Hard times

SMUS-Views-Bob

I wasn’t really thinking about the novel by Dickens when I thought up this title, but maybe the connection is there.

I ate a tasty and healthy lunch with the other two guests who were staying at the Kasbah, just outside Demnate, a hundred kilometres east of Marrakech: Stephen who runs a team of people that travelled to difficult and bruised places on behalf of Save the Children, and his wife Katie, who is an editor of academic books for universities. The afternoon was spent reading and wandering the property, then dinner once again with Stephen and Katie. They had been there two days already, and had two more nights to go. We were actually pretty good company – three amiable and idealistic people all of whom did work that you could believe makes the world a better place, if you’re lucky.

Stephen and Katie decided to join me for the planned “Berber experience” – a rather longish hike up into the foothills of the Atlas mountains through some Berber villages, including an authentic lunch in one of the villages. Also included in the trip was a stop at a school, at my request. Yannick, our host at the Kasbah, knew the people well – he was a champion and aficionado of Berber culture. Our guide, Brahim, was an expert in this part of the country, a retiree at the age of 50 from the Moroccan military, who had spent 3 years in France as an alpiniste – a special class of military expert in mountains and their ways. He was outstanding. He knew the country, and knew the individual people by name. The children, upon seeing him come round the corner of a mountain lane, would break off what they were doing and gather around, knowing that he had a bag of hard candies that he would share with them. The villages were poor, the children were poor. No cars. A satellite dish on many of the crude rammed-earth dwellings The few men we saw were guiding donkeys laiden with earth or sticks or water, swatting the neck of the donkey to keep it going. Girls of sixteen suddenly appearing from behind the bushes carrying a full load of sticks and branches for firewood. The mountain girls were a tough, independent breed, said Brahim, and they wouldn’t be married yet.

bonbons from Brahim
bonbons from Brahim

We stopped at one of the larger villages for lunch, a tagine we ate in the traditional way, tearing off pieces of flat bread and curling these around bits and pieces of chicken, vegetables and couscous. (For the full story on lunch, try my travel blog, the entry “La Turista”, by following the links down the right hand side of this page.) After lunch, Brahim, who is devout, pulled out a prayer mat, turned toward Mecca, and said his prayers. Stephen and Katie and I watched in silence. Brahim finished and got up with a smile and we headed on our way. Past women doing the washing by a stream, using the stones to beat the clothes and then to spread them out. Nearby, a bunch of boys plunging into a cement pond, laughing and loud. Here all the girls, even young ones, covered their heads.

A few more kilometres, and we were at another village. For the last kilometre or so a group of boys, about ten or eleven years old, had been following us, scampering up and down the hillside, bantering with Brahim, whose tone with them was quite stern. He spoke Berber with everyone he met up here; for most people, it was their only language. We arrived at the school. A flat low building, washed out pale blue plaster patched with gray. About six classrooms.

Brahim knew several of the teachers here, and they came out to speak with us. It was recess, and the students were out in the schoolyard or on the gravel road playing soccer, or leaning against the stone wall forming and breaking whispering or laughing groups. The boys seemed full of bravado as they played soccer and shouted loudly, the girls hooded their mouths with their hands as they spoke and stole glances at us. The school had about 150 students, making it by far the largest one in the area, grades one to six. Doing the math, I don’t know how they fitted them all in these rooms, and I suspected there was an explanation for the discrepancy between the numbers actually in class and the number on the rolls. We visited one class, where Brahim spoke to the students in both Berber and Arabic. The teacher had been there for twelve years, and he himself had been a student in this school. He pointed out the nephew and niece that were in his class. It was wonderful, said Brahim, to have one of their own as a teacher, who knew the culture, and had automatic credibility with the students. The classes were crowded. The pupils were much more reserved than the pupils in Marrakech, all the girls with headscarves.

