Sewing Classes, Glasses, Soap and Camels

Posted April 8, 2012 by caityconnolly
Categories: Uncategorized

Quite a bit has been going on as-of-late, though due to my recent blogging laziness one would never know it. To that- this post has an exciting new feature for this blog (if perhaps an rather unnecessary one)…. A Table of Contents! Page numbers seem pointless for obvious reasons, so I will divide into “parts”, and attempt to update on far too many topics in one simple entry. And so…

Part 1: Sewing Classes wrap-up

Part 2: Eyejusters Glasses Distribution in Morocco (AKA, pigs fly)

Part 3: Soap-Making Workshop in Oulad Ali

Part 4: Camel Trek in south-eastern Morocco!

PART 1: Sewing Classes wrap-up

The end of our 6-week series of sewing lessons in Oulad Daoud was, admittedly, bittersweet. While the girls demonstrated markedly improved skill on the foot-propelled sewing machines and with embroidery, I think everyone was very sad to see the sessions end. It also put a rather bright spotlight on the fact that I am leaving the country very soon and continuing projects like this with these girls isn’t an option anymore. All good things must end (hopefully this is just ending for me, not the girls!) but explaining how I will no longer be involved in community events, and that it is now up to them, was both a proud moment and a sad one. There is so much potential and now I have to hope that the girls take advantage of it!

The trainer, Zahara, donated her time and doubled the number of hours the girls had of training on the machines, while asking for no additional compensation from grant funds. The girls developed a wonderful, sister-like relationship with her by the end of their weeks together, and I hope that the friendships forged will lead to future educational events of this type for all of them. The men’s association saw the girls progress very quickly through their lessons, and I hope that this will mean enthusiastic support for future educational workshops.

Keyword: Hope. It really sums up how closing this chapter in town feels. A bright future potential, but needing to admit my lack of control or involvement. A little bit of a hard pill to swallow, after two years of intimate, emotional involvement in this community. This wasn’t supposed to be an update about my feelings, but oh well, here we are.

The photos below are just a few from classes over the final weeks of lessons. There aren’t many of the girls, as whipping a camera out mid-lesson usually resulted in frenzied posing and requests to see the results…. a major classroom distraction, to say the least.

The girls practicing sewing straight lines and seams on the sewing machines

For International Women's Day (March 8th) I put together this presentation for the girls to look at during classes. It is a map of the world with photos of women from seven different countries, displaying their cultures. We also talked a little about each of these countries and how women live there and how it is different or similar to Morocco.

So, in conclusion, it has been a pleasure (if at times a challenging one) to work with these bright, motivated young ladies and I have nothing but great wishes for where they will take things in the future!

Part 2: Eyejusters Glasses Distribution in Morocco (AKA, pigs fly)

To put it simply: I cannot believe what just happened last week.

A bit of background: About a year and a half ago, I met with an organization out of Oxford, England that manufactures self-adjustable, cheap, corrective eyewear for the developing world. They prefer to distribute through established aid agencies and organizations, particularly those involved with youth education, and we came to the realization that the youth development program in Peace Corps Morocco was a great fit with their ideal distribution model. This kick-started a five-month period of optimism where I thought writing a grant to make this happen would be simple. HAH. Long story short, we re-wrote many grant proposals, received and then lost funding, and were left very discouraged by late spring of last year. This was when, considering my rural village work load, I handed the reigns of the potential project to my fellow PCV, Philip, and told him I wanted to be involved, but had neither the internet access nor ability to do the research and multi-continent communication that would be necessary to pull this off.

Well, Philip is amazing. He perservered, with some encouragement from me and other PCVs in the process, through MOUNTAINS of red tape and piles of grant paperwork, culminating in the first distributions of the glasses around Morocco last week. In the towns of Immouzer Marmoucha, Outat Elhaj and Sefrou, Phil, myself and other volunteers were trained by two of the company representatives from Oxford (Greg and Owen) in screening and distribution of the product and got to see first-hand how this innovative technology can change lives in an instant. Literally, a small turn of a knob on the side of the lenses, and someone can go from an inability to read the top line of a sight chart to the level of sight considered legal to drive in the UK. Nothing I have done during my time in Morocco has been so instantly rewarding. Few things in life are actually so instantly rewarding! It is particularly shocking that this distribution began a mere four weeks before I am slated to return to the US, and I’m so grateful to have seen the beginning of this project on-the-ground.

