On Tuesday, I walked into the human rights NGO I have been volunteering with for the past semester for the last time. In the conference room where I so often simultaneously translated documents from French to English while trying to understand the Darija that the employees were using to discuss the projects that they were implementing with local associations all over the country, the table was lined with Moroccan pastries, Bastilla, a delicious Moroccan dish made specifically without nuts just for me, and orange and mango juice. While loading my plate with Bastilla, I listened as people went around the table thanking me for volunteering and I reflected on all the ways that this volunteering experience opened up my eyes to essential aspects of Moroccan culture. This volunteering placement, which is part of a Community-Based Learning class, allowed me to see Morocco in a way that would not have been possible had I not decided to participate in it.
There’s one obvious thing that volunteering helped me learn about, and that is civil society and the movement to build democracy in Morocco. While Morocco is a country where political participation is often low and the expression of dissenting voices is not always heard, civil society is vibrant and strong in Morocco. It is constantly pressuring for the adoption democratic reforms. There are civil society associations with diverse goals all over Morocco. It was fascinating to work in one of those associations, but it also taught me how much is still left to accomplish and what can be done to improve NGO’s in the country. I enjoyed working in my particular association because they focused specifically on training local NGO’s to give them the capacities necessary to be more effective.
I also was able to learn more about Moroccan communication styles, which is often an area of Moroccan culture that leaves Americans scratching their head. Morocco communication style is vey different from American communication style in that it tends to be less direct. It is necessary not only to figure out what the person is saying, but also what their silence is saying. For example, if a person only responds with “inshallah” which means “God willing”, and not a definitive yes, it most likely means that whatever you just suggested is never going to happen. Being exposed to this kind of communication style on a regular basis allowed me to understand how to communicate more effectively in all aspects of my life in Morocco. And it gave me an effective response to all the shopkeepers asked me if I would come back later to by the souvenirs I was looking at.
“You’ll come back for this leather purse later, yes?”
The volunteering experience also gave me the opportunity to ask questions about things I wasn’t sure about or I was interested in. I often asked my director about migration in Morocco and women’s rights. I also asked more basic cultural questions, like whether it was more common to do two bises (cheek kisses we use to greet here) or three. It was great to have people who could answer my questions and be willing to explain different aspects of the culture to me.
Finally, it allowed me to meet friends. I became friendly with the secretary at the association by helping to give her English lessons every week with some other girls I study with. Now, we do things in Rabat together and she has invited me and some girls over to teach us how to make Moroccan food.