MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Two words: snail soup

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me make something abundantly clear, snail soup is probably one of the best street foods out there! The moment I stepped foot in Morocco, my thoughts were haunted by the delectable gooey critter. During orientation week in Waterloo, we were taught to examine our surroundings the second we arrive in our residencies; I am a tad bit ashamed to admit that I went snail cart hunting instead, though I promise I promptly scrutinized my environment afterwards. Once I unpacked in Casablanca, I went for an evening walk to get acquainted with my new neighbourhood, and of course track down the “bebouch” (snail) stand. I was able to smell the tempting broth from miles away; sweet scent of herbs and spices such as thyme, oregano, tarragon, mint, peppermint, liquorice roots, anise seeds, and the list of ingredients goes on, and on…and on. For those of you who have an adventurous gastronomic side, I suggest you try some snail, click here  for the recipe or hop on a plane to Morocco.After checking off “bebouch” from my bucket list, my real adventure started: interning as an impact assessment agent with MEDA, in the city of Casablanca. The team here is great! Everyone is eager to help and love to share different information about the area. YouthInvest is the project that MEDA Maroc is currently working on, it’s truly catered to the Moroccan demand; unemployment being a heavy burden, this project facilitates youth access to micro financial services as well as the work market. Next on my bucket list: sheep brain.

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“What if Soy Milk is just Regular Milk… introducing itself in Spanish?”

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Stole that line from one of my favourite memes haha. But in all serious, soy and soy products are vey popular in today’s traditional and trendy diet crazes. Yet, most people continue to debate whether soy is healthful or harmful. As a science geek, I always say ‘show me the research’. If it can’t be scientifically debunked, hypotheses remain to be proven. Ironically, I have done papers and presentations on the benefits and controversies of soy before hearing of the GROW project let alone becoming an intern here.Simply put, I am a huge advocate for soy in pretty much any form. I enjoy edamame, tofu, miso, and soy sauce of course. But most of all, I am a self-proclaimed soymilk junkie. It all started last year. I can admit to having mild allergies to just about everything, which is the cheery on top to my sensitive skin woes. I pondered one day to myself, if as milk is known as one of the most common food allergies (I was drinking about 3 glasses/day), maybe I should wean myself off it and see if it is contributing in anyway to my allergies and sensitivities. So that is exactly what I did. But not without replacing it with something equally as nutritious, packed full of calcium, iron protein, and lactose-free… SOYMILK!!! Needless to say, I haven’t turned back since. From the beginning, I was all about organic and unsweetened types and not so much the sweetly flavoured stuff. It really was a seamless transition. I use it in cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes, French toast, just to name a few of my go-to breakfast meals. And just about any and every recipe that calls for milk, I substitute with soymilk. When I found out the GROW team would be visiting a small-scale soymilk plant, I was beyond excited. Even though I loved soymilk so much, I had never given much though to how a legume (bean) can be processed into such a smooth, creamy, awesome-tasting beverage. I was ready and eager to further explore the wonderful world of soy.Before heading to Valley View University in Techiman, I did a little research on the soymilk equipment and operation we were going to see. The systems are called VitaGoat and SoyCow. Originally developed by a Canadian company ProSoya, it is now manufactured in India and supplied by Malnutrition Matters, an organization with the mandate to provide sustainable low cost food technology solutions for malnutrition, primarily by using soya, but also cereals, grains, fruits and vegetables. They have been used for projects in developing countries including Myanmar, North Korea, Thailand, India, Belize, Guatemala, Malawi, Liberia, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mozambique, Chad, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Ghana. SoyCow and VitaGoat are both well suited for developing countries. They can provide employment for 3-6 unskilled workers while providing nutritious foods for hundreds. There is also the option to have a pedal-powered motor, when electricity is not available.The one we were going to visit is in operation at Valley View University in the Brong-Ahafo region. Adventist Development and Relief Agency Ghana (ADRA) and World Soy Foundation sponsor the project, which launched in 2009. Currently, Valley View University pumps out 200 liters of soymilk/day (the system makes 15L of soymilk in 20 minutes from 2 kg of soya beans). Everyday, just over half of this is delivered to four local primary schools to provide 450 children a daily serving of soymilk free of charge. The remainder of production is bottled and/or prepared as kebabs (tofu) to be sold on campus to students. This is a prime example of how a mixed enterprise can work; some output is donated for social feeding and some is sold to sustain the operation. In addition, the University will be using this project to assess the nutritional impact soymilk has had on school children since the implementation of it’s pilot school feeding program. I personally can’t wait to hear of the results of this research study.We should have metric tons of soya beans coming from GROW women farmers this first harvest. A small-scale soy processing business is of great interest to the project and why it’s being explored further. We visited Valley View with FTF-USAID Agricultural Technology Transfer (ATT). This is a USAID-funded project that specifically focuses on improving public institutions’ and private sector businesses’ capacities to introduce new technologies to Ghana’s agricultural sector. If ATT is willing to cover the costs of equipment and training as a technology demonstration, then MEDA could help identify investors to operate the equipment as a business. But most importantly, the operation will be supplied with soya beans by GROW women. In collaboration like this, both parties, MEDA and ATT, are aligned with their respective project objectives, ultimately, for the benefit of rural farmers in Northern Ghana. It’s like a match made in soy heaven.

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Beads of Hope, Ghana

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It was a late Sunday afternoon when Jess called one of her trusty taxi drivers, Michael, to pick us up at our ‘junction’ (i.e. the intersection by our house). We were invited to a fellow Canadian’s going-away party, although we had never met her before. But as the saying goes: better late than never. As we crossed over the main road into an unknown neighbourhood, Jess began scrolling her phone for the directions to Erin’s compound. Of course she had to scream them out to Michael over the blaring radio. In a few minutes we found ourselves on a street that seemed to have all the described landmarks except for a compound. Jess quickly called Erin to make sure we were in the right place before Michael drove off. Coincidentally, Erin was right behind us walking towards our taxi. We introduced ourselves in the street and began walking with her. While holding an infant on one hip, she followed a line of children carrying plastic chairs above their heads. Erin introduced us to the little girl named Nadia, and mentioned she had to make the difficult decision of bringing back either Nadia or a chair to the compound. As we walked towards her place, Erin spoke of the family she shares the compound with and that Nadia is referred to as Princess Nadia; she’s adored by everyone and can be quite the diva. The kids ahead of us were arranging the chairs they had just brought in. There were benches and tables in the compound’s courtyard in preparation for the anticipated crowd and food. Erin led us into her home. As soon as we walked in we were greeted with a table full of beads and a welcoming smile! Literally, a table full of jewelry made from shiny and glistening beads. Jess and I immediately sat down, letting out gasps of excitement. As I finally tore my eyes away from the bracelets, I met Nafisa sitting across from us. As Jess and I began searching through the piles of bracelets, rings, and necklaces, Nafisa, affectionately called Nafi, began telling us the story behind the beads. She’s from Paga, a village in the Upper East region, and began making jewelry from local beads as a means to get through University. Nafi was so successful and quickly saw the potential that jewelry making had for others in her community. She started a project called Beads of Hope, with the mission to provide local women and girls the opportunity to make a sustainable income. Beads of Hope has gained much popularity through word of mouth and now employ young boys in addition to women and girls from Paga and neighboring towns Navrongo and Bolgatanga. This local business is dedicated to fighting poverty by providing sustainable livelihoods for families in the Upper East Region. Having a warmhearted and friendly organizer like Nafi as it’s driving force has undoubtedly helped Beads of Hope success. Anyone that meets her will agree that, if it isn’t for the beautiful beads and designs, purchasing jewelry solely because of the passion and dedication Nafi exudes is not unusual. Congrats to Nafi and the continuing success of Beads of Hope! Check out Beads of Hope … like their Facebook page or shop their Etsy store.