Owen, Greg, Hassan and Phil on our glasses distribution day in Outat Elhaj. Owen and Greg are from Eyejusters, Hassan is the head of the Outat youth center, and Phil is my fellow PCV and the leader of this project in Morocco.

En route from Outat Elhaj to our distribution in Sefrou, I gave some blue Eyejusters a try

A variety of frame colors to pick from, at the Sefrou distribution

Screening and distributing Eyejusters in Sefrou

Showing a kid how to adjust his new glasses to fit his perscription.

Over the next several months, nine PCVs in poor towns across Morocco will be distributing the 800 Eyejusters and reading glasses brought by the joint efforts of Philip and the guys at Eyejusters.

To read my previous posts about this project, click here and here.

Part 3: Soap-Making Workshop in Oulad Ali

Over the last several months, my friend and fellow PCV Nicole has also been working on a community center project in her mountain village of Oulad Ali. She had mentioned wanting to do some kind of craft workshop with the women and girls in her village once they completed the center, and as of about two weeks ago, we accomplished just that!

Oulad Ali has a very small number of tourists that come through on an annual basis. This is currently an untapped potential resource for women to earn their own income via selling the crafts and woven goods that they already make as hobbies. When Nicole brought this idea up to the women, they were receptive to the idea of developing their crafts for small-scale sale, but they wanted to know how to make products that could be put into the boxes and baskets they already knew how to weave. Nicole and I brainstormed, and realizing that the hills around the village are full of fresh rosemary, sage and spearmint, we thought up the idea of teaching women to re-batch unscented, natural soap into scented, herbal soaps that could be sold to tourists.

Our workshop lasted one afternoon and took place in the new community center. We had six tables of girls work on six different pots of soap, adding oils, scents, ground up fresh herbs, ground almonds and seeds. The results were really exciting and the process of making the different soaps was very fun! Nicole also added a session on making natural facial scrubs with honey, sugar, lemon, nuts, etc… which went over really well. The photos below are from that workshop:

The set up for re-batching soap (a double-boiler, grated natural soap, herbs, nuts, oils and fragrances) at the community center in Oulad Ali

Nicole setting up the stations for making soap in the community center, before the workshop

Some of the final products! The soap in the foreground is rosemary and sage and the soap behind is is coconut almond!

Part 4: Camel Trek in south-eastern Morocco!

I have been wanting to do this iconic Moroccan tourist experience since before I even arrived in country! I saved it, however, for a few friends who came to visit from Spain during their spring break this month. It also coincided nicely with visitng a fellow PCV friend who lives in the region of Morocco where the sand dunes and camel treks take place. Everything lined up and we went on our trek!

Four of us took an hour-long off road trip into the rocky desert toward an area called Merzouga. At a certain point on the horizon, bright orange sand dunes rise out of the ground and the Sahara abruptly begins. Along the edge of this sea of sand is an Auberge made from mudbrick in the style of a traditional Moroccan Kasbah. We were dropped off at the Auberge, waited to be fit to our camels, and then took off on an overnight trek into the dunes. We camped in a small cluster of bamboo huts and had tea and some red wine with the setting sun. We were woken up to re-mount camels and trek the hour and a half back out to the Auberge with the rising sun, surrounded by the bright orange sand dunes. The pictures don’t do the experience justice, but they are beautiful all the same. The company was also excellent! It was a wonderful way to see a new side of Morocco in my last month here!

The four of us on our camel trek, heading out into the Sahara!

The view from atop my camel, I was third in line.

