Few words could prepare me better for the move from the Reed College chemistry department to the opposite world of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where modern science reaches the population on muleback, and few can read the labels of the vaccines we carry. As a new volunteer in the United States Peace Corps, 50 kilometers from a paved road or piped water, and thousands more from the language and land I call my own, I lived immersed in the culture of the Berbers. One other volunteer served in the region, but she lived a two-hour hike from my village, and our encounters were usually limited to sharing a pot of tea and some stories at the weekly souk (market). Otherwise, I quickly learned to depend on my new neighbors.|
The Berbers are anarchists. They terrorized the Arab authorities for centuries and never let the French gain much of a foothold on their land, either. The architecture of the old kasbahs (fortresses)--still occupied--testifies to the wars that once dominated the culture. Nowadays, few parents send their children to the state-run secular schools, and fewer still bother to visit the local health care dispensary. Practically no women receive governmental prenatal care or assistance in childbirth.
I was trained by the Peace Corps to address such problems as water quality, child mortality, and sanitation (my "bathroom" was the first in the tribe). But, despite my eagerness to get to work, it was clear from the start that trust is a necessary prerequisite for progress, and as a total foreigner, still naive to the culture, respect would be hard to gain.
It's an absolutely bewildering feeling realizing that all you have learned in the past is suddenly irrelevant and that you've become, really, an infant. You don't know how to do anything anymore, at least not the right way, and you certainly don't know how to talk. We volunteers all had had a four-week crash course in the local tongue during training, but aside from knowing how to conjugate a few verbs and building a vocabulary of words such as "man, woman, bread, mule," I arrived in a pretty desperate state. But that was also a very remarkable period, when the mind truly opens up and grows. I found the best teachers were the kids--I would carry a small notebook and pencil, and they would lead me through the cornfields, up into the fig trees, down to the river, all the while pointing out names for this or that. You learn the nouns first, then listen for the verbs that go with them, throw in a couple of prepositions, and find that much to your surprise, you've started speaking Berber.
I was fortunate to accompany the other volunteer in the region on hikes into the distant valleys (where children have never seen a television or automobile, and one such valley requires a six-hour hike over an 11,000-foot pass) while she completed a fundamental health survey of the area, compiling data on traditional healing practices and the needs for public health development. I remember being stricken with Giardia, fed up with the local corn mash and turnips diet, and lost in what might have been the Middle Ages, but somehow it was a great introduction to "work." There are some truly wonderful people living up there--bright, lively characters who never hesitate to invite you in to stay for a glass of tea or the night. And in their homes we learned, for example, that diarrhea is not recognized as an illness (although it is the primary cause of child mortality), that most men had never seen a condom (but were fascinated by our free samples), and that genies still run wild (inasmuch as mothers mutilate their babies' hair to ward off "the evil eye"). For it is precisely this informal setting that encourages the exchange of ideas, builds trust, and opens the possibility of introducing new ideas.