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Sunday 8 November 2015

The official opening of Dar Asni 3

I was lucky enough to be placed in the new house in Asni with the older girls who attend the Lycee and I have now been volunteering there for almost a month.  I was given a wonderful welcome by Khadija, the housemother, and the girls when I arrived.  Since then I have been giving  extra English classes when the girls have free time during the school day as well as helping them with homework in the evening.  In addition I’ve been talking to them in French (which is as good practice for me as it is for them!)  All in all I’ve had the most fantastic time as they are so keen to learn and we have been able to have fun even when going over English grammar!

But the main reason that I am writing is to report on the official opening of the house on Sunday 1st November. Furniture had been arriving all week – both chairs and flatpack office stuff – the carpenter has virtually moved in; photos and information have been posted on the new notice boards; Khamissa, the cook has been baking solidly for at least four days and huge plates of cakes, biscuits and snacks (even chocolate ones!) have been arriving from all the other EFA houses; Sinead, the volunteer from Dar Asni 1 has produced a lovely painting with the girls of butterflies taking flight; and on a more mundane level girls have been scrubbing the walls while Khadija has been briefing the older ones on their individual roles for the ceremony itself.

The day dawned to the steady drumming of rain but the house was full of frenetic activity as all the tables which had been laid out on the terrace were brought downstairs to the dining room. And then the power went out, followed in quick succession by the water drying up as electricity is required to pump it up.  This did not help the general stress levels of the staff but nothing daunted, buckets were filled with what little water was left in the hot tank and the table was laid up with huge plates of spectacular tarts, cakes, pastries and cookies as well as two stunning flower arrangements of roses.

And this was a result of Maryk, one of the EFA Committee members, suggesting two weeks ago that there should just be a few simple refreshments!  I have come to realise that in Morocco when guests are involved nothing is simple.  The balloons that I had brought were put to good use, and I helped Zineb, one of the baccalaureate girls practise the short speech of welcome which she was to give.  A few of the girls appeared in gorgeous brightly coloured and very elegant traditional dress.

Although the whole thing was due to start at 11am most of the guests had arrived by 10.40 and it was so freezing and wet outside that the cutting of the ribbon and the official entry to the house went on ahead of time.

The VIPS then were greeted with a little cup of milk and a date as they came through the entrance to meet all the girls who were lined up in the hall.  Zineb delivered her speech impeccably and first all the guests were invited through for juice, coffee and (of course!) mint tea and politely grazed on the fantastic spread of food.  Fifteen minutes later word was given that the girls could help themselves so in about 10 minutes the table was cleared of the best of the snacks particularly anything with chocolate as that is a major treat here!

And after that the real party began as the drums were brought out and the dancing got under way.  In the echoing hall the noise reverberated around the whole house and the girls, housemothers and staff had a ball!  It certainly was huge fun as everyone dances together and there is loads of clapping and a certain amount of singing.  After a prolonged photo session for the staff from each of the houses as well as several of the committee members and the VIPS most of the guests left and the girls kept on drumming! 

But I then had the chance to talk to one of the EFA girls who is now studying at Marrakech University.  She was really impressive and told me in very fluent English how she was studying biology and hoped to return to the High Atlas to work on improving farming methods in the future.  I asked her how she had found the transition from an EFA boarding house to the city, and she did say that it had been hard in her first year to cope with the demands of a pretty full day of classes as well as all the business of cooking and cleaning in her hostel.  But she now seems well on track to complete her degree and I felt she was a fantastic role model for the other girls and really embodied the aims of EFA.
And then the clear-up commenced – by now with electricity but still without running water.  Ever resourceful, bottled water was used and the quantities of plates and cups were all washed and dried, though I think it felt terribly wasteful to use up all those precious supplies of bottled water on washing dishes, but there was just no alternative.  And of course just as we finished a tiny stream of water appeared from the taps  …!

There was no doubt that it had been a hugely successful day, despite the challenges of no power or water, and I felt really privileged to be part of it.  I have no doubt that when I return in the future there will be loads more improvements but for the time being it really is a fantastic house with 30 very happy and enthusiastic girls and some great staff.  I already wish I could stay beyond the end of November!

 Jean Howat - Volunteer in Dar Asni 3

Monday 30 March 2015

Arrgh, it’s over already!

Quelle dommage! I’ve not been here long, certainly not long enough, and it’s already time to go and get a ‘real job’. We’ve all just got into our groove here, not that there is one actually, each week is different and one must be as flexible as an olympic gymnast; inventing activities on demand and being prepared to ditch whatever you’ve spent the morning concocting. The girls have got another round of internal assessment this week; so they must primarily focus on revision rather than activities with me. Still I’ve been more than happy washing up, and peeling and chopping carrots this morning, as poor Samira’s got tonsillitis.
The really good news is that I’ve rationed my Marmite stash perfectly. I was sweating at one point wondering how I would cope without my viscous black pot of goodness to balance out the intense sweetness of breakfast time. One of my molars has actually crumbled under the sugary strain. I’ve almost certainly got self-induced diabetes, and am much tubbier and more tagine-shaped than when I arrived which is testament to all the delicious and plentiful food I’ve had the pleasure of eating, and all the tea I’ve washed it down with.
From a subjective point of view I really feel that this organisation functions as the vision aspires to. In essence, most of the girls here are getting an education that they otherwise would not have, and they’re enjoying it too. Objectively, I can see new challenges becoming apparent, as the whole project matures and expands. Tthe constant burden of trying to match the money that was raised last year in order to keep the 5 houses running, keep the worker’s wages paid, and subsidise those girls who have made it to university, is an on-going pressure. In this corner of the country, EFA is now a very reputable and well-trusted organisation, so there will ensue rigorous competition for a place at one of the boarding house in future. Once one sibling has been through the system and tested the water, all the other girls in that family want to follow suit. The facilities and quality of life in these boarding houses is fantastic so who wouldn’t want to come here! The selection process for the girls will have to become stricter and the criteria tougher as popularity grows. There are still many, many, more potential students than there are places for in boarding houses nationally; and it’s essential that EFA’s boarding houses are for the girls who really would not be in education if it wasn’t for them.
I’ve just spent the weekend with a group of girls from Imlil. They don’t have loads of spare money but they do own lots of land and apple trees. Imlil is most definitely in the catchment area for Asni, so technically the girls should all be going to College there, thus freeing up space in Ouirgane for girls from those really hard to get to places deep in the mountains. However I’m told that the College in Asni is full and oversubscribed, so….what does this mean for those girls from Imlil; they deserve an education too. Equally there are girls staying here that live in Ouirgane and Maregha, both towns are only 3kms away from school- a 45minute hike uphill. They’re absolutely in the catchment for the college here but should they be staying in the boarding house if they live walking distance away. These are the kind of issues that are coming to light now.
Anyway, there are some brilliant helmsmen and women steering Education For All in the right direction. I’m talking about committee members, the volunteer coordinators, the fundraisers and of course all the folk doing the ground work in the houses here. Then there are the rudderless hippies like myself that come along, and HOPEFULLY have given at least as much as they’ve gain from this incredible experience. I recognise that a volunteer with a sound knowledge of French language is of great value to the girls here. This has always been my shortfall. Although English will be as useful to them in future, and there is talk of it replacing French as the second language, at this stage of their education, French is their priority. Still they’ve been super keen to learn some English with me and I’m astounded by their capacity and eagerness for language learning.

