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

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

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

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!

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

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!