Tag Archives: Empowerment

God, Country, King

Trivia question: In 1777, which nation was the first to officially recognize the US as a sovereign state? No, not France. They’d of course discuss it, but the recognition would not become official until 1778. (Naturally followed by a declaration of war from Great Britain, who was understandably salty.) Believe it or not, Morocco was actually the first country to officially recognize the newly-independent US with the Treaty of Peace and Friendship on December 20, 1777. And for the most part, we’ve been tight ever since!


Fast forward a few centuries to the most recent regime change in 1956, and you have the Kingdom of Morocco, a 60 year old monarchy currently ruled by King Mohammed VI. His wife is Princess Lalla Salma, who despite her fair complexion and red hair, is in fact a native Moroccan. Note that her official title is that of a princess, the same of all women in the royal family. Queens do not exist in the Moroccan monarchy. In fact, traditionally the wives of kings are kept far away from the public eye. It wasn’t until the current King that the Moroccan people had ever seen the face of a King’s wife. The King is a very big deal though, as is evidenced by the country motto and namesake of this post: “God, Country, King.”


The Moroccan monarchy, at its surface, seems quite similar in structure to that of a typical democratic parliamentary system. However, in reality, the Moroccan parliament is nothing more than a puppet of the monarchy. As one local pointed out to me, the Prime Minister only exists for when things go badly... It is always the parliament’s fault, never that of the King. But if things are going well, then all credit goes to the king. In fact, Moroccan citizens can actually be arrested and persecuted for speaking out against the king. Though King Mohammed VI has been notably more liberalized than his predecessors, things haven’t been the same since the suicide bombings that occurred in Casablanca in 2003, the most severe terrorist attack Morocco has ever seen. The highest measures are taken for national security, certainly at great costs of civil liberty.


Morocco is also lauded as one of the most advanced African/Islamist countries for women, especially following the passage of the Moudawana law (also called the Family Code) in 2004. The law included major amendments to improve a woman’s ability to seek persecution and divorce in situations of domestic violence. Prior to the amendments, a woman had to have witnesses of the incident for any legal proceedings to take place. Sounds great! But here’s the problem: 60% of Moroccan women are illiterate, and therefore are hardly empowered by a law they can’t read. While it may be tempting to acknowledge the 17% of women serving in the Moroccan parliament, it is sadly only the result of a mandated gender quota, meaning that many of the women in parliament are quite literally there just for show. This is assumed to produce substantive representation for women in the government, but since the monarchy is the one pulling all the strings behind the curtain anyway, does it really make a difference? Morocco may be doing better than most, but further improvement is clearly still needed.

One of the most heart wrenching moments of my time in the classroom thus far came when one of my students told me “Things will never change. 20% of us live on less than the minimum wage of 200 dirhams a day ($2 USD) while the government officials get paid thousands for doing absolutely nothing. The best we can hope for is to continue our education, find a good job, and have enough to support ourselves and our family.”

Income inequality, unemployment, and illiteracy are three of the major issues afflicting Morocco right now. Many students cannot afford the opportunity cost of continuing school when their families need extra income to make ends meet. And many students, even after obtaining college degrees (yes, plural) in prestigious fields, are unable to find work in their field and have to resort to whatever else they can find to support themselves, like working in food delivery or as a parking assistant. At this point, you may be asking yourself: How is this government able to get away with this? Why don’t they protest? (Actually, they do.) What could possibly be worth sacrificing so much?

For all its shortcomings in civil liberties, government transparency, and rigid socioeconomic inequality, Morocco has something under the monarchy that outweighs all of the above. Something that can be summed up in a single word: Stability.

Amidst the chaos of ISIS, Boko Haram, and a systematic lack of government protection that plagues its neighboring states such as Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, (just to name a few) Morocco has enjoyed a steadfast stability that is not to be taken for granted. Their proximity to these persisting threats is constantly just a little too close for comfort, which they are reminded of when they see the inability of neighboring governments to protect its citizens. The monarchy, by contrast, has kept the Moroccan people safe by forging relationships with many world powers, working as their key ally in the Magreb. While it is certainly an imperfect system of governance, the people are acutely aware of just how much they have to be grateful for when they turn on the news.


Morocco is an altogether fascinating and complex country. I look forward to learning more about the triumphs and struggles that the Moroccan people face, because in an age where voluntourism (foreigners who travel to developing countries without understanding how to make a sustainable impact versus furthering the problem) is trending all across social media, it is of the utmost importance to seek out, learn, and understand the full story. Perhaps now, after this brief introduction to both the gaps and advantages of the Moroccan political system, you will start to see how my project in Women’s Empowerment was created in the hopes of meeting the challenges that Moroccans face.