Our oasis for the night

inside our oasis hut made of goat hair cloth and bamboo

Riding our camels back out of the dunes at sunrise on day two

So that’s my shoddy catch-up in an attempt at compensating for slacking with the updates. Life is very busy these days, very full. I find myself oscillating between excitement for the future and early-onset separation anxiety from Morocco. Either way, I know I’m a lucky girl and life is pretty great :)

Update on Girls Continuing Education classes in Oulad Daoud

Posted February 13, 2012 by caityconnolly
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s a testament to the busy-ness of these last few months that i’m about to post this, my third blog in February! I remember a time when I didn’t even get one post up here in a month. Older volunteers always told us that the last months get nuts, and once again their sage advice has proven true.

With the recent opening of the community center in the village, we’ve jumped right into the girls continued education classes, starting just this last Friday. The two parts of this program, sewing classes and computer skills classes, are going to be carried out over the next six weeks, but as of now we’ve only begun the sewing classes. The turnout has been wonderful, however, as I was actually worried that we wouldn’t even get the 16 attendees I had originally budgeted for. Quite the contrary, as 28 young women from the town have shown up to all sessions Friday, Saturday and Sunday! They have actually even been early for class, waiting outside of the center for the trainer and myself to come and open up. It’s exciting to see that the girls are invested and enthusiastic about this program, and hopeful for the future of similar seminars and training programs to be put on by people from the village.

The trainer’s name is Zahara, and she is so friendly and gregarious, the girls took an instant LOVE to her and the classes were off to an immediately positive start. Additionally, Zahara is so excited about this outreach to such a remote village, that she’s adding extra hours of classes on Saturday and Sunday mornings, free of charge. This means the girls are learning how to work the sewing machines and traditional Moroccan embroidery from 2-5 Friday afternoons as well as 10-12 and 2-5 on both Saturdays and Sundays. Once again, I’m blown away by Moroccan hospitality and generosity.

For the next two weekends, the girls will continue to use the foot-propelled Singer sewing machines and take on more and more intricate embroidery patterns, before we add the computer skills classes to the schedule, probably on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I’m putting together the computer skills curriculum now, and I think we’ll start with typing practice in French and Arabic of The Little Prince.

For now, that’s the update on classes! A few photos from our first weekend are below, with more to hopefully come!

Sewing lessons in session on day 1

embroidery homework assignments from the first day

Group shot next to the sewing machines of the 28 students and Zahara, the trainer, in black on the far right

2 posts in one day? Unheard of! But so is this news……

Posted February 6, 2012 by caityconnolly
Categories: Uncategorized

In Chefchaouen... nothing to do with this post, but I love it there.

I wanted to quickly update on the status of the Eyejusters glasses project that I posed about in January. Recently, the volunteers in charge of administering it found out that it was funded, and the list of donors indicated that some people who read this blog were involved. First of all, thank you so much! But secondly, there’s excellent news from the people at Eyejusters!

They have decided to send us many more glasses than we originally planned on purchasing, free of charge. Like, many, many more glasses. Discussing this with Phil (one of the facilitating volunteers), we did the math, and adjusted the prices as if it were a discount as opposed to a gift of free glasses, and the new estimates are as follows:

The slide-lens eyejusters were dropped down to ~$3.96 per pair, and standard-prescription reading glasses were added to the order at ~$0.54 per pair.

This means that those who originally donated thinking that their $15 would purchase one pair of slide-lens glasses for distribution, actually ended up funding 3 pairs of Eyejusters and almost 6 pairs of reading glasses for distribution.

As previously stated, the need is very significant for corrective eye care in these two regions of Morocco, and the generosity of those who donated cannot be overstated. Once again, thank you so much for your support!

Opening of the Nedi Niswi (Women’s center/community center) in Oulad Daoud!

Posted February 6, 2012 by caityconnolly
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s been a while coming…. like, a since-may-supposed-to-be-done-in-September-while coming, but Allah has smiled upon us all and the community center project is officially FINISHED! Yesterday was the zrda, or traditional opening ceremony for a building, hosted by the mens’ association from my village, and this means that the Nedi (community center) is now officially available for use! Very exciting, if only a little bit daunting, and a tiiiiiiiny bit unbelievable from where I stand, but I’ll take it!

