What About a Lemonade Stand?
“What about a lemonade stand? Or a bake sale?”, I said. Thats what we always did when we wanted money to go on a school trip or get new jerseys for the volleyball team. We had each person make something; brownies, cookies, cupcakes…and then the community would contribute in small amounts. It always worked and it was always looked highly upon. He said, “It’s not the same here. It’s not apart of the culture in a place like this.”
I thought long and hard about his answer. This conversation took place between Mohammed and I, 2 weeks after I tagged along to watch the Youth Karate Championships in Marrakech with him. Mohammed started an association in my town, the town he grew up in, about 15 years ago with a friend, to organize sports activities, karate classes, and outdoor excursions for youth in the rural areas. I could speak on and on about his commitment to volunteerism, youth development through sport, and passion for his work, but that would require another blog post and enough Arabic skills to send him those words of gratitude I have for him.
[Flashback 2 weeks ago]
I woke up at 5:00AM that Sunday morning. For Peace Corps Volunteers, this is just a laugh, but i’m so glad I woke up with the chickens that morning. Mohammed picked me up outside my house and then we went house by house to collect the 3 young boys that were competing in the competition. It felt like the days we’d carpool for Downstate volleyball tournaments in high school. The sun still hasn’t risen, you’re tired but anxious for that first match that’s approaching. Stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts to get your coffee and breakfast sandwich. In this case, some plastic chairs next to a butcher for a pot of tea and eggs with bread. I got in the car that morning with three kids from Birkouat (the village next to ours) who looked at me sitting in the drivers seat with curiosity & confusion.
Then I became a car buddy, a cheerleader, a “mother” who’s carrying the jackets to sit closer to their competition court, and I find myself saying “win or lose, you tried and thats what matters guys.” Each of them lost their individual technique rounds but as a team, they got 3rd place, which qualified them for the National Championships in Rabat. I’m no expert on karate. I walked in thinking people were going to be kicking each other in the faces and karate-chopping wood. This clearly wasn’t the case and the competition was pure technique. The kids were judged on swift, clean movements. After the 30 seconds of showing the 5 judges what you’ve got, anticipation arises as to whether they throw up a blue flag or a red flag (depending on the belt color of the 2 participants). Majority wins. Gosh, I’ve turned into such a sucker for the sad sports moments. When a kid competes and he looks around at the judges and not one flag is in his favor…c’mon, give the kid a flag dude. Look at that face. He’s only like 12.
After lots of flags out of our favor, it was time for the team round. Our kids were tired. They woke up at 5AM in their villages, sat through a 3 hour car ride of nerves and uncertainty, and were thrown into the competition in the first 15 minutes. I’m sure some of these teams had the privilege of staying over in Marrakech the night before, getting their rest and easing into the morning. I saw the teams from the cities compete, they were good. They probably had nice gyms and facilities, equipment, opportunities to travel and compete in various competitions. We were clearly the underdogs. I felt like we were Moroccan “Rudy” or something.
I’ll never forget the kids faces when 3/5 flags shot up red. They jumped up and their faces lit up of joy. We’re shooting thumbs up and smiles from the bleachers and they’re living. This qualified them to participate in Rabat in a few weeks, the National Championships of Morocco.
I assumed my role and grabbed the jackets to meet the kids outside. They showed off their shiny certificates and took pictures. I was so proud of them and so was Mohammed. They had energy and played back the whole situation out loud, until one kid goes, “Why would we go to Rabat? It’s not worth it.” Everyone got quiet. I couldn’t help but feel sad at the whole situation. Self confidence is something thats so important for kids. It’s internal but also influenced by your external surroundings, like parents, community and support networks pushing you forward and telling you that you can do it.
I remember when our volleyball team in high school would come back from States. Win or lose, the Fire Department and the parents would organize a car-parade. We’d start about 10 minutes outside the village, gather, and form a huge line and make our way down. Horns were honking, parents were cheering, shop owners would come out of their stores and shoot a thumbs up and sometimes even offer free desert (s/o Silver Spoon). I remember feeling important and special. It made me want to go at it again in the future, knowing people are out there supporting you and rooting for you. These people whether they knew it or not, were contributing to my own 16 year old self-confidence.
NY State Championships 2011
post-states parade in Cold Spring, NY
I knew we weren’t heading back to a bells and whistles parade, but I would have hoped that people were proud of them and would push them to move onward. Mohammed explained that one of the biggest challenges he finds working and organizing activities is a lack of support from the parents, let alone the community. Either there isn’t time to bring their kids to activities because of work, money for gym dues and travel is last on the list when you have to prioritize other necessities, or people are scared. Scared to take risks and step out of their comfort zone. He knew that the boys would find serious competition in Rabat, they wouldn’t have a chance to qualify, but the experience would expose them to so many new things. New people to bond with, a new city they may have never visited, and a new opportunity to test their self-confidence and grit. And he was even willing to drive them in his own car, chaperone and act as their “coach” while there, just like this time.
I could tell deep down the boys wanted to go. Who wouldn’t? A trip to Rabat, National Championships? A fun bonding experience with your friends and new kids from all over the country? Mohammed explained to them it wasn’t about whether they would win or lose in Rabat, they should be proud of themselves for what they’ve done in Marrakech and have confidence in themselves. Get rid of this mentality that once you finally step out of the box, you keep going. You don’t jump back in. I think by the end of the car ride, I was convinced they were going to Rabat and I was so excited to tell people in the village their accomplishment.
[Flash forward two weeks]
We’re sitting on the bench in Mohammed’s gym before aerobics class. “What about a lemonade stand? Or a bake sale?”, I said. “Moroccans love to cook, why doesn’t everyone make something and they stand on the main street in Birkouat and sell it? If their parents can’t afford it, have the community help out a little. They should be proud of those kids, right?” “It’s not the same here. It’s not apart of the culture”, Mohammed said.
Mohammed in his gym in Talmest
The kids ended up not competing in Rabat. They returned home and people were happy for them, I’m sure they got a few congratulations, and then the buzz faded. Morale was lost and when they looked at the big picture, Rabat, it was out of the question. Money, time, priorities, fear of failure. I thought the community would be happy for them. They’d want to show off these two kids in the shiny capital who came from a small, rural village and were competing in a National Championships.
I was annoyed and upset at the situation. I saw those kids faces when they won and we had spent a great day together. They deserved a chance, just like I had when I was a kid. The volleyball tournaments, school trips, summer camps.
Culture is the hardest thing to change. And even just typing that, should we be trying to change it? It’s one of the hardest things to go back and forth with while trying to do projects as a Peace Corps volunteer. In this situation, I would look at a lack of community morale and lack of support from parents, to give kids an overall empowering experience, as a negative thing. It’s something that should change. Because it’s obvious that opportunities like this help youth develop in so many ways; socially, physically, internally, mentally. Is this response a product of my own culture and the values instilled in me as a kid? But Mohammed feels the same. To fill the void, he offers activities for development and exploration through sport, supporting experiences like karate competitions and hikes to Mt. Toubkal (the highest peak in North Africa). He told me that everyone tells him, “Your place isn’t here. You belong burra (abroad), with people who agree with you and have a similar mindset as you.” He replies, “But that’s not my home. This is my country and my village. And there’s nothing like your home.”
Mohammed & students on a Toubkal trip, the highest peak in North Africa (13,671 ft), just outside Marrakech
Mohammed and members of his association on a group hike up the mountain in our site.