The perfect light of resplendence

In between certain places

In between places

when our bodies were done
we found ourselves
more or less in ashes

bound to a mantle
we caught glimpses
of ourselves through
creases in open doors

the children were scared
and peered into our urns
the cat ran away

we attended the wake
wakeful and filled with space

somewhat surprised
at the turnout we were

still warm
empty
alive and
ultimate

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A secret valley

A secret valley, Langtang

A secret valley, Langtang

                                                it is said that no one knew about this valley
                                                that it was secret for some 500 years

                                                but i wonder at the role of such fables,
                                                somehow able to illusively embolden us,
                                                to make masks for the fact of our smallness

                                                                                    the fact is
                                                we are procured from thin air
                                                and other astral flotsam

                                                                                    our one ostensible aim
                                                to make sense of the strangeness of being

                                                coaxed cleverly by specific histories
                                                we have evolved to think we speak for all things

                                                how we cannot

                                                in this secret valley, hid for 500 years
                                                memories of ascetic pilgrims are stored
                                                in the stellular veins of mica rock

                                                much later down the track
                                                we walk and hack our heels in,
                                                lustily

                                                these rocks are ghosts
                                                that weave our clothes
                                                with silver dust and

                                                now we are made from earth
                                                our own ascetic robes loosened by
                                                valley echoes of benevolent laughter

                                                                                    the truth is
                                                                                    (though mostly we don’t feel it)
                                                we thrill the pilgrims with
                                                our thorough artlessness

                                                we are so out of touch

                                                but for such
                                                intents and historic purposes
                                                this does not mean
                                                so much to us

Screwed up and human

we are this wanting –
belief to be believed
vulnerable and small
like children we scream
“see me! tell me what
you think!”

moles on porcelain
screwed up and human
wanting to be none
and everything and
always, ever
trying

This is not a grand declaration

bedroom still life

bedroom still life

this is not a grand declaration

this is not a banner and plane

this is not one of those
love song dedications
web testimonials or
tattooed names

not a play in three acts
nor twelve sonnet verses
not a ring on a finger or
a silver-filled purse

’cause with you

i don’t need to make
those kinds of gestures
or use so many words

We are the keepers

we are the keepers
archaeologists
we comb catacombs
like beggars our
fingers irreverent
for sprinkled gold
filling bags with
trinkets sage and
shining under dust
we are hoarders
we grab with
lust and just
store things away

When we were young #1

Self-portrait

when we were young
(teenage girls)
i suppose we had fun
being ponied about
upturning our noses to
other noses and
kissing on both cheeks

i suppose it was fine to
make artless portraits
of faces and nails (mine
always chipped)
hair loose on ironing
boards, toes cut
for shoes that poked
other girls like needles

when i was young (a teenage girl)
i glossed my lips with rubber filler
and prayed for no gaps

but backed against
confessional scrawls
on toilet walls when
we clawed at each other
and you rattled off flaws
(a trademarked munition)
the dog-eared bits at
my fingertips made
jokes of the chips on
your shoulders

could i be forgiven
that when we were young
(as teenage girls)
i tried on your short dress –
but once, and
only for size

Treading water

The river at Pashupati

The river at Pashupati

                                                               we tread viscous circles
                                                               convinced for the dive
                                                               now hours, days, years
                                                               have made ridges in our
                                                               heels
                                                                     we are wet ghosts

                                                               you trick me for buoys
                                                               but i know you swim
                                                               if you make me laugh
                                                               you’ll only choke me and
                                                               bust
                                                                     water through my nose

Gutted or not

Barn

garbed by
mourning skies
rivers carved
in our cheeks
we spoke without
speaking breathed
between breaths
throats fish-hooked to
intercostals breathing
and not breathing
ribbed palms reeling
in and out and in
and out we watched
strewn crumbs
disappear
i like to think
somehow
gutted or not
to some stranger’s
eye we were
pretty

There are no pictures

A bed and corn

Beds and corn

there are no pictures

the scuffed knee freckle
rawbone part

the garden sprinkler caper
sticky hand and tender skin part

the stumble off the mark
little athlete clutching mud and
ribbons at the heart part

there are no pictures

growing up is hard and
fast without them

When the skin doesn’t fit

patting down my dress i did my best to glide
smile greased like chicken wings hovering
in your shadow as you curled a fist and knocked

beyond blonde pine fences laughter sizzled
faceless like hot-plate beef
ice clinked to the click of camera shutters
shuddering to witness the gold bangled
wrist of another sophist’s photo

carrying the uncooked slabs of some-label meat
i felt like a plastic bag casually toted and filled
with morsels other backyard people
were primed to eat

We were the metaphor


it took us a long time driving too long
too long a long time on the road
beating off on chemical sweat to cleanse
each other, flagellating words against each
others backs but
                    once we crashed
                          sick in each other
                 we caught up
                to the metaphor
we were the car
hoary, run-down
and speeding
way too fast

Like any other little seed

The Kathmandu valley

The Kathmandu valley

it began like any other
little seed, pulled deep from
earth, divined by soil and
sand, visceral and total
it made you think of the
fatal, the end place where
all your human efforts have
come to nothing because
everything was already
already decided anyway
it made you sick to think
of inevitability because
you’d never believed in that
but because you languished
to feel everything ever
possible to feel, because
you hungered to go deep
with someone, anyone
you recognised the wanton
mountains, tangled rivers, the
quivering and crowning of new
life, and you made it her

Prayer wheels and sunsets

Boudha sunset

i have turned
so many prayer wheels
burned incense like bridges
crept away from myself
now my longing lives in a
box with no features
it hides amidst ridges
carved deep by rivers in
canyons made from
old love

i have spent so many
of these nights and days
a pilgrim inward-wandering
i’ve pondered my fragments
the space between atoms
expanded like stars
in my solitude

and

i’m still to arrive at
the meaning of you

Monsoon summer

Displaced. Source: newspaper, Kathmandu

Displaced. Picture from local newspaper, Kathmandu.

in monsoon summer
the sky grows sad
its eyelids sag and
heavy tears wash
dirt away from river
banks. houses sleeping
up on top are lost,
the people bits of
driftwood dislocated
from their villages.
now who are you
to say a home
is just the heart with
which you fill it?

Over the last three weeks there have been enormous floods and landslides in rural Nepal, particularly in the west of the country. Though statistics differ, the local papers are reporting that up to 200 people have died and a staggering 20,000 families have been displaced. Though the reports say ‘families’, many young children have found themselves without any relatives. They are now living in makeshift environments with little to no santitation or clean water, limited to no access to medicine, food or clothes, and are at high risk of water-borne diseases.

In the last week I have assisted the Women’s Foundation Nepal (WFN) to generate funding to provide emergency relief in the form of food, clothes and medicine in the rural areas in which we work. It is also expected that the organisation will begin a long search for surviving relatives of the parentless children with the hope they might be resettled with family. However, it is likely that many children will be brought to WFN’s shelter for women and children in Kathmandu, provided that is what the children themselves desire.

WFN runs three shelters in Kathmandu for women and children who’ve escaped situations of domestic violence. Two of these are in secret locations, much like a witness protection program. Through these shelters children are given the opportunity to go to school, and the women are also given educational and livelihood opportunities.

One such job offered to these women is to become ‘mothers’ to children who have been rescued from violent situations as babies or young children. These women are paid a wage, but despite what you think, by all accounts these women are mothers to the children. Last week when I visited the shelter for Teej festival, many of the children who grew up at the shelter and who are now studying for their final leaving exams were excited to introduce me to their mothers, proudly showering them with kisses and hugs. A positive alternative to the standard orphanage setup? I’d be interested to hear what you think – comment below if you feel to.

If you want to learn more about the Women’s Foundation of Nepal and the work I’m doing in Nepal as Director of the Global Women’s Project, please do visit the organisations’ websites.

http://www.womenepal.org
http://www.theglobalwomensproject.com.au

In gratitude,

Briony

The gift of perspective – a view from Nagarkot

Nagarkot

Nagarkot

It takes me four hours to climb from the screaming city; to wade through the accomplished rural chaos of Bhaktapur to Nargakot. I end up so high the trees look like broccoli and mud brick houses shine like chocolate smarties in the hills. The air is crisp like fresh sheets; it seems to breathe me, not the other way around. Below and above me everything appears small and vast, chaotic and ordered at the same time.

Suddenly I’m filled to bursting with the universe’s blissful disorientation, and I’m struck by an intimate and comforting knowing – I am part of that same crazy confusion, it is my own internal aliveness.

Everything we’ve lost can be found

The bowl in question

The bowl in question

at the cliff edge upon which
everything still sane with the world
teeters or is lost completely,
there are moments
when with utmost clarity
humanity reveals itself
wide and deep like an old bowl
to save sanity from falling.
in that human moment we
might be forgiven for thinking
that everything we’ve lost
can be found.

Yesterday i bought the most beautiful handmade Nepalese-Tibetan singing bowl. I’d played scores of them all over the place before I found this one that resonated deeply with something in me. They say sometimes of instruments that the instrument chooses you. This felt like that.

On my way from the singing bowl shop to another appointment, I caught a taxi with a nineteen year old Nepalese man called David who had a crooked homemade cross and the word ‘Jesus’ tattooed on his forearm. Over the heavy bass of a strange but rocking Nepalese-Anglo dance remix, we talked about Christianity, guitars and other things. It was a good twenty minutes following my exit from the cab before I realised I’d left my singing bowl in it.

To my surprise, this actually didn’t upset me too much. There’s something really cool happening internally over here – a combination of acceptance, awareness and something magical I can’t quite put my finger on – so I was sort of resting in the conviction that I’d manage to find it again.

And find it I did. It took me most of the day today, but with the overwhelming generosity and help of a group of Nepalese cab drivers, who truly went out of their way to rally the troops and to help me locate David – one young cab driver in a BIG city – I’m happy to say I have my singing bowl back.

It’s really nice to know that against a pretty bleak global backdrop, there are still really good humans out there. Sometimes you just have to be open to the possibility and look a bit harder.

Side note:

In addition to the cabbies, I also want to pay credit to a couple of people I’ve had the honour of acquainting over the last few days – even if just in a literary context. I came across Alice Walker’s title ‘Anything We Love Can Be Saved’ the other day at a truly inspiring talk on ‘Men Against Sexism’ in Nepal which was presented by Ben Atherton-Zeman. Ben travels the world talking to communities about gender-based violence and gender equality and is a pretty inspiring guy. You can have a look at his site ‘Voices of Men’ here. Ben cited Ms Walker’s ‘text and I thought it was so beautiful and profound and poetic I wanted, in some very small way, to pay homage to it – hence the title of this blog entry.

She writes:

“It has become a common feeling, I believe, as we have watched our heroes falling over the years, that our own small stone of activism, which might not seem to measure up to the rugged boulders of heroism we have so admired, is a paltry offering toward the building of an edifice of hope. Many who believe this choose to withhold their offerings out of shame.

This is the tragedy of our world.

For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile.”

Pretty beautiful stuff if you ask me.

x

One day the words will come

The dead burn at Pashupatinath temple, Nepal

The dead burn at Pashupatinath temple, Nepal

I’ve been trying to find words to convey the enormity of my experience at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu last night. I’ve done hardly a thing today, though not for want of trying – I feel like I have been split open and it’s hard to be coherent in that state. Though some garbled words have come to me, it’ll no doubt be a while before I’m able to articulate even part of the story to my satisfaction. Indeed, that time may never come. The decision about which parts of this story I want to share publicly and which parts I want to keep for myself may also take some time to reveal itself to me. Until then, I will share with you one of the very few photos I managed to pull myself together to take. In deep, deep gratitude and wonder. Briony.

 

A love letter, from autumn to summer

Boys climb stairs outside Pashupati, Kathmandu

Boys climb stairs outside Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu

 

i met you just as the last of your flowers
bid their wishful goodbyes to branches
that had cradled them for three months
or longer. you grieved into my outstretched
arms, seduced my chill with warm fingers
breathing perfumes from your mouth
lovers grasped at the last straws of light
we tickled their noses with fancy
that this year, we might just skip the other
seasons.

but you knew as i that change should be
the only thing as certain as death so
we burnt gold the leaves with our fierce affair
others swayed in verdant envy breathing
as we danced each other hard and fast
those lovers bounced beneath branches orange
sad and heavy with the brevity and sweetness of
seasonal romance.

when you pulled away and made to
voyage unknown ends of the universe
the first leaf fell like a tear and the lovers
peering from their safe window
watched them pile up and up and up
they deluged the earth until all the trees
were exposed in their nakedness
accusing skyward with skeletal fingers
i wrapped them up in blankets made
of my melancholy and reminisced for
you.

crisp days turned into cool nights
though sunshine often teased of your
absence. and the trees whispered they were cold
without their clothes, without your sun to
keep them warm. but i was soon used to you gone
we were all soon used to you gone
your memory a footpath puddle evaporating
at a time when you were in your
body.

now the happy lovers make fire
lie by the hearth entangled in limbs
they read to each other
imbibe red wine from glasses that
shine with their reflections
they make love while
piles of leaves outside combust
and slowly turn to
mush.

Dear human, just feel me

Dear human, just feel me

Dear human, just feel me

yesterday i spent three hours
at guru swami dada’s place
through esoteric talk of
chakras ghosts and death
he said: you see the problem
with humanity is that
communication has
simply broken down

we don’t believe each other
how bizarre that we should
need ID to prove that we
are us as though plastic
has more weight than word
imagine god at heaven’s gate
turned us back because
we lacked a visa

Krishna’s birthday in the clouds

Krishna’s temple

she calls the people and
the mountains to her
valley-bound the sound
falls like tumbling hair
the people tuck it
round their ears and flock
like moths, tributes to her
amaranthine spirit
upon her alpine throne
she beams pink-skinned
and owns the dawn
as if it is only hers

To begin again – a sketch from the roof

From the rooftop, Boudha, Kathmandu

Boudha, Kathmandu

from the rooftop
colours blend through
rain-covered lenses
marble pools like
melted rainbow
paddlepops

clothes stick
to me bewitched
by thick air
its heat unsettles
like piled-on
woollen blankets

in streets below
cars spit dirt
on muddy kids
their laughter mixed
with prayer bells
chorusing between
tall houses

this divine chaos
is not lost on me
it comes from
all directions

but

up here i dream
i’m floating under
water heavy with
symphonic echoes

quiet exists
deliciously and
only inside

Side note: 

As many of you know I have recently moved to Kathmandu, Nepal. I am staying here for a little while primarily to work with the Women’s Foundation Nepal, a project partner of the Global Women’s Project of which I am Director back home in Melbourne. I feel incredibly lucky to have found myself in the company of some formidably passionate and capable Nepalese women and there are no doubt many great things ahead for the partnership! If you’re interested in staying in touch with the work of our two organisations please subscribe to our GWP blog.

Although I will no doubt also write about my work here, this blog, Burning the Couch (which has been been asleep for so long!), is primarily a space for me to reflect creatively on the deeply personal decision to come to Nepal. Like so many people tired with the banalities of modern life I really found myself wanting back in Melbourne; craving inspiration, more creativity, colour and chaos. I’ve been here just two days now and already I am heady with it. In such a place the words just flow.