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To the field: Oujda, by the Algerian border

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In late July, I was sent to Oujda to interview a few young clients who received “100 hours for success” training from MEDA Maroc. I took the (quite comfortable) overnight train from Casablanca and arrived in Oujda, right by the Algerian border to the East, on the next day. After having checked-in at the hotel, we promptly set off for the MEDA Maroc Oujda office and I met with our local staff. I was soon thereafter interviewing the first client, Fatima Zahra, who plans on opening her own clothing store once she gets enough experience in the field and has put aside enough money.

Later that day, I had a long and engaging two-way discussion with a group of youth after a “100 hours for success” session and was able to gain a lot of mileage as to the real-life skills and the hope MEDA Maroc’s program instills in Moroccan youth, enabling them to reach for their dreams and achieve whatever they set out to do. I’ve met and interviewed a few more youth and was able to collect valuable information and success stories.

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Road Trip to Kintampo Falls

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On a cloudy Sunday morning, wanting to explore the Ghanaian countryside, we boarded a tro-tro to Kintampo Falls.Let me begin by explaining our means of transportation. A tro-tro, or 'tro' as it is affectionately called, is a minibus that you can flag down and jump on with other passengers who are travelling in the same direction. Due to their more than rickety conditions and number of passengers riding along side you, the tros are much cheaper than buses or taxis. Another option, which is what we did on this particular Sunday, is get a group together and rent one (equip with a driver) for a day. Kintampo Falls, only three hours away, seemed doable.No experience in Africa, or in other parts of the world, is complete without travelling like the locals do. We managed to squeeze 19 people, including the driver and his assistant, into this tro-tro. The quarter-sized hole in the floor of the vehicle, giving us a view to the pavement below, didn't even deter us. It may not have been the most comfortable 3 hours (6 hours round trip) but it was a great journey. We passed many different landscapes, bought snacks out of the window from local vendors running along side as we slowed down to go through toll gates, and saw how people live outside of Tamale, 'the capital of the north,' the sizeable town we have already grown so accustomed to. Going through a community, one child on the side of the road did a double take and then pointed to the tro-tro saying "Woooowwwww." I like to think she was also impressed at how many people we were able to fit inside. I sure was.After a few hours, we finally made it to Kintampo Falls. Walking through a wooded setting, we could hear rushing water as we got closer. We passed by the various stages of the waterfall, starting at the top where the water raged down over the rocks, and finally descended 152 stairs (not that I was counting) to the base of the waterfall where it was safe to swim. Although it was overcast, the group of us peeled off our layers and jumped in. The brave ones climbed right under the waterfall where the water poured over from above. We had heard that there was another waterfall close by, Fuller Falls, and decided to check that out as well. Drying ourselves off to the extent that it wouldn't be overly gross to be crammed against one another in the tro again, we hit the road. We were confidently driving along, and even saw a signpost for the falls which reaffirmed we were going in the right direction, when we came to a dirt road, jutted and uneven. The driver stopped and asked a shepherd if we were still going in the right direction. To our dismay, he told us to go back the way we came. How our tro-tro driver managed to pull a three point turn on that narrow road, I will never know.After driving for several kilometres we were nearly back where we had started from. Once again, the driver pulled over to ask for directions. The men who assisted us assured us that, no, the waterfall was back the way we came from – we had been previously travelling the right way. Exasperated, we turned around a second time (waved to the shepherd as we passed him again) and finally came to the entrance of Fuller Falls.Instead of swimming here, we walked up the side of the waterfall to the very top where we were able to sit and look down at the rapids below. I was surprised to see how lush and green the surroundings were, especially considering how dry the weather has been, despite it being the rainy season. We spotted a few creepy crawlies in the brush, including two long and fat centipedes. Or were they millipedes? Some sort of insect with a great number of legs.After taking in the scenery from the top of the falls, we decided it was time to head back to Tamale. It was fantastic to get in touch with nature again and escape the busy city life for an afternoon. Getting out and seeing more of the country we are living and working in, setting the context for our work here, really excited me. I'm looking forward to more local travelling in the future, all for research purposes, of course…

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For Generations to Come…

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Field TripOn our way to the Verimpere community of the Wa West district, many things were racing through my mind. I was highly anticipating my first trip to the field, in a community where the GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) project is active. Days leading up to our journey, MEDA’s Gender Specialists facilitated gender sensitization and analysis training for our staff and partner organizations. Now more than fifteen of us were heading to the field, some to participate and others to observe the gender sensitization pilot activity for women and their husbands. Many things in that hour-long visit were unforgettable; the women gathered under a large tree awaiting our arrival, their singing and dancing to celebrate our presence in the community, and the attentiveness and involvement exhibited by women and men alike. But the enthusiasm and pleasantness of the children were what really captivated me. Family MattersOnce adults of the community broke off into groups, each settling under a tree, children gradually started congregating nearby. Starting with a few, it soon became over a dozen little ones circling our group. Of course, we were a sight to see for them, dressed differently and speaking a foreign language. Yet, they were sincerely engaged in their parent’s discussion, keeping a keen eye on everyone involved and quietly giggling when something unexpected was said. During the activity, gender roles and responsibilities were being discussed or rather, negotiated. I imagine this was the first time these children heard this subject talked about so openly. I was moved by the children’s curiosity and interest, eagerly soaking up every word.Plant a Seed and Watch it GROWAnd then, “Eureka!” (I really had one of those eureka moments). I was already very familiar with MEDA’s values to ensure sustainability in their projects. Most projects truly provide business opportunities, incredible, sustainable solutions to poverty. But I was now seeing with my own eyes the impact these projects have on the next generation! Because many of these children do not attend school, their attitudes and behaviours are modeled after the only leaders they see, i.e. parents and caregivers. GROW is helping to increase food security for women farmers and their families. Importantly, it’s not only the women involved now, but also generations to come, that will benefit from improved health and development, resources and skills to generate and manage income, and the countless education and business opportunities that result from those. I am so proud to be a part of the GROW project and a representative of MEDA, contributing to and witnessing history in the making.

