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Jessie Akerman - Arabic in Morocco

Arabic for dummies!

There were many factors to my decision to take a gap year. Obviously a break from full time education was one. I had deferred my place at university to study Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, with the aim of introducing myself to the language while in a country where is it spoken.

I knew I had found what I wanted when I came across the opportunity to have a tutor for a month while living with a family in Rabat on the Projects Abroad website. As well as learning Arabic I wanted do something different to everyone else’s gap year idea, and the idea of a month in the desert on the Nomad Project fulfilled a dream of mine I never thought I would get the opportunity to.

My arrival in Morocco

My flight was due to arrive at midnight; it actually arrived at 11pm so after trying to catch anyone’s eye looking for any flicker of recognition as to what a young blond-haired Brit was doing alone with a bag twice the size of her in Casablanca airport in the middle of the night, I was relieved when Adil from Projects Abroad arrived half an hour early! We arrived in Rabat close to 1pm and I had my first taste of the beautiful, tall houses that made up the walls of the narrow winding passages of the Medina.

Life at the accommodation and new friends

Lunch time

Despite my best efforts I met my roommate Nicole who was American by waking her up whilst trying desperately to find pyjamas and toothbrush in the dark. I didn’t meet my family until a sensible time later that morning, who were very friendly and relaxed (thankfully no intimidating welcoming ceremony!) and family members continued to appear from the house and say hello in a mixture of French, Arabic and English when our paths crossed.

Me and Nicole had a big breakfast which I soon learned would be the norm of Moroccan crepes, omelette, French bread, Moroccan sweet breads, jams and cheeses and of course; tea. Meals were to be a big highlight of living in Rabat; the food was always fresh, traditional, delicious and more than enough. The house was beautiful, very traditional, spacious and welcomingly cool after being outside in the sun.

My Learn Arabic placement

I had arranged my first lesson when I met my tutor Noureddine on my induction morning at the Projects Abroad office. We planned to have lessons between 10am and 1 pm, giving me the afternoons free to let my brain recover and explore the city. The lessons were hard as I expected, but a lot of fun too as I hoped. Noureddine was great, lessons were broken up by us both laughing at my mistakes which was a relief because there were many! I learnt a huge amount, but more importantly I understood it too.

I found the lessons fast paced but it meant I concentrated, particularly as all the focus was on me- there’s nowhere to hide if you pretend to understand something fully and just hope it won’t come up again! The lessons were great because he listened to what I wanted to get out of them, was flexible and we spent as much time as it took for me to understand each topic and grammar rule, without feeling pressure to move on.

Tea a la menthe

One of the best things about learning in that setting was being able to practise what I had learnt with my family as they spoke little English. Azeaza lived with the family and worked for them so Nicole and I got to know her really well. She also wanted to improve her English so some evenings after she had made dinner we would sit and go through greetings and phrases helping one another with pronunciation. It was simple and lovely things like this which I miss most about living there, along with watching Disney films and American TV serials like Modern Family in the evenings on Nicole’s laptop and Wednesday night meetings with all the volunteers.

It also means a lot to the locals you see and talk to (in the taxis, medina and cafes) that you are making the effort to learn their language while you’re there. Everyone was even more friendly and welcoming (and most Moroccans are already), it also works a charm when haggling prices!

Most of the other volunteers go to visit the big cities at the weekends. I had actually booked a 9 day tour after my two projects to go to Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, Agadir, Casablanca because I didn’t want to worry about relying on other people wanting to go to the same places or they could have gone already. In hindsight I thought about it too much and shouldn’t have worried because new people were arriving all the time and even then others were always happy to go again if they could afford it!

Even so, I spent most of my weekends in Rabat which really suited me and there was usually another volunteer around to meet up with. Kate and I often went for ‘tea a la menthe’ in a lovely cafe in the Kasbah as well as the lovely gardens around there. We also went on lots of walks through the medina, sitting on the beach, in cafes doing homework or reading in the sun - all within easy walking distance from our homes. But to those who do travel more I would definitely recommend Marrakesh for the souks and Jema el Fna!

The Nomad Project

In the medina

After tearful goodbyes to my friends and newly made family in Rabat I started the long journey to Guelmim to meet Madame Naima and start month two. I stayed with her and her lovely family for a day then was driven to meet my family and a very different way of life. It was tougher than I thought. I had anticipated the physical hard work but not how difficult it would be mentally being away from everything I knew.

There is a much clearer divide between men and women than we are taught to tolerate in our society, it seems unfair to us looking in but I learnt quickly that I would have to get on with it or get out! The family had 9 children, the oldest girl Khadija and I did most of the house work while the others alternated between shifts in the sun watching the goat herd.

They live very simply and it was amazing how quickly I came to appreciate the small things like they did; having fresh fruit after dinner when Hussein (the father) had been to the nearest town once a week, being up before the sun each morning and seeing the most beautiful sunrises, sleeping under the stars when the nights were too hot to be inside, afternoon tea sitting outside the house with their grandmother listening to them talk and laugh and feeling lucky I got to see the real thing.

Most of all I enjoyed being away from tourism, cameras, Facebook, and the materialism of the world we take for granted. It is only a matter of time before their way of life will move away from its roots and gradually be traded in for the comfort and convenience of ours. I will retreat into the memories of that last month probably for the rest of my life, and it reminds me of how much of what we see as important and necessary is really irrelevant.

It was worth it just for the feeling when I visited to Agadir on the way home and the joy of walking into my hotel room to see an actual toilet (1 month), a bath (2 months) and Harry Potter on the TV with Arabic subtitles (far too long). I would recommend it to anyone with a spirit for adventure: take the chance while it’s still there.

Leaving Morocco

I was excited to see England and my family when I came home, but I knew I would be sad to leave Morocco. I lived more in those 2 months than the other 10 of that year put together. I have bought back a lot of things, both in my head and in an over-packed suitcase from my time there. But some things cannot be recreated out of their setting, only recorded, remembered and retold; all we can do is make our stories worthy of listeners and pass it on!

Read more about the Arabic or Nomad Projects in Morocco.

Jessie Akerman

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