If you, like me, feel an urge to get off the couch, or to set fire to it, please do keep reading.

In gratitude, namaste x

Announcing the launch of the Global Women’s Project!

Well it certainly has been a while since we last conversed. Apologies to all my readers who’d been trying to contact me, fearing I’d fallen off the face of the earth. Since returning to Melbourne from Morocco I’ve been treading a fine line between busyness and laziness, and the two dispositions have converged to expose a black hole in this blog’s timeline. Rest assured though, I’m alive and well, and with lots of exciting things going on.

So indeed, I have returned to Melbourne, to a more temperate (and temperamental) climate, to the comfort and conversation of friends and family, to my good guitar, and to a new job. I promise to properly update you on how things finished up in Morocco where I was working on the establishment of a women’s project with mothers of street-connected kids, but first I want to share with you something I’ve been working on recently, as part of a wonderful team of individuals: the Global Women’s Project.

The Global Women’s Project (GWP) is a secular, volunteer-run, not-for-profit organisation based in Melbourne. GWP works to support women and girls in developing communities to access literacy and skills training and lifelong learning opportunities which lay the foundation for them to make informed choices and exercise greater control over their lives. GWP currently partners with women-led organisations in Cambodia and Nepal. GWP not only provides financial and technical support for these organisations, but is designed as a global collaborative space, which promotes friendships and cross-cultural ties between women across the world.

So for everyone who supported my work with women in Morocco, and for newcomers to this blog, I invite you to explore GWP’s fabulous new website here.

We’ll be officially launching in the New Year, so make sure you like our Facebook page in order to receive invitations and updates.

And in the meantime, have a very happy New Year, one filled with positivity, friendship, joy, peace and love!

Briony

Fingers crossed we get the gold

Working with Street Children: An Approach Explored by Andrew Williams

This evening I write on the back of another day of developments for our Women’s Project. I don’t know where I’m getting the energy to jot something down for the blog, but I imagine it’s got something to do with being excited. I started with a meeting at 8.30 this morning and I’m just sitting down now after finishing a round of family home visits. It’s 11.30pm, so that’s a long day in anyone’s book. In fact, there’s been a lot going on this week, including the continuation of our workplace training with the women involved in our project, and getting the kids into gear for the new school year.

Also this week I’ve been quite lucky to have been able to spend some time with the very knowledgeable and lovely Andrew Williams. Andrew’s out here on behalf of the Moroccan Children’s Trust to have a look at the work the team here is doing with street children. Andrew is now based in London after 9 years working in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, during which time he established and ran an organisation called Retrak, which aims to support street children and to carve them out new and positive pathways. He’s also written a book called Working with Street Children, which is about, funnily enough, working with street children. It’s been great talking to him about the work he’s been doing in Africa, and hearing his insights about the team’s work here in Morocco. He’s here for another few days during which he’ll be running some training for the Moroccan team; we’re all looking forward to it.

But onto the Women’s Project! This morning, after a couple of early hiccups, including a printer that ran out of toner and temporarily losing Andrew Williams, the director of our organisation, my colleague on the project, Andrew Williams and I, met with the head honcho of the regulatory government body on social policy for this region of Morocco. We traipsed through town with our paperwork to his big, cushy office where we attempted to interest him in our income-generating project for mothers of street children. And what’d you know? Apparently, we’re onto a good thing. Not only was he supportive of our project, but he personally invited us to submit a funding proposal to the government department responsible for the disbursement of a $35 million Spanish Government foreign aid grant which is due to be allocated from the 30th of September. We’re all now in hyperactive mode scrambling to assemble the 15 different documents required by the department. It’d be absolutely incredible if our project were able to secure some of these funds, not only for the project itself and the women it aims to support, but for raising the profile of Groupe Maroc Horizons and its Street Child Centre.

What can I say but incha’allah!
* To order Andrew’s book in Australia, click here.

Women’s Project Update, Morocco: Getting the Government on Board!

I can hardly believe another two weeks has passed since I last updated this blog. So much has happened during that time, and on so many fronts, and it’s just hit me that I only have three weeks left in Taroudant, Morocco working with local NGO Groupe Maroc Horizons (GMH) and Moroccan Children’s Trust (MCT). As I reflect on what I and the GMH/MCT team have achieved in the short five and a half months since I arrived here, and anticipate the exciting times that lie ahead, I can’t help but be incredibly proud of everyone who’s come together to make this project happen.

This project, is an initiative that aims to provide an income for mothers of street children who visit GMH’s Centre Afak Pour Les Enfants et Leurs Familles en Situations Difficiles. It is a project that has been facilitated and driven by the Moroccan team here, with the support of its London partner, MCT, but that has been formed as a result of months of close consultation with the women who will be benefiting from it.

For the last five months, our weekly women’s group meetings have been the mechanism via which we have fleshed out these women’s challenges and problems, priorities and hopes. Our focus in late months on the development of an income-generating project has stemmed from the women’s own identification of what they see as most useful to them. The weekly meetings have also been a forum for discussion on important issues, like women’s rights, and the occasional social outing or sports session. The memory of being fiercely chased with boxing gloves by the grandmother of one of the kids at the Centre, hijab off and hair flying, will stay with me for quite a while, I imagine!

What we have developed with these women, is in effect a catering service that will provide breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea to the employees of well-populated government offices, who currently find it very difficult to leave their posts to buy food due to workloads and allocated break times. We are currently in the process of establishing partnerships with heads of various administrations, and next week will be meeting with the President of local government himself to present our proposal with the hope we’ll gain his valuable support. Through both formal meetings and informal conversations with those whom the catering project would service, a great deal of interest and encouragement has been generated at the level of government. As similar services are being provided in other parts of Morocco (though these just follow a standard business model), and countless members of government including the administration chiefs have expressed keen interest, all looks good to go. What we are keen to negotiate is a permanent place for the women to use at each administration for the preparation of the food.

This project is promising for a number of reasons. Not only does it address a gap in the service market while providing previously unemployed and uneducated women with the opportunity to make an income, it places socially marginalised women right under the noses of policy-makers. In other words, secondary to the immediate goals of generating an income for these mothers and their families, it is hoped that integrating women into the public domain will help make their unique situations more visible to those who can influence public policy in their favour.

Whilst this project caters to women’s own strengths, as identified by them, we also hope to provide women with the opportunity to develop their skills and learn new ones. As a first step and to ready the women for their new roles, last week we conducted our first workshop/training module on food preparation and good hygiene practices.  Over the next two weeks we will be conducting modules on basic money management, professional communication and presentation, and other relevant topics. We also hope in the near future to be able to connect the women with training catering to other interests identified by them, literacy being just one of them. Below you can see a couple of photos from Thursday’s workshop. I’m happy to announce that I am now the proud Australian owner of the recipe for delicious traditional Moroccan pastry “missimin”!

Discussing good hygiene practices with the Women’s Group

The Women’s Group making traditional “missimin” during a food preparation workshop

Indeed, everything is very exciting; on the brink of being actualised. My only hope is that I’ll get to see the project implemented before I have to get on a plane in three weeks, though I’m afraid to say that timing has never been my strong suit! Nonetheless, I am assured a continued role via email, and who knows – I might even make it my business to return to this wonderful country sooner rather than later!

The advent of a new year…

It’s the advent of the new school year in Morocco, Ramadan is finished, and activities have recommenced at an unfamiliarly rapid pace at the Centre Afak in Taroudannt where I am currently based with the local NGO Groupe Maroc Horizons (GMH) and its British partner organisation, the Moroccan Children’s Trust (MCT).

Image

In stark contrast to the slow pace during Ramadan and the school holidays, last week saw the 11 members of our team coming together for a whole week of team-building and strategy meetings, arriving at the centre every day at 8.30am for a communal breakfast, not leaving until 5pm when we embarked on home visits to the families who are connected with the centre.

Everyone is excited for the new school year, and to be involved in the creation and support of individual pathways for each child and, in line with the holistic approach taken by the centre, each of their family members. It was a long (indeed yet unfinished) process last week, as we addressed each of the case files of the 30 families who visit the Centre Afak for children and their families in situations of difficulty, as a team, assessing how we planned to support and foster the children’s development, and identifying ways we could support their families. The discussion was animated and enthusiastic, even though the heat has not yet let up (apparently this summer has been extraordinary – longer than usual and with temperatures daily exceeding 45C). Arabic bounced rapidly off the walls, while our director the wonderful Abdelleh Soussi translated into French and made notes on the white board, indicating the child and his/her family’s situation past, present and plans for this year. These discussions were typed up after the finish of each day and distributed amongst the team, ensuring everyone was on the same page with a unified goal for each child/family.

The women’s project, on which I am primarily working here, is also taking off and being embraced with open arms by everyone. It’s so exciting to think that after only five months in the country, I have contributed to the very near creation of an income-generating project that incorporates psycho-social support for the (often single) mothers of children who visit our centre. Not only is the project trial planned to go ahead in a few weeks, pending the approval of government officials whose office buildings we hope to be the focus of our breakfast- and lunch-time catering project, but we are now considering how we can expand our horizons to assisting women individually (rather than as a group) to realise their goals and ambitions. Next week, my Moroccan colleague Iqbal and I will continue our family visits to speak to the women about how they feel we can best support them.

It is very difficult for poor, uneducated women in Taroudannt to find employment. It is even harder for them to find employment that also allows time to look after their children. For many women, including young women and girls, prostitution is a very real pathway. Some of the mothers of the children who visit the centre are trying to make livings selling clothes and other goods, but cannot make enough money and are forced to sell their bodies. Children are often exposed to this activity, their tiny communal family-living spaces separated from it by nothing but a thin curtain. Supporting mothers to find gainful employment or alternative pathways will be an increasing focus of GMH’s work in the coming year.

Though I’m coming to the end of my placement here (I’ve only got five weeks left! How time has flown!) I will continue to keep you all updated on the work of GMH, MCT and the Centre Afak in the weeks to come. I’m sure there’ll be lots to report!

 

Briony’s Homecoming Gig, Melbourne – SCORCHER FEST, 9th Dec

Ok, ok, so this is a bit premature, huh? Well, excuse me for getting all excited like.

Mark the date. On the 9th of December, about a week after I return to Melbourne after volunteering in Morocco for the better part of this year, I will be playing my first gig back in Australia at SCORCHER FEST, an awesome music festival in its 10th year, proudly supporting local musicians.

I can’t think of a better homecoming than to have you there to support my set, and to enjoy the other 49 acts over 3 stages that will be on offer throughout the day jam-packed full of awesomeness.

Tickets are only $25!

They can be purchased through me (preferred – shoot me an email at briony_mack@hotmail.com), or through the festival website. If you use the latter method, just make sure you select me as the act you’re coming to see.

 

If you haven’t already checked out my music (a mix of indie/folk/jazz/blues), you can find me by clicking here. If you have bought the EP I released in March, hopefully you’re enjoying it immensely and if you haven’t (and like the music) please consider buying one. You’ll be helping to support the volunteer work I’ve been undertaking since April this year in Taroudannt, Morocco (you can read about this in previous posts).  CDs are selling for $15 + $3 postage. Just shoot me an email (again, at briony_mack@hotmail.com). You are awesome (in advance).

I seriously can’t think of a better way to celebrate my return, than to have an audience of my friends listening to all the new material I’ve come up with while I’ve been over here. Seriously, it would be awesome.

Until then, take care and stay warm wherever you are (Melbournians, I’ll blow some 50C heat your way if you like),

x Briony

Update on the women’s income-generating project, Taroudannt, Morocco

Given that my last few blog posts have been about either my glorious voyage around Morocco or music updates, I thought it time to remind you, dear supporters, that I am indeed still over here to work!

Hence, here’s an update on the Women’s Project on which I am working. This, for those who don’t know, is just one of Group Maroc Horizons’ and its London partner, the Moroccan Children’s Trust’s, many endeavours to provide support to street children and their families in Taroudannt, Morocco.

For the last month the Centre Afak has been very quiet as it has been school holidays (hence the timing of my country-wide trip). As of the 20th of July it has also been Ramadan, and very, very hot, so things seem to be happening even more slowly than the already laidback pace. Nevertheless, the development of a women’s income generating project, for the mothers of children who visit our centre, is still coming along nicely.

We are still working very closely with the women, and this week we have commenced individual conversations with the women about how the project will look practically for them, inviting them to make suggestions and talk through any potential problems in anticipation of a pilot of the project. So far we’ve had a really positive response! We hope to commence a one-month trial in the next month, though Ramadan does post an obstacle to productivity so we’ll have to work around this.

So, what does the project look like? For those who haven’t been following this blog, the seven interested members of our women’s group, which has been convening once a week since September 2010, have, along with me and my Moroccan colleague, come up with a business model whereby they will cook and deliver lunches, Monday-Friday, for the many government office workers who often cannot find time to leave their posts to buy lunch. Those women whose houses have working kitchens will host groups of 2-3 women to prepare the food, and each will be responsible for her own set of clients. At the request of the women, they will be provided with training in the areas necessary for the functioning of the project, with the possibility of further training in other areas such as literacy.

As well as assisting the women to generate some income, our women’s group continues to provide a safe space for women to talk about their daily challenges, their rights, parenting practices, solutions to their worries, and of course to socialise. Over the course of my time in Morocco (I’ve been here since April), and through the participatory approach we take to meetings, I have noticed the women’s confidence and engagement dramatically increase. It really is wonderful to see a project like this benefiting those who it purports to benefit, and including them meaningfully in each process.

I look forward to keeping you updated as our work with the women and their project continues!

Briony

Un Petit Tour du Maroc, Part III – Fez, Volubilis, Moulay Idriss and Meknes

From the crooked, blue washed walls of the hill-set medina in Chefchaouen, we made our way (again on a CTM bus) to Fez.  This wonderful, infamous city was, unanimously, the highlight of the whole trip. However, for me and my fellow travellers, this wasn’t really on account of the city itself (though it was lovely) but for a little guesthouse we stayed at right in the middle of the old town, at which we received the most unprecedented and quite unbelievable hospitality. I have absolutely no second thoughts whatsoever about the free publicity I’m about to give this place and its owners, Aziz and Mohammed, here on this blog.

We arrived at Dar El Yasmine after a little bit of fuss. In our attempts to follow the written instructions we’d received when we booked the hotel online at the last minute, we’d taken a taxi to the edge of the medina, where we assumed we needed to be. There, we were accosted by a shady guy who tried to inform us he was meeting us from his hotel, whilst trying to take our bags. Obviously a complete scam as we hadn’t told anyone that we’d arrived (and outside the walls no less), I picked up my phone to call the guesthouse at which point the guy promptly vanished like a puff of shisha smoke.

After my phone call, and without any fuss this time, we were met by one of the actual staff members from the guesthouse, who greeted us quickly then sped off in front of us, zigzagging between the throngs of people crowding the cluttered and narrow main street of the medina. Hardly able to keep him in sight as we lugged our suitcases behind us, half skipping every few metres, we eventually ducked into a small lane on our left, hung densely with colourful and lush carpets.

