by John Waite
The Medinas, (old cities) are all surrounded by beautiful, high, sandy, tan colored walls with shorter walls throughout the interior between homes and neighborhoods. When we had a high vantage point in Meknes, I noticed there are several layers of walls and it’s hard to know where one stops and where one ends. And there were many occasions when I didn’t know if we were on the inside of the wall or the outside.
These are some of the confusing thoughts I’ve had during this exchange. Each day we learned more, sometimes building on what we had already heard and sometimes contradictory. It was like passing through a door in one wall, making some progress, but then finding another wall. And the paths in the Medinas are winding with many twists and turns, with many dead ends and a few openings to the outside. The Moroccan Fellows we are spending our time with seem to live with these same complications. They live in an ancient world, full of wonders, history and deep meaning, while at the same time they are trying to navigate the current economic, political, religious and cultural issues while pursuing their goals of a more equitable, healthy and open future for all.
After a full day with Fouad in Fes we took a midnight flight to Agadir and after a solid five hours sleep we met Fellow Adam Bouhadma at his alma mater, the Agadir Public University. We met with the Director and some staff who informed us that only the top students are admitted there because it is free and they can only accept about 10% of the applicants. Nearby we visited a Private Polytechnical College that won the North Africa Solar Car Challenge a few years ago.
Adam then took us to the business he stated in 2008, 9rayti.com, which is an education platform and media company, dedicated to helping high school students decide what to do next. At his office we spoke with his 8 employees who all seem amazingly passionate about their jobs because they care about young people and have a high level of programming and marketing skills. Their website has about 350,000 members and gets 20,000 hits per day!
Adam is also City Councilor in Agadir, which is a volunteer position but takes a great deal of his time. Agadir is on the coast in the south so he took us to the beautiful harbor for a delicious lunch that included local fish, a walk of the beach and then up a nearby mountain to the remains of the old city for a beautiful view of the city and ocean. A 1961 earthquake destroyed the Medina on the hill and much of Agadir, killing 80,000 people. The city has been rebuilt since, and now has a population of approximately 500,000. That evening Adam and his wife Safa hosted us at their home with about 8 of their friends. All these young people (ages 25 – 35) are activists, promoting positive change in their communities and the energy was exhilarating.
Khaoula Erraoui who we had met earlier in Rabat is another amazing Fellow doing incredible work with young people and homeless youth in her home city of Agadir. The non-profit she is involved with there reaches out to homeless and troubled young people and provides beds, life skills and vocational training. Khaoula took us through the market place and introduced us to the people that make the Argan Oil that her mother buys so we knew we would be getting the good stuff.
During the comfortable bus ride to Marrakesh we got our first views of the enormous Atlas Mountain range. When we arrived in famous city of Marrakesh we were greeted by Kamal Akaya.
Now we have had the privilege of meeting all 16 amazing Moroccan Fellows. All of these Moroccan Fellows, along with their friends we met, are an amazing collection of young motivated and passionate people. It not only bodes well for Morocco, but the world as well. They care deeply about citizen engagement, sustainable development, equity, and the future of our world. They are all involved in specific projects but at the same time they looking out at the wider world and realize that we all have to work together to improve everyone’s lives. Each one is doing an amazing amount of volunteer work, in addition to having a paid job, which is usually at a social enterprise that also fits with their values.
And I can’t post this blog without mentioning and thanking an incredible young man named Ismail Ilsouk, the Director of SimSim, the local organization that is partnered with ITD. He helped in the planning process of our trip and accompanied us to several cities while teaching us about the changes and challenges in this beautiful country.
There was a steady and much needed rain when we arrived in Marrakech so we decided to save the Medina to the morning and had a dinner of tagine and brochettes with Kamal and several of his friends.
The Marrakech Medina is a popular tourist destination and I was surprised, and rather disappointed, to see so many tourists walking around in their shorts and tanktops – this is not something a Moroccan would do. Kamal’s friend that lives in the old city guided us around and brought us behind the scenes to see amazing artisans at work, creating products out of leather, wood, metal and cloth just like their families have done for hundreds, or thousands, of years. We had a whole session learning about carpets made by the women’s cooperative. We were offered tea as we sat and heard about the various types of rugs. We did our best to support the local economy and the women. We learned that in the Marrakech Medina each neighborhood has a hamman (spa), communal oven for baking bread, a fountain (which they don’t use anymore since they have running water), a Mosque, and a school for children. Houses were built individually, and people kept everything behind their closed doors and walls with small paths in between. Marrakesh’s paths are wider than in Fes and motorbikes now zip around adding to the excitement. The old part was built in the 12th century and the rest in the 14th century. I was also saddened to learn that now outsiders are buying buildings and renovating them for hotels and vacation homes, which made me wonder if this living, breathing, active ancient city will soon become just a tourist attraction.
Kamal introduced us to projects in Marrakech including The Spot – a co-working space; a Youth Association working to empower young people, and teach environmental education; the Amal Association (a women’s cooperative restaurant where we had lunch); and the High Atlas Foundation that is planting trees and helping small towns get clean water. At the end of another long and fascinating day we boarded a train to complete our journey around the country to Casablanca to complete our journey around Morocco.
Having had the honor of hosting Yassine and Amina at my home and at the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, this exchange visit in Moroccan was even more of an honor and incredible learning experience that will forever be in my mind and heart.