I recently got to experience my first trip on the night train to Oujda, where the satellite office of MEDA Maroc is located. It is a 10 hour overnight trip from Casablanca to Oujda by train, which travels via Rabat, Fes and a few smaller stops before reaching the end of the line in Oujda, a mere 15 kms from the Algerian border, and 60 kms from the Mediterranean. Because it is the easternmost part of Morocco, this region is referred to as the Oriental region - hence the Oriental Express 2.0 title. Not the original, but not inaccurate!
Left: A mural near the Moulay Slimane Foundation centre for sustaining traditional arts
I set off on my adventure in good company, one of the other interns from our office was heading up to Oujda along with her YEN supervisor who played a role in starting the impact assessment of the "100 hours to success" program MEDA Maroc has successfully been running since 2009. Other staff had already arrived in Oujda earlier in the week, while we were at the YEN clinic my co-intern co-organized, and the pilot of the impact assessment study was starting the following morning.
We boarded the train in the dark - E. and I were lucky to be booked together into a compartment with a small couch to sit on between the beds, rather than the very tight bunk bed set-up in the adjacent compartments. Not to say there was a lot of room to stretch. I tried to get a decent night's sleep but I found the noise and the motion and the foreign-ness of the whole experience too distracting. I think I mostly cat-napped.
When we roused ourselves the next morning and opened the window blinds I was stunned. The train was speeding along past dunes, mountains and desert-scapes of red-brown sand. The strong early morning sunlight illuminated everything in a surreal way. I think I snapped about 75 photos as we travelled along - the train was about an hour late, so if we had been on schedule I would have missed seeing such beautiful scenery. The photos posted here don't do the land justice.
Impact Assessment Pilot
Saturday I snapped photos and tried to be as useful as possible as the pilot of the impact assessment was done. This is the first time MEDA is using tablets in Morocco to do surveying so some issues arose with the survey, others with how the enumerators used the tablets - but overall this should help by reducing the number of times information needs to be transcribed before it can be analyzed (as it would have on paper). Another challenge was that the original survey was drafted in English, then translated to French for the tablets, but the enumerators are asking the questions and recording answers in Darija - the Moroccan Arabic dialect, that is spoken only. The I.A. team worked the rest of the weekend tidying things up and the actual baseline survey started Monday morning. A total of 1800 youth will be surveyed, from this number only 600 will be given the "100 hours to success" training, the others will be the control group. Oujda is the only remaining location where the program is being offered (it used to be offered through partner associations across Morocco), since the strategy shift for the YouthInvest project occurred in the spring. Our focus will switch to Microfinance institutions (MFIs) and improving their services and products for youth, instead of directly training youth (although by the end of the trainings in Oujda in Feb. 2013, over 50,000 youth will have benefitted from MEDA programs).
As I mentioned earlier in this blog, my trips to Oujda are for the purpose of collecting success stories (ideally 3 per month) from youth who have completed our trainings and now see changes in their financial situation (i.e. have learned to save money, started their own business, or made other significant changes to their lives because of what they learned from us). Between Monday and Tuesday I interviewed over 10 people from a shortlist of suggested past participants. I was extremely optimistic at first that I would be able to use all the stories, but while some youth said they had seen huge changes to their lifestyle and attitude from the life skills section of the "100 hours to success" training, not everyone could demonstrate financial changes.
I know there will be more stories out there, and I'll be going back pretty soon to get some more, but I think I have a better idea now of what criteria potential candidates must meet before I waste their time asking them to come to the MEDA Maroc office in Oujda. The extension officers and office staff in Oujda are all very helpful and welcoming, so I look forward to my next visit. One thing I can be especially proud of from my visit to Oujda is that some portraits I took for the success stories (which will go on the new meda.org website when it goes live) are being used in brochures and banners which will be used across the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and in Canada! Not too shabby!
Just a few odd thoughts and facts I wanted to share as I try to wrap up this (overly) long post - an interesting feature of the Oujda train station is its closed international travel section. This is because the only country you could travel to from Oujda is neighbouring Algeria, but the land border has been closed between the two countries for effectively 20 years (goes back to the debate over the territory of Western Sahara). A lot of black market trade occurs between the two countries - people sell stuff out of their trunks on the streets and much more obviously in other areas, but it is an interesting dilemma. Fun fact: the president of Algeria is a native of Oujda: Abdelaziz Bouteflika.