10 Things I Learned Volunteering in Morocco
In 2017 Bernadette Jury decided to explore an unsettling feeling she had experienced for a long time. After a lot of consideration, soul searching and research, she decided that she wanted to immerse herself in a different culture and learn a little bit more about what life has to offer. The answer was Marrakech.
Bernadette from the United States decided to volunteer abroad with IVHQ, an organization who offer hundreds of programs in 40+ destinations. Here she shares her experience which she hopes will help you to gain a better understanding of just how beautiful Morocco and the people are.
A Life Changing Experience
Before I went to volunteer in Morocco my mindset was “I’m going to go over there, work my ass off and help these people” but in the end the people helped me more. I gained so much through this experience and since being home, the skills learnt have been integrated into everyday life.
Below I share the 10 things I learnt in Morocco:
1. سلام - Peace
As-Salam-Alaykum (السلام عليكم- Peace be unto you) and 'Alaykum Al-Salam (وعليكم السلام – And unto you, peace) is one of the most beautiful exchanges two people can have.
Each time we were greeted it would be a slight touch of hands; as if you were going to shake hands but before the whole action is complete, the right hand moves over the heart as the other person wishes peace upon you. Every interaction was so genuine – when you hear those words, the sense of belonging to the community becomes greater.
2. ترجمة - Translation. Google Translate is your friend
Try not to be on your phone too often. Sometimes what is a necessity to you is a luxury to someone else. Speaking from experience, the culture shock can be intense and often I found myself turning to my phone as a safety net.
It assists with communication – thank you google translate (‘Tradicsion’ to the Moroccans), it keeps a connection to back home and It helps when you have moments of feeling isolated. In saying all of this, you will find when you limit the use of your phone you are truly able to absorb your surroundings, engage more and be a part of the community.
3. تفاوض - Negotiate
Bartering, whilst uncomfortable in the beginning, can turn into an entertaining experience. You’ll be amazed at how quick the mind can work when trying to calculate foreign exchange rates. There is so much to think about during this whole ordeal. The foreigner’s thought process, the moment of internal currency conversion and my favourite part – the cheeky grin when the shop keeper knows they have you! Embrace their way of life, It’s all a part of the fun!
4. موسيقى - Music
When two humans aren’t able to communicate through language; let the music speak. A single song has the ability to evoke many emotions. Use this universal rhythm to create a connection. Another added bonus? Everywhere you go, your ears will be exposed to a whole other world of cultural music. My Spotify playlist became a force to be reckoned with.
5. تعلم وتعليم - Learn and Teach
The reality is, many people in Marrakech have never left their city. While we take so much from the experience, they do also. Tell your stories, show photos of your family and teach them games from your homeland – Once you feed the curiosity, the chances are they will return the favour.
If you are volunteering and struggling to entertain small children in an orphanage, then play Go fish. Literally. This simple activity is a game changer. When it came to bonding with children under 12 (my host brother included) it created a way for us to have fun. It also gave me the opportunity to teach in Morocco helping them to learn English, have some friendly competition and it formed a way for them to express pride once they understood.
"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others". - Mahatma Gandhi
6. الحمام – Moroccan Tea (Atay)
Less is more. It’s amazing how the simplest things can bring so much joy! There is a lot more to Moroccan Tea (atay) than just a causual beverage. The pouring of the tea is a ritual. Overall, the process of collecting the mint, sitting around the table, separating the stems, sitting the mint in the teapot on the stove top and waiting for the water to boil; adding the sugar cubes and bringing atay to life. The ritual of pouring the tea into two glasses, then back into the tea pot to ensure the sugar is mixed evenly becomes hypnotic.
Everyone becomes a storyteller…the aroma of fresh mint and the warmth of the glass in your hands tends to bring a tale out of even the quietest of the group; refill the cup I say! While in Morocco I found tea time to be quite significant. When I’d see Naima or Ismail pour the tea, I would listen to their stories and think of my Grandmother back home, reading my cup, telling stories of another time back in her village. Times like these brought on feelings of sentiment and it made the whole experience much more special.
