This is a story of how incredibly driven and talented young girls are seeking to build their futures and improve the lives of their families through education. In Morocco, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
By looking at a small section of their community, we can see the transformation from striving young girls into thriving young women. The roles of their grandmothers and mothers, though critical to the family’s success in the village, is culturally viewed as less important than the men in the family. As such, education is not as high a priority for girls, and opportunity beyond the village is out of their reach.
But, unlike their maternal predecessors, these girls are seeking to break (or at least bend) the bonds of subsistence farming in the mountains as the only way of life. They are single-minded in their goal of learning to read, write, create and communicate. Bringing their success back to their home seems to be at the top of mind for all of the girls! They are disruptors, and they are determined to succeed!
I first saw this teenage girl walking to her village, coming home from school. Her studies are over earlier in the day than the boys. She is home in time to help with family life. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to her; she was just one among many people walking through the village. I shot a few images of her simply because her bright color clothes contrasted sharply against the brown desert. She climbed the rocky hill just below my perch, and I watched as she walked into her house.
A few minutes later, she reappeared and hiked down the path to another building. Soon she came back into view, but this time she had a bail of straw on her back. She dutifully hiked back up the hill to her home with food for the family livestock. Her workday was far from over.
I was impressed by her strength as I watched her scale the steep and rocky path, dwarfed by the huge bundle on her back. It occurred to me that this was likely a daily chore, unremarkable to her because her family’s flock of goats and sheep depend on her to do this job. She is not unique. This scene is being played out by girls her age in every village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
As I continued to watch the scene unfold, my impressions began to change!
Shortly after this young girl went into her house, another woman appeared from the same doorway. She had a small bundle under her arm, and I watched as she traced the steps of the girl (presumably her daughter or granddaughter) into the village.
Again, there was nothing remarkable about this, so I thought.
Then, this happened!
Moments later, the woman reappeared carrying an incredible load that was easily three or four times her size. Along with another woman, they hiked up a steep incline to the same place as the teenage girl before them. I watched in total amazement as she navigated the rocks and labored up the hill. She is doing this because life in her village is hard. People don’t have much money, and in order to eat and sustain family life, someone has to carry the hay. She is doing this like her grandmother and mother before her. And, now her daughter is doing it. It is a generational cycle, and unless and until it is disrupted, it will continue to repeat itself for the foreseeable future. The differences between the young girl and older woman is time and size of the load they carry.
That night, as I stargazed the clear dark sky from the terrace of the Kasbah Toubkal Trekking Lodge perched high above this village, I began to organize my thoughts on writing about what I had witnessed hours before. I thought it reasonably depicted life in a rural town in the Atlas Mountains and that my guests might find it interesting.
I also thought it was the end of the story. It wasn’t!
STRIVE TO THRIVE
Jo Ann visited Kasbah du Toubkal in Imlil, where access is only by mule or foot. She had been working with the owners and met with Mike to set up Walking Connection walking and hiking tours. In the process she learned of a program he operates in the village of Asni called Education For All (EFA). Mike explained what it was, who it impacted and what their goals were. He introduced Jo Ann to a few people, one of which is named Khadija Id Ahmed, a brilliant 24-year-old woman who was an early graduate of the program.
Jo Ann came home from her experience and has spent much of the last year learning more about the program and considering how we might potentially become involved on some level. The first test for us was to bring people to Asni, which is located between Marrakech and the Kasbah in Imlil. We took Walking Connection guests to EFA for them to learn and see firsthand what was happening there, as well as gather their impressions about everything they saw and heard. Our group consisted of professional educators like Kathy Masters Glisson (pictured above), entrepreneurs, social work professionals, financial advisors, accountants, builders, and engineers. They are all brilliant and successful in their careers, and they were all taken aback by Khadija, Mike, and the EFA program itself. Their comments and actions spoke volumes.
True to the nature of the people who travel with the Walking Connection, upon hearing from Jo Ann that we would be visiting the EFA program and that books written in English were very much in demand by the students, our guests not only cleaned out old books from their homes, they hauled them across the globe to put them in the hands of students in North Africa! Books are heavy, and Africa is a long-haul trip!