Ancient History, Contemporary Development, & Empowering a Community

Fun fact: Since 2002, Rabat has hosted the Mawazine Music Festival: Rhythmes du Monde. (Rhythms of the World) Artists from all over the globe come to perform, as well as local Moroccan talent, with 90% of the shows being free of charge to maintain a high standard of accessibility for the Moroccan population. In addition to a number of other external sponsors, the Maroc Cultures Association ensures the festival’s unique economic independence from public funds. The festival is touted as one of the largest in the world, and is held in Rabat because the capital city of Morocco is seen as “an intermediary between tradition and modernity” that transforms from a UNESCO World Heritage Site to an open air venue where artists from all walks in life and career perform. Seriously, give it a Google, it really is that cool.


As a proud Nashville transplant and music enthusiast, my interest was piqued. I confess that I’ve never been to an American music festival before, but this was simply not something I could afford to miss. Fantastic promotion of upcoming Moroccan artists, not to mention a few familiar names gracing the lineup just in time for my second weekend in the city, (Shaggy, Christina Aguliera, and Pitbull, just to name a few) and all at no charge! So a fellow volunteer and I decided to go on Friday night to see Shaggy perform and experience this festival in full. And what an experience it was! We were surprised to note that we were largely the only women in the audience... Likely as surprised as the men were by our presence, I imagine! Now if you read travel guides about visiting Morocco, one of the most fervent warnings for young women in particular is the frequent catcalling from men while walking around. In my experience, the key to handling these unwanted interactions is to refuse acknowledgment of their existence overall. If you give them nothing to go off of, you leave them with no direction to pursue, and they desist. Even a glance in their direction can be seen as encouragement, and so it is best to try and exude “back off” with every movement of your body. Some will still pursue, but in that case a sharp word in either French or Arabic while stroking one finger down from your eye to your cheek should do the trick. This facial gesture means “shame”, and is often used by mothers when children misbehave. Thus, it is particularly shocking and offensive when a foreign woman adopts a gesture they are used to seeing from their mother! We can chat more on the nature of living in a strongly inherent patriarchal society in a later post. For now, needless to say, Kelly and I were worried about what we had just walked into as not only females, but as clear foreigners. How would these men adapt? Would it be uncomfortable harassment? Would we have to leave early? Alas, none of the above. Despite it being the identical demographic to our daytime hecklers, these concert goers went out of their way to give us space, to the point where it felt as if we had an invisible shield around us. The only questions asked were if we could see okay, and would we like them to move over more in any direction to better accommodate. It was quite the surprising change of pace from the mosh pit I was expecting, akin to what I’ve heard about music festivals in the US.


The concert itself was a wildly amusing trip down memory lane as we enjoyed a number of blasts from the past from Shaggy’s golden years. There was a lot of dancing, though all male on male, due to the aforementioned lack of females. I’m looking forward to continuing to analyze the societal pressures and structures at work here, specifically the role of the patriarchy, but seeing as I’m only two weeks in I feel it best to keep observing before embarking on such a post in the next month or so!


Harkening back to the idea of history transformed, one of the venues for the Mawazine Festival was the Chellah ruins, located in the south of Rabat. The festival is accurate in describing Morocco as a profound cross section of ancient history and increased development, which can be seen in the adapted modern use of the ruins not just as an archaeological site, but a frequented place for concerts, families, and young couples seeking to escape the constant lack of privacy. The ruins are left from Phoenician and Carthaginian settlement in the third century BC, but were later refurbished as the Roman city of Sala Colonia according to Ptolemy’s writings, which dated around 40 CE. Eventually the city was taken by a Berber tribe and fortified to protect from Spanish invaders. The remainder of some of the fortress walls are pictured below. When the Romans abandoned the city, it became a burial ground until the 13th century when the Merinid dynasty resettled the city by building a mosque and other structures whose remnants remain today. Though I recognize that history is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, I felt it important to discuss in the blog because the ancient history of Morocco is, in my opinion, still very much alive in the contemporary culture. Walking through the ruins, I was struck to think of how many generations of feet had followed the path through the city that my feet now walked, not to mention how many more would follow in years to come. Unlike the archaeological site in Xian, China where the Terracotta Warriors stand tall, walking through the Chellah ruins feels nothing like a museum or a tourist attraction. It more so feels like a park that just so happens to have incomprehensible historical depth in addition to being a lovely place for an afternoon stroll.


