By Kerstin Opfer, HAF volunteer
“Morocco is a country that reveals its essence only to those who take the time to draw water and to pour a pot of tea.”
– Moroccan Proverb
Time and tea – the two magic words in Morocco. Two of the most important lessons you will eventually learn in Morocco are that everything takes time, just be patient and to never say no to a cup of tea. Over the last 3 months I had the pleasure to work with the High Atlas Foundation and live in this wonderful and diverse country. I came here with the objective to experience the day-to-day life of a conservationist, to gain practical knowledge in the field of conservation and sustainable development and to truly get to know the Moroccan culture by living in it. Without any doubt, this time was one of the most valuable experiences that fully reinforced my plans to work in conservation and rural development as well as to continue my carrier in Morocco.
Within my time at the High Atlas Foundation I reviewed proposals and matched donor interests to High Atlas Foundation projects. I established multiple project descriptions on the fundraising platform Global Giving and by this gained an in-depth understanding of the diverse range of projects the High Atlas Foundation conducts. Additionally I had the opportunity to evaluate Sami’s Project, a project that aims to facilitate environmental education of children and enhance school infrastructure. For that I visited 15 schools in the Al Haouz province near Marrakech, questioned teachers and students and examined tree vitality and water supply. Seeing the glance in the children’s eyes when they talked about the tree planting event gave me great joy. It was a great pleasure to see the literal fruits of HAF’s hard work over the past years. Furthermore, I accompanied HAF’s President Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir and the retired Peace Corps Country Director of Morocco, Ellen Paquette, to a business trip around Morocco. This trip taught me that working in sustainable development is not only about professional expertise but also means to be diplomatic, emphasize networking and meeting people, discussing, introducing ideas and learning how to deal with setbacks and money shortcomings. One of my personal highlights was the distribution of a thousand trees in the commune Zerkten in the High Atlas Mountains. Seeing the farmer’s thankfulness and appreciation gave me great trust that they will take good care of the trees so that they will grow up to be strong and healthy.
However, I did not only learn a lot about sustainability and conservation of biodiversity, but I was also completely overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality of the Moroccan people. I made good and true friends in the office and outside the office, who treated me like a dear sister and directly involved me in their life. From the first week on I got countless invitations from their families, probably more than I got in Germany in a whole year. Everywhere I went, I was welcomed most warmly and treated with incredible hospitality. In general there was not one day, where I felt lonely or out of place, because there were always friends around to join me for dinner or a stroll through the medina or even just a good conversation with a friendly women in the bus or the public Hammam. One experience especially moved me: It was when I travelled back to Marrakech in the early morning after a weekend trip to the mountains. Next to me sat a women, who was travelling to Casablanca and we had a very funny conversation, because we used a mix of Arabic, French and sign language to understand each other. Shortly before we arrived Marrakech she gave me two eggs for breakfast, the only eggs she had with her. I was moved by her generosity, because she had a far longer trip, but she gave me her provision anyway. And that’s essentially Moroccan hospitality: they show you their appreciation by giving you food, lots of food. If they feel you are not eating enough, they will persuade you to eat more and trying to trick them by eating slow will not work for sure. Food is, just like tea, a form of Moroccan appreciation that you should acknowledge and cherish.
Morocco is a land of countless possibilities, a country that will surprise you every day and of amazing, astonishing beauty that will keep you breathless. From days, where the bright sunlight warms up the city, to intense snow storms in the desert or heavy rainfalls that turn streets into rivers, I experienced everything. I also experienced the unbreakable spirit of young Moroccans and their urge to change their country for the better. Morocco is a country that undergoes massive, but peaceful changes, be it in the transition from subsistence agriculture to cash crop farming, the empowerment of women or the decentralisation and democratisation. Being part in this process of sustainable development was a true honour and a priceless experience that propels me to pursue my postgraduate studies in Conservation Biology, but always with the goal in mind to apply my newly gained knowledge in Morocco. It is hard finding the right words to describe my love for this country and its residents, who gave me more than I can ever repay and leaving feels close to impossible. I will indescribably miss the chaotic hustle and bustle of Marrakech’s medina with all its colours and scents, I will miss drinking more than my body weight in sugary mint tea, I will miss hiking through the peaceful countryside of the true Morocco and I will even miss waking up at 5 o’ clock in the morning from the melodic but noisy prayer call. Morocco was an incredibly experience. At times, it was trying, chaotic, and overloaded my senses, but for all the stresses of adjusting to a new culture, it was a country where I felt completely in my element and at home. A big thank you to the High Atlas Foundation and all the people I met during my stay. You made my time in Morocco so much more valuable and gave me more than I can ever repay. I will always keep you in my heart and be forever grateful for meeting you. Thank you.