Menu
Share
Share this story
Close X
 
Switch to Desktop Site

In Morocco, a welding school teaches more than welding

When a visitor gets off the market bus and says ''Dallas'' in this dusty, provincial town about an hour's drive west of Marrakech, J.R. Ewing and the South Fork Ranch are not the first things to come to a local's mind.

Although Moroccan television does air the famous soap opera, Chichaouans who hear the name immediately lead one to another American export - a tall, redhaired, real-life South Dakotan named Dallas Bowen.

About these ads

''I would love to get my hands on the creator of that TV series,'' says Mr. Bowen, flexing his arm muscles. ''Its having my name makes my life miserable almost everywhere I go.''

For the last two years Bowen, a former US marine and now a US Peace Corps volunteer, has avoided a lot of flippant remarks about his forename by living here in the Moroccan rif, or outback, where television sets are few and far between. Bowen teaches arc and acetylene welding to 22 young Moroccan men who have either not taken or not passed their national baccalaureate examinations, which are required for entrance into university.

His welding school, in a converted two-room blacksmith's garage beside a mosque on a barren hill, is one of 40 workshops in 13 Moroccan cities that Peace Corps teachers run under a four-year agreement with the Moroccan Ministry of Social Affairs.

The Peace Corps's vocational training program in Morocco, of which Bowen's shop is a part, provides two years of instruction in welding, carpentry, automotive mechanics, or basic electronics in an effort to create a new generation of skilled blue-collar workers much needed by Morocco's developing economy.

Beneath a portrait of Morocco's King Hassan II, Bowen teaches his students to weld, to estimate the cost of production, and, most important of all in the view of this American metal-missionary, how to draw up a work plan and adhere to it throughout a project.

Bowen instructs in Moroccan Arabic, a remarkable feat, considering it's his first foreign language, and one that he studied for only three months before coming here.

''I supplement with English, bad French, and a lot of hand signals. It's a real comedy of languages sometimes. Most of the kids speak Berber as their mother tongue. And a few of them didn't know how to write Moroccan Arabic at first, which made it hard to give tests.''

About these ads

The classroom reflects Morocco's linguistic diversity. Although written Modern Standard Arabic and the spoken dialect make up the national language, there are three major Berber language groups in the country, plus French (in which much secondary education is conducted) and Spanish. The local dialect of Arabic is rarely written. In the larger cities, English is growing in popularity , due in no small part to the success Peace Corps language instructors have had over the last 20 years here.

On a typical Friday morning, Dallas Bowen pushes back his Reynolds Aluminum promotional cap, puts down his paperback novel, and tells his students that by now they should have finished their test on how to build a metal workbench. There is furious scribbling: the last-minute addition of names to papers. The students surrender their tests and shuffle out on sandaled feet into the bright noon light.

In a corner is a large pile of worn leather shoes next to a tandem bicycle.

''The bike was a big hit. We made it as an experiment just to show what can be done with a few tools. A couple of my kids pedal in 10 kilometers (about 61/4 miles) every day from their village. Now they often use the tandem.

''The shoes are my safety program. When I first came, I told them they had to wear sturdy shoes in the shop. Little did I know that most of these guys didn't own any. Most people around here wear sandals, or thongs, or just go barefooted. But I insisted on closed-toe shoes to show them a different way of doing things. They scrounged up these leather ones. Now, when I wear my tennis shoes in the shop, they shout, 'It's not safe, Dallas.' ''

Next door, the odor of grease and burned metal is replaced by that of freshly cut lumber in Steve Scafati's woodworking shop. Bostonian Scafati, who had his own business before opting for a stint in the Peace Corps, teaches 12 boys to make shutters, doors, cabinets, and furniture with modern American tools, including a large Rockwell band saw.

''A lot of the wood we get here is rough and unprocessed, so the saw comes in handy,'' Mr. Scafati says, although he admits that spare parts for it are scarce in Morocco if it breaks down.