As a side note, the ruins are also home to most impressive stork nests I imagine one will ever see.  Yes, I mean storks as an the bird that delivers babies to your neighbor’s doorstep from time to time. For a second there, I thought I was looking out into the flawless CGI background of Jurassic World or Avatar gauging from the remarkable size of these nests. The storks were also in mating season, clucking their beaks quite loudly, which made for an interesting soundtrack as we meandered around the old city!


Finally, as promised, I am so excited to share what I’ve been teaching (and learning!) in the classroom at the Empowerment Center. Many have asked me, why Morocco? And though there are many answers to that question, one of the most relevant reasons to my project here is the definitive need to improve national education.

Morocco is not what I would call a poor African country. It enjoys a rare stability thanks to the autonomy of the monarchy, which has protected it from the struggles faced by many other African and/or Islamist countries. While it is still developing, it is leagues ahead of many of its neighbors.

However, for all its success, there is still a lot to be done in the kingdom before it can claim developed status. This can be summed up with two simple words: education and equality. Schools are publicly funded in Morocco, but as a result the quality of education is often compromised. Private schools – once looked down upon as the schools where students who failed one too many times would have to attend – are increasingly in popularity with those who can afford it thanks to the guaranteed quality and opportunities it offers. Meanwhile, kids in rural regions struggle to find consistent transportation to and from school, and kids in urban areas share their pain of finding a way to pay for their school supplies.


The Empowerment Center I work at provides free English lessons to anyone and everyone. The office space is located in the heart of the city, but my students come from all over the region. I admit, these classes are not at all how I had imagined they would be. Halfway through my second week, I scrapped my detailed lesson plans for building up technical grammar skills and vocabulary in favor of a new approach to accommodate the many challenges of my classroom: generational differences, varying levels of general education, and implicit gender biases, just to name a few. My new approach is entirely conversation-based, where I introduce a topic question and have my students speak to their opinions on the matter. Occasionally I have them write brief statements or paragraphs to read aloud to improve heir comfort speaking the language, and sometimes I integrate American music for them to practice listening comprehension and application. (Most recently, I used the Hamilton soundtrack to supplement a lesson reviewing proper use of the three types of past tense to discuss the history of America’s revolution with a “Who’s Who” on American currency, in honor of Memorial Day. One of my favorite lessons thus far!)


One of my dear students and I after class!

One of my dear students and I after class!


When asked about how they would change the national education system, I watched in amazement as their eyes universally brightened, impassioned by the introduction of a subject that has affected them all in some way despite their different stages of life. “There needs to be more funding allocated to the rural districts,” declared my econometrics major. “We need to improve the scholarship funds to help those who can’t afford to continue their education in their own,” explained my often quiet but just astute engineer. “There needs to be a way for us to do things like you are doing here, Teacher. A way for us to go places and share our culture and our skills. Without those opportunities, Morocco won’t have a bright future.”

Right now, they're my playful neighbors. But tomorrow, they could be world leaders... Who knows! But they are who we fight for.

Right now, they’re my playful neighbors. But tomorrow, they could be world leaders... Who knows! But regardless of who they will become, they are who we fight for. They are the future.


This is why I chose to come here. Not just to teach English and immerse in a foreign culture, because there are many places one could pursue that. I came to Morocco specifically because it is a country on the edge of what I believe to be great potential, and it is my hope that by leading discussions like this, my students will heed the spark of desire for change and pursue making a difference in their country as only they can. Young and old, female and male, it is my goal to show them how strong they can be as a united front in advocating for a brighter future.

To conclude, I want to leave you with the inspiring words of one of my students in response to today’s conversation question: Can money buy happiness? The author is a vivacious older woman whose sense of humor and intellectual depth know no bounds:

“Happiness comes from our mind, which we find in good company. It comes also when we see the future generation will live in a world without war. In a world of peace and love, without chemical products. We in the world where we feel we are all brother and sister, with no difference in color or religion. As Martin Luther King Jr said, I have a dream. This is my dream for happiness.”

This is why I am so grateful to be here, investing in these people’s lives as best I can, for the next three months. No one gives me hope for the future quite like they do, which is a feeling I hope will continue to propel me forward as I continue my work here. Thank you for reading, as always I am so lucky to have so many others be a part of this journey! Tune in next week for a breakdown of the Moroccan political system and the complex history of US-Moroccan relations! (I just graduated with a BS in political science, surely you all saw this one coming!) And of course, more stories from the classroom and an update on what will be my first week of celebrating Ramadan! The fast begins tonight at 2:30 AM, and I can’t wait to rise to the challenge, inshallah.