Straight on, and around the corner to our right we found it: a mounted plaque announcing our arrival at Dar El Yasmine. Through an ancient wooden door framed by studded, rusted steel, we were welcomed, literally with open arms, by Mohammed, one of the young, entrepreneurial owners. As we sat drinking delicious, sweet mint tea, another young guy flew down the stairs. Quite instantly the energy in the room heightened. His entire face sparkled as he introduced himself, in perfect English, as Aziz, the other owner. We were quite taken aback by the energy, ease and immediate friendliness with which he spoke with us. He truly seemed to personify goodwill and honesty, and indeed proved this to be the case time and time again over the course of the three days we spent there.

Laughing at his choice of dress – a full suit – in such extreme temperatures, Aziz explained enthusiastically that he’d just come from the wedding of his best friend, who was – wouldn’t you know it! – marrying an Australian girl. Of course, as soon as we dropped our bags off in our rooms, we were whisked off as his new guests. Our concerns at being ‘wedding crashers’ were dismissed with a wave of the hand by Aziz, and were further assuaged the moment we arrived. Karim, the groom, welcomed us in as old friends, clearing a table and setting places for us. We dined on tajines of chicken, prune, and goat, and gorged ourselves on caramel ice cream and fruit, eating with other latecomers including an old, man, clearly a victim of hard knocks, who’d heard the music and invited himself in off the street. He was welcomed to the party, just like us, of course.

A Moroccan wedding is truly a spectacle to withhold. A Moroccan bride, with the help of her entourage of ladies hired specifically for the occasion, will typically change her outfit between 5 and 10 times on her wedding day, if you can believe it. Tradition dictates the variety of colours and forms these dresses take, and let me tell you the heavily bejewelled numbers are not for the faint hearted! The bride’s feet and hands will also be covered with intricate patterns of dark henna, her face with a thick slick of makeup, and her eyes decorated with black kohl curving outwards with a dramatic flick. For the most part of the day, in my experience, the bride doesn’t really move (who could, in those heavy garbs?!) but sits there looking very decorated while people take lots of photos.

The bride and groom will also generally make a number of grand entrances to the party during the day. During the time we were at the wedding in Fez, the groom rode in on a horse accompanied by a fanfare of horns, while the bride was carried inside in a l’aamehria, a wooden carriage veiled with shimmery fabric, which was hoisted up on the shoulders of many men (again hired specifically for the occasion).

In Morocco, the party can go all night, with music playing very loudly until the early hours of the morning. I’d experienced this previously on the eve of my departure to Tangier, on the first leg of the trip. Unfortunately, I didn’t crash that one because I was trying to sleep, which simply meant I tore my hair out to the offensively loud and distorted beats and wails from the clearly broken speakers as they bounced off the walls of my bedroom until 5am. At the wedding, however, I was privy to what actually happens when the music is inside the building. Note: manic dancing applies. Hang onto your mothers; I made the mistake of letting mine loose.

After we left the wedding, we wandered the medina for a while before returning to Dar El Yasmine to sit on the cushioned terrace, where Aziz prepared apple shisha for everyone. We were joined by a group of wonderful people, including two recent high school graduates from the Netherlands, Sebastian and Annalou, as well as a Spanish girl who we’d met on the bus to Fez. On the way over, as we stopped at a cafe to refuel, we’d watched on in delight as Sylvia bounded off the bus, bought lunch for and virtually force fed the ancient Moroccan lady (a stranger) still sitting in the seat next to hers. She took no note of the woman’s many polite refusals, instead smiling, laughing and persisting until the woman accepted her offer with gratitude. I instantly loved her for this, as she reminded me of so many of my Spanish friends; like them, she was vociferous, completely forward, unapologetic, and, well, simply wonderful!

Up on the terrace, Aziz suggested that he might cook everyone dinner, which just added to the existing home-away-from-home vibe. A couple of us accompanied Mustafa, a beautiful young Berber lad who’d recently moved to Fez from the desert (but missed his desert ways greatly) to the market to buy everything we needed. We spent the next couple of hours cooking up a storm together in the tiny hotbox of a kitchen. The Dar El Yasmine ‘family dinner’ was recreated every night we were there, and – you may not believe this – when we made a move to fix up our bill at the end of our stay we were told we were not being charged for it. Where on earth, other than Morocco?!

The next day, Aziz and Mohammed had organised us a fantastic private tour to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, Meknes and the sacred city of Moulay Idriss in an air-conditioned minivan (though we certainly didn’t ask for such luxury, it was paradise given the high 40C temperatures!

We first caught sight of the formidable ruins of Volubilis from the road, high about the plateau upon which it slowly disintegrates: far in the distance we could make out crumbling archways cushioned by softly rolling hills. The heat rippled in a haze around us, giving the impression that it was, itself, responsible for the remains. Winding downhill we reached the site, and though we didn’t opt to take a local guide, we found our way around well enough by using our Lonely Planet map. Sure, we missed out on some of the history doing it on our own, but we enjoyed stumbling upon the many beautifully preserved allegorical and mythical mosaics, and trying to recreate the fallen city in our imaginations.

The beautiful ruins at Volubilis

Following Volubilis, we drove through Moulay Idriss, the sacred town where lies the tomb of Moulay Idriss himself, the creator of the first Arab dynasty in Morocco. Up until the year 1916 the town was banned to non-Muslims, due to its sacred status. They say that one trip to Moulay Idriss is worth a fifth of the hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca – though for us, there was really very little to see.

Our driver also made a stop in a little village, the name of which eludes me, where we were welcomed into the home of a Berber cave-dwelling family. There, the cool earth surrounded us, allowing everyone inside respite from the heat. Though it was a fascinating stop, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was obviously a place frequented by tourists, and I watched on in extreme discomfort as one of the much older, and visibly frail women filled a bucket of water to its brim, balanced it on her head and proceeded to show off her dance moves without spilling a drop, egging us on to take photos. Though I know such performances are intended as a means to earning some menial income, I just wanted to pay her to stop! I have never been able to stomach the absolutely unashamed and unequal division of power, or the sense of intrusion, that is always present in these situations. It makes me really sad that the world is like this.

The town of which the name escapes

On the way home we stopped past Meknes, very briefly, though we were all so exhausted we didn’t have much energy to give it a good go. I think I’ve mentioned the heat before. I’ll do it again. The. Heat. Is. Brutal.

And that must be why we decided it’d be a good idea to spend the next three days in the middle of the Sahara desert at Erg Chebbi, on the border with Algeria. Good one, us!

‘Til the next episode,

Briony

Robbie Buck features my song, Sunday, on “The Inside Sleeve”, Radio National

In the last few days I’ve had a couple of nice deliveries from the universe with regard to my music. I’ve woken up several mornings in a row to emails from complete strangers seeking copies of my CD. Overjoyed, but at first a bit perplexed, it soon came to my attention that Robbie Buck (established Australian music radio personality, formerly of Triple J’s breakfast show with Marieke Hardy and Home ‘n’ Hosed) played me on last Thursday’s edition of his show “The Inside Sleeve” on Radio National. Pretty freakin’ awesome, huh!

Just as awesome, is the fact that there are people who’ve connected with my music enough to shoot me emails and buy my CDs. As a songwriter and performer you do like to think you write primarily for yourself. It shouldn’t matter what other people think! This is your outlet! Nonetheless, you can’t escape the joys of a little bit of appreciation or validation. So thank you universe, new fans, radio personalities, friends, you are amazing!

You can listen to last Thursday’s edition of “The Inside Sleeve” by clicking here. I feature towards the end of the hour. You can also visit the ‘my music’ page on this blog to listen to a couple of tracks.

If you like the music, please consider buying a CD. In doing so, you’ll not only be supporting me, an independent Australian artist, but you’ll be supporting the volunteer work I’m currently undertaking in Morocco with street children and their families.

You can email me at briony_mack@hotmail.com to order a CD; they’re going for a measly $15 + $3 postage. Failing this, if you’re strapped for cash like me, you’d also be doing me a huge favour by simply “liking” my Facebook page (in the right sidebar on this blog). Oh, and tell your friends.

I’ll be here in Morocco until early October (having arrived in April), and following this will be busking and gigging my way around Europe, sleeping on peoples’ couches. I’ll be back in Australia early December to play Scorcher Fest on the 9th of December. Put this date in your diaries – there’ll be more on this to come!

All in the name of life and living it,

Briony

Un Petit Tour du Maroc, Part II – Tangier to Chefchaouen

From Tangier, we made our way to the mystical town of Chefchaouen.

We pulled up at the bus station around midday, after several hours sitting aboard a CTM bus (my fellow travellers’ first – and stress-free – experience using the fantastic service). The heat was scorching as we awaited a couple of blue Petit Taxis (the small taxis that service Moroccan towns) to take us up the imposing hill into the medina (the old town), nestled high in the Rif mountains. As Petit Taxis in Morocco are only legally allowed to take three passengers at a time (baffling to me as the Grand Taxis which service the routes between cities can legally take six, even though they’re built for four), my sister and I sent mum and her friend off in the first, whilst we waited for the second. After enduring the raw sun for 20 minutes with no taxis in sight, we breathed a sigh of relief as suddenly a bunch of them rolled off the mountain in succession like a string of blue beads.

Here it’s not just the taxis that are blue; it is the whole town. The Chefchaouen medina is a tangle of cobbled alleyways with bright blue washed walls of all different shades. Blue stone meets everywhere with erratic climbing vines that break up the sunlight, seeming to give the multicoloured wares lining the walls their very own spotlights. It is a really spectacular place, and the magic is tangible. At night this magic is heightened, as old fashioned wrought iron street lamps provide light to the labyrinth, and high rooftop terraces provide views of distant mosques, set into the mountainside and bottom lit so that they appear to be hovering in mid air. In my humble opinion, it was certainly the most picturesque town we visited in Morocco, and I’d highly recommend it be on the itinerary of anyone considering a trip to the country.

Chefchaouen

That said, apart from wandering the medina (which one could accomplish in a day) and perhaps trekking out to the apparently incredible Akchour Gorge (something we didn’t do, but our friends with whom we were lucky enough to meet up with for dinner on the second night did), there doesn’t seem to that much to do here. Of course, Chefchaouen is the place in Morocco to smoke kif/marijuana. Everywhere we looked there seemed to be people crouched in doorways or behind trees smoking joints. So I suppose if that’s your bag you might want to consider booking in a few more nights!

Our next stop, agreed upon unanimously as the most fantastic set of experiences we had in Morocco, was Fez. A shout out pending my next blog entry to Aziz, Mohammed, Mustafa and the rest of the wonderful staff at Dar El Yasmine – hands down the most hospitable and friendly guesthouse on the planet. Stay tuned to find out why in the days to come!

Briony

Un Petit Tour du Maroc, Part I: Taroudannt to Tangier

The fifth day of Ramadan, and today I have cause for celebration: the return of my brain. After a week-long heatwave with temperatures soaring past 50C, we have finally struck some luck: a cool change and a restful night’s sleep. In fact, I had been so sleep deprived prior to last night’s blissful cool change that I was quite seriously contemplating a trip to the doctor, sure that the warning signs my body was giving me represented no less than some volatile, terminal, heat-related illness.

Blessed with an overactive imagination, a tendency towards hypochondria, six nights of insomnia, and little more energy than to lie on the couch and type my symptoms into Google WebMD, my brain went into glorious overdrive as I, against my better judgement, attempted a self-diagnosis. As I typed in my browning out regularly, a red rash boasting as much coverage as free-to-air TV, a headache, weakness, nausea, stomach pain – you get the picture – Google cleverly diagnosed my inevitable and untimely death by water intoxication (that or dehydration – the symptoms can be similar), heat stroke, food poisoning, or – worse – cancer. Thank you so kindly, Google.

Fortunately for me I was able to encroach on the new volunteer, Tomi’s, personal space and slept last night downstairs in her room, thus having the best (or only) night’s sleep I’d had in a week. Given that I woke up this morning in such good health I genuinely felt an urge to jump up and down for joy, I have concluded that my anxiety, poor health and hallucinations of the previous couple of days were probably less than fatal. I have no idea how the folks here are surviving all day without eating or drinking water.

So, readers, I apologise for the dearth of blog posts in recent weeks. I’ve actually just arrived back in Taroudannt after spending a truly exciting and lovely two and a half weeks travelling through Morocco with my mum, sister and a friend of ours. In true form, my aspirations to post blog entry after blog entry along the way quickly fell by the wayside as instead of huddling down into my computer I spent my time really living this beautiful country, and, well I’ll admit it, indulging in a certain mental laziness (let’s say in equal parts). Hopefully as a result of this though, the stories I can now share with you will be all the more rich: the traversing of winding and precipitous roads through the High Atlas mountains, camping out in the Sahara desert in the middle of the blistering heat, striking incredible bargains, getting totally ripped off, wandering ancient Roman ruins, visiting Berber caves, crashing multiple weddings, and most of all having the privilege of meeting some of the most wonderful, generous and hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life.

It all started with your simple fifteen hour bus ride from Taroudannt to the sea side city of Tangier which lies in the very north of Morocco, a short 35 minute ferry ride from Spain. After my experiences on buses travelling through India I was similarly apprehensive at the thought of catching one through this fine country; however, my voyage was, despite the lack of sleep, like travelling first class wrapped in bubble wrap in comparison – I was more inclined to tell the driver to speed up rather than slow down. I rode with CTM, which, along with Supratours, is the most established and well-regarded bus company traversing Morocco. Its buses are new, air-conditioned, and as comfortable as a bus can be. The roads were similarly remarkable, with a divided auto-route paving almost the entire way. Quite frankly, I couldn’t believe it; they were truly impressive.

I was also very lucky to have sat down next to Emily at the bus station in Taroudannt. On the tail end of a nine month (if I remember correctly) stint as an English teacher in Rabat, Emily, a slight, mild mannered but hilarious English woman, had been travelling for the last 11 days or so, by herself, off the beaten track. She was pretty awesome, I won’t lie. Together we experienced all the delights the Moroccan road had to offer. Amongst other things: refuelling at a petrol station in the middle of nowhere that stocked all your essentials (fuel, coffee, fruit ‘n’ veg, fresh meat, and…um, a giant swimming pool, something that transpired to be quite a common thing in Morocco); a most incredible full moon shining over the Atlas mountains and water-filled valleys; and a moonlit ghost town showcasing nothing but two gleeful rollerbladers who grinned as they cut the bus off (dudes, you are not in Miami, you are in the middle of Morofucckan nowhere).

Front view of the unassuming, normal, petrol-stationey petrol station in the middle of nowhere, Morocco.

Back view of the swimming pool. At the petrol station. In the middle of nowhere. Just your essentials.