We initiated this project last May, wrote a building proposal together (the mens’ association and myself) and submitted it to the SPA program (“small project assistance”, funded by USAID). We were fortunate to quickly receive the funds, but with Ramadan, national parliamentary elections and Eid l-Kebir in relatively quick succession this last summer and fall, it put our opening date back a bit. While I was home for Christmas, the men kicked up their donated labor force, and by the time I returned in mid-January, we were setting the interior up in preparation for the opening ceremony!

the finished Nedi (to the right) attached to my house (to the left)

The members of the mens' association and some local politicians in front of the Nedi on opening day

That leads us up to this past week, which was spent assembling the donated desktop computers and sewing machines, installing them, planning for the zrda, and initiating discussions about the hours and uses that the Nedi will take on.

Over the course of about three days the men assembled the two industrial electric sewing machines and the four foot-pedal powered ones with very consistent and complete success. I assembled the five computers and scored a respectable (and somewhat expected) 80%, in that I got four out of the five to work… not too shabby, I thought, hoping that that fifth one had a hardware issue as opposed to software, seeing as I read through the user’s manual three times with no hint at anything new I could try. Turns out it was the hardware, and a volunteer wiser in the ways of motherboards and computer parts resourcefully fixed it with duct tape in true Peace Corps style, al-humdillallah.

Computers in the Nedi

The other side of the nedi building with the sewing machines, set up for the opening party

After a week of setting up and discussing welcome messages, snacks, furniture arrangements and invite lists ad nauseam, the party was a go and within two hours we’d eaten those dates, drank that milk, blessed the building, listened to speeches and  made our way over to lunch at a local family’s house (they had a wedding that weekend and invited the zrda guests to join the final day wedding lunch).

The Muqaddam and my host father pouring the milk and setting out the dates for the opening ceremony

A particularly great thing about this was that my four fellow Outat-area-based volunteers came to support me and join in the party. I must admit I was stressing out pretty badly all week, so having those friendly faces there for support was wonderful, and helped me to feel like the work had actually been completed. We also took the opportunity to wear Jellabas, which are the traditional Moroccan robes (the original inspiration for George Lucas that led to the Jedi look in Star Wars).

Outat-area volunteers in Jellabas, next to the snack table

from left: Phil (full-on Jedi), Avery, Jonathan and Nicole outside of the Nedi after the ceremony

Phil and Avery walking just ahead of my host father and some association members on our way to the Wedding lunch

So now, on to the next thing! Community center now open and outfitted, we’re starting on the women’s education classes this Friday, and hoping to carry them out for six weeks this spring.

Zahara, the woman from a nearby village who will be teaching the girls sewing classes, and myself.

Zahara, the woman from a nearby village who will be teaching the girls sewing classes, and myself.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Posted January 17, 2012 by caityconnolly
Categories: Uncategorized

So, it’s been a while. I had the wonderful opportunity to go home for three weeks over the holidays and absolutely loved soaking up every last little bit of america’s comforts (trader joes, costco samples, CHIPOTLE, jeopardy, zinfandel) as well as spend quality time with my family and friends… but now I’m back and it’s time to get down to business!

As mentioned in my last post, a project that I designed was recently funded by amazing people donating from home and I am kick starting the planning for that to begin in Feburary… BUT… another project that is very near and dear to my heart is in the works, so yet again i’m shamelessly plugging it on this blog.

The Eyewear for Moroccan Youth project has been put together by two fellow volunteers (phil and katy), but is the culmination of over a year of project designing, grant writing, grant re-writing, and logistics juggling. The basic idea is to fund an astoundingly ingenius and relatively cheap type of technology and put it in the hands of kids in need in the developing world.