Chiming in just in time for brunch with the dearest of friends can make all the difference when you're an ocean away

Chiming in just in time for brunch with the dearest of friends, even just for ten minutes to say hello,  can make all the difference when you’re an ocean away.

Quick shout out to those of you who have continued to love on and support me from afar. Your constant texts, emails, and messages always brighten my day! From the bottom of my heart, thank you for helping me build a home away from home by reminding me that you’re only a phone call away. All my love!


“I had to repeat Class 8 several times because there was not funding for secondary school. That is when WISER came to my rescue.” – Leah, a WISER alumni

I am learning that WISER has “come to the rescue” for many girls. By providing girls with a scholarship that funds their entire secondary education, WISER is quite literally rescuing girls and their families from the stress of coming up with school fees. Unlike in the United States, public school is Kenya is not free. There are still fees that have to be paid—both at the primary and secondary level. This is where families are in situations where they have to choose whose education they fund. Most of the time, if there is enough money to fund only one child’s education, a son will be chosen to go to school over a daughter.

However, a lack school fees is not the only barrier keeping girls in Kenya out of the classroom. There is a simple resource every adolescent girl needs—sanitary pads. When a girl does not have access to pads, she misses school or uses dangerous alternatives such as rags, leaves, cotton wool, or mattress stuffing. According to the ZanaAfrica Foundation, almost a million girls in Kenya miss up to six weeks of school every year—many even eventually drop out—all because their families cannot afford sanitary pads and proper underwear.

WISER has partnered with Huru International, an organization that provides girls with free kits that have reusubale sanitary pads, HIV / AIDs prevention information, and resources necessary to promote sexual and reproductive health. In Kiswahili, Huru means freedom. WISER and Huru International are giving our girls the freedom to stay in school. Even more than that, WISER is providing younger girls in Muhuru that are still in primary school with sanitary pads in hopes of them missing less days of school. There is empowerment and there is freedom in understanding our bodies and in having safe resources to meet our bodies’ needs.


Meet Melavin. “I am WISER because I want to be a light to all the underprivileged girls of Muhuru Bay.” She is one of our Form 4 students, and she is a just weeks away from completing her KCSE (Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education). Because WISER has enabled her to stay in school, she will hopefully now continue to obtain higher education. One day she wants to return to Muhuru to pull her family out of poverty and to inspire the girls who also come from this community. That’s the beauty in educating the girl child; she returns. Educated girls are more likely return to the community in which they were raised. That is how communities are transformed, empowerment is generated, and freedom lives.

Why Kenya?

I graduated from college yesterday. In about one month I board a plane to Kenya. (I am also taking the GRE between now and then). I think about all these things and I have to laugh and cry and remind myself to breathe. Now that graduation is over, my real preparation begins.

On June 16th I leave for Muhuru Bay, Kenya, a small fishing village off the coast of Lake Victoria. I will live at an all-girls secondary school, WISER (the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research.) My project is based on researching and documenting how the WISER model of education is creating an enabling environment for empowerment for young women (in hopes of the WISER model being replicated in other Kenyan communities).

Again and again, I have answered the question: “Why would you go to Kenya?” This question has has been asked in different forms and through different frames — sometimes out of genuine curiosity, sometimes out of deep concern,  and sometimes simply out of confusion.

I think I can better answer the “Why Kenya” question by answering this one: “Why are girls’ rights important to you?” This issue is important to me because it is important to our world. Girls having equal opportunities to choice, to education, and to resources provides better economic, social, and health outcomes for girls and boys, for men and women, for everyone. It is important because it is a human rights issue. Because every girl deserves to be seen, to be heard, and to be known. Because I am girl. Because I have been celebrated for being a girl from the moment I took my first breath.

I am privileged. My privilege is all over me. Irreversible, irremovable.  I wear it on my skin. I display it with my freedoms. I can hear it in my voice, my words. I carry it with the diploma I received yesterday. I live it with the choices I make for my life. Privilege is not the reality for most women and girls on this planet. Without change, without movement, and without support for education it never will be.

The best way to support me and to support this project is to tear down the political and geographic barriers that we often subconsciously put up when we think about global issues. Donate to WISER and educate yourself on girls’ rights around the world. Follow me, travel with me, and learn with me.