7. الحمام – The Hamam
If your host Mother or sisters invite you to go the Hamam - you have officially been embraced as one of the girls. The Hamam is a communal bath house that has been around since the days of the Ottoman Empire. The one that I attended was segregated into two parts. On the left, the men walk through. To the right, the women.
To locate my house, the hamam was known as the local destination. We would always have to tell the taxi driver 'Sheraff bel hamam'. On the corner you would see the Mosque, the Hamam and our residential block.
For the first two weeks of our placement, our host sisters would walk across to the hamam with a bucket, a stool and their clothes in hand. An hour later they would walk back in; skin glowing, looking relaxed and smiling. When you witness this sort of instant relaxation you can't help but want to experience it. The third week came and we were invited to come along (was I honoured or what?!).
Walking through the archway and being handed your black soap by the woman behind the glass booth had me excited for what was to come. As you walk in, on the right from the floor to the ceiling all you see are tiles. Walking through the second archway and becoming flushed from a sudden rush of steam is all part of the experience. No inhibitions, no looking around and feeling self-conscious; instead, clothes came off and the black soap, hair products and women's talk came out.
8. لغة - Language
Not everyone will speak your language and as I discussed earlier, sharing a meal or listening to music are some other options for communication; however, if you have never spoken the language, throw yourself in there and the people will appreciate your efforts.
I will never forget Michelle and her determination to grasp the language. This woman I was on placement with could not speak one word of Arabic. Luckily, she had the ability to read majority of the French words that came her way and speak a few words of it also. Most of the time this got her by because in Morocco the people speak Arabic (their own dialect as well as standard) and French.
When trying to communicate, I knew enough to get by and although limited I still wanted to help teach her a basic ‘hi’, ‘bye’ and ‘thankyou’. ‘Shukran – (شكرا )’ is the Arabic word for thank you. The amount of variations from Michelle for this one word included but was not limited to: ‘shaku, Shakrin, sharkan, oui (french) and a head-nod’.
The list is endless. Every time she would say it, there would be a massive smile on her face as well as on the persons face she was speaking to. This helped the situation a lot because she was genuinely trying. And despite all of her mistakes the intention was there.
9. الصلاة - Prayer
Broaden your horizons and explore different beliefs and ways of living. Prayer is such an intrinsic part of life, it happens so spontaneously that is almost goes unnoticed. Our bedroom window faced out onto the street with a panoramic view of the Mosque. While you lay in the room in the early morning, awaking slowly you will absorb the atmosphere; the morning light streaming through the window, the words of the Quran being sang whilst the little dust particles dance through the light.
Just before sunrise, “Salat- Al – Fajr” (صلاة الفجر) ‘dawn’ prayer happens. A beautiful voice with a powerful meaning; for the locals this is a way of life but for an outsider the hymn of ‘Allah Hu Akbar' (God is Greater) in the melodic tone of the Al Muazzin, will bring on a feeling of peace. The call to prayer sings out to all believers to come and worship. This happened every day, 5 times a day. It’s cathartic.
10. امتنان – Gratitude
Gratitude…it echoes. Something that is spoken about on a regular basis comes into practice when you experience somewhere like Morocco. Be grateful for what you have...when you practice gratitude you will find small blessings everywhere you go.
Sometimes, we are just looking for purpose. When travelling solo, I guarantee you will meet and learn about many interesting people. My experience in Marrakech taught me a lot about a variety of things, most of which I applied to life when I came home.
I experienced a different culture, its sights, smells, sounds and customs. They were both familiar and foreign to me. Overall my time in this beautiful city changed me, it helped me to gain confidence and understand the most important thing. Myself.
This whole experience wouldn’t have happened without applying to volunteer with IVHQ. The whole experience was all pre-organised so that the transition into such a different environment was seamless. I would like to thank them for the opportunity and the constant support.
By Bernadette Jury