‘Working’ with the girls during the day, through games and activities: craft, environmental, theatrical and some more academically challenging ones, has been so enjoyable. Everything is new so everything presents a learning opportunity- for me as well as the girls. I recognise that the girls are having a good time when they’re laughing and smiling, and I would say that laughing and learning can most definitely be synchronous activities. Often I have felt this is not the belief shared by the responsibles here who have gone through the antiquated education system in Morocco themselves, and perhaps perceive learning to be an arduous task indeed. Still, the girls are well disciplined to crack on with their homework in the evenings, so during the day whilst they’re not in lessons, a bit of fun is good to re-energise the mind, body and soul I think. No harm done.

Honestly my best bit has been getting an exclusive glimpse in to the lives of these young Moroccan women. Having been welcomed so warmly it burns, in to their homes, in to their Berber communities, (without even being able to speak the same language), has been an absolute privilege of a lifetime. I’m desperate to stay in contact with my 38 new best friends and see how their lives pan-out. I’m bursting with gratitude for the hospitality I’ve received here, and I wish all the girls supported by EFA all the luck in the world. Thanks very much everyone.

Lucy Goodman

Saturday 21 February 2015

A crazy commute to college!

School children risk their lives for an education! This may sound exaggerated, but it certainly isn’t a million miles from the truth as I discovered last weekend. In the trusted hands of Fatima, I experienced the trials and tribulations that traveling to and from school can incur, as we made what seemed like a million-mile journey back to her remote mountain village.
I know that you’re not supposed to have favourites….but let’s be honest….sometimes the odd character shines through and you feel a special connection. To me it feels as if I’ve known Fatima all my life; and although she comes from Iznagne, which feels like the most out-of the way place in the world, she could have come from down-town Agadir and you wouldn’t know the difference. I was thrilled to be invited back to her house for the weekend, and made sure she’d checked with her parents first, fearful of an awkward moment upon arrival.
The school timetable here starts bright and early at 8am and finishes at 5pm daily. Students have lessons sporadically in-between times, except on Fridays when the afternoon is free to digest your cous-cous. This comes in return for a Saturday morning stint which makes for a short weekend, especially when you have a long way to get home, and you’re not quite sure how long you’ll have to wait for some transport to get there.
We’re starting from Ouirgane, which is on the ‘main’ road between Asni and Tarroudant, but is not a well-trodden tourist route because of the tricky ‘Tizi n’test pass’ (2100m asl) which demands careful negotiation; particularly this time of year in the snow. There is no bus service; just your standard grand taxis, passing lorries, cattle trucks and stripped out minibuses-so that double or triple the amount of people can squeeze in. Seemingly the safest and most reliable way to travel is definitely by donkey or mule, which we can refer to as the ‘Berber 4x4’.
“Yellah Lucy!”, Fatima was encouraging me to eat faster as we scoffed our lunch (a delicious carrot and potato ensemble, thanks to Samira) at midday on Saturday. As I understood it, we were rushing to make our way out on to the road to catch some ‘transport’ that was pre-arranged. Turns out we were hurrying to stand by the road to flag down what-ever vehicle is passing and willing. The problem is that most of the vehicles are full before they leave Asni, predominantly to make the journey as economical as possible, and also because there is a general lack of transport around these satellite towns. When I say full, I don’t just mean that all the seats are taken, I mean people are already riding on the roof and hanging out the window!
Within an hour we managed to bundle in to a van, and the existing passengers were none too pleased to have to find room for two more bodies, especially one foreigner with a big back-pack. As usual, one poor older lady was chundering away in to a plastic bag as we wound our way further in to the mountains. Top tip: carry oranges to share at these moments….not to eat but to peel and hold to your nose. I’ve observed this clever trick before, and it is pretty successful in stopping the smell of vomit setting off everyone else in the vehicle. Praise Allah for plastic bags! There are too many plastic bags in Morocco, and indeed the whole world, but at this moment I was glad of their existence.
Anyway, we were underway and making way, but this luck was soon to run out, as we were discharged at a very small service town after 45mins of travelling. That van was bound for Talaat n' Yakoub, which you’ll get to fairly easily if you carry on the paved road. What I didn’t know was that our destination was way off the beaten track. So we waited, and we waited, along with a handful of girls and boys who also live in Iznagen, for a lorry that someone said would come eventually. A lose arrangement if you ask me, but one has to have faith in these events. At least it was a beautiful day and the views were gorgeous and I was with lovely people and there was a small shop to buy snacks. And then we waited some more. And then we waited a bit longer. As it got cold and dark I was impressed at how the girls manage to keep their spirits high and how they find enough to talk about to keep chatting to each other. As the night fell and we began our 5th hour of waiting, Fatima apologised and said that this was an exceptionally long wait, although obviously it’s not that uncommon. We were all cold and shared out what ever I’d thrown in to my back pack. The lack of clothing and footwear worn by the young people in this currently cold environment astounds me. The temperature is below 5˚c and they’ll still be wearing flip flops by choice. I used to be like this; insistent on wearing shorts all year round, but that was because inside our house was very warm. Here inside the houses are colder than outside. The thick brick insulation keeps the houses a fairly constant year-round temperature, which is important when temperatures outside are soaring in to the 40s!
Eventually around 7pm our long awaited chariot appeared in the form of an open-top lorry…like one that you’d transport your garden waste in. Of course it was already full of people, doors and donkey-fodder bought at the souk in Asni, but everyone knew that this was the only chance to get home tonight, so a place was found for everyone. Now I’m not a complete pessimist, but I had my doubts about the competency of this here vehicle before we’d even left the paved road. Nor am I one to be greatly concerned for my own health and safety, BUT, as I sat up top in the open air clinging to the wobbly metal frame, I was a little concerned about how top heavy we were. More so was I concerned for the 4 girls that were sitting right on the cabin roof…holding on to what I don’t know. Again, this is standard procedure I presumed, and you have no choice but to accept the situation. Nags (aka my mum) would not like to see this I thought. It get’s more hairy though….