Sixieme annee
Sixième année

After sixth grade, I asked, where would the students go? Most of the boys would go to Demnate to the Collège, but some of them would stay in the village, on their farms, or tending sheep. It was expensive to find a shepherd outside the family to look after the sheep, and it didn’t make sense to throw away that money when a perfectly good son, who was going to take over the family farm anyway could do the work. And the girls? Oh, none of them would go on. They would stay home, work on the farm or in the hills or around the house, and soon be married. Although it was sixth grade, most of the girls would have been thirteen or fourteen. Brahim interrupted the conversation, realizing it didn’t sound too good for the girls. Yes, it was possible for the girls to go on to Collège, sort of equivalent to a Middle School or Junior High School in Canada, and in fact a few of them did. Then the teacher, knowing full well what Brahim was concerned about, mentioned that the current state of affairs was tremendous progress – fifteen years ago when he had been a student girls hadn’t even been in the classroom.

It was time to go. The teacher loved teaching there, and was proud of his students, and they clearly liked and respected him.

The next school, about five kilometres further on, was less cheery. When we arrived, one of the teachers, a male, was outside with a hammer nailing a window frame. Brahim knew him and shouted a greeting, whereupon he smiled and laughed, looked at his hammer and greeted us amiably. He apologized for the state of the building. It consisted of two classrooms, nothing else. There were holes in the wall finish inside, and some of the windows were broken. The teacher said he spent about one day a week, on average, repairing the building, but it was a losing battle. When it rained, the rain came through the roof, and he pointed to large spaces where ceiling tiles were absent and there were nail holes in the corrugated metal roof. This class had six students in it, two in grade five and four in grade six. It would be roughly like that next year – you never knew how many students would show up.

He hoped he wouldn’t be here next year. Until two years ago he had taught in one of the larger towns nearby, which had been a happier experience. He kept waving his hand apologizing for this or that broken desk or window frame. It was demoralizing, he said. And the students were good boys and girls, but by sixth grade they started to feel school was pretty pointless; absenteeism was acute, especially if it rained or got cold, because the school was not liveable in bad weather. Absenteeism also got worse toward the end of the year, as the boys and girls realized that this would more or less be the end of their schooling; they would return to the village soon, for good. He didn’t hold back, this teacher. He wanted to get out. There was no joy, he repeated several times. No joy in the classroom, no joy in coming to work, no joy in talking with any colleagues with whom he could share some camaraderie. Teaching in Marrakech or Casa (everyone referred to Casablanca as Casa, even the main train station in Casablanca is officially called Casa Voyageurs) was a dream, a fairy tale. Brahim listened stoically. We went into the other classroom, which had about ten students, officially grades three and four, but really it was for any pupils who weren’t yet in grade 5 or 6. It was taught by a woman, who was from the region, and who was very happy to have visitors to spice up the day. It created some excitement for her pupils. Although textbooks and workbooks and chalk were in good evidence, my impression was that the schoolwork was desultory and ad hoc: what the teacher could do depended on the conditions of the moment or the spirit of the pupils, although there was indeed a general idea that writing and arithmetic and other elementary pursuits with pictures and discussion were on the curriculum, and that theoretically, at least, the students could move on to Collège.

We waited outside the school for Yannick to come from the Kasbah to pick us up. We had walked about twenty kilometres up and down hill and mountain, a wonderful day amid a culture that was hardy and possibly eroding, and possibly evolving. I remembered that the great sweep of Moorish imperialism that had overwhelmed much of northwest Africa and southern Spain was driven by these people, who found their other Muslim and Andalusian neighbours and brothers soft and decadent. They ruled for hundreds of years, and still felt the land belonged to them. The road was now good enough for a four wheel drive vehicle. Indeed, a mountain taxi – small minivan – had passed us once. Once Yannick arrived, the two teachers came out to say good-bye and to meet Yannick, amiable and hospitable to the end.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden was Head of School at St. Michaels University School for 22 years, from 1995-2017.

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