Jeff Maxey has served as the Southern Coordinator of International Development and Relief Board since 2008, previously working with IDRB in Meknes. Prior to working overseas, he taught middle school in Kentucky, USA. He has a Bachelors degree in Communication from Western Kentucky University and a Masters degree in Teaching from Spalding University.
Jeff Maxey is the southern coordinator of the international organization IDRB and lives in Laâyoune, in southern Morocco. In this interview, Jeff opens his heart and mind to share with the readers of MWN his experiences as an American in the Sahara, talks about the Organization he represents as well as their activities and experiences.
MWN: let’s start this interview from the beginning, the first question that the readers might ask is what are the main objectives of International Development and Relief Board?
Jeff: IDRB operates in 7 countries in Africa and the Middle East and in addition to our Laayoune office, we have representatives in Casablanca, Meknes, Hoceima and Beni Mellal. Our goals are to come alongside existing agencies, associations and peoples to provide sustainable development in the areas of education, health care, and associational work.
MWN: What projects do you have in Laayoune?
Jeff: Since beginning work in Laayoune in 2008, IDRB has hosted over 80 volunteers from the United States who have brought with them expertise and experience to share with the people of the south. We work alongside local associations and the Ministry of Education to do an annual training for teachers of preschool. We have led leadership seminars for over 100 associations through fadaa jamawi(The Associative Space). We have led medical trainings with the Red Crescent, Entraide Nationale, and local schools. We also have worked alongside teachers and students through organizations such as Moroccan Association of Teachers of English and many local schools throughout the south from Tan Tan to Bir Ghandus. With the recent addition of more personnel in the south, we are looking forward to expanding our projects in the future.
MWN: How did you find life in the Sahara, the people and the culture?
Jeff: It has been exciting to learn the culture of the desert – from a new way to enjoy tea, the bright colors and styles of dress, new foods, a blend of Arabic dialects, the rhythmic music and dance, late night schedules, and the very unique wedding traditions.
At first glance, the desert can appear to be a very barren and hard place – sand and rock. However, upon closer inspection one begins to see the beauty of the many colors which constantly change with the sun’s glows. In many ways when first moving to a new culture the people appear distant and stiff but as you begin to know them, and they begin to know you, the outer hardness gives way to the beauty within. So has been my experience with getting to know the culture and people of the south. With each new acquaintance, I unveil another glimpse of the warmth and beauty this place holds.
MWN: You are the first American to dwell and work in Laayoune, how do you feel about that?
Jeff: Surely others have come before me but it is an honor to be one of the firsts. It is easy to have stereotypes of other cultures. Unfortunately, most of what many people in the world know about Americans comes from television and film, the majority of which could be negative. As I work here alongside my other American colleagues, I hope people will see that there are Americans who have high values, who want to serve and love peoples all over the world, and who have respect and honor for all cultures. Only as we move past our stereotypes and prejudices can we truly dialogue and learn about each other.
MWN: Those who know Jeff as a person enjoy the way you speak Moroccan Arabic (Darija), how did you learn it and what’s your story with this language?
Jeff: When I arrived in Morocco, I had a problem. I needed to learn to speak. Honestly, my biggest concern was to meet basic survival needs. The main question that popped in my mind is which language to learn? Many encouraged me to learn French as it would be simple to learn. Others recommended Modern Standard Arabic as I would need it for formal meetings. But I asked people, “When I go to the store to buy food, what language do I need to know? What language is spoken in a taxi? When I get invited to someone’s home for Friday couscous, what language will the family speak?” And the reply was “Darija.” So I chose darija which I learned for a year in a school setting and have continued to learn each day. Since moving to the south, it has been fun to learn the differences of “southern darija” and to begin to learn Hasaniya from my friends and neighbors.
MWN: As a person who is interested in education, in your opinion, what should we do to improve our educational system? In other words, what do you suggest to improve the skills and the talents of our students?