Scafati receives about $75 a month, as does Bowen, to purchase wood and supplies to operate his workshop. In a countryside as treeless as the more arid parts of West Texas, the small allowance leads to tight budgeting.

The Peace Corps volunteers make up the only American community in town, and off hours usually find them in the Auberge de Chichaoua, a cafe that also serves as the local bus stop. The souq, or market, bus between Marrakech and the coastal city of Essaouira is Bowen's and Scafati's main means of transport. Neither their living allowance, nor the Peace Corps's policy of having its volunteers blend with the local living standards, permits them to own cars.

But low pay and semi-isolation haven't kept the inventive Dallas Bowen from enjoying life in Chichaoua.. His two-story pink stucco house on a dirt road in the old part of town is the modest residence of a modern Robinson Crusoe: It boasts a dart board made from a tightly compressed stack of old American newsmagazines, a bathtub cut from a propane gas tank, and a hot-water shower rigged inside a stand-up Turkish toilet. From the kitchen, or the living room, or the roof terrace, the sounds of the rock group Fleetwood Mac float out to compete with the equally amplified - and recorded - voice of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in a mosque 50 yards away.

''I love Morocco. I chose this country for my volunteer work, and I got it. And I like Chichaoua. It's the real Morocco - not like Casablanca and Rabat, where people don't know whether they're French or Moroccan. But I just can't get used to Moroccan music,'' Bowen explains.

In addition to his fondness for Western music, he retains a marine's passion for keeping fit. A punching bag made from a military duffel bag swings from his living room ceiling. Children on a nearby terrace delight in watching him work out with ropes and weights on his roof. And he regularly runs five miles through the sparsely vegetated fields west of town.

''I wait till I get out in the countryside before I take off my shirt. Cultural sensitivity, you see?'' he says. ''Still, the shepherds always look at me as if I'm crazy.''

Bowen's instruction is meant to help his students find journeyman jobs or apprenticeships when they graduate. But the jobs must exist before these young welders can apply for them. In the industrial sector especially, Morocco's capital-hungry economy is struggling to initiate new investment projects in order to absorb an alarmingly high number of unemployed.

In Rabat, the capital, Peace Corps director Baudouin de Marcken says ''a high percentage'' of the first group of graduates from the vocational program did locate employment. ''But to base yourself on the first year is dangerous. Even in the United States, job-training programs do not place everyone in a job right away. The same goes for here.''

Peace Corps management of the vocational program will end late this summer when Moroccan instructors replace the Americans. The tools and equipment, which were purchased through a $400,000 grant from the US Agency for International Development, will be turned over to the Social Affairs Ministry, which provided the buildings for the workshops.

Beyond the technical instruction of joining metal to metal, Dallas Bowen may be leaving another kind of ''Yankee'' mark on his students, an influence that seems both more authentic and less sophisticated than diplomatic accords, military agreements, and binational commissions for cultural exchanges - all of which exist between the US and Morocco.

Bowen personifies the old maxim of ''Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way - But Do Something.''

''I've tried to teach my students that when you run into a problem, you have to do something - even if it's drastic. Maybe you do the wrong thing, but at least you'll know next time.''

When Steve Scafati leaves the Peace Corps this summer, he will head for Naples, Italy, to look for his ancestral roots.

And Dallas Bowen?

He will soon be off to the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific, to help rebuild some schools that were destroyed in a typhoon. He reenlisted in the Peace Corps because he didn't see enough of the world in the Marine Corps. ''I only made it as far as Alaska,'' he says.

Perhaps it is time he left Chichaoua, for in the Hotel Imilchil in Marrakech, just one hour away, Moroccans pack into the usually deserted arabesque lounge on Saturday nights to sip mint tea, swap stories, and watch Pam and Sue Ellen and Lucy and Jock - ''Dallas'' is a year behind here - and Bobby and J.R. . . .


Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.