We travelled four hours by van to the point where the asphalt became dirt, and the dirt became rocks. The van had been rocked side to side, like a boat fighting a storm, teasing a capsize. Lilah was huddled away in the back of the van, stomaching her throw up. Four hours in a van with closed windows and interminable traditional Moroccan music (you know, the heavy drums, flutes, and whistles) made us all a little sea sick.
“It will be worth it in the end,” we were promised.
And it was. L’Hamdulillah.
We were heading into the Atlas Mountains in the east of Morocco. A place on the outskirts of Ifrane National Park, where the typically hot and flat Moroccan terrain became hoards of Atlas cedars casting cold shadows in the already freezing climate. I wanted a jacket. Lilah wanted to puke.
In the heights of the Atlas Mountains was a village called Ben Smim. Our weekend excursion was a cultural immersion experience through a homestay with an Amazigh family in a true Amazigh village. The Amazigh population, also known as Berbers, are the indigenous ethnic group to Morocco, predating the Arab population that came to Morocco centuries later. They are often left out of the political system in Morocco, forgotten in the Moroccan mountains, where they reside in rural villages and towns with poor infrastructure, and less job opportunities. But that doesn’t make them unhappy. If the lack of economic benefits made them unhappy then they wouldn’t have greeted the incoming students with a traditional Amazigh concert and dance party! We were swarmed by children and hugged by mothers. We couldn’t speak their language, and they couldn’t speak ours, but never before has language been so unimportant. It’s amazing how quickly humans can bond through the words “Eat,” and “A lot.”
My roommate, Noah, and I fell asleep on our couches to the howls of dogs, and we awoke early in the morning to the cries of roosters. Animals were key to every household in Ben Smim. Almost every family owned a couple chickens, a cow, and maybe a cat or dog. Most of the food prepared came from the animals that the family had owned or from whatever the neighbors were willing to sell. And even though the economic conditions were weathered, each morning and each night Noah and I were presented with plates of the most delicious, farm-to-table meals.
It was a no-brainer when we were asked if we wanted to give back to the community. When they would provide for us, the Amazighs of Ben Smim asked for nothing in return. So when we began planting a garden in their one elementary school, we were thanked graciously. A number of us took it into our own hands to organize a soccer game with all the local children. I was shocked when an audience came about to watch the Moroccans face off against the Americans. It was a fun day filled with giving back to the Amazigh people.
However, the acts of service I wanted to do involved truly giving back to the community. I wanted to repair houses, pave the roads, and fix street lamps. It took a hearty dinner of laughs and bad Arabic for me to realize that the Amazigh people of Ben Smim didn’t need our help. They were happy just to host us. In the future, a true act of service that I know I will commit to would be to spread the history, culture, and problems of the Amazigh people. I want to share the stories of my host mom her husband and their two children. I plan on lending my voice to theirs, making their voice louder, to hopefully make them heard in Moroccan politics, and around the world. This blog post isn’t a bad start: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/03/moroccos-berbers-urge-broader-reforms-2014357321228806.html