While it had originally been my intention to catch a bus from Taroudannt to the capital of Rabat, then to catch a train from Rabat to Tangier, I discovered when I got off in Rabat at 7am, delirious from the lack of sleep, that the same bus was actually continuing on all the way to Tangier. Upon being informed sombrely that the bus was in fact completely full, I asked the station master if it was alright if I just waited around just in case someone didn’t show up. This turned out to be a prudent decision indeed. We got chatting, I think he pulled a few strings, and I had my ticket to ride. Funny, even though the bus made a few more stops to pick up and drop off passengers, there were at least 5 seats spare the entire journey. Travel rule number one: it often pays to wait. Rule number two: it pays to be nice.

Once I arrived in Tangier, I avoided the taxi touts at the bus station (travel rule number three: these guys always hike up the prices) and caught a taxi to the Dar Jameel  Riad in the Medina of Tangier. There are riads all over Morocco – old houses-come-guesthouses with rooms generally circling a central courtyard. This gorgeous, sun- and smile-filled place was the first of many encounters with the famous and impeccable Moroccan hospitality. After having a shower, marvelling at the mosaic-covered walls and intricately carved roof woodwork, I guzzled two (small) beers (the first in months!), paused a moment to let that glorious holiday sensation ripple through my body, and put my tired self to bed between crispy white sheets.

I was woken from my deep, deep slumber by Robyn, an old friend and former colleague of my mother who was joining us for our trip, banging on the door. She, along with one of the riad’s most delightful staff members, had apparently been at it for quite a while. We exchanged brief and energetic hellos before I conked out again. Later, following a lovely dinner with Robyn at one of the incredibly overpriced beach front restaurants (with views of the beach obscured, mind you), and a walk along the beach promenade past countless such creatively named nightclubs as Oxygen, Beach Club 555 and Snob, we returned to the riad to sleep and await my mum and sister, whose flight was due to arrive in Tangier at 11pm. They finally burst in at half past twelve to announce that the airline had lost my sister’s baggage: my sister, as usual, was calm, collected and unfussed; my mother, as usual, was stressed, highly strung and nonplussed. Bless her cotton socks. Despite the night’s hiccups it was really, really fantastic to see them after not having done so for over three months. I think we spoke for a good five minutes before I passed out again. (Incidentally we picked the bag up the next day after having been informed by airline staff that ‘it had been there all along’. We all had our doubts, suspecting it was more likely the airline’s attempt to save face.)

Tangier upon first impressions seems, like many other Moroccan cities, an interesting mix of old and new. The gorgeous medina is filled with winding and cobbled alleyways packed with colourful shops, hidden riads, souks (markets), a kasbah (in which people still live), and attractive monuments, while the beachfront sports modern restaurants, nightclubs and a seedy, fishy smell.  Despite what the guidebooks say, everyone seemed to be friendly to us (if not a little ‘colourful’) and less inclined than we expected to try to rip us off.

We spent the morning of our first full day (after politely declining an offer of a walking tour from the guy who’d shown my family to the riad the night before) visiting the nearby Caves of Hercules, a half natural, half man-made grotto with an opening to the sea that looks like a map of Africa, where we were ripped off under dim cave lights whilst buying fake crystals which in the light of day had been jazzed up on the inside with a spray of iridescent purple paint. Three dollars down, an interesting story, and a mass manufactured rock each later, we made our way to the first lighthouse in Africa at Cap Spartel. Afterwards, as we drove back into Tangier past a neighbourhood of palatial houses, our driver of few words delivered us some finger-pointing commentary: “this one belong to rich man of Kuwait. This one…belong Saudi rich man. This one, King of Iran. This one, rich Moroccan man. This one, I think Spain. This one Moroccan King”. Lots and lots of rich, rich men in Tangier, apparently. Also lots of local fisherman out of jobs as they protested against the Moroccan government’s blanket fishing ban, ostensibly aimed at industrial fishing vessels.

Just one of the gorgeous monuments in Tangier’s kasbah – a public water fountain.

When we arrived back at our riad, a familiar face was waiting for us. Several teeth missing, closely shaved head, dressed in Adidas trackies, thongs and what looked like a three day old T-shirt, the guy who had walked my mum and sister to the hotel the night before, and had offered us a walking tour that morning, was still waiting for us. We decided to go with it, as he spoke pretty good English, had been waiting all day, and we were scared of him. The guidebooks do warn you against ‘unofficial’ guides, and they’re actually illegal in Morocco. Luckily, this guy turned out to be a sparkly iridescent crystal in the rough: a bit dodgy to be sure, but a great story nonetheless. He took us around for six hours, talking over the top of us, doing his utmost to reassure us that he wasn’t just out to make commission like all the other unofficial tour guides by retorting every time one of us mentioned buying something with “THIS IS MY TOUR ON MY TOUR THERE’S NO BUYING YOU BUY AFTER IF YOU WANT TO BUY NOW YOU NOT COME ON MY TOUR”, and insisting on taking group photos of us at every stop. It was really a fantastic, colourful, hilarious six hours, but we were pretty damn glad at the end of it to be rid of him. Bless him.

The next day we climbed aboard a bus headed for the gorgeous blue- and white-washed town of Chefchaouen, nestled into the Rif (or should I say ‘Kif’) Mountains. Stay tuned for Part II of Un Petit Tour du Maroc which will be posted on the blog in a couple of days. Make sure you keep an eye on it, wontcha?

Outside the city walls…

Outside these walls...

I don’t often venture outside the impressive city walls of Taroudannt unless I’m travelling somewhere specific. There’s really little need to.  All that one seems to require can be found within them: artefacts and essentials alike abound in the city’s two souks; the crooked back lanes and colourful murals provide a calm escape from the buzz and dust of the city centre; and I can make it to work from my house in about five minutes (and back home again for lunch even more quickly!).

Most of the government buildings exist on the outside though, and today was one of the rare occasions I needed to visit one of them. Instead of waiting for my friend outside the police station, at which my Visa extension papers await approval, I wandered over the road to the park. There are many similarly gorgeous and impeccably maintained water features like the one in this picture surrounding the official residences of Taroudannt. They’re lovely! Maybe I could lobby the pollies to install one inside the city walls…

The legalisation office

Rough hands
Slough me atop a pile
With the rest of the cadavers
Faces red-inky, fixed and sticky
In two dimensions

We’ve been split apart
Under close observation
Then quickly forgotten
Cash made, men paid
Histrionics maintained

I would love to have posted a picture to go with this short piece, though even after my extensive Photoshop work blurring out names, numbers, stamps and signatures, the fear of being arrested remained. Imagine, if you will, that in order to extend my stay over the three months initially allowed for Australians, it was necessary for me to get no fewer than 30 copies of various documents officially authorised. I don’t know where they are now. Though, of course, I’m sure they are in good hands!

Stay tuned for more music!

In addition to my update on work, play and pain below, I thought I’d just post a short update about my music. After spending the large part of two months lazing around on the couch, my guitar has *hurrah!* decided to forgive me my infidelity and take me back. Since last weekend, I have been furiously writing and composing, and feeling so inspired! Today I sat with my window open, the sun pouring in, and spent hours rediscovering myself musically, playing around with new chord progressions and riffs, and jotting down lyrics and ideas.

Photography: Kim Holgate-Ryan

I was feeling a bit guilty and sad about not  being able to find the time to do something that I love so much, and that makes me so happy, though I suppose that often it’s actually a good thing to take a step back from creating; to let yourself absorb new and familiar surroundings and experiences alike, without thinking too much about how you can use those things for the production of your music.

Because I’d been so busy (and still am) I hadn’t really noticed I’d not only stopped playing, but stopped listening too. So I’ve started listening again to some great music both new and old; after reconnecting with both my music and that of others it feels like a new creative space has opened up! I’m really excited to be able to share some of my new material with you soon via YouTube.

Thank you also for everyone who has bought my album, and made such incredible comments about it. If you haven’t checked it out already, you can visit the ‘my music’ page on this blog on which you can play a number of tracks, or go to my Facebook page (in the right-hand sidebar of the blog).

Details of how to purchase a CD are available on both of these forums. They cost a measly $15 AUD + $3 postage, and include 7 original tracks in diverse styles.

What are you waiting for? More?

Well, stay tuned, *ahem*. You know what I mean.

Photography: Kim Holgate-Ryan

Moroccan healthcare: value for money (at least for some…)

Taroudannt mural depicting Gnawa musicians

I’ve been told I look quite comical writing my blog entry today. I’m sitting on one of the house’s many couches, with my knees bent and my laptop precariously balanced on top of them, in an attempt to keep everything at eye level. This somewhat unnatural contortion (for me, anyway) follows an excruciating last four days with debilitating shoulder and neck pain, which I have become convinced is caused by the not-so-ergonomic plastic chair I sit on every day in the office, my desk being too low, a bad night’s sleep, riding my bike over bumps in the road and slumping over my guitar. Of course, a small disclaimer regarding the writing: I will make the effort to spell check though please be so kind as to forgive any oversights due to the seesaw effect my computer has as I hit the keys.

Yes, it has been a painful few days. Though luckily for me, there are pretty decent healthcare services in Taroudannt, Morocco, and I so I was able to visit the physio yesterday. Of course, being from Australia where you pay through the nose, and by the minute, and generally get the vibe that your physician is glancing at his/her watch as you’re lying face down and ‘oblivious’, coupled with the fact that I am ostensibly a ‘tourist’ and didn’t want to get ripped off, I was pretty keen to get a general idea of how much bang I’d get for my 100 Dirham ($10 AUD) buck. I received a range of responses as to the length of the session: a vague “Oh, between 15 minutes and half an hour”, said one friend, “it depends” said the receptionist upon my arrival. Depends on the extent to which you are out of whack, I took that to mean.

I must have been really, really out of whack. For an equivalent of $10 AUD, I was in session for no fewer than two hours, and worked on by three different doctors who insisted on remarking every five minutes on the poor diagnosis (something I felt didn’t bear that much repetition given my acute awareness of my condition, stemming from an incapacity for any movement whatsoever in the upper region of my body).

After a massage and an ultrasound treatment, and more remarks on the direness of my condition, I was somberly informed that I had to be hooked up to some electrodes. Having not experienced such a treatment at any Australian physio before, I,*ahem* asked a few questions, whilst trying to suppress a vivid mental recreation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest though with me as the protagonist and in a more exotic setting. After my fears had been appeased, and following twenty minutes hooked up to this thing – a machine that contracts and relaxes your muscles – I think I am going to invest in one. Success!

With my newfound mobility, I went for a walk. I decided just to walk and keep on walking; to venture into a part of town that I might not have stumbled on before. I suppose it was a bit of a meditation for me, and it was made even more lovely by the fact that my boyfriend in Australia was taking a walk with me – though he in Australia. Just as an aside, and without wanting to harp on about love and relationships and all that mushy stuff that I firmly believe should be kept between two people and not on blogs, I will just say that for anyone trying to overcome the natural challenges of a long distance relationship, we’ve found that this synchronisation of activities is a really nice way to connect besides just talking on the phone. I mention this in the hope that it will save others the time it took us to realise that when we’re at home together we don’t just talk – we do other stuff too – so why just consign yourself to phone conversation after phone conversation when you’re apart?!

Anyway, enough of that! Whilst on this walk, I deliberately ventured into a new part of town, winding through the backstreets just inside the city walls. Here, I made a glorious discovery:  a small community garden, around which all the walls of peoples’ houses were decorated with beautiful murals. I have posted a couple of pictures – the first (above) is a depiction of some gnawa musicians (a spiritual and repetitive type of Moroccan music in which the musicians play to induce a trance-like meditative state in the listeners). Below are three parts of an eight-piece image, which I thought were so lovely I just had to share them with you. I have translated the French for you below.

The first: “Each journey is the dream of a new birth”; the second: “The one who seeks the stars touches the moon”; and the third: “Don’t go where the path may lead, go where there is no path and leave a mark”. Such beautiful messages to find on such a meditative stroll.

Work has also been coming along fruitfully and enjoyably. We have been continuing with our weekly Women’s Group meetings in anticipation of creating an income-generating exercise based for the mothers of the children who visit the Centre AFAK (for children and their families in situations of difficulty) which is run by the local NGO Groupe Maroc Horizons with support from British NGO the Moroccan Children’s Trust. Each week my Moroccan colleague and I have been designing activities so that the women can engage with the creation of ideas and knowledge forming this enterprise. It’s truly inspiring to find that with each week the level of discussion amongst the women and their engagement with the process is increasing, and I can report that the great deal of information we have gathered with the women will now form the bones of the proper proposal for the enterprise.

In other news I am vastly looking forward to my mother, sister and a friend coming to Morocco in the first week of July! I will be taking a couple of weeks (well, 10-12 days) off from work so I can travel with them, and really get to see the country properly.  I will be catching a Grand Taxi to Marrakech then the overnight train to Tangier (the Northern tip), where I will meet up with them and slowly voyage back down to Taroudannt once more. I will also be enjoying a visit from my boyfriend at the start of October; though that seems just too far away to report on now (it needed a mention though, of course, due to my uncontainable excitement)!

Fear not, this victim of modernity and technology will be taking her conveniently small laptop with her during her travels, and will definitely be posting some beautiful photos and (hopefully) interesting commentary along the way. Stay tuned!

Bisalama,

Briony

I am now covered in henna

I am now covered in henna

protected by
a fragrant drying shell
reddish ink settles in
making a home
of two hands
and happy feet

What would WorkSafe have to say?

What would WorkSafe have to say?

There always seems to be a lot of construction work going on in Taroudannt, and coupled with that some very interesting scaffolding configurations. This photo, believe it or not, is of one of the less hairy set ups; honestly, if I’d taken a photo of the scaffolding adorning the construction that lay just around the corner from my house a couple of weeks ago, I think the click of the shutter might have collapsed the entire building. So instead of posting a picture of an entire support structure balanced on the end of one piece of wood which sat upon three precariously piled concrete blocks, I’m posting a picture of some bits of wood shoved into holes in the new wall (which ostensibly will be filled in later, perhaps from the inside?)

Throughout Morocco, you’ll find a lot of unfinished buildings like these. Usually they are big, square concrete structures with iron rods poking out from the ‘roof’, left there to facilitate future expansion. As far as I know there are two main reasons for this. The first is that in Morocco, as in other parts of the world, families stick together for as long as they are able. This means that as they expand, and as children grow up and have their own children, houses also tend to grow (upwards!) with new levels stacked on top of the existing structure so as to accommodate new family members. The second reason, I have been led to believe, is that an unfinished home commands fewer taxes…

I’m reluctant to make a value judgement on this one, but tend towards applauding a clever way to get around paying the Man in a country in which the taxes may not make their way back to the people anyway. That said, even though corruption exists the Moroccan government has taken steps to combat it, so…What do you think?

If only I liked watermelon…

If only I liked watermelon...

It has become apparent to me over the last few weeks that it is watermelon season in Morocco. Even though I have never had any interest whatsoever in eating the bland and watery, yet strangely popular, fruit, I must say I do enjoy them spilling out of shop fronts, tumbling off the back of donkey-drawn carts, or being smashed open theatrically on the ground by enthusiastic vendors. Luckily for me, I have managed to acquire a taste for cantaloupe, which is also in abundance, as well as many other different hybrids – I was shocked to find a yellowish melon I indulged in the other day tasted exactly like a pear. Innovation at its finest, I say.

