This past weekend I went to Africa. In my life, I have been to four countries outside the United States and four continents. I was in AFRICA! I went this past weekend for four days to the Islamic-African country of Morocco through a cultural exchange program called Moroccan Exchange. I not only got to do touristy things like ride camels in Tangier and go bargain hunting in Chefchauen, I got to see the Moroccan culture through many different locals’ eyes.
The first thing we did when we landed in Tangier, Morocco was meet with three local students and listen to them speak about their culture, their traditions, and their religion over pastries and tea. The discussion got a little heated and I learned that, just like in the United States, people have varied opinions of religious practices. One of the most noticeable practices of the Islamic faith is the Hijab (the scarf that women wear around their hair in public). I learned that it is actually a newer tradition in Morocco and a lot of older generations did not wear it. Girls are not forced to wear the Hijab, either. They consciously choose based on how they interpret their religion. Noura, one of the girls we talked to wore the Hijab and the other did not. The third Moroccan was a more conservative male who said it was more proper and respectable for a girl to wear the Hijab. Noura said, “Your relationship with God is between you and God. No one else. No one can tell you that not wearing the Hijab means you are less religious. I chose to when I was 15. My mother does not wear one.” It was very inspiring.
(Thanks to Elizabeth's camera)
Next we climbed in the bus to trek to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, to meet our host families. But first. We stopped on the side of the road. And. We. Rode. Camels.
There’s no way to explain the way I felt riding that camel. I felt nervous climbing on, overwhelmingly excited as the camel stood, and a tinge on nostalgia riding along. It made me miss my grandpa’s farm and riding horses back in the States. The camel was very sweet. Look he’s smiling!
We finally arrived in Rabat when it was dark. We split up into groups of two’s or three’s and went our separate ways to meet our Moroccan home-stay families. We got the joy of being in a host family during our stay. It was amazing! We went on a walk around the city with our sister, Khadija, and took pictures and talked about what we do on typical Friday nights. Khadija was pretty good at English, but the one thing we could all agree on was when to laugh. A man walked up to us and said, “Hi how are you? Very good thank you,” and continued walking. It was probably all that he knew in English, but we just laughed and said wow we really stand out here!
When we got home, we had dinner the Moroccan way: with one communal plate in the center of cuscus and vegetables, and of course some delicious tea. I was a little sad that all I knew how to say to my host mom was thank you. They speak French and Arabic, but I have no clue about either. We said “shookran” (thank you) for our meal and went to bed early in anticipation for our next day.
At 5am we woke to the sound of the Muslim call to prayer being sung, live, and broadcast from the mosques reminding people to attend the Morning Prayer. In the Muslim faith, one of the most important things is to pray to God five times a day. It really reminded me that I was not in Kansas anymore.
We went back to sleep and woke at a more reasonable hour, 8:30, and we went to visit a mausoleum where the bodies of the former kings of Morocco lay to rest. The mausoleum is also the home of a minaret (a mosque’s equivalent of a church’s steeple) that is the sister to the Giralda. La Catedral de Sevilla was a mosque before the Christians came to power in Spain. The same Arabic architect built the sister minarets.
We then drove past a rather hard sight.
This is what is called a “shantytown” otherwise known as a slum village. I have had the opportunity to learn about slums and even lived in a simulation slum village during a week learning about effective technology to bring to the third world. Morocco is not a third world country; it is considered the developing world. These slums are real life for about 30% of the urban population of Morocco.
Then we had the opportunity to go to a school built by people from a shantytown who wanted to improve the lives of the youth in that situation. We met there with another group of Moroccan students, had more tea, and asked tough questions like “what do you think works/doesn’t work about Morocco/United States.” The responses were very similar from both Americans and Moroccans about their countries.
When we went home we ate lunch with our sister, but also with a little girl who we assumed was her niece. She was adorable. Earlier, a girl had written all of our names in Arabic on a chalkboard, and we had a picture so we had her read them to us. It was actually really cool. She then wrote several Arabic words that we “had to know” in our journals. We didn’t get to nap, but I think this was better!
After lunch we met in smaller groups with a Moroccan student and talked about our daily lives, his life, and less about politics. It was really nice. We went to a beautiful outdoor café and ordered tea and Coca-Cola and he told us about how he is training to be a triathlete. We told him what our goals were and asked him how he felt about the Muslim faith and he was very honest with us and told us he had recently found that he was straying from his beliefs because of peer pressure, which is something almost every teen has gone through.
Probably the most culturally different thing that I did in Morocco was to visit the Hammam, the local public bathhouse. We were all a little nervous, but the experience was incredible. We got special soap, a “kiss” and bathed like Moroccans do: by rubbing all of the dead skin off ourselves. Yea I know it sounds gross, but it’s life changing. I got home and slept like a baby even though my bed was like a rock.
The next day we traveled to a village in the middle of nowhere. We had a translator help us talk to them because they spoke a Berber language that was interesting, but none of us had a chance understanding. He told us that he was an olive farmer. He looked at our hands and said we’d be of no use… too soft. We got to ask him questions as we drank tea (noticing the motif of tea yet?). One of the most heart-warming things to me was how important it was to him for his children to be educated. Even though the high school is so far away that his oldest daughter, just 15, lives away from home, he puts great pride in his daughter’s knowledge and education. He said that he also intends to send his son and youngest daughter to school as long as they will go. He said that boys usually choose not to attend to their studies like they should, and in rural Morocco girls are typically more educated nowadays because they see the value in it.
Our next stop was Chefchauen; a mountain town that is very accustomed to tourism. And we acted like tourists. One of my favorite things here was that they spoke Spanish. I was able to speak with people! We bought really comfy pants and I got a birthday present for my host sister and of course, we had to get henna.
The next day it was time to travel home. I had missed my bed and being able to shower every day. I had also really missed my host family. I got inside my house and my host mom said: thank goodness you’re back now your sister will stop asking me “when?” every two seconds!
Cultural exchange is very important. Learning about another nation through the locals’ eyes versus the media’s output is a wonderful experience. If you ever get the chance to go to Morocco, go. Heck if you ever get the chance to travel and meet new people, do it! Travel is its own kind of education with information you remember because it’s necessary or important to you, not because you’ll have a test on it later. I can feel myself becoming more aware of the world around me through meeting these amazing people and my hope is that I can share it with as many people as possible.