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.

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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).

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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!

 

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

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

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.”

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!