Recently there was a week and a half or so long country-wide transport strike, meaning no public transport. So unless you were a richie in the city with your own car, you couldn't get anywhere. First I was real bummed, as it canceled Pesach at my house, but then it was kind of nice. I stay in site as much as possible, but without even the possibility of leaving, I really relaxed into my complete lack of control over the situation and happily hung around town. I am so in love with my site right now and it's wonderful. Actually the more I fall into the rhythm of life here the more terrified I become of the life I must return to. I'm not on a high, just finding the swing of things and hoping to make it a wonderful ride for the remainder of my service. Being a PCV is so unbelievably different than I ever imagined. I don't even know what I imagined before. RPCVs told me before I left that the 2nd year is when you really start working, the first is just getting over it all. Well, I feel I've got it now and it's a good feeling. Amazingly, I've found, as I'm sure you're already tired of me saying, what I really want to do in life, and it's incredible how much I've relaxed just knowing that and having the time to develop my vision. I also know that's had a big impact on my commitment as a volunteer here. I'm writing this, I suppose, as a bit of a check-up, a reflection on my service thus far, and what I'm doing with the time I have left.
I work with a really well established, incredibly motivated and quite successful weaving cooperative. These women are insanely strong-willed. A lot of money has been put into this cooperative over the past few years from ONUDI. Along with large metal looms for making traditional work they were also given European horizontal looms for making cloth and wearables. They got some basic training on the looms, but have since just been doing stripes in plain weave for jellaba fabric, shawls and bread cloth. In my time here I've learned a lot about development work, and though I do think the idea is good, the method often isn't. I'm not going to get into this too far because its complicated and irritating to try and work out, but essentially I don't really see myself as working in development any longer. I don't think I ever really did actually. I've been torn from the start about whether I think these European looms and money given to the cooperative have benefited the women or just the beneficiary's consciouses. Whether bringing this community into a more modern world and global market is right. I don't really know that it is. But that's a really long and tedious discussion we should have another time.
As a PCV, an important part of my work here is to assess the needs of my community and how I might help them to get those needs resolved. Being human, what that translates to is a lot of not so objective need finding. In weaving for example, I saw the European looms they had and that they were not using them nearly to their capacity. In my mighty high-college-degree-in-fiber chair I saw what they needed and would benefit from is learning to use the looms properly and do all that they can do on them. So about a year ago I tried to accomplish that. I set up a loom with the simplest pattern possible and wove. But the project didn't generate much interest, and I was too shy to push it, and let the project go after one sample. I see now the many reasons that attempt failed, the primary one being it was really my idea of what they should do, not theirs.
When asked by my Assistant Program Manager on a recent site visit why I haven't been teaching them how to use these looms, I expressed the change over the past year in what I see as genuine; that those looms do not work toward their image. All they know is that those looms work faster, but they can't make the traditional, unique, individual designs and symbols that have been a part of their culture and their lives for generations. He was remarkably receptive to my resistance to trying the project again, and later when we went to the Cooperative the women actually told him that they are thinking of not using those looms so much anymore because the product is not profitable. I was happy to hear that they realize the value of the traditional work, and that the work from the European looms was no different from cheap material imported from china. With that, I was able to step into the picture again.
Like déjà vu from last year, the project began, only now I had a completely different relationship with the women, and very different expectations. No real expectations actually. Relaxed, I simply brought in The Handweaver's Pattern Book, my old drafting book and tattered old tam notes. I set up a counter balance loom, just like last year, and had my two "trainees", Mhajouba and Miriam, pick a relatively simple pattern. I tried to throw in bits about how the designs in the book were pretty but not Amazigh, that we could add some designs, but not change the overall look. I really wanted to stress that pattern weaving was not better than the plain weaving they were doing, just different, a door to possibility. My idea is that if they could understand more about how the looms work, and how to use them to get the image they want, they would feel more ownership over these foreign looms and the products they make.