After 5 minutes we forked off the ‘main’ road and on to a bumpy gravel track- I tightened my grip and loosened my suspension. Looking ahead in to the darkness I could only see moon light reflecting off water; the track didn’t continue. We were heading straight for a river, and indeed we proceeded to drive downhill straight in to the water! Luckily the river wasn’t in spate, but it is common that these villages get cut off for two weeks or more at a time, like last November. Instead of just crossing is at a perpendicular angle, we turned and drove up the middle of the braided channel, in to the flow for 100m or so, before turning again and meeting the rough track on the other bank. Pheww….we made it across. I don’t know how the weight of the vehicle didn’t just sink in to the boulder strewn bed. The lorry was really labouring uphill, and who knows how long we had still to go uphill in to the High Atlas. I felt sorry for it, like I do the heavily burdened donkeys being prodded to trot faster. The treatment of vehicles and mules is roughly the same it seems. Sure enough just two minutes after the river crossing, with the lorry in first gear and the smell of the clutch burning, it just packed up. The engine gave up and so did the driver. Some arguments ensued. Half the crew just took their things, clambered down and started walking at this point. I was keen to do the same to get moving and warm up but Fatima insisted that it was better to wait. I was not aware of the mileage that we still had to cover!
It’s now very cold, a bit windy and we were exposed on a mountain. The stars were absolutely phenomenal. I’ve really never seen such a density, however I was honestly too cold to appreciate them fully. My admiration for the inadequately dressed girls and boys trying to get home grew as they continued not to curse or complain. Someone said that another vehicle was on it’s way…. thank goodness for mobile phones.
After an hour this minibus appeared, battered and bruised but hopefully fit for the job. What a relief it was to sit inside. My concerns were that this van was now heavily weighed down and facing a challenging hill start; but oh ye of little faith, we made it and even though on some slopes we had to get out and push, it got us all the way to Iznagen in one piece. I had hoped to be able to enjoy the delicious mountain views on route to Fatima’s village, but I was just pleased that we all arrived safely after a long day.
Retrospectively the breakdown of the lorry was a blessing in disguise, as I really wouldn’t have liked to find out how it handled the hair pins and navigated around the rock fall, when it filled the whole ~3.5m width of the track itself, not with those girls on the roof at least. Wow, what an adventure, but crumbs, what an extreme commute. I only had a 5 minute walk round the corner to get to my secondary school.

I woke up to a spectacular view on Sunday morning. The almond trees are all in flower at the moment, and this is the cash crop of the area- the life line that allows people to live and make money in this rural (understatement!) region. I still couldn’t help but wonder WHY people settled here initially. Life is hard work! The camaraderie in the village and the quality of live, the stunning views, the clean water, the terraced landscape and fertile soil are pretty valid reasons to continue living there though.
Sunday in Iznagen mainly consisted of eating bread and drinking tea with various members of Fatima’s family. Such generosity and hospitality. The tiny 3x5m hamam was rammed on Sunday afternoon; we went at prime time. I counted 30 people in it at one point. Babies crying, and women scrubbing so hard you’d think they’d rub their skin right off. I’ve never felt so squeaky clean after that and my forehead was genuinely shining. After the hamam I visited the local primary school with one of the teachers that I met in the hamam. She spoke English brilliantly, so it was a great chance for me to ask lots of burning questions about religion, culture and education in Morocco, and be understood. The primary school has only existed for 20-odd years, and indeed there are many villages still without a facility for primary education even. As we toured the area at sunset, the Imam (man with a good voice and sound knowledge of the Koran) passed by on his way to the Mosque to make the call to prayer, and invited us in to eat. What a feast that was! Figs and dates and raisins in the tagine. All prepared by his wife who’d only just given birth to their fourth child 15 days ago. So many infants in the village were clearly suffering with chest infections and fevers, but they continued without complaint. In fact, when you ask a Muslim how they are…..they’ll simply reply ‘alhamdulillah’ which is roughly translated as ‘praise god’, whether they’re feeling good or rotten, they just accept the fait they’ve been given. This humble acceptance lends itself to a peaceful life, and we can all take heed of that.
It seemed like we were only in Iznagen for 5mins before it was time to go to sleep and get up early on Monday morning to catch a ride back to school. The transports generally leave at 5am, but as it was cold we left at 7am. I don’t know how people know when to set there alarms for….it all just seems to be intuitive. The same bus that rescued us on Saturday night was trundling back up the mountain track beeping its horn to summon its passengers. It leaves early as it has lots of stops to make at various villages on route to Asni. Of course it was full upon leaving Iznagen, and we were only the first village to board. So forget getting nice views of the mountain scenery on the way down, it was backs of heads and at times people sitting on your lap. It’s all good fun though; until the obligatory puking- this time a young girl, so she can definitely be forgiven. Travel sickness is the worst. Again…no crying or whinging…she just got on with it…without warning actually.
It was all going fairly smoothly as gravity was relieving the poor engine on the way down. I thought ‘ahh we’ll be back in Ouirgane with hours to spare before school starts’; but then came the river crossing fiasco.
Instead of perhaps shuttling people and cargo across the river to make the van lighter, we just plunged in and promptly got stuck in the pebbly bed. After several attempts to get going again, avoiding having to get out and get feet wet, we were wheel-spinning deeper in to the loosely deposited load.
Us commuters in the back just sat tight and once more, made light of the situation, rather than passing blame to the driver and being disgruntled, which would so often be the case in England (not that I know of any bus routes that cross rivers of this proportion). I enjoy absorbing the atmosphere people create in Morocco. Nothing is done in a rush and nothing is of that great importance. Fortunately the majority of us didn’t have to get wet but inevitably many did kindly sacrifice their comfort and dryness. The problem was solved for the mean time, and we were off down-stream within 20 minutes of getting stuck…. now that’s Moroccan efficiency.
We were successfully back on to paved road before long; what a luxury that is. The mountain paths are incredibly engineered, or not, cutting straight in to sheer cliff face and hard rock. A colossal amount of effort must have been put in to create these tracks. Anyway, retracing our steps we stopped back at the little village we knew oh so well from the long wait on Saturday. Here we unloaded the van and I thought we were in for the same treat as before, but after just a 10minute lay-over, we packed up the same van and it took us all the way to Ouirgane! Door to door in under 3 hours that time. Not bad going.