Turns out that riding a bike is actually like riding a bike

Turns out that riding a bike is, indeed, like riding a bike

 

Couldn’t really help myself posting a snap of my new bike! (Exclamation point!)

I’d been toying with the idea of buying one for a few weeks; everyone in Taroudannt owns a bike, and being the absolute conformist and callous consumer that I am, I really wanted one. So on Sunday I found the energy from somewhere, braved the brutal heat and toddled off to the second hand bike market over the other side of town.

I emerged victorious, having paid the equivalent of about $70 AUD (700 Dirham) for a fixed gear complete with handy handlebar basket (for pet goat), working brakes (very important) and lock for ‘kidnappers’ (as was kindly explained to me). My happy success has been made even sweeter by friends’ many exclamations over my ‘sweet deal’. Always nice to know you haven’t been ripped off.

Though I haven’t ridden a bike for about a million years, I have found that funnily enough riding a bike is, well, like riding a bike. It’s bloody fast to whizz around the town now, and to my dismay I have come to the realisation that owning the same mode of transport as everyone else has indeed given me a sense that I’m, dare I say it, fitting in. Ugh. Well, at least it’s not a Mercedes.

Cous cous amongst wonderful friends

Cous cous amongst wonderful friends

The first thing my darling friend and star pupil said to me when I arrived at her house for a delicious cous cous lunch last week was (and in English, too): “Welcome! This is your home now too; you are welcome here any time. It’s very small and there are lots of us, but we are very happy here.”

Revelations in Conversation: Development and Education

Today, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my dad over a bottle of red and dinner a little while ago back in Australia.  As usual it was a lively discussion (made livelier by the red, of course), and from memory it was about asylum seekers, the sorry state of politics in Australia and the fact that Tony Abbott is a cretin. Now, for those who know my dad, I’m sure you can attest that while he can be quite long-winded and on occasion might be guilty of talking at you rather than with you, most of the time you are happy to listen anyway because he is basically a genius.

On this particular occasion, he had posed a completely reasonable, rational – and most importantly humane – solution to the immigration debate in Australia. It seemed to come to him ‘just like that’ and was so easy and logical I was pissed off I hadn’t thought of it (though I can’t for the life of me remember what it is now – I’m not going to lie, the red probably had something to do with this…)

After my attempts to convince him to run for Parliament were thwarted with a lame “I’m-too-old-and-cynical”, I had a brainwave: “Dad! Hey, Dad! You should start a blog! You have really good ideas and I think people would be really interested to hear what you have to say! And, besides, you actually know everything?! Do you know that?! You actually know everything!” He replied with “Do you know where the word ‘blog’ comes from?” which pretty much proved my point.*

But I digress.

My boyfriend, who has, to put it euphemistically, had a less than inspiring upbringing, often points out to me (unsurprisingly) the importance of good parenting and that I have been extremely lucky to have grown up around stimulating conversation and debate. It’s very true. I’ve been blessed to have parents who have a strong sense of social justice, are extremely well-informed and critical thinkers, and who never let us eat dinner in front of the TV. For my sister and me growing up (and even now when we’re at home), family meal time was always an integral part of the day, and it was sitting around at the dinner table, engaged in conversation with my parents, that I first developed my critical awareness, my thirst for information and the concept of endless possibility. To mum and dad, I really have to thank you for that.

Thinking about this in the context of where I am currently working – Taroudannt, Morocco – led me to ponder what kinds of conversations the kids here, who come to our centre, have had with their parents, relatives and peers growing up. Most of them have illiterate parents, many have illiterate single mothers, and many of them were excluded from attending school until our organisation organised their necessary birth papers. Notwithstanding parental love, it’s an upbringing so far removed from my own experiences, and one which has really forced me to think about what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t had those dinner time conversations.

As you might have guessed, I give full credit to those parents who understand the role they can play in the provision of opportunity and communication of possibility for their kids. So not surprisingly, I’m on board with the majority when it comes to a broader understanding of the importance of education in lifting nations’ populations out of poverty, particularly in light of the inter-generational benefits. Education’s just pretty damn important. However, in the absence of nation-wide education programs by the world’s governments, and in light of the 793 million illiterate adults in the world (two thirds of whom are women who are responsible for their children’s upbringing), how do we achieve the goal of ‘education for all?’[1]

Having not yet asked my father, who should very well be Ban-Ki Moon’s successor, I would propose that an ability to do so depends on your definition of education. I’m not saying it isn’t a massive and complicated task, but I reckon we might get closer to achieving it if we start thinking outside the box.

For me, this involves pulling apart the concept of education…just a little bit.

Firstly, it means moving away from a traditional understanding of education as consigned to the classroom. Granted, for those who like counting things, the number of kids attending school is a pretty easy way to track progress on world education. However, it’s certainly not an indicator of quality of education, and it certainly doesn’t account for the education that exists outside the classroom. Secondly, it means moving away from the traditional teaching paradigm in which students learn by rote, and there is a one-way flow of information and opinion from top to bottom (this paradigm shift has gained momentum in the developed world, though I would suggest not so much in the developing one).

Instead, if we understand that the role/s of education is/are to foster critical awareness, convey possibility, and develop a thirst for new knowledge, and if we understand that every person has the ability to be critically aware and thus to create their own knowledge, then education need not just take place in schools. It becomes the realm of every day conversation; the realm of the community group meeting, internet forums, social media platforms, the bus, the dinner table. Education becomes any question or conversation designed to stimulate debate or foster in somebody a critical awareness.

Take the quest to combat female genital excision or mutilation (commonly called FGM), a practice that involves the ritualistic cutting and sewing up of young girls’ genitals, usually by women members of a community, without anaesthetic or sterile equipment. The health complications of FGM can be horrendous, and it is a practice so widespread in Africa that an estimated 92 million girls over 10 today are currently living with the consequences.[2] It is a practice that over time has truly built itself into the cultural fabric of countless communities.

As a Westerner, or any outsider for that matter, I can’t imagine one would have much luck going into an FGM-practising community in order to ‘educate’ community members on the health risks by saying “You shouldn’t be doing that! Look what you’re doing!”, though I’m sure it’s an approach tried and tested (and failed) many a time. This kind of approach is likely to be resented, is unlikely to change attitudes, not to mention it is no-one’s place to enter a community that isn’t theirs, and tell that community that a long-standing cultural practice, no matter now barbaric one thinks it is, is wrong.

What has a far greater potential for success, not to mention is far more ethical, is to ask strategic questions; to attempt to educate through the development of critical awareness. For me, it’s all about finding a way to ask: “Why is it that you do this? Why do you practice this? Why do you believe this? Is there an alternative, or a better way of doing this?” Being able to start such a conversation, and to offer alternatives, can foster a real understanding of why it is that certain things are practised, both for the person asking the questions, and the ‘questionee’. This is indeed a form of education; and one which importantly places the generation of knowledge in the hands of the ‘student’. Because the ‘student’ or community member controls the generation of knowledge, this type of education by conversation has the potential to achieve development goals from the grassroots, as well as to empower people to make their own decisions, rather than have them made for them.

The director of our organisation here in Morocco, talks often about the importance of “having conversations” with the kids at the centre outside the prearranged classes, saying “we’re not just here to teach the kids, we’re here to increase their personalities”. Though the expression is rather amusing, what he means is endeavouring to stimulate those conversations that I had with my parents around the dinner table: to invite the kids to ponder, reflect and develop their critical awareness and excitement for learning. Though their lives are tough in many ways, the enthusiasm these kids now have for learning is truly infectious. On top of their formal teaching roles, I really do believe that the friendly conversational roles played by the staff at the centre contribute in a meaningful way to these kids’ desire and thirst for new ideas and knowledge.

And for me personally, even though it’s sometimes demoralising when I realise it’s impossible to know everything, it is my desire to be informed that is truly the driver for my mental well-being. It’s my critical awareness that allows me to be able to speak up for things I find unjust, or to make an informed vote, or to pursue a career in development. For me, as it is for many others, including the children who I work with at the centre, and the mothers with whom I am working to develop an income-generating enterprise, it is also the personal satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that you have knowledge, that you can create it yourself, and that with it you have the power to make changes, that is so important and empowering. It is the critical awareness, which comes through education, and more broadly conversation, that is the precursor for bigger change. Thanks, mum and dad for starting that conversation for me, and thanks to everyone else for continuing it and putting up with my opinions.

And lastly (and please, don’t judge me)…in an attempt to satisfy this thirst for new ideas, opinions, information and debate, and to keep abreast of what people are saying about the state of Australian politics while I’m over here in Morocco, I signed up to Twitter recently (become my disciple by clicking the Twitter link on the right sidebar, or find me at @briony_mack). After following #auspol for a few days, and coming to the conclusion that they call it Twitter because there are so many twits, I did receive a tweet today that said:

“If you want to build a ship, teach people to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Yep, it’s a good one!

*The word ‘blog’ comes from the word ‘web-log’. Pretty self-explanatory, really.


[1] 2012, CIA World Fact Book <www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/>

[2] 2012 World Health Organisation fact sheet no. 241 <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/&gt;

Stories of Opportunity in International Development

International development is a tricky concept to navigate. What defines a developed country or community? Is it a thriving economy and lots of money?  Is it the level of industrialisation? Is it the health or happiness of a population? Is it good governance? Is it technological or scientific innovation? Is it environmental awareness?

More so, once we’ve decided on a definition (yeah, right!) how do we get there? How do we measure it? How do we theorise it? How do we practise it? How do we match up the theory with the practice? And, for those of us from the West coming into a developing world context, how do we truly extricate ourselves from the nuances (however slight) of a persistent and systemic colonial mentality, or the mentality of the ‘expert’?

I grapple with these questions on a daily basis, and if I’m to be honest, I seem to be quite fond of changing my opinions. Not that I think this is a bad thing. In this line of work – actually, you know what, I’m going to say in general – I think it’s important to be flexible, to be constantly reflecting, and readjusting your understandings and perceptions. Life is about learning, is it not?

Nevertheless I think I have settled on what development fundamentally means to me. I’ve settled for something philosophical enough to be considered a mindset and broad enough to allow within it great flexibility. It’s something that escapes the modern development jargon (participation! empowerment!) yet at the same time succeeds in encompassing it. It’s also something focussed enough to be applied as a working method or program objective, as well as something that has the potential to be measured (for those who like that sort of thing). It’s something that allows those of us who are development workers from the West, to move beyond the internal conflict of the ‘conscious expert’ towards a more equal and culturally transcendent method of communication. It’s something that escapes the shackles of a colonial mentality, because it fosters agency and autonomy. It’s something the benefits of I’d argue no one can argue with. It’s something that is beautiful in its simplicity, and abundant in its generosity. And importantly, it’s something that is not new, and is certainly not revolutionary.

All this is to say that, for me, development is summed up in opportunity. The more opportunities has a population, I’d venture to suggest, the more developed it is. And it really doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t take advantage of all the opportunities afforded them. To simply have the opportunity – and by this I mean a genuine opportunity, one which also seeks to address all the barriers to seizing it – is a most powerful thing. An opportunity allows for choice, fosters personal growth, increases motivation and improves well-being.

My experiences here in Morocco working with the wonderful local not-for-profit organisation, Groupe Maroc Horizons (in turn supported by the Moroccan Children’s Trust, a fantastic volunteer-based British NGO) are reaffirming this belief on a daily basis for me. The work is challenging and rewarding, and inspiring. The organisation in Taroudannt works out of a centre for children and their families in situations of difficulty, offering a place to drop in, a preschool, homework support classes, support classes and other recreational activities. In line with the holistic family approach taken by the organisation, I’m here working with the local staff on developing a project for the mothers of the children at the centre: an enterprise for income generation that has been the initiative of the women themselves.

It’s no secret that working in development is tough. It’s also no secret that working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds in a learning environment can be really hard. Despite the fact that, as I have remarked upon in previous posts, the children at the Centre AFAK are generally lovely, warm and friendly kids, they come with their fair share of baggage and challenges. Some of our kids sniff glue; there are kids who sometimes need to be dragged from their house to come to the homework sessions; and of course the fighting (especially during competitive sports sessions) is always an issue.

Nevertheless, the centre is always open to the kids, and the staff are always willing to work through the issues, skilfully managing the delicate balance between friendship, discipline, being a teacher, an ‘ear’, a peer, an authority, a life coach, a confidant, and a motivator (and more!). This cannot be easy, though on a daily basis, I see how positive this opportunity is for the kids. The proof is in the pudding, and the kids continue to return. I’m learning a lot about patience, amongst other things, and again I will reiterate that all anyone needs in order to thrive is opportunity, and the love and encouragement to seize it.

Providing opportunity is what we hope to achieve with the women’s project as well, and not simply opportunity to earn some income: it also includes the opportunity to play a significant role in the development of an enterprise that will be the source of that income, as well as the opportunity to gain some new skills during the process.

It has been an interesting professional challenge to communicate the benefits and methodology of a participatory approach (providing the women – or beneficiaries more generally – with the opportunity to engage with the development of a project, rather than having an ‘expert’ design the project for them) to those involved at an organisational level here. As with any new methodology or approach, it always takes a solid amount of dialogue to nut out all the benefits, obstacles and questions inherent, and to discuss the relevance of the approach to the context. Even though these discussions have been tests in communication for me (and in French, no less!) I really cannot give the staff here enough credit. Despite this approach being somewhat outside the mentality that exists in Morocco (or so I have been told) they are all very receptive, open, and willing to engage in a mutual learning process (I’m learning too, of course, having been given this wonderful opportunity to be here in Morocco).

The thing that has allowed me, in the end, to drive my point home during these discussions has been the concept of opportunity. It’s true, as has been suggested the women we’re working with may, in the end, decide they are tired and that they simply want someone to solve their problems for them. But what we are doing here with the women’s project is endeavouring to give the women a voice, as well as the opportunity for more control over the creation of their own existences. It could all go pear-shaped, but it will be the women’s choice to take up the opportunity, or not to.

Importantly though, this may very well prove to be a moot point, as the feedback we’ve had from the women during the participatory activities we’ve conducted thus far is already positive. Recognising the importance of communicating the methodology of ‘participation’ or more broadly ‘opportunity’ to the women themselves, and indeed having the women participate in the choice of the methodology itself, last week’s meeting commenced with an activity designed to explain to them the method of engagement we want to pursue with them, and to invite their feedback on it.

To do this, we circulated two images amongst them: the first depicted a traditional form of appraisal and project design, with men and their clipboards conducting ‘research’ in the foreground and women and children hanging out the washing on the line in the background; the second depicted a circle of men, women and children engaged in an animated discussion around an easel on which a casually dressed woman was talking to a flow chart, itself a visualisation of the group discussion.

After inviting the women to give us their initial responses on the two images, we proceeded to explain and discuss the difference between some expert ‘coming in’ and doing everything for them without consultation or inclusion, and us (the staff) simply acting as facilitators (or ‘animateurs’ in French), engaging them throughout the process of the planning and establishment of the project and endeavouring to give them every opportunity for direct input.

