Duncan Gromko arrived in his African village speaking the wrong language and feeling lost - all until a stranger told him to leave.
For the last five months, I've been living in a small mountain town in rural Morocco, working as a Peace Corps health educator. Only about 450 people live here, and most of them have known each other for their entire lives. Very few people move to the village from outside; those who do usually have family here. Tourists aren't unknown, but they rarely do anything more than ask for directions. In the winter, snow often closes the only road out of town.
Everyone here speaks Tamazight, a language known to the outside world as Berber. The official language of Morocco is Moroccan Arabic. French, a relic of Morocco's history as a colony, is the language of the country's educated class. Throughout the country's towns and villages, however, people primarily speak various Berber languages. There are four main languages - Tarafit, Tamazight, Tashelheit and Tasassous - and dozens more dialects. People in my town claim that people speak differently in a town a mere 28 kilometres away. The people who live even further in the mountains speak more differently still. My host mother is from Tinrir, in the south of the country, and she sounds obviously different than everyone else in the village.
During my Peace Corps training, my fellow volunteers and I excitedly studied the Tamazight textbooks and dictionaries we were given. When I arrived in my village, I quickly realised that I had learned a different variety of Tamazight than the one used here. When I used words I had learnt in training, people would understand me, but then correct me with a local word and local pronunciation. My conversations were very limited. People had a lot to ask me, but I could barely understand what they were saying. I spent a lot of time guessing at the meaning of questions based on a single world that I had picked out. It was confusing and frustrating. People learned that my Tamazight vocabulary limited me to a few topics, so I had the same conversations and over: What's your religion? How much do things cost in America? I began to worry that I would never get to know anyone well enough to do my job.
Two weeks after I'd arrived, I was sitting on a wall outside a local store talking (or trying to talk) with a group of men. A man with a scraggly beard and dirty clothing approached the group, stopped when he was about 15 feet away, and addressed me calmly in French. He told me that I was a problem. I was not Berber, I was an unwelcome foreigner. And, most importantly: I had 15 days to leave the community.
As soon as the man finished talking, he walked away. I didn't feel physically threatened, but I was shocked and confused. I looked to the men around me for support, but they didn't know French, and I didn't know enough of their dialect to explain what happened. I wanted them to tell me that this man didn't speak for the village, but their faces were unreadable. I walked back to my host family's house, where I sat quietly for the rest of the evening. I felt intensely alone, and couldn't help thinking about leaving. If I wasn't welcome in the village - or, worse, if I couldn't even tell whether I was welcome - there was no hope for success in my work.
The next day, I went to work with some doctors in a far-away village, and resolved to put the incident behind me. But the local sheikh had somehow heard about it, and he called me to his house. When I got there, we went over what had happened. He told me to go to the gendarmes the next day and tell them what happened. The gendarmes had me write down a statement in French and sign it. I also had to name witnesses to the event. I had no idea what to expect: it was a local's word against mine, with other locals who didn't speak the relevant language as my witnesses.
In the end, a judge from a nearby town sentenced the man to jail for six months. I hadn't expected such a severe reaction; even though it felt good to have the authorities on my side, I felt guilty for sending a man to jail for such a minor offence. I was uneasy about how the village - particularly the family and friends of my would-be banisher - would respond. Oddly, the incident drew me much closer to the town. Once the villagers knew exactly what had happened, I became something more than a visitor: a resident affected by and privy to local facts. The man, I quickly found out, was an ex-soldier thought to have lost his mind. He had harassed many other people and even thrown rocks at some. Many were happy to see him put in jail; they were just angry that it took an incident with a foreigner to get the police involved. A man named Ali came up to me on the street and told me that, from now on, whatever happened to me was like something that happened to him. He told me that I was a m-miss (son) of the community now. My host father said that if anyone harassed me again, he would kill them. People started inviting me to their homes, and my language improved dramatically. One-on-one conversations are much better for practicing Tamazight than the frenzied back and forth that takes place when men gather outside to kill time.
Just a few months later, I've already spent 12-hour days working in the fields, talked to local women about their lives and danced and sung until dawn at crowded weddings. I have friends whom I trust. A few people have even come to me with health problems. I still make all sorts of cultural mistakes, but I also have more room to make them. People say "you are like us", and I thank them. The banishing backfired.
Duncan Gromko is a development worker for the Peace Corps.