I'm ashamed to admit my surprise at their immediate proficiency. The threading was only 12 steps before repeating, and they very quickly got the hang of it. After some miming I got the point across on why there are only rb3 n quadr (four harnesses) but stta n sbat (six pedals). The counter balance loom requires a lot of, you may have guessed, re-balancing, all the time, but they wove with patience and interest. Throughout it all I should add, partly on purpose, I didn't explain much about anything until they asked. Particularly with the language barrier, it was easier to answer questions than come up with explanations beforehand, and they were full of great questions.
Mhjouba took the book home and the next day had already chosen designs she liked and pointed out where they would lay, for instance, on a headscarf, and how beautiful that would be. Of course, those lovely patterns were quite complicated overshot, which I had to re-teach myself before even beginning to explain to them. But she's a very fast learner and isn't shy about asking questions-she wants to get it. I was having great difficulty explaining to her that the first two pedals were for tabby, or plain weave, and the other four were for the pattern. With overshot, you have to do a shot of tabby between each shot of pattern. It's tricky in English, far trickier in Tam. She then said she didn't really understand how the pattern worked on the piece we already had on the loom, well let me tell you! Ecstatic that she truly wanted to understand how this mess of threads and pedals became woven shapes, I showed her how to draft the pattern; from the tie up, to the threading, to the pedaling, to drawing out the design it would make. She understood instantly and it was then easy to show her the pedals for tabby, when they are used in overshot and why. (I know this is a lot of weaving garble, but I've been dying to say it in English, I don't care if no weavers read and get this, but there you go)
What's happening now is a fun little conversation in the co-op; these two women got it quite quickly, and are explaining it to the other curious faces. This includes plenty of yelling and laughter and I love it. And of course that is the point, for them to teach each other. Soon they want to set up a loom and make a whole cloth of one pattern. I don't know what will come of this; if they will let it go and continue with the products they have, start weaving patterns straight from the book or better, draft their own patterns and use them in harmony with the current work. But I am happy to just have some part to play each day when I go to work. They have also been keeping up literacy classes, and I can't begin to fully express the delight I observe in a class of 15 or so middle aged women learning script. It's hilarious and wonderfully inspiring, I attend often as I can and participate as well, which just cracks them up.
But the true beauty of this place, aside from the women of course, are the traditional traditional Amazigh carpets and rugs they have been creating for generations. It's a beautiful scene to watch them weave together; hard on their bodies but good for their souls, I see the important bonds they have with one another. And sitting with them, learning some knots and attempting to understand the way this harp playing adds up to a beautiful piece is inspiring. My views of my service have changed and evolved a lot over the past year and some months, and the most comforting realization, though not exactly fulfilling, has been that they don't actually need me. They enjoy my company, love that I am here and find humor in everything I do. I have learned so much from them about family and community, weaving and cooking, there isn't really all that much for me to teach them. I'm no super volunteer, I know there are far bigger ways I could impact, help, teach, etc. here, but I'm just not doing it. It's not that I'm a bad volunteer, as I believed myself to be for the greater portion of my time here, just a different breed. I will never be that big smiley active jumpy creature of a volunteer pictured on the website. I don't initiate, and don't love that character trait, but I've been working with it 23 years now so it seems to be set. Because my language hasn't improved much, I've become far more integrated into life here mostly due to just time and being present. I love them and respect their work and way of life more than I ever did my own in America, and so I have no overhead view of how I think they would be better off here. It's quite simple everywhere really, people want to live a good and comfortable life and hope for better opportunities for their children. I work with a generation of women set, progressive yes because they work outside the home and contribute to the income of their household, but they're not wishing for millions or life in a big city.
I guess I wrote this blurb because I feel bad for often not having answers to the simple questions loved ones back home often ask about how work is going, or what I actually do here. I end up sounding like I'm not doing anything, and oftentimes that is the case. Justifying to Americans, including myself, the importance of just hanging out someplace real different for a couple years is a tough sell. But it all depends on how you look at it. And it seems just as I've come to embrace it, the situation changes and I now have something most people might actually classify as work. For the moment anyhow, this is my state of affairs: uncharacteristically and wonderfully content. We shall see what next week brings…