School children risk their lives for an education! This may sound exaggerated, but it certainly isn’t a million miles from the truth as I discovered last weekend. In the trusted hands of Fatima, I experienced the trials and tribulations that traveling to and from school can incur, as we made what seemed like a million-mile journey back to her remote mountain village.
I know that you’re not supposed to have favourites….but let’s be honest….sometimes the odd character shines through and you feel a special connection. To me it feels as if I’ve known Fatima all my life; and although she comes from Iznagne, which feels like the most out-of the way place in the world, she could have come from down-town Agadir and you wouldn’t know the difference. I was thrilled to be invited back to her house for the weekend, and made sure she’d checked with her parents first, fearful of an awkward moment upon arrival.
The school timetable here starts bright and early at 8am and finishes at 5pm daily. Students have lessons sporadically in-between times, except on Fridays when the afternoon is free to digest your cous-cous. This comes in return for a Saturday morning stint which makes for a short weekend, especially when you have a long way to get home, and you’re not quite sure how long you’ll have to wait for some transport to get there.
We’re starting from Ouirgane, which is on the ‘main’ road between Asni and Tarroudant, but is not a well-trodden tourist route because of the tricky ‘Tizi n’test pass’ (2100m asl) which demands careful negotiation; particularly this time of year in the snow. There is no bus service; just your standard grand taxis, passing lorries, cattle trucks and stripped out minibuses-so that double or triple the amount of people can squeeze in. Seemingly the safest and most reliable way to travel is definitely by donkey or mule, which we can refer to as the ‘Berber 4×4’.
“Yellah Lucy!”, Fatima was encouraging me to eat faster as we scoffed our lunch (a delicious carrot and potato ensemble, thanks to Samira) at midday on Saturday. As I understood it, we were rushing to make our way out on to the road to catch some ‘transport’ that was pre-arranged. Turns out we were hurrying to stand by the road to flag down what-ever vehicle is passing and willing. The problem is that most of the vehicles are full before they leave Asni, predominantly to make the journey as economical as possible, and also because there is a general lack of transport around these satellite towns. When I say full, I don’t just mean that all the seats are taken, I mean people are already riding on the roof and hanging out the window!
Within an hour we managed to bundle in to a van, and the existing passengers were none too pleased to have to find room for two more bodies, especially one foreigner with a big back-pack. As usual, one poor older lady was chundering away in to a plastic bag as we wound our way further in to the mountains. Top tip: carry oranges to share at these moments….not to eat but to peel and hold to your nose. I’ve observed this clever trick before, and it is pretty successful in stopping the smell of vomit setting off everyone else in the vehicle. Praise Allah for plastic bags! There are too many plastic bags in Morocco, and indeed the whole world, but at this moment I was glad of their existence.
Anyway, we were underway and making way, but this luck was soon to run out, as we were discharged at a very small service town after 45mins of travelling. That van was bound for Talaat n’ Yakoub, which you’ll get to fairly easily if you carry on the paved road. What I didn’t know was that our destination was way off the beaten track. So we waited, and we waited, along with a handful of girls and boys who also live in Iznagen, for a lorry that someone said would come eventually. A lose arrangement if you ask me, but one has to have faith in these events. At least it was a beautiful day and the views were gorgeous and I was with lovely people and there was a small shop to buy snacks. And then we waited some more. And then we waited a bit longer. As it got cold and dark I was impressed at how the girls manage to keep their spirits high and how they find enough to talk about to keep chatting to each other. As the night fell and we began our 5thhour of waiting, Fatima apologised and said that this was an exceptionally long wait, although obviously it’s not that uncommon. We were all cold and shared out what ever I’d thrown in to my back pack. The lack of clothing and footwear worn by the young people in this currently cold environment astounds me. The temperature is below 5˚c and they’ll still be wearing flip flops by choice. I used to be like this; insistent on wearing shorts all year round, but that was because inside our house was very warm. Here inside the houses are colder than outside. The thick brick insulation keeps the houses a fairly constant year-round temperature, which is important when temperatures outside are soaring in to the 40s!
