I decided to intern with HAF because I wanted to see their work in the field firsthand, and was especially interested in the role of handicrafts for income-generation since I had worked with a women’s cooperative in the community of Oasis Siwain in Egypt. I was keen to see the differences and similarities between two Berber communities thousands of kilometers apart.
For three weeks I stayed in the village of Amsouzarte located in the Tifnoute Valley in the High Atlas Mountains. HAF is working on various projects here (including women’s cooperatives, community-managed nurseries and irrigation systems) to address the economic, environmental and social challenges in Tifnoute.
I first spent two days in the HAF office in Marrakesh to meet the staff, familiarize myself with the socio-economic circumstances of the Tifnoute valley and to learn about HAF’s on-going projects in the region. After that, I was ready to travel to discover the situation myself. When I arrived in Amsouzarte, I was stunned by the beautiful landscape. In the distance you can see the snow covered heights of the mountains and a little closer, the rocky slopes with sparse bushes where goats wander with their light-footed herders. And when you look deeper, lush green terraces spread out (many of which were created by HAF to improve food production efficiency), full of trees with white and pink blossoms, with irises blooming at their edges. Between the terraces, the villages cling to the mountains, consisting of large clay houses, with a labyrinth of stairs and corridors inside to harbor the large families. On the ground of the valley, the river flows through stones and fields of grass, which is cut by the women with sickles every morning to feed the animals.
I stayed with Mahjoub’s family, a long-time friend and associate of the High Atlas Foundation, and received a warm welcome when I arrived. Although we had limited ability to communicate, they showed their hospitality through enormous amounts of delicious food and a very open attitude from the very beginning. I got very close with the family’s daughter, Khadija, who took care of me and introduced me to other girls and women from the neighborhood. HAF’s Director of Programs in Taroudant Province, Fatima, stayed with me in the guest room of Mahjoub’s house in Amsouzarte. She coordinates the projects in the region and is the contact person for all the participants in HAF projects in the Tifnoute valley. Fatima lives with the community year-round to ensure that all HAF activities are a direct reflection of community priority needs, and that the local population is given the tools to manage and implement all stages of the projects.
I accompanied Fatima on trips to various villages in the region. During my time in the Tifnoute valley, Fatima actively engaged women from seven different villages in planning meetings regarding the building of a greenhouse for medicinal and aromatic plants. To achieve this goal, the women must create a cooperative and work together to run the greenhouse, which will be centrally located between seven villages. Fatima spoke with all the women about the initiative and listened to their opinions and suggestions. Most of the time, Fatima and I walked from village to village because the local transport does not often find its way over the narrow earth roads towards the remote villages. This gave me the great opportunity to see a lot of the surrounding nature.
Once we arrived in a village, the women gathered quickly; the villages are quite small and visitors are immediately welcomed. However, sometimes when we wanted to gather the women for meetings, we found that many were working in the fields cutting grass for the animals or busy with their various chores in the household. When the women were finally assembled, Fatima explained the requirements to found a cooperative and the necessary logistics to get the support of the local government. These meetings are an opportunity for the women to ask questions and voice any concerns about the project. At the end of the meeting, we collected the names of all the women who wished to participate in the new cooperative. The meetings were very animated and dynamic, as women of all ages gathered to discuss this exciting new initiative.
I also had the possibility to attend two meetings at the Commune in Imlil (3 km from Amsouzarte). The first one was one of the weekly meetings held by local farmers to pursue their goal of producing organic walnuts and almonds as a part of HAF’s HA3 project. Like the women, they are in the process of forming cooperatives to enable income-generation. Many are members of associations, which are non-profit, and thus the farmers are happy to create and participate in an organization that has the potential to increase their income. According to HAF’s HA3 agricultural business plan, they will collaborate with cooperatives from other regions to sell their products on international markets. Through organic certification, they will generate an added value and improve their families’ socio-economic situation. These additional profits will be partly used to implement other projects that benefit the whole community, such as initiatives in clean drinking water or education. In the meeting, the farmers were informed about the legal requirements for their work as a cooperative and about the concept and technical requirements for organic certification. The men were very interested and when the Arabic legal text was introduced, there were a lot of questions that were discussed and then answered by HAF’s local facilitator, Omar. After spirited discussions, all conducted in the Berber dialect Tashelhit, the names of those who wanted to take part in the cooperatives were taken and after a break with tea and nuts, a film was shown that explained organic agriculture.
The second meeting I attended in Imlil was about the possibilities to profit from the tourism industry in the region. It was a mixed meeting, assembling men as well as women. In the beginning, a documentary about a Tamazight film festival in Tiznit was shown. This event has brought famous stars to the region and was well received by the media, making the region more attractive for tourists and better known to the public. To bring more tourists to the Tifnoute region, the participants discussed the idea of organizing a festival of local handicrafts and art work. There were also discussions of producing and selling other goods, such as locally produced jams. Fatima presented the initiative that the High Atlas Foundation had facilitated in which the women of Amsouzarte were taught to dye their wool with natural colors like henna, onion peels and walnut shells. The woman were rather quiet at this meeting, as the co-ed nature of the meeting changed the dynamics, but the women strongly supported the idea of reviving the old artisan techniques that are unique to their culture.
The fact that I am not able to speak Tashelhit or Moroccan Arabic (called Darija) limited my possibilities to communicate with the people. Therefore my role at the meetings was mostly as an observer, trying to catch the atmosphere and the subtle meeting dynamics. Nevertheless, all the women were happy to talk to me through a few words of Tashelhit that I learned and a mix of languages such as French, English and Modern Standard Arabic.
I learned the most about the culture and the life in the High Atlas through living with a local family and visiting Fatima’s relatives who are spread all over the region. The inclusion in the daily life of the family — from observing the bread-baking on the open fire in the morning, to sharing meals every day, playing with the kids and going to the village hammam — helped me connect with the women on a personal level and learn about the rhythm of their lives. Attending special occasions like the henna night and the farewell reception of a bride before she left her family gave me an insight into the cultural and musical traditions of the region.
To connect with the many lovely children in the house and neighborhood was even easier. Without many words I could interact with the youngest ones and the older ones were very keen to try their knowledge of French and Modern Standard Arabic.
Concerning handicrafts, I discovered that the situation was quite different to the one I had experienced in Egypt. The women are much more active in the public sphere, going out to cut grass for the animals and taking part in the agricultural life. Therefore they rely much less on income through handicrafts, which is a challenging way to make money. One technique that is still actively practiced is the weaving of beautiful big carpets, adorned with traditional Berber motifs. The wool is cleaned and spun by hand, which is an artful craft that demands a lot of experience to create an even thread. As Fatima told me, these carpets are usually not sold but used in the home or as part of the dowry for a bride. But the situation may change with increasing tourism and a foreign interest in the traditional techniques. There are a lot of ancient traditions to be rediscovered in the Tifnoute valley.
I am very grateful to HAF for making this experience possible and for all the lovely people who welcomed me and treated me as a member of the family. I had a wonderful stay, learning a lot about the people and the culture of Tifnoute valley and about how they work together to confront the socio-economic challenges that face their community.
by Marie Wehner, HAF intern