Race and the “Stage of Love”: Melanie Cheng on her experiences in Peace Corps Morocco. Part 2: Exercise classes in a Moroccan village.


What is your project (in Tazarine)?

All Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco are here at the invitation of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, so we focus on youth and community development. We’re all assigned to work at the local youth center or the local women’s center. I work at the local youth center in Tazarine, and I do youth development activities, but then I also do a lot of community development activities outside of the youth center. I also work at the girls’ boarding house, and I’ll do activities with them.

I go out to one of the rural villages [twice a week] and I’ll do (hour long) women’s exercise classes. I do community health-type events. People sometimes come to me with project ideas, or they want me to help them with something, then I’ll help them with that. It’s just basically seeing what the needs of the community are and trying to address those needs.

And so, the girls at the boarding house. Is that a school, or…?

No. So the way that it works here in Morocco, at least in my town, is that there are a lot of girls from the rural villages who come into the town’s center to go to (secondary) school because they live too far away to go back and forth every day, especially with limited transportation. During the school year, they’ll live in [boarding houses in] town, and then on school breaks they’ll go back to their villages and spend time with their families.

The exercise classes for the women. What kind of exercise do they like to do?

It varies. It’s mostly aerobics. I try to incorporate high-intensity interval training, because that gets the most results in the shortest amount of time.

With the girls’ boarding house, they really like to dance. A lot of times we’ll start out doing exercise, but then it just turns into a dance party where they’re just like, “Turn on this type of music!,” and then they just start dancing. And dancing is exercise, so…

And the women (in these classes), how old are they?

In Morocco, a lot of women don’t have a space to do exercise. In my town, we don’t have any gyms, and (women) don’t necessarily exercise in the home because their homes are communal spaces and they’re not comfortable, maybe, exercising in the house with kids running around, or husbands, or people coming in and out, other family members will drop by. There’s not really a space for women to do exercise, which is why we offer these classes.

Because of that, we have a huge range in age [of women and girls who participate in exercise classes]. When we go out to the rural village, for example, we have girls who are kids, essentially. We’ll have 12, 13-year-old girls participate with their moms or sisters. Our oldest participants are probably in their sixties. It’s really cool because they’re really into it, and they look forward to coming. In the rural village, we hold exercise classes in their community center.

We also run (early) in the morning. The women feel more comfortable running before people are out and about, so they’re not being stared at. We’ll go running at seven in the morning. I’m surprised at the turnout. (The women) are committed. They want to be healthy. They want to exercise. It’s a really great way, I think, for the women to just spend time with each other. It’s a really cool community experience.

Does your exercise gear differ, at all, from what you wear in the U.S.?

Oh yeah, it’s very different. With how conservative the culture is here, I always wear pants. At my site, it’s not appropriate to wear t-shirts in public, so the shirtsleeves always go at least to my elbow, or further. But it also depends. With the girls’ boarding house, for example, it’s a closed space, so there, I feel more comfortable dressing in capris and a t-shirt. But even then, if it’s a hundred degrees out, I’m still not able to wear shorts and a tank top, or whatever would be more comfortable exercise clothes to wear in a hotter climate. I definitely have to dress more conservatively than I would in the States.

At least in Ifrane, it’s hard to find tennis shoes. Do they have difficulty finding (fitness clothes)?

I don’t think any of the women own a proper pair of tennis shoes. A lot of the women will… just wear slippers. They’re called”mika,” which literally translates to “plastic,” but they’re really more like rubbery slipper things.

Like pool shoes?

Kind of. Just think of pool shoes, for example, but made out of a rubbery, plasticky material. When they do have “sneakers,” they’re not trainers. They’ll wear things that are more like Keds, or (Converse-like) high tops.

They’re used to exercising in these kinds of shoes. The schools offer gym class, so they do have exercise clothes and exercise shoes that they wear, but they’re not the same kind of gear that we would wear in the States.

For other parts of this interview, visit:

Part 1: Summer in Tazarine, a ghost town full of watermelon patches.

Part 3: Cheng explains that not every Asian in Morocco is a Chinese national.

Part 4: Peace Corps culture.

Part 5: Cheng’s not frickin’ saving babies, you guys!


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