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THIS is why I'm here

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Since arriving here in Tamale, I have been helping to prepare and facilitate workshops focussed on gender sensitization and awareness. Along with Faustina from the Tamale office, and Yasir who has been visiting from Waterloo, we have conducted these trainings for MEDA staff, as well the local partners involved in the GROW project.Admittedly, it was a little daunting to imagine myself training a conference room full of people, some who have more experience than I did in the field of gender. Now that we're nearly done with the training sessions I can say that I am so grateful for having the experience of participating in the planning and execution of these sessions. Sharing thoughts and ideas with others, meeting colleagues whom I will continue to work with during my time here, and listening to different cultural perspectives has taught me so much.However, today's session taught me the most.In the afternoon our group of local partners and facilitators got into a mini bus and drove 30 minutes outside of Wa, where our field office is located, to one of the participating communities. I was excited to finally see the people who were benefitting from the GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) project, and knew I would enjoy myself. The experience, however, was above and beyond my expectations.When we pulled up we were surrounded by women and children clapping, singing and dancing. (I told myself I would practice my dance moves in order to join in  next time!) We enjoyed this warm welcome for a few minutes before separating into groups in order to lead an activity based on community roles of men and women.This interactive session with the community members was great to see: men and women sharing their views, laughing, listening to differing opinions, coming to the agreement that women are just as capable as men, and acknowledging their support of the project. Our goal of raising gender awareness and making an entry into the community was a huge success.My favourite participants in this activity were the children who had gathered around the tree under which we were holding our meeting, listening in on the conversation, laughing along with their parents, and catching our eye to smile and wave. Although most of them were too young to realize what exactly we were doing there, it was wonderful to have them present – we really felt like we were reaching out to the community as a whole.After our session, as we made our way back to the minibus, the children were fascinated by our digital cameras and seeing their own faces in the pictures we took. I was soon approached by an unsmiling women who began speaking to me in the local language. I couldn't understand a word, but assumed she was telling me to stop taking pictures. As I was putting my camera away, someone came over to translate: "No, no, she wants you to take a picture of HER!" She struck a pose, quickly grabbing a wooden stool to balance on her head for this photo-op.Heading back Wa, I reflected on the experience. There were so many highlights – meeting the community members, seeing where they live, playing with the children, and witnessing, on a small scale, changes beginning to happen for the better. I've enjoyed all my adventures here in Ghana so far, from trying the different foods to seeing local sights and making new friends. But after this trip to the field I realized – THIS is why I'm here.

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6 Dishes from the ‘Gold Coast’ of Africa

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Greetings from Wa, Ghana…This is my first blog post! And not just for MEDA, but in the history of my Generation Y lifetime. I must admit that I brainstormed about this first topic for a while. I’ve been in Ghana for just over 2 weeks and ‘culture shock’ is an understatement to explain my feelings. I do mean that in the most positive way! The people, culture, and landscape have been nothing short of beautiful, intriguing, and unique for me. There are so many things I can talk about in my first post but seeing as I am the Nutrition/Food Security Intern, I think it is most fitting I introduce you to Ghanaian Cuisine.By no means am I a ‘foodie’. I don’t post pictures of my meals on Instagram, nor do I regularly ‘check in’ to restaurants on Yelp (although I do read the reviews ☺). However, I would say I am a food lover. I appreciate dishes from all over the world and always willing to try everything at least once! It is normal for me to eat Indian, Japanese, Korean, Trinidadian and Lebanese dishes all in a week of being home in Toronto. With that being said, I was open and eager to try the traditional foods of Ghana. Below are dishes I’ve already eaten and are very common in Northern Ghana, specifically Tamale and Wa. Depending where you are from or have travelled, some of these ingredients may be familiar:1. ‘Banku’ and Okra Soup – Banku is really a large, doughy ball of fermented maize (aka corn) that is served in a bowl of soup. Traditionally, it’s eaten with your hands; pieces of banku are pinched off and dipped in the soup. Okra is a green pod-like vegetable with many seeds and quite slimy inside. It’s commonly grown in tropical and sub-tropical climates.2. TZ (pronounced tee-zed which stands for ‘Tuo Zaafi’) and Groundnut Soup – TZ looks similar to banku and eaten in the same way. However, it's made from corn flour and has a much milder taste. It can also be made from cassava flour or a mixture of the two. I had it served in groundnut soup. Groundnuts are essentially the same as peanuts, just a bit smaller. TZ can also be served with ‘green green’, a stew of moringa or cassava leaves, mixed into a soup with pieces of goat and/or fish.3. Red Fish with ‘Palaba’ Sauce and Boiled Yam – Most often, all meals are served with fish or chicken (even if only tiny pieces in soups and stews). ‘Red fish’, as Ghanaian’s call it, is the common saltwater red snapper fish. It is fried and served with slices of boiled yam and palaba sauce made from stewed ‘green leaves’.4. ‘Wachey’ with Grilled Tilapia – Wachey is white rice cooked with beans, specifically ‘cowpea’ bean (aka black-eyed pea). It is much like the Caribbean-style of ‘rice and peas’ or ‘rice and beans’. It was served with grilled tilapia and salad but can be paired with any meat. Tilapia is farmed throughout the country and regularly served.5. Jollof Rice with Fried Chicken – Jollof is a popular West African dish. It’s cooked with tomato paste, peppers, seasonings, and pieces of meat among other ingredients. It is spicy and full of flavour! It’s really a go-to dish, especially in fast food restaurants. And fried chicken is pretty much universal of course. 6. Red Red and Fried Plantain – Red Red is a bean stew made with cowpeas. It’s characteristic red colour comes from the palm oil it’s cooked in. Served alongside, are pieces of ripe plantain, fried until golden. Not sure how to traditionally eat this, but I dipped the plantain in the stew and it was great.Side note: Although I didn’t mention many vegetables here, they’re usually cooked and incorporated into soups and stews. Salads and raw vegetables are not always served but if they are it usually consists of shredded lettuce, cabbage, carrots, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and red onion topped with mayonnaise or salad cream. Second side note: Ghanaians use plenty of seasonings and love their food spicy!Thanks for reading my first blog post EVER! Until next time readers…