We were greeted with claps and smiles.

Music makes a glorious comeback

Welcome everyone to this week’s blog entry: as usual it’s a collection of musings on life, development work, music, art, and friends in wonderful Morocco. I’d hoped to have posted some snippets of poetry, photos and thoughts for you during the week, but as usual my busy schedule seems to have gotten in the way! Rest assured though that as long as you keep reading and commenting I will make every effort to share with you more regularly the wonderful goings on here…To this, I’m really enjoying your feedback (both on the blog and via email)! It’s always an encouragement for me to know I have your readership, so if you feel like making a comment or starting a conversation, please do!

Well this week you may be pleased to hear that I have finally taken my guitar out and introduced it to everyone at the centre. As I had mentioned briefly at the end of my last post, my unintentionally secret “other life” was let out of the bag by Iqbal, who had gathered a veritable crowd around her computer last week to cheer on a video of me performing at my CD launch in March. I walked in on the boisterous throng to screams of “Artiste! Artiste! Enchanté! Enchanté!” and many extended arms. I’m not really sure why it took this glorious affirmation to convince me that the poor old forgotten thing had been gathering dust for too long. Thankfully, it forgave me straight away, greeting everyone with its usual warmth and friendliness and making immediate friends. I’ve spent the last four working days giving impromptu performances all over the place: for the children, staff and of course our many visitors. I must say it really feels so good to be playing again, and even better that I have an attentive audience. I hadn’t realised that it’s actually been over two months since I’ve played properly…I’ve really been missing it!

Hilariously, as seems often to be the case here, it has been arranged, and I have been told, that this week I will be giving a ‘very, very exciting’ concert with a Moroccan Oud player (who incidentally is also a teacher at the school where we painted the mural), Abdellah Lamine. This concert will be a celebration of both traditional and modern music, and, if other musical events I have happened upon here are anything to go by, it promises to be a lot of fun. I’m envisaging we’ll be helped along by some of the kids from the centre who are talented djembe players, and by the remaining kids and adults who will make for a more-than-adequate back up dance troupe! I’m very excited, and even more so as I plan to use my powers of persuasion to convince Abdellah to teach me the Oud!

As I write this, I have just come back from the hammam (see last week’s entry) and once again am feeling considerably relaxed. Unfortunately, over the last week I was also bitten by a small army of mosquitoes and fleas (I will not be patting dogs in the street anymore). Actually, I probably enjoyed the fierce scrubbing at hammam more than usual today for this very reason. Despite the annoyance, I do enjoy the fact that the vectors are not infectors and I can thus get bitten all I like without contracting malaria, dengue fever, or any other form of horrible life threatening disease. Bonus!

It’s just a short entry tonight, as it’s dinner time now, and I plan to write a separate update on work tomorrow. Lots has been going on, with some really positive progress – though of course not without challenges!

But for now…a delicious Moroccan lentil soup which I must get the recipe for, and lots of delicious Middle Eastern yoghurt which is impossibly cheap. I have genuinely cleaned out the fridge of my man who owns the shop next door. Needless to say he finds it quite amusing!

Bisous,

Briony

A thought on acquiring a new language…

A glottal stop
Releases your phrase
A syntactical undulation
Of staggered consonants
Cylindrical vowels and
Praline clicks of the throat

(When you talk
I pay a lot of attention to
The way you sound)

Even though
For the most part
I am ostensibly silent
Behind that half-smile
And occasional giggle
Are crackling synapses that
Converse and collide

To forge me
As if by magic
A fancy new pathway

The rickety fishing vessels of Essouira…

The rickety fishing vessels of Essouira...

The marina at Essouira…

The marina at Essouira...

To the hammam and beyond….

After an action-packed week working and travelling, it has been wonderful to wake up this morning after a peaceful sleep and find I have nothing else to do besides hang out on Skype with my lovely boyfriend back in Australia, write a blog entry and take in my daily dose of French. I slept particularly well last night after Francesca (here on a week-long reconnaissance mission from MCT in London) and I decided, somewhat foolishly, to attempt a one-day voyage to Marrakech yesterday. The extent to which we were successful depends on your definition, but we got there (eventually), we saw some stuff, and we got home all in one piece (no thanks to our taxi driver who obviously thought he was a contestant in the Grand Prix), which means I think we did what we set out to do.

We arrived at the Grand Taxi rank at a reasonable 7.30am yesterday, mentally preparing ourselves to spend four-hours in an old, battered Mercedes, and praying that our fellow passengers would be skinny. Always cramped, the capacity of a Grand Taxi is legally six places, though it is obviously designed for four. The price for the ride is per place – to Marrakech one place is 110 Dirham, or about 11 Australian dollars – meaning that to hire out a whole taxi is to pay for six places. Even though we were ‘tourists’, we did eventually manage to convince the driver that we didn’t want to hire a whole taxi, and sat ourselves down on a bench amidst the plumes of cigarette smoke and steam from the mint tea stalls to wait for our taxi to fill up with the remaining necessary four passengers. It took about 10 minutes for the first to appear, and, as we filled with hope and excitement, another appeared shortly after…Two hours, and many cries of “Makresh! Makresh!” by the taxi spruiker, later, our hope and excitement suitably quashed, we were seriously wondering if we shouldn’t just pay for the remaining two seats. Dissuaded by the knowledge that we’d probably have to pay for a whole taxi at the other end, just to get home (which luckily after another hour and a half of waiting in Marrakech we closely avoided), we were just about to pull the pin when miraculously, the remaining two passengers showed up and, praise to Allah, we were on our way.

In the end, we arrived in Marrakech at 2pm and so were only able to spend a total of about four hours there. The city is quite big, and our tour was whirlwind in the truest sense of the expression. After studying up on the Rough Guide during the four hour ride there, we had slung together a basic itinerary comprising the five or six sites we were most interested in visiting. Though we made it to most of them, disappointingly (and somewhat bafflingly) many attractions were closed because it was Saturday, and we could only really enjoy the high walls surrounding them. Aside from the open air attractions we could enjoy, like the impressive Koutoubian Mosque and the Djemaa El Fda (the big town square filled with acrobats, musicians and animal torturers), we did make it into the Jardin Marjorelle (Marjorelle Garden) – a gorgeous landscaped oasis designed by the French expatriate artist, Jacques Majorelle, in the 1920s, and now owned by the estate of Yves Saint Laurent. The lush bamboo forest and enormous patch of anthropomorphic cacti, both of which have been weirdly nurtured by the fertile ashes of Yves Saint Laurent since his death in 2008, would have provided a tranquil retreat from the buzz and dust of the city, had the garden not been completely overrun with scantily clad tourists *cringe*.

Though my impressions of Marrakech could only have been superficial given the short time we spent there, I do feel confident saying that it lacks an immediate charm for me. Besides the hordes of tourists, many people there seem to be a whole lot more pushy (to the point of rude) than in other parts of Morocco I’ve visited, and I struggled to locate the oft-mythologised ‘magic’.

Comparatively, Marrakech has nothing, charm-wise, on the beachside town of Essouria which was the recipient of last weekend’s voyage. Despite the fact that I was painfully ill for the entire duration of this 24 hour expedition, and that I had to negotiate this illness in the company of 18 very energetic others and with very few available facilities, the magic there truly is omnipresent and all-pervading. It’s immediately very picturesque: the rocky coastline nurses precariously balanced buildings, and the marina houses a plethora of rickety, cobalt-blue fishing boats (I’ve posted some pictures of these). Though the town is relatively small, one could spend days wandering through the crooked and colourful laneways, delighting in the various ways the sunlight streams through the cracks between the white- and blue-washed buildings. The beach (on which I slept and acquired a very interesting set of tan lines) and the cobbled, wind-weathered Kasbah provide the place with some serious extra points as well. Also important to mention is that on the way home, I saw goats climbing trees – about 15 of them in the one tree, perched high in the branches, nibbling away. I love goats. Especially when they can climb trees – so smart! As any of my friends from Timor-Leste would attest, this was quite literally a highlight of my life, and if I could make the text of this sentence extra big in the blog post for emphasis, I would do that.

Aside from the travel, and the always exciting work I’m engaged in here (a little bit more on that later), a particular highlight of this week was my visit to the ‘hammam’ with Francesca and Loubna (my host sister). The hammam, of which there is generally one in each neighbourhood in Morocco, is a giant sauna-slash-bath-slash-meeting place, where men and women go once a week (separately, obviously) to sit for long hours in big tiled rooms filled with hot water and steam, in order to scrub themselves (and their friends) clean. There is no fuss about it. You pay 10 Dirham (1 Australian dollar) to enter, you take your tar-coloured olive oil soap, you take your kiis (a mitten made from coarse fabric) everyone strips off and the cleaning begins. Upon arrival, Loubna had asked me if I would like to “take a lady”, and being in for the entire experience, I took a lady. I can tell you, for 50 Dirham she certainly gives you your money’s worth, especially when compared with the exorbitant rates charged by day spas in the West, and in light of the sheer volume of skin I was visibly rid of. With boobs hanging over me, I was smothered in the olive oil soap, left for a good 15 minutes to bask in the steam while my skin softened and my pores opened and, just as my eyes were closing, was woken from my reverie with a bucket-load of hot water over my head. Every inch of my body was scrubbed with the kiis for a good half an hour, and with such vigour it was almost a transformative experience on the inside as well. I really had to smile at it all, as I sat clean and renewed in the steam surrounded by naked women of all shapes and sizes, pondering what the ‘liberation’ of women’s bodies in the West actually meant in juxtaposition with the normality and naturalness of nakedness here, in an Islamic society. I felt so good afterwards – both inside and out – that I think it’ll be a weekly thing from now on for me as well.

In terms of work this week, it has been both challenging and rewarding. The women’s project has been mainly focused around planning, and during the last week I have devised a preliminary plan, outlining (hopefully) all the considerations relevant to the further development of the women’s enterprise. In addition to the development of the idea, we will obviously need to conduct some research into the market (both supply and demand), into the skills and availability of the women (and methods to address any skills shortages they might identify themselves), the technical inputs for start-up and continuous production, into the work of similar enterprises in similar contexts, how the project will be funded and financed, the most appropriate model of organisation and management, the legal structures in place, and a whole host more. Iqbal, my Moroccan colleague on this project, and I are in the process of developing activities and methods to ensure the women’s full participation in every aspect of the process. The fact that all of the women are illiterate poses a significant challenge to the way we go about this, and it will be this that we will have to pay the most attention to in our planning. Nevertheless, the women are enthusiastic and excited at the prospect of access to some income, so “incha’allah” we can help them to make it happen.

This coming week, some of the kids and staff have asked me to bring my guitar into work. This follows me being greeted on Friday by extended arms and grinning faces cheering “Artiste! Artiste! Enchanter! Enchanter!” (pleased to meet you, in French); Iqbal, surrounded by the crowd, was at her computer showing off a video on Facebook of me performing at my CD launch in March. Everyone wants lessons now, which of course, I am more than happy to give!

Jusqu’a la prochaine fois (until the next time),

Briony

A côté du Centre Afak

Off to Essouira…

Last night, as I sat in the late and long Friday night staff meeting, amidst members of our wonderful team here, I was overcome by a strange feeling. This is going to sound funny, and it was, which is why I want to share it with you, but as they were bantering back and forth in rapid Arabic, I concentrated so hard I went into a trance. Now, I’m not sure if it had something to do with the high-forties heatwave we’ve suffered for the last few days, or with the suspicious Hawaii Tropical soft drink we were drinking at the time, or with the strange cheese we were eating, but whatever state my brain had addled itself into facilitated a sudden conviction that I when I snapped out of my meditation I would be able to speak and understand the entire Arabic language. Fluently. I had to stifle a giggle when my brain started working again and I realised that my subliminal consciousness had convinced me that this were actually possible. Anyway, I can tell you it’s not. Arabic is hard and a lot of work.

This week has been quite quiet in terms of things worth reporting on. I’m pretty sure that also has something to do with how hot it has been – everyone has been significantly slower, unable to sleep, a bit grumpier, a whole lot more sweaty and less inclined to engage in exciting extracurricular activities. Actually, that’s just been me. Nevertheless, last Sunday, I did have a hand in painting a giant mural at a school about fifteen minutes from Taroudannt. Matthew (the other volunteer who leaves this Tuesday) and I were invited by Hicham, the director of the Lalla Amina orphanage I have blogged about previously, to beautify the school for the kids – something that he does on weekends voluntarily in addition to his job during the week. It took us all day, during which time we were surrounded by myriad students from the school who sang songs for us and cheered us on. We ate a delicious goat tajine and fruit platter for lunch and goute (cake and tea) both of which were provided, for us and all the children, by a relatively wealthy household nearby. For free. This is apparently the norm when a community activity goes on – someone in the town makes the lunch. I’m not quite sure how it works but I like it! Just another aspect of Moroccan culture that I find utterly delightful, I guess. You can have a look at a photo album of the day on the school’s Facebook page if you click here.

In addition to this mural, we have painted another one with the children on the walls of the rooftop terrace at the Centre AFAK. This has only just been completed and I’ll direct you to some photos when they are up somewhere in cyber space. It was certainly a nice bit of fun in the interests of making the enormous rooftop space a more inviting and user-friendly environment for the children.

I must say it’s pretty nice to be engaged in some sort of artistic pursuit. As you can probably tell from my writing it’s been incredibly busy here, and my time so far hasn’t exactly been the musical pilgrimage I’d hoped for. Of course, my work here is the priority, and I have been both honouring that commitment and thoroughly enjoying it! I have had some time to write a little poetry though; you can find a couple of pieces below under my review of the book “Half the Sky: How to Change the World” (which incidentally I’d love your comments on, especially if you’ve read the book – let’s just say there’s a reason I felt compelled to write it).

In recreation news, as a break from the Taroudannt sun, I will be travelling to Essaouira at 4am tomorrow morning with some of my host sister’s university friends. Essaouira is, according to the Rough Guide, ‘by popular acclaim Morocco’s most likeable resort’. It sounds divine: a coastal town, a former Portuguese settlement, surrounded by ancient battlements. It is, however, apparently very, very windy. So…hold onto your hijabs!

Book Review – ‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’

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‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I feel like this might be a year of firsts for me.  I’ve recorded my first album which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always secretly wanted a blog too, and now I have one that I think is very pretty. I’ve also always thought I’d like to try and write a book review(s), because every so often I read a book that I just want to talk about (even if not necessarily for the ‘right’ reasons).

Though I don’t have a lot of time to read for leisure at the moment, I did miraculously manage to actually finish a book the other day. That book was ‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the international bestseller which champions the rights of women, and the potential of investment in them as a solution to global poverty.

Now, as a humanitarian, a development worker and a feminist, this is a subject that I feel pretty passionately about, and as the book points out it’s hard to ignore the arguments in favour of investing in women in developing world contexts: that women are generally the primary caretakers in many societies so investing in the education of women has far-reaching, inter-generational benefits; that it has been suggested that women are likely to invest up to 90% of their income back into their families and communities, whilst for men it is more like 30-40%; and that raising the status of women in order to create greater gender equality generally translates into more harmonious, less conflict-ridden, and therefore healthier, societies. This is just to name a few.

