Ah, the countryside! It was a very welcome relief to get away from noisy and dirty city to the wide-open spaces of rural Morocco. However, after spending last week with a family in the countryside of Morocco, I must say that everyone lives in a different way, and some ways are more different than others.
As I walked down the long road to my new home with the my new homestay father that first day, I felt at home in the open spaces and beauty around me. I felt as though a piece of my home in Amish Country Pennsylvania had been transported to Africa. In certain ways, it had been. Upon arriving, I was immediately surrounded by my new host family, which was radically different from my host family in Rabat. Instead of seven siblings, I only had four! I had been “adopted” by a my host father’s mother, his wife, my 17 year-old host brother, three sisters all under the age of 14, an uncle, and what I assume was a cousin (at least in relation to my place in the family). During our orientation, our program director had told us not to expect electricity, toilets of any sort except nature, and a very simple house with space possibly being shared between the family and the animals. He was wrong on all counts in my case. That first afternoon, I walked into my relatively large house, which had 5 fairly large rooms, to find a refrigerator and several electric lights (even a TV!), and a squat toilet. I was just a tad surprised, to say the least, but when I thought I had seen it all, I obviously hadn’t seen all of their animals yet. First, I was led to the cows, obviously the most important animals they owned, and got to observe milking time at the end of the day. Then there were the sheep and goats. They resided in a small pen near the cow barn, which was connected to the house, and finally there were the donkeys and chickens. All of these animals resided right next to or just a door away from the main house, and so, naturally, there was always a reminder of their presence, whether through the braying donkey or the smell of the barn wafting through the central hallway. Yet, this close proximity with animals can be understood because my family relied on them for the majority of their livelihood.
However, the animals and the people’s relations to them weren’t the only new encounter I had while staying in the village. With all the open space and beauty I found in rural Morocco, I couldn’t help but get the urge to simply wander aimlessly about the countryside. However, this urge was severely curbed by the fact that my family simply would not let me go. No matter how I tried to tell them that, yes, I would be fine by myself, they never seemed to quite believe me. As part of the program, we had two separate forums with the people who live in the village. One was solely with the men of the village (mostly our host fathers), and the other with the women (our host mothers and, in my case, grandmothers). Each one touched on different subjects: the men were extremely interested in what Americans do when they die, and the women were more concerned with how we perceived their lifestyle and hospitality. During each of these open discussions, the idea of spending “alone time” came up, and when we asked our academic director to translate for our host parents that we truly can spend time alone without being upset at anyone or anything, each group reacted with such surprise. There were no exclamations, but the looks on their faces definitely said more than any words.
The idea of spending time alone or wandering away from the group was not only foreign because of their vocalized concern that we would fall into hidden wells or would get hurt by dogs, but also because no matter what, you are always with other people in Morocco. This occurs throughout the country from what I have seen. In Rabat, if I spend more than 15 minutes alone in my room without saying that I am studying, one by one, my family members will start trickling in to see if everything is alright. Concepts of space and shared space are very different from the practices in the United States. For instance, if someone comes close to you while you’re standing in line at the grocery store in the United States, you instantly feel as though your personal space has been violated. In Morocco, on the other hand, you can be almost on top of someone and the other person will not notice. This is particularly true when the Souk (or market) street becomes completely packed with people so that you are no longer moving of your own volition, but instead that of the mass of people around you. Essentially, you move as one unit. While rural Morocco does not have too many people to push through, it is so sparsely populated that if you are alone, others feel you are putting yourself in danger. The lesson here: always go in groups, or at least say you do.