Thursday, October 25, 2012

Study Abroad: Part 15 [A Village, A Family, A Whole Week, Part 1]

My study abroad program is fairly intensive: we have three separate excursions, in addition to five weeks of independent study.  During those five weeks, we will get to wander through Morocco, chasing our own journalism stories. 

But for now, we can "kick-back" a bit. For our excursion, we went to a small village near Fez: Britta.  First off, some background information: Britta is a village located within the commune of Sbaa Raoudi ("Seven Cemetaries").  Sbaa Raoudi has a bit of a ghostly legend: an old woman had seven different sons.  For some long-lost reason, they all died around the same time and were buried separately in the seven different cemetaries that surrounded the village. A commune is also known as jamma, and serves as a sort-of political hub for several villages or kabila.  A village can be made up of several different tribes or douar.

On our first day, we arrived at the local association and are simultaneously amused, amazed.  There were kids hiding in the trees who cheered at us, there were kids who were playing with spinning tops (winding string around their tops, and thrashing them on the ground, just to watch the tops tumble on uneven ground), there were kids who swarmed the gates to come say hello.

 The kids JUMPED up onto the gate, to peek over.
During the village stay, we were assigned by pairs to host families.  My host family was wonderful: Mama Fatnah taught us how to bellydance, Soufiane (the brother) was like any other typical teenager, and Sarah (the sister) was soft-spoken.  The father appeared once on the first day, before vanishing.  I thought he had returned to Fez to work. 
Instead, I learned that Mama Fatnah was one of three wives.  One lived in Fez.  The other one lived next to us, inside the same concrete wall.  I had previously believed that she was Mama Fatnah's sister.  My mind screeched to a halt before I processed two things: one, this was simply a statement about Mama Fatnah's life and, two, it did not change who she was or how she treated me like a daughter.
The other wife had three daughters and two sons.  The youngest child was Douha, an overly-enthusiastic four-year old who discovered she could chatter away at us in derija and we would simply let her take over.
Douha, the tiny half-sister of my family.
We played a rousing game of girl's soccer, our study abroad girls against the girls who were part of the association. I cooked, learning recipes that Mama Fatnah had once learned from her mother.  We walked around the fields (I even tried my hand at plowing one unsteady row) and saw the sun set.  I watched Bollywood and Hollywood movies with Sarah, as Arabic subtitles scrolled across the screen. We went to the local hot springs to shower and bathe in mineral waters (my family didn't have a shower, or even a bucket to wash with).
The time in the village was both calming and a bit chilling.  I was confronted every day with poverty, and yet, I wouldn't have given up this experience.  There were flies on everything and the family's one source of water was from a faucet outside of the house. There were aggressive dogs to protect each house and most of the girls in my program agreed that we either felt trapped inside or uneasy outside.  There was violence and frustration in general, but there was nothing specific aimed at us.
I got to dance with my half-sisters, I got to feed the animals, and I got to "slum it." But I wasn't really slummin', I was having sharing experiences with people.

This little boy was our neighbor's son and so shy.

At the end, when Mama Fatnah walked us to the bus, she said "Je t'aime" as if it was a fact of life.  I responded just as truthfully, "Je t'aime aussi."  And it was: in between teaching Soufiane English, trying to not burn myself in the kitchen, and playing with Douha, I fell in love with the countryside of Morocco and with the people. 

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