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On language and identity

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So, apparently, I’m Moroccan. No one could ever tell that I’m Canadian by my appearance alone. Due to my French and Indian background, I guess I could look like a great many things. I remember people in Uzbekistan thought I was Uzbek, in China I looked as though I was from the Xinjiang (East Turkestan) Autonomous Region, and Caucasians (from the Caucasus mountains) think I’m Azeri. It’s pretty practical. Even when I do tell someone, such as my cab driver on my first day, that I am from Montreal (I flew from Montreal, but I’m actually from Brampton, Ontario), he assumed I was one of those 60,000 young Moroccans who study abroad. Awesomeness. But… when I don’t speak French, and switch to Arabic I pass for any other Arab, but definitely not Moroccan. I spent the past year studying Fusha (literal) Arabic and a bit of Egyptian dialect. When I talk to people I do so in Fusha. I don’t really fear being made fun of – as I’ve been told I would –; the important thing is to be able to communicate. And frankly, I never get any remarks. People usually ask whether I’m Syrian or Egyptian. I tell that I’m Indian – a habit I’ve acquired in my travels in Central Asia, where your ethnicity is of utmost importance and is determined by your father’s background. Saying that I’m Indian also helps me avoid the temptation of speaking in French – my mother tongue. I’m in part here to improve my Arabic skills, after all. I have Satellite TV with over 700 channels in Arabic from all over the Arab world. It’s pretty cool to have been able to follow political events in Egypt on an Egyptian channel, and watch Turkish soap operas in Syrian dialect. I’m impressed with the fact that many Moroccans understand these dialects. In general, I find Moroccans are gifted with languages. At work The staff at MEDA Maroc is very friendly. Colleagues have helped me buy, and then, repair my bike. They made me try couscous, tagine and other local goodies. I am definitely a fan of Moroccan cuisine now. At the office, I’ve mainly been working on building the MEDA MENA website for Morocco and Egypt, translating a newsletter from Arabic to English and doing other communications tasks. This week, I’ll be going to Oujda to conduct a few interviews with program beneficiaries. It should be interesting.

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The COLWOD boutique - a hidden gem

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Having just arrived in Tamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana, Gillian and I got a city tour from another Canadian friend living here. We walked through the market and visited stalls selling everything from cows feet to toilet paper and pineapples to insect spray; ate a lunch of 'red red', a typical Ghanian dish of friend plantain and beans; scoped out the nearest grocery stores and bought 'fan ice' - ice cream in a bag – from a boy selling it on his bicycle.Nearing the end of our tour, we were led down an alley, off the main street, to a tiny shop that stood alone – we were introduced to the hidden gem that is the COLWOD boutique.COLWOD, the Collaboration with Women in Distress, is a charitable organization which was started in 1995 to help abandoned and abused women. COLWOD teaches these women skills like sewing, tie-dye and batik in order for them to gain economic independence and support themselves.Not only can you purchase fabric by the yard for 7 cedi, or roughly $3.50 Canadian dollars, there are handcrafts like purses, clothing and home décor for sale. The proceeds go back to the women, providing an income.Since arriving in Ghana, we had noticed the beautiful prints of the women's clothing. Now we know the secret! It's common here to simply buy the fabric of your choice and take it to a local seamstress and have clothing, usually skirts or dresses, made to order. Outside some of the seamstress' shops are photos showing the various designs and styles of dress you can choose from.With this in mind, Gillian and I perused the fabrics, taking some off the rack and holding them up to ourselves, imagining what we'd look like in a dress of that material. What a challenge! There were so many interesting patterns and prints it was hard to finally decide. I walked around the shop with two different materials on my arm thinking they were the ones I was going home with… until I spotted others that I liked even more (repeating this cycle twice). There was even a fabric with Canadian maple leaves printed in red – being eyed by a man in search of something for his wife.The three of us Canadians were browsing alongside other shoppers – another young woman trying on a long robe, and the local man contemplating fabrics. Seeing the others provided a small insight into the reception in Tamale of women's organizations. Knowing that COLWOD has existed since 1995, we can assume there has been enough local support for it to thrive here.The atmosphere in the shop was cheerful and bright, run by a smiling young woman who was quiet but eager to help. In one entertaining scene, the young woman (still wearing the robe she had tried on) asked the man if he would try on a shirt she was hoping to buy for her father back home. She handed it to him, and he struggled to pull it on over his glasses and dress shirt. After he had successfully managed to get into the shirt, he stood awkwardly, waiting for her response. The girl looked him over and said, "You know, you're much more fit than my dad. He has a pretty big belly."It was touching to see how an organization founded to help women in distress could bring people together – both locals and people from abroad – in order to support those in need and help them create a new life for themselves through economic independence.  In exchange, the women's work  serves as a reminder that we can help others in even small ways and adds some colour to our lives.

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First impressions in Morocco

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I can still remember how excited I felt on the Royal Air Maroc plane as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean. I was thrilled to finally set foot in Africa, and after a year of intensive study of the Arabic language, being able to work and live in the Arab world as well. It felt surreal. Then, I arrived. The airport felt pretty international (as they all tend to be) but very African as well. Mohammed V airport in Casablanca wants to become – and to some extent already is – a hub for flights to and from Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America. I have often been told that Moroccans don’t see themselves as African (that could in fact be said of many North African countries) – and I believe it’s a question I will try exploring over the next few months. I took a train to Gare Oasis, then a taxi to my apartment. It’s located in the south of the city, in Ain Chock. I wanted to get to know another side of the city and it’s people, away from the downtown glitter. Most of my colleagues were surprised at my choice – I live 9 km away from the MEDA Maroc office, which means, depending on Casablanca traffic, from 38 minutes to over an hour in the bus. It’s hot, sweaty, crowded, and quite frankly – though I’m usually a fan of intense travel experiences such as feeling like cattle at the back of a truck – I’m really not that fond of such promiscuity two hours a day for six months. So, naturally, I bought a bike. My best time so far is 24 minutes to get to the office. And I dare say it’s a great way of keeping fit. It also allows for more mobility and freedom. I never like being at the mercy of cab drivers in any place and have always valued bikes in cities that have no efficient public transport. I can pretty much go wherever I want to, when I want to – provided my legs have it in them for the extra kilometer or two. Rabat My first weekend in Morocco was spent in Rabat. I took the train a Saturday morning from the Casa Voyageurs train station and arrived in Rabat an hour later. I visited Rabat with a Moroccan friend of mine that I had met three years ago in Delhi! The city is so much quieter than Casablanca. To be honest, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the traffic and expanse of Casablanca. It was nice to see something more low-key and relaxed. It’s a nice capital with the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, a nice medina (old city) overlooking the sea, the Kasbah of the Oudaias, and nice restaurants and shops. I really do feel that I’m just scratching the surface as there is so much more to be seen and done. I plan on climbing the Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, sometime in August. I also want to see Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Chefchaouen, the Atlas moutains and the dessert.

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Safe Travels to the 2013 MEDA Interns!

