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Frustration in the Peace Corps

Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment. 
- Dale Carnegie 

Some days, I sit on my ponj and stare into space, immobilized by disappointment. A gloomy cloud lurks just beyond the outer limits of my vision. I can sense its existence, its inexorable approach. It is composed of millions of indistinguishable particles of ennui, and unless it dissipates, it will soon surround me and fill my lungs and settle in my pores and precipitate more indifference.

At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say,—'Come out unto us.' But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act. 
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

In September of 2012, I attended a library-building workshop in a strange and beautiful coastal town called Agadir. Installing a library in the local youth center was one of the many goals for my service. The workshop required I bring a counterpart, so in the weeks leading up it, I worked the idea on the youth center director, Mostafa. He was unreservedly enthusiastic. We discussed the installation of shelves and other necessary preparations, smiles all the way. Days before the scheduled workshop, he backed out, citing obligations to remain in town while the youth center was to be repainted. The next day, I discovered hidden away in the back room of the youth center a shelf full of French and Arabic books - novels, history, poetry. He had never mentioned them in all our discussions. As I stood there, bemusedly picking up one tome after another, he entered. He looked embarrassed; I was apparently not meant to discover his hoard. "Oh, Eugene. Oh!" Then he assured me that while he was not coming to the workshop, he was still excited about the prospects of a library accessible to all the youth. "We can incorporate these books into the books that you bring," he promised.

I attended the workshop alone. When I returned to site, Mostafa was wrapped up in how nice the youth center looked with a new paint job and couldn't be bothered to learn about that which I brought back from the workshop. Some weeks later, my regional manager brought with her two large boxes full of Arabic books for children and teens. The director couldn't have cared less. Currently, they are in my "office," a spare room in the youth center without chairs, tables, or shelves. The director's hoard is still in a dusty corner in another unused room. Over a year has passed since the workshop, and despite constant petitioning, I cannot arouse the faintest trace of interest in putting all of those books in a place where kids can access them. From time to time, a student of mine will borrow one from my office. This is my library.

It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 
- Jesus

In November of 2012, I signed up for another workshop, part of an international curriculum to teach youth "life skills." The director again swooned over the idea and promised his full support. Mostafa would be the educator for groups of up to thirty youth as they learned how to manage their emotions, live healthy lifestyles, prepare for life in the workforce. The day before departure, he backed out, and again, I attended sans partner.

That same year, I tried to start the program anyway, using the only counterpart I could find, a fifteen-year-old student from the local high school named Salah. Though full of enthusiasm, and though exceptionally in attendance at our meetings, he was simply too young to take on the burden of leading the class. We tried, and fell short, of completing a session for the 2012-2013 school year.

This year, we tried again. I stayed in touch with the two English high school teachers in my community via email. Both were practically giddy with enthusiasm. Neither have made good on that enthusiasm. One was Salah's teacher. "Eugene, I have really good news, man. My teacher said she would lead the life skills course this year. She will meet with us on Friday here at the youth center." She did not meet with us on Friday, nor did she call to cancel. She simply and without explanation didn't show up. Next week: "She said she had business in El Jadida. She says for sure she will be here this Friday." She shouldn't have been so sure. The next week I gave up on her when Salah admitted that she didn't even show up for class that day. "What did the students do?" I asked. "We sat there for two hours and then we went home," he said. The other teacher didn't feel the need to deceive me through a living person; she stuck to email, and for this I am grateful, for I took it far less personally. 

This last November, I participated in "Bike4SIDA," a volunteer-led HIV/AIDS public awareness campaign. It was overwhelmingly successful (as things seem to be when they aren't concentrated in my site). I returned to my site reinvigorated. Evan, Carly, and Alex came down to revel in our triumph. Mostafa found them at the taxi stand and informed them that he and Salah had started the Life Skills program in the youth center without me. When I heard the news, I couldn't believe it, but at the youth center, Mostafa showed me the sign-up sheet with something like 60 attendees and happily recounted his role as teacher. Salah explained that he had rounded up a bunch of students from the high school and that we were well on our way to a good year. I was impressed and pledged my support, while reminding them that we had to pack at least two lessons into each week in order to finish before baccalaureate exams in June.

The next weekend I was again out of site, but they continued without me. For a few days, I wondered if they just might be able to pull it off. I was feeling a new kind of feeling towards members of my community. Pride, I think it was. On the third week, I was to be in attendance. Still we had no set list, because the group was expanding week-by-week. Close to 70 youth piled into the youth center. The director was nowhere to be found. Salah came up to me and said, "Last week, we didn't finish the lesson. We should do it again this week."

"What lesson are we on now?"

"The first one."

"What? This is the third week. We should be on lesson five."

"I know, but the students don't listen to me. They talk a lot and don't listen. We should do it again."

"Okay, well it shouldn't be hard, since all you have to do is what you did last week."

"Oh, sorry man, I didn't get to read the lesson."

"But you read it last week? Surely you remember it."

"No, I actually didn't do it last week. You'll have to do it by yourself."

I'll leave it to your imagination the surprise, anger, and frustration I then expressed. We limped through the lesson using my insufficient arabic skills and Salah's insufficient assistance. The mass of students in attendance was impossible to control or quiet down. In truth, they weren't there to learn at all, but to hang out and flirt with their sweethearts.

Then came a long-awaited and much-deserved vacation. I spent over two weeks in the greatest country on earth, enjoying family, friends, and so much holiday food.

Morocco again. Back at the youth center.

"Eugene! We missed you! The students in life skills ask about you every week. We are still doing the class every week. There are 80 students! We have three classes a week."

"Wow, Mostafa, that's literally unbelievable. I'll be in Sidi Ifni this weekend. I hope it goes well. Then I'll check in again on the next Saturday to see where we are."

