FIRST WEEK IN BOUJDOUR: HAF COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT IN THE SAHARA

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 was a very hard day to say goodbye to my family, the people I love most in my life. I travelled from Ait Ourir to Marrakech at noon for the Supratour (Autobus) to Boujdour, which would depart at 2:30pm. The autobus was delayed for two hours and we left Marrakech at 4:30pm. When I got into the bus and was looked through the glass window, I felt the sharp and profound pain of seeing my new husband wiping his tears while waving to me saying “bslama”. What a sad afternoon!

It was a very long journey to reach Boujdour, called “City of Challenge” – 19 hours in total. HAF has identified a project site in Cap Boujdour to help bridge the private and non-profit sectors to generate new economic, social and environmental benefits for its community and people. HAF has built a partnership to identify and train local beneficiaries in participatory planning facilitation to ensure sustainable and long-term community projects. My arrival is the beginning of this initial three-month research period during which I will conduct participatory research assessment and training.

I arrived on Thursday morning at 11:30am. I couldn’t sleep on the bus because the seats were uncomfortable. I farrived exhausted, and I could barely stand, as my feet were swollen with pain. I went directly to hotel “Amades,” which I found next to the Supratour Station in the city’s main street. I stayed at the hotel till 3:00pm, when I went outside to have some lunch. I walked the avenue till I found some restaurants. Passing the restaurants, I noticed the layers of dust on the floors and tables and the swarms of flies hovering around the foodstuffs. My hunger was more powerful, and I turned a blind eye and just swallowed my food.

After dinking Saharawi tea, I called my friend Bouchra – she is a teacher of philosophy at Ennasser High School and lives in Boujdour. I was waiting for her at the small park in front of the Boujdour military tower. She finally came there at 5:00 pm and invited me to her house; but I already booked at the hotel for that night, so we spent it together in the hotel.

On Friday, Bouchra went to school, for she had a class to teach. I stayed at the hotel to pack and wait for Bouchra. We decided to go to her house, which is situated in the road to Jrifia, 3 km from the center of Boujdour city. It was noon when Bouchra called me to say that she sent a very small van “Honda”- the daily transport of Boujdour to pick people to far places where no taxis go. The only option for transportation are small and big taxis circling inside the center of the city and Hondas for longer travel. I loaded my luggage into the Honda and took the road to Jrifia to reach Bouchra’s house, just in time for lunch.

The town’s economy is centered on brick making. The brick factory is one story high, with many small rooms full of  grey bricks and cement. There was no one there except two families: Bouchra’s and her cousin’s. Her cousin’s family left there few weeks ago to live in the city; they come only on weekends to bathe.

Bouchra’s family house is called in Hassanya “Elhaouash” (a place where shepherds stay with their herds when coming back from pastures. Bouchra’s family uses this place as a house to reside in instead of renting a house in the city just to economize. They were just offered 100 m2 of land by Moroccan state in a construction area in the center of the city called “Al Qotb” and they are waiting for the construction to finish to move to the city.

At the hall, there is a small toilet, and next to it, there is a yard, which is separated from the small interior apartment. It is for keeping goats, chickens, peacocks and donkeys, as well as the engine for electricity supply. Then there is a door that leads to the inside small apartment where they live. In this entryway, there is a skeleton covered with sieve cloth to keep the swarms of flies outside and to allow the light in. The ceiling, which is made of stitched reeds and rusty iron bars, covers the whole inside apartment, making it very dark. The only light of the house comes in through two very small windows made of circular rusty cans of consumed NIDO milk at the top of the walls of one side of the two rooms of the apartment.

It was a happy and warm moment when greeting Bouchra’s family. They are very kind generous people. After resting for a while, we had couscous with vegetables and sheep meat, and a drink called “Zriqia” in Hassanya, made of buttermilk and sugar. In the early afternoon, we slept in the darker room, which smelled strongly of rats. It was difficult to bear, and I felt very sick when I saw an oily green rat circling round the ceiling. I tried to close my eyes and rest.

The house was very dark by late afternoon. When Bouchra’s father returned from the pasture, he started the electricity engine to light the house. Just after the evening prayer, the only light bulb in the sitting room was switched on, followed by the TV. Cell phones batteries were being charged, the whole family gathered, recharged with energy to share discussions, dinner and tea together.