Eventually around 7pm our long awaited chariot appeared in the form of an open-top lorry…like one that you’d transport your garden waste in. Of course it was already full of people, doors and donkey-fodder bought at the souk in Asni, but everyone knew that this was the only chance to get home tonight, so a place was found for everyone. Now I’m not a complete pessimist, but I had my doubts about the competency of this here vehicle before we’d even left the paved road. Nor am I one to be greatly concerned for my own health and safety, BUT, as I sat up top in the open air clinging to the wobbly metal frame, I was a little concerned about how top heavy we were. More so was I concerned for the 4 girls that were sitting right on the cabin roof…holding on to what I don’t know. Again, this is standard procedure I presumed, and you have no choice but to accept the situation. Nags (aka my mum) would not like to see this I thought. It get’s more hairy though….
After 5 minutes we forked off the ‘main’ road and on to a bumpy gravel track- I tightened my grip and loosened my suspension. Looking ahead in to the darkness I could only see moon light reflecting off water; the track didn’t continue. We were heading straight for a river, and indeed we proceeded to drive downhill straight in to the water! Luckily the river wasn’t in spate, but it is common that these villages get cut off for two weeks or more at a time, like last November. Instead of just crossing is at a perpendicular angle, we turned and drove up the middle of the braided channel, in to the flow for 100m or so, before turning again and meeting the rough track on the other bank. Pheww….we made it across. I don’t know how the weight of the vehicle didn’t just sink in to the boulder strewn bed. The lorry was really labouring uphill, and who knows how long we had still to go uphill in to the High Atlas. I felt sorry for it, like I do the heavily burdened donkeys being prodded to trot faster. The treatment of vehicles and mules is roughly the same it seems. Sure enough just two minutes after the river crossing, with the lorry in first gear and the smell of the clutch burning, it just packed up. The engine gave up and so did the driver. Some arguments ensued. Half the crew just took their things, clambered down and started walking at this point. I was keen to do the same to get moving and warm up but Fatima insisted that it was better to wait. I was not aware of the mileage that we still had to cover!
It’s now very cold, a bit windy and we were exposed on a mountain. The stars were absolutely phenomenal. I’ve really never seen such a density, however I was honestly too cold to appreciate them fully. My admiration for the inadequately dressed girls and boys trying to get home grew as they continued not to curse or complain. Someone said that another vehicle was on it’s way…. thank goodness for mobile phones.
After an hour this minibus appeared, battered and bruised but hopefully fit for the job. What a relief it was to sit inside. My concerns were that this van was now heavily weighed down and facing a challenging hill start; but oh ye of little faith, we made it and even though on some slopes we had to get out and push, it got us all the way to Iznagen in one piece. I had hoped to be able to enjoy the delicious mountain views on route to Fatima’s village, but I was just pleased that we all arrived safely after a long day.
Retrospectively the breakdown of the lorry was a blessing in disguise, as I really wouldn’t have liked to find out how it handled the hair pins and navigated around the rock fall, when it filled the whole ~3.5m width of the track itself, not with those girls on the roof at least. Wow, what an adventure, but crumbs, what an extreme commute. I only had a 5 minute walk round the corner to get to my secondary school.
I woke up to a spectacular view on Sunday morning. The almond trees are all in flower at the moment, and this is the cash crop of the area- the life line that allows people to live and make money in this rural (understatement!) region. I still couldn’t help but wonder WHY people settled here initially. Life is hard work! The camaraderie in the village and the quality of live, the stunning views, the clean water, the terraced landscape and fertile soil are pretty valid reasons to continue living there though.