This has been a long account of a journey that for me was crazy, but for Fatima was completely normal.
Fatima was the first girl from her village to go to secondary school. The school teacher that I met said she badgered her father for three months to let her go. Fathers are somewhat reluctant to let their daughters go to college, evidenced by Fatima’s cousin of the same age. In part this is due to the route being hazardous, and as I said at the beginning, potentially life threatening- worst case scenario. It’s also a long journey and costs money. However there is another socio-economic factor that encourages women to stay at home, settle down early and breed: education can actually be considered an element of devaluation in the marriage market, and seen as a disturbance to social cohesion.
I now truly understand how difficult it is to merely live let alone complete your education if you live in rural Morocco. It is essential that the few boarding houses provided by the government, and non-governmental organisations like ‘Education For All’ exist. The concept of giving girls a say in their future is undoubtedly growing; but it’s a shame that their aspirations are still inhibited by logistics, primarily transport and accommodation. Still, the future is certainly holds a lot of hope.

Lucy Goodman - Volunteer at Dar Ouirgane

Tuesday 20 January 2015

This is just the beginning...

Name: Lucy Goodman

Occupation: Go-getter, morale booster, general facilitator.

Location: Dar Ourigane, High Atlas Morocco, 1hr from Marrakech, 20 minutes from Asni.

Languages spoken: Only English, and some extremely shoddy French…how rubbish is that! These girls speak Arabic (Darija), Berber (Tashelhit), French and some English!

Why did I decide to come here: The culture and people are beautiful, I found this out from a previous trip to Morocco. I find the country has a Star Warsy feel when you see everyone in djellabas at the souk, and this can only be interpreted as a good thing. Anyway, I wanted to perceive life from a woman’s perspective and as a tourist it is pretty impossible to do this. Mainly though, I wanted show my support for EFA and offer the girls some international solidarity. If you haven’t got loads of money you can always give your time and energy.

To be honest when I first arrived in Ouirgane I felt completely overwhelmed! But I was expecting that. 30 hours without sleep makes life hard in any circumstance. Ahmed, the driver, had kindly been waiting for me to get through passport control in Marrakech for over an hour, and I was truly grateful to have him pick me up. I’ve never had anyone greet me at an airport holding a sign with my name on it; I felt quite important, and also terribly inadequate. During the hour’s journey to Asni I requested an emergency Arabic lesson; Ahmed was keen to exchange in English. We picked up Latifa (the head housemother) and then carried on to Ouirgane. Wow, what stunning scenery! Jbel Toubkal and his mates were are covered with snow, the sky is so blue, and in the foreground the red, yellow and brown sedimentary terrain provide great contrast. Evidence of the torrential rain in November was striking. Landslides lined the road, debris still covered parts of it, and the deep ditches that catch the rock fall at the sides of the road were full and overflowing. Big boulders hang precariously in the cliffs above whilst work was still ongoing to clear the talus and repair the bends.

I didn’t even know how to pronounce Ouirgane before I got here, nor did I have any idea how the next few hours, days and months would pan-out. What an adventure; I just hoped I could be really useful to the girls and to Badiaa, Mina and Samira who do their upmost to look after them. I knew that communication would be a problem for us, but trading emails in broken French before my arrival had made me feel a lot more comfortable about coming out here. I was assured that we would all live and work well together because the love and respect between us was already there.

It’s now day three…or four…I’ve forgotten, but that can only be a good sign, as so much has happened already. I want to thank all the girls here in Dar Ouirgane, and especially Badiaa the housemother for such a delicious warm welcome. I’m amazed at how quickly we’ve built a rapport and I’m thankful for their patience whilst I continually pronounced their names wrong over and over again. The good news is that I’ve pretty much got there now, although the sad news is that today the girls in the 1st and 2nd year of college have just gone home for their holidays. Last night though, I was treated to a proper Berber sing-song complete with drum and tambourine accompaniment. I’ve never been so impressed with how a group of people can produce such catchy rhythms and intense sound with their hands and voices. It was a right knees-up.

So I’m here with the 3rd years this week, and can help them prepare for their English exam. It’s important that they take breaks and relax…and I can certainly help with that. For instance today and yesterday we played football, and I think it’s great that Badiaa instigates this; the girls love it. They’re REALLY good at keepie-uppies and matches get quite competitive and sacrificial. I have to say the girl’s commitment to their studies is astonishing. None of them need encouraging to get books out and crack on with revision or homework. They all seem appreciative of their chance to learn and they’re dead keen to do so. It really makes the work of ‘Education For All’ completely worthwhile and I can advocate with confidence that the money given by past, present and hopefully future donors, couldn’t be put to better use.