We enjoyed lunch at EFA Asni #3 where Mike and Jo Ann laid out just how EFA works for this community.
Morocco is a developing nation in just about every sense of the phrase. By western standards, it is quite poor and lacks much of the infrastructure that makes our lives convenient. While city life in places like Marrakech, Casablanca, and Fez are quite cosmopolitan, life in rural areas and especially the mountains is quite different. Without mining or tourism to energize commerce, daily life can center on subsistence farming with mostly village or regional-based agricultural trade. People eat what they grow and trade small amounts in local markets.
Society here is highly patriarchal, and males are fiercely protective of the female population, be it mother, sister, daughter, aunt, or cousin. Roles have been defined over multiple generations for hundreds of years. Disruption of the norm is not accepted, and change (and trust) is not easily won.
The premise of EFA is straight-forward. In the mountains, primary schools are more village-based and available to most young children. Secondary schools tend to be few and far between, and access to them on a daily basis is often difficult, if not impossible, especially for girls. EFA solves the access problem by placing boarding houses near secondary schools where girls can live safely and under the watchful eyes of a trusted “House Mother.”
The houses are built, managed, and funded (mostly) by the non-profit association created by Mike McHugo, Cees van den Berg, Maryk Stroonsnijder, and Hajj Maurice (Omar Ait Bahmed). Student girls are housed here, where they are carefully mentored by graduate staff and professional educators. Beyond the lessons of school, they are taught life skills they can use beyond the village walls. They are presented with opportunities to explore, learn, and share with each other, and they take those lessons home with them whenever possible.
When visiting the boarding houses of EFA, what strikes you first and foremost is the positive energy that flows from every room. The teenage women we met had all worked very hard on their studies to gain acceptance into the home. They worked very hard to convince their parents to let them stay, and they continue to work hard to maximize the opportunity in front of them.
The house is full of young women who dream big. A long way from the house-maid role that was predetermined for them at birth, they are now set on becoming doctors, engineers, teachers, and community organizers. They are anxious to take their personal progress back to their home communities to share and mentor those who are also striving to follow in their footsteps.
The house itself is built with the reliable infrastructure of a modern building. Daily routines for the students cover all the needs of communal living. Cooking, cleaning, organizing, and managing are all shared activities. Study groups, athletics, and social events are part of the fabric. Strong and caring leadership helps students solve the mysteries that come with new opportunities. There is also a computer lab with internet access.
All of this comes with a healthy dose of respect and love. Teachers, mentors, and students alike, all seem to share the same passion for life and hope for the future. They do that for themselves, and they do it for each other.
When you meet the people of EFA, and you see the beaming faces of its students, it is easy to lose track and not connect them to the teenage girl or older women hauling bales of hay in the village. Why? Because in their faces, we see the bright light that opportunity brings — hope and a way forward. We don’t want to think of them as being limited by the surroundings in which they were born because we know life there is very difficult. We don’t want to think of them without a future to pursue their dreams because we know that with their talent and determination, the sky is the limit. The difference between the little girl hauling hay and the girls of EFA is “opportunity.”
Education For All can’t solve every problem facing the local members of their community. Nor can they accept all of the children from the villages and the surrounding region! They can and do help those that are within reach of their resources. A lot of moving parts must come together to ensure the success of the students who live with them. The goal is to simply set in motion the acts of understanding, empathy, listening, learning and sharing, one human to another, and to make this the generation-to-generation norm.
Photos of Khadja Id Ahmed Contributed by Jo Ann Taylor
In 2020, Gene and Jo Ann Taylor began EFANorthAmerica.org to help support Education for All from North America and collect plus distribute monetary donations and help create awareness that will directly benefit Education for All Morocco. I Conquer Adventures – Mt. Toubkal Summit & High Atlas Mountain: https://www.iconqueradventures.com/toubkal-summit-adventure-trek
Education for All Morocco is founded and primarily funded by Mike McHugo, the co-owner of Kasbah du Toubkal, a member of the NOW Force for Good Alliance, an affiliation of extraordinary properties that provide sustainable travel experiences and take responsibility for their impact on communities and the environment.