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For the past 16 years, MEDA has sent over 100 young professionals in total to 20 countries around the world to give them the opportunity to gain experience in the field and discover their career interests. This summer, 14 new interns visted MEDA head offices for a week-long orientation to learn about the organization and meet staff members before they embark on their 6-month international development internships. While not all of the interns will be in the same country or working on the same project, each of them will be helping MEDA fulfill its overall mission of creating business solutions to poverty for families around the world. Check back on this blog regularly to read their stories about how they are building new skills, uncovering unique experiences and changing the lives of those around them. Bringing different skills and life experiences to their position will no doubt make for varying perspectives on the realities of their internship and of international development as a whole. Let us now introduce the 2013 cohort of MEDA Interns...EthiopiaEDGET (Ethiopians Driving Growth through Entrepreneurship and Trade)Emma Harris – Rural Microfinance InternShaunet Lewinson – Business Development Advisor

GhanaGROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women)Daniel Penner – Communications/Impact Assessment InternGillian Perera - Nutrition/Food Security InternJessica Adach - Gender InternMoroccoYouthInvestJeelan Syed – Communication Development InternSanae Elamrani – Impact Assessment InternNicaraguaMiCredito & Techno-Links (Technology Links for Improved Access and Incomes)Catherine Walker – Rural Microfinance InternSarah French – Impact Assessment InternPeruTechno-Links (Technology Links for Improved Access and Incomes)Stefanie Santana – Value Chain Development InternTanzaniaTNVS (Tanzania National Voucher Scheme)Curtis Shane – I.T. Development Intern Mary Fehr – Impact Assessment InternUnited StatesInes Sawadogo – Project Coordinator InternZambiaTechno-Links (Technology Links for Improved Access and Incomes)Jared Worley – Rural Microfinance InternVisit MEDA Internships for more information on our internship program and to read the biographies of the 2013 interns.

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Happy International Women's Day - We are one woman

Today is March 8th so I will start by wishing you a happy International Women's Day.  One thing that I can definitely attribute to my internship experience is a stronger sense of feminism. Seeing the disparity and the double standards women face in Morocco - which on the whole is much better than many developing countries - but still not up to Western standards - has made me feel like I need to do something more. Here's a little description of street culture in the city: Casablanca is a very cosmopolitan city - it certainly doesn't have the traditional old city feel of Fes, or tourist-Mecca feel of Marrakech. But the men still rule the streets, whether it's groups of boys kicking a soccer ball, teenagers loitering, men sitting at sidewalk cafés, or old men playing cards, they are at home in public spaces. The errant (young) woman who proposes to go out alone, (imagine!), especially in the evening or at night (really!) must be inviting these men, aged 15-75, to comment on her appearance or repeatedly try to catch her attention by calling out variations on "bonjour/bonsoir," "Welcome to Morocco" (for foreigners), "Hola" and a variety of catcalling sounds: whistles, "oh-la-la," or my least favourite: kissing sounds. Why else would she try to run an errand or walk somewhere by herself? These catcalls can occur from across the street, but the eager man likes to whisper/shout these directly into the woman's ear or face, to make sure she hears them of course.  Even when the men she passes don't say something, they often stare for an uncomfortably long time, even turning and walking backwards for several paces after passing her. She is a piece of meat to the hungry wolves. The exceptions walk past without a word or a glance, but maybe they were staring too - it's hard for the woman to tell since she keeps her eyes fixed to the sidewalk or the street, avoiding looking at people walking by since that encourages more comments. Of course this doesn't happen to every woman, or women past a certain age, and my Moroccan coworkers tell me that it happens less to them, and that it used to be much worse 10 or 15 years ago. But that reminds me of a phrase from one of my sociology classes about it "getting better." We often do nothing because we argue that things are improving, they are better than they were before, but that rhetoric also implies that women are not yet equals. We don't seem to mind because the disparity isn't as blatant as it was in the past, but that doesn't mean there isn't more work to be done.  This might have sounded like you can't walk down the street in Casa, but that's not the case. You can, and you can go out and meet up with friends, get groceries, do anything you like, and for the most part you never feel unsafe. But you must always be wary, and you must also put on your mask of disinterest to try to curb unwanted attention. And most days you can walk deafly through streets, the comments sluicing off your mental armour. But some days you can't block them out, and you want to say something back, or hit someone particularly offensive.  These tactics help keep women where men think they should be - in the home, or at least not in public, not alone. It is a power thing, and it reflects the fact that these men think they have the right to say whatever they like to women, and that they shouldn't be in the public sphere. Definitely something that Moroccan families need to start teaching their children at an early age: respect for women, all women - not just their mothers. This monologue of sorts doesn't even address the fact that more women are illiterate, are less to be educated for as long as men, are less active in the economy, and are almost absent from positions of political or social importance. The country’s score under the Gender Inequality Index is 0.510 (104 out of 146 countries). And this is one of the better off countries in North Africa.  So, today, on International Women's Day, think about women in countries worse off than your own, and teach your own children/family what equality means. The only way changes will happen is if there is a behavioral shift worldwide. We are one woman, as the new UN Women song says, have a listen and share: http://song.unwomen.org/

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Circling central Morocco: +1600km in 5 days

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My friend Diana from Montreal spent two weeks visiting Morocco, and together we did a 1600+km tour of the country in 5 days. Here are some of the highlights.MarrakechThursday evening, Feb 14th, after I finished work, we headed to Casa Voyageurs and took the evening train to Marrakech. This was quite different than my last train journey there - which you can read about in my November post! We arrived late, and (of course) got ripped off by the train station taxis who over-charged us but also only dropped us off at Djema-el-Fnaa, the square, rather than the street we needed to get to our riad. After some wandering, and glancing confusedly at the map provided by the riad and the poor signage around the square, we were able to get the assistance of a very generous restauranteur, who walked us to our hotel out of the goodness of his heart, down a couple of very seedy-looking medina alleys. Alas we arrived at the hotel and checked in, sometime around 11:30 pm. We spent Friday shopping, touring the Bahia Palace (pictured left), appreciating the Koutoubia Mosque and gardens, and observing the entertainers, monkeys, snake charmers and dentists of Place Djema-el-Fnaa. The tourSaturday morning at 8 a.m. we met our driver, who would take us on a organized tour from Marrakech, through the High Atlas mountains, through to Ouarzazate, Skoura, Kelaat Mgouna, Todra Gorge, Arfoud and Merzouga, where we rode camels out into the Erg Chebbi dunes to spend Sunday night at an oasis camp, guided by a Sahrawi nomad. The tour through the High Atlases (pictured right) provided plenty of great views, although the roads were very winding. Ouarzazate is famous as being the location of film studios and is a popular region to film desert-themed scenes. We also stopped at Ait Ben Haddou, an old Kasbah on the edge of the High Atlases on the road to Ouarzazate, which was a stronghold of the ben haddou tribe for centuries. On our ride from Marrakech to Merzouga we stopped at a women's cooperative to see how Argan oil is made, at a rose distillery and coop in Kelaat Mgouna (in the Valley of the Roses), and went to the source of the river in the Todra Gorge, one of three gorges in the region.The Dar Panorama in Skoura was a great place to stop Saturday night, with excellent food and the guesthouse to ourselves. It had a view over the date palm groves of Skoura which was beautiful at sunset. The camel riding was a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience. We both had white camels, which is special. We stopped to watch the sunset over the dunes (pictured left), and left early enough to watch the sunrise from a good spot as well. What was more surprising was that there were tons of cats at the oasis camps. There is a Berber family who lives there permanently to watch the camp, so I guess cats are a part of the domestic patchwork, but it is weird to see them in the middle of dunes. Sunday morning we did the long trek from Merzouga to Fes via Ifrane and the Middle Atlases. I forgot to mention that we passed the Anti-Atlases on our way out to Merzouga, so we saw/drove through all three sets of Atlas mountains. We stopped briefly in Midelt, where I ended up buying a Sahrawi carpet of camel hair, in a multitude of colours. I really hadn't planned on getting such a big one, or of this style (described sometimes as painterly or zanafi style). I probably paid too much for it, but I bargained the man down by 3300 dirhams so I thought that was pretty good, and the Morrocans have a saying that the right price is the price you are willing to pay.FesWe got dropped off in Fes on the night of the 18th, and spent the night in a riad in the medina where we met some great fellow travelers. We did a walking tour of the medina the next day, and in the evening I headed back on the train to Casablanca, so I could work on the 20th.Diana stayed in Fes for 2 extra days with her new companions and arrived back in Casa in time for my birthday, which we celebrated by going to the  February Jeudi Casaouis event. All in all I think it was a good trip - although somehow Diana ended up going home with about 20 kgs of extra luggage and a new carry-on to accommodate all the pottery and breakables!

