Krista and I have successfully completed (survived) our first summer camp. The Moroccan education system, and youth work in general, differs from the American system in many ways. The most immediately obvious difference is that violence against the children is not merely condoned, but ardently encouraged. At the camp, each American volunteer partnered with a Moroccan counselor to look after a team of kids. Not much of the camp time was scheduled, and that, along with the heat and enclosed spaces, created the perfect environment for lots of arguments and fighting among the kids. The country nationals’ response, broadly speaking, was to smack the campers.
There are a number of ‘moves’ that are commonly used. I find it fairly easy and morbidly comical to imagine a Moroccan summer camp video game, perhaps something along the lines of Super Smash Bros., involving various fight combos. The ‘square’ button would have to be the ever-popular smack across the face, perhaps with a clock-wise swipe to make it backhand. ‘triangle’ button would have to be knocking the top of the head with the knuckles, and the ‘circle’ could be the take-off-your-sandle-and-smack-the-kid-across-the-back-as-he-tries-to-run-away move. Then, you also have a number of extra credit complicated combinations. The most extreme one I saw at camp was when a counselor straight up Zidane headbutt a rowdy camper, who I had come to believe may have some sort of learning or development disability. I also heard of someone chasing their campers with a two-by-four at another campsite. Unfortunately, the only way I’ve found to effectively deal with the child abuse is with a little bit of light humor.
One of the counselors had to leave the camp early. In his departure address, he told the campers that he had a great time at camp, and that he was sorry to anybody who he had hit, but it was for educational purposes.
Of course, when your counterpart willingly doles out physical punishment, it’s difficult to get campers to listen to you, when all you can really do is yell, oftentimes in nonsense Arabic. I also have to admit that I was sorely tempted at times to “adapt” to the culture and hit a kid. Particularly one named Mohamed who got his kicks by teasing and throwing balls in Mahmoud’s face. Mahmoud also happened to be a gentle guy with down syndrome, who was probably my favorite of the male campers. He had everybody falling out of their chairs when he got up during a talent show and did impersonations of the counselors. I’d say I got along best with the ‘red flowers’ team, which was 6-9 year-old girls.
Sometimes it seemed as though the counselors should have had counselors of their own. One of them had a tantrum when his camper messed up the lion drawing he was working on, while another one thought it appropriate to openly flirt with the team of 13-14 year-old girls, who usually broke down crying while fighting over his attention.
Now it’s day three of our second camp, an over-night one with a bunch of orphans and a sprinkling of fake orphans (actually have parents). The counselors here have pointed to the Quran for support in hitting kids. They say once they’re ten years old, they can and should be hit because they have ‘hard heads’. Then they kindly explained that it’s the only way for kids to learn. Then again, while here, we haven’t seen very much physical punishment at all.
This second camp is much more official. It’s name sounds reminiscently Soviet, or maybe Maoist: the camp of national co-operation. And the team names are fun things like “freedom” or “education”, which all the kids yell repeatedly as they quasi-march around in twos. Krista and I have each been given responsibility of a team of about 12 campers (mine between the ages of 11 to 14, with one troublemaker who happens to be the camp director’s son). One of my campers is named “S3ad son of the tailor”. This is very difficult and tiring, in part because we have to fill out various forms in Arabic, but also because it doesn’t seem as though the higher-ups in the camp care very much about the kids’ health and safety. Dinner last night was a classic Moroccan dish of pasta with cinnamon, peanuts, and a heap of sugar on top. Granted, it was delicious. Few of the kids have toothbrushes and none have been taught how to use them, and a day at the pool yesterday featured plenty of running and diving into very shallow water.
The radically different sleeping schedule is also throwing us off. There’s a three-hour nap time in the afternoon, but the day starts at 7:30 and the counselors have meetings at night until 1 am before eating a meal. Krista and I have so far avoided this meal, which last night was ground beef, coke, and watermelon.
I am terrified of Ramadan, which is fast approaching. It looks as though the kids will be allowed to eat while we may not. I believe I heard in one of our meetings that there are activities for the kids until 2 am during Ramadan, but I hope I misunderstood that.
On an unrelated note, we've been given a new job, as of about a week ago. The higher-ups recently sent us an angsty email about how we are here at the invitation of this government ministry and must work for them and they can rescind the invitation. Apparently, we went from being development workers to unpaid, lowest-rung government employees of Morocco. Without the benefit of bargaining rights. It seems to many of us that the Peace corps went to the market of the Moroccan government, but didn't realize they were supposed to bargain. A good analogy is when I go to the store and buy a 1000 dirham mattress and learn later that it's only worth 400: getting totally screwed. When we first came here, we were told to teach English at the dar shabab in the beginning as a jumping-off point for other development work of our own design. Now it's not clear what we're supposed to be doing, other than hang around until the ministry tells us to do things (see earlier post about miscommunication).