Ryan Mallett-Outtrim - Culture & Community, Nomad Project in Morocco
Projects Abroad's Nomad Project offers a unique insight into the harsh, yet inspiring lifestyle of a semi-nomadic Berber community. Last year, I was hosted by the Boukigouds - a herder family based on the Touflite Plains.
A few hours down a potholed desert road from Guelmim, Touflite is an experience all of its own. Here, the Boukigouds, along with a sparse dispersion of other desert dwellers herd cattle. Each family maintains a humble herd of knee high goats. The cattle are pushed around the vast, open moonscape by weather beaten, turban wrapped shepherds. This is the primary source of income for locals; although they do have other methods of making a few extra dirham, which I will discuss later.
The best way to visualize the plains is to imagine the surface of Mars. Add a few argan trees, dot the red earth with cacti and add the occasional tent or mud brick house. The miniature goats are suited to this terrain; they can climb argan trees (makes for some good photos), and seem to be able to graze on pretty much anything. Likewise, the Amazigh inhabitants of the plains are equally well adapted to their harsh environment. I can count the number of times I saw them drink water on one hand. They are self-reliant and ridiculously hardy people. Perhaps the one thing about me that baffled them most was the fact that I wore boots instead of sandals out in the rocky, scorpion infested desert.
My Nomad Project
Most days follow a regular schedule. At 6am the animals are milked, the women bake bread and then prepare breakfast. Every morning I ate with Housien and his three sons. Mrs Boukigoud and the two girls ate separately. Breakfast is either bread with olive oil and goat butter, or a mysterious yellow goo accompanied by dates. I have no idea what the goo is, but it tastes pretty good. Mint tea is then consumed after an elaborate ceremony where Housien shows off his commendable pouring skills. Later, the cattle are herded out of their stone enclosures. Usually the kids will shepherd them around all day and some days I would accompany them.
The children have all sorts of games to pass the time; they hunt birds, built small houses, chase scarab beetles and even engage in the occasional poo fight! I spent much of the time trying to learn Amazigh words. I would point at something, or act out a verb and trade the English word for Amazigh. I now have a notebook stuffed full of basic Amazigh words - not quite a dictionary, but at least I can get by.
On days when I didn't help out with the herd, often I found myself lending a hand at the well for the morning. Around 8.30am, a few donkeys are rigged up with water bottles, and led on a one hour walk to the only nearby source of water. They have an interesting collection of containers- Tex-Oil, Coca-Cola and Shell petrol bottles bounce all the way down the dirt track as the donkeys sullenly march to the well. Collecting water is a surprisingly social experience. This is usually the only time of day when people of different family groups are able to meet. The buckets are made of recycled car tires and are pretty heavy. On hot days the donkeys do most of the lifting, but milder temperatures allow the boys to compete to see who can retrieve the most water.
One day I somehow got embroiled in a jovial insurrection of sorts. I don't remember how, but I found myself and some of the kids chasing each other around with scarab beetles. I think one of Housien's daughters started it. Eventually all the kids ended up getting involved. Soon new ammunition was recovered in the form of mud. No one managed to hit me with one of those messy projectiles, which was pretty lucky given that I was in the habit of washing my clothes once a week. It was a hot day, so buckets of water were commandeered to bomb one another. Everyone was soaked, exhausted and dripping wet so an armistice was called.
The water caravan returns to the camp before midday (assuming no one is distracted by throwing beetles at one another). Lunch is served at 12:30. At camp a vegetable tajine is common if Housien has been to the market in Guelmim during that week. Otherwise, usually couscous or meat is on the menu. On the plains, the shepherds dig a small hole, pack it with kindling, burn them to charcoals, then cook an improvised tajine over the embers.
At sunset the goats are herded back in, and locked up for the night. Dinner follows being again, usually a tajine or cous-cous. A dozen cups of tea later and the evening is whittled away next to the gas lamp. There is a radio, usually set to a static-ridden channel that plays local Amazigh folk songs.
Life in Morocco
As mentioned, the family has a few ways that they supplement their income. Often Mrs Boukigourd sits in a mud brick shelter with her newborn, cracking open argan nut kernels to collect the oil; each kernel contains a minuscule amount. This is where the 'new olive oil', along with all those argan based cosmetics come from. Women like Mrs Boukigoud spend hours cracking open kernels by hand. It's an incredibly slow process. Even more interesting is the way in which the kernels are collected - engrained in goat faeces!
Because the kernel is encased in a tough elastic lining, the argan nuts are first fed to goats. The animals digest the outer lining, leaving the kernel relatively easy to split with a rock after being roasted. Like his wife, Housien too has a way to bring in a little money. Every Saturday he hitches a ride into Guelmim and sells firewood at the souq. On good days, he returns with armloads of produce.
This is a general summary of my Amazigh host family. There is far more detail I could go into, such as our Eid celebration, when two rams were slaughtered. We were eating offal for a week afterwards. I could also write about the excellent hikes in the mountain ridges a few hours by foot from the camp. One of my best memories is the sunrise over the desert, viewed from atop a rocky outcrop. Far below me swirled the morning fog, while on the horizon the first rays of sunlight cut across the seared desert landscape. Civilization was a distant memory. The only sound was me gasping for breath after the tough ascent.
Anyone needing some time out should undertake the Nomad project; switch off your cell phone, leave your computer at home and head out to the desert.