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Training MFIs to improve financial access for youth

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For the past year our project, YouthInvest, has been working to shift strategies to its second phase - training Micro-Finance Institutions (MFIs), commonly referred to as AMCs (Associations de micro-credit) here in Morocco, to improve their services and products to meet the needs of the sizeable youth market. In 2012 MEDA signed an agreement to train credit officers and branch managers for one of the larger MFIs - the Fondation Banque Populaire de Micro-Credit (FBPMC) in cooperation with another NGO that is funding the training on improved customer service for youth clients. MEDA Maroc has been training their staff in week long sessions across the country, With the goal being to train the staff from about 50 branches. The evaluations coming out of these sessions show how successful the program is, and the participants' satisfaction with the content and delivery.This past weekend, February 8-10, 2013, MEDA Maroc offered a short overview training on the "Financial Solutions for Youth" training suite we will be offering to all Moroccan MFIs. There were nearly 20 participants at this select workshop, representing MFIs large and small, as well as a few individuals interested in the sector. Training for Trainers (TOT), Better Customer Service for Youth Clients, Developing Financial Products for Youth, Risk Management for Youth Clients, and Technical Assistance for Product Development are the components of this new YouthInvest phase. MEDA will also be conducting a study of financial products and services currently available to youth, as well as current youth client satisfaction surveys before commencing the training suite for MFIs. A similar study is being conducted in Egypt, where YouthInvest is also active.While this phase has taken some time to get off the ground, partnership agreements are being signed with MFIs presently, and the materials and content for the three training topics are being finalized. A good deal of my time at work has been dedicated to supporting this phase in recent months (helping with customer service materials, translating partnership agreements, and taking photos at the FBPMC training in Khouribga in order to use some shots for upcoming publicity. Included are a few photos from our training on "Financial Solutions for Youth" in Casablanca and the FBPMC training on Improving Customer Service for Youth Clients in Khouribga the last week of January. 

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From Oujda to Essaouira in 1 Week

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I've been a bit silent on here for the last few weeks because I've been travelling quite a bit. First, was a trip to Oujda Jan 2-6 for work, then a weekend road trip to Safi, Essaouira and Sidi Kaouki Jan 11-13. Here I'll paint a bit of a picture of what these regions are like, being found at opposite ends of the country. Oujda and Jerada (oriental Morocco)As I mentioned after my previous visit to Oujda in October, the region in which Oujda is found is referred to as the oriental region, because it is the northeasternmost region of the country, bordered by Algeria and the hemmed in by the Mediterranean Sea. It is hilly and rough around much of the Oujda area - which is the easternmost city in Morocco, a scant few kms from the Algerian border, and home to roughly 800,000 people.Jerada is further South from Oujda, and closely surrounded by mountains and trees. It was a hour from Oujda by grand taxi, and is known for its coal production. Next to the youth centre where my colleagues and I sat in on a "100 hours to success" training session was a mountain of coal waste that overshadowed the surrounding buildings. Jerada is in the Beni Snassen mountains. This time visiting Oujda I had a chance to see more of the city. I went with local extension officers to 4 different centres where they provide training to youth, and although it is hilly and bare around most of the city. From about May to September or October is the driest period here, so when I landed in September everything was reddish-brown, the colour of the earth around Casablanca. When I returned from Berlin in December I was astonished by how green everything had become. SafiOn the 3 hour drive South to along the highway to Safi I noticed that the rolling hills surrounding Casa flattened out onto fertile plains, before approaching mountains and hills once again as we neared the coast of the Atlantic. Safi is set right on the ocean, and has been a popular port for hundreds of years. The red clay of the region makes Safi most well known for its ceramics, of which we bought plenty! Safi is also known for its phosphate production and sardines. The Portuguese held Safi for some time in the middle ages, when they had forts and settlements all down the coast. The Spanish had the North, along the Mediterranean, the Portuguese had the Atlantic coast. The French came later. EssaouiraThe route to Essaouira became a bit unnecessarily long, as we made an unplanned detour through the countryside in our search for the coastal road. It did give us a chance to see some really rural areas. We drove through mountains and woods, and saw some massive waves and dunes along the coast when we finally did get on the right road. The city itself is a popular tourist destination. We stayed in a riad in the old medina so we saw plenty of Euopeans wandering around as well. The sqala de la ville is the fort in the old medina, with great views of the ocean and the sunset. The sqala du port is a short walk away, and is still located at the mouth of the present fishing port. Sidi KaoukiThe length of coast between Essaouira and Agadir is famous for its waves ideal for surfing and windsailing. Sunday morning we went on a short drive through the Argan tree groves to the small community of Sidi Kaouki. We managed to photograph some of the goats that eat the argan fruit - the source of the oil that is so popular in Morocco for cosmetics and cooking. We also hiked up a gravel road to a hill overlooking the ocean and beach. We met some children who were watching their cows and camels when we went back to the car. The area was fairly quiet, but quite rocky. Stopping at the Sidi Kaouki beach for lunch and a chance to dip our feet in the ocean - swimming was not recommended with the 3 metre-high waves - was fantastic. There were some tourists about, but very few people at this time of year, even though it was above 20 degrees. ReflectionsThe abundance of agriculture from Sidi Kaouki all the way back to Casablanca was very evident. Verdant, lush fields hugged the highway once we left the mountainous area that was filled with argan trees, goats and sheep. Often we passed individuals walking along the road, or waiting for a grand taxi. It was difficult to figure out where they had come from, as most often they were far from buildings in any direction. Although I grew up in the country, I can't imagine the isolation that a rural youth would feel in one of the tiny communities we passed through. Illiteracy in rural areas, especially among women is quite high in Morocco - in 2010 only 57% of women (15 years old and over) were illiterate (source: UNESCO), with approximately 80-90% of rural women being illiterate. The related challenges would be staggering. You realize how much you have to be thankful for as a Canadian.   

