Colgate in Casablanca: Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Elizabeth Stein

This summer I had the fantastic, eye-opening opportunity to travel to Morocco. Besides catching some sort of regional disease and suffering from just a bit of culture shock, the trip was chance for me to see that proverbial “other side of the world.”

A sensuous place, filled with spices, ubiquitous color, music in harmonic minor, henna, mosaics, flowers and overwhelming heat, it defines my idea of the adjective exotic. I rode a camel, walked through the medina marketplace, bartered for scarves and special oils and feasted on the Mediterranean-French-Moroccan diet of fruit, bread, and couscous. It was any traveler’s or

writer’s dream.

But here I got my first taste of Africa. Here, the soda price of a quarter is expensive, the most common form of transportation is a donkey and a hot shower is a hotel luxury.

I rode the train (sans air conditioning in dusty 100-degree-plus temperatures of course) with my backpack and a water bottle clutched to my chest, looking out the window upon a vast expanse of nothingness…nothing but sky and dry tundra for as far as I could see. Occasionally we’d rumble past a collection of mud huts and barefooted children. When the train would pass they would stop whatever they were doing to watch us go by.

I have a vivid imagination, but I could not, this time, imagine what it would be like to live in that way-this seemingly so primitive way. The nearest water source is the local well (which could easily be miles away), the fire must be tended at all times and this is the only way to cook, any farming must be done by hand.

When we pass, do they stop and stare because they wish to be on our train as well? Do they see it as a way out? A ticket to the big city and therefore opportunity? But the bigger cities are crowded and dirty. The drivers are reckless, the streets smell like garbage and fish and the apartment buildings have glassless windows and are full of lines of drying laundry. Casablanca, that exotic city romanticized by starry-eyed classic movie watchers like myself, is the worst.

Or do those rural dwellers that stare judge, because the train equals wealth and superiority? The train is expensive and is a clear representation of the class distinctions. If you are one of the few elite who can afford to buy first class, you have the luxury of an assigned seat and the privilege to even use the bathroom!

(Don’t be under any disillusionment, however, just because I said bathroom doesn’t make it anywhere you would want to spend more than thirty seconds…trust me-this is the place I spent five hours dealing with my surprise bout of sickness).

But Morocco has more than just economic distinctions. When we were buying our train tickets, in the middle of our transaction our seller stopped and helped the man who came up behind us… just because we were women. There were too many unspoken rules for me to understand: women weren’t allowed into the cafes during lunch, because they were expected to be at home cooking and cleaning. Women weren’t expected to wear short skirts or bare their shoulders. I felt uncomfortable still in linen pants and short-sleeved tunics.

Part of this is also the state religion of Islam, which influences other parts of daily life as well: the mosques issuing a call to prayer throughout the day, not allowing non-Muslims (such as myself) to enter, even just to appreciate the magnificent architecture.

But the fiscal divide itself is so hard to ignore. Only the rich in Morocco speak French, because they were schooled; otherwise the language is Arabic-the common language. My host family, who was fairly well-off living in a suburban house with marble floors, colorful draperies and a beautiful garden, had their own car and their own servant. She was from one of the poorer, uneducated, more traditional areas. It was considered a fantastic opportunity for her to work here, because people from her background (and there are so many!) obviously had no chance of doing anything else with their lives.

And now I am here at Colgate-Colgate in all of its pricey glory. I have the opportunity to mingle with greatness, to go to graduate school, to have a career carrying prestige, the opportunity to be so close to such wealth…wealth in terms of money, in terms of intellect, in terms of social connections, wealth in terms of ultimate basic freedoms.

So many students here have no idea what it means to live without opportunity. There are too many people who will never even go to college, much less go to a school like Colgate, because they are trapped by desolate poverty.

I read President Obama’s book Dreams From My Father this summer when I found out it was the required reading for the first-year class. His experiences caused me to connect my own and to see that Colgate is a different culture from most of the world. To see that his dream about the importance of education and opportunity is so incredibly laudable, if not necessarily feasible on the global scale it needs to be.

But here at Colgate, it’s clean and it’s quiet. We have beautiful, rich students and beautiful, expensive buildings, some that cost fifty-six million dollars to build. I’d love to see what fifty-six million dollars could do

in Africa.

Contact Elizabeth at [email protected].