Jeff: Teachers all over the world, including all teachers in America, usually have the same requests – more resources for their classrooms, smaller class sizes so they can spend more time with each student and training so they can provide the highest quality of education possible. And it seems to be in teachers’ blood to fight for these things for their students. And of course Moroccan teachers are the same and should always strive for improvements. But at the same time, all teachers worldwide should remember that the greatest resources are not anything that money can buy but are things that are completely in their control. The greatest resource is each teacher’s abilities to challenge young minds, to instill a passion for learning, reading, and making a difference in their world. Students’ desire to learn is greatly influenced by the teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject and the creativity to allow students to ask why and seek answers by applying the material instead of just reciting memorized facts. These are the skills and talents that we all want and need for the next generation to lead us into the future.
MWN: What does your organization do to help Moroccan teachers and students, in general, and in the southern provinces, in particular?
Jeff: Morocco has some wonderful teachers who are leading a great group of students. IDRB has been proud to partner with teacher associations and the Ministry of Education and the Academy of Education in provinces and communities throughout the country to introduce new ideas and teaching techniques as well as create dialogue between Moroccan and American educators about new trends and ideas in the field of education. In the south, we have had the opportunity to lead education projects with students and teachers in Tan Tan, Smara, Laayoune, Tarfaya, and Dakhla. These have included student activity days, English teacher trainings, skilled trainings such as first aid and music, preschool activity days as well as preschool teacher trainings, and participating with student clubs.
MWN: What about cultural exchange programs, do you have any projects?
Jeff: IDRB is happy to be partnering with the Association des Laureats du Lycee Hassan II in Dakhla and the Association Sakia AlHamra pour La Renaissance Femine in Laayoune to conduct a student exchange program between English students in Casablanca, Dakhla, and Laayoune during the April Spring Break this year. We have also had the opportunity to share cultural and language ideas with students and teachers participating in other international exchange programs.
MWN: How do you find life in the Sahara? What do you like most?
Jeff: Life in the desert is very different from anywhere else I have ever lived. And though I experienced some culture shock at first, moving here that quickly went away after meeting such wonderful people. The people of the south are a blend of many cultures and backgrounds and there is always someone to share a glass of tea and hear a very interesting story.
MWN: How can we achieve sustainable development in this region? And what should civil society do to help achieve this dream?
Jeff: We all enjoy the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” But as much as we agree, we all enjoy getting that fish from time to time. Sustainable development is not something that can be achieved overnight but is a long-term goal of training our societies in ways that will make them less dependent on outside sources for progress and achievement. One of the challenges for IDRB has been helping people recognize the difference between an international agency that works on a model of sustainable development and other relief agencies. We are not an organization that sends boxes of supplies that will be quickly consumed. Instead, we provide trainings and opportunities for people to help themselves. Many relief agencies send their gifts and quickly leave after the pictures are taken. As we’ve already noted, we are here for the long-term – we learn the local language, we live in the community, we shop at the same stores and markets. We experience the joys of progress and the difficulties of failures alongside those we are working with. This is not a short-term strategy; but in the end, I believe people respect and appreciate this model as we truly hope to see long-term impact on societies.
MWN: In brief, what are some funny memories that happened to you in Laayoune and that you will never forget as far as cultural differences are concerned?
Jeff: I have seen a camel slaughtered. My bad plumbing skills have flooded my neighborhood (twice). I have driven people to the hospital in the middle of the night while making ambulance sounds. I have cried with a neighbor at a death and rejoiced with friends at a birth. We’ve scoured the desert in search of camels to show out of town guests and sat in a tent drinking warm milk just taken from the camel. I have tried to communicate with people in Darija, Hasaniya, French, Spanish and lots of acting but am most proud of recently being told that my English is very good. I cheered like a child at the camel races but quickly ran away when one looked like he might bite me. I never know what adventures each new day will hold but I was sure that it will be an adventure.
MWN: “An American in the Sahara” what does that mean for you?
Jeff: “An American in the Sahara sounds like the name of a comedy on television or a painting that might be hung in an art museum. Certainly there are many cultural differences between life in the desert and life in America. But ultimately as much as our cultures are different, humans are all the same with the same needs and desires, love of family and friends, and a hope to make the world a better place.
By Rachid Khouya
Morocco World News