Sidi Ifni. Fun and laughter and friends. Tafraoute. Heaven.

Then Al-Aounate again. I arrived on Friday and met with the director in his office. Mostafa launched into his self-aggrandizing lectures on the success of the life skills program and his heavy involvement therein. I interrupt:

"Which lesson are we on now?"

"Understanding emotions."

"Mostafa, that's lesson two. You've been doing this for eight weeks."


*anger* "Okay, I'll prepare some stuff at home tonight and bring it in tomorrow for the class. Some video and audio stuff, to catch their attention and keep their interest. Will the projector be available?"

"Yes, sure. I am sure. See you at 10."

Next day, 10AM at the youth center.

"Salah, have you seen Mostafa?"

"No. So bad news, Eugene. I didn't read the lesson, so it's all you today."

"Salah, how many times do I have to go over this? I can't teach the lesson."

"Just teach it in English, man. This is interesting for them. They'll listen to somebody who is speaking in English, because it's new for them."

"Salah, maybe two students will be able to understand me. You are one of them. The rest will tune me out. You have to at least translate for me. And by the way, what the hell have you been doing for the last eight weeks that you haven't taught a single god-damn lesson?"

"Okay man, I'll help."

I went for the projector, which was in use by the computer skills volunteer in the youth center. He must have felt sorry for me, because he gave it up. The discomfort I felt in inconveniencing him was dwarfed by resentment towards the director, who was still missing.

"Salah, why is the sound cutting out on these speakers?"

"The wires are all broken, man."

"Fucking Moroccans don't know how to take care of their shit." I was obviously angry, and taking it out on Salah. But I was right, and he deserved it, so I felt no compunction.

*15 minutes passed as we waited for the director and wrestled with the wiring on the sound system*

"Okay Salah, I'm going to run to my house and grab some other wires. It'll only take 10 minutes. You're in charge while I'm gone."

"Okay man, but hurry. And call Mostafa and ask him where he is."

On my way across town to my home, I call Mostafa. It is now 45 minutes into class time.

"Oh hi Eugene!"

"Mostafa, where are you?!"

"I'm at home!"

"...Well I need the markers in your office, and the paper. You need to be here!"

"Okay, I am coming."

I grabbed the cord from my house and headed back. With each step the outrage mounted.

Back at the youth center, the kids were still at their big tables, playing cards, taking pictures on their cell phones, flirting - you know, teenager things. I hooked up the new cords. Success. I also noticed that there were markers and paper left out, and that the director was missing again.

"Salah, did you see Mostafa come in?"

"No man, I haven't seen him. Did you call him?"

"Yeah, he said he was coming. He must have came and left. Damn it, let's just start the lesson."

"Eugene, wait. This guy wants to sing a song."

"What? Who? What does this have to do with the lesson?"

"Please. Eugene. He's been asking for three weeks to sing. Just let him sing one song."

By this point I had ceded control to hysteria, so it sounded like a fine idea to me. The boy clambered up onto the stage and sang his song, and I found myself laughing, irrationally silly.

When he finished, I attempted to regain control of the situation by introducing the topic - emotions - and asking the students to provide some examples of common emotions. One student - Yassine - fittingly offered "angry," and I asked Salah to write it on the board. "Good. What else?" Yassine raised his hand again, but I was looking for a different student to volunteer an answer. A vain attempt it was, as Yassine was apparently the only student in the crowd interested in what I had to say.

Soon, I noticed that Salah, my translator, had slipped out of the room, and I was left completely alone. The remainder of the class (by this point, we didn't have an awful lot of time anyway) was chaotic and disastrous. I dismissed the students at twelve and immediately thought about going home and smoking an entire package of cigarettes. Mostafa showed up at the tail end of the class, and as the students were filing out, gave me a big thumbs up and, with a goofy grin, exclaimed, "Good! You were the director today!"

I gave him a thumbs down and scowled at him. "No good, Mostafa. Bad. Very bad."

We then had the same conversation that we've had dozens of times. Commitment. Preparation. Competency. All things that were required to run this curriculum that both he and Salah, the alleged leaders, lacked. We have given up on Life Skills, due to our mutually exclusive approaches to implementation (the right way vs the lazy way). But it's not all bad. Saturdays and Sundays are now activity days for the kiddos. They like hanging out at the youth center, and I like that they're there. You win some and you lose some.

The saying goes, "Get used to disappointment." This exhortation has no better-fitting place than in the Peace Corps. I'm not unhappy or unsatisfied with my time in Morocco. I have had quite a few successful projects, and several good youth camps. Only one has been in my own site. My English classes (and students) also bring me respite from my troubles. Mostafa and his wife are both wonderfully personable, generous, and kind, and I enjoy visiting them for a meal every once in a while. I wouldn't trade this experience for two years in a well-paying office job. But it is rather disappointing. Nearly every job-related interaction with a Moroccan turns out to be a major let-down. I find myself mistrusting them from the very first words of any conversation.

But like Jesus warned, I ought not kick against the pricks. It would go badly. So I laugh. It may sound like flirting with madness, but it's the only way I know how to cope with near-constant frustration. I say to myself, "That's the way the cookie crumbles." I make cookies, and then eat them, or just the cookie dough. I visit Carly and Evan, and the three of us laugh together. I call Kyla and laugh with her. I yell at my downstairs neighbors in funny voices and laugh at myself. Our time here is a 2-year-long episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David's role being replaced by the Jack from The Shining as played by Jack Nicholson. 

Mining for the humor in bad situations is my favorite Peace Corps pastime, and I'm damned lucky that I have friends who laugh with me, because what a sorry service it would be if I surrounded myself with humorless mopes. So this post goes out to the fellow crazies, the nuts, the loonies, and the weirdos. I would never have survived without you.
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