By Jamie, Volunteer (Staj 100)
“Why am I doing this?” I think again as I’m peddling with all my might into a dry, desert headwind with a slightly flat front tire and an empty stomach from Ramadan fasting.
I bike two miles four-days-a-week from my town to the local Dar Talib and Dar Taliba where kids from duars off the main road attend in my area. These dormitories sit next to the lycee, college and 9ida (administration building), and there is a constant traffic of bikes, school vans, and walkers hiking up and down this trek.
At first, I hated the ride. The way there is mostly uphill, drari constantly yell “Bonjour” in my face like it’s a challenge, and students sharing the road leer at me as I pass. I constantly stress that my knee-length dresses are riding up over my leggings and wonder if my butt is too provocative for my site’s standards. I can’t enjoy taking in the lustrous date forest adjacent to my twirling wheels, or marvel over the crumbling kasbahs peppering the black and white highway. Sometimes the social taboos are just too overpowering to take in the beautiful uniqueness of my home.
On top of this, communication and engagement are lax at the Dar Talib/a. Several times I’ve shown up and found the buildings closed (due to teacher strikes or school holidays) or the girls and boys napping, unaccounted for roaming the town, or just not in the mood for me and whatever lesson I’d pulled from the internet for the day. I’ve tried PACA, and simply asking the students or mudir/a, “What do you want to do today?”
“Whatever you want to do,” is the constant reply. Or sometimes the typical, “a movie.”
I’ve never been more confused about how to engage a group of kids who don’t seem to want to learn English, laugh at yoga, or sit silently at any life skills activity I attempt on them.
I ask myself again, “What am I doing here?”
Nevertheless, the Dar Talib/a are still my main, somewhat regular work in (or out of) site. I’ve tried starting classes at the Dar Shabab in town and quickly burned out from the lack of community support, inconsistent attendance, or harassment from students.* I know that when I show up to the Dar Talib/a there will be a group of kids hanging around with several adults present to support. For these reasons, and so that my mind doesn’t go completely insane here for the next two years, I get on my bike and make the trek several times a week to “youth develop.”
Prior to Ramadan, I struggled to find a program that engaged the kids, something they got excited about and would want to make their own. PACA priority ranking consisted of a regurgitation of their mudir/a’s priorities, which in itself was perhaps a regurgitation of the wizara’s priorities for their institutions- communication, sports, writing. Plus, there has always been the problem of space. I was psyched to start a life skills/volleyball club after noticing the interest hitting my ball around with the youth a few times. However, neither workplace has a playing field and there are two beautiful courts sitting next door at the college and lycee, unused, but unable to be used by us for liability reasons. English died a slow, hard death as I felt more and more impatience, side-conversations and rolling of eyes the more I stood at a board, no matter how fun I tried to make it. The only thing that seemed to work was games.
So Ramadan, I decided, would be the month of games. We had only one more month before school exams and then summer break. Might as well do something lighthearted and fun to kill the time until fatour. Usually I tried to make these games somewhat educational- put English words on a memory card set, Ramadan word searches, and head’s up in English. However, the only game the youth really latched onto without fail, was UNO. The girls and boys alike could not get enough of UNO. They cackled when they caught their friends forgetting to say the word with one card in hand, or cracked up over the similarity between the word “Uno” and “Weenu,” which means “mine” in Tamazight. They loved to pile on cards to their neighbors by adding multiple “add two” cards until one unfortunate soul ended up with 8 or 10 “add two’s.” They’d argue heatedly over rules and throw their hands up, flaunting their victory, when they won. Every time is like watching a professional soccer match.
So why am I peddling this bike miles every few days in 100-degree heat and blistering headwind to play UNO with a bunch of teenagers?
I enjoy it.
I think that playing Uno consistently twice a week with each group has finally built a sturdy relationship between me and them. I am humbled and overjoyed by the smiles I see on their faces when I show up now- proud of the polite handshakes the boys make now rather than rolling past me, snickering. I’ve managed to capture the girls’ attention, now they listen to me and join me when I arrive. Playing UNO, while not the most creative or educational activity, is still engaging the boys and girls to bond over a fun activity. It keeps them inside the building instead of roaming the boundaries of the school or hanging around the hanut. And it’s drawn me closer to them as well. I look forward to seeing them each day. The alternative would be sitting in my house, sweating out the last few hours before the call to prayer to break fast.
I still don’t know how I’m going to turn this card game into a more proper program next year. I stress that I will show up again after summer break finding that UNO is still the only thing they want. I have high hopes to try GLOW and BRO, a yoga life skills program, a volleyball club or an environmental club. Ideally, I’d love to break down the separation between the Dar Talib/a. Getting girls and boys to interact with each other, treating each other with respect, is a huge need in this area.
This was exemplified perfectly in our attempt to present our community maps to each other. It was like pulling teeth to get to boys to walk over to the Dar Taliba with their maps and key; same with encouraging the girls to get out of bed and walk outside. Both groups stood facing each other like war combatants, making sure not to get too close, forgetting all their points until I prompted them with questions- “What is this building? What does this circle mean around the school? Do the girls also go here? What do you want in the future in your town?” The boys hightailed it out of there as soon as we were done and the girls turned to me, asking, “Can we play UNO now?”
I’m still trying to decide if PACA really works or if it’s just another silly American experiment I’m putting them through.
Regardless, the fact that the boys and girls put aside their insecurities and discomfort for long enough to follow me and talk to each other shows improvement and the trust we’ve built from day one. I can’t imagine this ever happening in my first month with this crowd. It’s a start. And all of it is thanks to UNO and some uphill bike rides.
*However, I have had luck more recently at the Dar Shabab with planning workshops or events with community members and advertising excessively on social media prior to the event. These activities were a huge win after months of disappointment, but still leave me free most of the week.