On Saturday morning, Bouchra and I went to the city to search for a house to rent. We walked down the avenue to the beach. It was a windy morning, the sea was rough. I enjoyed the quite emptiness of the beach; very few people drove along the seashore.

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It was easy to find an affordable rental in Boujdour. We finally found a house in the decent side of Hay Mly Rachid. The town is divide in two: one side is of poor fishermen and the other side is for other middle social classes, the latter is more safe. The two pictures below show the place where I reside; the first one on the left shows the apartment; there are three blue doors, and my apartment is the one in the middle. The second picture shows the street which leads to the apartment.

After setting the price with the apartment’s owner and arranging the time to bring my luggage, we went back to Bouchra’s house for lunch. We ate a Moroccan dish: sheep meat with prunes, fried almonds and bread, followed by dessert. We had a nap then we walked outside for some fresh air and played football with Bouchra’s young nephews.  We came in when the afternoon tea break was ready. We talked until dusk. When Bouchra’s father came in again from the pasture, life came back to the dark apartment: the light was on, the TV was turned on, cell phone batteries were charging and everyone sat  around the tea table to share the day’s news. We had Saharawi dish for dinner: rice and goat buttermilk. That night, I had another first aside from the meal: I saw an octopus fresh from the market, where Bouchra’s brother purchased it.

Through our animated evening discussions, I learned that Bouchra’s family immigrated to Boujdour in 1990, her father is Saharawi from Mhamid Elghazlane and her mother is from Damnat in Aizilal province. Her father’s and mother’s families met in Ben Guerir. They travelled to Boujdour when the King Hassan II called for the reconstruction of Sahara by inviting the Saharawi people from all parts of Morocco to come back to their home. Historically, the Saharawi used to live in camps in the center of Boujdour before the construction of the buildings began. The Moroccan State offered all people living in camps either houses or land to build houses for themselves, like Bouchra’s family. I was told that during the earlier times of eighties and nineties, the Saharawi communities struggled to integrate with the immigrant communities because they are two different communities in terms of culture, food, language and traditions.  Saharawi people traditionally consume a great deal of meat and have special dishes unfamiliar to the immigrant people. The Saharawi people are also unaccustomed to eating fruits or vegetables. It is a well-known joke that a Saharawi can’t differentiate between a watermelon and a pumpkin, so he put watermelon in couscous instead of pumpkin. Now, however, it is hard to differentiate between the native Saharawi community and the immigrant group. The cultures have melted together.

This blend of cultures is apparent in every day life in Boujdour. I met many Amazigh people, especially Shluh, largely from Agadir, including the owner of my apartment. He speaks Tashlhy. I also met many people from Marrakech in the market, grocers and streets. It’s very rare to meet a Saharawi person that speaks only Hassanya.

On Sunday morning, after having breakfast-tea, bread, jam, butter and sugar honey, I called the small van to pick take my luggage to the new house in Hay Mly Rachid. Bouchra’s family was very generous they provided me with all the furniture I need for my new house, including a bed, blankets, vessels, and a small gas tank. It was a nice change to be in the new house where there is electricity the whole day and I can use my laptop with internet access (even though the connection is very slow) and simply live and work comfortably. Bouchra helped me clean the new house and arrange my belongings before going back to her house where I said goodbye and thanked her family for their hospitality, generosity and kindness. After having lunch and a nap, Bouchra, her sister and I took the small van to visit their new house in Al Qotb construction area. We  took a big taxi to the central market of the city to buy some goods then walked down the avenue  to Hay Mly Rachid where I spent the first night alone at the new apartment.

My first though on Monday morning, was that I needed an internet connection to be in touch with the HAF team. I went to the bank then to Maroc Telecom, where I bought the a USB internet stick, because the HDM inwi modem I have with me doesn’t work in this area of Boujdour! When I was back home, I eagerly installed the Maroc Telecom modem, but found that it didn’t work at all in some corners of the house. I tried it many times until I was so frustrated I went out to have lunch and enjoy the wireless connecion at Taiba Café, just half a kilometer from where I reside. I stayed there for five hours writing and sending emails, patiently challenging the slow internet connection.

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