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Long Time Gone

I'm trying to look back and process the last six months, but it's hard right now to visualize everything together; it comes in bits and pieces, good and bad. I think it's going to take some time to figure out exactly how I've changed because of this experience.*We went to Oujda, one of the towns in northeast Morocco where our programming happens, earlier this month. I had the chance to sit in on youth trainings, which was an amazing, inspiring experience.These are kids who sign up for training to improve their job prospects - kids, I say, but really 14-25 year olds. Every week, they go to sessions on entrepreneurship, money management, and life skills at community centers, where they sit in unheated rooms (and I am here to tell you, it gets cold in Oujda!) and listen to our awesome training staff. They're focused, they're interested, they participate - and these are things I think most Westerners take for granted.How many of us complained about talking CALM 20 (for non-Albertans, this is "Career and Life Management") in high school? How many of us, at, say, age 17, would have sat politely through a presentation on stress management or time management without rolling our eyes, passing notes, or just zoning out? Obviously, there is some self-selection happening, but it was seriously impressive to see young people so engaged.We had staff from MEDA in Oujda help us out by showing us around and translating from Arabic into French. They were some of the absolute nicest people I have ever met in my life, incredibly welcoming, and I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity to hang out with them and see the awesome work they're doing.*I never did figure out how to love Morocco. Deeply respect, yes; the culture and tradition, the focus on family, the art, the amazing people I've met, the amazing things I've seen and done. I like a lot of things about Morocco, but not living here! I love to travel, but I want something to come home to, people to share what I've done with. I miss my family and friends so much that it almost feels physical, sometimes. Six months was enough, for me. I want a home base near the people I love.I've learned a lot about myself from this experience. I'm proud of some of it; other stuff I'd like to work on, like my instinct to retreat inward when I feel stressed or threatened. I never used to consider myself shy, but here I've been different - diffident - and it's definitely been a personal and professional obstacle.The thing is, though - I think I'm learning (slowly, painfully!) to take my personal challenges and view them as challenges, not failures. For everyone who knows me, this is huge! I'm a major perfectionist, super A-type, perhaps slightly OCD - so being able to sit and think, okay, I feel really timid today, but I'm going to do one thing that scares me and I'm going to keep doing it until it doesn't scare me anymore has been a real game-changer.This experience has taught me how to be a stranger, how to be the 'other', how to exist on the outside of a society. I think until you have that experience, you can't fully understand how hard it is to live someplace like Canada and not speak very good English, not understand the customs, not know how to get from place to place. I think of our 'nation of immigrants' and wonder how many people I encounter every day who feel like I often felt here - confused, homesick, out of rhythm, even judged. I only have to do it for another 9 days, but for some people it's just life.Anything that builds your capacity for empathy is a good experience. Even the bad parts of living here - by which I mean the constant street harassment - have taught me a lot about how women in most parts of the world (up to and including many parts of the developed world, absolutely) are adversely affected by outward displays of sexism.I have also had some great professional experience to add to my CV, for which I am super grateful, and I have loved working with the MEDA team and learning about the YouthInvest project. I feel really good about the career I've chosen in development and I think this internship has really solidified it as the right choice for me.I'll leave you with the poem that means the most to me, and the sentiment that has kept me going when the going got rough:    love is a place    & through this place of    love move    (with brightness of peace)    all places     yes is a world    & in this world of    yes live    (skillfully curled)    all worlds     (e.e. cummings)

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Communications, consultants, and customer service

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Time for an update about what I've been doing as the Communication Development Intern at MEDA Maroc. Things have been constantly changing for the past couple months here at MEDA Maroc, with 5 employees leaving our small office of 10, and new staff being hired on gradually.YouthInvest (in Morocco and Egypt) also changed its primary strategy in the past year and things are finally really starting to move in that respect. Rather than focusing on mostly training youth about financial education, business creation and savings, we are turning to the microfinance institutions (MFIs) and banks in Morocco to provide them with a suite of trainings on how to:

    Improve customer service for youth clients (and attract youth)    Develop financial products that appeal to youth    Manage risk specific to youth

Since about July 2012, staff in North America have been working alongside staff here in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region to develop these training programs. We worked specifically on the Product Development training in September when several MEDA staff from Waterloo and Washington visited Casablanca, and lately I have been working with Casablanca staff to improve the customer service training modules.Customer Service TrainingFor the past month I have been working on a team to streamline, add content and images and otherwise improve the existing customer service training. We have tested out the training with a Moroccan bank through a current partnership, and we have had extremely positive feedback from those evaluations, but we are trying to tighten up the training to maximize the value financial institution staff will get out of it. This is starting to wrap up, but it has been an ongoing project since mid-November.Consultants DatabaseSince October I have been in the process of creating a database of consultants with microfinance experience in MENA, so that MEDA has a go-to list when searching for trainers to provide the trainings mentioned above (the plan is to gradually expand to each MENA region country to offer these trainings, so we need trainers with experience in these countries). It will also be useful for the Technical Assistance MEDA will provide to financial institutions to help them develop youth products and adapt their risk management to best serve youth. The list is currently nearly 200 consultants, but I have been contacting them to find out their interest in working with MEDA and not all have responded. Personalizing the messages to each consultant and recording when emails were sent, responses received, cataloging CVs of interested people has meant that this is a time-consuming but valuable database. There is still lots of work to do on the database, and we haven't even sent out a job offer yet!CommunicationsOn the communications side, we finally finished the November MEDA Maroc Newsletter (for which I put together the English version, alongside my coworker's Arabic version) and sent it out to our partners and the global MEDA staff the first week of December. I have also been assisting with the creation and translation of partnership agreements, pamphlets, client stories, and the 2013 strategic communications plan. We are planning to increase our reach through social media so we've been working as a team on a renewed website too.To supplement our communications materials and presentations, I attended a YouthSavings information session on Thursday to take photos. YouthSavings is a project we are carrying out in the Casablanca region where interns provide a 1 hour presentation on how and why youth should save money by creating a savings account. The interns also provide the forms and help the youth open their own account. Participation among youth is voluntary (it is not during class time) so you have to have animated interns to capture the students' interest right in the beginning. It was a very interesting experience, even though it was in Darija - a language of which I only understand about 20 words!

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Marrakech: "the daughter of the desert"

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Last weekend, Elena and I decided to make a day trip to Marrakech (French spelling), the third largest city in Morocco but one that gets millions of visitors every year due to its multiple attractions and unique location at the edge of the Atlas mountains and the desert. By train this was a day-long adventure, trains run every 2 hours from the main Casablanca station, and 2nd class tickets (economy) cost only 90 Dirhams one way, about $10 CAD. The trip is about 3 and 1/4 hours long.