Sunday in Iznagen mainly consisted of eating bread and drinking tea with various members of Fatima’s family. Such generosity and hospitality. The tiny 3x5m hamam was rammed on Sunday afternoon; we went at prime time. I counted 30 people in it at one point. Babies crying, and women scrubbing so hard you’d think they’d rub their skin right off. I’ve never felt so squeaky clean after that and my forehead was genuinely shining. After the hamam I visited the local primary school with one of the teachers that I met in the hamam. She spoke English brilliantly, so it was a great chance for me to ask lots of burning questions about religion, culture and education in Morocco, and be understood. The primary school has only existed for 20-odd years, and indeed there are many villages still without a facility for primary education even. As we toured the area at sunset, the Imam (man with a good voice and sound knowledge of the Koran) passed by on his way to the Mosque to make the call to prayer, and invited us in to eat. What a feast that was! Figs and dates and raisins in the tagine. All prepared by his wife who’d only just given birth to their fourth child 15 days ago. So many infants in the village were clearly suffering with chest infections and fevers, but they continued without complaint. In fact, when you ask a Muslim how they are…..they’ll simply reply ‘alhamdulillah’ which is roughly translated as ‘praise god’, whether they’re feeling good or rotten, they just accept the fait they’ve been given. This humble acceptance lends itself to a peaceful life, and we can all take heed of that.
It seemed like we were only in Iznagen for 5mins before it was time to go to sleep and get up early on Monday morning to catch a ride back to school. The transports generally leave at 5am, but as it was cold we left at 7am. I don’t know how people know when to set there alarms for….it all just seems to be intuitive. The same bus that rescued us on Saturday night was trundling back up the mountain track beeping its horn to summon its passengers. It leaves early as it has lots of stops to make at various villages on route to Asni. Of course it was full upon leaving Iznagen, and we were only the first village to board. So forget getting nice views of the mountain scenery on the way down, it was backs of heads and at times people sitting on your lap. It’s all good fun though; until the obligatory puking- this time a young girl, so she can definitely be forgiven. Travel sickness is the worst. Again…no crying or whinging…she just got on with it…without warning actually.
It was all going fairly smoothly as gravity was relieving the poor engine on the way down. I thought ‘ahh we’ll be back in Ouirgane with hours to spare before school starts’; but then came the river crossing fiasco.
Instead of perhaps shuttling people and cargo across the river to make the van lighter, we just plunged in and promptly got stuck in the pebbly bed. After several attempts to get going again, avoiding having to get out and get feet wet, we were wheel-spinning deeper in to the loosely deposited load.
Us commuters in the back just sat tight and once more, made light of the situation, rather than passing blame to the driver and being disgruntled, which would so often be the case in England (not that I know of any bus routes that cross rivers of this proportion). I enjoy absorbing the atmosphere people create in Morocco. Nothing is done in a rush and nothing is of that great importance. Fortunately the majority of us didn’t have to get wet but inevitably many did kindly sacrifice their comfort and dryness. The problem was solved for the mean time, and we were off down-stream within 20 minutes of getting stuck…. now that’s Moroccan efficiency.
We were successfully back on to paved road before long; what a luxury that is. The mountain paths are incredibly engineered, or not, cutting straight in to sheer cliff face and hard rock. A colossal amount of effort must have been put in to create these tracks. Anyway, retracing our steps we stopped back at the little village we knew oh so well from the long wait on Saturday. Here we unloaded the van and I thought we were in for the same treat as before, but after just a 10minute lay-over, we packed up the same van and it took us all the way to Ouirgane! Door to door in under 3 hours that time. Not bad going.
This has been a long account of a journey that for me was crazy, but for Fatima was completely normal.
Fatima was the first girl from her village to go to secondary school. The school teacher that I met said she badgered her father for three months to let her go. Fathers are somewhat reluctant to let their daughters go to college, evidenced by Fatima’s cousin of the same age. In part this is due to the route being hazardous, and as I said at the beginning, potentially life threatening- worst case scenario. It’s also a long journey and costs money. However there is another socio-economic factor that encourages women to stay at home, settle down early and breed: education can actually be considered an element of devaluation in the marriage market, and seen as a disturbance to social cohesion.
I now truly understand how difficult it is to merely live let alone complete your education if you live in rural Morocco. It is essential that the few boarding houses provided by the government, and non-governmental organisations like ‘Education For All’ exist. The concept of giving girls a say in their future is undoubtedly growing; but it’s a shame that their aspirations are still inhibited by logistics, primarily transport and accommodation. Still, the future is certainly holds a lot of hope.
Lucy Goodman – Volunteer at Dar Ouirgane