‘Half the Sky’ rings true in its support of arguments like these, and for the most part I enjoyed reading it (though I’m not sure that’s really the right word to describe the reading of a book that graphically details the egregious atrocities committed against women every day all over the world). Despite periodically cringing at some of the suggestions made throughout (more on that later) my overall inclination is to applaud the authors for writing a book on such an important subject that isn’t overly academic and that is easily accessible and digestible to a wide audience (not just development geeks!).

Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is that, through the telling of women’s individual stories of suffering and resilience, it manages to ‘re-humanise’ those for whom human rights abuses are a daily reality. Too often in the developed world (and for certain in the developing world too) we are able to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, or worse, effectively condone them because we understand the issue as an abstraction, removed from our own realities. We’ve stopped seeing our fellow living creatures as thinking, feeling beings – they exist as ‘others’ in an abstract place, far removed from us. Look, I am not a vegetarian, but being confronted by unblinking goats heads at market stalls makes me want to be. Likewise, perhaps if a greater number of us could empathise with human suffering on a less abstract plane, the issue of asylum seekers in Australia wouldn’t be a political football, and the gang rape of three year old girls in Pakistan would no longer be tolerated. Half the Sky’s most significant strength is that it humanises suffering and human rights abuse and thus, via its readers and their broader networks, has the potential to galvanise wide support for the women of the world who are victims of circumstance on a daily basis.

Despite this, it’s hard not to criticise some of the suggestions made by the authors throughout, which range from the mildly bizarre or suspicious to the outright appalling and dangerous. Given that I guess I’d sort of bought into all the hype and excitement surrounding the book (surely an eye-opening and serious expose!) I was a little surprised to come across Ben Affleck in the first couple of chapters. Our favourite mysteriously-Academy Award-winning screenwriter and actor had visited an American volunteer posted in Goma, who had become afflicted with malaria. Now, don’t get me wrong, in theory I’m all for using fame and fortune as mechanisms for advocacy if you can get it right (even though the high-flyers don’t most of the time), but I’m somewhat reluctant to give the authors credit here. I’m confused as to whether they’re innocently relating an anecdote, or whether *horror* they’re suggesting a link between volunteering and meeting movie stars. Either way, I cringed.

Then there was the ardent call to forge partnerships with evangelical churches, particularly the Pentecostal church which is ‘gaining more ground more quickly than any other faith, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America’. Despite the authors’ own acknowledgement that Pentecostalism’s expanding faith base can in part be attributed to the claim that Jesus will protect its followers from AIDS (surely not a positive step towards increasing women’s health and reproductive rights), and admit this is ‘suspicious’, they nevertheless support ‘working together’ with the Pentecostal church as well as evangelical religious organisations in general. Now whilst it is certainly true that most religious organisations are inspired by some form of altruism, it is the manner with which these ‘good intentions’ are conceptualised and manifest that is so dangerous to women’s rights. And once we start buying into evangelical organisations that preach strange and backward ideologies and that are ‘increasing influence’, we set a precedent for compounding these powerful religious agendas without ability to regulate them. This has the potential to be disastrous for women!

The authors’ argument for these partnerships is flimsy, not to mention it ostensibly conflicts with their strong opposition to archaic US foreign policies like the ‘Global Gag Rule’ (no longer in existence thanks to Obama, but still heavily lobbied for by right-wing conservatives), which excludes any organisation offering counselling on abortion or abortion services anywhere in the world from the financial backing of USAID (take, for example, the fantastic women’s health organisation, Marie Stopes). Given such policies are so strongly and irrefutably influenced by the religious agendas of American conservatives, it seems completely bizarre that the authors buy into the idea of partnerships with evangelical organisations in the pursuit of women’s rights.

Another strange and superficial suggestion is that we should encourage sweatshops, of all things, because ‘they’re preferable to the alternative of hoeing fields all day back in a village’. I can just hear community development workers setting off a chain of groans to reverberate around the world! Despite the authors’ obvious value judgement that working in the city is better than an agricultural lifestyle, not to mention their complete oversight of the nuances of globalisation and capitalism, it seems utterly confounding that the authors should laud the ‘benefits’ of sweatshops for women, when it is widely known that sweatshop conditions in the developing world are euphemistically less than ideal and more often than not completely unregulated by labour laws. It seems more likely that encouraging sweatshops (through buying more stuff?  …this is also unclear) is more likely a method of buying into and sustaining discrimination against women, rather than improving it. Even more hilarious, is that in an endnote at the back of the book the authors pay a fleeting lip service to what they call the “feminist critique” of this stance.

Another issue that kept rearing its head for me, was the continued focus on women as economic assets. While the authors intention was likely to try and galvanise the support of a wider audience (including big business, governments and macro-economists) by including an economic argument for the inclusion of women in development, the continued emphasis on this argument tends to detract from the authors’ overall stance that the injustices perpetrated against women should be addressed on humanitarian grounds. Supporting the women of the world based on their economic potential takes away from the power of the humanitarian case. Not to mention that I’m sure big business and governments have an army of their own advisers on the subject and this book’s probably not going to sway their thinking!

Besides this, the simple ‘women as economic resources’ argument no longer has much credence in the contemporary development discourse. The pretty one-dimensional and over-simplified theory emerged in the 1970s from the mouths of neo-classical economists, and since then, thinking has evolved to become far more nuanced. No longer is it accepted that the ‘add-women-and-mix’ approach will suffice. What is required is a greater understanding and incorporation of gender in policy formulation, and more specifically, how gendered roles and responsibilities impact on both women’s and men’s ability to perform certain tasks.

An often cited example concerning women’s economic inclusion is that it’s not enough to simply create jobs for women, the fact that they already work virtually full-time as family and community caretakers means the assumption they have any more time to engage in economic production is fundamentally flawed. What is required then, is not just a consideration of women as ‘economic assets’ but of the nuances of gender roles and responsibilities, and the value attached to what actually is already important work in the domestic sphere. This is not to say that opportunities shouldn’t be created for women’s economic empowerment – everything should be done to facilitate this – but what Half the Sky fails to address is that most women in the developing world already have full-time jobs; the assumption that women are simply under-utilised economic assets has been long debunked.

A bunch of other sentiments drew my attention for the wrong reasons during the course of reading this book, but I’m afraid I’ve run out of time to elucidate upon all of them. I will say just to wrap up, that despite all its misgivings, this book does have great potential to galvanise support for the world’s women, to be a tool for advocacy, and to make people stand up and take notice of the circumstances that women are often born into. I do give it a great deal of credit for placing such emphasis on human rights, and on the education of women and girls as a way out of poverty. It also prudently stresses that any solution to poverty should be understood contextually, should be dynamic, and perhaps most importantly should ultimately come from the grassroots in any given community.

That said, perhaps it is telling that it is George Clooney and Angelina Jolie who have written the testimonials on the front cover, rather than respected feminists or gender and development experts.

BM

There’s only so much you can say about the heat

there’s only so much you can say about the heat

– it’s a drag, yeah, a real queen of the desert
it’s blisters of sleep yoked to bubblegum sheets
blisters of sleep yoked to bubblegum sheets
you know, it’s a drag –

before you start repeating yourself

but honestly

who decides to install an
air conditioner
at one-thirty in the morning?

In the tree hollow where my soul lives

Here in this tree hollow is where my soul lives
Cocooned by ground scored with ruts and ripples, my roots
Have been fashioned into mounds by
Tectonic up-swell

I am telling you, my love
This old stuff
Is what I’m made of

Let me give to you these gifts so that
You might begin living:
Shoots of another infant plant
Germinating from cracked earth
Encouraged by rain

Take those shoots
Look at that natal sky
Wake up from your dreaming!
Tell me you understand
That you are already
Living within it
You are a part

My love for you emerges
From that very same vastness
Your home is the hollow in my tree, and
Mine is a trunk
Whereon something might
Be etched

The rhythm

The rhythm

While the sun played a rhythm on the ground

The street sighed as it prodded a blister
Bodies slumped in the shadows they’d found
Dust spiralled and breached
Filled the cracks in my feet
While the sun played a rhythm on the ground

I determined to carry on walking
Pricked my ears for that burnt and brown sound
Could be sure I heard more
Than the thump of a door
‘Twas the sun and its rhythm on the ground

The wind blew a smooth incantation
Its vocalise gathered me round
My internal din
Murmured out through my skin
While the sun played its rhythm on the ground

I breathed awe of its great expectations
Of its constancy, scorching and proud
And when soon came my turn for percussion
I learned
In the sun I beat rhythm on the ground

I played so my arms filled with fire
Kicking dirt ’til it whorled in a cloud
Through the prickle-hot pain
I grew happy again
As the sun made its rhythm on the ground

Fragile harmonies bloomed ’til they echoed
Our tempo, the rhythm, was drowned
I shouldered the drum
(We agreed we were done)
And trekked home with the silence I found

The road outside…

The road outside...

The land of invitations…

I have lots of exciting things to report this week, and not enough time to report them all! I suppose a quick update on the music is as good a place as any to start… Unfortunately, I’ve had very little time to pick up my guitar since being here. Nevertheless, my brain has been in overdrive composing melodies and lyrics that I’m jotting down in dribs and drabs. There is lots of music here which for the most part is very nice, though there have been times when I’ve wanted to strangle the person insisting on playing it outside my bedroom window in the middle of the night. My Arabic teacher, Hassan, became very excited when I told him I played the guitar and has insisted on finding someone to teach me the Oud, which of course I am thrilled about! I’ve also had a number of requests from kids at the centre for guitar lessons, and once the women’s project has gained a bit of momentum I’ll certainly be setting this in motion.

Since the last blog entry, we have been making steady and exciting progress with the women’s project. Last night I met with the director of our organisation, as well as the others involved in facilitating the women’s project, to discuss a number of business ideas the women came up with during our last session. In line with the women’s desires to open a patisserie, last night we discussed the possibility of expanding upon this idea: in addition to a shop front catering to the general public, we could attempt to develop a catering service of sorts whereby we would work to establish relationships with local medium- to large-sized businesses to which the women can deliver affordable and delicious breakfasts and lunches. As well as addressing the immediate practical needs regarding work and income for the women, marketing this service as a social enterprise (and therefore as something that supports the community) would address the project’s broader strategic aim: increasing the visibility of and respect for these marginalised women within the wider community. I’ve spent the last couple of days heavily researching the methodology behind the establishment of these kinds of enterprises in the developing world, as well as drafting a template for a feasibility study – in English and French – which we’ll chip away at in the coming weeks. It’s an extremely big task which is going to take a lot of time and hard work – I only hope that I’ll be able to see it through during my time here; five months doesn’t seem long enough now.

The women’s group meetings themselves continue to be a fun mixture of productivity and recreation. Last week’s session began with a good, solid hour of aerobics, basketball and kickboxing in the centre’s recreation hall, culminating with me being literally beaten and boxed up by the oldest member of the group – the very feisty grandmother of one of the kids at the centre. To my dismay there is a video of floating around somewhere of me being forced backwards by her with unprecedented gusto, her formerly neat bun of hair unravelling with every punch. Of course, I let her win.

The swiftness with which the hijabs and djellabas were abandoned upon arrival at the sports centre amused me a great deal – they were off before the doors even closed – and I’m pretty sure I was more nervous about someone walking in and catching the women without their headscarves on than the women were themselves!

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t wish to seem like I have an issue with women’s traditional Islamic dress, as I’ve never felt it’s really my place to harbour strong opinions either way on the subject. Granted the mandates of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran don’t do much for public relations, and so I will admit I’ve always been a little bit suspicious about the extent to which covering oneself is a personal choice.

In Morocco, however, I have managed to become convinced that for the most part a woman’s decision to wear the veil really is a personal one; one that doesn’t appear to be unduly influenced by family or wider society. As evidence of this, many of my friends here have only decided to start donning the hijab in their late 20s, even 30s, and some have decided not to wear it at all. I haven’t picked up on any bad blood from these women’s families towards them; in fact I have found it to be quite the opposite. Those who do choose to wear the hijab are generally pretty damn fashionable about it, too, coordinating the headscarf with the rest of their outfits and securing them in different ways. I’m sure there are women who feel undue pressure to be seen by others as a ‘good Muslim’, but this hasn’t been my experience so far.

There’s also an amusing aspect of liberation about the traditional dress. I am constantly giggling to myself when I see women walking down the street with their pyjama bottoms and slippers poking out from under their djellabas, their scarves thrown casually over an assumedly messy hairdo. How nice it would be as a woman to be able to just cover yourself up to pop down to the shops, instead of spending precious time in front of the mirror, trying to coordinate an outfit or plastering yourself with make-up. It’s certainly funny and worthy of remark: the way one’s perspective can so easily change once one is no longer just a spectator.

In general, I am astounded daily at the level of hospitality and general all-round niceness of the Moroccan people. Last weekend when Matthew and I visited Agadir for the day, we received no fewer than four dinner invitations. One of these came from a guy, Mohammed, who we asked for directions to the Grand Taxi rank. Mohammed proceeded to walk us all the way there, telling us about his family and about Agadir, inviting us for dinner (which we politely declined on this occasion), then organising us a taxi and a ‘good price’ (about $3 for ‘half a seat’), bidding us a safe journey, then giving us his phone number so we could come for dinner the next time we’re in Agadir.

It was Matthew’s birthday on the 5th of May and our host family threw him a surprise birthday party. Our two host sisters, Loubna and Jamila, had cooked him no fewer than four beautiful cakes, one with the words “Happy Birthday Matthew” in Arabic piped in coffee cream across the top. Lollies were strewn all over the place and the whole family had made an effort to dress up in their most special outfits.

After last week’s women’s group meeting, I was invited back to the house of one of the women, Malika, for ‘gouter’ (cake and tea). On the way, she stopped off at a local shoe store, proceeding to measure my feet in anticipation of ‘a present’. We managed to accumulate many people along the way as we stopped in at nearby houses of seemingly endless members of her extended family, all of whom live very sparely (as she does with her family). Despite being very small and sparsely furnished, her house was filled with this really quite amazing energy and I just found myself openly laughing in surprise and delight at the generosity of all of them. I was invited back the next day for cous cous after being told in very broken French: ‘you are always welcome here, you are like a sister now’.

I’m not quite sure where the dodgy reviews of Morocco that you can find on the internet come from. I have a suspicion now they’re written by inappropriately dressed misanthropes.

Briony

To begin a new phase…

The many little gems…

I’ve realised that it’s been several days now since I’ve been able to take the time and the headspace to sit down and write another blog entry. Thankfully I’m able to relax a bit today as it’s International Labour Day which we celebrate by not working, so I’ve committed to writing down a few things down before I forget them; and there are just so many things to write, I can’t believe I’ve only been here for two weeks!