The organization responsible for this awesome technology is called The Centre for Vision in the Developing World and is affiliated with Oxford University. An offshoot of this center is the group we are working with, Eye-Justers. Their website can be found here. Basically, these physicists have found a way to manufacture two lenses that, when placed together, slide along a spectrum and refract the light in a way that can be adjusted to fit any prescription. On that website, you can try the technology and experience the effect here.

This product is not only fascinating and impressive, it’s also CHEAP. These glasses are manufactured with distribution in the developing world in mind…. A self-adjusting and continually re-adjustable pair of glasses mean that a person with vision problems might never need to visit an optometrist in order to correct their sight. They will only need one pair of glasses for the rest of their life, despite a potential deterioration in their ability to see. In extremely poor areas, one pair of these glasses could also be used by an entire family, as the lenses can be re-adjusted an unlimited amount of times. All of this at $15 a pop. Impressive!

So, having read about the predecessor to these glasses in a National Geographic article, we contacted the organization and went from there… but now here we are. This project will provide 120 glasses to needy youth in Zagora and Outat Elhaj… towns in two of the poorest regions of Morocco. We really believe in this technology and would love to be able to bring it to our part of this country. I encourage you to read the linked articles above, and please consider donating at the link below. Every $15 buys a kid a pair of glasses that they can use for life!

The first model, photo from National Geographic Magazine

the slide-lens, new generation model that are the type of glasses we are seeking to fund (photo from Eyejusters' website)

Thanks, as always, for your consideration… HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Project donation link:

Thanksgiving… and a big THANKS!

Posted November 30, 2011 by caityconnolly
Categories: Uncategorized

So just last week we celebrated Thanksgiving in my friends Jon and Nicole’s site up in the Mountains about an hour and a half southeast of my souk town (as the crow flies, about 2 hours from my site). Their village is called Oulad Ali and is BEAUTIFUL. Absolutely beautiful. I can say with 100% certainty that it’s my favorite PCV site in Morocco (that i’ve seen). Add to this beautiful locale, a group of 17 fantastic volunteers and quite a bit of holiday cheer and it was such a great way to usher in the holiday season! My friend Phil and I cooked an apple pie from scratch (my second of the week, having practiced at home in my village earlier in the week and serving the results to my host family, to mixed reviews). Photos (both mine, and stolen from those indicated) are below….

But just quickly,  in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I also wanted to take this opportunity to THANK EVERYONE who donated to the project I posted about below. I just found out today that it is fully funded, and I am really looking forward to implementing this program in February and March of next year. Let me reiterate how far this money will go in helping these girls to learn about something that is very important to them, and I consider it a privilege to carry this out with all of your generous help. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!

so now, photos:

Homemade apple and pumkin pie (test-run early in the week at my house)

Oulad Ali's surrounding mountains capped with snow

Oulad Ali

Fall colors! None of these in my desert-village, but a few hours away in the mountains, colors abound!

LOVE this Berber mountain village!

Both halves of Bob, the 18 Kilo turkey we slaughtered for Thanksgiving... cheers, Bob! (photo courtesy of Socorra)

Incorporating the Moroccan Tajine into day-after leftovers (photo courtesy of Socorra)

Unfortunately it's blurry, but it's the only group shot we got! Thanksgiving 2011 (photo courtesy of April)

Day-after hiking around Oulad Ali with some fantastic ladies

Continued Education Project for Rural Young Women

Posted November 20, 2011 by caityconnolly
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s that time of year again… the time of year where you eat way too many rich foods, wear obnoxious sweaters without irony, dust off the boxes of decorations, play those holiday songs…. and shamelessly plug your Peace Corps project that needs funding on your blog, right? This program was designed by myself, the members of the local men’s development association in my village and with significant input from the young women who are to participate in the classes. The structure of the funding for this type of grant is coordinated by Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., but relies on donations from family and friends of the facilitating volunteer back home (for more information on the Peace Corps Partnership Program and FAQ, click here). The link for the project itself, can be found here: Continued Education Project for Rural Young Women. There is an executive summary of the project and a summary of the community contribution and other grant details to the right of that page.