Want to play Sardines?At the train station many travellers, tourists and Moroccans alike, were heading to Marrakech. We'd been warned that there is no limit to the number of 2nd class tickets sold, so it is always possible that you will have to spend the entire journey standing, crammed into the small hallway that edges the compartments in each train car.  It turns out that day was one such day.  We crushed onto the train, peered into already full compartments, then, resigned, settled in for the long journey with little air and nothing to sit on. Despite trying to upgrade to 1st class, we were informed all the tickets there were sold out (limited number of tickets if you're willing to pay more for the privilege). It was so busy because the folks that go home for Eid-ad-Adha return anytime over a period of about 2 weeks surrounding the holiday. Additionally, the term vacation for students happened to coincide with our travel date. Sigh.  Needless to say, Elena and I were very hot and tired by the time we reached Marrakech, although we saw some great scenery on the way there which we would have missed in a squished compartment (the only advantage is sitting). We also played a game of "things that could be worse" which lightened the mood and put things in perspective (ask me if you're curious).Majorelle GardensWe decided our first stop in Marrakech would be the Majorelle Gardens, owned and renovated by Yves Saint-Laurent. Once we got a taxi to the gates we sat down and had lunch at a trendy (read: tourist pricey) restaurant. The chicken tagine was good, but the servings and prices were steep compared to Casa! One of the neat things about Marrakech in general was the massive numbers of tourists present, even this late into the fall. Instead of being "one of these things is not like the others" we actually fit in. Quite different even from Rabat and Casa.  The gardens are beautiful. Upon entering, the peace and quiet of the walled gardens surrounds and washes over you. The winding paths past different types of palm trees, cacti, and calm ponds transport you to a different place. The birds welcome you with their melodies.  There is also a Berber museum within the gardens, a cafe and an exhibit of all of the LOVE card designs YSL sent to his friends and clients each new year. Very pretty!Jemaa-el-FnaaDeciding we could easily walk to the Medina next was not a good idea. Miscalculated that one by a couple kilometers... But we eventually found the Koutoubia Mosque and the Jemaa-el-Fnaa square. Originally the place where public executions were held, it has been a marketplace for hundreds of years. In particular it has an overwhelming number of entertainers (musicians, snake charmers, monkeys in chains, storytellers, folks wearing traditional garb for photos, etc). We quickly bypassed the snake-men, and wandered through some of the narrowstreets of the souks. There are multiple souks specific to each type of good you are looking for, like olives, spices, carpets, jewelry, lanterns, and many more, but right around the square you can find a great variety of stalls. The merchants are impressive polyglots too - perhaps not perfectly fluent, but they can shout their wares in French, English, Arabic, Spanish, even some Italian and German here and there! After a-wandering, we followed sound advice and found a hotel that had a rooftop café overlooking the square where we took a break, watched the sun set and the stalls in the square start to light up.      A bit of purposeful shopping followed, then we had the headache of trying to find a taxi willing to use their meter (required by law, ahem!) to take us to the train station during rush hour. No luck. Ended up getting a grand taxi willing to take us for 30 Dh. It seems food prices aren't the only inflated things in Marrakech. First Class, best choiceWith only a few minutes to spare we decided on first class tickets for the return journey and some surprisingly speedy McDonald's take-out from the train station. It was a pleasant journey back to Casa sharing the compartment with a family and another young woman.
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The beauty's in the breakdown

I was just listening to the call to prayer, and I thought: That's probably something a lot of people at home have never experienced. The call to prayer occurs - well, a bunch of times a day. There's an official schedule, but basically: Dawn, sometime around midday, sometime around the end of work, and dusk. (I'm sure I'm missing a few.) It comes over loudspeakers designed to cut through the city noise - which means, yes, it will wake you up until your body stops responding - and you hear a man singing, sort of. It's not exactly like Moroccan Idol; his voice wavers and drops and rises. Sometimes it goes for a long time, but often it stops just as you're getting used to it. I think it's something I initially had a hard time relating to. Religion, here, is public; it's not that you see mosques everywhere - they are everywhere, but they are private, where churches and temples and mosques in Canada are visible. The expression of religion, on the other hand, is open. Everyone worships the same God, so maybe it's less fraught with the difficulties we'd have back home. We pray in private, but our places of worship are more public. (The exception, of course, is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which is enormous, big enough that it eclipses almost every other structure in the city. It is - unlike most of the buildings in Casablanca - new and gleaming, meant to be seen and admired. The contrast between the mosque and the crumbling apartment buildings and shantytowns and ruined sidewalks is incredibly stark; they don't look like they belong in proximity to one another. I'm not trying to say that they should have spent the money on infrastructure instead - just that it's funny, how there always seems to be money for huge monuments, and none for everyday necessities.) * Me, well; my hair is longer, and my bangs are slowly growing out, which is a super irritating process when you don't have a flat-iron or any styling products. I'm sleeping better, although some days I still feel more tired than I should be, and I've more or less figured out what to cook and what to eat, which is awesome. I have moments where I wonder what I've done to my life, and moments where I am genuinely grateful that I did it. I don't love it here yet. I'm not sure I'm going to. Is it okay to say that? I feel like I'm contravening some unspoken etiquette here, but I'm not sure that I've really found my place in Casablanca, and maybe I won't. I have another 3 months left, and I have done a lot and learned a lot and I wouldn't trade it back for anything - but I don't love the city. I love the work - the work is amazing - but I don't really have a place in the city, and I miss having the sense that I have a place. I've come to terms with the harassment - the cat-calling, the men who try to whisper in my ear, the kissing noises when I walk by, the men who slow and literally bend backwards to stare at my chest for another few seconds - but it's tiring, too. I feel like I can't go anywhere without being stared at; whereas at home I can be invisible, unnoticed. Mostly, I miss my friends and family. I'm not constantly homesick anymore, but I miss being able to go out with my friends, or call my dad, or just be there for important things. My best friend from high school is getting married in June, and I find myself wishing I could be there to go dress shopping with her, or to try on the maid of honour dress she ordered for me. There are things like birthday parties and illnesses and funerals that I regret missing. Funnily enough, I miss Canadian weather. I've been away from Canada for (now) nearly five years, and now I daydream about those cold days when it's just snowed and everything is absolutely silent. I think I'm thinking about that now because it's never silent here; you can hear traffic and people and the call to prayer and animals and everything almost all the time. It's not bad, but for me it's not ideal. I love to travel, but I wonder if I'm just too far away for too long to be really happy here in the long-term. Not to worry - I have another 3 months and 1.5 weeks before I'm done, and I'm looking forward to it - but part of my reason for coming here was to see if I wanted to work in the field fulltime, and I'm not sure now that I would be happy doing so. I think a position where I could travel to the field a lot but come back to a home base in Canada or the US would be ideal for me right now.

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