Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Eager to show off

By Marian Starkey

Marrakech presents itself as laid back and fast-paced all at once. Men lounge at cafes drinking sugary mint tea while motor scooters whiz by, nearly crashing into pedestrians and each other at every turn. Horns honk and donkeys bray, trying to be heard over the calls to prayer which blare throughout the city over loudspeakers five times a day. Still, everyone has a smile and is eager to help the tourists from France? England? No, USA! Ah, USA! New York? No, Washington, DC. Ah, Washington, welcome my friends!

I spent the last two days playing hooky to conference sessions and instead visiting various agencies and organizations around Marrakech and the surrounding towns. Yesterday, my bus got a police escort and a royal welcome at the reproductive health clinic about an hour southeast of the city. Town residents lined up along the streets for miles, waving us in. Doctors and staff at the clinic were eager to show us their beautiful facility at the foot of the Atlas mountains. Women who had just given birth proudly showed us their newborn babies. We were all impressed to hear that all services at the clinic, from family planning to safe delivery, are free. Perhaps clinics like this are the reason why Morocco has been so successful at reducing its fertility rate from over 7 to 2.4 in just four decades. The urban fertility rate in Morocco is just an even 2, lower than the U.S. rate.

Today I visited an intake center at the hospital for women and children victims of violence. Doctors were sensitive to the victims' privacy and did not allow us to tour the center, but were happy to answer many of our most pressing questions in the courtyard outside.

This afternoon, I went to a local orphanage for kids 5-18 years old. Many of the 80 residents were plucked from the streets where they had been abandoned by their parents and were begging for a living. They now attend school full time and share a loving home with dedicated staff.

I always expect program directors to exaggerate the success of the work they're accomplishing, but all three of these operations truly did seem to be improving the lives of the most vulnerable women and children who live in and around Marrakech.

Tomorrow it's back to the grind with back-to-back research sessions all day. Publications are flying off my info table too, which is a very good thing, not least because it means I won't have to lug them back to good old Washington, DC.

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