On behalf of my community, I appreciate your consideration of this project and will be sure to regularly update here about the developments therein. PLEASE also pass on the above address for the donation page to anyone that may be interested!

Now, I also know that the executive summary of the project on that website had to be quite brief.  With that in mind, I am pasting below some pertinent segments from my proposal for those who might like to read in more detail about the project (perhaps it’s more detail than you could EVER want…. but just in case). Thanks for reading!

Background Information:

The community has a population of about 600 people and is very remote, located off of a 3km dirt path from a main road that is a further 40 km from the nearest town. There is a very active and successful men’s association in this village that has a history of excellent work. The president of the men’s association is one of the main community partners in this project and hopes to see it become just as successful as his numerous past projects (including a pre-school in town, two water towers, a brief period of women’s literacy classes and a women’s prayer loft in the town mosque). The other community partner for this project is the head of the women’s association who will be organizing a trainer for the girls in the village from the market town. She has demonstrated excellent leadership skills in leading a pre-school and women’s sewing association in town and has been very enthusiastic about rural outreach to young women.

The young women who hope to participate in this project are the origin of the project idea. They began asking for someone to come and teach them to sew many months ago, and only recently with the completion of the community center and the installation of the sewing machines has this become possible. They are very motivated to take on projects and educational opportunities outside of their homes.

Community Need:

This project is needed in this community because the community is at a potential turning-point in their development. They recently completed a community center and have outfitted it with a computer and sewing machines, yet the knowledge does not exist in town yet to take full advantage of these resources. Many young women want to learn to sew and to research patterns on the internet, yet none of them yet know how. Additionally, the men in town clearly have their daughter’s interests at heart, yet do not have the professional contacts to produce community lessons or events like this project. This project would not only demonstrate how the community center can be a venue for education and other public events, it will also teach a group of young women how to pursue an outlet beyond the work environment within the home. Additionally, it is possible that the women who complete this series of lessons may then be able to pass their knowledge on to other women in town, through lessons put on by themselves at the community center.

If this project is not implemented, I fear that the community center may not be used to its full capacity. Currently, no women know how to operate the sewing machines, and I fear that without some training and help in the right direction, no young women will have an opportunity to acquire that knowledge, or pass it on to others in their community.

Community Initiation and Direction:

The young women in the community were the people who first proposed this project, and the idea was ardently supported by the men in the local men’s association. As the men’s association was in the process of finishing the community center and had acquired 8 sewing machines, they supported the idea of hosted lessons at the community center for the women in town, noting that they realized young women from the village had few opportunities for education or outlets.

The young women have been involved in the planning of the lessons in that they have been very specific about what they would like to learn. They have indicated that they are interested in how to sew clothing and would be glad to have the ability to build upon their skills following the lessons via an internet connection on one of the existing computers.

The men’s association has been very helpful in brainstorming logistics for the sewing lesson trainer’s transportation to-and-from the village during the project, as well as committing to pay the monthly internet connection fees following the installation of the internet line. The local school teachers have also indicated their support for the project, saying that they will also use the internet connection for educational purposes following the workshops.

Project Sustainability:

Through the project’s implementation, skills and knowledge will be acquired by the community in two main ways: (1) the young women will learn how to sew and how to teach sewing lessons in turn themselves, and (2) the men’s association will witness how a community training event is carried out in their newly completed community center, as well as make connections with an active women’s association from their market town.

The capacity of the young women will grow in that they will be fostering and developing an outlet for education and creativity outside of the home (as they may not continue in their education). They will be acquiring skills that they may then pass on and they will be participating in the first community training event of its kind in the newly completed community center.

The capacity of the members of the men’s association will grow in that they will have worked with a member of the women’s association and the president of the women’s association from a town an hour away, and will have witnessed how investing in women’s education and recreation in the village is a valuable expenditure of time. They will also have tapped into a new network of women working in development that will help to foster future projects of theirs, geared toward the improvement of the situation of women.


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