After the 3rd years sit their exams, everyone goes back to their various villages. Badiaa, Mina and Samira need a well-earned rest too. When we reconvene, my ‘work’ can start in earnest and we will hatch a plan as to how I can best support each individual; so I look forward to that. Even though I have no prior knowledge of teaching English, I do have a sound knowledge of English, lots of books and buckets of enthusiasm….and with that I hope to do the girls justice. We’ve had quite a few informal impromptu lessons already. It’s amazing the ideas that come to you and the fool you’re prepared to be infront of keen learners. Spontaneous songs and games come to mind when you’re in the moment. Everyday I spend lots of time with Badiaa, as she is super keen to improve her English. It’s really pronunciation and grammar that I can help most with; and of course we’ve done the obligatory labelling of all items in the house in French and English to enhance vocab.

I’m grateful for this opportunity; thanks to everyone involved. I promise to work hard and will keep you updated as things progress here.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Three(ish) months in

I’m well and truly feeling at home in Dar Asni 2 now, and have actually decided and been given permission to stay until the end of the school year in June.  I just couldn’t leave the girls halfway!  I’m also all settled into the routine and more clear on what my role is.  The main thing I’ve realised is that with this older lot of girls it’s a bit different to what I had in my mind the first few weeks. As in I don’t really teach any ‘classes’ as such, because the girls are so busy and have to many tests and exams and projects for school.  But there are definitely still ‘lessons’. So what do I mean by that? Answer: It depends a lot on the day and the particular group of girls.
The first couple of weeks were more ‘class’-like. I wanted to just do general getting to know you stuff and see what levels they’re at and who’s really into their English. My book of New Zealand pictures came in very handy as a discussion starter – of course they all want to go there now! It was interesting to see what different girls picked up on and took away from the discussion. It depended somewhat on their level of English but also on their personalities. Some thought bungy jumping looked like great fun while others were horrified at the idea. Some of the older girls made an analogy between there being about 30 million sheep in New Zealand and about 30 million people in Morocco and thought it was hilarious.
With the oldest girls it’s pretty much just conversation and usually involves going for a long walk or me just grabbing one of them to tell me about their day. They’re also the ones who ask for help with their homework in the evenings most often – usually just with all the big words that get thrown at them! For example they had a unit on ‘women and power’ and before that it was ‘environment and recycling’. Not easy stuff in your fourth or fifth language. I keep telling them to talk to me in normal, small words instead of trying to remember the complicated school words. Once they get the hang of it the conversation tends to be much easier, but they do have to keep being reminded to build their confidence up.
With the rest of the girls it tends to be more revising and extending what they’ve been doing in class and helping them write short presentations or skits they get assigned for homework. The middle group is also learning about society and culture – for example young people and smoking – and seem to do the most straight grammar. A bit embarassing when they told me they’re doing present perfect and I’m like “ummm….?”. But we got there in the end, after they gave me a couple of examples. The youngest lot are learning food and family and things like any vs some, much vs many. I’m starting them all early on the ‘use small words you already know’ path as well, and my darija comes in most handy here since it’s about the same level as their English. We’re constantly surprising each other. Like one girl who had hardly talked so far suddenly leapt into action, rattling off a whole cake recipe in a combination of English and mime when I asked her if she likes to cook. Clearly yes.
I’m learning too of course. Girls’ personalities, families, lives, what they think of Asni, of Morocco, of the world. Who’s most likely to pop a balloon loudly on purpose to terrify everyone and then flee the scene. How the weekly shopping goes at the souk, how much things cost. More and more Arabic words and a few in Berber. How to make friendship bracelets, which I then taught the girls. An English school group had brought over a kit and a bunch of materials so I decided to put it to use. This was a big hit and also revealed a lot to me about their personalities. Who wanted to just do it quickly and hang the mistakes. Who would watch and then go off and do their own perfect versions first time. Who just wanted one made for them but then when they had a go themselves realised it’s not actually that easy and got determined to perfect it. Who wouldn’t listen or follow instructions or demos and then wanted me to fix their colossal tangles.
Another activity we’ve done has been to translate a popular song from Arabic to English. The song 'Zina' by Algerian group Babylone can be heard constantly in Morocco at the moment, and it’s one of the girls’ few favourites that’s actually in Arabic. The rest being the usual suspects (Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Rihanna & co) in English and various similar stuff in French and Spanish. Plus songs from Bollywood movies of course. So Zina has become a bit of a constant companion, even more so after I gave in and bought it on itunes because I was so sick of waiting for it to load on youtube. I figured if you can’t beat them, join them. So I printed off the lyrics in Arabic from the internet and enlisted various of the girls at random times to help me both tansliterate the Arabic (good practice for me) and translate it into English (good practice for them). It took about two weeks in the end, with a lot of discussion but I checked it against another version I found online and I think they did a pretty good job – and had fun doing it.

Saturday 8 March was International Women's Day we were asked to get five of the girls to write messages in English about the importance of education to them, for the EFA facebook page. I was lucky enough to be around to help them, because it was really inspiring both in what they said and in the process we took to get there.  They were all shy at first and thought it was too hard, but once they got going they couldn't stop the ideas flowing. I was so proud of them and they were so proud of what they had come up with. And to see pictures of themselves and their words online of course!  Here are some of their messages (excerpts of the full paragraphs we wrote together), in case anyone hasn’t seen them on facebook already…

Tessa Buchanan

Wednesday 1 January 2014

We walked the walk….

We walked the walk….

The French NGO ‘Aide et Action’ have made a documentary film, ‘Sur le chemin de l’école’, following four children in four countries as they make their difficult journeys to school.  One of the children is Zahira, who lives in Tinghrouin, a village in the Imlil valley.  Her school is in Asni, and in order to go to secondary school, she stays in an Aide et Action hostel in Asni during the week, as do the girls in the four Education For All houses.

