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).


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!



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),


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The land of invitations…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The many little gems…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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