As you might just now have guessed, it’s pretty busy here. So far it has been normal to work 12 hour days or more: getting up at 7.30am, eating breakfast, getting home around 9pm, and eating dinner at 10pm. We do come home during the day for a two hour lunch, which generally consists of a glass of fresh juice (strawberry, orange, even banana!) a delicious cold, sweet soup of shredded cucumber or carrot with cinnamon and fruit juice, then a steaming tajine which we communally scoop up with fresh bread (or hobs), and sometimes a dessert like crème caramel or chocolate cake. We are very spoilt with the food, and lunch is a nice way to break the day up.

Perhaps one of the reasons we’re working these hours (despite there definitely being a need!) is to keep up with the commitment of the local staff at the centre to the futures of the children and their families; something which really is impossible to overestimate. I for one am taking a lot from their example. At the moment the staff comprises two social workers, Baadia and Mohammed, an office administrator who has her fingers in some other pies too, Iqbal, a new preschool teacher, a couple of teachers and volunteers running the soutien or homework classes, a sports teacher, and a range of others. Often they (and we) are at the centre all day, and afterwards spend hours conducting night visits with the families of the children or running after hours soutiens or sports classes. On Friday nights we have our weekly staff meeting (on top of all the many other discussions during the week!). Last week this meeting ran for two and a half hours without a peep of complaint from anyone.

The staff are wonderful with the children. Granted it’s hard not to be, as for the most part they are incredibly loveable. As opposed to our political, over-regulated and litigious attitude towards the treatment of children in schools and childcare facilities in the West, these children (even the problem ones) are showered with love by the staff at the Centre AFAK, receiving daily hugs, kisses, enormous investments of interest, as well as shares of our food and drink if they happen upon anyone eating.

The kids also really help each other out, perhaps because they are connected by a common experience, or perhaps just because they are happy, lovely and human children. Even given the context in which I’m working, every day I see something that make my boots a bit lighter. In my small English class last night of a few 17-18 year old boys, I watched as one of them, throughout the class, carefully spelt out the names of words for a blind classmate who was stabbing out the words in Braille on a special notepad. I wonder why I’m even so surprised or affected by such small gestures of humanity. Truthfully, I hope that maybe I’m just jaded about teenage boys, but really…imagine how the world would be if we all treated each other like this!

Extremely excitingly, we also had our first women’s group meeting last Thursday, marking the start of the new phase of the project. After a number of pre-meeting planning discussions with Andreja and Sarah from London and Baadia and Iqbal from Morocco on the future and trajectory of the project, we got together with the 10 women in our group to begin to nut out possibilities for concrete and tangible initiatives. While so far the women’s meetings have really been a forum for discussing issues of importance (like legal rights and access to healthcare) – and this important work will continue – now we are also trying to develop something that can further assist the women and their families in their daily lives.

The first step on Thursday was obviously to get the women engaged and excited – as much as we are – about the project. In case you’re interested, I’ve posted a picture of an activity we conducted in order to get the thinking started, which asked women the question “what causes you the most worry in your daily lives?” (we chose this question in order to steer the thinking away from ‘problems’) then asked them to rank their answers on a grid with different coloured and sized pieces of paper. As all of the women are largely illiterate, we had spent the night before after dinner drawing pictures representative of things like health, kids, husband, perceptions of themselves in the community, money, and many others, to stick on the chart in order that women could recollect the options (drawing the pictures was hilarious in itself, as apart from Matthew who is a very capable artist, none of us can draw).

We were all a bit apprehensive about ‘exposing’ the women during this activity, as they all had to go up one by one, and so Sarah, Andreja, me (now named Laila as “no one will be able to remember Briony”), Iqbal and Baadia began the activity by ranking our own worries on the board. Our apprehension was completely unfounded though, as we were raucously applauded and cheered on by the rest of the women, who continued to do the same for each other. One of the members even let rip a little victory dance upon completion! Who knew that thinking about our worries could be so enjoyable!? I must admit it does feel pretty good to see that the women are on board, and that our approach to this participatory model of program development seems to be working (though it’s early days yet). This Thursday we will continue to focus ideas down with the women, and of course I’ll keep you all posted about what eventuates!

Apart from work, I have managed to get back to the souk (the Moroccan traders market) a couple of times. There is one shop in particular that really exemplifies all the romantic notions I had about little shops in Morocco. Dimly lit and cluttered with dusty antique Berber pottery, jewellery, wooden doors, tapestries, leather, animal skins, and everything else you can think of, it is run by a little, old Moroccan man who likes to offer us tea and regale us with utterly improbable stories about his family history and how he lost his hair (he used to have a pet parrot that sat on his head and ate chips, taking his hair with them).

As I get more acquainted with the way things work here, I find myself falling more and more in love with the place. Taroudannt’s charm certainly isn’t overt, but the gems seem easier and easier to find as time goes on.

Bisous,

Briony

To Eddrouman

Full house…

Over the weekend we were sixteen people in this grand abode. In addition to myself, Livia, Rosie and Matthew and the four immediate family members we are staying with, there were four additional family members visiting from Rabat, as well as four more staff from the London office. Sarah, Andreja, Harry and Anwar arrived much later than expected on Saturday night following a surprise detour to Portugal which, much to my amusement and glee (I believe this is still an acceptable word in non-televisual contexts), was due to a drunk and disorderly Australian passenger who, as the plane touched down, continued to belligerently slur his excitement at arriving in Agadir despite many an announcement to the rest of the cabin advising of his disposal elsewhere… So the house has been enjoyably manic. We all seem to get along very well and, despite definitely needing to spend some time by myself every now and then, I can’t really escape the joy of communal living, especially at mealtimes!

There is method to the madness: MCT’s partner organisation, GMH, is going through a few changes at the moment. We have several new staff on board (including me, I suppose), as well as positions to fill and projects to re-evaluate. Having some extra support from the London office during this time has been welcomed by the existing staff at GMH, and as many of the Brits have worked in-country with GMH before, there has been many a joyous reunion and scream of delight; the relationships between MCT and GMH staff seem really to be those of genuine friendship and mutual respect. Sadly, Rosie and Livia left early this morning (I look forward to annoying you over Skype and email over coming months!) but I’m glad I have an opportunity to get to know the rest of the team from London as well.

Aside from all the catching up and getting acquainted, we have communally done a fair bit of work already. Yesterday we had our first planning meeting(s) for the new phase of the women’s project. It was exciting for me to be able to coordinate my ideas with Sarah and Andreja from London who have been heavily involved with the project from MCT’s side, and also with Baadia and Iqbal who have been running the program in-country. At the moment there are nine women (mothers of children at the Centre AFAK) involved in the group which meets weekly to discuss various issues that are important to them. So far the meetings have really just been information sharing sessions, though we hope to be able to start developing some ideas that have been generated into tangible outcomes for the women. This is the next step.

From 7-9pm yesterday evening I also took an English class with a bunch of the kids at the centre. Of the myriad differences between Moroccan culture and ours, one of the most prominent is that people here keep strangely late hours and seem to have boundless energy; it really is quite bizarre! Get this: the children, who are not obliged to come to the centre, actually rock up of their own accord in droves, late at night, after being in school and at the centre all day, to sit in English class for two hours. And if you think that’s weird, they actually give you their full attention. Having very little teaching experience myself, I lucked out to paired with Matthew the primary school teacher, and we had a right old laugh learning how to say how we are feeling via a game of charades. Some of the kids just have the most enormous personalities.

It hasn’t been all work. Last Sunday we were taken by my host sister, Loubna, to a little Berber village about 40 minutes from Taroudannt. Ten of us, as well as a driver, elbowed our way into a car designed to seat six and set off on a very bumpy and slow drive to Eddrouman. There, we climbed high into the mountains, literally hand over hand up the walls and through the caves of an ancient and porous rock formation. We waded (or swam, as was the case with Anwar) in crystalline pebble-bottomed rock pools completely off the beaten track. Away from the caves, we followed the local water source which ran along a concrete track to its origin. We drank from the spring, were fleetingly disappointed at feeling exactly the same age as before, then followed its winding trail back down to the village again for lunch with relatives of my host sister. The women cooking lunch were absolutely delightful, and despite the language barrier (they only speak Berber) we actually managed to communicate very well. Every one of us fell asleep after lunch aided by hot, sweet mint tea and the heat outside. I’m not sure how long this siesta lasted, but we were all highly amused when we were woken by the women only to be dressed up in traditional Berber costume and bustled out for photos with the donkeys. I have not posted this picture on the blog.

Bisous,

Briony

Just a bunch of rocks

When doors open

From the rooftop…

From the rooftop...

Visiting Lalla Amina

So I had my first Arabic class last night which was, ahem, interesting. Basically we spent two hours hocking up phlegm and trying not to capsize into hysterics. Our very lovely teacher, Hassan, who was one of the founders of the organisation that spawned MCT, was equally amused at our attempts but assured us that things would get easier. Fingers, toes, eyes and limbs all crossed. Along with the Arabic I am still improving my French, and I look forward to soon speaking a confusing combination of Arabic, French and English. It shall be called Frarabinglish and it will be awesome.

Yesterday Rosie, Livia, Matthew and I visited Lalla Amina, a government-run orphanage housing (I think) about fifteen children ranging in age from three months to the young teens. Given that I’m going to have a lot to do with the children at the Centre AFAK over the coming months, it’s important for me to have a broader understanding of the other services that are available to children in Taroudannt. Rosie was the only one out of the four of us who had been to the orphanage before as she had visited Taroudannt last year, so the rest of us were also just interested to see what it was like.

Obviously having consumed too much Dickens and Roald Dahl as a child, I have since imagined all orphanages as soulless, dark buildings, where the children are left to fend for themselves and the cold, daily slops are rationed out by a tyrannical matron (I don’t know what she looks like as in my nightmares I can never see past her thick neck). This orphanage, however, despite the obvious heartache of it all, is sunny, open, and is run by a small bunch of friendly and welcoming staff who clearly have a lot of love for the children. Unfortunately though, there simply aren’t enough of them to give the children much care and nurture over and above changing nappies and feeding them. There are also a number of children living there who have obvious disabilities – sadly probably the reason they’re there in the first place – whose needs cannot be met with the limited resources available. One little girl was just strapped into a chair and ostensibly left to sit by herself all day.

Admittedly I’ve always been pretty uneasy about foreigners visiting orphanages (I’ve heard the term ‘poverty porn’ bantered around before, which seems kind of apt). This is especially true of those on a serious mission to volunteer, who will usually return on a frequent basis for a short period of time only to leave again. Having already had to deal with the loss of, or separation from, their parents, I’ve felt that the formation of attachments by orphaned children to such transients, regardless of any good intentions, are probably more detrimental than beneficial to a child’s development. Of course on the flip side of the coin, these children often have such minimal care or stimulation that any contact, no matter how short-lived may be better than none at all. Visiting Lalla Amina has only served to reinforce my confusion on this issue: the children absolutely delighted in our company – pulling on our clothes, reaching up to us, hugging us, hanging off us, competing with each other for our attention – as we did in theirs, though now there is no doubt in my mind that those attachments are formed very quickly indeed. It’s up to me now to weigh up the pros and cons of going back.

That being said, there are some really, really, really cute babies who don’t have mothers, *sniff, sob*, one of whom was thrust into my arms upon arrival and who I fed and held for the majority of my time there. I suppose at this age any human contact is important. Perhaps I should be worrying more about my own attachments.

Bisous,

Briony

The road by Lalla Amina…

photo 2

So many couches…

So many couches...

Picture the same setup in every room of the house over three giant levels and you have a vague idea of how many couches there are here.

And it begins…

So I’ve finally got a blog. I say finally because I think I’ve always vaguely wanted one, I just haven’t been able to admit it to myself until now for fear that my dignity and political persuasions be swallowed up by the behemoth popular culture. That, and there are some pretty bloody good ones out there. I read these from time to time before shutting my computer in disgust. While this one might not be able to compete at that level, I’ve given up the attempt to analyse why I have an urge to be part of something trendy and popular on the internet even though it is fundamentally weird, and I’m just going to put my two cents in. Here it is. What I hope the blog will actually achieve or inspire in its readers, as well as an explanation of its name, is available on the ‘about me’ page. I hope you enjoy reading it, and if it’s rubbish, I enjoyed writing it!

I’m in Morocco. I’ve been here for two days, and I’ll be here for another five months. I’m in a small, sleepy and dusty town called Taroudannt at the entrance to the Sous Valley, about one hour east of Agadir, and four hours from Marrakesh. My lungs are already filled with dust, and I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t a practical reason women veil their faces. Nevertheless the place has a lovely positive air about it, and the men are smiley and friendly rather than leery and creepy which means I am clearly winning.

As many of you reading this will no doubt be aware, I am here to volunteer with the London-based not-for-profit organisation the Moroccan Children’s Trust and its local Moroccan partner organisation, Groupe Maroc Horizons. I will be assisting with the establishment of a program for women, and will be attempting to set up a music program at the organisation’s centre for children who would otherwise be living or working on the street. I have already visited the centre twice and it is just buzzing with life. I am sure the children will be where I find the magic here. I will be writing more about the development of these two initiatives, and about my time at the centre, as the blog goes on.

In order to fund my time on the project, I have relied on the generosity of friends, family and strangers, to whom I express my deepest gratitude. This blog is largely for you. I also recorded, launched and continue to sell my debut, self-titled album of seven original songs. During my time here I hope to write many more, and so will try to blog on the progress of my personal musical meanderings as well; I have no doubt my time here will be ample inspiration for that! Feel free to visit the ‘my music’ page if you’re interested in finding out more about this, and for those who’ve bought or listened to the album (or the few tracks I’ve popped up on http://www.myspace.com/brionymackenzie) I’d love to hear any feedback you may have.

To the interesting stuff, then. I am living with a local family whilst in Taroudannt. The house has wifi (thank you!) and is absolutely enormous. There is enough food daily to feed an army (we average five meals), and enough couch space to seat one. Frankly the couches baffle me but since I’m burning them (figuratively anyway) I won’t lose any sleep over this (I will say though that I do find the juxtaposition between the concept of this blog and the sheer number of couches in this house slightly amusing).

There are other things apart from couches if you look hard. There is a lovely garden, filled with fresh herbs and fruit trees which are used in our food and tea daily. The food is incredible, and the ‘Moroccan wine’, as one of the brothers in the family calls it, is “just as delicious but actually better because you don’t fall over”.  I must say I do find the hot, sweet, spicy, mint concoction a rather nice substitute for the alcoholic stuff, and he’s right – I haven’t fallen over yet. God, I’m going to be so clean and Zen – if I knew myself I’m sure I would hate me!

There are a number of staff from the London office here at the moment as well: two lovely girls, Rosie and Livia, as well as another volunteer, Matthew, who will be staying for six weeks. Matthew is a primary school teacher and artist, and comes to the centre after running a one week, 250km marathon on sand across the Moroccan desert. For some reason he projects a good deal more sanity than the decision to participate in the race – and more to the point, the decision to finish it – suggests. Two of his toenails fell off last night, but he looks forward to a day soon when he “will be able to wear sandals without socks again”. Hurrah!

More to come soon.

xx Briony