While I was in Asni, working with the girls in Dar Asni 1, Aide et Action organised a women’s walk to Zahira’s village; the plan was to replicate Zahira’s Monday morning journey from her home to Asni: a journey of 22 kms taking 4 hours.  A party of 30 women and girls, and one man, we left from Asni on Saturday afternoon.  Buses took us just beyond Imlil, and from there we had to walk down the steep mountain side to the village of Tinghrouin, in the narrow river valley.  The path was not easy, and towards the end of the trek we were making our way along a goat track in the dark – with some trepidation!  The lights of the village down below seemed a long way off as dusk fell, but we arrived safely with help from the villagers sent up to guide us.

We were given a wonderful welcome as we arrived in the village: mint tea at first, of course, then meat brochettes and bread, and later in the evening another meal of couscous.  We spent the night in the village; we all found a place to sleep, warm blankets were passed around, and we had a comfortable night in various rooms, and early in the morning our hosts were up preparing a wonderful breakfast for us before our long trek back up the mountainside back to Asni.

But the event was designed to discuss and to celebrate the courage of the girls who currently make that trek every week, and after we had eaten and rested that evening there was a moving women’s meeting, involving teenage girls currently at school, village women who had not had the chance of education and us, the visitors with a range of different lives and opportunities. The meeting was very moving, with testimonies from a wide range of women and girls explaining their hopes and ambitions and describing the problems they had encountered and were encountering ‘Sur le chemin de l’école’.

This is an extract from a description I wrote when I got back the next day:

At first the girls were in high spirits and started to sing together and the women passed around very domestic musical instruments – the woman next to me had two spoons on a tin tray and was very accomplished and another woman had a plastic bucket – the rhythm section was well practised. The girls sang, ululated, danced and clearly everyone was high on the event itself.

The meeting room

The village

But after quite a while, Ghislaine, the leader, took over and the talking began... One of the girls, Naima, a lead singer encouraged by all, was invited to tell her story.  She is 15 years old and has a great deal of presence.  She is the only girl from her village to go to secondary school and told her story of how difficult it had been to persuade her family to let her go.   Now she is the only girl of her age in the village who is not married – and doesn’t want to get married until she has finished her education.  And her ambition is to be a primary school teacher.  As her story unfolded and the questions came from the outsiders, clearly she became more and more emotional and eventually tearful as she recounted her difficulties.  She stood amidst the very supportive girls, tearful but strong, as the questions continued – it was remarkably moving.  And it didn’t end there.  Naima was the first strong girl to tell her tale.  There were many others, girls who had insisted on continuing their education despite opposition from parents, brothers, pressure to get married.  They stated their ambitions – many wanted to become teachers to carry on the work, some teachers of Islam, some health workers and one to be a lawyer.  The issue of marriage was raised and they hesitated, clearly something that was constantly on their mind, and replied cautiously that they wanted to continue their education, but it seemed that a lot of social pressure had been applied already.  Other grown women spoke up, Zahira and her grandmother very movingly – grandmother spoke of her childhood looking after the cattle and working in the forest, going to mosque illiterate and without understanding the words spoken, saying how important that her granddaughter should not go through what she had been through.  Many of the women in the room spoke, some of whom were now employed by Aide et Action in one of their foyers.  They spoke of having to complete their education under conditions of great hardship, having to travel to school and having to complete education in later life, having to find the money or the time.  One woman whose father had wanted her to be educated was, at 6 years old, the only girl in the primary school.  The teacher sent her to the back of the class because she was only a girl, but she remembered turning up the next day and sitting at the front again.  She was later abused at school by the boys and the teacher, and could not tell us about it.
Translation was not easy, emotions were high, the room was very hot, and three languages were being used: Berber, Arabic and French.  When the French became dominant one of the women from the village got up to leave but was persuaded to stay as testimonies were drawn in Berber about local women’s experience.  Tears were shed, applause greeted many many emotional testimonies, there was much evidence of affection and sympathy – a rolled up tissue sent flying across the room to a tearful girl, a hug, pats on the shoulder… Difficult to sit through without empathising with so many of these testimonies given without dramatic or theatrical rendition, simply an accounting of the facts as experienced, possibly never before recounted in front of a sympathetic audience, so that gradually the speaker recalled and realised that the problems had indeed been great and she had indeed surmounted them and it really hadn’t been easy.

These girls are the exception: for most village girls, education ends with primary school.  It has been a privilege to be a small brief part of the lives of these brave strong girls and their mothers.  So many aspects of village life will be improved when these girls are educated and empowered to take a leading role in the development of Morocco.

Dar Asni: the pioneers…

Sarah Campbell, volunteer at Dar Asni 11 November – 15 December 2013

Saturday 28 December 2013

Tessa volunteer at Dar Asni II

Morocco's about as far from New Zealand as you can get.  But here I am!  My name's Tessa Buchanan and I'm the latest volunteer to start with Education For All.  I'm the just the second volunteer here at Dar Asni 2.  Since I've been here a couple of weeks now I figured it was time to introduce myself and offer some first impressions.

I'm in my mid-30s and was born and raised in New Zealand.  I studied economics and sociology for my Bachelors and international development for my Masters.  In my 20s I spent six months as an intern in New Delhi, India, almost three years living in Boston, USA and two months in Tokelau in the middle of the Pacific Ocean doing my thesis fieldwork.  Otherwise I've been living in New Zealand's capital, Wellington, and working in various roles in the public sector.  I came to Morocco in 2012 for a holiday and loved it so much I decided to come back long term.  I've been in Morocco for three months now, having spent time in Marrakech on holiday and in Fes studying Moroccan Arabic before coming to Asni. 

I'm really glad I did the Arabic course and spent some time getting used to Moroccan life before starting volunteering.  I think it's meant I could just settle right in and get straight to work and I'd highly recommend it to any volunteer coming here - even if just for a couple of weeks rather than the two and a half months I did.   It's less for Khadija (the house mother) to worry about helping me with and explaining. And the girls all love it when I know the words for things during our classes... and think my accent is hilarious.  We've decided this is now a French-free house for daily life - only English, Arabic and Tamazight allowed.  We've even labelled everything in the kitchen in English and Arabic!

