instead of scorching sand dunes and palm trees, the first town Melissa and Cory stayed in was surrounded by lush green vegetation as well as lakes and rivers. “There are sand dunes and hot deserts,” Melissa said, “But they aren’t Morocco’s only landscapes.

While the Berber people originally inhabited the country, Arabs dominate much of the land. Islamic religion and customs are strong in most villages and cities; however, cultures from other parts of the world have left their impressions as well.

The first four months in Morocco were spent in a small village where all six Peace Corps volunteers underwent training. From daily language lessons, to learning how to maneuver ground-level “squatting” toilets with the substitution of a water bucket for toilet paper, to growing accustomed to the cuisine and learning how to communicate with locals without unintentionally offending them, training was grueling to say the least. Volunteers learned how to shop for food and how to identify spices. They were taught how to eat meals which took place on the ground around a large tray of several hand-made dishes including flat bread and cucumber salad. A portion of meat, the size of a fist, would be placed in the middle of the tray and was expected to feed 10 people. “It takes about two months for the body to adjust to a new environment. All the volunteers were in a state of misery in the beginning but after a few weeks, we began to feel acclimated,” said Melissa.

After training was over and Melissa and Cory were still working on their new language, which took a full year before they had a firm grasp on it, the couple was transferred 10 hours away to a small town called Ikniouen. Built in a high-desert valley where snow falls on surrounding mountains and foliage is scarce, Ikniouen is home to nearly 400 people. Melissa immediately set to work on her main project, teaching locals basic hygiene. Her lessons included themes like the importance of using soap and how often to use it, and how to brush one’s teeth.

An unexpected obstacle arose soon after Melissa started lecturing at the community’s school: her American accent distracted the young students so much they couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying. She quickly learned that in order to educate the youth about hygiene, she would have to give the teachers the information and help them give the lectures. Melissa made her point through other means including visual aids. She drew pictures of a healthy smile with straight, white, strong teeth and a picture of an unhealthy smile with chipped, worn, rotten teeth.

While Cory had his hands full with his projects that incorporated building a fully-functional community bathroom and organizing a sanitation system that moved trash to a location away from farm land and water sources, Melissa continued to work with Ikniouen’s youth. She thought up new ways to get them excited about staying clean and keeping themselves healthy.

Melissa in the middle of the three hours it took to do laundry. Photo: Cory VanSteenwyk

Melissa also held classes on women’s health in the women’s center. She worked side by side with the women of the village, helping them with daily chores such as sifting through wheat, hand-washing laundry, milking goats and cooking meals. “A big part of living there is simply living,” Melissa said before describing the number of hours that went into collecting kindling for cooking dinner and the intricate process of baking bread which took the majority of a day.

Melissa did her best to educate the adults as well. A popular drink among locals was tea of which the majority was sugar. (The average 40-year-old town member had been rendered toothless.) Melissa did what she could to teach them that large amounts of sugar lead to unhealthy dental hygiene and eventually diabetes and heart disease. Unfortunately, Melissa found that teaching adults was harder than teaching children. “The hardest aspect of my job was learning not to expect people to change,” Melissa said; she had wanted so much for the community to be healthy and was frustrated with their unwillingness to change. In times of frustration, Melissa had to tell herself that her presence was enough to inspire many of the community members to change their ways and that her example would cause them to reflect on their detrimental habits.

Ikniouen had one clinic and was staffed by one or two nurses at a time. Doctors would travel in and out of the community but they were few and far between. If someone had to go to the hospital, they would need to travel at least two days and spend half their monthly income to get to a hospital. Once there, it was possible that a nurse or doctor couldn’t even see them. “Morocco’s healthcare is free but there is corruption,” Melissa said. Something that Melissa hopes to see change in her lifetime is that healthcare will truly become available for anyone who needs it. “I would like for the people that are told they have healthcare to actually get it without having to bribe a nurse or a doctor with money they could have used for food or warm clothing.”

Saying Goodbye

“I feel that being accepted into a community was a really good accomplishment,” Melissa said after being asked which goals she felt she had achieved during her time in Morocco. She felt that she learned what being part of a community truly meant. “If someone else’s kids were misbehaving, you were expected to reprimand them. If someone ran out of food, you were expected to share your meals with them and vice-versa,” she said. While Melissa and Cory spent the first few months with a host family in Ikniouen, they eventually purchased their own small house to live in. Even though they were no longer living with their host family, they remained very close to them. Melissa recalled the father of the host family saying to her on her last day, “You are like my daughter. I will cry when you leave.”

.          .          .          .          .          .          .          .

During the two years they spent in Morocco, Melissa and Cory were able to complete the goals they had set for themselves. If given more time in Morocco, Melissa would have liked to learn the Arabic language which would have helped with the fluidity of accomplishing more projects. She also would have liked to have worked with the youth more and started more programs designed for them to learn about the importance of good hygiene.

Melissa’s experience with the Peace Corps and Morocco has inspired her to go to nursing school which she feels will benefit those she comes into contact. “There were many times in Morocco when someone would come up to me asking what to do about their health problems. I hated not being able to help them,” she said.

Melissa and Cory will be moving to Colorado where Cory will pursue a degree in Physical Therapy and Melissa will begin her nursing program. After she completes her nursing degree, Melissa wants to travel to underserved countries and do whatever she can to help give them what they need. The Peace Corps gave Melissa the experience and confidence she needed to travel elsewhere and to face new territories with an open and accepting mind.

Even though she dreams of traveling to foreign countries, Melissa says that one of her goals is to help whoever she can, wherever she can, even if it is simply smiling to passersby on the road in the hopes that she may have brightened their day.

About snailcrossing

Clare is a travel writer and ethnographic journalist with an interest in ecotourism, saving the world one vacation at a time. Her goal is to travel around the world, seeking eco-friendly community organizations and informing the public about them as well as healthier and more fulfilling alternatives to pleasure travel.
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