When I arrived in Asni the sun was shining so it wasn't too cold and there were beautiful snowy mountain views.  Even the locals were commenting on the cold and the thick curtains were just being hung in the house - winter is only just really setting in.  The hills are all red rock and there hasn't been much rain for a while so the streets are pretty dusty and red too.  
It seemed at first like the girls are all very outgoing and I had a steady stream of groups coming to sit with me and ask me where I'm from, how old I am etc etc.  As the days went by though I realised that there are some who I haven't really met properly yet because they're just too shy to approach me and look terrified if they even see me.  I've been spending a lot of time standing in front of the wall with all their pictures and names trying to figure out who's who.  I'm sure we'll all get there eventually though!

Like any place where forty people live, Dar Asni 2 runs to a very regular schedule.  From Tuesday to Saturday the girls have to be up at 7:00am and school starts at 8:00am.  If they don't have class first thing they're allowed to sleep in, although then they miss breakfast.  Like teenagers everywhere sleep is the priority though of course.  On Monday mornings everyone arrives back from their homes in time for school.  Then they all come home from school for lunch by 12:30pm then back to school at around 1:30pm.  School is over at 5:30pm, dinner is at 6:00pm, supper at 9:30pm, bed at 10:00pm.  Shutting up and sleeping time is 11:00pm.  Some of the girls have classes on Saturday mornings, but all have left to go to their home villages by around 1:00pm. 

When the girls aren't in class they have to come back to the house so there is always someone around.  During those free times they help with the cleaning, run errands for the house mother or the cook, do homework or study for tests, have English classes with me, do research and make presentations on the computers.  

I have Monday and Tuesday mornings free so I try to use them for laundry, lesson planning, writing and Arabic revision.  Sometimes Khadija and I will take some of the girls out for a walk to explore Asni as well.  The rest of the week I have lessons with groups of the girls morning and afternoon.  In the evenings between dinner and supper we're all mostly in the common area and I help Khadija with her English study or any girls who ask with their English homework.  Saturday mornings Khadija, Khamisa and I go to the souk to buy all the veges for the week and whatever else is needed.  Once the girls have all gone home it's hammam time - a great way to relax at the end of the week - and then mid-afternoon I usually head back into Marrakech until Monday morning.  Then it all starts over again... and I love it!

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Ann Lopata - Dar Asni

Salaam future and past volunteers:

Now I guess it is my turn to write this blog.  I think that I should start with an introduction.  My name is Ann Lopata and I live in Berkeley California. I am 63 years old and retired as a university administrator and counselor. I volunteered at Dar Asni from February 12th through May 11th at which point I reluctantly left….hoping to return next year.  I am a mom and a grandmom (two things that came in very handy in a house with 36 adolescent girls!)  Having been to Morocco last year, I had some idea of what I would find but I realized quickly that I hadn’t seen the REAL Morocco. I volunteered in a program teaching English in Rabat for three weeks before I went to Asni so I began to feel a bit more confident.  And while I was still in California I reviewed my French and tried to remember all the English rules.  But once I got to Asni I realized that all was going to be great.  But I was concerned that perhaps my skills were not up to par or that I would have difficulty communicating and bonding with the girls.  From the first minute that I met them I realized that my fears were groundless.  What an incredible experience this has been.  I feel honored that I have been given an opportunity to be a small part of these girls life. I have loved being in Asni with Latifa, the wonderful housemother who has become such a close friend and Latifa the cook and Mina the housekeeper.  It is great to see how they all work together as a team and it was wonderful to be able to pitch in and be part of that team.  I loved helping Latifa, the housemother with shopping at the souk or in Marrakesh or visiting her family. I loved helping Latifa the cook and the girls prepare couscous and tangines and scale fish for lunches. 
Here is a synopsis of my wonderful adventures as they progressed with Latifa and the wonderful girls of Dar Asni.

February 2012
I arrived in my little room on the roof of the house in Asni on February 12, 2012, having arrived to freezing cold weather. The view from outside the room on the first morning was amazing. At night, I am snuggled in my bed with all my wonderful Moroccan blankets and am very toasty...and the water in my bathroom is hot, so who could want anything more?  The girls here are wonderful and enthusiastic and love to babble in whatever language (usually Tashelhit or sometimes French) and they are just like teenage girls everywhere....they sit in corners and giggle with each other and they love Facebook and music (although mostly Berber music).  Many of them dress very modern without their hajabs but when they go home they always wear them.  The girls take out their rugs and pray wherever they can find a spot….sometimes it is difficult to not step on them.  They work very hard on their studies and go to school from 8 am until 6 at night with breaks in between for lunch and some other activities.  I have sessions scheduled with different groups throughout the day and while we are just at the introductions stage, I can see that it is going to be very challenging to adjust to the different groups.  Some of the girls who are 12 and 13 are just beginning English and the older ones who are 16 and 17 have studied it for a while. I can tell this is going to be a wonderful challenge.
I brought material for friendship bracelets which are a big hit as are the French and English  versions of Bananagrams that I brought. While they all want to learn English, French is definitely what they need so I have scheduled more French classes with the younger girls and more English with the older ones. They work so hard in school. I hope that we can just have fun with some of the language classes.

I got to experience rural life in Morocco.  We lost both electricity a few times (hence heat and lights and most importantly, internet) and water.  I was concerned the first time but when I went downstairs in the morning all was calm and it always came back on.  This is where Inshallah (in the name of Allah) comes in handy. One never knows what the future holds but it all works out in the end. We just waited out the day in our gloves and coats and of course, it came back on about 4 PM. But it will probably go out again tomorrow.My days are wonderful with the girls.  They are so enthusiastic, particularly about English that they wanted extra time scheduled.  Being here is already so much more than I imagined.  The girls are like sponges and each one is sweeter than the next.I’ve already decided to extend my stay here and am asking for permission to stay through the beginning of May.  That will allow me to be here through Open Day and help the girls prepare for their end of the year exams.  And I already don’t want to leave them.We work hard during the day and play in the early evening between school and dinner.  I have taught them the song “We are the World” and everyone has taken to it enthusiastically, even the little ones who don’t know any English.  Latifa had some of the older girls translate the words into Arabic so that the girls could understand what they were singing.  And I talked to them about the purpose of the song to help starvation in sub-Saharan Africa.  We hope to perform the song at the Open Day event in April but if that isn’t possible, at least we have fun performing it for each other. 
The girls love any kind of music or singing or dancing.  I taught them the Macarena (see the picture below) and it has become a staple of our life here.  And we even have taught it to some of the school groups that have come to visit!!

They go home every weekend after school on Saturday.  After working so hard during the week, they go home and work all weekend cleaning the house, helping with the cooking etc.  Their parents pick them up when they come into town for the weekly souk (huge market) in town.  As they all left the house there were lots of kisses...left cheek/right cheek and then a little giggle. 
One weekend Latifa, Gretchen and I  went into Marrakesh to do errands.  There isn't much that you can buy in downtown Asni where there is now a bank (opened two days ago), a cafe, two little groceries, and mobile phone store, a butcher and not much else.  We even now have sidewalks which have been installed the last week.
I realize that I have to keep modifying my schedule with the girls to accommodate their schedules and different needs. .  My day begins at about 9 and I now see girls throughout the day.  In addition, in the evening from 8-10 I stay around and help the girls with homework.  They all gather in the salon around 4 tables and do their homework. Or they come into the computer room and meet with me.  It gets very loud and animated as you would imagine.  There is a lot of variation in the preparation level even within the same grade.  Then I crash in my bed at night!!
We have so many school visits at Dar Asni and I do most of the tours for the English speaking groups which is fun.

March 2012
I have been both a host and a visitor this month.  I had to entertain some nurses from England who were doing some immunizations in the town of Imlil and then in the  afternoon, after deciding to accompany some of the older girls to the lycee for a special English class that they were having, I was invited into the school and into the classroom.  The English teacher is Moroccan but studied for a year in the US.  He asked me to speak to the class and I think that the girls were really pleased that the students seemed to be very interested in what I had to say...they told everyone about it when we came back to the house.  The students in the class asked great questions: one asked if I was Muslim because I was wearing a headscarf which I had just had one of the girls put on me that morning...I forgot I had it on; one asked me about US views of Muslims and another asked me if, since I had been to Morocco twice, I was going to move here permanently. And they wanted to know a lot about California...oh and they wanted to know my age.  It was a wonderful hour and I hope that I am invited back.
The hour before dinner has now become singing time.  They are so enthusiastic that they practice it over and over again and during the day I will go up on the roof (the hangout) and hear groups of girls practicing without music. I even walked into town with some of the older girls  and they spontaneously broke into song.
The girls love anything Indian and we listen to Indian music and they watch Indian movies.  Not going to do Bollywood dancing though….I am too old.
I take lots of walks with the girls each day.  One weekend we walked up into the hills to visit one of the girls relatives and spent several hours just going from house to house visiting relatives. It felt like each girl had a family member in this little town.  Anyway, they love to walk and it is always another opportunity for pictures which they also love.

On March 8th we had a big event in Dar Asni for International Women’s Day.  The girls made posters.  I talked to them in English and French class about the meaning of the day in the US and the rest of the world.  And in the evening Latifa  talked to all the girls about the Mudawwana, the  2004 law which gave women additional rights and protections.  She talked to the girls about the importance of having pride and respect for themselves.  She talked about the opportunity that they have being in this house and working so hard to try to be an example for themselves and their families and communities.  She talked about the need for women to be able to support themselves. I was told all of this through one of the girls since she did it totally in Tashelhit.  All of the girls participated in the discussion and it was wonderful to see.  But it wasn't all serious.  One of the older girls organized the younger ones to put on skits.  Anyway, it was fun to watch the girls in a different way...just acting like silly teenagers. The older girls then gave out awards to the girls for things like best marks in the house etc.  During the day we all prepared macaroni and cheese because I wanted to have them experience a typical American meal.  It turned out surprisingly well.  While it certainly wasn't all American Mac and Cheese (with powdered milk, farina, no Parmesan Cheese) the girls thought it was great.  Then we all played music danced for hours.

 We also had a visit from a school in London (we get visits at least once a week).  There were 5 girls, five of whom were Muslim...two from Libya, 1 from Pakistan and one from Somalia. The fifth girl was half Ukranian and half Nigerian.  They played music with the girls and games and we all danced the Macarena and sang We are the World.  It was a great afternoon.
There is now another volunteer in the house.  She is a retired French teacher from Belgium and will be working with the girls on their French which will give me a break for a little while and I can concentrate on the English and helping Latifa.   She's only going to be here for three weeks until the girls go on vacation.
I spent the three days at another house in Ouirgane which is about 15 km from Asni.  Gretchen and I had the opportunity to compare teaching styles and help each other with ideas for working with the girls in both houses. 

April 2012
The girls’ holiday is starting soon and we are all concentrating on preparing for exams. I am going back to the US during the two week break .  We all got caught up in the need to return to a sparkling clean house when we get back and everything was scrubbed down by all of us.  I figured since I didn't have to clean my house.....why not do it here....and it felt good pitching in and doing stuff with the girls.
April 29th was the big Open Day event.  The house was scrubbed….and Latifa and the girls made lots and lots of food.  We had an open house at Dar Asni first and then went to the Kasbah du Toubkal with the younger girls to continue the event.  It was so great to see the girls so excited about the day wonderful that they got the opportunity to interact with the girls from the other houses.  And lots of volunteers from past years came to the event which was wonderful for the girls to reconnect with them.

May 2012
Unfortunately I’m nearing the end of my stay here.  I have been spending a great deal of time organizing things in the volunteer area.  I made inventory of all volunteer supplies which will hopefully be helpful to future volunteers.  And we are all looking for ways to relieve the stress that the girls are under.  That means lots of walks and laughs and football games in the back of the house.
Latifa and the girls planned a big party for the night before I left.  And we danced and danced again…how wonderful it is to see the girls so relaxed and having so much fun.  This is the image that I will take with me…their lovely smiling faces.